I am a mad scientist, spoons are really interesting, and other things I learned this week

Hello, readers. I’m sorry for the hiatus — I’ve been working all sorts of odd hours the past two weeks, so sleep has recently taken priority over research. My plan is to have a post up this weekend! In the meantime, though, some of my friends and family have started to send me interesting links about food, so I thought it might be fun for me to share some things I’ve been reading/learning this week about food, history, and everything in between. Here we go:

“Don’t let the apron deceive you: Bakers are mad scientists.”

Speaking of baking chemistry, if you’ve ever wondered why red velvet cakes are red, i09 credits it to science. Speaking of food color, 17th century fraud helped spur on bright orange cheese. And speaking of cheese, macaroni and cheese used to be the food of royalty, so even if we’ll never be royals (royals), you can still pretend to be one as you eat your Kraft.

“For longtime food obsessives, today’s foodie is like the person who just discovered the band that you’ve been loving since the ’90s, and who tells everyone, with no sense of self-awareness, how great this new band is.” So says Gabrielle Gershenson in First We Feast’s “State of the Union: What does the word ‘foodie’ mean in 2013?“, a snarky but interesting collection of opinions from food experts.

Too much of too little” is a great read from the Washington Post about how the “food stamp diet” leaves people both hungry and obese. An excerpt that sums up the problem pretty nicely:

“Hidalgo County has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation . . . which has led almost 40 percent of residents to enroll in the food-stamp program . . . which means a widespread reliance on cheap, processed foods . . . which results in rates of diabetes and obesity that double the national average . . . which fuels the country’s highest per-capita spending on health care.

This is what El Futuro looks like in the Rio Grande Valley: The country’s hungriest region is also its most overweight, with 38.5 percent of the people obese. For one of the first times anywhere in the United States, children in South Texas have a projected life span that is a few years shorter than that of their parents.

It is a crisis at the heart of the Washington debate over food stamps, which now help support nearly 1 in 7 Americans. Has the massive growth of a government feeding program solved a problem, or created one? Is it enough for the government to help people buy food, or should it go further by also telling them what to eat?”

But while the article shows children from poor families are more likely to be overweight or obese, the Pew Research Center found that obesity and poverty don’t always go hand-in-hand in adulthood. Any thoughts on that?

I’ve been reading “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” on and off for the past few weeks, as time allows. Bee Wilson’s writing is quite lovely and conversational, making even ruminations on the history of spoons sound interesting:

“Spoons hold up a mirror to the surrounding culture precisely because they are so universal. There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures; but all the peoples of the world use spoons. The particular form they take is therefore very revealing: a pretty Chinese porcelain blue-and-white spoon for wonton soup is part of an entirely different culture of eating than a Russian spoon filled with sticky preserves or the lade-like wooden spoons used in poor European households to eat soup from a communal pot, passed from mouth to mouth.”

If you don’t have time to curl up with the whole book, the New Yorker highlighted some of its historical gems in an article about it.

So, what have you learned this week? Anything interesting?

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Nazi-killing carrots // Spiced carrot ginger soup

It sounds like something you might find on weird Twitter account @realcarrotfacts: “Fun Fact carrots help night-fighter pilots kill Nazis! Eat more Carrot” (yes, I know, the Internet is a bizarre place). But it’s (kind of) true: While it’s pretty common knowledge that carrots are good for your eye health, the British took it a step further and claimed in World War II that the British night-fighters’ ability to shoot down German bombers was because the carrots they ate helped them to see in the dark. So, will consuming mass amounts of carrots help you to become a Nazi killer with night vision? Well, sorry, but no. But how did the story get started in the first place?

As an island nation, Britain had depended heavily on imported food before the war, but when the Germans began blockading imports to the country, the government imposed strict rations on food, clothing, and fuel. The only foods that were never rationed were “Bread, potatoes, coffee, vegetables, fruit and fish, though choice and availability of the last three were often limited.”

Doesn't that look delicious? Image courtesy World Carrot Museum.

Doesn’t that look delicious? Image courtesy World Carrot Museum.

One vegetable that was in abundance, though, was carrots. They were available in plentiful supply, so much so that the Ministry of Agriculture heavily promoted carrots as a substitute for other vegetables and for sugar in certain desserts, and published pamphlets promoting carrot recipes. Some of the carroty recipes that circulated during the war were questionable at best — you won’t catch me making carrot marmalade or “Carrolade” anytime soon. By January 1942, the Ministry of Food was still trying to find a market for a 100,000-ton surplus of carrots.

Away from the Kitchen Front, the government had another little problem: German bombers. In August 1940, Germany began bombing British ports, air force bases, and eventually civilian populations, including the city of London. But after the Royal Air Force (RAF) launched a highly successful counterattack against the Luftwaffe’s day raids in September, the Germans switched to nighttime bombings of London, thinking that would make it more difficult for British pilots to shoot down German planes.

But the Germans didn’t know the British had a new, superior technology on their side: Airborne Interception Radar, which allowed them to pinpoint enemy planes before they reached the English channel. When the technology proved successful, the British were determined to keep it a secret. So, to distract the Germans, the British began spreading the rumor that their exceptional pilots’ successes were due to their love of carrots. An Australian WWII vet James Hughes, who had worked in the Royal Air Force as a squadron navigation leader, told an Australian newspaper, “The government didn’t want the Germans to find out about it so they organised for some of us to meet the media and eat a whole heap of raw carrots.”

It’s unclear whether the Germans actually believed this (I’m thinking not), but the British civilian population apparently believed it and began eating more carrots, with the thought that it would help them to see better — and thus stay safer — during the compulsory blackouts that occurred during air raids.

Spiced carrot ginger soup

So, sorry, carrots won’t help you kill Nazis. But if you still want to get a healthy dose of vitamin A and you want a recipe that’s slightly more appealing than carrot pudding (seriously, that sounds nasty), I highly recommend Jennifer Pallian’s spiced carrot ginger soup at Foodess.com.

I won’t repost it here, because it’s her recipe and thus you should check it out on her site, but I promise you that it’s delicious. It’s comforting and warm, with just enough spice to keep it interesting. Bonus points if you cook it with carrots grown from your own Victory Garden.

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Sorry, hippies, granola wasn’t made for you // Pumpkin spice granola

You can’t talk about granola without evoking the consumer we culturally associate the most with granola — i.e., the “Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching hippie,” who’s almost definitely vegan and dirty and living on a commune in Vermont. When I rhetorically asked my parents at breakfast recently about the origins of granola, my mom suggested, only somewhat jokingly, “Well, when all those hippies were up at Woodstock and tripping on drugs, they found some berries and acorns and thought, ‘hey, this is a great meal!'” (We then proceeded to have a fascinating family conversation about LSD, but I digress.)

But as it turns out, granola has its roots in a health food trend that predates Woodstock. The earliest iteration of granola was created in the mid 19th century with Dr. James Caleb Jackson, an abolitionist and journalist turned health nut in New York. After getting relief from health problems via a “water cure” at a spa, he became an enthusiastic advocate for spa treatments, eventually running his own spa at a therapeutic mineral spring. Along with these water treatments, he became a fierce advocate for strictly healthy diets — red meat, tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco were all discouraged at his spa, and he himself was a strict vegetarian.

As a substitute for all the heavy, greasy food people were used to eating for breakfast, he developed Granula, the first breakfast cereal. It wasn’t very close to our modern conception of granola, though — Granula was made from dense chunks of baked Graham (yes, like the crackers) flour that had to be soaked in milk overnight before it even became edible.

Fast forward about 15 years to the 1870s at Battle Creek Sanatarium in Michigan, which was at the time the best-known health resort in the country. Run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Henry Ford and many other famous guests would go to the swanky institution, which said it “combined the comforts of the home and the hotel with the medical advantages of the hospital.” There were “baths of every description, electricity in its different forms, medical gymnastics, and other rational agencies, with careful regulation of diet.”

The “careful regulation of diet” was a big part of Dr. Kellogg’s work. He worked to develop lines of health goods for his visitors, including “a cereal coffee substitute, various dextrinized and malted or predigested foods, and various toasted flaked cereals.” Predigested foods — how delicious. One of these products was his own version of Granula, which he made with oats instead of Graham flour. After Dr. Jackson sued him for infringing on his trademark, Kellogg changed the name to Granola and began advertising it in medical journals, with ads that claimed, “by a scientific process in its manufacture, [it] is given a taste of that resembling rich nuts.”

People must not have liked the taste of “rich nuts,” though, because Granola soon fell to the wayside when Dr. Kellogg’s flaked corn cereal — also known as Corn Flakes — took off at the turn of the century.

By the time granola was revived in the ’70s as part of the health food trend, it still didn’t taste that great on its own — one of the earliest manufacturers admitted to not liking the food, “But she recalls she once had a horse that ‘was real fond’ of it.” But people liked feeling healthy, and corporations quickly started to develop granola-type cereals to meet demand. They immediately took off — granola-type cereals increased in market share from less than 2 percent in January 1973 to about 14 percent in May 1974.

Nowadays, most grocery stores carry premade granola, but it’s usually loaded down with so much sugar that you might as well be eating Kellogg’s Froot Loops. That’s why I like making my own granola: I can control how sweet it is, you can easily adjust it to match your preferences, and it’s the simplest thing ever to make from home.

Granola has three basic staples: Dry ingredients, wet ingredients, and dried fruit (technically a dry ingredient, I know, calm down). This recipe uses 4.5 cups of dry ingredients (nuts, rolled oats, quinoa or seeds if you’re feeling fancy) to about 5/6 cup of wet ingredients, plus a cup of dried fruit. For the wet ingredients, I’d recommend a 1/3 cup of honey or maple syrup to make it stick, and then a half-cup of some other liquid. I used pumpkin butter because it’s what I had in my fridge today, but I’ve seen other recipes that use vegetable oil or applesauce. Or, you could just do 2/3 cup honey and be done with it. It’s up to you!

Here’s my current granola recipe of choice. It’s pretty basic, and it’s more savory than sweet, but I think Doctors Jackson and Kellogg would prefer it that way.

Pumpkin Spice Granola

(Recipe is mine)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups instant rolled oats
  • 1.5 cups almonds
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin butter
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix the rolled oats, almonds, and cinnamon together.

Add the wet ingredients and stir until the dry ingredients are evenly coated.

Stir in the cup of cranberries.

Spread the granola evenly across the cookie sheet and put it in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Pull it out of the oven every 10 minutes to stir the granola.

When it’s done, resist the urge to immediately pop some in your mouth (I have the burnt tongue to prove that is a bad idea). Wait for it to cool, then eat it over a bowl of yogurt or milk (or eat it plain!). Store it in an airtight container.

 

(So, what do you guys think so far? Do you want less history? More history? More anecdotes? Next week I’m probably going to talk about how the myth of carrots was created to fight Nazis [no, seriously], so stay tuned!)

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An Introduction

When I first started to cook and bake for myself in college, the first place that I turned to was, naturally, the Internet. There are innumerable food blogs out there, with recipes for anything and everything you can imagine.

But over the years, I’ve noticed how disconnected those blogs can often feel from the rest of the world. Sure, in many blogs, the women will talk about things outside the kitchen, like their family or their job, but no one ever seems to talk about the connections the kitchen has to the rest of the world.

The kitchen doesn’t exist in a vacuum — every component of a meal, every step in a recipe has a million invisible threads to both world history and contemporary events. The pot you pull out of your cupboard is the end result of thousands of years of discovering metals and testing materials to determine what heats food the best. The corn you toss in the pot to boil is a historic mystery, and continues to be controversial today with GMOs and patented seeds. Even the way you boil the water to cook the corn is scandalous — or at least, it would be to the Victorians. And of course, you can’t talk about purchasing all the ingredients for your meal without thinking about the economic implications of food access today.

So, let’s talk about these connections. I’m neither a historian nor a professional cook — really, I’m just a recent college grad who dabbles in both — but I hope to pair recipes with a healthy dose of historical and/or sociopolitical context that makes you consider and appreciate where your food came from. It’s thought for food, if you will.

And since I don’t claim to be an expert in any of these things I’m discussing, I’m hoping that this blog can be more of a conversation than just me geeking out into the internet void. I’m hoping you, dear reader, will ask questions, or provide suggestions or guidance, or just share your thoughts on whatever I’ve discussed that week. Let’s hang out in the (virtual) kitchen together and geek out about the world.

My first real post will be up by the end of the week. Stay tuned…

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