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.
January 23, 2012
The necks of geoduck clams can grow up to two and a half feet long. Pick one up and it’s hard not to conjure up a tender part of the human anatomy. As Mark Kurlansky writes, the “long phallic neck squirts water and then sadly falls flaccid.” They’re also a staple of the Chinese New Year, served as xiàng bá bàng (“elephant trunk clam”). Since geoducks (pronounced goo’e duk and originally meaning “dig deep”) live for over 150 years, they can become really meaty—up to 14 pounds.
Just how big they get came into question in 1981, when J. D. Barnes published a review of the textbook Skeletal Growth of Aquatic Organisms in the journal Science. The book explains, among other things, how mollusk shells contain biochronologies of geophysical and paleoecological information, like the rings of a tree—albeit in an organism pulled by the tides and the moon. “They are now seen as virtual transcripts of what happened in their environment during their deposition,” Barnes wrote. “Of course, the transcripts are in code, and the deciphering of the codes has only just begun.”
Clamshells essentially act as kind of natural instrumentation for recording environmental conditions in their annual growth rings—from changes in lunar magnetism to the detonation of atomic bombs. First identified as climate proxies in 1992, the bands on a geoduck shell also provide a century-old record of fluctuations in the ocean’s surface temperature. Fascinating and important stuff, indeed.
What’s odd is that the 1981 book review included an intriguing photograph, found in the book and attributed to an unknown photographer, of a boy hunched over a wheelbarrow. The photo depicts a massive geoduck clam with its distinctive growth bands. The only problem: It’s a jackalope of the sea—except that rather than a mythical creature invented in 1934 by a skilled Wyoming taxidermist, the oversized geoduck is an unnatural exaggeration of an actual organism.
“The light on the clam comes from the right side and above, while that on the boy’s face and hand is clearly from the left,” biologist Stuart Landry wrote Science. “A clam the size shown would exceed the size limits for a sessile filter feeder.” Another reader reported that, indeed, he had seen the very photo in a gift shop, right alongside the postcard of a jackalope. (One collector identifies the photographer as Johnston #1768, and, indeed, there are other postcards involving gigantic clam wrestling.)
Perhaps the over-sized geoduck provides a lighthearted invention, exhibiting regional pride, like other tall-tale postcards depicting corn that fills an entire railcar or squash the size of trucks. The image may also hint at a more troubling issue—the indelible changes in the environment that are being inscribed onto clam shells. Certainly, something to chew on this year.
Want to learn how to cook geoduck? Check out the video below:
January 13, 2012
San Francisco-based photographer Caren Alpert has captured mouth-watering shots of food, stylish portraits of chefs and glimpses of chic restaurant interiors for clients such as Bon Appetit, Saveur Magazine and the Food Network. But, beginning in 2008, she branched out from her editorial and catalog work to experiment in fine art.
Alpert has taken magnified photographs of foods, from Brussels sprouts to Lifesavers, using a scanning electron microscope at her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Titled “Terra Cibus,” meaning “nurturing from the earth,” the series, recently exhibited at the James Beard Foundation in New York, provides viewers a new, and often bizarre, look at familiar foods.
I spoke with Alpert about the project:
Can you describe the process of preparing the samples and getting the shot?
I choose the foods out here in San Francisco. I sort of curate them if you will. I decide what I want to shoot. I overnight them to the lab in Arizona. They go through a dehydration process and then a metal coating process. Depending on what the food is, the length of dehydration can yield a better result and different metals used in the coating can yield a different result. That is the preparation process.
With a scanning electron microscope you are photographing the surface of a subject or a specimen—in my case, food. I am basically photographing the electrons bouncing off of the surface.
What have been the most interesting foods under the microscope?
Have you gotten a sense of which foods are photogenic under the microscope and which are not?
I am getting better. But I wouldn’t say I am dead on 100 percent of the time.
I read that you tried a tortilla chip and it was boring looking. Have there been other duds?
Interestingly, it has been difficult to photograph meats and proteins. Bacon, for example—I thought it would be more interesting than it was at first pass. I am trying to find the best way to photograph foods like that, that are higher in fats.
What sort of editing do you do?
The machine captures in black and white only. We do a post-processing treatment back at the studio where we infuse the color of the original foods as best we can.
After photographing a shrimp tail, you went to a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to inquire about its feathery texture. Do you often take your photographs to outside experts?
Certainly when I am stumped, yes. I am trying to involve more information about what we are looking at. The shrimp tail was quite surprising. Because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a local gem for us, it was nice to be able to call on them, and they were very receptive to helping out. They were also very surprised to see the image. That is the part of the tail where you hold it and bite it off and then you throw the tail back on your plate. It is right there at that sort of cartilagey intersection.
What have you learned about food from these photographs?
How an unprocessed food or an organic food intakes water or air, you see a lot of that. Processed foods are very sharp and spiky, whereas unprocessed or more organic foods sort of have a repetitive pattern.
Has working on this series changed your own eating habits in any way?
No. Probably the biggest shock—but it hasn’t been enough to change my eating habits—is the French’s fried onions, which you sprinkle over your string bean casserole. They are really irregular and very violent looking compared to some of the others. You would think after seeing it, it would be enough to make you not want to eat them. But they are sort of a guilty pleasure. I snack on those occasionally.
Is healthy eating part of the goal? What do you hope viewers take away from the photographs?
I hope the viewers think about their own choices everyday or how they influence others around them. I got an email a few months ago from a man who said he and his two kids were on my website trying to guess all the foods. Then they would go back to their kitchen cupboards or refrigerator drawers to see if they had any of those foods at home. I think if it can encourage dialogue like that it is really interesting and successful.
I sort of like to encourage the viewer to look at it more aesthetically. I think people are so floored. “Oh my gosh, that is my lunch sandwich or that is my chocolate cake or that is my morning blueberries.” People are just fascinated. They are taken with the beauty of some foods and not others, of course. I got another email from a young woman in Spain who said that she and her boyfriend were fighting about images as art. She thought the images were beautiful and artistic, and he thought, oh, anyone can do that. They were having an argument about what makes art. That’s awesome, you know? It is really encouraging people to think about the parameters they put around those definitions.
More images can be seen at www.carenalpertfineart.com. Prints are available for purchase directly through the photographer.
January 10, 2012
A while back I wrote a post about what the diners in Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party were eating during their alfresco midday meal—only to find out that, aside from some fruit and bottles of wine, we really don’t know what was on the menu. Nevertheless, the image struck one of our readers as being a fine inspiration for a full-fledged party—with themed décor, entertainment party favors and, yes, the food—and she commented on the original post asking if I had any ideas on how to go about planning such an event. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no expert on art or historic French gastronomy by any stretch of the imagination, but just the same I’m putting on my event planner hat to offer up the following ideas on how to throw a party inspired by an Impressionist painting.
Let’s start off with creating a little atmosphere. Looking at Luncheon of the Boating Party, this is a party meant to be thrown outdoors, be in on a deck, a lawn, park, whatever have you. But if all you have is a closed-in space to work with, throw open the windows and get as much natural sunlight into your space as you can. Impressionist painters were fascinated by light and how its qualities changed throughout the day, so hold the romance of candlelit noshing for another occasion.
The dining decor itself is pretty simple with a plain, white tablecloth covering the table, but it beautifully sets off the vibrant bowls of fruit and bottles of wine. When contemplating your spread, consider similarly colorful foods that will “pop” off the table. There are also brilliant red flowers in the scene, seen on the ladies’ straw hates. (Maybe they’re Gerber daisies? I’m not enough of a green thumb to know.) Other Renoir paintings, such as A Girl with a Watering Can and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) feature flowers in reds, pinks and whites. You might draw inspiration there for table displays. And add in some greenery—all that lush, verdant foliage makes the warmer colors stand out. The only other prominent piece of decoration is the red-and-white striped awning covering the dining area. If you could find similar colors and patterning in an umbrella or a tent, you’d have some beautiful shaded area should you be entertaining on a lawn. You could also bring in the motif via tablecloth, and dress some tables with the white linen and others with the more colorful material.
Furthermore, just as one would readily crib entertaining ideas presented in books and magazines, look to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum for ideas on how to throw an Impressionist-themed party. This event coincided with their exhibition Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism and featured outdoor games and music by composers of the era such as Ravel and Debussy.
I’d be remiss in not addressing the issue of favors to give to your guests. For this theme, I might spring for simple art supplies and encourage guests to get creative, maybe even get them to sketch scenes from the party in lieu of taking a photograph. You can find small sketchpads and pair them with a basic set of pencils or watercolor paints. (There is also a product on the market called watercolor pencils. It has been several years since I have done studio art so I’ve no idea how well they work; however, traditional watercolors can be very aggravating to work with and might discourage someone who is apprehensive about taking up a paintbrush. Offhand, the watercolor pencils look like they would give someone more control and work well as regular colored pencils.) Throw in a few post cards of Impressionist paintings to serve as a muse to your guests.
Another gift idea would be a book on Renoir himself. Taschen publishes art books with beautiful color reproductions and they have one that details the life and work of Renoir. The Philips Collection, which is home to Luncheon of the Boating Party, has a selection of products based on the painting that are available for purchase online. You could pair any of these things with small foodstuffs. I have seen chocolate bars with masterworks painstakingly recreated thereon; however, these treats can be cost-prohibitive, depending on one’s budget. On the other end of the economic and gastronomic spectrum, candy buttons are somewhat evocative of the painting style used by post-Impressionists like Georges Seurat, who used tiny dots of color to create an image. You would need to include a post card of a painting done in the pointillist style so that people can get the joke, and this would work best for a good-humored crowd with an appreciation for kitsch. You could even make a game out of seeing what images you and your guests can make out of the candy buttons—an edible riff on Pictionary.
And, oh yeah, what to do about the food? We already know that we don’t know what the diners ate for lunch, aside from some fruit—grapes and pears, perhaps peaches—and red wine. The Philips Collection, which is home to the painting, held their own Luncheon of the Boating Party-themed dinner last August, and their menu included Vichyssoise soup and escargot for appetizers, coq au vin and oven-roasted sea bass for main courses and French toast with pear and caramel sorbet. For more ideas, thumb through Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire (yes, it’s available in an English translation). A celebrity chef of his time, Escoffier is credited with modernizing how a kitchen is run and in 1903 he came out with his Le Guide Culinaire, a book that standardized French cuisine. With some 5,000 recipes therein, surely you can find something to suit your palate and skill level—and you’ll be making food that’s roughly of the same era as the painting. If all you want is a taste of France geared to a modern audience (and modern kitchen), refer to an old standby like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or an even more recent compendium like Essential Pépin.
I think all the basics are covered. And if you have any ideas to add—or have actually mounted a party to this effect—include your thoughts in the comments section below. And to Donna, thank you for the blog post idea and hope the above is helpful as you start planning your Mother’s Day luncheon.