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.”
February 28, 2012
Lars Williams, an American chef, works aboard a boat in Copenhagen’s harbor that is home to the Nordic Food Lab and the testing ground for one of the world’s most celebrated kitchens. He and his colleagues have embarked on an intriguing quest to discover new flavors using traditional techniques and Scandinavian products. To that end, he’s been fermenting herring and mackerel. “We tried something very simple—salt, fish, and left it in a warm place—and we got a clean, salty fish taste,” he says. “We’re trying to see if there’s a way to get more of that umami richness and less fishiness.”
Before you lose your lunch, consider the following: Fermented fish sauce is hardly a new idea, and it’s even been transformed into a familiar condiment you’ve probably slathered on burgers and fries.
Fish sauce probably started by accident: A fish caught in a rock pool essentially started to digest itself. Humans  eventually learned to harness the dual action of saline fermentation and enzymatic autolysis . Modern scholars have not been able to definitively identify the Greek garos (γάρον), the small fish that probably gave rise to garum, a fermented fish sauce that proliferated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. “Exactly how old garum is can’t be answered,” Robert I. Curtis, an expert in ancient food technology, told me, “but it certainly dates to at least the 7th century B.C.” Romans cooks used garum as an ordinary  and affordable condiment, much the way we sometimes use ketchup—to mask the flavors of otherwise off-putting foods.
The tomato sauce we now call ketchup arrived, circuitously, by way of Indonesia, where kecaps—fermented fish and soy sauces—greeted English sailors in the seventeenth century. Nuoc mam, burong-isda, and other fermented fish sauces remain staple condiments across Southeast Asia, whereas Western fish sauce evolved into a tomato-based fermented corn product thanks, at least in part, to the accidental 1957 discovery of an enzyme that could turn corn into high fructose corn syrup.
Fish sauce makes use of naturally occurring substances in fish’s intestines or entrails; the gut of an Atlantic herring, for example, contains chymotrypsin (an enzymes that has been used as a food additive for, among other things, milk in France). Combined with bacteria (Leuconostoc mesenteroides and Lactobaccilus plantarum), the fermented fish transforms into various amino acids, including glutamic acid—the basis for the rich, mouth-coating umami flavor and the much-maligned MSG. Williams says he also adds Aspergillus orzyae starter culture, a mold intrinsic to Japanese cuisine—much like you’d add yeast to bread—to speed the aging process.
Microorganisms give rise to an incredible range of flavors and aromas. If different species mean different tastes, could the geographic range of microorganisms reflect a unique time and place—the Copenhagen harbor, the belly of a herring, or, more broadly, the Atlantic Ocean? Could fermented fish yield up a microbial species tied to place like the yeasts in San Francisco’s sourdough (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) or the lambic beers brewed in the Seine River valley (Brettanomyces bruxellensis)?
Rachel Dutton is a microbiologist at Harvard who has been studying microbial interactions. She’s using fermented dairy as a model organism—cheese as a lab rat, essentially. (I talked with her for a forthcoming story in Wired magazine.) “Most of the microbiological research that’s been done in the last 100 years has been focused on disease, for good reason,” she said. “But there’s a lot of diversity within groups of microbes. For example, Staph are found in cheeses and dried cured salamis and they’re not pathogens. The vast majority of microbes do not cause harm to humans, but the one percent that do have that potential. It’s a problem. Talking about the science that’s happening in these foods, how do you make it so people aren’t afraid of the science?”
Another group of chefs, led by Daniel Felder in New York City, suggest that fungal and bacterial cultures could be a way to rekindle our relation with nature. “In large urban environment like New York, alienated from the natural world, it is easy to become disconnected from the concepts of utilization and stewardship for our natural environment.” Perhaps the renewed enthusiasm for fermentation could be a way in—a kind of re-wilding by way of fish sauce, aged cow’s milk cheese, or even a historically accurate, ancient English ketchup. Fermentation could counter our exaggerated perception of microbial risk that’s led to the antiseptic status quo, where Purell®, hypoallergenic cats and antimicrobial everything proliferate.
Still, there’s one other ingredient to consider: disgust. “The fermentation process is one of the most interesting culinary processes,” Williams told me. “The microorganisms are far beyond what you can do with a Maillard reaction, but people say, ‘Fermentation is weird; this is gross or something you might find in the back of the fridge.’ Well, cheese and wine and beer and bread, those are all fermented products.”
Since we cannot readily or easily detect dangerous microorganisms, we may have evolved the predisposition to steer clear of rancid meats with a sense of disgust. As societies became more complex, disgust served as a social function, which may help explain why, on the one hand, fermented milk may sound delicious, while on the other, fish sauce may not.
As scientists continue to unravel the complexity and magic—how certain gut bacteria lead people to prefer or avoid certain foods—we’re still a ways off from revealing the secrets of how fish sauce, or modern condiments, have come to define us. “Where do these organisms in our gut come from, how they take up residence there, or how food-borne organisms impact what’s already there?” Dutton says. “How do they change us? We don’t really know yet.”
 Scholars diverge on the question of whether great apes ate fish—or, for that matter, fermented fish. Stephen Cunnane argues that the available amino acids in clams, frogs, and fish drove hominin encephalization. Katharine Milton doesn’t buy it. “If it’s just more of early humans lived by the sea and turned to marine resources sort of stuff and lo and behold their brain got bigger—you can stuff that one in a weighted sack and drop it in the deep blue sea. Brains run on glucose folks!”
 Ancient people were able to harness these process, to add chemicals and enzymes, despite the lack of knowledge about microorganisms—which would not emerge until Antony van Leeuwenhoek peered into his homemade microscope in 1665 and laid eyes upon living animalcules.
 In a testament to its everyday use, modern archeologists have even used garum to estimate the date upon which Vesuvius erupted based on the seasonal appearance of a sea bream that Linnaeus later classified as Boops boops.
February 1, 2012
A quiet whisper contains less than a nanowatt of power. A human shout is a little more than a microwatt, and when you get 68,000 screaming fans inside Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium—one of the NFL’s louder indoor stadiums—the Super Bowl represents a big game and an incredible source of sound. And all those shouts add up to real power.
In Sound and Sources of Sound, Anne P. Dowling writes: “The total energy radiated by the combined shouts of the Wembley cup final crowd during an exciting game being about that required to fry one egg!” Really? Well, American football fans probably outdo British soccer fans; anecdotal reports suggest that indoor stadiums can reach up to 117 decibels. Still, the question remains: Does the Super Bowl create enough power to fry up a dozen eggs?
I called Mark Sheplak at the University of Florida. He’s a mechanical engineer who has modeled how much power could be harvested from the acoustic liner of an airplane engine. (He’s found that the take-off of many commercial flights can generate the same amount of noise as roughly equal all the human shouts in the world, and this intense concentration of waste noise can be enough to power on-board acoustic monitoring systems.) “I don’t know if there would be enough sound in a stadium to get anything,” he says. “It would have to be really, really loud.”
Before we go much further, it’s also worth pointing out that an egg is a heterogeneous substance. “The various kinds of proteins do not all coagulate at the same temperature,” Herve This writes in Kitchen Mysteries. “One forms at 61°C another at 70°C, and so on….” The combination of cook time and temperature ultimately yields different textures and viscosities (which César Vega writes about extensively in the new book The Kitchen as Laboratory). For the sake of simplicity, let’s forget about any energy lost in cooking—heating a pan or allowing flames to escape around a pan—and take a wild guess at the power required to heat the yolk of a chicken egg to 85°C at sea level. (Engineers and food scientists, please feel free to weigh in). Let’s call it 30 watts to fry an egg: Five minutes of intense screaming.
The bigger problem here is that all these screaming fans are spread out over 1.8 million square feet and, to cook an egg, you would need to concentrate and harvest those sounds and convert them to heat. “You’re usually not terribly efficient,” Sheplak told me, “usually less than one percent efficiency of harvesting that energy. You need to be in a situation where it’s really loud. You can’t have a perpetual motion machine.”
So what might sound like a deafening cacophony during Sunday’s game might actually amount to only a single fried egg, if that. Perhaps thinking about how sports fans might actually cook an egg with their vocal cords demonstrates something else entirely: the pervasive use of the “fried egg” as a scientific analogy.
January 30, 2012
The curvy chips crinkle and crunch. Top the salty, golden corn chips with chili and you’ve got yourself a Frito pie, sometimes portioned out right inside the silvery, single-serving bag. The Frito pie is also known as a “walking taco,” “pepperbellies,” “Petro’s,” “jailhouse tacos,” or officially—under Frito-Lay North America, Inc.’s trademarked “packaged meal combination consisting primarily of chili or snack food dips containing meat or cheese corn-based snack foods, namely, corn chips”—the Fritos Chili Pie®. Call it what you will. It’s a soupy, creamy street food that’s recently entered the realm of haute cuisine.
Fritos got their start in Texas with the “Tom Edison of snack food.” The legend goes something like this, as Betty Fussell writes in The Story of Corn: “In San Antonio in 1932, a man named [Charles] Elmer Doolin bought a five-cent package of corn chips at a small café, liked what he ate and tracked down the Mexican who made them.” In another version of the story, Clementine Paddleford writes:
The flavor tickled his fancy, it lingered in memory. He found the maker was a San Antonian of Mexican extraction who claimed to be the originator of the thin ribbons of corn. The Mexican, he learned, was tired of frying the chips; he wanted to go home to Mexico and would be glad to sell out.
The café was more likely an icehouse, and the man who made the corn chip was named Gustavo Olquin, according to C.E. Doolin’s daughter Kaleta, who wrote a 2011 book Fritos Pie: Stories, Recipes, and More. She says her father worked briefly as a fry cook for Olquin and paid Olquin and his unnamed business partner $100 for a customized, hand-operated potato ricer, their 19 business accounts and the recipe for fritos—the patentable Anglo re-branding of Mexican fritas, or “little fried things.” Doolin borrowed $20 from the business partner; the rest came from his mother, Daisy Dean Doolin, who hocked her wedding ring for $80.
C. E. Doolin tinkered around with the recipe, mechanized the chipping process, and, in 1933, patented a “Dough Dispensing and Cutting Device” and trademarked the Fritos name. He worked on breeding custom varieties of hybrid corn. Doolin invented a “Bag Rack” and adopted the now-familiar practice of deliberately misspelling products to draw attention—“Krisp Tender Golden Bits of Corn Goodness.”
Whether fritas become fritos as an accidental Anglofication or as a deliberate “sensational spelling”—in the vein of Dunkin’ Donuts, Froot Loops, Rice Krispies—remains something of an open question. Prior to Doolin’s trademark, though, fritos does not appear to have referred to fried corn chips in Mexican Spanish. Either way, snack foods with distinctive, masculine “Os” persevered: Doolin would go on to create Cheetos and Fritatos; the company he founded would introduce Doritos and Tostitos.
What’s remarkable in retrospect is that he appears to have intended Fritos as a side dish or even an ingredient. In fact, the first recipe Daisy Dean Doolin came up with in 1932 was a “Fritos Fruit Cake”; its ingredients include candied fruits, pecans and crushed Fritos. Another early recipe for a company contest submitted by the woman who would later became C.E. Doolin’s wife, Mary Kathryn Coleman, described a “Fritoque Pie,” a chicken casserole with crushed Fritos. Her prize: $1. (This recipe has been lost and the lack of documentation probably contributes to competing claims about Frito pie’s origins at a New Mexico Woolworth’s in the 1960s.)
Pies aside, the fried corn chips became a pantry staple and an easy-to-use replacement for cornmeal, salt, and oil. Their versatility was practically unlimited. Advertisements from the 1940s said, “They’re good for breakfast, lunch, snack-time and dinner.”
Even more surprising for a man who revolutionized American corn chips and presaged the meteoric rise of the “Anglo corn chip,” which firmly cemented itself when Frito-Lay’s unveiled Doritos in 1966: Doolin did not eat meat or salt. He was a devoted follower of Herbert Shelton, a Texas healer, who ran for president on the American Vegetarian Party ticket.
I thought this transformation of Fritos loosely mirrored that of the Graham cracker, a whole-wheat health food that evolved into a sugary snack. I called his daughter, Kaleta Doolin, and asked about the apparent disconnect. “Fritos have always been a salty snack,” she said, “unless you’re at the factory and take them off the assembly line before they go through the salter, which is what we did.”
As much scorn and derision as today’s leading nutritional gurus heap onto processed foods, it’s worth noting that Fritos arrived here by way of a Mesoamerican staple and their invention and flavor owes a debt to one of the greatest food processing technologies ever invented: nixtamalization. The 3,000-year-old tradition adding calcium hydroxide—wood ash or lime—so greatly enriches the available amino acids in masa corn that Sophie Coe writes in America’s First Cuisines that the process underlies “the rise of Mesoamerican civilization.” Lacking this technology, early Europeans and Americans (who considered corn fit for slaves and swine) learned that eating a diet exclusively based on unprocessed corn led to pellagra, a debilitating niacin deficiency causing dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death.
As we approach one of the biggest snack days of the year and as “Anglo corn chips” continue to make up an increasing percentage of the snack foods market, perhaps it’s also worth celebration the incredible corn processing technology that brought us masa, tortillas fritas, Late Night All Nighter Cheeseburger-flavored Doritos and, of course, the Frito pie.