January 9, 2012
When salmon swim into the open ocean, the fish essentially disappear. They travel thousands of miles for one to seven years and then, against all odds, they head home—and not just home in the general sense of the word. Salmon go back to the exact location, the exact river, lake, or stream where they were born. The fish launch themselves hundreds or thousands of miles upstream, then dig a little nest called a “redd” and mate, often their final act before dying.
For years, scientists wondered: How do salmon find their way home? What is the mechanism that they use? Do they navigate using the ocean’s currents, temperature gradients, a solar compass, the polarity of light underwater, or the earth’s magnetism? “There had been many suggestions because it’s a great question,” says Gene Likens, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. “How does that work?”
Here’s where Arthur Hasler comes in. Hasler grew up in Utah. As a boy he hiked in the Rocky Mountains and eventually went out on mission to Germany (he’s a Mormon). He ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, where he studied zoology and founded lakes studies in the United States. One day in 1946, he went back to Utah on a vacation, to the Wasatch Range, where he had spent much of his time as a boy.
As Likens told me: “He was riding a horse in Utah, on a trail, and came up over a ridge, and he noticed that there was a familiar smell. It smelled like an area that he was used to—that was familiar.” As Likens writes,
He suddenly had what he called a déjà senti experience, “as a cool breeze, bearing the fragrance of mosses and columbine, swept around the rocky abutment, the details of this waterfall and its setting on the face of the mountain suddenly leapt into my mind’s eye.”
“So that was his ‘Aha’ moment!” Likens told me. “He thought, ‘Well, maybe salmon do the same thing, maybe they can smell their home river.’
Others had previously speculated that fish used of odors as homing cues, but Hasler and Warren Wisby introduced the idea of olfactory imprinting in the American Naturalist in 1951. They then went on to show that salmon had an extremely sensitive sense of smell: They could detect one or very few molecules in their nasal chambers. Salmon with plugged nostrils (olfactory pits) were unable to find their way home. The fish’s powerful, ingrained sense of smell allows them to return to the exact stream of their birth for spawning.
“If you think about it, we all do that,” Likens says. “When you come into your house and put on a familiar jacket, it may have a familiar smell.”
It’s almost seems like Hasler took a page from Proust—only if Proust dipped his Petite Madeleine in tisane, then Hasler immersed himself in his waterfall.
I generally don’t believe in epiphanies. In my experience, discoveries and breakthroughs tend to be the result of a slow process, a large accumulations of small things, so that’s why I think Hasler’s revelation is worth sharing—for any of us, trying to find our way home, wherever and whenever that might be.
As Smithsonian’s newest contributor, I’m excited to find a new home to explore the wonder and awe found in our food, where science intersects with storytelling, where epiphanies can cross species and senses and where what we put in our mouths can reveal something greater about the world. I look forward to you joining me in Food & Think.
December 30, 2011
This is our last Food & Think post of the year. Sadly, it also happens to be my last ever—or at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date approaching in a few months, I’ve decided one full-time job (I am a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine) plus new motherhood is about all I can handle for a while. I have learned so many interesting things about food in the last two and a half years of writing for the blog—and I still plan to, but now as a reader instead of writer.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite posts of the year—those that I either particularly enjoyed reading or writing. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll go back and give them a look.
1. Beer Batter Is Better; Science Says So. Without T. A. Frail’s important batter research in January, we all might have eaten inferior onion rings in 2011. Thank you, Tom.
2. Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag. Also back in January, Jesse detailed how the practice of wrapping up “bones for Bowser” evolved into bringing home leftovers never intended to touch canine lips.
3. Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners. Jesse’s look at pre-Emily Post do’s and don’ts includes one of my favorite lines of the year: On farting at the dinner table, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.”
4. Inviting Writing: When in Rome. Inviting Writing has always been one of my favorite parts of the blog—to both write and read. Of the ones I wrote, the one reminiscing about a perfect meal in Rome was particularly enjoyable.
5. Law and Order: Culinary Crimes Unit. That Jesse had the material to write not one but six posts on food-related crime is both astonishing and entertaining. Read them all: the original; Jell-O Gelatin Unit; Ice Cream Truck Unit; More Culinary Crimes; Even More Food Crimes; and New Culinary Crimes.
6. Science in the Public Interest: The Beer Koozie Test. I’ll admit, this one was fun to both research and write. But, like T. A. Frail’s onion ring research, I believe it performed an important reader service.
7. Inviting Writing: What to Eat When You’re Adopting. One of my favorite guest essays this year was by Amy Rogers Nazarov, who wrote a touching piece on learning about Korean food while waiting to meet her adopted son.
8. The Other Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Jesse tells us about the cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, famous as the longtime lover of Gertrude Stein and the title subject of one of the celebrated author’s best-known works.
9. The Gingerbread Man and Other Runaway Foods. Who knew there was a whole literary genre of runaway pancakes? Well, anyone who read Jesse’s enlightening post from earlier this month.
With that, I bid you adieu. Have a wonderful 2012, everyone.
Ed. note — Thank you, Lisa, for the 272 posts that carry your byline. You’ll be dearly missed and here’s to a very happy and joyful 2012!
December 23, 2011
Baking can be an intimidating prospect. It requires lots of precision, and it’s disappointing to spend a painstaking chunk of your day futzing with an arsenal of measuring cups, the front of your person plastered with flour, only to have your creation come out of the oven looking less than fabulous. In your 11th hour panicking, you could opt for a professionally made cake—but even those can reach your eager clutches as an aesthetic and architectural mess. You could be upset, cry, maybe sit silently and stare blankly off into space wondering what higher power could possibly allow this sort of thing to happen. Or you can laugh it off—and Cake Wrecks, a blog started by Jen Yates in 2008, provides some much-needed comic relief as it looks at human foibles by way of baked goods. I corresponded with Yates via email about the blog and her new holiday-themed book Wreck the Halls.
What prompted you to start Cake Wrecks?
All of my friends knew about my new cake decorating hobby, and one of them forwarded me an e-mail with the now famous “Best Wishes Suzanne/Under Neat That/We Will Miss You” cake in it. That was my lightbulb moment, and within just a few hours I’d started the blog. Of course, I never expected anyone to read it! It was just a fun little side project, meant only for me and my own amusement. The fact that other people found it and liked it was the shocking virtual cherry on top.
Are you personally making any decorated baked goods this holiday season?
Um, no. This time of year is way too crazy! I do bake, just not as often as I’d like because of the no-time thing. In fact, the hobby preceded the blog. My husband, John, signed us up for cake decorating classes at a local craft store back in 2008, and a few months later I started Cake Wrecks. As much as I love the wrecks—and believe me, I do!—I still have a passion for great cake art. That’s why we also feature amazing cakes every Sunday in our Sunday Sweets posts.
Why do you think there is such a prevalence of poorly decorated baked goods?
I think it’s just human nature. We’ve all been there: the post-lunch mental lull, the rushed order, the distraction that keeps us from noticing something glaringly obvious later on. Hey, I’ve done it, and odds are all my readers have, too. Like I say on the site: I’m not out to vilify bakers; I’m just trying to find a little funny in unexpected places.
Of course, some of the cakes I post are more of a concept-wreck, like belly cakes and edible babies, and those boil down to a matter of taste—pun intended. There really are ladies out there who think a slice of boob cake is “adorable.” Which is awesome. Because then we get to giggle about it.
Do you notice any trends among the wrecked holiday cakes?
Angry Santa faces. Like, plotting-to-murder-you-in-your-sleep angry. I don’t know why, but apparently a lot of bakeries are anti-smiley face.
Are there certain pieces of holiday imagery that wreckerators from all over seem to have trouble with?
The star of David, no question. If I had a nickel for every five-pointed Hanukkah star I’ve seen… well, I’d have at least 50 cents. In Wreck The Halls I include a Hanukkah cake with a five-pointed star that’s also upside down and inside a circle. Yes, they actually made a Hanukkah pentagram.
What is your favorite holiday cake wreck?
The first one that jumps to mind is Constipated Santa. He has this florescent pink face, and he’s bent double like he’s straaaaaiiining, and I can’t help but giggle every time I see it.
Then there’s this ridiculous lizard-with-a-human-head-wearing-a-Santa-hat cake. It looks as creepy as it sounds, believe me.
Of course the [book's] cover wreck is also a doozie: “Happy Hole Days.” We also have “Happy Holly Days,” “Marry Christmas,” and “Merrychrist Mas.” Good stuff.
And while it’s not holiday-oriented, the Star Trek/Star Wars mash-up ranks pretty high in my all-time favorites. As a die-hard geek, it makes me both cringe and laugh at the same time.
For someone who is entertaining during the holidays and ends up with a cake wreck, do you have any advice for them on how to fix it?
My advice? Don’t even try. The holidays are hectic enough without stressing over cake, so just let it go—or better yet, turn it into an inside joke. Who knows? You might end up with a new yearly tradition, like signing all your cards, “Mary Chistmas!” or making special homicidal snowmen for the front yard.
If you need a last-minute stocking stuffer—or simply want to enjoy more holiday wrecks—pick up Wreck the Halls. And for tragically comic cakes all year long, check out the Cake Wrecks blog.
January 5, 2011
2010 was a good year.
We started it off by gabbing about the weird things people put in coffee, the evolution of the sweet tooth, and the history of cereal boxes, among other topics. We explored five ways to eat many kinds of seasonal produce. We launched a new Monday feature called Inviting Writing, and you all have been responding with wonderful stories on themes like road trips, college food and eating at Grandma’s house.
Yes, it’s been a wonderful year. But personally, it’s not just 2010 that I’m wrapping up and waving goodbye to… I’m also leaving Smithsonian to work for another magazine. While that’s certainly exciting, it’s bittersweet, since it means parting ways with Food & Think, the blog I helped launch just over two years ago. We really hit our stride last year thanks to Lisa Bramen, the fantastic freelance co-blogger who joined me “temporarily” and is still going strong. You can look forward to reading more of Lisa’s work here, as well as posts from a few new and returning writers in months to come.
It has challenged to me to pay closer attention to serious issues of the day like food safety, childhood obesity and sustainable seafood, as well as track down answers to not-so-serious questions like “Does cheese pair better with beer or wine?” and “Why are chocolate Easter bunnies hollow?”
And it has inspired me to taste or cook many things for the first time: fresh sardines, jellyfish, lionfish, biltong (South African jerky), poutine, kohlrabi, sunchokes, purple long beans and more. Heck, I’d never even cracked into a crab or a whole lobster until I became a food blogger! I’m grateful for those opportunities, and to all of you for reading.
Happy New Year, everyone!
November 20, 2009
One year ago, on November 21, a blog was born here at Smithsonian.com. A FAT little blog, you might say.
But let’s leave the baby metaphor behind, shall we? Because it’s going to get kind of weird if we tell you to eat our baby. Think of FAT more as a friendly cafe, or maybe a street cart, serving up heaping helpings of food news, science and culture. (Hey, that’s catchy. We should use that as a tagline or something.)
We’ve prepared a special birthday menu of past posts to peruse. We hope you enjoy the feast, and as always, we welcome your feedback! (Not your food back. That could be gross.)
Bite-Sized Food History
Five Ways to Eat
Seafood and Poultry