August 1, 2012
In today’s global village, it should come as no surprise that Eastern and Western cultures are often wedded, and sometimes in weird and ingenious ways. Enter the Chork. While it may sound like an expletive, or a clever name given to the odd guttural noise produced when an over-zealous chortle leads you to choke, it is neither.
The Chork is an innovative new eating tool that combines chopsticks with a fork. It is the brainchild of Jordan Brown, who saw the need for the Chork at a sushi dinner when he found himself constantly reaching for a fork while eating with chopsticks, to grasp smaller grains of rice. Brown, a partner at the concept development and marketing company Brown Innovation Group Incorporated (B.I.G.) in Salt Lake City, then resolved to make the transition between the fork and chopsticks easier with the Chork.
With chopsticks on one end and a fork on the other, you’re bound to ask why you didn’t come up with this simple yet brilliant innovation yourself. Keeping in mind that most people need to use a fork because they haven’t quite mastered the art of using chopsticks, Brown has designed the Chork such that the adjoining sticks can be pinched together to grasp food without needing to be separated, functioning as trainers. For the initiated, the sticks come apart and click back into place just as easily.
When we wrote before about the origins of the fork and chopsticks, little did we imagine that these implements with such diverse and storied histories could be blended so harmoniously. The fork, the younger of the two, is said to have caused quite a stir when it was first introduced:
In 1004, the Greek niece of the Byzantine emperor used a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice, where she married the doge’s son. At the time most Europeans still ate with their fingers and knives, so the Greek bride’s newfangled implement was seen as sinfully decadent by local clergy.
Chopsticks, in contrast, had a more humble beginning:
The earliest versions were probably twigs used to retrieve food from cooking pots. When resources became scarce, around 400 BC, crafty chefs figured out how to conserve fuel by cutting food into small pieces so it would cook more quickly.
While it took two years in the making for the prototype of the Chork to undergo several revisions, the final product finally hit the shelves early last year. “People are really interested to see something new and unique, especially in a part of food service that hasn’t really had a lot changes. The utensils that you use to consume your meal have been the same for forever, so I think part of it is just the novelty of having a different tool with which to eat your food, really gets people excited,” says Nick Van Dyken, general manager of the Chork.
Receiving rave reviews from Gizmodo blogger Casey Chan who goes as far as to say that “the chork, instead of pandas, could be used to maintain US/China relations,” and Daily Mail writer Ted Thornhill who writes, “this new kid on the utensil block is certainly proving a hit with diners,” the Chork seems to have made an impression. But it is left to be seen how lasting that will be. For now, this versatile tool has made inroads to dethroning the simple fork. According to Van Dyken, the utensil is available at grocery stores on the East Coast, the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and Carnival Cruise Ships. Here in D.C., the PhoWheels food truck distributes them in lieu of more traditional utensils.
The Chork has inspired a spinoff from B.I.G., namely, the creation of a spoon version of it, tailored to accompany the many soup-based Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, which should be available early next year (the Choon, perhaps?).
Cutlery might have been slow to change thus far, but the tide is turning. Another newcomer that seeks to find room on your table is the Trongs. This claw-like device was created to help grip finger foods while avoiding the mess. No longer will finger-lickin’ good wings or ribs require just that.
July 19, 2012
Beating the lazy, mid-afternoon summer heat with a cold energy drink?
Energy drinks are a staple among active Americans, who substitute the canned, sugary beverages for coffee or tea and have launched brands like Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar to the top of a $7.7 billion industry. Not only do energy drinks pack a caffeine-punch, they are filled with energy-boosting supplements.
It’s a tough call whether the benefits associated with supplemental boosters outweigh all the unhealthy sugars that give energy drinks their sweet flavor. Red Bull contains 3.19 grams of sugar per fluid ounce, Monster contains 3.38 g/oz. and Rockstar has 3.75 g/oz. Marketed as health drinks, energy drinks are as high in sugar as classic Coca-Cola, which contains 3.25 g/oz. of sugar.
So what exactly are those “energy-boosting natural supplements” that supposedly set energy drinks apart from other sugary beverages — and how do they affect the bodies of those who consume energy drinks?
Taurine: Although it sounds as though it was dreamed up in a test-lab, taurine isn’t foreign to the human body. Its name stems from the fact it was first discovered and isolated from ox bile, but the naturally-occurring supplement is the second-most abundant amino acid in our brain tissue, and is also found in our bloodstream and the nervous system.
The taurine used in energy drinks is produced synthetically in commercial laboratories. Since excess taurine is excreted by the kidneys, it’s improbable that someone could overdose on the supplemental form. To be on the safe side, one expert recommends staying under 3,000 mg per day. Animal experiments have shown that taurine acts as an antioxidant and may have anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic properties. Some studies have even suggested that dosages of the amino acid may help to stave off age-related bodily degeneration.
And taurine’s anti-anxiety effects might be useful when consumed as part of an energy drink; the amount of accompanying stimulant found in popular beverages is capable of causing some seriously anxious jitters.
Guarana: The caffeine component of many energy drinks is guarana, which comes from a flowering plant native to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most people in South America get their caffeine intake from the guarana plant rather than coffee beans. Guarana seeds are about the same size as a coffee bean, but their caffeine potency can be up to three times as strong.
Both coffee and guarana have weight-loss inducing effects through the suppression of appetite, a common side-effect of caffeine. Although caffeine can improve mental alertness, it can also cause dizziness, nervousness, insomnia, increased heart rate and stomach irritation.
Ginseng: Some of the most interesting, if not debatable, effects come from supplemental Panax ginseng, which is included in 200mg doses in several energy drink brands. As a traditional herbal treatment associated with East Asian medicines, ginseng has many folkloric uses — although many of those uses are not proven scientifically. Rumored uses for ginseng have included improved psychologic functioning, boosted immune defenses and increased sexual performance and desire.
Myths aside, ginseng does offer some attractive benefits. Studies have indicated positive correlation between daily ginseng intake and improved immune system responses, suggesting ginseng has anti-bacterial qualities in addition to boosting a body’s “good” cells.
Ginseng has also been shown in animal and clinical studies to have anticancer properties, due to the presence of ginsenosides within the extract of the plant. Ginsenosides are a type of saponins, which act to protect the plant from microbes and fungal and have been described as being “tumor killers”. Scientists are still working to understand the effects of ginseng supplements for use in preventative and post-diagnosis cancer treatment.
Energy drinks may be overhyped as a source of supplemental substances. All of the supplements found in energy drinks can be bought individually as dietary supplements, which allows consumers to ingest the substances without the complementary sugar load found in energy drinks.
Please, though, if you’ve ever sprouted wings after chugging back an energy drink, we’d like to be the first to know.
June 13, 2012
The Dixie Cup, the Kleenex of paper cups, the ubiquitous, single-serving, individual drinking vessel, was never meant to be shared. The paper cups were not built to last. Drink. Toss. Repeat.
Their story starts with a Boston inventor named Lawrence Luellen, who crafted a two-piece cup made out of a blank of paper. He joined the American Water Supply Company, the brainchild of a Kansas-born Harvard dropout named Hugh Moore. The two began dispensing individual servings of water for a penny—one cent for a five-ounce cup from a tall, clumsy porcelain water cooler.
Soon they were the Individual Drinking Cup Company of New York and had renamed their sole product the Health Kup, a life-saving drinking technology that could help prevent the transmission of communicable disease and aid the campaign to do away with free water offered at communal cups, “tin dippers,” found in public buildings and railway stations. Make no mistake, because of this scourge, one biologist reported in a 1908 article, there was “Death in School Drinking Cups.”
Yet it wasn’t health that ultimately paved the way for the disposable paper cup’s ubiquity and commercial immortality. One day, Moore stopped in at the Dixie Doll Company and asked the dollmaker if he could borrow their name for his cup, because, apparently, the vessels were now as reliable as old ten-dollar bills (dixies, from the French dix) issued by Louisiana prior to the Civil War, according to Anne Cooper Funderburg’s account in Sundae Best. The cup’s reputation was further cemented when soda fountains introduced an automatic machine to that could fill a cup with two flavors of ice cream at the same time, ushering in paper-wrapped wooden scoops and disposable cups known as Ice Cream Dixies.
Dixie cups offer something at once refreshing and profoundly sobering, a pioneering product that ushered in the wave of single-use items—razors, aerosolized cans, pens, bottles of water and the paper cups you can find at doctor’s offices, backyard barbecues and, of course, the office water cooler.
June 1, 2012
Have you heard the one about putting the banana in the paper bag with the unripe avocado? Leave the bag on the counter for a couple of days and the avocado ripens up. Those are fruits communicating. They’re smelling each other.
Fruits that ripen after being picked, called climacteric fruits,* become softer and sweeter thanks to a plant hormone called ethylene. The gas, produced by the fruits themselves and microorganisms on their skin, causes the release of pectinase, hydrolase and amylase. These enzymes ripen fruits and make them more appealing to eat. A plant can detect the volatile gas and convert its signal into a physiological response. Danny Chamovitz writes in What a Plant Knows that a receptor for ethylene has been identified in plants, and it closely resembles receptors in the neural pathway we have for olfaction or smell.
The gas was discovered in 1901 by a 17-year-old Russian scientist named Dimitry Neljubow of the Botanical Institute of St. Petersburg. I like to imagine Neljubow at his window, gazing at trees twisted and abnormally thickened by their proximity to street lights—why did lights do that?
Neljubow appears to have come to his revelation about ethylene through the careful study of germinating pea plants inside his lab. He planted peas in a pair of pitch-black boxes. Into one, he pumped air from the outside; the other he fed air from his laboratory. Those peas fed the laboratory air grew sideways and swelled up. He then isolated ethylene found in the “illuminating gases” burned by lamps in his lab and on the streets at night
In the 1930s, Florida orange growers noticed something similar. When they kept fruits warm with kerosene heaters, the heat itself did not ripen up the oranges, and yet the fruits ripened (and sometimes rotted). The fruits smelled the ethylene in kerosene, much like you or I would get a whiff wafting over from a neighborhood barbecue. And that’s something we know because of a chance discovery hastened by some leaky pipes in Neljubow’s lab.
Photo of peas grown in increasing concentrations of ethylene by J.D. Goeschle/Discoveries in Plant Biology, 1998. Thanks to Robert Krulwich for inspiration on this one.
* Climacteric fruits include apples, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, peaches and tomatoes. Others, such as cherries, grapes, oranges and strawberries, do not ripen after being picked.
May 30, 2012
The average American eats 195 pounds of meat a year. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s laden with meaning—in terms of human evolution, social habits and modern marketing. Men, on average, consume more meat than women. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the man responsible for the best-selling phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” recently published a study establishing a metaphoric link between masculinity and meat.
He and his colleagues tested subjects on a variety of word-association and other tasks and placed different foods along a spectrum of male-linked to female-linked. On the male end of the spectrum were raw beef, steak, hamburger, veal, rabbit, broiled chicken, eggs (hard-boiled followed by scrambled). Milk, fish, sushi, chocolate, chicken salad and peaches were more toward the feminine side. This division loosely lines up with articles in 23 foreign languages using gendered nouns—as in le boeuf (male) or la salade (female)—but curiously phallic-shaped meats like sausages and frankfurters appeared no more linguistically “masculine” than did, say, ground beef or steak.
The study reports some counterintuitive findings. For example, cooking and food processing tend to be associated with femaleness, except when it comes to medium-rare or well-done steaks, which outrank raw beef or blood in terms of manliness. And if you thought placenta and eggs fell under the feminine category, you’d probably be the exception (although, admittedly, the study did not consider the male approximation, such as testicles or milt). Even more perplexing, the undergraduate men surveyed listed orange juice right up there with medium-rare steak and hamburger.
Really, though, what do these food metaphors have to with anything? Well, according to the Rozin and his co-authors, “If marketers or health advocates want to counteract such powerful associations, they need to address the metaphors that shape consumer attitudes.” This lends a certain credence to the practice of slapping artificial grill marks on a sausage-shaped soy patty, an otherwise potentially emasculating cut of protein—and it offers a compelling a lesson for those attempting to make fake or in-vitro “meats” here to stay. Make them manly, boys.
Photo: “Chorizo (Basque Sausage) and Fried Eggs” by Carl Fleishlauer/Library of Congress