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.
Fully Tested Tuna
Sean Wittenberg, Safe Catch CEOThere is an awful lot of disagreement on the subject of mercury in fish and shellfish and how harmful it might be to people. That’s especially true for tuna, which are top predators that accumulate mercury from all the fish they eat over their long lives. Many countries, including the USA, offer guidelines about how much tuna it is “safe” to eat, but there are problems with that. First, not all tuna is tested for mercury. And second, some individual fish contain way more mercury than others. Safe Catch is a relative newcomer to canned tuna, with a unique selling point: it tests every single fish, and to a standard 10 times more stringent than the level at which the FDA might take action.
Sean Wittenberg, CEO of Safe Catch, told me how his company came about and how it operates.
* Safe Catch’s website.
* Transcript, thanks to my generous supporters.
* Astonishing tuna photograph by Tom Benson on flickr
Biodiversity at Liberty
Since 1966, the European Union has had the most restrictive laws in the world on agricultural biodiversity. To be marketed, a variety has to be distinct, uniform and stable, which in principle means the individual plants have to be effectively identical. This has never suited organic farmers or any other smaller scale growers, including home gardeners. Finally, after a few false starts, a new regulation permitted the marketing of “organic heterogeneous material” from January 2022.
One of the organisations that campaigned for the new regulation is Let’s Liberate Diversity, an association of European groups. I went along to their 10th anniversary forum to hear how farmers and food producers were responding to the new regulation.
* Find out more about Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen and Biocivam Aude.
* Let’s Liberate Diversity published a round-up of all the events at the Budapest forum.
* The farmers Yumi Biagini is working with are looking for varieties from climate analogues, places that currently experience the kind of climate that they expect in the future. There used to be a marvellously easy tool to find climate analogues, but it seems to have vanished without trace. Best I can find is this explanation from Oregon State University.
* Rouge de Bordeaux photograph from Moulin du Courneau on Instagram. 3F image from Drie Fonteinen.
Feed Your Baby Like a Fascist
At the end of the previous episode on mothers’ milk Professor Amy Brown mentioned an important source of anxiety for new mothers: they cannot easily see how much their baby has eaten, and that pushes them to use a see-through bottle and switch from breast to formula. It may surprise you to learn that the Italian Fascist regime came up with a solution 90 years ago. In this episode, Professor Diana Garvin provides some insights into Fascist breastfeeding, and a friend of mine explains how it lingered to traumatise mothers 50 years on, and continues to do so today.
As for why this episode is being published today, rather than on Monday, that’s because the Fascists chose 24 December 1933 to first celebrate the Giornata della madre e del fanciullo, the day of the mother and the child. Why Christmas Eve? Diana Garvin says it was “originally meant to coincide with the mother Mary’s labour pains. Ostensibly.”
That ostensibly is interesting, because while they might have been against the church, the Fascists must have known that Mary suffered no labour pains at all. At least not after the middle of the 14th century.
That was when Birgitta Birgersdotter, later to become St Bridget of Sweden, had a vision in the little town of Bethlehem, one of a series of visions that started when she was quite young, which had a profound impact on art and depictions of the nativity. Bridget relates how, in this vision, she “saw the One lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it”. In another vision, Mary says “When I gave birth to him, it was also without any pain.” So, no labour pains.
Giotto's Nativity from the lower church in Assisi, painted around 1310 and thus before St Bridget, shows a reclining Mary, who may well be exhausted by her labour.
Before Bridget, many depictions of the nativity show Mary lying down exhausted and resting, as a new mother surely would. After, she is usually shown kneeling before the baby emanating light, along with the manger, Joseph and a candle and various other details she envisioned.
* Diana Garvin’s latest book is Feeding Fascism: The Politics of Women’s Food Work published by University of Toronto Press. Articles include Taylorist Breastfeeding in Rationalist Clinics: Constructing Industrial Motherhood in Fascist Italy and Reproductive Health Care from Fascism to Forza Nuova.
* I am very grateful to my friend Susan for sharing her memories of breastfeeding her son in Italy.
* Huge thanks to Jennifer Wilkin Penick for alerting me to the significance of St Bridget in the history of art.
* We have a transcript.
* St Bridget’s words from The Prophecies and Revelations of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden.
* Cover photo by Lucy Clink.
* Music: Jumbel from Blue Dot Sessions.
Some thoughts on markets and such
It has been a difficult year for food supplies, and even more so for food markets. Prices everywhere seem to be higher than they have been for a long time, and that’s just in retail shops. On international commodity markets, things have been wild. Wheat shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but had started rising well before that, in mid 2021. Prices began to drift down in mid-May, while fighting was still intense and no wheat had yet left the Black Sea. As became clear, there was no great global shortage of wheat, although it had become scarce.
There was a lot of talk about speculators and starvation, which just happens to be the topic of a blog post by David Zetland, an American political economist who teaches at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He, like me, had long dismissed claims that speculators exacerbated price increases, but unlike me had changed his mind, at least in some cases. Of course I wanted to understand why, so I asked David to walk me through that and other some fundamental economic ideas as they relate to food and water.
* Crops, speculation and starvation was the piece that prompted me to book a talk with David Zetland.
* His personal site is a gateway to his many other activities, including The Little Book of The Commons.
* More can be said about crop insurance, a lot more, and soon I hope to find people to say it here. A good place to start is this piece by Aaron Smith at UC Davis.
* A transcript! On time!
* DALL-E made the images for me.
A Restaurant’s Reckoning
Perhaps unsurprisingly, barbecue restaurants have featured in two really important decisions of the US Supreme Court. Katzenbach v. McClung held that Ollie’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama, despite being a minuscule mom and pop operation, was nevertheless subject to the Civil Rights Act and could not deny table service on the basis of race. Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, in addition to denying the owner’s racist justification that “his religious beliefs compel him to oppose any integration of the races whatever,” also established that plaintiffs in civil rights cases were entitled to recover their legal fees if successful. Ollie’s, apart from a brief later renaissance, closed in 2001. Piggie Park is still going strong, still claiming to be the World’s Best Bar-B-Q.
Maurice Bessinger — the man who started Piggie Park — was an out-and-out racist. His sons, who run the business now, have to contend with that legacy. But they don’t seem willing to confront it.
Gabriela Glueck, a graduate student at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, offered me her story on Piggie Park. I was delighted to accept.
* Gabriela Glueck’s website. Aside from Lloyd and Paul Bessinger and Michael Bessinger, she also spoke to Angela Jill Cooley at Minnesota State University and Soul Scholar Adrian E. Miller.
* America’s Most Political Food is Lauren Collins’ New Yorker article about BBQ and politics.
* The tension between Black pioneers of BBQ and racist restaurateurs has a long history. The story of Henry Perry, the Black entrepreneur who created Kansas City Barbecue, among many others, shows that whites were only too happy to eat Black barbecue, even if they weren’t happy to reciprocate. But I’m getting out of my depth.
* Photo by Gabriela Glueck, who also used Lumber Down, On Early Light, The Dustbin, Grand Caravan, Santo Apure, Lobo Lobo and Persimmon St from Blue Dot Sessions.
How to be a good host and a good guest
Megan Dean (left) and Matthew Smith (right)
World Philosophy Day happens later this week, which makes it a good time to be asking what constitutes good behaviour in a host and, equally, in a guest. I’m prompted by a recent article that took the rise in food allergies and intolerances as a starting point to ask how a host should act when faced with a guest whose professed allergies seem a tad suspect. Is it OK to ignore guest requests as snowflake signifiers? What should guests do when faced with intolerable food that they failed to inform their host about? In a perfect world, hosts and guests would accommodate one another’s needs; the world, however, is not perfect.
* Megan A. Dean’s article The “Worst Dinner Guest Ever”: On “Gut Issues” and Epistemic Injustice at the Dinner Table appeared in Gastronomica 2022.
* The books Megan Dean mentioned were Elizabeth Telfer’s Food for Thought and Karen Stohr’s On Manners.
* Matthew Smith has an article in the same volume and has written about the rise in food allergies.
* There is, of course, a countervailing view to all this mutual respect of hosts and guests, the idea of dinner party as revenge. For an entertaining take on that, I recommend you start with Jesse Browner’s Shark Bait, also in Gastronomica.
* Here is the transcript.
A great variety of fascinating topics covered in an enlightened and enjoyable way. Short and to the point podcasts then send you down tracks to follow on your own for those topics and guests that the listener finds most interesting…
Listen only if you’re curious about food and agriculture
And who isn’t curious about food and ag.? :) This podcast manages the fine line between delightful comfort food and adventurous-to-me forgotten food. Jeremy’s voice is lovely, his curiosity about food is boundless, and respect for his guests is sincere. Whether it’s the history of bread or heirloom apples in Ireland (600?!?), I enjoy each episode. Thank you for sharing your conversations with us, Jeremy.
Love this traveler/ writer/ food aficionado so delighted to find this well presented and intelligent podcast. Coupling my intense desire to get back to traveling with my unending desire to learn about foodways from all over the eatable globe. Thank you both for a nourishing interview.