Phenom-nom-nom Redux

Check out this post with Moxie LaBouche and her book Your Brain on Facts

You say potato, I say a dangerous tuber that people will only eat in the face of actual starvation. You say tomato, I say a poison apple from the mysterious new world that’s killing the aristocracy. We can hardly imagine a salad without tomatoes or trip to the drive-thru without fries. But did you know, it took Europeans nearly two centuries to believe these foods, both members of the nightshade family of plants, were safe and healthy to consume.

The lumpy, dirty potato spread slowly through Europe after being brought back from South America to Spain in 1570. The Swiss believed potato consumption would lead to infection of the lymph nodes. The Burgundy region of France outlawed their cultivation entirely. Some thought spuds would cause sterility; other thought they caused rampant sexuality.

You have Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to thank for your fries, mash, and hash browns. Forced to subsist on potatoes almost exclusively as a prisoner of the Prussians during the Seven Years War, Parmentier not only survived but thrived. Changing public opinion was an uphill battle. Even serving potatoes to the king, who suffered no ill effects, wasn’t enough. Parmentier’s genius stroke was to make people think they weren’t allowed to have potatoes. He had his land filled with potato plots and hired guards to protect the land, guards who were instructed to turn a blind eye to thefts and accept any and all bribes so that the public would steal them and grow their own. After a time, Parmentier dismissed the guards and as he expected, the locals immediately raided his land and stole almost every potato plant growing there. By the following year, nearly every farmer in the area was growing their own potatoes.

The potato’s geographical and botanical cousin, the tomato, fared better initially. Spain, Portugal and Italy welcomed it with open mouths. The rest of Europe, not so much. Tomatoes were blamed for health problems in the upper class people who were willing to eat them. The wealthy ate from pewter plates, a metal high in lead. The acid from the tomatoes would leach the lead from the plates, resulting in sometimes-fatal lead poisoning. Even the American colonies of the 1700’s viewed them as a curious ornamental plant. Making matters worse, the tomato hornworm, a conspicuously ugly 3-4 inch green worm with a red horn on its rear end that can ruin tomato crops, was considered to be separately poisonous and as dangerous as a rattlesnake. In reality, you can safely pick them off with your bare hands to dispatch them in whatever manner you see fit.

The apocryphal champion of the “wolf peach” was New Jersey gentleman farmer Robert Gibbon Johnson. According to the Salem Historical Society, “In 1820, about 2,000 people were jammed into the town square. Johnson emerged from his mansion and headed up Market Street towards the Courthouse dressed in his usual black suit with white ruffles, black shoes and gloves, tricorn hat, and cane. At the courthouse steps, he spoke to the crowd, “To help dispel the tall tales, the fantastic fables that you have been hearing and to prove to you that it is not poisonous, I am going to eat one right now.” There was not a sound as he dramatically brought the tomato to his lips and took a bite. A woman in the crowd screamed and fainted, but no one paid her any attention; they were all watching Johnson as he took one bite after another. He raised both his arms; the crowd cheered and the firemen’s band blared a song. “He’s done it”, they shouted. “He’s still alive””

We know that tomatoes and potatoes come from Central and South America, but a lot of foods don’t come from where we’ve been led to believe. Let’s go to the Lightning Round! Croissants aren’t from France. They were created in Vienna, Austria in 1683 to commemorate the defeat of Turkish forces who were attempting to tunnel under the city and were heard by bakers. Vienna also gave us Danish pastry; sorry, Denmark. French fries are Belgian and Pulp Fiction was telling the truth about the mayonnaise, though it comes in many flavors (think aioli). Philadelphia cream cheese was invented in New York. Don’t bother ordering London broil in Britain; it’s an American moniker for cheap top round steaks to make them sound fancier.

On the flip-side, Fig Newtons were created in Newton, Massachusetts; Monterey Jack cheese was invented by David Jack in Monterey, California; Worcestershire sauce is indeed from Worcester, England; cantaloupes were first cultivated in Cantalupo, Italy; sardines are plentiful off the island of Sardinia; tangerine means from Tangiers; and Romaine lettuce did originate in Rome.

Some food must be from a specific place in order to use their proper name. This is called terroir. Kobe beef comes only from unbelievably pampered cows in Kobe, Japan. If your Tequila didn’t come from Mexico, the distiller is violating the Denomination of Origin protection. Probably the best known terroir is that champagne that doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France is simply a sparkling white wine. But wait, you’re probably thinking, it’s labelled “champagne” at the store down the road, but it comes from California. That’s thank to an agreement between the United States and European Union which, after two decades of negotiation, grandfathered in all producers who had already been using region-specific names like champagne, burgundy and sherry.

A lot of foods change their names when you get your passport stamped. What’s French toast in America is Poor Knights of Windsor in England and pain perdu, or lost bread, in France. Italy and America says arugula, whereas the British Commonwealth says rocket. They also use the name swede for what Yanks call rutabagas. The same goes with zucchini and courgettes, eggplants and aubergines. Don’t get me started on biscuits and pudding. Thought this country spawned the language

Then there are foods that required the efforts of more than one country to bring them into existence. The more pedantic among us, this reporter included, know that “sushi” refers to the vinegared rice and not the fish. If we’re really on a tear, we’ll probably snub the inside-out California roll as not being “real sushi.” And then we’ll reach for a salmon roll, never knowing we have the descendants of Vikings, not samurai, to thank for it. (Hey, it’s not easy thinking you’re right all the time.) Like the aforementioned taters and maters were to Europe, raw salmon went over like a lead dirigible in Japan. It was strictly not eaten until the mid-nineties. Pacific salmon carries parasites, like flatworms and cyst-producing myxozoans, which become epidemic in farming situations. Further, Japanese people didn’t favor the color and smell of salmon, or even the shape of the fish’s head. It simply didn’t look right to them, so it was a hard pass.

In the mid-eighties, the fishing industry of Norway found itself with a huge supply of salmon, but not enough demand and they needed to find a new market. This led to the formation of Project Japan, headed by Bjorn Erik Olson, who should also be awarded an honorary medal for Most Norwegian Name Ever. The goal of Project Japan was to convince the Japanese public that raw salmon was safe to eat, which would be analogous to trying to convince westerners to eat raw pork on your say-so. They persevered through ten years of failed ad campaigns and high-level business lunches with plates of salmon rolls left untouched. Finally, Olson landed a sale with respected frozen foods company Nishi Rei to get salmon sushi into grocery stores. With a familiar name attached to it, salmon began to gain traction. Before long, it found its way onto the conveyor belts and carefully crafted plates of sushi restaurants across the country. What’s more, the familiarity of western diners with salmon aided in the introduction of sushi in Europe and America.

Salmon helped introduce sushi to the US; allow me to introduce you to our newest patrons at patreon url, where all patrons are receiving all levels of benefits for the duration – welcome and thanks to Jonathanblade, Karen, Laurie, Alesha, and Elizabeth, who joined this month. And thanks to another reader who left a review of the YBOF book, thus placating the algorithm so it might suggest the book to more people. It’s actually a combo review for the book and the show. Wenped writes: As a science teacher, I find this book (and podcast) informative and engaging. I believe you will find Moxie’s meticulous attention to detail, and brilliant use of segues, entertaining and hypnotizing. Make it clear that this book will exceed your expectations. I like that the book includes pictures, an organized bibliography, and random facts within facts.
Moxie LaBouche,
I discovered the YBOF podcast while searching for random facts to lighten up my students’ day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did I know that you would lighten up my day as well. Thank you for your dedication and for giving us the pleasure of hearing your soothing voice.
It is so gratifying to hear that this goofy thing I spend 20 hours a week on is making the crisis a little more bearable for people.

Modern-day wise man George Carlin once asked “Where is the blue food? I can’t find the flavor of blue! Green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what’s blue? There’s no blue food! And don’t say ‘blueberry’ ‘cuz you know that stuff’s purple.” Outside of blue corn, you’d be hard-pressed to find blue foods in nature, but walk down the candy aisle of your nearest grocery store and one blue flavor pops up all over. Not blueberry, raspberry. But raspberries are red. So why do we color things blue when we flavor them raspberry? We have to go back to the childhood favorite, freezer pops, like Otter Pops and Fla-Vor-Ice, those glorious plastic tubes of frozen sugar water without which summer is wasted. Manufacturers were having a difficult time making the colors that corresponded to cherry, strawberry, watermelon, and raspberry distinctive enough to tell them apart. It got more complicated when the FDA banned red dye no.2 for causing severe reactions and possibly being carcinogenic. It would make for better copy if there was some terribly clever reason the food scientists went to blue next, but the simple reason was that they had the blue coloring on hand and hadn’t been able to use it yet. We also have to mention the Gold Medal company that makes ICEE slushies, who were also early adopters of blue raspberry, possibly even the originators, depending on your source.

Side note: next time you need a science-nerd laugh, check out the hashtag ‘overly honest methods.’ There you’ll find gems like “This dye was selected because the bottle was within reach,” “The experiment was left for the precise time that it took for us to get a cup of tea,” and “A modified protocol was implemented because a certain graduate student seems unable to follow simple instructions.“

A more recent food invention, the turducken, screams “America!” For those who have somehow avoided it, a turducken is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey, then roasted or fried. It has given rise to masticable madness like a twelve bird nesting doll of a dish and the cherumple, a three-layer cake with a pie stuffed in each layer. These foods-inside-foods are obvious, but you may be eating some you don’t even realize. Take the four rectangles of happiness that are Kit Kat bars, those chocolate-enrobed wafer cookies with chocolate filling. What the snappy ad campaigns never told us was that the filling in Kit Kats is other Kit Kats. Even the most finely-tuned production line will turn out a certain portion of unacceptable product. Rather than throw the defective units away or offer them for livestock feed, a common practice in candy manufacturing, Nestle grinds them up to use as the filling for the next batch. While we are most familiar with classic chocolate, Kit Kats are so staggeringly popular in Japan that they have been offered in 200 different flavors, including green tea, strawberry cheesecake, wasabi, rum raisin, azuki bean, and purple sweet potato.

One man’s turducken is another man’s culinary affront to god and vice versa. Try to bare that in mind as travel to Sicily to examine a most peculiar regional specialty, casa marzu. There is a cheese describes as the most dangerous cheese in the world. Due to (what may be thought of as obvious) health implications, the sticklers at the EU European Food Safety Authority have banned the cheese. Therefore, those wishing to eat some casu marzu must go through the Italian black market. This Italian delicacy, casu marzu, is an acquired taste. Unless you’re a maggot. They love it. How do I know? They’re still in the cheese. Casu marzu is made from sheep’s milk on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranian Sea. Step 1: Heat the milk and let it sit for about three weeks to curdle. Next, cut off the crust that formed. This was, the flies can get inside to lay their eggs. Move the cheese to a dark hut for another two months. During that time the eggs hatch into larvae and promptly begin to eat the now rotting cheese. Now is when the important part happens. It’s what the larvae excrete out the other end that gives the cheese its distinct soft texture and rich flavor, like a very ripe gorgonzola. Congratulations, you now have casu marzu. May God have mercy on your soul.

Now that you have it, what do you do with it? It is important for one to note whether the maggots are alive or not. Dead maggots are usually an indication that the cheese has gone bad. Where exactly the line there is, I cannot say. Casu marzu is to be consumed when the maggots are still alive. You’ll want to close your eyes while eating, not only to try to block out the sight, but to protect your eyes. When bothered, the maggots will jump up, sometimes going as high as six inches. Be sure you chew your food thoroughly. The maggots can survive stomach acid if swallowed alive and you risk them eating holes in your intestines. Serve with moistened flatbread and a glass of strong red wine.

After that, I could do with a more conventional snack. The trouble is, I could go for a snack at any moment of my day. Thankfully, I’ve got an assortment of products at the ready from today’s sponsor Smart for Life.

Another sweet snack, which has been with us since 1907, is also manufactured in a way that would prompt internet-dwellers misuse the word “inception” to describe it. It’s that iconic chocolate taffy, ubiquitous in trick-or-treat bags, the Tootsie Roll. According to the company’s own website, the recipe calls for the inclusion of the leftovers from the previous day’s batch. This is referred to as “graining” and is a process that continues to this day. Theoretically, there is a bit of creator Leo Hirschfeld’s very first Tootsie Roll in every one of the sixty four million Tootsie Rolls produces each day. It’s like realizing that our bodies are made from the elements that spread throughout the galaxy after the Big Bang, but tastier.

Tootsie Rolls also hold the distinction of having saved the lives of American troops during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean conflict. The entrenched Marines were outnumbered, outgunned, suffering below-zero temperatures, and running out of mortar rounds. They couldn’t call for resupply because the area was heavy with enemy anti-air emplacements; their supplies would be shot down. After two desperate days of waiting, the radio men had to risk it, using the code word “tootsie roll” to call for mortars. To their surprise, an air drop came….with cases and cases of actual Tootsie Rolls. While they still needed ammo, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The soldiers found the candy could be eaten frozen, unlike their rations, given them valuable calories. They also chewed the candy to soften it and used it like a putty to patch bullet holes in their equipment, with the sub-zero winds freezing it solid. Though the division took heavy losses, their survival rate bordered on miraculous. Those who made it out of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir credited the Tootsie Roll with their survival and referred to themselves as ‘The Chosin Few.’

A more pleasant experience with cold, drinking a glass of ice water is a refreshing proposition. Drinking a glass of ice water with mint gum in your mouth feels like being open-palm slapped by a Yeti. The same goes for those brave or foolish souls who like to chew their Altoids. Why does mint possess this singular ability to make our mouths feel so cold? The culprit is menthol, a chemical in mint-flavored things that essentially causes your brain to misinterpret its presence. The receptor of interest is a protein TRPM8, or transient receptor potential cation channel, subfamily M, member 8. It is an ion channel which, when open, allows sodium and calcium ions to enter. This causes an action potential, an electrical signal running down a neuron. Menthol causes the TRPM8 channel to open, as do low temperatures. When you eat something containing menthol, the TRPM8 channel opens and the brain interprets this signal as the sensation of cold, making mint feel cold.

Is the mint in toothpaste also responsible for turning a tasty, sweet glass of morning orange juice into a form of punishment? The credit or blame here goes to sodium lauryl sulfate. It is a surfactant, a substance which creates a satisfying froth by lowering the surface tension of your saliva and allowing bubbles to form. Sodium lauryl sulfate also suppresses the tongue’s sweetness receptors and destroys phospholipids, fatty compounds that inhibit bitter receptors. With sweet receptions out of commission and bitter receptors in force, orange juice loses its appeal. Recent research also show that the fluoride in toothpaste may react with the acetic acid in the juice, but results to bolster this theory are limited. It should surprise no one that scientists aren’t investing very much time or resourced into solving this particular mystery. In the meantime, remember the old wisdom “Beer before liquor, never sicker. Toothpaste before orange juice, dead.”

If you’re skipping your glass of OJ, how about a cup of Joe? A full 64% of Americans can’t start their day without coffee, to the tune of 280 million cups a day, though our consumption pales in comparison to other countries. France, Germany and Switzerland drink 50% more than the US; Sweden doubles our consumption; but the most prodigious coffee drinkers are in the land of lakes and midnight sun, Finland, where people consume nearly ten kilogram or over twenty pounds of coffee beans a year. Women drink only slightly less coffee than men in the US, an average of 1.5 cups a day versus 1.7 cups, but women are almost three times more likely to find themselves on a bathroom run after their coffee run. 53% of women report that coffee exonerates the bowels, as opposed to only 19% of men. The scientific reason for this is … unclear. It’s not that researchers have no idea; they have too many ideas, each as half-right as the last.

Caffeine definitely plays a role, but it’s only one piece of an ensemble. Caffeine contains colon-stimulating agents theophylline and xanthine. These create peristalsis, the wave-like muscle contractions in the intestines that move things along. We know about this increased muscle activity through the selflessness of study volunteers to agreed to the use of a probe during the study and to whom we owe our gratitude. However, decaf coffee also has a laxative effect, and other caffeine-containing products like energy drinks don’t. Coffee contains over a thousand organic compounds, includes multiple kinds of acid. A compound called chlorogenic acid triggers higher bile production and higher production of gastric acid. Exorphins in coffee, both regular and decaf, cause our bodies to release the hormones gastrin and cholecystokinin, which encourage movement of the intestines. Coffee is also high in magnesium, which can make people poop and there are yet are more potential causes which will have to go unnamed for now.

As ubiquitous as coffee is today, Christian Europe almost never had it. It is widely believed advisers in the church considered coffee to be the “bitter invention of Satan,” undoubtedly because of its popularity among Muslims. However, upon tasting it for himself, Pope Clement VIII declared that, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” Or, he may have said “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” Though details are sketchy, this reporter feels safe in surmising that Clement liked the coffee, since there wasn’t a papal bull issued against it, then or since.

And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Food is as diverse as humanity, from seal meat in Alaska, to vegetable biryani in India, to balut in the Philippines, and guinea pig in Peru. At the same time, food is universal. We all need to eat to survive, but more than that, food can nourish the spirit as much as the body. It can be a way to spend time with friends or to show someone you love them. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.

Your Brain On Facts

Things You Didn’t Know, Things You Thought You Knew, and Things You Never Knew You Never Knew

The world is full of things you didn’t know, things you thought you knew, and things you never knew you never knew. From the eponymous podcast comes Your Brain On Facts.

Train your brain. So what if you picked up some historical inaccuracies (and flat-out myths) in history class. Your Brain On Facts is here to teach and reteach readers relevant trivia. It explains surprising science in simple language, gives the unexpected origins of pop culture classics, and reveals important titbits related to current issues.

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