In this latest episode of Gastropod, chef and author Dan Barber takes listeners on a journey around the world in search of great flavor and the ecosystems that support it, from Spain to the deep South. You’ll hear how a carefully tended landscape of cork trees makes for delicious ham, and about a squash so cutting edge it doesn’t yet have a name, in this deep dive into the intertwined history and science of soil, cuisine, and flavor.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time before refrigerators, before long-distance trucks and ships. Most people had to survive on food from their immediate surroundings, no matter how poor the soil or challenging the terrain. They couldn’t import apples from New Zealand and potatoes from Peru, or rely on chemical fertilizer to boost their yields.
From within these constraints, communities around the world developed a way of eating that Dan Barber calls “ecosystem cuisines.” Barber, the James Beard-award-winning chef of Blue Hill restaurant and author of the new book The Third Plate, spoke to Gastropod about his conviction that this historically-inspired style of cuisine can be reinvented, with the help of plant-breeders, his fellow chefs, and the latest in flavor science, in order to create a truly sustainable way to eat for the twenty-first century.
Ecosystem cuisines, as Barber explains in this new Gastropod episode, survived in often harsh landscapes for hundreds or even thousands of years because the local farmers cultivated a mutually beneficial community of plants and animals that grew well together, supported soil fertility, and could be combined in ways that still taste utterly fantastic today.
Barber originally became famous for his "farm-to-table" cooking—a style of cuisine that prioritizes serving local, seasonal food, and that has become increasingly popular across America as a sustainable, delicious way to eat. But, as he began to understand how ecosystem cuisines incorporated all the ingredients of a healthy landscape, he realized that the typical farm-to-table chef’s approach of only showcasing a region’s very best local products isn’t really sustainable at all.
For example, Barber told us that the world-famous jamon iberico de bellota, Spain’s mouth-watering Iberian ham, simply could not exist if the local community didn’t also value, maintain, and consume the entire ecosystem around it. This landscape, a carefully tended combination of grasslands and widely spaced cork and holm oak trees, is called the dehesa in Spanish. As Barber explained, despite being a remote region with poor soils and a dry climate, the Spanish dehesa supports a thriving mix of pigs, sheep, and cows, olives, mushrooms, wild game and herbs, wheat—and people, whose dinner plates traditionally reflect all of the landscape’s products, rather than just its superstar ham.
Cork harvesting in the montado, the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish dehesa. In this region of both countries, the cork oak acorns are eaten by foraging pigs, while the bark supplies much of the world's natural cork for wine bottles. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.
Inspired by the dehesa, Barber has set himself (and anyone who cooks) an inspiring and intimidating goal: to invent thousands of entirely new cuisines for America—cuisines that include all the edible products of a healthy, ecologically balanced local landscape, and are actually more delicious than a cuisine that only relies a region’s best-loved foods.
The first chapter of our conversation with Dan Barber explores the particular environmental and cultural circumstances that helped establish these traditional ecosystem cuisines in the past. But Barber is very clear that he’s not advocating some kind of impossible return to a simpler time. Instead, as we go on to discuss in the episode’s second and third chapters, Barber is working with a variety of scientists at the cutting edge of their fields in his quest for truly great flavor.
In the book, this involves a visit to a futuristic hydrological engineering project in southern Spain, in which the flow of water through a series of 1920s-era canals has been reversed to revive one of Europe’s largest wetlands, creating a perfect habitat for both migrating birds and farm-raised sea bass that Barber describes as among the most delicious fish he has ever tasted. It also involves a series of failures in an innovative attempt to produce ethical foie gras, a bread raised using phytoplankton rather than yeast, and an impassioned argument for increased government support of agricultural research.
Dan Barber showed us grains from Klaas Martens' farm in upstate New York. After a visit to Martens' farm to source local wheat, Barber realized he needed to purchase and serve the other crops that Martens was growing in rotation on his fields in order to support the soil that grew the wheat. Photograph by Nicola Twilley
In this Gastropod episode, however, we focus on the science behind two approaches to creating great flavor: soil health and plant breeding. With Barber as our guide, we tease out the complicated and little-understood relationship between a soil’s mineral content and the nutrient density and flavor of the crops it supports, as well as the emerging science of microbe-root relationships and plant health.
Finally, we look at what it takes to breed truly delicious crop varieties. Barber introduces us to new squash developed by Michael Mazourek at Cornell University that has yet to receive a name, but is “so delicious that it blows your mind.” Barber’s latest obsession, however, is a new variety of wheat, specially bred by Steve Jones at the Washington State Research and Extension Center to deliver intense flavor alongside high yields and pest resistance. It’s called, to his great delight, “Barber wheat.”
Barber Wheat in the greenhouse (left) and freshly sowed in the fields at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture (right). Photograph via Dan Barber.
Barber is a guest on the latest episode of Gastropod, a new podcast hosted by award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber and Edible Geography-author Nicola Twilley. Listen to this episode to learn more surprising stories about the history and science of great flavor, including how the American Civil War can be traced back, in part, to a forgotten soil crisis, as well as the shocking research showing significant declines in the minerals in both American vegetables and soils over the past fifty years.
If you like the episode, please consider heading over to iTunes to review the podcast, which not only makes us very happy but also helps more people discover it. And keep tuning in every two weeks for a new episode exploring food through the lens of science and history.
This episode, we owe special thanks to Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and author of The Third Plate, as well as to Irene Hamburger, the vice president of Blue Hill, and designer Jake Barton of Local Projects, who both helped us connect with Dan. We probably also ought to mention Geoff Manaugh, Nicky's husband and author of BLDGBLOG, who drove us up to Stone Barns and then spent the afternoon recording turkeys for us.
Below are some additional references for stories, people, and places we mention in the episode.
Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture
Stone Barns is a nonprofit farm and education center located on the former Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, New York, just a few miles north of Manhattan. It's a lovely place to visit, it hosts lots of educational programs, and, as we mention in the episode, it manages an online hub for beginning farmers called the Virtual Grange. It also hosts Dan Barber's restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The Carolina Rice Kitchen and Glenn Roberts
The Carolina Rice Kitchen is the term used by food historians, such as Karen Hess, who wrote an entire book on the topic, to describe a particular cuisine that defined the Carolinas and Georgia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It depended on Carolina Gold rice as a staple, and relied on agricultural techniques brought to the region by enslaved Africans to restore fertility to the soil. Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is largely responsible for its recent revival.
Dirt and the Great Soil Crisis of the 1820s
In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, an earth sciences professor at the University of Washington, devotes an entire chapter to the disastrous management that left the soils of the southeastern United States exhausted and eroded just fifty years after the Declaration of Independence. Montgomery quotes none other than George Washington on the problem, in a 1796 letter to Alexander Hamilton:
It must be obvious to every man, who considers the agriculture of this country ... how miserably defective we are in the management of [our lands].... A few more years of increased sterility will drive the Inhabitants of the Atlantic States westward for support.
By the 1840s, when the British "father of geology" Charles Lyell toured the South, he was struck by the catastrophic erosion caused by clearing and poor land management and marveled at the stream of families abandoning their farms to move west.
A particularly dramatic gully near Milledgeville on the road to Macon, Alabama, which had eroded from a crack in the soil to 50 feet-deep in the 20 years since the land was first cleared for agriculture, ended up becoming an important case study in his landmark Principles of Geology. In his travel journals, Lyell wrote, "I found the proprietors by no means in a thriving state, evidently losing ground from year to year, and some of them talking of abandoning the exhausted soil, and migrating with their slaves to the south-western States."
Charles Lyell's illustration of a gully near Milledgeville, Georgia, in the 1840s, via David Montgomery's Dirt.
Ham in Coca-Cola and Waffle House Politics
Soil Minerals and the Dilution Effect
In 2004, Donald R. Davis and colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin, published a study titled "Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999" in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, which compared USDA nutrient content data published in 1950 and 1999 for 13 different nutrients in 43 fruits and vegetables, and found significant declines in three of the minerals studied (calcium, phosphorus, and iron) and two of the five vitamins (riboflavin and ascorbic acid). Davis speculates that this decline is an unintended consequence of breeding crops for higher yields, in some kind of genetic trade-off.
The statistic that average mineral levels in North American agricultural soils have declined by 85 percent is widely attributed to the final report of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which is quoted as saying that "there is deep concern over continuing major declines in the mineral values in farm and range soils throughout the world." It's (perhaps suspiciously) difficult to find the data on which that statement is based, though Scientific American also argues that soil depletion is primarily to blame for the better documented reduction of nutrient levels in fruit and vegetables:
The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows.
And, finally, this citizen science project aims to test the relationship between soil mineral depletion, vegetable nutrient density, and flavor (measured by proxy using Brix levels, or the percentage of dissolved solids in the vegetable)—but they have yet to publish any results!
We promised we'd serve a bite-sized snack in between our full-length episodes, and here it is—a short and snappy update, in which we share two of the most interesting food history and science stories we've come across recently.
This week is all about the ignored, overlooked, and (maybe) future foods and flavors of America. We'll introduce you to the scientists using DNA sequencing to help them perform the very ancient human activity of crop domestication, and to a writer fighting to save Alaska's most abundant and sustainable fishery. By the end of our conversation, we expect you'll want to swap that all-American burger and fries for some wild salmon and mashed potato beans. (Don't worry, you can still have a chocolate-chip cookie for dessert—in fact, it will be the ur-chocolate-chip cookie.)
Chances are, you've spent more time thinking about the specs on your smartphone than about the gadgets that you use to put food in your mouth.
But the shape and material properties of forks, spoons, and knives turn out to matter—a lot. Changes in the design of cutlery have not only affected how and what we eat, but also what our food tastes like. There's even evidence that the adoption of the table knife transformed the shape of European faces.
To explore the hidden history and emerging science of cutlery for our brand new podcast, Gastropod spoke to Bee Wilson, food historian and author of Consider the Fork, and Zoe Laughlin, co-founder of the Institute of Making at University College London. Below are some of our favorite stories from those conversations.
First, some history. Consider the Fork is one of our favorite food books: in it, Bee Wilson takes readers on a fascinating journey through the evolution of kitchen technology and its impact on our lives. It's packed with astonishing details that gave us a whole new appreciation for humble appliances such as the can opener and the kitchen timer. Wilson ranges across human history, from the sixteenth-century adoption of the enclosed oven (before then, chefs often worked naked or just in underpants, to avoid catching their clothes on the open flames) to the 1994 "invention" of the Microplane grater, which took place when Canadian housewife Lorraine Lee borrowed a carpentry rasp from her husband's hardware store to zest orange for a cake.
One of the earliest forks in Britain (made between 1587 and 1606), found by archaeologists excavating the site of the Elizabethan-era Rose Theater. Called a sucket fork, it was used for eating sweetmeats, such as dried and candied fruits. Later versions had a spoon at the other end, like a proto-spork.
But it was the chapter on cutlery that really caught our attention. Although it's hard to imagine life without them now, forks are a relatively recent addition to the table—and they weren't a big hit at first. In the sixteenth century, as aristocratic Italians began to replace their single-pronged ravioli spears with a multi-tined fork, the rest of Europe still saw the fork as "this bizarre, weird, slightly fetishistic device," Wilson explained. "Why would you want to put metal prongs into your mouth along with the food? It just didn't seem like a natural way to eat." Indeed, when a Englishman, Thomas Coryate, adopted the fork habit after traveling to Italy at the start of the seventeenth century, his friends—including the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Donne—teasingly called him "furcifer," which meant "fork-holder" but also "rascal."
It wasn't until a century later, in the early 1700s, that eating with a fork was accepted across Europe—in part, Wilson explains in the book, due to the transition from bowls and trenchers, whose curves were better suited to spoons, to flatter china plates. That was followed, another hundred years later, by an explosion in fork shapes and a corresponding wave of "fork anxiety." As Wilson described it, the transition to serving meals in a succession of courses, each with a fresh set of cutlery, rather than just laying all the dishes on the table for diners to help themselves, led to the development of specialized "forks for olives, forks for ice-cream, forks for sardines, forks for terrapins, forks for salads"—even forks for soup, though that was rapidly condemned as "foolish," and the soup spoon was restored.
Pages from the 1910 Gorham Buttercup pattern silver catalog (left) and the 1898 Gorham Strasbourg pattern silver catalog (right), which together list more than 100 different items of cutlery, including the relish fork, asparagus fork, tomato serving fork, lemon fork, pickle fork, sardine fork, vegetable fork, and beef forks shown above. The full Buttercup pattern also included the infamous ice cream fork. Via Eden Sterling.
But if forks have a complicated history, the future of spoons may well be golden. Literally. Zoe Laughlin, who confessed to being driven, in part, by a childhood obsession with finding the perfect spoon, has been conducting scientific research into the sensory properties of materials. Working out of the Institute of Making, a London-based cross-disciplinary research club, she started exploring the different tactile and aural sensations of metals. Next, she wondered how metals taste. Scientists had researched this question before, by having people swish metal salts around in their mouth. To Laughlin, that methodology made no sense. We put metal in our mouths every day, in the form of cutlery—why not just do a spoon taste test?
Before long, she had volunteers lining up to suck on a set of seven spoons that were identical in shape and size, but plated with different metals. Her results showed that different metals really do taste different—the atomic properties of each metal affects the way the spoon reacts with our saliva, and so, for instance, copper is more bitter than stainless steel.
Her next step was to figure out how the taste of different metals affects the flavor of food. Working with a top chef, she hosted a spoon-and-food pairing dinner party, in which food writers and scientists discovered the curious affinity of tin for lamb and pistachio. One spoon ruled them all, however: as Laughlin put it, "The gold spoon is just sort of divine. It tastes incredibly delicious and it makes everything you eat seem more delicious." After tasting mango sorbet off a gold spoon, Laughlin told us, with a note of regret in her voice, "I thought, I can't believe I'm ever going to eat off anything other than gold ever again. Sadly, of course, I do."
Bee Wilson and Zoe Laughlin are guests on the first episode of Gastropod, the new podcast hosted by award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber and Edible Geography-author Nicola Twilley. Listen to the first episode, The Golden Spoon, for many more shocking cutlery revelations, and tune in every two weeks for a new episode looking at food through the lens of science and history.
This episode, we owe special thanks to Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork, Zoe Laughlin at the Institute of Making, and Sarah Rich, design writer and lucky owner of gold cutlery. Artist and filmmaker Jon Cohrs gave us an engineering assist on this episode, and Vash, a freelance folk percussionist in Oregon, graciously allowed us to use a recording of him playing the spoons. We're also extremely grateful to the family members, friends, and early listeners who were so generous with their time and feedback as we got started.
Below are some additional references for stories, people, and places we mention in the episode.
The first mention of lasagna in an Italian recipe book can be found in the fourteenth-century Neapolitan Liber de Coquina. In Latin, the anonymous author instructs readers to cut dough into rectangles three inches long, boil them, and then stack them, seasoning each layer with grated cheese and pulverized spice. The recipe concludes with the stipulation that the dish should be eaten with a pointed wooden utensil (uno punctorio ligneo)—the wooden, awl-shaped spike that preceded the fork among the elite pasta-eaters of Italy. You can read the full text, in Latin, here.
The famous spaghetti eaters of Naples
From the second half of the 1700s right up to the start of the twentieth century, tourists traveling to Naples made sure to see street children eating spaghetti, even if it meant buying a plateful for them. As Silvano Serventi writes in Pasta: The History of a Universal Food:
Numerous travelers who visited the huge southern Italian city remarked on the countless booths of maccaronari, who would proffer, in exchange for a modest sum of money, a steaming plate of macaroni, sprinkled with grated cheese, which the casual stroller would promptly gulp down, using no other utensil than his fingers. From Goethe to Alexandre Dumas, poets, renowned writers, or ordinary travelers, whether experts of cuisine or not, described with ethnological precision the gestures of the man in the street […] as he grabbed a handful of macaroni, “twisting them around their fingers with a dexterity that foreigners rarely if ever succeed in imitating.”
C. Loring Brace on cutlery and the overbite
Here's the original paper, published in the journal American Anthropologist in 1986, in which C. Loring Brace explains the relationship between the adoption of a fork at table and the European overbite. As if this shocking theory were not enough, he also includes a poem about human dentition, and some speculation on the "f"-sound as a recent innovation in human history.
Aerogel photographed at JPL by Robert. M. Brown, via.
Aerogel is an ultra lightweight, stardust-catching material used by NASA to capture grains of interstellar dust. The Institute of Making has a sample as part of its Materials Library. The preliminary findings from NASA's Stardust expedition, which returned to earth in 2006, were published in August 2014. Scientists announced that the aerogel had successfully captured 7 exotic grains of dust—the first known dust particles from outside our Solar System.
Zoe Laughlin's scientific papers on the taste of metals
Laughlin and her collaborators have published several scientific papers on their spoon research:
The use of standard electrode potentials to predict the taste of solid metals, Zoe Laughlin, Martin Conreen, Harry J. Witchel, and Mark Miodownik, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 22, Issue 7, October 2011, Pages 628–637.
Tasting spoons: Assessing how the material of a spoon affects the taste of the food, Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, Zoe Laughlin, Mark Miodownik, and Charles Spence, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 24, Issue 1, April 2012, Pages 24–29.