Even the dead kept watch. They sat upright in their graves, men and women, and faced the river, waiting, it seemed, for the waters to roil again with massive, steel-grey fish. The sturgeon, barbeled giants with rows of bony scutes down their backs, appeared each spring in Serbia’s Danube Gorge, after battling the current all the way from the Black Sea. The largest of these fish weighed more than a dozen men. The oldest of these Beluga sturgeon survived more than a century.
Category Archives: Food
Lords of the Flies: New Clues to Ancient Cultures from Very Old Bugs
In Science this week, I write about some very ingenious research that a new breed of archaeologists–archaeoentomologists, as they like to be known–are carrying out on insect remains recovered from ancient sites. By poring over fly puparia preserved in an 1800-year-old grave at the Moche site of Huaca de la Luna in Peru, French archaeoentomologist Jean-Bernard Huchet has completed a CSI-style study of Moche burial practices. And by studying small weevil-shaped holes in Jomon pots dating to at least 9000 years ago, Japanese archaeologist Hiroki Obata and his team raise the possibility of very early agriculture in Japan.
The article lies behind a paywall, unfortunately, but you can read the short summary here.
Photo: Painted facade of the Huaca de la Luna, Trujillo, Peru. Source: Martin St-Amant
When Did We Begin Supersizing Dinner?
Every time I venture into the produce departments of large supermarkets, I am stunned by what I see on the shelves. Arranged to perfection on trays and lit by soft lighting are foods I scarcely recognize anymore: grapes the size of a squash ball, naval oranges as big as a child’s head, and pineapples larger than a football. How did we ever get to this, I ask myself, pumping our crops so full of chemicals until they reach Brobdingnagian dimensions? Gulliver would have felt right at home.
All this came to mind this morning, as I read a very clever new historical study that Brian Wansink, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, and his theologian brother Craig Wansink, just published in the International Journal of Obesity. The two researchers examined 52 images of the Last Supper painted between A.D. 1000 and 1900, and measured the size of the portrayed portions. (They did the later by scanning the food items and plates with computer-aided design technology, then calculating the relative food to human head ratio.)
What they found was a strong trend over time towards supersizing. The entrees grew by a whopping 69%, while the plates themselves expanded by 66%. Even bread loaves swelled by 25%. Could religious practices account for this trend? Craig Wansink, the theologian on the team, says no. “There is no religious reason why the meal got bigger,” Wansink told a BBC reporter. “It may be that meals really did grow, or that people just became more interested in food.”
Brian Wansink’s earlier research strongly suggests that the monster-sized portions we see today in restaurants, fast food joints, and on our own dining room tables have a lot to do with the current obesity epidemic. And there are some simple things we can do to cut the calories. Just switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch plate, for example, will result in a 22% decrease in the amount of food we eat at dinner.
Above: The Last Supper by Jacopo da Ponte, ca 1546
Below: The Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez n.d.
Dolphin Hunters and The Cove
Like many others who watched the Academy Awards last night, I was very disturbed by the clips I saw from The Cove, the film that won in the Best Documentary category. The Cove portrays the dolphin hunt that takes place each year near the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji. There hunters herd more than a thousand dolphins into a small cove, where they spear them from small boats. The most disturbing clip was an aerial view of the cove after the slaughter: the water was blood red.
Taiji’s inhabitants are apparently up in arms now over the film. According to a CBC report I read today, Taiji’s mayor has now released a statement defending the hunt. “There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world,” he notes. “It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories.”
I will come back in a moment to the ethics of this hunt. But the mayor does make a valid point. Dolphin hunting does indeed have a very long history along the rim of the Pacific Ocean. Archaeological evidence shows that dolphins were a major food source along the coast of California–not far from where the Oscars were handed out last night–as early as 9000 years ago.
Mark Raab, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues excavated a trove of dolphin bones at a site on San Clemente Island, 60 miles off the California coast. As it happened, I was there at Eel Point with the crew when they dug a small portion of the site, and I was amazed as I watched faunal expert Judy Porcasi sort through the recovered bone fragments. Porcasi kept shaking her head as she picked out something familiar in a screen. “Dolphin,” she said. “Dolphin. Dolphin.”
Her later analysis showed that a whopping 38 percent of the identifiable mammal bones from the dig belonged to dolphins. And though the intensity of the hunt varied over time, the people of Eel Point hunted dolphins from 7000 B.C. right up to A.D 1400. And this raises an important question. How did they manage kill so many dolphins? The excavations did not turn up any sign of a harpoon.
In search of clues, Porcasi and Raab began scouring accounts of how traditional cultures elsewhere around the Pacific hunted dolphins. From this they discovered that human hunters had long employed a simple but deadly technique.
In the Solomon Islands, for example, hunters struck stones together underwater: this created a terrible cacophony of sound that essentially “jammed” the animals’ echo-location, a sonarlike system that guides them underwater. With this system down, the animals became so disoriented that hunters easily drove them into shallow water, where they could then be “captured by hand,” says Raab.
Raab now argues that the first migrants to Eel Point likely brought this clever hunting technique with them from Asia. This strikes me as a very plausible argument, and it suggests that humans have been hunting dolphins in places like Japan for more than 11,500 years.
But does this make the practice morally acceptable today? I don’t think it does and here’s why. Japanese villagers do not need dolphin meat to survive, as hunters did in times past. And there is no suggestion that hunting these marine mammals plays an essential part of their culture. Last, but definitely not least, I think we know much more about dolphins today than hunters did in the past, because we are able to observe their underwater behavior in ways that earlier people could not.
On the strength of these observations, we now know how very intelligent dolphins are. They have recognizable personalities, can think about the future, are capable of working together cooperatively, and are excellent problem-solvers. In other words, dolphins are a lot like us, and so some scientists have recently proposed they should be treated as “non-human persons.”
I do not support the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. I hope that the international community can now pressure the Japanese government to bring this terrible slaughter to an end.
World’s Oldest Surviving Junk Food
Quick, who invented the hot dog? Was it the sausage-makers of Frankfurt? The butchers of Vienna ( a city that German-speakers call Wien)? Or was it Charles Feltman, an enterprising German immigrant who ran a pie-wagon in Coney Island in 1867? We’ll never know, but get this. Construction workers have now excavated the world’s oldest known hot dog frozen in ice below one of Feltman’s buildings on Coney Island. Mummified and rather revolting looking, this 140-year old frankfurter is attracting a lot of attention. You can see it for yourself in the CNN video here. The discoverers say they want to preserve it, but they are sure going about it in a weird way–pouring hot water on the ice!
Hot dogs made Feltman a fortune. In his first year of business, the young enterpreneur hawked more than 3864 of them to Coney Island visitors, and he transformed junk food into a small empire of beer gardens, hotels and the like.
Clearly junk food pays. Never underestimate the appetite of the public!
Sweet Tooth: Victorian style
For anyone who has been caught empty-handed in terms of a gift for Valentine’s Day, it’s not too late to pop into the kitchen. New York Times columnist Amanda Hesser has resurrected a Victorian recipe for chocolate caramels and given it to two prominent New York chefs to update. The results sound delectable, and the column is well worth a quick read.
Sugar: A Short Bittersweet History
Wealthy Europeans of the Renaissance adored dessert time. Indeed their cravings for sweet cakes and marzipan, plum pies and mince tarts far outstripped supplies of the chief ingredient—refined sugar. To keep up with the vast demand and turn fields of sugar cane into bags of white sugar, European mill owners required timber to fuel their boiling vats: by the early 16th century, sugar masters from Italy to Madeira had all but exhausted the most easily accessible forests.
The first Spanish colonists to land in the Caribbean understood this problem perfectly, and when their quest for gold failed in Jamaica, they turned to sugar in 1515 to make their fortunes. In Jamaica’s earliest settlement–Sevilla la Neuva–Francisco Garay, a former slave trader and minor member of the Spanish nobility, imported a sugar master, constructed a large mill to process newly planted sugar cane and forced Jamaica’s indigenous Taino villagers to do all the hard labor.
Simon Fraser University archaeologist Robyn Woodward and her team are now excavating the industrial quarter of Seville la Neuva, uncovering traces of a tragic history that ended in the decimation of the Taino . To read more about this new research, please see my newly posted article on the Smithsonian magazine website.