May 24, 2012
The stuff is goopy, gelatinous, bright-red—at once a bland “culinary atrocity” and an essential part of summer. These days, the condiment is almost always made out of tomatoes. But ketchup wasn’t always that way. Indeed, the word appears to derive from pickled fish sauce. And for centuries, the English pickled everything from walnuts to celery in catsups. As late as 1901, the inveterate forager Charles McIlvaine recommended making ketchup out of mushrooms, adding a quart of red wine for every gallon of liquid. Either that or brandy, of the finest available kind.
Nearly a century earlier, in 1812, one of the first published American recipes for tomato ketchup, fruits that were then called “love apples,” appeared in Philadelphia physician James Mease’s book, the Archives of Useful Knowledge. (Mease credits the French for his recipe, although as Mark Kurlansky writes in Salt: A World History, “The French have never been known for their fondness of tomato ketchup, so it is thought, given the date, that the French he was referring to were planter refugees from the Haitian revolution.”) The doctor’s book includes a number of recipes for home distillation and, no surprise, his recommendation for “Love-Apple Catsup” calls for alcohol:
Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.
Ketchup’s changed in color and texture, going from a brown liquid to a viscous red one, but the condiment also went from one fermented ingredient (alcohol) to another (high-fructose corn syrup). This happened, historian Andrew F. Smith suggests in “From Garum to Ketchup,” as 19th century Americans developed a liking for sweet foods. Sugar added to ketchup hastened fermentation, causing ketchups to sour—and in some cases explode. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 banned any chemical preservatives that slowed fermentation, leaving us with a familiar and shelf-stable blend of salt, sugar, vinegar, and ripe tomatoes. Now, of course, we slather burgers and fries with this so-called “Esperanto of sauces” and tend to take any alcohol on the side.
May 23, 2012
On October 16, 1968, researchers on board the Lulu, a naval catamaran, lowered the deep-sea submersible Alvin and its three crew members into the Atlantic some 135 miles off the coast of Woods Hole, Massachusetts for what amounted to an underwater whale watch. Then two steel support cables snapped and water poured in through an open hatch. The crew escaped relatively unscathed (Ed Bland, the pilot, sprained his ankle), and the Alvin plunged 4,900 feet down, where it stayed for days and then, on account of rough seas, months.
When the submersible was finally floated again the following year, scientists discovered something unexpected: the crew’s lunch—stainless steel Thermoses with imploded plastic tops, meat-flavored bouillon, apples, bologna sandwiches wrapped in wax paper—were exceptionally well-preserved. Except for discoloration of the bologna and the apples’ pickled appearances, the stuff looked almost as fresh as the day the Alvin accidentally went all the way under. (The authors apparently did a taste test; they said the meat broth was “perfectly palatable.”)
The authors report that after 10 months of deep-sea conditions, the food “exhibited a degree of preservation that, in the case of fruit, equaled that of careful storage and, in the case of starch and proteinaceous materials, appeared to surpass by far that of normal refrigeration.” Was the ocean bottom a kind of desert—a place barren of the vast microbial fauna found flourishing on earth? (Here the authors make an appeal for landfills and caution against dumping garbage into the ocean, where decomposition appeared to have slowed to a near stop.) Or was something else slowing microbial growth?
Four decades later, food scientists are floating the latter idea. Because water exerts a downward pressure—at 5,000 feet down, it’s about 2,200 pounds per square inch, more than enough to rupture your eardrums—the depth of the Alvin’s temporary resting place probably acted as a preservative for the bologna sandwiches. At sea level, this kind of ultra high-pressure processing is used for a variety of foods, including oysters, lobsters, guacamole and fruit juices. In a study published earlier this year, a team of Spanish food scientists juiced strawberries and stored the liquid inside various pressurized chambers. Even at room temperature, they found that high-pressure (hyperbaric) storage slowed the growth of microbes that would otherwise spoil the juice. They suggest that the technology might even prove to be more effective than freezing or refrigerating. And they say the promise of this novel food-processing technology was first demonstrated by the accidental sinking of sandwiches on board the submersible.
Photograph: “Food materials recovered from Alvin after exposure to seawater at a depth of 1540 m for 10 months”/Science, 1971.
May 18, 2012
Whether you’re a craft pickler with a budding small business, a doomsday prepper with a bunker stocked with necessities, or just a home cook curious about that middle ground between fresh and rotten, pickling represents one way of saving the fleeting tastes of spring. These are four short reviews of interesting books that have crossed my desk. They offer instruction, context and recipes for pickling, and they should interest both the earnest experimenter or the armchair historian.
The Art of Fermentation
Sandor Katz, an exuberant post-Pasteurian evangelist who lives on a wooded commune in Tennessee, shares his characteristic blend of instructional advice, contemporary folk wisdom from around the globe and a layman’s take on microbiology. The resulting book has depth enough for home fermenteurs and professional chefs. Includes a recipe for fermented eggs made with miso (a fermented soybean paste).
Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning
Originally published as Keeping Food Fresh, this Old World recipe collection offers ultra-simple, if slightly idiosyncratic-sounding, advice from organic farmers and gardeners in France, Belgium and Switzerland. The authors favor salt and time to opening the freezer or turning on the stove. Includes a recipe for verdurette, a salted, ground-up vegetable stock that could replace a bouillon cube in soup.
Putting Food By
This primer, first printed in the 1970s, offers instructional advice on preserving food with boiling water baths, salt cures and root cellars. Its emphasis on safety in home kitchen should appeal to the cautious canning neophyte. Includes advice on the best types of jars, rubber rings and lids for home canning.
Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods
A series of scholarly essays from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery addresses such topics as the geographic dispersal of Jewish pickles in North America, the theoretical underpinnings of fermentation’s ability to keep our species well fed and the tradition of shad planking. Includes a recipe, of sorts, for garum, approximating the ancient Roman methods for making fermented fish sauce in a modern greenhouse.
May 15, 2012
Japanese knotweed—a common spring edible and a relative of rhubarb, quinoa and spinach—grows like crazy, so much so that it’s considered an invasive species. Brought here as an ornamental, it’s now better known as a blight; Monsanto even makes a herbicide dedicated to its eradication. On my afternoon jogs, I’ve often wondered what might happen if all my neighbors descended on the rapidly proliferating patches and harvested the tender young shoots for tart, tangy additions to their dinner.
The idea that armies of hungry knife-wielding “invasivores” could eradicate exotic invasive flora and fauna has taken hold in popular culture and among conservation scientists. There are at least two invasive species cookbooks. Fishermen hold tournaments to chase down the Asian carp, which escaped Southern ponds and now threatens to invade the Great Lakes, and biologists have even attempted to re-brand the fish as delicious “Kentucky tuna.”
Eating invasive species might seem like a recipe for success: Humans can devastate a target population. Just take a look at the precipitous decline of the Atlantic cod (PDF). Perhaps Asian carp and lionfish, too, could be sent the way of the passenger pigeon. It’s a simple, compelling solution to a conservation problem. Simply put, “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”
However, as ecologist Martin A. Nuñez cautions in a forthcoming article in Conservation Letters, edible eradication strategies could backfire and might even lead to a greater proliferation of the target species. First off, harvesting plants or animals for food doesn’t always correspond with ecological suppression. (Harvesting knotweed, for example, doesn’t require uprooting the plant, which can easily reproduce even after being picked). While the eat-‘em-to-beat-‘em effort calls attention to unwanted species, in the long run, Nuñez says popularizing an introduced species as food runs the risk of turning invasives into marketable, regional specialties (as with Patagonia’s non-native deer, fish and wild boar).
Before dismissing his cautionary note about incorporating alien flora and fauna into local culture, it’s worth remembering one of America’s cultural icons, a charismatic animal that may help underscore the questionable logic behind the invasivore diet: the Equus caballus, a non-native species originally introduced by Spanish explorers to facilitate transport in the Americas. Now, Nuñez writes, these “wild” horses have become “so deeply rooted in American culture and lore that control of their populations is nearly impossible, and eradication unthinkable.” To say nothing of eating them.
Drawing of Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)/Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 106, 1880.
Thanks to Roberta Kwok at Conservation magazine, who brought my attention to the study.
May 11, 2012
I love my mom and all, but I also want to recognize another set of mothers—those blobs of yeast and bacterial cultures found floating in unpasteurized cider, wine vinegar, and other fermented liquids, like cloudy constellations of pond scum. The Dutch have a word for mud and mire (modder) that may have lent its name to these mothers, but given the proliferation of the term across Europe—French mère de vinaigre or Spanish madre del vino—etymologists suspect that these slimy sediments of mother derived from the mother who takes care of you.
Two mothers seemingly at odds, right? Well, thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary made a valiant, if somewhat perplexingly worded attempt, to tease out exactly why the lees at the bottom of the barrel came to be named for your female parent:
The transition of sense is difficult to explain; but most probably the scum or dregs of distilled waters and the like was regarded as being a portion of the ‘mother’ or original crude substance which had remained mixed with the refined product, from which in course of time it separated itself. (The term may possibly have belonged originally to the vocabulary of alchemy.) An explanation sometimes given, that ‘mother of vinegar’ was so called on account of its effect in promoting acetous fermentation, does not agree with the history of the use. It has been pointed out that ancient Greek γραῦς old woman, is used in the sense ‘scum, as of boiled milk,’ but the coincidence is probably accidental.
Wine left out in the open air will spontaneously ferment into vinegar if the right airborne microbes land on the surface (Acetobacter bacteria and Mycodermi aceti yeast); the oxidation process can also be kick-started by mixing in the cloudy undeﬁned bacterial and fungal cultures left at the bottom of an old vinegar container—an old, yet reliable, mother. These cultures work in much the same way that yeast or sourdough starters give rise to beer and bread (why these cultures are more often called starters and not mothers remains one of the many vagaries of the English language). Perhaps, then, it’s not all surprising that one mother gave birth to another.