Holy Radish Water, Scientists!

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IMAGE: Bottles of holy water (available at the Sacramentals Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska) and a radish.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Reports in 1979, Sandra Lenington measured the mean growth of 12 radish seeds watered with holy water against that of 12 radish seeds watered with tap water. It was not, Lenington concluded, “significantly different.”

Lenington, a life coach specialising in “Radiant Recovery” whose career has included spells as a research engineer at NASA Ames and as a Curves franchise owner, initiated her experiment in an attempt to reproduce the findings of Canon William V. Rauscher, who had previously reported “that canna plants given holy water left over from use in from use in religious services grew more than three times higher than canna plants which were not given holy water.”

Having secured a glass container full of holy water from a local church that used the same municipal source as the Santa Clara University tap water, as well as two identical watering cans, Lenington watered her seedlings every other day for three weeks and then measured them. After reporting her null finding, she goes on to speculate that Rauscher’s previous results might have been due to his belief in the power of holy water to affect plant growth. In her own case, she writes, “the author had no expectations of the outcome.”

Another critical difference was that Rauscher had dipped his hands in his holy water, whereas the water received by Lenington’s radishes had only been blessed. “Is the ‘laying on of hands’ necessary or helpful for a transfer of energy to take place?” Lenington wonders. “Future work to check differences in growth rates of plants given prayer while being touched versus plants given prayer alone might prove interesting.”

Finally, a more mundane consideration: the holy water was only changed weekly, meaning that “it was necessarily older and had been sitting a little longer than the tap water.”

Despite the irresistible temptation to giggle at this experiment—it, like many of my favourite examples of scientific research, has been featured in the Annals of Improbable Research—it also serves as an interesting reminder of a recurring debate in plant science: the thorny question of plant intelligence.

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IMAGE: L. Ron Hubbard, better known as the founder of Scientology, attempting to measure whether tomatoes experience pain, in 1968. Photo: Getty Images.

As Michael Pollan pointed out in his recent essay for the New Yorker, a New Age-inspired belief in plant sentience was not uncommon in the 1970s. Former C.I.A. analyst Clive Backster had spent the late 1960s measuring plant-human thought transference by attaching a polygraph machine to tomatoes and bananas, and The Secret Life of Plants was a nonfiction best-seller when it was published in 1973. Seen in this context, Sandra Lenington’s holy water-irrigated radishes tell us less about vegetables, and rather more about humans and the limitations of the conceptual structures from within which we examine the world.

What is fascinating is that, although many of these original experiments have since been discredited, botanists have recently, if tentatively, returned to the idea of plant intelligence. And, just as Lenington did in 1979, they have done so using the dominant metaphors of our time. The scientists quoted in Pollan’s (fascinating) article draw heavily on twenty-first century buzz words to explain plant-based phenomena: “modular,” “resilience,” “emergent,” and “networks” are all used repeatedly.

Just as the new technology of the railway provided an analogy that helped Einstein to develop, as well as explain, his theory of relativity, and just as the invention of the telephone both reflected and structured how scientists understood the human nervous system, so, too, it seems with our ability to understand how a plant experiences and functions in the world: it is both expanded and limited by the available metaphors. From telekinesis to distributed intelligence, we think like our technology when we try to think like a plant.

Previously in vegetable metaphors on Edible Geography: “The Carrot Hack”. Sandra Lenington’s study discovered via @kyledropp.

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Outsourcing the Mouth

Until recently, the question of whether an apple was truly ripe could only be answered by destroying it.

The human mouth, with its variety of multi-functional sensory detection mechanisms, provides the traditional—and, until recently, the most reliable—guide. But once an apple has been bitten, there is, as Eve reminds us, no going back.

For eaters, this is a simply one of life’s occasional but inevitable disappointments: a mouthful of tasteless mush or eye-watering acid instead of the sweet, crisp crunch of a perfect apple. For fruit growers, it is a serious financial liability. The quality and storage-life of their season’s crop—and thus its value—depend on harvesting the apples at peak ripeness.

Industry standard ripeness-detection tools add up to little more than a disassembled mouth: the hole-punch-like penetrometer, which, like the human jaw, assesses flesh firmness; the refractometer, a taste bud analogue that measure sugar levels; and the iodine test, which operates in reverse, exposing sugar’s absence. (Iodine reacts with starch, dyeing the apple’s not-yet-sweet tissue purple-black.) All three methods, like their inspiration, the human mouth, require the sacrifice of an apple or several.

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IMAGE: Starch iodine test guide for harvesting Red Delicious apples, via.

But, as I write in a new post for The New Yorker, a new technique that relies on the granular interference patterns generated by a perceptual mechanism that lies outside human anatomical reach: the laser.

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IMAGE: Laser biospeckle measurement array. Photograph by Rana Nassif.

Finally, no apples have to suffer in order to determine a fruit’s peak ripeness: that elusive moment of maximum crunch and sweetness, before the inexorable softening sets in. The mouth, released from its analytical responsibilities, can dedicate itself entirely to a retirement of guaranteed pleasure.

For more on the laser-filled orchards of the future, read my story in full at The New Yorker.

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Gastropod: Night of the Living Radishes

For this special New Year episode, Gastropod transports you to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the legendary Night of the Radishes, celebrated the night before Christmas eve, where locals present their most elaborate and inventive radish carvings. You’ll also get a taste of entomophagy, otherwise known as the practice of eating bugs, when Cynthia and her partner Tim try chapulines, or grasshoppers, for the first time.
 

 
The Night of the Radishes has taken place in the central square, or zocalo, of Oaxaca on December 23, every year for the past 117 years, since 1897. Originally intended as a way to decorate produce stands and attract Christmas shoppers, the festival now attracts more than a hundred participants, and thousands of tourists and locals alike wait for more than four hours for a glimpse at the carved scenes.

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IMAGE: Radish musicians. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

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IMAGE: Native god in radish form. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

Fruit and vegetable carving as a way to attract custom is a time-honored tradition that is still alive and well in Mexico’s markets. As Nicky mentions in the episode, vendors at Mexico City’s La Central de Abasto, the largest wholesale market in the world, spend hours carving watermelon and mamey into pyramids, rosettes, and even monstrous mouths.

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IMAGE: Carved watermelon on display at La Central de Abasto’s in-house art gallery. Photographed by Nicola Twilley during her two-week residency at the market with the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad.

While the radishes are inedible, insects are very definitely on the menu in Oaxaca. In the episode, we discuss some of the benefits of entomophagy: in a 2013 paper, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argued that the “mini-livestock” contain high-quality protein, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, and require about a quarter of the feed to yield the same amount of “meat” as beef, as well as much less water. Insects also create significantly less pollution than cattle, sheep, or chickens, and need a smaller amount of land for cultivation.

The problem, of course, is that to many Western eyes, insects are disgusting.

For Cynthia and Tim’s first insect-eating experience, they made sure to try a dish that paired the bugs with two of Cynthia’s favorite Oaxacan products: hierba santa, a slightly anise-flavored leaf, and a thick layer of a melted Oaxacan cheese called quesillo.

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IMAGE: Chapulines with hierba santa and quesillo. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

As Tim said, it looks exactly as if the grasshoppers climbed onto the leaves, got stuck in the cheese, and died there. Mmm…

Gastropod is the fortnightly podcast that explores food through the lens of science and history. I co-host with award-winning science writer Cynthia Graber; you can find us online at gastropod.com, follow us @gastropodcast, and subscribe via iTunes, Stitcher, RSS, or email.

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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 gastropod.com.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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