Using food to explore all manner of topics, from agriculture to zoology. In Eat This Podcast, Jeremy Cherfas tries to go beyond the obvious to see how the food we eat influences and is influenced by history, archaeology, trade, chemistry, economics, geography, evolution, religion -- you get the picture. We don't do recipes, except when we do, or restaurant reviews, ditto. We do offer an eclectic smorgasbord of tasty topics. Twice nominated for a James Beard Award.
Prehistoric cooking pots
Harry RobsonSix thousand years ago in northern Europe, the first Neolithic farmers were bumping up against Mesolithic people, who made a living hunting and fishing and gathering wild plants. Both groups of people made ceramic cooking vessels for their food, and those pots have now revealed that in many respects the diets of the two cultures were more alike than different. The hunter-gatherers were processing dairy foods, while the farmers were cooking fish and other aquatic resources. That’s the conclusion of a massive study of more than 1000 pot fragments by 30 scientists. Harry Robson, one of the team leaders, explained the results and the light they shed onto the transition to farming.
* Harry K. Robson is in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The paper we talked about is The impact of farming on prehistoric culinary practices throughout Northern Europe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
* Here is the transcript.
* Banner illustration shows early Neolithic farmers in Switzerland, by J. Näf, from this publication. Cover photograph of a pot from the Funnel Beaker culture in Denmark, made by the earliest farmers across the western Baltic, CC-BY-SA by Arnold Mikkelsen, The National Museum of Denmark.
The Invention of Baby Food
In the 1950s and 1960s, the paediatric establishment in America convinced mothers to start solid foods in the first month of baby’s life, and sometimes even before they had left the hospital. This was considered a good idea even though the average baby wouldn’t have a tooth in its head for another five or six months. Amy Bentley, a professor at New York University, has charted the rise and continuing rise of baby food, from its earliest emergence in upstate New York and Michigan to its proliferation today. Commercial baby foods made sense, she thinks, as a safer and more convenient alternative to home-made options, and still today may form the bedrock of the best-nourished period of a child’s life. But they also reflected an American exceptionalism rooted in the triumph of World War Two.
The adorable infant in Gerber’s advertisements was originally a pencil sketch that the artist said she would finish in colour if selected. Gerber preferred the sketch, and “repeated requests” prompted the company to offer a reproduction, suitable for framing, in exchange for 10¢. Strangest of all, some people seemed to think the baby was Humphrey Bogart, who was 29 qwhen the sketch was made. A little old for baby food.
* Get a copy of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet from an independent bookshop. And here is Amy Bentley’s website.
* I’ve been trying to keep you up-to-date with the lead contamination story in Eat This Newsletter, but just last week Marion Nestle took a look at lead and pesticides in baby food.
* Here is the transcript.
* I took the photos of baby food.
Black Stoneflower: A unique Indian spice
In 1997, Priya Mani fished something strange out of the cauliflower soup she was served at a wedding banquet in India. She didn’t know what it was, she knew only that she was not willing to eat it. Twenty-five years later, her article in Art of Eating shared her discoveries about a spice essentially unknown even in India, one that makes a very elusive contribution to flavour, best described as “you know it when it’s missing”.
Priya Mani eventually identified the strange thing in her soup as a lichen called Parmotrema perfolatum, commonly known in English as black stoneflower. Lichens are an odd group of plants made up of algae or bacteria living within the cells of a fungus. You’ve seen them on rocks and trees, I’m sure. Black stoneflower turns out to be ubiquitous in Indian cooking, though its presence is not often remarked. Its popularity may now be threatening its survival.
* Priya Mani has two Instagram channels, @priya.mani.design and @cookalore, which is a showcase for her Visual Encyclopaedia of Indian Cooking.
* Her article Tasting a Tasteless Taste: Stoneflower Lichens as a Spice in Indian Food is in Art of Eating No. 111 and, contrary to what I said in the podast, seems to be available to read.
* With apologies for the delay, here is the transcript.
* Banner photo by Priya Mani. Cover photo of putative Black Stone Flower by s_bala.
* You do know about John Wyndham’s book Trouble with Lichen, I hope.
A New Story for Maize Domestication
The ancestry of modern maize has long been a puzzle. Unlike other domesticated grasses, there didn’t seem to be any wild species that looked like the modern cereal and from which farmers could have selected better versions. For a long time, botanists weren’t even sure which continent maize was from. That seemed to be settled with the discovery in lowland Mexico of teosinte, a wild and weedy relative of maize, and a lot of work to understand the genetic changes from teosinte to maize. The big problem was that the genetic work also seemed to contradict the story, by finding remnants of different types of teosinte. A new research paper sorts out the story, which is now more complicated, better understood, and offers some hope for future maize breeding.
* A summary of their research by Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra and his colleagues is available at Science.
* Here is the transcript.
* Cover photo, sculpted head of a Mayan maize god, “represented as a vigorous youth with flowing hair likened to corn leaves”, he was considered to be the quintessence of beauty and refinement. Taken by me at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. Banner photo by William H. Martin, who became very rich making these sorts of postcards.
Honey and Adulteration
Honey is the world’s third most-adulterated food. Survey after survey uncovers evidence that manufacturers — not necessarily beekeepers — are adding sugar syrups to bulk up the honey they sell. That may not be a health hazard, but it is defrauding customers, and yet there is very little public outrage, except in the immediate wake of yet another revelation of wrong-doing. Honey adulteration is nothing new, as I heard from historian Matt Phillpott, who has been studying the practice ancient and modern.
* Matt Phillpott writes Honeybee Histories on substack.
* Here’s the transcript.
* Banner photo by Jennifer C on flickr. Cover photo, robot bee designed by Cat7. Single bee by Brad Smith on flickr.
Fat, Sugar, Salt
Earlier this year, The Atlantic published a long article looking into what it called “Nutrition Science’s Most Preposterous Result,” the very robust finding that people who ate a modicum of ice cream each week were less likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes. But while nutritionists were happy to recommend (low-fat) yoghurt, which seemed to offer similar protection, nowhere was ice-cream mentioned. David Johns wrote that article, and had previously looked into guidelines on cutting salt and the Big Sugar anti-fat conspiracy that never was. An interesting person to talk to about the intersection between nutrition science and public policy.
* Could ice cream possibly be good for you?.
* Was there ever really a “sugar conspiracy”? is behind a paywall, but you should be able to find a copy if you look. Or ask.
* Likewise Controversial Salt Report Peppered with Uncertainty.
* Transcript for your reading pleasure.
Thinking about eating this or that
I have thoroughly enjoyed the breathtaking array of topics that Jeremy’s gentle voice and inquisitive mind provides. I’ve learned a lot, tidbits worthy of the most curious globetrotters We shall see what is the next surprise at your table. Thank you
Eat This Podcast
If you're interested in food around the world, where it comes from and where it's going, this is the podcast for you. Noted writer (books, blogs) and broadcaster Jeremy Cherfas interviews people who know their stuff, and the expertise and enthusiasm really comes through, making for entertaining and educational listening. Lots of great links and additional information in the show notes too.