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.


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.

What the Fluff is Marshmallow Creme? TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode What the Fluff is Marshmallow Creme?, first released on September 26, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: I just saw someone walk by with french fries and Fluff and caramel sauce on top. Fluff dessert poutine.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Uh, Cynthia, where on earth are you?

GRABER: Just down the street from my house, in Union Square in Somerville, at the What the Fluff Festival. That’s right, it is a festival dedicated entirely to Marshmallow Fluff. Because of course.

TWILLEY: See, my response would be, because why?

GRABER: Well, it is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Fluff! And why Somerville? It was invented here. Source of pride.

TWILLEY: Oh well, now I understand. Not. Cynthia, I think we’re going to have to do a bit more explaining.

GRABER: And that is just what we’re going to do this episode. You’re 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 all about Fluff. Like, what the hell is it?

GRABER: And what does it have to do with the advent of high-tech innovation such as egg beaters and the radio? As well as the rise of domestic science?

TWILLEY: And, not to sound a like a broken record, but I’d also like to know: what the hell is a fluffernutter? This episode is a real journey of discovery for me.



TWILLEY: Our guide to the magical world of Fluff this episode is going to be Mimi Graney. She literally wrote the book on the stuff. It’s called…

MIMI GRANEY: Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon.

TWILLEY: But really, I’m serious: what is Fluff?

GRANEY: So it’s just whipped egg whites and corn syrup and sugar.

GRABER: It’s spreadable marshmallows, basically. But that leads to another question. What really is a marshmallow?

TWILLEY: Originally, a marsh mallow was something made from mallow plants, which grow in marshes and other damp areas. The stem of the mallow plant is the part you use.

GRANEY: I think of it as it’s a little bit like okra, it’s very sort of slippery and gooey that way, and it had been used medicinally for sore throats and for sort of dryness.

GRABER: We don’t know exactly when humans started using mallow plants, but it’s at least four thousand years ago.

GRANEY: Early on it had been sort of food for the gods by the Egyptians. Then was mixed with sugar and used for sore throats and lozenges and kind of gooey things to make you feel better. But then eventually the apothecaries who were making the mallow treats started realizing, these actually kind of taste delicious if you put enough sugar with them. And they started creating marshmallows with egg whites instead, and creating them as treats.

TWILLEY: In fact, in the 1800s, French confectioners gave up on the idea of medicinal benefits altogether and replaced the mallow sap with gelatin instead.

GRABER: Why bother with the plant? The new confection is delicious. The gelatin helped marshmallows hold their shape and confectioners added a dusting of cornstarch or powdered sugar to keep the treats from sticking to everything else.

TWILLEY: And these lovely new marshmallow candies were popular. Super popular. Especially in Boston.

GRABER: Let’s take a step back in my current hometown, back a hundred years or so. Boston was the Silicon Valley of candy making.


GRABER: First because of sugar. Boston was one of the centers of the sugar trade with the Caribbean. Granulated sugar was invented in Boston.

TWILLEY: Before the invention of granulated sugar, refined sugar had to be sold in solid chunks. You used a special tool called a sugar nipper to break off what you needed, and then you grated it or ground it to cook with. The East Boston Sugar Refinery figured out that if you raked the freshly refined sugar on a giant steam table, you could dry it and separate it into individual crystals. A huge leap forward for sugar and sugar fiends everywhere.

GRABER: Another reason Boston was so central to candy making was the temperature here—it’s cool, so it was easier to make chocolate. In 1764, the first commercial production of chocolate in America began here. Boston was also the center of the ice trade. All this made it easier to deal with the stickiness of the business. And so Boston was the center of candy making nationally. You get treats such as the Charleston Chew, the Mary Jane bar, I’ve had plenty of those, and the Squirrel Nut Zipper, which I’ve never heard of.

TWILLEY: But with a name like that, you know it had to have been good. Plus don’t forget the Necco wafer, a.k.a. the most disappointing sweet I’ve ever tasted. It’s like sugar paste and cardboard.

GRABER: Don’t tell Bostonians. The Necco factory is still a landmark here in Cambridge.

TWILLEY: Sorry. But it’s true. But it’s not just the weather, the ice, and the sugar that made Boston a hub for confectionery innovation. There’s also disruptive technology like…. the egg beater.

GRABER: This is hard to believe, but the egg beater was a surprisingly late invention.

TWILLEY: Mimi told us that humanity had managed to invent the steam train, color photography—even the machine gun before it got around to the humble egg beater.

GRABER: Maybe that’s because the egg beater was something that, really, women needed.

GRANEY: I love seeing some of the really old recipe books back in the day, where you know it was women trying to make fluffy recipes for angel food cakes and fluffy cakes that were literally calling for whipping batters for four hours. And they would say helpful things like how to deal with, you know, arm strains. And they were whipping eggs with things like branches and spoons and knives and fingers. And obviously it was not so good at aerating. So right around the Civil War, tinsmiths started formulating sort of the whisks that we know today.

GRABER: These early designs were the starting point for the Dover Stamping and Manufacturing Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, down the street. They started thinking about all the gears in the steam engine, and how these gears could be intertwined. And they developed the standard hand-cranked egg beater, with a handle to turn the gears that then powers the whipping mechanism.

TWILLEY: The women of America were overjoyed. In her book, Mimi writes that one cookbook author in Chicago declared: “As long as there are eggs to beat, give me Dover or give me death!”

GRANEY: And because of the egg beater, and then later on once that became powered by first steam and then electricity, all these great recipes that incorporated air became really popular. So when you think of not just marshmallows but angel food cakes and lemon meringue pies and it became all the trend.

GRABER: So suddenly whipping air into eggs for marshmallows is amazingly easy. And so, Nicky, as you said, marshmallows become super popular, especially in Boston.

TWILLEY: But as with any consumer revolution, it’s not just about the technology. You need an influencer, too—just to keep with the Silicon Valley speak. And that influencer was Fannie Farmer.

GRANEY: One scholar I read said Fannie Farmer never met a marshmallow she didn’t like.

GRABER: Fannie Farmer is a Bostonian, too, and she wrote a groundbreaking cookbook called The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. For generations of Americans it was the cooking bible.

GRANEY: Fannie Farmer was part of that vanguard of women who were really looking at how to look at the science of food. So Fannie Farmer was foremost a culinary educator and she worked for the Boston Cooking School and she approached it with great academic prowess. So for example, she was teaching organic chemistry at Harvard, when women weren’t allowed to even be students there, and so talking about that aspect of food science. And was educating women who were running major institutions, hospitals, schools, hotels, running the food programs.

TWILLEY: And Fannie Farmer, like Mimi said, had something of a sweet tooth.

GRANEY: She would put sugar and marshmallow creams into almost everything, like if you just look at her salad dressings they’re like, crazy sweet. So she was the first person that appreciated—she called it initially marshmallow paste. And in her version she would actually take marshmallows and melt them down and that would be a quick frosting, or quick thing to create marshmallow toast. It was basically a saltine crackers with the marshmallow cream and a cherry on top and that was dessert.

GRABER: This is the very first recipe with Marshmallow Fluff. Or as Fannie Farmer called it, marshmallow paste. Which doesn’t sound nearly as appealing.

GRANEY: Then it got renamed as marshmallow creme. And because of her role writing these great cookbooks that became heirlooms, especially for New England cooks, and because she was teaching so many women both from major institutions, folks that became educators themselves, she was a major tastemaker, and really passed her love of marshmallow creme and all things sweet on to New Englanders.

TWILLEY: Like Mimi said, at first, Fannie melted marshmallows to arrive at her paste or creme. But soon Bostonians were competing to develop recipes to make marshmallow creme from scratch.

GRANEY: Marshmallow creme is closer to a meringue rather than like a marshmallow itself, so they’re kind of slightly different. You can make marshmallow creme without gelatin. You need more of a firming agent to make the actual formed marshmallows.

GRABER: A bunch of companies, and not just in Boston, they all hopped on the marshmallow creme bandwagon. There was the Marshmallow Whip from Whitman’s.

TWILLEY: There was May’s Marshmallow Cream, which promised in its advertising that it had none of the fishy taste and odor of other emulsions.

GRABER: SIblings Emma and Amory Curtis in Melrose, a suburb of Boston, they created Snowflake Marshmallow Creme. And, by the way, they were also the great-great-great grandchildren of Paul Revere.

TWILLEY: But the next hero of our story is really the awesomely named Archibald Query.

GRANEY: He is the inventor of marshmallow fluff. He was born in Canada around Quebec and moved to Franklin, Massachusetts, when he was about seven with his family and became a young candy man. The secret of Archibald query’s recipe is: how is this froth able to hold the shape for so long?

GRABER: Archibald lived right near where I live now in Somerville, and he made confections in his home. He sold small batches of them to local stores and also door-to-door. Which sounds lovely. But then other companies got bigger than his, and new requirements for federal income tax for small businesses just made it too hard for him to keep going solo.

TWILLEY: And then along come two childhood friends from the North Shore, just outside of Boston: Fred Mower and Allen Durkee.

GRANEY: So they were two friends. They had been schoolyard chums in Swampscott, Massachusetts. And they both served together and cemented their friendship from serving in the foxholes of France during World War One.

TWILLEY: When they got back from the war, they were looking to make their fortunes. And as it happens, Fred was working alongside Archibald in his day job in a chocolate factory.

GRANEY: And most likely Archibald told them about this recipe that he had lying around. So Allen and Fred decided to open a company together. They bought the recipe from Archibald.

GRABER: They paid Archibald five hundred bucks for his marshmallow fluff recipe. That’s about $6,000 dollars in today’s money—still not a huge amount.

GRANEY: There probably was some resentment among his family that maybe he should have sold his awesome recipe for more than 500 bucks. But he lived a really happy life.

TWILLEY: Allen and Fred launched their new company, the Durkee-Mower company, on Valentine’s Day 1920, and their star product—actually, their only product!—was Fluff.

GRABER: They first called their new product Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff, because they served in France together, but luckily they dropped the Toot Sweet pretty quickly. The local paper wrote about the “new firm in town,” and how these two hometown boys are back from the war and ready to fight their way into the business world. Their friends, apparently, were convinced they’d succeed.

TWILLEY: And they did! All thanks to Archibald’s recipe. After a decade Allen and Fred did branch out and buy a chocolate milk company.

GRANEY: The biggest they ever got in terms of product line was two. And then eventually they closed down the chocolate milk company and just stuck with Fluff as their only product.

GRABER: So the recipe they bought from Archibald, the competitive advantage he sold them, was that his fluff held its shape much longer than the other creams. But why? What was his secret?

GRANEY: Archibald Query came up with this recipe 100 years ago so it is no high tech. It seems like it’s a space age food. But there’s nothing all that space age about it. It’s more of a steampunk type thing. And the secret is held with Durkee-Mower.

TWILLEY: And it’s still a secret today. But that secret does not lie in the ingredients. Those are really simple: egg white, sugar, corn syrup, and vanilla. Mimi suspects the secret is in the process—the temperatures and the timings.

GRANEY: A lot of companies will change the gauges on their equipment so you don’t know what the temperature is. You don’t know how long they whip it for. So even the workers who work at Durkee-Mower, they just press a button and the machines go for a certain amount of time. They don’t—unless they timed it themselves. I mean they could probably figure that out, but the room is kept at a certain humidity, a certain temperature. So I’ve clued you in on some of the secrets but I don’t know what those calibrations quite are.

GRABER: We’ll never know. One thing that’s mostly not a secret? The flavors. Durkee-Mower has played with a few different flavors over the years.

GRANEY: So Durkee-Mower makes a strawberry Fluff. And for a period they made a raspberry Fluff and there was a very secret caramel flavored Fluff only available in Europe. You will never see a chocolate Fluff.

GRABER: Why no chocolate Fluff? The answer is in cooking science.

GRANEY: Anybody who’s made a meringue at home has followed the recipe meticulously where they talk about making sure you have a fat free environment for whipping the eggs. So oftentimes the recipe will call for even using vinegar on a paper towel to wipe it out. Because the oil that might be left on the utensils will denature or break down the the bubbles. So if you think of cocoa butter that’s in chocolate will basically flatten your meringue, so it will flatten your marshmallow cream.

TWILLEY: So: no chocolate fluff, Archibald’s secret endures, and Durkee-Mower’s one and only product does end up making Fred and Allen’s fortune. Next, after the break: how Fluff got big. Clue: it involves singing, dancing, and peanut butter.


GRABER: Now back to Fluff. We already talked about one woman, Fannie Farmer, who helped make Fluff popular in New England. And now it’s time to introduce the second key woman in this story.

GRANEY: Marjorie Mills, I feel like I always want to wear a feathered hat when I talk to her, because she was famous for wearing these very flamboyant hats. So she was the first female reporter for the Boston Herald Traveler, which now folks know as the Boston Herald, which was one of the major newspapers in Boston back in the day, and has continued on till today. And she became the editor of what was known at the time as the women’s pages. And she was really well known as just being really personable and got to know everybody in Boston. So she was writing the gossip column, writing recipes, talking about restaurants that were opening, giving advice about, you know, shortcuts for your own recipes. And because she was a leader in media in Boston, was called upon as radio developed in Boston in the 1920s.

TWILLEY: Just like Fannie Farmer’s marshmallow boosting was assisted by a technological leap forward in egg beating, Marjorie Mills got on the Fluff train just as radio was picking up.

GRANEY: So she initially was a guest on shows and then came to be a host of her own all the way until like the 70s. I think of her as a little bit like an early Martha Stewart. Because she was a woman in the media and personable and connected with a lot of people, she was called upon to endorse a lot of products. So she endorsed everything from Nestle’s chocolate to King Arthur Flour and famously, Marshmallow Fluff. And she became a close friend of Durkee-Mower. Every year Fred and Allen would recognize the anniversary of their company and a number of those anniversaries where they would cut a cake, there’s Marjorie Mills in her hat in the back, beaming away.

GRABER: Durkee-Mower launched their product in 1920. And you know what else happened in 1920? KDKA Pittsburgh became the first radio station to receive a commercial license from the government.

GRANEY: So Durkee-Mower were part of the the very first ones of trying out this new medium. Durkee-Mower was advertising in print mediums, but they realized they could so much more effectively spread the word and much more cheaply through radio. Allen Durkee had actually been a radio operator in World War One. So he was a little familiar with the medium. And their ad man was Karl Frost who had served in the Coast Guard, which radio initially was mostly tied with obviously ships.

TWILLEY: So Marjorie Mills is pimping Fluff on air. But she’s not alone. Meet the Flufferettes.


GRANEY: So in the early days of radio, because it was noncommercial they couldn’t do a straight commercial. So the performers would be named after the products that were being sponsored for that fifteen minute block of programming or so. So for Durkee-Mower, their band was known as the Flufferettes. And even after radio went commercial and they could do a legitimate ad on on the air, the Flufferettes continued to be the highlight of their fifteen minute show. And they continued all the way into the very beginning of TV, so all the way into the early 1950s, with their radio programming.

GRABER: The Flufferettes became an institution and lasted for decades. But obviously the line-up changed.

GRANEY: So they had—a number of different performers took on the name of the Flufferettes over the years. Some of those performers came to be big names like Joe Rines and Horace Heidt. So folks might know the song “The Hut-Hut Song,” which was such an earworm it was known as a national disease.


GRANEY: And it became popular—folks have seen the Christmas Story movie—The Hut-Hut song is in that. The father is singing it maniacally. Over the years, Durkee-Mower would have just sort of lots of different songs. They did try doing a radio drama at one time and spent a huge amount of money for this radio drama. So they invested I think it was like a million dollars in radio advertising that year. It was epic.

GRABER: They sponsored the Ed Sullivan show when it was on the radio. They sponsored live coverage of the Red Sox and the Boston Braves. These were big deal advertising buys. But as Durkee-Mower raised their profile around the U.S., they were also being threatened by Kraft.

GRANEY: So some of their push in the early 1950s got the attention of other national competitors. There were other small marshmallow cremes around the country. Kraft Foods was the ones that really sort of looked at how can we take down these young upstarts? and could buy them out. So Kraft was buying out other small marshmallow creme companies around the country, shutting them down, and taking their market share.

TWILLEY: Kraft had even launched their own marshmallow creme in 1957, although their process was different—they used a slightly different method, that made for a more uniform product but one that didn’t hold its shape as well. Archibald’s secret technique still had the edge there.

GRABER: Kraft wanted to take over Durkee-Mower, too.

GRANEY: At the time, Fred had just passed away and there was no way they were going to say no to this company that they had built.

GRABER: Allen and the rest of the team weren’t about to sell Fred’s legacy out. But then how could they compete with such a massive corporate behemoth? They came up with a secret weapon: the fluffernutter.

TWILLEY: Just to be clear, for people like me who managed to remain ignorant of this iconic New England culinary delight until just now: a fluffernutter is simply a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich.

GRANEY: For a long time the pairing of marshmallow and peanut butter sandwiches had been promoted. And then Kraft came out with these full page ads in magazines promoting this type of sandwich. But it was the genius of the advertising team at Durkee-Mower who called it a fluffernutter and it sort of felt like mic drop at that one. Because you can’t make a sandwich with marshmallow creme and peanut butter and not call it a fluffernutter. So it really claimed the name as their own.

GRABER: At the same time as Durkee-Mower came up with the fluffernutter, radio and TV were finally allowed to air real commercials. Durkee Mower hired Richard Manoff, who actually founded the first Jewish-owned advertising agency on Madison Avenue.

GRANEY: And I think he’s just like Don Draper where literally he was working on the Lucky Strike campaign. And was kind of—I think he’s most famous now for coming up with really good jingles. So for example he did the Bumblebee tuna fish ad. So folks might know the “Yum, yum Bumblebee Bumblebee tuna,”


GRANEY: That came out of his campaign.

GRABER: I am—I’m very familiar with that!

GRANEY: And they also were the ones that came up with the Fluffernutter jingle.


GRABER: And obviously you can’t use any other company’s product for it—it’s not a marshmallow-creme-nutter. It’s a FLUFFernutter. Like the jingle says, you need Fluff Fluff Fluff to make a Fluffernutter!

TWILLEY: But, like Mimi said, the peanut butter and marshmallow creme combo had been around for a while. In fact, remember Emma and Amory Curtis, the great-great-great grandkids of Paul Revere? Emma is actually the genius behind the first documented pairing of marshmallow creme and peanut butter in a 1914 recipe. At first, she called for them to be layered together on a cracker, but a couple of years later, she switched to bread, and christened her creation the Liberty Sandwich.

GRABER: Nobody knows quite why she called it the Liberty Sandwich—maybe because of Paul Revere, maybe because eating peanut butter during World War One meant more meat would be freed up for the soldiers. In any case, the name “Liberty Sandwich” was not nearly as catchy as the fluffernutter.

TWILLEY: And the Fluffernutter is what saved Durkee-Mower’s bacon, if that’s not too much of an Elvis-kind of combination.

GRANEY: Yeah, I think if marshmallow creme and Fluff didn’t hide in its partnership with peanut butter, it would not have been saved.

GRABER: Fluff, and the Fluffernutter, become so famous in America that they show up in some rather unlikely places in pop culture. There’s this pop song from the 1970s called “Love You” by The Free Design.


TWILLEY: And then there’s a slightly less sunshiney appearance in the ultimate mafia tragedy.

GRANEY: My favorite one is the one from The Sopranos because I feel like it really captures Fluff in all its complexity. So that was a scene where you’re one of the lieutenants in the Mafia has just killed the man he believes killed his father. And thinking of his lost childhood, from losing his dad at such a young age. So he goes to visit his mother, and he’s in the kitchen with his mom and isn’t going to tell her what he just did but asks her for a Fluffernutter.


TWILLEY: And she can’t make it for him, she doesn’t have the ingredients. Which symbolizes everything about his loss of innocence and how he can never regain that simple happiness.

GRABER: And then there’s what’s probably Durkee-Mower’s least favorite pop culture appearance of Fluff.

GRANEY: So on the Howard Stern Show, because he’s renowned for all kinds of antics, some man’s dying wish was that he wanted to wrestle naked woman in a pool of Fluff. And so they had contacted Durkee-Mower to get a large supply. Durkee-Mower respectfully declined, but Howard Stern’s producers managed to not so inventively go to the store and buy their own couple of containers of Fluff. And apparently it was spread on a stripper’s body and the man was able to lick it off her body.

TWILLEY: The pinnacle of Americanness, in all its glory, right there.


TWILLEY: But despite all that exposure, Fluff has remained a really geographically-focused product.

GRANEY: Most of the Fluff is sold here in New England.

GRABER: Seriously—more than 50 percent of all Fluff is sold in New York and New England.

GRANEY: We are the obsessed one. So I think of it about the same way, you know, Australians are love their Vegemite and, you know, the Scots love their haggis. Like other people maybe eat it but not with the same enthusiasm as we do in New England.

GRABER: I live in New England but I didn’t grow up here. So, Nicky, neither of us had ever tried a Fluffernutter before.

TWILLEY: Which up till now I’d not seen as a problem. But there was no making this episode without getting our teeth coated in the sweet stuff.

GRABER: We planned a tasting for right before our second live show this year at the Boston Museum of Science.

TWILLEY: So hey Cynthia, am I going to bust out the Fluffernutter ingredients, you’re recording?

GRABER: Now I am.

TWILLEY: We’re good? OK?

GRABER: It’s time for Fluff.

TWILLEY: It’s time for Fluff.

GRABER: We were hiding downstairs in an office. It was the two of us, the staff from the Museum of Science—Lisa Monrose and James Wetzel, my mom who’d come up for the show, my partner Tim, who was maybe even more excited about the Fluffernutter than our live show…

TIM BUNTEL: You’ve got the Fluff. You’ve got the Fluff!!

TWILLEY: And of course our lucky live show on-stage guests, Deborah Blum, Carla Martin, and Lisbet and Chris Crowley.

GRABER: So Chris, did you eat this when you were a kid?

CHRIS CROWLEY: Oh yeah I know them and when I was a kid I used to do—I remember, peanut butter and jelly and Fluff. I did the trifecta. And it’s delicious. I mean, I just love it.

GRABER: Wait, you had jelly and Fluff and peanut butter in there?

CROWLEY:And occasionally bacon in there too.


CROWLEY: I’m serious.

TWILLEY: And he’s still alive, that’s amazing.

CROWLEY: I’m not that healthy but…

TWILLEY: Some people had fond childhood memories of Fluffernutters. The New Englanders, basically.

GRABER: But for some of us, this was going to be a new experience.

CYNTHIA’S MOM: I am Cynthia’s mother and I never heard of a Fluffernutter and she never had it because it was not in my home. I have never had it—I didn’t know what it was. And I don’t like peanut butter so therefore it’s kind of useless.

TWILLEY: I don’t even know what to expect.

GRABER: Nicky has never had Fluff before.

TWILLEY: Yes, I’m about to lose the Fluff virginity right here and now.

TWILLEY: And then, the tasting commenced.

BUNTEL: Cynthia has a rather unpleasant look on her face.

GRABER: No. It’s too sweet for me for a sandwich.

TWILLEY: I mean, to me, I would take the jelly over the Fluff if I was pairing with peanut butter. Sorry. I hate to disappoint. I mean it’s OK. It’s OK.

GRABER: Me too. Me too.

BUNTEL: You know I love you but this might be a stretch, this might be testing things.

GRABER: I’m now testing our relationship here apparently.

TWILLEY: Deal breaker.

BUNTEL: All I can say is more for me.

TWILLEY: So Cynthia and I, yeah, not really Fluffernutter fans. But Deborah Blum — so she was reluctant at first.

DEBORAH BLUM: Actually, this isn’t bad. I think the salt of the peanut butter cuts the sweet of the Fluff—now I sound like a complete restaurant critic here—and I think it’s pretty good.

GRABER: But Nicky, you and I are not alone. Not everybody thinks the Fluffernutter is so awesome.

TWILLEY: In fact, about a decade ago, there was a Fluffernutter debacle in the Massachusetts state legislature. The media called it a Kerfluffe. Of course.

GRABER: My state representative at the name was a guy named Jarrett Barrios. And he was pretty great. He was really progressive. And he wasn’t a big fan of junk food in schools.

GRANEY: So there was a junk food bill and at that time Senator Barrios’ son reported that he was eating Fluffernutters every single day at school. Now it wasn’t because it was officially part of the meal program, but it was sort of the standard, if you didn’t like the Sloppy Joe today you can have a Fluffernutter. If you don’t like, you know, the chicken fingers you can have a Fluffernutter. And the lunch ladies really liked it because they are shelf stable products, the kids will eat it. There’s some nutrition in that peanut butter—done. So Jarrett Barrios thought this was rather excessive, especially since his son was not allowed to eat Fluffernutters at home. And so reasonably said, Massachusetts schools can only serve Fluffernutters once a week. And you would swear this man had literally taken candy from a baby. There were actually death threats to his office. He became a laughing stock worldwide.

TWILLEY: Really, Jarrett might as well have declared war on Christmas.

GRABER: Another state rep, Representative Kathi Reinstein, raced to the Fluffernutter’s defense with a bill that would make the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich.

GRANEY: So actually within a year senator Barrios resigned from the Senate and left, sort of, elected office. I don’t know if it was directly attributed to it. But it was a really damaging thing to his career and made him a laughing stock even though it was incredibly reasonable thing to do.

GRABER: Sorry, Jarrett. Miss you! But back at the same time, in 2006, Mimi had her own ideas about Fluff.

GRANEY: He doesn’t quite believe me I don’t think, but I had already come up with the festival before the Fluffernutter bill came in, but it was very good for my publicity. As you can imagine. And I jokingly for that first festival challenged him, Senator Barrios, for his anti-Fluffernutter bill, and Representative Reinstein, with her Fluff-as-a-state sandwich, to a duel with a tug of war over a pool of Fluff. Which neither of which showed up, which I wasn’t all that surprised with, but I did have a pool of Fluff and a tug of war rope. So it became a neighborhood tug of war which was the highlight of the event.

TWILLEY: That’s right, as well as having written the book on Fluff, Mimi Graney is the founder of What the Fluff?, the one and only Fluff festival.

GRANEY: So it started in 2006, as part of a whole series of festivals that happened in the neighborhood where we were working to bring economic revitalization to Union Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

GRABER: Union Square is a tangle of streets that looks a little rundown, frankly, if you just drive through it. But it’s a pretty awesome little neighborhood, a great combination of immigrant stores and hipster coffee shops. That is, that’s what it looks like now. Back then, it was still sort of a work in progress.

GRANEY: So that neighborhood, kind of scrappy and gritty, had been sort of we thought of it as the eye of the development storm. A lot of other neighborhoods were being reborn because of transit and high tech. And Union Square had a lot of local businesses, a lot of immigrants, lots of interesting little food businesses, some makers, but wasn’t quite kind of taking off. So that first festival was really meant to be a one-off. But between the Senator Barrios kerfuffle, and between people just really embracing it with such rigor, that first year it was really just a lot of people standing around in a parking lot waiting in line for T-shirts, waiting in lines for eating the tuna fluffer, waiting in line to—we had some little science fair things. But people had a great time. Culminated with the tug of war over the pool of Fluff. And we had the Flufferettes for the modern age, we brought back the radio thing but we made them as burlesque girls with great pompoms and—G-rated burlesque girls.

TWILLEY: And this first What the Fluff? festival was such a hit that Mimi decided to do it again, and again, and again.

GRANEY: It’s now become a phenomenon, about 10,000 people come every year. It takes over the whole neighborhood. It used to just be a little part of a parking lot and now they shut down all the streets nearby. And one year we had such an impact on traffic and all the nearby highways and streets that the state police almost shut us down. But we have now got it down to a science and everybody knows all things must stop for the What the Fluff? festival every year.

TWILLEY: Of course, the main activity at the Fluff festival is eating Fluff. In pairings that make the Fluffernutter look very reasonable indeed.

GRANEY: At the Fluff festival we have a booth called the The Fear Factor where we see what kind of combinations people will consume with Fluff. And it was inspired because in the very first Fluff festival, as part of the activities that year we did a science fair. So my brother showed up calling himself the Tuna Fluffer, and had a couple of boxes of saltines, big tubs of tuna fish salad, pickles, mustard, hot sauce and Marshmallow Fluff. And you would think it is disgusting, but it is surprisingly delicious. And I thought well, if people stand in line to eat that, let’s see what other things they’ll do. So at the festival you can try it on broccoli, and with anchovies, and baba ghanoush, and some turn out better than others. The great thing about the festival is a lot of the business is the neighborhood look at incorporating Fluff into their recipes and because it’s an international neighborhood, people do some great things. Like Fluff pizzas, Fluff empanadas, Fluff cocktails, Fluff poutine, and I’m always amazed at how surprisingly and wonderful and delicious they are.

GRABER: This year was the 100th anniversary of the invention of Fluff, so there was an epic celebration planned for September. Of course, I went. The day had gotten pretty hot and it was insanely crowded and there were long lines for food. A lot of the food was the normal offerings from local restaurants, Venezuelan arepas or Peruvian chicken. But then they’d bust out things like arepas with nutella and Fluff, cocktails made with Fluff, pierogi with peanut butter, Fluff, and bacon, and bratwurst with a cheese and Fluff sauce.

TWILLEY: Tell me you didn’t eat that.

GRABER: No. I love the restaurant—it’s called Bronwyn—but the Fluff cheese sauce did not sound appealing to me. Still, I wanted to get into the spirit of the event, so my mom and I went over to the Fear Factor station.

GRABER: So I’m a little confused about what’s going on here… oh.

MOM: What?

GRABER: There are these toppings you can put on your Fluff. You have a cracker and you can put Spam, tuna, capers, corn, green beans, ginger, and Lucky Charms. There’s also chocolate syrup, Tabasco sauce, mustard, salsa, and ketchup, all with Fluff. Okay, I have mustard, Fluff and corn, and my mom has salsa, Fluff and —

MOM: Salsa, Fluff, and corn. It’s just a little sweet. Mostly I feel the salsa and the corn.

GRABER: It’s like a way too sweet salad dressing, kind of?

TWILLEY: I’m actually not super jealous that I didn’t get to try that one. But how about the famous Fluff tug-of-war? I’m picturing a Howard Stern-type situation here, with you sliding around in a pool of Fluff. Except probably not naked, right? Unless I underestimated you.

GRABER: No tug of war, and no, I did not get naked in the middle of Union Square. But I did see a very cute competition where some kids from the audience were chosen to go up on a stage. They had Fluff smeared on their faces. The whole point was they had to race to move small, furry, marble-sized balls from one table to another. And they couldn’t use their hands. So at one table, they stuck their little Fluff-covered noses into bowls to pick up the balls Then they ran over to the other table and scraped the ball off their nose into another bowl. Back and forth, with the Fluff as glue, racing to move the balls from one bowl to the other using just their sticky faces. I think the kids just had fun because there was Fluff smeared all over their them. And of course they licked it off.


TWILLEY: People said it couldn’t be done, but we did it! We made an entire episode on Fluff!

GRABER: But we couldn’t have done it without Mimi Graney. Her book is called Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon. She’s also been really central in local Somerville life, which obviously I’m a huge fan of.

TWILLEY: And thanks to our guinea pigs at the Museum of Science. I cannot think of a nicer group of people to lose my Fluff virginity with.

GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a scoop: a behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest stories in food this year.

OSCAR FARINETTI: Is same Colosseo. Is same El Duomo Milano. Is same for you—you are American—Disneyworld.

Eataly World and the Future of Food Shopping TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Eataly World and the Future of Food Shopping, first released on October 10, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Okay, hard hat on, I have to tighten mine.

SILVIA ZANELLI: That’s the part dedicated to sweets, and you see all the big bags there, there’s sand for the beach volley inside.

GRABER: Those are the sand for the volleyball court!


OSCAR FARINETTI: Eataly World is one monument. Is same Colosseo. Is same El Duomo di Milano. Is same for you—you are American—Disneyworld.

GRABER: That’s right, there is actually a new Disneyworld-style theme park being built just for food.

TWILLEY: And we got to visit!

GRABER: In case you’re wondering who we are, we are 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 week we’re in Italy. At least for part of the show. Not just for fun, I hasten to add…

GRABER: But because that’s just where the new theme park is about to open—in Bologna, in northern Italy. And it’s called Eataly World.

TWILLEY: You might have heard of Eataly—it’s spelled EAT-aly, like a mash-up of eating and Italy. It’s a store, there’s one in Chicago, LA, Boston, a couple in New York, a whole bunch in Italy and a few others around the world too—London, Tokyo, Istanbul.

GRABER: And we went to Eataly World—the ultimate Eataly—not just because we wanted to get the exclusive, behind-the-scenes, sneak peek at a site everyone is going to be buzzing about in just a few weeks.

TWILLEY: Although we totally did want to get that scoop for you. But also, we wanted to understand what Eataly World means for how we shop for food.

GRABER: This episode, we’re asking where did the modern supermarket come from? Have we always shopped for food this way? How will we shop for food in the future? And what does that say about our relationship with food?

TWILLEY: That’s the history, but you know we’re also all about the science—and so this episode we’re diving into the economic logic of food retail. Turns out grocery stores are terrible at making money. But why? And what can Eataly show us about how to make the business of selling food pay?

GRABER: And on top of all that, you’ll get to join us behind the scenes at Eataly World and go truffle hunting!



TWILLEY: OK, picture yourself in the 1800s. You need food. Where are you going to get it?

MICHAEL RUHLMAN: It would have been a sort of an old wooden structure. You walked in, there would have been a counter, and a clerk or clerks behind it. And you’d come in with a list of stuff you needed and they’d fill it.

GRABER: Michael Ruhlman wrote a book called Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. And he’s describing a log cabin. It’s literally Little House on the Prairie style.

RUHLMAN: You’d ask for a pound of nails and they’d put it in a little paper bag for you. You’d ask for a pound of sugar. You’d ask for a slab of bacon. You could get tools, shovels, shoes, any number of things. That’s how that’s how it basically was up till the Civil War.

TWILLEY: These log cabin style general stores, these were where you’d get your dried food, your cured food—anything that didn’t go bad quickly. For fresh food, most people pretty much grew their own, and then canned and preserved it for the winter.

GRABER: But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, life was changing in America. A lot of people started moving to cities, they weren’t growing and canning all their own food, they needed more options for buying food.

TWILLEY: And the market responded. You start getting shops that specialize in perishables. Greengrocers for vegetables, butchers for meat. And then the grocer, that’s where you got your boxed and canned goods.

RUHLMAN: And for decades that’s how we shopped.

GRABER: But today, that’s not how most of us in America shop for food. There’s one huge centralized store and that’s where you get everything. So how did we get to this? How did we end up with a supermarket?

TWILLEY: You don’t think of the supermarket as a thing that someone invented. But it is and they did!

RUHLMAN: It was invented by Michael Kullen. And he called it King Kullen. And it was in Queens.

GRABER: Michael Kullen worked for a normal general grocery store—again, at the time, grocery stores were stores that sold dry and canned goods. But Michael had an idea.

RUHLMAN: This Kullen fellow said we should put everything under one roof—we should have dairy here, we should sell meat, we should sell everything.

TWILLEY: So Michael went to his boss and said, how do you like my genius plan?

RUHLMAN: And he was rebuffed. And he said I’m going to go out and do this on my own. And so he found space in Jamaica, Queens, a 3000-square-foot former parking garage, and turned it into the first supermarket. A market that had produce, that had fish, that had meat, that had dairy, that had groceries. And that was the first supermarket.

GRABER: This is in the 1930s. And you might be picturing your local Safeway or Albertson’s, but scale that way down. It was much much smaller—it had only about 200 products in it.

RUHLMAN:  By the 1990s, that had gone up to 7000 products, an extraordinary number. Now we have between 40,000 and 50,000 products.

TWILLEY: In other words, our supermarkets today have 200 times more products than King Kullen. Which is kind of insane.

GRABER: Michael Kullen didn’t just come up with this idea for a supermarket out of thin air. There were other changes afoot, changes in technology that made his idea possible.

RUHLMAN: What allowed this to happen was refrigeration. Once we had refrigeration, then you could have all manner of food.

TWILLEY: Hold that thought folks—we are coming back to refrigeration. Many times actually, because I’m writing a book about it right now! But refrigeration, as near and dear to my ice-cold heart as it is—that’s not the only innovation that made the supermarket possible.

RUHLMAN: For instance in 1916, Piggly Wiggly introduced individualized shopping, where you pick your own food instead of handing your list to a clerk, who would then fill your order. You go around and self-serve.

GRABER: This was how you would have done your food shopping beforehand, you would have just handed over your shopping list and trusted the clerk to choose your food. Now you need a basket to haul around the groceries you pick out yourself. That was an innovation, a basket on wheels, which was introduced in the 1930s. And then the larger shopping cart.

TWILLEY: Which I and my fellow Brits call a trolley.

GRABER: That had to be invented, too.

RUHLMAN: So all of these developments were very slow to happen. And they really wouldn’t take firm hold throughout the country until after World War II.

TWILLEY: Michael’s point is, when King Kullen first opened, it brought all these innovations together: self-service, shopping baskets, refrigeration, everything under one roof. But it still took a while for the supermarket concept to catch on elsewhere. And even at King Kullen, people shopped the old way for the most part—picking up groceries on several trips a week rather than doing one big shop for the family.

RUHLMAN: Usually the man would be working, and if there was a car he would be using it. So the woman of the household would have gone shopping three, four times a week, and would only have been able to bring back as much as she could carry.

TWILLEY: And refrigeration! That was a problem too.

RUHLMAN: Because you didn’t have a good refrigerator at home, you had a cooler, but you only it was mainly to keep leftovers. You didn’t store food in it because there wasn’t much space. So we did our shopping on a regular basis. Once we had cars and refrigerators, then we could start making big runs to the supermarket and fill up our car and fill up or pantry and fill up our big fridge.

GRABER: After World War II, people started leaving the cities in droves for the suburbs. And the Interstate highway systems were being built, and there were cheaper tracts of land for supermarkets to buy and build bigger and bigger stores on. And the country’s food system was changing, too.

RUHLMAN: All this material for making bombs and driving the war effort, now they had to find some use for it. And we ended up putting it into fertilizer for the soil and creating mass produced foods.

TWILLEY: As it happens, the nitrogen-fixing process that makes explosives is the same process you use to make fertilizer. So that was an easy switch. And then tank factories are churning out combine harvesters to allow farms to scale up. And food companies that have ramped up production to feed the military during the war—they use that capacity to fill the consumer market with processed food after the war.

RUHLMAN: So we had all this food manufacturing taking over. We had the highways and the spreading out into the suburbs, where you had plenty of parking. We had roads. We had the infrastructure of the 1950s. We had the automobile, the rise of the automobile. These are the main things that allowed us to have a supermarket that we know today, filled with processed food in giant stores surrounded by vast parking areas.

GRABER: This all sounds like what I grew up with, which are, you know, big supermarkets, with big parking lots, and basically a weekly trip to the market. That’s how Michael grew up, too.

RUHLMAN: So Saturdays were given over. That was our hunter gatherer day. We’d go and we’d collect our food for the week. And then we’d sort of stay inside and eat that food for a week and then go back out on Saturday and resupply.

GRABER: But even though these supermarkets look huge and impressive, they’re actually a really tough business to run, in terms of the economics of it all.

RUHLMAN: The food retail system, it works based on a one percent margin.

TWILLEY: One percent! I wouldn’t get out of bed for that!

RUHLMAN: That means that if you are a small— if you’re a family business with say twenty stores, doing five hundred million dollars in sales, half a billion dollars in sales, you’re still considered a small family business because you’re only making 1 percent margin. You’re only making five million on that five hundred million dollar sales, gross sales.

TWILLEY: Five million dollars sounds like a lot, but it’s really not for a business of that size with that many employees and that much overhead.

RUHLMAN: You know, what kind of business model is that? A little shift in sales can seriously fuck them up. A store remodel costs four to five million dollars. That’s a year’s profit for, you know, a business doing five hundred million dollars in sales. It’s a crazy business model. Nobody in their right mind would get into it. So I don’t know why people get into it.

GRABER: Supermarkets all basically only compete on price, and each one is trying to undercut its competitors for the cheapest block of cheddar cheese. So they make only a tiny sliver of profit for each product they sell.

RUHLMAN: We just kept driving that margin down in an effort to sell more goods and move more product. You can’t raise prices once they’re down, you just have to create bigger and bigger volume.

TWILLEY: Mom-and-pop supermarkets have mostly been bought up at this point by chains, because like Michael says, the only way you can make any money in a business with such small margins is by scaling up and selling more stuff.

GRABER: These tiny profit margins are not the only reason the supermarket business is such a challenging one. We talked about this all with Sunil Gupta—he’s a professor at Harvard Business School.

SUNIL GUPTA: So a large issue in a fresh produce department is a lot of food is wasted, which is called shrinkage. And the low margins of this industry means that shrinkage is a big part of your profitability or loss.

TWILLEY: A supermarket has lots and lots of super perishable products. That leads to a lot of shrinkage. And, like we said, the margins are terrible. And then it gets even worse for supermarkets.

RUHLMAN: Two things that happened in 1988 that really signaled the change of our food retail system. The first was Walmart decided it could sell groceries. And because of its vast distribution network was able to become the largest grocer in the country overnight, in 1988, when it introduced its first grocery stores. Once it did this, all marketers saw that anybody could sell food. And that is why other people such as Target got into the game, as did many other players.

GRABER: This might seem obvious, but I’m going to spell it out anyway: in a business that’s competing almost entirely on price, Walmart wins. They have huge warehouses. They move product all over the country incredibly efficiently. They purchase in such massive quantities that they determine the price of a lot of our food.

RUHLMAN: Grocers will shake their heads, saying you know, they are selling Capri Sun juice or whatever that juice is for the same cost that we can buy it. So how are we going to make our margins? And yet we have to sell Capri juice because our customer wants it. So they try and do as best they can, but they just can’t compete. Walmart has made the commodity food product impossible to compete with for the grocer.

TWILLEY: So that’s one huge threat to the supermarket business model.

RUHLMAN: The second thing was Whole Foods goes national. Whole Foods began in the early 80s. And in 1988, it decided to branch out buying new stores—not building new ones, but buying existing stores and opening Whole Foods in there.

GRABER: Whole Foods at the time was niche, and, even though it seems like a big deal now and people use it as a cultural meme, it still is really niche. Amazon and Whole Foods together have less than 2 percent of the grocery store market today. But Whole Foods is also important.

TWILLEY: Because it reflects and it encourages a shift in the way many Americans started thinking about food in the past couple decades. You get the rise of the farmers market, you get the start of more people caring about where their food comes from and wanting to know those stories.

RUHLMAN: That’s what it was. They made you feel closer. You know, they have a cheese person there. They have knowledgeable people in their fish departments telling you where the fish is from. They did a great job of merchandising food.

GRABER: There’s another aspect of shopping at Whole Foods that a lot of people seem to love—at least judging by the fact that Whole Foods is expanding that section of the store—and that’s the salad bar and the pizza oven and the station with all the cooked meat and mashed potatoes and stir fried tofu. The sushi counter. The pre-wrapped sandwiches.

RUHLMAN: Now with the busy American family, and our lack of cooking know-how and our lack of patience with cooking and our desire for speed and quickness and our busy lives, grocers see a bigger demand for higher quality prepared foods.

TWILLEY: We think of supermarkets as places to buy food. But increasingly they’re places that make food, too. And then sell the food they made.

GRABER: It all started pretty simply, some supermarkets would sell rotisserie chicken, maybe—and then they noticed another opportunity.

RUHLMAN: When fruit was going bad they needed to reduce shrink, the term for waste in the grocery business. So they take fruit and they’d cut it up and use it and sell it in deli cups as cut fruit.

TWILLEY: And then they started selling a few pre-prepared dishes—meatloaf, lasagna, using up pre-ground meat that hadn’t sold. And it snowballed from there.

RUHLMAN: More and more realize that people want prepared foods, they’re struggling to figure out how to make money doing it.

TWILLEY: Because yeah, the prepared foods do help with shrink—you can cook the veggies that are a little past their prime and give them a second lease on life. But it turns out that the business of selling cooked food is also a hard one to make any money in.

RUHLMAN: I mean it’s hard to make money for a restaurant. Even when that restaurant has a wine and liquor license and can sell booze and wine for triple the price, it’s hard for restaurants to make money. It’s even harder for grocery stores make money serving prepared food, because it’s so labor intensive.

GRABER: So there are already a lot of problems. Walmart’s forcing the cost of food down, people want prepared foods but that’s hard to make money on. And now?

GUPTA: The retail industry is going through a big transformation. They are under pressure from Amazons of the world.

TWILLEY: You think Walmart is big? Meet Amazon. With grocery delivery, meal kit delivery—people don’t even want to go to the store these days. They don’t have time. They want their food delivered, they want it pre-portioned and packaged and easy—even easier. And Amazon is tough to beat when it comes to online retail.

GRABER: So does that mean that brick and mortar grocery stores are totally doomed? Not necessarily. At least, Oscar Farinetti doesn’t think so.

TWILLEY: Oscar is the lunatic and visionary behind Eataly and the Eataly World theme park. And that is where we’re going next, to see what his business model can tell us about the future of food retail.

GRABER: Today, the prospects for supermarkets aren’t looking so great. But the store we told you about at the beginning of the show, Eataly—it has branches opening all over the world. So we went to Italy to talk to the founder.

TWILLEY: Picture Mario from Super Mario Brothers. He’s the short round one with the mustache and the big smile. That is Oscar Farinetti, pretty much.

FARINETTI: I know only 200 words in English. It’s terrible for me.

GRABER: But luckily Oscar mostly talks with his hands. He waves his arms around so much that the biggest challenge during the interview was making sure he didn’t hit the mic.

TWILLEY: Oscar likes to say he was born into food. His dad ran a pasta factory and a coffee roaster. And then when Oscar was 18, his dad opened a mega Walmart-style combo grocery store-department store.

FARINETTI: Because my father was one entrepreneur-poet with big vision. And opening 1972 the first hyper market—one of the first hypermarket in Italy.

GRABER: Oscar started to work with his dad six years later, and pretty much the first thing he did was tell his dad that he wanted to get out of the grocery business entirely and specialize in electronics.

FARINETTI: I understand in the second day that this work will be the future. Remember, we stay in 1978. In Italy, the television was black and white.

TWILLEY: And record players were the size of houses. But Oscar saw the future. He realized that the next twenty years were going to see huge innovation in electronics. But he also found these clunky 70s era appliances kind of amazing already.

FARINETTI: But for me for example one washing machine don’t was one washing machine. Was one magic white box. When you introduce (ITALIAN).

TWILLEY: To translate: Oscar is saying you might see just a washing machine, but he sees a magical white box, a box where you can put in dirty things and clean ones come out!

FARINETTI: You understand? This is my vision. Was incredible, no?

GRABER: What was genuinely incredible was Oscar’s flair for the dramatic, even when he was selling things like washing machines or refrigerators. He’d ship fridges full of food as a surprise. He’d send a book along with a huge television to remind people to keep reading. And Oscar got rich.

TWILLEY: In the 80s and 90s, Oscar was boss of an entire chain of electronics stores called UniEuro. It was like the Italian version of RadioShack, but less depressing.

GRABER: But then in 2002, he sold the business to go back into food. Why?

TWILLEY: Again, Oscar saw the future. He saw those early Nokia flip phones and he read the writing on the wall.

FARINETTI: Before this I sell one telephone, one organizer, one stereo, one photo camera, one video camera. We sell many products. Now all in this.

GRABER: Oscar is waving his iPhone around as he speaks.

FARINETTI: Is terrible, is not work.

TWILLEY: But there was something else. His whole life, Oscar has been in love with food. Electronics was just a fling.

FARINETTI: I love to eat when I born. Every time of my life. Is very normal for one people that born in Alba. Alba is the capital of the best food in Italy. Is the land of Barolo, Barbaresco, white truffle…

GRABER: Oscar’s first foray into the food world—that wasn’t such a hit. He started a restaurant.

FARINETTI: The name was Osteria (ITALIAN). It was one crash terrible. Because I don’t understand that is no possible only restoration.

GRABER: He means restaurant.

FARINETTI: Is no good. And after I have new idea of the integration.

TWILLEY: And this is Oscar’s genius insight: the integration. If I wanted to sound like a business school professor, I’d say, “the synergy.” Like we said, the restaurant business is a tough one. The supermarket business is just as bad.

GRABER: And that’s the thing you need to understand about Eataly. It’s this weird hybrid of two businesses that are equally difficult to make any money in, and yet, somehow, it makes money.

TWILLEY: Sunil Gupta, the Harvard Business school professor we talked to earlier—he’s so intrigued by this he wrote an entire case study on Eataly.

GUPTA: Given that the world is going online and Amazon is going to start Amazon Fresh and everybody else, the transaction based model is not going to survive on its own.

TWILLEY: Sunil, like everyone else we talked to, thinks that the traditional supermarket is pretty much doomed. But Eataly is selling food and making money, and Sunil wanted to know how.

GRABER: Turns out there are a number of reasons. First, they’ve cracked the prepared foods problem. Like at a lot of supermarkets, they use the food that is starting to look not quite so fresh, but is still totally fine and tasty. It goes to one of the store’s many restaurants and is transformed into a delicious dish.

FARINETTI: For example, the fish. The fish. OK. In my store of the fish, the first day is for to sell. In the second when is go in the restaurant. I don’t have nothing in the third day, you understand? Vai!

TWILLEY: So far, so similar to Whole Foods. But Eataly’s prepared foods are a little different—Eataly has entire mini-restaurants inside the store, where you can sit down and order restaurant-priced food and you can drink wine, which helps the bottom line too. Plus, because the restaurants are in a grocery store, people don’t linger as much and you can turn the tables faster. Whereas in most restaurants, profits are limited by the amount of people you can seat. It’s a win-win.

GRABER: Oscar’s figured out another way to make this hybrid work. Eataly’s system for cutting waste also means the menu at Eataly restaurants keeps changing, which keeps them exciting and new for repeat customers. And then what’s more, customers who’ve eaten a tasty thing in those restaurants, well, they’re much more likely to buy that tasty thing on their way out the door.

GUPTA: If you can easily find the same product that you just ate, right five feet away, there is much more greater likelihood that you’ll actually stop at the counter and pick up that that meat or cheese or whatever pasta—that you’ll say, oh let me try it myself. And by the way they provide the school just in case you want to learn more. So I think they sort of figured out that the desire of consumers to act on that impulse is much higher when they just had a great experience.

GRABER: A great experience—that’s a description you never hear about a visit to the grocery store. But this is where Oscar’s magic really lies. At the new Eataly store in downtown Boston, there are four restaurants and an Italian-style grocery store and a fishmonger and a cooking school. You can take classes on how to make that delicious pasta dish you just ate. You can watch the pasta maker behind the glass. It’s theater.

TWILLEY: And this brings us back to the other big trend in food retail, other than prepared foods. Merchandising, storytelling, turning grocery shopping into an experience. Like we said, Whole Foods started down this path back in the 80s. But Oscar has taken it to a whole ‘nother level.

FARINETTI: One big space when it’s possible to buy what you eat and is possible to eat what you buy. And is possible to learn all, no? This is the secret of my company.

GRABER: Shop, eat, learn—that’s the Eataly mantra. You hear it all the time there.

TWILLEY:  It’s the washing machine trick all over again. The same way Oscar made home appliances thrilling—now he does that for food.

GRABER: Oscar pointed out that when you go to a store to buy a cell phone, there’s like a few paragraphs of description to convince you to buy say a Samsung instead of an iPhone. But at the grocery store, if you’re looking at five different kinds of apples? You get the name and the price. That’s it. Whole Foods started telling stories about food with little profiles of farmers, but that didn’t go far enough for Oscar.

FARINETTI: For this reason born Eataly because I don’t understand because these product don’t have one storytelling fantastic. When call me, ma, why you invent Eataly? For to describe one apple.

TWILLEY: Unsurprisingly, when Oscar first began writing his apple poetry, 10 years ago, everyone thought he was completely insane.

FARINETTI: Is all my life that the people think that I’m crazy. But I like.

GUPTA: He’s a—I think I’d call him a maverick or a visionary in some ways. So the lesson is how you can take an old traditional industry and completely reimagine that.

TWILLEY: And Oscar’s blend of shopping, eating, and learning—it’s a success. Italians actually shop at Eataly. And now he’s opened stores all over the world. Eataly rakes in tens of millions of dollars in profit each year.

GRABER: But reinventing the grocery store business was never enough for Oscar. From the very beginning, when he opened his first store in Torino, he had a grand plan for something more. Eataly World.

FARINETTI: Ah. Was my dream from the day after the opening of Torino. Because we have the integration of three activities, very important. To buy, to eat, and to learn. But the agricultural and the transformation?

TWILLEY: They were missing. The story of farming, the story of food processing—that part of the story still needed to be told. And Oscar had an idea for how to do it.

ZANELLI: We will have small lambs, yes, will be born here. But also cows, yes.

GRABER: Will people be able to see them giving birth?

TOMAS BARTOLI: I don’t know—why not?

GRABER: We were shown around the Eataly World site by Tomas Bartoli, he’s the architect for Eataly World. And Silvia Zanelli works in the communication department, she translated.

TWILLEY: Poor Tomas. He’s an architect, he’s used to working on grocery stores. Now he’s trying to figure out how to deal with pregnant pigs and mountains of animal poo.

GRABER: Tomas told us the poop will get carted off and composted. Eataly World will smell lovely. But yes, people can visit baby lambs and lemon groves and pasta factories. There are two hundred types of animals, two thousand types of plants.

ZANELLI: These are some of the fruit trees.

GRABER: We see figs.

ZANELLI: Yeah, figs, there are peach trees, and uh…

GRABER: There’s cheese makers making the cheese right there in front of your eyes.

TWILLEY: And a windmill grinding grain and an olive oil press making olive oil.

BARTOLI: This is production of sauces. It’s a corner of pasta. This is the vegetarian corner, vegetables corner.

GRABER: There’s 25 different restaurants. And then there’s a mini golf course.

TWILLEY: Eataly World is 20 acres in total, so that’s about a quarter the size of Disneyland. They’re expecting 10 million visitors a year, which is only a little less than Disneyland actually. And Eataly World is Oscar Farinetti’s pride, joy, and crowning achievement. It was still a building site when we visited. But picture a huge former fruit and vegetable warehouse with a cathedral ceiling, except for now it’s surrounded by greenhouses and little paddocks and vineyards.

GRABER: As far as actual Disney-like rides go… so, Oscar did tell us there would be rides. But what he calls rides? Turns out they’re more like museum installations where you learn about the human relationship with fire or with beer or whatever. There will be a holographic fire. But don’t expect thrills and spills. On the other hand, you can pick up a specially designed Bianchi bicycle—it has a basket in the front and one in the back with a refrigerated container—and you can ride your bike down the length of the whole place. It’s about three-quarters of a mile from end to end.

TWILLEY: There’s even a section on the future of food.

ZANELLI: So digitally you see all the plants growing, but actually you will be able to do it yourself for real. You take the little seed, you plant it, there will be webcams there so you can actually monitor your plant growing.

TWILLEY: It’s cool, you can watch your little tomato seedling growing on your cellphone, and then when it’s grown you can go back and pick it up! Which is really cute.

GRABER: And in fact Oscar’s vision of the future of food is, unsurprisingly, pretty rose-tinted.

TWILLEY: We talked to Sebastiano Sardo, he used to work with the Slow Food organization before he joined Eataly. And now he’s the one who’s in charge of figuring out how to get all the animals, plants, and food artisans all together in one giant theme park. But he told us, not everything gets the green light.

SEBASTIANO SARDO: There was the project of getting some insects also because they’re starting to raise insects for food but we didn’t feel it so attractive. I don’t know. It was, bah.

TWILLEY: We may all be eating insects in 20 years, but that’s not part of the Eataly World experience. It’s a theme park. But Oscar really does want visitors to understand more of the story behind their food, the way it’s grown and processed. That’s something he tries to communicate with words and pictures at a regular Eataly store. But there’s something magical about seeing it in person.

GRABER: Not all of Oscar’s poetic dreams can be translated into reality, though.

SARDO: The buffaloes. I would have loved to have some buffaloes but it was difficult.

GRABER: You need water buffalo milk to make the famous Italian buffalo mozzarella. But the buffaloes? Even Sebastiano couldn’t make that work.

SARDO: Because they need more space and they need more space, they don’t need the context full of people like this one. They’re quite wild. And we’ve been told that buffaloes can become very nervous about it. So we decided not to put them.

TWILLEY: No one wants to deal with an anxious water buffalo. And then there’s the issue of the white truffles.

SARDO: The truffles—allore.

TWILLEY: Yep. White truffles are very delicious, but we don’t actually know how to farm them. So, during truffle season, fresh truffles, harvested somewhere else, will have to be buried in the ground every night, for visitors to go quote truffle hunting with specially trained dogs the next day.

GRABER: Hey, it’s a theme park. Not everything in there is real.

TWILLEY: So there’s no bugs and no water buffaloes. Instead, there’s lots and lots of poetry. But here’s the thing: poems don’t pay the bills. And Eataly World is going to be free—no hundred dollar Disney park pass there. So how is Oscar making this all add up?

ZANELLI: Yeah, there will be no entrance ticket here, so money will come from the people’s experiences. So their choice is to attend courses, events, eat here, buy food.

GRABER: Tiziana Primori is the CEO of FICO, the company that was created to run Eataly World. She’s got decades of experience in the business world. She fully expects to have Eataly World make money, and she has the business plans to show for it.

TWILLEY: First, nothing you do once you get inside Eataly World is free. The truffle hunting? That costs money. So do the pasta-making classes. And the gelato you’ll eat after your beach volleyball. And of course all the meals and drinks you can consume there, and all the groceries you’ll buy to make those same meals at home.

ZANELLI: Everything will be paid at the end, so the cashier will be at the end.

GRABER: So any event you decide to do, it just kind of gets ticked off and then?

ZANELLI: Yes, yes, exactly.

TWILLEY: Man, that could be dangerous.

GRABER: Yeah, I think that’s kinda the point! And on top of visitors—tourists and locals alike—dropping serious cash on all the food and activities, then there’s the hospitality side of the business. There’s a giant conference center.

TWILLEY: There’s a dancefloor, there’s even a chapel if you want to get married at Eataly World. So that hospitality stuff, that’s another revenue stream. And then, Sunil Gupta told us, there’s the intangible value.

GUPTA: So Eataly World by itself may still make money. But the impact of Eataly world will be far more on the stores around the world.

GRABER: Sunil thinks that the impact of Eataly World—and all the millions of people who’ll visit—it’ll help make Eataly even more of a global brand. After experiencing Eataly World, all those tourists will then want to visit the Eataly stores in their home countries. And Oscar’s pretty confident he’s going to be able to entice millions of people to Bologna.

FARINETTI: I want that in the future the foreign tourists come in Italy say, OK, I want to go in Venice, in Florence, and in Eataly World. And I think that will be.

TWILLEY: This wonderland of food is opening its doors to the public in just a few weeks, on the 15th of November. And I actually really want to go back! When I first heard about Eataly World, I thought it sounded like a total nightmare. Disney is my personal version of hell and plus, you know, like any good urban hipster, I’m all about the tiny undiscovered gems rather than malls and megastores. But Oscar’s enthusiasm is contagious. And I’m curious—I want to see if he can pull it off.

GRABER: Yeah. I mean, I was afraid that it really was like Disney, like crazy kitschy rides and chocolate fountains everywhere. Not that I have anything against chocolate fountains. But it sounds like a lot of fun.  I want to see the cheese being made and the olive oil press and the grape harvest. Plus I wouldn’t mind searching for truffles, even if they’re planted. As long I get to eat them afterwards.

TWILLEY: But we are talking about how we shop for food this episode. And is Eataly World really the future of food retail? I mean, even Oscar thinks it’s a one-off—he’s not planning to build another.

GRABER: We’re probably not going to see an Eataly World-style store in every town. Still, retailers are seeing some of the same trends that Oscar predicted a decade ago, and they’re starting to follow suit. Some Whole Foods, for instance, they have fancy all-glass meat aging rooms built into the store, in-store taco trucks, roof-deck farms and restaurants. Sunil predicts more and more food businesses are going to have to learn from Oscar’s model to survive in an Amazon-dominated world.

GUPTA: Almost every supermarket is moving up this experience path.

TWILLEY: It’s a trend that Michael sees, too. In his book, Grocery, he followed his local Cleveland supermarket chain called Heinen’s. And their newest store is more than a little like an Eataly.

RUHLMAN: You know, you walk in there. It’s a powerful force. It’s like a cathedral of food.

GRABER: And the point is, this new Heinen’s in downtown Cleveland is a place for shoppers to do more than just buy food. It’s an experience.

RUHLMAN: They can go upstairs and have a glass of wine, 40 different wines, or they can have six to eight different kinds of craft beers. They can get a hot meal. There’s a vast salad bar, salads made daily. It’s virtually a full service restaurant, where you can actually buy the wine at at normal retail prices. People are meeting there. They have, you know, socials, they have oysters on Friday nights, and things like that. So it’s serving more as a social hub. And then you’ve got the people who live in the area coming in for their Cheerios and their potatoes and their milk and coffee.

TWILLEY: But that part—the Cheerios aisle—that’s the part of the supermarket that’s endangered. It’s too easy to get those commodity, non-perishable goods delivered by Amazon the very same afternoon, for less.

GRABER: There may always be some sort of cheap grocery store around for people who need something immediately. There may. But Michael walked around this gorgeous new Cleveland Heinen’s, and he asked owner Jeff Heinen what he thought the future of his business held.

RUHLMAN: And he looked out over the vast sort of center of the store, where all the commodity goods are, the Cheerios and the soda waters and the paper towels and the cake mixes and all that stuff. He said, you know, I see the center of the store shrinking. You know, this is all going to go away. And all we’re going to have is the specialty goods. You know, as grocers, we may go back to where we started, being purveyors of a very fine specialty goods. That may be our future.

TWILLEY: It makes sense. The supermarket was born in a particular time and place—it fit the logic of suburbs and cars and a society that wanted cheaper and cheaper food. Today, there are new forces in play: online shopping and delivery, a growing concern for where our food comes from. And so how we buy food will change, to reflect that. That’s the real lesson of Eataly—that the places we shop for food are a way to understand our evolving relationship with food.

FARINETTI: Now we got to eat because I like to eat, sorry.

GRABER: Yes, I think it’s very important. And with that, Oscar dropped the mic. And so will we.


GRABER: Once again, a huge, huge thanks to Toni Mazzaglia for translating and making everything happen. Go to Florence and take her food tour:

TWILLEY: Thanks also to Silvia Zanelli for helping coordinate our visit to FICO Eataly World, and everyone at Eataly who spoke with us. You can see pictures from our exclusive behind the scenes visit on our website,

GRABER: Thanks also to Sunil Gupta of Harvard Business School and Michael Ruhlman. His new book is called Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America.

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with a special Halloween theme.

JAMES COLE: Yes. So thankfully I didn’t actually do any sort of uh—I didn’t have to do any practical elements for the study. I did do quite extensive research and I really couldn’t find anything that was done on a concrete kind of way to establish the calorie values of a human.




Peanuts: Peril and Promise TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Peanuts: Peril and Promise, first released on June 20, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


CYNTHIA GRABER: This makes me feel like a kid again—I ate peanut butter all the time growing up, like most kids did in the 70s and 80s in America.

NICOLA TWILLEY: I had a year of kindergarten in the U.S., so I was familiar with the magic of a PB&J from lunchbox trades. But then I moved back to England, and I didn’t have peanut butter again till I was 16. I was babysitting the kid of American expats. They had Jif in their kitchen cupboard, and I ate a spoonful… and oh my God, there I was standing there in suburban Surrey, it was like Proust and his madeleines. I was basically five again. Peanut butter apparently goes deep.

GRABER: And, as usual, we are going to go deep this episode—all about the peanut. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I am Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we are going to find out where the peanut comes from, explore the controversy over who invented peanut butter…

GRABER: As well as investigate the mystery of why so many people are suffering from peanut allergies—and we’ll find out how peanuts are also helping save lives by tackling world hunger.



JORI LEWIS: No, peanuts are not nuts. They are legumes. So they are more related to, like, soybeans or mung beans or something like that than they are to tree nuts—almonds or walnuts.

TWILLEY: So really today we’re talking about the pea bean.

GRABER: That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting.

TWILLEY: We can keep calling it the peanut if that sounds better, sure. But either way, the peanut is an exciting plant.

JON KRAMPNER: The peanut is about the only plant in the world where it flowers above ground and it fruits below ground.

GRABER: Jon Krampner wrote the book Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, an all-American food. And Jori Lewis—she was the first person you heard—she’s a freelance reporter based in Senegal, and she’s working on a book on peanuts and the slave trade.

TWILLEY: We don’t tend to think about peanut flowers, but, according to Jon and Jori, they’re beautiful. Jon described them as almost like orchids, with little orange and red streaks.

KRAMPNER: After about a day or so the flower dies and what’s left is what’s called a peg, which turns downward, burrows into the ground, and then produces a peanut underground.

TWILLEY: And that is just plain weird. Like Jon says, the peanut is almost the only plant in the world that does this whole flower-then-burrow routine.

GRABER: The peanut is native to northern South America. Scientists think people have been growing and harvesting peanuts there for about 10,000 years. Peanuts are used to make soap. They’ve also been used in all sorts of dishes. When peanuts are young, people eat them shell and all. They’re also used for peanut juice, a drink that also includes fermented quinoa water. I totally want to try that.

TWILLEY: You first. But, you know, if we’re talking about trying traditional peanut recipes from South America, Jon has a slightly better sounding option.

KRAMPNER: The ancient Incas ground peanuts and mixed it with chocolate. I guess it’s kind of like their prehistoric form of Nutella or something.

GRABER: Then peanuts spread into Central America as well. But today people all over the world eat peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, peanut sauce. So how did these tiny beans travel around the world? First, of course, the Conquistadors showed up in South America.

TWILLEY: And, unlike cacao beans, which, as you might remember from our chocolate episode, were not necessarily a hit with early European invaders, peanuts actually went over pretty well.

GRABER: One of the first recorded sightings was by a priest named Bartolome de las Casas who traveled to the island of Hispaniola—it’s now Haiti and the Dominican Republic—in 1502.

LEWIS: And he said that they grew this thing that grew underneath the ground that tasted like a hazelnut. And that’s kind of the perception that repeated quite often by many of the explorers. They kind of find this thing that Indians grow and that they eat, that tastes like a hazelnut.

TWILLEY: So, basically, peanuts were enough like something the Europeans already knew from back home that they embraced it with open mouths. And the peanut had some other important benefits to a sea-going people.

GRABER: When they’re dried and roasted, peanuts keep for a really long time. And they’re an amazing source of protein, and they’re delicious.

TWILLEY: Which makes them an amazing food to take on long sea voyages.

KRAMPNER: The Spanish took peanuts west to Asia on galleons that sailed between Acapulco and Manila between 1565 and 1815. The Portuguese took it to east to Africa and India from their colony in Brazil.

TWILLEY: Peanuts became popular basically wherever they went. But in Western Africa, they really caught on. Because pretty much the only other plant that grows like a peanut, with this weird flower-above-ground-fruit-below thing is an African plant called the bambara groundnut.

LEWIS: So Africans would have had experience already growing something similar.

GRABER: They grow the same, but they don’t taste exactly the same.

LEWIS: No, like, peanuts are kind of almost slightly sweet. The bambara groundnut doesn’t have that. It is kind of like eating like a pea or a bean or something like that. Although you do eat them in the same way, like, with boiled, with salt, or like roasted.

GRABER: Peanuts have other advantages, not just that they’re sweeter and more nut-like, less beany. They have a higher oil content and peanut plants produce more nuts than bambara groundnuts do.

TWILLEY: So peanuts became all the rage in West Africa, and, from there, they made their way back across the Atlantic to the U.S.. Most historians think they came on slave ships.

LEWIS: There have been some scientists who question this hypothesis, right? Like why wouldn’t the peanut have crossed like Rio Grande. You know, like, it was in Mexico, why not? But I guess the evidence doesn’t show much usage by Native Americans.

GRABER: The argument that peanuts came with the slave ships seems pretty convincing. We already know peanuts were used to provision ships, and the slaves themselves also likely brought the seeds with them. Because they were growing and eating peanuts in West Africa.

TWILLEY: You can even trace the West African origins in the different names people have for peanuts in the South.

LEWIS: In the South for a long time called the peanut the goober, and we know that goober is a derivation of a Congolese word called nguba probably for the bambara groundnut, right? For something that’s like the peanut.

GRABER: Peanuts really suited the South. The sandy soil there was a perfect home. And the plant, like other legumes, helped enrich the soil. So people grew them—but you wouldn’t find them on the dinner plates of the rich families in town.

KRAMPNER: Peanuts were more traditionally thought of as just something that you fed to the hogs, really. They, sort of gastronomically, you could say they were lower on the social scale.

GRABER: This is actually where the phrase ‘peanut gallery’ comes from. The cheapest and rowdiest seats.

TWILLEY: It took multiple wars for peanuts to turn their image around in the U.S.. The first was the Civil War

KRAMPNER: In the Civil War, when the Union blockaded the South, Southerners had to turn more to peanuts as a way of just surviving. And, in a sense, you could say an early form of peanut butter, they would put peanuts in a bag and shake them around and make what was called peanut porridge.

GRABER: And then as the Northern soldiers marched through the South, they got to know the peanut. For many, this was their very first encounter with our national bean.

TWILLEY: Just you wait, you will all be calling it the pea bean by the end of this show. Post-Civil War, peanuts got another huge boost when the super ugly, snouty boll weevil made its way up from Central America and ate all the Southern cotton crop.

KRAMPNER: And so southern farmers had to look for a replacement crop. They turned to peanuts and then they thought, well, we’re not going to really get much money selling all of this for hog food, how can we make a more lucrative crop out of them?

GRABER: But the farmers had a problem, because the peanuts had an image problem.

KRAMPNER: They also had to, in a sense, engage in a PR campaign of convincing Americans that peanuts were not just this hog food anymore. And so you get an article in the 20th century where you you see a peanut with a top hat and monocle and spats, and it’s like an early forerunner of Planters Mr. Peanut. But this is their way of saying that peanuts are now a high class food for people.

GRABER: That little top hat and monocle made all the difference.

TWILLEY: Not as much difference as grinding the peanuts into a gritty paste, which is what happened next. This new era in peanut history began in the Midwest in the 1890s.

KRAMPNER: And there are two different schools of thought as to who made the first peanut butter. One school says it was John Harvey Kellogg of the Kellogg’s cereal family.

GRABER: We’ve talked about John Harvey Kellogg before. He ran a sanitarium in Michigan, and it was filled with lots of weird and not particularly tasty foods. And he loved the peanut. It was an ingredient in his meat substitutes. And he turned it into a paste, kind of like what the Incas did.

TWILLEY: Unlike the Incas, Kellogg patented his paste. But the Inca chocolate version sounds way better than the healthy Kellogg version.

KRAMPNER: Originally they would kind of roast peanuts but then they decided that it made more sense to either steam or boil them because it was healthier. And it is healthier, but the taste isn’t as good. Which is why some other people think that really credit for starting peanut butter goes to George Bayle.

GRABER: George was a snack food manufacturer in St Louis. He made potato chips, called Saratoga chipped potatoes. He made horseradish sauce. And unlike John Harvey Kellogg, he roasted his peanuts before he turned them into a paste so they actually tasted good.

KRAMPNER: The flavor of peanut butter is the flavor of roasted peanuts. So that’s why I’m a George Bayle man.

TWILLEY: To be totally fair here, George’s first peanut paste sounds as disgusting as Kellogg’s boiled concoction: it was called Cheese-Nut, and, just like it sounds, it was a Cheese Whiz-substance flavored with peanut butter. According to an April 1920 article in the Peanut Promoter magazine, Cheese-Nut was quickly dropped. But peanut paste solo—that caught on.

GRABER: By 1914, there were already more than twenty peanut butter brands for sale in Kansas. It was a hit in sandwiches. The first peanut butter sandwich recipes in the late 1800s were often more savory. They had mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper. Maybe some lettuce or even meat. Personally I think these sound kind of tasty.


TWILLEY: Peanuts didn’t first meet their life partner, jelly, until 1901. But it was love at first sight. And then when sliced bread was invented in the 1920s—well, there was no stopping the PB&J after that.

GRABER: The two World Wars gave peanuts a major boost. During the First World War, Americans were told to lay off the meat so that it could be sent to soldiers, and so they turned to peanut butter for protein. But in the Second World War, peanut butter was included in the soldiers’ rations. It’s high in protein and calories and all sorts of great nutrients.

KRAMPNER: And the soldiers really took a liking to it. Plus they came back and fed it to their baby boomer kids. And that’s when sales of peanut butter really started to skyrocket.

TWILLEY: Today, Americans eat a lot of peanuts. And roughly two thirds of the peanuts we eat are in the form of peanut butter.

GRABER: But—and this is somewhat shocking—there is another country that eats more peanut butter per capita than we do. Canada, you win on this one.

TWILLEY: In Europe, the Dutch are a bit of an anomaly in that they actually eat almost American levels of peanut butter. They call their peanut butter pindakaas, which is peanut cheese.

GRABER: But not George Bayle’s Cheez Whiz variety.

TWILLEY: No, thank god. Although the Dutch do have a soft spot for savory uses—PB and cucumber sandwiches are popular, apparently, as is peanut satay sauce. Maybe a legacy from when Indonesia was a Dutch colony.

GRABER: In India and China, peanuts are popular, but almost exclusively for peanut oil. It has a high temperature frying point and so it’s perfect for stir fries, even better than the oils that were being used before peanut oil, because they were smokier.

TWILLEY: But with the exception of our friends in The Netherlands and Canada, the U.S. really does have kind of a unique relationship with peanut butter.

KRAMPNER: Americans are, you know, we’re kind of impatient, we want things now. And peanut butter is a fast food: you open a jar, you eat it. It’s not like, you know, you don’t have to have a Japanese tea ceremony or anything.

GRABER: I personally will eat peanut butter on almost anything, no need for any type of ceremony. On apples, on carrots, whatever, it’s great. But the rest of the world thinks Americans are pretty weird.

KRAMPNER: As children we become accustomed to its sticky texture, whereas in other countries where they don’t grow up on it, people who were introduced to peanut butter as adults don’t like the sticky texture.

TWILLEY: Speaking of texture, that’s one of the ways that peanut butter has really evolved since George Bayle’s day. At first, grinding peanuts in the mechanical food mills of the time gave a sort of coarse, grainy texture. A little bit like the texture of grind-it-yourself peanut butter in grocery stores today.

GRABER: And then came hydrogenation. You’ve probably heard about hydrogenated vegetable oils—basically hydrogen gas is bubbled into a big tank of oil that has another substance in it, a catalyst to make the reaction work. Hydrogenation changes the bonds of the atoms in the oil so that it stays more tightly packed, more solid, and that also means it has a higher melting point. So it’s solid at room temperature.

KRAMPNER: And you get the first hydrogenated peanut butter, which is Heinz, by the way, in 1923.

GRABER: Adding some partially hydrogenated oil meant that the peanut oil didn’t separate and rise to the top of the jar. And so it didn’t go rancid. And you could keep peanut butter out of the fridge for longer.

KRAMPNER: Prior to that, most peanut butter brands were local and regional. But with hydrogenation you could you could ship the peanut butter around the country. It would last during shipping, it would last, you know, on the store shelves. And so that really helped to fuel the rise of national peanut butter brands.

TWILLEY: And it was the key to the rise of super creamy peanut butter—the kind most people grew up with, the kind that’s almost like frosting. Hydrogenation is what makes that texture possible. And we should say here, hydrogenation sounds a little scary, but only 1 to 2 percent of the final jar of peanut butter is this hydrogenated oil, and an even smaller percentage of that contains transfats.

GRABER: So that’s how our peanut butter got super smooth and creamy. But how did it get crunchy? It all goes back to a guy named Jerome Rosefield. His father created Skippy.

KRAMPNER: Jerome Rosefield would travel around the country a lot, he would ask people, “How do you like our peanut butter?” And if they didn’t like it, he would ask why. And the most common response he got was that, well, it’s too smooth. And this just appalled him because we’re trying to make our peanut butter as smooth as possible. And here are people complaining it’s too smooth. But he goes, all right, if that’s what they want.

GRABER: So in 1935, they made some crunchy peanut butter to test out in Salt Lake City. After making the smooth variety, they just threw in some partially ground peanuts as well. It was also a hit. Not as big a hit as smooth peanut butter, but it has its place. Seventeen percent of peanut butter buyers prefer the crunch.

TWILLEY: I am a crunchy girl myself, I must admit.

GRABER: This is how we ended up with the peanut butter textures on the shelf today. We have crunchy or creamy. The first peanut butter really wasn’t either one.

TWILLEY: And those first peanut butters—the taste would have been different too. Because it turns out there’s four main varieties of peanut, and they all taste different.

GRABER: Today nearly all peanut butter comes from one variety—it’s called the Runner peanut. But in the past, nobody made peanut butter out of Runners. It was made from Spanish or Virginia peanuts, which are two other varietals. And the fourth type of peanut is called the Valencia.

TWILLEY: The Spanish are the little red-skinned ones you see sometimes, they’re sweeter and smaller and today they’re mostly used in peanut candy. Virginia are the largest, they’re called the cocktail peanut—when you buy jumbo roasted salted peanuts, those are Virginias, and so are the ones you have to crack yourself at the ballpark.

KRAMPNER: There are differences in oil chemistry between the Spanish and Valencia on one hand and the Runners and Virginias on the other. That really is what accounts more for the difference in flavor.

KRAMPNER: The Valencias are really the sweetest, closely followed by the Spanish but the Valencias are the most the most trouble to grow, you could almost say the most temperamental.

GRABER: So as I said, for all of peanut butter’s early history, the manufacturers used mostly Spanish or Virginia, or both. Valencia was a pain to grow. And the Runner? That was just thought to be a kind of crappy peanut. Until 1970 and the Florunner.

KRAMPNER: Well, the Florunner was just a revolutionary kind of peanut. And the Florunner was developed by a peanut grower at the University of Florida. So its name comes from the state of Florida and the fact that it’s a Runner. Now, Runners traditionally have not been regarded as tasty as the other varieties of peanuts. But the Florunner was tastier than previous runner varieties. It also had the virtue from the point of view of peanut growers of being much more prolific, by about 25 percent.

TWILLEY: Farmers obviously loved that aspect of the Runner. And manufacturers loved that the nut was more uniform, so it roasted evenly. But they were nervous—would peanut butter eaters who were used to Virginia and Spanish nuts, would they like the taste of the Florunner?

GRABER: Jif tested the waters by adding just 15 percent Florunner into their peanut butter. Nobody noticed. So all the companies started adding more and more, until Runners became basically the winner in the peanut race. And they still are today.

TWILLEY: All the major peanut butters—Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan, the self-grind stuff in the store—it’s almost all Runner. That’s the taste we’re used to now. But the Florunner takeover in the 70s means that, if your grandad says peanut butter doesn’t taste like it used to, he might have a point.

KRAMPNER: Regardless of what the manufacturers say, I and partisans of other varieties of peanuts feel that it did change the flavor. It’s a little blander now.

GRABER: So we decided to test this out. We’d never even considered the fact that there might be variety in peanut butter other than, you know, added sugar or not. I mean, peanuts are just peanuts, right? But it turns out there are a few companies that still use peanuts other than Runners. They’re hard to find, but they’re out there.

TWILLEY: So we assembled four peanut butters and two quote unquote volunteer taste testers—Cynthia’s partner Tim, and my husband Geoff. Really, they have no choice, this is what you get for living with Gastropod. But they have qualifications in this area.

GEOFF MANAUGH: Sure, my name is Geoff Manaugh and my relationship to peanut butter… I guess you could call me peanut curious.

TWILLEY: But I mean you are peanut experienced too, at least as a youth right?

MANAUGH: That’s true. Yeah I’m peanut experienced. I grew up—if I remember correctly I ate Skippy. My mom would make me peanut butter sandwiches, not peanut butter and jelly. I’m not a big jelly fan. And then I honestly don’t eat peanut butter very often but I guess when I do I enjoy the experience.

GRABER: I would like you to describe for me your typical breakfast.

TIM: For as many years as I can remember, it’s a piece of toast and peanut butter with honey on top of it.

GRABER: Did anything in particular start this breakfast routine?

TIM: You know, I was trying to think about that in advance of this and I couldn’t remember. It’s just, it’s like the perfect breakfast. You don’t have to think about it. It’s easy to make. It’s really filling. It’s really yummy. It’s the best breakfast!

GRABER: And what did our intrepid peanut tasters think about these new horizons in peanut butter? We’ll find out—after we hear from a couple of our sponsors this episode.


TWILLEY: Time for some peanut butter. Our first jar was one we had to order by mail—Krema Nut Company from Columbus, Ohio. They use only Spanish peanuts.

TiM: Totally tastes like Spanish peanut, right? So my dad used to get the bags of Spanish peanuts and it still had that outer skin on them. They were red.

GRABER: How do you know they were Spanish?

TIM: Because it said Spanish peanuts on the back. And this tastes just like that.

TWILLEY: Krema Nut has no added sugar. But Spanish peanuts are known for being naturally super sweet. And you could really taste that. I keep wanting to say like, floral, but, I mean, this is not a wine tasting, this is a peanut butter tasting.

MANAUGH: Are you having trouble talking?

TWILLEY: Glues your whole mouth together. That’s very sticky. It’s quite mild, nutty, quite sweet—it’s got a lot of—it’s honey, it’s honey that I’m thinking of. It’s kind of got a honey-ish note to it.

GRABER: The next one we tried was Valencia. Trader Joe’s has an organic Valencia peanut butter. And like the Spanish, it’s known to be sweeter. And it’s higher in oil.

MANAUGH: Alright, so I’m looking at it, it’s very, very liquidy. In fact it’s kind of it’s actually moving around quite actively inside the jar.

TWILLEY: When you shake it, it’s not like it’s alive.

MANAUGH: Well, I’ll be the judge of that.

TWILLEY: Geoff and I were not fans of this one. Geoff compared the taste to flat Coke.

GRABER: Tim and I actually loved it.

TIM: Yeah it’s sweeter and it has felt like almost like a—like a coffee flavor or something. It’s this smoother nuttiness or something.

GRABER: It’s a different flavor profile. I have to say I’ve always loved the Runner peanut. It tastes fine. But now that I’m tasting these other ones, it doesn’t taste as good. Am I getting spoiled?

TIM: That’s it. Now we’re going to have to get mail-away peanut butter every week. That’s terrible.

GRABER: Good thing that Trader Joe’s isn’t so far.

TWILLEY: You can keep your Valencia. In our house, it’s all about the Virginias. That was our third peanut butter: Koeze Cream Nut from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

MANAUGH: There’s definitely a strong peanut taste and yet it’s not sweet and yet it’s also kind of, I don’t know, it just tastes really good. I like it. So what kind of peanut is this again?

TWILLEY: This is the Virginia.

MANAUGH: Go America, man.

TWILLEY: Exactly. That’s exactly the moral of this story.

GRABER: This one wasn’t our favorite.

TIM: It doesn’t seem that different for me than the Runner.

GRABER: And actually they’re in the same, like, when they’re grouped together in the varietals, it’s the Runner and the Virginia and the Spanish and the Valencia.

TIM: Look at us we’re like sommeliers of peanut butter.

GRABER: It’s totally true.

TIM: I want that to be a thing. And I want to be the first master peanut sommelier. Now I can close my eyes, blindfolded. First I smell, then I taste, I can tell you this was a Valencia grown at 5000 feet above sea level.

GRABER: Oh my gosh, Valencias are grown higher above sea level in New Mexico! You’re not even kidding. That’s totally true!

TIM: I’m the peanut whisperer!

GRABER: Tim’s been eating peanut butter every morning for breakfast for like a decade—and he is clearly a peanut butter expert! Okay, so the Valencia bit was a good guess. But it is really grown at 4000 feet in the US.

TWILLEY: This whole thing, even though I felt ridiculous doing a peanut butter tasting—but it was one of the more surprising taste tests we’ve done for the show. I really was expecting peanut butter to just be peanut butter. But now I’ve sold my soul to Virginia peanuts, and I can only get my peanut butter in the mail from now on, which I am perfectly aware is about the bougie-est thing I’ve ever said.

GRABER: This is a fun one to test at home, and if you go to our website——we’ll have the names of the peanut butters we used. But not all of you will be able to give it a try. Because I’m betting that some of you listeners either are or live with someone who’s allergic to peanuts.

MATTHEW SMITH: So the first medical case that I’ve come across of a peanut allergy fatality is in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in the late 80s. And a couple of months later there’s one in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And then there’s a few more reports. And it just escalates from there, and it escalates very quickly.

TWILLEY: Matthew Smith is a professor of health history at the University of Strathclyde and the author of a new book called Another Person’s Poison: The History of Food Allergy. And he told us that the number of people who are allergic to peanuts has basically doubled in the past 20 years.

SMITH: So we’re talking about something that starts in the late 1980s, and has continued to increase. Now that’s not to say that there weren’t cases of peanut allergy or even fatal reactions to peanut allergy before then. There are a few that you can come across, although hardly any, if any at all, in the medical literature. But what you do see is this this rapid increase during the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s. So the question is, yeah, if people were eating peanut butter and peanut products, Snickers bars and all the rest of it, throughout the 20th century, which they were, what changes in the late 1980s and 1990s and onward to today to explain the increase in peanut allergy?

GRABER: Right. It’s weird. People have been reacting to food since, well, as long as we’ve been eating food. We haven’t always called it an allergy.

SMITH: The word allergy goes back to 1906. Prior to that we do get discussion of what are called idiosyncrasies, which basically means a strange reaction to something. And that, certainly, you can get cases of idiosyncrasies to food all the way going all the way back to Hippocrates—so you know, fifth century B.C.. He talks about cheese being something that gives some men great strength but others come off badly. And we can just imagine what come off badly means.

TWILLEY: But the thing about these idiosyncrasies or allergies as we know them today, it’s hard to get a handle on them. Some data says 60 percent of Americans suffer from a food allergy—other people think that number is wildly overblown. It comes down to a fuzziness in how you define an allergy. But an allergic response to peanuts—I mean, anaphylactic shock is not a particularly fuzzy thing.

SMITH: So what happens to many people when they have a peanut allergy reaction is that they go into anaphylaxis. Which is a way of the body in a way going into shock. So it sends the immune system into overdrive. So if you think of your body comes in contact with a cold virus, what the body does is it triggers all of these antibodies to try to attack those cold viruses and prevent them from entering the body. So you get, you know, phlegm-y, mucus-y, start sneezing, all those sorts of things. Those are all defense mechanisms. Well, what anaphylaxis does is it basically does that times a hundred. So you get swelling in the neck, for example, that’s one of the most dangerous symptoms. You also get drops in blood pressure. You tend to get cardiac problems. Your body is just going into overdrive trying to prevent this peanut protein from entering the bloodstream essentially.

GRABER: Basically your body thinks that the peanut protein might be something foreign that it has to get rid of. This is how most food allergies work—there’s a protein that your body freaks out over.

SMITH: In terms of what makes peanuts the reactions to peanut more potentially fatal than, say, to other proteins, that’s something that scientists are still trying to find out.

TWILLEY: And that’s not the only unanswered question here. The thing in your body that makes it freak out, that’s a chemical called immunoglobulin E, IGE for short.

SMITH: One of the mysteries is what was IGE for prior to allergy? In previous centuries when allergies weren’t such a common occurrence, what was this IGE for? And one of the hypotheses seems to be fairly well substantiated is that IGE was used to fight off parasitic infections.

GRABER: This actually leads to one of the hypotheses for why allergies in general might be on the rise. It’s called the hygiene hypothesis. Basically it’s that we live in such a clean environment and our bodies aren’t exposed to parasites and other types of infections that might toughen us up, and so that IGE has nothing to do and so it overreacts. To peanuts, and to other foods. You know, allergies.

TWILLEY: But the hygiene hypothesis doesn’t answer the question of why peanut allergies in particular are seeing such a stratospheric rise, more so than other allergies.

SMITH: If I was a scientist with the American Allergy Association, you know, the honest answer would be we don’t know. But there certainly have been a lot of hypotheses put forth.

GRABER: One of these hypotheses is that there are more peanut allergies in areas of the world where they—we—roast the peanuts. And that maybe roasting affects the peanuts in some way that boiling doesn’t and makes them more allergenic. So maybe John Harvey Kellogg was right? But I don’t want to eat boiled peanut butter.

TWILLEY: Matthew said there’s another, quite controversial hypothesis, that’s still very much speculation.

SMITH: And that is that the idea that pharmaceutical companies have been using peanut oil as an adjuvant in their vaccines for about well put the same number of years as peanut allergy has been a problem. That’s something that I think given all the fuss about MMR and autism, you know, if you’re a respectable scientist who wants to have a decent career you’re probably not going to go near that one.

GRABER: There’s another theory, and it kind of wraps up two ideas in one. It’s that there’s peanut protein in so many things—peanut butter, peanut flour, peanut oil. It can show up in deli meat, the additives in orange juice, chocolate, everything.

SMITH: What’s interesting or what I guess is alarming about peanuts is that they seem to enter the food stream in ways that certainly seafood and maybe not eggs but other products don’t.

TWILLEY: So Matthew’s point is peanut proteins are everywhere in tiny, tiny quantities. And, at the same time, the advice to parents has often been to not introduce peanut butter until kids are a little older. So they’re getting this low-level background exposure and then not encountering an actual peanut until much later.

GRABER: And the hypothesis is that means that your body never learns to deal with the peanut, it just always thinks that peanut protein is a that foreign substance that kicks IGE into high gear. Today, the guidelines for when to introduce peanuts has changed. Now, if kids don’t seem to be at high risk for food allergies, the recommendation is to feed them peanut butter at about six months. And there’s a funny story for one reason why this has been changing—a British scientist was giving a presentation in Israel about the rise of peanut allergies. He asked the hundreds of attendees how many had seen a peanut allergy in the last year? And only, like, three people raised their hands—while nearly all pediatricians and allergists in the U.S. or the U.K. would have raised their hands. This might be why:


GRABER: Dad, mom, Bamba. Kids’ earliest words in Israel. Bamba is an Israeli treat that’s peanut butter flavored. Everyone loves it. Pretty much all Israeli babies eat it.

TWILLEY: And so now that British scientist is in charge of a major study, looking at whether exposing babies to peanut butter really early, like Israeli-style early—whether that will help their bodies learn that peanut protein is not something to freak out about. And his first set of results, from just a couple of years ago, show that exposing kids who were considered to be at a high risk for peanut allergy to peanut butter did seem to prevent the kids from developing an allergy.

SMITH: I think it’s important to note that whereas some people are in favor of that approach, not everyone is. And I think it’s still it still begs the question of why some people appear to be more susceptible to these allergies than others.

GRABER: So while it does seem as if introducing peanut butter earlier will help prevent a lot of people from developing peanut allergies, Matthew isn’t convinced that this will stop the incredible and surprising rise of peanut allergies all together. There’s still way too much we don’t understand.

SMITH: I think my inclination is that it isn’t going to be just one thing.

TWILLEY: For now, there are still plenty of kids for whom peanuts are deadly. But there are also lots of kids for whom peanuts are a lifesaver.

GRABER: Because they’re eating Plumpy’Nut.

MARTIN BLOEM: In principle it’s like peanut butter. It’s not much different as peanut butter.

TWILLEY: Martin Bloem is a senior nutrition advisor in the World Food Program. And he is talking about a food he uses in his aid work all the time: Plumpy’Nut.

BLOEM: When Andre Briend, he thought a lot about it, you know, what do children actually consume relatively easily.

GRABER: Andre Briend is a pediatrician in France. And he was trying to solve the problem of getting nutrients into kids who desperately needed them. At the time they had to go to a hospital if they were suffering from the kind of malnutrition that could kill them.

TWILLEY: Before Plumpy’Nut, the best treatment to get enough nutrients and calories into these kids quickly, to save their lives, was a product called F100, a therapeutic milk. And while F100 worked well, treating kids with it had some problems.

BLOEM: Milk can spoil very easily, so it’s really difficult to to keep those products. You have to keep it cool. We have to use fridges and in many places where we work it’s very difficult to use those fridges.

GRABER: This just wasn’t a good solution, it couldn’t help all the kids who needed it. But the Andre noticed a jar of Nutella. Which is delicious, but he also thought—hey, it has a great combination of proteins, energy, and fat!

TWILLEY: This is back in 1996. And Andre figures, why don’t I use the idea of Nutella and make a therapeutic nut paste for starving kids. The result was Plumpy’Nut, which is just peanut paste, vegetable oil, milk powder, sugar, vitamins and minerals. Peanuts, as we know, have a high protein content, they have a high fat content, so they have lots of calories and they’re also a great vehicle for all these nutrients. Plus they taste good.

BLOEM: You open it and you just squeeze it out. So it is it’s an incredible practical way to use it under the most difficult circumstances.

GRABER: And it works.

BLOEM: You give it for a couple of weeks and then kids recover extremely quickly on peanut butter. They do really, really well. It was the beginning of a revolution how we were treating and preventing acute malnutrition in a way which was not possible for the last forty, fifty years. Like, it was an enormous progress.

TWILLEY: And because it is so much easier to get it into communities that need it, Plumpy’Nut has helped Martin save many many more children’s lives.

BLOEM: They are so skinny, they’re sick. They have quite often diarrhea, you know, pneumonia sometimes. And so they can hardly take any food in. This is why it’s so incredible product because they can actually consume this product. We are already doing this for 12 years. And, you know, we serve about 80 million people including like about 20 percent children or so and so we talk about a lot of, lot of, lot of children. And this is just WFP. So UNICEF also must have millions of kids and then you have all the NGOs like MSF and—so I think it’s, yeah that’s what I said, it’s a revolution. It is many, many, many children have been saved because of this product.

GRABER: And it’s been so successful that they’ve used the formula to make new products. One is called Plumpy’Doz, and it’s to help prevent stunting. Stunting affects even more kids, and it’s kind of the precursor to the worst kind of malnutrition.

BLOEM: And that’s of course from a severity perspective maybe not as a big problem as the severe acute malnutrition. But the number of children who have stunted are so large that if you look at mortality impact the stunting has even more impact than the severe acute malnutrition.

TWILLEY: And Plumpy’Doz has made a huge difference there, too—it’s something that kids can squeeze into their mouths, they like the taste, and it has a shelf-life of two years. So it’s just super practical.

GRABER: But it’s not all rainbows and life-saving peanut butter pastes. Plumpy’Nut has inspired some controversies, too. People say it’s expensive—but it’s cheaper than the old product and you don’t have to have a hospital nearby.

TWILLEY: Then there’s the fact that Nutriset, the company that Andre Briend partnered with to make Plumpy’Nut, it took out a patent on the paste. And Nutriset enforced that pretty rigorously at first, to stop others from making it. Several NGOs criticised them heavily for that. But Martin thinks it was maybe necessary, especially in the early days.

GRABER: To make a life-saving product, the quality had to be extremely high. Of course. And it was new and nobody was quite sure it would work, so Nutriset wanted to really control the process to make sure each dose contained what it was supposed to contain.

TWILLEY: But, even beyond that, there’s a business model issue. Because Plumpy’Nut might be a miracle product in terms of saving lives, but it’s not exactly a high-volume product.

BLOEM: The problem of sustainability when you create products like this doesn’t work because severe acute malnutrition is relatively a phenomenon which doesn’t happen a lot among children. Like, you know, normally it’s very high prevalence if you talk about 3 percent of the children. So to make a sustainable business model is not very easy.

GRABER: But Martin and his colleagues have worked to create some businesses in which a life-saving peanut paste is made locally. One of these successes was in Rwanda, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation.

BLOEM: Which is a really cool program because they work with you know companies as well as with local companies with the government. And it’s a business model where we buy 25 percent of their produce for East Africa and they try to sell this 75 percent for the local market so that in fact a lot of the children from Rwanda can benefit from a good, high-quality product. Which is in principle a product I can get to my own grandchildren or children as such. And they use as the staple products from smallholder farmers who actually get, you know, they buy produce of there so you help the farmers on top of that.

TWILLEY: So this tiny little bean—the pea bean, as I still kind of want to call it—it seems like the most pedestrian food. I mean, lunchboxes, airlines snacks, it’s everywhere. But it turns out to be quite the super bean.

GRABER: It’s traveled all around the world and back. It’s been key in agriculture in the South in the U.S.. It’s helped save lives, and it’s also triggered medical mysteries. But I really wanted to leave you with perhaps the weirdest sandwich that it stars in, in Jon’s book-length ode to peanut butter.

TWILLEY: A sandwich that he is proud to say he created himself.

GRABER: Jon calls it the Simon and Garfunkel, because, of course, it contains parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. It’s a whole wheat bagel spread with peanut butter. Jon adds mozzarella cheese, a slice of tomato, sauteed spinach and mushrooms with a clove of garlic, a bunch of spices, and then he squeezes a slice of lemon on top.


TWILLEY: And that’s it for today’s show! Are you creamy or crunchy? Will you try Jon’s insane sandwich? Let us know, we love to hear from you. We have a couple of sponsors to thank this episode but first we want to thank Metcalfe’s Markets, a Wisconsin-based grocery store that kindly donated some of its fabulous cheese selection for our live show in Madison the other week.


GRABER: Thanks this episode to Jori Lewis, Jon Krampner, Matthew Smith, Martin Bloem, and a special shout out to Owen Guo for helping us with our Mandarin pronunciation. And, of course, thanks to our long-suffering partners Geoff and Tim. Okay, I don’t think this one was much of a hardship assignment.

TWILLEY: There have been worse. We are back on August 1st, after a teeny tiny little break where we’ll be out reporting lots of new stories. Stay tuned, and stay in touch. All our deets are at gastropod dot com, along with links to all our guests’ books.

Lunch Gets Schooled TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Lunch Gets Schooled, first released on September 12, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

EMI: My name is Emi. I was both a brown bagger and a hot lunch, just depending on the situation. My personal favorite school lunches were the French fries shaped like smiley faces, and the Snoopy ice cream bars I got at one school every Friday.

GEORGE: My name is George Santos. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and over there school lunches, three out of the five days of the week, was rice and beans and then some sort of meat and plantains. We’d also get a little bag of milk, you had to take a pointy straw and stab it to drink it and we used to, like, stack up the bags of milk and stab it with a straw and see how many we could drink. Very weird but it was a ton of fun.

JANE BLACK: My name is Jane Black. I remember the square pizza, you know, and it was always on Fridays and it had that sort of—you could tell that it was shredded cheese that had kind of, you know, melted and then congealed.

CYNTHIA GRABER:  That is literally one of the only two things I remember about school lunch in my elementary school—Friday’s square mushy pizza. The other is the boxes of milk. Nothing else.

TWILLEY: We even had that square pizza when I was growing up in England. It’s a cross-cultural school lunch phenomenon.

GRABER: We asked for all your school lunch stories not because we wanted to fondly reminisce about our favorite meals, but rather, because we’re doing an episode all about the history and science of school lunch!

TWILLEY: And this is that episode! I’m Nicola Twilley.

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

TWILLEY: So how did we both end up with spongy square pizza on our plates? In fact, how did we end up with school lunch at all? Because it hasn’t always existed, obviously.

GRABER: And in some countries, it still doesn’t. If you can believe it—Canada does not have school lunch. Why?

TWILLEY: And in places where we do have school lunch, the mantra is always: it’s broken, we need to fix it. Call in Jamie Oliver and a TV crew. But is it really broken? And if so, how do we fix it? Or should we even bother? Does school lunch even make a difference?

GRABER: For that we’ll turn to science—how important is school lunch to student achievement, as well as to student health?

TWILLEY: All that and a helping of mushy peas this episode.



TWILLEY: So why does the U.S. have school lunch? Where did that idea even come from? As it happens, you have to take a step further back to answer that question.

JENNIFER RUTLEDGE: You can’t have school lunch programs until you understand childhood and children as separate from adults, and children as deserving of protection as separate from adults. So it’s the sort of creation of childhood as an idea. Which sounds insane to say childhood is an idea, but it really is.

GRABER: Jennifer Geist Rutledge is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of a new book called Feeding the Future: School Lunch Programs as Global Social Policy. And the notion of childhood that she’s talking about—this started to develop in Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s.

TWILLEY: And Jennifer’s point is, you can’t start to create programs to feed children until you see them as children, different from adults. And the emergence of the idea of childhood being a separate stage of life is tied to a particular point in history: the industrial revolution.

ANDREW RUIS: And you have a large number of people moving into cities, you know, moving into new kinds of employment, working in factories and mills and that sort of thing. And that has a pretty wide ranging effects on social structures, on family size and family life.

GRABER: Andrew Ruis also just wrote a book. It’s called Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States. He’s a historian at University of Wisconsin Madison.

TWILLEY: Andrew told us that before, kids would have worked alongside their parents and siblings on the farm or in the family trade. After the industrial revolution and urbanization, things are different. A family doesn’t work together. Jobs in these new factories are often dangerous. At first, kids were working in factories, but it was increasingly clear that they weren’t exactly suited to it.

GRABER: And so in Europe at the time—because Europe industrialized first—authors and philosophers were pointing out these dangers. They’re starting to think of children and childhood as a time of innocence that needed protection. And so you get the first child labor laws.

TWILLEY: But if kids aren’t workers, then what do they do all day? The concept of school obviously existed already. The children of the wealthy had long been educated. They had tutors and governesses, and they went to exclusive schools that trained them for their future of running estates and exchanging witticisms with their fellow aristocrats.

GRABER: But now there’s the idea that everyone should have access to school, no matter what their financial or class situation. And you see the beginning of mandatory education for all kids.

RUIS: Compulsory education is a state level, so different states passed these laws at different times and all of them do so by about 1918.

TWILLEY: Part of the motivation behind compulsory education laws had to do with preparing children for these new kinds of industrial jobs.  And part of it was just to address the fact that you had cities with lots of kids all together in one place, and no parental supervision, because the parents are out working.

GRABER: So that explains why kids are all in school at this point, let’s say the early 1900s in the U.S., a little earlier in the UK and other parts of Europe. But it doesn’t explain why the schools started feeding them lunch.

TWILLEY: Well, kids do need to eat in the middle of the day. If they had a parent at home, usually their mother, then they’d go home, eat something and then come back to school.

RUIS: But in other cases that wasn’t possible, either because both parents worked outside the home, or because kids were going to school a little too far away from where from where they lived. And in those cases, they had a number of options, one of which was, just like today, to bring lunch with them. But they also had a wide range of options in the surrounding neighborhoods, where there were corner stores and restaurants and bakeries and even saloons and bars.

GRABER: Saloons and bars? Just what I picture when it comes to buying school lunch. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, kids didn’t make the best choices when left to their own devices.

TWILLEY: In Andrew’s book, he has some anecdotes from the early 1900s. One boy in New Haven confesses to buying a dozen crullers for his lunch—and eating all of them. A pickle vendor in Illinois claimed to sell a barrel of pickles a week to local school kids.

GRABER: In LA, kids survived on ice cream and tamales. Pie was a popular option. And nearly a third of the elementary school kids in Wisconsin drank coffee on a daily basis.

RUIS: So one thing to keep in mind is that, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, even well into the 20th century, the idea of sort of age-appropriate foods or children’s foods is a relatively new one, and not a particularly widespread one. So it was pretty common for children to eat and drink the same kinds of things that adults did. Which meant that plenty of children drank things like coffee and tea. Many drank beer and children smoked often.

TWILLEY: Surprisingly enough, kids were not necessarily thriving on this diet. But one of the unintended consequences of getting all these kids into state-run schools is that the state starts to look at them as a whole for the first time. And they don’t like what they see.

RUIS: So physicians and nurses who are working in schools start to actually document just how unhealthy so many kids seem to be. There was a sort of assumption that well, they’re young, you know, they’re sort of the prime of their life, they should generally be healthy. And that turned out not to be the case.

GRABER: Obviously crullers for lunch isn’t the only reason that kids were doing so poorly. But a lot of health problems became obvious, and one of the most significant ones was malnutrition.

TWILLEY: The answer seems simple. School should provide lunch, no?

GRABER: As Andrew says, not so simple.

RUIS: Right, so there were a number of challenges for anybody who wanted to promote the idea that schools should be feeding children. So one of them was around how to finance it. Many people argued that adequate and sufficiently nourishing food is a basic human right. And if we’re going to require students to attend school, then we should provide for their basic needs, one of which is sufficient nourishment. Others argued that well, schools aren’t required to house children, they aren’t required to clothe them, so why should they be required to feed them? It’s quite an expensive endeavor and we have to sort of draw the line somewhere.

TWILLEY: It boils down to a question of what should be a parent’s responsibility versus what the state should be doing.

GRABER: Which is something people have a hard time agreeing on even today. There were other barriers at the time, too. One of them was that most education laws literally didn’t allow schools to spend money on food. And also, there was the logistics question: how would schools do it? How would they get the food, cook it, serve it—all of that?

TWILLEY: There was also another argument, which again you still hear from more conservative lawmakers today. They say that if you give people—even kids—stuff for free, they will end up believing everything should be given to them for free and they don’t ever need to work. In the early 1900s, this theory went by the name of “pauperization.” Today it tends to be called “welfare dependency.”

GRABER: We just want to point out something—this is pretty much a myth. There is no data that supports the idea that handouts in general discourage people from working.

TWILLEY: Still, then and now, a lot of people believe that to be true. And combined with these other barriers, states hesitated. In the end, it was left to community organizations to step in and try to figure out school lunch.

GRABER: And these community organizations did figure it out. One of the reasons Andrew says they were successful is that they took care to make the food appealing to the kids.

RUIS: Some places like New York and Chicago and a number of other large cities, schools that had for example predominantly Jewish populations often had kosher menus, and tried to work with local rabbis and local communities to ensure that the students would be able to eat the foods. Schools that had predominantly Italian populations tried to develop Italian menus.

TWILLEY: And it wasn’t enough just to have Italian foods on the menu. In Andrew’s book, there’s this adorable line from a little Italian kid. She says, “You Americans take all the nerve out of our macaroni!” So the New York community group hired Italian cooks who could season the macaroni appropriately.

GRABER: Oil and garlic for Italian kids, kosher meals for Jewish kids. The Irish, who, quote, “would not eat their soup thick” were served clam chowders and thin soups with bits of meat in them.

TWILLEY: And, like we said, these community-led school lunch programs were popular. The kids liked the food, they ate the food, the programs weren’t hemorrhaging money. And they seemed to make a difference.

RUIS: In the past, as in the present, it was extremely difficult to measure the effects of nutritional intervention.

GRABER: But they tried. The people in charge of the programs collected some really basic measurements. They’d measure the height and weight of students regularly. They tracked participation in the school lunch programs. They tracked overall attendance. Students seemed to gain weight, which was a good thing back then. And they seemed to stay in school more, not miss as much school in programs with school lunches. These are small effects and anecdotal results, but they were important evidence that school lunch made a difference.

TWILLEY: And based on the success of these first, pilot projects, gradually, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, states stepped in and started to take over school lunch provision themselves.

GRABER: And then the Great Depression hit. People in the cities were losing their factory jobs, they were poor, and they were hungry.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, back on the farm, things were also going pear-shaped. Farms were scaling up and industrializing too, and so they were producing more and more food. But that ended up pushing down prices.

RUIS: And so it created this pretty substantial mismatch, which is often known as the paradox of plenty, where farms were producing at record levels, but they weren’t harvesting the produce and marketing it and selling it because it became too expensive for them to do so.

GRABER: And so there were these New Deal programs that were developed in the 1930s to basically kill two birds with one stone. The government would purchase the food and so help farmers make a decent living, and then the government would find ways to give that food to help people who couldn’t afford it. Like hungry kids at school.

TWILLEY: At first, this was a temporary program, set up because of the Depression. But then, particularly in the South, where there were a lot of hungry kids and a lot of poor farmers, people didn’t want to see it stop.

RUIS: And so representatives and senators, from places like Georgia and Louisiana and Virginia and other places, started to draft legislation to make school lunches a permanent federal program.

GRABER: But there were some basic disagreements on what that federal program should look like.

RUIS: To take a very simple example: was this a program that should be overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? More on that on the sort of production side, the farm side. Or is this a program that should be overseen by the Department of Education, which would be more on the consumer side, in this case the schools and the students. And so even very simple questions like that became major policy points, because it reflected where the priorities of the school lunch program really were.

TWILLEY: There were other, even more complex arguments. Some school lunch advocates wanted it to be a holistic kind of program with nutrition education as well; some wanted to make into a civil rights program, guaranteeing that all kids had equal access to school meals.

GRABER: And yes, are you probably guessed, they lost.

RUIS: And in the end as many people are familiar with, the resulting legislation really did become simply food distribution kind of program and there was no provision for nutrition education. There was no provision for nutrition health work in the schools. There were, you know, anti-discrimination protections and that sort of thing. Most of that was cut out of the final bill in order to pass it.

TWILLEY: So now America has school lunch. It’s a program for disposing of agricultural surpluses, and not much more—but it’s something. Like we said at the start, not all countries have school lunch.

GRABER: This actually—I know it’s going to seem maybe a little naive—but this really shocked me. I thought everyone had school lunches. But a lot of countries don’t.

RUTLEDGE: And when I was first doing this research I basically compiled a sort of global database of all the countries in the world and who had school lunches and who didn’t. And when I stumbled on Norway, I thought, this is weird. This is really, really strange. You’d think Norway should have school lunches.

TWILLEY: That’s Jennifer Geist Rutledge again. She’s the author of a new book on school lunch around the world. And I have a Norwegian sister-in-law and I was still blown away by this. Norway? They give their citizens everything! Healthcare, actual hard cash… and not lunch?

GRABER: Jennifer obviously was pretty shocked, too. So she compared Norway to its neighbor, Sweden. Because Sweden does have a school lunch program.

RUTLEDGE: So in the case of Sweden, one, you have this sort of liberal social democratic state. They wanted women to work. They wanted to make it easy for women to work. They also adopted agricultural policy after the war that encouraged farmers to make lots of food. So it became a sort of natural outlet to say well, why don’t we give the food to kids at school and then women don’t have to be at home.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Norway adopted a little bit of a different agricultural policy. They still propped up their farmers. But rather than buy the surplus production, instead, they essentially just gave farmers a wage. So the farmers weren’t incentivized to produce lots of extra food, and the government didn’t have lots of excess food on its hands to give away.

RUTLEDGE: At the same time, there was this very strong ideology in Norway that women should stay at home. That women’s role is in the house, and so you didn’t want to make it easy for women to work, right? You know, if you send kids home at lunch, somebody needs to be there feed them. And it’s most likely going to be women, particularly in that kind of time period.

GRABER: So because of two different agricultural policies, and two different attitudes about women’s work, Swedish kids get school lunch, and Norwegian kids don’t. To this day.

TWILLEY: This gender ideology plays out in other countries too, alongside other, country-specific values. In my home country, England, school lunch is considered a matter of national security—you need future soldiers to be healthy and strong. But it’s also seen as an opportunity to build British citizenship by teaching kids those all important table manners.

RUTLEDGE: And there’s these really wonderful historical photos of these British schoolchildren all sitting there in their rows with their fine china. I mean, they would serve these these meals on fine china with real silverware.

TWILLEY: Anyone who listened to our first-ever episode will know that how you handle your knife and fork is really important to British people.

GRABER: Jennifer also compares East and West Germany. Here you have the basic difference of communism versus capitalism.

RUTLEDGE: Where you get East Germany that creates a school lunch program largely driven by the sort of communist ideals of everybody working together and equality. Right?

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, in West Germany, there was this sense that sending kids home for lunch was a way of ensuring they grew up into good little capitalists.

RUTLEDGE: And then in West Germany there was this incredible reaction after World War II, that we had lost so much—so much of our sort of democratic spirit and individualism—and we had to recreate that by having lunches at home.

GRABER: Gender is clearly playing a role here, too. East German women are encouraged to work, West German women are encouraged to stay home. But this has serious repercussions today in unified Germany. The stats in Jennifer’s book absolutely shocked us.

TWILLEY: I read them out loud to my husband, Geoff, repeatedly. I could not believe them. Okay, so sixty percent of childfree German women work. Once they have one kid that number goes down to fourteen percent. FOURTEEN PERCENT.

GRABER: And it gets worse! German women who have two or more kids? Only six percent work! SIX PERCENT.

RUTLEDGE: And so you see these long term repercussions of choices that countries made back in the 40s and 50s about what to do about their children. Right? Should they feed them or should they not? And so you still have German women today basically sort of facing cultural stigma if they work. Which I think it is problematic for lots of different reasons.

TWILLEY: Uh huh.

GRABER: And one more piece of shock and awe: Canada, our neighbor to the north, they do not provide school lunch.

RUTLEDGE: Yeah. I mean, Canada was also another surprise. You think well, Canada, come on they’re better at this stuff than the US, of course they feed kids. And in fact they never chose to.

TWILLEY: Canada has a very similar agricultural policy to the US, buying up surplus to support farmers. It was also every bit as misogynistic as America—maybe even more so.

RUTLEDGE: There was a prohibition on married women working until 1955, I think it was in Canada. But I think actually more importantly in Canada is that—and this is going to sound crazy—but poverty didn’t exist.

GRABER: This is complicated. Part of the reason poverty supposedly didn’t exist in Canada has to do with the fact that women were given a baby bonus, so how could there be child poverty if families were given money for kids? But then also, it just wasn’t recognized because of the type of data the government did, and didn’t, collect.

RUTLEDGE: So the official statistical measurements start to change in, I think it’s 1989. They declare it like the Year of the Child and so people start looking into this and they go, oh my gosh, there is child poverty. Oh my gosh, there is child hunger. Now, of course there was child poverty, of course there was child hunger.

TWILLEY: There always is, sadly. But until the Canadian government started tracking it, there was nothing for people to raise concerns about or organize around. Now there is.

RUTLEDGE: What we have mostly right now in Canada is volunteer efforts, charity efforts, to feed children. Which is where every other country started also, right? It’s just that most other countries started in the late 1800s and Canada’s just starting to do that now.

GRABER: Jennifer told us that today, kids in 151 countries receive free or subsidized school lunches. And a lot of that is because of the World Food Programme, which is part of the United Nations. Which is a really interesting story. We wanted to tell you about it, but frankly then this episode would last two hours.

TWILLEY: I was like, come on, our listeners can handle it. But Cynthia talked me down by promising we could include that story in our special Gastropod Sustaining Supporters email, which goes out every other week to everyone who gives $5 a episode through Patreon or $9 a month via our website. So that’s where it is! Or you can read Jennifer’s book!

GRABER: Instead, for now, we’ll play some listener stories for you from around the world, starting with this kid who was recorded for us in Colombia.

COLOMBIAN CHILD: I have lunch at my school and I really like it because I have different options to select. For example meat, chicken, some jam, or fish. Rice, juice, and a delicious dessert. So I prefer to have lunch in my school than take it from my home.

COSTA RICAN CHILD: In Costa Rica, all the schools have the responsibility to you to give them the food of all students. So we all the days eat the same food. Rice, beans, natural juice, and chicken, any kind of meat.

PAILIN: Hey Gastropod, my name is Pailin. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, but I was born and raised in Thailand. So I loved my school lunch. It was fantastic and here’s why. First of all, nobody brings lunch, everybody buys the lunch from the school cafeteria. But our cafeteria was actually more like a food court, where the school would have different vendors in there. And the food was freshly prepared, authentic Thai home cooking. And I think, you know, when people think school lunch they always think not great. But for me, I have such fond memories of school lunches.

MATEJ: My name is Matej Hargas. I was born in what is now the country of Slovakia in Central Europe. One of my memories is that in the first three or four years of when I went to school, it would be common habit for the teachers to be present with their class in the canteen to make sure that children eat up their lunch. If you didn’t want finish what was on your plate, there would be psychological pressure and sometimes the threat of physical punishment, although I can’t really remember it ever going further than threats. So, up to this day, I can’t stand pickled beetroot. They made me hate dill in any form and I can’t see green beans without feeling queasy.

TWILLEY: I feel you, Matej. It took me two decades to try sweetcorn after the tinned stuff our school lunch ladies added to everything. They even put it on square pizza! But, mushy overcooked vegetable trauma aside, does school lunch actually work? What does the science say? We’ve got all that and Jamie Oliver still to come, but first, we want to tell you about our sponsors this episode.


TWILLEY: Now, back to school lunch. We now know that school lunch works to prop up overproduction on the farm, and it can also help get women in the workforce. But does it actually help kids?

GRABER: Earlier in the show, we told you that some of the first school lunch programs were evaluated for how well they helped kids’ health improve. There seem to have been some benefits, at least anecdotally—kids who were previously underweight and malnourished seemed to be gaining weight, there seemed to be better attendance and fewer sick days. But those weren’t exactly super rigorous studies.

TWILLEY: Since then, there has been a bunch more research on the impact of feeding kids at school. The majority of studies, both in developing countries and in the U.S., show that increased access to school lunch significantly increases kids’ test scores.

GRABER: There’s also plenty of research that explains why that might be the case. When students aren’t hungry, they can focus. There’s an improvement in concentration and memory and behavior. Malnutrition, when kids aren’t getting enough calories or particular nutrients, that causes problems in brain development and sight, for instance. All of this seems to improve with access to school meals, which boosts test scores.

TWILLEY: Plus, researchers have documented that particularly in developing countries, school lunch is an incentive for parents to send their kids to school and for kids to go. And going to school definitely helps boost your academic achievement.

ELIZABETH RAMIREZ RICHIE: But there’s been relatively little research into whether the actual, like, nutritional quality of the meals matters for student achievement.

GRABER: Elizabeth Ramirez Richie is a grad student at UC Berkeley, and she’s one of the authors of a new Brookings Institute paper called “School Lunch and Academic Performance.”

TWILLEY: She and her colleagues set out to answer this question. And they did it by first gathering the standardized test scores for something like 9,000 schools in California over a five year period.

GRABER: Of course, there are lots of things that could make a school’s test scores go up.

RICHIE: And so we control for those things. So we’re trying to make sure that it’s not the case that the demographics of the school are changing and that’s leading to higher test scores. We also specifically control for changes in, like, the overall budget of the school district, in the student-to-teacher ratio, in changes in superintendents.

TWILLEY: Etcetera, etcetera. So they gathered all that data, too. Then they tried to measure the nutritional value of the lunches being served in all these schools.

RICHIE: You know, we’re economists and measuring the quality of the school lunches isn’t our strength.

GRABER: So instead they got some nutritionists to work on that. Experts at the Nutrition Policy Institute at Berkeley evaluated the menus from the schools that were part of the study. They gave the menus a score— basically how healthy the meal is according to something called the Healthy Eating Index, or HEI.

TWILLEY: And so with all that data, and controlling for all the other possible interventions and changes that could have helped raise test scores, they found that, at schools that switched vendors to serve a healthier lunch…

RICHIE: It increases test scores by point zero three standard deviations. And that’s kind of across all students in our sample. And then if we break it up by advantaged and disadvantaged students, there seems to be a slightly larger effect for disadvantaged students.

TWILLEY: So what exactly is point zero three standard deviations? Is that even good?

GRABER: We asked Elizabeth what that meant. It’s kind of hard to tease out, but she says that healthier school lunches probably move the average student’s test scores up about two to three percentile points.

TWILLEY: So my first response was, well, that doesn’t actually sound like a lot. But Elizabeth pointed out, a good way to understand the difference a healthier school lunch makes is to compare it with other interventions that can raise test scores.

RICHIE: So a commonly cited intervention in the education literature is the Tennessee STAR experiment, which significantly reduced class size. And, as you can imagine, hiring teachers to really reduce class size is very expensive. And that intervention achieved improvement in test scores of about point two standard deviations.So that’s considered a very big effect. Obviously point zero three is, you know, smaller than that.

GRABER: It is also a lot cheaper—but is it worth it?

RICHIE: Okay, if the only thing you ever do is make lunches healthier, yeah, you’re not going to see a massive difference in student performance. But that a number of small changes that are very cost effective can be better than potentially a really big expensive change.

GRABER: Sounds like it is a good investment in student performance. It’s just not a silver bullet.

TWILLEY: So back in the early 1900s, when school lunches were new, the other thing that people tried to measure was the impact they had on students’ health, not just their academic performance. That’s something Elizabeth and her colleagues looked at, too. Of course, today in the U.S. kids’ health problems have less to do with undernutrition and malnutrition as much as obesity.

GRABER: But, as it turns out, Elizabeth didn’t see any impact on obesity. The healthier lunches didn’t seem to make a dent in the students’ weight overall.

RICHIE: However, we think there are a couple of reasonable explanations for this. One is that the school lunches actually have calorie minimums. And so, to the extent that the number of calories isn’t changing, it’s maybe reasonable to think that you wouldn’t immediately see an effect on obesity. And these effects may take a little bit longer to see if the change in calories isn’t very large. And, secondly, we think that generally you know the—there are nutritional advantages to these meals and health advantages that can’t be captured just by obesity.

TWILLEY: But this issue of obesity is one that’s been driving major changes in America’s school lunch program in the past decade.

MICHELLE OBAMA: We can all agree that in the United States of America, no child should go to school hungry.

GRABER: Michelle Obama was one of the inspirations behind the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which President Obama signed into law in December 2010. The bill brought together a diverse group of supporters. And they’re using arguments that should sound pretty familiar by this point.

OBAMA: From educators working to provide healthier school meals because they know the connection between proper nutrition and academic performance. From doctors and nurses who know that unhealthy kids grow into unhealthy adults, at risk for obesity related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer. And from military leaders who tell us that when more than 1 in 4 young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight.

RUIS: So the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act basically did a lot of the things that the early advocates of a more holistic school lunch program had really hoped for. So in addition to changes like simply raising the level of reimbursement for schools, to make it easier for them to provide nourishing meals, the act required stricter nutrition standards. It required schools to develop wellness plans and plans for nutrition education.

TWILLEY: In a lot of ways, Andrew pointed out, this took school lunch back to the vision of its earliest supporters. But before we dive into fixing school lunch, we need to stop for a minute, and paint a picture of school lunch before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. What did the fact that in the United States, school lunch had effectively turned into a program to absorb agricultural surplus, rather than this more holistic nutrition focused program—what did that mean for what ended up on kids’ plates?

GRABER: It meant that whatever farmers produced too much of, that got dumped on the kids’ trays. For instance, weirdly, one year the government subsidized olive production and so there were suddenly too many olives. The schools were, like, what do we do with a ton of olives? And then there’s the cheese.

BLACK: And so in the 1980s, America was awash in dairy.

TWILLEY: This is Jane Black, she’s a food writer based in Washington D.C.. She’s spent a long time studying school lunch, and she recently wrote about it for the Huffington Post, with the support of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which is also a friend to Gastropod.

BLACK: And so the government said, well, okay, let’s give it to the kids. Great idea, right? But of course the farmers who now had someone to sell this to thought, well, great, we’ll just keep producing and keep selling it. And so the government had to come up with another idea and that idea was, okay, let’s kill all the cows because then they can’t produce any more milk. And then we’ll take all that beef and we’ll give it to the kids.

TWILLEY: Some years it was direct giving of surplus food, some years it was discounting surplus food, but either way, what ended up on kids’ plates often wasn’t pretty. Same deal when I was growing up in England, for similar reasons, as one of our listeners reminded me.

NAOMI: Hello Gastropod. British listener Naomi here, and I can’t wait to tell you about my experience of school lunches—or school dinners as we call them in the Midlands and the North! My favorite pudding was cornflake tart, which was a thick, shortcut pastry, with a layer of jam, topped with cornflakes coated in treacle to make it set. Delicious! It was usually served with custard, which would always have a thick skin on it. Custard was yellow, pink or chocolate. Yep, that’s right: two colors, one flavor.

ALI: My name is Ali Wallace and I’m from Los Angeles, California. So speaking of school lunches, the first thing that I remember was just it was all about Lunchables. And the king—the king of the Lunchable—was the Lunchable Nacho at my school. People would go nuts for the Lunchables nacho.

JAI: Hi my name is Jai, and I’m a college student currently living in Brooklyn. And my most memorable school lunch experience was back in middle school. I’d just decided to be a vegetarian. This was in seventh grade and they just straight up refused to give me a sandwich without meat, even after they explained that I was a vegetarian. And I remember crying because I didn’t have anything I could eat.

TWILLEY: Ah, school lunch. Such fond memories.

GRABER: There’s another reason that school lunches turned into basically reheated frozen processed crap— another reason among many, to be honest. And it’s a financial one. It’s complicated. But because of how school lunches were originally funded in the 1950s, it ended up being richer schools that could take advantage of the money available. Poor kids were basically screwed.

BLACK: So, in 1968, a report was published called “Our Daily Bread” and it revealed what was essentially school lunch’s first national scandal. And that was that the kids who were the poorest were not getting school lunch. In fact, in this report there was a school in Alabama that had just fifteen meals a day to be shared among a thousand kids, while middle class kids were actually being able to be helped.

TWILLEY: So Congress, in its infinite wisdom, responded by creating a three-tier system: the poorest kids all got free lunch, the slightly less poor but still super poor got a subsidized lunch, and everyone else had to buy it.

BLACK: And this was a good idea. And again well-intentioned. They were trying to make sure that the poorest children got food. But what happened was is it turned what was a food program into a welfare program and it started to be seen by both the politicians and by the families and the communities as something that was only for poor kids.

TWILLEY: So, fast forward a decade or so, and it is morning in America.

BLACK: Well, Reagan came in with this promise to slash domestic spending. And the school lunch program was a target. And, you know, I have to editorialize here to say that of course, you know, kids don’t vote, right? So they’re an easy target. And you’d think that parents would come to their defense but it generally doesn’t happen. So the Reagan administration decided that it was wasteful to support middle and upper-class families and so they were going to slash the entire school lunch budget by 25 percent. And so the schools didn’t have as much money and they were forced to continue to make lunch for the children who needed it with even less money. And so what did they do? They started to buy even cheaper food and more processed foods in order to be able to get the requisite number of calories on the plate for even less money.

GRABER: In addition to buying cheap, processed foods, schools also don’t have money to upgrade kitchen equipment.

BLACK: You have schools that have kitchens that, as one school food service director described to me, was built before Jesus was born.

TWILLEY: Now, Jane was quick to stress, this is not the case everywhere. Some places have great kitchens. Some places have managed to figure out how to provide good food for cheap. But, for the most part, school lunch and school cafeterias today—they’re still pretty grim.

BLACK: You know, they are in a way exactly the way you remember them. They’re noisy. They are rushed. There are kids talking at the top of their voices. And the food is generally as bad as you remember except in certain special locations.

GRABER: We heard from a lot of you all about these special locations where school lunch is improving. There are partnerships with local farms. Schools are even providing meals that are more appropriate to the ethnic makeup of their students, such as curries and stir-fries. And chefs are coming in to take over and cook real meals.

WILL: Hi everyone, my name is Will Block and I am 13 years old. I go to Bear Creek Community Charter School and at my school we have our own chef. My favorite thing he makes is pierogies. We had them last week and I loved them. At my old school—this was before we had a chef—my favorite thing was the mozzarella sticks. Those were the only thing that looked and tasted good.

TWILLEY: School lunch is changing—and people want it to change. But this slow progress is not enough for some people. Some people just want to see school lunch burn. Tear down this broken system and start over with a school lunch revolution.

BLACK: In 2010, as you may remember, there was a TV show that was on called Food Revolution. And it was Jamie Oliver, he’s a chef in the UK who is very famous and he, in addition to having made millions or perhaps billions of dollars, you know, hawking pans and having restaurants and recipes, he became kind of a crusader for food. And in the UK he had a program where he tried to change the school lunches there. He went to a town where he tried to teach people how to cook and then that was working very well and he decided, well, I’m going to come to the United States and do the same thing.

GRABER: Where does Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in America begin? Huntington, West Virginia. At that point, Huntington had recently been named the most unhealthy city in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

BLACK: So he shows up and, you know, in three, four, or five weeks, you know, he’s going to save the town from itself. And, you know, they’re all going to get thin and be happy. And of course I was rather interested in whether that was going to work.

TWILLEY: I don’t know what she means. It’s TV, of course it will work.

GRABER: Well, it certainly made for some damn compelling episodes.

BLACK: Jamie Oliver came in, it looked great on TV. He was showing first graders, you know, what a tomato was and putting real food on the plate. And he swooped in and he swooped out and the kids hated the food. They stopped eating it. They stopped buying it. The school district lost a lot of money. They had to fire a number of cooks.

TWILLEY: I am shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

GRABER: But this story doesn’t end here. Because Huntington is actually lucky. The school food service director is a woman named Rhonda McCoy. She’s worked in the system for decades. She’s also trained in nutrition.

BLACK: To be entirely honest, Rhonda could have easily just said, to hell with this, I’m going to go back to doing things the way that I was doing them before, which I would like to point out were better than they were in most other school districts despite what it looked like on TV. But she didn’t, and she decided that he had made a good point and that fresh probably was better and that she was going to put in the work to try to take what he had started and finish it in a way that worked both for her budget and for the kids, because if the kids don’t eat then the kids are going hungry.

TWILLEY: So Jane settled in in West Virginia and she watched as Rhonda McCoy figured out how to deal with the debris that Jamie and his crew left behind.

BLACK: The way that you improve a school lunch system is not like a reality TV show. There’s no drama, there’s no glory. You know, it’s literally tweaking recipes. It’s literally scouring ingredient lists that come from say, the USDA, which still provides some food at a discount or for free and saying, okay, you know, if I take that then I can buy this. And it’s these little tiny things, these things that only someone like a Rhonda who’s very detail oriented and very determined, can pull off.

GRABER: And then there’s a piece of the story that is actually more made-for-TV. And that’s how you get students to taste, and to enjoy, healthier options than what they’re used to eating.

BLACK: In a lot of places in America, not just Huntington—in big cities too, you know—people want to eat burgers and fries. They just do. So you have to make them want to try the salad or want to try the quinoa. I don’t think they’re serving quinoa in Huntington but you get my point. And so what Rhonda did was really try to tap into the community. Huntington is not a place that ever had a rich or deep farming culture but there are people who farm and she helped to fund a number of student farmers while they were in high school. And so she would put you know a salad on the salad bar and she would say this is Zach’s lettuce or these are Oren’s cucumbers. And, you know, I can’t prove whether it worked. But there is a sense that kids were a little more interested, they were a little more open. It wasn’t a sense of, oh, the lunch lady’s telling me I have to eat salad. It’s, hey, my friend is making some money off this. That’s kind of interesting. I’m going to get the salad.

TWILLEY: So Rhonda McCoy has made it work. She’s serving fresher, healthier meals, within the USDA school lunch framework and budget, the kids are eating them, it’s all great, right?

GRABER: Why do I always have to be the one to say: not so fast? Because, not so fast. Just like there was a financial reason, the way the school lunch programs were paid for, how Reagan cut the budget, this in part led to the decline in the quality of school lunch food. The economics today that were set up as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are actually helping Rhonda. But they’re threatened.

TWILLEY: The current U.S. president has called for a twenty-one percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which would likely seriously eat into school lunch funding. Meanwhile, right-wing members of Congress in the so-called Freedom Caucus want to dismantle something called the CEP, the Community Eligibility Program. This sounds like a very boring bureaucratic detail, but Jane told us that it’s the thing that allows Rhonda McCoy in West Virginia to make her school lunches work, economically.

BLACK: Essentially what it does is it allows schools with very low-income students to feed everyone for free. We don’t have to bill the parents. There are all these administration fees that just disappear and that allow the school food service directors to focus on actually feeding the people.

GRABER: What’s more, weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to feed all the students for free. It’s an economy of scale thing. Think about it— f you’re making food for fifty people, you need maybe four people to do so. And if you’re cooking for 100, you need maybe five. And labor is one of the biggest costs.

TWILLEY: So basically, CEP came in in 2010, and it did away with the three-tiered system.

GRABER: Used to be that schools had to figure out which students got free lunch, which were got reduced lunches, and so on. There was a lot of paperwork. There was a lot of lunch-money shaming, going after parents who hadn’t, and maybe couldn’t, pay.

TWILLEY: CEP got rid of all that, and it made the economics work.

GRABER: But, as Nicky just said, CEP is now a target. And Rhonda is freaking out.

BLACK: It has been a target because there are ways that people choose to talk about it who don’t really understand how and why it’s working. They’ll say, oh, you’re feeding all these kids for free instead of just the ones who need it. There shouldn’t be such a thing as a free lunch. Well, you know, that’s an easy sell in Congress and it makes a big difference to people on the ground who are trying to feed children. So I think that they are very worried.

TWILLEY: This sucks, because what the story of Huntington, West Virginia, actually tells us is that school lunch is not broken beyond repair. We have something that can be made to work, with just a bit of help. We don’t need a revolution.

BLACK: That said, what do we need? We need more money. We don’t need five dollars a lunch like Alice Waters wants. But, you know, when you have one hand tied behind your back, there’s really only so much you can do.

GRABER: So, yes, we do need more money for school lunches, but not dramatically more money. Instead, the people in charge—Jane says they’re what really matters.

BLACK: And I think if we want to change school lunch, one of the most important things that we can do is make sure that the people who are in charge of school lunch are educated, motivated, and well-paid.

TWILLEY: As part of her research into school lunch, Jane visited two schools in Boston. They were basically across the street from each other but the school district boundary ran down the middle of the street.

BLACK: And so in one school, you had this very young woman. She was a trained nutritionist, she was very interested in healthy food, and the food was pretty good, pretty decent. And, on the other side of the road, you had this guy who was, you know, sort of ready for retirement and wasn’t really interested in food. He’d probably had a different job in school administration and gotten kicked over to the food thing and he was just ticking boxes on a list and the food was crap. And so it really matters who’s in charge.

GRABER: Until recently, you could have been anything in the school system—a janitor, a business administrator—and eventually become the food service director.

BLACK: There were forty-one states that had no requirements for food service personnel, until just recently last year, the USDA did put out some guidelines that required that people have a little bit of nutrition education. And, look, that’s great, but it’s going to take a long time for the people that are currently in the jobs to retire and to hire new people that are held to the guidelines. And so even though that’s a step in the right direction, it’s not something that I see is going to change any time in the next five or even ten years.

TWILLEY: Oy. Nothing is easy when it comes to school lunch. But that doesn’t stop people from caring about it. In fact, every single expert we spoke to this episode agrees: school lunch really matters. Jennifer, Andrew, Jane, and Elizabeth—they’re all on the same page: Feeding children is important.

RUTLEDGE: Well, it’s important because we have a poverty problem in this country and we have a poverty problem in the world and we have a lot of children who are hungry. And for many children—and it sounds hyperbolic to say it—but for many children it is the one solid meal we know that they’ll get a day.

RUIS: School lunches, for all of the negative press they often get, have been and continue to be one of the most popular federal programs of all time. And they are a significant element of our nutrition health infrastructure.

BLACK: So you’ve got kids that are getting 50 to 100 percent of their calories at school. And it matters whether they’re healthy or not.

RICHIE: We’re finding that healthy meals that are above and beyond the current standards have positive impact, so I think certainly keeping the current standards makes a lot of sense. And we’re finding that maybe even making them healthier could have bigger impacts.

GRABER: But there are actually other reasons why feeding children school lunch matters.

TWILLEY: For me, I had always thought about this issue in terms of kids, and it’s not hard to understand why it matters from that perspective. What I hadn’t realized until we talked with Jennifer is the huge impact school lunch has on the place of women in society. Whether school lunch exists or not is make or break for women as full economic citizens—i.e. equal citizens

GRABER: In a way, we can think of school lunch as reflecting priorities in a culture. Three big ones stand out to us. How do we want to support our farmers—should we really be paying for overproduction? Then there’s the question of how we see our responsibility towards children? And how should we be empowering women?

TWILLEY: School lunch is the place where all of these values around gender, the role of the state in protecting children, and the kind of food system we want—they all come together. So, yeah, it matters.


GRABER: Thanks this episode to Andrew Ruis, Jennifer Geist Rutledge, Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, and Jane Black. We have links to their books, research, and stories on our website, Definitely check them out, school lunch is super interesting.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to all of you who sent in your school lunch stories. We loved them! They were funny, they were moving, and they captured really amazing memories. Lots of you told us about fabulous programs going on around the country too, which was really inspiring. We wish we could have included them all, but here’s just a couple more to see us out—good, bad, and, of course, complicated—like school lunch.

WINSON: Hey Cynthia and Nicola, this is Winson Law, and here’s my story. I was the kid who brought a cold, crusty Rubbermaid tupperware with white rice and whatever dinner my grandmother made the night before. On some days, it was caramelized catfish with pickled mustard greens, and other days, it was steamed Chinese broccoli with some ground pork garnish. My lunch was pungent and foreign to the noses of my mostly white classmates in the mostly white Seattle private school that I attended mostly on financial aid. So if my family’s socioeconomic standing and where we came from didn’t already make me feel less included, what I brought to school everyday made me feel ashamed. While I loved eating my grandparent’s food, I eventually told them that I wanted to eat what the cafeteria made. And the cafeteria frequently served things like grilled cheeses and tacos and pasta, foods my grandparents didn’t understand and definitely would not send me to school with. I should have proudly microwaved that Thai basil eggplant with salted pork and marched right up to the popular kids’ table, because they didn’t know what they were missing out on.

DELMONAI: My name is Delmonai Thomas, I’m from Henry Ford Academy school of creative studies and I’m 16 years old. I don’t like that the food tastes processed, like I just got a TV dinner or something like that. And we can have more fresher vegetables. Just my personal opinion, I always thought that schools should have a thing where students should cook their own food because it teaches life skills.

RACHEL: Hello, my name is Rachel, and my lunch story is a wonderful one. We were living in Paris in 1975 when my mother became very ill and needed to go back to the United States. My father, my sister, and I had to figure out how to manage without her. To make us feel loved and to help us not miss our mother he would create these elaborate bag lunches for us. He would wrap cornichons individually like mini-swans, he would hide yummy cookies in layers of tinfoil like little presents. To this day I remember my excitement when it was lunch time and all my girlfriends hovering around to see what magic awaited in my little sack lunch.

Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar, first released on August 29, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

ANDY HARRIS: I mean, it’s still got the characteristics of the wine, that’s the thing. The better the wine the more, you know, things that you can do with it, the more flavors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Well, and it tastes like a Riesling.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s delicious.

HARRIS: I almost get like banana-y flavors on that. And this I use with marinating herrings and things, it’s very good with seafood. So when you see that sort of breadth of range, you begin to see potential of the vinegars and what you can do with them.

GRABER: Vinegar, it’s not just for cleaning your house!

TWILLEY: Or killing your fruit flies. Although it is mighty good at both of those things. But really, that’s the least of vinegar’s powers.

GRABER: You’re 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 today, we’re diving into vinegar. Not literally, because that would sting.

GRABER: Vinegar is often relegated to salad dressing, but this episode, we talk to people who want you to think about it as much more than that. First, though, what is vinegar?

TWILLEY: And why does Katy Perry think drinking apple cider vinegar will cure basically everything?

GRABER: As usual, we have the answers to all the questions. And then—perhaps most of exciting of all—we actually visit the home of the most famous vinegar in the world.

TWILLEY: It’s like the Katy Perry of vinegars. Although much older and, honestly, more to my taste.

GRABER: That’s right, balsamic vinegar!

TWILLEY: Forget the stuff you buy at the supermarket. It is not real balsamic. Genuine aged balsamic it turns out, is game-changingly delicious.


GRABER: And also, this episode would not have been possible without Toni Mazzaglia. She runs a tour company in Florence called Taste Florence. I’ve been on her tours—it’s how Toni and I first met years ago—and they are absolutely amazing. She arranged all our balsamic vinegar interviews for us and helped translate when necessary. So everyone, if you have a trip planned to Florence, go to her website and book a tour online. If you don’t have a trip to Florence planned, this could be a good a reason to go!

TWILLEY: And if you’re a journalist and you need help setting up visits and interviews in Italy, Toni is the best. She knows how to make Italy happen.

GRABER: So if you listened to our last episode called The Birds and the Bugs, you know that we spoke with author Maryn McKenna about the use of antibiotics in agriculture, and the move to get rid of the drugs from animal feed. One listener sent in a voice mail with a great note of hope.

CONRAD BARRY: Hi Gastropod, my name’s Conrad Barry and I’m a scientist in Portland, Oregon. I just finished listening to your Big Chicken and Big Pharma episode, and I really enjoyed it.

GRABER: Conrad explained that when bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, that power comes at a price. They actually don’t grow as well as they did before. So in the lab, in a petri dish, if the resistant bacteria are left alone, without any antibiotics, eventually they evolve to lose that antibiotic resistance so they can grow more quickly again.

BARRY: That’s something we see all the time when we’re culturing bacteria or other cells in the lab. So that’s just something I find really cool and I interact with every day, and it’s kind of a hopeful thing, you know.

TWILLEY: What’s more, Conrad points out, if we stop encouraging it by using such huge quantities of antibiotics on the farm, bacteria could theoretically lose their resistance really pretty quickly.

BARRY: Because you know bacteria live a very short time, and a generation span is really, really short, and that allows mutations and their evolution to happen very, very rapidly. Okay bye!


MICHAEL HARLAN TURKELL: In Ancient Mesopotamia, around the city of Babylon, which is I think near where Baghdad, Iraq, is these days, along the Euphrates and Tigris River, there were tons of really plump, juicy fruit. That lead into what likely were the first wines and what comes after wine is vinegar.

TWILLEY: That’s Michael Harlan Turkell. He’s the author of a new cookbook called Acid Trip that celebrates vinegar.

GRABER: The first vinegars were from wine that had gone off—the clue is in the name. Vinegar comes from vin aigre—or, literally, in French, sour wine.

TWILLEY: And people mostly consumed those first, accidental vinegars as a beverage. Like the wine they used to be. But they quickly realized that this sour wine had other uses.

TURKELL: There are instances of it not only as this celebratory drink, but also as this currency. In Egypt, they were trading vinegars to embalmers when, you know, a family member passed. So it was a preservative in both ways.

GRABER: Vinegar was so valuable that people used it to pay to have their relatives embalmed. But, ironically, they also figured out that the vinegar could do the work of preserving the dead body itself. Vinegar has a really low pH, it’s really acidic, and that means it kills off other microbes that would make the body decay. Two for one.

TWILLEY: Like Michael says, the earliest vinegars were probably made in the Middle East, just because the first wines were made there. But vinegar is a thing that has been stumbled upon again and again, all around the world. In his book, Michael explores vinegar making in Japan and Peru and Mexico and beyond.

TURKELL: And I don’t think I fully realized until I started traveling how multicultural, how expansive the world of vinegar truly is. So there are so many starting points, so many points around the world, that preservation methods and techniques happened at so many times along history.

GRABER: In Europe, like in ancient Egypt, people started out by drinking their sour wine. Michael thinks that vinegar first made its way into the kitchen in ancient China.

TURKELL: It was a condiment, it was a dipping sauce, it was something that you poured over a bowl of noodles. It wasn’t fully integrated into sauces initially but then kind of got into the fold.

TWILLEY: But from the very beginning, people weren’t just appreciating vinegar for its ability to add tang to a sauce or preserve things. Vinegar has had a health halo as far back as Ancient Greece, if not beyond.

TURKELL: There are instances of Pliny the Elder or Hildegard or these ancients that wrote about using certain aspects of vinegar in their healing. Posca, which is an old Greek drink, was actually usually an herbal vinegar mixed with something to cut it a little bit because it was so tart. But that was used as medicine, if not a placebo to make people feel better.

GRABER: In France, there was a famous early health-promoting vinegar called The Four Thieves.

TURKELL: I can’t tell you who the four thieves were, but in modern day Provence you can still actually find this vinegar around.

TWILLEY: This Four Thieves vinegar was first made during the bubonic plague. The story, which is almost definitely not true, but is fun anyway, is that a gang of thieves were robbing the houses of people who were dead or dying of the plague. And then, when they were caught, the thieves bought their innocence by sharing their secret recipe for a vinegar that they said had kept them healthy, even in the houses of the sick.

TURKELL: It had a lot of aromatics and herbs like wild sage, rosemary—in modern days, you can find garlic in it, I think more for culinary purposes than to stave off the bubonic plague. But it was around during that time. And I think those smells and those flavors were resonant of something that was healthy or, you know, that old saying of, you know, if it doesn’t taste good it must be good for you. But then it started tasting good. And then everyone died of the bubonic plague. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

GRABER: But now today vinegar is back in the spotlight as a cure-all. Especially cider vinegar, for whatever reason. You have celebrities including Heidi Klum, Megan Fox, Hillary Duff, Scarlett Johansson, and even explorer Ralph Fiennes singing vinegar’s praises. So we wondered, is there any truth to any of that?

WOLFE: There are a lot of claims, but the thing to keep in mind when you read any paper about the wonders of any food, anything from oranges to kombucha to vinegar, is a lot of studies start off in a petri dish.

TWILLEY: To be fair, some of the studies were done in rats too. And that voice of scepticism is one you might recognize if you are a regular Gastropod listener—it’s Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, aka our in-house microbiologist.

GRABER: That’s right: microbes. Drink now.

TWILLEY: Cheers. So there is some interesting science on vinegar’s health benefits. But the only vinegar super power that’s really well-documented is its ability to kill bacteria. They’re actually being killed by acetic acid, which is what makes vinegar vinegar.

WOLFE: So you can add, you know, high doses of acetic acid to E. coli, to salmonella, and they’ll die because of that acidity. Then translating those kinds of studies from a pure culture in a petri dish to the more complicated world of the human body, there’s some challenges there. It’s much more complicated. You know, if you drank a ton of vinegar, you know, you probably aren’t going to feel great. And that’s because your own body tries to maintain a certain pH in different places. So drinking a ton of vinegar isn’t necessarily going to make you super, super healthy.

GRABER: There does seem to be some intriguing research on the effects of consuming small amounts of vinegar on blood sugar and weight loss, but these are not definitive studies. At all. Sorry Heidi, Scarlett, and Ralph: more research is needed.

TWILLEY: In other words, vinegar is not a cure-all.

GRABER: That said, adding fermented foods like vinegar to your diet seems to be a good thing overall—if you enjoy them. Just listen to Ben rather than Heidi, and don’t drink the whole bottle in one go.

TWILLEY: But vinegar’s ability to kill bacteria is curious. Because vinegar is actually made by bacteria. Like I said, vinegar is basically acetic acid.

WOLFE: And acetic acid is a byproduct of microbial metabolism. It’s essentially waste from a certain group of microbes.

GRABER: This group of microbes is called acetic acid bacteria. And to make vinegar, they first need alcohol to eat. Which is why you can’t have vinegar unless you have alcohol first.

WOLFE: Which when you think about it, it’s not something that a lot of organisms can use. And in fact it’s actually toxic to many organisms. But for acetic acid bacteria it’s delicious and wonderful.

TWILLEY: Acetic acid bacteria cannot get enough booze. They love it. They chug their way through any alcohol you give them, they break it down, and then they sweat it out as acetic acid, carbon dioxide, and water.

GRABER: This sounds like great fun—microbe party!—but it’s actually a lot of work.

WOLFE: Why would they go through all this work to use up alcohol and produce acetic acid? And in part, it makes a lot of sense, it’s a great way to kill competitors in your environment. So if you want to grow as a microbe you have to fight with all of these things living around you. And so acetic acid is a, you know, a very strong acid. In high concentrations, the pH, the acidity of the environment is a really difficult thing to deal with for many microbes.

TWILLEY: That’s why it makes sense that vinegar preserves things, like dead bodies in Egypt and also pickles.

GRABER: So vinegar is three to six percent acetic acid. The rest is just water and a few other flavors, depending on what kind of booze you started with.

TWILLEY: And because thirsty humans have developed so many different types of booze, there are tons of different kinds of vinegars out there. Red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar. There’s pineapple vinegar and coconut vinegar and malt vinegar. You can start with absolutely any product, as long as it has enough sugar in it to be fermented by yeast into alcohol.

GRABER: And once the yeast have done their work, then you let the acetic acid bacteria have their party.

WOLFE: Yeah, so acetic acid bacteria are everywhere. So if you walk in a field of flowers, if you even walk through Central Park or any place where there is soil, where there are plants, where there insects around, there are acetic acid bacteria. They’re living in places with little bits of sugar, like inside of flowers where there’s nectar. They’re living inside the bodies of insects. And so anywhere you have open alcohol, these bacteria can get into that environment, and that’s really where—that’s their happy place.

GRABER: And this is why, as Michael told us, those first vinegars were almost definitely an accident. The acetic acid bacteria would have just fallen in those open Mesopotamian wine containers and then, poof, vinegar!

TWILLEY: Lots of traditional vinegars are still made this way, just by relying on acetic acid bacteria in the environment to sour a jugful of wine. Andy Harris, a food writer turned vinegar entrepreneur, makes vinegar in his shed in West London in earthenware crocks and barrels. He told us that that’s a tradition that goes back millennia.

HARRIS: Traditionally in France and probably many other parts of Europe, peasant society, you know, farmers, each family would have a pot, vinegar crock, or a barrel where they made their vinegar. And that would be literally either pouring their slops from the daily wine. So then they used that as the family vinegar barrel.

GRABER: Among vinegar makers, this is known as the Orleans method. Michael told us the name comes from the town of Orleans in France that served as a stopping off point for wine coming into Paris.

TURKELL: And it had this amazing history of all this wine coming from the Loire, you know, along the Loire River and then would be shuttled up to Paris. Well, whatever didn’t make it on the boat as wine and then converted into vinegar was dropped off at the shore. So peoples or artisans there had to figure out something to do with it and they developed the Orleans method, which was one of the initial barrel-age methods of vinegar.

TWILLEY: It’s most the low-maintenance thing you can imagine. The wine sits there, the acetic acid bacteria do their thing, and then you drain the resulting vinegar off and bottle it, leaving the dregs in the barrel to get things going the next time.

TURKELL: The only one who’s left is Martin Pouret, who’s a sixth-generation vinegar maker in Orleans. And I couldn’t even walk into the vinegar cellars—or it was actually on the second, third floor—because the smell was so strong.

GRABER: At the height of the town’s vinegar production, around the time of the French revolution in the late 1700s, there were dozens of vinegar makers in town. Imagine the smell!

TWILLEY: The Orleans method is also a very slow method of making vinegar, which is fine, but has its downsides for businessmen who, you know, traditionally favor making a quick buck.

TURKELL: You have to have a lot of patience and you have to have a lot of product.

GRABER: All that changed in the late 1700s, when Louis Pasteur noticed that booze turned into vinegar more quickly if there was more oxygen in the liquid.

TWILLEY: So people started to experiment with ways to expose the vinegar to more air, first by trickling it down through beds of wood chips in a barrel, and then, more recently, using something called the Frings acetator. This is the method that’s still used to produce most of the world’s vinegar today.

GRABER: Ben told us that these acetators work by bubbling up oxygen into alcohol.

WOLFE: It’s sort of like a bubbler in an aquarium, and that continuously pumps in a lot of oxygen into the system and that happens over just a couple of days. So these microbes are capable of making vinegar over a really short time periods if the conditions are right.

TWILLEY: Whereas in Andy’s shed, his wine or beer takes as long as it takes to become vinegar—3 months, 6 months, however much time the acetic acid bacteria need to get the job done.

GRABER: So we wondered, does making vinegar faster make a difference to the flavor? And what contributes the most flavor to the end product, anyway?

WOLFE: Yeah, so I think you know in terms of the flavor of vinegar, I’d love to think that the microbes are doing a whole lot. But at the end of the day, the thing that’s driving flavor often in vinegar is what you start off with.

TWILLEY: That plain distilled vinegar or white vinegar you buy at the store is made from straight ethanol. And that ethanol could have come from corn or really any of the huge number of industrial processes that produce ethanol as a waste product.

GRABER: So it’s pretty tasteless. But then what about the red wine vinegar at the grocery store versus Andy’s red wine vinegar? They’re both made from red wine.


HARRIS: And then this, this is what I call my vinegar shed.

TWILLEY: Andy used to be a food writer, like I said. So he has lots of wine writer friends who give him their leftover tasting bottles.

HARRIS: So that’s a Bordeaux. That’s a Tempranillo, a Rioja.

TWILLEY: Yeah, sadly the red wine vinegar in my cupboard is not a single varietal.

GRABER: And yes. Andy’s red wine vinegar is genuinely really tasty, better than the one I have at home. Like Ben said, the starting material really does matter.

TWILLEY: But so wait. That raises a question. Could you just put that fancy Bordeaux into one of these industrial bubblers and make really good red wine vinegar really fast?

GRABER: As usual, the answer seems to be not necessarily. First of all, Andy’s vinegar gets some great flavor notes from the wood barrels themselves. But then there’s the aging process. Ben pointed out that there’s a lot going on in the wine as it slowly becomes vinegar.

WOLFE: When these acetic acid bacteria are metabolizing the alcohol and converting into acetic acid, they’re not just doing that, right? Their cells are doing other things. And so you can imagine if you let those things sit around for a while some of those cells will die. And as those cells die, they release different things into the environment, metabolites that we can perceive as flavors. You could imagine that there would be a much more complicated microbial death cascade that could end up in some really beautiful flavors in the longer fermentation.

TWILLEY: Yep, that’s right. It’s the microbial death cascade in Andy’s vinegar that makes it so pleasing on the palate.

GRABER: Perfect band name.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, if we were a band rather than a podcast, we would totally be called Microbial Death Cascade!

GRABER: If we had any musical talent. But microbial death combined with the source alcohol is not the only way to get amazing flavored vinegar. Andy, for example—he doesn’t just make vinegars. He also has an incredible collection that he sells as well. And lots of them are infused with herbs and fruit and flowers.

HARRIS: So there’s this wonderful lady called Natalie LeFort who makes all these vinegars. This comes from a 16th-century recipe she found in a cookbook. And it’s vermeil and it’s basically with cloves and cinnamon.

TWILLEY: This is another way to build flavor in your vinegar: infuse it.

HARRIS: That for example I use with duck—duck breast. To deglaze.

GRABER: That sounds perfect.


GRABER: The herb and spice flavors are all preserved in the vinegar.

HARRIS: These are made by nuns, and there’s a thyme flower vinegar—you just smell from the bottle. So these are very intense and savoury and all the herbs and the fruit are grown in the monastery. Tarragon. You can really get that aniseed of the tarragon in that one.

GRABER: Mmmm, I love tarragon.

TWILLEY: That’s incredible.

HARRIS: Sarayet, which is one of my favourites—savoury. Wow. It’s a really earthy. So that with a lovely warm potato salad. You know, just get some waxy potatoes and just literally just get them out the pan, add some of that and some good olive oil and some nice sea salt.

TWILLEY: We had an epic vinegar tasting session at Andy’s, and it really was easy to see how these super-flavorful infused wine vinegars would add a whole new dimension to a dish.

GRABER: With Andy, though, there’s one crucial vinegar we did not taste. Because we knew we were headed to Italy to taste it in its home. Balsamic vinegar.

TWILLEY: The top dog of vinegars. But when did balsamic get so popular? And is the balsamic you’ve tasted actually the real thing?

GRABER: Answers to all your balsamic questions and more—right after a few words about our sponsors this episode.


EMILIO BIANCARDI: OK, what you see here is one of our robotic lawn mower. We were the first one to introduce robotic lawn mowers in a vineyard.

TWILLEY: Here we are, surrounded by grapevines, near a 18th-century villa, in the gorgeous Italian countryside. And this oversized lawnmower roomba-thing is following us around.

BIANCARDI: Yeah, that’s Inea. Well, Inea in English. We have Mario, Pepo, Inea and Ulisa, Ulysses. So we decided to give them name.

GRABER: This is where balsamic vinegar comes from.

BIANCARDI: My name is Emilio Biancardi, from Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. We’re in the zone of origin for traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is just the province of Modena.

GRABER: People here have been making vinegar here for thousands of years. Christina Sereni works in the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, not far from Emilio’s vineyards.

CRISTINA SERENI: We know that we were famous for vinegars even in Roman times. We cannot grow olive trees, we cannot grow lemon trees. Winter frost kills everything. We know that we were growing grapes even in Roman times. Apicio, one of the chefs of the Roman Age, was using vinegar from Modena and he writes it in his recipes. So we know that in Roman times we were already famous for our production of vinegars. And I’m using the plural because we had many, many vinegars. Different kinds of vinegar, made in different ways with apples, with grapes, with wine or cooked grape must.

TWILLEY: Cooked grape must—that is the thing that sets balsamic apart. Must is just the pressed wine grapes—juice, seeds, skins, stems, and all. And then that must is cooked for between 12 and 72 hours. It’s brought to the boil, and then gently simmered.

BIANCARDI: That’s the secret of our product. And it gives us these four major effects: volume reduction, sugar concentration, almost killing of all the enzymes and bacteria that can lead to an alcoholic fermentation. And, last but not least, the first change in the color, due to the caramelization of sugar and to the Maillard reaction.

GRABER: The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction from heating proteins and sugars that makes things brown and tasty, like the brown top of a loaf of bread. Same thing is happening to the cooking grape must. And like Cristina said, it’s not just that they’ve been making vinegar in Modena for thousands of years, but they’ve also been cooking grape must for just as long.

BIANCARDI: The idea of cooking must comes from the Roman. As you may know, the Romans didn’t have any sugar. They just had honey and cooked must. This was one of the sweetest things that they had.

TWILLEY: Cooked must, which is called saba in Modena, it’s still used as a sweetener in the region today, to make Christmas confectionery. In fact, quite a few places still have that tradition, left over from Roman times. Emilio told us cooked must is big in Romania too.

GRABER: And like everywhere else in the world where vinegar has been invented, that sweet, cooked grape must turned into alcohol and then vinegar, by accident. And unsurprisingly, it was delicious. People loved it.

TWILLEY: That happy accident was the first balsamic vinegar, the grandaddy of all the balsamic vinegars we drizzle today. Balsamic vinegar is, by definition, cooked grape must, aged.

GRABER: This sounds simple, and yet bottles of real balsamic vinegar cost about 50 bucks minimum. So obviously it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

TWILLEY: For starters, you can’t just use any old grape.

BIANCARDI: Our productive law says which kind of grapes we have to use. So the trebbiano, ancellotta, lambruschi. So typical grapes from the zone of origin.

GRABER: So far, so straightforward. Then it gets a little nuts. We went upstairs at Emilio’s villa into his balsamic attic.

TONI MAGLIAZZA: Neither of you have been in a balsamic attic before?


MAGLIAZZA: Prepare yourselves, have the mic on.

GRABER: Oh the mic’s on, it’s not off.

MAGLIAZZA: You’re gonna freak out, it’s life changing.

TWILLEY: Even though Toni warned us, we still freaked out. We got out of the elevator and it hit us right away, square to the nose.

TWILLEY: Ohhhh! Smell that!

GRABER: Wow. It’s sweet and it’s acidic and it’s warm.

BIANCARDI: Well it’s warm because I left the—

GRABER: No, I mean the smell is like really a warm smell.

TWILLEY: Like a little spicy, wood.

GRABER: Little caramel.

BIANCARDI: OK, follow me.

GRABER: Wow. Oh my gosh.

BIANCARDI: Watch your hand, watch your step please.

GRABER: As Emilio started to say, it wasn’t just a warm smell, which I loved, but it was also really freaking hot.

TWILLEY: Which, it turns out, serves a purpose. Because once you’ve got your cooked must, you use it to refill a barrel that’s half-filled with older balsamic. And then you leave it for an entire year, winter followed by summer. And the magic starts to happen.

BIANCARDI: The fluctuation between hot and cold is really important. Because the acetic bacteria are really active when it’s hot. So in winter when it’s cold and calm you have sediment.

GRABER: And, after a cold calm winter and a busy hot summer, the sugar in the must has turned into alcohol. And it’s starting to turn into vinegar. Andy’s red wine vinegar would be long done and bottled by now. But Emilio is nowhere near finished.

BIANCARDI: Even if it seem a really calm and slow product, it’s really dynamic product. You have to keep the product alive.

TWILLEY: This is what Emilio has to do to keep his balsamic alive: Every year, once a year, he has to go up to the attic to sniff his barrels, and then move some of the vinegar from one barrel to another. And then the vinegar that was in that 2nd barrel … well, some of that gets moved to a third barrel. Which some of the vinegar from that third barrel has to be moved into a fourth. And then some of the vinegar from the fourth… You get the picture.

GRABER: Each barrel down that path year after year is smaller. In part, it’s because you’re only moving some of the vinegar from one barrel to the next. In part, it’s because some of the liquid evaporates over the course of the year. And so, up in Emilio’s attic, there are all these beautiful rows of barrels, each progressively smaller in that row.

TWILLEY: This process of moving just a little bit of the aging vinegar each year—it can be as little as a litre, like a couple of pints—it’s called the passages. It happens every spring.

SERENI: When temperature rises yeasts and acetic acid bacteria start to wake up. And they start to work. So you understand that the time is right by the perfumes you are perceiving.

TWILLEY: That’s why Emilio sniffs his barrels to know when to start the passages—you can smell when the acetic acid bacteria have woken up from winter hibernation and rolled up their sleeves to start another long season of eating alcohol.

GRABER: So each of those barrels in a set, it gets a little bit of the vinegar from the barrel before. So in each barrel, there’s vinegar there from the very first year that the barrel was ever used to make vinegar.

TWILLEY: This is why when you buy balsamic—the real aged traditional stuff—it always says it’s either at least 12 years or at least 25 years old

BIANCARDI: So what does it mean? The first one you tasted, I told you it was at least six. But this barrel contains all the product that we’ve been putting inside this barrel from the beginning of the life of the barrel.

GRABER: So why don’t you just leave the product in one barrel and age it there for six years? Why this whole moving a little bit each year thing?

BIANCARDI: You wouldn’t have the same complexity and taste that we are achieving now. So adding something every year is making them more active.

TWILLEY: It’s all about keeping the balsamic alive, not letting it get stuck. But the moving, adding young blood to the older barrels—that’s not the only thing contributing to balsamic’s flavor development. There’s also the wood of the barrels themselves.

GRABER: Cristina told us they use woods they can get in the region.

SERENI: Oak and acacia are sweet and warm. Mulberry and cherry are fresh and fruity. Ash is very delicate. Chestnut is tannic, but because it is the cheapest, everyone’s got a barrel of chestnut. And we use to sweeten the flavor given by chestnut with oak. Oak is the most used for smallest barrels. And the one in the middle is juniper. Juniper is a very aromatic and spicy wood, so aromatic and spicy that you can tell if a vinegar has been kept in a barrel made of juniper simply by smelling it.

TWILLEY: Over the years that the balsamic is moving along into smaller and smaller barrels, its flavor is being transformed. Emilio gave us a taste of the at least six-year-old balsamic, which is actually too young to legally sell. It tasted fine to me, but kind of acidic—a little sweet and thick but really more like regular sherry vinegar.

GRABER: Then we moved on to the good stuff.

BIANCARDI: But let’s continue so you see how the product is following its path to the excellence. Ready?



BIANCARDI: OK please, poker face. OK, don’t tell the others what you’re feeling. I don’t want—

TWILLEY: The world to know?

BIANCARDI: This one is at least thirteen, more or less. That was one of the worst poker face I’ve ever seen.

GRABER: We don’t do poker faces here.

TWILLEY: So it’s become sweeter. It’s become thicker. It’s also become…



GRABER: And more caramel notes to it too.

TWILLEY: So here’s the funny thing. I have no idea how some lunatic Modenese person first decided to do this whole kind of painful process of transferring just a tiny bit of vinegar into a smaller barrel each year. No one really does.

SERENI: We have a record that tells us that in 1046, a German Emperor, Henry the Third, going to meet the Pope stopped in this area to collect a bottle of vinegar, that from the description could have been an ancestor of this traditional balsamic vinegar. But we haven’t found a barrel, we haven’t found any recipes dating back one or two thousand years. So only we can tell you is that we found a record.

TWILLEY: There’s also a record in the 1500s of Lucretia Borgia, who has something of a reputation—the Borgia family specialized in poisonings and murder—but she apparently specially requested the famous vinegar of Modena to ease her labor pains.

GRABER: The name ‘balsamic vinegar’ was first used, as far as we know, in 1747. It was another name for ‘the Duke’s vinegars’ that were kept in his secret cellars. The name is from the Latin balsam, like a thick aromatic balm.

TWILLEY: But balsamic wasn’t only for the duke.

SERENI: In ancient times, families used to start a new set anytime a baby girl was born. In this way, when the girl was ready to leave the house, usually because she was getting married, the vinegar was already good.

TWILLEY: Cristina’s family started a set of barrels for her when she was born. She’s not married, but she’s used her own vinegar anyway.

SERENI: Now the tradition stays on. But people don’t mind the gender. Anything can be a good excuse to start a new set.

GRABER: So people were doing this—cooking grape must, moving it from barrel to barrel in an attic. But there wasn’t a clear defined step-by-step, this is what you do to make balsamic vinegar, until…

SERENI: The first record, the first recipe describing in detail is the process that we still use to make traditional balsamic vinegar is described in one of the letters Pio Fabriani and Francesco Aggazzotti exchanged between 1860 and 1862. He was just describing the method his family was following to help his friend to make a better vinegar.

TWILLEY: This letter was the first time that these specific steps were spelled out. But nowadays, they’re law.

GRABER: Emilio’s family has been making balsamic vinegar this way for at least six generations back. Today, they make 5000 to 8000 bottles a year.

TWILLEY: But they don’t put their own vinegar into bottles. They’re not allowed to.

BIANCARDI: So you will have to bring the product to the consortium, whole amount.

GRABER: There’s a special consortium, they’re basically the guardians of balsamic tradition, and they decide whether the product is good enough to be called “traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.”

BIANCARDI: There the product is tested and tasted by experts. They test it for minimal acidity, minimal density, and then taste it. And if the product is OK, they do the bottling.

GRABER: Cristina was a master taster and would have been one of people judging vinegar like Emilio’s, though she’s no longer doing it these days.

TWILLEY: It had taken over her life. If you’re a taster, you spend more time tasting than you do with your family.

GRABER: At the museum, Cristina talked us through what she used to do, and what tasters still do, every day in Modena.

SERENI: This is a typical table used to taste traditional balsamic vinegar. Six people gathered around a table, and first of all they checked the color of the vinegar through the light of a candle. When you check the vinegar through the light of a candle, you look for the perfect density. The color must be dark with ruby flecks and it must be clear.

TWILLEY: Then they sniff it. Cristina told us you’re looking for an aroma that sticks around. It needs to have lasting power but still be delicate.

SERENI: You want to have a refined perfume, not too aggressive.

GRABER: And then they taste a few drops. They spread the vinegar around on their tongue and press it to the roof of their mouth.

SERENI: Then you look for a body, when you taste it in your mouth, you look for a body. You want a vinegar that remains there even when you swallow it. The flavor should be nice and harmonious. And then it must be sour, because vinegar is sour, it must be sour, not too sweet, not too sour. Everything must be very well balanced and refined.

TWILLEY: And then they talk about the vinegar and they give the vinegar a score.

SERENI: Sometimes there are discussions that goes on for minutes and minutes. Some other times you find people that agree about the quality of the vinegar. The highest possible score is 400. Nobody got such a high score.

GRABER: The best vinegars get about 320 or so. But if it’s not quite good enough to be called real balsamic vinegar of Modena, the guardians of tradition might send the producer back to age it another year or so. And that’s it. This is traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.

TWILLEY: Balsamic vinegar was a pretty local product for a very long time. European aristocracy might have craved it, but the majority of world had no idea it even existed. And then suddenly—and I remember this happening—you couldn’t move for a balsamic-drizzled Caprese salad. What happened?

GRABER: A few things happened within just a decade or so. In 1976, Chuck Williams—he’s the founder of Williams-Sonoma—he first saw and fell in love with balsamic vinegar in Italy. At the time it was almost impossible to find here. So In 1977, he imported some in his Williams-Sonoma catalogue, and apparently it was really popular. He’s credited with starting the balsamic craze in America.

TWILLEY: Although Emilio’s theory is that balsamic really became big a little later.

BIANCARDI: It was in the 90s, I think because I remember in Star Trek, in one of the movies, there is Captain Picard says something about “serve to the aliens some balsamic vinaigrette,” something like that. So it was in the 90s.


TWILLEY: But something else happened in the 1990s, too.

BIANCARDI: This was the moment of the fight, you know. Our tiny consortium was fighting to receive this protection from the European law and the European Union. But then everything went wrong.

GRABER: As we said, the real balsamic vinegar is super expensive, at least 50 bucks for a small bottle. And now you understand why—it takes years to make. But balsamic vinegar in America suddenly was super popular. So of course, copy-cats started to elbow in on Emilio’s family business.

TWILLEY: His family and the consortium—the balsamic guardians—they wanted to say that the only product you could call balsamic vinegar was balsamic vinegar made the way they make it. But they lost.

GRABER: There is actually a law about what can be called ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena.’ It does, yes, have to be made in Modena. But there are industrial shortcuts you can take. You can make it with wine vinegar, for instance, which, as we know from Andy, takes a lot less time to produce.

BIANCARDI: Wine vinegar, concentrated must, caramel. Whatever.

TWILLEY: This more industrial, faster product—it’s cheaper, obviously. And it’s not bad. In fact, for years, it was all I knew. It’s all many Italians know. And it’s legally sold as traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena with an IGP label—a protected geographical indication. So it looks really legit.

GRABER: As Nicky said, it’s not bad. But it doesn’t have the same complexity and depth of flavor. And, frankly, the grapes don’t even have to come from Modena.

TWILLEY: So if you want the real balsamic—the stuff that Emilio and Cristina make, painstakingly transferring vinegar between barrels each year—you need to be specific. It has to be called traditional balsamic vinegar of modena and it has to have a DOP symbol—a protected designation of origin. Which is confusing, because the IGP label really looks quite similar.

GRABER: Let’s make this all even a little more confusing for you, and more frustrating for Emilio. If you go to the supermarket and you see something called ‘balsamic vinegar,’ no mention of Modena, it could just be industrial wine vinegar with added sugar. That’s what most of the stuff in America is. You can tell, too—it flows like water, it’s not thick at all. It’s just slightly sweet vinegar.

TWILLEY: I would say be careful here. If you do try the real stuff, it’s very hard to go back! And it’s a really expensive habit, although a little does go a long way. But oh my god is it good.

GRABER: Emilio cooked us lunch, homemade focaccia and all, and spared no expense on the balsamic vinegar.

BIANCARDI: One of the most common appetizers is Parmesan cheese with traditional balsamic vinegar. So we’re drizzling some drops on the Parmesan. And then you will tell me how it tastes.

GRABER: I can already tell you how it tastes.

TWILLEY: I’m looking forward to it. I’ll just put it that way.

GRABER: I could see the future, and I was right. It was just as delicious as I’d expected.

BIANCARDI: So that’s the frittata with the zucchini.

GRABER: With some balsamic.

BIANCARDI: And on top we’re pouring some traditional balsamic vinegar on top of it. I don’t know if you want to take a picture of that.

GRABER: In a beautiful shape of a spiral.

TWILLEY: At this point, I asked Emilio whether he just puts balsamic on everything, because everything tastes better with it.

BIANCARDI: I put balsamic. Yeah.

GRABER: The frittata was amazing. I’m going to start drizzling balsamic on all my eggs. If I can afford it.

TWILLEY: I am afraid that podcasting and a balsamic habit may not be compatible. Then to finish our balsamic feast, Emilio brought us some gelato drizzled with the at least 25-year-old balsamic.

TWILLEY: It looks like hot fudge sauce. I have a feeling it’s going to taste a lot better.

GRABER: I was going to say, this is much more appealing to me than hot fudge.

TWILLEY: Toni—her eyes literally rolled backwards in her head at this point.

GRABER: Nicky, so did yours.

TWILLEY: If I could only have one ice cream topping in the world for the rest of all time, it would surely be this. Like no competition at all with anything ever.

GRABER: We kept asking everyone in Modena if anyone else in the world makes a similar vinegar, something this sweet and rich and complex. Of course, they’re Italian, they said nobody else. Just them. But Michael—he’s the one who wrote the cookbook on vinegar—he told us about an insane Japanese sweet potato vinegar that smelled like Beaujolais but was really sweet.

TURKELL: Akihiro Io who is a many generation vinegar maker who has taken it over from his father and mother in the past few years poured it over vanilla ice cream. And I have a little bottle of that vinegar, it’s called Benimosu, at my house specifically to kind of like blow people’s mind and pour it over ice cream for dessert.

TWILLEY: And that’s the thing. For Michael and also for Andy, it’s not about, ‘Oh you have to spend 50 bucks on fancy balsamic.’ Yes, fancy balsamic is amazing. If you get the chance to try it, you have to. But their point is, vinegar in general is so much more than the industrial product most of us have on our shelves.

TURKELL: It’s often overlooked as something that’s important

GRABER: Because most people think of it just for salad dressing. Which Michael doesn’t mind.

TURKELL: But then when everyone starts thinking that, ‘Oh yeah I have vinegar and I do this, you know, I get fruit flies with it.’ I hate that vinegar has somehow been relegated to cleaning more than it has to culinary purposes.

GRABER: Andy and Michael are campaigning to break vinegar out of its salad dressing bottle. We had it on eggs in Italy. Andy uses it in casseroles and paella and gazpacho. Michael has an entire book full of recipes that require vinegar. Me, personally—I almost always splash some at the end when I’m cooking greens or other vegetables.

TURKELL: Acidity is one of those, you know, handful of elements that needs to happen in a well balanced dish. And I know a lot of chefs—actually I’ll say most chefs will say if a dish is missing something, it’s usually acidity. So I think a lot of people just don’t even know how to use it. They’re a little scared of what vinegar is.

TWILLEY: I know before we made this episode, it wouldn’t have ever crossed my mind to add a dash of vinegar to my stew or my pan-fried fish or whatever. At most, I would use like a squeeze of lemon to add that acidity.

HARRIS: If you go into supermarkets, it’s rather second-rate balsamic and a few other vinegars. So you know every—people have kind of discovered good quality olive oil and how you can use different oils for different things and they should be able to do the same with vinegar.

GRABER: That’s really the point, as we discovered in Andy’s shed. There are so many different vinegars, each with its own acidity level and flavor. Andy loves the cinnamon and cloves-infused vinegar to deglaze the pan when he’s cooking duck, and he uses a cider vinegar to poach rhubarb.

TWILLEY: Vinegar: the gateway to a new dimension. As Captain Picard never said.


GRABER: Once again, a huge, huge thanks to Toni Mazzaglia for arranging our balsamic vinegar tours and translating and making everything happen. Go to Florence and take her food tour:

TWILLEY: Thanks to Andy Harris of the Vinegar Shed, Michael Harlan Turkell whose new book is called Acid Trip, and then, in Italy, Emilio Biancardi of the Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca and  Cristina Sereni of the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilamberto. We have links to their books and their online shops so you can buy vinegar and cook with to your heart’s delight. It’s all on our website, along with lots of amazing photos of our vinegar adventures. And I have to thank my parents for cutting out and saving an article about Andy Harris for me: they provide a dedicated clippings service for which I am extremely grateful!

GRABER: And of course, thanks to Gastropod’s in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University. He answered all our appropriate vinegar questions, and then some that were maybe not quite in his wheelhouse.

TWILLEY: The other thing people do is they put it on their hair in the shower to make their hair shiny. Why on earth would that work? Would it?

WOLFE: Um, again…

TWILLEY: LAUGHS A tiny bit outside your expertise.

WOLFE: Sorry.

GRABER: We’re taking you way out of…

WOLFE: Yeah.

TWILLEY: I know, I’m like ‘Professor of Hair Shininess at Tufts Ben Wolfe said…’

WOLFE: LAUGHS I could put that on my CV somewhere. You know, I think it makes sense that these acids are really good at denaturing proteins. And so they can help loosen up and denature proteins that are stuck on things and other, you know, fats and other kinds of things that can help solubilize those. So it does make sense to put vinegar on your hair, it’ll probably clean your hair. But again, yeah, I’m not a hair specialist.


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