Improbable Salt

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The illicit thrill of carrying vials of expensive white powder around town is just part of the charm of owning your own Improbable Salt.

I am no salt expert (yes, there is such a profession: meet salt sommelier Sommai Wooniem) but, astonishingly, the salt from a Hawaiian-French improbable ocean tastes distinctly different to that of a French-Hawaiian one.

(To my mind, French water mixed with Hawaiian sea salt has a slightly unpleasant, bitter, and metallic after-taste, though its creator, Ryan Dewey, prefers it to its inverse twin. Give me Fijian-Pakistani salt over either, any day.)

Last chance to score your own vials of fourth-wave, post-globalisation, micro-batch salt, freshly harvested from the shelves of a Cleveland supermarket: Dewey’s Kickstarter campaign ends on Monday evening.

Thanks to Jenny, Jake, and Geoff for tasting the salts with me.

Gastropod on Gastropods

Finally, Gastropod is tackling gastropods! In this episode, Cynthia visits one of America’s first and only snail farms.

Though Gastropod is, as regular listeners know, a podcast about the science and history of all things gastronomical, we do share a name with Gastropoda, the taxonomic class that includes slugs and snails. And, as it turns out, the history and science of heliciculture, or snail farming, is completely fascinating.

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IMAGE: Snail pen at Little Grey Farms escargotière, Quilcene, Washington. Photograph by Ric Brewer.

Join Cynthia on a trip to rural Washington State to learn how to raise snails and whether fresh and vacuum-packed taste any less rubbery than canned. Plus, you’ll hear about the earliest evidence for human snail consumption, how the Romans fattened theirs up, and all about the bizarre world of snail sex.

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IMAGE: Snails in Little Grey Farms’ Seattle warehouse. Photograph by Ric Brewer.

And, when you’ve listened, visit Gastropod for all kinds of links, photos, and even a snail orgy caught on home movie.

Supply Chain Seasoning

Salt is essential. Globally, humans eat an average of 10 grams a day and we each contain roughly 250 grams, without which we would die.

Wisconsin French

IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

As Mark Kurlansky explains in his book, Salt, the extraction of salt has inspired many of the world’s most ambitious public works projects, while the exchange of salt laid down many of the global trade routes still in use today.

As Kurlansky tells it, the Chinese developed an advanced system of urban plumbing inspired by their advances in salt-well bamboo pipework, the Romans built the first of their great roads, the Via Salaria, to bring salt into the interior of the Italian peninsula, and settlements all over the world—including Buffalo, New York—were situated at salt licks, to which convenient paths had already been blazed by animals (in that case, bison).

The salt at the end of the longest, most infrastructure-intensive supply chain in the world, however, is the salt from Improbable Oceans.

Artist and cognitive scientist Ryan Dewey is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of what he describes as “the first true sea salt from oceans that don’t exist.” Its production process combines two elemental commodities that are shipped vast distances around the world only to be marketed based on their taste of place: mineral water and sea salt.

Improbable salt

IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

The result is small-batch, hand-harvested salt that captures the taste of two places that could never overlap outside the totalising geography of the grocery store—salt evaporated from the Wyoming-French ocean, for example, or the New Zealand-Icelandic sea.

The project began with kitty litter. Dewey is principal of the Geologic Cognition Society, a collective he founded in 2013 to attempt to make geologic timescales and forces more legible to humans. The minerals in the kitty litter on the shelves in an average Walmart may well, Dewey realised, have been mined in Wyoming, travelled by train to California, sailed to China to be processed, returned back to California by sea, and then traversed half way across the country again, via a central distribution center, to your store.

With an estimated 74 to 96 million total cats in America, and each indoor cat using, on average, 60 pounds of kitty litter each year, this distributed sedimentary movement is actually, it seemed to Dewey, “a pretty radical form of geo-engineering.”

Core Samples

IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

At first, Dewey began assembling core samples of the mobile minerals available at your average supermarket: kitty litter, activated charcoal, pumice, and, of course, salt. The core samples were a tool, he explained, to help visualise “these imagined spaces that exist at the convergence of supply chains and retail inventory.” But, while he was scanning the shelves, he realised that, between the gourmet salt selection and the aisle of mineral waters, the grocery store was home to hundreds of latent oceans, each of which could yield an as-yet-untasted salt.

With no particular effort, Dewey was able to assemble ten mineral winters from across the globe—Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, England, France, Wyoming, and Ohio—and ten salts from equally far afield: Hawaii, South Africa, Pakistan, California, Portugal, France, New Zealand, South Korea, Sweden, and New York.

This immediately gave him the ability to make one hundred different improbable oceans in his Cleveland lab, in which the trace minerals that give Fiji water its particular flavour mingle with, for example, the unique “merroir” of Hawaiian sea salt. The result, after steam-condensing the ocean into a brine and then evaporating off the remaining water, is a seasoning whose taste perfectly captures the geography-distorting anyplace of the global supply chain.


IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

Dewey’s early experiments have revealed that salt from an ocean made from French mineral water and Hawaiian salt tastes distinctly different from the salt that crystallises when he evaporates a combination of Hawaiian mineral water and French sea salt. (He prefers the former.)


IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

The most improbable ocean, ranked purely on the mileage required to bring its two ingredients together in Dewey’s Cleveland base, is formed by the combination of New Zealand water with Portuguese salt. Foodies eager to taste these varying degrees of improbability themselves can choose to order single 2-dram vials of the New Zealand-Portuguese salt, inverse salt pairs, or entire flights.

The experience does not come cheap—Dewey thinks that his salt is almost undoubtedly the most expensive in the world, which is only fitting when you consider the resource-intensive supply chain that lies behind each improbable ocean (not to mention the time-consuming process of evaporating each micro-batch by hand).

Alongside the production process, Dewey plans to continue his exploration of how global supply chains shift geology, collapse geography, and create new kinds of places—as well as the products that express them.

He is experimenting with ageing his oceans, in order to reintroduce some kind of temporal variability into his salts. And he is planning to expand his harvest to include oysters: perhaps, he hopes, ending up with bivalves that have adapted over multiple generations to the particular waters of an improbable ocean.

Meanwhile, Dewey is also starting to cast salt in his furnace, and, with the Geologic Cognition Society, will be reconstructing the ancient brinescape that formed the rich seam of rock salt under Lake Erie for an exhibit opening in Cleveland in January. (A surprisingly large proportion of U.S. road salt comes from a Cargill-operated mine that extends four square miles out from the shore of downtown Cleveland, 1,700 feet beneath the lake’s surface.)

Seaweed in ocean

IMAGE: Photograph courtesy Ryan Dewey.

Visit Dewey’s Kickstarter page for your chance to taste the ineffable, improbable flavours of global trade and anthropogenic geo-engineering.

This is salt that can only exist at this particular moment in planetary history—salt that the ancient Chinese and Romans, for all their infrastructural ingenuity, could never have imagined. It combines the abstract logic of capital with the artisanal craft of micro-local production in seasoning form. Its ridiculousness is precisely the point.

I cannot wait to try it.

Gastropod: Savour Flavour

Why does grape candy taste so fake? What on earth is blue raspberry, anyway? And what is the difference between natural and artificial, at least when it comes to flavour?

Join us as we taste the rainbow on this episode of Gastropod, from artificial flavouring’s public debut at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, to the vanilla-burping yeasts of the future. We’ll experiment with Skittles, discover how invented flavours first appeared in our daily diets, and visit a synthetic biology lab, all in our quest to understand what artificial flavour is, was, and might be. Along the way, we’ll learn what exactly goes into designing the perfect pineapple from one of America’s top flavourists, investigate beaver butts, and discover the taste of an extinct banana. Listen now!

Throughout human history, if you wanted to make a dish taste like strawberry, you had no choice but to add a strawberry. But in the 19th century, scientists began to understand how to synthesise flavour chemicals, whether from plants or from byproducts of coal processing, to evoke familiar flavours. While the technology to evaluate the flavour molecules of a particular food have become increasingly sophisticated in the past century, the basic concept of synthetic flavour has remained unchanged. Until now. In this episode of Gastropod, molecular biologists explain how they’re designing yeasts to ferment the tastes of the future.

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IMAGE: The Great Exhibition of 1851 was housed in Joseph Paxton’s extraordinary Crystal Palaces, and contained “the wonders of industry and manufacturing from around the modern world,” including folding pianos for yachtsmen, a couple of velocipedes (the early version of a bicycle), and, of course, some lozenges flavored with artificial fruit ethers.

Natural vs. Artificial

Let’s start with a graham cracker. Just like Sylvester Graham back in 1829, if you’re baking at home, you’d probably use coarse-ground whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, and wheat germ. These, along with some honey for sweetness, would give your graham crackers their distinctive toasty, malty, and slightly nutty flavor.

If you’re making them by the billion, however, at a Nabisco or Keebler factory, the ingredients list looks a little different. That extra wheat germ and bran contain natural oils with a tendency to go rancid—but, when you cut them out to gain shelf-life, you lose the flavour.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: you can add all that flavour back with just a touch of a light yellow, crystalline powder called 2-acetylpyrazine. This is an aromatic, carbon-based chemical, known by flavourists as the “graham-cracker” flavor. It occurs naturally in nuts and toasted grains; as the vital ingredient giving factory-made graham crackers their signature flavour, it can either be extracted from a plant or synthesised using petrochemical derivatives.

The major difference is that 2-acetylpyrazine produced by performing chemical reactions on plant matter costs about $25 per lb—compared to the $5 or $6 per lb it costs to produce the kind whose raw ingredients come in a drum.

However, using the cheap version comes with another, increasingly significant cost: it means you have to include the words “artificial flavour” on your graham cracker ingredients list. Under FDA rules, if the raw material to make your flavour chemical comes from a plant, animal, or edible yeast, it’s “natural,” for the purposes of labelling. If it comes from anything else, it’s artificial. And consumers increasingly don’t want to buy things that are “artificial.”

In fact, Michelle Hagen, a senior flavourist at Givaudan, the world’s largest fragrance and flavour company, told Gastropod that, despite the cost savings, she hasn’t used a single artificial chemical in her flavourings for the past four years—because the companies she mostly works with know that customers are turned off when they see that word on a label.

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Enter the (Genetically Engineered) Yeast

Until recently, the natural flavours that Hagen uses would, for the most part, have been extracted from a plant; a handful of rarer ingredients, more often used in perfumery, would have come from animal sources. Today, advances in genetic engineering, combined with the growing consumer demand for natural flavours, are creating an intriguing new option for the world’s flavourists. In the past, the mention of “edible yeast” in the FDA definition of natural flavours typically referred to savoury yeast extracts; now, designer yeasts are beginning to pump out vanilla, saffron, and even grapefruit flavours.

For this episode, Gastropod visited Ginkgo BioWorks, one of a new wave of companies redesigning yeasts to produce fragrance and flavour chemicals. As Christina Agapakis, a scientist, writer, and artist who recently joined Ginkgo’s staff, explained, the biology behind genetically modifying microbes to produce other, useful chemicals is not new. More than three decades ago, in 1978, biotech companies successfully inserted genes into bacteria to produce human insulin, meaning that diabetics need no longer depend on a close-enough version extracted from pig pancreases. In 1990, the FDA approved rennet made by inserting cow genes into E. coli bacteria; today, more than 90 percent of all cheese in the U.S. and U.K. is made using this bio-engineered product, rather than natural rennet found in the stomach linings of calves.

What is new, Agapakis told Gastropod, is “the ability to create flavors.” Rather than inserting the single gene that codes for the insulin protein, she explained, “to make a flavour, you might need five or ten different enzymes that are creating a whole pathway and are really shifting the metabolism of the yeast.” Fitting all those genes together so that what works in a plant to produce flavour also works in a yeast cell is challenging. Ginkgo has been developing its first yeast-fermented ingredient—a rose oil for the fragrance industry—for a couple of years now.

In fact, as organism designer Patrick Boyle explained, the main reason that the Ginkgo “foundry” is filled with liquid-handling robots and high-tech machines is to help him and his colleagues rapidly run through all the tweaked yeasts that don’t work. “Failure is usually not very dramatic,” he told Gastropod. “It’s just that we end up with a yeast that looks a lot like the yeast we started with.”

Still, a Swiss company called Evolva has recently brought the first of these “cultured flavours” to market: vanillin, the main ingredient in the world’s most popular flavour. Ginkgo’s rose oil smells pretty sweet, and the Boston-based company has half a dozen more flavour ingredients in the pipeline. And scientists in Austria just announced that they have successfully tweaked yeast to produce the key flavour chemical in grapefruit.


IMAGE: Photo courtesy Ginkgo BioWorks.

The Future of Flavor

Redesigning yeast to create flavour molecules offers some potential benefits. For starters, fermentation requires none of the harsh chemicals that are often used to extract essential oils from plants or react with petrochemical precursors. Engineered yeast also offers the possibility of democratising rare, expensive flavours, like saffron, and, Patrick Boyle points out, it can “relieve some of the supply issues that come from using really rare plants.”

But the main attraction of this new technology for food companies is that the resulting flavours can legally be labelled as “natural”—they are produced by a yeast, after all. What’s more, because there is no yeast left in the final product, cultured flavours actually don’t contain genetically modified organisms.

Still, companies are nervous—Michelle Hagen at Givaudan told Gastropod that she hadn’t worked with any of these cultured flavours yet, and both Nestlé and General Mills responded to pressure from Friends of the Earth by pledging not to use cultured vanillin. In a press release, Friends of the Earth argued that using yeast to produce vanillin would threaten the livelihood of vanilla bean farmers in Madagascar, as well as the continued existence of the rainforest in which the vanilla orchid grows. But, as Patrick Boyle pointed out, the world demand for vanillin far outstrips the quantity of vanilla beans grown each year, and the synthetic and real vanilla industries have already managed to co-exist for more than a century.

Debates over natural vs. artificial aside, perhaps the most interesting aspect of these designer yeasts is the potential they offer for creating entirely new flavour experiences. For Christina Agapakis, the opportunity to learn more about the genes and pathways that plants use to express flavour will, she hopes, lead to productive collaborations with fruit and vegetable breeders—and increased deliciousness in the field as well as in the lab.

Meanwhile, while the Jurassic Park-style idea of recreating extinct species from some DNA trapped in amber is still a fantasy, Agapakis speculated that it might be possible to work with evolutionary biologists to reconstruct the genetics of lost plants from their living relatives. One day, designer yeast could allow us to get close to the flavour of extinct or endangered species, or even pre-domestication grasses and animals.

To end where we began: forget whether your graham cracker uses natural or artificial flavours. Instead, imagine a series of crackers whose flavours progress through wheat’s evolutionary history. Then listen to this episode of Gastropod to understand how the flavour industry got started, and what its evolution can tell us about our relationship with food.

Gastropod: DNA Detectives

DNA: it’s the genetic information that makes plants and animals what we are. Most of the time when you hear about it in the context of food, it’s to do with breeding. But in this short episode of Gastropod, we bring you two DNA detective stories that show how genetic analysis can rewrite the history of agriculture and fight food fraud—at least some of the time.

Listen now to hear how preserved DNA from an underwater site off the coast of Britain is helping paint a picture of how hunter gatherers in Northern Europe might first have experienced the wonders of agriculture, by trading kernels of exotic, domesticated Near Eastern wheat over long distances.


IMAGE: The Gastropod special, photographed by its creator, Chef Clare Anne O’Keefe.

We’ll also explore DNA’s role in some controversial accusations of food fraud and introduce you to the mysterious publication that defines the official standards of identity for food ingredients. And, finally, we squeeze in a short trip to Dublin’s Science Gallery, to talk to chef Clare Anne O’Keefe about a dish that was entirely inspired by Gastropod!

Gastropod: Say Cheese!

Cheese is the chameleon of the food world, as well as one of its greatest delights. Fresh and light or funky and earthy, creamy and melty or crystalline and crumbly—no other food offers such a variety of flavours and textures.

But cheese is not just a treat for the palate: its discovery changed the course of Western civilization, and, today, cheese rinds are helping scientists conduct cutting-edge research into microbial ecology. In this episode of Gastropod, we investigate cheese in all stinking glory, from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval France, from the origins of cheese factories and Velveeta to the growing artisanal cheese movement in the U.S.. Along the way, we search for the answer to a surprisingly complex question: what is cheese?

Join us as we bust cheese myths, solve cheese mysteries, and put together the ultimate cheese plate.

The Secret History of Cheese, or, Why the Cheese Origin Story is a Myth

This is the story you’ll often hear about how humans discovered cheese: one hot day nine thousand years ago, a nomad was on his travels, and brought along some milk in an animal stomach—a sort of proto-thermos—to have something to drink at the end of the day. But when he arrived, he discovered that the rennet in the stomach lining had curdled the milk, creating the first cheese. Unfortunately, there’s a major problem with that story, as University of Vermont cheese scientist and historian Paul Kindstedt told Gastropod: the nomads living in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East in 7000 B.C. would have been lactose-intolerant. A nomad on the road wouldn’t have wanted to drink milk; it would have left him in severe gastro-intestinal distress.

Kindstedt, author of the book Cheese and Culture, explained that about a thousand years before traces of cheese-making show up in the archaeological record, humans began growing crops. Those early fields of wheat and other grains attracted local wild sheep and goats, which provide milk for their young. Human babies are also perfectly adapted for milk. Early humans quickly made the connection and began dairying—but for the first thousand years, toddlers and babies were the only ones consuming the milk. Human adults were uniformly lactose-intolerant, says Kindstedt. What’s more, he told us that “we know from some exciting archaeo-genetic and genomic modeling that the capacity to tolerate lactose into adulthood didn’t develop until about 5500 BC”—which is at least a thousand years after the development of cheese.

The real dawn of cheese came about 8,500 years ago, with two simultaneous developments in human history. First, by then, over-intensive agricultural practices had depleted the soil, leading to the first human-created environmental disaster. As a result, Neolithic humans began herding goats and sheep more intensely, as those animals could survive on marginal lands unfit for crops. And secondly, humans invented pottery: the original practical milk-collection containers.

In the warm environment of the Fertile Crescent region, Kinstedt explained, any milk not used immediately and instead left to stand in those newly invented containers “would have very quickly, in a matter of hours, coagulated [due to the heat and the natural lactic acid bacteria in the milk]. And at some point, probably some adventurous adult tried some of the solid material and found that they could tolerate it a lot more of it than they could milk.” That’s because about 80 percent of the lactose drains off with the whey, leaving a digestible and, likely, rather delicious fresh cheese.


Rind microbes from a Colston Bassett Stilton. Photograph courtesy of Benjamin E. Wolfe.

Cheese Changed the Course of Western Civilization

With the discovery of cheese, suddenly those early humans could add dairy to their diets. Cheese made an entirely new source of nutrients and calories available for adults, and, as a result, dairying took off in a major way. What this meant, says Kindstedt, is that “children and newborns would be exposed to milk frequently, which ultimately through random mutations selected for children who could tolerate lactose later into adulthood.”

In a very short time, at least in terms of human evolution—perhaps only a few thousand years—that mutation spread throughout the population of the Fertile Crescent. As those herders migrated to Europe and beyond, they carried this genetic mutation with them. According to Kindstedt, “It’s an absolutely stunning example of a genetic selection occurring in an unbelievably short period of time in human development. It’s really a wonder of the world, and it changed Western civilization forever.”

Tasting the First Cheeses Today

In lieu of an actual time machine, Gastropod has another trick for listeners who want to know what cheese tasted like 9,000 years ago: head to the local grocery store and pick up some ricotta or goat’s milk chevre. These cheeses are coagulated using heat and acid, rather than rennet, in much the same way as the very first cheeses. Based on the archaeological evidence of Neolithic pottery containers found in the Fertile Crescent, those early cheeses would have been made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, meaning that they likely would have been somewhat funkier than cow’s milk ricotta, and perhaps of a looser, wetter consistency, more like cottage cheese.

“It would have had a tart, clean flavour,” says Kindstedt, “and it would have been even softer than the cheese you buy at the cheese shop. It would have been a tart, clean, acidic, very moist cheese.”

So, the next time you’re eating a ricotta lasagne or cheesecake, just think: you’re tasting something very similar to the cheese that gave ancient humans a dietary edge, nearly 9,000 years ago.

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Ben Wolfe examining his in-vitro cheeses for signs of life. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

Camembert Used to be Green

Those early cheese-making peoples spread to Europe, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the wild diversity of cheeses we see today started to emerge. In the episode, we trace the emergence of Swiss cheese and French bloomy rind cheeses, like Brie. But here’s a curious fact that didn’t make it into the show: when Gastropod visited Tufts microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe in his cheese lab, he showed us a petri dish in which he was culturing the microbe used to make Camembert, Penicillium camemberti. And it was a gorgeous blue-green colour.

Wolfe explained that according to Camembert: A National Myth, a history of the iconic French cheese written by Pierre Boisard, the original Camembert cheeses in Normandy would have been that same colour, their rinds entirely colonized by Wolfe’s “green, minty, crazy” microbe. Indeed, in nineteenth-century newspapers, letters, and advertisements, Camembert cheeses are routinely described as green, green-blue, or greenish-grey.

The pure white Camembert we know and love today did not become the norm until the 1920s and 30s. What happened, according to Wolfe, is that if you grow the wild microbe “in a very lush environment, like cheese is, it eventually starts to mutate. And along the way, these white mutants that look like the thing we think of as Camembert popped up.”

In his book, Boisard attributes the rapid rise of the white mutant to human selection, arguing that Louis Pasteur’s discoveries in germ theory at the start of the twentieth-century led to a prejudice against the original “moldy”-looking green Camembert rinds, and a preference for the more hygienic-seeming pure white ones. Camembert’s green origins have since been almost entirely forgotten, even by the most traditional cheese-makers.

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Penicillium camemberti growing in a petri dish in Ben Wolfe’s lab. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

Listen to this week’s episode of Gastropod for much more on the secret history and science of cheese, including how early cheese bureaucracy led to the development of writing, what studying microbes in cheese rinds can tell us about microbial ecology in our guts, and why in the world American cheese is dyed orange. (Hint: the color was originally seen as a sign of high quality.) Plus, Gastropod will help you put together the world’s most interesting cheese plate to wow guests at your next dinner party.

Listen here for more!

Gastropod: Extreme Salad & Crazy Potatoes

Step away from the French fries—and even from that bag of pre-washed mixed greens lurking in the crisper drawer. It’s time to reconsider the potato and up your salad game.

In this episode of Gastropod, Cynthia and Nicky talk to science writer Ferris Jabr about the chestnut-flavored, gemstone-hued potatoes he discovered in Peru, as well as the plant breeders working to expand American potato choices beyond the Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold.

Plus we meet wild gardener Stephen Barstow, whose gorgeous megasalads include 537 different plants, to talk about ancient Norwegian rooftop onion gardens and the weedy origins of borscht. If you thought you knew your veggies, think again—and listen in!

Gastropod: No Scrubs

In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons.

In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine—but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.

Along the way, we’ll introduce you to the insane logic of the Lifetime Cheese Merit algorithm and the surreal bull trials of the 1920s. This is the untold story behind that most wholesome and quotidian of beverages: milk. Prepare to be horrified and amazed in equal measure.


Something extremely bizarre took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, inspired by a confluence of trends. Scientists had recently developed a deeper understanding of genetics and inherited traits; at the same time, the very first eugenics policies were being enacted in the United States. And, as the population grew, the public wanted cheaper meat and milk. As a result, in the 1920s, the USDA encouraged rural communities around the U.S. to put bulls on the witness stand—to hold a legal trial, complete with lawyers and witnesses and a watching public—to determine whether the bull was fit to breed.

Livestock breeding was a normal part of American life at the dawn of the twentieth century, according to historian Gabriel Rosenberg. The U.S., he told Gastropod, was “still largely a rural and agricultural society,” and farm animals—and thus some more-or-less scientific forms of selective breeding—were ubiquitous in American life.

Meanwhile, the eugenics movement was on the rise. Founded by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics held that the human race could improve itself by guided evolution—which meant that criminals, the mentally ill, and others of “inferior stock” should not be allowed to procreate and pass on their defective genes. America led the way, passing the first eugenic policies in the world. By the Second World War, twenty-nine states had passed legislation that empowered officials to forcibly sterilize “unfit” individuals.

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A scrub sire, pictured in the USDA’s pamphlet, “From Scrubs to Quality Stock.” The caption reads: “There is seldom any uniformity in scrub stock. About the only things they have in common are 4 legs, 2 horns, a hide, and a tail.”

A “Better Sires: Better Stock” accredited dairy herd.

Combine the growing population, the desire for cheap meat and milk, and the increasing popularity of eugenics, and the result, Rosenberg said, was the “Better Sires: Better Stock” program, launched by the USDA in 1919. In an accompanying essay, “Harnessing Heredity to Improve the Nation’s Live Stock,” the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry proclaimed that, each year, “a round billion dollars is lost because heredity has been permitted to work with too little control.” The implication: humans needed to take control—and stop letting inferior or “scrub” bulls reproduce!


The “Better Sires: Better Stock” campaign included a variety of elements to encourage farmers to mate “purebred” rather than “scrub” or “degenerate” sires with their female animals. Anyone who pledged to only use purebred stock to expand their herd was awarded a handsome certificate. USDA field agents distributed pamphlets entitled “Runts and the Remedy” and “From Scrubs to Quality Stock,” packed with charts showing incremental increases of dollar value with each improved generation as well as testimonials from enrolled farmers.

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The “Better Sires: Better Stock” certificate, awarded to farmers who pledged to use purebred rather than scrub bulls.

By far the most peculiar aspect of the campaign, however, came in 1924, when the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial.” This mimeographed pamphlet contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce.

The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should “wear a large metal star and carry a gun,” and whose role, given the trial’s foregone conclusion, was “to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue.”

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The Order of Procedure, from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

In addition to an optional funeral oration for the scrub sire and detailed instructions regarding the barbecue or other refreshments (“bologna sandwiches, boiled wieners, or similar products related to bull meat” are recommended), the pamphlet also includes a script that begins with the immortal lines: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The honorable court of bovine justice of ___ County is now in session.”

The County’s case against the scrub bull is laid out: that he is a thief for consuming “valuable provender” while providing no value in return, that he is an “unworthy father,” and that his very existence is “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”

Several pages and roughly two hours later, the trial concludes with the following stage direction: “The bull is led away and a few moments later a shot is fired.”

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The verdict (a foregone conclusion), from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

Within a month of publication, the USDA reported receiving more than 500 requests for its scrub-sire trial pamphlets. Across the country, the court of bovine justice was convened at county fairs, cattle auctions, and regional farmers’ association meetings, forming a popular and educational entertainment.


These bull trials may seem like a forgotten, bizarre, and ultimately amusing quirk of history, but, as Rosenberg reminded Gastropod, “they are talking about a lot more than just cattle genetics here.”

Indeed, the very same year—1924—that the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” the State of Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Law. Immediately, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old whom he claimed had a mental age of 9, and who had already given birth to a supposedly feeble-minded daughter (following a rape).

Buck’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., upholding the decision in a 1927 ruling that concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.

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Still from “When the Cows Come Home,” a USDA Extension film, c. 1935, extolling the benefits of livestock improvement. At one point, the voiceover intones: “Domestic animals are supposed to be the slaves of man, but the man who owns a low-producing, non-profitable herd has this idea reversed.” Via the Prelinger Archives.

Eugenics, with its philosophical kinship to Nazism, largely fell out of favor in the U.S. by World War II. But the ideas promoted in the bull trials—that humans can and should take increasing control of animal genetics in order to design the perfect milk machine—have gained ground throughout the past century, as breeding has become ever more technologically advanced.

As we discuss in this episode of Gastropod, the drive to improve dairy cattle through livestock breeding has led to huge innovations—in IVF, in genomics, and in big data analysis—as well as much more milk. But it has also continued, for better and for worse, to highlight the ethical problems that stem from this kind of techno-utopian approach to reproduction.

Listen now to find out more about the bull trials of the 1920s and meet the most valuable bull in the world, as we explore the history and the high-tech genomic science behind livestock breeding today. Along the way, we tease out its larger, thought-provoking, and frequently deeply troubling implications for animal welfare and society in general.

Gastropod: Enhanced Eating with Dan Pashman

Have you ever wondered how to avoid sandwich sogginess, what scented soap to pair with your restaurant order, and whether airplane food can be made to taste of anything at all?

Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful, has, and his new book, Eat More Better, is filled with deeply researched, science-based hacks to improve your everyday eating. In this episode of Gastropod, Pashman shares his pro tips and dream lunchbox design: listen, learn, and win a copy of his book for yourself.

Pear Bulb

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IMAGE: “Die Glühbirne,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

German slang for light bulb is “die Glühbirne,” or “the glow pear.” As Romanian photograph Radu Zaciu explained to Petapixel, his latest series, “The Light Inside,” was originally inspired by this word play.

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IMAGE: Photograher Radu Zaciu preparing a cauliflower; photograph via Petapixel.


IMAGE: “Apocalypse Now—The Cauliflower,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Starting with a pear, Zaciu has been drilling and carving holes into fruits and vegetables, inserting a light bulb, and then photographing the glowing produce in a darkened room. The results are gorgeous, from the liquid magma of the cauliflower to the delicate, protoplasmic green waves of a tightly furled cabbage.

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IMAGE: “Cabbage–green,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

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IMAGE: “Fennel,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Visit Zaciu’s Flickr page for more photographs in the series and Petapixel for more detail on his technique.