March 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.
February 13, 2013
If one day of hearts and lovey-dovey, mushy-gushy isn’t enough, you might want to consider a move to Japan or Korea. Both countries have an interesting adaptation for Valentine’s Day: They celebrate it twice.
Traditionally on February 14, the female buys the male a gift, Sadie Hawkins-style—usually in the form of chocolate. There are two ways the chocolate can be given: giri choko for the men in a woman’s office that she does not have romantic feelings for and honmei choko, for the man she truly cares for. It’s a relatively young tradition: The first advertisement for Valentine’s Day in Japan appeared in 1936 when a chocolate shop, Morozoff Ltd., thought it wise to pitch their sweets as the perfect way to show someone you care. But it wasn’t until 1958 and throughout the ’60s and ’70s—long after World War II—that the westernized, commercial selling of chocolate would reappear in Japan. During this boom of Hallmark holidays, Japan’s obsession with Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas also took off from a similar marketing campaign.
But on March 14, called “White Day” the male returns the favor with chocolates and other gifts to prove his requited love. The holiday originated in 1978 when a Japanese confectionary company declared it “Marshmallow Day” for men as a response to the chocolate gifts received a month prior (which explains the “white” part of the celebration’s current namesake and the convenient boost in confectionary sales). It’s popular for men to present their special someone with expensive white chocolates, marshmallows or even white lingerie, sometimes spending up to $250.
But Korea, which adopted the two-day Valentine’s Day celebration around the same time as Japan, has taken the event to another level: And it’s specifically for single people. On April 14th, known as Black Day, sorry singles in Korea who did not receive presents on Valentine’s Day or White Day, gather, dressed in black—black nail polish, black accessories, black shoes—and eat jjajang myeon, noodles covered in black bean paste. (Jjajang translates to black bean paste sauce; myeon, noodles).
The Chinese-style noodle dish is one of South Korea’s national foods, and is considered a comfort food—comparable to the stereotypical image of Ben and Jerry’s eaten straight out of the carton. On Black Day, there are organized, jjajang myeon-eating contests, where dark and devastated loners emerge to eat their weight in starch and bean paste. Sales of black coffee spike, and matchmaking services pounce on the resounding pity for singles lingering in the air.
This interview with Reuters in 2008 just about sums it up:
“I had a miserable time on Valentine’s Day, felt even lonelier on White Day and now I’m crying over a bowl of black noodles,” said a young women who asked only to be identified by her family name Na out of embarrassment. ”Things better be different next year.”
The thick, wheat noodles, similar to pasta, are typically served in a separate bowl from the sauce made with onions meat and/or seafood like shrimp or sea cucumber. The contents are then mixed together at the diner’s discretion. The sauce often leaves a black tint on the teeth—the perfect accessory to an all-black ensemble.
But if you thought kicking it solo on Valentine’s Day was tough, and Black Day perhaps all the more difficult to fathom, in Korea there are roughly 13 holidays devoted to love. Though they aren’t all comparable in participation and importance as Valentine’s Day is in the states, what does one do come June 14th on “Kiss Day” or “Green Day” (August 14th) when couples, dressed in green, skip through the woods drinking the popular cheap, Korean alcohol, soju, from a green bottle?
Though, it seems not everyone is sad on Black Day; not even these yo-yoers (their singledom unconfirmed). And if you can’t find any buddies to celebrate Black Day with you in America, there’s always Singles Awareness Day to look forward to on February 15.
January 30, 2013
Guacamole and the Super Bowl. The two go hand in hand these days don’t they?
And yet, if you visit the California Avocado Commission’s website — brought to you by the state with 60,000 acres of avocado orchards — you won’t find any mention of “Guacamole Sunday.” Instead, a message on the site’s front page reads: “Our season has ended. Look for California avocados in stores from Spring – Fall.”
When I asked Will Brokaw, the California farmer behind Will’s Avocados about this seemingly odd timing, he was quick to point to the irony.
“The California avocado season is just barely getting going at that time of year,” he said. And while it’s great that demand is so high, which in turn raises sales numbers and wholesale prices for everyone, it’s a shame to see that demand at precisely the moment when Hass avocados – the most popular domestic variety – have yet to fully ripen. (The ones that do get picked in February are often watery, he says.)
“Everybody would be better off if the Super Bowl was delayed until early March,“ Brokaw added.
Well, maybe not everybody. In fact, as soon as I started looking into how avocados became the signature food for an event that takes place in the dead of winter, it quickly became clear that the Super Bowl-guacamole tie is a fascinating – perhaps disturbing – example of the way globalization has come to define the food on our plates.
Last year, according to the produce industry publication The Packer, about 75 percent of the avocados shipped within the U.S. in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl came from Mexico. Most of the rest came from Chile. And that translates to a lot of the creamy green fruits. This year Americans will eat almost 79 million pounds of them in the few weeks before the big game – an eight million pound increase over last year and a 100 percent increase since 2003.
None of this has been an accident. The avocado industry started promoting guacamole as a Super Bowl food back in the 1990s, shortly after the NAFTA agreement began allowing floods of avocados from Central and South America to enter the country in winter. By 2008, Mexico had become the largest supplier of avocados to the U.S.
The Christian Science Monitor wrote about the phenomenon in this 2009 article, Super Bowl success story: Mexico’s avocados.
In the central state of Michoacán, Mexico’s avocado belt, exports generated $400 million last year, and it’s now the second source of income for the state – after remittances sent from Mexicans living in the US.
“It has transformed this state, and put a hold on immigration,” says José Luis Gallardo, the head of the Michoacán Avocado Commission and a plantation owner who has watched the industry explode in the past few years.
While fresh avocados have been a staple of the Mexican diet for centuries, in the US they were mostly consumed in California or Texas, where they are grown.
Today, the fruit is as common in California supermarkets as it is in Kansas.
This is where I start to feel conflicted. On the one hand, I feel truly happy for the Kansans who now have access to one of the world’s most delicious, perfect foods. And I like knowing that so many people are serving guacamole at their Super Bowl parties instead of say, highly-processed cheese dip.
But the fact that the foreign avocado industry was able to create a new market for their product virtually overnight simply by pulling out all the stops on marketing the product as an established Super Bowl food also seems noteworthy.
Our increasing dependence on large monocrops and factory farms (think: vast swaths of almonds grown in California to feed Germany’s hankering for marzipan, or the pork produced in Iowa’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) intended for South Korea, Colombia, and Panama) comes with a steep price.
Until just a few decades ago, most Americans had a basic awareness of the way food and farming was connected to place, seasons, and the weather. Not only have we lost these things, but we’ve also lost touch with how and where our food is produced — a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to knowing that your dinner ingredients won’t be, say, recalled for salmonella contamination, filled with antibiotics, or covered in pesticide residue.
I can call up Will Brokaw — or grab him at the farmers market — and ask him how he grows his avocados (everything from how he controls pests, treats the soil, and uses water, to how he treats his workers). And while the growers in Michoacán, Mexico, may very well be using the exact same farming practices, I have no way of knowing either way. That disconnect may not keep most of us from buying winter avocados, but it should give us pause — just like the other windows into the vast complexities of our food system should.
And that “perfect Super Bowl snack”? It may not be quite so perfect anymore.
January 3, 2013
For years I thought it was just because the Spanish like a good party that they dragged their Christmas celebrations out until the night of January 5, when they had another round of parades and gift giving for Los Reyes Magos, the coming of the Three Kings, also known as Tres Reyes, or simply Reyes. It’s only recently that it clicked that, actually, they got it right. While the rest of us are waiting for Santa to deliver his celebratory gifts for Christmas, Jesus didn’t actually get any until 12 days later, when Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar finally showed up with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in Spain and many Latin American countries, and it’s only a couple of decades since it really wasn’t much of a celebration at all. Navidad has become more important these days, and while most families gather together for a large meal on Christmas Eve, usually beginning with a fish soup followed by seafood, jamón serrano, cheeses and various cold cuts, there isn’t really any traditional food specific to the occasion. For the day of Tres Reyes, though, when the kids have opened the presents they found in a shoe placed under the Christmas tree the night before, no home would be complete without a Roscón de Reyes, or Rosca de Reyes if you live in Mexico or Puerto Rico, the two Western Hemisphere countries most likely to celebrate Tres Reyes. The Spaniards brought the tradition of celebrating the Epiphany and sharing the Rosca to the New World.
The Three Kings Bread is a sweet loaf baked in a ring – think fat, circular panettone decorated with dried figs, quince, cherries, candied fruits to symbolise the precious stones in a crown, and with thrombosis levels of white sugar scattered on top, and there you have it. Some recipes call for dates and honey to be used, but these are considered mere folderols added to the recipe by upstarts who can’t realise that some good things don’t need improving. Sound familiar? The New Orleans tradition of the King Cake comes from this same tradition.
Just as no resident of Valencia can ever agree on where to eat the best paella, everyone swears absolutely that they know the best Roscón baker in their city, never mind in their own barrio. A proper Roscón needs to be freshly baked, or at the very least out of the oven in the last twelve hours. On the evening of Tres Reyes lines form outside bakeries late in the evening as devotees collect their pre-ordered cake, and if you don’t have your Roscón booked by mid-November, forget it. You will be reduced to the ignominy of buying one from the supermarket shelves. If you are really lucky, your baker will open for a couple of hours on the morning of the big day so you can enjoy it fresh from the oven with a cup of chocolate so thick the spoon stands upright in it. (In Mexico the Rosca forms part of the evening celebration and is usually accompanied by corn tamales.)
The shape of the Roscón is round, to signify a king’s crown, although these days you can also find it baked as an oval. According to one wit at my local bakery, they are baked that way because baker’s ovens aren’t usually big enough to make huge family-size versions, particularly the size of the families the Spanish gather together for their celebratory fiestas.
Traditionally each person cuts his own slice, carefully inspecting it for one of two things, a small figure of Jesus or a faba bean. The idea of the figurine hidden in the cake is to symbolise being hidden away from the wrath of King Herod, after he had ordered all male infants recently born in Bethlehem to be put to the sword when he heard that the rightful King of the Jews was about to be born. As Jesus was born in a stable and not in an inn as would have been expected, he was saved, effectively hidden from view, as is the figure in the cake. Whoever finds him is King for the day, and has to host a party on the Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day) which takes place on February 2. Yet another excuse for extending the party. Unfortunately for the person who finds the faba bean, he has to pay for next year’s roscón.
Derek Workman is a guest blogger for Food and Think. He writes about Spain and Morocco at spainuncovered.net
December 18, 2012
This year, I made an extra effort to knock out my Christmas shopping as soon as I could. I enjoy gift exchanges—at least to the extent that it’s a way to show I appreciate the people nearest and dearest to me and that I’m keeping them in my thoughts. Frankly, I’d much rather spend the month of December baking (and sharing the resultant wealth of goodies) and being social. But some years, I’m completely strapped for ideas and find myself—days before Christmas—manically browsing shopping websites or, as a last-ditch effort when sanity has completely escaped me, venture out to the shopping malls in hopes that I’ll find the perfect gift. For those of you finding yourselves in said situation, here are a few last minute gift ideas for the foodie who made it onto your “nice” list this year.
Books: The Village Voice‘s Fork in the Road blog recently pointed out 18 books released in 2012. On that list, I’ll personally vouch for two titles. In Vintage Cakes, author Julie Richardson takes a trove of classic recipes—some dating back to the 1920s—and updates them for the modern American palate. Keeping in mind that the tools and techniques of previous generations are not the same as our own, the amount of sleuthing it took to reconstruct these cakes is amazing. Paired with tips and techniques, historical backgrounds on each of the cakes and fabulous photography, it’s a book that works well in your kitchen and on the coffee table. I need to try her version of Texas Sheet Cake to see how well it stacks up against my grandmother’s.
I’d also heartily recommend giving a gift subscription to Lucky Peach, a cross between a literary journal and food magazine that, wrapped together, makes for a magnificent piece of candy for the eye and the mind. Launched in July 2011, each themed issue pairs photography lush illustrations with fabulous writing in delectable ways. (Contributors have included the likes of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.) If you subscribe now, the person you’re giving this to won’t receive their first issue in the mail until February 2013; however, you can also buy the current issue on newsstands so you can have something under the tree.
There are also the old standbys that always make for good gifts. I’m a big fan of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which is a great cookbook for someone to learn on and contains recipes that are easy to pull together. One year for Christmas I received a copy of The New Basics, and this book has since become my go-to resource for those occasions when I’m having company over and need to lay my table with something a little more impressive than my everyday cooking.
Music: I’m a big fan of the husband and wife duo that writes Turntable Kitchen, a blog that, in addition to expanding your culinary horizons, cultivates your sonic palate. Kasey writes about food, Matthew tackles music—using the language of food and flavor to describe sounds—and together they find tunes and nibbles that complement each other. What’s more is that these internet-based explorations of new flavors and sounds can be taken into our humble, analog realm by way of the Pairings Box. Each month, you get a bundle of music, recipes, suggested pairings and a few ingredients to play with. Unfortunately, the Pairings Box ships out mid-month, so unless you’re OK giving someone a nice card letting them know what goodies will soon be arriving—or do holiday visiting in January— you’ll need a more immediate option. In this situation, try The Recipe Project, which takes recipes from today’s most famous chefs and turns them into songs. (E.g., Mario Batali’s recipe for spaghetti with sweet tomatoes.) This book/CD package can be found at your local bookseller.
Toys: If you know someone culinary aspirations, encourage them to build up the relationship they have with their kitchen. If they are just starting out, giving the gift of standard pieces of equipment are always great. I was thrilled to get a good set of pots and pans when I was in college. Another year I received a slow cooker and a food processor, and for the single working professional, those pieces of equipment made my life in the kitchen so much easier. In the event that you have the budget to splurge on knives, your budding chef will be eternally grateful. There’s nothing worse than bad cutlery. When I finally came into a set of really good knives, it made a world of difference in how I work in the kitchen.
For the established chef, you can add to their collection of kitchen gadgetry. Personally, I’m not a fan of uni-tasker appliances, but if you know someone who enjoys specific foods, find the toys to let them indulge their interests. I highly recommend browsing America’s Test Kitchen Feed’s gadget reviews for handy tools—and whether or not the latest kitchen toys are really the greatest. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, their review of this heavy-duty steel nutcracker has me contemplating a splurge purchase. When you consider how much less expensive nuts are when bought in the shell, it’s a great gift—especially if you give it with a bag of oh, say, chestnuts to roast over an open fire. For sheer whimsy, check out the Foodigity blog’s online shop where you can find dinosaur-shaped tea infusers, unicorn corn holders and ice cream sandwich body pillows. You need to place orders by Friday, December 21 to ensure delivery by the 24th.
Food: Giving the gift of food itself is always a good idea. I’ve yet to hear complaints from anyone who is well-fed. There are a few ways to work within this idea, perhaps the most obvious tack to take being a food basket, be it one you cobbled together yourself or one you purchased prefab. Or if there are seasonal goodies you like to make, attractively package them and give them as gifts. This year a friend gave me some of her homemade fudge, which she wrapped in cellophane and topped with a felt Christmas ornament she also made herself. The presentation—and the food—were equally delightful.
Another tack to take on this theme is to look to your local food bank. These charitable organizations do what they can to ease hunger in the community, and they rely on monetary and edible donations to continue their mission. Some food banks will also let you donate on behalf of another person—so for someone who would rather see money go to charity than to buying them a gift, this is a great way to go. Contact your local food bank to ask if you can give in this way.