March 26, 2012
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to explore a quintessential sound of summer climbing in your window, snatching up your sanity: the incessant chiming of ice cream trucks everywhere.
The tune you’re hearing—“Mister Softee (Jingle and Chimes)”—was written by Les Waas, who had been working for Grey Advertising, a small Philadelphia ad agency, in the late 1950s. He worked as a kind of one-man band of an adman. One day, his boss asked for a jingle for Kissling’s sauerkraut. Waas came up with one (“It’s fresh and clean, without a doubt. In transparent Pliofilm bags, it’s sold. Kissling’s Sauerkraut, hot or cold.”) The jingle played on kids’ TV shows and eventually got him in trouble, he says, when sauerkraut sales outpaced production and the company pulled its ad. Anyway, in 1960 (or thereabouts, he’s not so sure, it could have been as early as 1956), he wrote the lyrics for a regional ice cream company called Mister Softee:
Here comes Mister Softee
The soft ice cream man.
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream,
You get from Mister Softee.
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee…
S-O-F-T double E, Mister Softee.
The company gave him a 12-inch bell, which he took to New York to record an infectious three-minute earworm of an ad—with an original melody, recorded in one take. Some years later, again the date is unclear, company employees took the jingle’s melody and made a 30-second loop to put on their trucks. Waas says he received a telegram from Mister Softee saying it would have been only a tiny company with two or three trucks in South Jersey if it weren’t for the indelible sonic branding.
Now, for a quick refresher: Ice cream’s immense popularity in America dates to the 19th century, in the wake of the Civil War, when street vendors hawked a scoop of ice cream, or frozen milk, for a penny. Some wheeled carts; others employed goats. They sold their wares with catchy nonsense phrases: “I scream, Ice cream” and “Hokey pokey, sweet and cold; for a penny, new or old.” (Hokey pokey appears to have derived from a children’s jump-rope chant, including one derisively directed at kids who didn’t have a penny for ice cream.) As Hillel Schwartz writes in Making Noise, “Street vendors stretched their call into loud, long, and progressively unintelligible wails.” In the Babel of Manhattan, the cries were an “audible sign of availability.”
“If these cries were not enough to attract attention, many hokey pokey men also rang bells,” Anne Cooper Funderburg writes in Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream. Perhaps the ding! ding! in Waas’ proprietary jingle became a cultural icon because the bells conjured up the hokey pokey street vendors jingling about their ice creams.
What’s strangest about this story of the adman and his sprightly little jingle that endured: Waas claims that he has only heard it played on ice cream truck once. He was out at a Phillies baseball game with his son and went up to a truck. Waas again: “I said, ‘We both want a popsicle, but we’ll buy it only if you play the jingle.’ The guy says, ‘I can’t. I’m on private property.’ So we start to walk away and the guy stops us and says, ‘What the hell.’ And then he plays it. That was the only time I heard it and, of course, it was only the melody.”
This is the first in a series on sound and food. Stay tuned for more bells and whistling melodies.
March 22, 2012
Douglas Gayeton, the author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, has been exploring the principles of sustainability through photography, taking abstract concepts and turning them into annotated infographics—or “information art.” It’s part an ongoing series called The Lexicon of Sustainability.
The images convey invisible or purposely obfuscated ideas related to food, and the concepts are explained by the experts themselves, like Elaine Ingham (above) translating soil science and microbiology for the masses. Paul Stamens (in the photo below) explains the concept of myco-remediation. I talked with Gayeton about the project from his home in Petaluma, California.
How did you come up with the concept and what do you hope these images will convey?
Images often leave you asking more questions than providing answers. When I see a photo, what I want to know is not always explained. So, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could include an image and then include all the things that you’d want to know if you were looking at the image?” I began to make images and have people talk about them, essentially describing what’s happening. I really wanted to demystify the language of sustainability.
The process—information art—takes complicated ideas and makes them simple to understand. The Lexicon Project started with food and farming and now it’s looking at climate change and water. We’re starting to get into technical exploration of ideas. It’s almost a formula—in much the same the way in physics that you create a formula to describe an activity or an action in the physical world. That formulaic approach your see—used in physics or math—is the same type of construction that I use for the images. More than a construction actually, these images are a deconstruction of ideas, reducing them to their essence, then trying to find a way to graphically represent them. Somebody once wrote that one of the interesting thing about the work is that it works the way a mind works: If I were to simply give you a piece of paper with a lot of writing on it, you might skim over it; but if I were to take a bunch of ideas and place them on an image, then you are suddenly active in the idea. You’re active in the appreciation of the idea. That activity creates a narrative and makes it easier to retain information. You have more of a deeper connection…. It’s not a passive experience. The active experience of turning the reading of something into it’s almost a game-like quality, I think it allows people to connect more intimately with the ideas and images.
Douglas Gayeton is planning 500 pop-up shows this summer, and anyone can be apply to be curator here.
March 13, 2012
Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.
By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.
Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.
Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.
The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)
Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.
Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!
All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming system. Pac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.
The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.
February 22, 2012
Robert Rock Belliveau worked for years as a pathologist. He examined human tissues and tumors and he says he never tired of the job. “I would go to work and spend ten hours a day looking through a microscope. A couple of times a week, I would say to myself, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’ I just loved going to work and doing what I did.”
Belliveau continues to examine the world with his polarizing microscope. He’s turned his lens on paper, wildflowers and whatever he can get his hands on. Most often, he focuses on the incredible jungle found in fruits and vegetables. He has more than 2,000 images; two of which—cucumber and tomato trichomes—were recently featured in Science magazine. I talked with him from his home in Nevada.
How did you arrive at such a great enthusiasm for the microscopic world of food?
When I retired, I took a course in botany and I started looking at wildflowers. We had a couple years of drought—I’m out in Las Vegas—so I started looking for a more reliable source, which was going to the grocery store. I couldn’t believe the things I found on the things we eat every day. It’s like another planet. What intrigued me most is that these are things that we put in our mouth and chew up and swallow. We do it every day.
Do you go to the store specifically to shop for specimens?
Well, at first, I said, “As long as I’m shopping for groceries, let’s see what I can see.” Then, I started seeing these amazing things, so sometimes I would go to the grocery store just to find things to look at under the microscope. We have a Vietnamese and a Chinese market, so I began looking at exotic fruits and vegetables. Same thing there. I do it seven days a week. It’s not difficult for me to do. It’s a labor of love and I’m learning a lot about fruits and vegetables that I never knew about. I love talking about it. I talk to my wife about it. I talk to my friends about it. I’d stop people on the sidewalk to talk to them about it.
Tell me about your process. Once you’ve dissected a fruit or a vegetable, how do you go about searching for its compelling parts?
In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, “Let’s take a look just to see what’s there.” Every once in a while, I’d say, “Wow! I can’t believe it.” I began to learn that certain things—the pulp of an apple, the pulp of a pear, or the pulp of a peach—are, by and large, not that interesting. Occasionally, though, you’ll find something interesting, like the pulp of a kiwi. Last week, I was looking the skin of an avocado. I said, “Maybe it’s a waste of time to look at.” But it blew my socks off. After a while, you have a database of what you expect might see. Every once in a while, though, you just can’t believe what you see. It’s like Willie Sutton: You go where you think it’s going to be.
Are there particular hotspots?
The skin of a fruit or a vegetable. The endocarps. The seeds and the seed coat. Sometimes the mesocarp is bizarre. The leaves are sometimes astounding, particularly the under-surface of the leaf, which is a gold mine.
Has examining fruits and vegetables changed your eating habits? Is there anything that makes you not want to eat something now?
There are people in the Philippines, who eat certain fruits. The construction of their pulp has long fibers. If they eat too many of those, they get a bezoar, a coagulation of food, like a hairball in your stomach. They have to have surgery to remove them. There are two or three different fruits that do that same thing. If you want to eat those fruits, you should only eat one or two. We have cactus pads, like prickly pears, and those fruits have a lot calcium oxalate in the skin, which wear down your teeth; it destroys enamel when you chew on them. But the one thing I have sworn off is the skin of cucumbers. I lived in Japan for three years and they never eat the skin of a cucumber because of what they perceive as bitterness. What I can tell you, this has been a real education from me.
February 6, 2012
One of world’s largest and oldest living organisms also happens to be one of its least-respected. Nicholas P. Money’s most recent book, Mushroom, is something of a corrective and an enthusiastic outpouring for all things fungal—from a 2,400-acre colony of Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon to the supermarket’s white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) right on down to the stuff that makes dandruff (Malassezia). In a testament to his passion, Money criticizes an amateur collector who’s removed a giant bolete the size of her head. “Why do people view mushrooms as so different from other living things?” he says. “Imagine, a meeting of the local Audubon Society that ended with the janitor tossing a sack of songbird eggs in the Dumpster.” Or whaling for research purposes.
Amateur mycologists foster a rare scientific partnership with professionals (a claim that perhaps only astronomers can boast of). Amateurs pioneered the study of mycology and the often-inseparable practice of mycophagy. One of these amateur mycologists was Beatrix Potter. She made careful observations of fungi and lichens, and her watercolors illustrate the 1967 British book Wayside and Woodland Fungi. Potter studied spore germination and wrote a scientific paper, but after being repeatedly snubbed—both for radical botanical views and because she a woman—she turned her attention elsewhere. Money writes:
Potter was, nevertheless, a pioneering mycologist, one whose intelligence and inquisitiveness might have been channeled into a career in science had she possessed the Y chromosome required for most Victorian professions. Fortunately, her considerable artistic talents gave her other outlets for her ambition.
Would The Tale of Peter Rabbit have been conceived had it not been for the biases of Victorian era science? Maybe not. In the paper “Bamboozled by botany, Beatrix bypasses bigoted biology, begins babying bountiful bunnies. Or Beatrix Potter [1866-1943] as a mycologist: The period before Peter Rabbit and friends,” Rudolf Schmid suggests that “her exclusion from botany has been said to have a direct analogy to Peter Rabbit being chased out of Mr. McGregor’s garden, that is, the garden of botany.”
Curiously, though, fungi rarely appear in Potter’s tales, and then mostly as a decorative or whimsical addition. Field mushrooms sprout in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; Agaricus campestris is a species squirrels collect, and elsewhere Potter noted their “nasty smell” and “good flavour.” The species also laid the groundwork for cultivated mushrooms and Heinz ketchup. It’s certainly one of the more subtle depictions of food in a genre rift with delightful donkey picnics and a champagne toast between mice.
As many hundreds of times as I’ve heard the story of Flopsy, Mopsy and Peter Cottontail, I never read it as a tale of enthusiasm for the natural world. Yet, at a time when animals are apparently falling out of favor in picture books (at least among Caldecott-award winners), I thought these observations made by an amateur naturalist were a testament to looking, you might say, where no one else had—towards the lowly fungi.