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.

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

Gastropod: Field Recordings

Plants that can hear themselves being eaten. Microphone-equipped drones that eavesdrop on sick chickens. Lasers that detect an insect’s wing-beats from dozens of feet away.

In this James Bond-inspired episode of Gastropod, we listen to the soundtrack of farming, decode the meaning hidden in each squawk, moo, and buzz, and learn how we can use that information to improve our food in the future. Tune in now for this special broadcast of the barnyard orchestra!

Mozart for Plants

Music to Grow Plants 460

IMAGE: Retired dentist George Milstein’s 1970 album claims to help plants grow (you can listen to it here).

The idea that plants can hear and respond to music has a long and chequered history. Charles Darwin made his son, Francis, play the bassoon in front of a herb while he watched to see whether its leaves twitched (the plant was unmoved); Barbra Streisand caused a veritable explosion of colour when singing to her tulips in the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; and, as recently as the 1970s, UNC Greensboro physicist Dr. Gaylord Hageseth claimed that his experimental “pink” noise could make turnips sprout much faster.

While the claims that playing Mozart in a cornfield will lead to a dramatic increase in yield have proved impossible to replicate, scientists are sure that plants do respond to sounds in their environment, with small changes in gene expression, for example, or slightly different germination rates.

But, as Heidi Appel, senior research scientist at the University of Missouri, told Gastropod, “we never understood why plants would have that ability.”

Pest Sounds

Intrigued, Appel teamed up with her colleague Reginald Cocroft, a behavioral ecologist, to focus on a sound that, they thought, might be particularly useful to plants: the vibrations caused by insect feeding.

“These are one of the earliest and most quickly transmitted signals plants have that they’re being attacked,” Appel told Gastropod. And while plants can’t hear insects the same way we do—they don’t have ears, after all—they can sense vibrations, much like club-goers feel the thump of bass or worshippers hear an organ reverberate through a church. “In that case, your body is a substrate,” picking up the sound vibrations, Appel explained. “That’s much more like what plants experience.”

To test their theory, Appel and Cocroft used lasers to measure the minute leaf tremors, about 1/10,000th of an inch, that caterpillars make when they munch on Arabidopsis (rockcress), a spindly relative of cabbage and broccoli that is commonly used in plant research. Next, they played those sounds back to one set of plants, and left the control group in peace. Finally, they let the caterpillars loose on both plant populations.

Astonishingly, they found that the plants that had undergone audio training actually responded to the attack by producing much higher levels of mustard oil, their innate pesticide—which made them much less appetizing to the hungry caterpillars.

Appel Caterpillar on Leaf with Laser 460

IMAGE: A caterpillar and laser on an Arabidopsis plant; still photo from a video made by Roger Meissen.

“That was very exciting and we were very happy,” Appel said. “But, at one level, we thought, ‘So what?’ Plants might respond to everything.”

So they tested the plants again, this time using recordings of wind and treehoppers, a bug that looks like a thorn and sings with a high-pitched whine but does not like to dine on Arabidopsis. In response to these vibrations, however, the plants produced no increase in mustard oil. With this elegant experiment, Appel and Cocroft had solved a basic question of plant evolutionary biology: plants evolved the ability to respond to sound vibrations in order to recognize and ward off attackers.

Musical Mustard

In doing so, Appel and Cocroft may have also hit upon a potent environmentally-friendly pesticide. Perhaps a field full of speakers blasting the sounds of crunching caterpillars might help terrified crops prime themselves to ward off a real attack, removing the need to apply chemical pesticides. This summer, Appel and Cocroft are testing commercially useful Arabidopsis relatives in the brassica family, such as kale and Brussels sprouts, to see if they demonstrate the same response.

But, as Appel pointed out to Gastropod, the use of sound might have an even more direct impact on our health. While plants evolved these chemical responses to deter pests, for humans, they often provide both flavour and health benefits. In fact, the sulfurous compounds produced by Arabidopsis and its fellow brassicas form the basis of America’s favorite hot dog condiment, mustard. And those same chemicals are actively being studied by cancer researchers for their potent health benefits.

Maybe, by playing predator sounds in the field, farmers could actually grow more healthful plants.

Recording sounds Appel 460

IMAGE: Recording caterpillar munching; still photo from a video made by Roger Meissen.

Appel is testing this hypothesis with an African plant that is currently harvested for medicinal use, to determine whether caterpillar feeding will increases the plants’ production of beneficial chemicals. If so, she can then test whether playing predator sounds has the same effect.

“When we look at a plant as a source of flavour or medicine, what we are looking at is the product of millions of years of evolution of the plant interacting with its own pests—and those are largely insects,” said Appel. Insects that, it turns out, plants can hear.

This is the first of a two-part series exploring the relationship between sound and food. Listen to this 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, subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on hearing the difference between hot and cold tea, learning how the sound of tiny bubbles in soda changes its taste, and discovering the science behind pairing wine with music. If you’re feeling particularly generous, you can also make a donation to help Gastropod keep going—thank you!

bird_vocalization 460

IMAGE: Wayne Daley and Casey Ritz (professor of poultry science at University of Georgia, Athens) preparing to record chicken vocalizations. Photo credit: Gary Meek.

Posted in Gastropod| Leave a comment

Los Angeles à la Carte

Otto 460

IMAGE: Ollie Hammond’s, 3683 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 1950. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Restaurant menus seem like the most ephemeral of ephemera: updated seasonally or even daily; printed in-house on cheap card stock or even scrawled on chalkboards. But, with menus as with fruit stickers, airsickness bags, and pizza boxes, everything humanity sees fit to print will eventually attract a collector or two. Many of these menu collections are now archived in public institutions, where they have proven themselves to be a valuable resource for historians, designers, economists, chefs, and even ecologists.

The New York Public Library’s collection of roughly 45,000 menus leads the pack, and is currently being transcribed and geo-tagged by volunteers from all over the world. The Los Angeles Public Library’s collection is smaller, but, as it turns out, no less fascinating. USC professor Josh Kun has spent the past couple of years sifting through it with his students, and the resulting exhibition, “To Live and Dine in L.A.,”  launches today.

LosAngelesChamber_MenuInterior-LDLApg018 460

IMAGE: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Banquet Menu, 1895. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Car service 460

IMAGE: Scrivner’s (various locations), 1950s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Chinese food 460

IMAGE: Forbidden Palace, 451 Gin Ling Way, Los Angeles, 1940s; Kowloon, 6124 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

In the accompanying book, Kun tells the city’s history through its menus, from its geographic growth to the arrival of different immigrant groups, and from the rise of the automobile to the origins of the farm-to-table movement.

I interviewed Kun and wrote about the project for the New Yorker, and our conversation includes his introduction to the weird subculture of menu collector swap meets as well as his “white whale” menu—the one that got away.

It was from the Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor, in East Hollywood, which opened in 1974 and was, Kun writes in the book, “the first, and last, feminist restaurant in the city.” To quote myself:

A 1976 Times description of the restaurant offers tantalizing references to omelettes, crab quiche, and vegetarian meatloaf, as well as to an absence of diet drinks (to promote size-acceptance) and grapes and lettuce (to support California farmworkers). But Kun’s searches failed to turn up a surviving menu.

LA Womens Saloon NYT 460

IMAGE: “Mary Yakutis prepares steamed vegetables at the Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor,” New York Times photo.

Kun did, however, inadvertently uncover some family history during the research process, while trying to track down a menu from the Budapest Hungarian Restaurant on Fairfax. His grandfather, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Nazi-occupied Hungary, had, for a short time, part-owned the restaurant.

“One of my graduate students tracked down the guy who had bought the restaurant and he kept the one menu,” Kun explained. “I knew my grandfather was a waiter, a busboy—he always worked in restaurants—but I never knew he owned one!”

Budapest Hungarian restaurant 460

IMAGE: Budapest Hungarian Restaurant, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, 1960s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Despite spending more than a year tracing aesthetic, socio-cultural, geographic, and culinary patterns through the city’s menus, when I asked Kun to describe the distinctive features of an Angeleno menu, his conclusion that there was no such thing—that the city’s menus mirror the heterogeneity of the dozens of separate cities, towns, and communities that together make up Greater Los Angeles.

That said, he mentioned a collector had told him that “the only thing that makes an LA menu an LA menu is that they’re typically really big”—both in terms of dimensions and the sheer quantity of dishes listed. The city and its dining choices are, it seems, united by sprawl.


IMAGE: The Broadway, Broadway and Fourth Streets, Los Angeles. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Menu 460

IMAGE: Al Levy’s Grill, 617 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, 1930s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

There’s much more in my New Yorker article, including Kun’s thoughtful analysis of the archive’s gaps: check it out here.

Kun’s book, To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City, is utterly gorgeous: it contains full-colour reproductions of hundreds of menus, a handful of fascinating menu “re-mixes” by celebrity chefs Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler, Susan Feniger, and others, as well as an essay on Los Angeles menu design by LACMA’s Staci Steinberger, another by celebrated Angeleno food critic Jonathan Gold, and, of course, Kun’s own contribution. And the exhibition and associated program kick off today: visit the Los Angeles Public Library’s website to find out more.

Thanks to Geoff Manaugh for the tip. As a reminder, my writing can regularly be found on the New Yorker website these days: recent stories include an investigation into the mysterious origins of Swiss cheese holes, a visit to the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in Reading, and a review of the smell of Qadaffi’s death.

Posted in New Yorker| Leave a comment

Smog Meringues

The concept of terroir will be familiar to most Edible Geography readers; recently, we also explored the idea of “merroir,” or tasting place in sea salt. But what about aeroir—the atmospheric taste of place?

GenevaSmog_10 London peasouper CREDIT Center for Genomic Gastronomy

IMAGE: A London-style Peasouper Smog Meringue. Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

This afternoon, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and I will be offering New Yorkers a chance to taste aeroir, with a side-by-side tasting of air from different cities. With the support of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, we have spent the past few months designing and fabricating a smog-tasting cart, complete with built-in smog chamber, as well as developing a range of synthetic smog recipes.

Having made its debut at a meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva a fortnight ago, the cart will be stationed on Rivington Street, just off the Bowery, from noon to six today. We will be serving up free smog meringues from three different locations as part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY street festival.

The cart builds on an earlier project by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. In 2011, after reading that an egg foam is ninety-percent air in Harold McGee’s bible of culinary chemistry, On Food and Cooking, the Center took whisks, mixing bowls, and egg whites out onto the streets of Bangalore, using the structural properties of meringue batter to harvest air pollution in order to taste and compare smog from different locations around the city.

IMAGE: Harvesting urban air pollution using egg foams. Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

I’ve been a fan of the Center’s work for a while (I included their publication, Food Phreaking #001, in my best books list for 2013), and, inspired by their smog meringue project, I began to speculate about the concept of “aeroir,” and the idea that urban atmospheres capture a unique taste of place.

As we started to work together, I visited the atmospheric process chambers at the Bourns College of Engineering, at the University of California, Riverside, to see how scientists actually recreate smog conditions in the lab, in order to study the relationship between emissions and atmospheric chemistry.

1 New mobile UCR Smog Chamber

IMAGE: Mobile smog chamber, UC Riverside CE-CERT. Rows of UV lights are used to “bake” the smog. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

7 Inside the Smog Chamber

IMAGE: Deflated Teflon bags hand in the large atmospheric emissions chamber room at UC Riverside CE-CERT. The mirrored walls reflect UV light to ensure the smog “bakes” evenly. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

During my visit, a group of students was setting up an agricultural smog, which is characterised by ammonia and amines from feedlot manure lagoons and other organic waste. These combine with NOx and incompletely combusted hydrocarbon emissions from cars, power plants, and industry to give the Central Valley of California, for example, some of the worst air quality in America.

We watched as a team injected precise amounts of different precursor chemicals into a gigantic Teflon chamber, where they would be cooked under hundreds of UV lights in order to catalyse the reactions that create smog. The students were hoping to characterise those reactions, in order to understand the entire chain of chemical processes leading to smog formation, and then design and test ways to prevent or mitigate against it.

With advice from Professor David Cocker and Mary Kacarab at UC Riverside, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and I worked out how to build a DIY, mini-smog chamber. We then developed and tested recipes using readily available precursor ingredients in create a variety of different smogs.

GenevaSmog_03 Cart CREDIT Center for Genomic Gastronomy

IMAGE: Smog tasting cart set up in Geneva, at a meeting of the World Health Organisation. Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

GenevaSmog_07 Terpenes precursor CREDIT Center for Genomic Gastronomy

IMAGE: Emissions from these precursor chemicals are pumped into the cart’s chamber and exposed to UV light to create a synthetic smog. In this image, pine needs and orange peel provide terpenes to simulate a biogenic smog. Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Precursor chemicals

IMAGE: Diesel and NOx, two precursor chemicals. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Whisking smog

IMAGE: Whisking meringues inside the smog chamber at Baz Bagel on Thursday. The long gloves were sourced at a sex shop, hence the fetching black vinyl. Photo by Gabe Harp.

As it turns out, Arie Haagen-Smit, the man known as the “father” of air pollution science, was originally a flavour chemist who rose to prominence thanks to his work on pineapples. Nadia Berenstein, the flavour historian I interviewed for a recent episode of Gastropod, pointed me to a speech Haagen-Smit gave in the 1950s, explaining his shift in research from fruit flavours to smog science to a room full of his former colleagues. In it, he explains, “I am engaged at the present time on a super flavor problem—the flavor of Los Angeles.”

I can confirm, based on Thursday night’s bake-off, that the different cities’ smogs do, indeed, taste different (and yet equally disgusting).

Gabe piping London smog

IMAGE: Gabe Harp piping “London” mini-meringues in the kitchen at Baz Bagel. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Inhaling smog over extended periods is extremely damaging to human health. In New York City, which has the 12th worst ozone levels in the nation according to the American Lung Association’s Annual “State of the Air” report, air pollution levels are highest in neighborhoods that are majority non-white and low-income—a particularly insidious form of environmental injustice. By transforming the largely unconscious process of breathing to the conscious act of eating, the smog-tasting cart aims to create a visceral, thought-provoking interaction with the air all around us.

One of my collaborators, Zack Denfeld of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, reports that during previous installations and performances of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s Smog Tasting project, the most frequently asked question has been: “Is this safe to eat?” His typical response is, “Well, is it safe to breathe?”

Unsurprisingly, there is not a lot of research on the impact of eating polluted air, as opposed to the more common method of exposure, breathing it. However, the scientists we have spoken to have pointed out that the human digestive system is more robust and better able to deal with these chemicals than our respiratory system—and that the trace amounts captured in a mini-meringue make for a very small dose, in any case.

Zack pumping smog

IMAGE: Zack Denfeld pumping precursor emissions into the smog chamber. We didn’t assemble the entire cart at Baz Bagel, due to space constraints. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Smog in chamber 460

IMAGE: Smog “baking” in the chamber at Baz Bagel. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

In any case, our hope is that the meringues will serve as a kind of “Trojan treat,” creating a visceral experience of disgust and fear that prompts a much larger conversation about the aesthetics and politics of urban air pollution, as well as its health and environmental effects. Eat at your own risk!

This smog-tasting cart is intended as the start of a larger collaboration exploring the concept of “aeroir.” After all, air is the site at which we have an intimate, constant interaction with a geographically specific manifestation of urban planning, economic activity, environmental regulation, and meteorological forces. We hope to develop a multi-sensory series of installations, devices, and performances to make that interaction sense-able.

For example, we imagine that air quality could function as a kind of culinary constraint that inspires new kinds of regional cuisine, aided by the development of smog flavour wheels. Working with scientists who are measuring how smog affects the human sense of smell, as well as chefs, we could imagine developing a menu of street food pairings for particular atmospheric conditions.

Equally, we hope to partner with engineering labs to create novel wearable technologies that add olfactory and trigeminal stimulation to any eating experience—a sort of “smog seasoning.” Aeroir may well be the missing ingredient that makes tacos taste the same in the restaurant back home as they did on the streets of D.F.

The overlap between culinary technology and atmospheric conditions is literal as well as metaphorical. During my visit to UC Riverside, I visited their new Cooking Emissions Laboratory at UC Riverside to explore new research into the impact of “burger smog” on urban air quality—something I will be reporting on at greater length in the coming weeks.

GenevaSmog_01 Atlanta Meringues CREDIT Center for Genomic Gastronomy

IMAGE: Atlanta-style smog meringues as served in Geneva. Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

With their original smog meringue insight, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy opened up a powerful method to translate quantitative environmental data and the scientific understanding of pollution and physiology using the images, metaphors, and tools of food and cuisine. It’s a thrill to work with them to explore its potential.

The smog-tasting cart will be serving smog meringues on Rivington Street between Bowery and Chrystie from noon today until 6 p.m. (or whenever supplies run out), as part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY street festival, directed by the legendary Joseph Grima. Our participation is made possible thanks to the support of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, as part of their 25th Anniversary program, which focuses on the theme of urban nature. Scott Wiener, pizza tour leader extraordinaire, connected us to Baz Bagel, who let us use their kitchen when the day’s bagel rolling, boiling, and baking was done. Scientists David Cocker, Mary Kacarab, Kent Kirshenbaum, and Darby Jack have been all been exceedingly generous with their time and expertise as well as very tolerant of our weird approach to their field of research. As always, thanks also to Geoff Manaugh, who accompanied me on my visit to UC Riverside and helped discuss the concept of aeroir.

Posted in Uncategorized| 1 Response