Henry Hobhouse’s book Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind (now six, with the addition of cacao) contains the remarkable fact that at the height of the slave trade a single teaspoon of sugar cost six minutes of a man’s life to produce. Reason enough to cheer the abolition of slavery, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean that everything is sweetness and light in the business of sugar. Or salt. A photo gallery in The Big Picture made that very clear, and inspired Rachel Laudan, a food historian, to write in praise of industrial salt and sugar.
We often don’t know how lucky we are to live in the modern highly linked world. The concept of industrialized foods like salt and sugar and their prior histories will certainly bring our situation into high relief. The history here and its broad effects could certainly be fit into the broader category of big history as well.
Most dilettante foodies I know probably regard frozen beef as an acceptable substitute only when fresh is unavailable. Sure the fresh must be grass-fed, dry-aged, properly hung and all that – but mostly it must be fresh, not frozen. However, unless your climate is wonderfully mild, that grass-fed beef is going to be eating something else over the winter, and that’s not great for the meat. Ari LeVaux, a syndicated food writer, reckons that except at the end of the growing season, when the animals have just finished feasting on lush pastures, well-frozen good beef is a far better option than fresh. When we spoke last week, I started by asking Ari why most people – foodies included – have such a poor opinion of frozen beef?
In fact, I’d say there is a general misconception about “freshness”. There was a rage for fresh pasta in England a while ago. And to me it was unfathomable. Good dried pasta is so superior to the slimy industrial stuff that it is almost another food. Sure, fresh often is good. But with foods that can be preserved in other ways, and have been, a good product properly prepared is often superior.
As for the nutritional composition of grass-fed versus conventional beef, there clearly is a difference. A mega-review by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that milk and meat from grass-fed animals has lower total fat than conventional, but the fat is higher in what might loosely be termed “good” fats, things like omega–3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid. On the other hand, the evidence for health benefits is more mixed. Some studies on animals and people have shown benefits, but they are by no means absolutely conclusive.
So on its own, better nutrition is perhaps not enough reason to seek out grass-fed beef. On the other hand, if omega–3 fats are what you really want, you can do much better eating oily fish. But hey! It can’t hurt, and eating great beef less often is a win in so many other areas.
After listening to this I’m assuredly going to have to look around online for a proper purveyor of frozen beef now. I’ve read several of the studies on the general health benefits of grass fed beef over cornfed, which it terrifically unnatural in the first place.
Frozen meat from the summer slaughter season for the winter months may be just the ticket to a higher quality product. (Though admittedly, they’re right on taking the proper precautions for the freezing/thawing processes as this can make all the difference.)
I find it interesting that the economics of the situation don’t help to better drive this process in the market. While the podcast mentions companies like Whole Foods attempting to educate their customers, I certainly haven’t come across this idea previously, and I typically go out of my way to consume this type of information.
The tough part of the process is determining when the product was frozen, as I’m sure many processors may just as readily freeze their excess winter slaughter. I checked in a local high end grocery store today and found a few types of frozen grass fed beef, including one from New Zealand, but the packaging didn’t indicate when it was frozen or even by whom in the process. There was only an obscure future date which I could only take to be either a “sell by” or “consume by” date as it wasn’t otherwise marked. If purveyors want to improve their position in the market, providing this type of data would be helpful, though I suspect it’s more in their interest not to indicate anything at all unless bulk purchasers and distributors like Whole Foods pressure them to do so. Perhaps the majority of the demand in the market (and specialty pricing) stops at the words “grass fed”?
Be sure to click through to the notes and additional resources for the episode.
I did not know that that the famous Monty Python spam sketch was recorded on 6 June 1970. At least, that’s the claim of a Tumblr obsessed with Minnesota in the 1970s. (Wikipedia says only that “[i]t premiered on 15 December 1970”.) However, I need no encouragement to share a programme on Spam that I made for BBC Farming Today back in 1997, a programme that was both very well received and a blast to make. the people at Hormel couldn’t have been nicer, and the butterfly spam balls weren’t bad either.
There’s so much more to spiced ham than one could have ever thought. It’s not only a great slice of Americana, but there’s some science and interesting economics behind the things that go into making it. Both a fun and fascinating episode.
Listened toSeed Law by Jeremy Cherfas from Eat This Podcast
Introducing a blog post with the words “The European Commisssion recently decided …” is possibly a guaranteed turn-off, unless the decision concerns something really important like straight cucumbers. Illegal seeds, though, that might just stir some interest. And so it was, three weeks ago, with a proposal for a new draft of the laws that govern the marketing of plant reproductive material – seeds, among other things – in the European Union. I wrote about this over at the other place, but I also thought it would be worth doing something here, because for much of the food we eat, everything starts with the seed. You can’t have a really sustainable, locally-adapted and diverse diet if you can’t have a diversity of seeds. Bottom line: the new EU proposal is an improvement, and is not nearly as bad as some people seem to think, but it could be better still.
Not everybody is as interested in the arcana of seed law as I am, so I may have taken too much for granted in the podcast. There’s more information at a couple of the links below, which would be a good place to start if you want to explore further.
I’m in the same boat as Jeremy and think that seed law is a really important but highly overlooked area. Some of the first seed laws were written about in the old testament, sadly we’re not doing a very good job of keeping pace with the changes and the morality of these laws in the present day. One might even argue that far before there was free speech, there were free seeds…
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service runs a program for Women, Infants and Children that subsidises specific foods for eligible women and their children. Back when it started, the WIC program excluded potatoes, on the grounds that “Americans already eat enough potatoes”. Potato growers – and their representatives – don’t like that. For one, they think it sends the wrong message about the nutritional value of potatoes. And so, in 2010, the Executive Director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Chris Voigt, launched a protest. He decided to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days, gaining massive amounts of publicity but not – yet – a change in the WIC list of approved foods. However, while the world marvelled at Voigt’s dedication to the people who pay his salary, one grower in neighbouring Oregon said “Hey, what’s so hard about that? Last winter, I ate pretty nearly all potatoes for about six months. It was a feast all winter!”
Carol Deppe – author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener – ate almost nothing but potatoes because that’s what she had, and because she really understands the nutritional value of potatoes. She points out that potatoes contain more than 2% protein, which doesn’t sound like much when you compare it to the 9% in rice or the 12% and more in wheat. But those are dry-weight values. On that basis, potato comes in at better than 10% protein, and that protein is both more balanced and better absorbed that wheat protein. This isn’t exactly news. It’s been known since the late 19th century that if you’re getting all your calories from potatoes, then you’re probably getting all the protein you need too. But that knowledge seems to have been forgotten, and Deppe thinks she knows why:
When the USDA denies WIC-program women, infants, and children their potatoes, in spite of the potato’s known excellence as a food, in spite of how much we all like it, I think I detect a subtly Euro-centric as well as classist message: “The right way to eat is like upper-class Europeans, not like New Worlders or peasants.” The problem is bigger than failing to recognize that Americans are not all Europeans, that even most European-Americans now embrace food traditions from many lands and cultures, and that most of us are closer to being peasants than to being medieval European royalty. To reject the potato is to be several hundred years out of date. Rejecting the potato represents a failure to learn some of the most important climate-change lessons of the Little Ice Age. I think the USDA should revisit its potato policy.
So do lots of other people, including potato growers, and although potatoes are again up for consideration, it isn’t clear whether this time they will make it onto the hallowed WIC list. In the meantime, they remain an excellent and nutritious food.
The Effect of Food Restriction During War on Mortality in Copenhagen is Dr Mikkel Hindhede’s account, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of the impact of the World War I blockade on deaths in Denmark. By encouraging Danes to switch to a more vegetarian diet, Hindhede effectively saved 6300 lives. Mortaility was actually lower during the blockade than before or after. By contrast Germany, also affected by the blockade, saw widespread famine.
There’s an online account of Chris Voigt’s 60-day 20-a-day potato marathon. It’s pretty broken.
I hope to have more from Carol Deppe in a future podcast.
Image from Colorado Potatoes.
Intro music by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com.
It is even possible that Potato Pride is a genuine North Korean folk song?
I remember hearing about the USDA potato controversy at the time, but never dug into the details. Jeremy Cherfas kindly lays out lots of interesting potato information in his interview here.
Neanderthals did not descale their teeth regularly, for which modern scientists can be very thankful. Embedded in the fossilized calculus, or tartar, on teeth from the Shanidar cave, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and elsewhere are some remarkable remains that are beginning to shed far more light on what Neanderthals ate. I don’t want to give too much away just yet. Let’s just say that if, like me, when you think of the Neanderthal diet you think of a bunch of cavemen and women sitting around chewing their way through a woolly mammoth, you’re in for a surprise.
My guide through the recent discoveries on Neanderthal diet is John Speth, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
Amanda Henry’s research clearly points to moist-cooked starch grains in the mouths of Neanderthals (but did they swallow?). Archaeologists, however, have found almost no evidence of Neanderthals using the hot-rocks boil-in-a-bag method of modern people who lack fire-proof containers. And surprisingly, they didn’t know what John Speth discovered while watching TV in a motel room: that it is perfectly possible to boil water in a flimsy container over a direct fire. In the interests of time I had to cut his fascinating description of an experiment to make maple syrup by boiling the sap in a birch-bark tray over an open fire, which concluded that it was “both efficient and worthwhile”. So, now that they know it can be done, how long before they discover it was done?
There is evidence that Neanderthals ate moist-cooked starch. There is evidence that one can moist-cook without fire-proof containers and hot rocks. All we need now is evidence that Neanderthals used similar techniques, and the palaeo-dieters can add a nice mess of potage to their daily fare.
Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). (A scientific paper.)
National Geographic’s early report on Amanda Henry’s discovery of plant remains on Neanderthal teeth and a more recent report from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
More on Neanderthal diets at John Hawks’ weblog.
Photograph of the Regourdou Neanderthal mandible used by permission of the photographer, Patrick Semal, and the Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord.
Intro music by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com.
Final music played by Ljuben Dimkaroski on a replica of a Neanderthal bone flute found in a cave in western Slovenia.
While I’ve read lots of research surrounding this area, this is the kind of area which more mainstream food journalists, entertainers, and educators could and should be covering. Aside from a semi-regular appearance of Deb Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist, appearing on Alton Brown‘s Good Eats, this may be one of the few places I’ve seen such an interesting interview of this type.
Among the more miraculous edible transformations is the one that turns raw meat, salt and a few basic spices into some of the most delicious foods around.
Time was when curing meat, especially stuffed into a casing to make a sausage, was the only way both to use every part of an animal and to help make it last longer than raw meat. Done right, a sausage would stay good to the next slaughtering season and beyond.
The process relied on the skill of the sausage-maker, the help of beneficial bacteria and moulds, the right conditions, a great deal of patience, and sometimes luck. Luck is less of a factor now, because to keep up with demand the vast majority of cured meats are produced in artificial conditions of controlled precision. Here and there, though, the old ways survive. Jan Davison spent months touring the sausage high-spots of Europe looking for the genuine article, and shared some of her favourites at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking last year.
This tempts me greatly to consider decommissioning an incubator from science related use to food related use…
Listened toBog Butter from Eat This Podcast, March 4, 2013
Peat diggers in Ireland and elsewhere have occasionally unearthed objects, usually made of wood, that contained some kind of greasy, fatty material with a “distinctive, pungent and slightly offensive smell”.
Butter. Centuries-old butter.
Who buried it, and why, remain mysteries that motivated Ben Reade, an experimental chef at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, to make some himself. He brought some of his modern-day bog butter, still nestled in moss and wrapped in its birch-bark barrel, to share with the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery last year.
Ben mentioned two plants that have been found around bog butter, hypnum moss (Hypnum cupressiforme) and bog cotton (Eriophorum angustifolium).
The Nordic Food Lab research blog details all of their astonishing edible experiments.
I found Seamus Heaney reading his poem Bogland at The Internet Poetry Archive.
Caroline Earwood (1997) Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 8: 25-42 is available at JStor, which has a new scheme allowing you to read up to three items at a time online for free.
Music by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com.
An awesome little podcast I found recently, so I’m going back to the beginning to catch up on all the past episodes. Science, food, heaps of technical expertise, great interviews, and spectacular production quality. Highly recommend it to everyone.
I’ve hinted before that I’d like to do more constructed shows here, where I speak to a few different people about a topic to try and get a broader sense of the subject. They’re harder to do, but more rewarding, and they consistently get more listeners. The problem is that as a one-man band, I don’t have the time I need to do that kind of show very often. As an experiment, I’m going to try chunking episodes into seasons, with a break between seasons when I’ll be working on those more complex shows. I’m not sure yet how long either the seasons or the breaks will be.