January 31, 2011
Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in Europe between 44,000 and 30,000 years ago and perhaps in the Middle East even earlier, between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. But, ultimately, it was the modern humans that survived, while the Neanderthals died out.
To better understand the extinction of Neanderthals, Dolores Piperno, senior scientist and curator of archaeobotany and South American archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History, asked a question that has been on a lot of anthropologists’ minds: “Were humans more sophisticated about the food quest in ways that allowed them to more efficiently capture food or capture kinds of foods and calories that Neanderthals couldn’t?”
One popular view is that Neanderthals were largely carnivorous, eating big game, while modern humans had a more diversified diet, including marine resources, small animals and plant foods. But a recent study by Piperno and her colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides ammo for an argument that Neanderthals were gatherers, as well as hunters. “What we showed,” says Piperno, “was that Neanderthals exploited, in part, the same kinds of plants that modern humans would come to exploit.”
So, how did they prove it? Piperno has been honing a method to study the diets of early humans from the food particles preserved in calculus, a type of plaque buildup, on fossilized teeth. So, once she and her colleagues decided on seven Neanderthal teeth—three found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq and in the Smithsonian’s collection, and four from Spy Cave in Belgium housed at the Institute Royal des Sciences Naturalles de Belgique—they got to work. In the plaque, they found starch grains from wild grass, legumes, roots, tubers, palm dates and other plants they have yet to identify. Also, some of the grains showed signs of having been chemically altered. For comparison’s sake, the researchers did some experimental cooking with some of the same grains, collected from the National Herbarium at the Natural History Museum and other sources. What they concluded was that Neanderthals did, in fact, cook some of the plants, and, as the study states, invested “time and labor in preparing plant foods in ways that increased their edibility and nutritional quality.”
To use plant resources, Neanderthals had to have had a handle on the appropriate times of year to harvest, says Piperno. The finding raises other questions about their behavior as well. Were Neanderthals practicing some kind of division of labor, as modern humans did, with women gathering and men hunting? “If evidence of plant exploitation as we demonstrated continues to build,” she says, “I think we’re going to have to consider that factor.”
According to Piperno, no single scenario, like diet, is going to explain how modern humans outcompeted Neanderthals. “This is a single study like this,” she adds, “and I think other people now will do this work, look at other Neanderthal fossils and look at other time periods when Neanderthals occupied Europe and Asia.”
January 28, 2011
My pregnancy cravings have been pretty tame so far—kettle corn, Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, sweet gherkins, grapefruit. Some women confess much more outlandish obsessions (fried eggs with mint sauce, black olives on cheesecake) on various online forums, and many pregnant ladies want to nibble what wouldn’t normally count as food—stuff like laundry soap, matches, and, yes, dirt. In 2008, the website gurgle.com conducted a survey of particularly exotic maternal longings, and mud made the top 10 snacks, along with chalk and coal.
The practice of eating dirt is called “geophagy,” and all sorts of people indulge in it. Mahatma Gandhi believed that eating clay was cleansing and advised his followers to partake. At El Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine in New Mexico, consuming sand is still part of a religious healing tradition.
And sometimes consuming dirt is simply a desperate bid for survival: even before last year’s devastating earthquake, impoverished Haitians sometimes baked and ate mud in the absence of other food.
But by far the best-known, and least-understood, devourers of dirt are women in the family way, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in the American South and elsewhere. Nobody knows precisely why so many pregnant women have a taste for dirt and mud, but scientists suspect that certain varieties of soil function like natural pre-natal vitamins, supplying missing nutrients such as copper or iron. Ingesting dirt might also soothe morning sickness and fortify the mother’s immune system.
Speaking of immune systems, it struck me as odd that pregnant women would crave a substance potentially crawling with bugs and bacteria—to protect our unborn children from infection and disease, we have heightened senses of smell and are notoriously picky about what we eat (while still managing to eat an astounding amount). But women apparently dig beneath the contaminated surface soil to harvest deeper, cleaner clays that are free of manure and parasites. And they may deliberately target healthful soils. In Africa, women seek out dirt from termite mounds, which is rich in calcium and could help build a baby’s bones in the second and third trimester.
In a piece last year in the Oxford American, Beth Ann Fennelly described the roots of geophagy in the United States. Slaves probably brought the practice from Africa to the southern plantations, where whites adopted it, too. (Fennelly claims her Alabama in-laws used to munch the clay mortar in their fireplace hearth.) Preferences vary by community: some like smooth white clay, and others coarser forms of dirt.
Once rampant, dirt-eating is less common in the modern South and is attached to powerful poverty-related stigmas. But baked mud nuggets are still sold in some convenience stores, Fennelly reports. She sampled some “Home Grown Georgia White Dirt” from Toomsboro, Georgia and compared the taste to “very stale Parmesan.”
And if anybody out there is in the throes of a craving, it’s apparently possible to order edible dirt online, through sites like www.clayremedies.com—although actually, they recommend that you drink it.
By Abigail Tucker
January 27, 2011
I’m a chocolate snob. I generally avoid the cheap American stuff—Snickers, peanut butter cups and the like—preferring to spend my money on expensive, foreign dark chocolate or, my new favorite, a bread and chocolate bar from the Seattle-based Theo Chocolate.
The one exception is the Kit Kat bar. A favorite in my family, we even named our favorite kitty after it. And when I discovered dark chocolate Kit Kat bars, I was over the moon. I usually stock up when I’m in England, where they’re easy to find pretty much anywhere, but on lucky days I find these bars of chocolate-covered crispy goodness here in the U.S. Finding myself in possession of both types recently, I decided to put them to a pseudo-scientific taste test (hey, I am the resident science blogger around here).
The setup: My colleague Laura unwrapped each dark chocolate Kit Kat bar and split it into its four pieces, labeling them “A” and “B.” Then three of my fellow bloggers, Megan Gambino, Jesse Rhodes and Arcynta Ali Childs settled in to try them both.
Appearance: I quickly realized that I could tell them apart. Like many chocolate bars, these were imprinted with the bar’s logo and, thus, were different. I knew the packaging and could guess which was which. Oops. Other than that, A was a bit darker brown in color. Inside, B had thinner layers of cookie with less chocolate in between them. (Jesse, meanwhile, barely noticed there were even layers; “I usually just pop ‘em into my mouth.”)
Taste: Jesse found A to be more sugary while Megan found it to have a darker chocolate flavor. Arcynta and I thought that B was more chocolatey, and Jesse said it was mellower. Megan found B to have a more milky taste.
The Verdict: It was 3 to 1 in favor of B, which turned out to be the British brand. Megan was the only outlier. She said she found A, the American chocolate, more traditional. “I’ve eaten more chocolate like it,” she said. For all of us, though, it was very difficult to detect any but the most subtle differences between the two chocolates.
But why might Jesse, Arcynta and I have preferred the British brand? Well, first of all, the two bars are made by different companies—Hershey here in the U.S. and Nestle in the U.K.—using different recipes. The American chocolate, for example, contains palm kernel oil and vanillin; maybe we didn’t like these flavors.
The Nestle bar, however, is made of fair trade chocolate, which means that suppliers are paid a fair price for their product and guarantee that no child labor is used. Part of why I fell in love with Theo Chocolate last year, after a tour of their Seattle factory, was that all of their chocolate was organic and fair trade; it was expensive but of such high quality and rich flavor that I didn’t mind paying extra for it. Perhaps with the Kit Kat, ethical eating just tastes better.
January 26, 2011
Today is Australia Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1787 arrival of the first fleet of British settlers, including a few boatloads of convicts, in Sydney. (Technically, because of the time difference, it’s already the day after Australia Day over there.)
I recently returned from visiting family and friends in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. (Apparently, I just missed another American visitor over there named something like Opera or Opie who made quite a splash). Australia isn’t famous for having its own distinct cuisine—most of what’s popular to eat on the continent down under originated elsewhere, either in Britain or in the home countries of its many immigrants. And while this wasn’t the gastronomic journey of a lifetime, like Italy or Japan might be, I did eat a few interesting Aussie foods worth noting:
Vegemite—Any discussion of Australian food would be incomplete without mention of the ubiquitous sludge in the yellow and red package. Every Australian I met while traveling through Europe in my 20s carried a jar of this gooey yeast extract in his or her backpack, so it wasn’t new to me. It looks like the crude oil that washed up on Gulf Coast beaches last summer, and its pungent yeasty flavor is not for delicate palates. But spread thinly on buttered toast, I think it tastes a little like the tang of really sharp cheddar cheese. In other words, good.
Meat pie—Everyone told me this was the one Australian dish I had to try before I left. I finally got my chance at an award-winning cafe called Pie in the Sky in Olinda, a cute mountain town in the Dandenongs, near Melbourne. Single-serve meat pies are a British import, but the Australians (and neighboring New Zealanders, I hear) have taken a special shine to them and spun off some interesting variations. My husband went for the classic ground beef filling, I chose tandoori chicken, and our friend had pumpkin pie—pumpkin is a popular vegetable there and this savory pie was an entirely different creature from the traditional American Thanksgiving dessert. All were delicious, with flaky crusts and flavorful fillings that bore no resemblance to the cardboardy frozen pot pies we have here. None of us were brave (or hungry) enough to try the “floater,” a pie floating in a bowl of pea soup.
Lamingtons or Lemmingtons—You know how we have whole blogs in the United States devoted to cupcakes? The Australian equivalent is the Lamington (sometimes spelled Lemmington, which is closer to how I heard it pronounced), a small cube of sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and dried coconut and occasionally dolled up with cream or jam. Most stories attribute the name (if not the recipe itself) to Lord Lamington, governor of the state of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. As beloved as these tea cakes are to Australians, Lamington himself was no fan, supposedly; according to an anecdote on What’s Cooking in America?, he referred to them as “those bloody poofy woolly biscuits.” I have no idea whether that’s true, but I couldn’t resist the colorful (and, having tasted them, not entirely inaccurate) description.
Pavlovas—I wrote about this meringue dessert a few weeks ago, before I actually got to try it. After going the whole trip without encountering one to taste, my friend’s mother very kindly whipped one up, topped with passionfruit, on my last night in Melbourne. Delicious, though I could have used a bite of sour pickle afterward to counteract the sweet overload.
Slice—Australians have a knack for naming things in the simplest, most obvious way. Hence the class of desserts called slices, which are pretty much anything baked (or sometimes just mixed and chilled) in a shallow pan and—you guessed it— sliced. Not quite brownies and not quite fudge, the varieties have cute names like Hedgehogs and White Christmas. They’re the kind of homey treats that grandmas make, and the ones I tasted were addictive. The person who baked them generously passed along some recipes, but they included ingredients like Marie biscuits and copha (a hydrogenated coconut oil shortening) that we don’t have here and which would take some research to figure out substitutes.
And, finally, one iconic Australian food I didn’t eat…
Kangaroo meat—One of my favorite activities when I travel is wandering the aisles of a supermarket. Although I didn’t actually see anyone eat kangaroo in Australia, there was a whole section in the butcher department devoted to marsupial meat. The guide for a walking tour we took in Sydney remarked that Australia is the only country that eats its national animal. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s hard to imagine Americans eating bald eagles. Then again, if Ben Franklin had had his way the turkey would be our national bird.
January 25, 2011
At some point in our restaurant dining experiences, we meet our Waterloo: that sauce-soaked rack of ribs, a plate of jumbo-sized sweet-n-sour shrimp, or that 72-ounce steak dinner you tried to eat in under an hour so the house would cover the tab. Unable to finish what’s on the plate, you run the white napkin up the flagpole (or fork, or chopstick—whatever might be handy) and admit defeat. It’s time to ask for a doggie bag. But as you’re waiting for your waiter to come back with a box, do you ever stop to wonder how this commonplace dining practice started off?
Leave it to the ancient Romans to get a jump start on our modern conveniences. Dinner guests were accustomed to bringing napkins to the dinner table because between courses it was only natural to want to clean one’s mouth and hands lest one should offend fellow diners. Around the 6th century BC, they started using napkins to package foodstuffs to take home.
The modern doggie bag came about in the 1940s. With the United States engaged in World War II, food shortages were a fact of daily life on the home front—and for the sake of economy, pet owners were encouraged to feed table scraps to their pets. But thousands of Americans also dined out at restaurants where such frugal practices went by the wayside because eateries didn’t offer to wrap up food as a standard convenience. In 1943, San Fransisco Francisco (whoops!) cafés, in an initiative to prevent animal cruelty, offered patrons Pet Pakits, cartons that patrons could readily request to carry home leftovers to Fido. Around the same time, Hotels in Seattle, Washington provided diners with wax paper bags bearing the label “Bones for Bowser.” Eateries across the nation followed suit and started similar practices.
However, people began requesting doggie bags to take home food for themselves, much to the chagrin of etiquette columnists who were quick to wag their fingers at the practice. “I do not approve of taking leftover food such as pieces of meat home from restaurants,” Emily Post’s newspaper column sniped in 1968. “Restaurants provide ‘doggy bags’ for bones to be taken to pets, and generally the bags should be restricted to that use.” These attitudes have since softened—especially given increasing restaurant portion sizes—and most modern diners don’t feel embarrassed when asking their waiter to wrap up a remaining entrée for human consumption.
And in some restaurants, the packaging of leftovers has evolved into something of a minor art form. Waiters cocoon your leftovers in tin foil which they then deftly shape into animals likes swans or seahorses. You almost hate to eat the food for ruining the fancy takeaway packaging. And in some locations, the doggie bag has evolved to where it no longer holds solid food, but also that fancy bottle of wine you bought as a perfect accompaniment to dinner but couldn’t quite finish.
However, if you do plan on taking table scraps home and actually feeding them to your pet, please read the ASPCA’s hit list of foods your furry friend should avoid. Also, be aware that the doggie bag is more of an American custom. If you’re traveling abroad, be sure to bone up on the dining habits of wherever it is you’re visiting. The last thing you want is to be in a strange land and let people think your table manners are for the dogs.