October 7, 2011
This year’s Nobel Prize winners were honored for, among other things, discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace; their work on women’s rights and peace-building in Liberia; and advances in the understanding of immunity. But in years past, a number of winners have been recognized for food-related achievements—making food safer, more available or just increasing our knowledge of it. Here are five notable cases:
1904: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Better known for his research with canines to explain conditioned responses—training dogs to salivate when they heard a sound they had come to associate with food—Pavlov won the Nobel for his earlier work on the digestive systems of mammals. Before he devised a way of observing the digestive organs of animals, there was only a limited understanding of how the stomach digests food.
1929: Christiaan Eijkman, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Eijkman and his co-awardee, Sir Frederick Hopkins, were honored for discovering of the importance of vitamins in health and disease prevention. In the 1890s, Eijkman, of the Netherlands, studied the disease beriberi in the then–Dutch colony of Java, where he made the connection between a diet lacking rice bran (the bran had been removed to make the rice last longer) and high rates of beriberi. This was an important milestone in the eventual formation of the concept of vitamins, though the word itself wasn’t coined until 1911.
1945: Lord John Boyd Orr, Nobel Peace Prize
Orr, of Scotland, devoted much of his life to improving world nutrition and to the equitable distribution of food. After helping shape Britain’s wartime food policy, Orr became director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a World Food Board in 1947. Two years later, by which time he had retired to a lucrative business career, his efforts were recognized by the Nobel committee.
1970: Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize
Possibly no one on this list had as great an effect on so many people as Borlaug, the American considered the father of the “Green Revolution” for his development of methods that vastly improved yields and disease-resistance in crops. Although some of his methods were later criticized for having a negative environmental impact, they greatly increased food security in poor countries such as India and Pakistan. The debate over how to balance environmental concerns with the food needs of a growing world population continues today.
The prize in economic sciences is the only category to be added since the establishment of the Nobel prizes. It was first awarded in 1969. Sen, an Indian living in the United Kingdom, won in part for his study of the underlying economic causes of famine. In his 1981 Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen debunked the common notion that food shortage is the sole cause of famine, and his later work explored how to prevent or mitigate famine.
September 20, 2011
California is on the road to becoming the fourth state in the union to ban shark fin soup on account of the ecological impact that rising demand is having on shark populations. A bill nixing the sale, trade or possession of shark fins passed the state senate on September 6 and is awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature to be passed into law. The namesake ingredient for this Asian delicacy is harvested by fishermen who catch sharks, remove the fins and dump the carcasses back in the ocean. While other parts of the shark are edible or can be used for other purposes, it makes more financial sense for the fishermen to haul back the fins because they are the most valuable: they can sell (depending on size and the species of shark) for upwards of $880 per pound on the Hong Kong market. (In 2003, a fin from a basking shark sold for $57,000 in Singapore.) It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, and with sharks unable to reproduce at such a rate to meet human demand, sustainable shark fishing is a bit unrealistic.
So what’s the big to-do over this dish? It’s certainly not the fin’s flavor—which has been described as being relatively tasteless—but rather it’s unique, rubbery texture. Once dried, processed and incorporated into the soup, the fin looks like fine, translucent noodles whose culinary value is in their mouthfeel—all the flavor has to come from the other soup ingredients. Some chefs have tried using gelatin-based substitutes, but, for those intimately familiar with the dish, imitation shark falls short of capturing the feel of the real deal.
“This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup” environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin writes of the soup in her book Demon Fish. “It is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance.” Indeed, with some iterations costing upwards of $100 a bowl, it’s a dish that, if nothing else, displays one’s social status.
The dining tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), becoming a mainstay of formal dining during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), and it continues to be a popular dish at Chinese weddings. Opponents see the ban as an act of cultural discrimination, with the language of the bill singling out shark fin soup and giving no mention of other shark-based products, such as steaks or leather goods.
But shark populations are declining. In the 1980s, Hong Kong’s local shark populations were overfished to the point that its fishing market went bust. In the U.S., dusky shark numbers have declined by roughly 80 percent since the 1970s, with conservationists estimating that it would take upwards of 100 years for those populations to rebuild. In western Atlantic waters, hammerhead sharks have declined by up to 89 percent over the past 25 years. And in spite of cultural traditions, the international community—with the exceptions of Japan, Norway and Iceland—has placed bans on whaling because humans put such a strain on those populations. Should the same reasoning be applied to sharks?
September 7, 2011
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.
Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.
But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.
Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?
It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “[G]irls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century,” they say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?
July 27, 2011
When Thomas Jefferson visited Lombardy, Italy in 1787, exporting rice in the husk was illegal on pain of death. Such trivialities didn’t keep this founding father from secreting illicit grains in his pockets and taking them back to America. “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country,” he later wrote, “is to add a useful plant to its culture.” (Indeed, he considered his introduction of European rice and olive trees to the Americas as one of his greatest life accomplishments alongside writing the Declaration of Independence.) That attitude was adopted and maintained by the United States government, and a show on view at the National Archives explores how Uncle Sam affects how we eat. Through paper ephemera, sound recordings, posters, the show illustrates how the government influenced food on the farm, in the factories, in our homes and in the overall American diet.
I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of the ways in which the government guides how we eat. If you went to public school, you were probably exposed to the federally subsidized lunch program (for better or for worse). You may have noticed the recent unveiling of the plate-shaped infographic designed to help Americans plan balanced meals. And then there are FDA food recalls. Those facets are certainly represented here. But this show is a revelation (at least for me) for exhibiting the breadth of Uncle Sam’s involvement in our food. Beginning in the 1830s, the USDA started a seed distribution program in which they gave free seeds to farmers in an attempt to figure out which plants would fare well in a variety of soils and climates. And when food production became industrialized—with factories and canneries cranking out prefab products—the USDA had to step in to set quality guidelines when Americans were getting sick from ill-prepared foodstuffs. It got to the point where a “poison squad” was appointed to test suspect additives and preservatives to determine which ones were actually safe for human consumption.
Steady readers know of my love of food-related crime, so it was fascinating—if not slightly bizarre—to see mug shots of men who did time for violating the oleomargarine act by selling margarine that was colored to look like butter. Another display—attractively housed in a doughnut-shaped frame—talks about how World War II-era studies showed that B1 promoted energy. Since the nation was mobilizing for war, one food manufacturer responded with vitamin doughnuts. The poster on display hawking the product promises plenty of “pep and vigor” as evidenced by the pair of grinning, rosy-cheeked children who are noshing on vitamin B1-fortified pastry. The government stepped in saying that this and similar products could be marketed only as enriched flour doughnuts. I also loved seeing sample recipes for federally subsidized school lunches from circa 1946. Liver loaf, ham shortcake and creamed vegetables seem a far cry from the sentimental favorites from when I was buying school lunch. Any other fans of the chicken fillet on bun out there?
In the show, stereoscopic viewers let you take a look at vintage 3-D photographs, mocked-up radios allow viewers to “tune in” to food-related radio programming, and there’s a hearty helping of snippets of government-produced movies—everything from short silent movies promoting the nutritive merits of milk to informational films featuring flustered housewives who need some words of wisdom to put a healthful meal on the table. My favorite was the clip from the Mulligan Stew informational films from the 1970s, a trippy series in which the kid stars not only dispense dietary advice but also have a rock band. (I was also quite taken by the themed wainscoting, with carvings of corn stalks in the farming gallery, canned goods in the factory gallery and so on. Even the paint on the walls made the show a vibrant and fun experience. Were photography allowed, I’d go back with the Sherwin Williams app on my iPod to get some digital paint swatches. But I digress.)
The show covers a wonderfully wide swath of territory, and I heartily recommend that you make a point of visiting the National Archives, where “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam” will be on display until January 3, 2012.
June 22, 2011
I can picture it now: two oblong ground beef patties taking a gravy bath, neatly sequestered in their aluminum compartment to prevent the sauce from bleeding onto the tater tots, pea-and-carrot medley or, most importantly, the apple dessert. A meal for a Hungry Man—or a child of the 1970s with an unsophisticated palate. (I considered TV dinners a treat when I was a kid, especially the ones with built-in dessert.)
The phrase “Salisbury steak” no longer sets off my salivary glands—quite the opposite—but it’s a lot more appetizing than how Dr. James Henry Salisbury described the dish before it was named after him: “muscle pulp of beef.”
And that may be the least nauseating bit in his scatalogically dense 1888 book, The Relation of Alimentation and Disease. Dr. Salisbury, like many people before and since, believed that food was the key to health and that certain foods could cure illness, especially of the intestinal variety. He tested his theories during the Civil War, treating chronic diarrhea among Union soldiers with a diet of chopped-up meat and little else. After 30 years of research he finally published his ideas, setting off one of the earliest American fad diets.
“Healthy alimentation, or feeding upon such foods as the system can well digest and assimilate, is always promotive of good health. Unhealthy alimentation always acts as a cause of disease,” he wrote. Most modern physicians would agree with the sentiment to at least some degree, if not as to what constitutes healthy or unhealthy alimentation (more commonly known as “food” nowadays).
For Salisbury, minced beef patties were health food. The enemies, believe it or not, were fresh fruit and vegetables. When overconsumed “at the expense of more substantial aliments,” he wrote, these led to “summer complaints” in children.
As for the ill soldiers, the problem was an “amylaceous [starchy], army biscuit diet,” with not enough variety or nutrients. His prescription:
The first step is to wash out the sour stomach and bowels [by drinking hot water], and to change the food. The food selected should be such as is least liable to ferment with alcohol and acid yeasts. This is muscle pulp of beef, prepared as heretofore described, when it affords the maximum of nourishment with the minimum of effort to the digestive organs. Nothing else but this food, except an occasional change to broiled mutton.
In the preface, Salisbury described the research that led him to his conclusion:
In 1854 the idea came to me, in one of my solitary hours, to try the effects of living exclusively upon one food at a time. This experiment I began upon myself alone at first…. I opened this line of experiments with baked beans. I had not lived upon this food over three days before light began to break. I became very flatulent and constipated, head dizzy, ears ringing, limbs prickly, and was wholly unfitted for mental work. The microscopic examination of passages showed that the bean food did not digest.
Did the intrepid scientist stop there? Of course not! In 1858 he enlisted six other schlemiels to come live with him and eat nothing but baked beans. He did not mention whether he had a wife who had to put up with seven flatulent, dizzy mopes in her home; my guess is no. Later he and four other guys subsisted solely on oatmeal porridge for 30 days. Other single-food experiments followed, leading him to the conclusion that lean beef, minced to break down any connective tissue and fully cooked, was the best and most easily digested food. By the time the Civil War started, in 1861, he was ready to test his theories on suffering soldiers.
When Salisbury’s book was published, two decades after the end of the war, his ideas caused a sensation. An Englishwoman named Elma Stuart extolled the healing virtues of the Salisbury diet in a book described by one observer as being “written in a popular and racy style,” helping to publicize the mincemeat regimen. For about two decades the diet—not that different, when you think of it, from extreme versions of the low-carb diets of recent years—was all the rage.
Not for another half-century would the Salisbury steak’s future TV dinner companions, tater tots, be invented. By then, Salisbury had been dead for almost 50 years, too late to object to such “unhealthy alimentation.”