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.
Where did the chicken cross the road?
Not so long ago, the only clues we had to animal domestication came from archaeological digs. If you were lucky, you could get a reasonably accurate date for bones that were definitely not from wild animals, although the origin stories they told were vague and unsatisfying. More recently, molecular biology has come to the rescue in the form of DNA sequences, which can even — again with a bit of luck — be extracted from very old bones. Better yet, it has become routine to sequence DNA from all manner of living creatures, and those sequences can shed light on ancient events even when there are no bones in the picture.
Olivier Hanotte is one of the foremost experts on livestock DNA, with a particular interest in indigenous African cattle. We spoke about research on chickens, sheep and cattle, and how understanding the history of domestication offers ideas for how to sustainably improve African cattle so that they can feed the growing African population.
This picture of a fat-tailed sheep comes from A new history of Ethiopia.: Being a full and accurate description of the kingdom of Abessinia. Vulgarly, though erroneously, called the empire of Prester John. In four books … illustrated with copper plates. by Hiob Ludolf, published in English in 1684. On the subject of “fat and ponderous“ sheep tails, Ludolf says:
the least of them weigh Ten and Twelve, the biggest of them sometimes above forty Pound, so the Owners are forc’d to tye a little Cart behind them, wherein they put the Tayl of the Sheep, as well for the convenience of Carriage and to ease the poor Creature, as to preserve the Wooll from durt and nastiness, and being torn among bushes and stones.
* The latest paper on African cattle is behind a paywall, but Olivier Hanotte wrote an excellent article about it for The Conversation.
* The chicken paper is not behind a paywall. Have fun.
* Nor is a paper on fat-tailed sheep from Ethiopia.
* A proper discussion of fat-tailed sheep will have to wait, but in the meantime, here’s a fascinating blog post (and comments to match) on Anissa Helou’s website.
* Here is the transcript.
* Banner photo of cattle in Mozambique by ILRI/Stevie Mann. Red junglefowl photo by budak.
A Blissful Feast
Teresa Lust teaches Italian at the Rassias Center for World Languages of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and is an acclaimed translator. In some ways, that is the fault of a trip to her mother’s ancestral village in Rocco Canavese, outside Turin. There, she met her family and their foods, which started her on a quest to learn the language properly so that she could learn about the food. In her latest book she brings to life her journeys through Italy and shares the recipes, suitably enhanced for those of use who don’t have an Italian grandmother, and how she came to know them.
* Teresa Lust has a website where you can find out more about A Blissful Feast.
* Back in 2016, Teresa Lust and Harry Paris helped me to understand When is a zucchini not a zucchini?
* Here is the transcript. Thanks to supporters for helping to make it possible.
* Banner photo of grissini by Teresa Lust.
Whole grain labels sow confusion
Timely to a fault, this episode comes out a couple of days after “farmers and meat lobbyists accuse plant-based food producers of ‘cultural hijacking’”. That’s in the EU, where this week the European Parliament will vote whether to ban the phrases “veggie burger“ and “veggie sausage,“ among others. Of course the plant-based food producers will have none of it, saying that “claims of consumer confusion are ridiculous”.
Are they, though? Maybe not for meat, but definitely for whole grain foods.
A recently published study showed that in the US consumers are indeed very easily confused by whole grain labels. In part, that’s because as long as you’re not actually lying, you can say things like “made with whole grains” without saying how much. There are industry-agreed labels, but they offer a fair amount of wiggle room too. So it isn’t really surprising that consumers often cannot decide which of two foods is “healthier”.
Look carefully. There’s actually more salt than whole wheat flour in the one made with whole grains.
Parke Wilde, professor of US Food Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, told me about their research. We also talked about labels more generally.
Opponents of the EU proposals would prefer terms like “veggie disc” and “veggie tube”. I’m almost willing to bet real money that will never happen. But then there’s a whole ‘nother level of confusion, on which I do side with the farmers and the meat industry. Whatever you call them, plant-based discs and tubes are often touted as healthier alternatives, but given how much processing goes into their manufacture, and that — just like products “made with whole grains” — they may contain large quantities of things like salt, sugar and fat, are they really healthier than the red meat they might replace?
* Parke Wilde’s paper is Consumer confusion about wholegrain content and healthfulness in product labels: a discrete choice experiment and comprehension assessment, in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
* The episode transcript is here, thanks to supporters of the podcast.
* The Whole Grain Council’s page on Government Guidance is a good place to start exploring, if you want to learn more. That's where I got the banner photo.
* Quotes about the looming EU battle from The Guardian.
* An earlier episode with Parke Wilde was How much does a nutritious diet cost?
Coffee leaf rust is bad news
Stuart McCookWhen I think of Ceylon — Sri Lanka — I think of tea, but that’s because I wasn’t alive 150 years ago. In the 1860s, coffee was the island’s most important crop. Coffee leaf rust, a fungus, put paid to the coffee, but only after a global downturn in coffee prices, and planters switched to tea. The rust, however, is not the reason the Brits drink tea rather than coffee, just one of the things I learned from Stuart McCook, who has studied the history of coffee leaf rust and what it might hold for the future.
* Stuart McCook’s book is Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust.
* The disease is no stranger to news media. Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning is a recent example that actually says nothing about your morning joe — but does blame rust for Britain’s preference for tea.
* There is a transcript, thanks to the show's supporters.
* Banner photo shows coffee leaf rust inside a leaf, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License
Carême at home in New Zealand
I got an email from careme.co.nz and absolutely had to follow up. What was Carême, perhaps the first great French chef, doing in New Zealand? Turns out, he is Jo Crabb’s hero, so of course that’s what she named her cooking classes and her website. I wanted to find out more, and Jo was kind enough to agree to chat over, I must admit, a slightly dodgy connection.
(I can’t believe I am complaining, but I am. When you can talk forever, for free, halfway around the world, that ought to be enough. But no; I want pristine audio quality too.)
Jo mentioned two local foods — abalone and cabbage tree — that I was not familiar with. Well, I knew of the existence of abalone, but not of pāua, which is the Māori name for the species. Jo said they were absolutely delicious, which seems to be confirmed by the fact that, despite stringent regulation, “there is an extensive black market,“ according to Wikipedia. And here’s an older piece from BBC News: Why abalone is New Zealand’s catch of the day.
Cabbage tree — tī kōuka to the Māori — turns out to be Cordyline australis, which I recognised immediately despite having no idea that it was both edible and useful. Although it is endemic to New Zealand, you see it almost everywhere growing as an ornamental. Unfortunately, in its native home it has been beset by a mystery disease that started to wipe out populations in 1987. Although the cause is now known, a government site says there is still no cure, and exhorts people to keep planting more young cabbage trees.
* Jo Crabb’s website is Carême – Cooking classes in Martinborough. She also has a book — My Two Heavens: A Life in French Food, from Martinborough to Montjaux — available for Kindle.
* Episode transcript is now available.
* Photos from Jo Crabb. The banner shows students in her Easy French class piping out profiteroles.
How the chilli pepper conquered China
Brian Dott researching chillies in ChinaThink of Szechuan food and you think of hot and spicy, chilli-laden dishes. At least, I do. Chilli pepper is firmly established as the most widely used spice around the world, and nowhere more so than in China. And yet, chillies were unknown in China before about 1570. They arrived by at least three different routes, almost certainly more than once in each area, and found favour with ordinary Chinese people extremely rapidly. The ruling classes were not nearly as taken with them, and by and large failed to understand their importance. That contrast lasted through the first two centuries of the chilli in China, although it did not stop chillies eventually permeating Chinese culture high and low. For the people of Szechuan and Hunan, they became an essential part of their identity.
All this, and much, much more, comes from a new book by Professor Brian Dott, of Whitman College in Washington State. He combed through ancient texts and modern to trace the history of chillies in China and how they became such an essential element of life for so many people.
* Brian Dott’s book The Chile Pepper in China is published by Columbia University Press. This link will help you buy it from an independent bookshop in the US and this one in the UK. Both probably ship elsewhere too.
* You can download a transcript, thanks to the generosity of people who support the show financially. Think about joining them.
* I have no idea whether this version of Spicy Girls is a good one, but I thought I would share it anyway.
* Banner photo, by Xinhua, shows farmers in Gansu Province airing drying chillis. I got it here uncredited.
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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.