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.
October 21, 2011
The first single-use food service item was the paper plate, invented in 1904. Paper cups followed soon after. Over the next century, disposable cups, utensils and plates were developed in increasingly durable—and environmentally unfriendly—materials. The low point, as far as the planet’s health is concerned, was probably the original Styrofoam cup. It was durable, lightweight and kept people from burning their hands while holding a hot cup of coffee, but it was also made using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which break down ozone in the atmosphere. CFCs were phased out in the late 1980s, but that didn’t eliminate the problem of polystyrene, like other plastics, hanging around landfills for centuries after being used just once.
According to Time magazine, Americans throw away an estimated trillion disposable plates and utensils per year. The best option, of course, would be if everyone stopped using disposable products altogether. That’s probably never going to happen—it’s just too convenient to be able to grab a cup of coffee on your way to work. But some ingenious new products have come out in recent years that might be able to reduce the damage, including disposable cups and utensils made from a material derived from corn. They look just like plastic, but can be composted by a commercial composter so they don’t end up in landfills. Even more interesting—not to mention seasonally appropriate—is a line of plates made from fallen leaves, which can be naturally home-composted after use.
In the natural order of things, leaves fall from trees and eventually disintegrate, their nutrients enriching the soil to help the next generation of leaves and other plants grow. If those leaves happen to be in someone’s yard or a public place, they are usually picked up. Gardeners and other environmentally conscious people will add the leaves to a compost pile to become a natural fertilizer. But more often than not, the fallen leaves are incinerated or taken to the dump, where they will still disintegrate over time, but the plastic bags that were used to collect them will stick around for a good, long while.
VerTerra, a company founded in 2007, just adds another step to the leaves’ natural life cycle: dinner. The idea for plates made from fallen leaves came to VerTerra founder and CEO, Michael Dwork, when he was traveling in rural India. He saw a woman soaking palm leaves and then pressing them in a kind of waffle iron. She then served food on the pressed leaves. When he returned to the United States and business school, he experimented with adapting this simple and resourceful concept to make a line of attractive, durable and environmentally friendly single-use plates and bowls. (Not as cheap as paper or plastic, though; they can cost up to about a dollar per piece.) After they’re used, they can be thrown in the compost pile, where they will naturally compost within two months. The company website even includes a tutorial on composting at home, whether you live in the country or in a tiny apartment.
According to the company, the plates are made from leaves in India because no American leaves would produce the right effect. Only fallen leaves are used; steam, heat and pressure are applied to form the plates. Since nothing but leaves and water are added, they’re nontoxic and can be safely added to the compost pile.
That means the plate you eat your food on can help grow your next meal. Pretty cool.
September 30, 2011
Whether for career development or their own edification, the culinarily curious can gorge on all kinds of food knowledge online. Here are a few of the offerings:
Sharpen your cooking skills. Everything from nifty tips on peeling garlic to full-fledged cooking shows are available online. Saveur (source of the amazing garlic video), Epicurious, Chow and Cook’s Illustrated (for subscribers only) are good sites to check for short technique and recipe demonstrations. The Culinary Institute of America’s ciaprochef.com is full of recipes and videos. And a number of YouTube cooking shows have gained a loyal following, including Show Me the Curry, where Hetal and Anuja help you navigate South Asian and occasionally other cuisines; Great Depression Cooking, starring 96-year-old Clara; and the amusingly enigmatic Cooking with Dog (tagline: It’s not what you think…), where you can learn to make all kinds of Japanese dishes while the host’s coiffed poodle looks serenely on.
Get a culinary degree. Until someone figures out how to transport food via the Internet, you can’t actually attend cooking school online. But you can earn an online degree in a culinary-related subject that doesn’t involve cooking. Le Cordon Bleu USA offers a bachelor of arts in culinary management and an associate of occupational studies in hospitality and restaurant management. If you can’t move to Vermont (which you should consider, because it really is lovely), the New England Culinary Institute offers an online bachelor of arts in hospitality and restaurant management. And Virginia College Online’s culinary arts associate’s degree is designed for those who have already completed cooking school elsewhere.
Feed your inner geek. One of the greatest developments in recent years for people like me who love to learn but live far from a big university is iTunes U. Institutions like Oxford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the National Portrait Gallery upload audio and video of lectures—and most of them are free to download from iTunes. A few of the foodie offerings are Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science’s public lecture series on science and cooking, with demonstrations from top chefs like Wylie Dufresne, on meat glue (transglutaminase), and José Andrés, on gelation; the University of Warwick on how to build a chocolate-powered race car; and culinary historian Jessica Harris speaking at the Library of Congress National Book Festival.
Learn how to write about food. If you already know plenty about food and want to share your knowledge with the world, online food-writing classes can help tune up your presentation. Indian cookbook author Monica Bhide offers occasional e-courses covering everything from recipe writing to food memoir. The latest class started in September, but check her site for upcoming dates. Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s next 11-week course, which includes a Q&A session with a New York Times food editor, begins October 4.