April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
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.
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.
May 23, 2012
On October 16, 1968, researchers on board the Lulu, a naval catamaran, lowered the deep-sea submersible Alvin and its three crew members into the Atlantic some 135 miles off the coast of Woods Hole, Massachusetts for what amounted to an underwater whale watch. Then two steel support cables snapped and water poured in through an open hatch. The crew escaped relatively unscathed (Ed Bland, the pilot, sprained his ankle), and the Alvin plunged 4,900 feet down, where it stayed for days and then, on account of rough seas, months.
When the submersible was finally floated again the following year, scientists discovered something unexpected: the crew’s lunch—stainless steel Thermoses with imploded plastic tops, meat-flavored bouillon, apples, bologna sandwiches wrapped in wax paper—were exceptionally well-preserved. Except for discoloration of the bologna and the apples’ pickled appearances, the stuff looked almost as fresh as the day the Alvin accidentally went all the way under. (The authors apparently did a taste test; they said the meat broth was “perfectly palatable.”)
The authors report that after 10 months of deep-sea conditions, the food “exhibited a degree of preservation that, in the case of fruit, equaled that of careful storage and, in the case of starch and proteinaceous materials, appeared to surpass by far that of normal refrigeration.” Was the ocean bottom a kind of desert—a place barren of the vast microbial fauna found flourishing on earth? (Here the authors make an appeal for landfills and caution against dumping garbage into the ocean, where decomposition appeared to have slowed to a near stop.) Or was something else slowing microbial growth?
Four decades later, food scientists are floating the latter idea. Because water exerts a downward pressure—at 5,000 feet down, it’s about 2,200 pounds per square inch, more than enough to rupture your eardrums—the depth of the Alvin’s temporary resting place probably acted as a preservative for the bologna sandwiches. At sea level, this kind of ultra high-pressure processing is used for a variety of foods, including oysters, lobsters, guacamole and fruit juices. In a study published earlier this year, a team of Spanish food scientists juiced strawberries and stored the liquid inside various pressurized chambers. Even at room temperature, they found that high-pressure (hyperbaric) storage slowed the growth of microbes that would otherwise spoil the juice. They suggest that the technology might even prove to be more effective than freezing or refrigerating. And they say the promise of this novel food-processing technology was first demonstrated by the accidental sinking of sandwiches on board the submersible.
Photograph: “Food materials recovered from Alvin after exposure to seawater at a depth of 1540 m for 10 months”/Science, 1971.
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.