Category Archives: Food

Good wine

Last Wednesday I went to Wine Authorities, the new wine store in Durham, for our monthly Durham Blogger Meetup.
Afterwards, I could not help it but go home with three new bottles of wine. The best is the one I tried from the Enomatic machine at the back of the store – 2005 Fleurie, Granits des Moriers (Jacky Piret), a gorgeous Spanish version of a Burgundy.
Since Thursday and Friday were crazy (on Thursday I spent 12 hours online monitoring the media and blog responses to the Nigersaurus paper and unveiling) and I was teaching on Saturday morning, we finally managed to have a nice dinner to try the wine with last night. Candle-lit:

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Food Bill in the Senate this week!

Michael Pollan has the goods:

However many worthwhile programs get tacked onto the farm bill to buy off its critics, they won’t bring meaningful reform to the American food system until the subsidies are addressed — until the underlying rules of the food game are rewritten. This is a conversation that the Old Guard on the agriculture committees simply does not want to have, at least not with us.

In other words, contact your Senators today!

Michael Pollan’s new book

Nice interview in Grist magazine:

The new book is called In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s a book that really grew out of questions I heard from readers after Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was basically so how do you apply all this? Now that you’ve looked into the heart of the food system and been into the belly of the beast, how should I eat, and what should I buy, and if I’m concerned about health, what should I be eating? I decided I would see what kind of very practical answers I could give people.
I spent a lot of time looking at the science of nutrition, and learned pretty quickly there’s less there than meets the eye, and that the scientists really haven’t figured out that much about food. Letting them tell us how to eat is probably not a very good idea, and indeed the culture — which is to say tradition and our ancestors — has more to teach us about how to eat well than science does. That was kind of surprising to me.

Meet Fred Gould (sans mosquitoes) over pizza

Another thing I will also have to miss – the Inaugural Event of the 2007-2008 Pizza Lunch Season of the Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC), on October 24th at Sigma Xi Center (the same place where we’ll have the Science Blogging Conference). Organized by The American Scientist and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the first Pizza Lunch Session will feature Dr.Fred Gould, professor of Entomology and Genetics at NCSU (whose Insect Ecology class blows one’s mind – one of the best courses I have ever taken in my life). Fred recently received The George Bugliarello Prize for an interdisciplinary article Genetic Strategies for Controlling Mosquito-Borne Diseases. You can read an article about him in Raleigh News and Observer or, even better, listen to him on this podcast on State Of Things a few weeks ago. Notice with what disdain he utters the term “junk DNA” – only once in the entire hour – in order to explain it (away).

Foodblogging – the Dinner last night

The highlight of this week’s foodblogging event must have been last night’s dinner at Piedmont restaurant in Durham.
Anton has several posts about the events of the past couple of days, including a detailed description (including the menu, and exactly who was there – about 30 people) of the dinner itself. I came a little late (because I always get lost in Durham as the layout of that city always stumps Google Maps), but as soon as I started chatting with the wonderful people there and eating the wonderful food, my mood changed for the better and I really enjoyed the evening (yes, while someone was taking a hub cap off of the wheel of my new car outside).
Michael Ruhlman is a great guy – ha taught me exactly how to serve myself the head cheese, and here is the photographic evidence:
While Anton’s post lists all the people present, I’ll just mention those I know from before, including Anna Kushnir, my fellow science blogger (and Scifoo camper) who came down from Boston for the occasion, old friends Ruby Sinreich and Brian Russell (happy birthday Brian!) and Rob Zelt. A new friend – Dean McCord!
There are more pictures on Flickr (add your own if you were there and took pictures). But, what do I say about the food? How does one use language to describe taste? I can describe the jovial atmosphere, or hope that someone took pictures of the food as it was presented, but the gustatory experience? That is tough! All I can say is that every bite was a special experience and a special treat to my taste-buds. I ate slowly, paying attention to the taste and texture of the food. Anton has posted the entire menu, and everything was delicious, but the dessert was just amazing – at first sight, it was just a cup filled with crushed ice, mildly colored. But each bite of it took 20 seconds to experience fully, as one taste followed another which followed another, revealing themselves sequentially as the ice melted in the mouth! Totally amazing!
But probably the best part of the evening was seeing Anton fully in his element, savouring every bite, loving every person there, and just being super happy every single moment of the evening! It was worth being there just to see that! Cheers, Anton! And thank you for doing this for all of us!

Foodblogging and the post-foodblogging science-blogging dinner

The three-day Foodblogging event has started, with a reading/booksigning by Michael Ruhlman at the Regulator bookshop in Durham.
Among those in the audience were Reynolds Price, local bloggers Anton Zuiker and Brian Russell, as well as Anna Kushnir, foodblogger who drove all the way from Boston (OK, via Virginia) to attend the event.
I bought The Reach of a Chef and asked him what is the best way to get a kid/teenager who is interested in cooking started. He said that hands-on experience is essential and that one should carefully pick a course that focuses on basics and not on fancy gimmicks to begin with. Then, asking to taste a dinner at home and praising the result is the next step. Anton wrote a more detailed account of the evening.
After the reading, a bunch of us went accross the street to Baba Ganoush for dinner (and even later to the sushi bar on the corner for some Guinness) – but this time we quickly switched the topic from food to science as everyone at the table was a science blogger! Anna Kushnir, who I mentioned above (and linked to her food blog) is also a science blogger on Nature Network, so check out her Lab Life blog. You also know the other locals, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Abel Pharmboy, but the special guest of the evening was Craig McClain who came all the way from California to do some work at NESCENT. Much marine science talk ensued, all interesting and I learned a lot of stuff I did not know before.
Here is one of the pictures from the dinner:

Eat, eat, eat and live to blog about it!

Before we focus on science, and while the weather is still nice, we (and by “we” I mean “bloggers in the Triangle area of North Carolina”) will have some other kind of bloggy fun, the one that involves taste buds!
Yes, join us for a three-day Foodblogging event on September 23-25, 2007, with the special guest-star: the famous chef-author-blogger Michael Ruhlman. We’ll eat, drink, read, chat and blog while celebrating and promoting the locally grown food prepared by local chef celebrities.
Anton has all the details – the seating is limited so sign up quickly. Yummy!

Michael Pollan – food news

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma got out in paperback today, so if you have not read it yet, now is the time.
Also, in his mailing-list letter, Pollan announces that he has “…just completed a new book, a short manifesto about diet and health called “In Defense of Food.” It’s scheduled to be published January 1.”
On the Farm Bill, currently going through the Congress, he writes:

The House Bill was a disappointment in many ways, leaving the current subsidy system undisturbed, though there are a handful of creative provisions tucked into it regarding school lunch and local food systems. There’s reason to hope the Senate Bill will offer more genuine reforms. It’s important to keep public attention focused on the process, lest the usual suspects have their way. A good site for keeping up to date on the substance and politics of the debate is

A Repeat Treat

I started my stay in San Francisco with a dinner at Incanto and ended it tonight with a dinner at Incanto again. Last time, the duck fries were not on the menu, but this time I had better luck. Delicious!

Gambling away the Farm

A good WaPo article: Pelosi takes heat for OK of farm bill
Ken Cook explains it very clearly: The Pelosi Farm Bill: A Corn Subsidy Windfall

Culinary Harry Potter

Get yourself some Harry Potter recipes so you have something to eat while reading The Book over the weekend.

Farm Bill

Michael Pollan will be on On Point on NPR, talking about the farm bill tomorrow (Monday) morning at 10am EST. This is in advance of some important votes in the House next week.

Old, Hot and Pretty!

New Habanero Blasts Taste Buds — And Pepper Pests:

The super-hot, bright orange TigerPaw-NR habanero pepper offers extreme pungency for pepper aficionados, plus nematode resistance that will make it a hit with growers and home gardeners. Plant geneticist Richard L. Fery and plant pathologist Judy A. Thies at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) U.S. Vegetable Laboratory, Charleston, S.C., put the pepper through three years of greenhouse and field tests before determining, in 2006, that it was ready for commercial fields and backyard gardens.

Exhibiting A Pepper For Every Pot:

Peppers don’t have to be just green and bell shaped and relegated to the supermarket shelf or home garden plot. This genus of plants has the genetic potential to provide a wide array of possibilities for the kitchen and the ornamental garden and sometimes both at once. Research on peppers from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is being featured from June to November in an exhibit called “A Pepper for Every Pot” at the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C. This exhibit explores the diversity of peppers, including recently introduced varieties, and celebrates peppers’ beauty, flavors and nutritional benefits.

Ancient Americans Liked It Hot: Mexican Cuisine Traced To 1,500 Years Ago:

One of the world’s tastiest and most popular cuisines, Mexican food also may be one of the oldest. Plant remains from two caves in southern Mexico analyzed by a Smithsonian ethnobotanist/archaeologist and a colleague indicate that as early as 1,500 years ago, Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region enjoyed a spicy fare similar to Mexican cuisine today. The two caves yielded 10 different cultivars (cultivated varieties) of chili peppers.

Related: Hot Peppers – Why Are They Hot?

Exclusive: Interview with Senator John Edwards on Science-Related Topics

I had a great pleasure recently to be able to interview Senator – and now Democratic Presidential candidate – John Edwards for my blog. The interview was conducted by e-mail last week.
As I am at work and unable to moderate comments, the comment section is closed on this post, but will be open on the previous post (here) where I hope you will remain civil and stay on topic. You are also welcome to comment on this interview at several other places (e.g,. DailyKos, MyDD, TPMCafe, Science And Politics, Liberal Coalition, the Edwards campaign blog as well as, hopefully, your own blogs).
I cannot answer any additional questions for Senator Edwards, of course, but there are likely to be other opportunities in the future where your questions can be answered so feel free to post them in the comments thread on the other post and I’ll make sure he gets them. The interview is under the fold:

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Duck testicles, beef tongues and rabbit stew – here I come!

While in San Francisco, I’d like to eat at Incanto (look around the site for their menu and progressive food and water policies, and they also have a blog). It is at 1550 Church Street, on the southwest corner of Church and Duncan Streets in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Where is that? Anyone game to go with me?

Some very old beer…

Via Snarkmarket, I found this (probably incomplete) Wikipedia list of the oldest companies in the world that are still operating today under the same name. The oldest one, a construction company in Japan called Kongō Gumi, just went belly-up after serving their customers since the year 578AD.
And according to a commenter there, the oldest University in continuous operation is University of Al Karaouine in Fes, Morocco.
The oldest company on the list from the Balkans is Apatinska Pivara which has been brewing beer continuously since 1756. They produce one of the most popular local beers, the Jelen Pivo (although, both in the region and for emigrants like me, the champion is Montenegro’s Niksicko Pivo, both the pilsner and the stout).
WWII and the subsequent nationalization of all sorts of businesses makes it unlikely that many old companies continued under the same name afterwards, but I cannot believe that only one beer brewery made the list. Anyone here from the Balkans can think of (and verify) some other companies with a long tradition?

Michael Pollan on the Farm Bill

It is Sunday. You have time to read it. And you should – no excuses! In today’s New York Times – You Are What You Grow:

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root.


To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.

Read the whole thing….


Earlier this afternoon, my wife and I went to the Weaver Street Market in Southern Village (which also has a blog) for some wine tasting. You can see the wine list here (pdf).
As the first rule of blogging is never to blog drunk, I had a to wait a couple of hours afterwards before I started to write this post. I wasn’t really drunk, but I was happy enough to seriously consider singing on our walk home. I guess I am quite a lightweight…
Our strategy was for Mrs.Coturnix to taste the whites (and occasional red I recommend) and for me to taste the reds (and occasional white she recommends). She is a connoiseur of whites, while I grew up in a household that only had red and rose. Thus, my taste for whites is very naive – I like them as sweet and fruity as can be, and I was very happy with the Hyatt Riesling which is best described as sweet fruit-juice with alcohol. But I like that!
The quality of red wines was mixed. And anyway, after tasting 20 or so of them in rapid succession, they all tend to blend and it is difficult to tell them apart any more. I am a big fan of Malbec and there were two there (Alcion and Cava Negra), both dirt cheap and quite decent. As the summer is coming and the grilling with it, I think I’ll get a few bottles – they go great with a blackened slab of cow or lamb. Shirazes were underwhelming. The Garnacha tasted just like a Malbec! Warre’s Port, Leverano Rosso and Ten Mile Red were fine. The rest I don’t remember.
So here are my Top Three of the day, in this order:
1. FontanaVecchia Aglianico Riserva ’00
The kind of rich, deep, full-bodied red that I grew up with, something my father would have liked.
2. Vale do Bomfim Douri Reserva ’04
Almost as good.
3. Hogue Cabernet Sauvignon “Genesis” ’03
This was recommended to me before, and it is excellent.

The Third Brain Should Have Its Own Clock

I have written about the relationship between circadian clocks and food numerous times (e.g., here, here and here). Feeding times affect the clock. Clock is related to hunger and obesity. Many intestinal peptides affect the clock as well.
There is a lot of research on food-entrainable oscillators, but almost nothing on the possibility that there is a separate circadian pacemaker in the intestine. It is usually treated as a peripheral clock, entirely under the influence of the SCN pacemaker in the brain, even when it shows oscillations in clock-gene expression for several days in a dish.
But why not have a true pacemaker in the gut? The intestinal nervous system is large and semi-autonomous. It makes sense that there would be a circadian clock in there. After all, all the GI functions follow daily rhythms.
I remember that there was a paper – a VERY old paper – that showed that an isolated intestine in a dish shows circadian rhythms of motility. I could not locate that paper. If you can, please let me know.

FoodBlogging 2007

We are starting this summer’s Foodblogging series of events early – on April 21st & 22nd. We’ll start where it all begins – at the farm! We will rent a couple of vans and do a tour of local farms, most of them organic and/or sustainable. I am assuming we’ll get to sample some local fare at each farm. Bring your boots – it can still be quite muddy at the farms in April in NC.
Get more information about the FoodBlogging series and sign up for various events at the wiki.

I Knew It Was Turtles All The Way Down….

And there’s many, many more here. Do not look on empty stomach. I was just about to eat an eclair, but now I think I’ll wait a little….


Liveblogging a chocolate tasting

Recipes Wanted!

My daughter, as part of her school assignment on Vasco Da Gama, bought a bunch of stuff that Vasco brought to Europe from Asia. Now I have all those foodstuffs and do not know what to do with them.
Cucumber and melon were easy.
But, what would I do with a coconut, a jar of cinnamon sticks and a jar full of whole cloves?
Give me your recipes or links to recipes to good dishes that contain one (or two or all three!) of those ingredients. And, if those dishes turn out tasty, I may as well start on my foodblogging career!

Just smelling food will make you live shorter – if you are a fruitfly

Just quickly for now without commentary:
Totally cool paper in the last Science:
S. Libert, J. Zwiener, X. Chu, W. VanVoorhies, G. Roman, and S.D.Pletcher
Regulation of Drosophila lifespan by olfaction and food-derived odors

Smell is an ancient sensory system present in organisms from bacteria to humans. In the nematode Caeonorhabditis elegans, gustatory and olfactory neurons regulate aging and longevity. Using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, we show that exposure to nutrient-derived odorants can modulate lifespan and partially reverse the longevity-extending effects of dietary restriction. Furthermore, mutation of odorant receptor Or83b results in severe olfactory defects, alters adult metabolism, enhances stress resistance, and extends lifespan. Our findings indicate that olfaction affects adult physiology and aging in Drosophila possibly through perceived availability of nutritional resources and that olfactory regulation of lifespan is evolutionarily conserved.

From Nature News:

Eating less can lengthen an animal’s life. But now it seems that — for flies at least — they don’t have to actually cut down on the calories to benefit. Fruitflies can boost their lifespan just by not smelling their food.
The result suggests that flies might use their sense of smell — as well as the actual consumption of food — to help determine how rich their environment is, and how they should go about distributing their energy resources.
From flies and worms to rats and mice, animals fed on restricted diets generally live longer than those given abundant food. No one is sure exactly why this is. One theory is that when times are tough and there is little food about, animals channel more of their resources into maintaining their everyday body function, at the expense of putting energy into reproducing. That can extend lifespan.
Scott Pletcher of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, wanted to find out what governs this decision. Smell, he thought, might be one determinant. “We wanted to see whether we could use odor to trick the flies into thinking the environment was more nutrient-rich than it actually was,” says Pletcher.
Normally, cutting a lab fly’s usual food intake in half lengthens its lifespan by about 20%, from 41 to 50 days. But exposing hungry flies to the scrumptious smell of yeast, a favourite food, took away some of this benefit, the team found. “About one-third of the beneficial effects on lifespan are lost,” says Pletcher.
The yeasty odor had no effect on the lifespan of fully fed flies.

And one of th authors gives additional explanation on the Nature News blog:

We measured the reproduction (fecundity) of OR83b flies and controls. Data is in fig 4a, there is no significant difference, when flies are fully fed. We did not present the data but the quality of eggs (percent that hatches, SL observation) seems to be unaffected. Even if flies would perform worser under stress (lay less eggs under stress for example) it is unlikely to be the cause of longevity, since during the longevity experiment, flies are not stressed in anyway.
It is possibe that the dfference is small, so that we can not detect it, but in this case it is unlikly to be the cause of 56% longevity extension.
Additionally, the work from Tatars lab for at least in some systems, uncoupled reproduction from longevity.

You think we are sick and tired of conference organizing?

Think again! Not just that we have already started planning for the NEXT year’s Science Blogging Conference, but Anton is taking the lead in organizing another one this summer. And if all you liked at the SBC was dinner (and please do tell us if that was the case), you are definitely going to love this one: it is a Food Blogging Conference! Check the proposed program – eating, eating, eating (yes, and some tasty drinking as well) and liveblogging it all!
Update: There is more related news here.

Responsible consumption of shrimp

I love seafood, but I eat it quite rarely. About a third of my old Department did fisheries and aquaculture science so I’ve seen many seminars and Thesis defenses on the topic and am quite aware of the problems with the world’s fisheries stocks.
I also prefer freshwater fish – I grew up on the Danube and my Mom fixes the best Fish Soup in the history of the Universe.
But, if you like seafood and you want to eat shrimp occasionally, yet you want to act in an environmentally responsible way, you need to know quite a lot about ecology, about behavior and natural history of shrimp, about the methods of harvesting and/or farming shrimp, about the way shrimp are processed and marketed. Armed with all that information, you’ll know where, when, how, how often and from whom to buy shrimp. It is not easy to find all that informaiton, but now you can find it all in one place.
Mark H (better known around science blogs as the person running the Biomes Blog), as a part of his marvelous Marine Life Series, has put it all together here.
He even provides a recipe at the end, which looks promising – I may try to use it one day, once I figure out how to find environmentaly not-so-bad shrimp around here.

Fish Eyes

Fish EyesLots of food blogging around here lately, so why not re-post this one (from October 27, 2005):

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I hope they come in chocolate glazed version

Perhaps it’s time for me to get serious about eating doughnuts!
(Hat tip: Greg)

Pollan Alert

In this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine (not available online yet), Michael Pollan will have the cover story: “The Age of Nutritionism: How Scientists have Ruined the Way We Eat.”
Looking forward to reading (and perhaps blogging) it.
Update: You can now read it here.

Organic Farming against Global Warming

Every farm that converts from conventional to organic farming is the equivalent to taking 117 cars off the road

Cloning Domesticated Animals: Pros and Cons

Food From Cloned Animals Safe? FDA Says Yes, But Asks Suppliers To Hold Off For Now:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued three documents on the safety of animal cloning — a draft risk assessment; a proposed risk management plan; and a draft guidance for industry.
The draft risk assessment finds that meat and milk from clones of adult cattle, pigs and goats, and their offspring, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. The assessment was peer-reviewed by a group of independent scientific experts in cloning and animal health. They agreed with the methods FDA used to evaluate the data and the conclusions set out in the document.
The proposed plan outlines measures that FDA might take to address the risks that cloning poses to animals involved in the cloning process. These risks all have been observed in other assisted reproductive technologies currently in use in common agricultural practices.
In the draft guidance, FDA does not recommend any special measures relating to human food use of offspring of clones of any species. Because of their cost and rarity, clones will be used as are any other elite breeding stock — to pass on naturally-occurring, desirable traits such as disease resistance and higher quality meat to production herds. Because clones will be used primarily for breeding, almost all of the food that comes from the cloning process is expected to be from sexually-reproduced offspring and descendents of clones, and not the clones themselves.

Jake already wrote what I wanted to write, but here it is in a nutshell:
Meat and Milk safety
Meat is meat. Milk is milk. Beef of any other name is still beef.
Cloned animals are not the same as genetically-modified animals. First, cloned animals are NOT identical to their parents. Second, there is no insertion of non-cow (or non-sheep, non-pig, etc) genes into these animals – no danger of aflatoxin, or peanut genes that can trigger allergies. Every protein in the steak of a cloned cow is still a typical cow protein. If you can normally eat beef, you can also eat cloned beef – there is NO chemical difference.
Cloning animals can teach us a lot about genetics and development of animals with, probably, some practical applications down the line. I see no need – and apparently farmers don’t either – for mass production of cloned animals. Only animals targeted to be cloned will be champion breeders. And there is no way that Thorougbred racehorses will ever be cloned – even assisted fertilization (i.e., artificial insemination) is illegal (i.e, the animal will not be included in the Stud Book). So, only a few champion breeders from a couple of species (cows, I guess, perhaps sheep and pigs) will be cloned. This is good – to keep this at a minimum, at least for now – as the process of cloning produces a lot of sickly offspring, which raises ethical questions in itself.
Agricultural practice
We already have a virtual monoculture in both plant and animal production for food. Such lack of genetic variation is troublesome as a new diesase (or global warming) may quickly sweep through our herds and deplete our food supply very fast. Making the gene pool even more homogenous in order to raise the meat/milk productivity of our animals just a little bit does not, in my opinion, warrant a widespread use of cloning of domesticated animals. I’d rather support small farmers who purposefully keep rare, unusual breeds of animals like Old-Type Oldenburg horse, Curly Bashkir pony or Mangalitza pig – breeds that contain genes absent from our current gene pool of mass-produced animals and provide a reservoir of useful traits we may need in the future.
Update: On the other hand, a truly genetically modified animals mey be good: Mad Cow Breakthrough? Genetically Modified Cattle Are Prion Free!

Hanukah meme

Somehow I feel that I’ve been tagged by Janet for this meme, because it is public that we celebrate Hannukkah. But we really make it low-key, family-only, and have only been doing it for about a dozen years so far. Actually, this is the first time that we had guests for the first night.
1. Latkes or Sufganiyot?
Latkes. Mrs.Coturnix is a superb Latke-Meister.
2. Multi-colored candles or blue-and-white?
Coturnix Jr. lights the blue-and-white candles, Coturnietta lights the multicolored.
3. Do you place the Hanukiah by the window or away from the window?
In this house, away from the window due to fire hazards. We do have Hannukkah light-decorations in the window, including one shaped like a hanukiah, so we plug them in at night.
4. Favorite Holiday Dish?
Brisket that Mrs.Coturnix fixed this year will be remembered for years to come. I am still salivating at the thought of it.
5. Favorite Holiday Memory?
Well, we do it so low-key, there is no big memory really. It’s not a big event. We make a much bigger deal about Passover.
6. One Hanukiah or more than one?
Two this year as both kids are big enough and interested enough to light each its own.
7. Do you remember your favorite gift?
Only kids get gifts in our house.
8. Favorite Holiday Dessert?
Kugel. The way Mrs. Coturnix makes it.
9. Favorite Holiday Song?
None really. After a few years, the Hannukkah songs sound just as kitchy as Christmas songs. Ocho Kandelikas by Flory Jagoda may be my all-time favourite. ‘Fergilicious’ was this year’s hit, I’m afraid.

Ah, why do I like chicken so much?!

The supply in the USA is apparently not very safe.

Books: Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Amanda just reviewed Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and also recently wrote a post on the same topic while under the influence of the book. I agree with her 100%, so go and read both posts.
I have read the book a couple of months ago and never found time to write a review of my own. I also remember that I finished the book on a Thursday afternoon – an important piece of information as it is on Thursday afternoons that there is a Farmers’ Market here in Southern Village, barely a block from me. The first thing I did when I closed the book was to walk up to the Farmers’ Market, buy some locally grown food and talk to the farmers about all the issues raised in the book and, lo and behold, they all agree with Pollan on everything I asked them about.
They were also a little taken aback that I tried to talk to them. But, I grew up in the Balkans. A big part of going to the Farmer’s Market is to chat with the farmers, banter, joke, complain about the government, haggle over prices, and make sure a kilo of cheese is reserved for you for next week – it is a very friendly and talkative affair. Great fun! Here, there is much more of a class divide. The farmers set the prices. The elegantly dressed city-slickers pick and pay. And all of that is done pretty silently, with a minimal exchange of words. No eye-contact. Nobody is haggling! At the Farmers’ Market nobody is haggling!?*@#%$^&! Travesty and Heresy!
In his book, Michael Pollan initially set out to make three – industrial, organic and personal – types of meals, but once he learned more, he realized he had to do four: industrial, industrial-organic, local-sustainable, and personal.
So, although the book officially has three parts, it really has four. Each of the four parts also reads differently and has a different style and tone:
The first part (industrial) is full of facts, stats, governmental documents, etc. – it reads like Molly Ivins’ Bushwacked or Chris Mooney’s Republican War On Science, although I heard he played loose with some stuff, i.e., cited as true some studies that are very contentious within the scientific community.
While I am a biologist, focusing on animals made me “plant blind” and I learned more about biology of corn from this book than I ever knew before.
The key event, according to Pollan, is the change, during Nixon administration, in the way farmers are paid for corn – everything else flows from that single event: the monoculture, the oil, the feedlots, the fertilizers and pesticides, environmental destruction, obesity and McDonalds.
The second part (industrial organic) is a little bit less of an onslaught of information and he gets a little looser and slower, a bit more personal. He looks at the way organic food production changed since the 1960s hippy farms to today’s giant organic producers who are, more and more, playing by the rules of Big Agra.
While the food they produce is still better than the Industrial and the practices are still more energy and environmentally friendly than Industrial, it only looks good because it is compared to the Big Industrial which is totally atrocious. This part of the book resulted in a big back-and-forth debate between Pollan and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, resulting in some changes in the way Whole Foods operates. You can find the relevant links on Pollan’s website.
The third part (local-sustainable) is totally fascinating – it is a mix of a travellogue and analysis – he keeps jumping back and forth between his dialogues with his host – Joel Salatin of the Polyface Farms – and the data. This is really the most riveting part of the book and the key element of it. This is also a part of the book that covers most new ground, not stuff found in Fast Food Nation or other well-known books. It also exposes, even better than the first part, the perniciousness of the way our agricultural system is set up, the way Big Agribusiness controls legislation and regulation, and eliminates small farmers from the competition.
Joel Salatin is a Virginia farmer who has perfected amazing agricultural practices on his farm – practically nothing has to be bought by the farm and nothing gets thrown away. Everything has its use and re-use. Everything makes sense when patiently explained to the reader. I actually bought Salatin’s book Holy Cows and Hog Heaven and read it immediately after Pollan’s.
Interestingly, although the guy is a conservative, libertarian, Christian Creationist, I agree with him on almost everything. His distrust of the Government is perhaps a little bit over the top for my taste, but his Creationism is fascinating because his whole philosophy and his whole methodology of the way he runs the farm reveals a deep understanding of evolution and ecology. His farming practice is BASED on evolutionary thinking. He is, for all practical purposes, an evolutionary biologist. Yet, he says he does not believe in evolution. How is that possible? Because he has no idea what he word “evolution” means. He probably has some “chimp is your uncle” cartoon notion of evolution, while at the same time not giving his own evolutionary ideas any name at all. Someone should tell him.
The fourth part (personal) of the Pollan’s book is in a completely different mood, very introspective, sometimes even mystical. One important thing that sets this part apart is that the type of food production described in it is the only one of the four that cannot in any way be affected by legislation, politics or activism – unless one completely bans hunting, gathering, catching, picking, stealing from neighbors, planting stuff in your garden, or collecting yeast from the air!
The best part of this portion of the book is his look at animal rights and his dialogue with Peter Singer. He, being such a typical city-slicker and “Birckenstock liberal” (Come on – slaughtering a chicken, and later a pig, made him sick? Has he never watched or participated in any kind of animal slaughter in his long life yet? Never spent some time on a farm? Dissected an animal in a biology class? What a woefully unnatural and alienated existence!), started out very sympathetic to the idea, but, over a dozen pages or so, dissects the underlying logic and discovers its fatal flows and exposes it in a brilliant paragraph – the best one in the book. You’ll find it and recognize it immediately once you read it – and you will read it because Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of the most important books written in the last few years, and should be a battle cry for many political activists and a source of ideas for many candidates for political office.
In the meantime, go read Amanda’s review.

Does Tryptophan from turkey meat make you sleepy?

Does Tryptophan from turkey meat make you sleepy?Well, it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow night so it’s time to republish this post from last year, just in time for the ageless debate: does eating turkey meat make you sleepy? Some people say Yes, some people say No, and the debate can escalate into a big fight. The truth is – we do not know.
But for this hypothesis to be true, several things need to happen. In this post I look at the evidence for each of the those several things. Unfortunately, nobody has put all the elements together yet, and certainly not in a human. I am wondering…is there a simple easily-controlled experiment that people can do on Thursday night, then report to one collecting place (e.g., a blog) where someone can do the statistics on the data and finally lay the debate to rest? Any ideas?
Also, I will add the comments that the post originally received and I hope for new comments from people with relevant expertise. Is Trp Hxlse really a rate-limiting enzyme? If so, why gavaging chickens and rats with Try increases plasma melatonin? Is it different in humans? You tell me!
(originally posted on November 25, 2005)

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Wine is Good For You

Shelley has already explained the recent study about the life-span increasing properties of Resveratrol, a compound found in wine.
Article in NYT tries to make a quick calculation (apparently erroneous) as of how much wine a person would have to drink in order to receive the same dose as the lab mice got in this study – “from 1,500 to 3,000 bottles of red wine a day”!
Perhaps the dose would be smaller if you could stand drinking the super-sweet Scuppernong (from muscadine grape – Vitis Rotundifolia) wine from Duplin Winery here in Rose Hill, North Carolina. As horribly sweet as it is, I actually like it. It comes in a couple of different versions, plus I heard that they also make and pack raisins (which are supposed to have an even higher concentration of Resveratrol).
There has been some research on the health effects of Resveratrol in muscadine wines locally, e.g.,. here, here and here (pdf). Duplin wines can be found in every store around here, but I wonder how easy it is to find them around the country? Have you tried them? Did you like them? Do you think you could drink a thousand bottles of it every day?
Addendum: Abel has more on the research.

Is Ramadan good for your health?

This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question is:

A reader asks: Is severely regulating your diet for a month each year, as Muslims do during Ramadan, good for you?

There is no way I can get out of this one! As far as I know, I am the only one here who actually did research on fasting! Mind you, it’s been about 5 years since I last delved deep into the literature on the effects of fasting and feeding on various body functions, mainly body temperature and circadian rhythms, but I can try to pull something out of my heels now.

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What’s wrong with spinach?

Good article by Michael Pollan in today’s NYT Magazine: The Vegetable-Industrial Complex

Everything you wanted to know about starch…

..but were too afraid to ask. Or, why do I, unlike some people, like stale cookies.

Interview with Michael Pollan

We are what we eat: corn and petroleum
Interview by David Auerbach in this week’s Independent Weekly.


Tonight, I felt I needed to regress into my childhood so I fixed myself something I haven’t eaten since I was a little kid – chocolate cream-o-wheat! Here is the recipe for half the quantity I used to eat as a kid in one sitting:
Put a bar (100g) of bittersweet chocolate (or less – I like it superchocolatey) and 4 tablespoons (or less – I like it supersweet)of sugar into 250ml (1/4L) of cold milk. Put on the stove and turn on high. Star mixing continuously. When the milk boils, add a heaping tablespoon (25g or a little more) to the mix. Cut the heat down to Medium and keep mixing continuosuly for about 10 minutes or until it gets the density you like. Pour into a bowl and eat while it is still hot! Smack your lips.

What kind of meal should we serve him when he comes?

Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and other good, thought-provoking books, will be on a speaking tour this Fall. Click on the link for details of your place. He will be in my neck of the woods in October:
October 11, 2006, 7 pm: Chapel Hill, NC; Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina
October 10, 2006, 6 pm: Durham, NC; SEEDS Harvest Dinner
You bet I’ll be there.

Hot Peppers, again.

Amanda, a fellow hot-pepper-lover, reminds me that I have not finished my Hot Pepper series. It is supposed to be a THREE-part series, but I only wrote two parts so far, the introductory (personal) post and answering the question why are peppers hot (quite a popular post of mine, linked and e-mailed around a lot, I noticed) – an evolutionary account from peppers’ perspective.
I still owe you the third part trying to explain why people (at least some people, like Amanda and myself) like to eat hot food. It turned out to be a much more exhaustive area of research (and dispute) than I initially expected so I left it for later, once I have more time and the weather cools off a little bit…but I promise I will write it sooner or later. In the meantime, read what Amanda and her commenters have to say on the subject.
But, as an Intermission, here’s a little more on my personal relationship with hot food:
Indian Tandoori restaurants in the USA are fixing much milder food than their counterparts in the UK.
My initiation to the cuisine was in London (in 1980, I believe). My cousin who lives there and his family took me to a Tandoori restaurant. He told the waiter that I was a novice to which the waiter grinned broadly and brought me a foot-high stack of napkins and an extra glass of water.
Then, we ordered the “mild” stuff for me from the menu. The waiter was still grinning. The food arrived. Bread was hot. Salad was hot. Chicken was hot. Vegetables were hot. I LIKE hot food, but I was crying and quickly depleting my stash of napkins, my two glasses of water and a glass of yogurt.
In the end, my mouth was so numb, I tried the hottest spices they had and could not feel a thing.
Needless to say, I went back to Tandoori restaurants many times since and am quite disappointed that the US version is so mild.

Do You Know What You Eat?

Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Troy Duster, Elizabeth Ransom, Winona LaDuke, Peter Singer, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Carlo Petrini, Eliot Coleman & Jim Hightower recently participated in a Nation forum: One Thing to Do About Food. Here are a few excerpts – go read the whole thing:

“Once you learn how our modern industrial food system has transformed what most Americans eat, you become highly motivated to eat something else.”
“….the American food system is a game played according to a precise set of rules that are written by the federal government with virtually no input from anyone beyond a handful of farm-state legislators. Nothing could do more to reform America’s food system–and by doing so improve the condition of America’s environment and public health–than if the rest of us were suddenly to weigh in.”
“There is one very simple thing that everyone can do to fix the food system. Don’t buy factory-farm products.”
“Corporate control thrives on monocultures. Citizens’ food freedom depends on biodiversity.”
“Industry and the production ethos have robbed people of the knowledge of food and reduced it to pure merchandise–a good to be consumed like any other.”
“An addiction to treating the symptoms of problems rather than correcting their causes is an unwise choice made by our society as a whole.”
“In the very short span of about fifty years, we’ve allowed our politicians to do something remarkably stupid: turn America’s food-policy decisions over to corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the Highway Patrol flag down the customers for them–yet, they have taken charge of the decisions that direct everything from how and where food is grown to what our children eat in school.”

Gone Organic!

Now you know where I was last night instead of blogging. Local North Carolina wine and local North Carolina cheeses and local handpicked blueberries and local grass-grown beef and local organic potatoes, tomatoes and squash….and discussing “Omnivore’s Dilemma” with the locally grown, organic and sustainable (grass-fed?) science writers of North Carolina.


When I saw this article in SEED Maagazine, I had only one thought – Mokie-Koke!
Readers of science fiction know what I am talking about. I was reminded of “The Merchant’s War“, the 1984 sequel to the 1952 brilliant dystopia “The Space Merchants“, the book that beat “1984” and “Brave New World” in its accuracy of prediction. The initial novel – one of the all-time-greats of the genre, was written by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. The sequel, 32 years later, was written by Pohl alone.
It’s been at least 15 years since I last read The Merchants’ War, but if I remember correctly, each megacorporation (one of the very few ruling the world of the future) manufactures its own brands of a coke-like drink, a candy bar and cigarettes. These three products are designed to be addictive in themselves, but also, to induce cravings for each other. So, drinking Mokie-Koke makes you want to light up a cigarette (made by the same company), which in turn makes you want the candy bar, eating which makes you crave a Moki-Koke. Thus, workers/citizens of the future world are forever loyal to the Corporation-State.
The SEED article highlights some recent science showing that such connections between different commercial products are a reality – although not by corporate design. Alcohol and nicotine are in cahoots with each other – when you have a drink, you are more likely to want to smoke (and it feels better) and vice versa. I have certainly noticed this in myself and others. However, I have also noticed (since I am not a big alcohol consumer, but a big caffeine consumer), that Coke and cigarettes tend to induce cravings for each other (as does coffee – this is anecdotal, but a well known anecdote). Chocolate (any brand) makes me want to drink Coke which makes me want to light one up.
This should not be that surprising, as the brain tends to deal with all of its addictions in pretty much the same place using pretty much the same neurochemicals. So, being addicted to gambling, pornography or Internet will also make you drink and smoke? Perhaps….

Hot Peppers – Why Are They Hot?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Some plants do not want to get eaten. They may grow in places difficult to approach, they may look unappetizing, or they may evolve vile smells. Some have a fuzzy, hairy or sticky surface, others evolve thorns. Animals need to eat those plants to survive and plants need not be eaten by animals to survive, so a co-evolutionary arms-race leads to ever more bizzare adaptations by plants to deter the animals and ever more ingenious adaptations by animals to get around the deterrents.
One of the most efficient ways for a plant to deter a herbivore is to divert one of its existing biochemical pathways to synthetise a novel chemical – something that will give the plant bad taste, induce vomiting or even pain or may be toxic enough to kill the animal.
But there are other kinds of co-evolution between plants and herbivores. Some plants need to have a part eaten – usually the seed – so they can propagate themselves. So, they evolved fruits. The seeds are enveloped in meaty, juicy, tasty packages of pure energy. Those fruits often evolve a sweet smell that can be detected from a distance. And the fruits are often advertised with bright colors – red, orange, yellow, green or purple: “Here I am! Here I am! Please eat me!”
So, the hot peppers are a real evolutionary conundrum. On one hand, they are boldly colored and sweet-smelling fruits – obvious sign of advertising to herbivores. On the other hand, once bitten into, they are far too hot and spicy to be a pleasant experience to the animal. So, what gives?
Back in 1960s, Dan Johnson had an interesting proposal he dubbed “directed deterrence” which suggested that some plants may make choices as to exactly which herbivores to attract and which to deter. Hot peppers are prime candidates for such a phenomenon. What is hot in peppers is capsaicin, a chemical that elicits a sensation of pain when it bind the vanilloid receptors in the nerve endings (usually inside the mouth) of the trigeminal nerve. As it happens, all mammals have capsaicin receptors, but it was found, relatively recently, that birds do not.
To test that hypothesis, Josh Tewksbury used two variants of hot peppers – one very hot (Capsicum annuum) and the other with a mutation that made it not hot at all (Capsicum chacoense) – and offered both as meals to rodents (packrats and cactus mice) and to birds (curve-billed thrashers).
All species ate the sweet kind about equally. When Josh offered them identically prepared meals made out of the hot stuff, the two rodents refused to eat it while the birds happily munched on it.
The study appeared in 2001 in Nature (pdf) and I saw Josh give a talk about it at that time as he was joining our department to postdoc with Dr.Nick Haddad. While my lab-buddy Chris and I gave him a lot of grief in the Q&A session on his lenient criteria of what constitutes a “hungry animal” (he needed them to be hungry for the feeding tests), still the main conclusions of the study are OK.
More importantly, it really happens in nature. Mammals avoid hot peppers out in Arizona where Josh studied them (and made videos of their behavior), but the birds gorged on peppers. When he analyzed the droppings of rodents and birds fed peppers, he saw that seeds that passed through avian intestinal tracts were fully fertile, while seeds eaten by mammals were chewed, crushed, broken or semi-digested and not fertile at all.
Additionally, the thrashers tend to spend a lot of time on fruiting shrubs of different kinds. While there, they poop. The hot pepper seeds in the droppings germinate right there and this is an ideal shady spot for them to grow.
What a great example of (co)evolutionary adaptations. Next time on this blog, the second Big Question: Why do we like to eat hot peppers?
Related: Hot Peppers

Hot Peppers

I had lunch with Anton yesterday. We talked about the upcoming busy blogging Fall and he showed me his new book.
We ate in my neck of the woods, at Town Hall Grill in Southern Village in Chapel Hill. Anton brought his laptop – the wi-fi signal is strong, so, after Brian and Ruby get married tomorrow (OK, they already are), Brian can add this restaurant to the Chapel Hill Wireless map.
Being very hungry, and knowing that the food there is delicious, I came prepared. While Anton had their lightly-battered fish and chips, I ordered a NY strip.
When the food arrived I reached down into my pocket. Out of the pocket I took out a little bag. Out of the bag I pulled out a hot pepper. Anton was quite amused.
I learned that trick from an old childhood friend of my father. He always had a a couple of hot peppers in his shirt pocket, usually wrapped in a paper napkin and he would eat them with a meal wherever he may be. He even brought them and ate them at dinners at our house although he knew that we would most definitely have some really good and really hot peppers at home – we always did.
I grew up loving hot peppers – it was hard not to in my father’s home. It is an acquired taste, I understand. I try to always have one or two at home, but it’s not easy to find really good ones, or at least peppers that remind me of home.
This particular pepper that I had for lunch yesterday I bought at the Southern Village farmer’s market last week. It was delicious! It was not just fantastically hot, but it also had a rich taste and smell of a pepper. I ate less than half of it but enjoyed every nibble.
Later in the afternoon I went to the farmer’s market and told he guy who sold me the pepper how good it was and that, once I manage to eat it all by next Thursday, I’ll be back for another one. He appreciated that.
And all this thinking abot hot peppers made me think about two Big Questions: Why are peppers hot? and Why we like to eat hot peppers? Those evolutionary questions sound like perfect topics for my next two blog posts, coming to your computer monitors soon.

You are what you eat

This is pretty common knowledge, but it’s nice to see it supported by data:
In `food deserts’ of city, healthy eating a mirage:

For African-Americans who live in “food deserts” on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where fast-food restaurants are plentiful and grocery stores are scarce, a lack of choices is more than an inconvenience. A provocative new study concludes that residents are more likely to die prematurely from diabetes, cancer and other ailments.
Starting with the fundamental premise that the well-being of urban communities is a block-by-block phenomenon, Gallagher measured the distance from every Chicago block to the nearest grocery store and fast-food restaurant. She then developed a score to quantify the balance of food choice available to residents.
Finally, Gallagher compared food access to health outcomes shown in Cook County death records, city epidemiology data and outside studies. Gallagher said her calculations show that the correlation between food choice and health holds true regardless of differences in education, income and race.
Overall, though, the study shows the worst food choices fell in African-American neighborhoods.
“If you’re finding huge disparities, say, in levels of obesity by neighborhood, then you can’t really say that people with genetic deficiencies up and move to the South Side,” Drewnowski said. “The only deficiency, frankly, is in the wallet.”
Though he had not read the report, he said he suspects it suffers from what he dubs the “Chernobyl model of nutrition”–a model that would suggest mere proximity to McDonald’s means people will be obese and diabetic, while living nearer to Whole Foods would make people healthy.
“Physical access, I suspect, is not as important as economic distance,” Drewnowski said. “The issue of economic distance is trickier to handle. Higher minimum wage? Health insurance? What do you do?”

How about changing the American food system as a whole? If food is healthy no matter where you buy it, you’ll be healthy, too.