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.
The International Year of Fruits and Vegetables
Another year, another International Year. Several, probably. The one that concerns me is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, as designated by the United Nations and implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
I’m deeply skeptical about these things, and always wonder how else the money could have been spent to better effect. But the money is never available to be spent on anything else. So I’ll just take the opportunity to rail against people who can’t seem to separate the partially overlapping magisteria of botany and cuisine.
* International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021
* I just need to tidy up my notes, and then there’ll be a transcript here.
* New year, new season, new appeal for support.
Professor Donald WorsterIt’s time to face an uncomfortable fact. After more than 200 episodes devoted in their various ways to what we eat and drink, I’ve never looked at the direct consequences of all that ingestion: excretion. Time to remedy that, by talking to Professor Donald Worster. The ostensible reason is his essay The Good Muck: Toward an Excremental History of China. While we do discuss the origins and details of what he calls “the faeces economy,” there’s a lot more to it than that. Excrement is unavoidable. But is it simply a waste product, to be dumped out of sight and out of mind? Or is it a valuable resource that we squander at our peril?
* I’m pretty sure that neither of the Donald Worsters you will locate on Twitter is the real thing. However, The Good Muck: Toward an Excremental History of China is available to download at The Rachel Carson Center.
* Here's the transcript.
* The problem of human waste is still with us, even in the “rich” world. Two weeks ago, The New Yorker published The Heavy Toll of the Black Belt’s Wastewater Crisis.
* The poor world too, more so, but for some reason the people actually doing something about it don’t want to talk to us about their work.
* You can also download Franklin King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries; or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, which is where I got the banner photograph.
How the Brits became a nation of tea drinkers
Erika RappaportErika Rappaport’s study of tea meticulously documents the many ways in which tea, as it became one of the first global commodities, was responsible for so many aspects of modern life. In the course of our conversation, it became obvious that there is no single reason why the Brits turned to tea. They were drinking roughly equal amounts of tea and coffee to begin with, long before coffee leaf rust arrived in Ceylon, but it was mostly Chinese tea. When the British East India Company decided to try their hand growing tea in Assam, they came up against one big problem: back home, nobody much liked the taste of Indian tea. Persuading them to change their minds was a massive undertaking involving racist rhetoric, fearmongering, and little glimpses of heaven on earth. And it worked.
“Comparative Consumption,” Sir James Buckingham, A Few Facts about Indian Tea and How to Brew It(London: Indian Tea Association, 1910, p. 4. British Library shelf mark 07076.48 (4).
* Erika Rappaport shared just a few stories from tea’s not so glorious history. There is masses more in her book, and if you’re looking for a long read in which to lose yourself (or a loved one), I highly recommend A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World.
* Not entirely by chance, I also watched a video of William Dalrymple talking about his newish book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. Tea barely gets a look in, but there is so much else to digest.
* There is now a transcript, thanks to the show's supporters
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?
Customer ReviewsSee All
So well researched and interesting!
Jeremy creates such an amazing podcast. I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things from all around the world. His narration, remarks, humor and music are perfection!
Enjoy his bites of the food world
If you haven’t been paying attention, Eat This Podcast is a fantastic series on food, but it it uses the “foods we eat to examine and shed light on the lives we lead, from authenticity to zoology”. Food becomes his “vehicle to explore the byways of taste, economics and trade, culture, science, history, archaeology, geography and just about anything else.”
It’s unlike much of anything I’ve seen or followed in the food space for some time. As someone who is a fan of the science of food and fantastic writers like Harold McGee, Herve This, Alton Brown, Tom Standage, Michael Pollan, Nathan Myhrvold, Maxime Bilet, Matt Gross, and Michael Ruhlman (to name only a few), Eat This Podcast is now a must listen for me.
Not only are the episodes always interesting and unique, they’re phenomenally well researched and produced. You’d think he had a massive staff and production support at the level of a news organization like NPR. By way of mentioning NPR, I wanted to highlight the thought, care, and skill he puts into not only the stunning audio quality, but into the selection of underlying photos, musical bumpers, and the links to additional resources he finds along the way.
And if my recommendation isn’t enough, then perhaps knowing that this one person effort has been nominated for the James Beard Award in both 2015 and 2016 may tip the scales?
If you haven’t listened to any of them yet, I highly recommend you take a peek at what he has to offer. You can subscribe, download, and listen to them all for free. If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll follow my lead and make a pledge to support his work on Patreon as well.