Cereals provide their offspring with a long-lived supply of energy to power the first growth spurt of the seed. Thousands of years ago, people discovered that they could steal some of the seeds to power their own growth, taking advantage of the storability of seeds to move the food from where it grew to where it might be eaten. Wheat, the pre-eminent cereal, moved along routes that were ancient before the Greek empire, carried, probably, by ox-drawn carts and guided along these black paths by people remembered in Ukraine today as chumaki.
In this episode, Scott Nelson, author of Oceans of Grain, tells me about the various ways in which the ability to move wheat more efficiently changed world history, geography and economics, for starters.
In the trailer for this short series, I presumed some context about the relationship of the topic to the Ukraine, but missed the true mark with the additional context provided here.
Even better, I suspect that some of the history here is right up my alley in relation to work I’ve been doing on oral cultures. Some of it “sounds” like early oral Ukrainian culture is eerily reminiscent to Milman Parry’s work on orality among the guslars of Yugoslavia and reading I’ve been doing on Indigenous astronomy! What a great find. I’ve immediately ordered a copy of the book.
I wouldn’t expect these sorts of information and insight in a typical podcast about food, but Jeremy Cherfas always delivers the goods.
It’s been a long time since I’ve made any listen posts. In part, the biggest blocker has been finding time without a commute during the pandemic to listen to much. Another has been the depressing nature of the news. But I find that I miss a lot of the podcasts and shows I used to listen to. They help to make them happy, so I’m going to try to spend more time to get back to them. I particularly miss On the Media and Eat This Podcast. The nice part is that there’s lots of good stuff to catch up on.
Our Daily Bread was a contribution to the Dog Days of Podcasting, with an episode every day through the month of August 2018.
I obviously don’t post favorites on my website very often, but occasionally I’m reminded of small things in life that I really love. Jeremy‘s depth of research, effort, and love of the subject really shines here. Definitely worth multiple listens as you have the time to savor it…
While physical distancing, instead of my daily commute, and like many others, I’ve been spending the time to make bread. I’ve come up with some great loaves so far. I’m contemplating doing some matzo today.
For those who are new to the bread world, I highly recommend you listen to Jeremy Cherfas’ excellent podcast series on Bread from 2018. It’s 31 episodes of about five minutes a piece, which makes it a pleasant way to time your kneading process. You’ll learn a lot more about bread while you’re making it!
Today’s guest, Michael Victor, has spent the past 16 years living in Laos and getting to know its farming systems and its food. To some extent, that’s become a personal interest. But it is also a professional interest that grew out of his work with farmers and development agencies in Laos. Most recently, he’s been working with The Agro-biodiversity Initiative, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The idea is to make use of agricultural biodiversity in a sustainable way to reduce poverty and improve the livelihoods of people in upland regions. One thing the project has done is to collect all the information it can about agricultural biodiversity and make it available online. When Michael visited Rome recently, I grabbed the chance to find out more about Lao food and diversity.
The Pha Khao Lao website is available in English and Lao.
I think that the restaurant Michael mentioned is Thip Khao in Washington DC. Duly noted for next time. Any reports gladly received.
Some interesting tidbits here, particularly about a society seemingly on the cusp of coming and greater industrialization. I can’t help but thinking about Lynne Kelly’s thesis about indigenous peoples and cultural memory. I suspect that Laotians aren’t practicing memory techniques, but because of technological and cultural changes they are loosing a lot of collective memories about their lifeways, food, and surrounding culture that have built up over thousands (or more) generations.
Porridge, for me, is made of oats, water, a bit of milk and a pinch of salt. Accompaniments are butter and brown sugar or, better yet, treacle, though I have nothing against people who add milk or even cream. So, while I’ve been aware of the inexorable rise of porridge in all its forms, I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the details. When I make, or eat, a risotto or a dal, I certainly don’t think of it as a porridge. Maybe now I will, and all because Laura Valli took the trouble to send me a copy of her research paper Porridge Renaissance and the Communities of Ingestion.
We had fun chatting about porridge, about how she helped start the only porridge cafe in her native Estonia, and about her participation in the World Porridge Making Championship last year, in Carrbridge, Scotland. As a result of which, despite the fact that I am usually the last person in the world to know about the international day of this, that or the other, I’m totally ready for Thursday 10 October and World Porridge Day.
Thank you Laura for getting in touch and for your photos.
On the spurtle, I welcome further details on why you should use one. In the meantime, I note that Neal Robertson, two time winner of the Golden Spurtle, despite having a quiver-full of spurtles to his name, uses a spoon in this video demonstration
A podcast episode that answers many burning questions I’ve long had about spurtles. I remember a few years back reading the back of a package of Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut oats and their extended story of winning the Golden Spurtle which was almost written as ad copy in the style of the J. Peterman Company. Upon looking, I notice that Bob’s website has a Golden Spurtle specific tag, and honestly what self-respecting website wouldn’t? In any case, god bless Jeremy for digging into the science behind the spurtle, though it’s painful remiss that he didn’t link to any of his sources there. My only additions on the speculations about spurtles are:
From a historical perspective, having been made in the 1500’s when cooking fuel was at a higher premium and people may have been more likely to cook in larger/deeper pots over fire, a long thinner spurtle would have been somewhat easier to spin around in a deeper pot, particularly with more viscous porridges compared with soups which may be easier stirred by spoon.
From a manufacturing perspective in the 1500’s, it’s far easier to turn a piece of wood into a decorative cylindrical spurtle, than it is to make a spoon.
Without a flat spoon-like eating surface, using a spurtle makes it more difficult for passing family members to sample the porridge as it’s cooking.
I’m not sure Jeremy got to the root of his question about why porridge was hip and trendy, but I suspect that some of it goes down to the whole grain movement and the rising popularity of “exotic” grains like quinoa, which I recall he’s commented on before. Of course, many restaurants I visit will have at least a simple oatmeal on their breakfast menu, often for $10 or more and there’s nothing that will make food seem more mod than a 1000+% mark up on its fair market value. That combined with the comfort food aspect seems to get people every time, particularly when it’s difficult to mess up a porridge.
I will admit I’ve been eating a lot more porridge over the past few years, but part of it is the fact that I acquired a rice cooker which has a workable porridge setting that allows my grains to soak overnight and then automatically cook so that breakfast is waiting when I rise. My favorite is generally brown sugar with ripe strawberries and a splash of cream.
I was disappointed not to find Laura Valli’s paper Porridge Renaissance and the Communities of Ingestion linked to in the show notes, but apparently it’s because it either isn’t yet published or available online.
I note that Neal Robertson, two time winner of the Golden Spurtle, despite having a quiver-full of spurtles to his name, uses a spoon in this video demonstration.
Jeremy buries the lede here that Neal is also sporting a serious arm tattoo that reads “World Porridge Champion 10.10.10”! Though I do wonder where he keeps the golden spurtle?
I will also admit that as I was making breakfast this morning, my choice of podcast was a bit biased.
Brewers have long appreciated the value of hops from the Pacific northwest, but it was Cascade, a variety practically synonymous with craft brewing, that made the area more generally famous among beer drinkers. Cascade was named for the Cascade Range, which runs down the west coast of North America. The home of the Cascade hop is the Willamette valley, roughly halfway between the mountains and the coast. Cascade was released in 1972, but the history of hops in the Willamette valley goes back to the 1830s. The industry has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs, all examined by historian Peter Kopp in his book Hoptopia.
The whole question of changing tastes in beer, and how that affects the fortunes of different hops, is fascinating. If you’ve been a listener forever, you may remember a very early Eat This Podcast, about the rediscovery of an English hop known prosaically as OZ97a. Deemed too hoppy and abandoned when first tried, the vogue for craft beers resurrected its fortunes. It’s a fun story, though I say so myself.
Cover photo is Ezra Meeker, the early grower of hops in the Willamette valley who pioneered the global marketing of Oregon hops. The booming hop business made him the territory’s first millionnaire, and perhaps also its biggest bust. Hop King: Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years chronicles that part of his long, rich life.
Peter Hertzmann tells a great story of a chef telling a bunch of students to go and double the recipe for a batch of cookies. Minutes later, one returned and said he couldn’t do it because the oven wouldn’t go up to 700 degrees. Ho, ho, ho.
But there’s a serious issue here for people who are trying to follow a recipe without a clear understanding of the process and methods beneath it. Come to think of it, Peter says, even for professionals, there can be big problems trying to follow some modern recipes. Which prompts me to wonder, how many people these days buy cookbooks in order to use the recipes?
Peter Hertzmann’s website à la carte will keep you occupied for hours. If you just want the paper we were talking about, here it is.
Measure for Measure is the article I mentioned by Raymond Sokolov on why Americans measure by volume. It was published in Natural History magazine, July 1988, pp 80–83, and there seems also to be a version in the 1988 Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking. Good luck finding it online. Or, drop me a note …
So many useful and important things in this episode. We need more content about food that helps teach people how to really cook. There isn’t nearly enough basic knowledge about science among cooks for them to really do their job as well as they should. Too much cooking media these days is geared at aspirational cooking rather than actual cooking. Our sad dependence on recipes is just deplorable. It kills me that most people don’t know how to properly measure ingredients.
Shortly after the end of World War 2 in Europe, one of the quintessential boffins who had worked on the war effort turned his attention to the most pressing problem of the peace: a shortage of coal and oil. But where others saw the problem as a lack of transport, Geoffrey Pyke, saw a much more fundamental problem; a lack of food. Food required transport, and there was no fuel to power the engines. Pyke came up with a solution. Use the chemical energy in food to fuel muscular engines.
This episode is an abbreviated version of a paper on Food as Power: An Alternative View, which I am presenting on 30 May 2018 at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium. The entire symposium is on Food and Power, so what’s alternative about my view? Pyke’s insight, that the production and transport of food requires muscular power, remains true today, and despite the very clear evidence and advice that Pyke offered in 1946, it also remains more or less ignored.
Muscles versus steam engines
A crucial part of Pyke’s argument is the greater efficiency of muscles compared to steam engines, and that slips by relatively quickly in the podcast. So, here’s the diagram that Pyke published in The Economist
Efficiencies of steam engine and human muscle compared. Apologies for quality; photographed on a monitor.
And here’s the detailed logic:
A pound of coal contains about 3150 calories, and if fed directly into a steam engine will produce about 175 calories of useful work. A pound of coal can also be used to refine sugar beets, in which case it will produce about a pound of sugar. The sugar contains about 1820 calories. Feed that to a man, and his muscles can turn it into about 365 calories of useful work. The man’s overall efficiency is about 11.5 percent, versus the steam engine’s 5.5 percent. Convert the coal into sugar, then, and you can get twice the useful work out of people than if you feed the coal to a steam engine.
Pyke argued that it would be “more economic, and politically necessary” to use what little coal there was to refine beet sugar than to power locomotives. And, as he sagely pointed out:
Half of the sugar–given the appropriate equipment– would be needed for the haulers taking the place of the steam engines, but the other half would be available to feed other workers such as coal miners, whose present output is so heavily reduced for want of food.
Muscles still do most of the work
Seventy years on, FAO estimates that muscles still provide 94 percent of the energy for global food production, about one-third animal muscle and two-thirds human muscle. One of the abiding problems is that women, who produce much of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, often have no choice but to use inefficient tools, designed for and bought by men. So metaphorical power also is relevant. But perhaps the saddest observation is that engineers have done masses of work to create tools and machines that make better use of the muscular power supplied by smallholder farmers and draught animals. These tools and machines have proved themselves in manifold trials on experimental stations, but they are ignored by the farmers for whom they were developed. The Colonial Office, in 1946, warned Pyke that it would be the people, not the equipment, that might pose a problem, and so it has proved. One report I read was rather plaintively subtitled “Perfected but rejected”.
In the previous episode, I talked to Phil Howard of Michigan State University about concentration in the food industry. Afterwards, I realised I had been so taken up with what he was telling me that I forgot to ask him one crucial question.
Is there any effect of concentration on public health or food safety?
It seems intuitively obvious that if you have long food chains, dependent on only a few producers, there is the potential for very widespread outbreaks. That is exactly what we are seeing in the current outbreaks of dangerous E. coli on romaine lettuce and Salmonella in eggs. But it is also possible that big industrial food producers both have the capital to invest in food safety and face stiffer penalties when things go wrong.
Are small producers and short food chains better? Marc Bellemare, at the University of Minnesota, has uncovered a strong correlation between some food-borne illnesses and the number of farmers’ markets relative to the population.
Phil thinks one answer is greater decentralization. There’s no good reason why all the winter lettuce and spinach in America should come from a tiny area around Yuma, Arizona. Marc says consumer education would help; we need to handle the food we buy with more attention to keeping it safe. Both solutions will take quite large changes in behaviour, by government and by ordinary people.
Right now, it probably isn’t possible to say with any certainty whether one system is inherently safer than the other. But even asking the question raises some interesting additional questions. If you have answers, or even suggestions, let me know.
Banner photo, norovirus. Cover photo, E. coli. Both public domain to the best of my knoweldge.
I can’t help but think about analogizing the mass production and distribution of food to that of social media (again). Replace food producers with social media and you’ve got large mega-producers like Facebook and Twitter at one end and smaller scale indie producers at the other. Surely outbreaks of issues with democracy, bulllying, racism, doxxing, etc. will happen all around, but when they happen on the larger platforms, then far more people are affected.
From an economic standpoint it would be nice to have more significant studies to see what the overall pieces of large and small producers are (as well as for the distribution piece too). What is the ultimate equilibrium point for overall cost versus public health? What would it look like theoretically?
A rainbow handful of carrots graces the cover of Peter Hertzmann’s new book. But, as I discovered when I spoke to Peter, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Or even, apparently, by its title: 50 Ways to Cook a Carrot. Because although all the methods (not recipes!) feature carrots in one form or another, they’re intended to offer techniques that, Peter insists, you can apply to many other vegetables, fruits, and even meat and fish.
There is, indeed, much to be learned from the book, even for an experienced cook, and I have already successfully applied one of the methods to some leeks. The UK edition of the book, published by Prospect Books, is available now, but it won’t be available in the US for a couple of months. However, Prospect kindly agreed to send a copy to one lucky winner.
Next Monday (28 October) I will pick someone at random from all of those who subscribe to Eat This Newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, you don’t need to do anything, although I would appreciate if you spread the word and thereby diminish your own chances. If you’re not a subscriber, do sign up now, and feel free to diminish your chances too by persuading friends to sign up.
This podcast always sparks such joy for me. Sadly I love it so much that I can not just consume it in the same gourmand way I do the vast majority of the podcasts I listen to. I always feel the guilty-pleasure-need to carve out specific time to sit down and listen to it so that I can be a far more active listener than not. The worst part is that it means I’m not listening to it as frequently as I’d like. Sometimes you just can’t win.
I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree with Peter Hertzmann’s view of cooking pedagogy. It’s NEVER about the recipe, instead it’s all about the method. If you have the knowledge of the methods of cooking and know some ingredients then you’re set. Now of course when it comes to baking and a few other small sub-areas then having the proper ratios of ingredients becomes useful too. The rest is just taking the science of cooking and bring it up to the sublime level of art.
I’ve got a copy of the book on pre-order for it’s release on January 14, 2020 and based on Jeremy’s interview I suspect it’ll take up residence on the shelf right next to McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Ruhlman’s Ratio.
The MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative is developing “Off Earth Gastronomy”--a collection of thought-provoking recipes, tools for eating, whimsical experiences and culinary designs for life in space.
Deadline to apply: July 15, 2019
MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative welcomes all forms of submissions from project briefs to existing designs (recipes, experiential designs, tools for eating, short stories, illustrations, photos) surrounding the future of food in outer space.
Small bakers couldn’t compete with the giants created by Allied Bakeries, so they turned to science. That produced the Chorleywood bread process, which gave them a quicker, cheaper loaf. Unfortunately, the giant bakeries gobbled up the new method too. More and more small bakeries went out of business as a loaf of bread became cheaper and cheaper. Was it worth it? You tell me.
Photo of Beaumont House, former HQ of the British Baking Industries Research Association, where the Chorleywood Bread Process was invented, by Diamond Geezer. It is now a care home.
Size brings benefits to bakeries as much as to flour mills. The episode tells a small part of the story of how George Weston turned a bakery route in Toronto into one of the biggest food companies in the world, responsible for more brands of bread than you can imagine. And not just the bread, but many of the ingredients that make megabakeries possible.
Stone mills served us well in the business of turning grain into flour for thousands of years, but they couldn’t keep up with either population growth or new and better wheat. The roller mill came about through a succession of small inventions and the deep pockets of a few visionary entrepreneurs. They turned Minneapolis into the flour capital of the world.