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.


Here’s Why You Should Care About Southern Food

The food of the South is one of the most complicated, complex, contradictory cuisines in the U.S. This is the region where a monumental mixing of crops and culinary traditions gave way to one of the most punishing, damaging monocultures in the country; where food born in violence and slavery led to delicious, nutritious dishes. It's also the region that laid the tablecloth for seasonal, farm-to-table dining, as well as drive-through fast food. In this episode, authors Michael Twitty and John T. Edge, two of the nation's leading voices on Southern food, take listeners on a tour through their shared history.


Better Believe It’s Butter

Butter is beautiful: solid golden bars add the perfect flakiness to pastry, give cake a delightfully tender springiness, and melt mouth-wateringly onto toast. But unlike its cousin, cheese—another concentrated, solidified form of milk—we don't tend to think of butter as something that's available in hundreds of varieties, each with a different flavor, color, and texture. Nor do we necessarily consider a dairymaid costume to be a uniform of women's empowerment. But we should. This episode, we explore the science behind butter's subtle variations, as well as its long history as a vehicle for both ritual worship and female entrepreneurship around the world.


Hacking Taste TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Hacking Taste, first released on March 14, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


CYNTHIA GRABER: Okay, cheers!

TWILLEY: One, two, three…

TINA ANTOLINI: It’s like lemonade.

KELLEY CARTER: It’s so weird! Why is this so delicious? What the hell? Wait, what have you done to me?!

GRABER: So, before one of our Pop-Up Magazine shows, a handful of the crew and performers let us put red pills on their tongues without having any idea what they were taking and what they were in for.

TWILLEY: Hey, we’re good people. And it’s not like we didn’t do it ourselves. But I must admit, it was amazing how easy it was to get people to take pills without telling them what they were.

GRABER: We’ll tell you what those pills were later on, but, for now, what you need to know is that we were screwing with their taste buds.

TWILLEY: That’s right, this episode, we’re going to get to the bottom of our sense of taste: how does it work and how can we mess with it?

GRABER: Why do we taste the things we taste? And can the answers to these questions help us hack taste to tackle some of today’s biggest health problems?

TWILLEY: You’re listening to 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 before we reveal the secrets of one of the most important ways we interact with the world, we have some sponsors to tell you about.



GRABER: So this is kind of a broad question, but what is taste?

ROBIN DANDO: Yep, that’s pretty broad.

TWILLEY: That’s Robin Dando. He’s an assistant professor of Food Science at Cornell University, and he specializes in the study of taste.

GRABER: Taste is one of our five senses. You know the ones: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. So taste, like smell, is a chemical sense. Our taste buds are detecting chemicals.

DANDO: The taste bud sits just below the surface of your tongue. We have a few of them around the insides of our mouths as well. But most of them are concentrated in the tongue.

TWILLEY: A taste bud looks kind of like a very tiny little yellow onion. It’s a spherical clump of cells, it has a little bunch of root-looking nerves coming out the bottom, like at the bottom of an onion. And at the top, it has a little hole or pore.

DANDO: Where they branch these little fingers out into the tongue looking for these stimuli.

TWILLEY: Those are like if you left the onion to sprout—those little green shoots, they’re like the taste bud fingers waving around on the surface of your tongue waiting for a chemical stimulus.

DANDO: So a stimulus that’s in solution, something that we either drink or something that we’re consuming and is dissolved in saliva, can activate receptors on the very tips of these cells and cause the cell to light up and send the signal on towards our brain saying that we detect something.

GRABER: The taste buds catch chemicals in a liquid. That’s part of what our saliva does, it takes everything in our food and transforms it into a liquid form.

TWILLEY: Each of the cells at the tip of those little fingers is configured to grab onto different chemicals—chemicals that trigger the basic tastes.

JOHN MCQUAID: You know, you drink a Coke and a sugar molecule comes sweeping by and boom, it attaches itself to a sweetness receptor. And that activates a signal inside the taste cell in the tongue that goes into a nerve and goes into the brain. And you’ll recognize that it’s sweet and it will feel sweet.

TWILLEY: That’s John McQuaid, the author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat. Just to be confusing, John’s book is really about flavor, more than just taste. In normal conversation, we tend to use taste and flavor interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.

GRABER: As you might know if you’ve listened to our flavor episode, flavor is much more complex than taste. It’s the whole experience of eating a food, so it includes taste. But it’s much bigger and it’s influenced by many other aspects of a dish.

TWILLEY: As you’ll know if you try to eat with a heavy cold, flavor has a lot more to do with smell than it does with plain old taste. Flavor depends on the aroma chemicals that are sensed in our nose. Also, you should listen to that episode if you haven’t! It’s called Savor Flavor.

GRABER: And if you heard our episode called Crunch, Crackle, and Pop, you’ll also know that all sorts of other things can influence the flavor we experience. Sound is another one. Check out that episode, too.

TWILLEY: Heck, check out our entire back catalog while you’re at it! I say this without any bias: it’s all great. But so taste is just one part of our experience of food. And, on the surface, it seems super simple. I mean, really kind of basic. The general consensus is that there are only five main tastes.

MCQUAID: Bitterness, saltiness, sourness, sweetness, and umami—umami being savoriness.

GRABER: There are other tastes that scientists think we might be detecting, but those are still being argued over. So taste has two primary functions in humans. The first one: it helps us survive. Paul Breslin studies taste at Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

PAUL BRESLIN: Taste is really a gateway for the entire gastrointestinal tract and is a basis for making the determination whether you should eat it or not eat it. Is it nutritious, is it toxic? Will this help sustain you if you eat it and that it has calories and nutrients and minerals and vitamins, or is it poisonous, and if you eat it you’ll die and that it will end you right there with one meal?

TWILLEY: So it’s important. The second function of taste is kind of like an early warning system for your metabolism.

DANDO: When we take food into our mouths, it’s one of our first encounters with that food. So, to get our body ready to be able to digest it, we can’t just have the food placed right in our stomach. It’s not ready for it. So we have to have the right kind of gastric juices flowing inside of our stomach. We have to have some motility to actually be able to move the food down. Maybe, if we’re eating something very sweet, we’re going to have to have our body prepared for that blood sugar hit with an insulin response.

TWILLEY: Robin told us that your taste receptors will trigger all of these responses depending on what they detect. So your stomach and your pancreas and so on—they’re all gearing up, getting ready for what’s about to hit them.

GRABER: That response happens even if the food never makes it to your stomach—scientists have studied this both in animals and in people. People swish sweet solutions around in their mouths and spit them out. And their bodies get primed for sugar. Your insulin goes up, for instance, even if you just put a piece of candy in your mouth and then spit it out.

TWILLEY: So those are the two functions of taste: the conscious yes or no signal in our mouths, and the unconscious metabolic response. But why these five major tastes? Why did we evolve to detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami?

MCQUAID: Humans are omnivores so it benefits us to be able to taste as much as we can. Humans have lived in every environment on Earth. This has helped tune our sense of taste this way and that. That whole evolutionary background helps give us the great variety of taste abilities that we have today and also accounts for the great variety of food that we eat and cuisine around the world.

GRABER: John says actually pretty much all of the things our ancestors might have put into their mouths—plants and bugs and other animals—they all contain chemicals that fall within one or more of those five major tastes. But out of all the potential foods we could eat, we have a particularly strong reaction to chemicals that trigger our sweet receptors.

TWILLEY: Sugars, in other words: fructose, glucose, sucrose. Those light up our sweet receptors, and, from there, our brains. And that makes sense. Sugar is one of the most concentrated source of calories there is, and we need calories to live.

MCQUAID: Scientists think that sugar is really a primordial pleasure experience, since sweetness, which is basically the experience of sugar, goes back to the dawn of complex life. So for five hundred million years, life has been responding positively to sugar. So it’s not surprising that humans do also. And really it’s largely out of our control, our reaction to it.

GRABER: Salt is another one—we did an entire episode on salt, which of course you should also go listen to. All mammals need salt to live—we can’t make it, so we need to find sources of it in the environment. Makes sense that we’d be able to taste it.

TWILLEY: And Paul told us salt also triggers a metabolic response, the way the taste of sugar triggers your body to produce insulin. In the case of salt, Paul has managed to show that your blood vessels will actually start relaxing a little if you swish salty water in your mouth, even if you spit it out. Your blood vessels know that to keep your blood pressure constant, you’ll need to pull in more water to counterbalance that incoming salt, and they prepare accordingly.

GRABER: The relationship between salt and blood pressure is actually quite complicated—our episode on salt goes into this in much more depth.

TWILLEY: But sugar and salt are tastes that we crave because they’re things that we need. Sour is a little different. Very sour things don’t taste good, which makes sense because strong acids damage our teeth and tissues. Some people say sourness evolved as a ripeness detector, and so we don’t like really sour things because our body is telling us to hold off and wait until the fruit or berry or whatever is ripe and ready. But Paul pointed out that our response to sour is more complicated than straight up dislike.

BRESLIN: Obviously we like mixtures of acid with with sugar.

GRABER: Like lemonade. But even without sugar, sour flavors can still be appealing.

BRESLIN: People actually do like low levels of sour taste. People will put a twist into a glass of water, a glass of seltzer water.

GRABER: Scientists aren’t quite sure why we like these low-level sour tastes. One theory is that sour points us to vitamin C. Most mammals can make vitamin C, but we humans can’t. So it’s crucial that we be able to detect the ascorbic acid in fruit that gives it that puckery taste. We need that vitamin C. But there are other places we find sourness appealing.

BRESLIN: And in the case of eating virtually anything that’s fermented, whatever that may be, whether it’s dairy being processed into cheese, or cucumbers being processed into pickles, what have you, there’s acid being generated by bacteria. Or, in the case of yeasts, if you’re making wine or beer. And we seem to like that low level of acidity—a little bit of sourness is pleasing to us.

TWILLEY: Our taste for that fermented sour, that could be beneficial in evolutionary terms, too. We all know that our gut microbes appreciate fermented foods. So perhaps our sour taste receptors were guiding us toward that, too.

GRABER: That’s sour, now onto another complicated taste—bitter. And yes, we’ve done an entire episode on bitter as well.

TWILLEY: We really have made a lot of episodes!

GRABER: Which is a good thing. It means we can just tell you all to go listen to them. But bitter’s a weird one. We have more bitter receptors that can taste more bitter compounds, maybe hundreds of compounds, if not more. That’s more than for any other taste.

TWILLEY: Things that taste bitter often contain chemicals that are toxic to us, at least in large doses. Most people in most cultures around the world will not and do not eat anything that’s very strongly bitter. It’s an evolutionary response to avoid poisons. But for foods that are only mildly bitter, it’s a different story. Sometimes we even seek them out.

GRABER: Paul told us that in the real world almost all the food that’s good for us also has low levels of toxins, otherwise known as bitter flavors. We learned to enjoy, maybe even crave, some bitterness so that we can get all the other great nutrients in those bitter plants. And Paul says there’s another evolutionary reason we might like bitter: almost all medicines taste bitter, too. So our ancestors might have developed a taste for self-medicating.

TWILLEY: The fifth and final major taste is umami. And it’s the most recent addition to the canon. A Japanese chemist proposed that umami should join sweet, salty, sour, and bitter back in 1908, but it wasn’t really recognized as a distinct taste with its own unique chemical triggers until 1985.

GRABER: You may have heard of the main chemical trigger for umami that the Japanese scientist had isolated from seaweed broth. It’s called MSG, or monosodium glutamate.

TWILLEY: If you translate umami from Japanese, it means a “pleasant savory taste,” and it’s a really mild taste compared to sugar and salt and bitter. Umami never gets very strong, and we don’t even like it by itself. So why can we taste it?

GRABER: The first thing you need to know is that glutamates primarily come about through a transformation of protein. As protein breaks down, it’s transformed into amino acids and ribonucleotides. And together this is what gives you glutamates.

BRESLIN: Savory taste is about tasting amino acids and ribonucleotides together as a cocktail. So it kind of begs the question then: when are we going to be exposed to pure free amino acids and free ribonucleotides, together at the same time? And really the only time you’re going to experience those is when a food is being broken down, it’s somehow decomposing. And there’s really only three ways that that happens.

TWILLEY: Fermentation, drying, and cooking.

GRABER: You’ll find lots of awesome umami flavors in cooked meats or parmesan cheese, or, yes, seaweed broth.

TWILLEY: And when you taste umami, you’re actually detecting pre-digested protein. Although that doesn’t sound that nice, it’s really good news for your body: you need those amino acids from protein to build cells.

GRABER: Mmm. Delicious pre-digested proteins. But really, all these stories we’ve just told you about why we taste what we taste and why we’ve come to enjoy these tastes—these are just theories. We don’t know exactly what our ancestors were tasting. It’s impossible.

TWILLEY: But you can find some clues for how evolution has shaped taste by looking at other animals and what they can taste. Like, for example, cats. Cats are carnivores, they don’t eat their veggies, and all they have left is an umami receptor.

GRABER: Penguins and dolphins and whales and lots of other sea mammals also have a poor sense of taste—John says they’ve lost a lot of taste receptors over evolutionary time.

MCQUAID: It may be because they’re just swallowing fish whole, so you don’t really have a need to taste them. Most of the taste experience occurs when you’re chewing something. So there’s a lot of that in the animal kingdom, where certain animals, you know, they don’t need to taste something and so it falls into disuse and kind of is evolutionarily filtered out.

TWILLEY: And there’s been plenty of time for that filtering to happen, because the sense of taste is incredibly ancient.

MCQUAID: It goes back to the origin of complex life on Earth. Because once you have complex life, which is more than just single cells floating around, which is multi-celled creatures, they have an inside and outside, and the outside has to detect what is food and what isn’t food. So it goes back at least five hundred million years.

GRABER: And this is why animals that live in the water still have taste receptors in what might seem like strange places. In a lot of fish, taste receptors aren’t just in their mouths.

TWILLEY: Tom Finger is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies taste, and a lot of his work has focused on fish.

TOM FINGER: So the taste molecules are dissolved in the water, and they can swim around and detect taste because the taste molecules are contacting the surface of their skin. So catfish, for instance, have taste buds scattered across their whiskers and the whole body surface.

TWILLEY: It turns outs out that we are more like catfish than you might think. Because we have taste receptors outside of our mouths, too. They show up on a lot of the tissues that interact with these external molecules in our environment. So, in us, the equivalent of catfish whiskers is the lining of your gut.

FINGER: So anything that’s still in your stomach is not really in you. You’re sort of like a giant donut. There’s a hole running all the way through you from mouth to anus and anything inside that is in some sense not really in you. So you have taste receptors throughout your G.I. tract going all the way from your mouth through your intestines.

GRABER: Paul says these likely have an anticipatory role, like the ones in our mouth do. The taste receptors in our digestive system, they also help prime the body for the nutrients that are about to be absorbed into our bloodstream. And that’s not all.

BRESLIN: There are also taste receptors in what I would call regulatory organs or metabolic organs. And that would include the pancreas, the liver, fat tissue, adipocytes themselves, the thyroid, and the brain. And what they’re doing we really don’t know. But it’s a safe bet that in a species like ours that they’re extremely important.

TWILLEY: Back in Colorado, Tom has been working on figuring out what some of these receptors on other parts of our body do. And he says by calling them taste receptors, we’re kind of missing the point.

FINGER: So the taste receptors, actually from the standpoint of biology, you can think of them as just tools and they’re tools for detecting chemicals. So the body can use these tools anywhere. And because we give them the name taste receptors we’re confusing function with the role in biology.

TWILLEY: One of Tom’s projects has been to figure out what the heck taste receptors are doing in our noses.

GRABER: Turns out, these receptors detect chemicals put out by a harmful bacteria in the air that we breathe and then tell our body to mount an immune response. Like in our mouths, the nose taste receptors are just chemical detectors.

TWILLEY: So that’s how taste works, and how it evolved. And now here’s the cool part: as we learn more about taste, we can start to hack it—for fun but maybe also for health.

GRABER: But before we tell you how to mess with your friends’ taste buds at your next dinner party: this week’s sponsors.


TWILLEY: So one of the many intriguing things about taste is that, although it’s one of our oldest senses, it was kind of ignored by science for a long time.

MCQUAID: It’s much easier to study the detection of light for example or sound, because these are sort of shared experiences, whereas an experience of taste or or smell also which are both components of flavor is a subjective experience. And so basically once science tried to wrap its arms around this it failed. And so a lot of scientists kind of gave up.

GRABER: And it’s not just that it’s hard to study. We also ignored taste because scientists and philosophers have looked down on it—for thousands of years. John says the ancient Greeks considered it the lowest and grossest of the senses.

MCQUAID: There’s a historical tradition in Western culture that makes taste and smell, particularly taste, second-class senses because they’re tied to eating, which is a kind of a base activity, you know, devouring stuff, putting stuff in your mouth, chewing it. You know, it’s what animals do. And, of course, we’re animals. But it wasn’t considered a higher sense.

TWILLEY: Still, throughout history people had theories—about how many tastes there were, and how the tongue detected them. But until really quite recently most of what we knew about taste was… wrong.

GRABER: The most enduring myth of the past century—and it’s one that you might even have learned when you were a kid—it’s a myth known as the tongue map. And we can lay the blame for this mistake at the feet of Edwin G Boring.

MCQUAID: He was an influential twentieth-century psychologist.

TWILLEY: And he decided to write the definitive book on the history of the senses—a big tome. And while Mr. Boring was researching the taste section of his book…

MCQUAID: He came across this study that had been done—this was I think in the 40s, he was writing this—and he came across a study that had been done about 30 years earlier by a German scientist that looked at the sensitivity of the tongue to different tastes. And this study showed that depending on where you were on the tongue, the sensitivity to these tastes differed, sometimes by a little, sometimes a little bit more.

GRABER: You know, like, one part of the tongue was more sensitive to sweetness. Another part was slightly more sensitive to salt. The German scientist published his data in the early 1900s. And then decades later, Boring drew on that data to draw his graph.

MCQUAID: But it was an exaggeration: the original data, you know, there were very limited differences. And suddenly now there were huge differences in this graph.

TWILLEY: Because Boring was so influential, this tongue map idea spread through the scientific community.

MCQUAID: And then pretty soon that morphed into maps of the tongue that showed clearly demarcated areas, you know, like on a geographical map where there’s a border, a clear border. It’s like the tip of the tongue tastes sweet and the back is bitter.

GRABER: Soon, these maps swept popular culture as well.

MCQUAID: They appeared in textbooks and they were used in children’s scientific experiments in elementary schools and it kind of became the conventional wisdom that different parts of the tongue were anatomically devoted to different tastes.

GRABER: So Boring was totally wrong. But scientists didn’t figure out just how the tongue works, how the taste receptors work, until quite recently. And that’s because of a much better understanding of genetics.

TWILLEY: Back in 2000, John actually visited scientists at the NIH when they were first isolating taste genes.

MCQUAID: Essentially they were looking for a needle in a haystack.

GRABER: They knew what taste receptors were, and they knew that there were genes to express them, but they didn’t know how to match the two.

MCQUAID: And basically through kind of a sieve like process they managed to isolate a sweetness receptor and match it with its DNA code in the genome.

TWILLEY: The scientists were working with rats, but fortunately, the human gene and receptor for sweetness is pretty similar.

MCQUAID: So once they had that, finding the human version of it was quite easy. And once you have that you can begin to experiment. You can make copies of sweetness receptors yourself, put them in a petri dish, and see how they react to different substances: to sugar, to artificial sweeteners, et cetera, et cetera.

TWILLEY: And from there, you can begin to understand how the sensation of taste is triggered, how it’s sent to the brain, and, ultimately, how we perceive it.

GRABER: One thing scientists have figured out is that, as we said, Boring was wrong. Every taste bud on our tongue has multiple receptors and those pick up many different tastes. It is absolutely not true that one section of the tongue is dedicated to sweet. There may be very slight differences in sensitivity, but everything is being sensed everywhere.

TWILLEY: But we’re not all sensing it exactly the same. There are pretty significant individual differences. And where they come from—that’s something that Linda Bartoshuk has been trying to get a handle on for decades. She’s a professor at the University of Florida and kind of a legend in the taste world.

LINDA BARTOSHUK: Well, it all started when we were doing work in New Haven, Connecticut, and we were working on—the first genetic known taste was to something called PTC. It was a bitter compound and it was known since the 1930s that some people couldn’t taste it. So I was working on that problem, and we decided that the methods that had been used on the problem up to then were very old-fashioned and we were going to do something more modern. We were going to actually see how bitter this compound was, not just whether you could taste it or not, but how bitter it was. Well, it turns out the variation was simply enormous. And some of the people got such incredibly intense bitter taste from this, that we started calling them supertasters.

GRABER: Yes, Linda is the one who coined the term supertasters. A lot of listeners have asked us to do an episode on supertasters.

BARTOSHUK: Supertasters are people who experience particularly intense taste sensations, the most intense taste sensations that are experienced by any people. Those are supertasters.

TWILLEY: Once Linda and her colleagues identified this group and started studying them, they quickly realized that it’s not just bitter PTC that supertasters taste more intensely—its everything.

BARTOSHUK: Yes, it is. Sweet is more intense to supertasters by about a factor of two or three.

GRABER: There is actually a continuum—it’s not a yes or no, super taster or not. Linda herself is in the “not” category, she’s on the non-tasting end of the taste spectrum. But a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle.

TWILLEY: Most scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of us are what they call nontasters, about a quarter are supertasters, and the rest are sort of medium.

BARTOSHUK: Part of it has to do with how many taste buds you have. Taste buds are on the human tongue in structures called papillae. And fungiform papillae, the ones on the front of the tongue, if you—under magnification they look like little button mushrooms on your tongue. And supertasters have many many more of these than people like me do.

GRABER: We decided to test some of these things out when we were on tour with Pop-Up Magazine. First, we wanted to find out who could taste PTC. We got a whole group of people in a backroom in one of the theaters and told them to put a piece of paper on their tongue.

GRABER: Why are you nervous?

KELLEY CARTER: Because I don’t really know what I said yes to at this point, so I don’t know what’s about to go down.

TWILLEY: It’s definitely not drugs.

CARTER: I’m a role model so I hope it’s not like drugs or anything.

TWILLEY: I don’t know if it was peer pressure or what, but they all did it. They put these slips of paper on their tongues without even knowing what it was.

CARTER: Just put it on the tongue.


TWILLEY: Paper for me.

GRABER: Really? I totally taste it.

DOUG MCGRAY: Tastes really terrible. It’s bitter, it’s really bitter.

CARTER: Paper for me.

GRABER: Paper for you too.


GEOFF MANAUGH: I have a very, very bitter taste in my mouth—it tastes like aspirin or something. Yeah, it’s bitter for me too.

GRABER: It tastes exactly like aspirin. I totally agree. Oh Tim, you look like you’re in pain.

TIM BUNTEL: Yeah, it’s dreadful.

TWILLEY: In our little group we had four bitter tasters: Cynthia, Tim, Geoff, and Pop-Up boss Doug McGrey. I had a little bit of a bitter aftertaste, but not enough to scrunch up my face like those guys.

GRABER: One of our fellow contributors, Kelley Carter—she didn’t taste anything. Neither did another couple of the Pop-Up crew, Tina Antolini and Anita Badejo. No bitterness. Just paper.

TWILLEY: You can try this at home—I ordered the PTC paper off Amazon. It was kind of amazing how different all our reactions were.

GRABER: So not everybody who tastes PTC—who tastes that bitter—is automatically a supertaster. But Linda says it’s the first step. You have to be able to taste it. But then supertasters taste it super intensely.

BARTOSHUK: Supertasting is much more than this initial bitter compound we first discovered, it happens to all taste. But is there some biological utility that made—were supertasters the originals, and there was a mutation that made the rest of us? I don’t know. Very interesting question. But my picture of this, I think about the Neanderthals wandering around. Or maybe the first humans of our type wandering around. And, by the way, women are more likely to be supertasters than are men, and that gives you a clue. So maybe when they moved into new territory the chief sent his wife out to check out the local plants and if she didn’t die, they were OK. And she didn’t die, they were safe. But you’d want to supertaster to do that because the supertaster would taste the bitter more intensely and bitter is a signal for poison.

TWILLEY: This ability to taste PTC—it’s really interesting. It evolved independently in humans and, in our closest relatives, chimps. That implies that having some of your population as bitter tasters has an evolutionary advantage for the species as a whole. Otherwise it wouldn’t persist in humans over time like this, and it wouldn’t pop up separately in other species.

GRABER: Tasting PTC or not seems to be largely governed by one gene. Being a supertaster is more complex—Linda suspects multiple different genes contribute, although she hasn’t identified them yet. But there are patterns in the population as to who is likely to be a supertaster or a non taster.

BARTOSHUK: For example, Caucasians have the fewest supertasters. And men have fewer supertasters than women, and this led one of my post-docs one to say white men can’t taste. But I told her she couldn’t say that because it’s politically incorrect.

GRABER: What’s funny is that all three of the white guys backstage at Pop-Up could taste bitter—and remember, that’s the first step towards being a supertaster. But the two African-American women couldn’t.

TWILLEY: While our group was awesome, it wasn’t exactly statistically significant. But so PTC strips are the first step. The next step in diagnosing whether you are a supertaster or not is to count your taste buds. This involves dying your tongue blue. Funnily enough, our Pop-Up buddies didn’t want to do that before the show. I don’t blame them—I made Geoff dump a teaspoonful of blue food coloring on his tongue and he looked really funny.

GRABER: I think maybe you gave him a little much.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I think maybe we maybe overdid it a little.

GRABER: At least you overdid it on Geoff.

TWILLEY: It was a test run. That’s what husbands are for.

GRABER: Of course, we didn’t read the instructions—there are instructions for this experiment online—we thought you just squeezed out some dye on your tongue and then looked to see what stuck and what didn’t, because blue dye doesn’t stick to taste buds. But it’s a little more complicated than that, so after Geoff spent many minutes swishing out blue water, we decided to tackle this more scientifically back at home. We found instructions at Scientific American—we’ll link to it on our website.

TWILLEY: So it turns out we’re both basically average. At least when it comes to this. And actually, this is not a bad thing.

BARTOSHUK: Now, supertasters are going to be a little bit fussier than other people, because they’re going to notice bitter whenever it’s present. And there are going to be foods they don’t like, like leafy green vegetables that tend to be bitter. So there’d be perhaps an advantage to non-tasting if you’re in an environment with a lot of bitter compounds that are safe. But what if you’re in an environment with a lot of bitter compounds that are dangerous? Now the supertaster has the advantage.

GRABER: Supertasters generally don’t eat as many vegetables, so they seem to be at a higher risk for colon cancer. But they also tend not to drink and smoke as much, so they apparently are at lower risk for head and neck cancer.

TWILLEY: Swings and roundabouts. But all you supertasters out there, you can stop patting yourselves on the back.

BARTOSHUK: In some sense it was a poor choice of name because super implies something special, great. I’m delighted that I am not a supertaster. It just means more intense. And the truth is, I look around at extreme supertasters and I don’t think they’re having as much fun with food as I am. Let me qualify that one step. We have looked at the pleasure that supertasters and others get from food. And if you look at the favorite food of a supertaster—they really love it. And you look at something they don’t like, they absolutely hate it. So the supertaster experience is a much larger hedonic range of extremes to like and dislike. I’m sort of more in the middle. I like a lot of things but not terribly much. The supertaster may like fewer. But the ones he or she likes, they get tremendous pleasure from. Now that’s interesting. For example, chefs tend to be supertasters. More of them than you’d expect by chance. Is this that has something to do with the pleasure they get from their favorite foods? We don’t know. I’d like to see somebody study that who knows cuisine more than I do.

TWILLEY: This phenomenon of supertasters getting more pleasure from their favorite food—given how central food is to our pleasure circuits overall, this has really interesting implications, beyond food

BARTOSHUK: I mean are supertasters kind of a different group? Are they hedonically more volatile? Do they get more pleasure from a lot of things? That’s a real possibility. We just don’t know yet.

GRABER: This question of pleasure is a really complicated one—whether or not you’re a supertaster is only one factor in whether or not you’re deeply enjoying your meal. For example, research Linda’s done shows that overweight people get more pleasure from their food than thin people.

TWILLEY: And that’s complicated too. Because that brings us to the connection between our sense of taste and obesity. We live in a world where sugar is everywhere but we’re built to love sweet so intensely.

MCQUAID: The signal from sugar is, you know, give me more sugar.

TWILLEY: And that was totally fine back when we encountered sugar very, very rarely—in fresh berries, maybe, if we were lucky in wild honey. Now, of course, we have sugar at our fingertips day and night. Robin Dando—he’s the food scientist at Cornell—he’s been studying the connection between taste and obesity for a few years now.

DANDO: It’s a cruel joke really that we’ve been put together to just go after things like sweet and fat and to really like them. We’re programmed to want this in high quantities, we’re programmed to kind of put on weight for the hard winter that might be coming. Because that evolutionarily that means that we might stick around for longer. So it’s kind of a cruel joke now that this isn’t really a problem anymore, but we’re still programmed the same.

GRABER: Robin’s been studying the sense of taste in mice. One thing Robin’s found is that as the mice become obese, they lose tastebuds. And he thinks there’s a connection.

DANDO: Now, a couple of caveats in there of course. One is that these are mice, these aren’t humans. But, as I say, it’s a strong indicator. And then two is: Does losing a handful of taste buds actually do enough to change a person’s eating habits? Again, we don’t know that for sure. We’re looking into both of those questions right now.

TWILLEY: So we don’t know for sure, but you can easily imagine that if somebody has fewer taste buds, they might be getting less sensation from their food.

DANDO: So if that level of reward is decreased, then there are a couple of obvious things you could do to combat that. One is you could just eat more. And the other is you can eat more intensely tasting stimuli, so more intensely tasting usually is going to mean higher calories. So if that’s the case then, that when somebody starts to put on weight they lose tastebuds, they are driven to consume more, then that means that they’re going to put on more weight, lose more taste buds, and be driven to consume more again. So it’s kind of a dangerous positive feedback loop that we think could have something to do with the obesity epidemic that we’re living in right now.

GRABER: Supporting his hypothesis that gaining weight reduces taste sensation, and that losing weight might bring it back, Robin says there’s some evidence that people who lose weight quickly after gastric bypass surgery are more sensitive to taste afterwards.

TWILLEY: He’s also found that there are hormone receptors in your taste buds, too. They’re picking up on circulating hormones like leptin, which signals us to feel full. Those hormone levels change in obese people too. So that could also be affecting their experience of taste.

GRABER: And so maybe in there future there’ll be a way to use these taste-related phenomena to help people lose weight.

DANDO: So there are a lot of issues that happen with the body when someone becomes obese. And this would only be one of them. But if there is a portion of the process of becoming obese that could be attributed to the taste buds, then we’d really be interested in trying to kind of put that right, to kind of hack the taste bud to make it do things that we want people to do in terms of food choice, then I think that’s a really exciting idea.

TWILLEY: This is all just speculation right now—we don’t know enough to start hacking our taste buds to try to reverse obesity. But we do know that our sense of taste can be manipulated and changed, for all sorts of reasons.

GRABER: Like take pregnant women. All of a sudden things that used to taste good are suddenly disgusting. They throw up more frequently. Basically, their hormonal changes are making them more sensitive to potential toxins, more sensitive to bitter flavors. Children are the same, they’re really sensitive to bitter when they’re young. These are two super vulnerable groups, so it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that they’d reject bitter and potentially poisonous foods.

TWILLEY: What you eat—your culture, your memory associations—that has a really strong impact on your sense of taste, too. John told us about a group of indigenous Peruvians who are all PTC bitter tasters. But where they live, one of the staple foods that they rely on is this really, really bitter potato relative. And so they seem to have reset their bitter taste perception—lowered it to the point where they can all eat and enjoy this potato, even though their genes would seem to indicate otherwise.

GRABER: So even if you are genetically sensitive to PTC, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn to enjoy bitter flavors. I taste PTC pretty strongly and I love bitter. Other tastes can be reset, too—we humans are really malleable. Robin told us about research showing that if you start eating food with less salt or less sugar in it, you become more sensitive to salty and sweet foods.

TWILLEY: There’s even some evidence that your mood affects how things taste. Robin has been working on this, too.

DANDO: So our model was we set up a stand at the hockey game at Cornell. If you’re interested in sports and going to Cornell then you’re probably going to the men’s hockey game.

GRABER: He found that enthusiastic fans whose team won, their food tasted better. But if the team lost, there went that delicious hot chocolate. Not so delicious anymore.

TWILLEY: And this makes sense, because there are those hormone receptors in the taste bud. And one of the hormones they pick up on is serotonin. Serotonin levels are connected to happiness versus depression. So there’s lots of interesting new science happening here too.

DANDO: There is a group that looked at SSRIs, so these are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. So probably around about the most prescribed type of antidepressant in the country. And found that indeed people do start to perceive tastes, particularly sweet taste, as being different when they have have a lot of these antidepressants inside their body.

GRABER: All of this—mood and antidepressant research, the taste bud sensitivity and obesity research—all of this might help scientists hack our taste buds in the future to improve our health. But there are some fun ways to hack our taste buds today. Nicky had the chance to try something that I’m super curious about.

TWILLEY: It was when I was over in London.

EMMA ZHANG: Hi. My name is Emma Zhang. And we are at the Mixed Reality Lab in City University London. So we have this device over here which is a small device which you can put in your mouth and you will feel a virtual taste sensation.

TWILLEY: Basically there are two silvery plates hooked up to a set of wires. And you put the tip of your tongue in between them. Which I did. And then Emma electrocuted my tongue.

TWILLEY: Right, here goes. Oooh! Ahhh!

ZHANG: Yeah.

TWILLEY: Oh my god. That was ridiculous. Can I do it again?

TWILLEY: The taste she sent me was super sour. This is how it works.

ZHANG: So, for example, when we put something on our tongue, the chemicals will translate into electrical signal in our brain, and what we are doing here is to reproduce those electrical signals. So you will feel the same taste as if you are biting a lemon.

TWILLEY: The idea that Emma and her colleagues have is that you could build this kind of digital taste into cutlery, so your ice cream, say, would taste sweeter on an electric spoon. I don’t really know that I would sign up for getting my tongue electrocuted on a regular basis though.

GRABER: Doesn’t sounds like so much fun to me either, but I’d love to try it once. Some day. There’s another way to trick your taste buds. We used a pill—it’s an extract from a tropical African fruit called a miracle berry. What you do is you take the pill and slowly let it dissolve and coat your tongue. We handed them out to everyone in the dressing room. Then we handed them slices of lemons and limes.

DOUG MCGRAY: My new favorite food is lemon and pills.

TWILLEY: I could eat this whole lemon. Why didn’t we get more lemons?

GRABER: Oh my God, this lime is amazing.

TWILLEY: Everyone was just sticking whole chunks of lemon and lime into their mouths like they were apple slices. Then we moved on to something that’s already pretty sweet: strawberries.

TINA ANTOLINI: This is my worst nightmare. Everything is sweet.

MCGRAY: Intensely sweet.

GRABER: Oh my God, it’s way too sweet for me.

MCGRAY: Too much candy.

GRABER: Like it’s been dipped in sugar.

TWILLEY: It’s kind of disgusting.

GRABER: It’s a strange day when strawberries are so sweet that we’re calling them disgusting. So Linda says scientists don’t know exactly how miracle berries work, but here’s the leading theory: there’s a protein in the fruit that has sugar molecules on it. The protein attaches to your tongue with the sugar just out of reach. Then if you eat something acidic, like a lemon, your taste buds pucker, and they access the sugar molecules, too. So the lemon now tastes like it’s been coated with sugar.

TWILLEY: We didn’t stop at fruit, though. We tried beer and olives and blue cheese too. The olives—which, I love olives—they were just pure salt. Completely inedible. And the blue cheese was too salty and not funky and a little bit sweet.

GRABER: So that means that the scientific theory maybe doesn’t quite explain it all, because if it’s a protein with a sugar molecule attached, why would bitter and salt get so much more intense? Mysteries left to solve.

TWILLEY: This is another one you can easily try at home: we have a link to buy miracle berry pills on our website. Just be aware that if you go out for lunch afterward, like I did, your sandwich will taste disgusting.

GRABER: Linda says the effect lasts from about 15 minutes to about an hour and a half, depending on how strong your saliva is.

TWILLEY: So hacking your taste buds is possible. It works. But can we use it to achieve our health goals?

GRABER: There’s some evidence that this doesn’t work as intended. One way many of us hack our taste buds on a regular basis already is by consuming artificial sweeteners: these are non-sugar chemicals that trigger our sweet taste receptor, but our bodies don’t get any calories from them. Scientists have been showing that replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners isn’t helping people lose weight. In fact, with artificial sweeteners, people might actually be eating more. Maybe because our body is primed for sugar but we’re not getting those calories—and that triggers a whole set of reactions.

BARTOSHUK: You know and we should pay more attention to that. And by the way, that could be true of everything we do. For example, when you make acid stay sweet with miracle fruit the body’s expecting sugar. If we were really eating a lot of it, would that have consequences? It probably would. We ought to keep an open mind about that. Because when we come up with these things, it’s not nice to trick Mother Nature. She sometimes has her ways of getting even. And it’s very, very important to try to think of how things could go wrong. That’s our job as scientists.

TWILLEY: So we need to be careful. But this uncertainty—this is what makes the science of taste really exciting. It’s still such an open field. Robin told us that scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how sour works, for example. And there are lots of scientists trying to show that we have more than five basic tastes.

GRABER: We’ll write about that in our sustaining supporters email—that’s for folks who give $5 an episode or $9 a month. You can sign up at Patreon or on our website. In any case, there is a lot more still to learn about taste.

TWILLEY: It’s funny—taste is one of the oldest tools we have to make sense of the world, and one of the least well understood.



TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to all the people we spoke with: John McQuaid, Linda Bartoshuk, Paul Breslin, Robin Dando, Tom Finger, Emma Zhang —we have links to their books and research on our website.

GRABER: And a huge thanks to our partners Tim and Geoff and our friends and colleagues who were on tour with us with Pop-Up Magazine. The backstage taste hacking was ridiculously fun, and you all were great sports.

TWILLEY: We’ll be back with a new season in four weeks. In the meantime, catch us on tour: our Boston Museum of Science show is sold out, but the Michigan State University Science Festival performance is first come, first served, no tickets necessary. See you there!

We Heart Chocolate TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode We Heart Chocolate, first released on January 31, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CARLA MARTIN: One bit of trivia about this is even in the present day, women each week of the year are the biggest buyers of chocolate except for one week, and that’s the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s right, ever since Richard Cadbury put chocolates in a heart shaped box for February 14, way back in 1861, this stupid Hallmark holiday has been associated with one of my favorite substances.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Chocolate! One of mine, too, though I am with you, Nicky, about the holiday. Still, any excuse to eat chocolate is all good by me. It might not be Valentine’s Day quite yet, but the shelves are already stocked.

TWILLEY: And so we at Gastropod are here, as always, to equip you with all the weird chocolate science and history your heart desires. So: Heart-shaped boxes are one thing, but is chocolate really good for your actual heart? And why would you spend $18 dollars on a fancy single origin bar when you can get a chocolate hit for just a couple of bucks at the supermarket?

GRABER: And to get to the heart of the story, how did chocolate conquer the world? And is it true that we might be facing a chocolate-free future?

TWILLEY: Please God, no. I need at least one reason to live. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of history and science. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.



GRABER: The first thing to know is that chocolate grows on trees.

TWILLEY: Which means that there is such a thing a chocolate forest! Simran Sethi has been to one of these wondrous places. She’s the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate, and she has a podcast all about chocolate called The Slow Melt.

SIMRAN SETHI: It’s lush. It’s akin to a rainforest. I mean, there’s a lot of different kinds of vegetation. The one thing that’s a bit challenging to a human is that there are a lot of insects called midges, also known as no-see-ums, buzzing around and they are relentless. They bite through your clothes, they leave these huge itchy welts, but they are what pollinate cacao.

TWILLEY: This is the first time in my life that I have felt good about midges. I hate midges. But if they pollinate chocolate trees—and Simran says they do—maybe they are actually cool with me.

SETHI: And what the cacao fruit actually looks like is something like a honeydew melon or an American football. It’s oblong or round in shape and it varies in colors from a light kind of whitish green to a deep purple and kind of everything in between, from red to orange to green to yellow. And there’s this what seems like quite haphazard placement on the tree itself. So to me it looks like kind of a botanical game of pin the tail on the donkey.

GRABER: Simran expected these cacao forests to smell like chocolate. But they didn’t—not at all. Cacao, by the way, that’s the actual plant. The tree. The beans. Chocolate, that’s what we turn cacao into. But so the forest didn’t smell like chocolate. Would the pod?

SETHI: You know, we crack open the pod and there are these kind of mushy seeds that are enrobed in mucilage or pulp. And I thought I would find the flavor there. But what those fruits, you know, what that flesh actually tasted like was a wide range of flavors ranging from lemon to honeydew to peanut brittle. I mean it was kind of astonishing.

TWILLEY: Simran got to taste the pulp fresh from the pod, which is not an option for most of us who don’t live in the tropics. But if you have a Brazilian neighborhood near you, you might be able to get hold of some frozen cacao pulp to try.

GRABER: I’ve had it fresh, it’s delicious. If you can find it, I totally recommend trying it. But again, what it still doesn’t do is taste like chocolate. Which Simran found a little frustrating.

SETHI: Nothing offered up the experience of chocolate. And so then I bit into the seed, which I shouldn’t have done because that’s actually just really this intense bitterness, and none of the sweetness, none of the cacao or the cocoa flavors that we expect. And what I learned through that process is of course that those things don’t manifest without many, many steps and that includes, you know, about a week, five to seven days of fermentation plus drying plus roasting. Those are the qualities and the steps that actually bring out the flavor that we know as chocolate.

TWILLEY: That’s right: chocolate is a fermented food. Like pickles and sauerkraut. I had never thought of it that way, but if you leave out the fermentation step, you don’t get chocolate.

GRABER: Once, again, thank the microbes.

TWILLEY: Drink. And yes, thank you!

GRABER: So if you wanted to go find a chocolate forest, where would you go? The wild plant originally came from around the northwest Amazon in what’s now Ecuador. And then it was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago.

TWILLEY: From what we can tell—and the archaeological evidence is pretty slim—it seems like people who first figured out the how to make chocolate from cacao—this whole business of fermenting, drying, roasting and winnowing the bitter seeds from their shell—those people were the Olmecs. And they lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico.

GRABER: There are not a lot of archaeological images and descriptions of chocolate. So most of what we know comes from the conquistadors. Yep, the Spaniards who showed up in the New World in order to conquer it.

TWILLEY: Just to give you a perspective, post-conquest to now is about one fifth of chocolate’s existence. But it’s the part we know the most about—the part where Europeans come on the scene, for better and for worse.

GRABER: Carla Martin is a lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She says at first, the Europeans had no idea what to make of these strange brown beans.

MARTIN: So this is actually another really fun myth that comes up frequently in relation to cacao and chocolate. It’s this idea that Columbus was the European who discovered chocolate. And in fact what happened is Columbus encountered a group of people off of the island of Guanaja in canoes who had what he described as a type of almonds that they treated as though they were extremely valuable.

TWILLEY: Columbus’s son Ferdinand, wrote about this encounter, and he said that when one of these almond things fell to the ground, all the natives raced to pick it up, quote, “as if they were eyes that had fallen out of their heads.”

GRABER: Nobody knows if Columbus actually ever tasted chocolate, or even figured out that the local Aztecs and Maya were using cacao beans as money. Because that’s actually what Columbus witnessed: the locals had basically dropped a bunch of their version of coins.

MARTIN: It was also a particularly practical type of coin, if you can imagine the kind of doubloons made of silver or other metals that Europeans would have been using at this time. If they showed up at the market and wanted to buy, say, a tomato, it was quite difficult to cut out a chunk of that coin and buy a tomato with it.

TWILLEY: Based on conquistador diaries, we have some record of what these cacao beans were worth. So, in the 1540s, in Mexico, a small rabbit would have been worth 30 cacao beans, a turkey egg would have cost you three beans, and a tamale was only one.

GRABER: A brief interlude with a prostitute would run you about eight to ten cacao beans. Apparently the price was negotiable.

TWILLEY: Whereas a good turkey hen was worth much more: 100 good cacao beans or 120 shrunken, old beans.

GRABER: Cacao beans were money, and also people were roasting the beans into a paste and drinking it. That’s how chocolate was typically consumed.

TWILLEY: It’s like eating gold leaf or something: the Aztecs and Maya were literally drinking cash.

GRABER: Europeans quickly figured out that cacao beans were more useful in the New World than their doubloons. But Carla says it took them a while to discover the joys of drinking chocolate.

MARTIN: There’s one particular character that I like a lot. I describe him as one of my favorite historical jerks. His name is Girolamo Benzoni. He was an Italian who went to what is today Nicaragua in the 1500s and spent time traveling through the area. And he was consistently offered cacao beverages and he would turn them down because he thought that they were a drink, as he described it, fit only for pigs. And he would say, you know, every time that I’m offered these drinks I turn them down, and the natives walk away from me laughing because they think, you know, they thought it was absurd not wanting to consume that. And he describes that it was only after he didn’t have enough access to wine, which is what he typically would have been drinking, and the water was bad quality, that he came to this habit of consuming cacao as a beverage. And then he found it to actually be a really nice and refreshing bitter treat. And this is quite typical of many European experiences in this time, where it was only after some real convincing that they came to like chocolate.

GRABER: They were missing out.

TWILLEY: But by the time chocolate reached the Spanish court, they were converted. No one is sure exactly when chocolate first arrived in Europe—the first recorded shipment is in the 1580s.

GRABER: And chocolate became all the rage among the Spanish nobility.

TWILLEY: And from Spain, thanks to nobles marrying each other and also religious networks, the chocolate trend spread across Europe. It was introduced to France by a Cardinal in the 1600s, who advised that it would be useful in helping people overcome fits of anger.

GRABER: The English, um, Nicky, took a while to catch on—English pirates burned a shipful of cacao beans off the coast of Spain thinking they were sheep droppings.


GRABER: You Brits did soon catch on. Nobody can resist chocolate. Okay, almost nobody.

TWILLEY: Slowly but surely, chocolate was conquering the world. But it wasn’t chocolate as we know it. And when it arrived in Europe, it actually wasn’t chocolate as the Mesoamericans knew it.

GRABER: Because for Mesoamericans, there wasn’t just one way to consume chocolate.


GRABER: Fernando Rodriguez lives in in a town near Mexico City. His company is called Chocolate Macondo. He is working with researchers to learn about ancient recipes, and he’s creating new versions of some of these original recipes today. He told us that the Mesoamericans made cacao drinks with flowers, herbs, spices, seeds. They called the drinks “precious waters.”

TWILLEY: One of Fernando’s favorites is made with magnolia flower petals, mixed with hierba santa, acuyo flower, pepper, and chile. Fernando says the combination is delicious.

GRABER: From what we can tell, there were a whole range of different styles of chocolate concoctions: drinks, gruels, powders, porridges.

TWILLEY: Carla’s tried a contemporary version of another ancient drink, too—it’s one that Fernando also makes.

MARTIN: So one recipe that was quite popular, and, in fact, that we still see today among contemporary Maya people, was a recipe that was essentially a meal replacement that brought together cacao mixed with a maize-like paste and water. And that would be consumed as something that was really to beat hunger and to provide you with energy to make your way through the day.

TWILLEY: You’ll notice that we’re not talking about chocolate bars. That’s because for most of its history, chocolate has mostly been consumed in liquid form.

GRABER: The Aztecs and the Maya drank it hot or cold. And they loved to whip it into a light, fluffy froth. And apparently the frothiness of that froth was really important.

MARTIN: So there are some beautiful examples in the archaeological record. One is known as the Maya Princeton Vase for example, which shows a serving woman pouring from quite a height a cacao beverage from one vessel to another, aerating it in the process.

TWILLEY: Europeans, once they got the hang of this new beverage, adapted it to what was available in the old world. Chili peppers were replaced with black pepper, fragrant sapote might have been substituted with cinnamon. And Europeans were not keen on drinking chocolate cold.

GRABER: They also preferred it pretty sweet. And then Europeans decided it’d be a good idea to add milk to hot cocoa. It seems like the first guy to offer that serving suggestion is Hans Sloane.

TWILLEY: Better known, at least in England, as the guy whose collection founded the British Museum. In the late 1600s, as chocolate drinking caught on in Britain, Sloane’s advice was that adding milk to chocolate made it easier to digest.

GRABER: So now chocolate is milky and sweet, so we’d recognize that. But it’s still not the chocolate we tend to eat today. When did it become a solid bar?

TWILLEY: Turning chocolate into a stable solid was actually kind of a challenge.

HELEN VEIT: Something that we think of as one of the most wonderful attributes of chocolate was a problem because you really couldn’t control the amount of cocoa butter.

GRABER: Helen Veit is a historian at Michigan State University.

VEIT: So the one of the big breakthroughs technologically was in the 1820s, when a Dutchman came up with a process for really pressing chocolate. And this bright yellow cocoa butter would just ooze out of the chocolate. And so you’d be left with this extremely hard pellet which you could then grind up and, if you wanted to, recombine with some of that cocoa powder and with milk, potentially with sugars, and things like that. So that was when the early solid chocolate started becoming available.

TWILLEY: And then—joy!—you get the first chocolate bar. It’s made in England by Fry’s in 1847. It’s kind of incredible: chocolate has a five thousand year history, but the world has only known the wonders of the chocolate bar for the past hundred and fifty of that.

GRABER: And then even after chocolate bars were invented, it took another almost 30 years before anyone figured out how to get milk into them.

MARTIN: In the mid 1800s, people in Switzerland especially were experimenting with ways that they could powder milk and actually allow for its preservation over longer periods of time. And, if you think about this, this was a really significant problem. Milk goes bad very quickly. It can make people quite ill if they consume it. And so there was this necessity, as people were looking for ways to improve food safety and preservation, to explore this. So it was with that development of a means to powder milk, that people first got the idea to then add powdered milk to chocolate, and it was Henri Nestle who did that in Switzerland.

TWILLEY: Nestle of course is a relatively well-known name in the world of chocolate today.

GRABER: Side note: The first major company to add milk to chocolate in America was, not surprisingly, Hershey’s. But instead of adding powdered milk, Hershey’s added fresh milk.


TWILLEY: As a Brit, I think Hershey’s tastes like puke.

GRABER: Not exactly the great American chocolate bar, huh.

TWILLEY: Many of us non-Americans share my view. Some of them have even shared their opinions on YouTube.


TWILLEY: See, Cynthia? It’s not just me. And it’s actually down to the milk: because Hershey’s uses fresh not powdered milk, they have to treat it to make it shelf stable, and that treatment—that adds the signature Hershey’s vomit flavor note. So now you know.

GRABER: Speaking of Hershey’s, which I don’t love, but I do not think tastes like vomit, that brings up another innovation in the chocosphere. It’s the final step in making what we know and love today. It’s a technique called conching.

TWILLEY: And it was invented by another name you might recognize from the candy aisle: Lindt. Rudolf Lindt.


GRABER: I’m not sure they’re selling chocolate in that ad. But basically the conching machine that Rudolf Lindt invented, it kneads the chocolate over and over and smooths out all the rough grittiness from the beans.

VEIT: One of the unique things about Hershey’s is that it’s not super smooth.

TWILLEY: Wow, sorry, we’re really dumping on Hershey’s here. But it’s not highly conched.

VEIT: So it hasn’t had as long of a processing time, so that you can taste a little bit of grittiness with chocolate, which I think Americans like and a lot of other people find offensive and unnecessary.

TWILLEY: No kidding. But here’s where chocolate’s journey from Mesoamerican spicy drink to candy bar is complete. Once conching was invented in the 1870s, chocolate really became chocolate as we know it.

GRABER: This transformation, from a drink to a bar—Helen and Carla both told us that what it also meant is that many more people had the chance to get to know chocolate.

VEIT: Early on, like in the 18th century, people really associated chocolate with the aristocracy, with the wealthy. Drinking chocolate was this sort of idle practice for people who didn’t have to work.

MARTIN: And really, by the early 1900s, these were foods that the average person could more regularly access.

TWILLEY: Chocolate had gone mass market. Kids could buy a penny chocolate candy.

GRABER: Workmen could have a bar for lunch

TWILLEY: And stressed podcasters could tear through tons of the stuff every episode.

VEIT: Yeah, I mean chocolate is one of those foods that when you say, like, “Oh I had a bad day I just want to go home and eat chocolate,” it’s this sort of, you know, automatic escape valve.

GRABER: Oh yes. And it turns out it might not be so bad for us. That’s right—chocolate might be good for our health. But, like everything with chocolate, this is actually a very old idea. In Mesoamerica, they ate it for all sorts of health-related reasons.

DEANNA PUCCIARELLI: So there’s theobromine in chocolate that gives you a perkiness. And so sometimes soldiers would consume it to stay awake.

TWILLEY: That’s Deanna Pucciarelli. She’s a professor at Ball State University in Indiana, and she’s an expert on the medicinal history of chocolate. Early Mesoamericans didn’t know what theobromine was, of course, but cacao was widely used as a stimulant—and not just for marching. It was considered helpful for the horizontal jog, too.

PUCCIARELLI: So we have quotes from the codices that suggest that, for example, Montezuma would consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses before he went with his wives.

GRABER: I’m not sure I’d really be in the mood after 20 glasses of anything. But really, the Mesoamericans saw chocolate’s health benefits as more of a holistic thing—it was really a huge part of their spiritual life. They used it in all sorts of rituals, from childbirth to marriage.

TWILLEY: Then the Europeans show up, and they are not interested in ritual. They just want to know what chocolate can do for them, physically.

MARTIN: The early Spanish conquistadors upon arriving in Central America were fascinated by the possibilities of cacao as an aphrodisiac. They were quite health obsessed, in fact, and were looking for foods that would make them less constipated—they were often consuming so much protein that they were uncomfortable—or that would make them more virile. So they were excited about the possibility that cacao could do those things for them.

GRABER: Then when the Europeans brought chocolate back home with them, they decided it could be used to treat all sorts of diseases.

TWILLEY: The first book entirely devoted to the topic of chocolate was published by a Spaniard in 1631, and he said, basically, chocolate is good for everything, but especially “the plague of the guts, fluxes, consumptions, and coughs of the lungs, with sundry other desperate diseases.”

GRABER: And actually, plague of the guts and fluxes—that’s diarrhea—there might be some reality to the benefits of drinking chocolate to treat those unpleasant symptoms.

PUCCIARELLI: At this time, you know, a lot of diseases was due to bad water, and so you’re boiling water to make this beverage so that aids in health at this time.

TWILLEY: So it’s less the chocolate that’s healing here, and more the boiling of water to make the chocolate drink. But hey, whatever, it worked.

GRABER: And consumption and coughs of the lungs? Turns out there might weirdly be some usefulness to chocolate there, too.

PUCCIARELLI: So most of our diseases during this era are associated with wasting. So we have, you know, smallpox and yellow fever and so people lose weight and they’re also very lethargic. Well, you start giving chocolate to a patient, it’s not going to cure a virus, but it certainly will aid anyway in having people gain weight as well as become a little bit more alert.

TWILLEY: In other words, someone who had TB and was wasting away, or someone with one of these other consumptive diseases—it’s like give them some chocolate, and at least they gain the weight back. They look healthier!

GRABER: Of course, that’s because chocolate is really energy dense. And in fact Mesoamericans loved it for that reason, as Carla described. Cacao paste mixed with maize, or corn—that was an energy drink.

TWILLEY: But what’s interesting is two things sort of happened at the same time. Like we said, by the end of the 1900s, chocolate has been transformed from drink to solid, which means that in Europe and North America it’s starting to be seen as a food, rather than a medicinal drink. And that’s also exactly when this guy called Wilbur Atwater starts measuring the energy in food in calories.

GRABER: And if you want to learn everything possible about the calorie, we have it covered. Go back and listen to our episode The End of the Calorie. You’ll become an expert. So applying the concept of calories to chocolate—according to Helen, that made chocolate even more appealing.

VEIT: If you’re looking at it in terms of calories, chocolate is cheaper than bread, it’s cheaper than butter, it’s certainly way cheaper than fruits or vegetables. So people promoted it for the poor because it was seen as economical in this, you know, in the sense that we no longer think of.

TWILLEY: It’s so weird now, when we think of cheap calories as bad. But in the early twentieth century, Hershey’s would put out ads that literally just compared the calories in a pound of chocolate to beef, potatoes, white bread… The message was, why waste your money on this other, energy-poor food, when you could just have chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

GRABER: And this is awesome. Chocolate is food. And then, Helen told us, if you combine it with milk? Even better.

VEIT: Milk was was really at its high point in the early 20th century. People thought it was a perfect food. So this was this great way to combine what was seen as the healthfulness of chocolate, the, you know, the supreme nutrient nutritive value of milk, and also some sugar which was seen as energy boosting and positive. And advertising also really pushed hot cocoa for children and also chocolate bars as this special wholesome treat, a way that mothers could express their love.

GRABER: Yes, if you really loved your children, you’d give them chocolate. Children still use this argument today.

TWILLEY: And this is not just good news for kids. Chocolate makers are all over the switch from chocolate as medicine to chocolate as wonder food. I mean, you eat food everyday, you only take medicine if you’re feeling under the weather.

GRABER: This is all at the start of the twentieth century. But a few decades later, after the second world war, things are no longer looking so sweet. Suddenly those calories? They’re not so awesome anymore. In the West, we are now worried that we’re eating too many calories. Chocolate is no longer a good food, suddenly it’s a bad food. It’s sinful.

TWILLEY: This is a sad time in chocolate’s history. But all is not lost because it looks like now, in the twenty-first century, chocolate might actually be medicine again.

GRABER: But before we share that great news, we have news from some of our sponsors.


TWILLEY: So, let’s get some science going ourselves. Here’s my question: can it possibly be true that something as delicious as chocolate is actually medically beneficial? And not just because it makes you gain weight?

GRABER: Maybe. And for that discovery, we can thank an indigenous community in Central America back in chocolate’s original homeland.

PUCCIARELLI: The people that are attributed with the so-called discovery of chocolate and heart health were the Kuna Indians in Panama. It’s a group of people that lived on an island and consumed chocolate as a beverage unsweetened without milk. Just, you know, the cocoa and water mixed together. And they consume such high amounts, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 15 cups a day as part of their culture. And there was this correlation that they had relatively no heart disease.

GRABER: This came to light a while ago, in the 1940s. There was an army surgeon who was serving in the Panama Canal zone, and he noticed that the Kuna who stayed in their home region, these islands called San Blas, they had really low blood pressure. The ones who moved to the city, they weren’t doing nearly as well.

TWILLEY: This army surgeon’s work was kind of ignored for 50 years, but then a Harvard doctor came across his papers in the 1990s, and started studying the Kuna and chocolate’s possible cardiovascular benefits again.

PUCCIARELLI: Now, mind you, they’re living on an island, they’re not in a high-stress environment, they’re probably in a low-pollution environment. It’s recorded that they didn’t smoke cigarettes. So there’s other elements. But, in any event, that’s when the science started to take off again.

GRABER: Now, a few decades later, there’s reams of research into chocolate and its potential medicinal qualities. We spoke to another Harvard doctor about it. Eric Ding is an epidemiologist and nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

ERIC DING: There’s so many supplements that tout the benefits of cocoa that we really wanted to do an evidence-based assessment of whether a lot of these claims have merit. Especially since people say it pretty often colloquially—“Oh, chocolate is good for you. Chocolate is good for you.” But how good is it for you?

TWILLEY: So Eric and his colleagues decided to take a hard look at the evidence so far. Specifically, they wanted to know whether chocolate can prevent heart disease.

DING: So altogether we reviewed 24 papers that we included in our study, selected out of thousands of studies related to cocoa.

GRABER: Eric told us that there are dozens of factors that are linked to a healthy heart. Things like blood pressure and cholesterol that you’ve heard of and things like flow mediated vascular dilation which you probably haven’t.

TWILLEY: All of these are risk factors—things that have been shown to be either very predictive or actually causal, when it comes to heart disease.

GRABER: And did eating chocolate work? Did it improve these risk factors?

DING: So the chocolate findings are actually quite stunning. So it lowered blood pressure, it actually lowered the bad cholesterol, increased good cholesterol, lowered the bad triglycerides, and improved fasting glucose which means it improved insulin sensitivity. And interestingly it also improved inflammation, as well as the flow mediated dilation, FMD.

TWILLEY: Dude. Chocolate really is a wonder drug! This is the best news of 2017 so far.

DING: It’s not like a one-hit wonder in certain ways, it only lowers blood pressure and nothing else. It lowers almost every major risk factor for heart disease which is quite remarkable.

GRABER: And it’s something called flavonoids that seem to be the key to chocolate’s benefits. These flavonoids are chemicals that can be found in all sorts of foods, but the ones in cocoa do seem to be unusual.

DING: Right, so cocoa flavonoids are really specialized. So there are many flavonoids and, you know, there’s tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids. But the evidence for tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids are much more, you know, controversial.

TWILLEY: So what Eric and his colleagues showed is that these flavonoids in chocolate, they work in a bunch of different ways to lower risk factors for heart attacks. But here’s the question: do they actually prevent heart attacks?

DING: And I’ll say right now the heart attacks, in terms of doing these kind of actual heart attack prevention trials, take millions and millions of dollars and many, many years. And there’s actually one that just recently started called Cosmos and that trial will actually finish within the next two to three years. We should hopefully get preliminary results on whether or not it actually prevents heart attacks, which is a hard end point.

GRABER: So, really, we don’t know if chocolate actually prevents heart attacks. Yet. Though Eric is kind of shockingly positive about it.

DING: In academic science we don’t usually get that excited about compound but cocoa flavonoid seems to hold all the different checkmark potentials.

GRABER: Amazing! Chocolate is in fact the miracle drug we’ve all been looking for! But of course, there’s more to the story.

TWILLEY: Let’s go back to the Kuna Indians for a minute—they, like before, hold the clues.

DING: But you have to consider that, like, the natives in these these tribal populations that drank these cocoa drinks, drink a huge, huge volume a day on a daily basis.

GRABER: They were drinking about eight cups of unsweetened cocoa every day. This is not the same thing as having a few bites of chocolate after dinner.

TWILLEY: Right, and same deal in the medical trials—people were given really high doses of these flavonoids.

DING: Normally, you—to get the doses seen some of these trials, you would have to consume a lot of bars or likely use a supplement,

TWILLEY: Specifically, eight bars of dark chocolate. Every day.

GRABER: So does that mean there’s no benefit unless you eat those massive amounts? I mean, that sounds delicious, but I’m not sure about eight bars of dark chocolate a day. Or eight cups of unsweetened cocoa. What if I just want to snack on some chocolate?

DING: I think the benefits will accrue, even if you do not hit a certain target. There’s an assumption of linear effects, in which we assume even if you don’t hit the really high target that the benefits are proportional and accumulate.

TWILLEY: OK, so how do we know if the chocolate bar we’re eating is full of flavonoids?

GRABER: Like everything, it depends what you buy.

MARTIN: A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content. So really very little. And my students and I often try to think of what are other foods where if it only had 11 percent would you still call it chocolate, let’s say.

TWILLEY: Not to dump on Hershey’s again, although it does taste like puke. But Carla’s point is, most of the mass market chocolate out there has very, very little chocolate in it—and hence very, very few flavonoids. It’s mostly milk and sugar.

GRABER: In America, it only legally needs 10 percent cocoa to be called chocolate. And so to get some of the benefits Eric’s talking about, you really need to be eating dark chocolate. Like 70, 80 percent dark chocolate.

DING: But altogether darker chocolate or cocoa powder or the direct supplement itself is clearly the best source and milk chocolate is never going to get you to the right dose that you need.

TWILLEY: So here’s where we’re at. It’s taken hundreds of years, but chocolate has again become both food and medicine at the same time. But once again, there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. Even while scientists such as Eric are getting all excited about chocolate, other scientists are sounding alarm bells.


GRABER: It’s true: there are some pretty major threats to our chocolate supply. One of those is disease. Simran Sethi—she wrote the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate—she spends a lot of time worrying about the future of our our favorite treat.

SETHI: One third of the crop currently is lost to diseases that have like completely sinister names like witches’ broom and frosty pod rot and black pod rot. And you see them and, like, it just kills you because you see how sinister they are just on the vine.

TWILLEY: And—this story will be familiar from other crops—but one of the reasons disease is such a threat to chocolate is because of monocultures. We’re growing this one particularly hardy and high-yielding variety in bulk, on massive plantations in West Africa—to the point that 70 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from there. And that makes our supply vulnerable.

GRABER: A monoculture of one particular varietal that’s plagued by disease—that’s an obvious vulnerability, but that’s not the only threat to cacao. The trees won’t grow outside a narrow band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. And climate change threatens to make these regions too hot for cacao trees to thrive. Scientists are trying to breed varieties that are even hardier and more resistant to diseases.

SETHI: And so what we see is, you know, the development of hybrids, because they grow quite abundantly and they do have disease tolerance, are kind of taking over. We need to increase yield. But what happens is, when we increase yield to the exclusion of everything else is we lose this diversity, we lose the backup system, and we lose the diverse flavors. And to me that’s a real shame because we’re only just at the beginning of discovering them you know.

TWILLEY: And this is where some chocolate makers are saying hold up. There’s another strategy. What about if we grow traditional cacao varietals in a diverse forest, rather than a monoculture plantation? Because that kind of chocolate forest—that’s another way to resist disease. And there’s a big bonus to this strategy—it means we get to taste all the different flavors that chocolate can offer.

SETHI: And they range from like caramel and and violet that you find in cocoa from Ecuador you know or caramel from cocoa from Venezuela. A really nice fruit kind of acidity, almost a sourness that we find in cocoa that’s grown in Madagascar. There’s all this diversity that gets erased through the commoditization that says we kind of just need that one chocolate note and everything else can kind of go away.

GRABER: These flavor differences come from all sorts of things: different tree varietals, like Simran said, and also soils and growing conditions. You can even taste this for yourself. You can find higher end craft chocolate bars that are single origin—that is, they just come from one country. Buy some from different countries and taste them one after the other.

TWILLEY: This is precisely how I discovered that Hawaiian chocolate tastes like honey. For real.

GRABER: And cacao grown in Honduras tastes sort of like grapefruit. We’re not making this up.

SETHI: But if we stop growing those varieties, if we stop retaining that diversity, then we’re not going to have that backup system as we may need it moving forward. And it might be because of climate change, it might be because of our tastes changing, it might be because of disease. But what is a greater concern, a more immediate concern when it comes to the loss of chocolate is simply the fact that farmers are walking away from a crop that doesn’t treat them well, that pays them so little money that to grow this crop makes no sense when you could grow something far more lucrative like palm oil or rubber or any of the any of the other crops that thrive in these same environments.

TWILLEY: Basically, Simran is saying, yeah disease, climate change, monoculture, it’s all very scary. But the real chocpocalypse is being caused by us paying too little for our chocolate. According to Simran, if we’re paying 2 bucks for a giant Hershey bar, the cacao farmer who grew the chocolate is getting about 10 cents.

SETHI: So the choice that we actually have to make as consumers is: are we willing to consider different kinds of models?

GRABER: These models do exist. They’re the ones usually used by the more expensive, small company craft chocolate bars. The bars might have labels like fair trade or even direct trade. The companies pay the farmers more, and so the farmers can afford to grow traditional varieties of cacao trees in better conditions. And the resulting chocolate tastes better. But Carla says we’ve still got a long way to go.

MARTIN: So if we think about what part of the chocolate industry could be considered specialty or fine, it’s probably one percent, maybe even less than one percent. So ninety nine percent of chocolate that people consume is going to be commercial, mass manufactured, bulk chocolate.And when we compare this other specialty foods it’s actually striking how different it is. Coffee, for example, about 50 percent of the market is considered specialty, seven to eight percent is considered high-end specialty. Cheese has a significantly growing and robust specialty side of the market. Beer is another example. So chocolate is is on its way, but it’s going to require a lot more interest to do that.

TWILLEY: I am willing to eat much more specialty chocolate.

GRABER: Me too.

MARTIN: You’re both heroes.

TWILLEY: Yep, that’s me stepping up to do my part. Here’s the thing though. This kind of craft chocolate—it’s an expensive habit to acquire.

SETHI: And that’s kind of—I, you know, I understand people bristling at the idea of a $10 bar of chocolate or a $20 bar of chocolate. But the truth is we are not paying enough for these goods and until we as consumers are willing to put more money behind these things, until we are willing to explore some of these companies that are trying to reward farmers with money, you know, for sustaining these crops, I don’t think that we can relieve ourselves of the fear that chocolate will go away.

GRABER: And I do not want it to go away. To be fair to our wallets—I do love those $10 bars, but there are other great options, too. Two of my favorites are Taza and Theo. They’re leaders in the fair-trade chocolate world, and they’re like four to five dollars a bar.

TWILLEY: The other thing that I’ve noticed is that for my favorite good single origin chocolate, which is called Willy’s Cacao—it’s expensive, but I find I savor it more so I eat less. So I’m saving money. Kind of.

GRABER: Kind of. This is why you’re a podcaster and not an accountant.

TWILLEY: But really, cheap chocolate is not worth it. Especially when you think that you may might be supporting slavery.

GRABER: Just this month a judge ruled that six men now in their 20s and 30s can sue Nestle in court for having been enslaved on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.

MARTIN: The most important thing to keep in mind about cacao and chocolate history is it’s one that has always been intimately linked with labor exploitation. And that goes all the way back to early Mesoamerican production, all the way up into the present day. Ultimately what’s going on here is that cacao is a commodity crop that requires, at least in the current structure of the way it’s supplied, requires cheap labor. And so until we actually structurally dismantle a lot of the ways that cacao is produced and fundamentally change how the money makes its way to people at the so-called bottom of the supply chain, we will continue to face these labor issues.

TWILLEY: So here’s your motivation for eating the good stuff: save chocolate and save chocolate farmers. And, if you need more encouragement, remember that the fancy dark chocolate bars are higher in flavonoids, so they’re better for you anyway.

GRABER: Carla says the idea of tasting and comparing dark chocolates can be kind of intimidating if you’ve mostly snacked on grocery store milk chocolate until now. So she has some suggestions.

MARTIN: There’s no sort of right or wrong way to taste. If you are interested in tasting it, like a lot of the chocolate connoisseurs taste today, one of the things that you can do is try to taste it in a more kind of mindful manner as people describe it. And that would include taking time to smell the chocolate, to snap it, to then let it melt on your tongue, and then once it has melted to think about the finish of the chocolate or the lingering flavor and whether or not that’s something that’s pleasant for you. And as you come to do that more and more you will become more comfortable with identifying what types of chocolate you like best, and also how you might then recommend chocolate to your friends and loved ones.

GRABER: We here at Gastropod are so concerned about getting more people to eat more of the good stuff in order to save chocolate for the future that we’re even going to have some with us at our live shows in April!

TWILLEY: Right. There’s so much we couldn’t cover this episode, and we’re going be able to squeeze that in in the live shows too—like the invention of the brownie! And the story of how the chocolate chip cookie become such an iconic American treat.

GRABER: Don’t miss it! Last time our tickets sold out in like an hour. We’re performing in April at the Boston Museum of Science and at Michigan State University.

TWILLEY: Details on our website and social media as always. Indeed, if you are on our mailing list, you will already have a code for special pre-sale access. Maybe it’s worth signing up if you’re not.



TWILLEY: Thanks so much to all our guests this week: Carla Martin, Simran Sethi, Eric Ding, Helen Veit, and Deanna Pucciarelli. We have links to their websites, books, podcasts, everything on our website.

GRABER: And don’t forget to mark your calendars for our live shows this spring: April 8th in East Lansing, at Michigan State University, and April 26 at the Boston Museum of Science. More information on our website, where you can also take our survey, sign up for our mailing list, support the show, and basically find everything you ever wanted.

TWILLEY: We’re back in two weeks with a topic that lots of people feel very, very passionately about: vegetarianism and veganism. Till then!

Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin, first released on January 16, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


CYNTHIA GRABER: These are some of my happy sounds. This episode, we’re taking you to one of our favorite places…

NICOLA TWILLEY: The restaurant! “Come Dine with Me,” as they say on Channel 4.

GRABER: Nicky, nobody outside of the UK knows what that show is.

TWILLEY: Missing out.

GRABER: But anyway, we are indeed dining out this episode. And, you know, restaurants are just one of those things: they seem like they’ve been around forever.

TWILLEY: But then that can’t be true. I mean, our ancestors might have gone to each others’ caves for a bite to eat, but I don’t think there would have been a menu and wait staff. So who invented the restaurant?

GRABER: And how did the restaurant’s invention change society?

TWILLEY: Well, and how did restaurants change along with society?

GRABER: So many questions!

TWILLEY: And, as usual, we’ve got all the surprising stories and behind-the-scenes secrets. That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.



GRABER: Nicky, as you pointed out, our early ancestors were not sitting down to table covered with a pristine white tablecloth and listening to the day’s specials.

TWILLEY: But throughout history people on the road, away from home—they would have needed somewhere to eat.

PAUL FREEDMAN: And if you have an urban society, you need to have places where people who, say, are from the countryside and going to a market can have a meal. So there always have been taverns, inns, takeout places.

TWILLEY: That’s Paul Freedman. He’s a medieval historian at Yale and the author of a new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America.

GRABER: But it wasn’t just travelers who needed a place to eat. In medieval European cities, a lot of people didn’t have kitchens. And these city dwellers might have gone to food stalls to pick up a snack or a loaf of bread.

TWILLEY: Rebecca Spang wrote a book called The Invention of the Restaurant, and she says these kitchen-less medieval city dwellers, at least in Paris, they might even have gone out for a sit down meal.

REBECCA SPANG: We still see signs in France today for a traiteur who sells prepared foods, sort of like a caterer for takeout. These traiteurs or caterers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century also hosted meals on their own premises at specific times, so one o’clock in the afternoon for dinner.

TWILLEY: But Paul’s point is, none of these food stall, or inns, or traiteurs—none of them are really the same thing as a restaurant.

FREEDMAN: What a restaurant is that’s different from those kinds of age-old establishments is that it offers a wider choice. First, a choice of what you want to eat. It has a menu—you don’t just sort of settle for whatever they’re cooking. Second, there’s choice of times. It’s not a set meal served at a particular time. And third, choice of who you eat with. The tradition at inns is that you sort of eat at a common table or maybe you eat in your room. But the idea of separate tables for parties of three, four, two, whatever, is typical of a restaurant.

GRABER: You might have noticed—so far we’ve been talking about Europe. We’re going to be focusing on Europe and North America this episode. There are different dining out traditions in other parts of the world. This episode, we’re telling the story of the invention of the Western-style restaurant.

TWILLEY: And, actually, the weird thing is that the restaurant—it didn’t start out as a place to eat. Restaurant started out as the word for soup.

SPANG: The word “restaurant” is from the French verb se restaurer, meaning “to restore yourself.”

GRABER: And so a restaurant is a food you use to restore yourself—it’s a restorative.

SPANG: These restoratives are a sort of bouillon made with very little additional water. So what you’re basically doing is sweating a great deal of meat over fairly high heat so that it releases its juices. So, I don’t know, if you think about something like Bovril or Marmite or a bouillon cube in its most condensed form with just a bit of liquid added.

TWILLEY: So like today’s bone broth—that’s a restaurant. Or a mug of Bovril when you’re feeling sick, same idea.

GRABER: I don’t know what Bovril is.

TWILLEY: It’s like you haven’t lived, Cynthia. Bovril is a salty umami-ish meaty paste that you put on buttered toast, mostly. And then you can have a mug of it, dissolved in boiling water, when you’re feeling poorly. It is what makes Britain strong.

GRABER: For the moment, I think I’ll stick with Marmite—that’s the vegetarian version. But anyway, back to our original restorative, or restaurant. How does it transform from a soup to a place?

TWILLEY: Meet Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, an entrepreneur in 1760s Paris.

SPANG: Roze de Chantoiseau attempted a great many different start-up ventures. One of these was that he seems, or at least he was credited at the time, with having invented the restaurant.

GRABER: Roze de Chantoiseau seems to have intuited that there was a market for a place you could go to consume these restoratives, in public. He was right.

SPANG: Within just a few years there are several dozen of these so-called “restorers rooms” located chiefly in the most central, prosperous, commercial parts of Paris.

TWILLEY: Restorers rooms, or in the original French, salle de restaurants.

GRABER: And as people got comfortable with these new rooms, they just dropped the ‘salle de’ and called them restaurants.

TWILLEY: But don’t picture your local bistro here. At this point in time, in 1760s Paris, these first restaurants have this spa vibe. They’re all about health and delicate broths.

SPANG: When you go to a restaurant, you do so because you need to be restored, you’re in need of restoration.

GRABER: When something new like a restaurant is invented, there’s usually something going on in society that makes it the right, the ripe time for the invention. In 1760s Paris, people were obsessed with health and also with this idea of sensitivity.

TWILLEY: It’s all tied into to these new Enlightenment ideas about how we sense the world through our nerves and how our bodies respond to those nervous sensations.

SPANG: One way of demonstrating the acuity of one’s nerves is to be very sensitive to things.

GRABER: These restaurants started off serving just those restorative drinks, those meaty broths. But they soon added to their menu. Of course, all these dishes had to be very light for their very sensitive guests.

SPANG: They might be sensitive to different things. So from the beginning restaurateurs had to offer a variety of bouillons and the soft-boiled eggs, the rice pudding, the pasta with a little bit of butter and Parmesan to address the various sorts of sensitivities that their clientele might manifest.

TWILLEY: The belief at the time was that if a sensitive person—the kind of person who could see beauty and truth in the world—if that sensitive refined individual ate, god forbid, a steak or a big hunk of ham … well, I mean, it would overwhelm their system.

SPANG: That that food is going to sit in your stomach. It’s not going to be properly digested. It’s going to give off gases. These vapors will rise to your head. They may cause deluded thinking or they may cause you to burst into tears unexpectedly.

GRABER: If we haven’t made it perfectly obvious by the way we’ve been describing the types of people who might have been called ‘sensitive,’ these were elites who had time to read and think about art and philosophy. And they very much wanted to be seen as someone who might burst into tears if they ate a steak.

TWILLEY: And that’s why these restaurants caught on. They were a place to show the world that you were a sensitive person.

GRABER: There are a number of elements of these restaurants that are completely new. Like Paul said, you can eat a meal whenever you want. You can sit with only your friends and family, not at a big communal innkeeper’s table. You can order just what you want from a menu. This is pretty revolutionary, and it’s all to help those sensitive individuals be sensitive in public.

TWILLEY: And high society in 1760s and 1770s Paris—they loved these new restaurants.

GRABER: This public space, it wasn’t just for men, for a change.

SPANG: The culture of sensibility is a very feminine culture and the very first restaurateurs are advertising saying that this is a suitable place for ladies

TWILLEY: As time goes by, the restaurant keeps going strong—it’s not just a flash-in-the pan, 1760s fad. And a few things factor into that sustained growth. First, there’s the French Revolution. Lots of aristocrats and royal relations are becoming intimate with the sharp end of a guillotine, others see the way things are headed and get the hell out of Dodge.

SPANG: And while they have time to pack up their family jewels and some other cherished bits of property, they leave their servants behind. So we have a bunch of servants—chefs, sous chefs, pastry cooks—all of whom have been cooking at court and big aristocratic households for decades who are out of work. And what do they do? They open restaurants.

GRABER: And then something else happens. After the French Revolution, the economy wasn’t so awesome. But that made France a fantastic, inexpensive tourist destination.

SPANG: So after 1815, when British and to some extent North American travelers flock to France because it’s cheap at that point, and also because they’re just curious to see all the changes that have been wrought by the revolution and the Napoleonic era, one of the changes they see is restaurants which they find remarkable.

TWILLEY: These restaurant places—they just don’t exist in London or Philadelphia or Boston. And tourists love them—it’s like a fun thing to do when in Paris.

GRABER: By this point, restaurants have started expanding their menus, too.

SPANG: So you’re going to go out to have your bouillon and maybe in fact its effects are so miraculous that you do feel quite a bit restored. And you think that well maybe… maybe you could eat a couple of ounces of salmon or maybe some asparagus.

TWILLEY: And before you know it, you have a full menu. And suddenly restaurants are a little bit more like the places we know and love today, rather than being special broth-drinking environments for the sensitive.

GRABER: Okay, so now Paris has restaurants that we’d probably recognize as restaurants. But when did they expand beyond Paris? Paul Freedman has traced the dawn of the restaurant in the United States for his book, The Ten Restaurants That Changed America.

FREEDMAN: In America, the first real, successful restaurant that’s a restaurant, not merely a kind of place to get a meal at a set time or an inn where people can or hotel that people can stay in, is Delmonico’s in New York, and that’s in 1830.

TWILLEY: Delmonico’s was right downtown, in the heart of what is now the Financial District.

FREEDMAN: And it began as a pastry shop. Like many or most restaurants, it was opened by immigrants. In this case two brothers from the Italian part of Switzerland. Nevertheless although they were from Switzerland and although they were, you know, if you like, ethnically Italian, the restaurant was French.

GRABER: So how does a pastry shop run by two Swiss become a restaurant, and why?

FREEDMAN: I guess they decided the time was ripe to open a restaurant whose model was that of Paris. New York was rich enough, sophisticated enough, had enough people who would be willing to try this relatively new experience. And they were right in their guess.

TWILLEY: The food at Delmonico’s was an interesting mix. On the one hand, you know, given the French origin of the whole concept of a restaurant, it’s not surprising that the menu was pretty much in that same model of high-end French cuisine.

GRABER: But on the other hand, they didn’t really have much of a choice about where they got their food, because there wasn’t long-distance refrigerated shipping. So, basically, the menu was what we’d today call locavore.

FREEDMAN: They offered a menu of tremendous variety—French-inspired dishes, and then ingredients that were American, so things like lobsters, American oysters, American turtle, terrapin, which was all the rage throughout the nineteenth century,

GRABER: Paul has some dreams of what he’d like to taste from the Delmonico’s menu.

FREEDMAN: Salmon à la Rothschild, for example, which is a whole salmon stuffed with fish such as whiting and then covered with a crust and served with a champagne sauce. Canvasback duck is the one that enchants me most. Canvasback duck, like terrapin, is a Chesapeake Bay specialty. The ducks are kind of larger than normal ducks, they’re wild of course, and they would be served with some kind of celery sauce or celery accompaniment. These ducks too ate the wild celery that used to grow along the Chesapeake Bay banks. If I could sort of go back and have one dish that I’ve never had before that was a specialty of Delmonico’s, it would be the canvasback duck.

TWILLEY: So who was enjoying this canvasback duck and salmon à la Rothschild?

GRABER: Rich people. Just like at the original restaurants in Paris.

TWILLEY: No poor people could afford it, sorry. And then obviously, at this stage in American history, the crowd was mostly white. Black people, as a general rule, weren’t particularly welcome. And no kids, heaven forbid.

GRABER: And no unaccompanied women. Either alone or in groups of only women. Women were only welcome if they were accompanied by men.

TWILLEY: But the American restaurant has evolved since Delmonico’s, in ways both good and bad.

GRABER: And Paul picked nine other restaurants that symbolize some of those major changes. We can’t cover them all—for that, you should pick up a copy of the book. But we chose three that signal changes in who was welcome in restaurants. First up: Schrafft’s

FREEDMAN: What was particularly important about Schrafft’s was that it catered to those women who were not allowed into places like Delmonico’s.

TWILLEY: Schrafft’s started in New York as an ice-cream parlor. But it soon began serving sandwiches and light lunch dishes—mostly to women, on their own or in groups, taking a break from a hard day’s shopping or on an office lunch break.

GRABER: By the early 1900s, women were working in shops as cashiers or as clerks in retail or stenographers and secretaries in offices. And they wanted a nice place to eat.

TWILLEY: In other words, women were now inhabiting public life and public space more than ever before. They weren’t just domestic creatures. I mean, this is the time of the Suffragette movement. And so it makes sense for women to have a public space to eat in, too.

GRABER: There’s another interesting thing about Schrafft’s, and that’s the food. Frankly, it wasn’t thought to be particularly delicious. But up until the Civil War, there wasn’t a separation between women’s food and men’s food. Schrafft’s thought women might want to eat something different, just for them.

FREEDMAN: And that was light food, that is to say, at the time that would include things like chicken croquettes or things with cream sauces, chicken à la king or a little later cottage cheese—things that we may not think of now as light but that were certainly considered light in the early twentieth century. And then the other part of the program was ice cream. The notion is that women like to have light main courses and fancy desserts. And I’m not convinced that this is what women historically or now actually like, but I will say that my experience of Schrafft’s, which was with my grandmother, my grandmother would order cottage cheese and fruit as an entree and then top it off with an ice cream sundae or a banana split. So she definitely fit the model.

GRABER: Schrafft’s was open for many decades. So we asked people what they remember about eating there.

JAN: Well I went to Schrafft’s possibly as early as ten and sometimes as a young teenager but with my mom. I definitely remember it being a genteel place.

LISA: As far as my memories of eating at Schrafft’s, it was just more… I don’t know if I would have used the word ‘elegant’ back then, but it was, and that’s probably where I developed my great love of coffee ice cream.

TWILLEY: The thing is, ice cream and elegant tablecloths aside, Schrafft’s might have been revolutionary in the 1900s, but by the 1960s, the women’s movement had moved on.

GRABER: Paul says his mom—she had a PhD, and she worked outside of the home—she wouldn’t be caught dead in Schrafft’s.

FREEDMAN: Because it was for people like my grandmother. My grandmother didn’t work. My grandmother loved shopping. My grandmother loved playing cards and watching soap operas on TV, all things that my mother—I mean my mother loved her mother but she certainly didn’t see her as a model.

GRABER: Schrafft’s may have been undone by the women’s movement of the 60s, but there’s no doubt—it was revolutionary for women in its day. But really, when we say women, we mean mostly white women. At the start of the twentieth century, there are still a lot of people in the U.S. who don’t have a place where they are truly welcomed, a place where the food and the décor is somehow geared towards them.

TWILLEY: Schrafft’s broke ground for women, but what about African-Americans?

GRABER: And what about kids—kids could go to Schrafft’s, like Paul did and some of our listeners did. But really, it was more a thing where they were just tolerated if they were quiet and well-behaved. It wasn’t like there was a kid’s menu especially for them.

TWILLEY: So how did everyone else get their place at the table?


TWILLEY: Okay, it’s 1960 in New York City. Schrafft’s is no longer quite so cool.

GRABER: And there’s another thing happening in New York: the African-American population has exploded. This is the tail end of the Great Migration from the south. So Harlem is really booming, and Sylvia opened Sylvia’s.

FREEDMAN: It was a restaurant among a number of restaurants that served the community, the African-American community of Harlem. It was created in 1962 by Sylvia Woods who took over what had been a small luncheonette that she had worked at and she bought out the former owner.

TWILLEY: Sylvia’s customers are neighborhood folks. It was a restaurant run by a black woman and where black people felt welcomed and comfortable. And the food Sylvia served is the kind of food she grew up with, in South Carolina.

FREEDMAN: Fried chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken gizzards, chicken liver, meat loaf, roast beef—so some things that we would consider to be not so much Southern but kind of standard American food. A lot of the side dishes are very Southern, like collard greens, black-eyed peas, candied sweet potatoes.

GRABER: Until this point, African Americans hadn’t marked their food as different—they didn’t call out aspects of their dishes that made black Southern food different from white Southern food. The previous strategy was kind of assimilation. But in the 1960s, that changed. And that pride in distinctive black Southern food, that led to a new name: soul food. To Paul, this is a turning point that Sylvia’s really highlights.

FREEDMAN: Soul food is an identity marker, so it comes in the 1960s as an aspect of black cultural assertion. It’s not that integration was exactly denounced or renounced but that the identity of black people as having a culture that was separate was emphasized. And so what had previously been called Southern food or “down home” was now more identified not just with a generic South, in which case it shared a lot of attributes with white food, but became the soul of black people—the expression of their heart and of their soul through food.

TWILLEY: And Sylvia’s was a hit. It became something bigger than a restaurant—it became a symbol.

FREEDMAN: It expanded and became always a neighborhood place but also a place for local politicians, African-American entertainment and sports stars.

GRABER: Taylor Thompson grew up nearby in New Jersey. Sylvia’s is still popular today, and Taylor remembers going as a kid, a couple of decades ago.

TAYLOR THOMPSON: The difference between Sylvia’s and the restaurants in my hometown is that Silvia’s was decorated kind of like  your grandmother, your great aunt’s like, dining room. And you know I mean it was like, you know, like soul food, the food that, you know, you don’t get your neighborhood diner or Red Lobster.

TWILLEY: Sylvia’s ended up being almost exclusively for black people, at least at first.

GRABER: It wasn’t on purpose, they didn’t discriminate.

FREEDMAN: Well, white people weren’t eating at Sylvia’s. The New York magazine critic Gail Greene in the 1970s visited Sylvia’s, but the way she described it at the time was as if this was an almost ill-advised adventure. She said that her editor wondered whether they weren’t recommending to their readers doing something dangerous. That is to say that presumably white readers might be tempted to go to Harlem and wasn’t that really taking your life into your own hands? So it was off the map as far as white New Yorkers were concerned.

TWILLEY: Today, bus tours filled with white people stop off at Sylvia’s in Harlem—it’s a major tourist landmark, and a stop on any politician’s campaign trail too.

GRABER: So Schrafft’s welcomed women, Sylvia’s highlighted soul food and welcomed African Americans—and later tourists—to eat in Harlem. But there’s another group that doesn’t really have an iconic restaurant that particularly caters to them yet, and that’s children.

FREEDMAN: Well, kids are a problem, because you can cater to kids but then you’re going to have trouble retaining customers who come there without kids, because kids are perceived as creating a lot of noise and disruption.

TWILLEY: And the kid issue brings us to the distinctive orange and blue triangles…


FREEDMAN: And Howard Johnson’s was, to use a term that only later came into existence, ‘family friendly,’ and designed to be family friendly. They entertained kids. They had oversized lollipops, they had cookies and the ice cream.

GRABER: That ice cream—that’s what writer and listener Maryn McKenna remembers best from her childhood.

MARYN MCKENNA: I spent most of my childhood in England, where, at the time, food was not great. My father brought us back to the States so he could take a job in Texas, which involved driving our entire family in two cars from New York all the way to Houston. On the first night that we were on the road, we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s. And as a special treat, we were allowed to have ice cream. I ordered black raspberry, which seemed a completely impossible thing that couldn’t exist. And when it arrived it was enormous and it was delicious and it was fuchsia and I ate it all.

TWILLEY: Road-tripping and black raspberry ice-cream. That’s the other big Howard Johnson’s innovation: catering to America’s new automobile culture.

GRABER: Howard Johnson’s started in New England in the 1920s as an ice-cream stand, sort of like Schrafft’s. But, by the end of the 1950s, America began to be crisscrossed by all these new interstate highways, and Howard Johnson saw an opportunity.

FREEDMAN: The idea was that you could see it, so that going 60 miles an hour you’d have enough time, plenty of time, to make your decision to slow down and to pull into the parking lot. Another way of doing that, of course, is having billboards—particularly in the period before billboards were restricted on highways. But Howard Deering Johnson, the founder of the company, considered billboards to be tacky. And so, instead of having billboards, he had a very identifiable look to the place in terms of colors—the blue and orange look, in terms of the shape of the buildings.

TWILLEY: So you can see it from the highway, kids are welcome—but what about the food at HoJos? We know there was ice cream. But was there anything else original about the food? We asked listener Scott Huler what he remembers.

SCOTT HULER: Well, I remember doing the absolute Sixties America family vacation thing, where we would pile into a Dodge or something like that, and pound, you know, hundreds of miles over these interstate highways. And then, when it was dinner time, it was Howard Johnson’s. And I just remember learning to order this mountain of fried clams which I didn’t know at the time were clam strips. But I feel like it was my first sense of like life beyond the bologna sandwich.

GRABER: Scott is not alone. When we asked listeners and friends what they remember about HoJo’s, they almost all mentioned fried clams.

FREEDMAN: It doesn’t really occur to people unless you point it out how strange this is. Fried clams are not an American staple or they certainly weren’t something that anybody had heard of until Howard Johnson popularized them, except maybe people in Cape Cod or the Maine coast, but a tiny, tiny percentage of the population that ever had any experience with them.

TWILLEY: But really, other than fried clams and the 28 flavors of ice cream, the food at HoJo’s was not exciting or gourmet. And it wasn’t supposed to be.

FREEDMAN: Quality in the first place meant predictability. And this goes a little bit against the modern aesthetic which tends to emphasize individuality and artisanal and handmade. In the period—really most of the twentieth century—the last thing the American consumer wanted was something that was handmade or artisanal or unpredictable. They associated such things with germs or uncleanliness or, you know, gristle in the food or who knows what you’re going to get if you just stopped at some random place. You knew that at Howard Johnson’s, it would be clean, that they would have the fried clams, that they would have their signature ice cream cones shaped in a triangle. All of this was both unique—that is, nobody else had fried clams like Howard Johnson’s—and eminently predictable, coast to coast.

GRABER: Paul’s point is that Howard Johnson’s basically invented the model for what we now think of as fast food. But Howard Johnson’s had an extensive menu. It had a wait staff. Fast-food restaurants built on HoJo’s success and took it a step further.

FREEDMAN: It is oriented around predictability, brand recognizability, and franchising. So in a way it’s a parent that is superseded or killed by its offspring. The fast-food restaurant repeats this model but it simplifies it radically and it is ultimately more profitable.

TWILLEY: I’m not sure that that was progress. But never mind, here we now are today, inhabiting a landscape that is packed with restaurants of all sorts, for all kinds of customers, serving all kinds of foods. So the new question is how are supposed to decide where to go?

GRABER: Actually, that was an old question. The same guy who invented the original restaurant in France? He also wrote what was kind of the first restaurant guide. Under a different name, of course.

TWILLEY: Roze de Chantoiseau! One of his other start-up ideas was basically the first Yellow Pages for Paris. And here’s where having a fancy double-barrelled name pays off: he called himself Monsieur Roze when he was running the restaurant. And when he published his guide, which coincidentally recommended visiting this fabulous new salle de restaurant, he used the name Monsieur Chantoiseau.

GRABER: Sneaky. That was in France in the 1760s. There are lots of guides today, but one of the most famous ones is the one that’s supposed to have some science behind the rating. It’s also French, just like the first restaurant.

JOHN COLAPINTO: The Michelin Guide is a remarkable guide that originated in France that rates restaurants and does it with this meticulous, almost scientific care.

TWILLEY: That’s John Colapinto, he’s a colleague of mine at The New Yorker.

GRABER: Here at Gastropod, we promise you science along with history. So we wanted to know: Is John right? Is there actually a science to the Michelin ratings?

TWILLEY: The Michelin Guide would certainly like us to think so. So let’s find out.

GRABER: But first, you might be wondering why the most famous guide in the world has the same name as the tires you buy for your car.

TWILLEY: There is a simple explanation for that: the tires and the guide are produced by the same company. And it’s kind of logical. When Michelin the tire company got started at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of driving for pleasure and adventure was sort of new. I mean, cars were new. So the Michelin brothers had this brainwave to promote leisure driving: why not put out a guide to great restaurants you could drive to and dine at?

GRABER: This had a dual benefit. More driving, of course, means more tires, this is great for a tire company. But it also means that the money for their guidebook comes out of the tire company’s marketing budget.

COLAPINTO: They pride themselves on their total independence which derived actually from the fact that the Michelin Guide is actually funded by the Michelin tire company which is hugely wealthy and successful. So they don’t have to rely on any kind of favors from restaurants and so on, and they can pay their inspectors pretty well. They can move them around a country in order to review lots of restaurants.

TWILLEY: OK, so that’s the history of Michelin, but we promised you the science. Is there a science to their famous star system?

GRABER: That is a little difficult to figure out, because one of the things Michelin is most famous for is their complete and total secrecy.

TWILLEY: And that’s where John comes in, because he was the first journalist to ever sit down and share a meal with a Michelin inspector.

COLAPINTO: Well, it was remarkable because one of the things that Michelin sort of established in its 100-year-plus history was that they would never allow an inspector to be interviewed. And in fact, part of the culture of Michelin is that they discourage their inspectors from even telling their families that they do this because a parent, a proud parent might be tempted to boast. “Oh my Nancy is an inspector for Michelin.” And then it gets out and somehow gets back to the restaurants.

GRABER: They let him behind the curtain because in 2009, Michelin, for the first time, was expanding to the United States. And, really, they wanted some press.

TWILLEY: So John went out to lunch with a Michelin inspector who shall remain nameless. They were dining at Jean Georges, a fancy French restaurant on Central Park.

GRABER: The first thing we wanted to know is: if you want to scientifically evaluate a restaurant, how do you decide what to order?

COLAPINTO: She told me that when she sits down at a restaurant and is trying to sort of get a grasp on what this place is capable of, she said that they’re looking for something that tests the number and the quality of ingredients. And she wants something that is a little bit complex because she wants to see what the kitchen can do. She’s looking to see how they combine ingredients. As she said to me, you know, they never order something like a salad or the soup.

TWILLEY: In fact, the Michelin inspector told John that she has to order something from every course—starters, mains, dessert, etc.—and she has to finish everything on her plate.

GRABER: She often does that twice a day. I think I’d probably die.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I’m known for my heroic ability to put food away, but that is serious eating. And this is not a relaxing experience—John said she’s concentrating very hard on each bite.

COLAPINTO: I sort of plonkingly asked what she liked about this particular thing she was eating and she said, it’s not really a question of liking it or not liking it. And she said, it’s an analysis. She said, you’re eating it you’re looking for the quality of the products, their freshness, and so on. And she said, you know, they have to be top quality, like the best damn carrot you’ve ever seen. She says you’re looking at whether or not every single element was prepared, as she put it, perfectly and technically correct. And then she’s looking at the creativity. Did it work? as she put it. Was the balance of ingredients working? Was there a good and interesting texture, did everything come together in a way that was that was pleasing? Did one ingredient overpower another one?

GRABER: So then, after she’s eaten everything and thought hard—and, by the way, she isn’t taking any notes because she’s undercover!—she goes home and she writes it all up.

COLAPINTO: I think she said it could take her four hours to fill in the chart for a place like Jean Georges.

TWILLEY: These charts have all the inspector’s assessments of the quality of the ingredients, the technical perfection of the cooking, the creativity, the balance of flavors—everything to do with assessing the food. And that goes into a restaurant’s star rating. Restaurants that make it into the guide can get either a no star mention, all the way up to three stars for the food.

GRABER: Michelin recognizes that eating out isn’t just about the food. There’s a whole experience going on. So they have their inspectors evaluate the wait staff, and the ambiance, and the furnishings—overall, how great do you feel eating there? That goes into this knife and fork symbol—they call it couvert.

TWILLEY: And obviously that’s more subjective. But here’s the thing, although Michelin says the food is evaluated by stars and the ambiance by couvert ratings, and these are entirely separate things… well, sometimes that seems like, sure, that’s the theory, but actually the ambiance has an effect on the star rating, too.

GRABER: Dan Barber is the chef-owner of a restaurant in New York called Blue Hill. He also own another one outside the city called Blue Hill at Stone Barns. But the one in New York—that restaurant received one Michelin star.

TWILLEY: And actually Dan thinks that to get a second Michelin star, the things he’d have to change are to do with the ambiance, more so than the food. We’ve talked to Dan before—

GRABER: You should definitely check out that episode—it’s called Dan Barber’s Quest for Flavor.

TWILLEY: So we gave Dan a quick call. We caught him on his cellphone just as he was prepping for service, so the sound is pretty rough, sorry.

DAN BARBER: I’m not against going for second Michelin star or third star, you know. It’s not like I’m above it, you know. I would love to have more stars but I don’t know that that’s the goal of Blue Hill New York. Because, in order to get there, I think, you know, you have to do a lot of things in the ecosystem of dining that would, you know, that would take away from the experience of Blue Hill New York. I mean, including probably taking paper off the table and including probably spreading out the tables more and including, you know, different wine glasses and all the things that, you know, go into the experience of high-end dining.

GRABER: Dan thinks—and this seems to be pretty common for chefs at his level—everyone thinks that to get a second or third star, they have to have the top elements of expensive fine dining: white tablecloths, fine crystal glass, hovering waitstaff. Even though that’s not what the Michelin website says.

TWILLEY: To be fair, Michelin comes out of the French tradition—and I mean, really, let’s remember, the French did invent the restaurant. And so Dan’s point is, it makes sense that the Michelin guide tends to favor that ideal of French fine dining. That’s just its DNA, based on a hundred years of history.

GRABER: Dan doesn’t want to make dramatic changes to Blue Hill in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about Michelin a lot.

TWILLEY: Chefs get pretty obsessed about these stars.

GRABER: It’s stressful not to have a star, it’s stressful to get one and then worry about keeping it.

TWILLEY: And then there’s the matter of getting more stars. Richard Coraine is Danny Meyer’s right-hand-man for his world-famous restaurants—several of them have Michelin stars.

RICHARD CORAINE: For us, it’s not keeping them, it’s how do we get another one? And so our work is sort of directed at, okay, now how do we take the bar up even another notch.

GRABER: Chefs do believe that there is a way to hack the Michelin system. Like Dan said—he thinks he’d have to put cloth tablecloths on instead of paper and change up the wine glasses and have fewer tables to get another star. John agrees that chefs tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess Michelin.

COLAPINTO: And it’s obsessive what these poor guys go through to get the three stars.

GRABER: So Nicky, what do you think? Is there a science to the Michelin stars?

TWILLEY: I think, in as far as there’s a really rigorous process and template for evaluating the food, the way John described, sure. But how much can judging food ever be scientific, you know? And the ambiance stuff is personal, for sure.

GRABER: My feeling is, the way it’s rated, that does seem to mean that it’s mostly super-expensive French-style restaurants that get the most stars.

TWILLEY: And from the way chefs try to game the system by upgrading their stemware and their table cloths and all of that—it does seem like the line separating ambiance and stars is a fuzzy one.

GRABER: So then, what’s the point of Michelin? We asked that to everyone we spoke to this episode: Dan Barber, the chef; John Colapinto, the journalist who had lunch with an inspector; Paul Freedman, the historian. And they all had slightly different takes.

COLAPINTO: You know I don’t want to sound like an old crank but I’m an old crank. Just the levels of expertise that that person brings to an understanding of what restaurants are doing makes a Michelin inspector’s evaluation of a restaurant, to my mind, you know, exponentially better than Joe Blow who, “Yeah, I like to go to a lot of restaurants, I know what a good restaurant is, I know what I like.” You know, I’m sorry, I really think they bring something to the table.

TWILLEY: Crank or no, John’s a full-on fan. He trusts the Michelin formula. Dan… well, Dan’s a full-on fan too, but he does see an issue with Michelin’s bias towards haute cuisine.

BARBER: So I have problems with the democracy of the Michelin thing. But, like, I also see the point of like something that has backbone. But how do you rank a three-star restaurant with, you know, Bangkok street food.

GRABER: That’s kind of Paul’s point. The world of restaurant guides has changed because the world of restaurants has changed.

FREEDMAN: I think that the Michelin Guide doesn’t actually work in countries that have such a diversity of restaurants. The Michelin Guide was designed for France at a time when you knew what you were rating. But I don’t think that the system works very well for places like New York or Tokyo or San Francisco, because how do you compare a modest Ethiopian restaurant to a high-end, farm-to-table place to a traditional French restaurant? All of this care of objectivity, anonymity system, which is a very French kind of way of ordering the universe, applies better to the European Guides. I think that the Michelin Guide for New York is, you know, maybe a source of suggestions but as an actual ranking, frankly, in my opinion, it’s borderline useless.

TWILLEY: The restaurant—and the restaurant guide—they may have started out as a French invention. But this is way bigger than France now.

FREEDMAN: Well, the decline of French cuisine as dominating the entire world definition of elegant and high-end cuisine is the big story of the last thirty years. And it’s not that France has ceased to produce wonderful cuisine. It’s just that it doesn’t define it anymore.

GRABER: And, actually, I think that’s pretty great. France has delightful food, but so do a lot of countries and culinary traditions.

TWILLEY: Restaurants have made a lot of progress in terms of catering for a much broader range of the population, too. And that’s really, really important. But not everything in the world of restaurants has improved in the past century and a half. I mean, just think back to the Delmonico’s menu, with its fabulous range of local, wild food.

FREEDMAN: Well, I think we’re accustomed to thinking that we live in the best possible or best historically real world of American cuisine. Never have there been so many restaurants. Never has there been so much attention to ingredients, never have there been so many chefs who are creative and celebrated. But if there was one purpose I had in mind in doing this project, because I’m a historian, it was to call attention to the fact that the past has many enviable qualities. You know, that when the planet had only five hundred million people instead of eight billion, the environment was richer and easier to exploit and offered things that we can only dream about.

GRABER: I’m now drooling imagining Delmonico’s wild duck and wild celery. So, at the time they were locavore because they had to be. Now locavore is making a come-back—because it’s what diners actually want. We’re circling back to the origins of our restaurants.

TWILLEY: According to Rebecca, that’s not the only way restaurants are coming full circle.

SPANG: How many restaurant menus indicate which dishes are vegetarian? Which ones are low carb? Which ones are gluten free? There are so many different sensitivities, sensibilities, that restaurant patrons today feel and considered to be legitimate medical conditions and they probably are. So I do think that people’s attentiveness to their individual medicalized sensibilities is something that has much in common with the culture in which restaurants were invented in the first place.

TWILLEY: Since it was invented, two hundred and fifty years ago, the restaurant has made great strides. You have restaurants for all sorts of people, run by all sorts of people, and catering to all levels of income and all kinds of different tastes.

GRABER: Which is awesome. But of course this isn’t restaurant utopia here. There are still all sorts of problems at restaurants, too: the pay, the whole system of tipping, the divide between the kitchen staff and the wait staff, the working conditions. These are all issues that, trust us, we’re going to come back to these in future episodes.

TWILLEY: And that’s really why restaurants matter. Because the restaurant as a public space—it ends up reflecting a lot of where we’re at as a society.



GRABER: Thanks to Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, and Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to John Colapinto at The New Yorker, to chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Richard Coraine of Union Square Hospitality Group.

GRABER: Thanks to our friends and listeners for sharing their restaurant remembrances with us. We’ll be back in two weeks with episode all about chocolate. I can hardly wait!

Cork Dork: Inside the Weird World of Wine Appreciation

“There’s the faintest soupçon of asparagus and just a flutter of Edam cheese,” says Paul Giamatti in the movie Sideways. Believe it or not, he's describing pinot noir, not quiche. The world of sommeliers, wine lists, and tasting notes is filled with this kind of language, prices seemingly rising in step with the number of bizarre adjectives. It's tempting to dismiss the whole thing as B.S., but listen in: this episode, author Bianca Bosker takes us along on her journey into the history and science behind blind tasting, wine flavor wheels, and the craft of the sommelier. You'll never feel lost in front of a wine list again.


What is Native American Cuisine? TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode What is Native American Cuisine?, first released on November 1, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

TASHIA HART: That’s your cedar, bergamot, maple tea.

NICOLA TWILLEY: And does it have particular… you know, powers?

HART: Oh yeah, it’ll make you feel really good.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Is cedar used traditionally for anything in particular or…?

HART: Oh yeah, it’s used for all kinds of stuff. Like here we braise meat with it, it’s used as like a lot of seasoning. And then also people use it in the wintertime as a tea, like to help prevent from getting like flus, colds, things like that, so… It’s also burned, sort of like as an incense, like a smudge.

ALL: Cheers.

GRABER: I’d never tasted cedar in food before. I’d also never had that bergamot—it’s not the perfumey citrus from Italy, but a wildflower in the mint family. It’s also known as bee balm.

TWILLEY: Yeah, me neither. OK, pop quiz people. What do all these ingredients—the cedar, the maple, and the wild bergamot—what do they have in common? Apart from being in our tea, I mean.

GRABER: Anyone? Yeah, you’re probably not going to come up with the answer here. These are all Native American ingredients brewed into a tea for us in Minnesota.

TWILLEY: So this was a delicious tea with Native American ingredients and we washed it down with a delicious meal made with Native American ingredients and you know what’s weird? I’ve lived in the U.S. for fifteen years now, but before we had that meal, I would have not have been able to describe traditional Native American cuisine and flavors at all.

GRABER: But why is that? That’s what we’re asking in today’s episode. We’ll explore the history—why it is that basically none of us have ever tasted Native American cuisine. And we’ll meet people who are trying to change that today. Not just for us—more importantly, for Native Americans themselves, who have some of the highest rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes in the country. Could a return to a Native diet help?

TWILLEY: You are listening to 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 before we get back to Minnesota, we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.


GRABER: This episode is supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.

TWILLEY: And our travel was supported in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism.


GRABER: The voice you heard earlier is Tashia Hart. She forages wild foods for chef Sean Sherman.

SEAN SHERMAN: My name is Sean Sherman. I am the owner and CEO of The Sioux Chef. I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation which is in south central South Dakota. It is the third largest Native reservation in the United States.

TWILLEY: You might have heard of Sean. He’s getting all kinds of attention right now. He’s just funded his first restaurant on Kickstarter. In fact, it’s the most-backed restaurant project ever on Kickstarter.

GRABER: He’s had a food truck—Tatanka Truck—and a catering company for a few years. His new Minneapolis restaurant will be the first to serve all indigenous foods from Minnesota and the Dakotas.

TWILLEY: The meal we enjoyed—that cedar tea, smoked turkey, hominy, wild rice, and a wild sumac and sorrel pesto—that was a taste of the kinds of foods Sean will be serving at his new restaurant. But he didn’t grow up eating like this.

SHERMAN: You know, on Pine Ridge Reservation, when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, there was only one grocery store on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is a huge area, you know, to have only one food source. And we had to spend a lot of time either going into Rapid City or down into Nebraska to other towns to go to some of the grocery stores.

TWILLEY: A lot of what Sean and his family ate came through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. That’s a federal program that distributes food to low-income Native Americans.

SHERMAN: So, you know, we had the famous government cheese and cereals and various canned foods. But, you know, we did have some traditional pieces here and there. When I look back, you know, we did collect a lot of chokecherries out in the wild and we did collect a lot of tomsula, which is a wild prairie turnip.

GRABER: You may never have eaten what Sean calls “famous government cheese,” but it’s common on the reservation. It’s basically bulk commodity cheese that the government buys to prop up the dairy industry and then gives away.

TWILLEY: But Sean doesn’t want the next generation to grow up eating canned and boxed processed foods like he did. He thinks it’s well past time for Native American foods to have their moment on our tables.

GRABER: Sean Sherman is part of a growing movement today, a rebirth of indigenous North American cuisine.

TWILLEY: But here’s my question. Why does it need a rebirth? I mean, why was it lost in the first place?

CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: When the various waves of colonization occurred it was really about, you know, seizing that land and its natural resources. Which meant increasingly that, you know, native peoples were pushed off their traditional lands where, you know, they harvested game, where they grew crops, where they harvested their traditional, you know, medicines and foods. And so really what that began to do is completely destroy their traditional food systems and the way that they fed themselves and their ability to really be self-sustaining.

TWILLEY: That’s Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting. She’s the co-author of a new report on the history and future of Native American food called Feeding Ourselves. And in the report, she gets into exactly how the traditional Native American food system was lost.

ECHO HAWK: I would give the example of my own tribe. The Pawnee resided within lands kind of around Nebraska and Kansas and we were farmers. We hunted buffalo and game but we were also farmers and we had our crops and our corn, and also we harvested our traditional medicines. So, in 1876, when we were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, you’re talking about two different entirely geographic regions and agricultural zones, right? And climate. And—and so our traditional food systems, the types of crops that we grew, the seeds that we had were no longer really viable in Oklahoma with a very different climate.

TWILLEY: Crystal says that relocation destroyed her tribe’s traditional foodways. In general, putting Native Americans on reservations didn’t just damage their ability to farm, it also really inhibited their ability to hunt. Basically, it made it almost impossible to follow their traditional lifestyles

ECHO HAWK: And in doing so, and in restricting movement and activity, really began to make Native peoples reliant on the government rations that went into those reservations, that were, you know, oftentimes spoiled and rotten food, but began to completely shift Native Americans diets where it began to be flour and sugar and lard and other types of things that were not in our traditional diets.

GRABER: It wasn’t just a matter of people no longer knowing how to farm their crops in new climates or knowing which animals to hunt. Native Americans were moved onto some of the worst lands available. And then given some of the worst food. On top of that, children were forced into boarding schools and kept from speaking their own languages. So a lot of traditional knowledge about food was lost.

TWILLEY: And all of that had a huge impact. Not just on what Native Americans ate, but on their health and well-being, overall.

ECHO HAWK: So I think that it had an incredible and devastating psychological damage to native peoples, wherever they were. You’re talking about Native American people who had sustained themselves. And I think what that is devastating in terms of what it does to the psyche, right, to take away that ability to sustain yourself and to make yourself very dependent on your conqueror.

GRABER: But the change in diet and lifestyle did have very tangible, really enormous effects not just on indigenous people’s minds, but on their bodies as well.

ECHO HAWK: From the health standpoint, when you completely shift a diet away from an incredibly healthy diet of game meat and traditional crops and medicines that people relied on to these processed, you know, forms of food and foods that are very much detrimental to health such as, you know, lard and flour and sugar, what we began to see is the onset of diabetes and other types of diet-related diseases that, you know, really by, you know, the 50s, 60s, 70s had began to explode and which today we have what one Native American public health official recently declared, it’s not only a public health crisis, it’s a humanitarian crisis, with now one out of two Native American children predicted to develop Type 2 diabetes.

TWILLEY: One out of two. In her report, Crystal describes diabetes as the new smallpox. It’s a chilling image, but given those numbers, it’s not an exaggeration. And that’s not all.

ECHO HAWK: 80 percent of Native American people today are either overweight or obese. And we have some of the highest numbers of cardiovascular disease—stroke, cancer, down the line—and many of these, you know, these are all attributable to diet-related diseases—chronic diseases that could be preventable with a healthy diet.

GRABER: Crystal says that the word for diabetes didn’t even exist in Native languages when the Europeans first arrived. Today, Native Americans are among the poorest people in the country. Nearly 20 percent of homes on reservations lack even basic kitchen necessities—running water, a refrigerator, or a stove.

TWILLEY: And according to Crystal, virtually all of Indian country is a food desert—there are no nearby grocery stores so people often have to drive for hours to buy fresh food.

GRABER: But today Crystal is cautiously optimistic.

ECHO HAWK: I’m happy to see the great movement, I think, that is taking place in Indian country where people are really recognizing that the time is now, that we need to take back our traditional food systems.

TWILLEY: Crystal told us there’s a movement to bring back traditional Native American foodways. So we went out to Minnesota, to visit some of the farms and chefs and activists who are making this movement happen.

DIANE WILSON: OK. My name’s Diane Wilson and we are at Dream of Wild Health Farm.

REBECCA YOSHINO: My name is Rebecca Yoshino and I’m the director here at Wozupi Tribal Gardens.

GRABER: Diane and Rebecca are our guides today to growing traditional Native foods. Wozupi and Dream of Wild Health are both about a thirty minute drive away from Minneapolis, on opposite sides of town.

TWILLEY: Rebecca grew up on an organic farm, but she’s not Native American herself. The local Shakopee Sioux community actually headhunted her, because they wanted to start a farm.

YOSHINO: We broke ground here in 2010. It was born out of a health impulse.

GRABER: Over at Dream of Wild Health, Diane is a master gardener who’s a member of Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She started off as a volunteer at the farm and then took over as director a few years ago.

WILSON: And the farm started as a program of Peda Wakan Tipi, and that was a St. Paul based non-profit that provided transitional housing for Native people in recovery. And out of that—out of that work, the clients were asking for a way to reconnect with the land and with traditional foods because it’s such an important part of Native culture. So to do the healing work, to be in recovery, you really need to rebuild that relationship with the land and with your food. So it started as a tiny little garden in 1998. Then we received a gift of a very old, precious seeds from Cora Baker, a Pottawattomi elder in 2000, and then in 2005, we purchased this 10-acre farm. And then we’ve been here ever since, building programs for youth and helping to restore the land.

TWILLEY: We’re going to come back to those precious seeds, but, first things first, I was curious, what exactly do you grow on a Native American farm?

GRABER: Rebecca and Diane walked us around. They’re growing a lot of the foods you’d find at any farmers market—bell peppers and carrots and onions and the like. These are the typical vegetables that any healthy community might want to eat.

TWILLEY: But, and this is what makes them really unique, they’re also growing indigenous crops. Some of them are foods that are very familiar—corn, squash, and beans—but Rebecca and Diane are growing varieties you probably haven’t seen or heard of before.

YOSHINO: Sure. So we are growing a Mizwaki Flint corn that we received from a Mizwaki seed keeper a few years ago. We grow a Ho-Chunk red flour corn. We grow this Dakota yellow corn. We grow an Oneida white hominy corn. Pottawattamie Lima beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans, Arikara red yellow beans, Hidatsa shield figure beans, Lakota squash… just, just to name a few.

GRABER: And it’s not just the varieties— the way they’re growing the corn, squash, and beans, that’s a little different, too.

YOSHINO: Before coming here, I had never thrown a three sisters garden, and so that’s been an adventure.

TWILLEY: Three sisters?

YOSHINO: Yeah, so in a perfect three sisters garden, you grow corn, squash, and beans together. And the pole beans provide an anchor for the corn, and the corn provides stability and a trellis for the beans. You grow squash around the corn and beans and that provides shade and weed suppression. It helps create a more temperate environment for the soil so it doesn’t get too hot, doesn’t get too cold, retains moisture. The beans help fix nitrogen and add fertility to the soil. And then when eaten all together you have all the components for a complete meal.

GRABER: Where are the beans?

YOSHINO: So here we have Pottawattamie lima bean growing on our Dakota yellow corn here.

GRABER: We couldn’t taste the squash or corn, but we did eat some beans right off the stalk.

YOSHINO: These are immature, but I will pop this one open to see if we have any of its exquisite color. Probably not quite yet. Nope, they are still little lima beans. But if you try them in this stage of development—

GRABER: Can we taste one?

YOSHINO: Please do. They’re incredibly sweet.


GRABER: Isn’t that wonderful?

TWILLEY: It’s like candy.

GRABER: Yes. It’s like, sweet and green.

YOSHINO: Oh yeah.

TWILLEY: A normal farmer can order their seeds online, but Diane and Rebecca can’t just go to seeds dot com and get Pottawattamie beans or Dakota yellow corn.

GRABER: And that’s what makes these seeds so rare and special. To have survived all these generations, they had to be saved. Remember how Diane told us that a gift of seeds from a woman named Cora Baker was the inspiration to start a farm at Dream of Wild Health?

WILSON: Well, I heard about the seeds back in 2000. And as soon as I heard that Dream of Wild Health was growing out these seeds, I knew I had to come and get involved. When you come here, you know that these seeds are special and to feel that that understanding when you’re holding them, that these were seeds held by your ancestors… You know, these are seeds that have been grown out by the families that came before you and it was their work, their sacrifice that protected these seeds, sometimes through horrific events.

TWILLEY: Sometimes even the name of the plant tells you about the suffering that went into saving it.

YOSHINO: This is our Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean. These beans were were a part of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and there are many accounts of women sewing seeds into the hems of their skirts and bringing many, many foods on their journey west. So it is an honor to grow out some of these seeds. And you’ll note that many of those varieties that did make that journey, their names now start, or their English names start, with Cherokee Trail of Tears.

GRABER: The Trail of Tears is a horrific part of American history. It was part of President Andrew Jackson’s policy to remove Indians from their native lands. In 1838 and 39 the Cherokee were forced to migrate from their homelands in the Southeast—Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee—to what’s now Oklahoma. During the forced march, hunger, disease, and exhaustion killed more than a quarter of all the people on that walk. Four thousand people died.

WILSON: The only reason we have some of these seeds is that families made that decision, sometimes in the matter of moments under severe pressure, to protect their seeds because they knew. They knew that they were going to need seeds wherever it was they were going to end up. So on the Cherokee Trail of Tears removal for example, those seeds somehow survived that removal. And that means that even when families were starving that these seeds were protected so that there would always be food. And same with the Dakota removal, there were families that protected enough seeds, no matter what, that we now have food today.

TWILLEY: And the seeds that Native Americans saved on forced relocations like these, even while they were starving—those seeds have been handed down by families and communities over the generations. And one of the women who helped preserve these seeds was Cora Baker.

WILSON: So Cora was a gardener, a traditional gardener who lived by—she lived in the Wisconsin Dells, and she farmed and gardened all her life. And she used to grow the Indian corn, she called it. And she would hang it up—she’d braid it and hang it up outside her barn to dry. And people would come by and they’d stop to visit and they’d see her corn and they would give her seeds. So she ended up with this beautiful collection of seeds from all over this region. But some from as far away as the Southwest. We had, she had Hopi black turtle beans in her collection. She also had Cherokee Trail of Tears corn. And so when she was getting ready to pass in her 90s, her kids didn’t want the responsibility. So she heard about Dream of Wild Health and she wrote a letter and said, “I have prayed and prayed that Indian people would get back to gardening.” And she really believed that these seeds and getting back to traditional foods was the way to rebuild health in the community, so she sent her collection here as a gift. And so we’ve been taking care of that gift, protecting it and growing it out, since 2000.

GRABER: Diane took us downstairs in the farmhouse to show us her treasured seed collection.

WILSON: This is the Cree corn.

TWILLEY: This is?

GRABER: The colors are so different. That’s reddish. The other one is kind of purplish. This is red and blue.

WILSON: Oh yeah, I love this. So this is part of the Dakota corn. So just look at those vibrant colors. The Mandan blue corn, so there’s popcorn, Bear Island, Indian red, the Cree again, amber chip.

TWILLEY: Diane and Rebecca and other native growers have joined together to form an indigenous seed keepers alliance to bring these seeds forward to the next generation. The whole history of these seeds—how rare they are, the fact that they’re this powerful remaining connection to Native American’s original homelands—it definitely inspires a lot of what both Rebecca and Diane do.

WILSON: So what we found is that we tapped into what is a very deep need that people have to connect with traditional foods and also a very deep passion among people for working with these seeds. When you get when you get hooked into seed work it’s—it is definitely a passionate commitment. I was going to say you know it’s like a cult but that goes… Definitely, it brings out the geek in all of us.

GRABER: Rebecca doesn’t have her own Cora Baker at Wozupi Farm. Instead, they’ve gotten seeds from a variety of places—gifts from other tribal communities, for instance, and even seeds saved at the University of Minnesota. The University has also helped both Rebecca and Diane with something else.

WILSON: So we’ve learned all about corn condoms which is just hilarious to the kids when we’re talking about this.

TWILLEY: Yes, Diane said corn condoms.


TWILLEY: Alright! PSA over, back to corn condoms. So, corn condoms are important because without them, these rare indigenous varieties will interbreed with the GMO or industrial varieties growing on nearby farms.

WILSON: And that means that we have to hand pollinate our seeds, because pollen can travel up to three miles. So it’s very labor intensive for us to do that work. But for—in order to protect the genetic integrity of the seeds, we have to hand pollinate.

GRABER: Rebecca walked over to some ears of corn to show us how it works. They put paper bags, like little paper lunch bags, on top of the tassels of the corn.

YOSHINO: And we wait for the pollen to drop. And when the pollen drops it starts dying within 15 minutes. And it can’t be too hot and it can’t get wet, so it’s very particular. And then we gather all of the live pollen from the bags every day and we combine it all.

TWILLEY: Then they go back and dust that pollen on the new baby corn silks, and then they staple the paper bag condoms over the top again to protect the ear as it grows.

YOSHINO: And this bag will remain on that ear of corn until we harvest next month.

TWILLEY: They have to do the same hand pollination thing with squash too, including one of Rebecca’s favorite varieties.

YOSHINO: We grow out to squash called Gete Okosomin, which means “cool old squash” in Ojibway. And this is a squash that has actually become quite renowned in the seed saving and indigenous seed saving community. It is cucurbit maxima, it is Hubbert type squash. It is very cool and long, it looks like almost like a orange and green canoe.

GRABER: The canoe-like cool old squash and the colored corns, those are rare varieties of foods that are still common today. But then there were all sorts of crops I’d never eaten—June berries and wild plums and chokecherries and tiny, tiny fragrant elderberries.

TWILLEY: Growing all these native varieties is really important to Diane and Rebecca and the communities they serve. But it’s also really hard, because a lot of the traditional knowledge about how to grow them has been lost. Some things they can learn from elders, but some things they have to figure out pretty much from scratch.

WILSON: There’s a whole lot of trial and error that happens now.

GRABER: Diane says they have to build a new relationship with each new seed.

WILSON: So there’s this long, years-long process that goes into rebuilding those relationships. So that’s where we’re at. We’re in the midst of that process.

GRABER: Rebecca’s tried and failed at two crops that the elders want the farm to grow—butterfly weed and wild prairie turnips.

YOSHINO: There’s not a lot of research that’s out there on some of these foods so we’ve been doing some experimenting. We’ve been trying to work on cultivating prairie turnips for example, tomsula, for a few years and have not managed to do it successfully yet, but we’ll continue to to work on that. It’s a traditional turnip that grows out in the prairie that—that many of the elders from this community and other Dakota communities and Lakota communities ate traditionally. But I don’t know of any farm or organization that’s been able to cultivate it successfully.

TWILLEY: And, as if the loss of traditional knowledge and the displacement from their original homelands—as if that didn’t make it hard enough to grow these native crops, there’s another challenge.

YOSHINO: And then things that worked one hundred years ago, in a climate one hundred years ago, might not work in today’s climatic conditions.

TWILLEY: Yep, there’s also climate change.

YOSHINO: Well, we’re seeing how far we can stretch the limits of the crops that we’re growing here, and we’re taking notes on what performs an excessive heat, excessive drought, excessive moisture.

WILSON: So with climate change—and we were just talking about this with the kids in our program—we have to be growing those seeds out. And especially if they have been in storage for any length of time, they’re not adapting to the conditions that are changing out here. So for those seeds to remain viable, we have to be growing them.

GRABER: So there are a lot of challenges. There’s the trial and error involved in figuring out how to grow ancient seeds. There’s a changing climate. On top of all that, Rebecca and Diane have to contend with a change in tastes.

WILSON: So that opens up a whole other question, because you know, palates have changed over the years, and especially if you’ve grown up on corn the way it’s grown now, it’s very very sweet.

So what we realized was if, you know, our true work is to grow the seeds out and return them as foods to our community. But in order for us to do that we have to figure out: do people still want to eat them? Because if it’s changed so much that it’s not—it’s not appealing to you then that’s an issue no matter how how nutritious it is.

TWILLEY: The other piece of this is that some of these foods are no longer what people are expecting—they’re not the first thing that comes to mind even when Native Americans think of Native food. When Sean and Tashia and another chef on the team, Brian—when they serve these ancient corns and squash to community members, they get a lot of people asking, where’s the frybread?

BRIAN: Often yeah. Yeah, we do. And we have to explain to them what—the point of view that we have and what we’re focused on. People are slowly catching on. Presenting these different foods beyond frybread.

GRABER: Frybread is just what it sounds like—it’s literally a white bread that’s fried. You’ll find it at any powwow or Native American festival. But it’s actually kind of controversial. Crystal Echo Hawk, for instance, is not a fan.

ECHO HAWK: We really need to look at eradicating many of these foods out of the Native American diet because they’re not traditional. Frybread is not traditional food.

TWILLEY: Diane, on the other hand, thinks frybread still has a place in Native American cuisine

WILSON: Frybread helped people survive. So, you know, I have to—we have to feel grateful to the fact that frybread was there when people had very little to eat. Personally I love frybread, you know, at a pow wow. But like any food it has to be within the context of an overall healthy diet.

TWILLEY: Still, despite these changing palates and expectations, everyone we spoke to agrees—once people try these traditional foods and forgotten flavors, they love them. When we were eating turkey and drinking cedar tea with Brian and Tashia, they’d just served exactly the same dishes to some elders the night before.

BRIAN: The elders—they loved it.

HART: A lot of it is just on their faces like, you know, and they start eating faster and big eyes, you know?

GRABER: This is why the education part of what the farms do is so crucial. Diane and Rebecca both told us that they develop recipes on-site to figure out, say, which corn varieties are for flour, which are best for hominy. They teach cooking classes to the elders—and, maybe even more importantly, to the kids.

WILSON: We’ve got the cookbook, we’ve got the community gardens, we’ve got our youth programs. Feed them. Let them experience those tastes. Let them feel how their body feels afterwards.

TWILLEY: That part—how their body feels afterwards—Diane is talking about avoiding the kinds of sugar crashes that are a precursor to diabetes. She’s seen so many members of her own family, and her community, suffer from the disease, and she doesn’t want to see that happen any more. But can returning to a more traditional diet—however delicious it is—can that make a difference to diabetes levels in the native community?

GRABER: That’s just what Tiffany Beckman wants to find out. She’s an endocrinologist in Minneapolis and a member of the Leech Lake band Ojibway.

TIFFANY BECKMAN: Well, I think as a kid, I was just seeing a lot of people that were sick, you know, in my family and it bothered me. And so that’s how I ended up going into medicine. And then, endocrinology, you know, is my sub-specialty in general medicine and I ended up going into that because I was at an Association of American Indian Physicians meeting when I was a student and I remember hearing people talking in the front seat of the car about the diabetes epidemic in our American Indian population. And I remember them saying, well, what are we going to do. And they were really seriously talking about it. You know, what should we do and they didn’t have clear answers. And then I remember asking if we had an American Indian endocrinologist within the society and they said no. And so I thought well, gee, that seems terrible how—why don’t we have a specialist who can address the—the issues?

TWILLEY: Today, Tiffany is the first and only American Indian adult endocrinologist, at least that she knows of.

BECKMAN: I have this molecular, like, endocrinology background, you know, that can be exceedingly boring for many people, myself included sometimes. And then I have the other part of me that’s the public health part. You know, I have a Master’s of Public Health and I’d say that’s what really defines me and my motivations and what I do. The endocrine, you know, certifications and the credentials—I only got those so that I could speak the language and be a translator for a lot of Native people and have that expertise to be able to say to some of some of my colleagues at other universities, say, you know, I understand what you’re saying but I beg to differ. You know I really don’t want—I don’t think we should be giving pills for these diseases. I think we should be doing X, Y, and Z—lifestyle, wellness, food, activity, and specifically these foods.

GRABER: Tiffany says that the extraordinarily high rates of diabetes aren’t just because of bad diets. Native Americans are genetically predisposed to these types of diseases. And so the Western diet triggers diabetes in Native communities even more than in others.

TWILLEY: Tiffany thinks that the solution is a return to the native diet. This is still a hypothesis, but based on her training as an endocrinologist, it makes sense.

BECKMAN: If you look back at the ancestral diet of American Indians, it was largely more protein based than today’s diet. And, as an endocrinologist, I know that protein modulates gluconeogenesis, the production of sugar by the liver.

GRABER: She’s looked at studies that evaluated how, for male veterans with type 2 diabetes, eating a higher protein diet could modulate their blood sugar levels. It seemed to work.

BECKMAN: So I take that work and sort of extrapolate it to our American Indian population and I look at us and I say, gee whiz, we could really benefit from that especially since our ancestral diet matched that.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Diane told us that there have been some intriguing studies of the nutritional content of Native crops.

WILSON: So one of the things we learned while partnering with the University of Minnesota, another professor who has been a longtime partner, Craig Hassell, helped us do some nutrition testing on these seeds, and what we found in the beans and the—well, the beans were extremely high in antioxidants, the corn was much higher in protein, and just in general when compared to market varieties, these old seeds because they haven’t been manipulated for whatever reason, they maintain that original nutritional value that was so important to our ancestors.

GRABER: There hasn’t yet been any study on whether a traditional Native diet can help combat diabetes and heart disease.

BECKMAN: That work needs to be done.

TWILLEY: And Tiffany wants to spend the rest of her career on it. Right now she’s in the middle of planning a study on the native diet and how it can modulate blood sugars.

BECKMAN: And I have been sitting on it for like a decade, and I think that the communities are ripe and ready for it now. We have enough people on the ground and enough people in the right places now doing things so I think it’s going to be the perfect time to sort of launch it.

GRABER: Just that morning one of the folks in her lab sent a month’s meal plan to review. It incorporates a lot of the foods we’ve already described—native squash, corn, and beans, turkey…

BECKMAN: We didn’t talk about buffalo yet, but that would be a critical piece because I’m looking at increasing the concentration of omega 3 fatty acids in there, and there are certain ways you have to do that, as you guys know. And so that would be one way. Venison, lean meat, salmon, wild rice, berries. Sort of returning to an ancestral diet but doing it in a way where the macronutrients are a certain way and the micronutrients are a certain way. And so, without giving away too much of it, that’s what I’ll say.

TWILLEY: So the plan is, Tiffany will get her Native American research subjects eating this diet, and then she’ll study how it affects them.

BECKMAN: But I would like to look at some markers in the blood and see sort of the diet’s effect on some of the inflammatory mediators and things. So it wouldn’t just be looking at blood sugars and diabetes and cholesterol and classic metabolic markers like waist/hip ratio and blood pressure and things like that, I think we should have some secondary outcomes. And then I suppose specific aim one would focus on some neuro-imaging and looking at maybe pre- and post-. Because you’d want to sort of look at how being on a healthy meal plan changes brain activation, right? Because it does—it will, I know it will. So what we would hope to do is dampen some of the overactive reward pathways in the brain in folks and get them acclimated to a healthy diet. And then sort of show, hey look, your cravings went down for these foods.

GRABER: Tiffany is planning on rolling out her study this fall. She hopes to finally produce the science on what she understands as an endocrinologist. It makes scientific sense to her that a Native diet would help combat diabetes and heart disease; now she has to prove it.

TWILLEY: But this movement to reintroduce Native cuisine, it’s about more than blood sugar levels and diabetes, as important as those issues are.

ECHO HAWK: Absolutely, and that’s very much what Feeding Ourselves is about.

TWILLEY: In the Feeding Ourselves report, Crystal points out that Native Americans are supposed to be a sovereign people—and that regaining the ability to feed themselves will go a long way to restoring that sense of sovereignty.

GRABER: All of this—the health benefits, the food sovereignty, the flavors of their ancestors, the environmental benefits of traditional growing techniques like the three sisters—that all inspired chef Sean Sherman, and his dream of opening a local, all-Native American cuisine restaurant.

SHERMAN: I just see immense benefit for people embracing the indigenous culture of their regions.

TWILLEY: But Sean had a problem. There is no Joy of Native American Cooking cookbook he could go to and find recipes in. He’s had to do a lot of detective work.

SHERMAN: So I started just researching all sorts of different various texts, from ethnobotanical texts to archaeological texts to historical texts. And, you know, really looking at any first-contact texts that were out there. Talking with any of the elders that I could find that might have any food memories. And kind of just really trying to see what was traditional by brushing away anything that looked like it was influenced by European influences or Asian influence or any place outside of the region I was studying. So really just looking all over the place. But it was really kind of like taking a big broken pot and slowly piecing it back together until I started to see a bigger picture of it.

GRABER: The dishes Sean’s creating might not be the exact same ones his ancestors ate. But he thinks they share the same inspiration.

SHERMAN: Because it is just real basic, so we’re just using some simple flavors that are around us. So a lot of these plates that we design, you know, they are extremely hyperlocal, you can find almost every ingredient just like basically walking around a lake in northern Minnesota or on the Dakota plains.

So we might have, for example, a dish that consists of some wild rice and some wild rosehip and some tamarac and some walleye or some hopniss, which is like a kind of like a wild potato. So like all these flavors you can find just walking around the forest in a certain particular area. So we just really kind of design these flavors that grow well together and are together.

So it’s kind of mimicking, like, putting myself in a box. You know, if I was here 200 years ago, I had cooking skills but I just wanted to create food with you know the food that’s directly around me, like what can I use, like, how can I build these plates. And we do have to, of course, grow and create as we move forward. But that’s kind of the fun of being in culinary, too. So we always get to explore new ways of kind of mixing these flavors as we move forward.

TWILLEY: Sean has been enormously successful at getting his first restaurant funded. Now he’s working on opening it.

GRABER: We heard the same theme in all our interviews: this movement is really just beginning, and not just in Minnesota, but around the country. Diane and Rebecca need more money to expand the farms, to grow out the seeds and study them, and to expand the education activities.

TWILLEY: Tiffany is writing a grant to get her study funded. And Crystal pointed out that there are still a lot of government policy changes needed, to actually get the food that Diane and Rebecca grow into the mouths of the people who need it most.

GRABER: There are a lot of challenges. But everyone we spoke to is dreaming big.

ECHO HAWK: So how do we create, you know, a local tribal economy wherever we might be talking about, that is really about where people are accessing food produced in their own food system.

WILSON: So what we’d like to do is is to really be growing out a lot more of these seeds and providing them both as seeds for people’s gardens but also as food, so that you could buy a Dakota flour, for example, for baking with or you could get the hominy. You could get these foods. The beans—beans are fantastic. That’s our goal is to be able to provide more of these foods back to the Native community in the Twin Cities.

SHERMAN: We’re hoping that this will be a flagship restaurant that we’re hoping to be able to build more of to help other areas, you know, have access to this cool, indigenous food in their regions. So we’re just hoping to help continue to push and help this movement of revitalizing Native American foods into the modern world.

BECKMAN: Well, if all that came to fruition, you’d have more people around the table, because you would have kids and parents and grandparents and other community members and extended family all working together to actually get the food and get it ready and be involved in the whole process, and then they would sort of take ownership of it and take an interest in it. And they would see the value of the food and sort of the sacredness of it too, because they’d understand, oh the plants, you know, they’re beautiful, and they develop a relationship with them and kind of feel that when they sit down you know and offer thanks and enjoy it.


GRABER: If you, like me, are American and will soon be eating Thanksgiving dinner with your family, think about the turkey and the cornbread and the cranberries and the wild rice. Those are all traditional Native foods, just the foods that are part of this rebirth of Native American cuisine. And that’s something we should all be giving thanks for.


TWILLEY: This episode is also supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research. And our travel was supported in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism.

GRABER: Thanks so much Rebecca Yoshino and Diane Wilson who showed us around their farms. You can learn more about their farms and the projects going on there at our website,

TWILLEY: Thanks also to the Sioux Chef team: Sean Sherman, Dana Thompson, Brian, and  Tashia. Thanks to Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting, we have a link to her report, Feeding Ourselves, on our website.

GRABER: And thanks to Tiffany Beckman, the first Native American adult endocrinologist. She hopes there will be many more!

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode all about the science and history of Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food.

GRABER: Till next time.

Seaweed Special TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Seaweed Special, first released on September 13, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: We are so excited to be here with you here at Boston’s Museum of Science. This is our first ever live event! And you’re the ones who get to suffer through any mistakes we might make.

NICOLA TWILLEY: But don’t worry, we also brought snacks. So it’s not going to be all bad. But you cannot eat any of those snacks until we tell you. So sit tight and keep your hands off the chocolate. You’ve got to earn it!

GRABER: Tonight, you’ll get to watch fungi and bacteria interact on a sliver of cheese—as you eat them!

TWILLEY: The cheese is alive. And you’re eating it! And then as if that’s not enough, we’ll be introducing you to the new kale. It’s kelp.

TWILLEY: But wait, you’re thinking. I’m not at the Boston Museum of Science. Unless by random chance you are, in which case, check out the Butterfly Garden and the Soundstair.

GRABER: No, but a lot of you WERE there with us—we had our first live event this spring at the Museum of Science! It was great fun.

TWILLEY: And we wanted to share one of the highlights with you in this special show. So that thing we said about the new kale being kelp… that’s what today’s show is about. 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. This episode, you’ll hear from Bren Smith. He is a seaweed superstar.



TWILLEY: We did our first ever live event on May 4, at the Museum of Science in Boston, like we said. And we had chocolate and cheese tastings—you guys are going to have to take care of that yourselves. Feel free to press pause while you gather supplies.

GRABER: But for our main course that evening we focused on a topic we’ve explored before—but there’s so much going on with seaweed these days that we had plenty new to offer. We started with a brief refresher on how the seaweed industry got rebooted in New England.

TWILLEY: So dim the lights, curtain raise, here we go….

TWILLEY: So we know you guys are all super ahead of the curve, very thoughtful, very conscious eaters. So we wanted to go vegetarian for the main course, I hope that’s alright with everyone. And, you know, kale, kale is a little 2013 at this point…

GRABER: Kelp is the new kale. So until recently, you might have only seen kelp, you know, wrapping sushi. But those vegetables that grow in the sea, they’re good for a lot more than just wrapping rice. I mean, and forget about Asia entirely! Seaweed is actually a native New England food that we somehow forgot about. But not anymore, it’s coming back.

TWILLEY: That’s right. New England is in the middle of seaweed boom and we visited its epicenter in Stamford, CT. Charlie Yarish is fairy godfather to millions of tiny little kelp growing offshore from New York City to Maine.

GRABER: So, Charlie is an expert in seaweed biology. And he wanted to help New England fishermen grow kelp. And he wanted them to beat Asian seaweed farmers. He knew we couldn’t compete on price. So he wanted to come up with a way to dramatically speed up the seaweed farming process.

TWILLEY: Charlie turned his lab into a combination seaweed brothel and nursery. He starts by harvesting reproductive organs from wild seaweed and he brings them back to the lab, puts them in an oversized beaker, and then he starts setting the mood.

GRABER: He turns the lights down, the water’s not too hot, not too cold, and the food is just perfect.

TWILLEY: And then, most importantly, he puts the love tank on a wobble board and he recreates the motion of the ocean. And the kelp get it on! Cover your ears, children, that is the sound of seaweed sex.

GRABER: Charlie gets those seaweed so happy that they’re able to grow to the age, to the size that the fishermen are able to seed them back in the water in one third the time it would take them in the wild. That is two months faster.

TWILLEY: And Charlie is not stopping with just kelp. He has an entire lab full of different species of baby seaweed and he’s figuring out how to farm them all. It looks kind of like a lava lamp showroom—it’s really pretty.

GRABER: It is really pretty. Bren, will you come up and join us? So, Bren Smith is one of the beneficiaries of Charlie’s seaweed magic. He runs a farm called Thimble Island Ocean Farm and he runs a nonprofit called Green Wave.

TWILLEY: And he just won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for Ecological Design. Now, Bren does not sit in the lab watching seaweed having sex. He’s —

BREN SMITH: Wrong job!

TWILLEY: He’s a clean minded individual and he’s out on the ocean growing the kelp instead and then processing it and then getting it to the grocery stores or chefs and then, in his spare time, he is advising other would-be kelp farmers on how to get started.

GRABER: OK, so, Bren.

SMITH: Mmhmm

GRABER: It doesn’t really seem like there’s a very clear career path to seaweed farmer. How’d you get into kelp?

SMITH: Well, first of all it’s as embarrassing as you can imagine. I mean I grew up, you know, beating seals and chasing tuna and now I’m a freaking arugula farmer. I have to hang in totally different bars, it’s awful. But, so I was born and raised Newfoundland, I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and headed out to sea. I fished the Grand Banks, Georges Banks, and ended up in the Bering Sea and you know, this was the height of industrial fishing. So we’re tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, I’ve thrown tens of thousands of pounds of dead bycatch back in the sea. And most of the fish we were catching was going to McDonald’s. So I was a kid, like 15, 16, working 30 hour shifts in one of the most destructive forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the lowest quality unhealthy food on the planet.

But while I was there, the cod stocks crashed when I was back home, and thousands of fishermen thrown out of work. And that was a real wake-up call for a whole generation of us, and it kind of created a split. The captains of industry, they just wanted to—they were thinking ten years out and they wanted to fish the last fish. We all wanted to die on our boats one day, we were thinking 50 years. And so we went on a search for sustainability. And I went to the aquaculture farms in Northern Canada—supposed to be the answer to overfishing—it was disgusting. Polluting local waterways, pesticides, antibiotics, everything we know now. We used to say on the farms, we’re growing neither fish nor food. And in a way, what we did with aquaculture then was create these Iowa pig farms at sea.

So I kept looking and then eventually ended up in Long Island Sound. And the last little piece of this is I was an oyster farmer, which was kind of boring too. And did that for about 7 years and then the storms hit. So Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy came in, wiped out my farm two years in a row, 90 percent of my crop, lost most of my gear. And that’s when I had to completely rethink both who I was as a fisherman, who I was as a farmer, and what is it going to mean to grow food in the oceans in this new era of climate change?

TWILLEY: So you have this really intriguing term to describe what you do, 3D ocean farming. Can you tell us what a 3D farm looks like? How it works?

SMITH: So imagine an underwater garden. So we have these chains on the side are hurricane proofing and then parallel to the surface we grow our kelp and it grows vertically down. And next to the kelp, we’ve lanternettes with scallops and then mussels in these mussel socks, also next. And then below, we have oyster cages that sit on the seafloor and then down in the mud we have our clams.  And the whole idea is to try to figure out how many different kinds of species can we grow in 20 acres. But species that restore rather than deplete the environment.

TWILLEY: And so this is what you see underwater—what are you seeing on the surface?

SMITH: So I love it because there’s nothing to see, it’s like the worst tour in the world. I bring people out and they’re like [SHRUGS] and then we go home. But they pay 500 bucks. But so there’s really not much to see, and that’s a good thing. Our oceans are these beautiful, pristine places and we need to keep them that way. Because we’re underwater, anybody can fish, boat, swim on our farm. So we’re protecting rather than privatizing our commons. And we have very small footprints, my farm used to be 100 acres, now it’s down to 20 acres and I grow way more food than ever before. We can produce about 250,000 shellfish and 10 to 30 tons of kelp per acre.

GRABER: So you got into this and you wanted to do something that you thought was sustainable, and you just said you really wanted to restore the ocean.  So how does kelp, in particular—how does it help with that?

SMITH: Well it’s this incredible agent of sustainability. I always say, you know, it’s not my job to save the seas, but rather, figure out how the seas can save us. Because kelp, Mother Nature developed thousands of years, millions of years ago, and it actually mitigates our harm. So it soaks up nitrogen, which is the cause of dead zones, it soaks up five times more carbon than land-based plants, it’s called the sequoia of the sea. The New Yorker actually recently just called it the culinary equivalent of the electric car.

And then our farms also function as artificial reef systems and storm surge protectors. So over 150 species come to hide, eat, and thrive because there’s just all this stuff going on there and my—this area used to be a barren patch of ocean and now it’s a thriving ecosystem. And then the last piece is, we grow zero input food. So it requires no fresh water, no fertilizer, no feed, no arid land, making it hands down the most sustainable form of food production on the planet. And in the era of climate changes, water prices go up, feed prices, land prices, it’s also going to be the most affordable food on the planet. We will be eating kelp, whether we like it or not, because it’s zero-input food. The question is, is it going to be beautiful and delicious or is it going to be like being force fed cod liver oil?

GRABER: It’s going to be beautiful.


TWILLEY: Well so, forget insects, this really sounds like the food of the future.

SMITH: Boo insects.

TWILLEY: Deep fried, they’re fine, but you know, kelp is better. And—but it’s also sort of a rediscovery of the past. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of kelp in the Americas?

SMITH: Yeah, so there’s an entire Western culinary history of seaweeds that’s completely forgotten. Mainly because industrial food just changed our seafood plate and pushed everything off and you know, just gave us cod and salmon and a couple fish. So Italians three generations back used to use seaweeds all the time in their cooking. There’s the kelp highway all up and down South America and in the digs they find people were eating all sorts of seaweeds back then. There’s in Peru—I was just in Peru—in the specialty restaurants they’re all eating seaweeds. And I’m from Newfoundland—all of our crappy food was trucked in or boated in. The best vegetables around were seaweeds.

GRABER: And so now I have to admit, I really want to taste this wonder food.

TWILLEY: Cynthia always has to eat everything we report on, so we do.

SMITH: [SARCASTICALLY] The trouble is, it’s disgusting.

GRABER: So Bren, really though, what does your seaweed taste like?


SMITH: So kelp is a great gateway drug to de-sushify seaweeds. And the reason is it’s extremely mild tasting. Well first, when you cook it, you throw it in some water and it turns this bright green, right? Which is a great aesthetic experience for a cook. And then we turn it into noodles very often, and you get a—it has a very neutral flavor, so it sauces very well. And the mouthfeel, it keeps an al dente sort of slight crunch to it, which is really good. And that’ll stay, you can freeze it up to five years and you still get that great texture.

GRABER: What are some dishes that you’ve seen chefs make with it?

SMITH: Sure, so we are now working with chefs that don’t do seafood. Because this isn’t seafood, this is  a vegetable, right? So you think of it wrapped around a piece of salmon, right?  Or in like, in some miso soup. Brooks Headley in New York City, who used to be a punk rock musician and a five star pastry chef, who doesn’t know anything about seafood, made barbecue kelp noodles with breadcrumbs and parsnips. Delicious! Right? It’s a vegetable, right, so you’re coming at it a totally different way. We just did an event with Google where there was a half beef, half kelp burger. And it both had that deep, umami taste, but it also had the bright green stripes through it.

And, just as a side note, that we can feed cattle, chicken, goats kelp. They’ve been eating it actually for hundreds of years, again, before industrial food changed their appetites, their habits. And you get a 90% reduction in methane output—stunning—and you get this incredible, delicious, umami-packed, slightly salty beef. It’s like a French salt marsh beef.

TWILLEY: Wow. Kelp stops the farts.

SMITH: Yeah.

TWILLEY: So we really wanted to have some of Bren’s kelp here for you tonight to try, right?  You want to try it after hearing that. But his last season’s harvest is completely sold out already! But Bren, it’s harvest season right now?

SMITH: Yeah.

TWILLEY: How’s it going?

SMITH: Um, I smelled like seaweed when I came in because I was on the boat this morning. Kelp is so fast-growing that it’s a nightmare. We seed it in November, which is past, post-hurricane season, and then it’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world, so we have, you know, 12-, 15-foot plants, probably 40, 50 tons of it that need to come out in a really short period of time. So we’re just—we have our processing plant going and we’re pulling day and night shifts.

GRABER: That’s amazing.

SMITH: But we’re getting 12-foot noodles. So we have this noodle machine that cuts it into noodles and you get literally a 12-foot—so imagine like on a dish, it’s like that Disney movie, you know?

GRABER: I’m hungry.

SMITH: Just too, one of the things about kelp but it’s not—I say kelp is a gateway drug because there are ten thousand edible plants in the sea. This is the beginning of a like a hundred-year journey of zero-input foods and imagine being a chef and realizing there are arugulas, spinaches, tomatoes, rice, corn that you’ve never seen and never tasted before.  It’s, one of my chefs said, it’s daunting and exciting at the same time.

GRABER: Thank you Bren. I’m kind of blown away myself. So everybody, look out, keep your eye out for seaweed in your local grocery stores and your local restaurants.

TWILLEY: Yeah, try it and tell us what you think.

TWILLEY: So at this point in the show, Bren took a seat, and we moved onto dessert. But when it came time for the Q&A, Bren was mobbed. Everyone had a question for him.

GRABER: Question time!

TWILLEY: Question time.

GRABER: Us, them, whatever you want.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: OK, hi, I have a question for Bren Smith. Yeah, I’m over here.


GRABER: Right over there.

AM1: OK, so I’m taking marine biology this semester and we actually talked a lot about what you presented on, and we also talked a lot about marine protected areas and how it needs to be a balance between large enough to protect the organisms but small enough to allow fishermen to get a good catch. And I was wondering what you thought was, like, how is—what’s the right way to find the perfect size where there are enough larvae and fish like leaving the protected area, but enough that are protected?

SMITH: Absolutely, I mean I’d actually come at it a little differently. So I say to a lot of the ocean conservationists that they’re not environmentalists anymore, and I say that because you could set aside the entire ocean as a conservation zone and it’s still going to die. Right? One out of four marine organisms are supposed to go extinct because of climate change. Unless you have engines of restoration in the ocean, you’re not addressing the climate crisis, let alone food and food security and jobs and things like that. So my vision is what I call a Napa Valley of merroir, where you have small scale farms dotting our coastlines, surrounded by conservation zones. We have seafood hubs embedded in poor communities that need the jobs, a hatchery, a ring of institutional buyers: the universities, the large companies, and then a ring of social entrepreneurs. And that’s a reef, like I think of it as a green wave reef and then you replicate that every 200 miles up and down your coast. There is also the possibility, and we’re working on this, of embedding our farms into wind farms. So why just harvest wind when you can do food, fuel, fertilizers, in those same spaces and just use those small, industrialized—well, not small, but more efficiently.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Hi, this question is for Bren. I really liked your presentation and I found that map that you had with seaweed and the scallops and the fish really interesting, but I was wondering if you could talk more about the seafood animals in that map, like, what is the role they have in your farming? Do they interact with each other, do they have some sort of role in the kelp farming?

SMITH: This is besides the kelp and the shellfish? Or also the shellfish?

AM2: You had that map earlier, with the—I guess with the scallops and the—

SMITH: Yeah, so all the oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, also pulling nitrogen out. Mussels actually have—do a lot of carbon work and they—it’s a great lean protein packed full of omega 3s. So every one of them are their own agents of restoration and we’re actually trying to figure out what does the whole farm do as a whole. What’s fascinating is we get different growth rates on one side of the farm to the other and that means we’re soaking up so much nitrogen that it’s actually affecting growth. And that’s a really good thing, because we have way too much nitrogen in our ocean. And then all of our crops are also spawning, right? So what we try to do is under-harvest and over-produce so that all of our shellfish and all of our seaweeds are feeding the local reef system and it gets bigger and larger and more productive and we’re only pulling out a small section in order to run our business.

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE STAFF: Our next question is back here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Hi, I have a kelp question. So is kelp—are the kelp noodles mainstream or is it only like, in the shops of those chefs who are using them? Like, is this something that a regular person can go and buy?

SMITH: Yeah so our problem right now is—so I thought it was going to take forever to get people to eat this stuff. Realize, I thought it would take 10 years and the exact opposite happened. So our demand is through the roof, we don’t have enough farmers. We could be—just in my area we could be doing like one to three million pounds of kelp. And we have, we’ve got over 150 restaurants that want, that have put in orders and then huge institutional buyers like the Unilevers, the Googles, things like that. And then all the universities and the elementary schools really want it because that’s the way you attract kids now is good food, right? It wouldn’t have worked with me. But so we don’t even know the—we’re selling out, everything is pre-ordered. We’re going to have some for sale on our website on at the end of this harvest season so basically in about three weeks. All of that money goes back into Green Wave to train farmers. We’ve got 14 farms coming online, I’ve got an eleventh generation fisherman now growing kelp and being made fun of every day. But so we’re racing to solve that problem and then the supply will catch up.

GRABER: Soon, soon.

SMITH: Yeah. And look for our Seashine, we’re developing kelp moonshine, which is going to be delicious.

GRABER: I think that’s a good idea—I totally want it.

SMITH: Still a fisherman, you know.

MoS STAFF: We have the next question over here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: This question kind of piggybacks off that in terms of just, you know, what you foresee in terms of growth.  And then also you mentioned that you have a farm in Long Island Sound I think and where—does it matter geographically where these farms are? Are there certain, you know, water conditions or, you know, depths that have to do with where you’re going put something? And also how do you deal with the ocean conservation, like, side of things and, you know, how do you go about purchasing 20 acres of ocean to farm?


AM4: Thank you.

SMITH: That’s a lot of questions, which is great but I dropped out of high school. So I mean one point everybody, you know, says what about dirty water, alright, and it’s a great question. We have two kinds of farms, one we grow in pristine waters, and shellfish and seaweeds grown in the US are the most regulated food in the country, it’s the most traceable, water is tested weekly, you know? We just have to because it’s a live product and the oysters govern that regulatory regime. And that’s a good thing. I mean, you wish your arugula was treated like our crops. But then we farm in polluted areas. We actually do pollution farming, so in the Bronx and places like that, just to soak up heavy metals, just to soak up nitrogen and carbon and that doesn’t go into the food system, that can actually go into the biofuel system.

The White House just hired a seaweed czar. Yeah, it’s getting weird out there. And that could either not go in the food system or it could just stay in the water, right? And our farmers should be rewarded for those ecosystem services. So what we’re pulling out of the water, whether it’s nitrogen trading or carbon trading, every other jerk is polluting, we’re actually doing good things and we should be rewarded for that.

And I’ll just say real quick on the leases, the leases are 25 bucks an acre to own a lease. It’s stunning. It’s just, with $20,000, 20 acres and a boat you can start your own farm first year. That’s why we won BFI, because it’s cheap, it’s replicable. I call it the nail salon model. Minimal inputs, minimal skills, and you suddenly have agency and you can be a farmer. But you don’t own your land, you own the right to grow shellfish and seaweed in that area. Anybody can do anything else, that’s why they can boat, fish, you can commercially fish, you can lobster. We own the process, not the property and that’s so important in order to keep our oceans, you know, the commons. We’re not gonna be people building big, giant farms at sea and then blocking people out.

GRABER: Seriously, my partner Tim left the evening wanting to invest in a seaweed farm. Bren is like a magician. You just end up thinking that seaweed will solve so many problems—and it tastes awesome.

TWILLEY: Plus my favorite fact of the evening, which Bren told us before we went on stage: turns out that when they blanch the kelp strands in boiling water, you can skim off the slime, and—get this— he actually sells that slime to a California company that makes natural lube. Kelp really can solve every problem.

GRABER: Clean the water, feed the world, and liven up the bedroom.


GRABER: This was just a little taste of the magic of a Gastropod live event. If you’d like to host us, we’d like to hear from you—email us at contact at gastropod dot com and we can talk through what it would take to make this happen in your town or city.


GRABER: Thanks so much to Bren Smith, of Thimble Island Ocean Farm. And also of course thanks to the folks at the Boston Museum of Science who invited us to perform. We’ll be back there in next spring, so keep your eye out for tickets.

TWILLEY: Last time tickets sold out in two seconds—I’m hardly even exaggerating! So you might want to sign up for our email list, for advanced notice. You can add your name at gastropod dot com.


The Buzz on Honey TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Buzz on Honey, first released on November 15, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BECKY MASTERMAN: That’s a lot of bees. You ever seen that many bees?


NICOLA TWILLEY: Never. That’s a lot of bees. Like, I can’t even, I mean I can’t even guesstimate. Like, is that 250, is that…?

GRABER: A thousand?

MASTERMAN: Yeah, on a full frame of bees you are going to have about a thousand, fifteen hundred to two thousand actually. So that’s probably a lower—on the lower end. it’s probably approaching a thousand.

GRABER: Nicky has a lot of skills—but counting things unfortunately isn’t one of them.

TWILLEY: Numbers are not my friend, it’s true. It’s a real thing and I expect sympathy not scorn, OK?

GRABER: All the sympathy. You can leave the counting to me. But there really were a shit ton of bees. I mean, who ever—if you’re not a beekeeper—who’s seen 1000 bees in one place? It was a little intimidating.

TWILLEY: But we braved all the bees because we wanted to see what they were making.

GRABER: Honey!

TWILLEY: That’s what this episode of Gastropod is all about—and yes, you are listening to 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 episode on honey was suggested by listener and donor Alan Chao. He’s not only a Gastropod supporter, he’s also a hobby beekeeper. Alan says that when people learn he keeps bees, he gets a flood of questions, and they end up chatting about bees for an hour or two.

TWILLEY: Do not be afraid, this episode is under an hour, we promise. But honey—and the bees that make it—they are fascinating. So let’s get stuck into the sweet stuff.



GRABER: So we are starting this episode back in Minnesota—you may remember we were out there for our immersion in Native American cuisine last episode. And while we were in Minneapolis, we also received a crash course in bee-keeping and honey.

MASTERMAN: My name is Becky Masterman and I run the Bee Squad for the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. And we are looking at about ten colonies, and they range from probably a low of hopefully 40,000 bees to maybe up to 50 or 60,000 honeybees.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, Becky, half a million bees, and I were all hanging out at the corner of a very busy intersection—you’ll hear trucks and cars going past as we talk. We were right at the corner of the University of Minnesota Campus. And the Bee Squad?

MASTERMAN: So the Bee Squad—there’s no A-squad. The Bee Squad is an outreach and education organization that was started by my boss Marla Spivak.

GRABER: Marla Spivak is one of the top scientists studying bee colonies in the country. She received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work and used the award to set up the Bee Squad. On the squad they do outreach and education to both beekeepers and the public in general. So we asked Marla what’s so special about bees.

SPIVAK: Bees matter because they’re the most important pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers. Do you want me to go on?

TWILLEY: Yes please.

SPIVAK: It’s interesting because plants can’t move to have sex, and instead they bring—many flowers bring insects in to do it for them. Pollen—this may be more than you want to know—but pollen is basically plant sperm. And the bees are collecting it because it’s high in protein and lipids, and bees use it as food for their young. Sounds a little crazy, but nature does some wild things. And so bees fly around collecting pollen for food to feed that to their young, and in the process they end up pollinating the plant.

TWILLEY: OK, that’s pollen. What’s honey?

SPIVAK: So flowers produce two things. They produce nectar which is just sugars, and they produce pollen. And bees collect both of these things and use them differently. So the pollen is what they feed to their young and the nectar, if they’re honeybees, they convert it into what we call honey. Honey is basically just condensed nectar.

TWILLEY: What happens is, the forager bees come back to the hives with a full tank of nectar and they pass it on to their younger colleagues, who spit it carefully into some wax cells they made earlier.

GRABER: Yep, honey is part bee spit.

TWILLEY: The enzymes in the bee spit actually help break down the sugars in the nectar and concentrate them.

GRABER: And then the bees call out for some muscle assistance. Other bee colleagues join in and flap their wings really hard and evaporate off a lot of the water.

MASTERMAN: And that low moisture makes it honey.

TWILLEY: Tada! But a quick point of order here: we are talking about honey bees, because they make honey. But honey bees are only one species out of more than twenty thousand bee species that buzz around pollinating our crops and flowers.

GRABER: There are a couple of other species that make a little bit of honey, but nothing in the quantity of the one bee species that we’ve basically domesticated. They’re the super honey producers. They produce a huge amount of excess honey that they don’t need, and that’s what we steal.

TWILLEY: But why are they making honey in the first place?

MASTERMAN: So bees use the honey as their source of carbohydrates, and they—it’s really their energy. So in the winter, for example, honey is very important because they will feed on honey and then they will—they decouple their wing muscles. They take their wing muscles apart from the mechanism that would move their wings and they shiver, and that shivering generates heat.

TWILLEY: The honey is like the bees’ energy goo, so that they can spend all winter shivering their little bodies fast enough to keep the internal temperature of the hive at a balmy 70 degrees, even when it’s fricking freezing in Minnesota.


TWILLEY: This is like the ultimate bomber jacket.

GRABER: Becky was about to open up some boxes so we could watch honey being made in real time.

TWILLEY: OK, let me do your head too, hold on.

GRABER: Here we go, yeah. I’m getting all suited up here.

GRABER: But before that, obviously we had to suit up.

TWILLEY: OK. Looking good, Cynthia.

GRABER: As do you.

GRABER: You’ve probably seen photos of beekeepers in these all-white garments. They kind of look like space suits.

MASTERMAN: We wear certain colors so that to not cause any alarm basically to the bees. So bees have a few predators. Bears are one of them. And so we think that like dark fuzzy clothing is an issue.

TWILLEY: Better an astronaut than a bear as far as bees are concerned.

GRABER: So a big guy with a beard—dark beard is not really welcome here.

TWILLEY: In a fuzzy fleece.

MASTERMAN: I’ve had boots attacked. Like, early spring, late winter, with like a fur ring around the edge of the boots. I’ve had the bees really not like those.

GRABER: Becky cracked open one of the boxes.

MASTERMAN: Let’s go over here.

MASTERMAN: So, again, I just put some smoke in the entrance.

TWILLEY: Becky had a nifty little portable smoker burning some aspen wood chips. The smoke basically drowns out the bees’ own chemical communications, so they can’t set off the panic button.

MASTERMAN: Crack the top, break the propolis seal. You can see a couple of cool things here. This is actually propolis right here.

GRABER: Propolis is actually resin from trees. The bees collect it and bring it back to the hive.

MASTERMAN: And they use that resin to to glue all the parts together. But then it also serves a bigger purpose as an antimicrobial protection.

GRABER: And the whole hive—it was an absolutely amazing thing to see in person. I was so entranced by the thousands of bees in the boxes, all swarming on the frames filled with wax honeycomb. I wanted to get closer in to get some great sound of bees buzzing. So I stuck the mic right in.

MASTERMAN: That’s black and fuzzy, so we’ll see if they like it.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, the bees did not think Cynthia’s mic was a bear paw. You will be glad to hear that no one was stung in the making of this episode.

GRABER: As Becky pulled out different frames we saw different color bees—Becky told us that the queen mates with different males, and her offspring are slightly different colors.

TWILLEY: And we saw a rainbow of different pollen colors—everything from flaming orange to kind of grey.

MASTERMAN: Some of these colonies are my favorite just because it’s nice and diverse in color. Oh and look at her, she’s pulling her way out right now.


MASTERMAN: Sometimes you want to help but it’s always best to just let them do it on their own.

GRABER: That was a bee being born!

MASTERMAN: There she is!

GRABER: Ahh, you made it!

TWILLEY: Congratulations!

MASTERMAN: Isn’t she adorable? So she’s going to start cleaning, grooming herself.

TWILLEY: Little baby bees have to eat their own way out of the wax cells, and they come out looking a wee bit bedraggled. They’re not fluffy, like you imagine a bee.

MASTERMAN: If you guys want to try the honey?


MASTERMAN: So, you can do that and I will show you. The one thing you have to do obviously is you’re going to have to go and unzip. So I can actually bring this over there or you can do this close to here, it’s up to you. OK, so all you need to do is you just approach it slowly. And just put your finger in and take a new spot and then just make sure you go under the veil.

TWILLEY: OK. So I can just take a—I should take a capped spot yeah.

GRABER: Oh my gosh, It just comes right out.

TWILLEY: I got a little wax… there we go.

GRABER: It’s really…

MASTERMAN: And now the bees are going to be like hey, look at this.

GRABER: That’s so sweet.

MASTERMAN: And so now they’re going to start to fix what we did.

GRABER: You going to take picture of our little finger spots?

TWILLEY: Yeah, I feel bad though, but…

MASTERMAN: They’ll be fine. Remember, this is their surplus honey. So we didn’t go into their—kind of into the refrigerator. We went into the garage to get the extra honey. So this is this is nothing they were depending upon.

GRABER: I have that feeling of like you know the humans who like you came across this honey and like tasted it and were like, oh my God, what is that thing? The thing that these bees are making, it’s so amazing!


TWILLEY: That is exactly what our ancestors were probably thinking. And I’m talking about our ancient, ancient ancestors, like chimps.

GENE KRITSKY: We know that chimpanzees will make sticks, modify sticks into tools that they can use to tear to wild bee nests. And they’ll even carry these tools around from nest to nest. And so it’s quite probable that our ancestors possibly the Australopithecines were doing the same.

GRABER: Gene Kritsky is a biology professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio and he’s the author of Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt.

KRITSKY: As far as modern humans go—I should say modern Homo sapiens—the earliest visual evidence we have of honey hunting goes back to about 6000 BCE, about eight thousand years ago.

TWILLEY: It’s a pre-historic rock painting, in a cave system near Valencia, in Spain.

KRITSKY: And it shows a honey hunter—that is, an individual being sort of suspended over the side of a cliff and dangling by a ladder rope is robbing a wild nest of bees. And the original actually has a hole in the rock wall that the artist used to denote the the wild nest. And then there’s circles around that with the honey hunter grabbing in to steal the the comb and he or she is actually holding a bag to put the comb into.

TWILLEY: We have a picture on our website—it’s such a cool painting. The hunter is truly teetering on his ladder—you really get a sense of the risks of stealing wild honey.

GRABER: Those early honey hunters were probably absolutely nuts about honey. The risks were totally worth it. It’s actually sweeter than anything in nature except date—it’s even sweeter than sugar.

TWILLEY: That’s because of honey’s chemical composition—it’s pretty much half and half fructose and glucose. Those are simple, one molecule sugars, whereas table sugar—that’s sucrose. And sucrose is two molecules joined together, not just one. And the crazy thing is, our bodies can tell the difference: glucose and fructose taste sweeter than sucrose, which is why honey typically tastes sweeter than sugar.

GRABER: Early, early humans just went out and tried to find as much honey as they could. Wild honey hunters still do this in parts of the world today. But nearly all the honey we eat now is not wild. At some point, humans, probably in ancient Egypt, figured out how to start domesticating bees.

KRITSKY: And it probably happened quite by accident. I can envision somebody having a clay pot or amphora of some kind that they just sort of put upside down to keep sand out of it and there’s enough of an opening for bees to find this cavity that was protected and start making comb inside that that pot. It probably was then somebody realizing, if we do this a lot, well we get more bees, is probably the transition. It probably wasn’t a long process to figure this out but it was probably a serendipitous discovery by somebody just storing pots.

TWILLEY: No one knows exactly when beekeeping started for sure, but Gene’s best guess is that it was just before 3000 BC.

KRITSKY: That’s about the time we see the first honeybee hieroglyph. But again there were wild bees in ancient Egypt as well so we don’t know when they made that transition to providing artificial cavities. But it clearly predates 2450 BCE.

GRABER: It predates 2450 because 2450 is when we have the first proof of beekeeping.

TWILLEY: 2450 is when there’s the first image of humans using an artificial cavity to house bees.

KRITSKY: And it’s from the Chamber of the Seasons of a fifth dynasty Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. “Chamber of the Seasons” was almost like a Harry Potter term to me when I first started reading about it. But it’s a bas relief that shows the whole process of working hives, pouring honey, apparently separating the honey from the wax, and then sealing it. Now the neat thing is that’s the oldest evidence we have of beekeeping. But by this time it is a very sophisticated operation using horizontal beehives stacked on top of each other.

GRABER: Egyptians seem to be the inventors of bee-keeping. And to them, eating honey was a religious experience.

KRITSKY: The Egyptians thought of bees and honey in a very special way. The title of the book The Tears of Re is because the bees believe—the bees!—the Egyptians believed that bees were formed from the tears of the God Re and so therefore honey is indirectly is a gift from the gods.

TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic for the Pharaoh—it literally includes a bee. People were paid in honey in Ancient Egypt. Marriage vows included husbands pledging to provide their wives with sufficient honey. And there was an entire civil service devoted to bees.

GRABER: The Egyptians also discovered the fact that smoke would calm down the hive. They didn’t know then what we know now—that it disrupts the bees’ panic chemical communication—but they knew it worked.

KRITSKY: In the 18th Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire, it’s the oldest evidence we have of smoking bees and they’re using an incense burner. If they believe that the honey was produced by bees which are the form for the tears of Re, giving an incense offering to the bees would be a way of showing respect and praise of the bees, but because it was smoke it quieted the bees. That was the first instance we have of using smoke to quiet bees. So that’s how this religion influenced the way we kept and then how they kept bees kept reinforcing the religion. I found that rather fascinating.

TWILLEY: Religious feelings aside, the Ancient Egyptians also ate some of their glorious honey. Well, at least the rich did. The poor probably had to make do with dates.

KRITSKY: If we go back to the 18th dynasty, prior to that time, we do find evidence of honey cakes. And these were honey mixed with flour, fashioned into triangles, and then coated with sesames and then baked. So that was a very popular food item. And by the time we get into during the time of Cleopatra you would find a whole range of honey being used to—not only for other pastries but also possibly used in with meats, for preservation of meats or even with cooking with meats.

TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptians might have been first but they weren’t alone.

ELLIS: And then every culture—because there’s honey all round the world and every culture has evolved recipes that celebrate honey.

GRABER: Hattie Ellis wrote a cookbook called Spoonfuls of Honey.

ELLIS: Honey was our earliest form of sugar round the world, predating the sort of widespread use of sugar. And so just that tiny bit of sweetness makes such a difference to dishes.

GRABER: I just want to stress here: at this point, in most of the world, honey is THE sweetener. If you want to eat something sweet, something you might put a teaspoon or a cup of sugar in today, they had to use honey. So that’s why all these ancient and medieval recipes all have honey as the sweetener.

ELLIS: There’s a lot of Roman, ancient Roman recipes rely on honey as a seasoning. There was a Roman honey baked ham. Actually, it was very interesting because in Rome still they have these amazing honey recipes. So you see it this sort of tradition of using honey as has continued right the way through, and that is getting a gammon.

TWILLEY: Quick translation for American listeners, who may not have encountered this quite British way of eating pork—gammon is a hind leg of pork, brined or salted into a joint of ham.

ELLIS: And sort of spreading it with honey and then putting a paste of flour and water before baking it. It’s absolutely wonderful. And the original Roman recipe has got dried figs and bay leaves in the cooking stock as well. So that’s a kind of ancient taste that is still—that’s what I love about food is that it has very long roots often, which you can still enjoy.

TWILLEY: But it turns out honey wasn’t just useful for satisfying our sweet tooth.

ELLIS: Mead was our sort of earliest form of booze really, predating wine. And it was one of our sort of earliest ways of getting high or merry.

GRABER: Mead is just diluted, fermented honey.

ELLIS: Supposing you are an ancient Egyptian say and you leave your honeycomb out in a bowl and it rains. And the sugars in the honey will ferment and you taste it and you think mmm, this is nice. So that’s mead.

GRABER: You know, Nicky, I’ve tasted mead but it’s a little sweet for me.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I’ve never had it, but that’s what I would expect. I hate sweet booze.

GRABER: Me too. Hattie said there are some small producers who make a drier type of mead, which she quite likes. I haven’t had any of those yet.

TWILLEY: Next Gastropod happy hour sorted then. So just to go back a minute, the reason you have to dilute honey to ferment it into mead is interesting. Honey has so little water that it won’t ferment on its own—it will actually kill the yeast by sucking out all the water in the yeast cells.

GRABER: And this is why honey has been used not just as food for thousands of years—it actually has always had really potent uses in medicine, too. Because of that very water-sucking property, it kills microbes.

KRITSKY: It’s found in almost half of the prescriptions that we find in ancient Egypt. It was used as a—in some cases as a binder. I think mostly it was used as a way of sweetening the concoction, because some of these use a whole range of things from crocodile dung on. And I would imagine they would have quite a disgusting taste. But honey also can be used as a salve. You can use it on cuts, you can use it on burns, and its antibacterial properties keep infection from occurring. And it allows a good flow of oxygen so healing is promoted. And that’s clearly got—its value for essentially as the ointment of use back in ancient Egypt all the way to more complex pharmaceuticals is quite impressive.

TWILLEY: It’s hard to imagine how amazing honey must have seemed at the time. For most of the world, it’s the only source of sweetness. It’s the first way we got drunk. And it turns out to heal wounds as well. I mean, it sounds like the wonder product. But, believe it or not, honey is not the only wonder product that comes from a hive.

KRITSKY: Beeswax was quite special for the Egyptians, they thought it was magical. When you burned beeswax it burns in a very bright light but, significantly for the Egyptians, it didn’t leave any ash. So they used beeswax amulets and carvings as part of their magic to ward off evil, to protect, and so on.

TWILLEY: And beeswax had plenty of more prosaic uses, too.

KRITSKY: We know that they used beeswax in their wigs. We find evidence that the curls were maintained by using beeswax.

GRABER: Just like honey must have seemed magical to the ancient Egyptians, beeswax did as well. There’s the amulets, and the candles, and their wigs. Plus, on top of all that, it was waterproof, and so they used it to seal up their boats.

TWILLEY: Here’s another thing that’s hard to imagine: we’re talking about a time before artificial light, right? And if you wanted candle-light, you had two choices, pretty much. Tallow, which is meat fat, which was smoky and smelly, or beeswax.

GRABER: Which was lovely. And so because of that, the church was super into beekeeping in medieval Europe. They needed the beeswax for all their candles to illuminate all those glorious cathedrals.

ELLIS: The strong tradition of keeping keeping bees was a monastic one, because they were using the wax to make candles because the beeswax candles have the purest light and smell absolutely wonderful. And that’s how you—and the flame symbolized the soul and so on.But I think it’s probably also that the monks wanted the mead as well.

TWILLEY: Oh surely not. But seriously, mead and sweetening aside, the fact is, in medieval Europe, a pound of beeswax was worth worth 8 times a pound of honey. The Pope only gave permission for Catholic churches to use candles made of anything other than beeswax in 1900!

GRABER: If we haven’t made it clear enough yet, honey and everything else associated with it was super important for thousands of years.

ELLIS: Well, it’s what makes the world go round really, doesn’t it? Honey not money.

TWILLEY: And then everything changed. So how did honey get relegated from the tears of a god to a humble toast topping? Before we get into that, we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.


TWILLEY: OK. We’ve established that honey was a really big deal to our ancestors. Obviously it’s impossible to know exactly how much honey they ate. Bee Wilson, who you might remember from our first episode about cutlery as well as one earlier this year on learning to eat—she has also written an amazing book about honeybees called The Hive. And she estimates that at the peak of honey consumption, in the 1100s, people in England ate something like four and a half pounds of honey a year.

GRABER: But by the end of the 20th century, just recently, people only were eating about a half a pound a year. That’s maybe a half a jar. So what changed?

TWILLEY: Well, for one thing, Henry VIII wanted a son. Long story short, the closure of the monasteries with the Reformation—that really put a dent in honey production. Remember, the monks were the main beekeepers.

GRABER: And then there’s the colonization of the new world and slavery—and suddenly sugar, made from sugar cane, gets a lot cheaper. And sugar actually has a leg up on honey, because you can cook with it more easily. It doesn’t burn as easily as honey does, and it sets hard while honey stays squishy. Basically, it can be used to make all sorts of desserts and confections that are really tough to create with honey.

TWILLEY: But the death knell of honey, according to Bee, is the rise of tea and coffee. Once Europe got addicted to these invigorating beverages, honey consumption really fell. Because the simple sweetness of sugar doesn’t compete with the delicate aromas of tea and coffee, whereas the more complex flavors of honey can.

GRABER: But honey’s popular again today. Hattie Ellis says one reason for that is the rise of the good food movement. And farm-to-table eating.

ELLIS: If you’re interested in where food comes from, it’s one of the ultimate foods because it’s so particular to a time and place that it’s endlessly fascinating, because a good honey comes from within three miles of the hive. It’s the ultimate local food, really, I think.

TWILLEY: Back in Minnesota, Becky Masterman of the Bee Squad sees how different bee neighborhoods affect flavor first hand.

MASTERMAN: So I know where all the best honey locations are in the Twin Cities and beyond because of all of the colonies that we do manage for businesses and for single family homes. So we definitely see differences.

GRABER: So where are some of the best honey spots, is it secret?

TWILLEY: Hot honey spots in the Twin Cities, come on.

MASTERMAN: Exactly. I would tell you if I had permission, but it’s highly secret information.

GRABER: One jar of honey has the nectar from as many as two million flowers. And just as a rose smells different than say, lavender, honey from different fields and flowers tastes different, too.

TWILLEY: And here’s the clever thing. If bees find a really nice big patch of flowers, they keep going back to them, and they tell all their friends to join them. So beekeepers know that if they can put their hives near, say  a big patch of heather or an orange grove in blossom, then they can harvest honey that is made from pretty much just one type of flower.

GRABER: Bees work fast—like, you know, busy bees. They can fill up the boxes that beekeepers use in just a week. And you’d be surprised how sweet trees can be—one lime tree has enough nectar for 40 pounds of honey.

TWILLEY: All of these honeys—they’re not 100% from heather nectar or lime tree nectar, but there’s enough heather or lime in there to make them taste really distinctive. So we asked Becky what her favorite type of honey is.

MASTERMAN: OK. I’m not a huge fan of honey, believe it or not.

GRABER: This is like our kombucha story! What’s going on here?

GRABER: In case you missed that episode, our kombucha researcher doesn’t really like kombucha, either. It seems to be a theme.

MASTERMAN: So, OK, so I really like those bees. I started working with bees in graduate school decades ago. And I—I really didn’t. I never ate honey then, ever. When I came back to work for the squad I started actually tasting more of the nectars and the honeys in the colony, just because my role had changed from setting up research experiments to really being one with the bee and seeing what they’re bringing in. And so if I had to pick, it would be basswood because it’s lighter and not as strong. Yeah. I eat it. I do eat it because it’s actually very nutritional but I put it on my toast with peanut butter. I’m not a huge fan. Do we need to cut that out?

TWILLEY: Fortunately, Cynthia and I do actually like honey.

GRABER: And probably some of you do too.

TWILLEY: Either way, it’s kind of fun to try the different varieties—they really do taste different. So we asked Hattie for her top tips on honey tasting.

ELLIS: The best way to try honey is to start with the lighter ones. So lavender and orange blossom, and then to move through to the darker and sort of funkier ones.

GRABER: These darker, funkier ones are my favorites. Buckwheat in the U.S., chestnut honey from France. They’re really strong, almost savory honeys.

ELLIS: The best thing is to smell them and to look at them,because the colors are so amazingly different.  They have very different textures too, honeys, because different kinds of nectar solidify at different rates and in different ways. And then take the top off and inhale it and you really get the aroma. And then taste it and leave it in your mouth for a little bit and let the aromas sort of go up your nose and then swallow it.

TWILLEY: Some of Hattie’s favorites come from New Zealand

ELLIS:  This is a real tongue twister but rewarewa. That’s probably mispronounced. But pohutukawa and tawari. They’re sort of butterscotchy flavors. And then I’ll go all the way through heather honey which has this wonderful sort of champagne-like little bubbles in it. It’s like got a sort of jelly-like texture.

GRABER: So that’s how Hattie puts together a honey tasting. But if you want to put honey in your food?

ELLIS: Some of the things that I love about using honey in food are that it absorbs moisture. So your cakes will keep well. Bakers like put in a little honey into their bakes because it keeps the bake moist.

TWILLEY: Hattie will often reduce the sugar by a quarter in a recipe, and replace it with a little honey—not the same amount, because honey tastes sweeter than sugar. And you have to remember to lower the oven temperature a little too so the honey doesn’t burn.

GRABER: The other thing to know about honey is that some of the aromas that make each variety so distinct, those are lost at really high heats.

ELLIS: If you can, just add it at the end and don’t heat it up too much. But so for example when I roast a leg of lamb I will brush it over with honey at the end to give it a lovely glaze and put in a little bit of honey in the gravy. So there’s a kind of fine line between burnished and burnt with honey, which I spent quite a lot of time testing the recipes to reach that point. Then I think with things like sauces, there are amazing things you can do. So even just a little honey in a vinaigrette—πeople know about that. But a tiny bit of honey stirred into some homemade mayonnaise is really delicious.

TWILLEY: Yes, honey is delicious. But that’s not the only reason we eat it. Just like the Ancient Egyptians, a lot of people believe that honey has health benefits, too.

ELLIS: People also eat the pollen for energy. Mohammed Ali used to eat the pollen. To not just dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but to eat like one too.

GRABER: Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much science backing that up—or the idea that honey can help combat seasonal allergies. At least not yet. But the ancient Egyptians did have one thing right when they applied honey to cuts and burns.

ELLIS: Scientists in New Zealand actually started to prove how honey was useful in healing wounds and in other ways. And so it’s sort of come back. Because he’s proven it in a laboratory, we’re now allowed to appreciate something which people have been doing in different cultures for for millennia.

TWILLEY: Honey works because it’s killing the microbes by sucking water out of them. But there’s something else going on too. One of the enzymes in the honey reacts in contact with bodily fluids to produce hydrogen peroxide, which is also an antiseptic. So it’s like a two-pronged attack.

GRABER: Some honeys are better at this than others, and scientists are trying to tease this all out. Manuka in New Zealand gets a lots of press for its medicinal properties, but it’s not the only one. In general, the darker honeys seem to be better at killing microbes.

TWILLEY: But while honey might be good for our health, the health of the bees making that honey—that’s not so good.

MASTERMAN: Honeybees have been in trouble for about a decade. What we’ve seen within our own program is that the biggest threat that we can see for honeybees is a mite pest.

GRABER: Becky’s boss Marla Spivak is one of the top international experts on bee health and colony collapse disorder.

SPIVAK: And the mite feeds on the blood of these bees and compromises the immune system and weakens the adult bee. They don’t kill them outright but they weaken them. The worst thing is these mites, as they’re sucking on bees blood, they pick up viral particles from the bee. And then the mite goes to another bee and feed some more and it’s like a dirty syringe, it injects some of these viruses.

GRABER: And it turns out that there’s one kind of strange reason these mites spread so easily.

MASTERMAN: This is a boy bee actually. It’s flying upside down for some reason. So boy bees, their only job is to mate. But they’re kind of funny—they’re just not as graceful as the girls are. And when they come in you can hear them buzzing and they kind of make their arrival. And they also get lost a lot. They often go home to the wrong house.

GRABER: There are way too many jokes.

MASTERMAN: Yeah I know. Yeah.

TWILLEY: It’s not even fair.

GRABER: It’s too easy.

MASTERMAN: No it’s not fair. And the girls actually—the sad thing is they let them go from from place to place and it’s a problem with our mites because they will, that’s one of the ways they spread because the boys go home to the wrong place.

TWILLEY: Yes, the confused, upside-down, show-off boy bees are, in fact, spreading this disastrous disease around. This mite was introduced into the States in the late 80s.

SPIVAK: But it just seems like starting in about 2006, it reached a tipping point. and just too many things affecting them at once just threw them over the edge, and we started to see massive die-offs of colonies. And now it hasn’t kept increasing but 30, 40 percent of all of our nation’s honey bee colonies die every year.

GRABER: This is a huge problem. Colony collapse disorder has both beekeepers and farmers panicking. It seems to have stabilized somewhat, we’re not in danger of losing all our honeybees right now, but the situation is not great.

TWILLEY: Marla has been working on various solutions. She’s been breeding bees that are better at sniffing out infected bees and pushing them out of the hive before they can spread the mite. She’s developed more aggressive hive management techniques too. And Becky says it looks like their work might be starting to pay off.

MASTERMAN: So we’re seeing that if we’re able to manage that mite pest that our bees look really, really healthy. Overall there are still high numbers of beekeepers who are losing their bees. But at the same time we feel like if we can share this information with them, that they’re going to then be able to have better success as far as keeping them alive.

GRABER: But mites aren’t the only problem. You’ve also got all the chemicals used on huge fields of wheat and corn and soybeans.

SPIVAK: Bees as they’re foraging run into a lot of pesticides, most of them are insecticides that they run into, and sometimes they’re in a high concentration and can be toxic enough that that kills the bee outright. But oftentimes we’re learning it can be low dose, low concentration that just kind of affects the bees in sub-lethal ways. So they don’t, they’re not killed but their nervous systems are affected. They can affect their learning, their memory, their flight behavior, things like that. And now we’re learning that sometimes when bees run into these low dose, low concentration insecticides, it exacerbates the effects of their viruses and diseases.

TWILLEY: So there’s the insecticides we use to manage the landscape, and then there’s the landscape itself.

SPIVAK: There’s just simply not enough flowers out there for good nutrition for bees. So if they have good protein from that pollen and good carbohydrates from the nectar, the bees are able to detoxify pesticides to some extent. And they’re also able to bolster their immune systems if they have good nutrition. So—very similar to humans. But if all of those things are a problem—not enough flowers or contaminated flowers and lots of mites in the colony—they all combine in ways that are just deadly to the whole colony.

GRABER: Marla’s doing other research in her lab too, trying to find out all the ways to help keep bees healthy. But she has one big tip for all of us, how we can help.

SPIVAK: If you like honey, plant more flowers.

TWILLEY: That’s true for honey bees, but it’s also true for all the native bees. Those nineteen thousand nine hundred and ninety nine other bees species we mentioned back at the start—they’re also affected by disease and insecticides and lack of good food, and we need them too. They’re not making our toast topping, sure, but they are providing essential pollination services to lots of native plants.

GRABER: And it’s the native bees that are really threatened by another huge environmental problem.

TWILLEY: No prizes for guessing…

SPIVAK: Climate change is really going to have the most effect on some of our native bees that are solitary. They live alone and spend most of their lifecycle in the ground or in a stem developing. And they come out in the spring or at certain time in the summer, and some of them are specialists that need one particular kind of flower to feed on for their short lifecycle. Quite different than a honey bee. And if they’re out of sync, so climate change may make things bloom earlier or later in the season than normal, and if the bees emerge from the ground and their flowers aren’t there then they may become extinct.

GRABER: That’s not something we can offer a quick fix for, unfortunately.

TWILLEY: But, like Marla, one thing you can do if you love honey is plant flowers. And don’t spray them.

GRABER: And, you know, it’s not just the problem with the honey bees. There’s also kind of a problem with how we think about honey. We’re so used to thinking of honey in the teddy bears.

TWILLEY: Or being eaten by teddy bears.

GRABER: And it’s become so prosaic, almost boring.

TWILLEY: It’s just kind of the same kind of sweet honey flavor. Like it’s just honey, it’s not something special. It’s not like wine or cheese or something that we know to appreciate for all its different flavors and textures.

GRABER: Hattie wrote an entire cookbook on honey because, to her, honey is all that and more.

ELLIS: You know it’s sort of become a bit patronized, if you like, in the same way that bees are, because they’re small and they put these cute yellow and black jackets on. People look down on things which are smaller. But I think because—people now see the importance and the power of bees. And honey is a, you know, powerful food in its taste and what it does. And sugar, we’ve got used to just sort of gulping down sugar, but actually just a spoonful of something special and valued like honey is another way to approach sweetness.

TWILLEY: Hattie wants us to appreciate what honey can bring as part of a complex dish and what it can do if you pair it with a good cheese—but also just on its own, for itself. And that’s Marla’s favorite way to appreciate honey, too.

SPIVACK: Straight out of the bottle. I really like a teaspoon of just honey. You know sometimes I’ll put it in tea. I often bake with it. But if I want to enjoy a honey, I’ll just take a teaspoon and consume it slowly and savor it. It’s just wonderful stuff. You know some people go and eat a sweet treat or a dessert—I’d rather just have a teaspoon of honey


GRABER: And that’s it for this episode! If you enjoy honey and Gastropod – or really, if you just enjoy Gastropod – please consider supporting us on our website or at We’ve got some extra honey treats for our sustaining supporters. You can also write us a review at iTunes – that helps new listeners find us – and you can follow us on twitter or facebook at Gastropodcast.


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Marla Spivak and Becky Masterman of the University of Minnesota, to Gene Kritsky, author of Tears of Re, and to Hattie Ellis, author of Spoonfuls of Honey. We have links to their books and their websites on our own website, gastropod dot com. Some of you have asked about transcripts of our episodes. We try to get them up about a week after it first goes out.

GRABER: And the reason we can get these transcripts up for you is all due to our great volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. Thanks to Ari for all her help.

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with the lady who helped me make whale poo ice cream last summer, Sarah Lohman. Get ready to have your tastebuds tingled — we’re going from black pepper to sriracha.

GRABER: Till next time!