Gastropod: Kale of the Sea

Call off the search for the new kale: we’ve found it, and it’s called kelp! In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the science behind the new wave of seaweed farms springing up off the New England coast, and discover seaweed’s starring role in the peopling of the Americas.

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Charles Yarish’s seaweed lab at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.

The story of seaweed will take us from a medicine hut in southern Chile to a high-tech seaweed nursery in Stamford, Connecticut, and from biofuels to beer, as we discover the surprising history and bright future of marine vegetables. Along the way, we uncover the role kelp can play in supporting U.S. fishermen, cleaning up coastal waters, and even helping make salmon farms more sustainable.

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D. J. King’s crew haul up the kelp line, attached to a buoy.

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Seaweed growing in Charles Yarish’s lab.

As a wild food, foraged from the rock cliffs and littoral strand of the world’s coastlines, seaweed has been an important food, fuel, and fertilizer since ancient times. In Japan, seaweed was such an crucial part of the diet that legislation in AD 703 confirmed the right of the Japanese to pay their taxes to the Emperor in kelp form. According to Scottish kelp scientist Iona Campbell, traces of it have been found in Orkney island cremation sites dating back to the Bronze Age. Even further back in history, archaeozoologist Ingrid Mainland has confirmed that the use of seaweed as a fodder for sheep in the Orkneys, which still continues today, dates to the Neolithic period, roughly 5,000 years ago.

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“Irish Distress: gathering seaweed for food on the coast of Clare,” from the Illustrated London News, May 12, 1883.

Surprisingly, scientists have found even older seaweed remains in the Americas, from 12,500 years ago. Five chewed cuds of Gigartina, a red seaweed, mixed with Boldo leaves, a medicinal herb and mild hallucinogen, were found on the floor of a medicine hut at Monte Verde, Chile—one of the oldest human habitation sites in the Americas. In the episode, Jack Rossen, the archaeobotanist who excavated the site’s fragile plant remains using dental picks, explained how the site’s age and location, combined with the four different species of seaweed found in the medicine hut and in residential areas, led to the development of an entirely new theory to explain how humans arrived in North America.

Rossen also pointed out that the Monte Verde findings led to a re-evaluation of the importance of plants in the diet of hunter-gatherers—and thus also of the role of women in those early human communities.

We’ve always had the stereotype of early people being hunters, big-game hunters. And now we’re thinking more that plants would have been a much more reliable resource; they just didn’t get preserved as well at most sites. And maybe archaeologists, when archaeology was dominated by men, just liked the idea of being big tough hunters, instead of wimpy plant gatherers.

As it turns out, women have also played a pivotal role in transforming kelp from wild to farmed food. Basic seaweed cultivation techniques began to be developed in Japan beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. But, despite becoming a staple food of the Japanese, the basic biology of edible seaweed species remained almost completely unknown until two centuries later, when pioneering British scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker saved the country’s nori farming industry.

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Cynthia recording the sound of seaweed sex in Charles Yarish’s lab.

In 1948, a series of typhoons combined with increased pollution in coastal waters had led to a complete collapse in Japanese nori production. And because almost nothing was known about its life cycle, no one could figure out how to grow new plants from scratch to repopulate the depleted seaweed beds. The country’s nori industry ground to a halt, and many farmers lost their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, back in Manchester, Dr. Drew-Baker was studying laver, the Welsh equivalent to nori. In 1949, she published a paper in Nature outlining her discovery that a tiny algae known as Conchocelis was actually a baby nori or laver, rather than an entirely separate species, as had previously been thought. After reading her research, Japanese scientists quickly developed methods to artificially seed these tiny spores onto strings, and they rebuilt the entire nori industry along the lines under which it still operates today. Although she’s almost unknown in the U.K., Dr. Drew-Baker is known as the “Mother of the Sea” in Japan, and a special “Drew” festival is still held in her honor in Osaka every April 14.

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Spools seeded with baby kelp, growing in Charles Yarish’s lab.

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Charles Yarish in his office.

In the United States, Charles Yarish should probably be called the “Father of the Sea.” The University of Connecticut marine biologist has spent the past forty years studying the biology of seaweeds, and then applying his research to develop revolutionary new techniques for growing seaweed off the coast of North America. His innovations have helped make make kelp an economically viable crop for the fishermen and shellfish farmers of New England, whose livelihoods have been threatened by a combination of over-fishing, pollution, and warming waters.

Listen to this episode of Gastropod for a visit to Yarish’s lab to learn what he accomplished, and how seaweed farms can help soak up pollution from aquaculture, such as salmon farming, as well as from agricultural run-off and sewage. You’ll also hear how seaweed is something of a superfood; research in China has even demonstrated that it contains compounds that lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels in mice. Now the only remaining challenge is to convince Americans to eat it: Gastropod visits chef Elaine Cwynar‘s kitchen at Johnson & Wales University to sample creative new recipes.

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Charles Yarish’s seaweed nursery.

This is the last episode of the first season of Gastropod. Co-host Cynthia Graber and I will be back with more food- and farming-related stories explored through the lens of science and history in the New Year. Thank you for listening!

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Gastropod: The Microbe Revolution

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the human microbiome. Research into the composition, function, and importance of the galaxy of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that, when we’re healthy, live in symbiotic balance in and on us has become one of the fastest moving and most intriguing fields of scientific study. But it turns out that plants have a microbiome too—and it’s just as important and exciting as ours.

In this episode of Gastropod, we look at the brand new science that experts think will lead to a “Microbe Revolution” in agriculture, as well as the history of both probiotics for soils and agricultural revolutions. And we do it all in the context of the crop that Bill Gates has called “the world’s most interesting vegetable”: the cassava.

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Isabel Ceballos and Alia Rodriguez surveying the cassava field in Colombia. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

We now know that we humans rely on bacteria in our gut to help us digest and synthesize a variety of nutrients in our food, including vitamins B and K. There’s a growing body of evidence that the different microbial communities we host—in our guts, on our skin, in our mouths, and deep inside our bellybuttons—help protect us against disease and may even play a role in regulating mental health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plants, including all the ones that we rely on to provide grains, vegetables, and fruit for our tables, have an equally tight relationship with microbes. And, as in humans, the symbiotic partnership between a plant and the microbes that live on its leaves and roots and in the soil around it is utterly essential to the plant’s continued existence and health. Indeed, the very plant-ness of plants—their photosynthetic ability to harness light and transform it into food—comes from an ancient microbe that plants came to depend on so closely that they incorporated it into their own cells, transforming it into what we now know as a chloroplast.

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Mycorrhizal fungi growing on a petri dish in Alia Rodriguez’ lab. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

But, despite its importance to their (and thus our) survival, the plant microbiome is perhaps even less well understood than its human equivalent. The main way in which scientists study such tiny creatures is by growing colonies of a particular microbe on a petri dish in a lab. But researchers estimate that only about 1 percent, the tiniest sliver of the plant world’s microbial citizens, can be cultured that way.

High-tech tools such as metagenomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics help researchers take a snapshot of the genetic diversity of life in a given bit of soil. But it’s still incredibly difficult to tease out exactly which bacteria or fungus performs what function for a given plant. Janet Jansson, whose lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is studying the role of soil microorganisms in the cycling of carbon, calls this great unknown “the earth’s dark matter.” She’s part of a new venture called the Earth Microbiome Project, an international collaboration of scientists working to understand microbial communities in soils all around the world.

While researchers scramble to map and analyze the plant and soil microbiomes, companies have sensed that there’s money to be made. When it comes to the human microbiome, processed food giants have started adding probiotics and prebiotics to everything from frozen yogurt to coconut water. In the field, scientists, small biotech companies, and agricultural behemoths such as Monsanto are all racing to develop probiotics for plants: learning from bacteria and fungi to develop supplements that can help crops grow better, using less fertilizer and pesticide, even in challenging environmental conditions.

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Mycorrhizal fungi. Photo courtesy of Ian Sanders.

In this episode, Gastropod hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley focus on one particular kind of microbe: mycorrhizal fungi. These are ancient fungi that are believed to have lived on plant roots ever since plants first moved onto land, and they still co-exist with and support 80 percent of all plant species on the planet. We meet British scientist Ian Sanders, whose career has been devoted to studying mycorrhizal fungi genetics. Sanders’ latest big idea is that, by breeding better mycorrhizal fungi, he can help plants grow more food. He’s been working with agronomist Alia Rodriguez to test this theory in the cassava fields of Colombia, and we join him to find out his astonishing, as yet unpublished, results. Can the Microbe Revolution live up to its promises, out of the lab and in the field?

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Ian Sanders in Colombia. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

Along the way, we discuss other research into plant microbes, some of which has already been commercialized. For example, Rusty Rodriguez, head of a company called Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, has scoured extreme environments to find fungi that can help plants survive heat, cold, drought, and floods. During trials, AST’s new product, BioEnsure, which was released onto the market this fall, enabled crops planted during the 2012 drought in the American Midwest to produce 85 percent more food than untreated ones.

With early results like these, microbes are being called the next big thing in agriculture. There’s plenty of hype: Monsanto’s BioAg Alliance claims to be “rewriting agricultural history,” the American Academy of Microbiology recently issued a report titled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” and even normally sober scientists have declared that this research may well “precipitate the second Green Revolution.”

But the first Green Revolution has plenty of critics, and the process of translating promising science into food on tables is never without its challenges. Listen in to this episode of Gastropod for the scoop on the history and potential impact of the Microbe Revolution.

Gastropod is my new podcast, exploring food through the lens of science and history and serving up a fresh audio story each fortnight. I co-founded it and co-host it with award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber.

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100 Shades of French Fry

For just two days this weekend, a gallery on New York’s Lower East Side hosted a pop-up French fry exhibition.

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IMAGE: A French fry on the Bowery. All photos in this post by Nicola Twilley.

It was a PR stunt put together by craft condiment contender Sir Kensington, but, as someone who has never successfully resisted a French fry in her life, I couldn’t help but go. Apparently many of my fellow New Yorkers feel a similar fondness for fries: when I visited, the single-room space was more packed than MoMA on a free Friday.

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IMAGE: The central table at “Fries of New York.”

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IMAGE: The gallery was packed.

The centrepiece of the exhibit consisted of 100 French fries, each sourced from a New York City restaurant, coated in resin, and mounted on a metal spike in individual bell jars. A label noted the fry’s provenance, classified it according to the curators’ taxonomy (steak, straight cut, string, wedge, curly, waffle, etc.), and included comments from its chef (“Fried at 400 degrees, topped with salt, parmesan, fresh parsley, and white truffle oil”).

A timeline laid out key moments in the history of the French fry and its common accompaniment, ketchup, from the domestication of the potato to the first known published tomato ketchup recipe, written down by Philadelphia surgeon and agricultural scientist James Mease in 1812.

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IMAGE: A Parmesan and parsley dusted waffle fry.

To one side sat a rack of various frying oils and a copy of Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer’s award-winning book, French Fries, which takes as its starting point the discovery of an old lady’s dead body, face down in a pool of blood and ketchup.

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IMAGE: Salts and oils. From left to right: olive oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, white truffle oil, duck fat, iodized salt, sea salt, Maldon salt, White Truffle salt, Black Truffle salt, Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, and “Fry Spice.”

The display was designed to be Instagram-ready and there was indeed much jostling for the best iPhone angle. Still, people seemed to be spending much more time examining individual fries than the 15 to 30 seconds that researchers have found that museum goers typically spend in front of the greatest works of art.

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IMAGE: French fry connoisseurship.

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IMAGE: Sir Kensington’s fry-sourcing map.

All gimmickry aside, it was actually fascinating to see the diversity of fried potato shapes and colours available within a mile or two of the gallery. From the processed glory of tater tots and curly fries to the sculpted sophistication of a pomme soufflé, and from the pale yellow bistro fry to the dark brown of a wedge, a vast amount of human ingenuity has clearly been devoted to exploring the full range of formal and flavour possibilities inherent to the combination of oil and potato.

To some, this will undoubtedly provide confirmation of the irreversible decline of American civilisation, but I was rather impressed. Now, if only I could taste all one hundred, side by side…

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Gastropod: What America *Could* Taste Like

And we’re back!

It’s time for your fortnightly dose of Gastropod. This is our first sound “bite”—a mini-programme to tide you over between our monthly in-depth episodes. In it, my co-host, Cynthia Graber, and I discuss two of the most interesting food history and science stories we’ve come across recently.

This week is all about the ignored, overlooked, and (maybe) future foods and flavors of America.

We’ll introduce you to the scientists using DNA sequencing to help them perform the very ancient human activity of crop domestication, and to a writer fighting to save Alaska’s most abundant and sustainable fishery.

By the end of our conversation, we expect you’ll want to swap that all-American burger and fries for some wild salmon and mashed potato beans. (Don’t worry, you can still have a chocolate-chip cookie for dessert—in fact, it will be the ur-chocolate-chip cookie.)

For more, including iTunes and Stitcher subscription information, visit

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Gastropod: The Golden Spoon

Meet Gastropod, the brand new, podcast-shaped lovechild of Edible Geography and award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber.

Each month, we’ll be releasing a new full-length episode looking at food through the lens of science and history, as well as a shorter, bite-sized interlude to tide you over in between.

Our very first episode launches today. It’s called The Golden Spoon and it features special guests Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork, and Zoe Laughlin of the Institute of Making, with a cameo from my Foodprint Project partner-in-crime, Sarah C. Rich. In 45 minutes of pure radio magic*, we explore the shocking history and atomic secrets of cutlery. Along the way, we discover the connection between table knives and face shape, learn how to throw a spoon-and-food tasting party, and meet the fork’s distant ancestor, the lasagne spear.

You can listen to it and read the short post we wrote to got with it below. Our website has programme notes and extra illustrations, the Gastropod back story, and all kinds of subscription information—you can sign up to receive new episodes by email, RSS, on Soundcloud, or on Stitcher (and, very soon, on iTunes too).

We had a lot of fun making it, and I really hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think.

* or nearest equivalent.

Episode 1: The Golden Spoon

Chances are, you’ve spent more time thinking about the specs on your smartphone than about the gadgets that you use to put food in your mouth. But the shape and material properties of forks, spoons, and knives turn out to matter—a lot. Changes in the design of cutlery have not only affected how and what we eat, but also what our food tastes like. There’s even evidence that the adoption of the table knife transformed the shape of European faces.

To explore the hidden history and emerging science of cutlery for our brand new podcast, Gastropod spoke to Bee Wilson, food historian and author of Consider the Fork, and Zoe Laughlin, co-founder of the Institute of Making at University College London. Below are some of our favorite stories from those conversations.

First, some history. Consider the Fork is one of our favorite food books: in it, Bee Wilson takes readers on a fascinating journey through the evolution of kitchen technology and its impact on our lives. It’s packed with astonishing details that gave us a whole new appreciation for humble appliances such as the can opener and the kitchen timer.

Wilson ranges across human history, from the sixteenth-century adoption of the enclosed oven (before then, chefs often worked naked or just in underpants, to avoid catching their clothes on the open flames) to the 1994 “invention” of the Microplane grater, which took place when Canadian housewife Lorraine Lee borrowed a carpentry rasp from her husband’s hardware store to zest orange for a cake.

Fork found at the Globe Theatre

One of the earliest forks in Britain (made between 1587 and 1606), found by archaeologists excavating the site of the Elizabethan-era Rose Theater. Called a sucket fork, it was used for eating sweetmeats, such as dried and candied fruits. Later versions had a spoon at the other end, like a proto-spork.

But it was the chapter on cutlery that really caught our attention. Although it’s hard to imagine life without them now, forks are a relatively recent addition to the table—and they weren’t a big hit at first. In the sixteenth century, as aristocratic Italians began to replace their single-pronged ravioli spears with a multi-tined fork, the rest of Europe still saw the fork as “this bizarre, weird, slightly fetishistic device,” Wilson explained. “Why would you want to put metal prongs into your mouth along with the food? It just didn’t seem like a natural way to eat.”

Indeed, when a Englishman, Thomas Coryate, adopted the fork habit after traveling to Italy at the start of the seventeenth century, his friends—including the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Donne—teasingly called him “furcifer,” which meant “fork-holder” but also “rascal.”

It wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1700s, that eating with a fork was accepted across Europe—in part, Wilson explains in the book, due to the transition from bowls and trenchers, whose curves were better suited to spoons, to flatter china plates. That was followed, another hundred years later, by an explosion in fork shapes and a corresponding wave of “fork anxiety.”

As Wilson described it, the transition to serving meals in a succession of courses, each with a fresh set of cutlery, rather than just laying all the dishes on the table for diners to help themselves, led to the development of specialized “forks for olives, forks for ice-cream, forks for sardines, forks for terrapins, forks for salads”—even forks for soup, though that was rapidly condemned as “foolish,” and the soup spoon was restored.

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Pages from the 1910 Gorham Buttercup pattern silver catalog (left) and the 1898 Gorham Strasbourg pattern silver catalog (right), which together list more than 100 different items of cutlery, including the relish fork, asparagus fork, tomato serving fork, lemon fork, pickle fork, sardine fork, vegetable fork, and beef forks shown above. The full Buttercup pattern also included the infamous ice cream fork. Via Eden Sterling.

But if forks have a complicated history, the future of spoons may well be golden. Literally.

Zoe Laughlin, who confessed to being driven, in part, by a childhood obsession with finding the perfect spoon, has been conducting scientific research into the sensory properties of materials. Working out of the Institute of Making, a London-based cross-disciplinary research club, she started exploring the different tactile and aural sensations of metals.

Next, she wondered how metals taste. Scientists had researched this question before, by having people swish metal salts around in their mouth. To Laughlin, that methodology made no sense. We put metal in our mouths every day, in the form of cutlery—why not just do a spoon taste test?

Before long, she had volunteers lining up to suck on a set of seven spoons that were identical in shape and size, but plated with different metals. Her results showed that different metals really do taste different—the atomic properties of each metal affects the way the spoon reacts with our saliva, and so, for instance, copper is more bitter than stainless steel.


From left to right: copper-, gold-, silver-, tin-, zinc-, chrome-, and stainless steel-plated spoons. Photograph by Zoe Laughlin.

Her next step was to figure out how the taste of different metals affects the flavor of food. Working with a top chef, she hosted a spoon-and-food pairing dinner party, in which food writers and scientists discovered the curious affinity of tin for lamb and pistachio.

One spoon ruled them all, however: as Laughlin put it, “The gold spoon is just sort of divine. It tastes incredibly delicious and it makes everything you eat seem more delicious.” After tasting mango sorbet off a gold spoon, Laughlin told us, with a note of regret in her voice, “I thought, I can’t believe I’m ever going to eat off anything other than gold ever again. Sadly, of course, I do.

Listen to the first episode, The Golden Spoon, for many more shocking cutlery-related revelations, and tune in every two weeks for a new episode looking at food through the lens of science and history.

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Proustian Greengrocers

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IMAGE: Memory Lane, courtesy Grove Care, Ltd.

Among the facilities at the Blossom Fields care home near Bristol is “Memory Lane”: a reconstructed 1950s street where residents, many of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, can mail letters in a George VI Post Box, make calls from a restored phone box, enjoy a pint (or, more often than not, a cup of tea) in the White Horse Inn, or pop into the greengrocers for some shopping.

Blossom Field’s Memory Lane is perhaps the most elaborate example of an increasingly popular technique in dementia care: retro-decorating.

As The Guardian explained, in an article about Surrey county council’s efforts to decorate old people’s homes with period advertisements for Bisto gravy granules and Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers, people with dementia often suffer from short-term memory loss, making the distant past seem more familiar and reassuring than the forgotten present. In response, “retro-decorating schemes see modern technologies replaced by older versions, surrounding dementia sufferers with objects from the past to trigger their memory, and using colour and light to make daily tasks simpler.”

Over the past few years, care homes across the UK have thus begun snapping up Bush transistor radios and bakelite phones at car boot sales and on eBay, as well as putting out a call for members of the public to donate mahogany furniture, posters, and “tea sets, fruit bowls, and ornaments” from the 1950s and 60s.

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IMAGE: A resident looks through the greengrocer’s window. Photograph via.

Blossom Field’s Memory Lane has taken the trend one step further, however, with the construction of an entire “reminiscence village.” In addition to offering a comfortingly familiar environment filled with memory triggers, Memory Lane is also designed to manage what the Alzheimer’s Society refers to as a common compulsion among sufferers to walk about. As Christopher Taylor, the home’s senior manager, explained, “People with dementia wander. We want to give a purpose to their movement. It provides a destination.”

The shops and pub in Memory Lane are not intended as accurate historical reconstructions (the pub, for starters, would require a thick fug of cigarette smoke to achieve olfactory authenticity), but rather as stage sets for the involuntary performance of memory.

However, the most interesting aspect of Memory Lane, at least for Edible Geographers, is the centrality of food and drink.

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IMAGE: Tins of sweets in the greengrocer’s. Photograph via.

Two out of the three simulated environments — the pub and greengrocer’s — sell food and drink directly, while the Post Office features a display of ration books, a pamphlet of near-Biblical significance to anyone trying to feed a family in U.K. during the 1940s and 1950s.

Indeed, I first heard of Memory Lane during an episode of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, in which host Sheila Dillon and nutritionist Clare Millar — who is trying to promote a return to wartime food habits — sat down to talk with elderly residents Pat and Anna about their own, quite vivid memories of eating in post-war Britain.

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IMAGE: Ration books on display in the Post Office. Photograph via.

From Pat and Anne’s reminiscences, as well as descriptions of Memory Lane in the British media, it seems evident that residents really do find that these small activities — weighing fruit on the old-fashioned greengrocer’s scales, buying tuppence-worth of toffee from a tin, or setting a pint down on a vintage beer mat (an increasingly endangered species itself) — prompt a much larger recall. One 86-year-old former engineer was particularly taken with a tin of Nuttall’s Mintoes, explaining to a Telegraph journalist that his mother used to run a sweet shop: “We sold ice cream and Everton toffees. […] It’s good to have your memory jogged. Once one thing comes back, then other things follow.”

Fascinatingly, the bananas hanging in the greengrocer’s window have proven to be a particular point of conversation. “For most of our patients they were a rarity [when they were young],” manager Christopher Taylor told The Telegraph. “People are talking about how they’d share one banana between the whole family.”

The time-machine properties of food smells, made famous by Proust’s madeleine, have recently been shown by scientists to have potential in treating dementia. Indeed, last year, fragrance and flavouring company Givaudan began trialling its custom-blended “Smell a Memory” kits, including the scent of “Mom’s Home Cooking,” with hospital-bound dementia patients in Singapore.

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IMAGE: Givaudan’s “Smell a Memory” kit: vials of meaningful smells, custom-blended in collaboration with residents of a Singapore nursing home. Photograph via.

But, as Blossom Hill’s Memory Lane demonstrates, the larger food environment is equally rich in triggers, many of which vanish from society without notice, but could very well hold the key to deeply embedded memories. I can only imagine what hearing the particular bleep of a bar-code scanner or the clatter of a thermal receipt printer will invoke, in my old age. And will the Memory Lane of 2060 feature a Starbucks and a Tesco?

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The Photosynthetic Habits of Highly Effective Plants

As far as we know, the plant kingdom has not developed its own genre of productivity literature. There is no plant equivalent of Six Sigma, GTD, or Lifehacker — an absence made all the more alarming by the recent discovery of the existence of a subterranean plant “internet.”

The result? Despite being the main thing plants do all day, photosynthesis is “relatively inefficient,” according to Devens Gust, the professor in charge of the Center for Bioenergy & Photosynthesis at Arizona State University:

For example, based on the amount of carbon fixed by a field of corn during a typical growing season, only about 1-2% of the solar energy falling on the field is recovered as new photosynthetic products. The efficiency of uncultivated plant life is only about 0.2%. In sugar cane, which is one of the most efficient plants, about 8% of the light absorbed by the plant is preserved as chemical energy.

Given that photosynthesis is the direct or indirect source of all human food, this kind of slacking is clearly just not good enough. After all, a more photosynthetically efficient strain of wheat could yield 50 percent more grain than its current incarnation, even under more the crowded, dry, and hot conditions that seem likely to predominate in our climate-changed future.

Fortunately, scientists are hard at work staging an intervention. Unfortunately, as a confused Melvyn Bragg complained in a fascinating BBC radio programme on the topic, with photosynthesis, “the simpler you make it, the more mysterious it also gets.”

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IMAGE: Absorption of light by chlorophyll, Holak Lewińki.

Take, for example, the fact that it’s possible that plants are actually the wrong colour, at least in terms of photosynthetic efficiency. As attractive as green fields and forests are to the human eye, to those in the know, they represent a scandalous waste of sunlight.

Plants are green because chlorophyll reflects, rather than absorbs, the middle of the light spectrum. Chlorophyll powers the photosynthetic reaction by absorbing and transferring energy from light, but, according to Nick Lane, an evolutionary biochemist speaking on Melvyn Bragg’s programme, it only absorbs blue and red light — and, worse yet, it only actually bothers using the red stuff, which is the lower energy of the two.

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IMAGE: Black plants are extremely rare, for now. Photo via.

True efficiency, at least in terms of total spectrum absorption, would require black leaves, rather than green. However, it seems as though most plants are somewhat resistant to this simple but radical dietary hack, and for reasons that are not well understood: the prevailing theory is that higher-energy wavelengths of light are just too hot to handle, damaging a plant’s photosynthetic machinery.

Not to be defeated, a recent study looking at light usage in leaves proposed that, if re-engineered to produce a kind of internal antioxidant (a protective carotenoid called siphonaxanthin), plants “could close the so-called ‘green window’ and increase their absorptance” — and thus, one hopes, their yield.

Another toughening-up approach focuses on tweaking a plant’s in-house repairman, the D1 protein, so that it can rebuild light-damaged photosynthetic machinery more quickly and efficiently. For example, last year, an international team of scientists sent algae samples for a two-week holiday in space in order to see whether bombardment with cosmic radiation might produce a D1 with super-healing powers. Apparently, two mutant strains showed particular promise both in space and on earth, and now form the focus of future research.

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IMAGE: (L) Preparing to launch the mutant algae into space at Baikonur Cosmodrome; (2) The capsule full of algae, returned to Earth somewhere in Kazakhstan. Photos from “Taming Extreme Environments by Exploring Algae in Space,” Agricultural Research magazine.

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IMAGE: Photograph of portions of green and black leaves of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ as compared in “The Functional Significance of Black-Pigmented Leaves: Photosynthesis, Photoprotection and Productivity in Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’” by Jean-Hugues B. Hatier, Michael J. Clearwater, and Kevin S. Gould.

Frustratingly, however, in the only known study comparing the photosynthetic efficiency of one of the few naturally occurring black-leaved plants with its green cousin, researchers at the University of Auckland found that two were equally productive. Despite containing high levels of protective flavonoids, the full-spectrum plants had no edge on their light-wasting relations. More study is needed, it seems, before turning our emerald planet black.

A potentially more promising direction for plants seeking to improve their productivity (and for the humans trying to encourage them) is to copy the habits of those plants that are already highly effective.

Roughly 7,600, or three percent, of plant species have evolved a more efficient photosynthetic process than the rest, based on how much carbon they can absorb. Among these so-called C4 plants are corn, sugar cane, and a lot of cacti; their less efficient C3 counterparts include rice, wheat, and the rest of the world’s major food crops.


IMAGE: Measuring the photosynthetic efficiency of wheat. Photograph by Steveadcuk.

As Natural History Museum chief botanist Sandra Knapp explained to Melvyn Bragg, “one of the great holy grails in agriculture is to take a C3 plant, like rice or wheat, and turn it into a C4 plant, which would increase its efficiency and thereby perhaps its yield.”

In hot, dry environments, C4 plants use less water and nitrogen that their C3 colleagues, while yielding half as much food again. The Economist spells these numbers out: “a hectare of rice, a C3 plant, produces a harvest of no more than eight tonnes, whereas maize, a C4 plant, yields as much as twelve tonnes.”

In the Philippines, scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) starting the process of creating a C4 rice in 2009. At the moment, apparently, they’re still in the process of listing which genes in C4 plants are involved in efficient photosynthesis.

Among other, more high-tech and less brutal methods, this relies on the Shark Tank-like technique of knocking out one gene at a time, and then growing the plant in a low-CO2 chamber. Thanks to their superior carbon-absorbing skills, C4 plants can get by with CO2 levels as low as 15 ppm (for comparison, Earth’s atmosphere has passed 400 ppm already).

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IMAGE: Low CO2 growth chambers at IRRI.

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IMAGE: Low CO2 growth chamber, IRRI, photograph by R. Ford Dennison.

But, if the missing gene turns out to have been necessary to C4 photosynthesis, the newly inefficient plant will die. IRRI hopes to be able offer growers a transgenic C4-version of their local rice varieties by 2026.

Though scientists seem to be more than a decade away from a successful formula for increasing plants’ light- or CO2-absorption abilities, something about these descriptions can’t help but conjure up a visceral vision of the jet-black, no-nonsense, Shark Tank-survivor salad leaves of the future. Today’s superfoods — açaí berries, chia seeds, and that deceptively green wheatgrass — better watch their backs: the highly efficient plants of the future are coming…

See also Designing a Restaurant for Plants: An Interview with Jonathon Keats.

Posted in Uncategorized| 14 Responses

Ten Landmarks of the Chinese Cryosphere

“The Price of Cold” — the story of my recent adventures exploring China’s artificial cryosphere — is now online in The New York Times Magazine. In it, I visit the world’s first and only frozen dumpling billionaire, hang out with the chef leading a one-man refrigeration resistance movement, and visit refrigerated warehouses and R&D labs across the country. In my completely unbiased opinion, it’s a lot of fun, and you should read it right now — and then share it with all of your friends!

Meanwhile, for those of you for whom that is not enough refrigeration for one weekend, I compiled this list: ten stand-out destinations for the armchair Chinese cryotourist, based on my own travels while reporting the story.


IMAGE: All ten destinations, mapped.

From the “Room of the Sleeping Fish” in Jinan to a Wal-Mart in Zhengzhou, these places are both extremely obscure and yet globally significant. Together, they help tell the story of how refrigeration is changing the way Chinese people farm, eat, and shop — in exactly the same way it changed the American and European landscape and diet, and yet, of course, with a uniquely Chinese twist.

1. Sanquan Headquarters, Zhengzhou

Chen Zemin is the official Father of Frozen Food in China, Sanquan is his frozen dumpling company, and frozen dumplings are the the Swanson’s TV Dinner of China — the gateway convenience food paving the country’s path towards a future of chilled prepared meals and frozen entrees. My New York Times Magazine story includes these facts and much more besides, including Chen’s life story and a gorgeous photograph of the Sanquan factory floor taken by Massimo Vitali.

But neither my words nor Vitali’s photo quite bring to life the mesmerising process of making 100,000 dumplings an hour. For that, until your next visit to Zhengzhou, you will have to make do with these iPhone videos (forgive the quality).


VIDEO: The glutinous rice ball production line at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou. The entire process takes 20 minutes from start to finish. People dressed in white jumpsuits are line workers, those in pink are production line supervisors, yellow are quality control, and blue are mechanical support. All photographs and video by Nicola Twilley.


VIDEO: Quick-frozen glutinous rice balls being bagged at the Sanquan factory. “The first machines could only produce one ball at a time,” Chen Zemin explained, “whereas today, our machines make it look like it’s raining balls.”


VIDEO: The frozen dumpling production line at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou.


VIDEO: Dumpling inspection on the way into the freezer at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou.


VIDEO: Boxes of dumplings enter the largest fully automated, “lights out,” refrigerated freezer in Asia, Sanquan, Zhengzhou.

2. Wal-Mart, Zhengzhou

31 Shopping for frozen ball things

IMAGE: Shopping for Sanquan frozen meatballs at Wal-Mart, Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou, as those of you who have read my article know, is the capital of frozen food in China. “Think of Kansas City, but double the size,” explained Ralph Bean, who, as director of the United States’ Agriculture Trade Office in Beijing, is tasked with getting U.S.-grown ingredients into China’s frozen dinners of the future.

In other words, it’s a third-tier city of nearly 9 million that boasts one brand new subway line (it opened in January) and three Wal-Marts. I visited the Manhattan Plaza branch in order to spot Sanquan dumplings in the wild, and to see who bought them, and why. This lady explained that she liked them because they were a new, modern kind of product.”They didn’t exist before,” she said, as if that were reason enough to have them for dinner.

Meanwhile, the packaging emphasised frozen food’s classiness (“enjoy the elite flavour”) and convenience, listing the “Three Withouts”: you can eat these without chopping, without having to wash anything, and without seasoning. The store’s tiny frozen food section was dominated by dumplings, with some dubious-looking meat popsicles and a lonely “Children’s Steak” ready-meal rounding out the options.

Elsewhere in the supermarket, store-made fresh dumplings were for sale behind a sneeze-guard and raw meat was laid out on ice and handled with tongs, in stark contrast to the Zhengzhou wet market (see destination 3, below). But fish is sold live, even at Wal-Mart, and the front wall was covered with scoop-your-own seafood tanks.

2 Live fish at Walmart

IMAGE: Wal-Mart’s scoop-your-own seafood tanks.

3. Wet Market, Zhengzhou

14 Meat aisle wet market

IMAGE: Chicken for sale at the wet-market, Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou’s largest wet market happened to be right next to my hotel, which made the 5 a.m. start to visit it a little easier (but not much). These chicken had been slaughtered at the farm this morning, the vendor explained, and he would sell them all today.

When I asked how he kept the meat fresh, he looked confused, and replied, “It’s winter!” In summer, apparently, a regular hose-down with cold water (hence the name “wet” market) and a standing fan do the trick. “If I don’t sell it all by evening,” he shrugged, “I’ll just send it to the hotels.”

42 Hanging dead sheep

IMAGE: Hanging a carcass without having to put your cigarette down is a two-man job.

67 Dog carcasses

IMAGE: Freshly skinned dog carcasses.

Other vendors had their own small freezer chest, or rented space in the refrigerated walk-in beneath the market, but they all explained that their customers preferred fresh meat. In January, they told me, rabbit and dog stays fresh in the open air for a couple of days at least; duck lasts two or three days; and mutton can sometimes be fine for nearly a week.

108 Cold storage door open

IMAGE: The entrance to the wet-market walk-in refrigerator.

99 Underground cold storage at wet market

IMAGE: Inside the walk-in.

Once I saw the market’s communal refrigerated walk-in, with its funky smell and collapsing cardboard boxes piled high on the concrete floor, the pervasive idea that unrefrigerated, but freshly slaughtered, meat was fresher than its refrigerated counterpart made a lot of sense.

Tim McLellan, a tireless advocate for all things cold chain and a director at Preferred Freezer Services, an American company that is about to open its third cold-storage warehouse in China, told me that, while touring some of these older facilities, he had even seen rats. When I expressed surprise that they could survive in the cold, he explained that they live inside the wall insulation, and brave the chill to chew through boxes and gorge themselves.

In any case, this particular cryospheric landmark may not be around for much longer. According to McLellan, both the wet market itself and its outdated cold storage are endangered spaces in today’s China, given the government’s ambitious cold chain modernisation and supermarketisation plans. “That’s what the government wants to do, is shut them down,” he said. “It just takes time.”

89 Oxygenating live fish

IMAGE: Live fish transportation requires an octopus-like exoskeleton of liquid oxygen hoses.

Outside the market, men unloaded a lorry-full of live fish, which is transported using an incredibly complex truck-bed system of Styrofoam boxes, running water, and oxygen tanks, all laced together with a spaghetti-like profusion of hoses.

As in Wal-Mart, so too in the wet market: in China, fish is just not fresh unless it’s still alive.

4. Longjing Caotang, Hangzhou

66 Pulling in the net

IMAGE: Catching my dinner, Hangzhou.

The freshest fish I ate in China, however, was at a restaurant called Longjing Caotang, in Hangzhou. Dai Jianjun, its chef-owner, serves a “prelapsarian Chinese cuisine,” to borrow Fuchsia Dunlop’s description from her wonderful New Yorker article about the place. Everything I ate had been pickled, dried, preserved in-house, or freshly foraged that day.

3 Fish drying

IMAGE: Dai’s bamboo fish-drying hut.

Dai’s depth of knowledge about traditional Chinese flavours — he can and did talk for hours about the importance of orientation and bamboo-rod spacing when wind-drying sausages, or the under-appreciated difference between small-leaf and large-leaf pickles — is only matched by his dislike for all things modern. “City food gives me the shits,” he said, before quoting two ancient Chinese philosophers to explain that agriculture had first gone wrong by harnessing oxen to the plough, rather than relying on manpower alone.

But, though it’s easy to laugh at his quirks and disagree with his fetishisation of some kind of Utopian, originary foodscape, Dai is almost single-handedly managing to preserve and revive the kinds of micro-local, pre-refrigeration techniques and flavours that are increasingly rare in contemporary China.

As Fuchsia Dunlop puts it, “Dai’s main worry is that traditional farming and cooking won’t survive another generation.”

When I spoke to Jim Harkness, Senior Adviser on China at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, he confirmed this prognosis:

The unfortunate thing is that, on the one hand, the economic boom and things like more modern food distribution systems and cold chain allows for a far more varied diet for many people in China — but it’s a varied diet in which a lot of the traditional foods are dying out.

They desperately need a Chinese Slow Food movement. You’re simply not going to be able to find a lot of those traditional foods as capitalism develops and people can’t or are not willing to invest time in food preparation. And, of course, food safety regulations make it harder for a lot of the traditional practices and enterprises to continue. The knowledge is disappearing, and I think that’s a real shame.

I sincerely hope Dai’s fish-drying hut is not also an endangered species. Nonetheless, no Chinese cryo-tour would be complete without a stop at Longjing Caoting, to experience the kinds of foods that refrigeration — and its companions, urbanisation and a rising GDP — threaten to make extinct.

5. The Room of the Sleeping Fish, Jinan

27 Sleeping fish being explained to Owen

IMAGE: Owen Guo, my wonderful interpreter and fixer, being instructed in the art of sending fish to sleep.

Fish are the anti-frozen dumpling: unlike Chen Zemin’s rice balls, they have no legs, both literally and metaphorically. But, at China’s National Engineering Research Centre for Agricultural Product Logistics in Jinan, sandwiched between the “Time/Temperature/Tolerance Laboratory” and “Small-size Instruments Storage,” the curious cryo-tourist can visit “The Room of the Sleeping Fish.” As I describe in a forthcoming issue of Harvard Design Magazine, the Centre’s scientists have developed a way to ship live fish out of water, by using refrigeration to induce a sort of suspended animation.

According to the technician in charge of the process, the fish are sent to sleep by gradually lowering the temperature of the water, half a degree at a time over the course of twenty-four hours, to just above freezing. In this sluggish state, a fish can be rolled up, popped in a clear plastic poster tube, and mailed to anywhere in China. As long as they arrive at their destination within three days, the Centre’s Director explained, they will simply wake up and start swimming again as soon as you slide them out of the canister.

What’s more, he added, these revived sleeping fish taste better than the freshest just-caught fish: the whole process is apparently the piscine equivalent of a spa retreat, and the less stress, the better, as far as fish flesh and flavour are concerned.

6. XinFaDi Agri-product Wholesale Market, Beijing

1 Neon gate

IMAGE: The neon entrance gate to XinFaDi market.

According to official statistics, less than five percent of China’s vegetables are transported under refrigeration. An early morning visit to the XinFaDi wholesale market, which supplies more than 70 percent of Beijing’s vegetables, demonstrates the reality behind that figure. Eggs, grains, oils, and, curiously, mushrooms are all sold from inside a covered structure, but fruit and vegetable transactions are handled in the parking lot, at the back of each delivery truck.

20 Little kid on veg truck

IMAGE: Check out the little kid perched on top of this banana truck.

And, of course, the trucks are not refrigerated. Instead, vendors pack the vegetables tightly under layers of blankets, ice, and even hay, excavating each radish or head of broccoli individually for their customers. As I explain in the story, it’s thus perfectly normal for a quarter of the cargo to rot before it can be sold — more in summer.

36 An ice-packed broccoli truck

IMAGE: Ice-packed broccoli being dug out from the back of the truck for a customer.

7. Yantai Quanyuan Fruit & Vegetables Co. Ltd., Qixia

1 Chinese Apple Move Toward the World From Here

IMAGE: Yantai Quanyuan Fruit & Vegetable Co. Ltd.

“Chinese apple move toward the world from here,” proclaims the slogan on the side of one of the largest modified-atmosphere, refrigerated apple-storage facilities in China. Quanyuan uses German-designed equipment to store the apples at 0 degrees Centigrade. Flushed with nitrogen, in order to remove oxygen and slow respiration still further, the apples stay fresh for a year. The company exports its product across Asia, to Africa, and, most recently, to Canada. Soon, they hope, their apples will be allowed into the United States.

The company’s owner, a tall, unsmiling man wearing a blue suit with a gold tie, told me that when he was a boy, his family would wrap the apples from their orchard in paper and put them in a specially dug hole, near the house, so that they’d last the five or six months from harvest to lunar new year. “Still,” he remembered, “they were always wrinkled and soft. These fruits are screwed without refrigeration.”

25 Loading apples

IMAGE: Loading apples in the cold storage warehouse at Quanyuan.

The modified-atmosphere technology, which is standard in the United States, was introduced to the Chinese apple-growing region of Yantai in 1994, and it has changed everything for Quanyuan.

“Before, I lost a lot. It was tough,” he said, in a matter of fact tone. “Now, I lose less than 1 percent of my apples.” Standing in front of a photograph of himself shaking hands with a senior member of the Party’s standing committee, he added, “It took me three years to pay the construction of these warehouses back, but we started exporting in 2000. I see huge potential.”

8. Beijing Vegetable Research Centre, Beijing

22 Beijing Vegetables Research Centre

IMAGE: An experimental greenhouse, Beijing Vegetable Research Centre.

Liu Sheng, at the Beijing Vegetable Research Centre, is developing the optimal post-harvest regimes for Chinese produce. These were developed for British fruit and vegetables beginning in the 1920s, and UC Davis’ Post-Harvest Technology freely disseminates separate sets of specialised guidelines perfectly tailored to the unique metabolic profiles of Anjou pears and Bartlett pears, or Red Delicious apples and Golden Delicious apples.

“We have some for Chinese vegetables, but ours are not as specific,” Sheng explained. “We have a single standard for thirty different fruits!” He spends his time measuring loss rates between batches of bitter melon that have been hydrocooled versus those that have been exposed to forced-air precooling, and assessing organoleptic deterioration in hawthorn berries when stored at 3 as opposed to 4 degrees Celsius. Personally, he is a big asparagus fan.

Sheng also helped plan one of the Party’s flagship cold chain projects, the “South to North Vegetable Transfer.” Launched in 2011, this “Pilot Program of “Modern Agricultural Circulation” aimed at repurposing the country’s southernmost, tropical island province, Hainan (otherwise popular with Chinese honeymooners), into the “National Winter Vegetable Base,” complete with 30 brand new logistics centers and an express refrigerated rail-link to Beijing.

In other words, just as drought conditions in California are driving up fruit and vegetable prices across the United States, the Chinese are racing to turn Hainan into their Central Valley.

Meanwhile, his colleagues, as I mention in the magazine story, are breeding varietals that are better adapted to cold storage in the first place. As we looked across the street at the purple-lit greenhouse dedicated to their research, Sheng admitted that he thinks this will result in a loss of flavour, because “you can’t have both.”

9. Yogurt Control Room, Yili, Tianjin

6 Yoghurt control room

IMAGE: The Yogurt Control Room at Yili’s Wuqing plant.

A traditional Chinese diet involves very little dairy: cheese is viewed as disgusting, butter is indistinguishable from cheese, ice-cream is only for kids, and the majority of the population is lactose intolerant. But, with the temptation of such a huge market, and equipped with a growing cold chain through which to reach it, both international and Chinese companies have pushed a “yogurt strategy” to “reintroduce dairy,” as Chris Brimlow, Nestle’s Director of Research and Development in China, told Paul Roberts in The End of Food.

“Even as adults, in only takes three months to develop the enzyme,” Brimlow says. “They may feel sick for a little while, but they get used to it.”

Yili is the market leader, achieving success with its locally attuned flavours (sweetcorn and aloe, as opposed to Danone’s strawberry) and with a clever marketing campaign that pushes yogurt as good for teenage complexions. I visited the newest of its ten yogurt factories, in Tianjin, built to anticipate a demand that is projected to grow by 20 percent year-on-year for the next decade.

With consumer confidence shaken by the country’s milk powder scandals, Yili were anxious to show me their rocket-ship style Yogurt Control Room, which includes a real-time map of the company’s GPS-enabled refrigerated trucks that I wasn’t allowed to photograph. “We want customers to know about our cold chain system in order to build trust,” the oily PR representative told me. “So we made an infographic.”

10. Express Channel Food Logistics, Beijing

20 Loading dock KuaiXing warehouse

IMAGE: Refrigerated loading dock at Liu Peijun’s brand-new refrigerated warehouse.

Liu Peijun got his start persuading wary Beijingers to try Sanquan’s frozen dumplings back in 1996, when they first reached the capital’s supermarkets. He personifies China’s new wave of homegrown logistics entrepreneurs: ambitious (he is expanding to Shanghai), successful (a Jeep, a BMW, and plans to send his son to college in the U.S.), and as frustrated by the missing links in China’s cold chain as he is proud of his pioneer status.

We went out for Mongolian hotpot to warm up after our refrigerated warehouse tour. As I struggled with how exactly to eat a duck’s tongue, he said, “I have to admit, business is good.” From the way he smiled, it was easy to tell that business was very good indeed. In fact, Liu added, cold chain logistics is so hot in China right now that the interpreter he brought with him last year on a fifteen-day research tour of refrigerated warehouses overseas quit as soon as they got back to Beijing, in order to start a cold storage business of his own.

Duck tongues at hotpot

IMAGE: Ducks’ tongues consist almost entirely of cartilage, making them tricky interview-fare for the non-native diner.

There are far too many people I have to thank for making this New York Times Magazine story, and the opportunity to explore the Chinese cryosphere, possible: the UC Berkeley Food & Farming Fellowship crew; my superstar interpreter, Owen Guo (and Josephine Lau, who introduced me to him, via my old friend Dechen Pemba); my skilful editors Bill Wasik, Claire Gutierrez, and Jon Kelly; my tireless fact-checkers Karen Fragala-Smith and Dan Kaufman; the anonymous folks on the copy desk (“fridge” is not allowed, according to the NYT style guide, FYI) and the rest of the magazine team; my first and favourite editor, Geoff Manaugh; and so many people who spoke to me, hosted me, recommended me, and introduced me to others — Jen Lin Liu, Fuchsia Dunlop, Corey Rosenbusch, Judith Farquhar, Steve Boucher, Tim McLellan, Ralph Bean, Jim Harkness, Susanne Freidberg, Mike Moriarty, Ram Krishnan, Jackie Janus, Mark Bills, Clyde Verhoff, Tianle Chang, Richard Brubaker, Piao Li, Soonguan Poh, Liu Peijun, Chen Zemin and Chen Nan, Feng Shaotong, Wu Jianfeng, Mr. Mu, Zhang Li, Wang Guoli, Jiang Xu, Jiang Yuanquan, Qin Yunming, Liu Sheng, Chairman Wang, Black Sesame Kitchen, Hugo Lindgren, Rob WalkerJohn Thackara, and Alexis Madrigal. Thank you!


Posted in Artificial Cryosphere, Uncategorized| 2 Responses

Bike-Powered Rice

I was first introduced to the Randall’s Island rice paddies in miso form, as part of former Momofuku R&D chef Dan Felder’s experiments to develop a truly local terroir for the restaurant’s New York City iteration of Asian cuisine.

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IMAGE: 2014’s rice seedlings germinating inside the greenhouse at Randall’s Island Urban Farm. All photographs by Nicola Twilley.

But, although the rice’s microbes were proving somewhat recalcitrant, I was delighted to learn earlier this year that the rice itself was thriving. In a presentation at this year’s Roger Smith Food Tech Conference, Nick Storrs, the manager of Randall’s Island Urban Farm, proudly described the exponential growth of the city’s only rice paddy fields, from the first experimental one in 2011, to five this season.

Growing rice in New York City, thousands of miles north of its traditional home in Arkansas and California, turned out to be surprisingly easy, Storrs explained. Hulling it — removing hard husk that protects each individual grain of rice — was the real challenge.

That is, until a microscopist for DuPont spent two winters tinkering in his basement, bolting together bike chains, chopping boards, and boat launch bumpers to design and build the missing machine that could crack open micro-scale rice markets across America.

14 Paddy rice and hulled rice

IMAGE: Randall’s Island paddy rice (right) and hulled rice with chaff (left).

A few weeks ago, I went out to Randall’s Island to witness the delivery of their very own bike-powered rice-huller and to talk with Don Brill, its unlikely inventor.

You’ll have to head over to the New Yorker to read the rest of the story (well worth it, in my unbiased opinion), but here are some additional photos for when you come back.

5 Nick and Don kneeling straw hat and pink bike

IMAGE: Don Brill and Nick Storr kneel to set up the rice huller.

13 Nick on bike

IMAGE: Nick Storrs on the bike, hulling rice.

7 Side of rice huller up close

IMAGE: The rice huller from the side.

12 Don and local kid on rice huller

IMAGE: Don Brill adds paddy rice to the huller while a random child tries out the bike.

10 Hulled rice in the beige bus tray

IMAGE: Hulled rice and chaff in the beige bus tray. This still needs to be winnowed before consumption.

For the full story, check out “The Rube Goldberg of Rice” at the New Yorker online.

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From Paris, With Smell

The first telegraph sent across the Atlantic, on 16 August, 1858, read: “Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”

The contents of the first transatlantic telephone call, placed by AT&T President Walter S. Gifford on 7 January, 1927, were more mundane: a report the next day in The Manchester Guardian noted that the weather and the time difference were the main topics of conversation, and that “a more pleasantly futile dialogue could hardly have taken place over a suburban party-wall in Dulwich or Chorlton-cum-Hardy.”


IMAGE: Walter S. Gifford places the first commercial trans-Atlantic telephone call. Photograph: AP via The Guardian.

Yesterday, at the transmission of the first transatlantic smell message, perfumer Christophe Laudamiel sent an olfactory snapshot from Paris to New York City, and a small but eager audience at the American Museum of Natural History were treated to the scent of champagne and macarons.

“Nibbled in Paris, tasted in New York!” Laudamiel said, as he hit send.

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IMAGE: The first transatlantic smell message, projected for the audience at the American Museum of Natural History. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

oPhone Duo 460

IMAGE: The oPhone was designed to resemble an abstract, minimalist flower planter in order to help users feel comfortable smelling it, according to Vapor Communication’s co-founder, Rachel Field. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

The event was a launch of sorts for Vapor Communications’ first product, the oPhone Duo, a small, brick-shaped device mounted with two smell delivery tubes. The oPhone is required to “play” a smell message: it reads the tagged scents beamed from the message recipient’s iPhone using Bluetooth, swivels the correct odour cartridge slots into place, and then blows a ten-second burst of air through the chunks of solid perfume, up to your nose.

The experience is a considerable improvement on earlier Smell-o-vision experiments in that the scents are delivered to a single recipient, in a short burst, with no more than three different smells in combination per tube. The reasoning behind this is that it takes humans about three to four seconds after exposure to detect a scent, and about ten seconds after that to reach saturation, or olfactory fatigue — the point at which the epithelium is overwhelmed enough to be temporarily unable to distinguish new aroma molecules.

Meanwhile, researchers have also found that ordinary, untrained humans can typically pick out only three or four different notes within a smell — more than that, and the brain lumps them all together as a single smell.

“In a way,” says David Edwards, the Harvard professor who co-founded Vapor Communications with his former student, Rachel Field, “the nose was made for olfactory tweets.”

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IMAGE: David Edwards holds an odour cartridge, or oChip. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

For now, anyone with an iPhone and a Facebook account (which counts me out, disappointingly) can compose and send a smell message: you simply download the free oSnap app, take a photograph, and tag it with up to two sets of up to four smell tags each.

Screenshot 1

IMAGE: Screenshots from the oSnap app.

These are chosen from a pre-existing range of thirty-two food-related aromas organised into five palettes, from “Paris Afternoon” (“tomatoey,” “meaty,” “onionish,” and “red wine.”) to “Confections” (“buttery,” “caramel,” “brown sugar,” and “espelette pepper”).

AromaticVocabulary 460

IMAGE: The system currently offers thirty-two food-related aromas organised into five palettes. According to Rachel Field, “tomatoey” was the trickiest smell to get right, as it was much more potent at a lower concentration than the other odours in its group.

The resulting smell is an abstraction of an abstraction: a croissant and coffee might become a jet of “buttery” “grilled toast” accompanied by a “zesty” “cacao plume.” If the sender is equipped with an oPhone themselves, they can test and tweak their smell message before sending it, adding “bitter cocoa bean” or “yeasty brioche” notes as necessary to match their real-world aroma experience as closely as possible.

Imagining a generation of oSnap users repeatedly trying to distill their own aroma experience in terms of these pre-assembled scent “phonemes” raises the interesting question of how this new, albeit limited, olfactory language, complete with associated colours, might end up re-shaping odour and flavour perception.

In studies, the descriptors used on menus or food labels have been shown to exert a huge influence on what flavours consumers subsequently report experiencing. It’s easily to imagine a similar effect by which an oSnapper will perceive croissants as more buttery and toast-like, and less floury, say, or sweet, than someone who is not trying to summarise the aroma using Vapor Communications’ limited palette.

It’s even possible that the oSnap app might even induce a new synaesthesia, in which chocolate is associated with purple and onions “taste” turquoise.

Rachel holds out oPhone 460

IMAGE: Rachel Field allows members of the audience to experience the first transatlantic smell message on the oPhone. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

Of course, as Edwards speculated, it’s entirely possible that in the future the app could use image-matching technology to mine a database for aromas associated with the thing you’ve just taken a picture of, so that the user doesn’t have to rely on their own perception (this, of course, risks reduction to an olfactory average: all glasses of red wine will smell the same in scent message form).

Vapor Communications is also developing an oPhone “Uno,” which will attach directly to your phone, trading portability for a reduced palette of aromas. Edwards also mentioned discussions with car companies, to deliver coffee aromas to sleepy drivers.

For right now, however, eager early adopters can reserve their own oPhone Duo as part of an Indiegogo campaign, but will have to wait to experience their smell messages (or oNotes, as the company calls them) at a handful of public oPhone “hot spots” (the American Museum of Natural History will host one, starting in July).

The slow roll-out has a silver lining — Edwards and his colleagues are using it to understand how people actually use scent messaging in the wild. Thus far, for example, they’ve been surprised to see more non-food than food-related oNotes. In the forty-eight hours the app has been live, users have already created “Lady Gaga,” “My Room,” and “Smoky Beach” — a hint that Vapor should probably move beyond what they call “foodie adventures” in future oPhone cartridges.

(For those who are worried about being pranked by unkind friends sending fart smell messages: it’s possible but not easy. Rachel Field told me that the team has developed a “barf” cartridge, filled with four particularly disgusting odours, but that those aromas are not yet publicly available through the oNote system. And, because the receiver would have to intentionally load their oPhone with the barf cartridge, anyone who was subjected to a fart message would have had to have set themselves up for it ahead of time: no nasty surprises here.)

Rachel displays interior of oPhone 460

IMAGE: Rachel displays the interior of the oPhone Duo, including the cartridge slots. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

My hand holding an oChip 460

IMAGE: Edwards and Field worked with perfumers and flavorists to encapsulate custom-blended aromas in solid matter to fill the cartridges. Field estimated that the odours in a cartridge would last a month in regular use. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

With only thirty-two base aromas, yielding a maximum of 300,000 combinations, the oPhone/oSnap/oNote olfactory ecosystem is still frustratingly limited and awkward to use right now. And, frankly, I’d have been more excited if Edwards and Field had chosen to use individual aroma molecules over pre-made analogues — Isoamyl acetate rather than banana, for example, or cis-3-Hexenal instead of freshly cut grass — so that users could start to understand real-world smells as the sum of their chemical constituents.

Still, I’ve ordered my oPhone Duo. And when I’m old and grey, and the sending and receiving of long-distance sniff-o-grams is just a normal part of everyday life, I’m sure I’ll tell everyone who will listen that I was there to smell the first transatlantic scent message in the world…

Thanks to the inimitable Paola Antonelli for alerting me to the event.

Posted in Smellscapes, Uncategorized| 4 Responses