Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Rise of the Electronic Cigarette Cognoscenti

The electronic cigarette has been on the scene for only a couple of years, but its proponents are already creating a vibrant culture of their own. The web is rife with thousands of forums, meet-ups, and virtual marketplaces dedicated to the theoretical and practical aspects of smoke-free "vaping." Shops and tasting lounges that allow customers to peruse an extensive menu of devices and flavors have swept Southern California like wildfire, and much of the world is following suit. Several months ago the city of Anaheim hosted America's first three-day electronic cigarette convention. The event attracted over 7000 attendees.
Electronic cigarette mania has also sparked an explosion in 'top shelf' e-juices -- the nicotine-laced chemical solutions that are vaporized in the device. As the market swells with new brands slinging increasingly complex flavors, seasoned "vapers" are starting to give wine snobs a run for their money. For example, the brand P.O.E.T.'s new release, "Dolce Miele Crema," ($14 per 30 ml) purportedly exhibits cascading flavors of "rich honey" and "vanilla custard," finishing with notes of "graham crackers and cream." J and M Vapor's "Turkish Select" ($30 per 30 ml) beguiles the palate with "smooth, rich tobacco... with a subtle hint of dark caramel and an oak barrel finish." Profiling the internationally acclaimed "Grant's Vanilla Custard" (currently out of stock) left one YouTube reviewer nearly lost for words. "This juice," he solemnly tells us, "is very, very complex."
Perhaps no one has carried the e-juice to higher pretensions than the California-based brand Five Pawns. Named for the five elemental tastes known to mankind -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami -- a signature Five Pawns liquid incorporates up to eleven different flavors in each recipe. Small wonder that it's currently the most expensive e-juice on the market. Its sold-out "Castle Long Reserve," which has been aged in oak for three weeks, retails at a whopping $37.50 per 30 ml bottle. "You'll taste toasted coconut, roasted almond, brown sugar, two different vanillas (Madagascar vanilla bean and French vanilla), Kentucky bourbon, and charred oak," its website claims. But, as is de rigueur with any artisanal product, no two batches, the producer advises, are completely alike.
Aging e-juices in oak barrels has allowed Five Pawns to justify high price tags
The electronic cigarette world may have yet to discover its own version of the wine critic Robert Parker. But given the droves of self-appointed 'experts' saturating YouTube with exhaustive reviews, this may not be for much longer. Some sites are even trying to carve out reliable and unbiased "standards of taste" by evaluating products according to designated categories. ( uses three categories scaled out of five: throat hit, flavor, and vapor production. A rival site,, employs four categories scaled from one to ten.) However, any experienced vaper will tell you that an e-juice is only as good as the device used to inhale it. Some of the high-end models, such as the ProVape ProVari -- described by one reviewer as "bordering on the sublime" -- can command up to $200. True connoisseurs swear by the flexibility they get with more advanced "mechanical mods" like the Ba Gua 22 Ti ($280) or the hand-engraved Otto Carter GGTB 2 ($1,000).
This electronic cigarette, the Otto Carter GGTB 2, retails at $1,000
As our concept of quality tends to revolve around some sort of nostalgia for a pre-industrial world, it should come as no surprise that e-juices bottled in more expensive, recyclable glass preserve taste more effectively than their cheaper, less environmentally friendly plastic counterparts. To succeed in the top-shelf e-juice market, it is wise to ensure that all the ingredients are domestically sourced and responsibly manufactured. In fact, company President Rodney Jerebek has stated that the Five Pawns concept was a conscious reaction to the ceaseless flood of unregulated ingredients coming from China: "I didn't like not knowing what I was bringing into my lungs." There is now a brand -- Organliq -- that caters to the kosher, the vegan, and the gluten-sensitive.
If you think that the concept of old-world style e-juice sounds a little oxymoronic, you're right. It is. E-juice vapor is basically made out of two things: a synthetic chemical called propylene glycol (PG), an odorless, tasteless vaporizable base, and vegetable glycerin (VG), which increases the quantity of vapor produced. Next, basic water-soluble flavors, usually ordered from a third-party supplier -- are added and blended to a desired profile. After that, each batch of juice is aged or "steeped" for anything from a few days to a few weeks, allowing the flavors to develop complexity. This isn't always an easy task. Perfecting the best-selling "Earl Gray," recently released by San Francisco-based Frisco Vapor, was a product of blood, sweat and tears. "It took us five months to get the balance right," the owner recalled. The last ingredient to be added is the pharmaceutical grade liquid nicotine, which is sold to consumers in several different quantities ranging from nothing at all to 24 milligrams.
When it comes to the merits of electronic cigarette inhalation, the jury is still out. We are still debating whether they should be allowed in restaurants and bars, and whether they should be taxed and how much. Nicotine's status as a public health risk remains a subject of heated controversy. But add a burgeoning market to a deepening culture of expertise, and we can safely assume that electronic cigarettes aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, by grabbing the public's attention, these very high-profile regulatory wars are probably helping rather than hindering business. Oftentimes, curiosity alone is sufficient motivation to wander into a vape shop.
But what gets customers coming back? While many people start using electronic cigarettes to help them quit smoking (and thus avoid bringing tar and carbon monoxide into their lungs), nicotine addiction alone is too simplistic an explanation. Equally if not more important is the fact that electronic cigarettes offer consumers a space to experiment with perception in a new way. After all, how often do we get to entertain the senses of taste, smell, and touch ... without ingesting any calories? In contrast to many of our favorite indulgences, the pleasures of vaping not only can be enjoyed around the clock, but they also come virtually guilt-free. Most tasting bars don't even sell coffee and alcohol -- our society's most beloved psychoactive beverages -- to accompany the simulated smoking experience. One employee I spoke with at Frisco Vapor, a new San Francisco shop, observed that a growing proportion of the clientele is eschewing the buzz altogether by choosing the nicotine-free liquids. "It's just a really interesting way to play with flavors," she said.

For a new generation of e-cig connoisseurs, that's often stimulation enough.

This post originally appeared on January 27, 2013 at the Huffington Post. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Does the Foodie Have a Soul?

I'm pleased to report that one of my essays is now featured in the latest issue of Gastronomica: A Journal of Food and Culture. 

If you are unable to swing by Berkeley Bowl and pick up a copy, I've attached the article here. (You can also download it off my profile on

Thanks again to all my readers.  I've been a little slow with the blog updates, but I shall do my best to keep regaling your palates with tales of calves brains and turtle soup as I power through the dissertation home stretch.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Toad-in-the-Hole Revisited

I'm pleased to report that Homo Gastronomicus was recently featured in the Telegraph UK.

In her piece "Potted Histories" (July 24, 2013) Leah Hyslop discusses the beloved English dish "Toad in the Hole," bringing the dish's early history discussed in one of my earlier posts up to the present day.  Despite its humble origin, I was amused to learn that Pippa Middleton is a great fan of this hearty pub food, although she includes some extra flourishes such as Parma ham.

Check out Leah's article here.

Thanks very much for the shout-out!

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Histories of Bad Habits

It's served to us in many different styles - some more palatable than others - but we can’t deny the surge of historical interest in food taking place over the past few years.  Drawing on various forms of expertise, food history seems to be one of the few topics to connect the world of investigative journalism to the ivory towers of academia.  We would expect that historians, perhaps, would gravitate towards broad processes –– such as the spread of industrialization that gave birth to the grocery store and the tin can, or the culinary impact of immigration and the rise of ‘counter-cuisine.’ We might expect journalists, on the other hand, to unmask more immediate concerns, such as the arduous journey from farm-to-table or the politics of GMO labeling, compelling us to think twice about what we select from our grocery store shelves. 

But maybe our interests are more alike than we think.  The last two food history books I have read have grappled with several ancient yet still exigent issues in food history worthy of further exploration.  The first one, historian Dr. Emma Spary’s Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris 1670-1760 (University of Chicago Press, 2012) examines the animated debates about alimentary knowledge during the 18th century, ranging from the physiology of digestion to the chemistry of alcohol distillation.  The book is written with a specialist audience in mind: rewarding reading provided one reads with a pen in hand.  The second, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss’s Salt: Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, 2013), examines the understudied phenomenon of modern processed food and the political machinations of the industries that design and sell it.  The reading is as addicting as the Cheetos and Twinkies that he describes.  I picked these books up for very different reasons, but both, I think, raise important questions about our understandings of taste preferences, addiction, and the relationship between food and drug. 

1) Matters of Taste

Straddling self-preservation and leisure, philosophers and physicians have long considered taste to be the most enigmatic sense.  The Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius posed the question in the first century B.C.

Lucretius, Roman poet
and Epicurean
“Now, how it is we see some food for some,
Others for others …
I will unfold, or wheretofore what to some
Is foul and bitter, yet the same to others
Can seem delectable to eat?”

Drawing on the works of eminent French physicians and cooks, Spary examines the heated debates ignited by the rich, delectable flavors of fashionable nouvelle cuisine.  As culinary masterminds attempted to dazzle the palate with seasoned ragouts and fricassees, they also marketed gustatory enjoyment of them as a social virtue.  Over the first half of the 18th century, she argues, physicians anatomically linked a delicate palate attuned to culinary artistry and subtle flavors to a lucid and productive mind. 

Spary’s physicians are essentially the ancestors of the food scientists today working at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, where the manufacture of gustatory delight is now a multi-billion dollar industry.  Moss invites us into this Wonka-like behemoth in Philadelphia, where chemists tinker with smell, taste, texture, and aesthetic appeal to design the cookie or soft-drink guaranteed to bring in the biggest profits.  I was particularly struck by the fact that heavy loads of salt, sugar, and fat do equally great wonders for texture as much as taste, making Wonder-Bread puffy, Cheetos crispy, and Lunchables chewy.  Indeed, seems like the processed food industry has whittled our flavor preferences down to a science. “People like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch, no more or less,” one food scientist matter-of-factly reports, leaving me wondering whether the subjectivity of human taste preferences celebrates the individual as we like to think. 

2) Nourishing Bad Habits

Likewise, the relationship between taste and habit formation is hardly new.  The famous 17th century physician Thomas Willis described the pleasure of eating tasty foods as a God-given reward for the monotonous and laborious act of eating necessary to keeping us, and the human race, alive.  (The same logic was also used to explain the pleasure of sex.)  
In his theory of two souls,
Thomas Willis (1621-1675)
speculated why food tastes good

Our understandings of habituation and addiction are quite different today.  As eating was necessary to human survival yet was also subject to the spontaneous grumblings of the stomach, “alimentary pleasure” Spary observes, “occupied a grey zone of permissible indulgence.”  So long as he could sublimate his appetite to his faculty of reason, the 18th century enlightened eater was permitted to enjoy the delights of haute cuisine.  But not everyone was capable of handling these gustatory pleasures.  The aspirational parvenu and the coarse country brute, unsurprisingly, were most at risk of getting carried away.  The 18th century science of addiction, Spary explains, therefore had little to do with the chemical composition of tasty foods themselves, but was enmeshed in the ideas of luxury, decadence, and indulgence that eating these foods presupposed. 

The delicate 18th century ragout thus bore a striking resemblance to the taunting motto emblazoned on every bag of Lay’s potato chips: Betcha Can’t Eat Just One.  Moss, however, is less interested in the social forces informing the production of physiological knowledge, proudly standing by his oh-easy-to-hate culprits: salt, sugar, and fat.  It is the expert manipulation of these substances that induce people to inhale a bag of potato chips in one sitting and to (falsely) believe that their waistlines can get away with it.  I found Moss more compelling when he discusses the disingenuous tactics by which corporations have hooked populations on processed foods.  Virtually all of the food scientists he interviews –– the engineers of everything from Dr. Pepper to Lunchables –– do not dare touch the food that their employers unscrupulously market to our society’s most impoverished and vulnerable demographics.   When it comes to our habituation and addiction to the “wrong” foods, the forces of social distinction always seem to be at work.

Are the processed food industries mocking our lack of willpower?
3) Food and Medicine

Last, Spary and Moss both explore the relationship between food and medicine.  These distinctions are also thousands of years old.  In the 4th century B.C., Hippocrates exhorted us that every doctor should also be a good cook, as pleasant tasting food was easier to digest than nutritionally identical food that was perhaps less pleasing to the palate.  (Ayurveda and many other forms of alternative medicine are gaining interest in the West because they operate according to a similar logic, discussed in a previous post.  Spary shows us how the medical categories assigned to food –– whether they are “addictive” or “healthy,” “nourishing,” or even counted as food at all –– are highly unstable and are constantly evolving.  While today’s food scientists might balk at classifying coffee and liquor in one alimentary category, 18th century chemists believed the essential salts in both substances shared certain healthful medical properties –– “spiritual gasoline” –– that affected the brain and nerves in ways more alike than different.  Nutritional beliefs are shaped by far more than science alone, but also incorporate political, social, and cultural factors.
Tang Advertisement, c. 1960

But does this apply to Tang and potato chips?  It might be hard to believe that processed food had ever been touted for its medical properties, but Moss warns us not to forget that the 1950’s “Golden Age” of food processing once signified the triumph of American progress and ingenuity.  Tang, for example, fortified with nutrients, was considered an effective and tasty solution to the high cost and limited accessibility to regular orange juice.  Today, however, the gurus of food processing are singing a different tune, as Moss learns during his trip to Nestlé’s research center in Switzerland.  Here, food scientists keep busy testing potential state-of-the-art alimentary solutions to the obesity problem. 

The nature of their research, unfortunately, suggests that it might be too late.  We hear about new products like “Peptamen” ingested through a tube to feed the alarming numbers of men, women, and children that have undergone gastric bypass surgery to shrink their stomachs yet still can’t rein in their cravings for nutritionally devoid processed food.  Indeed, the new ‘science’ of medical nutrition seems to be suggesting that maintaining health and losing weight the old-fashioned way –– by eating –– might be a relic of a by-gone era.  This might be more serious than a capitulation to the obesity epidemic, bad as that sounds.  These new products suggest that the distinctions between food and medicine, which part ways during the 17th century, might now, in the 21st century, be drawing back together. 

I picked up both of these books for very different reasons, and I enjoyed both of them tremendously, albeit in different ways.  Despite the differences in subject matter and approach, both of these books illuminate the messy political, social, and intellectual forces that inform our knowledge of food.  There is nothing inevitable, both books conclude, about the ways whereby our food decisions take shape.  But both of these books open new questions about our relationship to food –– about consumption, about agency, about the politics of alimentary knowledge –– that show us that there is far more research to be done.    

Monday, 18 March 2013

In Defense of Gross-Out Foods

In 1687, Hans Sloane, the Irish born collector, antiquarian, and botanist, traveled to Jamaica as the personal physician of the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica.  
Hans Sloane: 1660-1753
Sadly, the Governor died the following year and Dr. Sloane, bereft of his noble patron and probably eager to dodge suspicions of medical malpractice, traveled around the West Indies for the next 15 months.  In 1707 he finally published a compendium of his observations about these distant English colonies, entitled A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, St. Christopher’s and Jamaica.

Many scholars have shared my fascination with Sloane’s book, and have analyzed everything from his attitudes towards slavery to his meticulous, semi-obsessive collections of insects and plant specimens.[1]  (Sloane was pretty much the quintessential early modern hoarder.  Yet unlike the people portrayed on A&E, his bizarre and compendious collection of curiosities eventually became the British museum.)

A 17th Century Map of Jamaica

My interest in Hans Sloane is slightly different.  I’m interested in what kinds of food Sloane encountered during his time in Jamaica and how these foods informed his impressions of the people he met there.[2]  At first glance, Sloane didn’t seem terribly pleased with what he saw (or tasted).  Take basic English staples: beef and veal.  Not only were these products terribly overpriced (due to the fact that meat rotted in a matter of hours under the oppressive Jamaican sun – meat markets were usually sold out by 7am) but English imports often tasted terrible to begin with.  This, Sloane surmised, had to do with the Calabash Tree Leaves that grew everywhere in Jamaica, which infected cow’s kidneys and milk to the extent that “Everything made of Milk tasts … so strong of it that there is no using with pleasure any thing made therewith.”[3] 

Neither could Sloane stand the cassava bread, so dry that it had to be dipped in sugar-water to be palatable at all.  (Sloane did acknowledge, nevertheless, that it kept men healthy in spite its insipid taste.)  The black slaves, cattle and poultry happily fed on maize (Indian Corn) but Sloane had qualms about its suitability for Europeans. 
Sloane wasn't a big fan of cassava bread
He called it "rank and poisonous"
So alien were these Jamaican foods, so distasteful were they to the European palate, that Sloane began to ponder the very definition of food in the first place.  After all, Sloane surmised, there was no hard and fast rule separating "food" from "non-food."  What was unique about mankind, Sloane reasoned, was his ability to extract nourishment from pretty much anything.  Good to keep in mind during a famine, “should it please God to inflict the like Calamity.”  Thankfully, God had also equipped man with the tools needed to deal with such situations –– teeth, spittle, digestive fluids –– enabling men to extract nourishment from nearly anything.  “[T]hough Stalks and Leaves afford no great Nourishment,” Sloane confessed, “they have sometimes kept many from starving.”  Indeed, Sloane points out, the hungry will even eat inanimate objects such as shoes and belts “soak’d and eaten” when man found himself in dire straits.

Even though the dietary divisions between man and beast collapsed under threat of hunger, Sloane didn’t see anything cruel or unjust about this inevitable state of nature.[4] “All these several differing Bodies; which, when no other are at hand, must be the Food of Mankind in the places where they are produced,” he wrote, “are … digested by the Artifice of Nature into good Sustenance to repair its Losses, and propagate its Kind.”  To the contrary, man’s ability to turn non-food into food was knowledge worth learning and passing on to future generations.[5]

But necessity alone does not determine one’s taste preferences.  [H]owever strange to us,” Sloane continues, strange and un-food-like foods “are very greedily sought after by those us’d to them. Thus Person not us’d to eat Whales, Squirrils, or Elephants, would think them a strange Dish; yet those us’d to them, prefer them to other Victuals.”
Sloane noticed raccoon-meat for sale in Jamaica
Ralph Beilby, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790)
Why, Dr. Sloane wonders, do people willingly eat foods that taste disgusting?  As Sloane wandered the towns, markets, and plantations of Jamaica, he recoiled at the sight of snakes and lizards relished by polite and supposedly “understanding” people “with a very good and nice Palate.”  Rats and raccoons –– bred among the sugarcanes to sweeten their meat –– were sold in local markets as good meat.  His Jamaican observations sent Sloane straight to his gigantic English library, where he found many instances of gross-out foods consumed throughout history. 

–– Ancient Greek grasshoppers “eat like shrimps.” 
–– Peoples of the East Indies dining on bird’s nests
–– Hottentots enjoying the guts of cattle and sheep

While 17th century scientific literature often attributed racial and cultural differences to the distinct climates of foreign lands, taste-preferences could not be explained this way.  The American Indians, displaced African slaves, as well as the ancient Romans apparently considered Cossi (Cotton Tree Worms) “so great a dainty” in spite of their distinct cultures and geographical origins.

But neither were new tastes so quickly learned.  Slaves from the East Indies were less desirable to plantation owners than the Jamaican born Creoles, Sloane pointed out, as the former arrived in Jamaica with a taste for meat and fish as opposed to a cheaper diet of yams, plantains, and potatoes.  

Are we in fact what we eat?  It’s a well-worn adage, but Dr. Sloane didn’t seem to think so.  In fact, precisely because the definition of food was so malleable, Sloane concluded that one’s dietary preferences should not be a pretext to classify, categorize and enslave other peoples.[6]  The Spanish very unjustly enslaved the Aztecs because “the Indians … eat Piojos [lice], and Gusanos [larva], and intoxicated themselves with their kinds of wines … and the smoak of tobacco:” incredibly flimsy justifications for extermination.  Sloane did not know how to explain the acclimation and habituation of taste preferences, but he knew that they did not conform to one's moral or cosmological worth.  Indeed, several scholars have pointed out that early modern conceptions of identity, such as race and gender, were far more fluid and mutable than we now believe them to be.[7]  Where does the sense of taste fit into the discussion?  

[1] See, for example, Kay Kriz’s Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane’s ‘Natural History of Jamaica’ in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 35-78 and James Delbuorgo, “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of Cacao” Social Text (2011) 29:1:106 pp. 71-101. Sloane is often credited with the invention of chocolate milk, althought the “Sloane Brand” was actually invented in the 1750s.
[2] I share this curiosity with the high Tory satirist William King, who published a satirical send-up of Sloane’s interest in Jamaican food, entitled “Concerning several sorts of odd dishes used by epicures and nice eaters throughout the world” in Useful Transactions (London, 1700).    
[3] The Calabash plant was even rumored to kill horses by the fruit “sticking so fast to their teeth that they are not able to open their Chaps to feed.” 
[4] My favorite book about early modern famine is unquestionably Piero Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) orig. 1980.  But while Camporesi focuses on the divisions between the fed and the hungry, emphasizing the latter's wretched, drugged-out, state ––  bran, for example, “soaked in hot water and formed into a bran mash for the pig-men, so reduced to wallowing as to resemble snuffling animals” (38) ––  Sloane focuses on famine as a natural calamity that men should learn to deal with their reason and ingenuity.  
[5] Sloane cites some well known “famine guides,” such as Joachimus Struppius’s Anchora Famis (1578) that advises making bread out of almonds, hazelnuts, and pine-kernels, as well as the work of the Bolognese cleric Giovanni Battista Segni, who documented instances of cannibalism in his work (1602).  talks about veg and animal productions made use of in times of famine – “most attentive and sensitive treatise writers on hunger and its excesses” -
[6] Lest we be too hasty with the praise of Dr. Sloane as an enlightened cosmopolite, I should point out that he married a Jamaican planter heiress and owned slaves.  Just sayin!’
[7] See Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth Century England (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004) and Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth Century British Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). 

Monday, 4 March 2013

Why We Drink the Ayurvedic Kool-Aid

This past weekend, I went to my first-ever Ayurvedic cooking class.  I drove up there feeling excited yet uncertain about what I might learn.  Ayurveda had been getting a lot of press lately as an alternative form of medicine, and I wasn't sure if I was ready to jump on the bandwagon.  But when I arrived, my worries were allayed with a glass of spiced raw milk: the quintessential Ayurvedic kool-aid.  

Guess it was time to jump down the rabbit hole ...  

I couldn't get enough!
#ayurvedicexperiments #histmed
Seasoned with saffron, turmeric, cardamom, ginger, black pepper and sugar, I savored it to the last drop.

The class was a lot of fun, and we learned to make many simple, delicious, and healthful dishes.  But the whole time, I couldn’t help privately wondering why Ayurveda had become so popular?  Why were we all frantically writing down everything the teacher had to say about the “pungent” and “drying” properties of turmeric, or the “cooling” and “digestive” qualities of cardamom?  Why was I anxiously scribbling down the names of websites where I could find out if I had a vata, pitta, or kapha constitution?  And how would that help me determine what I should eat?  Throughout the class, I had this strange sense of déjà vu.  I knew I had heard this language somewhere before.   

Then it hit me.  I suddenly realized that Ayurvedic cooking had a whole lot of similarities with the dietetic teachings of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen.  Galen had ruled that all foodstuffs contained at least one of four intrinsic qualities –– hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness –– which corresponded with the four humors in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  As Ken Albala has shown, this was an incredibly complicated system, whereby every quality in every foodstuff could also exhibit various degrees of intensity.[1]  Certain foods acted as “correctives” that tempered qualities in other foods.
Galen's dietetic teachings persisted for
centuries after his death in the 3rd century AD
Even though physicians tinkered with the system here and there, these theories of diet dominated Western medical thought from Latin Antiquity to the present.  Over the past twenty years, historians of science have attempted to explain its remarkable resilience.  There were many reasons for this.

--The system was flexible.  It avoided “one size fits all” dietary prescriptions in favor of tailoring diet to one’s individual constitution.  Of course one person got sick from eating asafoetida-flavored mung beans while the same dish cured another man’s illness.  As no two constitutions were the same, the same food could not be expected to work the same way on everyone.

--It was a “do it yourself” type of medical thinking.  Instead of accepting that the doctor always knew best, laymen wielded a lot of power over their physical and emotional wellbeing.  Historian Steve Shapin describes doctors and laymen as exercising “joint ownership” over their health.[2]  In fact, as Harold Cook has shown, becoming a respected physician wasn’t just about accumulating a lot of medical expertise.  It was also about developing good character.  And good character meant paying attention to your patients' thoughts and habits.[3] 
There were zillions of these"do it yourself"
health guides printed in the 17th century!
This one was published in 1671
--It relied on tangible evidence.  It didn’t depend on invisible things like “calories” and “vitamins,” both 19th century discoveries that physicians exhort us to accept on faith.  Sensory qualities of foods that one could directly experience, such as taste, were far more important to maintaining your health.  Indeed, Galen believed that whatever tasted good to an individual was actually easier to digest than other dishes that may be equally nutritious.[4]  But this was not just about taste; physicans also took into account the texture of food, or whether the food was heated up or served cold.

--The system was moderate and impervious to fads.  As I mentioned before, the system changed very little over time.  Common sense reigned supreme.  In fact, only during the 17th century do historians witness a slow disappearance of Galenic dietetics from academic discourse.[5]  Why was that?  Well, given that the scientific revolution was getting underway, it isn’t surprising that Galen's system started to crumble at the moment when scholars were cautioned to look down upon ancient received wisdom and instead put faith in their own sensory experiences.

Keeping a Galenic or an Ayurvedic diet can be complicated and very time consuming.  For these reasons, I’m pretty sure that few people actually followed either of them to the letter to the law ... both in antiquity and in the present.  But for both of these systems, the massive appeal lied in the agency granted to us laypeople as our own medical masterminds.  As I whipped up my first glass of spiced raw milk, I realized how tinkering with all these new spices –– now medical tools as well as flavor enhancers –– can be very empowering indeed.  And also a lot of fun!  

Spiced Milk

What you Need:
--Whole, cow milk (preferably raw … admittedly more expensive but so much tastier!)
--2 cardamom pods
--1 whole clove
--1/2 tsp turmeric
--2 strands of saffron (I had no idea that this was so expensive!  For this blog post, I bit the bullet, but next time I will order this online!)
--1/4 tsp ginger powder
--pinch of black pepper
--sugar (to taste)

How to do it: Add milk to a pan.  Follow by rubbing saffron strands in finger and then add them to the milk.  Follow with the turmeric, cardamom, clove, ginger powder and pepper.  Add sugar and bring the milk to a low boil, where just the sides start to bubble a little.  Strain and serve.  You can top with a little ghee if you like! 

[1] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)
[2] Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific Expertise, Common Sense, and Moral Authority in Early Eighteenth-Century Dietetic Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77 (2003), 263-297.
[3] Harold Cook “Good Advice and Little Medicine: The Professional Authority of Early Modern English Physicians” Journal of British Studies (Jan., 1994) 33:1 pp. 1-31.  
[4] Galen on Food and Diet ed. Mark Grant (London: Routledge, 2000) p. 131.
[5] J. Worth Estes,  “The Medical Properties of Food in the 18th Century,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol 51, number 2, 1996 pp. 127-154.  

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Matter of Haut-Gout

Usually I like to cook, but the other day I home late and was too lazy to go to the store.  Luckily my neighborhood offers plenty of take-out options; I ordered out from a Chinese place down the street.  I had never eaten there, but it’s usually pretty busy whenever I walk by.  The Yelp reviews said it specialized in something called “meatless chicken.”  It was the most popular thing on the menu. 

I ordered the so-called meatless chicken, along with lo mein and an order of pot-stickers.  But when the order arrived and I swallowed a forkful, I found the dish a little suspicious.  The meatless chicken tasted unmistakably chicken-y – that part they got right.  It was chopped up into small cubes and the texture felt a little spongy, spongy enough to pass as tofu.  But it felt firm enough to also pass as chicken, chicken so heartlessly raised and artificially processed, I worried, that it barely qualified as chicken at all.  Could the restaurant have made a mistake?
#meatlesschicken #hautgout #deepfriedgoodness
The only way to find out for certain was to order the meatless chicken again, which I decided to do for lunch today.  (Note to self: they have a great lunch special.)  This time I was relieved to experience the same type of meatless meat I had ordered the first time.  I now believed myself to like meatless chicken.  The texture felt more assuredly tofu-like, and the flavor somehow less artificial.

Why was meatless chicken considered such a delicacy at this place? Yelpers called it a “specialty” that “brings me back to my childhood,” and “the best fake meat I ever had.”  The glowing reviews made clear that the appeal of meatless chicken also depended on a combination of appearance, taste, and texture: “tasty fried, slightly chewy goodness!”  A combination of sensory and social qualities made meatless chicken an acquired taste. 

What conditions must be satisfied in order to transport a food from the realm of the disgusting to the delicious?  Our enjoyment of food has little to do with just one taste or one texture, but food’s ability to conform to our expectations of what it ought to taste like.  Confirmation of the chicken’s meatlessness exhorted me to re-evaluate my former sensory observations. 

Has this always been the case?[1]  As some readers might know, I have been working on a history of food connoisseurship during the 18th century, and I often find myself struck by the passionate responses that new edible delicacies aroused.  Take, for example, the dawn of the 18th century, when well-to-do tables were invaded by French styles of cooking.[2]  The English found French cuisine distinctive for the culinary artistry that went into making rich cullises, dainty poupetons, the fricassees and ragouts.  The flavors of these new dishes were considered so strong, so peculiar and so indescribable that a new word entered the English lexicon to describe them: they had haut-gout.
Most French cooks working in Britain were male,
but this was the best picture I could find!
What was haut-gout?  Well, it’s hard to say.  While the OED traces it back to 1645, using it in the same phrase as a “pickant sawce,” haut-gout wasn’t exactly a flavor.  You won’t find it in an English cookbok. Even so, haut-gout connoted rich and highly seasoned properties that could not be described in words.[3]  For example, the pungency of soy sauce –- enthusiastically described in 1736 as having “the highest gust in the world” –– opened the taste buds to pleasurable new sensations.  Others, such as Jonathan Swift, were more dubious.  “If a lump of soot falls into the soup … stir it well,” he sarcastically advised in Directions to Servants (1731) “and it will give the soup a high French taste.”[4]  Because haut-gout didn’t represent one particular flavor, what it actually tasted like was anyone’s guess.  Tasting “expensive” could adopt a variety of guises, leading one to confuse it with the all-out revolting. 

Smell also wielded power over the likeability of various foods.  In the Comical Don Quixote (1702) the stench of garlic breath might be so bad as to deal a man a “double death” yet it added a “curious hautgoust” to one’s dinner.  Moreover, smell ensured haut-gout’s ability to invade personal deoderized spaces.  “I have some curious green rabbits,” a fictional French character observed in a 1719 play, “with an haut-gout that may be smelt from the forecastle to the great cabbin.”[5]

Finally, haut-gout was closely linked to the new textures of food.  Indeed, English writers dwelled upon the French sauce –– viscous, rich and pungent sauce –– that provided each dish a little something extra.  But what kind of meat swam in the creamy goo?  Who was to say that the meat was what the cook said it was?  How do we know it hadn’t spoiled? Sauce provided a dish a sense of artful mystery, but it also exhorted the diner to trust in the cook’s expertise and benevolence.  (Indeed, it’s no surprise that the saucier is still the highest paid position in a French kitchen.)  Perhaps our cultural ambivalence about sauce is innate.  The famous British anthropologist Mary Douglas noticed that “polluting” substances are often sticky or viscous.  Halfway between a solid and a liquid, sauces defy easy classification. 

But coming back to my original question, did we arbitrate between disgust and delight the same way then as we do now?  I have noticed that 18th century ambivalence towards haut-gout often emanated not only from the strange sensations it elicited, but also from fears over where a new food’s enjoyment could lead.  Eating foods with questionable sauces or smells was believed to have psychologically addicting properties, inevitably leading connoisseurs to seek out new gustatory thrills.  Such an affliction could cause genteel eaters to consume substances that lacked culture or cultivation –– substances such as these dishes below.  So much for the civilizing process.  

This image, as well as the French bill of fare above
come from the Universal Journal, or British Gazetteer:
April 15, 1727
Post-script: By the way, the meatless chicken was ordered from Big Lantern –– 16th street and Guerrero.  Try it out sometime! 

[1] Over the past fifty years or so, scholars of various disciplinary backgrounds have
 written about taste and disgust.  The experimental psychologist Paul Rozin has published oodles of articles about preferences and disgust, famously linking disgust to fears of our animal origins.  In his lucid and fascinating book, The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller treats disgust as an emotion that organizes the social and moral universe.  I’m still searching for more work on transforming associations of disgust into associations of taste, so if you know of any work please let me know!
[2] The rise of French cuisine has been well documented by scholars.  For the culinary changes happening in France, see Susan Pinkard, A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).  For the reception of French cookery in Britain, see Gilly Lehman, The British Housewife and Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
[3] During the late 17th century, botanists became exceedingly interested in creating taxonomies of flavor, the most famous of which was devised by F.R.S Nehemiah Grew.  (I’ll talk about him in an upcoming post.)  Yet nowhere in Grew’s taxonomy or anywhere else does “haut-gout” gain any scientific elaboration.
[4] I’ve always wondered whether Jonathan Swift got food poisoning from a French fricassee, for he loved to mock Augustan food fashions.  The Modest Proposal –– which recommended turning Irish babies into culinary delicacies –– can certainly be read as an indictment of connoisseurial eating.  
[5] Thomas D’Urfey, The Younger Brother, or the Sham Marquis (London, 1719).