The Lost Beer of Spring

Ninkasi Orabelle Sierra Nevada SH and Southampton together

IMAGE: Great Divide’s Orabelle, Ninkasi’s Spring Reign, Sierra Nevada’s Southern Hemisphere Harvest, and Southampton’s Bière de Mars beers.

I spent some trying to track down traditional spring beers for Gizmodo, and ended up finding that, unlike the other seasons, there isn’t really any such thing. I did find a Lenten beer that you can live on for forty-six days without noticeable harm (medieval monks used to, and a journalist managed it in 2011), as well as a delightful-sounding Franco-Belgian style called bière de Mars that we’ve sadly forgotten how to make altogether (a drinking buddy of mine, Daniel Fromson, just wrote about it for Modern Farmer).

I also talked to Jeff Alworth, Portland-based author of the Beervana blog and The Beer Bible (forthcoming in Spring 2015), who shared some interesting insights into how the seasonal American craft brew market works. Taken as a whole, seasonal releases are an extremely popular category of craft beer, with a supermarket sales volume second only to IPA. Typically, each brewery will be allocated one SKU or shelf slot for their seasonal offering, so you’re unlikely see an Oktoberfest and a winter ale from the same company side-by-side.

The problem, as Jamie Emmerson of Oregon’s Full Sail brewery (one of my personal favourites) told Alworth, is that American consumers won’t buy a winter beer after January 1st.

Winter beer sales just completely drop off the map, even though January 1st is still the dead of winter. If they have winter beers sitting out on the shelf in that slot on January 1, they just don’t sell. And so then they have to come up with some kind of beer that’s sort of a spring seasonal, but, you know, it’s still January.

This leads to the free-for-all I describe in my Gizmodo post, with springiness translating into everything from a dark brown ale to a hazy, refreshing saison. Alworth added that true beer nerds get quite wound up about this kind of season inflation, accusing breweries of pursuing novelty for the sake of novelty — to which brewers simply throw their hands in the air and point at the sales figures.

It doesn’t help that spring is not unified by any shared cultural imagery in America: while the pumpkins and corncobs of Thanksgiving and autumn or the snowy, Christmassy sense of winter seem equally seasonally appropriate in Southern California or coastal New England, spring is largely a climatic event, and the country’s climate is extremely diverse. As Alworth concluded:

People just respond to spring as an actual season and it really varies. So, especially if you’re a national beer company, trying to figure out what beer will suit those different seasons is probably tough. I don’t know. This is the thing with spring beers. Nobody knows. Maybe you can promote coherence in the spring beer category?

Unfortunately, I think my post probably added to the incoherence rather than vice versa, but I did find it interesting to reflect that spring is perhaps the one time of year when you can drink a beer-based interpretation of your local terrestrial conditions, rather than a riff on the country’s shared seasonal shorthand.

You can read my post in full here; be sure to also check out Daniel Fromson’s take on bière de Mars and Jeff Alworth’s Beervana blog. I’ll be contributing a handful of Friday evening, booze-related “Happy Hour” posts to Gizmodo going forward, so if you have any suggestions for my forthcoming alcoholic adventures, please get in touch!

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Marine Dark Matter

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IMAGE: A fish captured during the Malaspina Expedition. Credit: CSIC / JOAN COSTA.

If you descend below two hundred metres in the world’s oceans, you enter the mesopelagic, or twilight, zone. The temperature plummets, pressure increases, light levels drop off quickly to almost nothing at all, and the water is filled with a continuous shower of “marine snow” — flakes of dead or dying plankton, algae, fecal matter, sand, and dust.

The fish that live in this zone are, to put it charitably, very strange-looking. There are blobfish, snailfish, slimeheads (known at your local fishmonger as orange roughy), the red-luminescence producing stoplight loosejaw, and the brownsnout spookfish, which is apparently the only vertebrate known to employ a mirror, as opposed to a lens, to focus.

What’s more, there are enormous numbers of these mesopelagic fish. In fact, there are so many that they create a sort of false sea floor: apparently, when sonar first began to be widely used during World War II, frustrated operators kept detecting what looked like solid ground at about 300 metres, even when they knew the ocean bed was a thousand or more metres deeper than that that. It proved to be an acoustic illusion created by the swim bladders of millions and millions of mesopelagic fish.

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IMAGE: Scale diagram of marine zones by Finlay McWalter.

Last month, a team of researchers published the results of a new mesopelagic census. Scientists had previously estimated that this zone contained 1,000 million tons of fish; the new census, led by Spanish National Research Council researcher Carlos Duarte, discovered that there are actually between 10 and 30 times more than that.

In other words, these odd-looking, little-known, and for the most part completely unharvested fish make up an incredible 95 percent of all marine biomass. All of a sudden, there are a lot more fish in the sea.

All these bristlemouths and lanternfishes had managed to hide from hungry humans because of their enhanced vision and pressure-sensitivity. According to Duarte, “They are able to detect nets from at least five metres and avoid them.” Large trawl nets are the primary technology humans use to count fish, and these net-avoiding fish were thus invisible and inaccessible to us: “marine dark matter,” as Jason Kottke puts it.

Duarte’s seven-month global circumnavigation used sonar and echo sounding instead, extrapolating mesopelagic fish numbers based on their acoustic backscatter. Not only did the expedition’s findings revise fish population numbers up by an order of magnitude, they also showed that the oceanic gyres — rotating spirals of plastic waste previously assumed to be marine dead zones — are mesopelagic hotspots, home to what Duarte calls “the largest fish stock in the ocean”:

This very large stock of fish that we have just discovered, that holds 95 per cent of all the fish biomass in the world, is untouched by fishers. They can’t harvest them with nets. In the 21st Century we have still a pristine stock of fish which happens to be 95 per cent of all the fish in oceans.

In the conclusion of their research paper, Duarte and his co-authors call for “technological developments to increase the capturability of mesopelagic fishes.” For their future survival, however, and despite their current abundance and possible deliciousness, one might be tempted to wish for the exact opposite.

Found via

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Container Spotting

Freight Containers

IMAGE: Shipping containers, via.

Intermodal containers — the standardised steel boxes that carry 90 percent of everything* — are ubiquitous: stacked five or six high on enormous ships, tracing their way across the landscape in long ribbons on railways or split up into individual units and hauled by lorries on motorways, before being built into Lego-brick-style fortresses at major ports.

But their ownership, contents, and routes are a mystery to most — the same orange box could hold rubber ducks, spearmint flavouring, and/or tins of cat food, it could be the property of an 86-year-old Taiwanese billionaire or a 165-year-old German company majority-owned by the City of Hamburg, and it could be on its way to Yokohama, the Gulf of Aden, or a logistics hub in suburban Philadelphia. And, although its exterior marking and colouring will provide some clues as to the box’s identity, the ability to decode that information is rather rare.

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IMAGE: The Container Guide.

Enter The Container Guide, a new book designed to answer the prayers of any aspiring container-spotters. In the words of its authors, Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon:

The Container Guide, drawing inspiration from classic Audubon birding guides, is a practical field guide to identifying containers and the corporations that own them. Inside you’ll find virtually every major shipping concern brought to life in full-color on durable, tear- and water-resistant paper. The included photographs, logos, and container colors will help you quickly identify the corporation behind almost any container you spot in the wild. Each company’s corresponding entry provides rich historical background and data on their revenue, trade routes, and habits.

Hwang and Cannon are gathering pre-orders for The Container Guide on Kickstarter right now, and aim to have it on backers’ bookshelves by January 2015.

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IMAGE: Containers stacked in port, via Gatekeeper USA, a “container security solution.”

Hwang is founder and director of the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, “a citizen alliance devoted to exploring and celebrating the large-scale built systems that make modern life possible,” while Cannon is the co-founder of Cultivated Wit and former Graphics Editor at The Onion.

They bring accordingly different motivations to their intermodal investigations: Cannon told me that he is particularly partial to Hanjin containers, “because I worked on a project that involved hand-painting container logos and grew fond of their ‘H’ mark.”

Meanwhile, Hwang is interested in spotting my own personal favourites: reefers (refrigerated containers), the crucial link in the global cold chain that connects growers and consumers around the world.

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IMAGE: Reefer plug poles at Maher Terminal, Newark, via Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue’s Geography of Global Transport Systems.

In fact, I will be contributing a short essay to the book, exploring the early days of reefer experimentation. Rose George, author of the recent book Ninety Percent of Everything, is also contributing a primer on the role and history of containers in shipping, and Luke Iseman of Boxouse will add yet another perspective, based on his experience of converting and living in a retired shipping container.

These additions to the classic field guide structure are intended, Cannon explained, “to make it fun to read both at home and in the field.”

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IMAGE: Shipping container doors contain identifying information. Photo via.

Curious, I asked Cannon whether there was already a subculture of container-spotters.

“Definitely,” was the response, with spotters dividing into two distinct tribes: those who track container ships, and those who track the containers themselves on port and on land. “Ship trackers,” he explained, “spend time on sites like MarineTraffic, observing shipping patterns and then posting videos of their sightings to YouTube. They’re usually looking for new or rare types of ships.”

Meanwhile, the container spotters focus on “port logistics and their favorite company’s containers”:

Given that containers are all the same size, choosing a favorite is really a matter of personal taste. […] MOL is definitely a popular one — side note: here’s an article about creating the alligator logo. Personally, I like the Hanjin “H” mark and Hapag-Lloyd orange.

Hwang, on the other hand, confesses to being “an enormous fan of the Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) insignia with the flower design in the ‘O’,” while I am rather fond of the Maersk blue with a white star.

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IMAGE: The OOCL “Bangkok” on its maiden voyage, photographed by Daniel Eckhardt.

The book will offer the container-spotting novice a guide to parsing each box’s distinctive exterior plumage: the logo and colour, at first glance, but also the more detailed information hidden behind its unique ISO 6346 number. From that code, Cannon explains, “you can discern the owner, type of container (U = freight containers, J = detachable freight container-related equipment, Z = trailers and chassis, and R = refrigerated containers aka ‘reefers’), and the serial number for tracking.”

There are still many unanswered mysteries that the duo hopes to get to the bottom of in their research. Where are containers born? (Cannon pointed me to this video of a Chinese factory, which we both recommend watching on mute.) Can you tell the age of a container from its exterior? (Discontinued logos such as the MOL alligator provide one clue.) How many containers lie at the bottom of the ocean? Are there container hospitals, or do damaged ones just get scrapped?

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IMAGE: The MOL alligater and Maersk star on two model train set reefers.

I asked them to share the most surprising thing they have discovered in their early days as container nerds: for Cannon, it is the fact that Maersk is a real person’s first name, and that “flags of convenience,” in which a Danish ship is registered in, for example, Panama, in order to benefit from its lax regulations and reduced operating costs, are not only legal, but normal practice — roughly fifty percent of the world’s merchant marine fleet is registered in either Panama or the tiny African country of Liberia.

Hwang, on the other hand, has been amazed by “how political the competition between the companies is.”

The making and breaking of cooperative agreements between major shipping concerns — often with pretty dramatic titles like “The Grand Alliance” and “The New World Alliance” — are a big part of the global chess game of container trade.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the project will be the way it illuminates global trade routes: Hwang and Cannon are working with GIS specialist Xiaowei Wang (also of the Bay Area Infrstructural Observatory) to map container migration patterns.

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IMAGE: A year of global shipping routes, visualised, 2009. Image by Bernd Blasius from “The complex network of global cargo ship movements,” Pablo Kaluza, Andrea Kölzsch, Michael T. Gastner, and Bernd Blasius, J. Royal Society: Interface, via Wired.

If all this has piqued your interest, you can secure your copy of The Container Guide here. While you wait for it to arrive, you can feed your container curiosity by looking back at the BBC’s Box project, which tracked one container’s movements and contents over the course of a year, taking auto parts from Brazil to Japan, and tape measures from Shanghai to a Pennsylvania outlet of Big Lots. You can also pick up a copy of Mark Levinson’s history of containerisation, The Box, as well as, of course, Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything. And, if infrastructural appreciation is your cup of tea, why not sign up for the Bay Area Infrastructural Observatory’s first-ever conference, at the end of May? There are field trips to the Port of Richmond and a construction aggregate quarry, and I’ll be one of the speakers!

* 90 percent of everything that is not bulk or specialised cargo, such as oil (which accounts for a quarter of all goods transported at sea), iron ore, grain, grain, juice concentrate, and cars.

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Harvesting Winter

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IMAGE: A block of Thompson Lake Ice, hauled onto the surface with tongs. All photographs by Nicola Twilley.

In 1805, a twenty-three year-old Bostonian called Frederic Tudor launched a new industry: the international frozen-water trade.

Over the next fifty years, he and the men he worked with developed specialised ice harvesting tools, a global network of thermally engineered ice houses, and a business model that cleverly leveraged ballast-less ships, off-season farmers, and overheated Englishmen abroad. By the turn of the century, the industry employed 90,000 people and was worth $220 million in today’s terms.

By 1930, it had disappeared, almost without trace, replaced by an artificial cryosphere of cold storage warehouses and domestic refrigerators.

1 Thompson Ice House Ice Cutting today

IMAGE: The Thompson Ice House Annual Ice Cutting includes a pair of Clydesdales.

There are only a handful of places left in the United States that still practice the forgotten art of harvesting winter. A couple of weeks ago, I visited South Bristol, Maine, to take part in the annual ice cutting at the Thompson Ice House, a small wooden shack by the side of State Route 129 that claims to be “the only commercial ice house on the National Register of Historic Places to have stored naturally frozen ice harvested in the traditional way from a nearby pond.”

36 Scored ice squares

IMAGE: Scored grid on the lake surface.

21 Sawing first blocks ice house in background

IMAGE: Cutting the first raft.

When I arrived, several older men in worn overalls and plaid had already etched an oblong grid on the snow-dusted surface of the lake using an ice plough, leaving ghostly outlines of white rectangles stretching into the distance like some kind of 2D Continuous Monument. Ken Lincoln, the President of the Thompson Ice House Preservation Corporation, was firing up an early nineteenth-century gas-powered saw to carve out the channel leading to the ice house ramp. As the last owner of the commercial ice operation at Thompson Ice House, Lincoln had kept it running for half a century after the rest of the New England ice industry had vanished from the landscape. He finally got out of the frozen water business in 1985, re-opening the ice house as a working museum five years later.

10 Ice harvest museum

IMAGE: A small room to the side of the ice house serves as a museum. The window offers a view onto the sawdust insulation around the ice.

Inside the ice house, a couple of layers of ice blocks already glowed blue-white. They had been harvested a week earlier at the bidding of a Discovery Channel film crew. Ice, it seems, is hot this winter: Lincoln mentioned that National Geographic was coming to film later in the month, and, during my visit, an excitable woman was attaching a GoPro camera to a pike pole in order to capture footage for a forthcoming Timberland advertising campaign.

Gradually, without any formal announcement or fanfare, the day’s harvest got underway, using a collection of found and donated antique tools. Working in pairs, the men cut along parallel scored lines using heavy, two-handled ice saws. When the long rectangular raft floated free, they grabbed long-handled chisel-like tools called breaker bars, which, when dropped on the scored lines, broke the blocks up cross-wise. Finally, they steered each individual cake into the ice-house channel, using a pike pole to gently nudge and drag the slow-moving white cuboids through narrow band of black water.

15 Sawing the first cuts

IMAGE: Sawing the first raft.

31 First strip of blocks out V

IMAGE: Guiding the ice cakes into the ice house channel with a pike pole.

After the initial row had been harvested, as a sort of low-key demonstration, it was open season on the tools: everyone was free to try their hand at sawing, breaking, and steering the ice. I can report that sawing was the quickest way to warm up — dragging the unwieldy iron blades through twelve inches of ice was quite a workout. Steering was also surprisingly tricky: the cakes weigh more than 300 lbs each, and move through the water with the slow solidity of a container ship. Snapping individual blocks off the longer raft using the breaker bar was, however, a highly satisfying experience — one correctly positioned thrust, and, with a gentle crack, a newly carved block emerged in all its crystalline perfection.

47 Sawing team and channel

IMAGE: Sawing and steering.

57 Team carrying saws and breaker bars

IMAGE: Wielding a breaker fork.

26 Guiding the first blocks through the channel

IMAGE: Guiding the first blocks through the channel.

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IMAGE: An ice-block jam.

The business of getting the harvested ice into the ice house was a little less amateur-friendly. A pair of older guys in fluorescent fishing waterproofs dunked the ice cakes to sit them on a sled attached to a pulley system. The horsepower was provided by an ancient man in a battered pick up truck, rather than actual Clydesdales (which were, instead, giving rides to local kids). Once the dunkers raised their arms, the pick up driver reversed, and the glistening, translucent, oversized ice cube was hauled on a ramp to the top of a rickety wooden scaffold, where it paused for a brief moment, scattering rainbows in all directions like a giant prism, before picking up speed on its slide down into the ice house.

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IMAGE: Loading the ice cake onto the sled.

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IMAGE: Ice house ramp and pulley system.

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IMAGE: The ramp slopes down into the ice house.

Inside the ice house, the younger generation performed the slightly more hair-raising work of positioning the cakes. As the ice block paused for a moment, at the top of its ascent, someone would shout “ice inbound,” and, in a kind of combination of curling and Tetris played using only pike poles, the wranglers would crouch, ready to guide the heavy block, sliding fast on its icy undercarriage, into the next open slot.

Sometimes it worked, and the block accelerated into its slot with a satisfying thunk. Mostly, it did not, and the speeding ice cake careened off course, crashing into walls, chipping chunks off other blocks in a sparkling spray, and, sometimes, the old timers told me, breaking ankles.

74 Inbound ice block

IMAGE: Ice inbound!

88 Wrangling ice blocks in the ice house

IMAGE: Wrangling the ice blocks.

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IMAGE: Each ice cake weighs more than 300 lbs and is travelling at speed, making wrangling a sport for the nimble.

It looked like a lot of fun as I watched from above, perched on a ladder and peaking through a ventilation window, but my nerve was depleted after a panic-inducing drive through a winter storm to reach the pond. Next year, maybe…

The ice house itself is an interesting architectural technology. As Gavin Weightman writes, in his highly recommended history, The Frozen-Water Trade, nineteenth-century ice entrepreneurs knew that “there was no way of preventing ice from melting once the air temperature rose above freezing; it was a matter of finding how best to slow down the inevitable thaw.”

It was not enough to protect the ice from the warm air around it, for the interior of an icehouse has complex atmosphere of its own.

Before Frederic Tudor industrialized the frozen water business, wealthy landowners in Europe and North America had built underground, stone- or brick-lined ice houses on their estates in order to be able to enjoy delicate ices and jellies in the height of summer. Tudor’s first ice house, in Havana, Cuba, was completely different: entirely above ground, and built of wood, with a layer of sawdust between double walls as insulation.

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IMAGE: The ice house half-full, as we broke for lunch (truly excellent homemade chilli and whoopie pies).

This revolutionary model, with a pitched roof to provide adequate ventilation, worked rather well, limiting shrinkage to less than twenty-five percent. It soon caught on across America’s ice belt, from Pennsylvania to Maine. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, no New England pond or lake was without one. But the wooden structures have a tendency to either burn or fall down — as the ice melts and shifts slowly over the summer, they sag, leaning ever further southward — and, as the ice trade dried up, its storage infrastructure vanished, too.

Even the Thompson Ice House is actually a reconstruction, built on the same site, to the same plan, and from the salvaged materials of the original ice house, which, after 150 years of service, was in rather a dilapidated state.

Its steeply pitched roof helps dissipate the rising heat, and a subterranean drain deals with meltwater, so that, carefully packed, the ice lasts through the summer. These days, however, the Thompson ice is mostly used up in one epic burst: a July ice cream social, open to all, but undoubtedly most heartily enjoyed by those who worked to store the cold five months earlier.

Otherwise, the ice is sold, a dollar a cake on the honour system, to sport fishermen. With fewer air bubbles, natural ice melts more slowly than the artificial kind, and a good block will apparently last up to a week out on the water.

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IMAGE: The more tightly the ice is packed, the longer it lasts, so broken chunks are used to patch any gaps.

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IMAGE: Packed ice from the side. The white snow ice is of lesser quality and melts more quickly.

At its peak, at the end of the nineteenth century, the frozen-water trade kept a rapidly urbanising America fed and watered. Cakes of natural ice were the refrigerant in Gustavus Swift’s pioneering rail shipments of slaughtered meat, in the Great White Fleet’s banana boats, and in the breweries set up by new German immigrants, enabling them to make lager beer all year round. Funnily enough, despite being a thriving industry, it barely figures in official statistics: as Gavin Weightman explains, “since it could be classified as neither mining nor farming, it was not subject to any taxes that would have given federal or state governments an interest in it.”

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IMAGE: Ice cakes floating in the channel.

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IMAGE: A harvested rectangle.

Although it’s hard to imagine the commercial natural ice industry ever competing with its artificial rival again, I left my day of ice harvesting convinced that, providing climate change does not rule it out, a local, small-scale revival of the frozen-water trade would be a very good thing. For one thing, it forces communities to pay attention to the water quality in their local lakes and ponds. Then there’s the fact that ice harvesting is an inherently communal activity that brings together neighbours and strangers alike. And, if even small parts of the local food system can use the freely provided bounty of winter where possible, rather than its the electricity-hungry artificial counterpart, that can’t help but increase resiliency overall.

Besides, what better way to demonstrate the central role that cold plays in our contemporary lives than by experiencing the enormous physical effort once expended to achieve it?

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Ice-cream Orchestra

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IMAGE: Emilie coaching a licker through performance anxiety.

Last week, in a former bodega in Alphabet City, food designer Emilie Baltz and smart object designer Carla Diana conducted the second performance of their “Lickestra” — a “musical licking performance” involving conductive ice cream cones, four volunteers, and a pre-recorded soundtrack of peculiar tones and baselines created by musician Arone Dyer of Buke&Gase.

Lured by the promise of free ice cream (a surprisingly spicy chile hot chocolate from Big Gay Ice Cream), I volunteered as one of the first four unsuspecting performers. We each crawled into a white plinth, crouching in the dark until Emilie invited us, one by one, to rise head and shoulders through the opening, and tune up.

“Know your instrument!” Baltz encouraged, as I tentatively leaned in to lick the ice cream in its white cone holder.

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IMAGE: Empty podium with cone holder.

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IMAGE: Ice cream in position.

A curious tinkling, like one of the lesser-used ring tones on my phone, started, and just as quickly stopped, triggered only when my tongue was touching the ice-cream. My three fellow musicians took their turn discovering their own tones — a Casio-esque organ sequence, a synthetic buzzing and farting, and a standard issue drum track overlaid with a xylophone melody — and then all four of us rose into position and started to play.

With stage lights blinding my eyes and chocolate smudges all over my face (it’s harder to get the ice cream in your mouth when you’re not holding it!), my embarrassment at sticking my tongue out in public battled with my realisation that the more creative I was with my licking technique, the more rhythmically and tonally complex the sounds of my ice cream became. At one point, in a flash of inspiration, I wiggled my tongue from side to side on the ice cream and earned a burst of applause for the resulting arpeggio.

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IMAGE: Lickestra performers.

Later performers seemed more liberated, diving straight into elaborate tongue acrobatics. Some even began to coordinate their licking, consciously bringing their instruments together in an orchestral improvisation. I’m not sure our foursome ever reached that point, but the crowd cheered us on, nonetheless, and I felt like a (very minor) star when I stepped down from the stage.

VIDEO: An iPhone recording that doesn’t do the Lickestra justice, sorry.

When I climbed into my Lickestra podium, I thought of it as a food design stunt — a wonderfully weird gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. But, after having to concentrate on the act of licking under spotlights for five minutes, I realised that Lickestra is actually a very clever piece of experience design, carefully nudging each performer to become conscious of the balletic range and possibility of their tongue as the primary instrument through which they interact with ice cream.

The sound, despite being billed as the central element of the experience, was actually just a prop, designed to help us discard our deeply embedded sense of public ice cream-eating etiquette and play with the gestural vocabulary of our tongues as they conveyed food to our mouths. The resulting experience was fun, funny, and a little uncomfortable, but also extremely thought-provoking — after all, if changing the material our spoons are made of can shift our taste perceptions, it seems likely that designing new choreographies for our tongues, lips, and hands while eating could have a similarly transformative effect.*

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another of Baltz’s recent projects was curating the cocktail menu at the Museum of Sex’s new bar, PLAY. “The idea for Lickestra definitely drew on my work there,” Baltz explained later. “Because they’re on stage, everyone immediately thinks, ‘I need to lick really well’ — but what does that actually mean?”

A very good question indeed!

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IMAGE: Lickestra performer.

*While travelling in China last month, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the tongue/teeth coordination required to strip the meat and cartilage from the bone while eating things like ducks’ tongues or chicken feet is not simply the extra work that is unfortunately required in order to eat all parts of the animal, but rather an extended oral experience that actually contributes to the flavour of the dish.

Thanks to gelato aficionado Alissa Walker for the tip!

UPDATE: This video of Lickestra by MOLD includes an interview with Emilie Baltz and Carla Diana, as well as a small cameo by me. With ice-cream on my face.

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Crispy Wings

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IMAGE: Tracks of a tagged Lesser Black-backed Gull, via the University of Amsterdam’s Bird Tracking System (UvA-BiTS) blog.

While analysing the GPS tracks created by 22 Lesser Black-backed Gulls breeding in the port city of Zeebrugge, researchers from the University of Amsterdam accidentally ended up mapping a severe case of snack addiction.

The data showed that the birds were spending more time foraging on agricultural land and at landfills to the south of the port than they were scooping up their traditional diet of small fish and crustaceans at sea. Still, the team were surprised to find that roughly one third of the birds’ feeding trips were unusually long loops down to the industrial city of Moeskroen, 40 miles south of their nest sites. Some gulls were even flying down and back several times a day.

When one of the scientists went down to Moeskroen to investigate its particular charms, he found the gulls at a potato crisp factory that was dumping its discards outside in open-topped containers — an astonishing demonstration of the behaviour-warping allure of fried potatoes.

Via @augmentedeco. Earlier: Crop-Duster Spirographics.

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Two Exhibitions I Will Never See

Thanks to the laws of economics and physics, I seem to miss more interesting exhibitions and events than I can attend. Here are two recent misses: one which will, I hope, be accessible as part of a larger exhibition in the future; and one that you can still catch if you’re in London this month.


IMAGE: “The Museum of the History of Cattle” installation at the Cable Factory, Helsinki; Terike Haapoja.

The Museum of the History of Cattle
Cable Factory, Helsinki, 30 November — 10 December, 2013.

For thousands of years history has been written from the perspective of a small minority, humans. Still, the world has always been shared by numerous species. For the first time in history a non-human form of life will have their own museum, an institution that makes their experience of this shared reality visible.
[Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson, “The History of Others”]

Finnish artist Terike Haapoja’s recent works try to re-imagine history, politics, and culture from the point of view of its non-human animal participants — particularly those of companion species such as sheep, dogs, horses, and cows. These are species, as Donna Haraway writes in her Companion Species Manifesto, that exist, for the most part within an “obligatory, constitutive, historical, protean relationship with human beings.”

In other words, we have shaped them and they have shaped us, and, the theory goes, by attempting to re-insert their agency into our shared history, we might be able to temper the worst excesses of human exceptionalism and build a more resilient multi-species future.


IMAGE: From COMMUNITY (2007) by Terike Haapoja, showing the cooling down of a dog’s body after its death, as recorded by a heat-sensitive infrared camera.

In 2011, Haapoja created a fascinating intervention and exhibition called “The Party of Others,” which questioned the way in which human political structures deprive their non-human participants of democratic rights.

After all, if you think about it, the latest U.S. Farm Bill affects cattle just as much as it does humans—for example, by decreasing the availability of corn feedstock through bio fuel subsidies, and, in turn, potentially reducing the requirement for an antibiotic regimen to undo the gastric distress caused by an all-corn diet. For her piece, Haapoja interviewed a series of legal scholars, animal rights activists, and environmental policy experts, in order to imagine a political system in which non-human animals could be accorded a voice and vote, in some shape or form, and then drew on those insights to draft the platform for a new political party.

Following on from that comes “The History of Others,” an ongoing collaboration launched in 2013 with author and playwright Laura Gustafsson.

“The Museum of the History of Cattle,” on display in Helsinki for just a few weeks last November and December, showcased the first part of Gustafsson and Haapoja’s research into world history from the perspective of non-human animals. “For the first time in history,” Haapoja’s website claims, “a non-human form of life will have their own museum, an institution that makes their experience of this shared reality visible.”


IMAGE: “The Museum of the History of Cattle” installation at the Cable Factory, Helsinki; Terike Haapoja.

From the slideshows and exhibition text available online, it’s possible to get an idea of the structure of the exhibition. One room compares how the human scientific theory of evolution and its associated technologies (breeding) and ideological movements (eugenics) have affected the lives of both cattle and humans: on display are photographs of beauty contests, designer babies, and a bovine artificial insemination kit. Another section looks at the concepts of assembly line labour and Fordism, as realized through both mechanized slaughter and contemporary workplaces.


IMAGE: Semen straws at “The Museum of the History of Cattle” installation at the Cable Factory, Helsinki; Terike Haapoja.

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IMAGE: Beauty contest photograh at “The Museum of the History of Cattle” installation at the Cable Factory, Helsinki; Terike Haapoja.

The role of the housefly, another companion species shared by both humans and cattle, gets a mention, and the exhibition also foregrounds bovines whose lives have been lived on the edges of “the normative, human-dominated cattle society,” such as the last wild aurochs in the seventeenth-century forests of Poland, prior to its final extinction at the hands of human poachers, agricultural encroachment, and diseases passed along by domesticated cattle.

Finally, in what seems to be the least successful section of the show, Happoja and Gustafsson have attempted to imagine “concepts of time, history, and heritage” from a cow’s perspective by putting words to typical cattle experiences. This is a device or prop that seems to duck one of the most interesting challenges of the project, which is how to exhibit and make accessible the different knowledges and experiences of a non-verbal, non-human culture.

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IMAGE: Cow perception explored at “The Museum of the History of Cattle” installation at the Cable Factory, Helsinki; Terike Haapoja.

Haapoja’s website promises the next installment in her and Gustafsson’s “The History of Others project,” “The Museum of the History of Parasites,” in 2014, leading towards “a large-scale, encyclopedic installation exhibition planned for 2015,” so, although I (and perhaps also you) have missed out on seeing it in person this time, there is still hope for the future!

The Politics of Food
Delfina Foundation, London, 20 January —15 February 2014


IMAGE: Gallery installation, “The Politics of Food,” Delfina Foundation.

Another exhibition that forms the first part of a longer-term research and programming theme, “The Politics of Food” is a group show and series of associated events that promise to “explore an array of artistic strategies, both past and present, that address the history, politics, and ethics of food production, consumption, distribution and display.”

Few specifics are currently available online, but the short descriptions of each of the twenty-plus artists’ proposed works are tantalising: to give you a taste, Asuncion Molinos “will research the economic structures and practices of food futures and commodities trading,” James Muriuki “will explore the links between colonial and multinational approaches to agriculture in Kenya,” and Candice Lin “will present a contemporary take on the medieval edible sculptures known as subtleties — fantastical, bizarre, or illusionistic foods — and warnings, a specific kind of sugar-based subtlety.”

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IMAGE: Candace Lin, via the Delfina Foundation.

If you hurry, you can still see the exhibition this week, while the event series stretches on through March. Meanwhile, I’ll hope for an excuse to be in London for the next iteration.

I learned of “The Museum of the History of Cattle” via @wietske, I believe, and “The Politics of Food” exhibition via @joseph_grima

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Greenhouse Time-Machine

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IMAGE: Smithsonian scientists Dolores Piperno (right) and Irene Holst (left) growing teosinte under modern (chamber on the left) and past (chamber on the right) climate conditions. Photo: STRI photographer Sean Mattson.

Equipped with only a pair of garden shed-sized, perfectly ordinary-looking glass greenhouses at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, archaeobotanist Dolores Piperno and her team have spent the past four years engaging in agricultural time-travel, in a quest to understand the origins of corn.

Corn is ubiquitous, yes — but it’s also mysterious. It’s the most grown crop in the world, turning up in a quarter of everything for sale at your local supermarket, and consumed in such industrial quantities that, in a carbon analysis, “North Americans look like corn chips with legs.”

But while corn was busy taking over the world, paleo-archaeologists were equally industriously trying to work out where it had come from. Until relatively recently, writes evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll in The New York Times, “many botanists did not see any connection between maize and other living plants. Some concluded that the crop plant arose through the domestication by early agriculturalists of a wild maize that was now extinct, or at least undiscovered.”

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IMAGE: Teosinte and modern corn compared. Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.

The problem is that corn looks nothing like the plant that turns out to be its closest wild relative, a grass called teosinte that can still be founding growing in southwestern Mexico. Although botanists in the 1930s were able to breed fertile hybrids from teosinte and corn (hinting at their genetic ties), the differences in the appearance and form of the two plants were so significant that it was easier to believe that teosinte was more closely related to rice than today’s giant yellow cob-producing maize.

As geneticist John Doebley, whose landmark 1990 paper supplied DNA evidence that a particular subspecies of teosinte, Z. mays subspecies parviglumis, was indeed corn’s long lost ancestor, put it: “The stunning morphological differences between the ears of maize and teosinte seemed to exclude the possibility that teosinte could be the progenitor of maize.”

And yet it was—with the lack of family resemblance being attributed to more than a thousand years of artificial selection by human farmers.

Which leaves the question, what on earth made these fledgling farmers choose to invest their time and energy into cultivating such an awkward, skinny-earned, tough-kernelled, hard-to-harvest grass in the first place?

This is the question that Dolores Piperno managed to answer by using her time-traveling Panamanian greenhouses to speculatively reconstruct the teosinte that would have been around when Mesoamerican foragers-becoming-farmers were first beginning to domesticate it (as opposed to the wild teosinte we know—and, for the most part, consider a weed—today).

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IMAGE: Teosinte growing in the greenhouse set to late-glacial conditions, from “Teosinte before domestication: Experimental study of growth and phenotypic variability in Late Pleistocene and early Holocene environments,” by Dolores R. Piperno, Irene Holst, Klaus Winter, and Owen McMillan, published January 31, 2014, in Quaternary International.

In a blog post on the Smithsonian site, Piperno explains that she and research collaborator Irene Holst planted a dozen identical seeds of teosinte in both glass cubes on the same day, but, in one of them, they tweaked the climate to recreate “the conditions that this wild grass probably faced 11,000-10,000 years ago,” during the late-glacial period, when “it’s 2C degrees cooler and the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are around 265 parts per million.”

In other words, while one set of teosinte seeds germinated and grew under today’s temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, their neighbours, just a couple of metres away, lived their lives in a late-Pleistocene bubble.

Piperno repeated the experiment three times, and then grew out their descendents in an atmospheric recreation of the early Holocene. For each growth cycle, the time-traveling teosinte was accompanied by a contemporary analogue in the second greenhouse. The results were quite a surprise.

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IMAGE: (A) shows a “maize-like phenotype plant from the Late Glacial Chamber. Like maize, it has a single tassel that terminates the main stem, female ears at the main stem (arrows) that terminate a few, very short lateral branches, and no secondary branching. The inset at the upper right is a close-up of one of the female ears.” (B) shows “teosinte in the Modern Control Chamber. Like in modern natural populations, it has many long, primary lateral branches (example, upper white arrow) terminated by tassels (black arrow).” From “Teosinte before domestication: Experimental study of growth and phenotypic variability in Late Pleistocene and early Holocene environments,” by Dolores R. Piperno, Irene Holst, Klaus Winter, and Owen McMillan, published January 31, 2014, in Quaternary International.

It turns out that eleven thousand years ago, in the late-glacial period, teosinte plants actually looked a lot more like contemporary corn than teosinte does today. In response to the lower temperatures and different atmospheric composition of the past, Piperno explains, a teosinte plant will “exhibit characteristics more like corn; a single main stem topped by a single tassle, a few, very short branches tipped by female ears and synchronous seed maturation.”

What’s more, the early Holocene plants, grown in atmospheric conditions that mimicked those at the point at which teosinte gatherers would made the transition to “persistent cultivators,” maintained their maize-like qualities in a second generation. They were easier and more efficient to harvest than contemporary teosinte, and the single stem architecture meant their nutrients were more concentrated, too.

Of course, the seed size and yield of these artificially ancient plants was much lower than that of their great-great-great grandchild, corn, today. Nonetheless, Piperno’s experiment adds an intriguing layer of complexity to the human/corn relationship. Rather than being one of the more extreme examples of the power of human desire to reshape nature, the form of today’s corn is, in part, the product of the plant’s own ability to change in response to its environment.

And the mystery of why early farmers chose to make maize a staple seems a little less mysterious when it turns out that its ancestors naturally exhibited some of the compelling characteristics that have led to its contemporary conquest of 84 million acres of the United States.

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IMAGE: Table showing temperature in the greenhouses, from “Teosinte before domestication: Experimental study of growth and phenotypic variability in Late Pleistocene and early Holocene environments,” by Dolores R. Piperno, Irene Holst, Klaus Winter, and Owen McMillan, published January 31, 2014, in Quaternary International.

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IMAGE: Dolores Piperno measuring teosinte. Photo by STRI photographer Sean Mattson.

Meanwhile, Piperno’s paper ends on a thought-provoking note, suggesting that her time-traveling greenhouses could be used to explore the possible range of plant morphological responses to our climate-changed future. Indeed, it’s possible to imagine generating a speculative 3D corn “morphospace” that maps the formal adaptations of corn to a series of potential atmospheres, as a way of understanding the plant’s own design vocabulary.

More practically, leaked projections from an IPCC report due out in March suggest that, under current models of climate change, maize yield will decrease by two percent each decade this century—but these assumptions are derived from twentieth-century data on the impact of heat waves on corn harvests. Piperno’s work implies that the shape of corn itself might change, too, in response to shifts in temperature and atmospheric carbon—and that could have a dramatic impact on its harvestability.

Earlier: Plant Relocation Services; The Most Beautiful Corn in the World

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Space Sherry


IMAGE: Bompas & Parr’s Parabolic Sherry is available for purchase at the Pop Rock Moon Shop.

If you’re in London on Sunday, don’t miss “A Brief History of Drinking in Space” with Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr and David Lane of The Gourmand:

To date, there has been relatively little consumption of alcohol in space and on the moon, but that could be set to change. With space tourism taking off, new lunar missions on the horizon and manned expeditions aiming further into space – with all its stresses – could a new era of zero gravity libations be next? From Buzz Aldrin’s legendary Holy Communion on the moon to sherry experiments aboard Skylab and ceremonial ‘vodka’ consumption aboard the ISS, we’ll discuss the secret history of a slightly tipsy space age and ask what role our favourite poison will play in the future colonisation of the moon.

Better still, the £5 ticket price includes the chance to sample Bompas & Parr’s Parabolic Sherry, a limited edition, plastic-pouched tipple based on Skylab-era research about alcohol in space.

The story behind NASA’s brief embrace of extraterrestrial sherry is a curious one. In the early seventies, the agency’s focus was shifting from short, Moon-focused missions to possibility of longer-term inhabitation of space. A revamped menu was among the most pressing challenges: food on the Gemini and Apollo programs came in dehydrated cube form, or squeezed from a pouch, and was universally regarded as inedible. According to Ben Evan’s book, At Home in Space: The Late Seventies into the Eighties, in May 1969, Don Arabian, NASA’s spacecraft project manager, tried living on Apollo fare for three consecutive days, and subsequently reported that he had “lost the will to live” and that, in particular, “the sausage patties tasted like granulated rubber.”


IMAGE: Apollo-era space food, via.

After a year of working on the food program for Skylab, the United States’ first space station, Evans reports that “the situation had improved significantly: the station would include both a freezer and an oven and foods would be provided in five varieties — dehydrated, intermediate moisture, ‘wet-packed,’ frozen, and perishable.”

Spaghetti, prime ribs, ice-cream, and — for a brief moment — alcohol were all on the menu.

The tough role of Space Sommelier fell to Charles Bourland, who spent more than three decades at NASA Johnson Space Center developing food and food packages for spaceflight, and shared his recipes and reminiscences in The Astronaut’s Cookbook:

My boss was Mormon and consequently, the job of heading the wine selection process for the Skylab missions fell to me. Selecting a wine was an interesting project for the people in the food laboratory, and we had no shortage of volunteers for the taste panel.

After consulting with several professors at the University of California at Davis, it was decided that a Sherry would work best because any wine flown would have to be repackaged. Sherry is a very stable product, having been heated during the processing. Thus, it would be the least likely to undergo changes if it were to be repackaged.

The winner of the space Sherry taste test was Paul Masson California Rare Cream Sherry. A quantity of this Rare Cream Sherry was ordered for the entire Skylab mission and was delivered to the Johnson Space Center. A package was developed that consisted of a flexible plastic pouch with a built-in drinking tube, which could be cut off. The astronaut would simply squeeze the bag and drink the wine from the package. The flexible container was designed to be fitted into the Skylab pudding can.

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IMAGE: “Skylab’s first crew — from the left, Joe Kerwin, Paul Weitz, and Pete Conrad — prepare and eat food in a mockup of the wardroom in the spring of 1973.” Photograph from At Home in Space: The Late Seventies into the Eighties by Ben Evans.

An article in The Milwaukee Journal, dated August 1, 1972, gleefully reported the news that “the era of prohibition is about to end in space.” Dr. Malcolm Smith, a nutritionist on Bourland’s team, explained that the wine chosen was American, that astronauts were rationed to just four ounces every four days, and that “the question of whether wine promoted better health was still open.”

I would tend to believe that there is some value besides pure energy, either in the calming effect or promoting digestion. Somewhere in there, there’s probably a beneficial effect from wine.

And yet the sherry never went to space.

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IMAGE: Food Lab personnel Jane McAvin and Gloria Mongan test food packages on the zero G plane (NASA photograph).

First of all, early tests in NASA’s low-gravity, “Vomit Comet” plane, designed to see whether the packaging worked in weightless conditions, produced unfortunate results, as Bourland recalled in his official oral history:

As it turned out, the odors released by the wine, combined with the residual smell of years-worth of people getting sick on the plane, had an unplanned effect on the crew. Many grabbed for their barf bags.

In response, NASA surveyed the crew as to whether they wanted the sherry on board, and “it was about half and half. They didn’t really care.”

The final nail in the drinks cabinet coffin came when Skylab 4 commander, Gerry Carr, mentioned the presence of alcohol on the menu in a public lecture, and NASA received a flurry of angry letters from the general public. As the Milwaukee Journal article reports, the team had anticipated that the sherry plan might not go over well:

“Let’s just say that no one here is enthused about publicizing this thing any more than necessary,” said scientist-astronaut Edward G. Gibson, who will fly on the third Skylab mission. “The problem is that you have got some extremists around and we (astronauts) kind of represent a form of purity. As soon as you taint that purity with alcohol, they really get upset,” Gibson said.

Gibson’s comments were prescient. The official end of NASA’s alcohol program came just ten days later, in a memorandum from Kenneth S. Kleinknecht, Skylab’s manager in Houston, to Chris Kraft, director of the Johnson Space Center:

In accord with our discussion on Tuesday, August 8, 1972, I have reconsidered the requirement for a fruit beverage (wine) in the Skylab menu and have concluded that there is no basic requirement for such a beverage.

This conclusion is based on the following:

a. It is not necessary either for nourishment or to provide a balanced diet.

b. It is not a fully developed menu item, and, therefore, an unnecessary expense is involved.

c. The PI for experiment MO71, mineral balance, is opposed to its use because it will affect his experimental results.

d.  This beverage will aggravate, to a small degree, a minor problem of galley stowage capacity for beverage.

e. We can expect continued criticism and ridicule throughout the Skylab Program if such a beverage is provided.

Based on the above rationale, I am, by copy of this memorandum, notifying Deke Slayton that wine will not be included in the Skylab menu, and requesting Dick Johnston to immediately terminate all activity associated with developing and providing wine for Skylab.

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IMAGE: The sherry death knell, as seen in a faxed response to a 2006 Freedom of Information Act request by space historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.

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IMAGE: The SMEAT chamber. Photograph from Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story.

The good news is that the sherry did not go to waste. At the time the fateful decision was being made, a crew of astronauts were preparing to spend fifty-six days in a vacuum chamber, simulating a Skylab stay as closely as possible. The experiment was called SMEAT (Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test), and in Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin, writing with co-author David Hitt, describe the role that sherry played in it:

Fortunately for the SMEAT crew, however, by the time the decision was made to remove the sherry from the Skylab menus, the SMEAT menus had already been made out, and it was too late to go back through the process of completely rebalancing the various nutritional factors that would have to be changed if the sherry was removed. “We had it,” Crippen said, “and we really looked forward to it.”

Of course, not all countries share the United States’ prohibitionist tendencies. Russia, has its own, differently dysfunctional relationship to alcohol, which, as Mir space station resident Alexander Lazutkin explained to NBC, means that cognac is prescribed to cosmonauts on extended missions in order “to stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone.”

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IMAGE: Russian cosmonauts celebrating with cognac after dealing with a fire emergency on the Mir space station. Alexander Lazutkin is on the far right. The picture was taken by NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who did not drink.

As it turns out, there is some scientific evidence for the benefits of alcohol in space. A 2011 paper published in the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concluded that resveratrol, a phenolic compound found in red wine, “could be envisaged as a nutritional countermeasure for spaceflight,” following an experiment that hung rats upside down to simulate the bone density loss that accompanies zero-gravity living.

Sadly, both cognac and sherry are made from white wine grapes, and contain very little resveratrol. But, as Sam Bompas and David Lane point out, with longer term missions to Mars on the horizon, as well as Virgin Galactic-style space joyrides, perhaps it’s time for a new crew of Space Sommeliers to step up. If you manage to get to the event on Sunday, please report back!

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Food & Farming Fellowship

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IMAGE: A wind-dried sausage curtain, Zhengzhou, China.

Last spring, I applied for the inaugural UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. I was very happy when I got the email saying I was one of six Fellows chosen for 2013—but, as it turns out, not nearly as happy as I should have been. The Fellowship, which involves two workshops and comes with a $10,000 grant, has been the single best experience of my writing career.

The workshops, with my five fabulous fellow Fellows, Fellowship director Michael Pollan, managing editor Malia Wollan, and a series of superstar guests, including author Jack Hitt and New Yorker senior editor Alan Burdick, were fun, inspiring, extremely helpful, and also (this is Berkeley) exceptionally well-catered. To have that many smart people in the room all completely invested in the success of your story and enthusiastically working with you to make it better (and sell it!) was an enormous boost.

Thanks to their help and advice, and to the $10,000 grant, I was actually able to spend the first three weeks of this month in China, reporting a story for The New York Times Magazine—of which more soon (my deadline is March 1).

I say all of this because applications are now being accepted for the 2014 Fellowship, which has been expanded to eight Fellows and to include radio journalists as well. If you want to write a long-form story on any aspect of the food system, this is your golden ticket. Apply!

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