The Rise of Wackaging

innocent-bottom-1

IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

If you’ve bought juice, crisps, cereal bars, soups, “breakfast pots” (porridge, as was), or any number of other ready-to-eat packaged foods in the U.K. this millennium, you may have noticed that your snack fancies a chat.

“British food packaging now has a matey, at worst babyish, tone that simply didn’t used to be there—commonly, food is describing itself in the first person,” explained an unimpressed Sophy Grimshaw, writing in The Guardian in 2014. “My basket of groceries now addresses me as though we are killing time on Facebook.”

This phenomenon has a name: wackaging, coined by journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Nicholson launched a tumblr to collect examples of the form in 2011, with the tagline “I blame Innocent smoothies.”

innocent-bottom-3

IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

innocent-bottom-4

IMAGE: Slightly blurry Innocent wackaging via Buzzfeed.

An interview with Innocent Drinks’ co-founder, Richard Reed, in today’s Observer confirms Nicholson’s suspicions. In a Q&A, Reed describes founding the company in 1999, with his “two closest mates,” outlines his philosophy of success, and confesses to the wackification of British packaging.

Is it true you were personally responsible for “wackaging”—the quirky labels that are now everywhere?
Yes, that was part of my beat. I do think, oh my God, will my long-term contribution to the species be that I was the guy who introduced really annoying body copy on packaging?

innocent-bottom-2

IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via London Copywriter.

The standard media reaction to wackaging seems to be a pained grimace: for The Independent it triggers “a cute sense of irritation” at being treated “like idiots or children”; Buzzfeed’s listicle on the subject is headlined “16 Enraging Examples of Cutesy Packaging”; and Grimshaw concludes her article with a despairing plea, “Let’s please stop before ‘store in a cool, dry place’ becomes ‘I love it in the cupboard!'”

I, on the other hand, have quite a soft spot for it—a sentiment that is only increased by learning the inspiration behind Innocent’s labeling copy:

Was it an Innocent innovation?
If we can make one claim, we can make this—that was new. I’ll tell you where it came from: have you seen Kingpin?

The tenpin bowling movie with Woody Harrelson? Of course.
Well, there’s one scene, it’s not an integral scene, where somebody goes round to somebody else’s house and says: “Oh, I’m desperate for a dump, have you got anything to read on the toilet?” The guy looks around and passes him a bottle of shampoo and he looks at it and goes: “No, I’ve read this one already.” That’s where the idea came from.

innocent-wackaging

IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

This revelation raises a couple of thoughts. Firstly, might Dr. Bronner’s be true progenitor of wackaging? And, secondly, given that the rise of smartphones over the past decade has taken care of any possible bathroom- (not to mention commute-, kitchen table-, supermarket queue-, solo dining-, etc.) reading material shortage, why has wackaging become so ubiquitous during the same timeframe?

back-of-a-shampoo-bottle-mobile-phone

IMAGE: Reddit user IRONFIRE.

The answer, I think, lies in seeing wackaging as simply a novel and perhaps peculiarly British chapter in the long story of packaging’s efforts to engender trust in an era of mass production. As I’ve written before, on the subject of butter packaging, the widespread decline in personal knowledge of food producers from the end of the eighteenth century is reflected in the simultaneous rise in packaging design that attempts to fill that gap.

As Gary Cross, co-author of Packaged Pleasures, explained on a recent Gastropod episode all about the history and science of packaging, the first labels promised a sanitary, standardised product—a cereal or cracker you could trust by virtue of its being made by machine.

More recently, as consumers have begun to mistrust “industrial” food, and sought instead to know where their food has come from and who made it, label copy has provided carefully edited personal stories and (frequently fake) geographies.

Seen in that light, wackaging is simply another iteration in this long shift from trusting people, to trusting institutions and companies, to trusting people again—a change that is playing out across society, not just in terms of food.

The difference, of course, is that if I had bought squashed fruit before the Industrial Revolution, I would likely have known the person who grew it; today, my only acquaintance with Richard Reed and his friends is through their label copy and media presence. In a way, Reed is like an online friend: the labels aim to communicate that same sense of knowing someone that you get from following the Twitter feeds of people you’ve never met, a technologically mediated kind of intimacy that is still real in its own way. Indeed, if packaging is a form of literature, wackaging is the social media equivalent.

Today, though, Innocent Drinks is ninety percent owned by Coca-Cola, a company that is synonymous with the industrial food system. Wackaging is simply part of Innocent’s brand now, rather than being any kind of personal connection to the people who made your smoothie. And corporations, despite the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, are not people. That, combined with its ubiquity, likely spells wackaging’s eventual demise, its authenticity eroded beyond belief. Enjoy those quirky labels while you can!

Posted in Uncategorized| 1 Response

Egg on Your Face

An egg, it turns out, is not just the best thing to put on top of almost any dish. For starters, artists have been using eggs as a canvas for centuries; the International Egg Art Guild showcases some fine examples of “eggery,” from delicate laser-cut eggshells to traditional Ukranian wax-resist methods. The photo galleries from its annual Masters of Egg Art competition are well worth a browse.

But using eggs to copyright clown make-up? That was new to me when I read about it on Atlas Obscura last week.

Clown Egg Registry 2 Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

In the article, associate editor Ella Morton describes the Clown Egg Register, as documented by photographer Luke Stephenson. Each of the few hundred eggs in the collection serves as “a copyright register for a clown’s personal make-up design,” the Register’s curator, clown Matthew Faint, told the Financial Times in 2011. (Faint’s own egg boasts an elongated black-edged white outline around the lips and eyes, red cheeks and lips, and a flower-bedecked bowler hat.)

The Register started as a hobby: Stan Bult, a circus enthusiast who founded the International Circus Clowns Society in 1946, painted portraits of his founding members on blown eggshells for fun. Bult died in 1966, and, according to Morton, many of his initial egg portraits have since been crushed. But, when the Society reformed as Clowns International in 1978, the egg tradition was revived.

Clown Egg Registry 1 Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

Today, writes Morton:

A designated “egg artist”—currently Debbie Smith—paints a pottery egg for each clown who registers. Unlike the Bult-era eggs, which focused solely on faces, today’s eggs also incorporate elements of each performer’s costume. The clowns help the egg creation process by sending fabric swatches and photos of their made-up faces.

Clown Egg Registry three across Luke Stephenson

IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photographs by Luke Stephenson.

Part of the Clown Egg Register, including the twenty-four eggs that remain of Bult’s oeuvre, is on display at Wookey Hole Caves, in Somerset. You can read the Atlas Obscura article in full here, and see more of the collection in Luke Stephenson’s short animation, below. Stephenson is currently working on a book about the Register, including the biographies of the men and women behind the make-up.

Posted in Uncategorized| 1 Response

Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging

The invention of food packaging is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It may seem hard to imagine today, but the first clay pots made the great civilizations of the ancient world possible, while paper’s first use, long before it became a surface for writing, was to wrap food. But packaging’s proliferation, combined with the invention of plastics, has become one of our biggest environmental headaches. In this episode, we explore the surprising history of how our food got dressed—and why and how we might want to help it get naked again.

In Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, co-authors Gary Cross and Robert Proctor lead us through millennia of human ingenuity applied to the problem of how to contain food, from the clay pot, which transformed communal food reserves into wealth-generating private property, to the much more recent breakthrough in resealability represented by the Mason jar. That’s right, today’s hipster drinking vessel started life as the world’s first screw-lid container. Through the story of how soda got its pop and the invention of the cereal box, Cross and Proctor help us understand how recent mass-market food packaging is—and how it has revolutionized our relationship with food.

cereal_boxes 460

Alongside these social and dietary transformations came an environmental nightmare. In the United States, the E.P.A. has found that a third of municipal solid waste—the stuff that goes into landfills—is packaging. And two-thirds of that once held food. But can we live without food packaging? We meet inventor David Edwards of Le Laboratoire and Café ArtScience in Cambridge, MA, who has developed and commercialized a form of edible packaging that keeps yogurt or ice-cream contained for fifty days, even after being rinsed under the tap.

Wikipearl box thermos and in half 460

We explore the science behind his invention, but also the challenges that mean that, for now, his edibly packaged products are still sold in a box. And, with listener help, we explore the burgeoning “unpackaged” movement, in which individuals and small businesses are trying to reduce waste by reinventing the process of grocery shopping. Listen in now, and you’ll never look at a can of soup or a bag of spinach the same way again.

Posted in Gastropod| 2 Responses

The Great British Mistake

Stilton Martin Parr 800

IMAGE: Websters is one of only six dairies that is allowed to make Stilton cheese. Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

I am both stunned and heartbroken by the UK’s Brexit vote, as well as selfishly angry that my future as a European seems to have been taken away* by a disastrous combination of opportunistic politicians, racist liars, and a nostalgic and under-informed electorate. (*I am also in denial.)

But enough of politics, you say—what about food? Well, as it happens, Tim Lang of City University London and Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaborative recently published a paper examining the implications of Brexit for the United Kingdom’s food system. It surveys the extent to which every aspect of food in the UK is intertwined with Europe and EU policy, from imports (the UK relies on continental Europe for forty percent of its fruit and vegetable supply) to labour markets (nearly a quarter of the employees of UK food manufacturing businesses come from elsewhere in the European Union, as well as more than one in ten workers in the food and beverage service industry) to regulations (as Schoen points out, after more than forty years of ever closer integration, EU regulations and standards underpin UK food policy—and thus any decision to leave “would require us to re-inject these processes back into UK law.”)

As with everything to do with this unprecedented and uncertain process, it’s impossible to know how (if?) the disentanglement will occur, and thus which unravelings will be the most disruptive. I would rather not have had to find out.

Meanwhile, one of the thousands of regulations that will require renegotiation is the EU’s “Protected Name Food Scheme”, which guarantees that more than sixty British traditional food and drink specialities can only be produced in their region of origin, using traditional methods. The Protected Name Food Scheme is the means by which European producers ensure that we can’t call any old fizzy white wine champagne or that thinly sliced deli meat can never be sold as Parma ham.

Gloucester Old Spot Martin Parr 800

IMAGE: Butts Farm Rare Breeds, which raises and slaughters Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs using traditional methods, which includes “access to wallows, dips, or showers.” Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

As Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (itself one of Britain’s protected foods), explained to the BBC, post-Brexit, the UK will have to enact its own legislation to protect these iconic products internally, as well as negotiate a new trade deal to ensure those protections are respected in Europe. “My fear,” he added, “is that it’s going to get lost in everything else that’s being discussed.”

Rhubarb Martin Parr 800

IMAGE: Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark and harvested by candelight, resulting in stalks that are more slender and tender. (In the dark, the stalks grow so fast that you can hear them squeak and pop.) Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

In other words, supposing anyone ever takes the final step off the cliff and actually invokes Article 50, it’s entirely possible that in a couple of years’ time, Kentish winemakers will be free to call their sparkling whites “champagne” and, conversely, French cheese makers will be free to market their hard yellow cheeses as cheddar. A 2013 study commissioned by the European Union found that, in general, the Protected Name Food Scheme conveyed considerable benefits to food growers and manufacturers, not least of which is being able to charge substantially more for their product. Without that price premium, it’s hard to imagine foods as labour intensive as Arbroath smokies or forced rhubarb would continue to be produced.

During the run-up to the referendum, the amazing photographer Martin Parr travelled the country to document some of Britain’s protected foods, from the candlelight harvest of Yorkshire’s “Rhubarb Triangle” to Rutland Bitter, a “session” beer made using water and yeast from Rutland Lake. If you are able to face further evidence of Britain’s loss, head over to The New Republic to check out more images from the series.

Posted in Uncategorized| Leave a comment

From Seed Drills to Cyborgs

I wrote a short essay for the “Field Test” exhibition catalogue, reprinted below. You can find essays by the exhibition’s other advisers—Mukund Thattai, a faculty member at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin, Charles Spillane, head of the Plant & Agrobiosciences Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Andrew Douglas, who created Urban Farm, an agricultural start-up based in Dublin—as well as the exhibition’s curators, Zack Denfeld and Cathrine Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and Lynn Scarff from the Science Gallery Dublin—online here.

•••

Jethro Tull—the man, not the British prog rockers—invented a horse-drawn seed drill in 1701. Using his machine, a farmer could, with a single motion, sow seeds at regular intervals and at the correct depth. Because Tull’s drill planted seeds in a straight line, it opened up the possibility of using a machine to remove weeds between the rows of crops. Tull went on to invent a mechanical horse-drawn hoe to do just that. Combined, his innovations reduced waste and greatly increased yield: the resulting productivity boost helped fuel Britain’s Agricultural Revolution, and, thus, its subsequent Industrial one. Of course, Jethro Tull’s seed drill—commonly considered the first agricultural machine—also set the stage for many of the most serious problems facing farming today, from monocultures to erosion.

Jethro_Tull_seed_drill_(1762 460)

IMAGE: Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill, in Horse-hoeing Husbandry, 4th edition, 1762, via Wikipedia.

More often than not, thinking about the future of agriculture means thinking about the future of food. How will changes in the contents of our supermarkets and the composition of our dinner plates reshape the landscape around us in five, ten, or even fifty years? “Field Test” offers a rare opportunity to consider this fundamental relationship from the other, less-considered point of view: how will changes in the science and technology of farming change what we eat—and how we live?

If history is any guide, those changes will be both all-encompassing and rather slow. The dawn of agriculture, for example—an invention that is described with equal frequency as humanity’s best and worst idea—eventually led to the development of mathematics, measurement, property rights, and government, while disrupting the planetary nitrogen cycle, triggering the Sixth Great Extinction, rewriting genomes across hundreds of species, and even weakening human shin bones.

These kinds of massive changes occurred over millennia, but even smaller shifts take generations: it wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1800s, that Jethro Tull’s seed drill finally displaced the ancient method of hand-broadcasting seed. Farmers are not, as a general rule, Luddites: as in any field, there are first adopters and laggards, and new technology often requires time and iteration in order to work at scale and economically. Plants and animals provide their own inertia, by virtue of their lengthy growing cycles—if a newly planted tree only starts to produce apples after five years, ripping out an orchard to introduce new cultivars or make space for robotic harvesters may also have to wait.

Meanwhile, forecasting the future is a notoriously failure-strewn activity; humans are especially bad at imagining transformations that are long, gradual, and interconnected, as those prompted by agricultural innovation tend to be. Nonetheless, the seeds of future farms are here now.

McCormick_Reaper,_1845 460

IMAGE: Sketch from Cyrus Hall McCormick’s 1845 patent for an improved reaper, via Wikipedia.

When Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine began the “power farming” era in 1831, it harvested as much grain in a few hours as two or three men could in a day, but it was for the most part seen as noisy, unreliable, and impractical. Few contemporaries had the foresight to imagine that, over the next 150 years, mechanization would mean that farming would slip from a majority activity to a specialised profession carried out by a tiny percentage of the population.

Today, as embedded sensors, drones, and robot harvesters promise to revolutionise farming once again, can we do any better at predicting the future? If we follow their logic across continents, cultures, and climates, what can the signals gathered here—the kitchen bioreactor, the franchised apple, acoustic pest control—tell us about future ecosystems, epidemics, economic models, and, of course, meals?

Posted in Uncategorized| Leave a comment

Field Test

Field Test Screenshot EG

IMAGE: Screenshot from the Science Gallery’s Field Test video—watch it in full here.

In Dublin, my smog meringue collaborators at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been busy curating an exhibition all about the future of farming. Called “Field Test,” the interactive installation is on display at the Science Gallery until June 5, and, if you’re in town, you should most definitely visit. There are countless events, publications, and exhibits about the future of food, but many fewer about how shifts in agricultural technology and ownership will also help reshape landscapes and dinner plates alike. “Field Test” is a welcome—and exciting—counter-balance.

Some of the artifacts on display are simply on the cutting edge of today’s technology: something like 25,000 calves have already been born using Moo-call, the latest in wearable computing for cows. The Silent Herdsman, a smart collar and software platform, has been generating data points on the eating and rumination habits of British cattle ten times per second since 2010.

IMAGE: “Second Livestock” by Austin Stewart.

These two devices are both in the exhibition’s section on “Farm Cyborgs,” which Zack Denfeld and Cat Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have identified as a “bridge species,” somewhere between electrical engineering and anatomical reality, the cloud and the manure lagoon. Other items on display in this section are more speculative, and, indeed, provocative: Austin Stewart’s “Second Livestock,” an Oculus Rift for chickens, conjures up an entirely credible future in which the use of virtual reality to enhance livestock well-being is standard practice—but also raises the question of whether our own technologically mediated existences qualify as humane living conditions.

Bioreactor 460

IMAGE: “Stir-Fly: The Nutrient Bug 1.0,” The Tissue Culture & Art Project in collaboration with Robert Foster. “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

Elsewhere, the plastinated remains of the first cultured beef burger, served by Mark Post in 2013, are on display alongside a working, table-top bio-reactor that is growing insect cells within the gallery. Unlike mammalian tissue, insect cells can be grown at room temperature, making them a perfect protein for domestic fabrication. (The installation is called “Stir-Fly,” which may or may not be a serving suggestion; no word on whether its harvest will be available for sampling!)

My favourite section, at least from afar, may well be the Seed Boutique: an installation that puts ten carefully selected seeds on a pedestal—and in a gumball machine, which dispenses one of the ten at random, in return for a one Euro coin.

Mini Seed Ball 460

IMAGE: “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

These range from the Beefy Resilient Grex Bean, a pulse that not only “tastes more beefy than beef does,” but is part of the Open Source Seed Initiative, to an Outredgeous Lettuce seed, specially bred for flavour as part of the Culinary Breeding Network and distinguished by being the first lettuce grown and eaten in space. Together, the seed selections raise issues of intellectual property and agricultural espionage, industrial consolidation and food independence. And they force us to question the goals of plant breeding and genetic modification: is yield or pest resistance actually more important than environmental resilience or flavour?

Outredgeous Lettuce 460

IMAGE: Astronauts sampling space-grown Outredgeous red romaine lettuce. Credit: NASA TV.

I was honoured and delighted to serve as an adviser to the exhibition, and even more chuffed to be listed as curator of one of the installations: Pest Sounds. I selected a soundtrack of insect recordings from a database assembled by U.S.D.A. entomologist Richard Mankin, whose research focuses on the acoustic detection of pests in stored foods, as well as sonic pesticides. For more on the challenges of finding a seventeen-day-old rice weevil in a grain silo, as well as the possibility of exploiting male citrus psyllids’ attraction to the mooing of horny lady psyllids, you should read this Edible Geography post and listen to this “Field Recordings” episode of Gastropod.

Pest Sounds 460

IMAGE: “Pest Sounds.” “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

I can’t wait to check out “Field Test” in person. Fortunately, I don’t have to: I’ll be in Dublin next week, giving a free talk at the Science Gallery on Tuesday evening. You can register here—hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

Posted in Uncategorized| Leave a comment

Watery Biscuits

Carrs Water Biscuits

[Thanks, Dad.]

Posted in Uncategorized| Leave a comment

Rootstock Archaeology

Katie Holten Apple Tree 670

IMAGE: Katie Holten, Photograph of an excavated Cox’s Pippen tree re-erected in a shed in East Malling (Original photograph (1952) courtesy of David Johnson, East Malling Research, UK), 2005.

On Christmas Day, artist Katie Holten posted this stunning image of an excavated Cox’s Orange Pippen tree, originally taken at East Malling Research in 1952.

The Cox is Edible Geography’s apple of choice: it is “considered the greatest-tasting apple of all time,” according to food writer Rowan Jacobsen. East Malling Research, the U.K.’s leading fruit research institute, also holds a special place in the otherwise cold heart of this refrigeration-obsessed author for its pioneering work on the controlled atmosphere storage of apples.

Holten’s photo, however, points toward another facet of East Malling Research’s outsized impact on the apple: the wholesale redesign of orchards around the world using so-called “dwarfing” rootstocks. As a pamphlet published to mark the laboratory’s centenary explains, before East Malling Research was founded in 1915, apple orchards consisted of “tall, widely spaced fruit trees, yielding about seven tonnes per hectare.”

Over the millennia since the apple’s domestication, growers had tried to exploit spontaneously occurring genetic mutations that made the trees shorter and thus easier to harvest, grafting the best fruiting varieties onto these cloned dwarfing rootstocks. The first order of business of the new lab in East Malling was to respond to the demand from Kentish orchardists to improve and standardise the various dwarfing rootstocks then in circulation. Pomologist Ronald Hatton studied the relationship between a tree’s anatomy, its “vigour” (scientific shorthand for an apple tree’s growth, health, and fruit yield), and its rootstock, screening cultivars from across Europe to select and breed a series of freely distributed rootstocks, labelled in descending tree-size order from M1 to M9.

Malling rootstocks 670

IMAGE: The effects of commercially available Malling rootstocks on apple tree height and shape.

Today, more than ninety percent of eating apples grown in the U.S. and Europe are grown on M9 rootstock. According to a report (PDF) issued in 2013, attempting to quantify East Malling Research’s value over its one hundred-year history, the M9 rootstock clone produces low, compact, and uniform trees. The result: growers could fit between 7-8,000 trees per hectare, compared to the 3-4,000 common in orchards before, vastly increasing the overall yield from the same amount of land. And, because the fruit could be picked without need for ladders, harvesting labour costs were halved. In its first forty years, between 1920 and 1960, the M9 rootstock, in the report’s conservative estimate, “provided 18m tonnes of additional apples globally as well as saving 70m hours of picking time.”

Beneath the surface, invisible and, outside the industry, unknown, this single clone has reshaped the global landscape and economics of apple production. But, if the impact of East Malling Research’s rootstock studies is astonishing, the techniques developed for studying tree roots are, as Katie Holten’s photograph hints, equally arcane and fascinating.

Wolfgang Böhm, a scientist at the Institut fur Pflanzenbau und Pflanzenzuchtung at the University of Göttingen, surveyed the history of root studies in his 1979 textbook, Methods of Studying Root Systems. He dates the first example of the traditional “skeleton technique” of dry root-excavation to the eighteenth century, when British clergyman Stephan Hales (who was also the first person to measure blood pressure) carefully dug around the roots of a sunflower in order to measure and weigh them. It wasn’t until 1926, Böhm writes, that the American ecologist J. E. Weaver “developed this simple excavation technique with garden tools into a recognized scientific method”—one that has remained largely unchanged ever since.

To excavate a tree root, one must dig a trench, far enough away from the plant so as not to accidentally lop off any sideways-spreading roots but close enough so as not to create extra work. For the trench, backhoes and shovels are permitted; according to Böhm, “Cullinan (1921) used dynamite … but in general this technique cannot be recommended.” From then on, however, the soil must be removed particle by particle from the plant-facing side of the trench. A variety of hand tools can be used, depending on the delicacy of the root system: Böhm lists “ice picks, small metal forks, screw drivers, forceps, spatulas, small dental picks and sharp pointed needles of different sizes.” As if this process was not already painstaking enough, the root system must, Böhm specifies, be drawn on a 3D grid and photographed as soon as it is uncovered.

Excavation from Bohm 670

IMAGE: Anonymous man excavates grass root systems using a needle. This photograph and the one below from Wolfgang Böhm’s Methods of Studying Root Systems.

Raspberry root excavation

It’s hardly surprising, then, to read that “one man needed five weeks to excavate, measure, and record the root system of a 15-year-old lodgepole tree.” In all, Bohm writes, “nearly 60 tons of soil had to be moved in the excavation of a mature orchard tree” such as the Cox’s Orange Pippin, above.

Nonetheless, over the years, the scientists at East Malling Research have excavated dozens of apple trees, raspberry bushes, and strawberry plants, in order to develop new rootstocks as well as observe the effects of soil type, orchard density, irrigation, pruning methods, and shading on the root systems and resulting harvest.

Rhizotron 670

IMAGE: East Malling Research’s rhizotron, an architectural device for subterranean observation.

In the 1960s, East Malling Research supplemented the excavation method with the construction of the world’s first underground root laboratory, or rhizotron. This is an underground corridor whose walls consist of forty-eight shuttered windows, which researchers can open to peer out onto the root systems of adjacent trees and plants. At East Malling, the rhizotron has been planted with a Gala apple grafted onto M27, M26, and M9 rootstock, and, while the resulting photographs and measurements only document a section of the tree’s root system, they have the advantage of allowing observations over time.

Excavation 2013 670

IMAGE: Apple tree excavation, 2013, from the East Malling Research annual report.

Fruit of the Tree 2013 670

IMAGE: “Fruit of the Tree,” East Malling Research’s display at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2013, via.

The tradition of dry excavation continues. Indeed, in 2013, East Malling Research won a medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show—the first ever awarded to a scientific exhibitor—with a display whose centrepiece was a fully grown apple tree on M9 rootstock. The video below gives a short glimpse of the process, which took a team of ten three weeks.

I had always thought of the branching filigree of a tree’s root system as a spectral mirror of its aboveground architecture, but, as it turns out, it is in fact the rhizosphere that determines the shape of the tree that we see.

Posted in Uncategorized| Leave a comment

Honey Fences

Elephant 460

Gratuitous cute elephant photograph by Brian Snelson.

Edible Geography readers have perhaps heard of “pollinator pathways,” an initiative to thread together isolated pockets of green space into nectar-filled corridors, in order to give butterflies and bees easier passage across otherwise unfriendly urban expanses of concrete and asphalt. A recent article in British Airways’ High Life magazine about efforts to save Kenya’s last remaining elephants introduced me to an interesting twist on the concept of bee-based landscape design: “honey fences.”

Although the main threat to the elephants’ survival is ivory-market driven poaching, a significant number are also killed each year following altercations with local villagers. As Angela Carr-Hartley, director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, politely put it, “These communities have mixed feelings about an elephant coming into their smallholdings overnight, as they can wreak havoc eating the crops.”

Beehive fence line 460

Beehive fence, photo via The Elephant and Bees Project.

Zoologist Lucy King came up with the honey fence solution, which takes advantage of the fact that elephants are terrified by the sound of bees. (The delicate skin inside their trunks is apparently particularly vulnerable to being stung.) King had read that elephants tend to avoid acacia trees, usually a favorite food, if bees have built a hive in the branches. Based on that initial insight, and after several years of behavioral experiments, including playing elephants the sound of disturbed bees from a hidden loudspeaker and filming their reaction, King developed the honey fence system: a series of hives, suspended at ten-metre intervals from a single wire threaded around wooden fence posts. If an elephant touches either a hive or the wire, all the bees along the fence line feel the disturbance and swarm out of their hives in an angry, buzzing cloud.

A pilot honey fence in 2009 proved successful, deterring all but one bull elephant, and The Elephants and Bees Project has since spread to sites across Africa. Neville Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust told Africa Geographic that nearby farmers are sure the fence is working: “When I visit they proudly walk me around showing me the footprints of elephants that have walked up to and along the fence in several locations before turning back towards the park.”

By encircling a village with a cordon of hives, the village’s crops are protected, the elephants steered away from potential conflict, and, adds Carr-Hartley, “the farmers are able to garner some revenue from the harvesting of honey.” The result of truly delightful example of interspecies landscape engineering, jars of “Elephant-friendly” honey are for sale at The Elephant and Bees Research Centre in Tsavo, Kenya.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Responses

Gastropod: Sonic Seasoning

“Sound is the forgotten flavour sense,” says experimental psychologist Charles Spence. In this episode of Gastropod, we discover how manipulating sound can transform our experience of food and drink, making stale crisps taste fresh, adding the sensation of cream to black coffee, or boosting the savory, peaty notes in whiskey.

Composers have written music to go with feasts and banquets since antiquity—indeed, in at a particularly spectacular dinner hosted by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1454, twenty-eight musicians were hidden inside an immense pie, beginning to play as the crust was opened. Today, however, most chefs and restaurants fail to consider the sonic aspects of eating and drinking. That’s a mistake, because, as we reveal in this episode, sound can affect how fast we eat, how much we’re prepared to pay for our meal, and even what it tastes like.

Don’t believe us? Here are three simple sonic seasoning tricks to try at home.

The Sonic Chip

This experiment, for which Charles Spence won a highly coveted IgNobel prize in 2008, came about almost by accident.

Spence was working with a big company to see whether they could use the recently discovered “parchment skin” illusion to trick customers’ brains into believing that their clothes felt even softer after coming out of the washing machine. It works this way: if you muffle the sound of your hands being rubbed together while you’re rubbing them, your brain assumes that they must be smoother than they are. That’s because your brain combines the audio information with the tactile sensation and assumes because there’s less noise, there’s less friction, and hence softer skin.

This idea—that if you change the input in one sensory realm, you can influence perception in another—is called crossmodal sensory interaction, and it lies at the core of Spence’s research.

“Food and drink are among life’s most multisensory experiences,” Spence pointed out, so it’s perhaps hardly surprising that it occurred to him that the parchment skin illusion might work in the mouth, using food rather than clothing.

Crisps 460

He recruited 200 volunteers willing to eat Pringles for science, and played them modified crunching sounds through headphones, some louder and some more muffled, as they ate. And he found that he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale crisp’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it.

“The party version” of this trick, according to Spence, was developed by colleagues in the Netherlands and Japan. Volunteers were asked to crunch on crisps in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones. All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass—and “people’s jaws just freeze up.”

Have a packet of crisps that’s been sitting around too long? Here’s the sonic boost they need.

And—thanks, science!—here’s a soundtrack to make your perfectly fresh crisps taste stale.

As far as breaking glass goes, we can’t condone inflicting that kind of trauma—you’re on your own.

Hot and Cold

Listen to this recording of two drinks being poured into a glass, back to back. Can you tell whether each drink was hot or cold? (Scroll down to the end of this section for the answers.)

According to Spence, you should be able to guess. The human ear is sensitive enough to pick up on the slight change in a liquid’s viscosity as it changes temperature. Hot water is less viscous than cold, which means that the splash it makes when it hits the bottom of the glass or mug is a tiny bit splashier—and thus higher pitched.

This finding has practical applications in advertising, for example, as well as drinks dispensers—your soup or coffee could be made to seem piping hot, or your soda even more cool and refreshing. But Spence also suggests playing with it: blindfolding guests and handing them a cold drink while playing the sound of a hot one.

The result? With the sound, “we’ve put the idea in your mind, the expectation that it’s going to be very hot,” he explains. “And then when you put it to your lips and it’s suddenly cold, you’ll be shocked, but you probably won’t know quite why you should be shocked.”

(Answer: the first pour was cold, the second was hot.)

Bittersweet Symphony

So far, we’ve focused on the sound that food makes, either in your mouth or in the glass. But Spence’s recent research has focused on something much more abstract and mysterious: an implicit association between particular kinds of sound and tastes.

The idea that different scents, tastes, and flavours might correspond to different musical notes has a long, if speculative, history: in nineteenth-century London, perfumer Septimus Piesse created a scent scale in which middle C was matched with rose, while an octave lower was geranium. In the following decades, novelists picked up on the idea and invented fictional liqueur flavour keyboards (Joris-Karl Huysman’s Against Nature), a “pianocktail” machine (Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours), and a scent organ (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World).

Pinaocktail 460

On the left, a diagram of the pianocktail created by Florica Vlad; on the right, a mechanical version of the pianocktail built by musician Géraldine Schenkel.

According to Spence, the first scientist to test the concept, however, was Kristian Holt-Hansen, working in Denmark. Using Carlsberg’s lager and Elephant beer as his two test beverages, he demonstrated that people consistently matched a lower-pitched tone (510-520 Hz) to the lager, and a slightly higher note (640-670 Hz) to the more vinous Elephant beer. He then found that when he played the matching sound to people as they consumed the appropriate beer, they rated it as tasting better.

As unlikely as it sounds, Canadian scientists successfully replicated the experiment in 1984, with the confusing addition of grapefruit and dill pickle, which matched even higher pitched sounds (1016 Hz and 1394 Hz, respectively).

That was the state of the science when Charles Spence decided to test the connection between pitch and taste in 2012. Using a bittersweet toffee specially created by chef Heston Blumenthal, Spence and his colleagues showed that people perceived the toffee as ten percent more bitter while listening to low-pitched notes, and ten percent sweeter when their headphones were filled with higher-pitched music. Subsequently, Spence says he’s tried this experiment on people from all over the world, and found a similar correspondence.

You can try it at home with some bittersweet dark chocolate and these two soundtracks. The first one is sweet-enhancing, the second will boost bitter.

But, although the effect is real, the mechanism behind it is more elusive. Listen to this episode of Gastropod to understand how and why sound affects our experience of food—and how we might use that science to redesign the experience of eating. From chefs playing with sonic seasoning to enhance our dinner, to the perfect soundtrack for whiskey, we explore the way our brains combine sound with our other senses to create flavour.

This is the second in a two-part series exploring the relationship between sound and food: don’t miss the previous episode of Gastropod for much more on the experimental history and emerging science of acoustic agriculture, from the perfect bovine playlist to the lost rhythms of Southern farming. And, if you like what you hear, please support our work with a donation of any size.

Posted in Gastropod| Leave a comment