March 24, 2011
If fruit trees grow from seeds, how do you grow seedless fruit? It’s not unusual for plants to produce mutant fruit that lacks seeds, but these fruits are usually the end of their line. Naturally occurring hybrids can also make sterile fruit. The varieties that we eat are specifically hybridized to be seedless, like seedless watermelon or bananas, or grafted onto host root stocks, like seedless oranges.
Navel oranges (named for the belly-button shaped indentation in the peel; did everyone else already know this?) were first planted in California in 1872; the New York Times looked back on the fruit’s origins in an article from 1902 (pdf).
The fine original seedless orange trees came from Bahia, Brazil, and were imported through the sense of a woman. Mr. Nellie Desmond of Syracuse, N.Y., was visiting her brother in a rubber camp along the Amazon. The natives brought her several seedless oranges, which were a curiosity to her. She inquired whence they came, and found they grew upon a clump of freak orange trees in the neighborhood.
The woman with sense brought some fruit back to the United States, and word got to the Commissioner of Agriculture, who instructed the consulate at Brazil to ship him some trees. A few years later, Mrs. Luther C. Tibbets, who was well-connected, procured three trees from an experimental USDA garden for land her husband was homesteading in what is now downtown Riverside, California. One of the trees was eaten by a cow, but after five years the others bore fruit. “On Jan. 22, 1878, two of the new oranges were cut open and critically tasted by a little company of orange growers at Riverside. A new star of the first magnitude rose that day in the horticultural firmament.”
Another star of the first magnitude might well arise from a recent report in PNAS. A mutant seedless sugar apple (Annona squamosa) from Thailand was found to have a genetic disruption that blocks ovule development. Fortuitously, similar mutations have been intensively studied in Arabidopsis, a mustard plant that is the lab rat of botany. Understanding this genetic pathway could lead to seedless sugar apples or soursops. Fruits in this genus “have a meat with a sherbet-like texture and a flavor that has been compared with a mixture of banana and pineapple,” the authors write, but huge seeds make these fruits a bit of a chore to eat or process. They also point out that Mark Twain described Annona as “the most delicious fruits known to men.”
Has anyone tried these fruits? I’m intrigued—and wouldn’t mind fighting through the seeds while the seedless varieties are in development.
January 11, 2011
The people who work on food safety are pretty excited these days, or I should say they’re excited in the cautious, constantly vigilant manner of people who have spent their careers worried about deadly microbial pathogens. At an event last night sponsored by the D.C. Science Writers Association, experts from academia, government and advocacy groups met to discuss the implications of the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act and other projects expected to improve food safety.
“Passage of the bill was a huge victory,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The “modernization” part of the name is apt; as Smith DeWaal and others pointed out, the current laws guiding food safety are based largely on legislation passed in 1906. The push for new legislation was inspired in part by high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illnesses: E. coli was found in ground beef and cookie dough; Salmonella in spinach, eggs and peanut butter; Listeria in chicken. The CSPI has a disturbing but strangely fascinating “Outbreak Alert!” database that tracks these things, and they’ve ranked the ten most dangerous foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last month that one in six people in the United States contracts a foodborne illness each year.
The new law requires companies to assess and minimize hazards, increases and prioritizes Food and Drug Administration inspections of food producers, and authorizes the FDA to recall food and shut down producers. The law is just the first step, though. Big scientific and data-management questions remain, such as how to define a high-risk food; how best to reach the public; and how to standardize the methodologies for tracking food, catching outbreaks early, and identifying their sources. Currently, fewer than half of foodborne disease outbreaks are fully solved, with both the contaminated food and the pathogen identified.
One intriguing tool for either identifying outbreaks or alerting customers to recalls is grocery store customer loyalty cards. David Goldman of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said that comparisons of retailer databases with USDA databases have been “huge contributors to successful investigations.” (The FSIS is responsible for monitoring food safety before the product gets to market; it monitors slaughterhouses, for instance, and provides the USDA stamp of approval. The FDA is responsible for food once it comes to market. Sometimes the division doesn’t work and foods fall through the cracks, like eggs. Better coordination among the various federal and state agencies in charge of public health is another improvement in public health that is supported by the Food Safety and Modernization Act.)
One important factor in food safety is consumer education, and Goldman pointed out that the USDA has a help line with 24-hour automated responses and frequent live help chats about food safety. (I got a kick out of the name, “Ask Karen,” which is what I do when I have a cooking question because my mom’s name is Karen.)
January 10, 2011
Stay tuned for the next round of Inviting Writing, which we’ll announce on Tuesday, January 18.
A Slice of Heaven
By Kim Kelly
Tomatoes are a new thing for me. While I have always loved salsa, tomato sauce, and even an occasional dab of ketchup, I spent the first 42 years of my life diligently picking anything remotely resembling a tomato out of any salad, sandwich, In-N-Out Burger or taco. Something about the texture and what I remembered (from my one try as a child) as a somewhat “metallic” taste always had me saying, “no, thank you.”
In the past few years, though, articles praising the health benefits of tomatoes flashed across my computer screen and I began letting those tiny diced pieces on my taco slide by. I even kind of got used to those little fragments and almost missed them when they weren’t there. Then I bravely ate a slice from a salad. Unfortunately it was a winter tomato, white inside, mushy, a bit mealy and absolutely tasteless. To me it was just, well… for lack of a better word, yucky. The experience set me back a few years.
Two years ago a vendor at my local Carlsbad Farmers Market offered me a slice of heirloom tomato which had only hours earlier been picked fresh from his fields. I have to say his display was quite beautiful. Abundant with dazzling yellow, green, orange, red and even zebra striped tomatoes, I really wanted to like them but was sure I wouldn’t. A bright red globe had been sliced and simply dressed with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a light dusting of salt and pepper. Without an easy way to say no and to not offend him, I searched out the smallest slice and wondered how I was going to swallow the expected mushy texture and funky “tin-like” taste. Bracing myself, I popped the piece into my mouth and waited for my expectations to be met. Oh, how wrong I was! The flavor bursting in my mouth was anything but tin-like, and the texture not even remotely mealy. This small slice of heaven brought instead a fleshy yet firm and juicy bite combined with a savory sweetness. With the fresh delicate flavors dancing on my tongue, I found myself groaning in pleasure and actually reaching for a second slice. I purchased my first three tomatoes.
Since that eye-opening day, I have come to realize that there are good tomatoes and bad tomatoes. To me, “bad” (insert: soft, mushy, mealy) tomatoes are not worth eating. Good tomatoes, though, are a treat worth waiting for. That year, I spent my summer craving those luscious, flavor-filled heirlooms, even eating unadorned and plain slices out of hand. Recipes from magazines and internet sources filled my files and I spent leisurely afternoons at the market sharing tips on serving tomatoes with the vendors.
Mid-summer 2010 brought the much anticipated heirloom tomato arrival to our market and I purchased no less than 10 of the brightly colored, heart-shaped orbs the first day they appeared. Adding them to sandwiches, sauces and an extraordinarily tasty Heirloom Tomato Salad topped with Blue Cheese had my husband smirking and laughing at me. As I sat down and fully enjoyed this salad made almost wholly from tomatoes, I realized I had grown. Next summer I think I’ll grow again and give those mysterious yet alluring eggplants a try. Well… maybe.
January 6, 2011
This month’s Inviting Writing series is about “first tastes,” revelatory experiences of foods you’d never tried before. My first memory of a first taste is of pizza. I was six years old, and the pizza was pepperoni with extra cheese at a pizza parlor that had just opened in my neighborhood. I remember playing with the stringy cheese and being giddy with delight at the delicious taste, all the while experiencing a vague sense of regret that I had lived my whole life unaware of this magical food.
My taste in pizza toppings grew a bit more sophisticated as I grew up: mushrooms, green peppers, maybe some olives. In Europe I tried pizza with an egg cracked on top, which was both tasty and absurd. When I moved to California for graduate school in the 1990s, I discovered that those kooky Californians would top a pizza with anything: walnuts, potatoes, corn, artichokes, herbs I’d never tasted before. It was all delicious, and so freeing. Pizza, like life, can be anything you want to make it.
I’ve been experimenting with weird pizza toppings ever since—broccoli, squash, black beans, crab, arugula—and enjoying the pizazz that others bring to their pizza pies. Amanda tried Swiss chard and squash blossoms. California-style, no-rules pizza has caught on across the country. Serious Eats has a Slice blog dedicated to pizza news, baking tips and odd recipes. Pizza blogs, like Thai restaurants or hair salons, tend to have clever names, perhaps demonstrating the creative potential unlocked by a good pizza: Pizza Goon, Pizza Therapy.
While trying to figure out how best to use the two Meyer lemons that grew on my potted tree this year (my pathetic attempt to grow a California specialty in Maryland), I found a recipe for lemon pizza. Not lemon-flavored pizza with a dash of zest in the crust or a spritz of juice to make the sauce tangy, but pizza with lemons on top, rind and all. I modified the recipe a bit, but the main twist is to thin-slice a lemon, saute the slices in olive oil with garlic and peppers until the rind softens, and then top the pizza with that mix plus some cheese. Yet again, a pizza led me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about food.
What are your most surprising and surprisingly delicious pizza toppings? And can you remember the first time you tasted a slice?
January 3, 2011
Our theme for this month’s Inviting Writing series is “first tastes”: foods that were a revelation the first time you tried them. This week’s entry comes from Elizabeth Bastos, who shared a scary food story about artichokes last year. She blogs about “humor, food, home, parenting and cheese” at Goody Bastos.
A Rebound Relationship with Guava Paste
By Elizabeth Bastos
Years ago, when I was in a complicated relationship with a Venezuelan, I went to his home country and had a cheese arepa for the first time—and that was supposed to be the big deal. When I got home, broken-up-with and sad, my friends said: That’s too bad about Jose. How were the arepas? And I said they were okay.
The big deal for me was the guava paste. Not to get all magical realism, One Hundred Years Of Solitude about it, but the first time I tasted guava paste, it was the muted dead red of heartbreak, a sun just before it sets under the horizon, a thin slab that was sad/happy, sweet/tart and just slightly crystalline. Tears, maybe? I had a bit on top of a piece of cheese called queso tropical after one of my last arguments with Jose about the meaning of love and betrayal, and whether Americans can ever really be sensual.
Queso tropical distinguishes itself in no other way than that it is the perfect foil for guava paste. It is salty, coarse in texture, even squeaky. It’s the work-a-day piano man to guava’s torch singer. I said to Jose, through my tears: You are too passionate, like an artist, of course you are, but what is this cheese? What is this jelly on top? Is it jelly? A preserve of some kind? It’s definitely not strawberry. Or peach. More important, can I have some more? So I brought two bricks of guava paste home with me on the plane, plus some terra cotta knick-knacks, but they all broke.
When I eat guava paste even now, years later, I can’t help thinking: Wow. How can it be that for some people this fragrant, pomegranate-colored, ear-lobe-textured gem of a food is mundane? For me, it’s An Experience, perhaps The Experience. They don’t realize how lucky they are.