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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A Temperance of Cooks

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IMAGE: “A Temperance of Cooks,” WOOP Studios.

One of the more delightful eccentricities of the English language is its arcane arsenal of collective nouns, or particular terms for a group of a particular person, place, thing, animal, or idea. Some of these—a pride of lions, a bevy of ladies—date back to the fifteenth century or beyond, but are still in relatively common use; others, such as a superfluity of nuns or a crash of rhinoceroses, sadly, and despite similarly antique origins, are not.

WOOP Studios, a British graphic design firm, was founded in 2010 on the sole premise of creating gorgeous visuals to accompany collective noun phrases. They started, appropriately enough, with animals, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog, were the subject of most of the original nouns of assembly: the first official compendium of collective nouns in the English language is the “terms of venery” printed in The Book of St Albans, a 1486 guide to the aristocratic activities of hawking, hunting, and heraldry (“venery” is an archaic Latinate word refering to “the art, sport, and lore of the chase”).

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IMAGE: “A Charm of Finches,” WOOP Studios.

However, WOOP’s latest collection takes on collective nouns for groups of people: a disguising of tailors, a neverthriving of jugglers, and a sitting of judges. Among the selection is one of particular interest for Edible Geographers: a temperance of cooks.

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IMAGE: Detail from “A Temperance of Cooks,” WOOP Studios.

This is one of the original fifteenth-century terms collected in The Book of St Albans, and it’s a lovely mix of compliment to and slur on the profession. According to WOOP:

Temperance arose from the Old English temperian, which meant to bring something to a required condition by mixing it with something else. In so doing, the temperer is in need of a modicum of moderation, skill, and foresight – which are all perfect qualities for a cook.

So far, so good—but as Alan Davidson notes in The Oxford Companion to Food, historically cooks were stereotyped as quarrelsome, flirtatious, and excessively fond of both violent pranks and alcohol:

In popular belief, cooks were expected to be drunk: the medieval phrase “a temperance of cooks” is heavy with sarcasm, and Chaucer’s cook runs true to type by being so full of liquor that he falls off his horse.

In other words, “a temperance of cooks” is a perfect collective noun—a typically sweet-and-sour, backhanded British compliment, combining an appreciation of the cook’s skill with a sly dig at the profession.

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Spice Tile


IMAGE: “Beiti” (detail from a 2011 installation at CAPC in Bordeaux, France), Laurent Mareschal. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Marie Cini. Photo by Tami Notsani.


IMAGE: “Beiti,” Laurent Mareschal, installation shot at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Laurent Mareschal’s “Beiti” is a carpet made of spice, carefully sieved through stencils into tiled patterns inspired by Arabic geometry. I saw it last month at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, on display as part of the Jameel Prize shortlist of Islamic-influenced contemporary art, craft, and design.

In the exhibit’s low light, the carpet seems to float above the black floor, warming up its corner with a slightly fuzzy glow and a faint gingery, spicy scent. In an accompanying video, Mareschal, whose work typically deals impermanence and, in particular, the Palestinian condition, explains that the spice tiles are a deliberate play between ephemerality and the almost subliminal longevity of olfactory memory.

“I want people to look and think [...] wow, this guy is completely nuts, he has been working for a week and it will just vanish in a second,” Mareschal said, before adding that:

There is something about the smell that you can’t really refuse. It gets inside of you and makes you remember something. You can play with the colour and the smell and what it makes you remember and I am playing with that.


IMAGE: “Beiti” (detail from a 2011 installation at CAPC in Bordeaux, France), Laurent Mareschal. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Marie Cini. Photo by Tami Notsani.

With its Proustian olfactory powers, capable of transporting exhibition viewers to a remembered or imagined romantic Orient—a Moroccan souk or Egyptian spice bazaar—Mareschal’s spice carpet is perhaps also something of a magic carpet, that standard device of Eastern storytelling.

But the installation also reminded me of Paul Freedman’s fascinating book, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, which examines the incredible popularity of nutmeg, clove, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger in Europe during the Middle Ages—and their sudden fall from fashion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Curiously, while their mysterious Oriental origins formed part of the allure of spice for European consumers, Freedman notes that, “alone among the great world religions, Islam has consistently resisted the use of incense in both public and private worship.” Meanwhile, for their Christian consumers, the uses of aromatic spices went beyond food flavouring and medicinal tonic to become a sort of medieval air freshener:

It was customary that the rooms of a comfortable house should be not merely airy and unscented but redolent of actual healthy scents from spices that might be scattered about or resins that were burned as incense.

Rooms were perfumed with spices to promote health (“Avicenna, the authoritative Arab physician whose work was known in Christian Europe by the late twelfth century, recommended that ambergris, frankincense, cloves, and even theriac be employed to dry out the air and make it smell sweet,” writes Freedman), but also for spiritual and aesthetic reasons.

As Freedman explains, the theological consensus at the time was that the Garden of Eden was located in eastern Asia, most likely in India. For medieval Europeans, exotic aromatics thus literally represented the scent of earthly paradise—a prelapsarian idyll of intoxicating beauty and freedom from decay.

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IMAGE: “Terre Promesse 2″ (detail from a 2008 installation using za’atar and cumin), Laurent Mareschal.

Of course, Freedman points out, it was this passion for spices that launched Europe on its path to overseas conquest and colonialism. The great expeditions of Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus were motivated by the desire to control the lucrative spice trade by finding and conquering its Asian source. The irony is that, by the time Europe’s colonial expansion truly hit its stride in the nineteenth century, spices had long since fallen out of fashion, all but disappearing from the continent’s cuisines.


IMAGE: “Modern Times: A History of the Machine” (detail), Mounir Fatmi, 2010–12, (video). Courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery, photo by Mounir Fatmi.

In any case, the Jameel Prize exhibition is on display at the V&A until April 21, and is well worth a visit if you’re in London. Florie Salnot’s plastic bottle jewellery, the mesmerising calligraphic gears and cogs of Mounir Fatmi’s video projection, and Faig Ahmed’s pixellated rugs are some of its other, non-edible, delights.

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Reading Food: 2013

Don’t let its name fool you: in between shiny “phablets” and robot armies, Gizmodo still makes time for the ultimate old-school entertainment and educational device, the book. When Gizmodo‘s new editor-in-chief (and my Venue collaborator), Geoff Manaugh, asked me to contribute my top ten books of 2013 to their end-of-year “Best Books” list, I agonised for a very long time, and came up with the following.

Edible Geography’s Best Books of 2013

Forget quick-and-easy dinner suggestions: the Edible Geography top ten books of 2013 all sit firmly within the growing genre of writing about food as a way of writing about ideas, though you will find the odd recipe for bioluminescent durian sauce and a sauerkraut-kimchi hybrid. But what you lose in kitchen instructions, you gain in an awe-inspiring mix of gene-hacking, container shipping, fecal humor, and food porn wizardry.

From The New York Times best-seller that even your mum has heard of (Michael Pollan’s Cooked) to the artist-published manifesto for a new, open-source food-tech movement (the Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s Food Phreaking), this list compiles the most exciting ways of thinking about, and with, food that crossed my plate in 2013.


IMAGE: A spread from Food Phreaking. Photograph via the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

Food Phreaking: Issue #00
This short but bold manifesto, published by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, is available both as a free PDF and also as a rather gorgeous neon-pink-and-gold booklet. In it, artists Cat Kramer and Zack Denfield provide 38 examples of “what Food Phreaking might be, and what it most definitely is not.” From DIY suggestions such as Colony Collapse Cuisine (“Why not limit yourself to a diet of non-bee-pollinated ingredients? Taste the future, today. And be prepared for bio-adversity.”) to examples of culinary civil disobedience and outlaw ingredients (grey market raw milk vending machines, seed saving clubs, and beans tattooed with DNA-laced ink), the result is a mini-encyclopedia of stories at the fertile intersection of food, technology, and open culture.

Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal
Although it inexplicably received much less attention that Michael Moss’s simultaneously released Salt, Sugar, Fat, Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox is the behind-the-scenes look at the food processing industry that will truly blow your mind. Who knew that the world’s largest manufacturer of Vitamin D, which is added into nearly all the milk that Americans consume (including organic varieties), is a factory in Dongyang, China, whose raw material is grease derived from Australian sheep’s wool? Or that genetically engineered enzymes are routinely used to boost apple juice yield, stop cookie batters from clogging factory nozzles, and make soybean oil transfat-free — and they don’t have to be declared on the end product label? Warner makes a convincing case that these industrially engineered food-like substances (which make up an estimated 70 percent of the American diet) are an entirely alien form of nutrition, and “if we really are what we eat, then Americans are a different dietary species from what we were at the turn of the twentieth century.”

Laudan Warner covers

IMAGE: Cover art for Pandora’s Lunchbox and Cuisine & Empire.

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History
This is a weighty book, spanning three thousand years of human culinary history from the steamed millet mush of 1000 BCE to the foams, spheres, and encapsulations of the present day, and it starts very slowly indeed. The patient reader, however, is rewarded: Laudan’s broad scope allows her to draw out previously obscure linkages and patterns (for example, she identifies the last lonely traces of Islamic culinary techniques in European cookery: Italian salsa verde, English mint sauce, and Catalonian picada), as well as convey the enormous (and, now, often overlooked) benefits of industrial food processing, as a release from the inadequate diets and hours spent grinding wheat or corn that characterized life for 99 percent of the world before the nineteenth century.

In the end, Cuisine and Empire reveals that the way we cook is a kind of a code — a set of repeated, shared, evolving actions through which we embody and enact our shifting relationship with natural world, our ideas of personal health and social hierarchy, and our religious or ethical values. Show me how you cook, says Laudan, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Like Laudan, Pollan thinks that cooking has everything to do with who we were, are, and could yet be. In Cooked, however, Pollan’s scope is simultaneously smaller than Laudan’s (personally, geographically, technically, and historically) and wider — his adventures in braising, hog-barbecuing, and bread-baking are opportunities to explore elemental themes: air, water, fire, earth, and the human relationship with each, and each other. With the exception of the microbial adventures in the fermentation chapter, this book won’t necessarily surprise you, but although Pollan may be telling you things you already know, when they’re as well written as this, they have a freshness and force you won’t forget.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate
Journalist Rose George’s new book on the overlooked world of freight shipping is about much more than food — there are Somali pirates, Filipino crew (a third of all seafarers are from the Philippines), and Liberian flags of convenience. But the 90 percent of everything that is transported by container ship includes food, and, while she spends thirty-nine days and nights aboard the Maersk Kendal, traveling from Felixstowe to Singapore, George notes that “shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters.” While shipping has remade the contents of our plates and farms, a modern container crew has no idea what they’re carrying (only flammable, toxic, or refrigerated goods are listed), and modern consumers have even less idea of the shadowy, floating world that George reveals, lying behind our endless retail abundance.

Trading Pit hand signals

IMAGE: A photographic guide to open-outcry trading pit hand signals, from a book to look forward to in 2014. Images via the Trading Pit Blog.

The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets
Sadly, The Secret Financial Life of Food is not a terrifically well-written book. Still, it made my list because its subject matter is unique and completely fascinating: in it, author Kara Newman examines the role that the commodities market has played in shaping culinary history, unpacking such arcane curiosities as the corn derivatives market, cheddar cheese futures (cheddar is the only cheese variety traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), and the Great Salad Oil Swindle of November 1963, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, but was overlooked in the drama surrounding JFK’s assassination later the same month. Arcane, indeed, but increasingly relevant: as Newman points out, the amount of money invested in food commodities increased from $13 billion in 2003 to $260 billion in 2008, spurred by the profits to be made in a world of increasing food demand and, as climate change kicks in, decreasing supply.

Food: An Atlas
What do you see when you map the world through food? According to Food: An Atlas, a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, “guerrilla cartography” project led by UC Berkeley professor Darin Jensen, you see the distribution patterns of the global almond trade but also the lost agrarian landscapes of Los Angeles, the geography of taco trucks of East Oakland and the United States beershed, as well as the rise of foodbanks in the UK, and much more besides. Available as a free PDF as well as in print form, this compilation of more than seventy food maps is less of a definitive atlas and more of an inspiring guidebook to the kinds of cartographic questions you can ask about food: it’s hard to read it without coming up with ten more foodscape maps you can’t wait to create.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
The prolific Mary Roach, fresh from tackling the science of corpses, sex, and space travel, takes the reader along on the journey our food makes every day, from nose to tail (or, to be precise, to Elvis Presley’s constipated mega-colon). Gulp is stuffed full of enjoyably peculiar details, from a section on how dogs and cats taste food, to the fact that human hair is (a) Kosher, and (b) as much as 14 percent L-cysteine, an amino acid used to make meat flavorings and ersatz soy sauce. Although Roach’s endless, schoolboy-humor footnotes (making fun of EneMan, the world’s only enema mascot, for instance, or academic papers on “fecal odorgrams”) can get a tiny bit tiring after a while, it’s hard not to enjoy her infectious curiosity.

Tutti Frutti with Bompas & Parr and Friends
Full disclosure, I contributed a short essay (about spaces of banana control) to this exuberant collection of fruit eclectica. Still, at the risk of self-promotion, I couldn’t leave out a book that contains a recipe for bioluminescent durian sauce, a guide to the pineapple as architectural ornament, and, perhaps most thrillingly, a sustained meditation on the reason artificial raspberry-flavored sweets and soda are blue. You will never look at your fruit bowl the same way again.


IMAGE: Photograph courtesy The Cooking Lab/Modernist Cuisine.

Blueberries Modernist Cuisine

IMAGE: Photograph courtesy The Cooking Lab/Modernist Cuisine.

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
Nathan Myrhvold may be a patent troll, but he certainly knows how to take an amazing food photograph.When Modernist Cuisine, his six volume, $450 encyclopedia unpacking the mysteries of sous-vide cuisine and the relationship between ultrasonic cavitation and crispy French fries, came out in 2011, reviewers spent more time marveling at the incredible images of a Weber grill sliced in half to reveal glowing coals and the browning base of the burgers, or a planet-sized blueberry, so close-up you could see its normally invisible orange seeds, than discussing its contents. Released this autumn, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine reproduces some of the best images at an even larger scale, and, best of all, reveals exactly how they were made. That Weber grill? Thirty separate photos, cropped and combined. Pins, toothpicks, Plexiglass, and a band saw all play an important role, but there are also lighting and backdrop techniques you can copy at home. No more Martha Stewart-style #fails for your food snaps!

• • •

This list only includes books that were published in 2013, but, even so, I’m sure I’ve missed a few gems (let me know in the comments). Gizmodo’s full list is well worth a read: it includes Venue favourites The End of Night and Wild Ones, as well as some fantastic-sounding recommendations for books about secret plutonium-manufacturing cities, hot-air ballooning, New York City’s Sanitation Department, and much more. Time to get reading!

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Crop-Duster Spirographics

Cropduster GPS

IMAGE: GPS patterns of a cropdusting aeroplane, via Mapbox.

Among the public GPS tracks uploaded to OpenStreetMaps is this cropduster spirograph: swirls of pesticide or fertiliser application traced over the landscape in a rhythmic choreography that balances nozzle flow and wind conditions to “paint” the fields below.

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The Meaning of Meals

The American family dinner is an endangered custom with magical powers attributed to it. It is also, as cultural historian Abigail Carroll explains in her fascinating new book, Three Squares, “only about 150 years old.”

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IMAGE: Three Squares, Abigail Carroll (jacket design by Nicole Caputo).

Subtitled “the invention of the American meal,” Three Squares is an engaging and eye-opening look at the economic and cultural forces that have shaped the country’s shifting formats of consumption over time — and, in turn, the changing meanings and value judgments that Americans have attached to those eating patterns.

Carroll starts with the casual, ad hoc chaos of pre-Victorian consumption. Although colonists saw a defined, three-meal-a-day structure as a way to differentiate their civilised society from the “savagery” of Native American feasts and fasts, in reality, their meals were “generally informal, variable, and socially unimportant affairs.” Food was often in short supply, and tables, chairs, knives, forks, and plates even rarer: Carroll notes that fewer than one in four seventeenth-century Virginia households had a table, and sharing a dinner bowl with a “trencher-mate” was standard practice until the late eighteenth century.

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IMAGE: Trencher, c. 1500-1700, in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, photographed by David Jackson.

Even more importantly, in a pre-industrial era where nearly everyone spent every day engaged in hard physical labour, eating was an opportunity to refuel, rather than demonstrate dining etiquette:

Food meant survival; it was energy and sustenance, and obtaining one’s fill was serious business. Not surprisingly, the shape and social trappings of the meal meant comparably little.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and, with it, a new world of city-dwelling consumers whose relationship to food was now shaped by the demands of factory work schedules and the anonymity of urban life.

Obviously, people living in a large city could not possibly know everyone, the way they might have in a small town or village. Instead, they began to rely on social etiquette to manage interactions between strangers, but also display and judge class status. Dinnertime became both a training ground and showcase for Americans’ emerging code of polite manners.

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IMAGE: From “Rules of Civility” in the Gentleman’s Gazette.

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IMAGE: Lunch pails, 1880s, via The Smithsonian Magazine.

Meanwhile, as we’ve discussed on Edible Geography before, lunch is another legacy of industrialisation and urbanisation. Interestingly, Carroll fills in the other half of that story: the impact that eating outside of the house at mid-day had on the evening meal.

No longer laboring together as an economical unit, family members needed a new way to bond, and dinner fit the bill. With husbands, wives, and children inhabiting separate worlds during the day—office, factory, home, school—coming together around a table in the evening took on heightened significance. [...] Communal consumption replaced cooperative production as the glue that held the family together.

In other words, the invention of lunch simultaneously served to ennoble the evening meal, leading to the semi-sacred status the family dinner holds today. Of course, this change didn’t happen overnight, leading to a couple of decades of confusion and awkward clashes in which “it was common for one family to dine in the evening while its neighbors dined in the afternoon.”


IMAGE: Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943. According to Carroll, “whereas dinner had served as a vehicle of family cohesion of middle-class identity in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth, as Rockwell hinted, it became a way to connect with the nation.”

Carroll’s focus is the American meal, for which the Industrial Revolution was, indeed, revolutionary. What’s intriguing, though Carroll does not go into this, is that this seismic shift from lunch to dinner as the main meal of the day has not been universal. Other countries and regions, particularly ones that were slower to industrialise, still eat a big meal at mid-day, and a snack for dinner.

For example, in Mexico, where I spent the last two weeks as a guest of the new and wonderful Laboratorio para la ciudad (of which more very soon), the entire team went out for a large and leisurely four-course meal between 2 and 4pm each day, before rolling back to the office for another three-hour burst of activity, and a light snack for dinner. This meal pattern is increasingly touted by scientists as a healthier approach, and I found it suited me very well — the dreaded afternoon slump was replaced with a slow, sociable meal, while the dinner-less evening suddenly seemed like an oasis of free time, and there was none of the discomfort of going to bed on a full stomach. The only downside was a lack of opportunities to cook, which, of course, had its own upsides in a corresponding lack of grocery shopping or dishes to be done…


IMAGE: The main dish of a Mexico City comida corrida, photographed by author David Lida for his blog, where he also documents the soup and rice course that precede it, the agua fresca and tortillas that come with, and the dessert that follows.

In any case, the point that Carroll fails to make is that although industrialisation and urban life reshaped the American meal, that transformation was not inevitable. Perhaps it says something about the American (and Northern European) approach to food that consumption was made to conform to the demands of work, rather than vice versa (perhaps it also has to do with the pace at which a particular society industrialised).

Of course, the changing nature of work was not the only influence shaping the evolution of the American meal. Carroll describes a case of Anglophilia in the eighteenth century, which lead to the displacement of vegetables on the American plate by roasted meat, and a subsequent fashion for everything French, which fell by the wayside when servants stopped being the norm, leaving a legacy of dessert. Technological innovations also had a huge impact, with the rise of the food processing industry coming to the rescue of the newly servant-less middle-class housewife. Meanwhile, the rise of a defined breakfast, lunch, and dinner threw their antithesis—snacking—into sharper focus, as a transgressive form of consumption.

The snack and the meal cannot be understood apart from one another. They emerged out of the same historical moment, and [...] their stories are wholly intertwined. [...] Snacking posed a threat to the meal; it subverted the family’s fellowship around the table and the middle-class values that proper evening meals had come to embody.

Finally, although Carroll’s concludes that “perhaps the family meal is worth saving,” the book’s lasting value, at least for me, lies in its reminder that the three-meal structure is “only a cultural heirloom, not an ordinance of nature” — and thus open to intentional reinvention, as well as reactive evolution.


IMAGE: The Evanston Community Kitchen was founded during World War I, and, at its peak, delivered 500 meals each week.

Intriguingly, Carroll briefly describes a flurry of alternatives to the family dinner that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. These experiments in cooperative housekeeping, centralised food preparation, and even community dining took varied forms: at a dining club in Carthage, Missouri, sixty members pooled resources to pay for manager, two cooks, waitresses and a dishwasher, and ate dinner in one large room, but with each family unit at separate tables; meanwhile, in New Haven, Connecticut, the Twentieth Century Food Company was a prototype of today’s meal delivery services, although it floundered in the face of logistical challenges and the failure of its “asbestos-lined food container” to keep food reliably hot or cold.

Unsurprisingly, “cooperative housekeeping, with its feminist and socialist underpinnings, never flourished in the United States,” though for a brief period at the turn of the last century it seemed as though it might. Carroll speculates as to the potential impact of this alternative history:

Had it become mainstream, cooperative housekeeping might have set the American dinner on a very different trajectory than the one that brought the meal to where it is today. Kitchen-less houses might have become the norm; apartment dwellers might have learned to rely on centralized food services included in monthly rent; cooking might have transformed into an occasional leisure activity. At the same, the family dinner as nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans knew it might have dissolved, along with the institutions that came to be associated with it: proper manners, polite conversation, and familial accountability.


IMAGE: Americans eat nearly 20 percent of their meals in cars, according to John Nihoff, Professor of Gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America.

Carroll’s last sentence seems a bit over the top: after all, mealtimes are hardly the only occasion for developing a sense of familial accountability (assuming that is even a desirable quality). If, as we’re endlessly told, the family dinner is in crisis, then, rather than simply wringing our hands and bemoaning the decline of table manners, we should instead see this as an opportunity for a much more thoughtful re-invention of the way we eat. In Three Squares, Carroll shows us that way we work and live shapes meals. Perhaps the reverse is also true, and we are how we eat.

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Eau de Fatberg

Fatbergs, another recurring theme here on Edible Geography, are sewer-blocking lumps of congealed cooking oil and wet wipes that can grow to the size of a double decker bus beneath the streets of London, with disastrous consequences for local drainage.


IMAGE: London sewer flusher Danny Brackley shovels out a fatberg under Leicester Square. Photo via Thames Water.

A 2011 conversation with Rob Smith, head flusher at Thames Water, indicated something of the fascinating way subterranean fatberg geography reflects the city above: Smith notes that “one of the worst areas for fatbergs, for example, is Leicester Square, where cheap restaurants illegally dump used cooking oil,” and that sewer fat from different areas of London “retains distinctive smells.”

Inspired, artist Victoria Jones created a mini-exhibition mapping the olfactory geography of fatbergs, which was on display last month at The Albany pub in Cardiff as part of the citywide Made in Roath arts festival.

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IMAGE: Smell the City, by Victoria Jones. All installation photos from Jones’ blog.

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IMAGE: Jones smelling one of the sewer fat samples.

Sadly (or thankfully, depending on your sensitivity level on the disgust scale), the yellowish “samples,” housed under bell jars for sniff-sampling, were not genuine sewer fat, but rather supermarket-bought lard mixed with scents created by a specialist museum supply company. Jones’ elaborate back story of an artist residency with the wonderfully named South London Underground Department of Geopotation and Effluence (S.L.U.D.G.E.) was also made up. “Collectively,” Jones writes on her blog, “we made a story about a pub hosting an exhibition of sewer fat.[...] Without you it would have been just 8 lumps of lard in a pub!”

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IMAGE: A sewer fat sample from Brick Lane, known for its many curry houses.

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IMAGE: Geoff, the landlord of The Albany pub, which hosted the exhibition.

A collaborative story-telling project about urban infrastructure combined with a speculative olfactory geography of London’s fatbergs, and all installed in a Cardiff pub: this should happen more often!

Jones is currently a PhD candidate at Cardiff Metropolitan University examining the sense of place and simulation, as well as an artist whose pieces often involves both olfactory triggers and participatory narrative creation. You can find more of her work here, including an immersive simulation of a care home day room, complete with olfactory and auditory stimuli, and a recurring installation of waiting room areas, framed as a daydream launchpad.

Discovered via Victoria Henshaw’s Smell and the City blog.

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Cow Tunnel Quest Update

As regular readers will know, Edible Geography has been on the cow tunnel beat, on and off, for some years now.

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IMAGE: From “The Manhattan abattoir,” an engraving by V. L. Kingsbury, 1877, published in Harper’s Weekly, via the New York Public Library. Note the rather tiny cowboy: another unsolved mystery.

Quick refresher: the semi-mythical cow tunnel or cow tunnels are the subterranean part of Manhattan’s lost meat infrastructure, built to ease urban cow-jams at a particular historical moment — a time when live cattle were being brought to the city for slaughter in increasing quantities thanks to both its expanding population and the invention of the railway, but before the widespread adoption of cheap, reliable refrigeration meant that dead beef could travel long distances, meaning that abattoirs could be re-located outside densely populated areas.

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IMAGE: Undated, uncredited view of cattle at the Pennsylvania Railroad pier and Twelfth Avenue, via Trains Magazine.

When we last checked in, the location, and, indeed, the very existence of these tunnels was shrouded in mystery. According to rumour, they were, variously, “beneath Twelfth Avenue at both 34th Street and 38th Street, but also somewhere on Greenwich, Renwick, or Harrison Street near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and even as far afield as Gansevoort Street in the West Village.” A 2004 study (PDF) by engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff and archaeologists The Louis Berger Group and Historical Perspectives, Inc., produced for the MTA and Department of City Planning in advance of the Hudson Yards/No. 7 Line extension work, claimed that, “if intact, the cattle tunnels may meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.” It seemed as though the cow tunnels were a Freudian urban myth—an agricultural subconscious, haunting the city.

However, at the request of new Gizmodo Editor-in-Chief Geoff Manaugh (who also writes BLDGBLOG, a fellow Future Plural partner site), I opened up my cow tunnel case file again, and dug up some exciting new evidence — including blueprints!

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IMAGE: Blueprint Section of the Underground Cattle Pass c. 1932, Figure 2, Route 9 A Reconstruction Project, Contextual Study: Meat Market, March 1992. Prepared for the NYS Dept. of Transportation, in cooperation with the FHWA, by Historical Perspectives, Inc., Westport, CT. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

Cow Tunnel Plan

IMAGE: Blueprint Plan of the Underground Cattle Pass, c. 1932. Figure 3, Route 9 A Reconstruction Project, Contextual Study: Meat Market, March 1992. Prepared for the NYS Dept. of Transportation, in cooperation with the FHWA, by Historical Perspectives, Inc., Westport, CT. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

The cow tunnel in question was built in 1932, to connect the Pennsylvania Railroad’s two-story concrete cattle pen at the southeastern intersection of West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue to the slaughterhouses of West 39th Street, which, at the time, was nick-named Abattoir Place. Although its blueprints and construction permit exist, the mystery continues: no one knows if tunnel survived the construction of the Javits Center and Lincoln Tunnel, and Lisi de Bourbon at New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission confirmed that “no archaeology has been done there and no members of our staff have any documentation of the tunnels.”

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IMAGE: West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue area, from the Sanborn Atlas of New York City 1908-1947 vol. 5, published in 1947. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

You can read the full story at Gizmodo, where commenters have also shared tales of abandoned cow tunnels in Vernon, California, and legally upheld cow paths in Chicago’s Loop.

Many thanks to Cece Saunders of Historical Perspectives, Inc., Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology for the City of New York, Lisi de Bourbon of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Andrew Berman and Amanda Davis of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Zachary Davis at The Louis Berger Group, and my editor, Geoff Manaugh, for their help with this story.

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IMAGE: Photograph by Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC, via The New Yorker.

This image, one of a dozen in a New Yorker slideshow selection from The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, shows the very different flames produced by different salts, sprinkled over a a burner. Ordinary table salt (sodium chloride) created the two flames on the left, followed by copper sulphate (a mineral salt and anti-caking agent) and potassium phosphate, which, depending on its molecular weight, can be found in Gatorade, non-dairy creamer, or ReddiWhip.

Seeing it reminded me of something Darren O’Donnell of Mammalian Diving Reflex said at Foodprint Toronto about the art of reading fire. The context was a series called The Beautiful and Hungry City, in which Mammalian Diving Reflex invited people whose jobs are essential to the city, but aren’t typically considered “creative,” to talk about the overlooked artistic aspects of their work at a community dinner. Speakers included a paramedic and an accredited Tagalog court interpreter, as well as firefighter Stacy Hannah, who “talked about the beauty of the fire and the different colors that different materials have when they burn [...] and the choreography of fire.”

As it turns out, firefighters are typically given an extensive colour vision test (typically the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test, which you can try an abbreviated version of online), and trained to read the colour of both smoke and flames for clues as to a fire’s nature and future behaviour. Flame colour can give clues as to the material that is burning and the fire’s temperature: for example, as an article advising colour-blind would-be firefighters explains, “a fire with a temperature near 977 degrees Fahrenheit will have a barely visible reddish flame, while a fire with a temperatures near 1,830 degrees will have a cherry-red flame.”

Australian firefighter Shan Raffel, writing in Firefighter Nation magazine, points that out that, in real life, most burning structures will be filled with multiple different fuel types, and so the most useful information to be gathered from flames is about the efficiency and type of combustion occurring. Using the example of particle board, Raffel explains that “when the air supply is good, the flame is yellow. When the oxygen concentration is reduced, the flame becomes a reddish-orange color.


The shape or form of the flame can also give an indication of the type of combustion occurring. The reddish-orange flames are often turbulent with a short-wave form. The ignition of accumulated pyrolysis products (aka combustible gases) produces a very light-yellow flame (sometimes almost clear). Amazingly in this case, the wave form is larger and the flames seem very slow.

In any case, it occurs to me that, in some ways, you could say that the art of cooking is also to know food by how it burns—or, better, how it is transformed by fire.

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