February 19, 2009
It’s with a heavy heart today that I announce my temporary retirement from Food & Think. Don’t worry–I’ll be back.
But major looming deadlines at my “real job” are–for the time being–making it very difficult for me to bring you pressing news about 5,000-year-old intestinal contents and why your stomach makes those funny noises. Particularly if you want your pressing news to contain things like punctuation and facts. So, much as I enjoy both food and the intriguing thoughts I think while eating, I must put a stop to it for a few months.
At first I thought a hunger strike would be a fitting way to raise awareness about the plight of overworked writers everywhere. But I cast the idea aside once I realized a hunger strike would mean an end to French fries and, in all likelihood, most kinds of cake, at least the good ones. Also beer, since it contains calories, would be difficult to work into the protest.
Far easier, then, to go on a thinking strike. It’s like a hunger strike, only I don’t get so hungry. Also, because I’m not thinking as much I can eat more things in the “stupid” food group, like chicken wings. Frankly, it’s been a win-win so far.
I’ll leave you in the capable hands of my co-Food & Thinker, Amanda Bensen, who shows no signs of slowing down. She recently tackled an entire week of chocolate and, undaunted, started this week by heroically tasting some 20 wines and then discovering sweet potatoes in space. Go Amanda!
There’s just one last thing I have to tell you about before I officially stop thinking. It’s the Witmer peanut butter mixer– the one invention you never realized how much you needed.
I’m assuming you’re all fans of natural peanut butter. (I favor Adams for its perfect balance of roast, coarseness of grind, and saltiness.) It’s far better than those homogenized, hydrogenated, sugar-spackled major brands. (By the way, most grocery store brands of peanut butter are safe from the recent salmonella outbreak; you can check them at this FDA website.)
The only catch is that the oil separates from natural peanut butters, and the first thing you have to do on opening a new jar is to mix it back in–a tedious process that invariably spills a bunch of the precious peanut oil. It’s also tiring–as one reviewer on Amazon noted:
You stick a knife in and stir and stir and stir. In about a minute your hand starts to cramp so you try to use more of your arm. That’s when you get clumsy and the oil starts to spill over the sides. The jar gets slippery making it difficult to grab onto its side; plus you’ve left a mess on the countertop.
(Incidentally, 40 separate people have taken the time to review this product on Amazon. I find that amazing. There are even separate comment threads started for some of the individual reviews. That’s how much this peanut butter stirrer has touched people’s lives.)
The mixer fits over a standard screw-top glass jar (it comes in several sizes to match whatever volume of peanut butter you typically buy). A sturdy wire arc fits through a hole in the cap, allowing you to mix the peanut butter while keeping the lid firmly closed.
Of course, any great invention must have an unexpected bonus feature to make it revolutionary and not just pretty good. With the ginsu knife it was the ability to slice through those pesky tin cans on your cutting board. With this peanut butter mixer, it’s the squeegee seal on the little hole where you poke the stirrer into the jar. It’s such a tight fit that the stirrer comes back out of the jar spotless and gleaming. If you hadn’t just stirred the peanut butter yourself, you might not be sure it had ever been in the jar.
I’m not kidding. It’s miraculous. I might just agree with another of the Amazon reviewers, who claimed the peanut butter was so well mixed it actually tasted better. There just aren’t many better ways to spend 10 bucks.
And with that, I’ll see you in April. Thanks for reading.
February 4, 2009
It’s Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday next Thursday, and the books are streaming out of publishing houses like so many startled pigeons. Nestled in among all the Beagles, giant tortoises, finches, vegetable mould, and barnacles arrives a volume seemingly written with the Food&Thinker in mind, a book that nails the sweet spot between supper and science. And we have Emma Darwin to thank for it.
Charles’s devoted wife collected recipes throughout their marriage, and the dishes she served as he formulated the theory of evolution have just been turned into a cookbook. Two historian-foodies, Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway, studied Emma’s writings and adapted her recipes for modern kitchens and ingredients. It’s for a good cause, too: the book project raises money for continued research into Charles Darwin’s papers.
The New York TImes‘s Paper Cuts blog mentioned the book a few days ago, though I regret to say their coverage offered little more than a warmed-over joke about English cooking. Bad blogger! No Ovaltine!
Fortunately for all concerned, the Arts and Culture section over at a place called Smithsonian offers not only a real review by someone who actually read the book, but also reproduces some of Emma’s dessert recipes along with delectable photos of the dishes as recreated by the cookbook’s authors. (The food history blog Gherkins & Tomatoes also has a fine review.)
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to make some Nesselrode Pudding just as soon as I can lay my hands on some heavy cream, brandy, ground almonds, and an ice cream maker all at the same time. Till then I’ll have to make do with Burnt Cream—an endearing name straight out of the honest tradition of English cooking. And you can rest assured it tastes just as good as its French translation, crème brûlée.
By the way, you can read Emma’s recipes—from Scotch Woodcock to the intriguing Pudding in Haste—all in her own handwriting at Cambridge University’s Darwin-online site. They also offer quite a bit of work by her husband.
Read more articles about Charles Darwin and his legacy in Smithsonian’s online special feature and in this month’s print magazine.
January 30, 2009
Statistically speaking, Super Bowl Sunday occupies only 0.27 percent of any given year. And yet about 5 percent of the nation’s chicken wings are eaten on that day – the product of a staggering 300 million chickens, according to figures released by the National Chicken Council.
Try one and you’ll see why they’re the perfect Super Bowl food. They’re crispy, greasy, slathered in sauce, and piping hot. They require no utensils and can be dunked into blue cheese dressing without letting go of your beer or – if the odd drip on the carpet doesn’t bother you – without even looking away from the TV. And they contain so little actual food that practiced snackers can eat dozens of them before their stomachs begin to notice.
And yet this year we coast into the big weekend under the shadow of a chicken wing shortage. Chicken wing prices are up more than 25 percent, and some chicken fryers say they simply can’t afford to serve them. All signs point to the twin scapegoats of the economic downturn and the spike in gas (and grain) prices. Some farmers this summer simply couldn’t afford to raise chickens, and a major chicken supplier in Texas filed for bankruptcy in December.
But here at Food & Think, we don’t just report mildly alarmist news about junk-food shortages. We look for whatever scientific tidbits might lurk behind those stories. And you know what? The odd plate of crispy fried wings has indeed advanced the cause of science a time or two. In 2007, Chinese researchers discovered a way to help rid deep-fried foods of a toxic frying byproduct using a bamboo extract. They tested it with chicken wings.
It turns out that heating food in vats of oil sooner or later produces a substance called acrylamide that causes cancer in laboratory animals and can damage human nervous systems. The chemical causes its damage by oxidizing important parts of cells, including your DNA. That’s one reason why foods containing antioxidants are thought to be so healthy. They stop the actions of molecules like acrylamide before they get rolling.
The Chinese researchers knew that bamboo leaves contain antioxidants, so they ran some tests. Tests involving five kinds of chicken wings and a spice mix I’d like to try, consisting of flour, pepper, sesame, sugar, salt, ginseng, Chinese wolfberry, and the enigmatic “chicken essence.”
To this mixture they added a sprinkling of bamboo extract (0.05 percent of the spice weight proved most effective), then fried the wings. In subsequent tests, acrylamide levels in the chicken wings had dropped by more than half in the wings treated with bamboo compared with untreated wings. Happier still, after volunteers ate the wings they reported no difference in appearance or taste of the bamboo-enhanced recipe. The authors couldn’t resist a little pride in their article abstract, writing
This study could be regarded as a pioneer contribution to the reduction of acrylamide in various foods by natural antioxidants.
As an aside, the researchers noted that most of the acrylamide formed on the batter, not on the chicken itself. So if you don’t have any bamboo extract on hand, you still have a couple of ways to safeguard your health: Either don’t deep-fry your wings, or don’t batter them. For the first option, I might be tempted by these oven-baked Panko-Crusted Pepper-Parmesan Wings.
For the second, you could try my own top-secret invention, Buffalo Soldier Wings. This never-before-revealed recipe involves briefly marinating the wings in a lime-yogurt sauce that has been mixed with spicy curried onions and parsley, then grilling the whole lot for 25 minutes or until delicious. No dip required. In fact, you don’t even really need a Superbowl.
Looking for more last-minute wing ideas? Find more recipes here.
January 29, 2009
Just about a year ago, Slate.com came out with an Encyclopedia Baracktannica widget. It was a collection of tongue-in-cheek puns dreamed up by the editors in response to what we know now was just the first trickle of Obama wordplay.
As the campaign went on, the punning inventions – I like to call them “neobamalogisms” – gained force and flooded the driest reaches of the political vocabarackulary. Then came the election – and now the inauguration – ushering in at least four more years of grafting one or another of the man’s funny-sounding names onto places they don’t really fit. Foodies, it turns out, are as eager as anyone to jump on the barackwagon.
Need proof? How about 80-proof, as in Hennessy’s limited edition “44″ cognac in honor of the 44th president? Or, swallow the cold hard truth over at Ben & Jerry’s, with their Yes Pecan! limited edition ice cream. The list goes on, I’m afraid… all the way to hot sauce.
Did you hear about InagurAle? It’s a new batch of Audacity of Hops, a beer first brewed for election night by homebrewer Sam Chapple-Sokol. The bloggers at Internet Food Association have a review for you. They were kind in a shocked sort of way: The beer was way more coffeeish than they were expecting, but they did allow that you can barely tell it’s homebrew. (Coincidentally, a Colorado brewery has used the Audacity of Hops name on its own beer – see their inspirational poster.)
Plenty of other breweries saw puns in their future, too. But owing to beer’s occasionally seedy image and our country’s Puritan streak there’s actually an agency that protects presidents from being, er, plastered onto beer labels, according to beernews.com. The Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has already nixed some good ones, the site reports, including names like Baracktoberfest and Mavericks Obama.
You know your new president has hit the big time when his inauguration inspires not one but two international art pizzas. First there was this version of the Obamas on the big day. The Napolitano chef used considerable skill, not to mention eggplant, to get the color of Michelle’s outfit just right.
Gourmet played it pretty straight with their coverage of the top five tastes of inauguration weekend. Perhaps it’s harder to come up with puns when the dishes start off unpronounceable (Bottarga at Zaytinya, anyone?). The most familiar item I saw was chestnut pancakes, and even they wound up underneath some caviar.
It is with some dismay that I direct you to Obama’s own chili recipe, as cooked by Hopie’s Kitchen. It pains me to think that our president could be facing such hard times without a decent chili recipe to fortify himself and his cabinet. Clue #1: no self-respecting chili recipe should contain green peppers. Neither should it contain kidney beans or the flageolet Hopie used. The name of the game is pinto, pinto, pinto.***
Yamahomo, over at Umami Mart, celebrated the inauguration Japanese style, with some homemade mochi. Did you know you can buy an appliance that will make this sticky rice dough for you? It’s kind of a cross between a rice steamer and a bread maker, and apparently you can fit one under your desk. Suddenly I want one.
So how did I do? How many Obama foodie puns—either real or dying to be made real—did I miss in my quick survey? At any rate, they’re inescapable, and you can rest assured that more will have been invented by tomorrow. So here’s one last link to keep an eye on: Obamorama Obamafoodorama, a blog devoted to food in the Obama administration. It’s funny, serious, current, and totally worth reading. I’d call it baracktically indispensable.
***Yes, I am hereby offering my services to cook up some proper chili for the Obamas should the state of the world someday demand it
January 23, 2009
Parting is such sweet sorrow, as the saying goes. But apparently that sweetness doesn’t include relief from stomach pain, and leaving town doesn’t rid you of your ulcers. But that’s good news for scientists trying to piece together the story of where we all came from.
In a new study in Science magazine, a team of researchers used DNA from ulcer-causing bacteria to trace early human pathways across Asia and into Australia and Polynesia. Their results show two waves of movement from Asia into present-day Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia some 30,000 years ago, as well as a much more recent wave from Taiwan into the Philippines (5,000 years ago), to the Melanesian islands, and then to New Zealand and the Pacific islands.
The responsible bacteria are called Helicobacter pylori. (After centuries of doctors blaming ulcers on everything from spicy food to chewing gum, two Australians confirmed that ulcers arise from a bacterial infection in our guts. Proving it involved drinking a cupful of infected stomach juices – and won the pair a Nobel prize – but that’s another story.)
Helicobacter pylori are exquisitely adapted to live inside our stomachs (about half the world’s people are infected, though 80 percent never show symptoms). Since the bacteria don’t live outside our bodies, that means two things: first, they go where we go, and second, they evolve as we evolve. That’s pretty useful if you’re studying ancient human migrations, because people today are still carrying around H. pylori strains descended from the bacteria of their ancestors.
The advantage of using H. pylori DNA instead of simply looking at human DNA is that there are fewer strains of it than there are mixtures of human genes, so patterns show up more clearly. When natives of Indonesia develop ulcers, most are suffering from just one single strain of H. pylori – and it’s different from the strain that gives ulcers to mainland Asians, or Australians, or the Maori of New Zealand, all of whom have their own unique strain.
To retrace the steps of early colonizers, researchers looked at how these strains were related to each other, and then connected the most similar ones with lines on a map. Those related strains marked where a people had arrived, paused a while as if on a stepping stone, and then moved on, carrying a slightly altered H. pylori with them. Australian H. pylori is different from New Guinea H. pylori – the two have been separate for some 25,000 years. But those two strains are far more similar to each other than they are to Maori H. pylori of New Zealand. And that, say the researchers, is because the Maori are descended from seafaring Taiwanese tribes who hopscotched to New Zealand from the Philippines just 5,000 years ago, carrying a brand of H. pylori far more closely related to the East Asian variety.
Who knew that the road to civilization could be signposted with stomach bacteria? But don’t let the thought of all this moving around stress you out. Our species has survived countless abrupt moves already. And now you know the stress won’t give you ulcers, either.