Many people take the myth of Demeter — Ceres in Latin — and her daughter Persephone to be just a metaphor for the annual cycle of planting and harvesting. It is, but there may be more to it than that. Why else would it be worth scaring participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries into saying absolutely nothing about what went on during these initiation rites into the cult of Demeter and Persephone?
Maybe the story hides a secret so valuable that it was worth protecting.
Elucidating the Eleusinian Mysteries is one small element in Scott Reynolds Nelson’s new book, Oceans of Grain. It looks at the many, many ways in which wheat and human history intertwine, which he’s been working on for years. It was finally published on 22 February this year.
Two days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Today, what the story of Persephone is really about. And over the next three weeks, Scott Nelson and I will be talking about how wheat has influenced human affairs, as it is still doing today.
It is certain that the cakes, generally known today as ‘Welsh Cakes’, have been tea-time favourites in Glamorgan since the latter decades of the last century. At one period they would be eaten regularly in farmhouses and cottages alike, and the miner would also expect to find them in his food-box. Two different methods of baking these cakes were practised in Glamorgan. Baking them on a bakestone over an open fire may be regarded as the most general practice throughout the county. The Welsh names given to the cakes were usually based on the Welsh name for the bakestone, and these included pice ar y mân, tishan ar y mân and tishen lechwan. They varied in size from small, round cakes to a single cake as big as the bakestone. The method favoured in the Vale of Glamorgan, on the other hand, was to bake them in a Dutch oven in front of an open fire. The cakes were cut into small rounds, placed in two or three rows on the bottom of the oven and baked in front of a clean, red glow. These were known as pica/pice bach, tishan gron, and tishen rown. Slashers and tishan whîls were colloquial names given to them in two small villages.
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Hundreds of apples, plus notes and comment on the harvest and more.
I can only imagine that my following it is going to prompt a future interview by Jeremy Cherfas presuming he may not have come across this before.
The most perfect blog is this: https://t.co/IKnwuUEmSc
300+ reviews of apple varieties and news about harvests and there are polite comments about flavors and it's like a blog from a bygone era of pure harmless internet fandom and passions. But just apples.
— Matt Haughey (@mathowie) December 2, 2019
— Jeremy Felt (@jeremyfelt) December 2, 2019
Lost, sometimes, in the more metaphorical interpretations of food and power is the basic crudity of food as stored energy. Muscles turn the chemical energy stored in food into mechanical energy, which enables work to be done. Power is the rate of doing work. Food, literally, is a store of power. In the wake of World War Two, Europe faced a shortage of coal and oil, the two most important sources of chemical energy that threatened to gum up the transport of goods from place to place. There was, however, no shortage of unemployed men. Geoffrey Pyke, the quintessential British boffin, pointed out that people are actually much more efficient than steam engines at converting chemical energy to mechanical energy. Pyke’s proposal, that trains could be moved by cyclo-tractors, locomotives powered by the muscular effort of twenty to thirty men, themselves powered by sugar, went nowhere. The paper looks at the background to Pyke’s proposal, its reception at the time and the future of food-powered machinery.
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.
- Phil Howard’s work on food-borne illness is on his website.
- Marc Bellemare’s work on farmers’ markets and food-borne illness has gone through a few iterations. He’ll email you a copy of the final paper if you ask.
- An episode early last year looked at aspects of food safety in developing countries. Spoiler: shorter food chains are safer there.
- Banner photo, norovirus. Cover photo, E. coli. Both public domain to the best of my knoweldge.
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 friend pointed me to a story on Medium called “Death to Typewriters,” by Medium designer Marcin Wichary. The story is about the influence of the typewriter on digital typesetting. It references my “excellent list” of typewriter habits.
Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
Minimalism doesn’t foreclose either expressive breadth or conceptual depth. On the contrary, the minimalist program—as it initially emerged in fine art of the 20th century—has been about diverting the viewer’s attention from overt signs of authorship to the deeper purity of the ingredients. ❧
This also sounds like a great way to cook!
Like all nonsense, it’s intended to be easy to swallow. ❧
You’re giving up far more than design choice. Mr. Williams describes Medium’s key benefit as rescuing writers from the “terrible distraction” of formatting chores. But consider the cost. Though he’s baiting the hook with design, he’s also asking you, the writer, to let him control how you offer your work to readers. Meaning, to get the full benefit of Medium’s design, you have to let your story live on Medium, send all your readers to Medium, have your work permanently entangled with other stories on Medium, and so on—a significant concession. ❧
You’re definitely not owning your own data.
Boiled down, Medium is simply marketing in the service of more marketing. It is not a “place for ideas.” It is a place for advertisers. It is, therefore, utterly superfluous. ❧
Botany One reviews Food: Delicious Science, a newish TV series from James Wong and Michael Mosley, originally produced on BBC2 as The Secrets of Your Food. Among the "entertaining stories" that Ian Street singles out for special praise: Watching James Wong and Michael Mosley participate in a chili eating contest to illustrate just how far humans have gone to explore what is edible and explain the biochemistry of capsaicin.
Tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance at (one) source In the past year or so there has been a slew of high-level meetings pointing to antibiotic resistance as a growing threat to human well-being. But then, resistance was always an inevitable, Darwinian consequence of antibiotic use. Well before penicillin was widely available, Ernst Chain, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin, noted that some bacteria were capable of neutralising the antibiotic. What is new about the recent pronouncements and decisions is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is being recognised, somewhat belatedly, as a major source of resistance. Antibiotic manufacturers and the animal health industry have, since the start, done everything they can to deny that. Indeed, the history of efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture reveals a pretty sordid approach to public health. But while it can be hard to prove the connection between agriculture and a specific case of antibiotic resistance, a look at hundreds of recent academic studies showed that almost three quarters of them did demonstrate a conclusive link. Antibiotic resistance – whether it originates with agriculture or inappropriate medical use – takes us back almost 100 years, when infectious diseases we now consider trivial could, and did, kill. It reduces the effectiveness of other procedures too, such as surgery and chemotherapy, by making it more likely that a subsequent infection will wreck the patient’s prospects. So it imposes huge costs on society as a whole. Maybe society as a whole needs to tackle the problem. The Oxford Martin School, which supports a portfolio of highly interdisciplinary research groups at Oxford University, has a Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. They recently published a paper proposing a tax on animal products produced with antibiotics. Could that possibly work?
Here’s another great example of a negative externality. Too often capitalism brushes over these and creates a larger longer term cost by not taking these into account. It’s almost assuredly the case that taxing the use of these types of antibiotics across the broadest base of users (eaters) (thereby minimizing the overall marginal cost), would help to minimize the use of these or at least we’d have the funding for improving the base issue in the future. In some sense, the additional cost of eating organic meat is similar to this type of “tax”, but the money is allocated in a different way.
Not covered here are some of the economic problems of developing future antibiotics when our current ones have ceased to function as the result of increased resistance over time. This additional problem is an even bigger worry for the longer term. In some sense, it’s all akin to the cost of smoking and second hand smoke–the present day marginal cost to the smoker of cigarettes and taxes is idiotically low in comparison to the massive future cost of their overall health as well as that of the society surrounding them. Better to put that cost upfront for those who really prefer to smoke so that the actual externalities are taken into account from the start.
This excellent story reminds me of a great series of stories that PBS NewsHour did on the general topic earlier this year.
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My first time in and they not only had some excellent samples, but comped my first bundt. I’m impressed at how on-message and lovely the entire concept of the store really was. I’m already guessing I know how I’m going to add 20 pounds before the holidays are over.
Is the Carolina Runner No.4 peanut "the first peanut cultivated in North America" and does it matter anyway?
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