The Endangered Twinkie

If the living undead
Have your thoughts filled with dread
And you’re seeking a morsel of heaven
Well, the people who make
All that spongy, filled cake
Have just filed for chapter eleven!

Yes, for some, dreadful news
And they’re singing the blues,
But some info is poorly construed
See, this cream-filling log,
On the NPR blog,
Has been categorized under “food”!

Yes, NPR is reporting that Hostess Brands Inc. is filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Now, I haven’t eaten any of their products in years–perhaps decades–but think of them fondly, in the same way I think of avocado-colored kitchen appliances, greasy-spoon diners and curling linoleum, as icons of my early memories.

Michael Pollan would, of course, not call Twinkies a food at all, but a food-like substance. One could wish that the decline of Hostess might be blamed on a new health-conscious attitude; that is one of the company’s claims. But I don’t think whole-wheat twinkies will sell. If they are to survive, how will they be re-framed? Collector’s items? Zombie insurance?

I think the GOP candidates need to put out the word that Twinkies are patriotic. Eat them at every photo op, sign them for supporters, use them as props to evoke that nostalgia for a better, more simpler time. Plus, it could come in handy to explain some of their behavior.

Since We’re Coming Up On Thanksgiving…

Another oldie. Sorry. But I want you to donate to food banks, before thanksgiving. (non USAians, I just want you to be good people.) This verse, from a year and a half ago, examined motives. At the time, people were concerned that the reason that people donated to food banks was somehow more important than the fact that they do so. I disagree. If you can, please do donate. If you get some sort of reward, or tax break, or special dispensation from the pope, so much the better. If we can make it easy to be good, shouldn’t we? (the penultimate line comments on the notion, expressed by some but not all humanists, that human nature can be trusted to lead to good behavior. I disagree, which is one reason I am not a humanist.)

If we only take donations
With the purest motivations
And our shelves remain half-empty, it’s the hungry folks who lose.
If the sponsors can afford it,
There’s good reason to reward it!
And the altruists can turn their prizes down, if they so choose.
Do not make it any harder
Than it is, to stock a larder,
With a view of human nature based on freely-chosen good!
I don’t care if it looks greedy,
If it helps the poor and needy–
The alternative is hunger, till we give “because we should”.
If a prize or recognition
Brings donations to fruition–
“I’ll increase my odds of winning if I donate lots of tins!”–
You can say that it looks selfish;
I’m not humanist, I’m shellfish!
When we pay for good behavior, sometimes everybody wins!

Edible? Wearable?

An octopus, in all its glory,
Draped about a dress of nori,
Decorates a model in a German fashion show
Chocolate wraps, and masks of fishes
Are these clothes, or are they dishes?
Edible aesthetics for the woman on the go?

From the drawing-board and kettle
Of the Michelin chef Trettl
It was mostly eaten afterwards (not all of it, I note)
Now this fashion-slash-nutrition
Is a photo exhibition
As couture or as cuisine, though, I’m left wondering… is it haute?

More after jump: [Read more…]

Headline News, 9/22

A decision that’s rather surreal—
The state senator made an appeal
To eliminate waste
That’s of questionable taste
The condemned get no choice of last meal

Headline: Texas Prisons End Special Last Meals In Executions

Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed Wednesday for the hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. more than a decade ago, asked for two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover’s pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Prison officials said Brewer didn’t eat any of it.

Gee, I wonder if something put him off his feed?

While extensive, Brewer’s request was far from the largest or most bizarre among the 475 Texas inmates put to death.

On Tuesday, prisoner Cleve Foster’s request included two fried chickens, French fries and a five-gallon (19-liter) bucket of peaches. He received a reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court but none of his requested meal. He was on his way back to death row, at a prison about 45 miles east of Huntsville, at the time when his feast would have been served.

Last week, inmate Steven Woods’ request included two pounds of bacon, a large four-meat pizza, four fried chicken breasts, two drinks each of Mountain Dew, Pepsi, root beer and sweet tea, two pints of ice cream, five chicken fried steaks, two hamburgers with bacon, fries and a dozen garlic bread sticks with marinara on the side. Two hours later, he was executed.

Years ago, a Texas inmate even requested dirt for his final meal.

For the record, I hate, hate, hate the death penalty. The notion that the state can kill someone in my name (I take it personally; it’s my country and my state) is repulsive to me.

The idea of a last meal, though. I have one. It features multiple members of the pie family, from meat to fruit. But gee, now that a Texas state senator has decided that getting one special meal before they kill you is coddling, I guess I’ll just have to keep away from Texas, just in case I do something illegal there, like be an atheist.

What would your last meal be? Let’s assume you’re not on death row, but somehow know this is your last meal–or the last one you will appreciate. What’s on your menu?

One Million Moms Don’t Like Schweddy Balls

One Million Moms” are marching
In the grocery stores and malls
To protest execution? No!
To protest Schweddy Balls!

They’ll send their waves of emails,
With their keyboards at the ready;
It’s not the excess calories—
The name says “Balls” and “Schweddy”

“We’re looking for a million moms”
They have not got them yet
But still, they’ll claim their million
Lest the media forget

Health care? Bullying? Abuse?
Education? Gun control?
A million moms could take a stand
But that’s not how they roll

They want their Christian values
On the television screen
While death, and pain, and prejudice
Are blissfully unseen

Via NPR, the inspiration for Schweddy Balls in the first place.

Seriously, go take a look at their “other issues”; if ever there was a group dedicated to tone and not substance, this is it.

And nowhere do they state their actual numbers. How many moms do you need before you can legitimately call yourself “one million moms”?

Edit–if you are the type who never reads comments, make an exception! Interesting information about the Million Moms, from commenter “freebird”. (thanks, freebird!)

Eating Mermaid

Via PZ, and via SC (!!!), the news is that there is a fatwa on the subject of eating mermaid.

Now, as a cuttlefish, I have known a mermaid or two in my day. One, of course, preferred to go by the Greek, “gorgona”, from which we get the monster “Gorgon”; there is no cute and cuddly Disney mermaid in Greek culture. The other mermaid I knew was decidedly cuter and cuddlier. I never had the opportunity, nor the desire, to consume either of them, so I want to make it clear that today’s verse is not about either of those mermaids.

It is, however, about food. But (as my first Mermaid always reminded me)… the food is just an excuse.

A fish connoisseur made paella with Mermaid;
He thought the aroma was nice.
With garnish of seaweed (his sycophants “oui-oui-ed”)
And saffron infusing the rice.
He clarified butter, and started to mutter
“It tastes like it’s really Mazola”
Then added blue cheeses: “the trick, if you please, is—
With Gorgon, you need gorgonzola!”
With minimum bluster, he gutted and trussed her;
You see, in his studies, he’d learned
That the delicate features of mermaid-like creatures,
If left unattended, get burned.
The succulent breast of (as well as the rest of)
The meal, would make proud its creator;
I was told that one bite would bring utter delight,
And I could not refuse… so I ate her.

Wish Me Luck! (And Recipes!)

It’s early, and I am about to go to bed. We are leaving Cuttlehouse at about 3:30 tomorrow morning, and will not arrive at our final destination until Sunday afternoon (local time). Yes, some time will be spent waiting in airports, but the vast majority of that time will be spent in the air.


And I won’t be back here until, probably, the 27th. If all goes well.

So… If you are checking in and read this, I have two things to ask of you (especially if you are someone who has been here before, or plans to stop back here again):

1) Where are you? How did you find this blog? (the first because I note that google statistics shows me a number of people from the areas I am heading off to see, and I am curious; the latter just because I am curious. I suspect I know where the majority come from, but I could very well be mistaken.)

2) Can you get me a recipe? Seriously (and for both personal and academic reasons), I am looking for recipes. Specifically, I want old family recipes, especially if they are representative of whatever culture (from midwest US to middle east, from Nordic to Aboriginal, I don’t care which culture!), and all the more especially if they have stories attached to them about the people who cooked and/or ate this food. No recipe is too strange, and no recipe is too ordinary, if it is (for instance) your great-great-aunt’s favorite.

Take your time–I won’t be back for over a week–but please, for the sake of my frail ego, don’t let me come home to an empty comment thread! (If your family recipes are considered secret, you don’t have to give the entire recipe, or you can email it to me and maintain plausible deniability.)

I am, perhaps uncharacteristically, perfectly serious about this request; I hope to use some of the recipes in a class I am teaching this upcoming Fall. Last semester, I only asked my students–I did get some nice recipes, for (among other things, just to show the variety) blood sausage, chitlins, and feta with watermelon. I shared with them a recipe for goat lung, which is not a family recipe, only because my family has a history of very bad cooks. My grandmother pan-fried spaghetti. Seriously.


Deepily, Sleepily
Digital Cuttlefish
Starting the countdown, to
Get on the plane;

Flying away from here
Hoping the week is not
Wholly insane.

In the words of Tim Minchin… “see you on the other side.”

The Doomsday Vault

In the news this week, the “Doomsday Seed Vault” opened in a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep within the permafrost inside a frozen mountain. It is far from any substantial human activity, cold enough to keep seeds frozen even if the power goes out, high enough to survive the melting of the polar ice caps, and secured by armored airlock doors with electronic keys. It was financed by Norway, but the seeds will remain the property of whichever nations send them for storage. Other seed banks have been attempted in the past, but none so large, so well protected, so well thought out.

The seeds are, among other things, a bank of genetic diversity. Our cultivation of crops means we depend on fewer and fewer varieties; with less genetic variability, a drastic change in climate conditions (or pests, disease, etc.) could have disastrous consequences. These seeds represent the opportunity for new (old) strains, hybrids, or models for genetic engineering.

And it is a wonderful idea. Especially if the drastic change is not too quick. My first thought after hearing about the vault was “ok, so I am the Omega man, one of very few survivors of [insert catastrophe, war, or plague here]; how the hell do I get to Svalbard? Just where the hell is Svalbard, anyway? And how do I get through the locked, armored doors to get to the seeds?”

The doomsday seed vault, way up North
And deeply set in permafrost
Could be the savior of mankind
A second birth when all is lost.
(No, not the fake religious sort,
But hope in case of global crisis,
In case our species sees collapse
From space, or war, or plague, or vices)
The seeds are kept in frozen store,
Preserving the diversity
Of plant genetics, just in case
Of unforeseen adversity.

The site could hold two billion seeds
With airlocked doors, securely locked;
They’ll run it by remote control,
For safety, once it’s fully stocked.
Varieties now in decline
Can be preserved, so we don’t lose
Genetic lines which hold some trait
That later decades need to use.
A safety net, a Noah’s ark,
Insurance for the worst disaster:
If catastrophic change occurs
These help us to recover faster.

But… safely stored in armored vaults,
Surveillance cameras standing guard,
I think, although the seeds are safe,
Retrieving them might well be hard.
Suppose that, say, a comet hits,
Or World War III , or global plague,
And farms all fail—ok, now what?
Instructions are a little vague.
Suppose survivors even know
This treasure trove exists at all—
It’s deep within the permafrost
Behind a locked and armored wall!

A couple million years from now
When aliens arrive on Earth
The doomsday vault, if ever found,
Incalculable will be its worth.
They’ll see our species looked ahead,
Cooperation in our plan,
Intelligence, technology,
But will they find a living man?
Or will our epitaph be writ,
A lesson that our deaths will teach:
“They saved the seeds to save themselves,
But kept them safely out of reach.”

The singularity can’t come soon enough

The New York Times reports on a journal article in Analytical Chemistry, by researchers at the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, about a machine designed to answer the question: “Can a machine taste coffee?”

Here’s where it gets brilliant. Sure, machines can detect the volatile compounds in coffee; this is how we know that there are over 1000 of them. But there is a world of difference between detecting the presence or absence of a compound, and what we do when we taste. Taste is much more dependent on the relative concentrations of these compounds than on their mere presence. And although it would be technically possible to build a machine to sample 1000 chemicals and display their relative concentrations, it would not be terribly practical, nor cost-effective. The approach taken by this research team was far more pragmatic, and beautifully empirical.

First, the 16 most predictive (or in their words, most discriminating) ion traces (out of 230 measured), when compared with a panel of 10 expert tasters, were chosen as the working sense sample.

It is also important to point out that the chemical identity of the 16 ion traces is not relevant for this study, and in particular the correlation is not based on a set of identified key aroma compounds. Most of the odor active compounds in coffee are indeed known and can be analyzed and quantified with modern instrumental techniques. Yet, the aim of this work was to demonstrate the applicability of a data-driven method rather than a targeted chemical study.

The analysis is a bit technical, but straightforward; essentially, the 16-ion model is a functional condensation of our olfactory sense. The most predictive scent elements are still included, and the myriad other chemicals did not add significantly to the predictive ability of the machine. Think of it as an MP3 version of an audio file; lots of information is lost, but what is most acoustically relevant is kept, based on what we know about the human auditory system. Smell is a bit different, because so many different chemicals are involved, but the principle of building the machine based on human sensation is the same.

***Edit*** It occurs to me that there is one significant difference here that upsets the MP3 analogy. In the sound analogy, the desired outcome is a compressed file that retains as much usable sound information as possible; with the espresso-smelling machine, the outcome is not reproduction, but discrimination. They still used human olfaction as their comparison standard, but were looking specifically for the ion traces that discriminated among the espressos. The distinction is important. It may well be the case that these 16 ion traces do indeed determine enough about the aroma of an espresso to “fool” a human taster, but because the analysis focused on discrimination and not reproduction, it is also entirely possible that the perfect combination of these ion traces would be missing a huge part (but a part common to all samples) of the espresso taste and smell as experienced by the human taster. This is not a fault of their methodology at all, simply an artifact of what the goal of the experiment was. The same methodology could be aimed at reproduction, and it remains an empirical question whether the results would be much different than the present experiment. ***end edit***

Parenthetically, I note with sheer joy the fact that the paper cites Fechner (1877). And it is relevant. How cool do you have to be, to have your work cited 131 years after you wrote it? As cool as Fechner, that’s how cool. Fechner more-or-less invented the science of psychophysics, managing to capture sensation and perception scientifically for the first time. And here he is, cited in a 2008 paper. On machines tasting espresso.

On second thought, that might be my problem right there. I am still impressed by Fechner, and I live in a world where machines can meaningfully taste coffee. Food… or espresso… for thought.

I have a machine to smell my coffee,
To see if it’s any good;
I asked it to make me the perfect cup,
But I think it misunderstood—
It analyzed alkaloids, sampled aromas,
Tried seventeen samples of beans,
Then told me I clearly had no taste at all:
I never was good with machines.

My pre-owned car has an onboard computer—
It measures my driving, you see.
I guess I don’t drive like the previous owner;
My car likes him better than me.
It spits out a spreadsheet of technical numbers—
I don’t know what much of it means,
Except that my car thinks it’s better without me:
I never was good with machines.

Of course, at my office, I have a computer—
The one I am using right now;
It laughs at my grammar and sneers at my spelling,
Although I’m not really sure how.
Just one tiny part of a cubicle farm
Where we’re packed like so many sardines—
Do we use computers, or do they use us?
I never was good with machines.

I’m worried that someday my household appliances,
Sitting at home on my shelves,
Finally realize there’s nothing I offer
That they can’t do better themselves.
They make better coffee, they get better mileage,
Their words rarely stink up their screens—
And I’ll be left out in the cold and the dark:
I never was good with machines.