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.
March 8, 2012
Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, first preserved food without refrigeration in 1810, and an English immigrant named William Underwood first brought the technology to America. He set up a condiment business on Boston’s Russia Wharf. Despite Underwood’s legacy as a purveyor of deviled ham (and a pioneer of the term “deviled,” which he reportedly trademarked in 1870, the inaugural year of the U.S. Patent Office), he initially put up seafood. In Pickled, Potted, and Canned, Sue Shephard writes, “He first bottled and later canned lobster and salmon, which he exported using the label ‘Made in England,’ presumably to make the consumer feel it was a well-tried safe product from the old country and not something suspect from the ‘new.’”
By the late 19th century, Underwood had a problem—a rather disgusting problem that manifested itself as “swelling” cans of clams and lobster. These cans could be distinguished by their sound. In an 1896 paper, Underwood writes, “[U]nsound cans which have not yet swelled give a characteristic dull tone when struck.” At their worst, the dull cans spoiled without swelling. “Such cases are sometimes found in canned clams, and more frequently in lobster, in the latter case being known to the trade as ‘black lobster.’”
With the help of MIT food scientist Samuel Prescott, Underwood spent months in the lab in 1895 examining the source of spoilage. The two found a type of bacteria that formed heat-resistant spores that caused bacterial blooms; these spores could be killed by canning at 250°F for 10 minutes—a process that would transform the science and technology of canning, ushering in a world full of safe canned vegetables or meat. The canning innovation also left another lasting impression: Foods are safe only when sterilized.
The rise of the “tin can civilization,” Shephard writes, “relegated most traditional food preservation to quaint practices of undeveloped regions.” In this light, it’s worth remembering what canning does not preserve: The microbial biodiversity that once gave rise to the domesticated species we now use to leaven breads and brew beers. That, too, is worth preserving.
March 1, 2012
If you’re like me, the last post on the convoluted origins of our favorite fermented condiment—ketchup—probably left you wondering: What is the difference between Roman garum than modern Thai fish sauce?
What little I know comes from an experiment performed by Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicus, recounted in the book Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods. Grainger is a British chef and an experimental archeologist. She looked at studies on fish sauce amphorae (ceramic vessels) from archeological sites in Spain and North Africa. One of her more fascinating sources comes from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of Grado, Italy. The ship was full of fish—maybe even live ones. Italian researchers found that the vessel contained what amounts to a giant fish tank—a hydraulic system capable of transporting 440 pounds of live parrotfish (Scarus ssp.) from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The wreck also contains 600 amphorae, some with well-preserved fish sauce inside.
Using these studies and a recipe from Geoponica, a 10th century collection of agricultural lore, as a guide, Grainger added salted sardines (Pilchardus sardines) and sprats (Sprattus sprattus) to barrels, put the barrels in a greenhouse, and covered the tops with cardboard. Then she waited two months. What’s surprising, Grainger found, was that the recreated ancient fish sauce appeared to be a lot less salty than its modern Southeast Asian counterparts, with just as much protein. Salt slows down the enzymatic process, so industrial-scale fish sauces today—what you might otherwise think of cheaply made “fast” food—actually take longer to make than the ancient brews. In other words, this old, “slow food” fermented faster.
On one final note, for those of you interested in doing some fishy home-brewing, Ken Albaba, author of the forthcoming Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, told me he made a batch last year. Albaba said it was fun and, moreover, “Not stinky in the least. Almost pure umami in fact.”