Category Archives: Food “science”

In the Land of the Blind….

Getting Food Smart, II

The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova  immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.

While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.

Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.

This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.

People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.

Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)

Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.

I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.

Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.

I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.)  At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.

Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.

I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.

With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.

The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.

My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.

It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.

So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.

I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.

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Food Smarts – The Getting of Culinary and Nutritional Wisdom

And why I have been mostly silent.

There have been only rare additions to Culinary Promiscuity in the last year, and I have an excuse. I took a kind of sabbatical for the getting of knowledge.

It’s Harvard’s fault. Somehow news of Science and Cooking,   an online  Harvard course in food science  held by food eminences like Harold McGee  , David Arnold , Joan Rocca, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Nathan Myhrvold  – the list is impressive – in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Physics found my inbox.

Gee, I thought, How difficult can this be? After all I have a BA in Chemistry with plenty of physics and biology, and I work near if not quite in the food industry, so piece of cake, right? And I signed right up.

As it turned very difficult. I had forgotten nearly everything I  had learned in college. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought about food science, and a lot of  the things I thought I  knew were wrong.

The course turned out to be extremely demanding and absolutely fascinating, covering both the theory of food in general and molecular practices in particular and the practice by some of the world’s most respected chefs. I had to relearn concepts at which I once excelled and grapple with facts I had never known. I got to watch Bill Yosses make an exquisite “glass” apple after Harvard explained how sugar bonds, Joan Roca build a little tower of super cooled ice and Myhrvold create his version of the perfect steak using frozen nitrogen. In sweats. Fabulous.

As a final assignment I designed and carried out an experiment on sous vide tuna which took me on a long and complicated web crawl seeking out facts on rigor mortis in fish and fish amino acids. The teaching assistants liked it. Exhilarating success.

As I nurtured my inner geek I learned that for me facts, the empirically provable truth is the antidote to the floods of quackery, nutritional misconceptions, food fads, the Food Network, $400 prix fixe dinners and the foolish adulation of the latest cuisine presented through spin rather than substance abounding in our matrix. I now “get” molecular cuisine. It’s not a game. It really is a science. I don’t really love it or want to subsidize the enormously high staffing cost needed to prepare it for dinner, but the premises are fascinating.

Of course Science & Cooking ate my life – sorry, I can’t go out, I have homework due – but it was worth it. I even passed it – pretty well, as a matter of fact.

While Science and Cooking  is no longer available as a free MOOC, the course  is still archived and can be accessed through the edx.org site. If not, the units – usually lasting a few minutes to half an hour, are available on YouTube . You don’t have to deal with the physics and chemistry if that’s not your strength. The culinary segments put anything the Food Network has to offer to shame.

Edx.org (and other MOOC sites) offer courses beyond food physics and celebrity Chefs, food, nutrition, eating being so much more than chemistry: . There are moral, agricultural, political, financial, nutritional aspects to food. Food nourishes and it kills. Every civilized country has a department or agency of food safety like the FDA. The entirety of life – human survival -comes down to a couple of inches of dirt, enough water and a little sunshine. Failing any one of those three elements armies slaughter each other, famine turns civilization into Barbary. Famished citizens die of hunger in the street, vomiting the grass they ate to stave off hunger pains. All these subjects are covered.

Mcgill University is currently holding a course on nutrition covering aspects from micro nutrients to food safety alarms to world hunger  covering a great deal of what the Harvard course did not, although they share a few Venn intersections. I am taking it. It’s not nearly as sexy but a lot easier than the Harvard course. I find it comforting to have what I have long suspected about food alarms  and claims to be true. The course tackles along with misconceptions about vitamin supplements (“America has the most expensive urine in the world”), agricultural practices and food poisoning. It tackles additives and pesticide use – more on that soon – old wive’s tales and modern myths.

Coursera, an alternative MOOC site has a wide array of courses on food. The site will hold a course in Science and Gastronomy through the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, one in Sustainability of Food systems by the University of Minnesota, The Nordic Diet by the University of Copenhagen (biochemistry suggested), The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida.

I haven’t tried the Coursera courses yet, but the site is better than Edx, as it offers an option to sign up to be informed of courses in planning, so that you can sign up when they go live. These non profit organizations also offer a broad spectrum of non food related courses. Coursera hosts beginning Chinese, Edx beginning coding and Greek mythology. The selection is vast. “MOOC”, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.” All MOOC’s are free, unless they are being taken for credit. The hosts are some of the world’s finest Universities. You can in every course aim for a certificate or simply audit, cherry picking the parts that interest you. If you cannot finish one in time to get certified  you can go back to the archived course and finish that at your leisure. The getting of wisdom was never so cheap or so easy.

What a deal!

I encourage you to  join me at the nerd table, where we can laugh at the cool kids table emoting over the current culinary myths and scares. We could hang out together with our slide rules sticking out of our pocket protectors. The kind of knowledge offered by these MOOC’s may not be power, but it’s certainly reassuring.

There are also plenty of brick and Mortar opportunities to  learn about food, too.  I just learned this  – The University of the Pacific San Francisco plans to offer a Masters of Arts program in Food in San Francisco under culinary anthropologist Ken Alba .

UCLA offers Science and Food   to it’s students with online segments. You can subscribe to their email list. There is, of course,  the School in Bra, Italy,  Being attached to and founded in cooperation with Slow Food, however, there will be some level of ideology served  up with the math. For those really hard core good geeks out there, Universities like UC Davis have internationally recognized food science programs. I wish I had known all this earlier, but still, I’ve got McGill and Harvard. My date for tonight is Dr Ariel Fenster, Joe Schwarz or David Harpp. I think we’re going to talk discuss food cults.

 

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Research proves Food is bad for you. Or no, wait – maybe not.

When I was about sixteen a disgruntled taxi driver had the bad manners to shoot my father, shattering his  carotid artery, which had about the plasticity of a china cup. Research had just discovered that the arterial sclerosis affecting the artery was caused by beef, butter, milk, ice cream,  pork and baby lamb chops and just about anything else I like to eat. My mother, determined not to be widowed early, followed the cardiologist’s dire warnings and  changed our diet, which, considering my  mother’s voluptuous egg, cream and butter based cooking was like turning the Queen Mary on a dime.

Bacon and burgers were replaced with poached salmon and steamed spinach. Vegetables no longer dripped with butter and cheese, our milk went from creamy white to transparent blue, margarine and Wesson oil took the place of butter, and cottage cheese was dressed up to provide a thoroughly inadequate and mildly disgusting alternative to sour cream. We were among the zillions of families catapulted into anti cholesterol hysteria by a nutritional scientific community, which avowed longer and better lives for all if we just cut out red meat and took the skin off our chicken.

In the next few years Victoria Station, a rollicking beef restaurant group in yellow railway cars, folded because the management failed to see the anti-cholesterol writing on the wall, the chicken industry (no skin please) exploded from farms to batteries and the food factories of the world developed cholesterol free versions of anything that was any fun based on partially hydrogenated oils. Lard became an obscenity and pie crusts lost in the exchange.

The Mad Men generation of Americans spent their middle age eating gawdawful alternatives to real food, trusting their doctors and the nutritional voice of the Nation, the FDA. They died anyway, and possibly occasionally sooner than they otherwise would have. What a pity. No wonder they drank.

Shortly after my mother’s non coronary related death twenty five years after the shooting my father remarried. His second wife couldn’t cook for squat, not last because her hoarding had the stove covered three inches deep in shatskis and collectable jam jars. She seemed to believe that vodka and Cheesits were a pretty acceptable dinner substitute. Under her influence father’s preferences quickly morphed from boiled halibut to double cheeseburgers, Mexican omelets with bacon, and Linguini Alfredo. He lived another 26 years and died at 96 from strep. Perhaps if he’d lived another ten or so years, the cholesterol would have had a shot at him.

I so intensely disliked my mother’s nutritionally correct steamed spinach, simmered kale and faux cottage cheese sour cream, that once out of the nest I decided to die young, if necessary, but not to be miserable with healthy food. Every time one of my dinner mates whined, “My doctor won’t let me eat shellfish / chocolate /  peanuts / salumi because of cholesterol,” I suppressed the urge to say “Shut the fuck up and let me have my lobster bisque in peace,” and made a mental not to find another dinner companion.

My chances of dying young are dwindling, but despite a life of Epoisses, flans and duck breast, I have what my doctor describes as “divine cholesterol levels”. How come?

More recent studies indicate that not milk fat but trans fats , that is the products in all of the low fat baked goods, cool whip and anything else concerned eaters were making do with, were disastrous for coronary health, not lamb and vanilla ice cream. In other words, it really is not butter, whether you believe it or not, and it’s not better – in fact it’s worse for you than butter.

Better yet: According to new research by the Royal University of Copenhagen milk fat is good for you, or at least better than the alternative. They’ve been at this for a while, actually, and while all contemporary research should be suspect (Copenhagen does, after all,  have a lot of cows and export a lot of milk products, so what’s to keep his Highness the Danish King from suggesting to the scholarly researchers that their duty to their country was to do an empirical spin job on our Danish butter?)  it’s pretty hard to envision the University of Copenhagen carrying out studies funded by  Kraft or the Danish Dairy and adjusting their results to harmonize with the funders’ objectives. It’s more likely that they just know a heap more about milk and cream and the resulting products than, say the University of Beijing.

Food research is big and oddly enough widely believed despite continual retractions and opposing results. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with it, and Culinary Promiscuity looks forward to doing just that. Soon. For the moment, however, let us just gently propose that based on the scientific community’s long track record of contradiction and failure increased skepticism towards people telling us what will make us healthy is advisable.  Take their pronouncements with with a grain of salt, which, by the way, researchers tell us will lead to coronary disease. Or maybe not.  We are an excessively nutritionally gullible nation.

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