January 20, 2009
If you haven’t already heard about Obama’s first lunch as president, and how it’s an homage to Lincoln’s comfort foods, from the stewed oysters right down to the apple cinnamon cake, the details are here. (Kindly provided by the Joint Congressional Commission on Inaugural Ceremonies, who’ve been so thoughtful as to provide the recipes [as PDF files], too.)
You may have read plenty about the historical precedents for all these inaugural ceremonies, luncheons, and balls, but how much video have you seen from them? The Inaugural Commission’s website gives you a fascinating peek back through time, from George W. Bush’s two lunches all the way back to newsreel-style narrated footage of JFK sitting down with senators and poets. They may not reveal a wealth of culinary secrets, but they are morsels of history, wrapped up in the details, distractions, and conventions of their own time.
Looking back at George W. Bush on January 20, 2001 – when he was freer with that sideways smile and thanking his mother in his opening remarks – it’s clear just how much we all lost eight months later, that September.
At Clinton’s second inauguration, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich adopts a gracious air but taunted the President about the recent election anyway. The Democrats still have the White House, he said, eyebrows jumping up and down, but let’s not forget which party controls both houses of Congress.
Reagan’s 1985 inauguration featured a similar bit of ribbing. Fresh off the Gipper’s drubbing of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, the master of ceremonies offers to omit the reading of the electoral college score, to save Speaker Tip O’Neill from the heartache of hearing it again.
Footage of Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration luncheon is notable perhaps for its lack of voiceover – a “no comment” from the producers? The previous June, five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex, but the world didn’t know about it yet.
In many of these decades-old pieces it’s shocking, by today’s showbiz-saturated standards, to see how little attention went to stage managing. Back before 24-hour news, image building, and gaffe-hunting, a luncheon was mostly just lunch. At JFK’s, the food was served buffet style. Senators and vice presidents – and Robert Frost, too – walked down a line of fold-up tables, plate in hand, waiting for a guy in a white hat to carve off a hunk of prime rib. Everyone sat in low-backed folding chairs, the kind you might find packed in a community center closet in between bingo nights.
Amid all this historical reverie, I found one last sign of the times truly inspiring. It’s a brief appearance, when a server darts into the frame to hand plates to a chef. He was the only African-American I saw in all that 1961 footage.
This time around, it’s different. And that’s change you can sink your fork into. Bon appetit, Mr. President!
January 15, 2009
Up there on the weirdest-things-you-can-eat list has to be bird’s nest soup. It would be weird enough just to eat your standard twiggy-grassy robin’s nest, but this predominantly Chinese delicacy is made almost entirely from the goopy spit of a southeast Asian bird called a swiftlet (check out a couple of close-up nest photos over at EatingAsia). The birds glue their nests hundreds of feet high on sheer cave walls. When cooked, they yield a slick, nearly flavorless broth that’s prized for such medicinal chestnuts as increased longevity and, you guessed it, libido.
Unfortunately, swiftlets are not an invasive species we can proudly devour. To the contrary, growing demand from a prosperous China is compromising the birds’ ability to continue, uh, spitting out the nests. It doesn’t help that the sticky nests are the devil to clean, so collectors take the nests before they’ve been used to raise any young swiftlets. And in a weird double-twist, an unlikely solution—farming the nests—has increased supply and at the same time endangered some wild populations.
The monetary incentive is tremendous: swiftlet nests can sell for more than $1,200 per pound and fuel a multi-million dollar trade that can rival the fishing returns of poor regions. One Web site offers an 8-ounce “family pack” for about $600 (five percent discount on orders over $1,000).
In traditional harvesting, extremely daring men scale teetering bamboo poles to reach the nests, then scrape them from the cave walls. If you’ve ever shinnied up a flagpole with a basket and stick slung over your back and then performed your favorite yoga poses at the top, you may have some idea how dangerous this is. (Rock climbers tend to be fascinated; one has even made a documentary.)
A low-tech alternative—constructing artificial caves to farm the nests—has proved both successful and popular in Indonesia, where multistory buildings are erected in the middle of towns (sometimes even with a shop or apartment on the ground floor). The upper stories feature generous entrance holes, swiftlet songs play at the entrance to set a welcoming mood, and owners can add insect attractants and a swiftlet-pleasing scent, as chronicled in the World of Swiftlet Farming blog.
The set-up appeals to enough swiftlets that Indonesian production of the nests is booming (up to 280 tons, valued at more than $800 million, according to a 2004 source). Unfortunately, the high prices encourage wild-nest collectors to redouble their efforts. The toll is felt most keenly on islands, where nest farming is limited and so is the ability of swiftlets to recover from raids. In a 2001 study in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, swiftlet populations had declined 83% in 10 years.
Overharvesting was a clear cause, with declines recorded in 366 of 385 known nesting caves. Of 6,031 nests surveyed, only two had been left alone long enough for swiftlet chicks to have hatched. Harvesting was so devastating that the authors urged the islands’ governments to encourage nest farming as the swiftlets’ only chance for survival. (Though nest farming still involves destroying nests, the damage is counterbalanced by the increased nesting opportunities provided by the farms. Farmers typically allow late-nesting swiftlets to raise young, and even captively raise swiftlets in the nests of other birds to keep numbers up.)
National parks in India, Thailand, and other countries typically ban wild nest harvesting. But restrictions have yet to be enacted on a comprehensive, international scale – partly because farming has been so successful and global numbers are fairly high. Swiftlets are not listed as endangered by CITES or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
I’m fascinated by the good-news bad-news saga of farming. Since its inception 10,000 years ago, farming has been our solution to the difficulty and unpredictability of securing animal food. By all accounts it’s been a huge success, but never a complete one. Disappearing swiftlets are just another curve ball in a world tainted by the likes of mad cow disease, brucellosis, and avian flu. Farmed salmon, anyone?
January 12, 2009
Don’t eat the red ones. That could be the rallying cry in Britain’s coming squirrel wars. The U.K.’s adorable but endangered red squirrel is under siege from the American gray squirrel, and a last-ditch method of dealing with the invader has suddenly become popular: eating them.
The gray squirrel was introduced to the British Isles more than a century ago. It’s innocuous here in the states, but in Britain is an invasive species that outnumbers the native red squirrel by nearly 20 to 1. The situation has become so dire that red squirrels are now missing from much of the nation and remain on only a few islands and in the north of the country (you can glimpse them on this webcam from Anglesey, North Wales).
In 2006 a British lord urged celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to spearhead a squirrel-meat-popularization program. One way or another, by this year English butchers were having trouble keeping the 1-pound rodents in stock. Gourmets compared their taste to delicacies from duck to lamb to wild boar. One company started selling gray squirrel paté and another recently introduced Cajun-style squirrel-flavored potato chips.
Involving as it does a certain degree of revenge, eating invasive species must feel good—even if it is more of a gesture than an actual solution to the global problem of invasive species. After all, one typical trait of an invasive species is extremely high reproductive capacity. You just can’t eat them fast enough. Particularly in the case of squirrels, which have the problems of being hard to shoot (use a rifle; shotguns tend to ruin the meat), hard to skin (“like pulliing the waterlogged wellies off a toddler“), and hard to make look good on a plate, judging by some well-meaning but bizarre how-to videos on YouTube.
This is the sort of news that pleads for people to tell their weirdest-thing-I-ever-ate stories. The best I can offer beyond the occasional goat vindaloo or, let’s face it, calamari, is some beer my entomology professor used to brew, using yeasts isolated from her favorite beetle species. But eating invasive species sounds like a hobby I could get behind. From zebra mussels to blue-lined snapper to the bullfrogs wreaking havoc in California marshes, I’m picturing a nearly inexhaustible menu. What other species would you add to it?
January 9, 2009
Should sugar be a controlled substance? For the love of honey, no! Dietitians can take away my trans fats and feed me one percent milk, but show mercy and leave me my sugar. Sugar is the most basic food there is. As a molecule, it’s one of the world’s most fundamental. It’s the first incarnation of any organic substance, born inside a leaf from carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. During digestion, it’s also the final incarnation of our food (no matter what we had for supper) before our cells burn it for energy.
But if sugar is so simple, why are Twinkie packages so hard to read? Why are snacks, desserts, condiments, and TV dinners stuffed with so many sweetening agents? For that matter, why do those health-store, honey-sweetened cookies have that thin, slightly tinny taste that sugary cookies lack?
The answer, of course, is that sugars come in many varieties. The variations are minute—look at a molecular diagram and you’d be hard pressed to pick one from another—but they impart stark differences in taste and cooking behavior. That’s why we need just the right combination to get that Twinkie to taste right.
Glucose (also called dextrose): The simplest sugar (but weirdly one of the least sweet), this is what your cells burn for energy. When plants or animals need to store glucose, they stack the molecules into long chains to make starch. Like all sugars, glucose contains only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Glucose is shaped more or less like a single hexagonal ring, so it’s called a monosaccharide.
Fructose has exactly the same number and type of atoms as glucose, just arranged differently. This slight change makes fructose about twice as sweet as glucose. Fructose is the main sugar you find in honey, giving it its almost jarring sweetness. Some clever people have realized that baking with doubly sweet fructose means you can make treats with half the sugar calories of glucose. Remarkably, though, fructose molecules change shape and lose much of their sweetness when they are hot, so this trick doesn’t work in sweetening tea or coffee.
Sucrose is the most common sugar made by plants, and it’s the molecule we extract from sugarcane or sugar beets and turn into table sugar. It consists of one fructose molecule joined to one glucose molecule. That’s two rings, so sucrose is referred to as a disaccharide. We all love sucrose (if not quite as much as John Travolta did when he played that annoying angel in Michael). And conveniently for our tongues if not our waistlines, it remains delicious even at very high concentrations.
Maltose, found in malt extract, and lactose, found in milk, are two more disaccharides that are much less sweet than sucrose or fructose.
High fructose corn syrup is what we get when we cook down the starches from corn kernels to liberate the sugars they contain. About 75 percent fructose and the rest glucose, it’s about as sweet as table sugar. And because American corn is so cheap (artificially, as Michael Pollan has pointed out), it has become ubiquitous as an industrial-scale food sweetener.
Maltodextrin is another variety of processed corn syrup—in some respects another way to sneak sugar onto a wrapper’s ingredient list without raising a consumer’s eyebrows. A combination of glucose and maltose, maltodextrin is chewy and not particularly sweet.
Oligosaccharides are sugars consisting of more than two hexagonal rings, found in beans and other seeds. The neat thing about oligosaccharides is that animals can’t digest them, but the bacteria in our intestines often can—leading to those remarkable intestinal chemistry experiments that sometimes happen after a meal of legumes.
This list doesn’t touch the artificial sweeteners—like the Stevia Amanda wrote about. They all contain some non-sugar substance that tricks our tongues into registering sweetness. Other tricksters include artichokes, which briefly disable our sweet receptors so whatever we eat next seems sweet, as well as the really weird miracle berry, which can discombobulate your tongue for a few hours at a time.
Artificial sweeteners promise the impossible: they’re hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose but contain negligible calories. If only taste were that simple. I’ve never had a zero-calorie dessert that could compare to the simple sucrose rush of chewing on a stalk of sugarcane. I’m supporting freedom for sugar in 2009!
(Note to Amanda: a cwt seems to be short for a hundredweight. Which is 100 pounds in the U.S. and 112 pounds in Britain. Can the “c” really be a holdover from the Roman numeral 100? Good old imperial measurement system.)
December 30, 2008
I’ll say it. The best beers in the world today are being made in the U.S. Let foreigners joke about our watery “macrobrews,” but meanwhile our craft-brewing tradition has gathered steam the way all endeavors do in our young country: with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and heaps of technology. Give us a thumbnail sketch and a couple of engineering degrees and we can found a tradition in anything you want.
And it pays to try them all. Beer is inherently unstable (unlike wine, its flavors start to get musky after a few months in the bottle), so there’s no real reason to hold a blind allegiance to the beers you’re comfortable with—they have likely only been getting worse on their long journey from the brewery. Why not try a beer from just down the block? With some 1,500 smaller names scattered around the country, finding great new beers is just one more benefit of traveling.
So here’s my personal month-by-month review of the top 12 beers of 2008. That’s 12 down, 1,488 breweries left to try. At this rate, my beer-tasting career should last me until the year 2132. It’s shaping up to be a tasty century.
January: I emerged into 2008 on the South Island of New Zealand, fresh from a nearly beer-free month in Antarctica. I wound up in Riverton, along a lonely stretch of coast beaten by the mighty Southern Ocean. The only open restaurant turned out to be closed when I walked in, but they invited me for “staffies” anyway, serving up three foamy, deep-yellow Speight’s Gold Medal Ales in succession and refusing payment. It was the perfect accompaniment to stories of gales, fish tales, and what climate change is doing to the local paua (abalone) crop.
February was deadline month, and my deadline beer is the Lost Coast Brewery’s Indica Pale Ale, brewed deep in Northern California’s “Humboldt Nation” (a county infamous for a certain controversial medicinal herb). The beer’s name is a rather adolescent pun, but as an India pale ale it’s straightforward and serious. Bitter hops explode from it, perfuming your mouth and nose in little aromatic puffs.
March is the month for Lost Coast’s Eight-Ball Stout, a beer so good I started calling my surfboard after it. Springtime in northern California sees the year’s coldest water temps. As you emerge from 50-degree water, wetsuit dripping, clambering over mussel-pocked rocks and holding a slender fiberglass plank in one raw pink hand, it helps to have something to look forward to. If it’s a thick, toasted, molassesy oatmeal stout dark enough to blot out the gorgeous California sunset, so much the better.
April saw visits to the Koreatown of San Jose, California, where I investigated the ultra-fresh Korean fried-chicken fad. You eat popcorn while the chef fries the drumsticks from scratch. When it arrives, the crispy skin is an airlock holding back scalding, partially vaporized chicken juice. The only solution is a giant bottle of OB Blue shared in small glasses with everyone at the table. Served extremely cold as damage control for the impatient eater, it’s exactly right.
In May I was involved in a neat project using technology to save whales from ship traffic off Boston (the Boston Globe described it here). Parts of Boston resemble a far-western county of Ireland, and one upshot is you can walk into any bar and get the world’s most famous stout, Guinness. Fizzed with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide, the bubbles are tiny and soft, yielding a creamy taste rather than a carbonated sting. This beer is much milder (and lower in alcohol) than its reputation. Order it on a whim.
By June I was ensconced in an upstate New York lifestyle complete with a backyard vegetable garden and nonstop bicycling. During those sweltering months two brews from the Ithaca Brewery kept me alive: the fearsomely hopped Cascazilla Ale and its only slightly less wanton sibling, Flower Power India Pale Ale. Cold, fruity in the throat, and searingly carbonated.
A return to the West Coast over July 4th brought me back inside the blessed distribution halo of the Deschutes Brewery. If it’s hot, you drink Mirror Pond Pale Ale. If it’s cold and damp, Black Butte Porter. And if night is falling and your time out West is nearly over, you spend all your energy drinking Obsidian Stout. Many people fault this beer for being too complex for a stout. It’s smoky, peaty to the point of whiskeyness, with a sweetness that vanishes halfway through the sip. My longtime favorite beer, it’s like drinking mouthfuls of the winter solstice.
The highlight of August was a friend’s wedding, and with it the opportunity to drink from a keg of authentic, locally brewed root beer. If you haven’t done this recently, give it a try. Good root beer (non-alcoholic, of course) is sweet, rich, and caramel, with that woodsy taste of birch twigs and fragrant roots, reminding me of damp Appalachian hollows and fallen leaves.
In September my carefully planned birthday weekend on Martha’s Vineyard coincided with a drive-by drenching from Hurricane Kyle. Under the circumstances, huddling in the Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs was a good way to spend the afternoon. I drank the Steeprock Stout and shelled peanuts as rain poured down in torrents through our car’s sunroof.
October. Foolish brewery names are a constant risk in an industry dominated by young guys who spend a lot of time drinking. But don’t write off Smuttynose Brewery just yet. (It’s actually the name of a quaint island off New Hampshire.) One way or another, their Robust Porter gets the name exactly right. Great beers should evoke tastes rather than ladle them onto your tongue, and that’s the way this beer treats its dark sugars and woody bitterness.
In November I discovered Butternuts brewery’s Moo Thunder canned stout. It’s a good, Guinness-like stout that gets extra points for delivery. Aluminum takes much less energy to recycle than glass, so putting beer back into cans, and keeping the flavor intact, strikes a blow for the environment. Pour it into a glass and feel virtuous while you watch the head develop.
I’m still auditioning brews for the role of “beer of December”, and I have high hopes of encountering some promising newcomer as I head out on a holiday-season road trip. Surely someone out there can offer a suggestion or two?