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 21, 2011
I have always been a fast eater, and even as a kid I was not picky. So I never really built log cabins with my carrots or sculpted my mashed potatoes into gravy-spewing volcanoes.
With the exception of scrawling smiley faces with his catsup, says Carl Warner, he didn’t play much with his food, either. Yet in 1999, the British still life photographer gathered some portobello mushrooms at a market and assembled and photographed them in a way that made them appear like massive trees on the African savannah. The experience changed the way he looked at food. He began to envision coconuts as haystacks, ribeye beef joints as mountains and fortune cookies as folded rugs.
Warner has since made a career of capturing whimsical “foodscapes”: a smoked salmon sea rimmed with new potato and soda bread boulders, the Tuscan countryside with Romano pepper Cypress trees and a London skyline complete with a Big Ben of green beans and a rhubarb-spoked London Eye, among others. His work, reminiscent of Guiseppe Arcimboldo‘s edible portraits, appears in his new book Carl Warner’s Food Landscapes.
Last week, I spoke with the photographer about his unique relationship with food.
I think everyone looks at broccoli and naturally sees little trees. But you take that much further.
It was just a progression from that to see what other things reminded people of. I didn’t really think at first that there were many other opportunities. I thought broccoli was the major player. But I was just exploring what else could be achieved using food. Now, I’m making houses out of loaves of bread, submarines out of aubergines and all sorts of things. It’s like being aware of a palette of colors and saying, well, everyone knows red, but what else is there? You suddenly realize that there is a whole spectrum of colors you can use.
What ingredient have you found to be the most versatile?
Definitely the kale. Curly kale. It’s a very robust green cabbage. You can pin it to distant mountains and make it look like rainforest or you could have it as bushes in the foreground. It’s very tough stuff, as opposed to something like coriander, which will just kind of wilt the moment you cut it from the pot and stick it under the light. Coriander is a beautiful herb. The leaf shape is wonderful. But I know, if I’m using it, then I am just going to put it on at the last minute, when everything is ready to shoot.
What else is difficult to work with?
I think anything that dries out quickly. We treat stuff like avocado, for example. You have to soak it in lemon juice to preserve it for longer. If you cut slices of potato, it will quickly discolor. There are certain chemicals that we will put potato in that will keep it white all day long. We will cheat like that in order to save having to keep replacing it.
In your book, you mention a time when you used the skin of an apple to create a red roof. Are there other instances where you think you’ve worked an ingredient into the landscape so well that it is unrecognizable as itself?
Yes, I think a lot of that goes on. For example, in the fishscape, the roofs of the houses there are made out of seaweed. But I prefer people to be able to find them and discover them themselves, like a Where’s Waldo type thing. It kind of defeats the objective if they are not recognizing it as food. Sometimes I think I’ve gone too far and I have to sort of rein it back a bit and keep a simplicity there so that people have the knowledge of the ingredients and therefore appreciate that.
Where do you find your inspiration?
The inspiration comes from the natural world, but also ideas come from films and books. I think often the works are a mixture of many different influences. The broccoli forest, for example, is a slight homage to my love of Ansel Adams’s work. It’s got that sort of Yosemite Valley feel. But at the same time, it has a yellow turmeric path, which is the yellow brick road. We stuck peas into the broccoli trees, which kind of reminds me of those trees in The Wizard of Oz that throw apples at Dorothy when she discovers the Tin Man.
Has it changed the way you sit down to dinner?
No, not really. I love cooking, and I am real foodie. But I have a very different hat on when I’m cooking at home. When we spend all day pinning and gluing and sticking wires down green beans, the last thing I feel about my work is hungry. I see the food as having made the scenes, but I don’t get a mouth-watering appetite appeal from the food at all. I just see them as props.
After a shoot, you divvy up the food with your team. So, what is the strangest thing you’ve cooked from the leftovers?
I turned up with a bag of stuff after the end of a shoot and my wife just kind of said, right, okay, so we’ve got like 15 packets of green beans and four cauliflowers. I think what I bring home quite often tends to be a bit like one of those veg boxes, where you have to be inventive and creative. You need to get the cookbook out and say, what can I do with okra? And what can I do with that or this root vegetable? Beetroot is a wonderful thing if you find some great recipes to do. Roast them in the oven with balsamic vinegar and serve them with steak, and all of a sudden it’s like, let’s go for it. I’ve got four kids, so we’re always trying to encourage them to try different things, eat healthily, appreciate what’s grown locally and eat what’s in season.
There are many, many food things that I want to do: Thai floating markets, the Taj Mahal. I’d like to make Venice out of pasta. There is no end to it really. I am working on a children’s book where we are making different landscapes out of one color. We built this wonderful orange landscape made out of pumpkins, cheese, clementines, kumquats, carrots and dried apricots. I am also trying to get a children’s animated TV series off the ground. My idea is that it would be to food education what Sesame Street is to literacy. I think it is really needed at this time to combat a lot of the problems we face here in the U.K. and I know that you face in the U.S. I don’t want my work to just be pretty pictures made out of food. I want it to be used as a vehicle to do some good and to bring about a change in our food culture. My work brings a smile to people’s faces. It’s nice for people to think, if this man can do this with the contents of his fridge, then what else can we do?
January 13, 2011
Thirty percent of New Year’s resolutions made by Americans this year relate to weight, diet and health, according to a recent survey by the Barna Group, a Ventura, California-based research firm focused on the intersection between faith and culture. Unfortunately, a rather grim statistic glares those resolute Americans in the eye: nearly half of those who made commitments last year reported that they had experienced “no change” in their behaviors.
Inevitably, every January, I watch this saga play out around me in my office gym. There is a noticeable bump in traffic early in the month, but it gradually dwindles. As a runner, I try to maintain a level of fitness throughout the year, but I am certainly not impervious to the challenges of staying motivated. Things definitely shake my resolve. I always struggle when Daylight Savings Time ends in the fall. With it getting dark earlier, I opt to work out over my lunch hour instead of after work. But even that presents its problems. It’s often hard to tear away from work, and when I do, I usually run on a hungry stomach. The predicament has gotten me more and more interested in finding the perfect workout snack—something that gives me a needed boost but doesn’t slosh around in my stomach.
A couple of years ago, while training for a marathon, I experimented with stashing an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie in the pocket of a fuel belt I wore around my waist during long runs. While it, and other snacks, I’ve since read, such as Fig Newtons, Sweet Tarts, graham crackers, dried fruit, orange slices and, if it’s not too hot out, fun-size candy bars, can tide you over, there is a pretty wide selection of energy snacks tailored specifically to an athlete’s needs. (Note: Re-fueling is usually recommended after running or biking 45 minutes.)
At first, I’ll admit, they seem about as appealing, and foreign, as astronaut food (hence, my cookie), but they are worth a try. There seem to be two categories of energy snacks, and the difference takes me back to my pediatrician and the question she’d ask: liquid or chewable?
The first is energy gel. Gu Energy Gel, PowerBar Energy Gel and Clif Shot are three popular brands, and each comes in at least a one-ounce, 100-calorie packet, shaped much like a sample of lotion. They are easy to carry, and, with sugars, electrolytes and, occasionally, caffeine, they pack a punch. The products’ makers recommend consuming one to three packets (with a few gulps of water each packet) every hour of exercise to help maintain energy levels.
The second type comes in the form of fruit chews and, believe it or not, jelly beans. Clif Bar Shot Bloks, Gu Chomps, Power Bar Blasts and Honey Stinger Energy Chews contain about the same amount of calories per serving (from three to 10 pieces) as half of a gel packet. They re-supply the body with carbohydrates, usually antioxidants and sometimes amino acids and caffeine. It is recommended that they be eaten in different intervals, depending on the brand, starting after 45 minutes of exercise. Jelly Belly has even come out with sport beans to nosh on while running.
People seem to discover something they like, in a flavor they like, and then stick with it. Personally, I think the pudding-like gels are a bit messy and sit funny in my stomach, and the jelly beans, 20 miles into a marathon, can be exhausting to chew. But for me, the Cran-Raz Shot Bloks are just right.
What energy snacks do you prefer?
December 30, 2010
Perhaps it is because I associate it with that stomach-ache-inducing sparkling grape juice I gulped down during so many New Year’s Eves as a kid, but I am not a huge fan of champagne.
So my ears perked up when I heard that the Boston Beer Company (the maker of Samuel Adams) and Germany’s Weihenstephan, the world’s oldest brewery, were teaming up to unveil a bubbly brew called Infinium that blurred the line between sparkling wine and beer, just in time for the holidays. The festive effervescence of champagne with the hoppy flavor of beer sounded like it could be the perfect combination, and I wondered if there were other “toastable” hybrids out there.
Greg Engert seemed to be the guy to ask. He is the beer director at ChurchKey, a swanky beer bar in northwest Washington, D.C., and Birch & Barley, its sister restaurant downstairs, where he curates an impressive collection of craft beer: 500 bottles, 50 taps and five cask-conditioned ales. Both the bar and restaurant, which opened in October 2009, have been huge successes, and Engert’s hand in them hasn’t gone unnoticed. In April, Engert became the first-ever beer professional to be named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Sommeliers of the Year.”
Engert was preparing for ChurchKey’s big New Year’s bash (tickets still available for an open bar of 55 drafts and samples from Greg’s “secret stash”) when I spoke with him earlier this week. ”I wouldn’t say I dislike champagne per se,” he said, “but I find that flavor options for sparkling wine are only subtly different. Craft beer, on the other hand, always provides the effervescence of a sparkler, but can do so with a wider range of tastes and aroma. You can enjoy roasty or even smoky flavors, caramel, toffee, toasty and nutty notes, herbal and citric hop freshness, or even fruit and spice aromatics that tend toward the darker side—plum, raisin, cherry—or lighter—peach, banana, apple.”
Engert seemed as ebullient as the beers he has on tap, explaining how the methods of making beer and champagne can be quite similar. A popular trend, he says, is for beers to undergo a secondary fermentation at a winery, in much the same way that sparkling wine does. And, as I had hoped, he offered up some recommendations.
So, now, without further ado, I present to you Engert’s top picks for beers to toast this New Year’s Eve!
Bubbly & Brut-esque: DeuS: Brut Des Flandres | Brouwerij Bosteels | East Flanders, Belgium
This beer is fittingly titled the “Brut” of Flanders, as much of its production mirrors that of the finest brut wines of France, albeit crafted of malted barley initially in the Flemish north. The straw pallor signals the intense dryness to come, no doubt engendered in congress with the méthode traditionnelle*. Post primary fermentation it is dosed with sugar and wine yeast, then carried to Rheims, France (the capital of all things Champagne). Only there is it bottled where it can continue to re-ferment for three to four weeks. More than a year’s maturation at cellar temperature then occurs, after which is riddling (3 to 4 weeks), then disgorgement. What remains is an ethereal brew, delicately emboldened. * Note: Though Engert’s other three picks are brewed by similar methods, this is the only one made in the méthode traditionnelle.
Bubbly & Roasty: Black OPS | Brooklyn Brewery | New York
Here is an imperial stout loaded with intensely deep flavors of cocoa, caramel and espresso that is further layered by its four-month maturation in oak barrels once used to age Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Vanilla, spice, toast and coconut tastes abound in a brew that might have ended up heavier on the palate had it not been bottled flat, then re-fermented with wine yeast normally reserved for primary fermentation in sparkling wine. Black OPS ends up neither heavy nor sticky, but rather creamy and tantalizing while losing nothing of its mature character.
Bubbly & Tart & Funky: Hanssens Oude Gueuze | Hanssens Artisanaal | Flemish Brabant, Belgium
The “Champagne of Beers” as a moniker could have originally been applied to Gueuze Lambic, the classic-rustic brew of the Payottenland, a valley surrounding the river Zenne, which flows through—and even under—Brussels. While beer has been brewed in countless regions for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, this region has altered their brewing path very little over the centuries. Airborne wild yeasts and bacteria begin the ale’s ferment, and continue along with a hoard of microscopic brethren in oak casks for a number of years. The Gueuze style is naturally re-fermented, but not by some careful “méthode” or more modern bottle conditioning practice; the Gueuze is a blend of Lambic that has wildly fermented in oak barrels for one, two and three years. The still hungry and now starved micro flora of the three-year-old thread feed upon the as yet unfermented one- and two-year-old beers’ sugars and a natural fermentation results. Sparkling, yes. But wildly tart, earthy and even funky. These are rare craft-made ales that not only astound in their astonishing simplicity, but also stand as a sort of revenant of what beer once was…and is. And will be.
Bubbly & Hoppy: Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Grand Cru | Our Brewers Reserve, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company | California
This is the final installment in the series of artisanal beers brewed to celebrate Sierra Nevada’s 30 years of craft brewing. It consists of two hoppy brews (Celebration Ale & Bigfoot), aged in oak barrels, then blended with fresh Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. While malty and firm on the palate, with vanilla notes from the wood, it exudes huge herbal and citric hop notes in the nose. Stunningly generous, as the re-fermentation serves to exude powerful effervescence that both brightens the texture and pushes the aromatic envelope as well.
December 28, 2010
Entertaining friends and family is a big part of the holiday season. In my family, after we have nibbled on appetizers and enjoyed a meal and the dessert plates have been cleared from the table, it’s game time. Literally.*
If you are a game lover (or are just looking for some excitement), consider playing these games—some bought, some improvised—at your next dinner party.
*Warning: Wait 30 minutes after eating before charading.
Whether the group you’re hosting consists of lifelong friends, new acquaintances or a combination of both, Table Topics is a game with, according to its tag line, “Questions to Start Great Conversations.” It is a simple concept. The game consists merely of a deck of cards with questions on each, and the maker has come out with decks of different themes—Dinner Party, Not Your Mom’s Dinner Party and Gourmet, among others. From the original deck: “If you could do something dangerous just once with no risk what would you do?” And from the gourmet deck: “Which celebrity chef would you most like to fix you a meal?” Find out things about your friends that you might never have known.
Another game, called the Game of Things, takes this idea to the next level. A card might say: “Things people do when no one is looking” or “Things dogs are actually saying when they bark.” Each player writes down an answer, and the object of the game is to guess who wrote what. The board game can be improvised if your group comes up with a pile of “Things” prompts. But, I have to say, the topics that come with the game generate hilarious answers.
There are so many trivia board games out there that you can pretty much play to a common interest of your group. If you are all fans of TV shows like The Office or Seinfeld, there are games that will challenge you to recall famous quotes and scenes. I recently saw a game called Name Chase, perfect for history buffs, that provides facts and clues about historical figures. The fewer clues you need in order to guess the person correctly, the higher your score. And if you are serious foodies, Foodie Fight, with over 1,000 food-related trivia questions, might be a good choice.
Catch Phrase has always been a party favorite among my friends. The hand-held electric game provides a word, and, in typical Taboo fashion, you have to describe the person, place or thing (without using the word in question) in a way that will enable your team to guess it. Then you quickly pass it around the room. Whichever team has it when the time runs out loses the round.
What’s great about the game “Celebrity” is that it requires only some paper and pens. Every player submits three or so names of famous people or fictional characters to a hat. The group is divided into two teams and the names into two cups. Each team has an allotted time, say two minutes, to pass their cup around and get through as many names as they can. In the first round, when you draw a name, you can give any clues to help your teammates guess. Then, the names are returned to the cup, and in the second round, you can only say one word and then you have to act out clues. The final round (and the hope is that you get through many names in the first round so that you are familiar with the celebrities in the cup) is purely charades.
In my opinion, this “Celebrity” is more entertaining than the version in which each person at the table writes a famous person’s name on a post-it note, sticks it to a neighbor’s forehead and then asks and answers yes-or-no questions until everyone discovers their post-it identities.
For the game “Psychiatrist,” one member of the group volunteers to be the psychiatrist and leaves the room while the remaining revelers decide on an ailment. The ailment isn’t an illness in the traditional sense. For instance, you may decide that you will all act as if you are the person to your right. Then the psychiatrist returns and asks questions until he or she successfully diagnoses the group.
This last one risks creating some contrived conversation, but it can be fun. The host of the party pens some outlandish phrases (i.e. “I am loose as a goose” or “It tastes like pickled peppers”) on strips of paper and hides one (or perhaps three, ranging from easy to medium to hard) under each dinner plate. Guests read the phrases to themselves when they sit down to dinner, and then the object is to work them into the conversation as naturally as possible. Try to call out when you think others are using their assigned phrases, and the person able to slip in the most, unnoticed, wins.