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.
April 13, 2012
Alarmed by the sinking of the Titanic, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian radio pioneer, began exploring in earnest how a high-frequency oscillator could be used detect icebergs in conditions of low visibility. In 1906, Fessenden had made the first wireless broadcast ever, to United Fruit’s banana boats. By 1914, he had patented an electromechanical oscillator and deployed one, essentially an underwater loudspeaker, in the frigid North Atlantic. In “Sounding Pole to Sea Beam,” Albert E. Theberge writes:
While conducting this experiment, Fessenden, who was quite seasick, and his co-workers, Robert F. Blake and William Gunn, serendipitously noted an echo that returned about two seconds after the outgoing pulse. This turned out to be a return from the bottom. “Thus, on just one cruise…. Fessenden demonstrated that both horizontal and vertical echoes could be generated within the sea.”
The breakthrough in echo-location technology proved useful on passenger ships. During World War I and World War II, fathometers and sonar helped detect submarines. Oceanographers used the technology to map to ocean floor.
The accelerated application of underwater acoustics—enlivened by the Titanic disaster—also birthed another profound change in the ocean: the ability to easily locate fish. “As the 1950s Gorton’s advertisement put it,” Mark Kurlansky writes in Cod, “‘Thanks to these methods, fishing is no longer the hit-or-miss proposition.’” And fish stocks have never been the same.
Image: “The United States Revenue Cutter MIAMI close to an iceberg similar to that which destroyed the TITANIC,” from Scientific American, 1915/NOAA.
April 5, 2012
Charles Spence is multisensory researcher in London, who has been messing around with how sounds modify flavor. “We’ve shown that if you take something with competing flavors, something like bacon-and-egg ice cream, we were able to change people’s perception of the dominant flavor—is it bacon, or egg?—simply by playing sizzling bacon sounds or farmyard chicken noises.”
This might sound crazy, but the otherworldly ice cream makes one thing clear: The sound of food matters. So does the sound of the packaging and the atmospheric sounds we hear when we’re eating. We’re all synesthesiates when we sit down to dinner.
In another experiment, Anne-Sylvie Crisinel, a graduate student who works in the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, had volunteers match wines, milk and other foods with particular musical notes. A sweet-tasting dessert or something like lemon juice tended to be matched with a higher-pitched notes, whereas something savory or something with umami tended to be matched with brassy, low-pitched sound.
In one short communication, published this month in the journal Food Quality and Science, the researchers had 20 people sit in a darkened sound booth, wearing headphones. A soundtrack began playing at exactly 70 decibels.
Now, imagine you’re there. Imagine you put a small piece of a spongy toffee in your mouth. And listen to this soundtrack. (Headphones recommended!)
Now, take another piece of toffee but listen to this soundtrack when you eat it.
If you’re like the participants in the study, the second soundtrack—the one with higher pitches—made the toffee taste sweeter than the first “bitter” soundtrack. But the treats were exactly the same. It was the sound that tasted different.
Do we prime ourselves for sweetness when we hear the ice cream man’s familiar high tinkling jingles because of the legacy of soda fountains and the cross-sensory marketing genius (perhaps inadvertent) on the part of a crier who first wielded a set of bells? Or is it because of a deeper symbolism associated with the pitch of our voices? Either way, the association helps explain why ice cream trucks still stick to their sprightly high-pitched tunes. These atmospheric sounds really do play a role, creating an expectation that appears to sweeten the treats themselves.
Audio courtesy of Scott King and Russ Jones of Condiment Junkie.
March 21, 2012
A bone china service is a trophy for the sideboard, symbolizing the best of the best for formal entertaining in all its pinky-raising glory. The fine porcelain, with ground animal bones in the material, is prized for its strength as well as its delicacy. But there was a point in our species’ history when niceties were more or less dispensed with and human bones were deemed fit for use as serving ware. The practice is well documented in ethnographic studies and historical accounts; the Scythians, Vikings and ancient Chinese were among the cultures that practiced using skulls for bowls or drinking vessels. Archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is rare. In a new study, archaeologists and paleontologists examined remains dating some 16,600 years ago—during the upper Paleolithic era—and think they may have found the earliest examples of human skull cups.
The remains evaluated in the study hail from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England and represent at least five humans, including three adults and a child. The clustered cutting marks indicate that these craniums were expertly processed post-mortem. Shortly after death and once rigor mortis had set in, the heads were detached from the body. The head was then scalped, likely with flint tools; facial tissues and bones were removed and jagged edges were chipped and flaked until smooth. But the tipoff that these remains were used for containers is the completeness of the cranial vaults—the rounded part of your skull that protects your brain. Compared to the other, drastic modifications made to the skull, great care was taken to make sure that the vault remained intact. The case for presenting these pieces as skull cups is further bolstered by their similarities to confirmed examples.
Of course, one must remember Emily Post’s dictate regarding fine dining: “What must match is the quality of everything on the table. It would be incorrect, for example, to use heavy pottery salad plates with fine china dinner plates.” In short, a modified human cranium placed alongside your inherited set of Franciscan Desert Rose would smack of poor taste.