TRANSCRIPT Who Faked My Cheese?

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Who Faked My Cheese?, first released on April 10, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CHRIS: Hi, I’m Chris and I love cheese in any shape or form.

TIM: All of the cheese is the kind that we eat. We eat cows’ cheese and goat cheese and hard and soft and aged and funky and blue.

TAMAH: I like cheddar sharp—extra sharp.

ANNE: I love cheese. I like it because it’s creamy and it also has a little bit of a tartness, acidity to it. And it’s just really yummy.

KANTHA SHELKE: I think one of the most important aspects of cheese is that it is delicious.

MIYOKO SCHINNER: Oh my gosh, the whole experience of high-end cheese. That beautiful platter, the crackers, the glass of wine, just reaching over there and just taking unctuous bites of all these different types of cheese.

MARIA CHAVEZ: I am a heavy cheese lover. I am a vegetarian with vegan-leaning tendencies and I’m a member of the team that is holding out for a really good cheese to take me all the way vegan.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Nicky, my friend’s daughter said to me last summer, “Auntie Cynthia, I could never be a vegan because I LOVE CHEESE.” Lucine, I’m right there with you.

NICOLA TWILLEY: You, me, her, and the majority of the universe. In fact, here at Gastropod HQ, we love cheese so much that this is our second cheese-focused episode.

GRABER: And, as you just pointed out, this is indeed Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And there are no prizes for guessing what today’s episode is all about. CHEEEEEEESE.

GRABER: Today we’re exploring an aspect of cheese that we didn’t get to in our first cheese episode. What is it that makes cheese so frigging amazing? What’s the science behind cheese’s magic?

TWILLEY: The meltiness, the texture, the sharpness and funk and creamy mouth coating awesomeness—turns out there are scientific explanations for them all.

GRABER: I know we say this frequently, but I’m already hungry. Talking about cheese does that to me every time.

TWILLEY: Once again, a lot of cheese was consumed during the making of this episode. And some non-cheese.

GRABER: And that’s because the other major question we’re tackling this episode is: Why is it so hard to make a good cheese substitute? What are the challenges, and who’s taking them on?

TWILLEY: And what do their cheese substitutes actually taste like?

GRABER: A quick note, you’ll hear some tape from our trip to Italy in this episode, and for the final time, we’d like to thank the amazing Toni Mazzaglia. Check out her company Taste Florence, at A limited number of Gastropod listeners can put in the code Gastropod18 to get $5 off per ticket for her food tours in Florence.

TWILLEY: We also want to thank a few different listeners for the inspiration to make an episode on plant-based cheeses. Art Posocco, who is also a supporter on Patreon, so extra big thanks there.

GRABER: Audrey Waller also suggested we look into this, as did Jonathan Cope. We always love hearing your ideas, so send them in.

TWILLEY: Another thing we want to tell you about is that we’ve just released our second special bonus episode for Stitcher Premium subscribers. It’s a behind-the-scenes backstage pass to our conversations with superstar cookbook authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson. If you want to listen to it, and ad-free versions of all our episodes, go to and start your free trial today!



GRABER: So, if we haven’t already made it clear, we love cheese. In fact, when we were on our insane reporting trip last summer, we spent hours one morning watching Parmesan being made. Toni Mazzaglia was there with us and she also translated what the white-haired Italian cheesemaker told her he was doing.

GRABER: The milk is just pouring—it’s like a really big hot tub for milk.

MAZZAGLIA: Yeah, I’d like to swim around in that actually.

GRABER: I would totally swim around in this.

TWILLEY: Honestly, we were all a little delirious because it was very early in the morning. Toni had driven us to just outside Bologna, on the road to Modena, to a school that teaches aspiring Parmesan makers how to turn fresh milk into glorious, glorious cheese.

MAZZAGLIA: 580 liters of milk. From about 50 cows.

GRABER: The first step was to take that fresh milk—it was so fresh that we saw it arrive in the truck at 7 AM—and to pour it into huge copper tubs and heat it up.

MAZZAGLIA: First we raise the temperature to 33 Celsius. We’re in the first phase right now, which is raising the temperature, which will go up to 33 degrees Celsius. But he basically said to me, stop asking questions, I’m going to tell you everything, so just let him talk.

TWILLEY: The raw ingredient—the milk itself—is extremely important. For real Parmesan like this, the cheese maker has to use raw milk from local cows that have only been fed on grass.

SHELKE: So what is milk? In the traditional sense of the word milk is a fluid that mammals produce to nourish the newborns.

GRABER: Kantha Shelke is a food scientist, she runs a company called Corvus Blue and she teaches at Johns Hopkins University. She says you can’t talk about why cheese is so awesome without talking about why milk is so awesome.

SHELKE: So it’s a concentrate of nutrients, and it is produced to nourish her young. So these nutrients are very, very important when making cheese. So it’s a sugar—lactose, fat, and protein. And then the rest of it is just simply water with the number of different salts, etc.

TWILLEY: Back in the Italian countryside, this precious milk was heating up in the copper hot tub.

MAZZAGLIA: We’re still watching the milk!

TWILLEY: Then the Parmesan makers added a bucket-full of whitish liquid. They told us it was whey that they’d saved from yesterday’s bunch of cheese. The whey is acidic from all the lactic acid bacteria in it.

GRABER: It smells like really ripe milk.

TWILLEY: This would be the stage where I would be like, I should probably throw this away now.

GRABER: That would definitely be a mistake. In this stage, what they’re actually doing is using that whey, that culture, to make the milk more acidic. This helps prepare the milk for the next stage. That’s when the cheesemaker added rennet, which is an enzyme that comes from an animal’s stomach and makes the milk curdle. It’s actually and kind of weirdly just like what happens in an animal’s stomach.

SHELKE: When a baby drinks this milk, the baby’s system digestive system produces an enzyme to begin the digestion. That’s exactly what we’re doing when we make cheese.

TWILLEY: This is something I’d really never thought about, but when cheese makers make the milk acidic and add rennet, they’re literally recreating the conditions in a calf’s stomach. A baby cow turns its mother’s milk into soft cheese inside its stomach—not for the pleasure of eating cheese obviously. But because cheese passes through their digestive system more slowly than milk, it gives the calf more time to absorb all its nutrients.

GRABER: And to continue to blow your mind, this is also just what happens in human babies’ stomachs. Human babies also are making soft cheese in their bellies to help with nutrition.

TWILLEY: Think of that next time you clean up baby vomit.

GRABER: I’m really starting to get a whole new appreciation for baby vomit right now. But let’s get back to Parmesan. The cheese maker adds rennet as a coagulant.

TWILLEY: When you see this happen, it looks like a magic trick. The milk hardens into solid lumps in front of your eyes. But of course it’s not magic—it’s got some very specific, well-understood science behind it. It’s all to do with a thing called a micelle.

CHAVEZ: The micelle is like a glob of protein. And they’ve got a very specific structure and it’s what makes milk science so exciting and so interesting is the structure of these proteins.

GRABER: Maria Chavez is the executive director of a community biotech lab called Biocurious and a member of the real Vegan Cheese Project.

TWILLEY: She told us that micelles are basically little teams of protein molecules. The protein that we care about when it comes to cheese is called casein.

SHELKE: We’ve got a few wonder proteins out in nature and casein is definitely one of them.

GRABER: There’s really nothing else like it in nature.

TWILLEY: And, in fact, there are four different kinds of these awesome casein molecules in milk, floating around in micelle gangs. And one of the types of casein has these little tails that attracts water molecules. In fact, this is what makes milk a liquid in the first place—without this special casein micelle structure, the water and protein and fats would all separate. So it’s what makes milk milk.

CHAVEZ: And it’s the magic sauce that makes cheese cheese. And what makes cheese cheese is that something in our stomachs—chymosin, which is the enzyme in rennet—cuts off those tails in the kappa casein and then these micelles actually start sticking to each other. And that’s what a cheese curd is: those tails being cut off of those proteins and sticking to each other like sticky balls.

TWILLEY: And those sticky balls are … curds!

GRABER: To quickly go over this, chymosin is the main enzyme that’s in rennet. The words are often used interchangeably. And when you add rennet to milk, then those little micelles no longer can do that amazing job of making milk milk. Their tails can’t hold onto the water because they’ve been cut off. So now the micelles—and the casein in those micelles—sticks together. And, as Maria says, we can actually see the casein clumping together as curds.

MAZZAGLIA: He’s putting his hand and he’s feeling around, you can see that it’s gotten to be chunky to be underneath the surface of the milk now.

TWILLEY: Supposedly these Parmesan makers have the softest hands in all of Italy. Our guy had been making cheese for 51 years, swirling his hands around in this acidic, enzyme-y milk bath for hours every morning.

GRABER: As the curds and whey were separating, the cheese maker was heating the copper vats a little more, up to 55 degrees Celsius or 131 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve been talking about the importance of casein in milk becoming cheese, but as the milk gets heated and broken up, a lot of other things are going on with the other ingredients. The sugars are starting to cook. The fats are getting turned inside out.

TWILLEY: What I will say is that the smell has moved on from a cheesy milk smell to the milk sugars are starting to caramelize, so you’re starting to get a tiny caramel note, don’t you think?

GRABER: Well, we can tell that the fat’s coming apart because it’s getting more and more yellow.

TWILLEY: I hadn’t had breakfast so by this point I was pretty much ready to dive into the copper tub. Finally, our cheese maker decided the curds were ready.

GRABER: And here comes the cheesecloth, look Toni, it’s a cheesecloth!

MAZZAGLIA: Whoa, that is so cool.

GRABER: The wedge of curds is rising out of the water and it’s all kind of knitted together at this point.

MAZZAGLIA: It looks like a giant sponge, doesn’t it?

GRABER: Exactly.

TWILLEY: That whirring sound, that’s the motor that’s raising the rod that this heavy cheesecloth full of curds is tied to—it’s pulling it really slowly out of the copper tub.

GRABER: The Parmesan is in its own baby hammock.

MAZZAGLIA: It looks like the stork just brought it.

TWILLEY: Little Parmesan baby in there! Then they cut the one big Parmesan baby into two cheeses. All this for two wheels of cheese!

GRABER: Two monster wheels, though… I could probably dine out on one of those wheels for more than a year.

MAZZAGLIA: He’s caressing it. His wife says he caresses the cheese forms more than he caresses her.

GRABER: As the cheese maker caresses and forms the Parmesan round, he’s also pressing out extra liquid with the help of a large wooden weight and helping the curds stick together even more.

TWILLEY: And then the baby cheeses get put in a special cheese elevator and lowered into a brining pool. They stay there for nearly a month—all the salt helps control which microbes are getting busy in the cheese. Plus it firms up the proteins, which helps harden up those soft baby cheeses to get them closer to the Parmesan we know and love.

GRABER: Next stop to age the cheese? A cheese cave. So that was our next stop, too.

TWILLEY: But don’t picture an actual cave—it was really more of a refrigerated room with lots of wooden shelves for the rounds of Parmesan to sit on and grow old together.

GRABER: That tapping sound wasn’t just us playing around with these large drums of cheese. The cheese makers tap them all the time there. They listen to check if there’s a problem, like to hear if there’s an air bubble. And these experts can also tell how well formed the rind is by the sound it makes, they can hear when the cheese is almost ready to sell.

TWILLEY: For Parmesan, what’s happening while it sits of the shelf getting flipped and tapped for two or three years is that the cheese is losing moisture, the proteins are moving around and forming a crystal structure, and the salt is penetrating very, very slowly all the way through the cheese. Basically, lots of good stuff.

GRABER: But that really hard, grainy, delicious, super umami end result, the Parmesan many of you have in your fridges right now, that’s only one of the bazillions of kinds of cheeses out there. Some are gooey, some are hard but squeaky, some are hard but smooth and not grainy, some are soft and spreadable. Some have holes. Some are covered with mold, others have mold rippling through the cheese. And really, most of that variety that makes solidified milk into the fabulous wealth of cheeses we love so much—that emerges during the aging process.


TWILLEY: Everything that we watched the man with the soft hands do to his cheesy Parmesan milk was all in order to set up what happens in the cheese cave. The precise temperature to heat the milk to, how long to hold it at that temperature, which cultures to add—it all matters because it affects the size of the protein molecules and the way the fat molecules are broken down into smaller fats. And those are the variables that make a difference during aging.

GRABER: As Kantha told us, part of this happens because of the microbes that were added to the milk during the cheese-making process. Then there are microbes in the aging room that affect the cheese. And sometimes for some cheeses—not Parmesan, but say, Brie or Camembert or blue cheese—microbes are added to the aging cheese.

SHELKE: For microbes, cheese is the veritable buffet. So they’ve entered this cheese and now they no matter which way they turn, they have delicious fats and they have delicious proteins which are all nutrients for them to act upon and to break down into smaller, more digestible pieces. So if you have mold for example, mold spores can cause enzymes which breaks down the crumbly cheese into a creamy cheese. And the bacteria do the same.

TWILLEY: But you can put down your shot glass now, because there’s more to the magic of aging cheese than just microbes.

SHELKE: You know, there’s a number of factors that can affect how a cheese holds itself, how its texture is, and how it melts. So the most important thing is its moisture content.

TWILLEY: If you leave a lot of moisture in the cheese, like in mozzarella, the proteins are only loosely packed together, with tons of water molecules in between. That’s what makes those cheese soft.

GRABER: For Parmesan, as we saw, a lot of the water was squeezed out, and then also as the Parmesan ages more water evaporates. And the lack of water in the cheese means the proteins are packed together really tightly so you get a harder cheese.

TWILLEY: The aging process affects more than just how soft or hard the cheese is.

SHELKE: One other thing that works is the age. Age of the cheese matters. In fresh, un-aged cheeses the casein, the protein molecules are large, they’re stretchy, they tend to get tangled into ropes, and so they stay very loosely fit.

GRABER: But if the salt and microbes are given a long time to act on the cheese as it ages, the casein gets broken down, the proteins are smaller, they’re no longer so tangled up.

SHELKE: So this is why mozzarella, which is a young cheese, gets all tangled up and very stretchy when you melt it. Whereas a cheddar is a little more firm but when it melts…

TWILLEY: Ah, when it melts. When it melts, cheddar is really smooth.  Let’s talk about cheese melting a little, she says, wiping away the drool.

SHELKE: You know, the melting of cheese is a very sensual experience and people love it. So when you’re heating up the cheese, the solid milk fat that’s in the cheese begins to liquefy and the cheese softens.

GRABER: When you’re melting cheese, whether it’s on the stove top or in your mouth, the chemical bonds holding the proteins together start breaking up.

SHELKE: And when the bonds break, the cheese collapses, from the structured piece that it was into a thick fluid.

TWILLEY: So that’s the science behind all these unique textures and flavors and the beautiful meltiness. But, more to the point, these delightful qualities—all of which depend on casein—these are the reasons people love cheese.

SCHINNER: It was so fascinating to me that you could start with one ingredient, milk, and that just by inoculating it with certain cultures you could render all these different flavor profiles and texture profiles.

GRABER: Miyoko Schinner is the head of a vegan cheese company called Miyoko’s Kitchen. She’s also written a cookbook called Artisan Vegan Cheese. But back in her 20s, she absolutely loved real dairy cheese.

SCHINNER: And I loved all the different fancy cheeses and the whole experience of a glass of wine with your cheese. To me, that represented the good life. And, you know, I always hoped that someday in life I would be successful enough that I could enjoy that fancy cheese platter and a glass of wine on Friday nights. That was my goal in life.

TWILLEY: And then Miyoko gave it all up. She still loved cheese a lot, but the relationship had gone sour.

SCHINNER: Well, it didn’t like me very much, we’ll put it that way. In my mid 20s, I realized that, you know, my stomach hurt all the time. I lived with perpetual stomachaches. And I thought it was normal—like your stomach was supposed to hurt. And someone one day said what do you mean your stomach hurts all the time? That’s not normal. And then I realized gee, maybe, you know, I’m Japanese, maybe I have a dairy allergy. So I gave up cheese and voila, my stomach ills went away.

GRABER: I have to say, I might be more like Miyoko than I care to admit. I can’t drink much straight milk, or eat a lot of ice cream—my partner Tim calls me lactose barely tolerant. It’s common among Jews.

TWILLEY: I am all northern European, genetically speaking, which is an abnormally lactose-tolerant culture. In the world as a whole, about 60 percent of adults have trouble digesting dairy. In China, that number rises to 90 percent.

GRABER: A quick note—as cheese like Swiss and Cheddar and Parmesan age, the bacteria break down lactose into lactic acid. And so for people like me, these cheeses are much easier to digest, because they don’t have much lactose left.

TWILLEY: But stomach troubles are not the only reason why some people might not want to eat cheese. There are legitimate issues with how industrial dairy is produced in terms of animal welfare and antibiotic dosing and even carbon footprint. Miyoko is now in this second camp, too.

GRABER: And some people just don’t think we should consume any animal products at all, including dairy or cheese. They think it’s immoral.

TWILLEY: And so all of these groups of people have been motivated to try to find substitutes that embody all of cheese’s delight but are made from plants. Which is not easy.

SHELKE: Nature has made it such that finding a slam dunk replacement for lactose, for casein, and for the fat in milk is almost impossible.

GRABER: Of course that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The oldest example of a cheese alternative wasn’t actually created as an alternative to cheese.

SHELKE: Fermented tofu is—it’s not the same as the tofu that you see in stores. Fermented tofu is a soft, creamy, a little salty but a cheese-like food that is believed to have originated somewhere in China or the islands around Okinawa and Japan. And there are fermented tofus that have very strong aromas that are reminiscent of say, a European mold ripened cheese, like Roquefort or Brie or Stilton or Gorgonzola. And then there are fermented tofus that are very mild and creamy almost like a Neufchatel or cream cheese.

TWILLEY: The first European reference to this fermented tofu came in 1855. The French consul in Shanghai, Baron de Montigny, wrote a report on fermented tofu. His conclusion was that this Chinese cheese, as he called it, was a “very powerful appetizer, which is hard to resist.”

GRABER: A few decades later, the Horticultural Society of Marseilles was making two types of this Chinese cheese. They called it fromage blanc, and fromage rouge. The fermented tofus had slightly different flavorings, and the French aged the fake cheeses for four and a half months. The society did taste tests on local French people without telling the tasters what they were eating.

TWILLEY: And the response was positive—so much so, that the society concluded that “these cheeses will be acceptable to French tastes when they are widely available.”

GRABER: They still aren’t widely available in the west, but you can find fermented tofu today, maybe at a Chinese restaurant or grocery store. But it’s not marketed as cheese. And it doesn’t melt, which is pretty crucial for a cheese substitute.

TWILLEY: There are some vegan cheeses made from soymilk or other beans like peas—they’re not the same thing, and usually they’re not fermented. But today, most of the vegan cheeses you’ll find are made from nut milks.

SHELKE: The concept of cheese from nuts is a very old one that comes from the Middle East and from India, where depending on what the occasion was, nuts were used to create a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth type of a product. Generally sweet and used as the dessert.

GRABER: A thickened cheese-like dish based on almond milk was also popular in medieval Europe. But this was not something that most people were eating.

SHELKE: And the reason for that is nuts were a luxury and they were largely reserved for the wealthy and the elite.

TWILLEY: The next big move forward in vegan cheese came in the U.S., prompted by the rise of Seventh Day Adventists. They follow a vegetarian diet, but many are actually vegans.

GRABER: Starting in about the 1930s, Seventh Day Adventists formed companies to make and market vegan cheese made from soybeans. From the descriptions of it, it was pretty grim stuff.

TWILLEY: Less importantly but still painfully, it also had terrible names, like Soymage. But if you wanted a plant-based cheese substitute, soy was pretty much your only commercial choice until 1992. In December of that year a company called Wholesome and Hearty Foods introduced Almond Cheeze—spelled with a z—the first non-soy-based cheese alternative in modern times.

GRABER: A couple of years later, a company called Sharon’s Finest introduced a new cheese made from Brazil nuts. Apparently some critics—probably critics who hadn’t eaten cheese in a long time—they thought it was pretty decent. Miyoko was newly broken up with real cheese, and she was not a fan.

SCHINNER: Back in the 90s there was this—I don’t know if I should say anything just because you know, the maker of this cheese might be listening. But there was a horrible cheese on the market called Veganrella. And I remember when it first hit the market and I thought, Oh my God, it’s a vegan cheese. And it was not the kind of high-end cheese, it was the kind that was in plastic, you know, like a processed cheese that you would melt on your burger or something like that. And I bought it, I was so excited—I went home and I opened up the package and I took a bite and I practically threw up. I mean it was just awful. You know, it’s kind of a joke now. People today joke about the Dark Ages of vegan cheese. And what we had to put up with. And so to me that was like, it wasn’t even worth eating. So I never bought it again.

TWILLEY: So here we are, in the 1990s. It is, as Miyoko told us, the Dark Ages of vegan cheese. Fermented tofu is OK flavor wise but it doesn’t melt—and isn’t really sold as cheese anyway. And the rest… as Miyoko said, forget it.

GRABER: But that disgust Miyoko felt fueled her desire to make something better. In fact, Miyoko was one of the people who came up with a new technique to develop something far tastier than Veganrella. And maybe something closer to the real thing.


TWILLEY: So as you may remember, Miyoko Schinner really, really loved cheese.

SCHINNER: I travelled through Europe when I was 20 and my goal in Europe was to go to every single cheese shop throughout France and Switzerland and Italy and just nosh on all the hundreds of varieties that you cannot possibly get in the United States.

GRABER: But as you also may remember, cheese did not love Miyoko back. And so she tried to find cheese alternatives, which she hated. So she started to make her own.

SCHINNER: My first cookbook came out in the 90s, I think 1990—it was called The Now and Then Epicurean. And in that book I did have a recipe for a vegan cheese that I made out of tofu. And this was based on seeing a TV show in Japan where nuns were taking tofu and they were doing various interesting things with it. They would bury it in ash for weeks, they would bury it in miso, etc. And it completely transforms the texture from kind of a crumbly tofu to something buttery and smooth and fermented in flavor.

TWILLEY: And so Miyoko played around with that. And the flavor of her fermented tofu was great, as Japanese nuns and Chinese chefs and the Baron de Montigny and the people of Marseilles had already confirmed. But fermented tofu doesn’t melt.

GRABER: Then, in about the early 2000s, Miyoko noticed that some of the raw food folks were making cheese out of nut milk and fermenting it with microbes to try to make cheese just like you would from dairy milk.

SCHINNER: I found that very, very inspirational—the idea that you could take other milks besides soy milk and and possibly make something like a cheese with it. So then I started reading books on cheese making and understanding the processes. And I took a few cheese making classes. These are really dairy cheese making classes. I was the only student who didn’t actually eat the cheese. But I was in the classes observing the science and seeing what happens. And then I just started playing around. So it was many, many years of experimenting with different nut milks and figuring out what what coagulates, what doesn’t coagulate. If it doesn’t coagulate how else can you thicken it? And things like that.

TWILLEY: This is a really hard problem. At the start of the show, we described exactly how magical milk is—the micelles, the casein, the exact ratio of sugars and fats and protein. Nuts are also great, but they’re different. We asked Kantha to explain.

SHELKE: Most nuts are mostly carbohydrate and don’t have as much protein as milk has. And certainly not the type of casein-like protein that milk contains. So it requires a lot more skill and a lot more manipulation to be able to get that rich creamy mouthfeel and the flavors and the textures that one expects from the traditional cow’s milk cheese.

GRABER: Miyoko played around with all sorts of raw materials for her vegan cheeses.

TWILLEY: Homemade almond milk—which is much thicker than the watery store-bought kind—that can have a high enough protein content that you can add rennet or vinegar and curdle it into curds and whey. Not big curds, but still. Something you can work with to make a cheese.

SCHINNER: Otherwise you can use something like cashews, which are fairly low in protein. And you just make more of what I would call a slurry. It’s like a very, very heavy cream, you can still pour it. But what happens is that cashews are high in starch. So through fermentation, the starch actually thickens the cheese and changes the texture. And then over time if you age it, you know, you can make a cheese that’s kind of like a cheddar in texture.

TWILLEY: So there’s a lot of trial and error involved, but it is possible to make nut milk cheese with a dairy cheese-ish texture. But then there’s the flavor problem.

GRABER: Miyoko said that those early vegan cheeses she hated? The companies weren’t bothering to inoculate the cheese with microbes and age it. They just made it kind of solid and added lots of flavorings to it. But to get the flavor right, you really need microbes to work their particular magic. That’s one of the reasons fermented tofu is so great. Yes, take a drink.

TWILLEY: So Miyoko started inoculating her nut cheeses with microbes and aging them.

SCHINNER: They can develop all sorts of flavors. The cultures can work over a period of weeks or months. Same thing with the ambient yeast in the atmosphere, etc. I can have a cheese, for example, one of our Mount Vesuvius black ash cheeses, and it can taste one way, you know, two weeks after I’ve aged it, and even after packaging it will continue to age. If I taste around a year later, it’s phenomenal.

GRABER: But really, the holy grail of cheese is that awesome meltiness. Kantha called it sensuous. It’s one of the most amazing things there is. And vegan cheese? Well, that’s hard to get melty.

SHELKE: But now look at nuts. The fat in nuts is mostly in the oil format, which is it is a fluid. It’s already a liquid at room temperature.

GRABER: Whereas milk fat is solid at room temperature—just think of butter.

TWILLEY: So to give the fat in nut milk more cheese-like qualities, you have to add things that keep the oil solid at room temperature—and those usually mean it also stays solid in your mouth. Which is sad.

GRABER: Miyoko realized that to get a vegan cheese to melt, she needed to try something different. She experimented with starches and found one that would cause the nut milk to thicken. But then the mixture breaks down when it’s heated and gets liquid-y again, kind of like dairy cheese.

SCHINNER: There’s no casein in it. Which is, you know, one thing that allows things to sort of stretch and melt.

TWILLEY: Miyoko’s trick is to add an extra fat that is solid at room temperature, like coconut oil. So when the nut milk cheese warms up, the coconut fat melts, the starch re-liquifies, and it kind of works.

SCHINNER: Well our mozzarella is really melty, and, you know, we serve it on pizza or panini. And most people are eating it and they don’t realize it’s vegan. So, you know, a very discriminating person might notice, but the average person just eats it and thinks it’s delicious.

TWILLEY: This is obviously something we had to try for ourselves. And we did. But first we’ve got the story of real vegan cheese—that’s right, cheese that’s made from milk that made by genetically modified yeasts,no animals involved.

CHAVEZ: It was the brainchild of one of our founding team members, Mark Ewell, who had been wanting to pursue this project for a long time.

TWILLEY: This is Maria Chavez again—she’s the executive director of BioCurious, the community biotech lab out in Oakland, and she’s one of the leaders of the Real Vegan Cheese Project.

CHAVEZ: And his idea was what if we use yeast? And instead of having yeast produce alcohol, for example when we brew beer or make wine, what if we have the yeast actually produce cheese proteins? And we create a process very similar to beer brewing with a few extra steps to actually make cheese that is biologically, chemically identical to the cheese you would get from a cow.

GRABER: Sounds super simple, right? I mean, how hard could it be to get microbes to make milk?

CHAVEZ: The first thing we needed to do is actually determine what genes make cheese proteins.

TWILLEY: It’s our old friend, casein! Remember the four kinds, the ones that hang out in blobs called micelles.

CHAVEZ: And so our idea is what if we find genes that create these proteins and insert them into yeast and then have the yeast make these proteins? So we’re actually still on step one.

GRABER: It turns out it’s not so simple to just take the genes that make casein in a cow and stick them in yeast. There’s a bunch of tweaking needed so that the cow genes get comfy in an organism that comes from an entirely different and not at all related branch of life.

CHAVEZ: So people have been asking for a long time: what’s the hold up? We initially really wanted to do this using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is bakers’ yeast, because we thought that the public would be really excited about something that’s relatable.

TWILLEY: But after a couple of years of trying to coax bakers’ yeast to cooperate with these new genes, and failing, Maria and the team gave up and tried a new yeast.

CHAVEZ: So we’ve switched paths in the last year and gone to different yeast strain, Pichia Pastoris, because we’ve been having enormous problems making the kappa casein, which is the most important of the four proteins we need. But we have recently in the last couple of months started to see some results and I think we’re starting to finally produce kappa.

GRABER: Kappa casein is the one with the tails that are sliced off by rennet so they form curds. It’s the most important type of casein if you want to make cheese.

TWILLEY: OK, so now the new yeast in town is starting to make kappa casein, are they there yet? Do we have real vegan cheese in the house?

GRABER: Nope. Not yet. The Real Vegan Cheese folks also still need a vegan fat and sugar source that are basically similar to milk sugars and fats.

CHAVEZ: And then we’ve got to get micelles to actually coagulate and we’re working on some of the cheese science.

TWILLEY: This is a whole other set of problems. Some of the team have been practising actually making cheese using store-bought casein, while the others are futzing about with the yeast.

CHAVEZ: And we’ve been having some results with that and that we’ve been able to taste and try, with mixed results. We’re not great food scientists so we’re still working on trying to understand what’s happening there. We’ve done something, it was kind of like a grainy ricotta.

GRABER: That was not what they were looking for. And it’s true that this project has been taking a while. A few years, so far. It’s not just that the science is really hard to get right—it is—but it’s also that everyone working on it is a volunteer.

CHAVEZ: We are a non-profit but we are a citizen science project, so this is not a for-profit company. Anyone of any age can join the team. We’ve had students as young as ninth graders on the project as well as Ph.Ds.

TWILLEY: Even so, Maria thinks her all-volunteer team will be producing something cheese-like within the year.

GRABER: Even when they do get the yeast to make to milk proteins, there’s still another big challenge ahead: it’s tough to get yeast-based technologies to scale up. Sometimes yeast in a huge vat doesn’t behave the same as it does in a Petri dish.

TWILLEY: But that hasn’t stopped the Real Vegan Cheese team from dreaming big. They’re not actually stopping at just cow’s milk cheese. In fact, their initial goal was to make three different kinds of cheeses. Cow cheese, yes, but also human cheese. By adding the genes that make milk in humans to yeast.

GRABER: The team thought that a human-milk cheese would be better suited to people who can’t process cow’s milk. It might not cause allergies or the same types of intolerances.

CHAVEZ: However we discovered a few months—maybe a year or two into this project—two different things. One there’s almost zero interest from people in a human cheese. They’re actually quite disgusted by it, for whatever reason. And that was something that kind of surprised us because we thought it was kind of cool.

TWILLEY: Oh my god.

GRABER: Shocked, yes. Frankly, I wouldn’t eat that regularly myself.

TWILLEY: Try, yes. Put on a Friday evening cheese plate for friends: no.

GRABER: It turns out that the FDA was also not a fan and said they couldn’t go ahead with the project. The FDA said that in fact using human proteins might cause an autoimmune response. So, no human-milk microbial cheese.

TWILLEY: Which brings us to cheese number three.

CHAVEZ: We wanted to take most ridiculous, really unusual organism that people have never made cheese from. And when we thought, what has no one ever milked to make cheese from that’s a mammal? And we thought narwhal whales.

GRABER: Yes, narwhal whales. It’s true, nobody has ever milked a narwhal before to make cheese. These are the whales with ridiculously long, thin white tusks so they look sort of like whalish unicorns.

CHAVEZ: There’s actually some scientific reasons we were interested in it. Whales—their milk is very similar to toothpaste and what would that do as far as how their cheese proteins may be different.

TWILLEY: Toothpaste cheese! It’s what the world has been waiting for. But, in fact, the group of scientists working on sequencing the narwhal genome have been taking forever, so Maria’s group have switched focus. They flirted with the idea of mammoth cheese—an extinct flavor, which would be pretty exciting.

GRABER: Because the mammoth genome has in fact just recently been published, but the team decided to be a little more pragmatic and go with goat. They’re just getting started on the research for that one.

CHAVEZ: The bigger question for me that we haven’t figured out is how much is it going to cost actually produce this and how much do you get as a yield from these yeast.

TWILLEY: After all, yeast need to eat too, so that’s a resource input. And the whole bioreactor process requires water and energy, too.

CHAVEZ: And I think that’s something the whole cultured food industry is working on and saying: Is this really using less resources and more sustainable than what we currently do in agriculture? And my hope is yes, that we can find methods make it so.

TWILLEY: So, there’s still a long way to go. But even if the Real Vegan Cheese team never gets a product into stores, it’s still already achieved a lot of its goals.

GRABER: Because one of the things the team wanted to do was to show investors that a microbial vegan cheese is possible.

TWILLEY: And that it might be popular—which their super successful crowdfunding campaign helped demonstrate.

GRABER: Now, there’s a startup, with people who are getting paid, that’s also working on bringing vegan dairy to market. It’s called Perfect Day.

CHAVEZ: And they are a startup company with a lot of venture capital funding behind them. You know, millions of dollars. And we watch what they do and we respect what they do.

TWILLEY: But they’re not the same. Everything the Real Vegan Cheese project does is open source, anyone can get involved. The bigger idea—their real goal—is to open up the science of synthetic biology and get people comfortable with it.

GRABER: After all, there’s been quite a lot of push-back and concern in the general public about genetically-modified organisms when it comes to food.

CHAVEZ: It is a genetically engineered product. You aren’t eating the genetically engineered yeast. But the end result is made from a GMO. And that’s one thing we also like with the project is this idea of changing people’s perceptions of GMO foods.

TWILLEY: To be honest, the rennet in a lot of the straight-up normal dairy cheese you eat these days was produced by genetically modified yeast, but that’s a different story. And not one you see the dairy industry advertising. But Maria really believes we can use this technology for good—it’s not all big evil corporations selling us Frankenfoods. And she wants others to see that potential too.

CHAVEZ: We do quite a few members of our team that are very hardcore vegans and very active in the vegan community and the vegan advocacy community. But we also have team members that are meat eaters and just really like the science behind it and like some of the other ideas behind it.

GRABER: In any case, maybe you’ll be seeing vegan cheese made from microbes on your supermarket shelves in the future!

TWILLEY: I’m excited to try it. Of course this real vegan cheese still won’t be cheese cheese, even if the casein is made by cow genes. Like Kantha said, there are too many other things going on it cow’s milk for there ever to be a 100% slam dunk substitute. But that narwhal cheese—I’m so in.

GRABER: So okay, Nicky, you and I couldn’t buy some microbial cheese, narwhal or cow, to taste for this episode. But we could try out the vegan alternatives that you can find at the grocery store. Not just Miyoko’s—she’s known as one of the leaders in the industry—but there are a lot of companies selling vegan cheese today.

LINDA: This is the Treeline aged nut cheese. It’s a very nice box that it’s in.

TWILLEY: This is my sister-in-law Linda. And she is great at unwrapping vegan cheese.

LINDA: It looks not very um—very good at all actually. It has a horrible color. It’s almost like a grayish tan hockey puck wrapped in a very hard plastic wrapper. I probably would choose not to have this, I’d throw it away after I opened it. But because we were doing this for Nicky, I’ll go ahead and open it.

TWILLEY: Note to self: do not make your in-laws taste test vegan cheese for your podcast if you wish to remain on good terms with your husband’s family.

GRABER: I had a perhaps easier crowd with me—it was my partner Tim, my mom, who’s also been on Gastropod before, and my high school friend Minda.

MINDA: My nieces are dairy free so there’s fake cheese at their house. But they usually also have real cheese so I let them have alternative cheese and then I eat the real cheese .

TIM: But I like the idea, right? Like, what’s not to like? If it’s something that’s tasty and better animal welfare than great. I’m open to it.

GRABER: OK. So one person at the table is open to it. Mom, I don’t think you’re so open to it

TAMAH: Hmm, I’ll see…that I’m not sure of at all.

GRABER: For all that you say you’re open to it, you’re the one who hasn’t been—you’ve been looking at the cheese going I don’t want to do this.

TIM: I am open to it. I’m skeptical.

TWILLEY: Between us both, we had gathered a whole array of vegan cheeses. I had that cashew nut one that Linda unwrapped, I had some tofu-based American cheese slices, there were a couple of Cheddars—one almond-based and one that was a sort of coconut oil, tapioca starch, pea protein combo. And I had one of Miyoko’s cheeses—a double cream chive.

GRABER: We had similar cheeses to yours—the same American-style slices, one of the same Cheddars. We had that Miyoko chive spreadable cheese. And then we also had Miyoko’s mozzarella, the one she said was really melty, and we had a shredded pepper jack from cashews.

TWILLEY: We started with that aged cashew nut cheese. Around the table it was Linda, her daughter Olivia, my sister-in-law Chris, my mother-in-law Anne, and my husband Geoff.

LINDA: This is pretty disgusting.

OLIVIA: It’s sour. And it’s really.


OLIVIA: Yeah, it doesn’t feel good in my mouth.

CHRIS: There’s a very bad aftertaste.

ANNE: The texture.

TWILLEY: What does the texture remind you of?

ANNE: Nothing I ever wanto to eat again.

GEOFF: Yeah, I think mealy is a good description but I feel like it’s more smoky and it’s not… It’s not that bad. I just don’t like the texture at all.

TWILLEY: So… not a winner. I took one bite and I couldn’t believe how gross it was. It was bitter and grainy and truly disgusting. Although then I tried a piece on a cracker, and that was easier to deal with.

GRABER: That’s how we ate it, we didn’t try it by itself, we kind of spread it thinly on matzah.

TIM: This one smells, you know, like a cheese dip.

MINDA: I don’t think it does. I think that it smells like something but not like a cheese to me.

TAMAH: I don’t immediately say, oh, this is cheese. But I’ll see how it tastes.

GRABER: I like it actually.

TAMAH: Got a little bit too much sour for me. There is a real tang, a sour tang, a little bit too much for me.

GRABER: I actually really like that.

TAMAH: Not bad, though, not bad.

TIM: I like the sour tang. I think that’s what makes it seem more like actual cheese. Yeah, I like the flavor. The look and the consistency is kind of like…

MINDA: Off putting?

TIM: You know, wall spackle.

MINDA: It is.

TAMAH: That is exactly what it looks like!

TWILLEY: Chris actually thought it looked more like cat food, but I can see the wall spackle resemblance. Moving swiftly onward. Our next one was the pea-coconut-tapioca Cheddar.

CHRIS: OK, that smells like Cheddar. That doesn’t smell bad at all. I would believe this was Cheddar if someone put it in front of me.

LINDA: I would agree, it almost smells a little bit like Velveeta

TWILLEY: Appetizing.

LINDA: We can question whether that’s cheese or not.

CHRIS: It tastes the flavor of a Cheez-It.

LINDA: There isn’t the horrible aftertaste of the first one. So if I had to eat this I could.

GRABER: We had kind of the same meh-but-okay reaction to that Cheddar. My mom’s first comment was that it wasn’t hard enough, the texture was too soft when she cut into it.

TAMAH: Although this smells like Cheddar.

MINDA: It does smell like Cheddar.

TAMAH: It smells like Cheddar cheese. Too easily broken up in your mouth.

GRABER: The texture is totally off for you.

TAMAH: It’s really off. Yeah. It’s not bad as far as the Cheddar goes. It just has the wrong texture.

TIM: To me it tastes like institutional Cheddar, right? So it’s not Cabot clothbound from Vermont. But like if you got, if you were on an airplane and you got like a little cheese plate, you know it has that kind of mass-produced Cheddar.

TWILLEY: This is a very qualified endorsement. Which was kind of the same thing with us. Miyoko’s chive one—that was nice-enough thinly spread on a cracker. It was a little over-chivey for us, but no complaints on the texture. And the tofu-based cheese slices—people were like sure, they taste like processed American cheese. If you like that, you’ll like this.

OLIVIA: It’s fine. It tastes like a cheese slice. So.

GRABER: We thought so, too. The one we absolutely despised was the shredded pepper jack.

TAMAH: I don’t like the texture. I don’t like the smell and I don’t like the taste.

GRABER: Nicky, you all stopped at tasting them straight.

TWILLEY: There was a limit to what I could ask people not related to me by blood to do.

GRABER: My group was totally open to the next step, which was testing out their meltability. We tried the American-ish slices, the Cheddar, and Miyoko’s mozzarella. We put them all on matzah.

GRABER: The mozzarella looks kind of weird.

GRABER: It does, it’s very…

MINDA: It’s sweating.

TAMAH: It’s iridescent.

GRABER: So it looked funny, but actually when we tasted it we were pleasantly surprised! We all thought it tasted pretty good, and the melted consistency worked. In fact, we liked it better than unmelted. Because since vegan mozzarella has none of that miraculous dairy protein, casein, when it was straight out of the package it didn’t have the tug and stretchiness of dairy mozzarella. The same with the melted cheddar and the American slices. In fact, Tim came home and did a taste test on a tuna melt, and both the American and Cheddar were, you know, totally fine, if you want a kind of processed-type melted cheese.

TIM: If you’re doing a high-end tuna sandwich with really nice bread and great cheese and awesome tuna… this isn’t it. But if you want—it’s kind of a snowy cold day here, I just made this in the toaster on a slice of bread. It’s perfect for that. So we have eggless mayonnaise and cheeseless cheese. So we’re good.

GRABER: Now we need tuna-free tuna and we’re set.

TWILLEY: Oh brave new world. Over in sunny California, Geoff reached exactly the opposite conclusion.

GEOFF: Yeah, I mean, I just feel like the whole world of making one product taste like another product is so incredibly strange that I don’t know. Like, if I went vegan I wouldn’t want something that is the functional equivalent of cheese—I would just move beyond cheese.

TWILLEY: But see, I can’t move beyond cheese.

GRABER: Tim and I can’t, either.

TIM: I would absolutely not want to put out a nice bottle of wine and eat these cheeses the way you eat regular cheese. But for cooking or for making a dish that needed cheese, if I had a friend who was vegan, I would be perfectly comfortable with them.

GRABER: He could even imagine these vegan cheeses in his life, too. Usually we buy cheese from the farmers market and we’re both quite comfortable with how those cows are raised. But, for Tim, there are times when only processed cheese will do.

TIM: Yeah, well, so if I’m craving that kind of cheese, right? I’m having my nostalgia for my old grilled cheese on crappy bread with a can of tomato soup. You can only get that flavor from those slices. And those I think are coming from industrial sources. So I would feel better about using one of these slices than you know Kraft Singles wrapped individually in plastic.

TWILLEY: This is not a craving I ever have, because I didn’t grow up here eating that, but I respect the urge to fulfil nostalgic food choices without causing cruelty. I’m going to be honest—I hate wasting food more than anything, and I threw out these cheeses. They just weren’t good enough.

GRABER: I threw out some, but I’m keeping around the spreads and a couple of the melty ones. They can’t measure up to real cheese for me, but if I think of them as their own thing, they’re okay.

TWILLEY: And actually, on that same note, I can recommend fermented tofu pretty highly, although I’ve never thought of it as cheese, really. Or had it on a cracker with wine. But what exploring the science of vegan cheese has stressed to me is how amazing real cheese really is. The science! It’s incredible!

GRABER: I am quite sure that this will not be our last episode devoted to cheese.



TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the fabulous folks at the Istituto Lazzaro Spallanzani for showing us how to make delicious delicious parmesan, and to the incredible Toni Mazzaglia of Taste Florence for making that happen and translating. We have links and lots of awesome photos on our website.

GRABER: Thanks also to Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue and Miyoko Schinner of Miyoko’s Kitchen, and Maria Chavez of the Real Vegan Cheese project. As well as Rebecca Willbanks who talked to us about it. We have links to their research and their products on our website, And thanks to all our listeners who suggested this episode!

TWILLEY: And of course a huge thanks to our guinea pigs: Anne, Chris, Linda, Olivia, and Geoff, I love you and I’m sorry.

GRABER: Minda, Tim, and Mom, thanks for being good sports!

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with an old-fashioned food adventure.

Who Faked My Cheese?

Cheeeeese: that one word alone causes our stomachs to rumble and mouths to water. The sheer variety of flavors and textures created by only a few ingredients—milk, salt, enzymes, and microbes—is astounding: hard and soft, creamy and crumbly, richly umami and sweetly savory. For thousands of years, humans have been transforming animal milk into one of the most diverse and delicious substances in the world. But what is it about milk that makes it so uniquely suited to this particular magic trick? And why is it so hard to recreate using non-animal-based substances? This episode: real cheese, vegan cheese, and the real vegan cheese of the future. …More

Say Cheese!

Cheese is the chameleon of the food world, as well as one of its greatest delights. Fresh and light or funky and earthy, creamy and melty or crystalline and crumbly—no other food offers such a variety of flavors and textures.

But cheese is not just a treat for the palate: its discovery changed the course of Western civilization, and, today, cheese rinds are helping scientists conduct cutting-edge research into microbial ecology. In this episode of Gastropod, we investigate cheese in all stinking glory, from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval France, from the origins of cheese factories and Velveeta to the growing artisanal cheese movement in the U.S. Along the way, we search for the answer to a surprisingly complex question: what is cheese? Join us as we bust cheese myths, solve cheese mysteries, and put together the ultimate cheese plate.


TRANSCRIPT Hotbox: The Oven from Turnspit Dogs to Microwaves

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Hotbox: The Oven from Turnspit Dogs to Microwaves, first released on June 5, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

LITTON AD: Microwave cooking units are indeed revolutionary. For a main course, how about a delicacy like lobster tails? Ready in less than a minute with no shrinkage or shriveling since there is no furnace-like blast of heat. This is cooking by microwave—cooking without heat.

CYNTHIA GRABER: I’m not sure I agree with this 1969 promotional video from the microwave company Litton. Revolutionary? I bet those lobster tails tasted like rubber, the part that wasn’t raw.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Hold your skepticism Cynthia, because this episode is all about humankind’s magical journey from that open fire to ever tinier boxes covered in buttons.

GRABER: We are talking about something a lot of you have asked us to cover: ovens! It may seem like your least fabulous appliance, but once we started looking into this topic—at your request—we realized we have a lot of questions.

TWILLEY: Just in case you started playing this podcast by accident, we are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And so, why didn’t microwaves revolutionize cooking as promised, and how in the world do they actually heat up my bowl of leftovers?

TWILLEY: Rewinding just a tiny bit, why did we first start using fire to cook our dinner—and what changed when we did?

GRABER: How did we get to the modern oven, where you don’t see fire at all? And finally, what about the billions of people in the world who still cook over wood fire cook stoves that are smoky and harmful to their health—why is it so hard to help them switch to something better?

TWILLEY: All this plus a few smoked sausages and exploding eggs.



RICHARD WRANGHAM: Oh, well I had a kind of absurd introduction to the problem because I was studying the feeding behavior of wild chimpanzees. And I tried to eat everything that chimpanzees ate and I even tried to go for days at a time eating only what they ate.

TWILLEY: This is Richard Wrangham. He’s a Harvard anthropologist, and in 1972, he was in Tanzania, studying chimp behavior. And it didn’t take him long to figure out that eating like a chimp was not much fun.

WRANGHAM: It left me incredibly hungry. Even though what chimps eat is not the same as what hunter-gatherers eat, it led me to the thinking that there’s something very different about living as a wild animal eating raw foods, and living as a human. And then, you know, I realized that every human eats their food cooked. So I started developing the idea that humans have something special about them. We need cooked food.

GRABER: Richard eventually wrote a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Fire and cooking—that’s what allowed us to get more calories from our food and spend far less time and energy to eat and digest it.

WRANGHAM: So if we were a chimpanzee of our body size, we would be expecting to eat something like six or seven hours a day. And in fact humans all over the world, regardless of what kind of subsistence society they live in, they eat for less than an hour a day.

TWILLEY: And with all that spare time, plus the extra calories, we humans could develop language and tools and culture and gigantic brains like mine.

GRABER: Just yours?

TWILLEY: Some days I think so. But maybe you too Cynthia.

GRABER: Thanks, appreciate it. So using fire to cook our food—that was revolutionary. It changed the course of human history—it changed the trajectory of life on earth. But cooking over an open fire was pretty much it for millennia. That was how we cooked.

TWILLEY: And now we mostly don’t. Sure, sometimes when we’re outdoors, but for most of us, dinner is no longer cooked over a fire. Cooking over a fire indoors?

BEE WILSON: It just looked and smelled so alien to anything that I’ve ever thought of as cooking.

TWILLEY: This is Bee Wilson, one of Gastropod’s most favorite guests—she was in our very first episode, and another on how we learn to eat, and we love her.

GRABER: But that’s not the only reason we called Bee up this episode. She’s also written extensively about what happened when we cooked over fire and the development of the oven in her book Consider the Fork. Which is absolutely awesome.

TWILLEY: And in that book, she describes the experience of watching a man called Ivan Day roast meat over an open fire.

WILSON: I mean, it was really the art of fire management. It was magnificent.

GRABER: Ivan is known for his work recreating historic forms of cooking and historic meals in Britain.

WILSON: Here was a man having huge fun poking a fire and producing roast meat that tasted better than any roast meat I had ever eaten before. Except as Ivan rightly pointed out, I never had eaten roast meat before, because what I had thought of as a roast dinner was really just meat baked in the oven. Whereas in Ivan’s kitchen, he was standing there before this blazing hot open fire. And I’d heard people talk about blazing hot fires before and I’d been in front of many fires that are lit almost for ornamental purposes in the winter but a cooking fire is just something else altogether.

TWILLEY: The fire itself was impressive, but the taste of the roasted meat—that was truly next level.

WILSON: It was soft and tender but had this wonderful, savory, umami beefy crust on the outside and it just made me feel that somehow all of the other meat that I’d had that had been roasted in an oven had sort of—it was as if the flesh had seized up by comparison, whereas this meat you could tell it had cooked very, very slowly.

TWILLEY: Yes, I’m drooling.

GRABER: I am getting hungry. Frankly, this is why people love barbecue. Because it’s delicious.

TWILLEY: And I promise, one day we are going to spend an entire episode on the curious history and science of barbecue, if only so I have an excuse to eat my body weight in delicious, delicious, smoky deliciousness.

GRABER: But the roasted meat that Bee was eating wasn’t just for fun or for a big cookout, it was how you cooked in 1600s England—and it’s not quite as romantic as it sounds. Imagine that huge, hot fire—it had to be really big to cook with—imagine that super hot, super smoky fire inside the house where you live.

WILSON: So one of the things to say is that in the days when people cooked over an open fire, most people didn’t have a kitchen. There was just one room where you cooked and lived and slept and that smokiness must have permeated everything.

GRABER: But an upside of the hearth being so central—it was sometimes the only warm spot in the house.

WILSON: The fire was the central focal point. And I hadn’t fully appreciated before I wrote my book that that Latin word focus means hearth. I mean the fire was the thing that everyone congregated around—it was what gave meaning to your life.

TWILLEY: That central focus is gone, and another thing that mostly went with it are all the special long-handled tools you need to cook over an open fire. But some things you still see today, like a spit, which is a stick or rod that you put through the meat.

GRABER: Sara Pennell is a historian at the University of Greenwich and she wrote a book called The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600 to 1850. Sara pointed out that having that spit to roast meat on wasn’t enough—for most of history, you had to have a person to turn the spit.

SARA PENNELL: And depending on what sort of household you’re in that could be female person power or child person power or in elite kitchens it was often it what the most lowly boy employees were set to do.

TWILLEY: But there were also such things as turnspit dogs.

GRABER: Dogs?!

TWILLEY: This was a special kind of dog, with a long body and short little legs, bred to run on a wheel that turned the spit around so the meat got roasted through. This breed is now extinct—some people say its closest relative is a corgi. But Sara says they really weren’t super common in the first place. It’s not like every kitchen had its own turnspit dog.

PENNELL: It’s not that they didn’t exist but they were very sort of regionally specific.

GRABER: Whether or not the turnspit dogs were common, the roasts were not only common, but they were incredibly famous. This is what British food was and is famous for, roast meat. Roast beef.

TWILLEY: There was even a patriotic song about roast beef. I don’t know the tune, sadly, so you’re spared me singing, but here’s how the lyrics go: “When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman’s food, It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood. Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good. Oh! the Roast Beef of old England!”

GRABER: I have never sung a song to roast beef, though Bee’s description sounded worthy of a ballad. In fact, I’ve never heard of any song devoted to meat at all. I’d also never realized that the fame of the British roast can be directly linked back to the nature of the British landscape.

WILSON: I found this really interesting, because I think so often when we talk about food we assume that somehow the taste comes first and that the English just happened to have a taste for roasted meat and we don’t think about the resources and technology that lie behind it. And we partly became a nation of people who ate so much roast beef because we were so well endowed with firewood. It was a really densely wooded green land, which meant that we could be really prodigal in the amount of logs that we threw on a fire and roast these great haunches of flesh.

TWILLEY: You can really see the difference that England’s plentiful forests made by comparing British cuisine to that other countries.

WILSON: If you look at other cultures like China where very early on they established the principles of wok cookery and stir frying, where meat was chopped very small and small amounts of it were used almost as a seasoning relative to the vegetables. And that’s conversely a cuisine of frugality and scarcity out of which great ingenuity was born. Whereas the English way of doing things, it’s a huge luxury to have that much fuel and that much meat.

GRABER: This meant the Brits got to rest on their well-wooded hills.

TWILLEY: Singing our beefy songs.

GRABER: Until they started to reach the end of their forest riches.

PENNELL: So coal becomes more widespread as a domestic fuel partly because of wood famine. You know, by the end of the 16th century, some areas are simply running out of wood as a fuel. And it has other purposes as well, obviously, for building ships and so on. It’s also to do with the opening up of coal fields in the northeast.

TWILLEY: Suddenly, fuel economy is the mantra of the era. This is in the second half of the 1700s. And not only is wood starting to become scarce and coal mining starting to be an industry—there’s also the fact that people are moving to cities. And when you live in a city, it’s often a very long walk to go and collect wood, but someone can bring coal to your door.

GRABER: And in your new urban house, you don’t have enough space to have a huge, open wood-fired hearth in any case. Luckily, with coal, you don’t need it.

PENNELL: When you start burning coal, you can have a smaller hearth because it’s a more intensely burning fuel.

TWILLEY: These new coal cooking fires weren’t just smaller. Very early on, people started enclosing them a little—they’d put a grate over top the hot coals.

PENNELL: And from that you start getting side hobs for putting pots and pans on. And that then becomes the possibility of, well, we still have this open flame in the coal grate in the center. But what happens if we put a metal box alongside that we could heat the water in? And then we get manufacturers thinking, well, we could also sort of somehow create an oven on the other side.

GRABER: So now with coal, we’ve gone from just a flame to something that directs that heat to a metal box—basically a proto oven.

TWILLEY: The enclosed oven was the hot tech breakthrough of the 1780s—Sara says the most frequently submitted patents that decade were for new domestic ovens that promised to be ever more efficient and safer and smaller.

PENNELL: The rising cost of fuel is making fuel economy a real focus for domestic reform. And probably the most famous person in this regard is in fact born in America: Count Rumford. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.

GRABER: Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, was born in Woburn, not too far from me in Boston, but he fought for the Brits during the revolutionary war and then moved to London. He was a physicist. He moved to Munich and was eventually made a count of the Holy Roman Empire, in Bavaria.

PENNELL: You know, one of these fantastic polymathic characters. He’s a soldier but he’s an inventor.

TWILLEY: One of his early inventions was something that he saw as the solution to world hunger: Rumford Soup. In his opinion, this soup delivered the maximum nutrients for the minimum amount of money. Problem solved.

GRABER: As if.

TWILLEY: So then Count Rumford turned his attention to fuel economy.

PENNELL: So he invents a number of stoves and cooking ranges precisely to maximize the efficiency of fuel.

GRABER: Rumford’s main innovation was to create lots of small, enclosed coal fires in little brick ovens, so that instead of just one large cooking surface, you had lots of little tiny closed brick fireplaces, one per pot. Each had its own door and its own tiny chimney. Apparently it was genuinely more efficient.

PENNELL: These were installed mainly in institutional kitchens. So there’s a famous Rumford cooking stove in the Foundling Hospital in London. But he also had them sort of installed in supporters houses and then they were opened up for people to come visit and see in action.

TWILLEY: One of these Rumford stoves was in the house of a guy called John Sinclair, who at the time was President of the Board of Agriculture, and it was literally open 24/7 for people to come and see, in his house.

PENNELL: I love at the end of the 18th and the early 19th century there’s this exhibitionary zeal around people sort of seeing these new kitchen inventions in action.

GRABER: But despite that exhibitionary zeal, Rumford’s stoves didn’t really catch on. Coal-fired ovens were more efficient than wood ones, yes, but Bee writes that many coal-fired ovens still belched fumes from coal smoke.

TWILLEY: Not all of them had all the careful little chimneys that Rumford designed into his stove. In the newspapers at the time, these badly constructed enclosed coal stoves were called “poison machines.” They were known for filling the kitchen with noxious gases.

GRABER: Whether wood or coal, people in England were in general slow to switch from open hearths to ovens. They liked their flames.

TWILLEY: But wait a minute here. As fond as I am of roast beef, one cannot live by that alone. What about bread? What about baked goods? Were there really no enclosed ovens in England till the late 1700s?

GRABER: Well, in the Britain they did at one point have something called a beehive oven—this was actually invented by the Romans and they were popular for a while. They’re clay ovens, just like the clay tannurs that developed throughout the Middle East. So yeah, people in the Middle East had ovens, but in Britain, no, really, no real household ovens.

WILSON: You never would have had an oven equivalent to the ovens we have today. If you wanted to cook something like bread you would probably take it to the baker. That was a big thing, that people would take their dishes to a communal bread oven to be cooked.

TWILLEY: OK, so roast beef at home, baked dishes in the community oven. No wonder then that, at least in non-clay oven cultures like England, putting that hearth fire in a box was such a big leap forward.

GRABER: By the end of the 1700s, most British cooks had moved from wood to coal. But Bee says the next change in fuel was the real breakthrough.

WILSON: The real great leap forward was not coal but gas. It’s never really been given the credit that it’s due. That was one of the single greatest contributors to human happiness in the kitchen.


GRABER: That is quite a claim—gas as one of the single greatest contributors to human happiness in the kitchen?

WILSON: If you take a technology like gas that enabled people to do the things they did already, which is to get a delicious dinner on the table, but to do so at a fraction of the cost and a tiny fraction of the risk to personal health—that’s great. It’s magnificent. And that is what gas cookery did. It made life pleasanter, it made life more convenient. It meant that you could switch fire on and off at will, which is an incredible leap forward.

TWILLEY: All that smoke from wood or soot from coal—gone! And the work and dirt of lugging logs and lumps of coal into the house—also gone!

WILSON: And then all of the cleaning out of the fireplace. It was so dirty, it was so sooty. And gas at a stroke liberated people, specifically women, from all of that work.

GRABER: Gas was also far more efficient. But the biggest thing is that people were no longer chained to their hearth or their wood- or coal-fired oven.

WILSON: It’s amazing if you think how much people were just enslaved by looking after the fire, making sure that they weren’t burnt as they slept by the fire at night, I mean, you know, that was a really important job. We talk about curfews as being a time that teenagers have to come back. But actually the original meaning of that was it was a cover that people put over the fire at night to make sure that the house didn’t burn down.

GRABER: I had no idea that was what curfew originally meant.

TWILLEY: But for all its curfew-breaking allure, gas didn’t catch on right away.

WILSON: The amazing thing is that it took almost a century from the first experiments with gas cookery to gas becoming generally used in mainstream British kitchens, and then the rest of the world. But it was partly that gas as a technology, it had to be supplied by a gas company. And it’s one of those inventions a bit like an electric car where you think, there’s this whole infrastructure that has to be in place in order for people to be able to cook with gas stoves.

PENNELL: Unlike coal which gets delivered to your door or wood that you go and collect, you know you can’t go and collect gas—it’s got to be piped into your street and into your house in order for you to have the equipment that is run on it. So it’s an urban phenomenon in the main first.

GRABER: So, as you’ve been listening, maybe you’ve been wondering why we’re telling the story of the how open fires got turned into ovens in the UK and not in the rest of the world that did in fact use ovens for thousands of years. This is why—this series of really rapid, really significant transitions.

TWILLEY: On the one hand, England is late to the oven party—we didn’t come to the domestic oven till much later than say the Middle East—so we can see the change happen really quickly when the wood runs out.

GRABER: And then on top of that, the Brits innovated quickly because that moment in history, the lack of wood and the movement to ovens, it coincided with the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization.

TWILLEY: And the result is a century of frenzied oven innovation, where you can see people inventing and resisting and adapting to all these new cooking techniques in what is actually quite a short period of time.

GRABER: And speaking of resisting, even once the gas-delivering infrastructure was in place, people were still a little nervous about these life-changing ovens.

WILSON: You have to have somebody piping the gas into your home and people were very resistant at first. People were terrified of gas. They thought it was going to make the food taste and smell disgusting, they thought there would be explosions. Servants were said to be especially terrified that they were going to die by the gas.

TWILLEY: On the other side, there were gas boosters. Celebrity chefs endorsed cooking with gas, the gas companies promoted it, and there were public demonstrations, which were sometimes not completely successful.

WILSON: There were some account of some Victorian dinner that was done that was meant to publicize the wonderful benefits but everyone came away saying that food tasted a bit strange. But I mean it really probably, as with lots of things, took lots of other people to try it and survive and pass on the benefits.

GRABER: The gas stove users did in fact survive, and even thrive. But although gas was, as Bee said, probably the greatest leap forward in our kitchens, it wasn’t an unqualified blessing.

WILSON: So something is always lost as well as gained with these leaps forward.

TWILLEY: I mean, if you think about it, we are the cooking ape, as Richard Wrangham likes to say. We’re defined by our relationship with fire, and these new-fangled gas stoves are a huge shift in that relationship.

WILSON: It is also arguably the point at which fire stops becoming the focus of our lives.

TWILLEY: Sara says that this shift away from the open hearth was a topic of much debate at the time. People fretted that something important was being lost.

PENNELL: There’s a lot of discussion around the reform of the kitchen hearth, which is contesting the benefits of technology over the cultural values of tradition and the open hearth. You know, the open hearth in kitchen is culturally important.

GRABER: People missed the sense of that focal point in the home, the flame as the center of their houses. But they also missed the actual taste of the food cooked over that flame.

PENNELL: There is both a sort of sentimentality about it but also a sense in which actually, you know, food does taste better. And Acton is very clear on that—meat baked in an oven is dry and tasteless.

TWILLEY: Sara is talking about Eliza Acton, who is a food writer who wrote one of the first domestic cookbooks in England, at around the time of this transition. And in her firmly held view, gas ovens smelled unpleasant and were the quickest way to ruin your Sunday roast.

GRABER: And as I’ve been made well aware, a delicious Sunday roast beef was absolutely central to British identity.

TWILLEY: Which brings me to my secret theory about why British cookery has such a bad reputation. It all has to do with the demise of the real roast.

WILSON: I have that theory too. I really share that theory, that we had this one thing that we were completely brilliant at. I mean it’s—having seen Ivan Day doing it, it’s not easy. And then suddenly open fire cookery goes out and we lose the tools, we lose the knowledge, and we have nothing to take its place, so we somehow feel at a loss. We never had learnt to cook things, to stew things in a pan in the way that the French had done. You know, cookery writers in the 19th century would say: the British just have no art of soup making in the way that the French do. And it’s partly maybe we could be blasé because we could make ourselves these fantastic meals from roast meat.

TWILLEY: I’m just wiping a tear away here—see! My people were good cooks! We just used up all our wood and lost our mojo.

GRABER: Three hundred years ago.


GRABER: But change is inevitable. And it’s always hard. Sara says that each of these oven transformations—from open to closed and from wood to coal to gas—every change inspired complaints and reveries for the way the food tasted before. Take John Evelyn—he was a famous British writer in the 1600s.

PENNELL: And we can go back actually to the 1660s and John Evelyn is no less nostalgic about the change to coal. He laments the loss of those succulent sausages that you could smoke up your chimney. You can’t do that with a coal fire. Everything is sooty and charred.

TWILLEY: So much loss. And there’s more to come, at least in terms of de-skilling the domestic cook.

GRABER: Bee might think that the transition to gas is the single greatest thing to have happened in the kitchen, but it has some serious competition in the form of the super unsexy sounding thermoregulator.

ELIZABETH SILVA: It was in the early 1920s when this technology was developed in Britain, in Birmingham. And, you know, it depends on the calibrated dial with numerical degrees. And it would indicate the different temperatures that the oven could be set at.

GRABER: Elizabeth Silva is professor emeritus of sociology at the Open University in the UK. And this thermoregulator did what it sounds like—it regulated the temperature in the oven.

TWILLEY: Before it was invented—i.e. for most of human history—people had all sorts of ingenious ways of figuring out how hot their fire or oven was. We talked about this in our episode on the history of cookbooks—people would watch to see how quickly paper turned yellow in the fire or the specific color of the flame.

SILVA: There was this wonderful account of a woman born in 1902. And she was describing what she did need to know for cooking. She was saying that once she had a bed of coals she knew that it took four quarter logs to hot it up enough to bake bread. But if she wanted to cook muffins she needed to stoke up the fire and stuck her hand in and started counting. When she got to eight before it was too hot for her, she could cook the muffins.

GRABER: This was a highly sophisticated level of knowledge. People looked down on cooking, it was women’s work, but cooking took a lot of know-how.

TWILLEY: And the thermoregulator took some of that cleverness away from the cook, and put it in the oven.

SILVA: You no longer needed first to put your hand in and assess the heat of the oven with your body. You didn’t need to pay much attention. You just knew that for cooking a certain dish, you needed the oven at a certain temperature, and you would just set the dial to that and you could go on and do your gardening. You could do your sewing, you could do childcare or whatever. And it was freeing the time of the woman, who no longer needed to know very much about cooking.

GRABER: This innovation just so fortunately coincided with a time in which middle-class women were losing their servants. Cooks in the 1920s and 30s could make more money doing other jobs.

SILVA: So the middle-class women, they had to learn to cook and they needed the task to be made easier for them. So in many ways these kinds of cookers replace the servants.

TWILLEY: It’s another moment where a big shift in cooking technology is about innovation, sure, but it’s also about much broader changes that are happening in the world.

GRABER: Just a few decades later, the way the we heat food would be rocked by another technological innovation—one that also came along with some pretty major international events.

RAYTHEON TAPE: In America the main manufacturer of radar components during World War II was Massachusetts Raytheon Corporation.

TWILLEY: Raytheon actually manufactured about 80 percent of the magnetrons—the microwave-emitting devices that make radar work.

RAYTHEON TAPE: In early 1945, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was hard at work in the lab to improve these glorious machines. One afternoon, Spencer got hungry while he was working. He reached into his pocket for a chocolate bar and was flabbergasted to pull out a gooey mess.


TWILLEY: So what had happened to Percy LeBaron Spencer’s chocolate bar? Well, let’s back up. The magnetron was originally developed to spot Nazi warplanes.

GRABER: But now the war was over, and Raytheon wanted to find a way for this radar technology to be useful for something other than spotting Nazi war planes. They wanted to sell it to civilians. And Percy Spencer got an idea.

RAYTHEON TAPE: Spencer was inspired. He sent an assistant for a bag of uncooked popcorn. Then he spread the corn over the table near the magnetron and waited. Less than a minute later the kernels began exploding. Spencer was now certain that the microwaves themselves were doing the cooking and it was an auspicious beginning. Percy Spencer had made the first batch of what would become the world’s most popular microwaved food: popcorn.

TWILLEY: The next morning, Percy exploded an egg for a colleague. Clearly, this device was going to be a hit in the kitchen!

GRABER: Percy worked with his colleagues at Raytheon and turned that radar into an oven, the original microwave. But not the kind that you see at home. This one weighed more than 600 pounds and cost $3,000, which at the time was the equivalent of a year’s salary.

TWILLEY: It was called the Radarange—the winner in an employee competition to name this magical new oven.

GRABER: The Radarange was so powerful that the cooking times for recipes were in seconds—like a 50-second baked potato, and a thirty-second hamburger. But…

RAYTHEON TAPE: The Wonder Cooker was just too expensive for Joe and Jane Average so it was targeted to railroad dining cars, restaurants, and shipboard kitchens. But they weren’t selling like hotcakes. Even though they could make hotcakes in seconds.

TWILLEY: It took a couple decades, but eventually Raytheon decided to partner with Amana, a consumer appliance company, to make a version of their Radarange that was targeted at the general public


GRABER: Even though it was lower power, this new oven must have seemed pretty miraculous—baked potatoes cooked in minutes? And you put something inside, press a button, and nothing really gets hot except for the food itself and maybe the plate, no hot oven? How does this miracle box actually work? We called food science guru Harold McGee to find out.

HAROLD MCGEE: A microwave is essentially a radio transmitter but instead of broadcasting outward it broadcasts inward.

TWILLEY: Basically, that magnetron thing, it’s broadcasting short waves—microwaves—of electromagnetic radiation. And those waves are being reflected off the walls of the box and into the food.

CG And the prime target for those microwaves? The water in food.

MCGEE: And so what you’re doing when you microwave a food is you’re heating its water molecules.

TWILLEY: The thing about water molecules is that they are asymmetrical, in electrical terms.

MCGEE: So that when the radio field shifts, as it does many many times a second, it causes those asymmetrical molecules to shift at the same time.

GRABER: In fact, billions of times a second.

MCGEE: And what that does is cause friction which heats up the food. A microwave oven can actually vibrate and heat up the water molecules to a depth of about an inch into the food.

TWILLEY: This is very different from how an oven heats food. An oven can only heat up the food at the surface—by heating up the air around it.

MCGEE: And air is a very poor conductor of heat. So it takes a long time to heat things up.

GRABER: There are benefits to the oven’s slow cooking speed. First, it gives you a larger window to rescue your dinner if it’s slowly getting overcooked. But more importantly…

MCGEE: It’s a wonderful place to put foods if you want to get a crisp, crunchy, brown surface because air is dry. And the oven is very good at desiccating the surface of foods and allowing those browning reactions and flavor development to take place.

TWILLEY: Not to get all nostalgic for roast beef again but an open fire is actually even better at this. A regular oven works by conduction—so, heating air, which heats the food. A flame is pretty much pure infrared radiation. And that gives you the most gorgeous sizzling crust.

GRABER: Microwaves are good at getting water molecules really, really excited, which means those water molecules rub against each other and generate heat.


GRABER: So it’s great at, say, reheating soup.

MCGEE: But if what you want is that wonderful browned crust, it’s simply not going to give you that.

GRABER: No, no delicious roasting or baking or browning in the microwave.

TWILLEY: So one of the things that is really weird about microwaves is that your food gets sweaty in them, and that’s a problem.

GRABER: Actually, your food sweats in an oven, too.

MCGEE: Any time you heat a food with water in, it begins to cool itself off just the same way we do, by evaporating water from its surface.

GRABER: In an oven, that air is hot, and so the surface stays hot, too. But in a microwave, the surface sweats and cools down, but the water an inch in, it’s heating up and it can’t go anywhere.

MCGEE: So it turns out that you can actually burn foods on the inside easier than the outside in microwaves.

TWILLEY: There are other problems. These microwaves—they’re waves. So they have high points and low points. Which leads to the dreaded issue of hot and cold spots in your food.

GRABER: This is a big enough problem that there is a microwave scientist at Cornell University named Ashim Datta who is studying just this issue.

ASHIM DATTA: If you have a hot air oven with a fan, it kind of mixes and every place is close to the same temperature. That is fundamentally not the case in microwaves because you have these patterns of high electric field and low electric field.

TWILLEY: Ashim’s favorite way to demonstrate this problem to his students is with cheese.

DATTA: So you have a layer of cheese and you’ll see that someplace it melts and other places it doesn’t.

GRABER: But nobody was talking about or thinking about these types of problems when microwaves were first introduced to the public. These ads were all about the cooking revolution.


SILVA: Well, the microwave oven! In the 70s, the microwave oven appears as the savior of the busy housewife.

TWILLEY: Elizabeth Silva has her own favorite microwave ad. It appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1973. And it’s addressed directly at, yes, the busy housewife.

SILVA: Your husband is returning from a conference in 45 minutes. The chairman and his wife are accompanying him.

GRABER: But dinner is still unprepared. You would like to offer tomato soup followed by trout with new potatoes, peas and asparagus. And for dessert an upside down cake topped with peaches and cherries.

SILVA: Impossible until now. For today, in that time you can cook the meal of your choice, set the table, put the children to bed and get changed.

TWILLEY: Amazing. But once again, we’re talking about an innovation in cooking technology that’s also tied into its larger social context. At this point, in the 1970s, the issue is that the busy housewife—she actually now has a job, but gender roles have barely changed, so she’s expected to put dinner on the table for the chairman and his wife after a long day in the office. That’s the excitement behind the microwave’s introduction—saving time!

GRABER: And as a result, the microwave also is another step towards basically not needing any knowledge about cooking or food at all.

TWILLEY: Which had a curious kind of side-effect in terms of those gender roles and the question of who was doing the cooking.

SILVA: In many ways there is a democratization of the cooking process once brain power is put into the microwave. I call that the emergence of the stupid cook.

GRABER: Teenagers could cook, men could cook. But how much of this was really cooking? What the microwave is best at, as we’ve said, is just heating up food.

SILVA: And properly engineered foods in terms of size, in terms of texture, in terms of all of those things.

TWILLEY: And that properly engineered food, pre-prepared in small-enough, regular-enough chunks to not explode or heat unevenly—that kind of food was best made in a factory.

GRABER: This is of course the decade in which processed food is kind of taking over.

TWILLEY: Like Elizabeth says, the microwave is push-button stupid cooking. But the food is pre-prepared too. In combination, this kind of cooking could not be further from the woman using her hand to gauge the temperature before making muffins, or from Ivan Day’s sophisticated fire management for roasting.

GRABER: And there’s something else about this pre-prepared microwaveable food: it usually comes in a serving size of one.

SILVA: It does liberate people from eating together in many ways. It fits in with a more flexible, fluid way of living.

TWILLEY: Which again, is a long way a way from the fireplace as focal point—now we’ve not only lost our flame, we have a little countertop box making ready meals for one.

GRABER: But the microwave never became the most used appliance in the kitchen as those futuristic ads promised. Unlike the oven, which did totally replace the hearth, the microwave lives sort of alongside your existing oven.

TWILLEY: In reality, people almost never use their microwave to cook trout and new potatoes from scratch for the chairman and his wife.

MCGEE: One of I think the best uses for the microwave is reheating things that have already been cooked the way you want them to be. And you simply need to bring them back up to a desirable temperature.

GRABER: And the occasional bag of microwave popcorn.

TWILLEY: We’ve now brought the oven pretty much up to date in the modern kitchen. But there are a lot of people in the world who don’t cook in a modern kitchen.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Some 3 billion people are thought to use either pretty inefficient wood stoves or just open fires to cook their food.

GRABER: Michelle Nijhuis is a reporter, and she traveled to Guatemala to write about these wood stoves for National Geographic.

TWILLEY: Just as they were in 1600s England, these wood-fueled cooking fires are dangerous and dirty.

NIJHUIS: The estimate is that the typical cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke every hour. So you can imagine over a lifetime or over a childhood particularly that that would have a pretty huge health impacts.

GRABER: That’s not the only problem with these inefficient wood-fired stoves. People cutting wood for stoves can lead to stripping hills and regions of their forests, which can lead to landslides and other environmental problems.

TWILLEY: Plus these stoves are sooty—the black carbon they emit is a major contributor to climate change.

GRABER: And when women and children have to walk farther and farther to find wood, they’re often not able to go to work or school.

TWILLEY: So this seems like an easy problem to fix, right? We’ve figured out ovens in the developed world, let’s just share that technology with these folks, and boom!

NIJHUIS: But what sounds like an easy fix is unfortunately much more complicated.

GRABER: NGOs have been working on this issue for about four decades.

TWILLEY: It really all got started after a huge earthquake in Guatemala in 1976. A bunch of major international aid groups came into the country to help rebuild.

NIJHUIS: And a lot of people, as they were helping families who had been affected by the earthquake, noticed that these families were dealing with these very smoky and inefficient stoves and thought, well, gosh, maybe we can fix this problem.

GRABER: So this cookstove replacement effort started in the 1970s, that’s about forty years ago. You’d think maybe they’d have fixed the problem by now and everyone would have great ovens?

NIJHUIS: You know, they’ve figured a lot of things out but they’ve run into a lot of unexpected obstacles.

TWILLEY: Some of these obstacles are the obvious challenges: how do you make something that is fuel efficient and not smoky and super affordable and portable?

GRABER: And then some are only predictable if you look at history—the people who use those smoky stoves today feel the same as folks in England did when they couldn’t cook their roast the way they wanted to. They’re used to cooking tortillas and tamales on a big flat surface over a fire.

NIJHUIS: No one wants to use a stove that doesn’t cook their staple cuisine perfectly. And the husbands will say this food doesn’t taste right or I can’t warm my feet in the morning like I used to. You know, stoves are at the center of a household—they’re really the heart of a household in many ways. You know, people gather in the kitchen, they warm themselves in the kitchen. And so it really gets at all these core family dynamics in a surprisingly deep way.

TWILLEY: These are exactly the kinds of things that British people complained about when they lost their open fires—they mourned their smoked sausages and roast beef and the loss of the focal point of their homes.

GRABER: Michelle got to experience the downside of those traditional fires personally. She spent Easter with the Perez family.

NIJHUIS: And since they were using this inefficient old stove to cook a large meal, the kitchen was just full of gritty smoke. And it was a really happy, wonderful scene. People were laughing and talking, but they were clearly affected by the smoke too. You know, it’s not the kind of smoke that you can get used to. I mean, people maybe used to the feeling but it’s never comfortable because it makes your eyes water, it’s really gritty and heavy.

TWILLEY: Michelle says her throat ached for days afterward.

GRABER: While Michelle was in Guatemala, she also spent some time with midwives who are trying to help families like the Perez family switch to cleaner gas stoves.

TWILLEY: And again, these efforts are encountering many of the same obstacles as gas-stove promoters did back in England in the late 1800s.

NIJHUIS: People were afraid the gas stove might blow up so they taught them about safety and how to make sure that their kids and their families would be safe. But perhaps most importantly they role played conversations with other family members.

GRABER: One woman would pretend to be herself talking to her husband, and another woman would play the husband.

NIJHUIS: And she’d be saying, oh, you know, little husband I need, I need money for the cylinder. And then, you know, her friend would come up with all these objections. Why do you need that new stove anyway? You know, why do we need that? Why can’t we just use the stove my mom does? And so they would go through these arguments and and apparently it worked really well. And not only that the women just have practice standing up for themselves but they also got clear in their own minds why they wanted to make this change.

TWILLEY: And there’s another trick that these international aid organizations have tried that seems to help with the transition. This one is straight from Count Rumford’s playbook.

GRABER: They set up storefronts run by local women where other women can come in and try out the stoves, see how they work, why they’re an improvement, get them comfortable with the idea of switching.

TWILLEY: Michelle hung at one of these storefronts, which turn out to be pretty popular.

NIJHUIS: Families came in together several times and talked with one another about what they liked and didn’t like.

TWILLEY: And surprise, surprise, people are more likely to use a stove that they’ve tried, and tested, and chosen themselves!

GRABER: But there are still billions of dirty, smoky inefficient wood stoves in use today—nobody’s solved this problem yet. Michelle says that aid groups are making progress, though, and they’ve come up with solutions that work best in different regions. It isn’t one stove fits all.

TWILLEY: But these things take time. Adapting to new cooking technology took more than a century in England!

NIJHUIS: And these midwives were saying it’s when the young couple is able to set up house separately or even in a separate little compound on the same property, when they have control over their kitchen, that’s when we see change happen. And that’s when we see healthier kitchens.

GRABER: This change will probably take a generational shift. Because if there’s one thing that we can learn from the history of ovens, according to Sara Pennell, it’s that change is hard.

PENNELL: There’s so many facets to it that I think it’s not just simply about, oh, well, this new technology exists and on paper it should be widely adopted because it does x, y, and z. But we know that that doesn’t happen. We know it doesn’t happen in the past and therefore we should sort of be a little bit more humble in thinking, well, why might it not be something that people want to welcome with open arms.

TWILLEY: The history of changing cooking techniques can help keep us humble. It can also give us good ideas to help with that adaptation—like this idea of demonstration kitchens. But, at the end of the day, the thing that really makes a new kitchen technology succeed? It has to fit with larger changes in society and culture.

GRABER: In the past, one of those changes was urbanization—and an easier access to gas pipes. Also changing gender roles. And this is what those midwives are also pointing out—as gender roles are changing among the younger generation in Guatemala, they’re more willing to try something new in the kitchen.

NIJHUIS: You know, so often I feel like the stereotypical environmentalist coming from the developed world to the developing world is trying to get across the message of don’t do what we did, do as we say not as we do. Because, you know, in the developed world we have this history of using up all our resources. And then once we have no other option finding some innovation.

TWILLEY: And so these international organizations are coming into communities that, yes, are experiencing some problems, but are not yet being forced into change by larger social, environmental, infrastructural, and cultural shifts.

NIJHUIS: And they’re saying well, I know we’re strangers and I know we don’t understand how your lives work but could you just trust us and try this new stove and see if it improves your lives at all? And it’s no wonder that that’s a very complicated.


TWILLEY: Guess what, the story of how we heat our food and the technology we use to do that—that’s only half the story.

GRABER: Next episode, we are exploring the other half of this story: pots and pans.

WILSON: I think pots first of all led to cuisine itself. To me, it’s the great beginning of cookery.


GRABER: Thanks this episode to so many wonderful guests: Bee Wilson, Sara Pennell, Harold McGee, Elizabeth Silva, Michelle Nijhuis, and Ashim Datta. We have links to their books, articles, and research on our website, Also, huge thanks to our volunteer Ari Lebowitz who helped with research this episode.

TRANSCRIPT Marching on Our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troops

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Marching on Our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troop, first released on March 27, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Okay, yeah, we want to try the egg.

NICOLA TWILLEY: I’m a little afraid. These are like golden yellow nuggets.

GRABER: They’re totally—these are egg corn puffs.

TWILLEY: Well, not corn…

GRABER: Or more like those little Styrofoam things.

TWILLEY: Styrofoam packing peanuts. But they smell like egg!

GRABER: Yes! Mmm.

TWILLEY: Taste like egg!

GRABER: Taste great. I mean, I love eggs.

GRABER: Mmmm, styrofoam packing peanuts that taste like eggs! But really, people, they tasted good. And we were surprised.

TWILLEY: Because they are the military food of the future. And frankly, rations don’t have a great reputation for deliciousness.

GRABER: You are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode we are enlisting our taste buds and heading into the lab to explore how the military gets fed.

GRABER: We get to the bottom of some important questions: Why have eggs made for soldiers’ rations always tasted so bad? Why is it so hard to make those perfect packets of protein portable?

TWILLEY: And does what the military eats actually matter? Can food win wars? Plus, from hot pockets to trendy cold-pressed juices, how does their food affect what ends up on our dinner tables too?



TWILLEY: Scrambled eggs was the first thing I ever learned to cook for myself. Eggs are still my go-to for the simplest possible last resort dinner when I’m tired and there’s nothing else in the house. Ready in minutes, delicious, good for you, and pretty much impossible to screw up, am I right?

GRABER: Exactly. But when it comes to eggs on the battlefield? Not so simple. Military food scientists have been trying to perfect eggs for decades, and they’ve been failing.

DAVID ACCETTA: This is a dehydrated eggs mix, butter flavored, and this was something that would have been made in a field kitchen. So instead of having to try to bring dozens and dozens of eggs up to the battlefields of the field kitchen, they would use these dehydrated egg mixes.

TWILLEY: That’s David Accetta.

ACCETTA: I was in Desert Storm, I was in the second Iraq war, I was in Afghanistan, a bunch of other different places. I ate a lot of MREs.

GRABER: Today David is head of public affairs at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center. That’s a mouthful in itself. But one of the things they do at the Natick Center, as we’re going to call it for short, is develop the army’s food.

TWILLEY: So those dehydrated flaked eggs are grim. But they would be what you would get in field kitchens. They’re not the kind of food a soldier would carry with them to eat on the front lines.

GRABER: And, actually, David likes the dehydrated eggs.

ACCETTA: When I first came in the army and we were still eating the ones in the cans, the omelette in the can was also my favorite. And it was pretty easy because since nobody liked it, I could always trade whatever I had for it.

TWILLEY: Eggs in a can were an innovation in their time, as we’ll discover. But the army does not rest on its quest to make the perfect portable egg.

GRABER: The omelettes in cans were not a hit. So the scientists at the Natick center introduced a pouch version of an omelette—eggs in a bag. Because everyone wants eggs.

TWILLEY: The folks at Natick were very excited about their new veggie omelette in a bag. They took it up to Alaska to field test it on the troops there, and it performed well.

GRABER: But then they added it to the meal rotation. And everyone—well, let’s just say that the nickname for this veggie omelette was vomlette.

TWILLEY: If you look online, on soldier and veteran forums, there are a lot of feelings about the vomelette. One of the few description I can read aloud without wanting to vomlette myself is this one: “Opening the entrée packet is like walking into a stale egg fart in a thrift store dressing room.”

GRABER: So, not a huge success. Although David didn’t seem to mind.

ACCETTA: You know, it didn’t taste like a fresh omelet but it wasn’t, you know—it wasn’t bad in my opinion.

TWILLEY: It’s possible David may just be too fond of eggs to be a good judge. But so why has the humble egg defeated the mighty force of the U.S. military research and development team for so long?

GRABER: We asked Michelle Richardson, she’s a senior food technologist at Natick.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, number one, eggs have a very high pH. pH measures the acidity of the product.

GRABER: The lower the pH, the more acidic the food. And the more acidic the food, the more shelf stable it is.

RICHARDSON: Because bacteria can’t grow in it. I think eggs have a pH of 7. Think of tomato paste, which is very stable—it may have a pH below 4. So that’s the big difference.

TWILLEY: So pH is a problem. But why? We have to back up here, because part of the egg challenge is just that there are a lot of hoops any food has to go through to make it in the military.

JEREMY WHITSITT: Yeah, I think it’s all a big puzzle.

GRABER: Jeremy Whitsitt is deputy director for the combat feeding program. He laid the whole puzzle out for us.

WHITSITT: Because certainly nutrition and providing the right amount of calories is key. But doing it in a product that’s lightweight and low volume, that can sit on the shelf for at least three years, that can withstand being dragged through the mud and dropped out of aircraft and high temperatures, low temperatures. And then, at the end of the day, it’s got to taste good, because if it doesn’t taste good they’re not going to eat it so all that science doesn’t do any good anyways. And you’ve got all of those different factors kind of converging into this big puzzle and that’s really encapsulates our mission here is to make that puzzle come together.

TWILLEY: So like Jeremy said, these army-grade, pre-scrambled eggs have to be able to last three years without refrigeration. Whereas a normal omelette—if you left that out on your countertop, you wouldn’t want to eat it the next morning, unless you were really trying to give yourself food poisoning. As Michelle told us, eggs aren’t acidic enough to scare off dangerous microbes.

GRABER: And then there’s another problem when you try to process eggs for long-term storage. One way to kill off any potential critters is to heat foods to really high temperatures. And what happens to eggs?

RICHARDSON: A lot of times when you process eggs they turn green. Especially if you’re doing, like, high heat. They did have a retort egg in the MRE years ago, but it was one of the least liked items, so they had to remove it.

TWILLEY: Retort egg is not something you find on the menu at your typical diner. So we asked Michelle to explain what happens to an egg when it’s retorted.

RICHARDSON: So it’s put into this big unit and you have high temperature and high pressure to kill any bacteria in there. So that’s the sterilization process.

GRABER: Retorting eggs will turn them green. And retorting eggs, basically cooking them at high heat, it takes a long time to make them sterile. Many of you will know what happens when you cook eggs for too long…

TWILLEY: I have made this mistake. They turn into rubber.

RICHARDSON: You have textural issues that you need to deal with. And so when we process the retorted eggs, you have to add a lot of things to stabilize the texture, which may contribute to off flavors. So it was just very difficult to get something shelf stable that still tastes good.

GRABER: The egg challenge has bedevilled Ph.D. scientists literally for decades.

TWILLEY: Soldiers want eggs but for the most part they do not want rubbery green eggs that smell like a fart in a thrift store changing room.

GRABER: No, they most certainly do not. Which is why our tasting of those delicious dehydrated egg puffs was so incredibly revolutionary! They’re made using a new technology that you might have encountered at your local Starbucks.

OLEKSYK: Vacuum microwave drying is used currently to produce that moon cheese, for an example. But we’re taking it one step further and compressing it so that we get the dried product in a small compact space for rations.

TWILLEY: Lauren Oleksyk leads the food engineering and analysis team at Natick. And that moon cheese she’s talking about—that is that weird cheese puff snack thing they sell at Starbucks that’s kind of like a disappointing Cheeto.

OLEKSYK: It’s a vacuum microwave cheese. It’s a real cheese product just with moisture removed.

GRABER: This vacuum microwave drying works through a combination of vacuum pressure as well as microwave radiation. Together, the two approaches dry out food at a much lower temperature than oven drying, much faster. So more nutrients and flavors and colors are left in the final product.

TWILLEY: Basically, it’s a gentler process and so the food still ends up sterile, but also way more appealing and better for you.

GRABER: The samples we tried had just shown up in the lab that very morning, from a Canadian partner lab that specializes in this vacuum microwave drying technology.

TWILLEY: We were excited to try them. Michelle was too.

RICHARDSON: It does, it tastes nice. Has very nice egg flavor. I like the color retention, it’s hard to retain a yellow egg color after you process it. So that’s really nice.

GRABER: So maybe eggs have actually been solved?!

TWILLEY: And it’s only taken fifty years.

GRABER: Eggs are just one example of the ways scientists have been trying to figure out how to best feed the military for many, many decades now. But the question of how to feed soldiers goes back a lot farther in time.

TWILLEY: Back as far as Ancient Egypt. The first organized armies—this is four thousand years ago in Ancient Sumer—they fought their wars super nearby, so they could go home for dinner.

GRABER: But that didn’t work for the ancient Egyptians. They ended up with a territory covering 400,000 square miles.

ANASTACIA MARX DE SALCEDO: And they did in fact carry rations with them.

TWILLEY: Anastacia Marx de Salcedo wrote a book called Combat Ready Kitchen. She told us that Egyptian troops carried little cakes made out barley, some greens, and dried fish.

MARX DE SALCEDO: And this was so important, because it provided a portable protein, that it was actually part of their wages.

TWILLEY: This grain-onion combo continued to be the mainstay of military rations. In ancient Greece, the notoriously austere Spartans added some goat cheese and sour wine to the mix, but each soldier was expected to carry his own two-week grain supply at all times, which weighed at least 30 lbs

GRABER: The ancient Roman empire stretched across continents, and the armies had to be well fed to have conquered all that territory. They ate all sorts of cured pork products—prosciutto and bacon and sausage.

TWILLEY: Like the Egyptians, Roman soldiers were actually paid in food—salt pork specifically. Which took care of their salary, sodium needs, and dinner all in one go.

GRABER: The Roman army also ate Parmesan and other hard cheeses. They had a twice-baked cracker called hardtack.

TWILLEY: For thousands of years, military food stayed pretty much the same. Grain, some salty preserved protein, and maybe a little onion to spice things up.

GRABER: In case this isn’t totally obvious, solving the question of how to keep soldiers well fed is really crucial to any conquering army. The soldiers are working hard and sweating and they are probably not near a kitchen or campfire and they have to eat enough, and eat well enough, to not get sick and keep up their strength on the battlefield. Otherwise? You lose the battle.

TWILLEY: Or those hungry soldiers desert en masse because their priority becomes finding food, not fighting. And that way, you also lose the battle.

GRABER: Figuring out how to feed the military has always been pretty hard. Mainly because over the course of nearly all of human history, we haven’t had many good solutions for preserving food in ways that are also light and portable.

MARX DE SALCEDO: The reason that rations had not changed in millennia was because there were no new food preservation techniques. And so rations relied on drying, salting, curing, and smoking. And so even in as late as the French and American Revolutionary Wars, what soldiers were carrying in their rucksacks was pretty much the same thing as the Roman legionnaires almost 2,000 years earlier.

TWILLEY: And then everything changes. Thanks to Napoleon, some hot water, and a candy maker. Dinner—within the army and without—has never been the same.


MARX DE SALCEDO: During the French Revolutionary War there was a lot of hunger and starvation experienced both by citizens and soldiers, and this may have been the impetus. We do not know for sure.

GRABER: At the time, Napoleon was a young man rising through the military ranks. It might be because of the hunger he saw during the revolution, but, in any case, one of Napoleon’s top priorities when he became emperor was to figure out a better way to feed those hungry French troops. After all, he needed that army to help him take over all of Europe. So Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc award for anyone who could come up with a new, improved preservation method.

TWILLEY: Enter Nicolas Appert.

MARX DE SALCEDO: I like to describe Nicolas Appert as a bad boy celebrity chef turned candy maker. He decided to meet this challenge, and it turned out that candy making store was actually the perfect place to do so. And the reason was is that it has a lot of very specialized equipment.

TWILLEY: Because Nicolas was a candy maker, he already knew how to preserve fruit, by preparing it in syrups, jams, and jellies, inside sealed glass containers. So he decided to see if he could do the same sort of thing with other foods. He took vegetables, meat stews, peas, and beans and put them in sealed glass jars too.

MARX DE SALCEDO: And then he would put that glass vessel into a larger metal vessel with boiling water. This is actually a technique called the water bath.

GRABER: Another name for this water bath is a bain marie, literally Mary’s bath. The invention is attributed to a woman, to a Jewish alchemist. She is the first known woman alchemist, she lived in Egypt in the first century CE.

TWILLEY: So when you use a double boiler to melt chocolate or make a hollandaise sauce, you’re using a device invented in an attempt to transform base metal into gold! Which it does not do, but it is an amazing tool to hold the temperature steady at 212 degrees Fahrenheit—the boiling point of water—for as long as you want. Your food doesn’t overheat and burn and more importantly, it stays at that temperature long enough to kill all the microbes.

GRABER: Nicolas didn’t know about microbes, but he experimented. He put his jars of soups and stews into the bain marie…

MARX DE SALCEDO: And then he would cook the food for a period of time and then stopper up the bottle.

TWILLEY: And it worked!

MARX DE SALCEDO: Then he actually began to sell his products to the middle class in glass bottles and he called it “spring, summer, and fall in a bottle,” which is lovely poetic name.

TWILLEY: Once Nicolas had this process perfected, he brought his most delicious examples to the Navy, to see whether they would win him Napoleon’s big cash prize. And although it took the government a while, eventually he went home with 12,000 francs, in return for giving up the rights to his invention.

GRABER: But his invention relied on glass jars. It took an another guy to come up with an alternative—the tin can. Though even these weren’t ideal, because workers could only make six to ten tin cans a day.

MARX DE SALCEDO: So I don’t think it was something that was used except in the addition to the normal rations, and possibly for the officers’ mess, which is actually what happened in during the Civil War. Cans were only supplied to officers, and I believe it was canned condensed milk. And the regular enlisted men did not have access to this kind of food.

TWILLEY: So what about our candyman inventor? Nicolas Appert got the cash prize, like we said, and he used it to set up a bottling factory. For a while, life was good. He’s even credited with inventing peppermint schnapps, as an ice cream topping. But he had given away the rights to his best idea—the canning, not the peppermint schnapps—and his factory was trashed when Napoleon’s enemies invaded France.

MARX DE SALCEDO: Appert ended up dying anonymous and a pauper.

GRABER: What’s just as bad, or maybe even worse, is that you’ve probably never heard of Nicolas Appert, because he isn’t given credit for basically inventing pasteurization. That’s because he had no idea why his invention worked. Louis Pasteur discovered how microbes cause food to spoil and why the bain marie kills pathogens. That’s why this canning process keeps food safe longer. But Nicolas Appert discovered the process itself first.

TWILLEY: But today it’s pasteurizing, not Appertizing.

GRABER: It takes more than a century to get to the next big incentive to improve military food. And that’s World War II.

TWILLEY: Between 1939 and 1945, the military went from feeding just under four hundred thousand soldiers to having to provide three meals a day for more than 12 million recruits, stationed all over the world.

GRABER: By then the military had some new foods for the troops. They had this new ready-to-eat meal called the C ration, which was unappetizing grey stew in a can, in a single serving portion.

MARX DE SALCEDO: And it also had some dried rations, it had a chocolate bar which was called the D ration. And this was something that had been made to be deliberately unpalatable so that soldiers would use it in an emergency. These rations didn’t fare so well when they were shipped around the world. First of all, their packaging didn’t stand up to different climates and conditions. So the cans rusted, the cellophane on the D rations allowed water in and they became soggy.

TWILLEY: On top of that, soldiers complained that the fat in the C ration stew separated and went rancid, the meat tasted as if it had been cooked for months, the eggs and dairy smelled revolting, and the cans themselves were weighty and unwieldy

MARX DE SALCEDO: This was one of the reasons that the U.S. turned around and decided to invest a lot more in food science research during the war. So over the course of the four years of World War II, a small laboratory that really started as an ad hoc thing, with three employees, two of whom were former cooking instructors, one of whom was a secretary, a very small supply of battered equipment.

GRABER: That tiny ad-hoc lab was transformed. It became a huge research center, with around 300 employees specializing in chemistry and vitamins and packaging. They partnered with 500 university and industrial food science labs.

MARX DE SALCEDO: That whole system stayed in place after the war. And it became part of the policy of preparedness, so that we would always be ready at an instant’s notice to be able to enter a large multinational scrum such as World War II. So the Natick Center is a direct descendant of that system.

TWILLEY: And the Natick Center is where Cynthia and I were lucky enough to sample the military’s next-gen eggs. Eggs, like, 5.0?

GRABER: The research center was constructed in the 1960s, and it houses departments that are in charge of studying all kinds of things, like soldier’s clothing and shelter. But, of course, they also are in charge of what soldiers eat.

WHITSITT: So we do the research, development, test, and evaluation for food that our war fighters are eating either on the battlefield and in some cases in a garrison environment. So a dining facility and things like that.

TWILLEY: We’ve met Jeremy already this episode. He’s deputy director of the combat feeding program. And our first stop at Natick was actually him taking us on a trip backwards in time, through a little museum they have set up to showcase the unappetizing history of U.S. military food.

WHITSITT: Yeah, so this is kind of a walk through history, and it’s certainly not a comprehensive history of military rations, but I think you’ll get a good taste for it.

GRABER: Jeremy started us with the Revolutionary War — the soldiers ate hardtack, that super dry cracker, and preserved pork.

TWILLEY: Then there’s an entire section dedicated to that giant leap forward, the tin can.

WHITSITT: The can was was good against preventing moisture and bugs and things from getting into the food and making it go bad. But if you can imagine having all these cans kind of on your person and either in your rucksack or in your cargo pockets, and not only the weight but trying to assume like a quick position on the ground, those cans are like digging into your legs.

GRABER: Not the most comfortable.

TWILLEY: But that was the deal throughout World War II and even Vietnam: soldiers were expected to stuff up to 9 tins of food into their field jacket along with their grenades and ammunition. According to reports from the time, 2 out of every 3 cans were thrown away.

GRABER: Until 1980, when the can finally met its replacement. The folks at the Natick Center had been working on a can alternative forever, since 1959. It was their main priority. The researchers finally, after decades, managed to create a flexible foil-lined pouch that could be sterilized and hermetically sealed and ripped open at mealtime. This is it, people!

TWILLEY: This is the MRE. The meal-ready-to-eat, as it’s called in the army’s special C3PO way of talking. Woohoo! Mission accomplished. The team at Natick gave themselves a giant round of applause, job well done.

GRABER: And this flexible MRE was indeed great. But then, David says, the U.S. entered into the next major battlefield, this time in the Middle East: Desert Storm.

ACCETTA: So if you look at the initial invasion of Iraq in 1991, in Operation Desert Storm, and then again in 2003, there wasn’t time to stop and set up field kitchens and serve soldiers and Marines hot food. So they ate MREs and that was the only thing that they had, and if they had to eat them three times a day then they ate them three times a day.

TWILLEY: But the problem was, they weren’t eating them. These new MREs might have been lighter and easier to carry thanks to the revolutionary flexible pouch, but there were only twelve different menus. Which led to problems that the Natick team diplomatically referred to as “menu fatigue.”

ACCETTA: Even if you liked all twelve, you were going to eat the same thing over again within a period of three or four days.

GRABER: But the troops weren’t eating them all. Once again, they were throwing a lot away. That meant they just weren’t eating enough food. Or if they did manage to scrounge through the package or trade to get snacks that they liked, they weren’t getting the nutrition that they needed. The army says the troops were suffering physically and cognitively.

TWILLEY: Boredom wasn’t the only reason soldiers weren’t eating their MREs. It was also because they frequently had to consume these meal pouches cold.

GRABER: It’s because they had to use fuel tabs to heat up water. Lauren Oleksyk told us that the fuel tabs couldn’t be packaged with the food, and so they didn’t always show up in the same place at the same time as the MREs.

OLEKSYK: Really, there was no way of heating that food in the field. They can eat it cold. But from a morale standpoint, from an acceptability standpoint, they like it much better when it’s heated.

TWILLEY: So yeah, cold meatballs in marinara sauce from a pouch three meals a day—I think I’d end up deciding it was better to be a little hungry sometimes, too.

GRABER: So now the team at Natick has a new huge challenge ahead. They have a lightweight foil pouch. But how can the team create a new way to heat the food that can be packaged with the food, so that the people in the field won’t be stuck in a situation where they have fuel bars but don’t have their MREs, or they have their MREs but the fuel bars didn’t make it?

TWILLEY: And beyond this thermal challenge—how did the fact that all these soldiers were throwing their pouches away, uneaten, lead to a whole new era of shelf-stable hot pockets and even military pizza!


TWILLEY: So here’s our situation: The food is cold. This does not help with quote “palatability.” The army needs another breakthrough. They get to work after the first Gulf war, and in 1993, which is kind of record-breaking speed for the military, they came up with a winner.

ACCETTA: So the flameless ration heater allows them to have hot food anywhere that they are, because all you need to do is add water and it’s an exothermic reaction. And we just happen to have with us here Laurie Oleksyk, who was instrumental in the development of the flameless ration heater.

OLEKSYK: So this is a very small lightweight chemical heater that is magnesium and iron-based. And when the soldier is ready to heat up his main entree, he slides the flexible pouch down inside of this bag and adds water up until the fill lines. And within about maybe four or five minutes, the heater starts to activate and it just produces heat and steam and will heat the entree up till about 140 degrees Fahrenheit—a good serving temperature—in about eight minutes

GRABER: A company called ZestoTherm in Ohio had developed this technology as a heating pad. Lauren adapted it for the military. Basically, as Lauren said, it works by combining magnesium and iron, and then you add water in the field.

OLEKSYK: The natural reaction of those elements is to produce heat. But it doesn’t produce heat very quickly, so we added salt as a catalyst for that reaction and it takes off fast.

TWILLEY: All this talk of magnesium and iron was making me hungry. Plus we wanted to experience some of that steam heat for ourselves.

GRABER: So we decided to have lunch—army style.

TWILLEY: David used his pocket knife to open a big cardboard box full of MREs

ACCETTA: Okay, here is your vegetarian meal. Menu number three: vegetable crumbles with pasta in taco-style sauce.

GRABER: Sounds fun, yeah.

ACCETTA: Does that sound like a winner?

GRABER: Okay, yeah maybe.

TWILLEY: What am I going to get?

ACCETTA: You get lucky, you get spaghetti and meatballs in marinara.

GRABER: Oh, you get the one they all want. Nicky, you apparently scored big time.

TWILLEY: Yep, David told us that meatballs is the most popular entree out of all 24 MREs.

ACCETTA: Okay, so…

TWILLEY: Inside the foil pouch was not just our veggie crumbles and marinara meatballs, but a whole bunch of other little foil packets filled with random things to eat. It was kind of like a stocking on Christmas morning. Italian breadsticks…

GRABER: Jalapeno cashews.

TWILLEY: Teriyaki beef stick.

GRABER: This is my—I don’t know, this doesn’t say anything.

GRABER: That mystery was actually a pouch of cooked pears. There was an oatmeal cookie, a powdered drink, jalapeno cheese spread, something called a first strike energy bar… Ooh and I got chunky peanut butter! Yum.

TWILLEY: I’m jealous of that

ACCETTA: It’s for your crackers.

GRABER: Awesome.

ACCETTA: Now one thing that you have to keep in mind is that these are designed for troops in a very active environment. So you’re looking at 12 to 1500 calories if you eat this whole thing which is more than a sedentary adult might need in one day.

GRABER: You’re saying that we’re not as active as the military? I don’t know here.

ACCETTA: I’m saying that I shouldn’t eat this whole thing at one meal.

TWILLEY: At this point, our stomachs were rumbling. It was time to bust out Lauren’s secret weapon, the flameless ration heater.

ACCETTA: Alright, and then you want to make sure that the water is circulating around and gets to the pad that has the iron and magnesium powder in it.

GRABER: Does it feel warm to you yet.

ACCETTA: Not yet, it’s going to get there. And once it activates you’ll start to see.

GRABER: Oh, the steam. Oh my gosh. It’s steaming, Nicky, take a picture.

ACCETTA: I don’t know if you can—if the microphone will pick up on it—you can hear it.

TWILLEY: Yes, you certainly can hear it! That’s the sound of flameless ration heater steam!

GRABER: I know the whole point of this flameless heater is that it heats up the food, but it was kind of shocking how quickly it got too hot to touch.

TWILLEY: While we waited the eight minutes Lauren had recommended, we snacked. So I’m opening my—wait, what did you call it? Dehydrated bread concept.

ACCETTA: It’s shelf stable.

TWILLEY: Shelf stable bread. Like the well brought up individual I am, I shared my Italian breadsticks with the table.

TWILLEY: So this is not bread but it’s also not not bread.

GRABER: It’s kind of like a soft thick cracker.

TWILLEY: Yeah. Soft and thick and still quite… moist.

GRABER: So the creation of this shelf-stable soft-ish bread was a major innovation over the hardtack of centuries past. But I have to admit, we didn’t love it. Okay, so I’m going to try my um…

TWILLEY: Oh yeah.


GRABER: It smells totally like the kind of taco pasta veggie fake meat thing.

TWILLEY: And now you have some on your microphone.

GRABER: Oh I do. It tastes like, you know, those cans of like veggie pasta and kind of fake meat stuff that I would have eaten early on in my vegetarian days. It’s totally tasty.

GRABER: Now that I’m not sitting next to the people who work on this, I can admit that it wouldn’t be my first choice or even my second choice for lunch. That said, it did really taste like something I would have eaten decades ago from a can.

TWILLEY: My problem was that my expectations had been raised. Meatballs are the troop favorite. I was expecting something a little… frankly, tastier.

TWILLEY: Little meatballs, orange sauce. Mmm. Probably should have heated it up a little bit more but totally edible. There’s an interesting after-taste—let me put my finger on it…

GRABER: I didn’t try your meal, but, Nicky, it was clear that you didn’t love it.

ACCETTA: if you are sitting in a building at a table and you’ve got heat and you’ve got electricity and you’re eating your MRE, you may not appreciate it in the same way that you would appreciate it if you were cold, wet, tired, and hungry and sitting in the dark in the rain on a mountainside in Afghanistan.

TWILLEY: David is trying to say in the nicest possible way that Cynthia and I are spoiled brats. Point taken.

GRABER: But the other point is that these are huge improvements over the MREs that people ate during Desert Storm. And innovating in new food products, and making MREs tastier and more healthful—that’s all still going on today.

TWILLEY: Including years of R&D to develop the holy grail of rations: shelf stable pizza

OLEKSYK: For Michelle, the pizza was the most desired and asked for product in the MRE. And she tackled that, every challenge that came along with developing that pizza and stuck with it until we overcame every single hurdle.

GRABER: Michelle Richardson spearheaded the pizza development research.

TWILLEY: As a civilian, pizza for dinner seems like the lazy option, but pizza was full-on egg-level military food science nightmare.

RICHARDSON: And when you come up with this idea to give them the pizza, but then you put all these different things—we have the cheese, we have the pepperoni, we have the sauce, and we have the bread. And they all have different characteristics when it comes to water activity and pH.

GRABER: Let’s start with water activity. Imagine leaving pizza out on the countertop. It gets soggy.

TWILLEY: Michelle says the first thing the team had to do is to control the water activity in the pizza. The problem is that water wants to migrate from the wetter ingredients like sauce and cheese, to the ones that you would like to keep dry, like the crust.

RICHARDSON: So if you have a bread with a water activity that’s very similar to the water activity of the pepperoni or the cheese, you can kind of control that migration because the migration is based on the water activity difference. And so we try not to have a big gradient, so you don’t get that migration.

GRABER: How does Michelle make sauce that has the same water activity as a much drier bread? With something called humectants. These are incorporated into the sauce, and they bind to water to keep the water in the sauce and away from the bread.

RICHARDSON: And we use different things, like, rice syrup is one of the components. Salt is an excellent, probably one of the best humectants. However it would also contribute to the flavor. So it’s like a balancing act. And so we use things like glycerol, which is the backbone of a fatty acid and a major component of a lot of foods and candies nowadays. And so by looking at different concentrations of those ingredients, we’re able to lower the water activity in the sauce

TWILLEY: Success! But it’s not enough that the pizza doesn’t go soggy. It also has to stay good for 3 years without refrigeration. All that lovely moist cheese and pepperoni—it has to not grow mold or bacteria.

GRABER: To stop the pizza from becoming a food poisoning nightmare, the team uses something called hurdle technologies.

RICHARDSON: And you can think of hurdle technologies as a series of barriers that you can put into food to prevent the growth of bacteria. And so what we looked at is different technologies, all different hurdles that we can incorporate into the food.

TWILLEY: Michelle told us that she played around with a lot of different ways to reduce microbe growth without messing up the taste and texture.

RICHARDSON: We’ll use preservatives. And you know, we try to use natural preservatives. In the shelf stable sandwiches, we use things like mold inhibitors, yeast inhibitors, and things like that. We also use pasteurization, we consider the baking step a pasteurization step. Then we also use packaging as another hurdle. So. The idea is that one of these alone will not make the food stable, but in combination it will.

GRABER: The MREs are supposed to last three years in the field. But luckily Michelle doesn’t have to leave her packaged pizza out for three years to make sure it’s still tasty and safe to eat. They’ve developed ways to mimic that three-year time frame. They make sure that no undesirable microbes are growing, and that the pizza hasn’t collapsed into a soggy mess.

TWILLEY: This shelf life testing is one of the last steps for Michelle, but, at that point, pizza was still not ready for prime time. Next it had to be taste tested in the field.

GRABER: Pizza is one dish that people have been practically begging for. And after Michelle worked on the pizza conundrum for five years with lots and lots of iterations, this version has aced both the lab safety and the field taste tests.

RICHARDSON: And I think besides pizza, beer is one of the other things they want, and so we were actually happy when we actually able to solve this problem and give it to them. This will probably go into the next MRE.

TWILLEY: Pizza may finally be solved, but the work is never done. In the same lab as Michelle—the food engineering and analysis lab—there are all sorts of scientists working on all sorts of weird future ration concepts.

OLEKSYK: They call this the Willy Wonka lab.

GRABER: Hopefully nobody will blow up into a big purple.

GRABER: We walked around the lab with Tom, Michelle, and Lauren—no, nobody was blowing up into a giant purple bubble—and they showed us 3D-printed food on demand. They’re checking out a new microwave sterilizing technology that’s faster than boiling pouches in water, so the food keeps more of its flavor and nutrition. We tried those egg puff bites. The eggs won’t be in the MRE in the near future, but hopefully soon. Senior food technologist Tom Yang worked on those. And he has a few more projects in the pipeline.

TOM YANG: This is a French technology. I happened to encounter this technology also was about fifteen years ago.

TWILLEY: The particular problem that was bothering Tom fifteen years ago is the jerky problem. The way to make jerky is by soaking meat in brine. Which is a problem already because the Natick team wants to keep sodium levels down.

YANG: So it’s very salty. And after we store the regular jerky for two three years, become very brittle.

GRABER: The fibers in the meat get more and more tightly bound together over time and the jerky gets too crunchy.

TWILLEY: So this French technology Tom came across—again, fifteen years ago—it’s called Osmo Food. And the way it works is that it uses a sugar solution—maltodextrin specifically—to lure some of the moisture out of the food.

YANG: You grind up the meat, any meat. Beef, pork, chicken, ostrich, goat meat, whatever or even fish. Grind it up and extrude it to a sheet like a fruit roll up, very thin, 2 mm thick sheet and go through these osmotic tank which contained a sugar solution but very concentrated.

TWILLEY: The sheet of meat comes out of the tank in a condition that Tom calls semi-moist.

YANG: And it’s versatile. We try it, after two or three years is still soft and juicy, not like a conventional jerky is very hard like a rock.

GRABER: We didn’t actually get to taste this product, so we were just going by Tom’s description. But I think our favorite project of Tom’s was his salad bar.

TWILLEY: I’m so intrigued by the salad bar.

YANG: You can munch it. This is balsamic vinegar.

GRABER: Wow, that’s good!

YANG: Flavorful.

TWILLEY: A salad MRE? Whatever next?!!

GRABER: If only. These salad bars weren’t not exactly that. They were freeze dried.

TWILLEY: The military actually invented freeze-drying back in World War 2, but they don’t use it a lot at Natick—it’s too expensive. And actually if you freeze dry just a solo vegetable, it becomes woody and tasteless.

GRABER: So Tom first marinates his vegetables in different flavors of salad dressing before he freeze dries them into a bar. It definitely improves the flavor.

TWILLEY: And then he wraps his marinated freeze-dried salad mix inside these groovy vegetable-based wrappings that Michelle found for him, and ta da, a salad bar.

GRABER: So now Tom knows his salad dressing-wrapper trick works and tastes good. But because freeze drying is expensive, Tom’s looking for a new process to make his salad bar. He thinks maybe vacuum microwave drying is going to be the way to go. That’s what they used on the eggs puffs we tasted. I’m guessing it’s going to be a few years before this salad bar is in the field.

TWILLEY: All this weird vacuum microwaved egg puffs and freeze-dried salad bars and fish roll-ups—they’re not just about making military food taste better and be more nutritious.

WHITSITT: The demand signal that we keep getting from the force is: we want it lighter, we want it lower in volume. We want to be able to stick our guys out in some forward operating area for seven days without resupplying them.

GRABER: Jeremy Whitsitt is deputy director for the combat feeding program, and he wants to make sure that the people in the field get just what they need. Because today’s wars are different from the wars of the past.

TWILLEY: When the generals lay out their vision for the future of war, it doesn’t usually include details such as what the troops will be eating. But dinner is a detail that actually matters. Jeremy told us a story about a bar his team had developed for the 82nd Airborne. That’s a parachute division, and they’d been seeing a bunch of injuries on their jumps.

WHITSITT: But the idea is sometimes these guys haven’t eaten for six to eight hours before they’re getting ready to jump and it’s kind of a mentally rigorous task that they’re asked to do. So they were theorizing that hey, maybe it’s a lack of food or lack of nutrition. They’re kind of making these little mental mistakes that are increasing the static line injuries.

GRABER: So researchers at Natick took their super energy dense first strike bar, which has a lot of calories in it. And they added 200 milligrams of caffeine to it. Because caffeine obviously helps with concentration.

WHITSITT: We made those in-house, about 5000 of them, and delivered them to 82nd Airborne. They jumped into Poland and Germany with them and about an hour before they were due to jump, each soldier would take it out of their cargo pocket or their sleeve pocket, eat it.
And it’s anecdotal evidence at this point, but the amount of injuries they had dramatically decreased and they’re attributing it to the fact that these guys were able to eat an hour before.

TWILLEY: There’s a saying: an army marches on its stomach. But sometimes we forget how much it matters that the troops are properly fed.

GRABER: Nicky and I might have seemed a little picky about our lunch, but, really, the meals today are way better than the ones in the past. And they’re better balanced, too. It’s not just making sure the troops get as many calories as they need, but scientists are also focused on the overall nutritional balance of the meals.

TWILLEY: Admittedly, they’re mostly adding those vitamins and micronutrients by fortifying heavily processed foods rather than through finding a way to serve whole foods—but they’re trying. Look at Tom’s salad bar. The thing is that it just takes forever to engineer food that can meet the military’s unique challenges.

MARX DE SALCEDO: I actually am going to take my hats off to the Natick Center, because I think that the fact that they have been able to create a ration system that is nutritious, portable, rugged, can be shipped halfway around the world, can last up to three years at room temperature and can help soldiers survive in the field and in battle is remarkable. And has been a competitive advantage for the United States during military engagements. So yes, it’s a competitive factor and it’s been very important.

GRABER: That’s Anastacia—again, she’s the author of Combat Ready Kitchen. And she says not only have the breakthroughs at Natick been critical for the military, but these breakthroughs have transformed what we can find on our supermarket shelves. In fact, the subtitle of her book is “How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.”

TWILLEY: So we asked her to walk us around an imaginary supermarket and show us some of the foods the military has had its hand in. We started off in the produce department.

MARX DE SALCEDO: One of the things is the packaged greens and salads that people like to buy. I know I certainly do, because you don’t have to clean them and we Americans hate cleaning anything. So the technology there is modified and controlled atmospheric packaging, which was developed during the 1960s to better preserve things like lettuce and celery to send to Vietnam.

GRABER: That’s one example. And remember those breakthrough foil packages? You’ve probably used them, too. Think about Capri Sun, or tuna in a pouch—all of that is only possible because of the military.

MARX DE SALCEDO: If we move into the meat section, there actually two—at least two major influences. The first is something no one would think of, which is that the meat is served cut off the bone and packaged in the different cuts. And that is actually goes back to World Wars I and II, when the the military got the idea that it would reduce costs if they didn’t have to ship over carcasses, and instead started to slice meat off at the point of slaughter and pack it up into boxes. And a final meat product would be the high pressure processing, which is also used to create lines of preservative-free deli products.

TWILLEY: This high-pressure processing—on labels, it’s sometimes called cold processing, because it doesn’t involve heat—it is a fancy way of sterilizing food and it’s also the trick used to keep those shelves of expensive fresh juices good for days.

MARX DE SALCEDO: Next aisle I’m in, let’s say I’m looking at some freeze-dried coffee and tea.

GRABER: As we mentioned earlier, freeze-drying was developed by the military, though it never really took off there. And then Anastacia walked us over to the bakery aisle.

MARX DE SALCEDO: That relies on a military breakthrough called intermediate moisture food, which is created by knowing how to control and predict something called water activity, and allows you to create moist and chewy things at room temperature. So all sorts of cookies. And of course our beloved granola bars. Again in that aisle you might have supermarket bread, which is kept soft and fresh for weeks by virtue of an enzyme that is supplied by a heat-resistant bacteria. The idea for this again came from the military during the 1950s, when they were looking for a way to create a canned bread.

TWILLEY: All of the pepperoni hot pockets and those cheese-filled combos snack things and those pre-made PB&J Uncrustable sandwiches: all of those are made possible by the same techniques Michelle used for the military pizza. It’s about stopping the water in the soggier ingredient from getting into the drier crust. That plus the enzymes that keep the bread soft forever.

GRABER: And now we’ve made it to the check-out counter. There you might find some Pringles, they’re made of dehydrated potatoes using a method developed by the military.

TWILLEY: And you’ll probably also see M&Ms, which were developed during World War II as a way to give the soldiers chocolate that wouldn’t melt.

MARX DE SALCEDO: When we get to that checkout counter and look back at the store, if we were removing all items that had a military origin or influence, I estimate that the store would be half empty at least.

GRABER: This is the hidden story about military food. It has a huge impact on what we eat—the cost to do all the research and develop these techniques is spent in military labs, and then processed food manufacturers can just jump on it and use it to create new products for our tables.

TWILLEY: We went to Natick to try rations, but really, you can eat the products of military R&D anytime you want—you probably did today, already, without even thinking. After all, consumers also want food that’s convenient and portable and doesn’t go bad. In the end, feeding soldiers is just a more extreme version of the same set of challenges. So yeah, what the military eats matters—to us too.


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the team at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, particularly David Accetta, who gave up his day to make ours so fascinating.

GRABER: Thanks also to the scientists we met at the food engineering and analysis team: Michelle Richardson, Lauren Oleksyk, Tom Yang, and Mary Shaira.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, the author of Combat Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat. We have a link to her book on our website.

GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a show that involves one of our favorite substances, and efforts to replace it.


Cutting the Mustard TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Cutting the Mustard, first released on February 27, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

ROSE EVELETH: So I’m Rose Eveleth. I’m the host of Flash Forward, which is a podcast about the future. But more importantly I am a very huge fan of mustard.

CYNTHIA GRABER: And you and I were actually talking about this, I don’t know, a year or two ago, and you were, like, you have to do an episode on mustard! So why are you obsessed with mustard?

EVELETH: So it’s funny—in thinking about this call we were going to have, I figured you would ask me that question and I realized that I don’t have a great answer. I mean it is objectively the best condiment. But that’s not the best answer. I mean it’s just really delicious, it goes on everything. But I wanted you all to do an episode on it because I am a fan of mustard and I consume a very large quantity of mustard, probably an embarrassing amount of mustard, but I don’t actually know that much about how mustard is made. Like, I’m familiar that there is a mustard plant and a mustard seed. But what actually makes different mustards different is actually sort of a mystery to me. I just eat them. I don’t know that much about them.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s what we’re here for, is to do the Googling that you can’t be bothered to do.

EVELETH: Exactly. I’m too lazy, I need an episode of Gastropod.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, Cynthia and I are not lazy at all ever in any way.

GRABER: I hope everyone believes you.

TWILLEY: And so Rose’s wish was our command. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and, as Rose pointed out, this is indeed an episode of Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. We are happy to look into mustard, but Rose, in return you have to answer all my questions about what life might be like in the future. But first, mustard, what do you want to know?

EVELETH: I guess, you know, I eat a lot of mustard and I know a lot about the different kinds of mustard that I could purchase on the market, right? I know the, you know, various varieties of consumer goods related to mustard. I know a lot about how mustard tastes. I know nothing about the pre-going into my mouth parts of mustard. I mean I get the basics—there is a seed. You know, it’s like it’s in many ways like a lot of other things that are made from seeds. The powder seems obvious to me, right? It’s like ground-up seeds. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Who knows? You know, actually.

TWILLEY: Side note, which we didn’t say because we didn’t want to puncture Rose’s belief in all things Gastropod, but we didn’t actually know. Then. Now we do!



GRABER: Rose has been a mustard fan for a long time.

EVELETH: I used to be an athlete in, like, high school. And so I was constantly at various athletic events and they often would sell pretzels and hot dogs and stuff like that. And I think that was when I realized that mustard is far superior to ketchup. And so I was always really into mustard. But I don’t actually know that much about, like, what the process is to take a mustard plant, and if there are, like, multiple different kinds of mustard plants, and that’s how we get these various different kinds of mustard. Like what makes Dijon, Dijon? Is it the plant, is it the seed, is it the processing? Is it some combination of all of those things? And so I was just curious about what where mustard comes from and sort of how all of these different types of mustard are made.

TWILLEY: So many questions! So many answers! But let’s start by getting our basics down: what exactly is this mustard plant of which Rose speaks?

PATRICK EDGER: So the mustard family actually consists of about 3,600 different species and so there’s quite a bit of diversity. Most of the species are the types that you would see growing in the cracks of sidewalks.

GRABER: Patrick Edger is assistant professor of horticulture at Michigan State University.

EDGER: The mustard family really consists of, you know, lots of wild species, but most notably the majority of the vegetable crops that you probably eat and consume every day. You know: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, radishes, as well as like wasabi as a condiment or mustard as a condiment. But in addition there’s a lot of oil-seed types. So we would have things such as, like, rapeseed or canola oil that we would cook with. Those are all from the very same family.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, for the sake of my sanity, the kind of mustard that we can buy in the store labeled as mustard only comes from three plants within this enormous family: black mustard, brown mustard, and white mustard. Confusingly, the white seeds make yellow mustard, and the brown seeds are a kind of beigey-yellow inside, so the whole color terminology is not particularly helpful. But all three kinds of mustard seed have one thing in common: they’re tiny.

GRABER: And this is just the point of another mustard story Rose told us.

EVELETH: Yeah, so my grandparents on my mom’s side are Catholic and when I was a kid my grandma gave me this charm bracelet. And it had all sorts of various Catholic charms on it, it had obviously a little cross but it also had a bunch of other little charms that were relevant to various parts of the Bible or stories or whatever it was. And I was a very, like, tomboy kind of kid so I was, like, I’m not going to wear jewelry, this is stupid. But there was one charm on the bracelet that I was really into because it was this tiny little magnifying glass that you could flip open and you could look into it. And it just magnified one mustard seed. And I guess this comes from a parable of the mustard seed in the Bible.

GRABER: I had never heard of this parable of the mustard seed before—probably because I’m not too familiar with the New Testament.

TWILLEY: Whereas I had, despite never consciously listening in church at school.


EVELETH: Yeah, so I should say that I’m not a scholar of the Bible and nor am I a believer. So, like, I’m not an expert here. But it’s basically about how the mustard plant is really large—they can get to be nine feet tall. And for a plant that big they have small seeds. And so the story, the parable in the Bible, is kind of about that size difference—that when that tiny, tiny seed is planted in the earth it makes a giant plant. It’s kind of one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover,” I think, ideas—that even though the seed is so small it can become this great huge beautiful thing with birds and, you know, branches and all this stuff. So that’s kind of, I think, what the parable is about—if I’m interpreting it correctly, which I could be not doing.

TWILLEY: I am not a believer or a Biblical scholar either, but, from the best I can tell, this mustard seed story is actually more about how the kingdom of God will grow from its tiny beginnings.

GRABER: Which I still don’t really get, but that’s fine. It’s not meant for me.

TWILLEY: But this Jesus connection has an interesting side note attached to it. Supposedly because Christians were so attached to their mustard seeds, they carried them with them and scattered them as they walked, and so mustard plants grew along their trails. One of the places you hear about this happening is in California. People say that one of the early missionaries, Junipero Serra, walked north from the San Diego mission in the 1700s, scattering mustard seeds as he went. And the resulting quote “Bible trail” is apparently still marked by mustard plants today.  People say the same thing about pilgrim routes on the east coast of the U.S. too. You’re supposed to be able to see them clearly from above, thanks to their bright yellow flowers.

GRABER: There’s a Gastropod fan and supporter who happens to—okay—be a friend of yours Nicky, AND he also happens to work for a company that specializes in satellite mapping. So we figured, maybe he’d know if this supposed mustard trail is indeed visible from space. Do the satellite images show the particular visible signature of mustard?

TWILLEY: So my friend Wayne does actually have a real job, so he could not devote too much time to the search, but he told us that unfortunately, most purchasers of satellite imagery actually want something called “leaf-off images”—these are images captured in the winter where there isn’t a ton of foliage covering up all the other features they’re interested in. So, long story short, no luck.

GRABER: If anyone knows whether this California mustard trail tale has been proven true or false, please get in touch!

TWILLEY: But Rose doesn’t love mustard for its religious connections. She loves it because of its heat—its pungency and flavor.

EDGER: That sharp, pungent, bitter flavor that we sense are from compounds called glucosinolates. There are roughly a hundred and twenty-some different compounds and depending on the abundance and the profile of, like, the composition of these various compounds, that’s what gives cruciferous vegetables that sort of flavor.

GRABER: Now remember, these cruciferous vegetables—there are a lot of them: kale and Brussels sprouts and broccoli, just to name a few of my favorites. They have some of these glucosinolates—maybe slightly different ones with slightly different flavors. But things like kale and cabbage don’t have nearly as much pungency as mustard does.

TWILLEY: In other words, there’s a whole spectrum of spiciness between species, depending on which and how much of those 120 different glucosinolates they have.

GRABER: But here’s a question: What purpose does this pungency have for the plant?

EDGER: Yeah, so like most organisms plants do not want to be predated on. They don’t want to be consumed. And being a plant when you’re fixed in a location and you’re constantly combating insects and fungal pathogens and bacteria and viruses, you have to have some way to defend yourself. And so most of the flavors or things that we describe as flavors are actually chemical compounds that plants used to ward off being predated upon. And glucosinolates are one of those examples.

TWILLEY: Unsurprisingly, there’s an evolutionary reason for why the seeds of a mustard plant—the part we use for making the condiment—are much spicier than its leaves, which we use in a salad.

EDGER: If the purpose of a plant is to pass on their genetic material, they will invest quite a bit of that into their seeds to protect actually that next generation. So in mustard seeds, there’s lots of glucosinolates.

GRABER: These glucosinolates are really poisonous to some species—they kill insects.

EDGER: Glucosinolates are actually incredibly toxic even to the plant. The plants will actually sequester a lot of the precursor molecules in vacuoles that safeguard it even from the cell. So that’s how toxic they are.

GRABER: Those special containers get broken open when an insect starts chomping.

TWILLEY: But here’s where these mustard toxins gets even more interesting. A couple of years ago, Patrick published a paper tracing what he calls the great butterfly-mustard arms race. The story starts 90 million years ago, when the first mustard plant ancestors figured out how to stop caterpillars from eating them—by producing some glucosinolates.

EDGER: When the compounds first evolved, it would have been an instant barrier for predation, right? And so that actually would have permitted that ancestral plant that just evolved this novel trait to diversify very rapidly across the landscape. Because now it basically has a wonderful sort of set of armor for any predation to occur.

GRABER: So now the mustard great-great-great-etc. grandparent is super chill. The caterpillar can’t eat it, it’s free to grow and spread across the landscape. For at least a few million years.

TWILLEY: But the caterpillars aren’t done. They are hungry, hungry caterpillars.

EDGER: So the insects evolved a enzyme, a novel enzyme, a brand new gene, that actually, as the insect is consuming these glucosinolates, actually cleaves the compounds—this chemical compound—to make it an inert structure.

GRABER: So now these glucosinolates are no longer toxic to the caterpillars, and now the caterpillars are the happy ones.

EDGER: We then see, as one would predict, it now has a buffet.

GRABER: They can eat as much as they want of this spicy plant that no other insect can snack on.

TWILLEY: And now it’s the caterpillar’s turn to spread and diversify and generally be boss. But, as you would expect, the mustard plant ancestor does not take this lying down. Like Patrick said, it’s an arms race.

EDGER: We actually see repeated cycles of this—minimally, three of them that have occurred over the last 90 million years.

GRABER: This is plant-animal warfare, people. For his experiment, Patrick and his colleagues studied hundreds of species of related plants—plants that trace their ancestry back to those original, millions-of-years-ago genetic splits. This way they could figure out the timeline of when each side temporarily was victorious.

TWILLEY: They could see these big leaps forward in mustard defenses written in the plants’ DNA. One thing to know: lots of plants pass multiple copies of their genomes down to their offspring, instead of the single copies that we humans pass on to our kids. And this extra genetic material gives the mustard plants so many options to play with—so many different pathways to make new, improved glucosinolates.

EDGER: After every set of duplications, you basically would have a new and fancier set of defenses. And this escalated over time until the present day where many of the mustard plants have, you know, over 100 compounds in them.

GRABER: Here’s one of my favorite points in this whole research: this arms race led to amazing success for both insects and plants. As the war went on, it actually created many, many new species of both brassica and butterflies. Both dramatically increased in biodiversity and habitat. It is at least partly due to this arms race that we have kale and collards and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts and horseradish and radishes and mustard and everything.

EDGER: As the brassicaceae were more successful, that actually permitted subsequently the butterflies to be more successful. But then they also each of them have shaped the underlying genomes or even the phenotypes of one another. Ultimately, we really have the butterflies to thank for mustards, right? Mustard compounds. None of this would have existed if it wasn’t for this arms race.

TWILLEY: Next time you squirt mustard on a hot dog, remember to thank a caterpillar. So that’s cool, but my favorite part of Patrick’s experiment is that as part of his whole process, he found plants that are living today that have the level of glucosinolates that mustard used to have in the past.

EDGER: There are actually relatives from those ancestral intermediates that you can go out and you could potentially sample. And that was part of the study. We found all these sort of intermediate lineages—remnants. And from that, we can actually make estimates of what those profiles probably were like. We can’t be very definitive about it but we can make really pretty solid estimates of what those ancestral states would have been like, going back to at least 90 million years.

TWILLEY: I temporarily lost my mind for a minute when I heard this and decided that what Cynthia and I needed to do was track down all these milder-tasting relatives and do a mustard tasting through evolution, from bland to fiery.

GRABER: That sounds awesome, of course, but then you realized that it’s just the two of us and we have to put out shows and that would take months of plant collection and seed crushing.

TWILLEY: But if some millionaire mustard-ophile out there would like to fund this quest, I am available to talk offline. The 90-million year mustard tasting awaits!

GRABER: And I will happily join in. So Patrick and his colleagues wrote about this butterfly-mustard arms race. But here’s something that might scare you: the battle is not yet over!

EDGER: We see this constantly happening. So a lot of cabbage butterflies, if you grow any cruciferous vegetables in your backyard—broccoli or cabbages or cauliflower or what have it—you’ll see lots of cabbage butterflies always trying to predate on it.

TWILLEY: And that means that the plants need to be upping their game. And they will.

EDGER: I could imagine a mustard being spicier.

TWILLEY: Not just spicier, but even with a slightly different flavor profile, from new variations and combinations of these glucosinolates. Basically, we can’t even imagine the mustards of the future!

GRABER: Rose, this is the episode you get to make!

TWILLEY: Right, you do mustards of the future, we do the mustard science, and, next, mustard history.


HAYLEY SAUL: At this stage, I would say that these findings are the earliest conclusive use of spice for a culinary purpose.

GRABER: Hayley Saul is an archaeologist at Western Sydney University. And, a few years ago, she and her colleagues discovered the earliest known example of spiced food in human history—dishes perked up with, yes, mustard.

TWILLEY: OK, picture the scene. It’s more than 6,000 years ago, and you are in northern Europe, eating a plant called garlic mustard.

SAUL: So there were three main sites where we found the evidence of garlic mustard. One of them in Germany, which is a site called Neustadt, which is actually now underwater. It’s been excavated underwater. That inundation is actually one of the reasons why the pottery and the pottery residues are very well preserved because the waterlogging is great for preservation. And the sites in Denmark—so the sites are called Åkonge and Stenø,and they’re located on the edge of a bog.

GRABER: There are a lot of sites like these found near water, because water is a great source of food. But the people who were living at these sites, were they just hunting and gathering all the wild plants and animals that lived in and near the water? Who were these people?

SAUL: So, you know, all of the sites actually span the sort of Mesolithic/Neolithic transition, which is the time at which people were starting to just domesticate and experiment with domesticated plants and animals. So the people that lived kind of in the Mesolithic tend to be associated with hunting and gathering. But it’s actually much more complicated than that, really. It wasn’t the case that people just gave up on hunted and gathered foods and then adopted these new, more superior types of domesticated foods. They were actually combining things and it was just a period—I like to think of it as a period that was very creative. And there were new types of food coming in but people were starting to sort of explore how they can combine it with food that they’d used for years.

TWILLEY: What Hayley’s saying is surprising to me. I don’t tend to think of Mesolithic or Neolithic people as being culinary wizards or experimenting with their food to create new textures and flavors.

SAUL: I think there’s been a kind of an assumption in general that in prehistory, people were driven by just the need to get a certain amount of energy and that there was nothing particularly artistic about food practices in prehistory. And in part that’s brought about just because of the techniques that we have and the difficulty of finding certain evidence. So it’s quite easy to document animal bones on a site and slightly more difficult to document plants because they don’t preserve very well.

GRABER: In the past, scientists have been able to figure out what people were eating on a kind of more general scale—did they get more of their calories from protein or from fat, did they go fishing, or were they butchering domesticated cattle? But, until recently, it’s been much more difficult to get a fine-grained look at the flavors of the foods prehistoric peoples were cooking. But now, there are new techniques that Haley says can give a higher resolution look at ancient diets.

TWILLEY: These higher resolution techniques include starch analysis, as well as drilling into food residue to analyze the fats. There’s also a kind of microscopic analysis to match the tiny fossil remnants of plant cells, which are called phytoliths, to a catalog of different plant species collected from the area. The combination of all these techniques, plus how well preserved the food residues were at these sites, meant that Hayley and her colleagues were able to get that more nuanced and detailed picture of what these early northern Europeans were eating.

GRABER: And there was a lot of food residue for Hayley and her colleagues to analyze.

SAUL: In some cases it was up to a centimeter thick, because the pottery wasn’t necessarily cleaned. So it was just becoming more and more carbonized, and thicker and thicker residues. A bit like you would use a skillet, the flavor is partly brought to the food because the skillet is sort of reused again and again and again. And it’s only when the carbonization of that residue becomes so distasteful that the pottery is actually thrown away into the lake or into the sea. And at that point, it’s just like a record of reuse and a kind of build-up of all of these different meals that the pots been used for.

GRABER: And Haley’s big find from this food residue? These Mesolithic people were revving up their stews with a plant called garlic mustard. I know I said this already, but—drumroll!—this is the earliest known culinary use of a spice in the world.

SAUL: It’s from the seed husk, the actual sort of hardened shell of the seed, which has a flavor, if you grind it up, much like mustard.

TWILLEY: Hayley was able to figure this out by comparing the phytoliths—these plant micro-fossils—to the microscopic structures you find in garlic mustard today.

SAUL: I had to do a lot of just going out into the countryside and foraging for plants that were edible and, you know, making up the reference collections and things. And it’s one of those plants that you could so easily overlook. It’s just everywhere. And once you get your eye in you can see that it’s everywhere. It’s a plant that’s available across the whole of Europe, right into India and parts of Asia as well. But it’s not just usable for the seeds. The leaves of the plants are edible as well. The reason it’s called garlic mustard is because the leaves have a very garlicky aroma but the seeds have a very mustardy flavour. So you can sort of combine two different flavors in one plant really.

GRABER: That sounds delicious. But we were wondering—maybe garlic mustard was a major source of calories for the folks in these settlements. How can we know it was being used intentionally to flavor their food?

SAUL: The seed itself of Alliaria petiolata is very small and it’s woody. Some people have suggested that it has properties for preservation. It may have medicinal properties. But, because it’s so woody, in terms of delivering anything like energy or a great deal of vitamin nutritional value, it doesn’t really do that. So it seems to be much more that it’s being used at least in part because of its aromatic properties. So it is imparting flavors into the food.

TWILLEY: Basically, it turns out that Hayley is pretty confident that Mesolithic people had Rose Eveleth-style levels of enthusiasm for mustard. They too thought that there was nothing that didn’t taste better with some mustard!

SAUL: So we were finding from the lipid residue analysis that they were combining garlic mustard with marine fish.

GRABER: They also made stews of garlic mustard and meat from animals they either hunted or raised, like cattle or deer.

SAUL: It’s such a common spice it’s almost like they’re using it as we would use salt and pepper. And that suggests to me that it could have an even longer history. But we just don’t know at this stage.

GRABER: And actually, there are even older sites around the Mediterranean that have plant remains from other spices and herbs—poppy, cumin, and coriander—but the plant bits are not embedded in cookware. So we can’t be positive that people were actually eating these spices. But maybe they were.

TWILLEY: Really, though, the important question here is, what did these mustard-spiced dishes taste like? Fortunately, Hayley can answer that one too.

SAUL: Because my research involves me sort of going out and foraging for plants for my reference collection, the temptation is always there to try out what the flavors of those different plants were, yeah, so I have made some unusual concoctions of my own. But if you can find some garlic mustard, just grinding it up in a pestle and mortar and you can smell the mustardy flavor as you’re grinding it as well. And it’s delicious in a nice stew.

TWILLEY: Yes, that’s right: Hayley made her own Mesolithic garlic mustard stew.

SAUL: I used it with some venison. My dad’s a butcher, so I managed to get a nice cut of venison.


SAUL: It did taste quite contemporary. It’s not such a strong flavor as the sort of mustard that you would get in a pot. But there is definitely a sort of flavor of mustard.

GRABER: I love the idea that the earliest known use of spice involves garlic mustard. Two delicious flavors in one plant. But, for Hayley, even more importantly, this finding helps us rewrite the stories we tell about the people who were alive back then.

SAUL: It’s easy to fall back on the idea that people were sort of caveman-like and, you know, they were just out to sort of eat as much and as often as they could because they never knew when their next meal was, and things. But actually I would say that they were extremely sophisticated, and they had such sophisticated skills at acquiring food that they could sort of be really creative about the ways that they were combining foods.

TWILLEY: This is another thing that Rose and our Mesolithic friends have in common: mad mustard-pairing skills.

EVELETH: I put it on everything. I mean, I’m a big carb person. So, like, any kind of bread product, it’s good on. Olive bread with mustard is extremely delicious. I mean, obviously there are pretzels, but you can also put mustard powder on things like popcorn. So, like, a little bit of soy sauce and mustard powder on popcorn is delicious.

GRABER: I’d love to try that popcorn. But so I was wondering, you know, can you walk us over to your fridge? Tell us about how many jars you have and could you list some of the ones that you see?

EVELETH: Yeah. All right, I will—I’ll take you over. Hopefully my dog doesn’t get too interested in what we’re about to do. Okay, I’m opening the fridge. Let’s see, where are we. So there’s this great mustard place called—I’m going to mispronounce it. Maille? Maille? M A I L L E. Okay, so we have a bunch of those. I have a walnut mustard from them. I have a Dijon blackcurrant liqueur mustard from them, which is really good. It’s like—it tastes like Thanksgiving. It’s amazing. Really good on French fries actually, because, like, they’re sort of a good vehicle for any kind of mustard but they taste like Thanksgiving French fries. I have a blue cheese mustard which is super strong. You kind of have to, like, be a little gentle with this one. We also have an amber ale honey mustard from this farm up in Vermont that is near a place where we go skiing every year. We, of course, have sort of the standard spicy brown for sort of hotdogs and all that stuff.

TWILLEY: There’s more—many more jars. The thing is, it’s not just Rose that’s crazy about mustard. Her partner Robert is too. It’s actually central to their whole relationship, at least in terms of condiments.

EVELETH: We have a running joke, because I subscribe to the Mustard Museum’s newsletter, and it’s sort of full of mustard information. And a couple of years ago, they sent one out and that was, like, you know, we do weddings. And I don’t know if they were serious or not but we have a running joke about getting married at the Mustard Museum.

GRABER: Nicky, you and I did not have wedding plans.

TWILLEY: Because we’re already work married.

GRABER: But we did actually visit the Mustard Museum. It’s just outside Madison, Wisconsin, and we happened to be in town to do a Gastropod live show. When in Madison, go see mustard, apparently.

BARRY LEVENSON: So anyway we’re going down into the museum: the world’s largest collection of mustard, mustard memorabilia, and fine mustard art.

TWILLEY: Barry Levenson is the founder and curator of the National Mustard Museum. He’s a lawyer with a serious mustard obsession.

LEVENSON: We’ve got nearly 6,000 different mustards here. So, in addition to American yellow mustard, classic French mustard, you have horseradish mustard, you have whole grain mustards. We have hot pepper mustards. We have herb mustards, we have fruit and vegetable mustards. We have garlic mustard. We also have spirit mustards, which would be mustards made with beer, with wine. We have exotic mustards. The exotic mustard category can be anything from curry mustards to truffle mustards to mustards with ginger. Right now, we’re standing in front of some of the French mustards.

TWILLEY: But before things get even more insane—although personally I think getting married at the mustard museum is already pretty insane, and having 6,000 jars of any condiment is definitely a warning sign—we need to back up. How did we get from garlic mustard seed stew to the condiment-filled jars we know and some of us love today?

GRABER: Before we clear your sinuses with some strong Dijon, we have a sponsor to tell you about.


GRABER: To get to France, first we have to go back to ancient Egypt.

LEVENSON: We also know that the ancient Egyptians would chew mustard seeds along with their meats and that would flavor it. But they would just take the seeds, because mustard seeds themselves are inert.

TWILLEY: There’s actually a chemical trick to mustard. So: the glucosinolates in mustard seeds—they’re slightly different compounds in black vs. yellow vs. brown mustard seeds but they work the same way. Which is that they they react with a particular plant enzyme in the presence of cold water to produce that fiery essential oil of mustard. This multi-step trigger process is another way that the plant holds fire until the caterpillar actually crunches into it and sets off that reaction.

LEVENSON: It’s only when combined with some liquid do they release their heat and their pungency. As a result, that’s what the Egyptians would do. They’d say, okay, have some meat and chew on some mustard seeds.

GRABER: Then the Romans decided to turn mustard into a sauce.

LEVENSON: We know that the Romans were using mustard seeds in some of their sauces and then that migrated into the Roman Empire, specifically into the area now known as Dijon, where the monks were making pretty much what we know as mustard today back in the 12th and 13th centuries.

TWILLEY: The first reference to mustard in the Dijon archives occurs in 1336—it’s a record of a whole cask of mustard being consumed at a banquet. So mustard was already a big deal. The first ordinance specifying how to make Dijon came at the end of that century. Basically, soak the seeds, crush the seeds, and then add vinegar to the paste. To go back to our chemistry for a minute, using an acidic liquid like vinegar puts a brake on the reaction, which gives the resulting mustard a long-lasting, slow burn—as opposed to the quick, pungent hit of mixing it with water.

GRABER: Dijon mustard got super popular in 1756. That’s when a major mustard maker in Dijon changed his recipe from vinegar to verjus—it’s a juice made from unripe grapes, and it’s not quite as acidic as vinegar. Today, if you buy Dijon mustard, it doesn’t usually have verjus, but the makers still try to make it taste like the recipe that made it famous. They’ll often use a combination of white wine and vinegar.

TWILLEY: Technically, Dijon is supposed to only be made with either black mustard or brown mustard seeds. But basically nobody uses black mustard commercially because the seed heads are so fragile that you have to harvest it by hand.

GRABER: Seventy to eighty percent of the mustard seed exported to make condiments comes from industrial fields in Canada, which happens to be the world’s mustard basket. And Barry says a lot of those mustard seeds go to France.

LEVENSON: France, of course, is known for mustard. The per capita consumption of mustard in France is greater than any other country.

TWILLEY: Since the 1800s, Dijon has been found at tables throughout France. In my home country, though, we developed a rival: Tewkesbury mustard, which is mustard mixed with its close cousin, horseradish, for a little extra something something. This mustard was sold and transported dry in balls, known as Tewkesbury fire balls. They were a staple in English kitchens in the 1600s.

LEVENSON: Shakespeare loved mustard and wrote about mustard in several of his plays.

GRABER: Shakespeare even used this famous Tewkesbury mustard in one his slightly less famous plays, King Henry IV Part 2. He wrote, “His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard.”

TWILLEY: This is not a compliment.

GRABER: Barry has his own favorite Shakespearean mustard quote.

Barry: “What say you to a piece of beef and mustard? Aye, a dish I do love to feed upon,” from Taming of the Shrew.

TWILLEY: Here’s the Shakespeare mustard reference I found surprising though: eye of newt, which is one of the things the witches stir into their cauldron in Macbeth—”eye of newt and and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog,” etcetera, etcetera. So eye of newt—I always thought that was the eye of a newt. But it isn’t! It’s an old name for a mustard seed.

GRABER: Rose, the rabbit holes you’ve sent us down! But Shakespeare’s Tewkesbury isn’t the most famous British mustard today.

LEVENSON: That would be Colman’s. The classic hot, just good, strong mustard that just kind of goes right up in the nose.

TWILLEY: Colman’s in the yellow tin—it’s *the* British mustard.

LEVENSON: Yeah, Colman’s dry is kind of the gold standard.

TWILLEY: The thing about Colman’s is, as Barry points out, it was originally a dry mustard—and you can still buy it that way today. I have two tins of Colman’s mustard powder in my kitchen as we speak. But grinding and selling dry mustard as a powder—that actually wasn’t Jeremiah Colman’s idea.

GRABER: The inventor of powdered, dry mustard is lost to history. The only record comes from an article published in 1807, in the Gentleman’s Magazine. And the author wrote that, in 1720, quote, “it occurred to an old woman of the name of Clements, resident at Durham, to grind the seed in a mill and to pass the meal through the various processes which are resorted to to make flour from wheat.”

TWILLEY: Ms. Clements’ mustard flour was a huge hit. Even George the First gave it the thumbs up. But she kept the secret to herself for many years. Jeremiah Colman was originally a flour miller, with a mill of his own. He didn’t turn to mustard until nearly 100 years after Ms Clements’ big breakthrough. But then he conquered the British mustard market, with a special blend of locally grown white and brown mustard seeds ground to a fine powder.

LEVENSON: Colman’s mustard was just dry mustard for the first 60 or 70 years before someone decided at Colman’s, well, why don’t we actually make the mustard condiment?

GRABER: So while Dijon is made from brown mustard seed, Colman’s is a blend of white mustard and brown mustard seeds. Brown seeds, like the ones used in Dijon mustard, they give you more of a horseradish-y, sinus hit.

LEVENSON: It gives you more of that nose hit as opposed to the yellow seed, which is more pungent just on the tongue.

TWILLEY: So France has its favorite mustard, Dijon, England has Colman’s, but in America, it’s all about French’s. So what’s that?

LEVENSON: That came about a little over 100 years ago, when Mr. French decided that even though there were European mustards, they weren’t all that popular. What this country needed was a brightly colored, happy mustard and that’s what French’s mustard has been.

GRABER:  Actually French’s mustard—it first came out at the turn of the last century—it was originally called “French’s Cream Salad Brand.” Not only was it bright yellow because Mr. R. T. French added turmeric to the recipe, but it was also creamier and sweeter. And it was a huge, huge hit almost instantly in America.

LEVENSON: It is generally made with the yellow seed, so it is going to have a very different kind of flavor profile. And that’s the kind of thing that when you go to the ballpark, I think you’ve got to have yellow mustard at least on that first dog. Because you hold up the hotdog, you know, and you see the blue sky, the green grass, the brown base paths and there’s just something about that yellow squiggle of mustard that makes life so worth living that day.

GRABER: Oh Barry.

TWILLEY: People have strong feelings about mustard.

MADHUR JAFFREY: It’s very important and it’s an ancient seed that we’ve had forever.

GRABER: Madhur Jaffrey is an actress and food writer. She’s probably the most famous writer of Indian cookbooks—she’s the person whose cookbooks helped popularize Indian cooking at home in the West.

TWILLEY: We’ve been stuck in Europe and America so far this episode, but mustard is global. And India has its own serious, long-term mustard thing going on. It’s not a condiment-based relationship, but it’s central to Indian cuisine

JAFFREY: It’s been amongst our two hot spices that originated in India. We started out thousands of years ago with mustard seed and black pepper. Those are native to the region and those were the only spices we had that were hot, and chiles of course came much later. So for many centuries, they were even more important than they are today, but they’re still very important today, because one of the oils that we cook with, which is very important, is mustard oil.

GRABER: Mustard seed and, even more importantly, mustard oil is found in kitchens throughout the Indian subcontinent.

JAFFREY: It’s used for cooking a lot of food in several states. Bengal cooks a lot with mustard oil. Kashmir cooks a lot with mustard oil. So these are two states where it’s almost the state oil. And there are certain dishes that would be cooked always with mustard oil. If you’re steaming a fish, you will definitely use some mustard oil. In Bengal, if you are making this muri, which is puffed rice, you’ve puffed it and then you want to dress it quickly with different things, you’ll put, among other things, mustard oil on it and have it for breakfast.

TWILLEY: So but here’s what’s weird. Mustard oil is banned in the U.S. as a food. It has been since the 1990s.

JAFFREY: When I buy mustard seed oil, it says on top: “Use for external purposes only.” People in India eat it and survive and nothing happens to them and they live long lives. We put it on babies, we—you know — but externally we put it on babies. But I keep reading it and ignoring it. It’s just like what they used to say with coconut oil. “Don’t cook with coconut oil.” And people go through fashions and suddenly now everybody is cooking with coconut oil as if it’s the best thing in the world.

GRABER: You might think that maybe the U.S. government was afraid of those pungent, insect-fighting glucosinolates. But no. The FDA thinks the problem comes from a fatty acid that’s found in the seed. Apparently tests on rats show that in high doses this particular fatty acid can cause heart lesions. But frankly, as Madhur says, literally billions of people have been cooking with mustard seed oil for thousands of years.

JAFFREY: I wouldn’t give it up. No. It is in a lot of things that I cook. I cook everything from all over India and I use it all the time.

TWILLEY: For Madhur, the magic of mustard is in the way you can manipulate its heat.

JAFFREY: It’s like a Jekyll and Hyde of both spices and oils. If you use it plain, it’s quite pungent. So when we want that pungent flavor, we use it plain. But if you heat the oil or if you pop the mustard seeds, they turn sweet and nutty. So it depends on what we want. It can change its shape, as it were.

GRABER: So in India, cooks know that cooking heat tames the fieriness of mustard seeds and oil. But Barry says condiment markers can use other tools to manipulate that heat, too.

LEVENSON: Which seed you use, how much water, how much vinegar is going to be used. There are all kinds of ways that mustard makers are able to change the heat of the final product.

TWILLEY: In fact, mustard is surprisingly nuanced. You think of it as this blast of heat on a sandwich, but, depending on how you make it or how you pair it with food, mustard doesn’t have to steal the show—it can fade into the background and just make everything else taste better.

GRABER: I never really had strong feelings about mustard one way or the other, unlike all of our guests this episode, but the bagel shop near me uses mustard butter on their bagel-egg sandwich and it’s mind-blowing. So I also started using a layer of mustard in my savory galettes—these are free-form pies—and it totally ups the game.

TWILLEY: Whole-grain mustard smeared inside the pastry shell of a quiche, before you add the filling: unreal. And mustard powder is my secret ingredient in cheese straws. But Barry and Rose have taken this pairing game a little further.

LEVENSON: It’s something that you can also use in brownies because it accentuates the flavor of chocolate.

EVELETH: This is going to sound disgusting to a lot of people but I think it’s delicious: a little bit of mustard on Oreos is extremely good.

GRABER: Wow, that is an unusual one.

TWILLEY: Wait, wait, wait so are we talking like French’s here or what are you doing? Like, how is that?

EVELETH: Like you sort of dip a double-stuffed Oreo into like, a little bit of mustard, in Dijon mustard.

GRABER: And what does that do for the Oreo?

EVELETH: Well, because the Oreos are so sweet, right? Like, you’ve got the chocolate cookie and then you’ve got that, like, really saccharin middle chemical bit—like, I don’t know what it is—

GRABER: The white part.

EVELETH: The white part—it’s so sweet that just a little bit of like spiciness or that little bit of, like, mustard flavor is really a good foil to the Oreo. It’s delicious. I know everyone listening is going to be, like, you’re a psychopath. But I love it.

GRABER: I totally want to try this.

EVELETH: It’s really good.

TWILLEY: I might skip mustard Oreos. But I’m much more into Rose’s most recent mustard revelation.

EVELETH: I have been really into making Bloody Marys recently, and I put a little bit of mustard in my Bloody Mary mix.

TWILLEY: Wait, the spread or the powder?

EVELETH: So I’ve been experimenting with both. So I will put a little bit of powder in the ring, like, the ring that you put on the glass.

TWILLEY: Oh yes, that does sound really good.

EVELETH: And then a tiny bit of it in. Yeah, it’s super good. You have to be careful because you could definitely overdo it with mustard powder particular. But I also put a little bit of Dijon in the actual sort of concoction, the tomato paste concoction that I used to make Bloody Marys. I’ll make you Bloody Marys any time, they’re my favorite drink and I’m really into making them.

GRABER: I’m so there!

TWILLEY: And that’s it for today’s episode because we have somewhere to be! There is a mustard Bloody Mary calling my name.


GRABER: Thanks this episode to Rose Eveleth. She is the host of a fascinating podcast called Flash Forward—it’s all about possible and not so possible futures. She had a recent one on a future where we’re all telepathic, and another scary and possible one about what happens if the census goes haywire.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to Patrick Edger of Michigan State University, Hayley Saul of Western Sydney University, and Madhur Jaffrey, legendary food writer and actress. We have links to their work on our website, And, finally, thanks to Barry Levenson of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin.

GRABER: We’ve got some more fascinating mustard stories involving mustard gas, mustard plasters, and mustard sounds saved for our special sustaining supporters newsletter: if you’re able to donate $9 a month on our website or $5 per episode on Patreon, you too could enjoy some more mustardy goodness!


GRABER: We’re back in two weeks with a few famous friends. Yep, we’re hanging with Nigella and Yotam and we’re name-dropping like we just don’t care!

Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale, first released on February 13, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Oooh! And here’s the gnocchi!

NICOLA TWILLEY: You can leave that next to me. These are really cute actually.

TONI MAZZAGLIA: While you have that on, I have to tell you something really important. There’s a slang way in Italian to say someone’s a hottie, and that’s to say they’re gnoccho or gnoccha. And so I was ordering the gnocchi I asked him if the gnocchi were Bolognese, and then at some point I made a joke, like, other than you, are the gnocchi Bolognese? I don’t know if he caught it though.

GRABER: I don’t know—I think he’s catching all of it.

TWILLEY: He’s having a good time.

MAZZAGLIA: He’s having a good time, yeah.

TWILLEY: And maybe he’s heard that he’s hot before? I don’t know—it seems like maybe?

GRABER: I’m getting the sense that he’s probably heard it before.

MAZZAGLIA: He’s comfortable with his hotness.

GRABER: You may recognize that third voice, that’s Toni Mazzaglia, so that means that we are in Italy!

TWILLEY: We, by the way, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. While we were in Italy with Toni, we were reporting on balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and the first theme park devoted to food. So we were busy, but my friend Toni also made sure that we ate some of the world’s most delicious pasta.

TWILLEY: It was research! Because we were on a special assignment from listener Morgan Boddy.

MORGAN BODDY: This is Morgan—is this Gastropod?

GRABER: This is Cynthia from Gastropod.

BODDY: Oh my gosh. Fangirling right now.

GRABER: Well, thank you, that’s very sweet. Unfortunately it’s just me, Nicky couldn’t join us today. But before we get to your request, could you introduce yourself?

BODDY: My name is Morgan and I live in Ventura County, California.

GRABER: Morgan had a question for us.

BODDY: Well, you look at the store aisles and you see these boxes of just different shaped pastas. You look at an Italian restaurant menu and you see all these different names. But when you look at it—when you look around, and you look at—you see them prepare it, it’s basically the same kind of stuff. So why did we make all these different shapes? Like, what was the purpose for that?

TWILLEY: This is a very good question and we did not know the answer. And the more we wondered about it, we started coming up with even more questions.

GRABER: Like, how in the world does anyone ever figure out what’s the right sauce to pair which each pasta shape? Is there any science to that?

TWILLEY: And are pasta shapes still being invented today? How many are there anyway?

GRABER: What’s the story behind some of pasta shapes’ stranger names, like strozzapretti, or priest strangler?

TWILLEY: So many pasta questions. And this episode, we’ve pretty much got the answers. Thank you to Morgan for sending us down a very delicious rabbit hole.


GRABER: Finally, we created a special episode just for our Stitcher Premium subscribers, go to for a free month and to hear the special stitcher premium bonus episode.


TWILLEY: With all these pasta-related questions, we figured we should consult The Encyclopedia of Pasta.

GRABER: This is a book that has more than 300 varieties of pasta in it. Each one has a description of the shape and the story of where it comes from, a bit about the history of the shape. Really, an encyclopedia. It was written by a woman named Oretta Zanini de Vita.

MAUREEN B. FANT: Oh, she’s a force of nature. She is just the greatest.

TWILLEY: That is Maureen Fant, who worked with Oretta to translate the encyclopedia, and then partnered with her to write another pasta book, Sauces and Shapes.

FANT: Oretta and I had known each other—we were both writing for the same magazine in Rome called Italy, Italy!, only she was writing food of course, and I was writing about archaeology, archaeological sites, because that’s actually what I studied. I had nothing to do with food until much later.

GRABER: Oretta, though, she comes by her pasta knowledge honestly. She is the real deal.

FANT: She’s a Bolognese. Born and bred. In fact, to go to her convent school where she learned how to make pasta, her father had to produce documents to prove that she had been born within the city limits of Bologna. There was a famous nun who had charge of the kitchen and Oretta just took to this and she used to go visit that Sister Atilia. And she learnt to make Bolognese-style pasta. And she got very good at it. I mean this nun—the convent used to lend her out to the Communist mayor of the city for special events. I mean, she was really known.

GRABER: Oretta was a prolific writer and author and researcher. Her husband was an expert in metal and became the Vatican curator of arms and armor.

FANT: And the two of them—when the two of them got started on papal history, you know, you couldn’t imagine. She knew everything about what the popes ate and he knew everything about what the popes, you know, fought their enemies with.

TWILLEY: But the more Oretta learned and wrote about the history of Italian food, the more she got concerned that it was disappearing in front of her eyes, without leaving a trace. She discovered there was no such thing as a catalog of all of Italy’s pasta shapes

FANT: You think such a well-known subject of pasta—such a national treasure as pasta—would be very well documented.

TWILLEY: But nope. All that knowledge was just embedded in local traditions, oral traditions…

FANT: Things that never get out of people’s houses. Traditions that just—in families. You know, there’s a town near Rome where the same kind of pasta has one name on one side street practically and the other on the other side of the street. You can’t even begin to document all this stuff, there is so much. So it’s not that easy to get a hold of this kind of information. And she wanted to do her part to record it.

GRABER: It took Oretta nearly two decades of interviewing people in their homes and kitchens and studying anything she could find in the archives that even mentioned pasta shapes.

TWILLEY: She ended up traveling the country, visiting small towns and villages to record their individual unique shapes.

FANT: She found a type of pasta in Amatrice, the town that broke everybody’s heart during the recent earthquake when it was totaled. Amatrice is known for a sauce, for Amatriciana. But there was also a local kind of pasta made with two kinds of flour and a rather complicated handmade shape. She found two old ladies, practically 90 years old, who were the last people to know how to make it.

GRABER: In fact, Oretta’s efforts might have helped save this unusual shape of pasta. It’s like a curly gnocchi. Now the town has a course that you can take to learn how to make it.

TWILLEY: In her introduction to the encyclopedia, Oretta also tried to trace back the history of pasta in Italy. First question: Who actually invented pasta and when?

FANT: It’s not rocket science to mix flour and water and sort of mush it up together and throw it in the soup and that’s pasta, you know. Any combination of flour and something to moisten it and you throw it in liquid and that’s OK, it’s done. That’s pasta.

GRABER: A lot of people still think that pasta was brought to what’s now Italy by Marco Polo in the 1200s, that it originated in China. But as Maureen explained, making pasta isn’t rocket science. It was invented many different times in many different places. People in Italy were eating pasta long before Marco Polo traveled to the Far East.

TWILLEY: In fact, Oretta, in her endless archival research, she discovered the original source for that mistaken belief: a 1938 article by a man named L.B. Maxwell in the trade marketing publication Macaroni Journal, published out of Minneapolis. Thanks to L.B., that myth about Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy has stuck around.

GRABER: Oretta says that dried durum wheat pasta, like the kind we buy today—that was found in Sicily from about the 800s. The island’s Muslim rulers then spread the local manufacturing and drying techniques elsewhere in what’s now Italy.

TWILLEY: But pasta in its most basic form—just a dough made with flour from some kind of grain plus water—that goes back even further.

GRABER: The original pastas were some form of this—tiny balls, like Israeli-style couscous or fregola that were boiled in water, or larger balls of dough, dumpling-shaped like gnocchi.

TWILLEY: Then people started rolling these balls of dough out into sheets.

KENNEDY: The earliest records are of lagane, which then became lasagne, which were just sheets of dough and boiled.

GRABER: Jacob Kenedy is the author of a book called The Geometry of Pasta.

KENEDY: And another cookbook called Boca and I have many restaurants.

TWILLEY: We met with Jacob in London before we headed to Bologna.

KENEDY: We are in heaven, sitting by the Regent’s Canal in Angel.

GRABER: The tree-lined canal, down some stairs from the street above us, is indeed a little piece of heaven in north London. And it’s right near Jacob’s newest restaurant called Plaquemine Lock.

TWILLEY: Confusingly Plaquemine Lock serves Cajun food. But Jacob is best known for his pasta, which he serves at his first restaurant, Boca di Lupo. And he told us that the word lagane—that means rolling pin. Back in the 300s, the ancient Roman poet Horace wrote about going home after a tiring evening at the Forum to eat a dish of lagane, leek, and chickpeas—that’s the first recorded mention of lasagne’s grandaddy.

GRABER: Oretta has found similar descriptions of flat pasta sheets, sometimes wrapped around a filling like a raviolo—she’s found those all over the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, from Baghdad to ancient Palestine.

TWILLEY: The first description of pasta shapes comes from an Arab geographer named Al Idrisi. He was describing the island of Sicily in the 1100s. And he said there was a town in Sicily, quote, “an enchanted place…” where “they make a food of flour and in the form of strings.”

GRABER: Like spaghetti. And actually the word spaghetti means little strings.

TWILLEY: So, pasta is not uniquely Italian. But how it developed in Italy—that’s what made pasta pasta.

FANT: Nobody else in the world has ever had the imagination and the dexterity and I guess the patience and the creativity to turn this flour and water mush into something beautiful, into something interesting—into something amusing.

GRABER: First you had balls, then people made sheets of pasta, and then strings. Next people started to wrap those strings around something to make a new shape.

FANT: You take a piece of straw or a metal rod and you pinch off a piece of dough and you place your rod or your straw or whatever on top of the piece of dough and you roll it with your hands. You roll the dough until it lengthens along this stick, rod. And then you pull out the stick and you have your pasta. You can make short ones, you can make long ones. You can make—you know, corkscrew it around or you can just make a long tube.

TWILLEY: These first curly telephone wire shapes were called busiata, after the Italian word busa or reed. That’s what you wrapped those dough strings around.

GRABER: And then people started pinching that dough into tiny artistic sculptures. Their creativity was unleashed.

TWILLEY: All the sudden there were hundreds of new pasta shapes, each with their own name.

FANT: Pasta shapes can be named for their actual geometry. Tagliatelle, for example, is just something that’s been cut. Fettuccine are ribbons, literally ribbons. So they’re actually named for their shape. And you can deduce something of what the pasta must look like from its name if you know Italian. Others are named after objects that they resemble.

GRABER: There are pastas shaped and named after butterflies and hats and one called tempestine, which means little storms—they look like little hailstones.

TWILLEY: There are garganelli, which look like a chicken’s gullet or garganel. There are denti di cavallo, which are named after horse’s teeth.

FANT: Lumache, conchiglie—shells, snails. Even penne are quills. So they’re named after objects that they somehow resemble.

GRABER: Those are objects people might have seen every day. Then there are more fanciful names for things people imagined they saw, like elves or goblins or imps.

TWILLEY: And there are some pasta shapes that are pure wishful thinking.

FANT: Strozzapreti means priest stranglers.

TWILLEY: Remember, the Catholic Church was all powerful in much of what became Italy.

FANT: The common people, let’s say, resented the wealthy clergy and expressed this—this is sort of like resistance-by-sarcasm—they hoped that the pasta would strangle the greedy minion of the pope king. Other versions say, oh they were so delicious the priest ate so much of it he strangled. Well, yeah, maybe so. But it’s more like an expression of a wish: may this strangle the horrible priest.

GRABER: You may not be familiar with all of these shapes. But one you might have heard of is tortellini. These are little twisty pastas filled with something tasty, often meat. The original name for tortellini was torteletti.

TWILLEY: And then a gentleman from Bologna mistakenly wrote that down as tortellini. And the Bolognese people ran with tortellini because it made their pasta shape different from the neighboring towns. And over time, Bologna became the center of a tortellini industry.

GRABER: Bologna also became the home of the myth of tortellini’s origin. In the 1800s, there was a factory in Bologna that employed a lot of people to make these Bolognese specialties. And they created a legend behind the shape’s invention.

KENEDY: Tortellino being a bellybutton. Whose was it? Not Venus. Lucrezia Borgia wasn’t it? Or someone. I think it was Lucrezia Borgia.

TWILLEY: Oretta says Aphrodite, but whatever. The story’s not true anyway.

KENEDY: It was meant to be a fantastically beautiful woman and someone spied her through a keyhole. And that’s the fable. But once you’ve heard that story and it really does look like the inside of an innie belly button, it adds immeasurably to the pleasure of eating it.

GRABER: We loved sitting by the canal and chatting with Jacob, but he was making us super hungry for some pasta. We were flying to Bologna the next day. So Jacob gave us an order.

KENEDY: Go to Anna Maria.

TWILLEY: So we did.

MAN: Permiso!

GRABER: Anna Maria Monari is the owner of a famous restaurant in downtown Bologna. It’s the place where Jacob learned to make his tortellini.

TWILLEY: When we visited two ladies were out back making, yes, tortellini—

MAZZAGLIA: So, first of all, notice that she’s hand-rolling it with this wide rolling pin, this wide, almost shoulder length—what would say that is, almost a yard? But it’s not thick, it’s very thin. See how thin this is? Watch how she does it, she’s going to pick it up and then she’s going to kind of like—

GRABER: She’s rolling it over so that it wraps all the way around it and then unwraps.

MAZZAGLIA: Exactly, and then stretches it out, stretches it out.

TWILLEY: So thin you can see the grain of the wood through it.

GRABER: That’s the goal, to get the pasta dough so thin that you can even read the newspaper through it. And then the two women—they cut the pasta and wrapped each square around tiny dabs of meat. She’s just doing these little finger dabs with meat in the middle.

MAZZAGLIA: It’s absolutely gorgeous! I’m taking video.

GRABER: Wow, and such muscle memory, it’s all even. They’re all the same.

MAZZAGLIA: It’s really fast.

GRABER: She wraps them and then she wraps it around her finger, right?

MAZZAGLIA: She wrapping it around her pointer finger.

GRABER: So it’s two of the corners are over each other, and then she wraps them around her pointer finger, and it forms these little bellybutton things.

TWILLEY: The women told us they make pasta all day, 8 hours straight. They banged out about 300 tortellini in the half hour we spent with them. They told us they could make them with their eyes closed. One question actually—does she ever make these at home?

MAZZAGLIA: Always—otherwise her husband would kick her out! She said I’m crazy, I’m crazy, you’ve got to be crazy to do this work. She says when she goes home on a Saturday after doing a shift here, she’ll go home and make her own pasta fresca.

TWILLEY: These ladies—I’m not kidding—they were like machines.

GRABER: This might be how tortellini have always been made in the past, but now most pasta is made by real machines.

TWILLEY: And that has led to even more shapes—and even more confusion about how to pair them with sauce. We have the science behind that, after a quick word from a couple sponsors.


GRABER: The very first pasta machine was designed by everyone’s favorite Renaissance renaissance man.

FANT: Yes, we’re talking about Leonardo of course. He did attempt to make a pasta machine. I don’t know whether it was before or after his flying machine. But yes, he got into that as well. I mean, there was nothing that Leonardo didn’t get into.

TWILLEY: Leonardo’s machine was gigantic. It was designed for making one huge sheet of lasagne, which he said could then be cut into quote “edible string,” or spaghetti. Unfortunately, Oretta says, the pasta sheet was so huge that it broke apart under its own weight before it could be cut.

GRABER: Leonardo didn’t give up after that failure—I mean, would Leonardo give up? He later tried to invent a way to measure the tension that spaghetti could sustain. Oretta writes that he actually preferred to be thought of as a cook rather than a painter or even an engineer, which is obviously how he’s remembered today. In fact, Leonardo had even once managed a restaurant part-time. Renaissance man indeed.

TWILLEY: The next step forward in pasta machinery was equally unsuccessful.

FANT: The biggest problem for making pasta in bulk in the early days—which is to say the 1700s or more or less, getting up to the Industrial Revolution—it was mixing all this dough. So the earliest machines, the earliest mass production, not machinery but mass production, involved stomping flour and water with feet. Like mashing grapes, you mixed your flour and water with human feet. So a very early machine was made to resemble the action of human feet. And this was known popularly as the bronze man and was ridiculed in its own day.

TWILLEY: But, finally, technology caught up with Italian appetites, and, by 1827, the first mechanical pasta making factory opened in a small town in Tuscany It was founded by the Buitoni family. That’s a name you can still find on packets of pasta today, although the family sold the company to a multinational a few decades ago.

GRABER: Basically the way these original pasta machines worked is that they pushed dough through shapes, or dies. It’s just like the Playdough fun factory, where the playdough gets extruded through a piece of plastic, and it comes out in new cool shapes.

FANT: And that changed everything. Because all of a sudden you could have curlicues, you could have tubes, you could have—before that tubes would have to be formed from flat sheets, as you would do it if you were making cannelloni at home today. You could extrude spaghetti, you could extrude rigatoni, as is done today. You can change your same machine from spaghetti to rigatoni to penne to anything, any other kind of shape, by changing essentially a metal disk. The machine remains the same.

TWILLEY: But it’s not just that you could make all kinds of shapes really easily with these groovy new machines. It was also a revolution in who could eat pasta.

GRABER: Before industrialization, mostly rich people ate pasta. The regular folk, they ate pasta on feast days or at super special celebrations. Ziti literally means grooms or brides because people at it at their weddings. That’s how fancy pasta was.

FANT: The industrialization created a market for pasta and pasta then became more widely available. The price dropped. You got this phenomenon of the Neapolitans eating—this would be even before tomato sauce got popular—you’d see the people eating spaghetti with their hands just dressed with a little cheese. And they’d be on street corners and the Grand Tourists would think this was, you know, one of the amazing things to see and one of the curiosities of visiting Naples.

TWILLEY: So now everyone was eating pasta, and the pasta makers were competing to invent new shapes. By counting the different dies in pasta machinery catalogs, Oretta calculated that within just a few decades, in the early 1800s, Italians had invented more than 700 brand new shapes—or a total of thirteen hundred, if you included all the ones that were actually the same, but were just given different names.

GRABER: To show just how crazy confusing this all is, in one province in Italy, called Viterbo, the same one shape of pasta is known by 28 different names. One of those is lombrichelle—the name means earth worms.

TWILLEY: And the other 27—don’t even ask. But behind each shape and each name, there’s often a story.

GRABER: Turns out, you can pretty much trace Italian history through the dinner plate.

TWILLEY: Take mafaldine. Or, as this shape is sometimes known, reginette. It’s a long half-inch-wide ribbon shape, with a wavy ruffled edge, like the ruffles that would be worn by a royal princess.

FANT: The Kingdom of Italy began in 1860. And like the pizza Margherita named for the Queen of Italy, you have mafalda for Princess Mafalda.

TWILLEY: Princess Mafalda was the daughter of the last king of Italy, and when she was born in 1902, the pasta makers invented a new shape in her honor. Although Oretta has her suspicions that they actually just renamed an existing shape, manfredine, to take advantage of royal baby fever.

GRABER: You can also tell Italy’s colonial history through pasta. Tripolini is a little bow-shaped pasta. It represents Italy’s conquest of Libya—Tripoli is Libya’s capital. Aneli are big loops that are supposed to look like the hoop earrings worn by women in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and those were both Italian colonies.

TWILLEY: Some pasta shapes have been renamed as times change. Take sedanini. These are narrow ridged tubes, and they were originally called zanne di elefante, which means elephant tusks, and then when people started frowning upon the use of ivory, the manufacturers renamed them sedanini or baby celery stalks

GRABER: As Italy industrialized and started falling in love with cars and airplanes and machinery, they came up with new types of pasta.

FANT: There was a fad of the radiators, there was even, in the 1950s, flying saucers.

TWILLEY: In fact, Maureen told us that pasta shapes are still being invented today. A company called Verrigni has come up with right-angled rigatoni-style shapes. There’s a shape called calamaretti that Maureen spotted recently.

FANT: Italians are confused by this when they see it on menus because they don’t realize that what it is, it’s a ring of pasta. But people see it on menus and they’re confused. Because it’s a relatively new name.

GRABER: They think calamaretti means actual squid rings. Yes, even Italians can’t always figure out what’s on the menu when it comes to pasta shapes.

FANT: They are always inventing them. They don’t all catch on. They don’t all enter—you know, hang around for posterity. But there’s no reason why they can’t be continuously invented. At home, when you’re working with your hands, you can tie a knot in something and say, oh, this is in my new shape, it’s nodi. You know, there’s no limit.

TWILLEY: And the factory-made pasta—you can squeeze out any shape through a die. There are even penis pasta shapes.

KENEDY: You can get boobs too. I hate to think what else you can get. You can probably get—you can probably get everything.

TWILLEY: Jacob is not of a fan of new shapes for the sake of it.

KENEDY: They’re a bit pointless, because it’s all pasta. And up to a point you get different textures that play on your tongue or different textures that will react differently to different sauces. Beyond that you get something which is at best a statement and at worst a joke. There’s nothing wrong with a joke really but it depends on how intelligently is made.

GRABER: Not all new pasta shapes are being invented for novelty or the sake of a joke. And not all of them are being invented in Italy.

LINING YAO: My name is Lining Yao and I was a Ph.D. student at MIT Media Lab and I graduated this February and now I’m a student assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

TWILLEY: Last year, Lining and her collaborators at MIT invented shape-shifting pasta. It’s kind of amazing—it starts out as flat sheet, like a sheet of lasagne, but when you put it in water, it curls and it bends and it forms itself into a pre-programmed shape. So you put it in flat, and it comes out as fusilli. Or as a flower.

GRABER: But Lining didn’t invent this shape-shifting technology just so that we could have flowers in our tomato sauce. She was interested in sustainability.

YAO: For example, one point is if you make all the food flat, you can save a lot of shipping and packaging space.

TWILLEY: Lining explained the science behind the magic.

YAO: So really the basic mechanism we were looking into is differential swelling.

GRABER: They used gelatin because gelatin swells in water.

YAO: So, for example, if you have a piece of food that can swell differently at different locations, you can basically engineer food that are initially flat and then can can swell into different shape once you cook them in water.

TWILLEY: So how does Lining make the gelatin swell differently in different locations? She used two different techniques. First, she took advantage of the fact that the denser gelatin is, the more water it will take in. She laid the gelatin down in two layers, and made the bottom layer more dense, and the top layer less dense.

YAO: So when you put a flat piece of such a film in water, the bottom layer will take in more water and swell more, and the top layer will swell less. And as a result out the the film can basically wrap up and bend upwards.

GRABER: And then she used a second substance—cellulose. It doesn’t absorb water at all. So she and her colleagues used a 3D-printer to apply cellulose onto the gelatin base.

YAO: If we distribute the cellulose in different locations, you can basically control where it swells and where it doesn’t.

GRABER: So like a circle of cellulose would prevent the center part of the flower, the head, from curving up at all.

TWILLEY: Like I said, it’s amazing. We have a video on our site, and it is just mesmerizingly beautiful to watch the pasta twist itself into shapes.

GRABER: There are a few limitations, of course. First of all, this technology can’t form tight angles into a totally closed shape like a square. And then, it’s hard to create the patterns for new shapes. Lining would love to be able to have anyone design any new pasta shape, push a button, and poof—the software will figure out where to have thicker gelatin or where to put some cellulose.

YAO: But so far it doesn’t work that way.

TWILLEY: Instead, they have to kind of reverse engineer backward from the shape they want to where the gelatine and the cellulose needs to go in their minds.

GRABER: And finally, it’s not actually pasta, right? It’s gelatin.

YAO: And for a very classic traditional Italian pasta, it’s basically just water and semolina flour, not anything else. And we try to respect that because ultimately we want this to be appreciated and eaten by people who love pasta. So nowadays with my new research group at Carnegie Mellon University, we started a research collaboration with Barilla, the Italian pasta company. So they’ve been providing us a lot of insight in terms of the science and property of semolina flour.

TWILLEY: Lining is excited. I am too. She’s still preparing to write up her research for publication, so it’s too early to share the results. But…

YAO: What I can tell you it’s very likely you will see some actual authentic pasta transform in the market, maybe very soon.

GRABER: I’m joining you in this excitement, Nicky, I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. So this new approach could certainly help with the packaging conundrum that started Lining off on her self-assembling pasta path. But she has even bigger ambitions.

YAO: So, for example, for hiking. So for hiking people will also need to pack food very efficiently. And if you think a bit further, maybe this can be used for food delivery, for disaster site, or people who need to go on a voyage.

GRABER: A very distant voyage.

YAO: Say you are traveling to Mars and there are two years on the way and you don’t have much to do and food’s gonna be still a big portion of the time you’re going to have to spend it. We wanted to make the experience a bit interesting.

TWILLEY: Back on Earth, Lining imagines that one day, you’ll be able order your own customized shape-shifting pasta, and have whatever design you want shipped flat-packed to your home.

GRABER: Once Lining has conquered the pasta challenge, she thinks that her flour-and-water self-assembling technology could be useful in, say, Mexican tacos. Or even self-wrapping Chinese dumplings. She got the idea for that one when she was watching her mom at home in Inner Mongolia.

YAO: I thought it would be a very interesting and basically effort- and energy-saving for my mom, that was kind of motivation. I did talk about it with my mom and she laughed. I think if it happens she would like to try out and many Chinese would like to try it out.

TWILLEY: Lining is not Italian, obviously. But she presented her shape-shifting pasta in Milan, and she was pleasantly surprised—Italian people seemed open to the idea. And open to helping her with her next challenge.

YAO: So as researchers in a lab we developed the raw materials. We had this vision of making food flat for easy packaging, or for fun, or for science. But we don’t really know how to kind of pair this material with other ingredients to make interesting dishes. So that was something we wanted to get help from a professional chef.

TWILLEY: This question is tough for everyone. Even with regular non-magic pasta. All those hundreds of shapes—but which sauce to serve them with?

GRABER: You will learn the …science? … of pasta-sauce pairing after a brief message about one of our sponsors this episode.


GRABER: Pasta shapes were developed over hundreds of years. Were sauces created because they perfectly complemented these beautiful little sculptures, or were the shapes sculpted to marry the sauces? When we asked Jacob Kenedy, he told us a story.

KENEDY: At university, there was this Welsh boy who was in my college. And at the end of the second year at university, he said, Jacob, I had pasta for the first time, which I can’t believe because how could you be at university for two years and not eat pasta? And I said, how was it? And he said, it was great, but it would have been nicer with some kind of a sauce. So I think—and that really struck me because pasta comes with sauce. Probably when people first made pasta they just boiled it and ate it. And, quite frankly, pasta with butter and sage or just butter and cheese or just butter or just olive oil is bloody delicious.

TWILLEY: But now we have all these beautiful sauces—pesto and marinara and alfredo—so we need to decide which of the hundreds of pasta shapes we should serve them with. It seems as though there must be some secret Italian rules about this—some kind of pairing algorithm that you can only learn in Italian kitchens?

KENEDY: So there are two rules of thumb. The first, which I stick to, but you don’t need to stick to it: I like to stick with the traditional approach. People have had a long time to get things right, there’ll be a particular way of making a sauce that seems to work particularly well with a pasta. And when you have the two together, if you’ve been to that place before it will take you right back, the memory. So I tend not to mess with it. But the other, better rule is whatever tastes good to you is the right thing for you to do, because you’re going to eat it.

GRABER: Here are some of those classic pairings that people have apparently gotten right: alfredo goes with long strands of fettuccine. Pasta alla Norma, a chunky red sauce with eggplant, is paired with chunky penne.

FANT: The secret is like the song: tradition, tradition, tradition. Basically, yeah, there are general guidelines and there are general principles. For example, flour and water pastas normally take olive oil-based sauces. Egg pastas normally take butter-based sauces.

TWILLEY: This is history and geography as pasta destiny: in the north of Italy, which was and is wealthier, people had the money to put an egg in their pasta dough, and they also had richer pastures for raising cows to make butter and cream. In the south, where the land is drier and less fertile, people used olive oil instead.

GRABER: But it’s not just tradition and geography. There are some aspects of pairing sauces and shapes that do seem to be about the particular interplay between the pasta and the sauce.

KENEDY: Different textures will affect how the pasta interacts with the sauce. If you have a very fine pasta, so very thin strands of something, it’s got a lot of surface area to the outside and that will tend to go better with a lighter sauce. Because there’ll be a lot of surface area, you don’t need a lot of sauce sticking to the outside and anything too heavy will clag it together and make it into a lump.

TWILLEY: This is why angel hair pasta should never ever ever be served with a sauce—it’s so fine, it can only go in broth. I’m looking at you, Olive Garden. And Maggiano’s. And Buca di Beppo.

KENEDY: If you get thicker, bigger, brasher pastas, they tend to need thicker sauces that will stick better to the outside because there’s less surface area for the outside to stick into. And then things which are very chunky sauces will tend to marry better with pastas that have some means of catching the chunks. So there’s generally thin pasta, thin sauce, thick pasta, thick sauce, big chunky pasta, big chunky sauce.

FANT: And people have internalized these basic principles and so they’re not going to have much trouble with it.

TWILLEY: Italian people, sure. The rest of us … not so much.

GRABER: Chefs who work with pasta also talk about the importance of something called emulsification. Let’s say you want to make a traditional Roman sauce called cacio e pepe. The only ingredients are pecorino cheese and black pepper.

TWILLEY: But the sauce is super, super creamy, as if you had put in cream, which you didn’t. How does it get so creamy? The wonders of emulsification.

GRABER: The sauce is made of water and fat from the cheese. But molecules of water and molecules of fat don’t stick together. To get them to bind and turn creamy, you need starch. Like the flour particles that comes off of cooked pasta in the water. And if you mix that starchy pasta water in with the pecorino cheese, the starch helps bind the water and the fat together.

TWILLEY: And so that’s why chefs often serve cacio e pepe with a long pasta like tonarelli or just ordinary spaghetti—these shapes have a large surface area so as you toss the pasta and sauce together, you get lots of lovely emulsification. Surface area is an important factor in this whole pairing game.

GRABER: We’ve now just made this sound like an exact science.

TWILLEY: But in real life, it is not nearly so cut and dried.

FANT: When I went to a seafood restaurant on an island off the coast of Lazio, we ordered for the family pasta with a beautiful fresh fish, we were going to make make a sauce out of this fish. And the waiter said, may I give you linguine with that?

TWILLEY: Now bear in mind, linguine is the traditional shape that is paired with seafood.

FANT: And we said, yes, of course, it’s seafood. Why not? And he said, well, you know, some people just can’t stand linguine. And so I wanted to make sure. How can you not like linguine? You like spaghetti, how can you not like linguine? They’re so similar. So try coming from some other part of the world, approaching Italian pasta and trying to match it. You’re never going to get it right. You do the best you can. You do the best you can.

TWILLEY: None of this confusing pairing thing is helped by the fact that Italians are so horrified if you get it wrong. Serve an Italian a sauce paired with the wrong shape…

KENEDY: The world ends. And you’ll never be able to look at yourself in the mirror again.

GRABER: Maureen told us another story about the sauce called Amatriciana, it’s a red sauce with chiles and black pepper and guanciale, which is salt-cured pork. It’s usually paired with either spaghetti or bucatini. Bucatini is like a thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle.

FANT: Oretta, when we were doing the book, she reported a story. She said, I ran into a young woman of my acquaintance the other day and she told me, I went to a restaurant near the Pantheon and you cannot imagine the horror. She said they served a short pasta all’Amatriciana. She said, I felt ill. Now, short pasta all’Amatriciana—there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine. I actually know a few restaurants that serve short pasta all’Amatriciana. But for this woman it was so outrageous that she could hardly eat it. And it is the same thing. Your chemical analysis of rigatoni or whatever and spaghetti—it’s identical. It’s the same dough. It just goes through a different die.

TWILLEY: The horror continues. Classic combinations that I was raised eating—they are seen as utterly barbaric in Italy. Like macaroni and cheese—just no. Don’t even.

KENEDY: So the classic wrong pasta that we all eat is spaghetti bolognese.

GRABER: So what you’re supposed to eat bolognese sauce with is tagliatelle. These are thin, flat long noodles and they’re wider than spaghetti and made with a slightly different dough.

KENEDY: And so those are egg pasta ribbons. Not a huge difference and probably not that much to get hot under the collar about. But if you have had a really good tagliatelle with ragu, so it’s a really good ragu which has got lots of animal fat and dairy fat. Not too red and it’s very rich and unctuous with good fresh tagliatelle. So they’re very, again, rich pasta—kind of elastic opulent things. And there’s this wonderful symphony that happens, which tells a story that goes back hundreds of years in Bologna. It evokes a place and a history. And if you then have relatively crappy or incorrect Bolognese, as we make it all the time in Britain, which is ground beef simmered in a load of tomato and quite wet. Maybe with lots of red wine in it, maybe not, on traditionally overcooked spaghetti, which is made with soft wheat instead of hard wheat. And you get the stuff of school lunch. And it tells a different story. And I prefer the Italian story. But then if you put a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of me which is completely American and not Italian. And who cares about the origin of it—it’s delicious. That’s what I grew up eating at home and I love it.

TWILLEY: Jacob is a tolerant man. He’s also English. Not every Italian would agree. But sometimes even an Italian will break the rules. Sometimes you have to. Like if you’re making a sauce that no one has made before.

GRABER: Massimo Ratti cooks at his restaurant called Ponte Rosso. He is passionate about Italian food—not shocking for an Italian chef. But he is particularly enthusiastic.

TWILLEY: He respects tradition. He even waxes lyrical about tradition. But he will also break it when necessary.

GRABER: Because Massimo creates dishes like meat-filled tortellini with strawberry sauce.

TWILLEY: So good, by the way.

GRABER: Oh yes, but there is no tradition for pairing pasta with strawberry sauce. So Massimo invented his own.


TWILLEY: What Massimo is saying is that the strawberry and the meat in the tortellino, together they create a harmony. If he served the strawberry sauce with tagliatelle, it wouldn’t be balanced.

GRABER: Okay, I will keep this rule in mind. No strawberry sauce on plain egg tagliatelle.

TWILLEY: For when you’re next making strawberry pasta sauce. Meanwhile, remember Lining? She has the opposite problem—not a new sauce but a new shape. So she found a chef in Boston to help her figure out the pairing.

YAO: He made four dishes. One is a tomato flower pasta salad. So for that one he basically add tomato ingredients into the plain gelatin.

GRABER: When it’s first set down in front of the customer, it’s just a flat red disc. But then when it’s paired with mushrooms and other ingredients and then liquid is poured over, the disc transforms.

YAO: This is a tomato flower so it transforms from a flat disc into a tomato flavored flower shape.

GRABER: Gorgeous. But her point is, the chef came up with the best flavors to highlight this new flower shape.

TWILLEY: But, really, at the end of the day, if you’re worrying about which pasta to pair with which sauce, you’re overthinking it. Italians might tell you you’re wrong, but if you like your seafood sauce with penne, knock yourself out. Tell them you have Massimo Ratti’s blessing.


GRABER: Massimo says make whatever shape you want, cook it, and eat it. Simple. There’s only one pasta sin that he will never forgive: don’t overcook it.


TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Maureen Fant, translator of The Encyclopedia of Pasta and author of Sauces and Shapes, to Jacob Kenedy, co-author of The Geometry of Pasta, and to Lining Yao, creator of shape-shifting pasta. We have links to their books and restaurants and to learn more about their work, including a cool video of Lining’s pasta, on our website at

GRABER: Thanks also to Trattoria Anna Maria in Bologna and to Massimo Ratti at Ponte Rosso Ristorante and most especially to Toni Mazzaglia who introduced us to them and translated for us. Take Toni’s food tours—

TWILLEY: Links and photos on our website, including amazing video of the tortellini making process.


TWILLEY: As always, we’re back in two weeks’ time with a brand new episode that is … well, I’ll just say it’s spicy!

Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale

It's one of food's most beautiful relationships: pasta and sauce. But which came first—and how on Earth are you supposed to figure out which of those hundreds of shapes to serve with your pesto? With Valentine's Day round the corner, we bring you the saucy—and occasionally scientific—history of an Italian staple. Listen in now as we take you from the very first mention of "a food of flour and water," served "in the form of strings," to the cutting-edge shape-shifting pasta of tomorrow.


Secrets of Sourdough: TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Secrets of Sourdough, first released on December 19, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: That’s really good.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Really good. That’s good.

GRABER: One more—I know, I just need one more little bit.

TWILLEY: Just one more piece.

GRABER: I’ll join you in that.

TWILLEY: How can I not? It’s so good.

GRABER: It’s so warm and yummy. I’m going to taste some of this. Mmmm, Nicky—hot pita with garlic butter?

TWILLEY: Welcome to an episode of carb lovers anonymous!

GRABER: Not so anonymous. Nicky, they know who we are. I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this is actually Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. And Cynthia and I are the not-so-anonymous carb lovers.

GRABER: We spent three days in Belgium with two scientists and more than a dozen bakers. We were in theory investigating a deep scientific question about bread—but actually

TWILLEY: We were eating our body weight in bread. And Belgian waffles.

GRABER: Nicky, I still am not sure I can forgive you for encouraging me to eat that second hot Liege waffle—I felt a little sick afterwards—but it was frigging amazing.

TWILLEY: Listeners, I ask you: was that a bad thing that I did? No. When in Belgium, eat the Liege waffles.

GRABER: But you’re not here to find out how many pieces and what types of bread we gorged ourselves on in a 72-hour period. You want to know what we wanted to know: all about sourdough. In fact, many of you have written us emails asking us to do this very episode. For instance, listener Alex Freedman, who lives nearby in Somerville but grew up in San Francisco, wanted to know about the history of sourdough. Alex, we’re on it.

TWILLEY: Listener Danae Garriga is northern Illinois requested an episode devoted to sourdough starters. As a baker, she’d read about wild yeasts and how the environment the starter is made in affects the microbes in it. And she wanted to know, if she gave some of her sourdough starter to a friend, would the microbes in that starter change? Danae: exciting news, that is exactly what we went to Belgium to figure out, in the world’s most delicious science experiment. In fact, we have the world exclusive scoop on this brand new research!

GRABER: It’s true, we tagged along with scientists at the cutting edge of sourdough. The question they were trying to answer is: those microbes that make up your wild sourdough starter, where do they come from?

TWILLEY: Is it from the water, like so many people—especially in San Francisco—believe? Is it from the baker or the bakery?

GRABER: Or is it from the flour?

TWILLEY: This was a gigantic scientific mystery. Up till now.

GRABER: We are going to take you along to Belgium with us on this path of scientific sourdough discovery. But a quick note, if you’re a regular listener, you know we have a Gastropod drinking game: we say microbes, you yell, “drink!” and then, you know, do so. If you do that this episode, you’ll be drunk. Really fast.



GRABER: This summer, Nicky and I traveled to a remote corner of Belgium. We were visiting the headquarters of Puratos, one of the world’s biggest bakery ingredients companies. They’d invited more than a dozen bakers from more than a dozen different countries to participate in a science experiment.

PAUL BARKER: Hi, my name’s Paul Barker and I’m from the U.K.

CHRISTOPH VÖCKING: My name is Christoph Vöcking, I’m from Germany.

JOSEY BAKER: My name is Josey Baker, and I’m from America.

STAVROS EVANGELOU: Hello, my name is Stavros, I speak English not good.

HAKAN DOGAN: I am Hakan, I’m from Turkey.

LETICIA VILCHIS: I am from Mexico. I am a baker too.

TWILLEY: And then there were also two scientists: Anne Madden and Rob Dunn. They work together in Rob’s lab at North Carolina State University. And they were meeting all these bakers for the first time too—to introduce the experiment.

ROB DUNN: We know that when you make a sourdough, the species and strains of microbes in that starter, they influence the nutrition of that bread, they influence the flavor of that bread. They influence every part of the bread. And yet it’s still pretty mysterious what determines which of those microbes are originally in your starter.

GRABER: Rob and Ann are microbiologists. They’ve been studying communities of microbes in all sorts of places—your bellybutton, your showerhead…

DUNN: And we’ve worked on microbes for a long time and often the responses is repulsion, like oh gross, there are microbes in my house.

ANNE MADDEN: When you talk to people about bacteria that might be in their bathroom it’s ugh, ugh, please stop talking, please don’t tell me any more. I don’t want to know. But when you talk to people about the microorganisms in their sourdough, it’s like, what did my children do? This is lovely. Like, can we put it on the refrigerator? Are there pictures? I love the response.

DUNN: And this was this one little niche where people seemed to gather around the idea that this was a beautiful kind of microbe, that there was something wondrous about them.

TWILLEY: And there really is something wondrous about a sourdough starter. It’s a community of wild microbes that somehow, miraculously, makes bread rise.

GRABER: And you need something to make the bread rise, because otherwise, if you mix flour and water and bake it together, you get matzah. Or, you know, a cracker. Hard and flat.

TWILLEY: Today, if I’m a baker and I want to make my bread rise, I can just go to the store and buy some baker’s yeast. Baker’s yeast is precisely one microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but it does the trick.

GRABER: But bakers have been making leavened bread in an oven—bread that puffed up and got soft like ours does today—people have been baking that for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians made bread.

KARL DE SMEDT: So our question was okay, so where did the Egyptians bought their yeast? Because to make bread you need flour, water, salt, yeast. So where did they bought their yeast? They didn’t. It was there.

TWILLEY: This is Karl de Smedt. He’s the communications and training manager at Puratos, and, for this experiment, he was the one in charge of wrangling the bakers. And before we got started on the science, he dropped some sourdough history on the group.

GRABER: Nobody knows exactly where and when sourdough bread was first invented. The earliest evidence we have for making bread comes from a site in Africa. Archaeologists have dated the remains of that bread to about a hundred thousand years ago. It was probably made from pounded sorghum and water and baked on a hot stone.

TWILLEY: We’re not sure whether that was a sourdough or not—but it may have been something like the injera that Ethiopians still eat today. That’s sort of spongy and bubbly, and those bubbles are created by a community of wild microbes, just like today’s sourdough.

GRABER: Basically, if you combine ground up grains—something like wheat—with water, and you forget about it and leave it alone, eventually it starts bubbling. And that’s because a bunch of different microbes, usually a combination of fungi like yeast and bacteria like Lactobacillus, they colonize the mixture and feed on the flour and that is both the start of beer, and a sourdough starter!

TWILLEY: There’s hot debate among historians about whether humans first figured this out because they were making booze, or making bread. I am on team beer, to be honest, but short of Cynthia finally inventing her time machine, we will probably never know. Either way, humans figured that this wild bubbly mix made their flatbreads into breads—the non-flat kind. These loaves of bread would all have been sourdoughs. There was no other way to make bread rise.

DE SMEDT: So for thousands of years sourdough was being used by each and every baker or person that would bake bread.

GRABER: And even before people knew what microbes were, they were already caring for these wild communities of bubbling beige gloop, feeding them with more flour and water to keep them alive and happy. They figured out that you only need to add a dollop of starter to your dough to leaven it, which means you can keep the same starter going for years and years—decades even—just by feeding it with flour and water and using a little bit of it every time you bake. It becomes like your own personalized wild leavening mix that you can keep alive and use it again and again and again.

TWILLEY: Other people developed variations on this approach. In ancient Greece, for example, Pliny the Elder describes people saving a piece of their dough from the previous day to raise their bread the next day.

GRABER: Pliny also reported that people in Gaul and Iberia, otherwise known as France and Spain, they would use the foam they’d skimmed from beer to produce what he called “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.” It’s the beer/bread question again—either way, it’s communities of microbes that grow on mashed-up grain-and-water mixes, and that have the power to both leaven bread and ferment sugar into alcohol.

TWILLEY: Over time, we figured out how to curate and stabilize these communities, so that they worked as expected, most of the time. Still, they were all a little different and a little finicky—my sour culture might make bread rise faster, yours might produce a better crumb, mine might all the sudden stop working.

GRABER: But these sour cultures were the only tool we had to bake leavened bread. And then everything changed.

DE SMEDT: And with the discovery of the microscope, with some research done by scientists, actually with Louis Pasteur, who wrote this Memoire sur la Fermentation Alcoolique, who opened actually the production of commercial baker’s yeast.

TWILLEY: It was two Hungarian born brothers, Charles and Max Fleischman, who first commercialized Pasteur’s insight. They started selling baker’s yeast—fresh yeast, sold in little cakes.

DE SMEDT: And it was such a convenient product that bakers embraced it with open arms. They all started to switch from that very inconsistent, complicated, long process that is sourdough towards something that is very precise, very accurate, very fast, very reliable, that’s called yeast. And so, in 150 years, bakers switched completely.

TWILLEY: Like I said, commercial baker’s yeast is just one microbe, not a community. Which has both pros and cons.

DUNN: So, commercial yeast is super boring, right. So nobody ever thought Saccharomyces cerevisiae, this baker’s yeast, was the most flavorful, that it had the best effect on the bread. We just thought you could make a ton of bread really quickly.

GRABER: Because not only is it a single yeast that you can buy whenever you need some, and that doesn’t need feeding or watering or loving care, but it also makes your dough rise a lot faster than that sourdough starter you’ve been keeping alive. By the 1960s, boring commercial baker’s yeast was available as shelf-stable granules in little packets. And, by then, bakers had also invented industrial processes that sped up the whole rising and baking process to just over three hours.

TWILLEY: This  bread—the bread of 1960s, the bread of our parents—this was not good bread. Karl says the 1960s was bread’s nadir. Sourdough all but disappeared.

GRABER: The 1960s sucked for bread, commercially. But it was also the time of good bread’s rebirth. The country’s first Zen Buddhist monastery was created in California in the late 60s. It was called Tassajara. The monks there baked bread slowly as part of their spirituality. They saw bread as being alive.

TWILLEY: And a young Zen student named Edward Espe Brown, who lived and worked at Tassajara—he published a book collecting the monks’ recipes in 1970. It was super homemade and hippie—the cover is made of brown paper, it was published in a tiny edition by Shambhala Press, and Edward received the princely sum of $100. But it sold out immediately, and went into second and third and fourth printings. Making your own sourdough bread at home became part of the counterculture—and a way to eat healthier.

GRABER: At the same time, there was another group of people who thought that commercial bread kind of tasted like crap. They weren’t inspired by spirituality or health, but by flavor. Between them, these two groups helped create the sourdough revolution.

TWILLEY: This revolution took a while to spread. During Karl’s own training as a baker, he never set eyes on a sourdough. It wasn’t till he started working at Puratos, in 1994, that he first encountered it.

DE SMEDT: I’d been to one of the better bakery schools in Belgium and we never learned how to make sourdough. It’s just not part of the educational program. So it was a discovery. I had to take out a bucket of the fridge. It looked strange. It smelled strange. It was funny when you touched it—it was a bit sticky.

GRABER: But Karl is thrilled to say things have been changing for sourdough.

DE SMEDT: And we see now, the latest 20—25 years there is a revival of sourdough and we think we are at the beginning of something very nice that will come in the coming years where sourdough will again take its place in the bakeries that it deserves.

TWILLEY: With that sourdough revival came a renewed appreciation for the diversity of microbes in sourdough starters—and they are diverse. As we discovered.

DE SMEDT: Come closer, come closer, because something very special is going to happen. You have to realize that what we have here is probably the most unique place in the bakery world.

GRABER: Karl led the group up the stairs and to a closed door.

DE SMEDT: Ready? Keep your eyes on the door, let’s go for some magic. Three, two, one…

BAKERS: Whoa! Ahhhh!

TWILLEY: And with that, we stepped inside the world’s one and only sourdough starter library.

GRABER: It’s a library, yes, but instead of bookshelves, there are 12 illuminated refrigerators with glass doors so you can see the jars inside. Karl’s collected 93 different sourdough starters from 17 different countries. And they look totally different from one another.

DE SMEDT: Some are liquid and some are stiff. And then some are very dark. Some are speckled. Some are almost looking like crumble, because they’re so dry. So there’s a lot of colors—dark to brownish to yellow, and then the normal white ones.

TWILLEY: Karl took some of the jars out and allowed us to smell the starters. Some smelled fruity, some were acidic, some were biscuity, some were creamy.

DE SMEDT: The Chinese, for example, one of them is very meaty. When I open the jar, it’s like almost a sausage, very savory. Some are really very pungent, when I open the jar and smell, you really feel the acids go into your nose, and it’s like if you were to have a spoon of very heavy mustard, the Dijon mustard—that reaction.

GRABER: Karl’s goal with this collection is to preserve the communities of microbes that make each sourdough unique. But for Karl, it’s also really fun.

TWILLEY: Karl is the keeper of the sourdough library. He can’t sell these starters or even give them away. Each unique microbial community still belongs to the baker who donated that starter in the first place. But Karl feeds them and takes care of them. And sometimes he plays with them, too.

DE SMEDT: I do take home some sourdoughs and I do some experiements and, yes, I do bake with them. And I discover some other things. Sometimes the fermentation power is totally different.

TWILLEY: When Karl is feeding the starters he puts them in small plastic buckets.

DE SMEDT: Some of them they just blow away the lid of these things. And other ones are just very, very slowly rising, fermenting. So there’s really differences in fermentation power, in flavor, in aroma, in the way the dough is feeling when you touch the dough, it’s different. So yeah.

GRABER: Karl’s point is that these starters are all different from one another. And the library itself is also unique. Nobody’s ever tried to conserve communities of useful food microbes for the future.

TWILLEY: Walking around the library, looking at these spotlit jars in their glass refrigerator vitrines, you really see each sourdough starter as a distinct, individual, precious thing. But how different are they microbially, really? Who’s living in those jars?

DUNN: Sourdough, in terms of the number of species we know how to grow, is toward the simple end. Often you’ll have two to four culturable bacteria species and one yeast species. It’s very likely, although we don’t know, that there are also things that are hard to culture in the lab that are in those sourdoughs, that make it a little bit more complex. But it’s toward the simpler end in terms of numbers of species. It’s not simple though in as much as different sourdoughs seem very different. And so if you were to look around the world, how many different species could you find in all of the sourdoughs? That’s actually a much longer list. And so an individual sourdough: simpler. This big picture of sourdough is far more complex.

GRABER: As Rob is explaining, a sourdough starter is an interesting creature, or, really, creatures. You can have a community of just a handful of different microbes that works perfectly together—as Rob says, maybe two to four species of bacteria, maybe one kind of yeast, and it’ll work. It’ll make sourdough.

TWILLEY: But what’s also probably true is that your sourdough starter could contain an entirely different community than mine, and they’d both still make sourdough. And it’s that diversity—that huge world of bacteria and fungi that can collaborate to raise bread—that’s what Karl is trying to collect.

GRABER: His library, as unique and impressive as it is, is probably just the tip of the iceberg. And maintaining this library is a lot of work—it’s not just collecting samples and putting them behind glass.

TWILLEY: Any baker can tell you what a commitment it is to keep a sourdough starter alive.

BARKER: I always describe it, if you have a sour culture, it’s like having a pet or a child, yeah?

GRABER: Paul Barker owns a bakery just outside London called Cinnamon Square. And he has many sourdough pets.

BARKER: You have to look after it. If you don’t feed it, keep it warm, or whatever. So unless you look after it, it will spoil, it will eventually die on you. So it’s a commitment to having a sour culture .

TWILLEY: In fact, there are even specialized sourdough hotels, where you can send your sourdough starter to be looked after if you’re going on a super long trip. A sourdough starter is really much higher maintenance than commercial yeast, so why do bakers use it? We asked Paul.

BARKER: Firstly, because the sourdough gives you a much different type of bread: different textures, more digestible bread, more nutritional breads. So I like the fact that you can get a totally different product. And you can be so creative with a sourdough, more so than a yeasted bread. So you can actually do a lot more with the shape in the baking, the decorations, I think—because you can get more from it whereas a yeasted bread, a commercially yeasted bread, you are just expanding your dough and baking it.

GRABER: Commercial yeast, as Paul explained—it makes the bread puff up, but that’s it. Paul knows that the microbes in his starter are giving him a different dough. It often has the right type of texture to allow him to play around more with the shape of his loaves. But what are those microbes actually doing to create these differences, and how are they doing it?

DUNN: So the microbes in the starter are starting to break down some of the hard-to-break-down things in the grain that you’ve given them to eat. And they are beginning to produce these gases that we think of as some of the really important flavors in the bread. But, as they metabolize the grains, they’re also also altering the structure of the carbohydrates that are present, which then is going to alter the nutrition of the carbohydrates, it’s going to alter the outside of the bread.

TWILLEY: As Paul has noticed and as Rob just explained, microbes improve the texture and the nutrition and even the look of the final loaf. They can even produce extra vitamins. But they also shape its final flavor—you can literally taste the difference between bread from different starter communities.

DUNN: And so butteriness—a lot of butteriness comes from which microbes are in your starter. The kind of sourness you have—how lactic it is versus how acetic it is—that comes from which microbes are in the starter.

TWILLEY: Rob told us that some sourdough bread has a particular gooey, melt-in-your-mouth feel that comes from a chemical called dextran, which is produced by a bacteria called Weissella. Weissella lives in some sourdough starters, but not in others.

GRABER: So: microbes are munching away on the flour, excreting things like buttery flavored lactic acid and yeasty farts that puff up bread. That much we know. But Rob and his fellow microbiologists don’t understand how all this microbial munching and excreting creates the differences between different finished loaves of sourdough.

DUNN: And the further you get down that chain of events, the less we understand about the mechanics of how all of that is happening. But what we do know is that all of the things that could influence those final flavors, final texture, final nutrition are things that we think of as predominantly microbial.

TWILLEY: So we don’t know. We really don’t know how the microbes are working their magic. We don’t even where they come from in the first place. But Rob wants to know. And so did we. And hence this giant 3-day experiment in Belgium. Which we have the exclusive first results from after the break.


TWILLEY: Back to Belgium. Where we are about to conduct an epic baking experiment in order to figure where the microbes that are in a sourdough starter actually come from in the first place.

DUNN: So, in order to make a starter, you take a simple set of ingredients and you expose them to open air and to your body and to your home, and it starts to grow. It’s like making a garden without ever planting the actual seeds. The mystery to me is: what determines which life forms are growing in that garden? And so that’s the fundamental mystery: why is your garden different from my garden when we use the same things to start with?

GRABER: Many bakers think they know the answer to this mystery.

VILCHIS: I think is flour. But the hands of the bakery is very important too to the results.

BAKER: I think it’s probably a combination of all of the variables.

MARCUS MARIATHAS: It’s mostly, in my opinion, the reaction within the flour and water. That’s where it starts.

BARKER: I would assume the environment is going to play a part in it as well. Because it’s going to be a lot of cross contamination in bakery from different flours anyway and you can end up with different types of sours.

MADDEN: I feel like every baker we talk to has a different assertion about where the microorganisms from that sourdough starter came from. Some people are very clear: it’s likely coming from the flour. If I use a different flour, I’ll have a different sourdough starter and a different sourdough starter must be different microorganisms. Some people have suggested that it’s the water. That’s why San Francisco sourdough is San Francisco sourdough and you can never make it in New York. There are claims about it being in the wood of buildings.

DUNN: What I like about this project is that as scientists we have not had to come up with our hypotheses because the community of sourdough makers has provided us with the longest possible list of what they might be.

TWILLEY: From that long list there are four main hypotheses: that the microbes that make each sourdough starter unique and individual come from (a) the wheat, (b) the water, (c) the environment, and (d) the baker themselves.

GRABER: Rob says we know that there are different microbes on different grains. Even within the same grain, there are different microbes on different strains of wheat—different heritage varieties, for example. Or wheat that is grown in different ways, like organic wheat. And then, even on the same plant, you can find different microbes in the germ of the grain versus the endosperm. The endosperm is what millers use to make white flour. So this means that whole wheat flour has different microbes than white flour does. Rob says these all these variables in the flour itself could certainly be influencing the sourdough starters.

TWILLEY: Then there’s the hypothesis (b), the water.

DUNN: Water can conceivably kill things in the starter. It’s unlikely to be adding things to the starter because we have a pretty good list of what lives in water. I think people are surprised often that all water they ever drink, even bottled water, has microbes in it, but they’re not the kinds of microbes we characteristically see in sourdough.

TWILLEY: In other words, Rob is saying that the water might prune particular microbes out of a sourdough starter garden, but it’s unlikely to be contributing any new microbes itself.

DUNN: The other thing though that that can then contribute to the starter is what falls from the air into the starter.

GRABER: This is hypothesis (c), the environment around you as you make the starter. Rob says that plants might have a particularly strong impact, because of the insects they attract and the microbes on those insects.

TWILLEY: And then there’s just the bacteria that are swirling around in the dust and air. Some of those come from pets, if you have pets. The majority of them, usually, come from your own skin and the skin of the people you live with.

GRABER: And finally, hypothesis (d), the baker.

TWILLEY: Specifically, the microbes living on the baker’s skin.

DUNN: We can think of many ways that microbes differ from one person to another person.

TWILLEY: For example, there’s that gene that determines whether you have sticky or dry earwax.

DUNN: And depending on which version of that gene you have, your skin microbes in your armpits, but also around your body more generally, are super different.

GRABER: There are also microbes on your skin that don’t live on your skin. They get there when you touch parts of your body that have other microbial communities. Like your gut microbes.

DUNN: And then we know that human women and human men differ greatly in microbes because of vaginal microbes. And so women have way more Lactobacillus in general, but especially in vaginal communities, and those sort of travel around through the day-to-day business of being a human.

TWILLEY: These vaginal microbes are particularly interesting because Lactobacillus is a key part of most sourdough starter communities.

DUNN: Yes. So, in some cultures, sourdough is mostly or exclusively something that women bake. And to me it’s really intriguing to think about does that have something to do about the unique sourdough community that emerges when women make sourdough versus when men make sourdough.

GRABER: This three-day Belgium adventure, the experiment we’re watching unfold—it’s designed to try to tease out where the microbes in the sourdough come from. A, B, C, or D.

TWILLEY: To be precise, it’s designed to isolate two variables from these four possible sources for the microbes in sourdough—the microbes on the different baker’s hands and in their environment. Those are the variables.

MADDEN: They were shipped the ingredients, they were given the same protocol, the same recipe.

GRABER: That is, these bakers were shipped exactly the same flour. Not the water, because based on the existing research, Anne and Rob don’t think the microbes in water plays a big role.

TWILLEY: Anne and Rob cultured the microbes out of that flour, so they already have a list of the microbes that are being contributed to the starter from the wheat.

GRABER: Like Anne said, the bakers were given very specific instructions about exactly how much flour and water to use and exactly how long to ferment their starters. The goal is to make this all as controlled as possible.

TWILLEY: So all these bakers, men and women, in different parts of the world, they all made their sourdough starter using the same flour according the same protocol. And then they put their starters in a baggie and they brought it with them to Belgium

MADDEN: And that was a really fun part, when we got to open them all up and they’re coming in and some of them smell like vinegar and some of them smell more like yogurt and some of them smell creamy.

GRABER: As soon as the bakers arrived, Anne and Rob opened packages of sterile swabs, like super long Q-tips, to get samples of those rich microbial communities in the starters.

MADDEN: Just one double swab per.

GRABER: Then we took a break from the science. We all introduced ourselves and met each other, and everyone talked bread.

TWILLEY: The final part of the experiment that day was refreshing the starters, according to the protocol.

BAKER: I’m going to put my starter in this bowl, first of all dilute it with the water, and then add the flour on top, mix it, put it back in here, and then we’ll wait until tomorrow.

GRABER: And that’s it?

BAKER: And that’s it.

TWILLEY: And then we all ate dinner together accompanied by lots of bread, and day 1 of the experiment was over.

GRABER: First up day 2? After breakfast featuring lots of bread, we got to everyone’s not-so-favorite part—getting swabbed to find out what microbes live on their skin.

TWILLEY: Paul from London was up first.

MADDEN: Now, I’m going to be swabbing your hands, and I’m going to ask that put your hands out just in a way that I can apply some pressure. And I’m going to spend a few seconds.


MADDEN: Just going over the front and then I’m going to ask you to flip and then I’ll do the back. And if we could not talk over the swab when it’s out so that we can not introduce some of our oral microbes.


MADDEN: Thank you.

TWILLEY: Anne was swabbing the baker’s hands because if any microbes are going from a baker’s body into their sourdough starter, they are probably getting in there via their hands.

DUNN: You know it will be wonderful in some future version to you know top-to-bottom swab all these bakers and really start to tease out, you know, which body part is really contributing. But we had to start somewhere and so we started with the hand connection.

GRABER: In case you’re getting a little grossed out, don’t worry. The bakers do wash their hands. And they should wash their hands. Anne made sure to emphasize that. Even after you wash your hands though, there are still microbes on them. They’re everywhere.

TWILLEY: So, next step: after their hands were swabbed, the bakers were allowed back into the test kitchen to be reunited with their starters. Which they could hardly wait. It was like parents at the kindergarten gate. But before they could be fully reunited, the starters all had to be tested with some cool science gear, to find out their pH and their organic acid content.

TWILLEY: Once again, the sourdough starters all looked—and smelled—completely different.

KASPER HANSEN: My sourdough is called Danish Dynamite.

GRABER: That’s right, Danish Dynamite.

CASPER: So a lot of activity inside. So, as you can see, up side of the glass here.

TWILLEY: It was like looking at baby photos, I’m not kidding. Everyone thought theirs was the prettiest of all.

GRABER: You’re smelling your sourdough?

TOMMASO RIZZO: Smell is buttermilk—smell, taste, aroma.

GRABER: Can I smell? Mmm, yeah, it’s got a little sweet. The bakers made their bread and left it to proof overnight. And, as that official science-experiment bread was rising, the bakers were set free in the test kitchen to let their pent-up creativity run wild.

TWILLEY: And they went to town. Hakan made this crazy Turkish bread that had lots of melted cheese and a cracked egg on it. Leticia, the Mexican baker, she was putting cocoa and raisins into a sourdough loaf. Someone made pita bread.

GRABER: I’m going to taste some of this. Mmm. Nicky, hot pita with garlic butter? It’s really good.

TWILLEY: It’s really good. That’s good. So look, let me do this.

GRABER: Mmm, the smell.

TWILLEY: I’m squeezing the bread like it’s a bellows on an accordion or something. Or trying to light a fire. This is what I’m doing.

GRABER: That smells amazing. It’s like as you squeeze the dough the scents in the air pockets just, like, get blown right at your face.

TWILLEY: So I stood here. Stavros, like, pumped the bread in my nose, and Vassilis was like “This is sourdough.” We sniffed bread and we ate bread, and then we ate more bread.

GRABER: And then we ate dinner. Which also had some bread.

TWILLEY: And then we rose bright and early on the third day, had some bread for breakfast, and went back into the kitchen to bake the science-experiment bread. But… there was some tension.

GRABER: Tommaso, for one—he’s from Italy—he didn’t want to put his bread in the oven when everyone was told it was oven time. He said the dough wasn’t ready for baking—it hadn’t risen enough. Rob whispered to us that he and Anne were having a hard time making sure that all the bakers kept to the scientific protocol.

DUNN: Yeah. So we’re thinking about it right now. There’s a tension between what people view as counting as a bread. And, uh, what we want.

TWILLEY: Tommaso was overruled. In the nicest possible way. And all the bakers’ dough went in the oven at the same time. And the same way that their starters had looked and smelled really different, despite having been made from the same flour using the same instructions, the dough looked really different as it went into the oven, too.

GRABER: You could see some really big air bubbles in some and none in others. Some rose a third of the way up to the tops of the baskets, some rose all the way to the top. Some were super bubbly on top, some were shiny and smooth. And then the bread came out of the oven.

GRABER: Oh. Those are pretty. (OVEN DOOR CLOSING)

TWILLEY: Some of the bakers were happy and some were not. So these are Tom’s, you like the look of them?

WALTER: I like them. Because when it’s cracking open, you see black line. And Karl calls it eyeliner—so we have to bake it so—eyeliner on the bread.

TWILLEY: And eyeliner is a good thing, right?

WALTER: Yeah, yeah.

GRABER: I learned something new—I never knew bread should have eyeliner on it. It’s basically the nice, dark, cracked edge you see at the top of the loaf. Tom’s loaf had really lovely eyeliner.

TWILLEY: This has a lot of nice fish eyes or blisters.

GRABER: Little bubbly blisters on the cooked crust are another sign of a great sourdough. But some loaves didn’t look as good. Like Paul’s. And this one doesn’t look like it did very much over here, it didn’t even crack.

TWILLEY: Which are yours?

BARKER: The ones that are looking very sad at the back. The two behind this one here.

GRABER: No, they’re not very…


TWILLEY: And then, as soon as it was cool enough, all of the loaves were sliced in giant bread-slicing machines. And the bakers were asked to evaluate a slice from each loaf. They had to assess its appearance, its smell, and, of course, the way it tasted.

TOM REES: So we’ve got kind of two different colors, I see already. One which is a bit grayer, and one which is a bit more yellowy, creamy color.

TWILLEY: And is that reflected in differences of smell too?

REES: Yeah, so the greyer ones—the greyer ones have less of an acidic aroma

BARKER: Some are creamy and some have gone kind of more reddy, kind of browny, sort of hints. So there was a distinct difference in the color, which is quite interesting. I wouldn’t have expected that considering we are all using the same flour, the same ratios of ingredients.

BAKER: Like the one of Guillermo is dense and stronger, and from Tom, it’s very fragile and very open. But the taste and smell is about the same.

VILCHIS: For example, Hakan is very very similar to Kasper. I think is the same bread. Incredible. Paul is the same than Guillermo.

HANSEN: It’s much more like wheat—not so fruity. Hakan and Tom, taste more—have more acid taste.

DUNN: And so in this case we know that all those differences from bread to bread are really microbial.

GRABER: But it might not actually be because the starter contained different microbes. The exact same microbes can create different smells and tastes just based on the temperature that they grow in, for instance. So these results, that the breads smell and taste different? Could just be because the temperature in London is different from Guadalajara.

TWILLEY: Sensory evaluation was not enough to answer this question. Instead, Rob and Anne had to take to their swab samples back to the lab and analye them.

GRABER: A few months later, we called Rob up to find out how it all went. (PHONE RINGING) Hey Rob! So Belgium ended. You packed up to go home. How did you feel?

DUNN: I felt super full.

GRABER: I felt really full, too, just so you know.

TWILLEY: I was never going to eat bread again. And then I did.

DUNN: No, I’m ready for more bread to be honest. There’s been time.

TWILLEY: Science takes time, but this science took a little bit longer than Rob wanted because his samples—the swabs from the bakers’ hands and the sourdoughs starters—they got held hostage in Belgium. Trying to get these kinds of biological materials across borders can be tricky. Rob is a patient man, but even he was getting a little frustrated.

DUNN: And then, amazingly, just last week, we got the first results from that decoding of DNA.

GRABER: Rob, Anne, and their whole team spent a day just marveling at the data and poking around. They were trying to figure out if they could make any sense of the data just by looking at it. Which, of course, they couldn’t.

DUNN: But then eventually we started to formally analyze what’s going on with the patterns of the data and that’s where it starts to get interesting. And so the first one of those analyses happened on Friday and the second one happened about two hours ago.

TWILLEY: So tell us! What did you find?

DUNN: Well, the first thing last week was a result we weren’t looking for, we didn’t anticipate. And I had no idea it was even possible.

GRABER: It’s about the bakers’ hands. Normal hands usually have Staphylococcus, and some armpit microbes, some bacteria that are the same as acne bacteria, maybe some random bacteria from things you’ve touched recently.

DUNN: When we looked at the bakers’ hands, their skin bacteria on their hands was about half sourdough bacteria. And so they, like, have sourdough paws.

TWILLEY: Sourdough paws!

DUNN: We’ve looked at zillions of hands. We’ve never seen anything like this. And so the first result is that the bakers themselves have changed in response to their occupation.

TWILLEY: Normal hands like mine and Cynthia’s and Rob’s—they are something like 2 to 4 percent Lactobacillus.

DUNN: On the hands of the bakers, it is like it’s the star of the show. It’s wild. I mean, if it’s right, you should be able to put flour and water on a baker’s hand and it should start to ferment immediately and become acidic.

GRABER: Working with sourdough has entirely changed the microbial environment on the bakers’ skin. They’ve been colonized by their pets! Rob wonders if the bakers spend so much time with their hands in acidic dough that the sourdough Lactobacillus microbes end up with a competitive advantage over normal skin microbes.

TWILLEY: So that is weird. But it’s not what Rob and Anne set out to find. What they were trying to understand from this 3-day Belgian breadfest is whether the microbes in the sourdough starter come from bakers’ hands—not whether bakers’ hands are somehow different from normal hands.

DUNN: So what we saw two hours’ ago was that there’s a group of bakers that has very different sourdoughs, and the unusual microbes in those sourdoughs are also on their hands.

GRABER: One question answered. The bakers who have weird bacteria on their hand have the same weird bacteria in their sourdough. There is a connection. Individual bakers do indeed seem to influence their starters. But so, does this difference influence the flavor of the resulting bread? Rob doesn’t know, he hasn’t done that research yet, but he has a hunch.

DUNN: I predict that second group has more unusual flavors. And we should be able to capture that. We’ll see.

TWILLEY: Stay tuned. Meanwhile, what Rob and Anne have done is sit down and compare the list of microbes that were in the flour and the list of microbes that were on the hands and the list of microbes that were in the starters.

DUNN: We get a total of about 193 kinds of bacteria in the sourdoughs. which is a lot more than the bakers tend to think is there, which is interesting in and of itself. Something like 80 of those are also found on hands. And roughly the same number seems to be found in the flour. And there’s overlap between the flour and the hands. We saw almost nothing in the water, so they’re probably not coming from the water.

TWILLEY: But they did see some microbes that weren’t accounted for, that were not from the hands or the flour. They were maybe microbes that were just floating around in an individual baker’s kitchen.

DUNN: Yeah, they could come from a leaf outside the bakery. It could come from a bowl or a spoon. But it’s not so surprising that we haven’t found where all those microbes are coming from—and, in some ways, that leaves the bakers some magic. Where does the stuff we’ve not measured yet coming from? Just magic. You guys can keep that.

GRABER: Rob also told us another new finding that totally contradicts what he told us back in Belgium, earlier this episode. Remember how he said that sourdough starters have three or four species of bacteria and maybe one species of yeast? Rob says based on these new samples he’s seeing ten species of bacteria in the average sourdough starter and maybe three species of yeast.

DUNN: We now have enough data to say that I was wrong when I was describing the simplicity of the starters. Which also means the whole literature is wrong.

TWILLEY: Folks, this is science in action. We think we know things, like about how many species of microbes live in a sourdough starter, and then we do some research and discover we don’t. But Rob pointed out that sourdough starters are still not particularly complex in microbe terms.

DUNN: And so part of the story that’s super fascinating to me is, you put out flour and water, all around the world, and somehow you can create a very similar ecosystem out of what for bacteria and fungi is a relatively small number of species. If you put out sterile soil in this many sites globally, you’d be looking at 20,000 species. And so, on the one hand, the individual starters are more diverse than we tend to think. On the other hand, that global picture is actually a lot simpler. So that was really interesting.

GRABER: Rob and Anne and their collaborators have really only just begun analyzing this data. Over the next six months, they’re going to be figuring out what types of compounds each species of bacteria can produce—not necessarily that they’re actually making those compounds in the starters, but that they can.

TWILLEY: And then they’re going to match those compounds to their possible effects in bread—different flavors, different textures, different nutritional values.

DUNN: The other part is we’ve barely touched the fungal data. And so that will mean we’ll be spending a fair amount of time on that even this coming week.

TWILLEY: So there’s much still to be done with just the data from our Great Belgian Bake Off. But there’s also just more sourdough research to be done in general. Our Belgian breadfest was only one of the sourdough experiments Rob and Anne have got going on the lab right now.

GRABER: They’ve already gotten about a thousand people from around the world to send in their sourdough starters. Rob and Anne want to get a big picture of sourdough diversity. They’re hoping to see patterns, like whether some species are more common in some areas of the world. And they’re already starting to see some results.

TWILLEY: Rob told us that, in terms of bacteria, there seems to be a shared sort of pool that colonizes grain and water mixtures all around the globe. In other words, the same bacteria are pretty much everywhere and then which end up in which starter seems to depend mostly on the flour and the baker, as we just learned.

GRABER: But they are seeing a little bit of geographic variation with bacteria. Some bacteria tend to live in more northerly Scandinvanian countries, for instance. That’s not the only anomaly.

DUNN: There’s a little bit of a hint so far that maybe France is kind of special.

GRABER: France is special.

DUNN: But the fungi we’re seeing globally have a lot of geography. And so there’s one one kind of yeast—a kind of fungus—that we’ve basically only seen in Australian starters. We know that the yeast can do a lot in terms of flavors and aromas. If that unusual yeast is playing a big role, then there could be a flavor that you could only actually savor when you’re in Australia. And we don’t know that yet. That’s a fun idea.

TWILLEY: Sourdough tourism is going to become a thing, just wait and see.

GRABER: One of the things Rob and Anne are going to do over the next year is bake some bread from these thousand starters that they received. That way they can start to assess flavor while controlling for the other ingredients. The ultimate goal is to arrive at microbial recipes for sourdough deliciousness.

DUNN: Once we do that, that will be the hope—that there is some mix that really gives you the perfect butteriness or the sourest souriness. Is souriness a word? I don’t know.

GRABER: Rob and Anne are also working with colleagues to tease out the evolutionary history of sourdough. They’re going to be working out how microbes in starters change over time. So, eventually, they’ll be able to tell you, if you’re using your great-grandma’s starter, are those your great-grandma’s microbes? Or, as listener Danae asked, if she gives her sourdough starter to a friend, will it change—and if does, how quickly?

TWILLEY: So there’s still tons to figure out about sourdough, but Rob is on it. And we’ll keep you posted as his results come in. It’s super exciting research. Not just because we love microbes.

GRABER: A round of applause if you haven’t keeled over yet from taking a shot every time we say microbes!

TWILLEY: We do love microbes, But we also love this research because it points the way to a future of even more delicious bread!

MADDEN: And so I think the question is the next step, which is: What microorganisms create what flavors and aromas and traits in bread that we want. And then we can start tracking down what microorganisms might be leading to those traits. And so you can imagine a future where you could think about the kind of bread you want. Maybe I want it to be crusty and kind of chewy with fruity notes. And by having that choice of bread, there’ll be a list of species that will work together to create that. So you’ll have a designer sourdough.


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for supporting our reporting on biomedical research.

GRABER: Thanks also to some of our Supreme Fan level Patreon supporters: Andy Allen, Lori Schultz, Justin So, Robert Wells, Alex Sol Watts, Eric Schmidt, Corinne Lewis, David Kohn, Matt Rooney. We cannot thank you enough for your generosity in helping keep Gastropod going.

TWILLEY: And a big thank you to Puratos, who hosted this experiment but also hosted Cynthia and me in Belgium. We have photos and links to Karl’s magical Sourdough Library on our website,

GRABER: Thanks so much to Rob Dunn and Anne Madden for letting us follow them around for three days and try not to get in the way of all their swabs.

TWILLEY: And thanks also to the lovely bakers, who couldn’t have been more of a fun group to hang out with while doing some cutting-edge science. And some competitive-level eating.

GRABER: We are going on a brief break over the holidays. But we’ll back in 2018. We have an amazing season lined up for you. If you’re on our sustaining supporters list, you’ll get a sneak peak at what’s coming up. Thanks to all of you who listen, who support the show, who write in, who take part in our Shareathon—we do this for you, and we couldn’t do it without you!
crumbs to try to identify their microbes. Could those microbes be the same as the ones in sourdough today?


Women, Food, Power … and Books! TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Women, Food, Power … and Books!, first released on November 21, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

ANGELA SAINI: There are communities in the world in which women hunt the way that men hunt. For example, the Martu tribes, Aboriginal tribes in Australia, women hunt for sport. They hunt feral cats for sport. The Nanadukan Agta in the Philippines, which, sadly, that community has pretty much disappeared now. But in that community women hunted routinely just the way that men did, the same things that men did. So it’s not the case that hunting was always the male preserve.

CYNTHIA GRABER: I am so excited that we’re having Angela Saini on the show—that’s Angela’s voice you just heard, telling us that women hunt. Not only is she my friend, but she wrote an absolutely fantastic new book.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Which we are going to talk to her about. And then we’re going to talk to the author of another great new book. And both books are about women and food and power.

GRABER: And either or both of these books would make fabulous holiday gifts! This is our version of a holiday recommendation episode. Buy these books! After you listen to the show.

TWILLEY: And the show, for those of you who stumbled upon us by accident, is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this week, we’re first heading back thousands and thousands of years in evolutionary history with Angela to try to understand what role those early women played in feeding their families and their communities. And why we should care about that today.

TWILLEY: And then we’re bringing women’s relationship with food up to date—or at least into the twentieth-century—with a look at what food can tell us about Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as how food signals class and shapes gender dynamics on both sides of the pond. Plus, Cynthia learns about the Twiglet.



TWILLEY: Back to Angela.

ANGELA SAINI: I am a science journalist based in London and my book is called Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.

GRABER: Angela’s book takes a really big-picture look at how science has interpreted women and the biological differences between men and women, and how science has gotten both the biology and the differences wrong.

TWILLEY: So let’s take a step back in time. Not thousands of years—just back to April 1966 at the University of Chicago.

SAINI: So this is when a conference happened and it was titled “Man, the Hunter.”

GRABER: This conference was a huge deal. The biggest names in anthropology were all there. And they were discussing what has been called “the hunting hypothesis.”

SAINI: At that time in history, anthropologists and scientists—I think everybody, probably—thought of hunting as a male activity, almost exclusively a male activity. I think that’s probably reflected in The Flintstones. When we watch The Flintstones, we imagine this is how life always was, that, you know, the man went out and brought home the bacon, and the woman stayed at home and looked after the children and made the house pretty. And this conference kind of reflected that.

TWILLEY: The implications of this hunting hypothesis go well beyond just who got to use the bows and arrows.

SAINI: It was argued, and this was quite accepted wisdom at the time, that hunting by men is what drove a lot of the traits that we think of as higher human traits. So intelligence, creativity, cooperation—all of these things were important because men were hunting. And women really got left out of the story because, obviously, people assumed they weren’t the ones doing the hunting. So they didn’t really matter. But by corollary, obviously, it makes perfect sense that they were saying them that women weren’t contributing to higher human intelligence and creativity and cooperation.

GRABER: Like Angela says, the belief was that male cooperation during hunting drove creativity and it even ultimately led to the invention of human language. And this hunting theory also led to the idea that men invented technology, because men invented hunting tools.

TWILLEY: In other words, men had been responsible for the invention of everything: intelligence, technology, language, and culture

GRABER: But women in the field weren’t fans of this theory.

SAINI: I don’t know how it was—what the feeling was like at the conference itself. I really wish I could have been there. But very shortly afterwards women started asking, what is going on? What the hell are these people saying? They’re kind of airbrushing women out of evolutionary history, all those thousands and thousands of years and women don’t feature. What were the women doing while the men were out hunting? An anthropologist called Sally Linton wrote a paper about this, asking the vital question: What were women doing? And, actually, have they got it wrong?

TWILLEY: And it wasn’t long before these scientists pointed out some major holes in this “man the hunter” hypothesis. For one thing, people started to argue that hunting tools—flint arrowheads, stone tools—these weren’t actually conclusive evidence that men were the original inventors

SAINI: Well, very often if we look at the archeological records, what survives? It’s things like stone tools, flint tools, the kind of tools used in hunting. But actually again, if you look at hunter gatherer societies, some of the most common tools that you see are slings. And very often these are used by women. So women use slings to carry their babies, to carry food and provisions that they’ve hunted or foraged for, on their backs. So it’s possible, and an argument has been made by some anthropologists, that the sling was the very first invention and it was likely to have been a female invention.

GRABER: There’s another tool that’s often used by women, and sometimes by men, in hunter-gatherer societies today. It’s a digging stick. It’s used for digging roots and tubers, or for killing small animals.

SAINI: Now what the sling and the digging stick have in common is that they don’t remain in the fossil record because they’re made of wood and fabric, so they don’t survive. So we don’t have records of them anymore. All we have is what we see hunter gatherers using. We have to assume that they must have used them many thousands of years ago and they probably did, and they were probably the first inventions.

TWILLEY: So that’s one argument in response to this “man the hunter” thesis—that women had not only provided food but also invented tools, maybe the earliest tools. But there was no evidence left.

GRABER: There’s another hole in the “man-the-hunter-invented-everything” theory, and that’s hidden in our brains. Because men and women’s brains are actually really similar.

SAINI: There are no gaps at all in average IQ. Even on things like spatial awareness, which we think of as a predominantly male quality, that men are better at spatial awareness or mathematical reasoning. We, again, in very big studies don’t see big gaps there. So the fact that our brains aren’t very different suggests that we evolved in very similar ways—that we couldn’t have done very different things because we weren’t designed to do very different things.

TWILLEY: And then there’s the nail in the coffin of this theory that men were the hunters and invented everything because they provided all the food. It turns out that men probably didn’t provide all the food.

SAINI: When people went out and studied hunter gatherers and other communities that live the way we might have once lived many millennia ago, before the advent of agriculture and before settlements and cities, women do do a lot of work. Unsurprisingly. And statistically there are even some communities in which they bring back more calories than men.

GRABER: And what’s more, women may have been bringing back more calories more reliably than the men in those ancient communities.

SAINI: Well, when we look at different hunter gatherer around the world, it’s very often that women are the gatherers. So even if men are out hunting, hunting is a very sporadic activity, especially if you’re hunting big game. The chances of a kill are very small, so it’s not a reliable way of bringing home regular calories for your family or for the community. So women were the ones who were foraging for roots and tubers and plants. They were the ones killing small animals, so they were hunting but more reliable kind of prey. And they were the ones bringing that back. If men are out doing big hunting and for a month they don’t come back with anything, then it makes perfect sense that the person who is doing the foraging and the gathering and killing small animals or catching fish is obviously going to bring in more reliable calories.

TWILLEY: So then the next question is, if hunting doesn’t necessarily bring in as many calories, as reliably, why in the hell were men doing it in the first place?

SAINI: There is this theory—it’s quite controversial, but there is this idea out there that also perhaps men go after the big game because it’s an arena for showing off. That catching fish or hunting little animals doesn’t bring as much prestige as bringing back something really big and meaty.

GRABER: What’s clear is that women do hunt. But not always the same animals.

SAINI: Where we do see differences in the patterns of hunting between men and women, it’s often the case in the regions where hunting is a risky activity, women tend to do less. And actually strategically this makes sense because losing a mother is far more fatal to a child’s survival than losing a father. So it makes more sense that if there is a very risky activity that has to be done to allow the men to do it.

TWILLEY: But Angela says that, in other parts of the world, women hunted bigger animals, more like men. And, like men, they gained prestige from it.

GRABER: At the beginning of the show, Angela mentioned two communities. One in Australia where aboriginal women hunt feral cats for sport. And another in the Philippines that’s almost totally disappeared but where women until recently loved to hunt. They’d often use knives and dogs to help, rather than bows and arrows, but they hunted big pigs and deer. And many of them were great at it.

TWILLEY: OK, so if women were likely inventing tools and bringing in calories and even hunting, what does that mean for the rest of the hunting hypothesis—the part about men inventing language and culture?

SAINI: Well, it has lots of repercussions. When we start including women in the story, when we don’t just ignore them and expect them to be some kind of irrelevance on the side, then the story changes completely.

TWILLEY: The story was that men drove our evolution into the big-brained technology and language-using creatures we are today. And now there’s a different story emerging.

SAINI: And there is research now, really compelling research that’s been done that suggests that the reason that humans ramped up intelligence in evolutionary terms the way we did, the reason we became such a big brained intelligent species, may have been not because of hunting, but because of the mother-child or the parent-child interaction. We have our babies very, very early in the development stage. We give birth when our babies are almost entirely helpless. For the first three months, they’re really just like fetuses. They can’t do anything for themselves. So this kind of very specialized, highly skilled parenting that’s required to raise a baby like that is possibly what drove up intelligence.

GRABER: Before, the theory was that language emerged from the cooperation required to hunt big game. But researchers are now saying that women, and men—parents, trying to communicate with and care for these tiny helpless babies—that might have been what did it.

SAINI: Which really in many ways puts women at the center of the evolutionary story, which is quite interesting. But I do have to add in all of this, we have to remember that these are just theories. And just like the hunting hypothesis was just a theory, these are also just theories. So when we’re thinking about the past, the fact is, we don’t have a huge amount of evidence. And the best we can do is to include all the evidence that we do have and not to ignore any of it, which I think was was done in the past when we ignored women. So I’m not saying this is now fact, or that this fact has overridden previous facts. I’m just saying that the universe of our understanding has expanded.

TWILLEY: And in this new expanded universe of understanding, it increasingly seems like our distant ancestors may well have had a more equal society than our own. In her book, Angela describes recent research showing that decision-making and division of labor in the world’s few remaining hunter gatherer tribes is surprisingly egalitarian. So where did it go wrong for the rest of us?

SAINI: Well, it’s a big question. It’s one I don’t think historians have really answered. You know, how did patriarchies emerge? How? Why did we settle down and start agriculture?

GRABER: One of the theories today for why inequality emerged is that people started farming and started settling down in cities. This led to more rigid divisions of labor and the accumulation of resources—by men.

SAINI: I mean, Engels called it the world defeat of the female sex or something like that. At some point, things changed for women and that change spread around the world. It’s not everywhere. There are certain societies around the world which are matrilineal, in which women have more power, in which people are more egalitarian. But generally most societies around the world are male dominated and we still don’t really have an answer for that. What I do think we can say is that there is no biological reason that we can’t have equality. You know, the fact that the psychological differences between us are small, and the fact that men and women are capable of doing many of the same things or most of the same things, means that we can have equality if we want it. So if we want a more equal and fair society, we can have it. There’s no reason why not.

TWILLEY: And this bigger question of equality is intimately tied to food. That’s something Angela has seen first hand.

SAINI: I mean in the culture that I grew up in—I come from an Indian family, so my parents were born in India and I’ve lived in India—the preparation of food is hugely important culturally and often it’s—there is a sexual division of labor in the production of food. In India, culturally the tradition was you feed the men first and then you eat. Now what does that mean when there’s not enough food? That means a man eats and the woman possibly doesn’t eat, or doesn’t eat enough. And that has huge repercussions. It creates weakness in women. And that feeds in again to the stereotype of the weaker female, the more feeble female.

GRABER: Angela’s book celebrates the ways in which scientists are busting stereotypes and old beliefs about women in a host of ways: women’s intelligence, even their sexual appetite. But Angela says that the science should almost be irrelevant when it comes to treating everyone equally.

SAINI: Personally I don’t think it should make the argument any different at all. We, as humans, as a society, have decided that everyone is equal. And that is a good thing. Regardless of their abilities, regardless of their capabilities, everybody is equal. And that is a really noble aim. I don’t think we should in any way abandon that. And in some sense then the science doesn’t matter. What science says about what we’re capable of doing, what we’re able to do or what we’re naturally designed to do—it doesn’t matter if we’ve decided that we’re all equal. Where I think it does matter is when people turn around and say you can’t do this because it’s against nature or it’s against biology. Which still happens. There are still people out there, many people out there, and many of them in positions of power, who say that women for instance aren’t capable of leadership. Which is one of the reasons Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected.

GRABER: We’ve been hearing people lately saying that women in Silicon Valley aren’t capable of doing technology jobs. And then there’s the Larry Summers scandal. He was the president of Harvard University, and he said that maybe there weren’t as many women in science because they weren’t innately as capable of doing science.

SAINI: And that’s where the science is important. To counter that kind of prejudice that holds back the cause of equality on the grounds of science. We have good science to show that that’s not true. And that’s why I wrote my book. Not to argue that we should have equality because the science says so. But to say that the equality that we’re fighting for should not be held back through biological arguments.

TWILLEY: Hear, hear.

GRABER: Definitely go check out Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. If you don’t believe us, believe Daniel Radcliffe, who told New York Magazine that he’s reading it right now! Harry Potter loves it, folks.

TWILLEY: After the break, we’re back with some of the worst food you’ve ever heard of—rubbery eggs, Jell-o salads, and boiled chicken. Plus some very famous and accomplished women, and what this terrible food meant to them.


LAURA SHAPIRO: I took six women and I looked at them as if food mattered. It occurred to me that traditional biography just never tells you what people ate. And it seems to me that that is a great lens to look at someone’s life.

GRABER: Laura Shapiro wrote a great book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories. She was inspired to write this book after she finished writing one on Julia Child.

SHAPIRO: It occurred to me that you don’t have to be Julia Child to have a relationship with food. We all do. We all have a relationship with food that starts the minute we’re born and it goes until we die. So it could be any woman. But it can’t just be any woman because most women don’t leave a record of what they ate.

TWILLEY: There is nothing that makes Laura angrier than someone who writes in their diary that they had lunch and doesn’t say what they ate. She hates it! And so many women forget to mention what was actually on their plate.

GRABER: But Laura did find those details in the diaries, notes, and stories about six women, some of whom many of you will have heard of.

TWILLEY: We picked two of them to focus on this episode: one American for Cynthia and one Brit for me.

GRABER: First, the American—one of the most famous American women of the 1900s. Eleanor Roosevelt. Who was also famous for her horrible food.

SHAPIRO: Well, Eleanor herself said that she didn’t care about food, didn’t care what she ate, had no palate. And her family members and close friends, they all kind of agreed. And then there was this terrible food at the White House, which they blamed on her kind of lovingly because everyone loved Eleanor. But they just said, you know, here is this great First Lady. She was the most active, most productive First Lady we have ever had. And food just didn’t interest her. So if people complained about the dinner, it just didn’t matter. Her mind was on other things. I read this and that just didn’t ring true to me. Eleanor was a very thoughtful friend. She was famous for her generosity and her sympathy to people. I just couldn’t see her sitting there, ignoring the fact that her guests were sort of toying with these horrible things on their plates.

TWILLEY: By all accounts, the food in the White House while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President and Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady was the worst in White House history.

GRABER: Eleanor wasn’t cooking that horrible food herself.  All the food was overseen by their housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt. Whom Eleanor did hire. And Henrietta’s culinary repertoire wasn’t the most creative.

SHAPIRO: So she would have creamed chipped beef on toast. She would have creamed kidneys on toast. She would have a thing called shrimp wiggle, which was shrimp and canned peas in a white sauce on toast.

TWILLEY: Shrimp wiggle!

SHAPIRO: And these things show up day after day. She had sweetbreads and innards because they were inexpensive. FDR used to say if he saw another dish of sweetbreads, he was going to go mad. He begged Eleanor to stop letting the housekeeper give him these sweetbreads day after day. They just kind of ignored him. So that was a lot of this very economical cooking. There was a dish called eggs Mexican which was rice with bananas on top of it and fried eggs on top of that. I’m not sure where the flavor of Mexico actually came through. But it was an unusual dish. So these were some of the highlights of that table.

GRABER: Franklin wasn’t the only one complaining about the food.

SHAPIRO: Well, Hemingway went to dinner at the White House in 1937. Afterwards he wrote to his then mother-in-law. He said this was the worst dinner he had ever had in his life.

TWILLEY: The journalist Martha Gellhorn, who brought Hemingway to dinner: she was a little better prepared. She ate three sandwiches before they arrived—she told Hemingway that everyone in Washington knew the rule: when you’re invited to the White House for dinner, eat first.

SHAPIRO: Even her dearest friends walked away just kind of blanching with horror at what they had been given.

GRABER: Everyone did love Eleanor—and Franklin. Just not the food.

TWILLEY: So why was it so bad?

GRABER: The first thing to remember is that Eleanor presided over the White House from 1933 to 1945.

SHAPIRO: This was the Depression and then it was rationing and the war years. So she told their housekeeper…

TWILLEY: The infamous Henrietta Nesbitt of shrimp wiggle fame…

SHAPIRO: To make sure that everything was just simple, and abundant enough so that people had enough to eat but no frills. She said nothing out of season, no hot-house grapes, no signs of luxury.

TWILLEY: But cheap food can be well-cooked and delicious. The menu at the White House during the Roosevelt years was neither. Something else was going on.

GRABER: Meet Eleanor’s mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt. She had controlled Franklin’s life up until his marriage, and she still held the purse strings. He never became financially independent of his mom.

SHAPIRO: And she really wanted to control his marriage and his family. So, for instance, early in their marriage when they were living in New York, Sara Roosevelt built a kind of two-home brownstone in New York on the east side. There would be two houses that were side by side with adjoining doors on every floor so that she could go in and out from his house to her house as much as she wanted. This drove Eleanor crazy, but she was helpless to do anything. And Sara Roosevelt was a great food lover and took pride in setting up a beautiful table with wonderful food, she had great cooks.

TWILLEY: We’re talking thick juicy steaks and heavy cream sauces and lobsters and delicious puddings and custards.

SHAPIRO: So Eleanor, who had much more austere, progressive, political, ascetic ideas about food, by nature, she was not going to be a luxury living kind of person, ever—food became a way in which she could just kind of draw the line between herself and Sara Roosevelt.

GRABER: There’s another relationship that spoiled Eleanor’s interest in preparing delicious food at the White House, and that’s Franklin’s affair with his former social secretary Lucy Mercer.

TWILLEY: Eleanor found out about the affair thirteen years into their marriage, in 1918, and she never forgave Franklin.

SHAPIRO: That betrayal and that pain went very, very deep. So she had agreed to stay married to him. But that was not a happy marriage. It was not a trusting marriage. She was not happy in the marriage.

GRABER: And Franklin loved food. As we just said, his mother fed him all sorts of rich, delicious dishes, and he craved them.

SHAPIRO: Eleanor was not going to feed him that. And so, as one of her biographers put it: food was Eleanor’s revenge.

TWILLEY: It’s basically the most passive-aggressive relationship and the food is the real victim.

GRABER: Part of this story is that Eleanor always proclaims that she doesn’t like food, she barely tastes it, really. But Laura found out that’s not true. In Eleanor’s letters and memoirs, there are lots of little details and notes that show that she did actually enjoy food.

SHAPIRO: It wasn’t going to happen inside the White House. It wasn’t going to happen in those four walls. But if she were traveling, away, she would say “Oh well I ate so much at that Chinese restaurant! The food was just great!”

TWILLEY: Laura discovered Eleanor’s account of a trip she took to Albany in the mid 1930s, to help her former bodyguard settle into his new house.

SHAPIRO: And she writes letters to her friend saying, you know, we set up the kitchen, and I made popovers. She’s so excited about learning these things! And yet she’s so self-effacing about claiming any credit for it. But she says she made biscuits one day. She made an applesauce cake. And she was doing it. She had that in her life. She could do it. But it was miles from the White House. FDR was nowhere near. This is another circle. It’s people that she loves and care about cares about and she’s putting her two hands into the food and cooking and serving them.

GRABER: After FDR died, Eleanor cooked all sorts of delicious foods for her guests—hearty flavorful ones, Laura says, ones that Eleanor herself enjoyed. And during this time, Eleanor is still an important political figure in her own right.

TWILLEY: She represented the US at the United Nations and traveled the world as a diplomat

SHAPIRO: She goes to Paris, she loves the food in Paris. She goes to the Middle East, she’s crazy about the food in the Middle East. You just see this other person. A person with a genuine appetite. It’s so great. If you love Eleanor Roosevelt, you’re so happy that she had a wonderful relationship with food sometimes. She had it outside the White House.

TWILLEY: All of this—her food story—it all adds up to a new picture of Eleanor, a side to her that we hadn’t seen before.

GRABER: Eleanor wrote columns and memoirs, and there have been multiple biographies written about her. But the tensions and complications of her relationship with food—they’re a window onto the woman behind the achievements.

SHAPIRO: We have a huge amount of information so we can get to Eleanor Roosevelt from many different perspectives. And she is worth the getting to. There is more. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of Eleanor. There’s going to be more. I bet you she pulled off a lemon meringue pie in there and we don’t even know about it yet.

TWILLEY: Let’s leave Eleanor on this happy note, and move forward a few decades, as well as over to my side of the pond. The second story we wanted to share was that of Barbara Pym.

GRABER: You all might be wondering who Barbara Pym is. I was wondering that, too, until I read Laura’s book.

SHAPIRO: Barbara Pym was the most wonderful writer. She was a British writer who began publishing in the 50s.

TWILLEY: And she wrote a very particular kind of novel about a very particular England, one that has kind of vanished now. The England of my spinster great aunts, basically.

SHAPIRO: She wrote about women who were kind of modest and humble and self-effacing. They’re wearing these cardigans. They wear sensible shoes. They help out in the church jumble sale. They’re constantly having the vicar to tea. That’s their external life. But we are inside them. They are the narrators and the heroines. And we see that they are hilariously funny. They are so sharp-edged. They skewer these fat-headed men around them with just a turn of phrase, so subtle that the man himself never knows he’s been skewered.

GRABER: Laura has long loved Barbara’s books. But Laura writes about food, and so she especially adores Barbara for that.

SHAPIRO: She saw the world as if she were a food writer. She wasn’t, she never would have thought of herself as a food writer. But she had a kind of natural fascination with food. She went everywhere with a little notebook and she would look around and she would see what people were eating. She would just jot it down. Here’s a woman in furs and a nice hat and gloves and she’s pouring ketchup over a plate of fish and chips. Barbara Pym jots that down. That is the start of a character, then from that comes a plot, and then afterwards comes a novel.

TWILLEY: Barbara included all this food detail in her novels partly because she loved food, but also because the food communicated something.

SHAPIRO: Food to her was a key to character. It was an indicator of class, of situation, of gender relations.

GRABER: Barbara writes these scenes where a couple orders the same dish, and the woman gets one egg and two slices of bacon, and her husband gets two eggs and four strips of bacon. Men get the good stuff, and more of it.

TWILLEY: The vicar especially. Always the first slice of cake at the church tea. But food—like everything in England—could also communicate class differences, really clearly. If you’re British.

SHAPIRO: So there’s a class event going on whenever a meal is served. You always know exactly who’s eating it and why.

TWILLEY: For example, one of Barbara’s upper-crust heroines is served a mug of sweet, strong, milky tea, the kind I’d call builder’s brew. And she takes one sip, just to be polite, and no more. And you know, without needing to be told, exactly what she is thinking—she’s a fine china, Darjeeling-drinking lady, and the distance between those two cups of tea is an unbridgeable gulf.

GRABER: Laura says that food in Barbara’s books also can tell a story about the character herself. She describes one cardigan-wearing, sensible-shoe sporting vicar’s daughter named Mildred.

SHAPIRO: She one day makes a little lunch for herself and a kind of glamorous guy who lives in her building—he lives in the flat downstairs. She has a little crush on him, which she shouldn’t have because he’s married

TWILLEY: She makes a little salad—a simple salad with fresh lettuce—and she puts out decent cheese and good bread, and a little fruit.

SHAPIRO: And she’s looking at it and she says, you know, this is the kind of thing people sort of eat in the French countryside—I wish I had a bottle of wine, which she didn’t. So the food—it tells us something else about Mildred. It tells us that cardigan is only on the outside.

TWILLEY: Yay Mildred, keeping the dream alive with decent cheese. And the decency of this cheese—this is also important. Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the food of my country people has a bit of a reputation.

SHAPIRO: Well, the idea that we have of British food in the decades after World War II is very strict and clear. It’s a big mountain of Bird’s custard powder. It’s Marmite. It is over-boiled cabbage. Over-boiled everything really.

TWILLEY: Quick defense of Marmite here, which is actually delicious and one of Britain’s great culinary achievements. But Laura’s point still stands: British food was terrible. Or, at least, that’s what everybody believed.

SHAPIRO: And Barbara Pym knew it and when she saw it or ate it, she recorded it. What’s fascinating to see in the novels, and in her own diaries and things, is that that is not the whole picture. There was a real spectrum of food in those years in Britain. There was a lot of really good cooking. People were making boeuf a la mode. They were making risotto. They’re rolling out the dough to make ravioli by hand. There really was very good cooking.

GRABER: These dishes Laura’s describing, they’re not what you would think of as classic British dishes. Could it just be that British cooks could turn out a fine Italian dish now and then but the local native dishes were revolting?

TWILLEY: Not according to Barbara.

SHAPIRO: Boiled chicken and white sauce was the classic British dish—it’s the thing that you’re supposed to make when the new curate is in town and you invite him to lunch. You would boil a chicken, or at least you’d call it a boiled chicken, and serve it with white sauce. This was so classic that when Julia Child was in England for the first time, she—years later, she looked back on this trip writing to her friend and she said she couldn’t believe it— the food was so exactly the stereotype. It’s just what you thought it was going to be. We stopped at this kind of olde worlde inn and and sure enough it was a boiled chicken. She said it still had the hair on. Apparently it had not been plucked too perfectly and was drenched in this white sauce that was basically library paste. She said it was really flour and water and that’s it. She carried the same assumption about British cooking that everyone carried, that it was terrible.

GRABER: What Julia Child ate does sound pretty gross, frankly. My partner Tim’s mom made something she called white sauce that was also literally flour and water and it was genuinely disgusting.

TWILLEY: But I grew up eating white sauce, made by my Mum, who is an excellent cook, and it can be delicious! And Barbara Pym agrees.

SHAPIRO: Well that same dish appears in Barbara Pym’s first novel, And it’s about two sisters who live in a village, and they have the curate to lunch. And they make a boiled chicken with white sauce. It is a beautiful little dish. It is delicately cooked. The white sauce is a cream sauce, with a little touch of lemon in it. I went looking around for possible recipes. There are wonderful recipes for things called boiled chicken. They shouldn’t call it boiling. I don’t know why the British insist on that term—it was simmered, gently simmered chicken. And it was a beautiful little dish. So there was bad cooking but there was good cooking. And you see both of it in that one dish.

TWILLEY: Barbara’s personal food habits spanned the best and the less excellent aspects of British food. Laura spent hours going through her papers at the Bodleian library in Oxford, looking at her shopping lists and her dinner party menus.

SHAPIRO: She’s buying butter. She’s also buying margarine. She’s buying a cake. She’s also buying the sugar and the self-rising flour because she herself was a good baker. You see everything. She’s buying cornflakes and Marmite and something called Twiglets, which the British seem to be very fond of—I’m not quite sure what that was.

TWILLEY: Twiglets! I haven’t had a Twiglet in forever! But, for non-Brits, they’re essentially Marmite-flavored Cheetos and they are freaking excellent.

GRABER: They sound totally addictive! I love Marmite. I am going to find some Twiglets my next trip to London.

SHAPIRO: But then she’s buying shrimp and steak, she buys veal to cook for their friends. She makes summer pudding, one of the most delicious British desserts of all time. So she’s all over that spectrum.

TWILLEY: Barbara’s picture of British food is quite different from the one most people believed—the Julia Child-endorsed message that there was no hope for the English.

SHAPIRO: It’s as if she were writing a revisionist history of British cuisine in those years. She wasn’t. She was just recording what what she saw going on, which is why I believe in it. But the food that appears in the novels really makes you rethink British cooking in those years.

TWILLEY: If you haven’t read Barbara’s novels, you should also add them to your holiday shopping list. Not just for the food, but for the food too.

GRABER: Laura’s larger point is, in both Eleanor’s personal life and Barbara’s fiction, food adds a layer of complication and nuance.

TWILLEY: We think we know Eleanor Roosevelt, we think we know what kind of sad spinster lives Barbara Pym’s heroines are leading, and it turns out we don’t. Food helps us get a fuller picture.

SHAPIRO: Food, in this book, it touches on power and it touches on love. And when you put those two things together, it’s kind of a scary combination.

GRABER: Take Dorothy Wordsworth, one of the other women whose food story Laura tells in her book. She’s the sister of the famous poet William, as well as a fine writer herself.

SHAPIRO: She adored her brother William and she cooked for him with the greatest love in the world. and that love, the food that emerged from that love, was in a way her her power in the household. It gave her a place in the household. When he married, she was displaced. Her sister-in-law shared the cooking. So the power slipped away and her life changed very dramatically.

TWILLEY: Or take Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. She used food to help create the fantasy world she lived in. Another of Laura’s six women, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan—she made herself into the perfect wife by denying herself food.

SHAPIRO: So food and love, in that weird combination, I think, become these instruments of power in strange ways.


TWILLEY: Food, power, and women: it’s an amazing combination. As you know if you listen to this podcast, about food, made by two women, and—well, we haven’t taken over the world yet, but with your help, we surely will!

GRABER: That’s right! Tell your friends to subscribe! Send us their names, and win swag! It’s all part of our plan for world domination.

TWILLEY: And while you’re on our website at, why don’t you also click on the links to Angela Saini’s book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.

GRABER: And Laura Shapiro’s book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories.

TWILLEY: As you can tell, we loved them both.