June 18, 2012
Soak grain in water and a seed begins to sprout. Dry out that tiny protoplant, or acrospire, roast it, and you’ve got malt—the basis for fermenting beer (and distilling whiskey too). The process can be crude; soaking can take place in a puddle, drying on the roof of a house. I wrote about the small-scale revival of the malting process, of the more modern variety, in The New York Times last week and it’s curious just how far the process predates the current garage-scale renaissance, the flourishing of regional malthouses in the 19th century, or even the English maltsters who first set up shop on American soil four hundred years ago.
The late historian Peter Damerow, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, published an examination of 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, including a mythic text from ancient Sumerian tablet known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi was the goddess of brewing. In the paper, published earlier this year, he explains that the hymn accompanied “a kind of drinking song” dedicated to a female tavern-keeper. It’s the first recipe, of sorts, for beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles dough (and) … with a big shovel,
Mixing, in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the earth-covered malt (“munu”),
The noble dogs guard (it even) from the potentates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt (“sun”) in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash (“ti-tab”) on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort (“dida”),
Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.
[You ...] the sweetwort (“dida”) to the vessel.
The fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on (top of) a large collector vat (“laÌtan”).
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is (like) the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
As archeologist Patrick McGovern has written in Uncorking the Past, the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of a forebear to modern beer some 6,000 year ago, providing a possible motive for a decisive step in the development of human culture and the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Beer may have come before bread. Still, these cuniform tablets are notoriously difficult to translate and leave only a rough outline of the process—so, despite the best efforts to replicate the Tigris-like rush of ancient Sumerian beer today, unanswerable questions about the beer’s exact composition remain. When, for example, did they interrupt the germination of the “earth-covered” malt, a crucial step enabling a grain to undergo alcoholic fermentation?
Damerow suggests there’s reason to doubt whether these brews even proved to be much of an intoxicant 4,000 years ago: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.” Then again, would we really have kept the ancient process alive for so long if it just gave us better nutrition and didn’t also make us feel good?
Image: Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102/Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 2012
March 13, 2012
Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.
By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.
Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.
Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.
The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)
Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.
Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!
All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming system. Pac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.
The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.
January 5, 2012
In the past we have seen how gelatin, ice cream trucks, raw chickens and vanilla extract have figured in to the criminal behavior those who think they can live outside the law. Food crimes don’t seem to be letting up, as evidenced by the following four incidents.
December, 2011. Port Richey, Florida. A pint and a bank job.
On the afternoon of December 22, John Robin Whittle ordered a beer at the Hayloft Bar, but left for approximately half and hour and then returned to down the drink. He was soon arrested by local authorities: Whittle fit the description of a man who robbed a nearby Wells Fargo bank but ten minutes before.
October, 2011. Punta Gorda, Florida. A slippery situation.
Why steal used cooking oil? This restaurant waste product can be converted into biofuel and on the open market it can command as much as four dollars a gallon. On the evening of October 17, two men were spotted behind a Burger King pumping cooking oil into their collection truck; however, their vehicle did not belong to Griffin Industries, the usual company that picked up the oil. The two drivers explained that the regular collection truck had broken down, but on calling Griffin Industries, the restaurant manager learned that none of their trucks were in the area collecting oil. By this time the two drivers had left with approximately $1,500 worth of oil. The manager called the police, who spotted the truck at a Golden Corral, again siphoning off used cooking oil. Two men, Javier Abad and Antonio Hernandez, were arrested and charged with grand theft. (And for a lighter take on this trend in food crime, check out the “Simpsons” episode “Lard of the Dance,” where Bart and Homer conjure up a get-rich-quick scheme by stealing grease.)
Marysville, Tennessee. July, 2004. Would you like extra cheese on that?
At about 5:00 in the morning on July 18, Marysville, Tennessee police discovered a car abandoned in the parking lot of the John Sevier Pool containing a pile of clothes and a bottle of vodka. A thoroughly intoxicated Michael David Monn, the owner of the car and the articles therein, was soon spotted running toward the authorities wearing nothing but nacho cheese. The 23-year-old had apparently jumped a wall to raid the pool’s concession area. In March, 2005 Monn pleaded guilty to burglary, theft, vandalism, indecent exposure and public intoxication. He was sentenced to three years probation and a $400 fine to cover the costs of the stolen food.
Santiago, Chile. 2004. Hot Stuff.
In 2004, Chilean hospitals began treating people for burns incurred after attempting to make churros, the treat of fried dough coated in sugar. In each case, the dough shot out of the pot, showering the chefs with hot oil. The injuries came days after La Tercera, a daily newspaper, printed a churro recipe—but neglected to test it. In December 2011, the Chilean Supreme Court determined that the suggested oil temperature was far too high and that anyone following the recipe to the letter would have ended up with dangerously explosive results. The newspaper’s publisher, Grupo Copesa, was ordered to pay out $125,000 to 13 burn victims, including one woman whose injuries so severe that she was awarded a $48,000 settlement.
November 16, 2011
I have found that one of the keys to harmony in my marriage is clear division of labor. I’m in charge of food acquisition and preparation (except one night a week, when my husband makes either pasta or pizza so I can write), paying bills, and general tidying. My partner is responsible for doing the dishes, most of the heavy housework (like cleaning the floors and bathrooms), and either mowing the lawn in summer or clearing the driveway of snow in winter. I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the bargain—here’s hoping he never develops an interest in cooking.
But sometimes it can be fun to tackle a kitchen project together, as we found this weekend, during our first attempt at brewing our own beer. After my last DIY food adventure, pickling vegetables from my garden, I was glad I didn’t have to go solo this time. As with the pickling, the process took a lot longer than expected—the better part of Sunday—but it went a lot more smoothly having two heads, and two sets of hands, rather than one.
Which is not to say there were no glitches. We followed a porter recipe from a nearby brewer’s supply store where we bought our ingredients. (There has probably never been a better time to take up home brewing—thanks to the explosion in interest in the past decade or so, supplies and information are readily available at bricks-and-mortar stores and online.)
The first step was to steep our specialty grains—a combination of three kinds of malted barley—in hot water, wrapped in cheese cloth like a giant tea bag. We accidentally spilled about a quarter of the grain in the sink while trying to pour it into the cloth. Everyone, from the supply store owner to the guys on the instructional video that came with our brewing kit to the authors of the book we bought on brewing, had drummed the importance of sanitation into my husband’s head. (After reading the book before bedtime, he actually muttered in his sleep, “It’s all about cleanliness.”) We didn’t dare try to salvage the spilled grain, even though the sink was clean. So we decided to compensate for the lost grain by steeping the remainder longer. I’m hoping we don’t end up with two cases of watery porter.
Next we added malt extract, which looks like the sludge left in an engine that’s overdue for an oil change but smells pleasantly, well, malty. This we boiled, along with the hops, for about an hour. Or, it would have taken an hour, if our 1961 stove weren’t so dysfunctional. The large front burner goes on strike about as often as an Italian train worker. At some point we realized our rolling boil had slowed to barely a simmer. And since the five-gallon pot wouldn’t fit on the back burner under the second oven, we had to move it to the small front burner. Again, we added a little extra time to compensate.
Finally we had our wort, which is what gets poured into the fermenter (a glass carboy) along with some yeast. At this point we would have used our hydrometer to measure the original gravity before fermentation—later readings will tell us how fermentation is going, because the reading will get lower as the sugars turn into alcohol—but we didn’t realize until too late that the hydrometer had shipped broken. The supplier sent out a new one and assured us it wasn’t a big deal to not get an original reading.
A couple of days later, our batch appears to be fermenting nicely; it has developed a good mound of foam on top, called Kräusen. By next weekend, it should be ready for racking, or siphoning into another carboy for secondary fermentation without the spent yeast sediment that has settled to the bottom of the first carboy. Once fermentation is complete, we’ll add a little corn sugar to aid carbonation before bottling.
By Christmas, we’ll either have two cases of delicious porter under the tree or 48 bottles to reuse/recycle and some brewing lessons under our belt. Either way, we’ll have a new hobby to share.
September 1, 2011
People have been tossing back beer for thousands of years—the drink is a cornerstone of human civilization—and it’s a potation whose heady qualities come to us by way of yeast. Perhaps most familiar to us in the granulated form stocked on supermarket shelves, yeast is a single-celled microorganism that creates the alcohol and carbon dioxide in beer, in addition to imparting flavors, all of which can vary depending on the type of yeast being used. (More than 800 species of yeast have been documented.) A variety of this fungus commonly used to bake bread and brew ale beers is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which ferments at a warm 70 degrees. But at some point in the 15th century, Bavarian brewers introduced lager, which employed a hybrid yeast that fermented at cooler temperatures. But what the S. cerevisiae was crossed with to craft this type of beer remained a mystery until now.
Scientists from the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere set out to find where the non-ale portion of the lager yeast came from—and the search took them to Patagonia. Here, in outgrowths on beech trees, they found an undocumented wild yeast—dubbed Saccharomyces eubayanus—whose DNA sequence matched the genome of the unknown half of the lager yeast. They hypothesize that this wild yeast made its way to Europe by way of trans-Atlantic trade and mixed with the baker’s yeast in brewery environments.
But with lagers being brewed before Europeans graced North America, how did this variety of beer initially come to exist? Chris Hittinger, one of the lead scientists on the study, suggests that lagers were made before the arrival of S. eubayanus, and while the beer underwent a long fermentation process in cool temperatures, the resulting brew just didn’t taste very good.