Thursday, January 18, 2018

Guest Post on Kitchen Torch Chemistry by Len

Kitchen Torch Chemistry

We have been having great fun with our new kitchen torch. I have found it amusing to look into what it does to food.  I have found that knowing a little about the chemistry of browning food has helped in finding ways to use the gadget.

When we brown food with the torch we are enabling two different chemical processes depending on what we are cooking: caramelization of sugar or browning of protein (the Maillard reactions). In both cases the goal is the same: the heat of the torch turns simple flavors into complex ones; that’s what cooking is mostly about. The background material to this is completely standard. A good source is Harold McGee’s classic book, On Food and Cooking, Chapter 14.

Caramelization:  Sugar has a very simple flavor, detected by receptors in the taste buds on the tongue. Table sugar is a colorless crystal which has no odor. If you heat it rapidly to 320F (160C) it melts to form a colorless liquid. However, around that temperature it also starts to break apart due to the heat. This is a slow process until about 338F (170C) when the rate of decomposition increases rapidly. The syrup turns brown – it becomes caramel and smells delightful. What’s happening is that the fragments of sugar recombine to make more than 100 different products, many of which can be sensed by our olfactory bulb. That’s how we sense complex flavors.

There’s are problem though: sugar burns at 350F (177C). We need to work in a narrow temperature range, which sounds tricky. In fact, it can be done, and  American children (or at least the patient ones) are trained to do it when they learn to toast marshmallows. Remember, brown them, don’t burn them.
Fig 1:  A torch is a great way to toast marshmallows in the winter.
Well, I guess we did burn them a bit.
The second problem is more serious. Water is usually present In food, and water boils at 212F (100C). If the torch is used on a wet surface, all the heat will go into evaporation, and the temperature will stick at 212F (100C), well below the caramelization temperature. A torch is a really bad tool for boiling water.

In crème brûlée this difficulty is avoided in an elegant way. The dish is made of a custard (flan or crème pâtissière) which is allowed to gel. Then sugar is put on top and caramelized. The custard is quite moist, but the surface need not be because the of the “skin” on the surface. A dense surface layer is quite common in gelation, and it seems to seal in the water. Making crème brûlée with a torch is dead easy, and the torch is an ideal tool. The contrast between the solidified caramel surface and the smooth custard underneath is wonderful. This has been one of my favorite desserts for a long time. See Mae’s previous post (link) for our success in the first try.

Encouraged, we decided to broaden our scope. We looked on the web and found two recipes that somehow made caramel in wet surfaces. The first is grapefruit brûlée, allegedly grapefruit with a nice crisp top. However, when you cut a grapefruit you release juice, and the surface is simply wet. We failed on our first attempt to make this dish. We followed a recipe that said to just put sugar on and torch it.  We did this, but the crisp texture of a caramel was simply not there. We made things worse by following our habit of pre-cutting the grapefruit sections to make them easier to eat.

Of course, there is a nice thing about this kind of experiment: you can eat the failures. A warmed-up, sugared grapefruit is fine for breakfast.

All undaunted we decided to use our insight into the mechanisms involved. We melted some butter and brushed it on the surface so that this would seal in the water long enough to make caramel. Then we sprinkled sugar on top and torched. It worked, and the dish was delicious.

Fig 2: Grapefruit brûlée made with melted butter.
Note the flake of caramel.
Even stranger was the claim that you can make oatmeal brûlée. We make oatmeal by boiling rolled oats in water in the microwave. It’s a wet dish. We did the straight-forward thing that recipes suggested (using drier oatmeal than we usually do). We failed. The result was sugared oatmeal – no bad thing, and we ate it, but not what we were after.

Following a suggestion by Evelyn we decided to seal this surface in a different way, by adding honey. Honey is a supersaturated solution of sugars (glucose and fructose). A thick honey doesn’t have much water, and is known to caramelize. We melted thick honey in the microwave, poured it on top of our oatmeal, and torched vigorously. We could easily smell caramel as we proceeded, and the result was extremely nice.

Fig 3: Oatmeal brûlée made with honey.
Caramelized honey has a nice, complex flavor.
Maillard Reactions: The Maillard reactions occur when a small sugar is heated in the presence of an amine (nitrogen-containing) group. Proteins are made of amino acids, and are usually the target of the reaction. The sugars occur naturally in the food. The temperature required for rapid reaction is 280-330F (140 – 165C). When the reaction proceeds many hundreds of reaction products are made. They are very complex: the wonderful odor and taste of grilled meat is produced this way, as is the brown crust of bread or cookies (they smell good too.)

The problem of moist surfaces is not usually present in this case. Broiled meat may be moist inside, but the surface is dry. We have shown in a previous post how we torched a steak after broiling. We put more black pepper on the steak than we usually do, and the result was quite interesting because we liberated the aromatic oils in the pepper. Our next experiment will be to use green peppercorns. There is a classic French recipe for steak with green pepper sautéed in a hot pan. We want to try broiling and then torching. Stay tuned.

The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of thing is something we have read about, sous-vide cooking of steaks. Professional chefs put steaks in plastic pouches and heat them in water baths at 135F (55C) to for an hour or two. There is no Maillard browning at all, but uniform cooking. Then the steak is torched on the surface. The photos we have seem make a steak look like an industrial product, some kind of plastic molding. We have no idea how these productions taste.

A simple example of Maillard is the browning of toast, and a torch can do it, though it’s a bit perverse. However, we can nicely combine the two browning reactions by making cinnamon toast. We buttered bread, sprinked on sugar, and torched. Excellent result.

Fig 4: Cinnamon toast came out very well.
Notes on technique: We use a butane torch made by Iwatani that we bought on Amazon. It’s fine for our purposes. Professional chefs use more powerful propane torches, the kind that plumbers use to solder pipes. I have been strictly forbidden to even think about bringing such a thing into our small, not very fireproof kitchen.

Fig 5. Our torch.
That said, I have found that I do want a pretty hot flame. I turn the gas all the way up and adjust the air so that the flame roars. The exception is for marshmallows and crème brûlée. For these dishes almost anything will do.

Do you need a torch? Of course not. Unless you want to solder pipes, anything a torch can do can be done with an oven broiler or a toaster oven. (Okay, not the marshmallow). But playing with fire is really cool, and I highly recommend it.

NOTE FROM MAE: The guest author of this post is my husband Len, a Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan and (now) dedicated kitchen torch user.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Eponymous Characters in Literature

It's Wordy Wednesday again. Last week one of the words I mentioned was Panglossian, which comes from Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's Candide, and defined, in the words of Pangloss himself: "marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds." (source)

I was trying to think of more words from memorable characters in literature -- so memorable that their name became a word and they became eponymous. I digress to call out that wonderful word eponymous, meaning a person that gave his or her name to a word or a concept or even to a physical thing, like (shudder) Trump Tower. Or the derived concept.

You probably know quite a few such words yourself. I thought of these:
  • The term Uncle Tom often appears in discussions of current events. You probably know that its origin is a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dictionary offers two meanings:
    -- "a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals), and also
    -- "a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority."

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin also includes the character Simon Legree, a name that has become synonymous with a cruel slave driver.

  • Nabokov's book Lolita is the source of the word lolita -- "a precociously seductive girl."

  • From Shakespeare: a Romeo is, of course, a handsome lover.

  • Caliban by Rackham
    Also from Shakespeare: a caliban, from the character in the Tempest, is a degraded or bestial man.

  • Yet another Shakespearean word -- sometimes the name Dogberry, a self-satisfied policeman in Much Ado About Nothing, is applied to similar officers of the law outside of the play. This one is a bit obscure, I think.

  • Many other Shakespeare characters' names are also used to indicate similar individuals of the same type -- Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Othello, Iago, Hamlet, Portia.

To return to panglossian -- it's one of several words that Merriam-Webster online includes in "A Who's Who of Literary Allusions: Words that Come from Characters in Books." Examples from this list:
  • W.C.Fields as Mr. Macawber.
    (All images from Wikipedia.)
    From David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: micawber -- "an improvident person who lives in expectation of an upturn in his fortunes."

  • From The Three Princes of Serendip by Horace Walpole: serendipity -- "an assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for."

  • From Gulliver's Travels by Swift: three words -- yahoo, lilliputian, and brobdingnagian -- which apply to three types of characters: boorish, very tiny, and gigantic.

  • My biggest surprise was finding that the name of the disease, syphilis, originated as the name of a character in a literary work!  "Syphilis was the name of the ostensible first sufferer of the disease, a shepherd and hero (if such a word can be used here) of the 1530 poem written by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus."

Other eponymous literary words on the dictionary list: pollyanna, pander, malapropism, milquetoast, gargantuan, pooh-bah, and quixotic. There must be many more such words, based on the enormous number of memorable characters in literature throughout the ages!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mona Lisa Handbag

My new, custom-made purse. Thank you, Evelyn.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Invertebrate Intelligence

"Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien."-- Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (p. 9). 
Peter Godfrey-Smith's book about his experiences with octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid (the cephalopods) combines the author's academic profession, philosophy, with his avocation: scuba diving. I don't read much philosophy -- in fact, I avoid it -- but I found this a readable and very informative combination of theory and observation.

It's likely that you've seen a Youtube video of an octopus escaping from the aquarium where it's supposed to live and sneaking into a nearby aquarium to eat the other captive fish. Thanks to stories about efforts to keep them in captivity, the cognitive capabilities of the octopus are almost legendary. The various species of octopus range greatly in size, and inhabit most of the world's oceans; the author's experiences are mainly in Australia and California, with reports from scientists in many other locations.

An octopus has eyes much like ours (lens, retina...) but also visual sensors are found all over their skin. Octopus blood is totally different chemically in the way it supplies cells with oxygen; an octopus can take in oxygen through the skin as well as the gills -- and an octopus has three hearts to circulate the blood. An octopus has a huge number of neurons; in fact, the neurons in octopus arms are almost independent of its brain. An octopus has no bones: it's almost entirely made of soft flesh, which has various consequences. Sometimes the octopus is solitary; sometimes octopus groups seem to live together. The social organization of the octopus isn't yet understood: it's challenging for humans to spend much time with them since scuba diving is pretty time-limited.

On octopus behavior Godfrey-Smith writes: "Octopuses, of at least some species, have an opportunistic, exploratory style of interaction with the world. They are curious, embracing novelty, protean in behavior as well as in body." (p. 98) He describes the ways that the octopus and close relative the cuttlefish can display dramatic patterns and camouflage on their skins: "They can be completely invisible to an observer— an observer looking for octopuses— just a few feet away." (p. 123). He provides a great deal of detail on how they use a number of different types of pigment cells and reflective cells in their skin, and speculates on what these displays might mean. This is incredibly fascinating:
"Intermediate between the clear cases of camouflage and of signaling are deimatic displays. These are dramatic patterns often produced while fleeing a predator. It’s hypothesized that they are an attempt to startle or confuse the foe— to suddenly look different, and weird, in a way that might lead the predator to pause or lose their bearings. Here, the display is supposed to be noticed, but it does not send information to a receiver. It is merely supposed to be confusing or disruptive." (p. 125).
Most fascinating of all is the possibility that the displays are not only for communication or for camouflage, but also a side effect of the animal's inner state:
"That is how I interpret the colors of many giant cuttlefish; they are an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes. Such patterns include flares and surges of activity, and also subtler changes. If you look closely at the 'face' of a giant cuttlefish— the area between its eyes and down the first part of its arms— you will often see an ongoing murmur of very small color changes. Perhaps the machinery of color change is in an 'idling' state there." (p. 127).
"A large and friendly giant cuttlefish" --
one of the wonderful photos from Other Minds.
Other Minds describes cephalopod evolution, anatomy, and behavior in systematic terms, and attempts to analyze just what observed behavior tells us about the neuroanatomy and neural organization of these creatures. There's a certain amount of speculation about how the two different evolutionary paths -- ours and those of the cephalopods -- led to some type of cognition and intelligence with very different anatomical structures.

Can we look an octopus in the eye and seem to reach any sort of understanding with it? Well, just maybe. But Godfrey-Smith doesn't encourage over-interpretation of human-octopus encounters. Other Minds is a richly thought-provoking book! The conclusion:
"There are many reasons for us to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one. When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all." (p. 204). 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Playing with Fire

New in our arsenal: a kitchen torch arrived Friday. We started with steak.
Flaming the steak (after broiling) brought out the flavor of black pepper.

We charred the skins of bell peppers, which then were easy to remove.
The peppers had a slightly charred taste but remained crisp.
Friday dinner: pepper steak and bell pepper salad: quite delicious!
Saturday breakfast: butter and cinnamon-sugar melted onto grapefruit halves.
Good, but next time we'll brush melted butter onto the fruit first, to keep the grapefruit juice out of the sugar.
Vegetable soup topped with cheese and one pearl tomato: the torch
was great for melting the cheese and blackening the tomato.
A good lunch.
The ultimate torch experiment: creme brulèe for dinner dessert.
The sugar melted and then turned into a kind of caramel candy. Just what we hoped for.
Yes, some of these dishes could be prepared in other ways, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
Soon, if all goes as planned we will: 
  • Eat oatmeal with sugar torched on the top for breakfast. 
  • Buy marshmallows. Torch them. We have graham crackers and chocolate bars. You know where this is going.
  • Buy better custard cups (we're afraid the Pyrex will explode from heat shock).
  • Think about torching some fish.
  • Work on our techniques! Len does the torch part. I do the prep.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dreaming of warm places with spicy food

Spices in the Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, 2006.
Cold, cold winter here: frequent snow storms, grey skies with rare glimpses of blue. Thursday's temperatures exceptionally went into the fifties, but Friday will be back well below freezing with a low of 9º F.

I'm dreaming of warmer places and of the spices from exotic cuisines in faraway places. At right is a random selection of images of spicy food that I've enjoyed on past journeys.

And here are my dreams of places I've been and new ones where I want to go:
Herbs in the Machane Yehuda Market

I dream of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.  Friday in Rabat, Morocco, it's forecast to be 64º -- I dream of eating a special Moroccan tagine with the hot red sauce called harissa. I've never been there, but I can dream!

In Jerusalem, Friday's temperature is 60º and if I were there, I could eat falafel with the Yemenite sauce called zhoug made from cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, hot hot pepper, and olive oil. I love to think of Israeli markets full of amazing spices and herbs as well as many exotic foods all ready to eat.
Provence: spices in the market at Arles, 2016.

In Nice, France, it is forecast to be 60º. I dream of fish stew with the sauce called rouille made of olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper. I remember Provencal open-air markets full aromatic spices.

Closer to home, I dream of New Orleans where it's 70º. Imagine a plate of newly-opened oysters with lemon juice, horseradish, and a handy bottle of Tabasco sauce  -- on Avery Island near NOLA, the McIlhenny family has made Tabasco Sauce since 1868.

I dream of San Diego where high temperatures this week will be 68º and I could go to a nice taco stand and enjoy a burrito with some hot salsa in sight of the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

San Diego, California: Roberto's Burritos in 2009.
Near LA (Friday expected high 71º) they make sriracha which started as an ethnic Asian condiment and is now everywhere. And I could also enjoy the beach.

The vast Pacific offers many exotic islands to dream about. I'd love to travel to Fiji, Easter Island, New Zealand, New Guinea and more. I also love Hawaii where temperatures are in the seventies, as they are almost all winter. I dream of several favorite restaurants in and near Kona like Island Lava Java where I often have ordered fish tacos or Salade Niçoise -- Hawaii is home to Pacific Rim cuisine which includes almost every warm-weather cuisine in the world!
Saint Lucia in the Caribbean: a spicy lunch some years ago.

The Caribbean includes Cuba where the temperature is in the eighties and though I've never been there, I'd like to try the famous spicy black beans and more, as well as see the fascinating island with its famous old cars.

On a trip to Saint Lucia we tried the local curry chicken roti, a dish influenced by East Indian people who came to various British colonies in the Caribbean. At the resort where we stayed, we also enjoyed lots of interesting fish dishes. It's 83º there and that would feel good. So would snorkeling!

Florida Keys: The Fish House, 2017. Their "Matacumbe" preparation
with tomatoes and onions is very delicious!
In Key Largo, Florida it's 81º and I dream of the spicy fish at the Fish House there: not to mention key lime pie! Also driving the beautiful long road across many causeways, eventually arriving in Key West.

I dream of many other exotic locations, where the food is spicy and the weather is pleasantly hot. It's 103º in Buenos Aires and 90º in Rio -- maybe too hot, though I'd love to see them! It's only 81º in San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, where I'd love to taste the foods made famous in the books of Jorge Amado -- especially the spicy dish called Feijoada. Enough dreaming!

Finally: this is loco moco, a Hawaiian special plate lunch including hamburger, rice, gravy, and a fried egg.
It's total fusion food including flavors from several of the immigrant groups that make up the Hawaiian melting pot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Vocabulary Lessons in Robin Sloan's "Sourdough"

Robin Sloan's novel Sourdough conveys a sense of the author's wonder at the richness of the English language. Following are a few quotes illustrating how Sloan introduces the reader to interesting words, some of which were new to me:
I recently reviewed Sourdough here.
  • "Proprioception, which is, I think, a beautiful word— pro-pri-o-cep-tion!— and also the process by which organisms judge the position of their own body parts in space. It’s a crucial sense; definitely more important than a few of the Big Five. When you walk, you look forward, not down at your feet, because you are confident they are where you expect them to be, obeying your commands. That’s a pretty cool feature. It was an unanticipated consequence of working on robot proprioception that I would often sit at my desk snaking my arms around in the air, trying to pay very close attention to what was happening." (Sourdough, Kindle Locations 198-203).
  • Pareidolia: "The loaf had a face. It was an illusion, of course. ... It’s called pareidolia. Humans see faces in everything. Even so, the illusion was … compelling." (Kindle Locations 525-526).
  • Botrytis: "'Have you heard of botrytis?' She said the word carefully, bo-try-tis. 'They call it the "noble rot." These grapes actually get moldy on the vine. On purpose, I mean. It gives the wine a flavor— you’ll see.'" (Kindle Locations 2041-2043).
  • Symbiote: "Most plants have at least one bacterial symbiote, he told me. He pronounced it carefully: sym-bi-ote. He looked out across the airfield, at the scrubby red and green plants. All those? Infected. But that’s not the right word, he said. Infected means there’s something wrong. This is all right; it’s partnership. Some plants are infected by bacteria that are themselves infected by a virus. Wheels within wheels. Clockwork." (Kindle Locations 2650-2653).
  • Panglossian from Voltaire's Candide --  not quite directly mentioned: 
    "One of Candide’s companions, Pangloss, whose name I recognized from the hundred-dollar adjective he inspired— I’d never known the etymology— insisted throughout that all their misfortunes were for the best, for they delivered the companions into situations that seemed, at first, pretty good. Until those situations, too, went to shit." (Kindle Locations 2795-2797). 
It's been a few months since I devised an etymological post and called this Wordy Wednesday (instead of Wordless Wednesday). So here's my extension of the list:
  • Etymological -- et·y·mo·log·i·cal -- relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Dinner: Faye Levy’s Meatballs

Faye Levy is a cookbook author and food journalist who writes about a variety of Israeli and Jewish foods -- lists at least 10 cookbooks that she authored. Tonight I adapted her recipe for chicken meatballs in tomato sauce (published here) to accommodate what I had in the house. In particular, I used ground turkey rather than chicken. Also, having no orzo, I made a pilaf of wheat berries. My tomato sauce was made from a can of San Marzano tomatoes slowly cooked with onions, spices, and other vegetables.

Unlike most meatball recipes, this one does not include either raw egg or chopped vegetables such as onion and celery in the meat mixture -- only spices and breadcrumbs. The resulting taste and texture were excellent. The recipe calls for a delicious combination of spices characteristic of Yemeni-Israeli cuisine called hawaij --  fresh garlic, hot pepper, turmeric, and cumin. I added a touch of cardamom, also found in many recipes for hawaij, which sometimes includes quite a few other spices as well. While I've seen hawaij in Israeli markets, it's rarely available here: you have to blend your own.

Meatballs as they came out of the oven. I baked them on a silpat mat,
as I usually do with meatballs, rather than frying them. I added the olive
oil (recommended for frying) to the meat mixture.
We ate our meatballs and pilaf with a salad of fresh tomato and arugula.
We love mushrooms and bell peppers, also suggested for the tomato sauce.
Dessert: freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from cookie dough that
I made on the weekend.

A Thought-Provoking Book about Animal Capablities

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal explores the history and successes of a particular scientific endeavor called ethology: "the biological study of animal behavior" (p. 29). The book covers the state of the art of studying animal intelligence, non-human mental capacities, insights into animal minds from neuroscience, cognition and social interactions in various species, and other behaviors. Many of the observations made by de Waal and his colleagues over his long career in the field were in direct conflict with rigid assumptions about non-human characteristics held by earlier behaviorists.

Are We Smart Enough...  is full of descriptions of how the earlier researchers floundered in blind alleys while systematically excluding and mocking those who disagreed with their view of the limited nature of any creatures that were not humans. This is interesting, but what I found much more interesting was de Waal's many stories about the actual behavior of animals including a wide variety of species with numerous adaptations. He discusses the highly developed social life, social learning, and food-gathering methods of various species including chimps, monkeys, and corvids like crows and jackdaws, and even describes the clever hunting techniques of the octopus. We learn of many ways that these creatures make and use tools. We learn about their cognitive capacities, evidence of their consciousness and self-awareness, and several other characteristics once believed unique to humans. The question of consciousness, a problematic concept whether in humans or animals, is especially intriguing: from a conference on the subject de Waal quotes this: "The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness." (p. 234)

There are many fascinating descriptions of apes, small monkeys, and even birds creating tools from available materials like twigs. One type of monkey even employed a sharpened stick to kill a small animal in its hole and pull it out to eat it. Moreover, a number of different animals apparently foresee when they would need the tools, bringing them to a site where food may be available, and then using them to overcome challenging situations where food is hard to get. Here's an example of one of de Waal's very informative original illustrations about wild chimps using tools --

De Waal describes quite a bit about how chimps go about this elaborate activity, especially how young chips patiently watch their mothers breaking the hard nut shells. At first the young chips ineffectively imitate their able mothers in a skill that's not in fact that easy for a human to do; after several years they become adept. An important fact about this observation is that it occurs in wild chimps, not in captive individuals. Here's more:
"The Japanese primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa tracked the development of this skill at the 'factory,' an open space where apes bring their nuts to anvil stones and fill the jungle with a steady rhythm of banging noise. Youngsters hang around the hardworking adults, occasionally pilfering kernels from their mothers. This way they learn the taste of nuts as well as the connection with stones. They make hundreds of futile attempts, hitting the nuts with their hands and feet, or aimlessly pushing nuts and stones around. That they still learn the skill is a great testament to the irrelevance of reinforcement, because none of these activities is ever rewarded until, by about three years of age, the juvenile starts to coordinate to the point that a nut is occasionally cracked. It is only by the age of six or seven that their skill reaches adult level." (p. 80).
Exaggerated claims about animal capacities are in a way the other side of the extreme views of animal limitations. For example, de Waal provides much detail about the claim that the famous parrot Alex was really using language just as humans do. De Waal doesn't think Alex's ability was the same as human language. However, he respects the endeavors with Alex and other language-trained non-humans, saying:
"The immense effort to find language outside our own species has, ironically, led to a greater appreciation of how special the language capacity is. It is fed by specific learning mechanisms that allow a toddler to linguistically outpace any trained animal. It is in fact an excellent example of biologically prepared learning in our species. Yet this realization by no means invalidates the revelations we owe animal language research. That would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It has given us Alex, Washoe, Kanzi, and other prodigies who have helped put animal cognition on the map. These animals convinced skeptics and the general public alike that there is much more to their behavior than rote learning. One cannot watch a parrot successfully count up items in his head and still believe that the only thing these birds are good at is parroting." (pp. 112-113)
There's much more here than I can possibly cover in a brief review. A very thought-provoking book!

To quote the review in the New York Times by Jon Mooallem:
"We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls 'neo-creationist' thinking: We accept evolution but assume 'evolution stopped at the human head' — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions. But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of 'cognitive ripples': We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous. It looks the most like our intelligence. But 'after the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.'" (NYT Review, April 26, 2016)

Friday, January 05, 2018

"Sourdough" -- Food and Robots

Robin Sloan's recent novel Sourdough explores a number of links between food and technology -- especially robotics and artificial intelligence. Sourdough takes place in San Francisco and Berkeley in the near future: or maybe even now, in an imagined present. More or less by happenstance, a character named Lois, who's a programmer of robots, becomes a sourdough baker. Lois's sourdough starter has remarkable qualities; in fact, it has a pretty fully developed personality and unusual abilities, such as a love of certain types of music, a propensity to luminesce, occasional formation of pseudopods that reach out, and "Scents, various: still banana, always, along with smoky smells, like far-off fires, and occasionally the scent of gasoline." (Sourdough, Kindle Locations 1640-1641).

After a few successful bakes with the starter, which produces loaves inscribed somehow with a face, Lois unsurprisingly realizes that she'd rather bake than program. After a while she doesn't even mind the vastly lower pay scale for baking. She tries out for a place in one of San Francisco's extremely exclusive farmers' markets, competing mainly with pickle makers but others as well. This is where it gets to be a foodie book: all the trendy food games people play are brought into focus. Lois describes her try-out for the market:
"That was the absurdity of this: I was standing in line with people who were masters of their craft. People who pickled plums, pressed olives, raised chickens, kept bees. I was just lucky: gifted with good raw materials and, perhaps, charitably, a sense for how to use them." (Kindle Locations 1051-1052). 
Lois's robot-programming background serves her in her new occupation: she obtains a used robot (actually a robotic arm: this isn't one of those books that maintains the silly fiction that robots are going to look like C-3PO in Star Wars or like the humanoid robots in Woody Allen's Sleeper).  She programs the robot to help in her baking, and also solves the classic problem of teaching a robot to break eggs. In the market, though, there's another type of technology at work: using fermentation to create artificial food. Fermenting cultures play a huge role as the plot unfolds in Sourdough. So do these artificial foods, starting with the favorite of the programmers at Lois's former job: "Slurry was a nutritive gel manufactured by an eponymous company even newer than General Dexterity. Dispensed in waxy green Tetra Paks, it had the consistency of a thick milkshake. It was nutritionally complete and rich with probiotics. It was fully dystopian." (Kindle Locations 212-214). Later Lois encounters a more artisanal version made by one of the market vendors.

The market where Lois is selected to sell her sourdough loaves includes many strange and sometimes dystopian offerings of her fellow-vendors. Its existence is a deep secret: it's housed in a former military bunker, and populated by vendors of quite unusual merchandise. Besides the woman who made the artificial food product:
"There was Gracie with her Chernobyl honey; the cave-dwelling mushroom monger; a man and a woman decanting smoothies that appeared to have … things swimming inside them. Orli, the elf, presided over a table piled with cheeses, some ghostly pale, some brown like leather, and some veined not only with blue but also bright green and hot pink. The larger wheels she had carved into pieces at irregular angles, so the resulting hunks looked like soft, fat jewels. There was a workstation selling algorithmically optimized bagels, their outsides perfectly smooth like computer renderings. A printed banner said NEWBAGEL; it was surprisingly well designed." (Kindle Locations 1499-1504). 
Sourdough is full of colorful characters, starting with two mysterious brothers, members of a tribe called the Mazg, who first sold Lois spicy soup and sandwiches on sourdough, and then entrusted Lois with their sourdough starter as they left the country. There are many others, such as Charlotte Clingstone, the owner of a famous gourmet Berkeley restaurant named Candide (after the French tale by Voltaire) that might or might not resemble Alice Waters and her restaurant named Chez Panisse (another French literary illusion). The book is full of references to cultural stuff. Really fun cultural stuff! Like "All the restaurants with Michelin stars, where you can eat salted moss and turnip foam." (Kindle Location 1157). Like "rejected applicants to the Oulipo." (Kindle Locations 1719-1720). Like "if anybody wanted to ask a lady out, he could do it via text message like a normal person." (Kindle Location 2384). Like "salt of every kind and color, black and pink and blue. Each variety sat shimmering in a glass canister, priced by the ounce..." (Kindle Location 1661).

Lots of mysteries drive the plot of Sourdough, which is in fact quite fast-paced, and has a rather delightful ending that I'd love to discuss but I don't do spoilers.

It's much more fun to read Robin Sloan's speculation on the potential benefits and risks of artificial intelligence and robotics than to read the rather tedious and self-promoting non-fiction book titled Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark. I bring up Tegmark's book quite mindfully. It's a very gloomy effort to predict how terrible it would be if AI of some sort gained control of the human world, and where owners of this technology suck up all the wealth. This is a future which the author claims is all too possible.

Tegmark's vision of what could happen uses examples from real AI  research. Unfortunately his approach to convincing the reader is to provide imaginary scenarios of how AI could take over, and to bring this home by citing all the successful tech entrepreneurs, superstars, and researchers who agree with him and how much money he and his cohort have been given to warn humanity of the dangers of technology. I'm not sold.

Tegmark also augments his vision with lots of references to science fiction and dystopian literature. But a real fiction writer like Sloan (and of course many others) is much better at making such speculation come alive.  I do give Tegmark credit for occasional jokes about a future when there are no jobs and maybe all-powerful computers take over -- "A friend of mine recently joked with me that perhaps the very last profession will be the very first profession: prostitution. But then he mentioned this to a Japanese roboticist, who protested: 'No, robots are very good at those things!'" (Life 3.0, Kindle Locations 2287-2289).

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Inside Michelin-Starred Kitchens

The Netflix series "Chef's Table France" has four episodes about French chefs whose restaurants are designated with stars in the Guide Michelin. Michel Troisgros***, Adeline Grattard*, Alexandre Coullion**, and Alain Passard*** are remarkably accomplished and creative individuals, and director David Gelb presents them with great skill and artistry, including wonderful classical music accompanying the scenes of food preparation.

I especially enjoyed seeing the chefs' kitchens --  right, from top to bottom are screen shots of the kitchens of Coullion, Troisgros, and Grattard.

Besides the kitchen shots, I also loved the beautiful panoramas of urban landscapes and of the countryside surrounding each restaurant; images of Grattard and her husband/business partner visiting Hong Kong where they receive their inspiration; and the scenes of chefs shopping at open-air markets and Coullion working with local fishermen in his seaside town.

In interviews with the chefs themselves Gelb explores their lives and the histories of these three highly admired restaurants.
  • Coullion inherited a modest family restaurant in a small town on a quite remote island. He developed it from a small local place to one with international recognition for very innovative preparations of seafood and vegetables.
  • Michel Troisgros inherited the already-3-starred restaurant of his father and uncle, which has one of the longest runs of  Michelin recognition ever. He's now in the process of training his son -- maybe both of his sons -- to take over some day. This episode included much more history as the restaurant has been famous and especially influential for so long.
  • Passard took over an already famous restaurant and altered its classical menu to be mainly vegetarian and very extreme in its approach to cuisine.
  • Grattard and her husband and partner are more remarkable, in that they had no reputation or history in high-level French cuisine, and created something entirely new: a kind of French-Hong Kong fusion cuisine accompanied by tastings of various teas (as shown at top) rather than wine flights.
I found the chefs' personalities quite interesting. Passard seemed almost unbearably arrogant and full of himself. He even claims to have invented “garden to table.” Puh-leeze! Both Grattard and Coullion were  extremely likable and not at all arrogant about their success -- almost the contrary. They described how they got their ideas for innovative menus and presentations. As in other Chef's Table episodes from other places, the viewer gets to see numerous dishes as they are plated and prepared for service. A few from the Michel Troisgros episode:

Monday, January 01, 2018

Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to Antarctica

“I have stopped issuing sugar now, and our meals consist of seal meat and blubber only, with 7 ozs. of dried milk per day for the party .... Each man receives a pinch of salt, and the milk is boiled up to make hot drinks for all hands. The diet suits us, since we cannot get much exercise on the floe and the blubber supplies heat. Fried slices of blubber seem to our taste to resemble crisp bacon. It certainly is no hardship to eat it, though persons living under civilized conditions probably would shudder at it. The hardship would come if we were unable to get it.” -- Shackleton, South, p. 118.
Hunting seals and penguins to supplement their scarce provisions, Shackleton and his 27 men made their way across dangerous ice floes after their ship, the Endurance, crushed by ice sank in the waters off Antarctica. The photo above shows the ship about to be crushed, after the men had been forced to abandon it before they too were swallowed up. Rations became more and more scarce, with little fuel to create warm meals in the freezing atmosphere -- a later supper was "a pannikin of hot milk [from powdered milk], one of our precious biscuits, and a cold penguin leg each." (p. 159)

Over and over the reader learns of the terrible conditions: limited food, no changes of clothing, soaking rains or waves leaving the men unable to dry their clothing or bedding, deep-freeze temperatures, and constant darkness in the winter months. The scarcity of food and non-salty water seemed to cause them the worst suffering.

In South: the Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance, explorer Shackleton gives a first-person narrative of the ill-fated voyage and describes the heroism and deprivation they experienced. Amazingly, Frank Hurley, the ship's photographer, captured a large number of very dramatic photographs of the expedition, which are included in the volume that I read as well as in the Project Gutenberg online edition, from which I took these images.

To go back to the beginning of the story: in August, 1914, just as World War I was breaking out in Europe, Ernest Shackleton's ship the Endurance had embarked on a long-planned trip to Antarctica with 28 men and approximately 50 sled dogs. Their intention was to land men, sleds, and dogs on one side of Antarctica and travel across the entire continent, via the South Pole. Another ship, the Aurora, was to land on the other side of the continent and place supplies for the expedition, whose members would be picked up a year or so later when they completed the crossing -- a feat that was not in fact accomplished for around another 40 years. In the last third of the book, Shackleton also describes the voyage of the Aurora.

Nothing went as planned! Although their approach to Antarctica was in the southern summer, they were faced with terrible storms; the ship became iced in, and eventually was crushed in the floes and pack ice and sunk. They had lost radio contact much earlier, so no one was likely to look for them.

The men took the sleds and dogs and all the supplies they could handle, and set off across the ice, towing the life boats. Eventually they arrived at Elephant Island just off Antarctica. Shackleton and five of the men crossed 800 miles of open water and made it to South Georgia Island, where they recruited a rescue ship. After several failed attempts, they arrived at Elephant Island where the 22 stranded men were about to run out of food. The photo above shows these men waving to the lifeboat from the rescue ship -- they had been waiting over 4 months for this arrival.

When Shackleton and his small crew on the lifeboat reached the whaling station at South Georgia Island, they were given food, clean clothing, access to bathing, and a warm bed. The biggest shock for them (and later for the 22 men rescued from Elephant Island) was learning from their host that the First World War was continuing at a ferocious pace:
"We were listening avidly to his account of the war and of all that had happened while we were out of the world of men. We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad. Our minds accustomed themselves gradually to the tales of nations in arms, of deathless courage and unimagined slaughter, of a world-conflict that had grown beyond all conceptions, of vast red battlefields in grimmest contrast with the frigid whiteness we had left behind us. The reader may not realize quite how difficult it was for us to envisage nearly two years of the most stupendous war of history." (p. 210)
Reading this book was an unusual choice for me, but I found it compelling!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

In My December Kitchen

December was a busy month in my kitchen as I'm sure it was in yours. I bought myself two new ceramic items from the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild December sale (see note at end), I received some gifts, and I tried a few new food products. So for a change I have good material for this month's sharing with other bloggers known as "In My Kitchen." To see the collective list of blogs that have shared kitchen stories this month, link to Sherry's blog HERE.
My new mug from the Potters' Guild (center), along with some others with similar glazes. The mug on the
far right is made by the same artist as the new one next to it.
Beautifully decorated serving platter from the Potters' Guild sale. This platter is around 10" in diameter.

A small glass knife/spreader, a gift from Evelyn. With some Trader Joe's patè.
New item from Trader Joe's: brined caperberries. Nicely flavored!
Another new food item, which I received as a gift: a 1.5 oz. package of duck fat,
which is shown melting in the pot. Inset: the package that it came in.
It was quite delicious and I would buy it again if I found it.
A mushroom brush -- somehow I've always wanted one.
I haven't had any mushrooms since I bought it, so I
don't know yet if it's as useful as I've expected.
Most fun in my kitchen this month: making Chanukah latkes for 10 people with Carol!
Check out the neat apron, which is identical to the one Carol gave me as a gift. THANKS, CAROL!
She also brought us another jar of Durkee's Special Sauce, an item which I wrote about a couple of months ago.
A few days ago, I summarized the best things I ate in 2017 on a blog post HERE. I hope to keep blogging about food and reading my favorite blogs in the New Year. To all of you:
My best to everyone for the coming year!

Note: About the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild from their website: "The Potters Guild is a cooperative non-profit organization comprising over fifty members who share the responsibility and administration of the studio. The range of work includes functional pottery, sculpture, tile work, and wearable art. Firing techniques include low fire oxidation, raku, smoke firing, as well as high fire reduction. As individual artists, we display our work in galleries, locally, throughout Michigan, and across the United States. The Guild holds two sales per year at the studio (in the spring - late April or early May and early December) and has also participated in the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair since it began in 1959."