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.


Peanuts: Peril and Promise TRANSCRIPT

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

GRABER: That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRABER: Did anything in particular start this breakfast routine?

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

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


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

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

GRABER: How do you know they were Spanish?

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

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

MANAUGH: Are you having trouble talking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRABER: Tim and I actually loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWILLEY: This is the Virginia.

MANAUGH: Go America, man.

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

GRABER: This one wasn’t our favorite.

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

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

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

GRABER: It’s totally true.

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

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

TIM: I’m the peanut whisperer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

GRABER: Because they’re eating Plumpy’Nut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRABER: And it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Lunch Gets Schooled TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRABER: As Andrew says, not so simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWILLEY: Uh huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWILLEY: Ah, school lunch. Such fond memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s delicious.

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

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

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

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

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And today, we’re diving into vinegar. Not literally, because that would sting.

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

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

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

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

GRABER: That’s right, balsamic vinegar!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HARRIS: And then this, this is what I call my vinegar shed.

TWILLEY: Andy used to be a food writer, like I said. So he has lots of wine writer friends who give him their leftover tasting bottles.

HARRIS: So that’s a Bordeaux. That’s a Tempranillo, a Rioja.

TWILLEY: Yeah, sadly the red wine vinegar in my cupboard is not a single varietal.

GRABER: And yes. Andy’s red wine vinegar is genuinely really tasty, better than the one I have at home. Like Ben said, the starting material really does matter.

TWILLEY: But so wait. That raises a question. Could you just put that fancy Bordeaux into one of these industrial bubblers and make really good red wine vinegar really fast?

GRABER: As usual, the answer seems to be not necessarily. First of all, Andy’s vinegar gets some great flavor notes from the wood barrels themselves. But then there’s the aging process. Ben pointed out that there’s a lot going on in the wine as it slowly becomes vinegar.

WOLFE: When these acetic acid bacteria are metabolizing the alcohol and converting into acetic acid, they’re not just doing that, right? Their cells are doing other things. And so you can imagine if you let those things sit around for a while some of those cells will die. And as those cells die, they release different things into the environment, metabolites that we can perceive as flavors. You could imagine that there would be a much more complicated microbial death cascade that could end up in some really beautiful flavors in the longer fermentation.

TWILLEY: Yep, that’s right. It’s the microbial death cascade in Andy’s vinegar that makes it so pleasing on the palate.

GRABER: Perfect band name.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, if we were a band rather than a podcast, we would totally be called Microbial Death Cascade!

GRABER: If we had any musical talent. But microbial death combined with the source alcohol is not the only way to get amazing flavored vinegar. Andy, for example—he doesn’t just make vinegars. He also has an incredible collection that he sells as well. And lots of them are infused with herbs and fruit and flowers.

HARRIS: So there’s this wonderful lady called Natalie LeFort who makes all these vinegars. This comes from a 16th-century recipe she found in a cookbook. And it’s vermeil and it’s basically with cloves and cinnamon.

TWILLEY: This is another way to build flavor in your vinegar: infuse it.

HARRIS: That for example I use with duck—duck breast. To deglaze.

GRABER: That sounds perfect.


GRABER: The herb and spice flavors are all preserved in the vinegar.

HARRIS: These are made by nuns, and there’s a thyme flower vinegar—you just smell from the bottle. So these are very intense and savoury and all the herbs and the fruit are grown in the monastery. Tarragon. You can really get that aniseed of the tarragon in that one.

GRABER: Mmmm, I love tarragon.

TWILLEY: That’s incredible.

HARRIS: Sarayet, which is one of my favourites—savoury. Wow. It’s a really earthy. So that with a lovely warm potato salad. You know, just get some waxy potatoes and just literally just get them out the pan, add some of that and some good olive oil and some nice sea salt.

TWILLEY: We had an epic vinegar tasting session at Andy’s, and it really was easy to see how these super-flavorful infused wine vinegars would add a whole new dimension to a dish.

GRABER: With Andy, though, there’s one crucial vinegar we did not taste. Because we knew we were headed to Italy to taste it in its home. Balsamic vinegar.

TWILLEY: The top dog of vinegars. But when did balsamic get so popular? And is the balsamic you’ve tasted actually the real thing?

GRABER: Answers to all your balsamic questions and more—right after a few words about our sponsors this episode.


EMILIO BIANCARDI: OK, what you see here is one of our robotic lawn mower. We were the first one to introduce robotic lawn mowers in a vineyard.

TWILLEY: Here we are, surrounded by grapevines, near a 18th-century villa, in the gorgeous Italian countryside. And this oversized lawnmower roomba-thing is following us around.

BIANCARDI: Yeah, that’s Inea. Well, Inea in English. We have Mario, Pepo, Inea and Ulisa, Ulysses. So we decided to give them name.

GRABER: This is where balsamic vinegar comes from.

BIANCARDI: My name is Emilio Biancardi, from Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. We’re in the zone of origin for traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is just the province of Modena.

GRABER: People here have been making vinegar here for thousands of years. Christina Sereni works in the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, not far from Emilio’s vineyards.

CRISTINA SERENI: We know that we were famous for vinegars even in Roman times. We cannot grow olive trees, we cannot grow lemon trees. Winter frost kills everything. We know that we were growing grapes even in Roman times. Apicio, one of the chefs of the Roman Age, was using vinegar from Modena and he writes it in his recipes. So we know that in Roman times we were already famous for our production of vinegars. And I’m using the plural because we had many, many vinegars. Different kinds of vinegar, made in different ways with apples, with grapes, with wine or cooked grape must.

TWILLEY: Cooked grape must—that is the thing that sets balsamic apart. Must is just the pressed wine grapes—juice, seeds, skins, stems, and all. And then that must is cooked for between 12 and 72 hours. It’s brought to the boil, and then gently simmered.

BIANCARDI: That’s the secret of our product. And it gives us these four major effects: volume reduction, sugar concentration, almost killing of all the enzymes and bacteria that can lead to an alcoholic fermentation. And, last but not least, the first change in the color, due to the caramelization of sugar and to the Maillard reaction.

GRABER: The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction from heating proteins and sugars that makes things brown and tasty, like the brown top of a loaf of bread. Same thing is happening to the cooking grape must. And like Cristina said, it’s not just that they’ve been making vinegar in Modena for thousands of years, but they’ve also been cooking grape must for just as long.

BIANCARDI: The idea of cooking must comes from the Roman. As you may know, the Romans didn’t have any sugar. They just had honey and cooked must. This was one of the sweetest things that they had.

TWILLEY: Cooked must, which is called saba in Modena, it’s still used as a sweetener in the region today, to make Christmas confectionery. In fact, quite a few places still have that tradition, left over from Roman times. Emilio told us cooked must is big in Romania too.

GRABER: And like everywhere else in the world where vinegar has been invented, that sweet, cooked grape must turned into alcohol and then vinegar, by accident. And unsurprisingly, it was delicious. People loved it.

TWILLEY: That happy accident was the first balsamic vinegar, the grandaddy of all the balsamic vinegars we drizzle today. Balsamic vinegar is, by definition, cooked grape must, aged.

GRABER: This sounds simple, and yet bottles of real balsamic vinegar cost about 50 bucks minimum. So obviously it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

TWILLEY: For starters, you can’t just use any old grape.

BIANCARDI: Our productive law says which kind of grapes we have to use. So the trebbiano, ancellotta, lambruschi. So typical grapes from the zone of origin.

GRABER: So far, so straightforward. Then it gets a little nuts. We went upstairs at Emilio’s villa into his balsamic attic.

TONI MAGLIAZZA: Neither of you have been in a balsamic attic before?


MAGLIAZZA: Prepare yourselves, have the mic on.

GRABER: Oh the mic’s on, it’s not off.

MAGLIAZZA: You’re gonna freak out, it’s life changing.

TWILLEY: Even though Toni warned us, we still freaked out. We got out of the elevator and it hit us right away, square to the nose.

TWILLEY: Ohhhh! Smell that!

GRABER: Wow. It’s sweet and it’s acidic and it’s warm.

BIANCARDI: Well it’s warm because I left the—

GRABER: No, I mean the smell is like really a warm smell.

TWILLEY: Like a little spicy, wood.

GRABER: Little caramel.

BIANCARDI: OK, follow me.

GRABER: Wow. Oh my gosh.

BIANCARDI: Watch your hand, watch your step please.

GRABER: As Emilio started to say, it wasn’t just a warm smell, which I loved, but it was also really freaking hot.

TWILLEY: Which, it turns out, serves a purpose. Because once you’ve got your cooked must, you use it to refill a barrel that’s half-filled with older balsamic. And then you leave it for an entire year, winter followed by summer. And the magic starts to happen.

BIANCARDI: The fluctuation between hot and cold is really important. Because the acetic bacteria are really active when it’s hot. So in winter when it’s cold and calm you have sediment.

GRABER: And, after a cold calm winter and a busy hot summer, the sugar in the must has turned into alcohol. And it’s starting to turn into vinegar. Andy’s red wine vinegar would be long done and bottled by now. But Emilio is nowhere near finished.

BIANCARDI: Even if it seem a really calm and slow product, it’s really dynamic product. You have to keep the product alive.

TWILLEY: This is what Emilio has to do to keep his balsamic alive: Every year, once a year, he has to go up to the attic to sniff his barrels, and then move some of the vinegar from one barrel to another. And then the vinegar that was in that 2nd barrel … well, some of that gets moved to a third barrel. Which some of the vinegar from that third barrel has to be moved into a fourth. And then some of the vinegar from the fourth… You get the picture.

GRABER: Each barrel down that path year after year is smaller. In part, it’s because you’re only moving some of the vinegar from one barrel to the next. In part, it’s because some of the liquid evaporates over the course of the year. And so, up in Emilio’s attic, there are all these beautiful rows of barrels, each progressively smaller in that row.

TWILLEY: This process of moving just a little bit of the aging vinegar each year—it can be as little as a litre, like a couple of pints—it’s called the passages. It happens every spring.

SERENI: When temperature rises yeasts and acetic acid bacteria start to wake up. And they start to work. So you understand that the time is right by the perfumes you are perceiving.

TWILLEY: That’s why Emilio sniffs his barrels to know when to start the passages—you can smell when the acetic acid bacteria have woken up from winter hibernation and rolled up their sleeves to start another long season of eating alcohol.

GRABER: So each of those barrels in a set, it gets a little bit of the vinegar from the barrel before. So in each barrel, there’s vinegar there from the very first year that the barrel was ever used to make vinegar.

TWILLEY: This is why when you buy balsamic—the real aged traditional stuff—it always says it’s either at least 12 years or at least 25 years old

BIANCARDI: So what does it mean? The first one you tasted, I told you it was at least six. But this barrel contains all the product that we’ve been putting inside this barrel from the beginning of the life of the barrel.

GRABER: So why don’t you just leave the product in one barrel and age it there for six years? Why this whole moving a little bit each year thing?

BIANCARDI: You wouldn’t have the same complexity and taste that we are achieving now. So adding something every year is making them more active.

TWILLEY: It’s all about keeping the balsamic alive, not letting it get stuck. But the moving, adding young blood to the older barrels—that’s not the only thing contributing to balsamic’s flavor development. There’s also the wood of the barrels themselves.

GRABER: Cristina told us they use woods they can get in the region.

SERENI: Oak and acacia are sweet and warm. Mulberry and cherry are fresh and fruity. Ash is very delicate. Chestnut is tannic, but because it is the cheapest, everyone’s got a barrel of chestnut. And we use to sweeten the flavor given by chestnut with oak. Oak is the most used for smallest barrels. And the one in the middle is juniper. Juniper is a very aromatic and spicy wood, so aromatic and spicy that you can tell if a vinegar has been kept in a barrel made of juniper simply by smelling it.

TWILLEY: Over the years that the balsamic is moving along into smaller and smaller barrels, its flavor is being transformed. Emilio gave us a taste of the at least six-year-old balsamic, which is actually too young to legally sell. It tasted fine to me, but kind of acidic—a little sweet and thick but really more like regular sherry vinegar.

GRABER: Then we moved on to the good stuff.

BIANCARDI: But let’s continue so you see how the product is following its path to the excellence. Ready?



BIANCARDI: OK please, poker face. OK, don’t tell the others what you’re feeling. I don’t want—

TWILLEY: The world to know?

BIANCARDI: This one is at least thirteen, more or less. That was one of the worst poker face I’ve ever seen.

GRABER: We don’t do poker faces here.

TWILLEY: So it’s become sweeter. It’s become thicker. It’s also become…



GRABER: And more caramel notes to it too.

TWILLEY: So here’s the funny thing. I have no idea how some lunatic Modenese person first decided to do this whole kind of painful process of transferring just a tiny bit of vinegar into a smaller barrel each year. No one really does.

SERENI: We have a record that tells us that in 1046, a German Emperor, Henry the Third, going to meet the Pope stopped in this area to collect a bottle of vinegar, that from the description could have been an ancestor of this traditional balsamic vinegar. But we haven’t found a barrel, we haven’t found any recipes dating back one or two thousand years. So only we can tell you is that we found a record.

TWILLEY: There’s also a record in the 1500s of Lucretia Borgia, who has something of a reputation—the Borgia family specialized in poisonings and murder—but she apparently specially requested the famous vinegar of Modena to ease her labor pains.

GRABER: The name ‘balsamic vinegar’ was first used, as far as we know, in 1747. It was another name for ‘the Duke’s vinegars’ that were kept in his secret cellars. The name is from the Latin balsam, like a thick aromatic balm.

TWILLEY: But balsamic wasn’t only for the duke.

SERENI: In ancient times, families used to start a new set anytime a baby girl was born. In this way, when the girl was ready to leave the house, usually because she was getting married, the vinegar was already good.

TWILLEY: Cristina’s family started a set of barrels for her when she was born. She’s not married, but she’s used her own vinegar anyway.

SERENI: Now the tradition stays on. But people don’t mind the gender. Anything can be a good excuse to start a new set.

GRABER: So people were doing this—cooking grape must, moving it from barrel to barrel in an attic. But there wasn’t a clear defined step-by-step, this is what you do to make balsamic vinegar, until…

SERENI: The first record, the first recipe describing in detail is the process that we still use to make traditional balsamic vinegar is described in one of the letters Pio Fabriani and Francesco Aggazzotti exchanged between 1860 and 1862. He was just describing the method his family was following to help his friend to make a better vinegar.

TWILLEY: This letter was the first time that these specific steps were spelled out. But nowadays, they’re law.

GRABER: Emilio’s family has been making balsamic vinegar this way for at least six generations back. Today, they make 5000 to 8000 bottles a year.

TWILLEY: But they don’t put their own vinegar into bottles. They’re not allowed to.

BIANCARDI: So you will have to bring the product to the consortium, whole amount.

GRABER: There’s a special consortium, they’re basically the guardians of balsamic tradition, and they decide whether the product is good enough to be called “traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.”

BIANCARDI: There the product is tested and tasted by experts. They test it for minimal acidity, minimal density, and then taste it. And if the product is OK, they do the bottling.

GRABER: Cristina was a master taster and would have been one of people judging vinegar like Emilio’s, though she’s no longer doing it these days.

TWILLEY: It had taken over her life. If you’re a taster, you spend more time tasting than you do with your family.

GRABER: At the museum, Cristina talked us through what she used to do, and what tasters still do, every day in Modena.

SERENI: This is a typical table used to taste traditional balsamic vinegar. Six people gathered around a table, and first of all they checked the color of the vinegar through the light of a candle. When you check the vinegar through the light of a candle, you look for the perfect density. The color must be dark with ruby flecks and it must be clear.

TWILLEY: Then they sniff it. Cristina told us you’re looking for an aroma that sticks around. It needs to have lasting power but still be delicate.

SERENI: You want to have a refined perfume, not too aggressive.

GRABER: And then they taste a few drops. They spread the vinegar around on their tongue and press it to the roof of their mouth.

SERENI: Then you look for a body, when you taste it in your mouth, you look for a body. You want a vinegar that remains there even when you swallow it. The flavor should be nice and harmonious. And then it must be sour, because vinegar is sour, it must be sour, not too sweet, not too sour. Everything must be very well balanced and refined.

TWILLEY: And then they talk about the vinegar and they give the vinegar a score.

SERENI: Sometimes there are discussions that goes on for minutes and minutes. Some other times you find people that agree about the quality of the vinegar. The highest possible score is 400. Nobody got such a high score.

GRABER: The best vinegars get about 320 or so. But if it’s not quite good enough to be called real balsamic vinegar of Modena, the guardians of tradition might send the producer back to age it another year or so. And that’s it. This is traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.

TWILLEY: Balsamic vinegar was a pretty local product for a very long time. European aristocracy might have craved it, but the majority of world had no idea it even existed. And then suddenly—and I remember this happening—you couldn’t move for a balsamic-drizzled Caprese salad. What happened?

GRABER: A few things happened within just a decade or so. In 1976, Chuck Williams—he’s the founder of Williams-Sonoma—he first saw and fell in love with balsamic vinegar in Italy. At the time it was almost impossible to find here. So In 1977, he imported some in his Williams-Sonoma catalogue, and apparently it was really popular. He’s credited with starting the balsamic craze in America.

TWILLEY: Although Emilio’s theory is that balsamic really became big a little later.

BIANCARDI: It was in the 90s, I think because I remember in Star Trek, in one of the movies, there is Captain Picard says something about “serve to the aliens some balsamic vinaigrette,” something like that. So it was in the 90s.


TWILLEY: But something else happened in the 1990s, too.

BIANCARDI: This was the moment of the fight, you know. Our tiny consortium was fighting to receive this protection from the European law and the European Union. But then everything went wrong.

GRABER: As we said, the real balsamic vinegar is super expensive, at least 50 bucks for a small bottle. And now you understand why—it takes years to make. But balsamic vinegar in America suddenly was super popular. So of course, copy-cats started to elbow in on Emilio’s family business.

TWILLEY: His family and the consortium—the balsamic guardians—they wanted to say that the only product you could call balsamic vinegar was balsamic vinegar made the way they make it. But they lost.

GRABER: There is actually a law about what can be called ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena.’ It does, yes, have to be made in Modena. But there are industrial shortcuts you can take. You can make it with wine vinegar, for instance, which, as we know from Andy, takes a lot less time to produce.

BIANCARDI: Wine vinegar, concentrated must, caramel. Whatever.

TWILLEY: This more industrial, faster product—it’s cheaper, obviously. And it’s not bad. In fact, for years, it was all I knew. It’s all many Italians know. And it’s legally sold as traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena with an IGP label—a protected geographical indication. So it looks really legit.

GRABER: As Nicky said, it’s not bad. But it doesn’t have the same complexity and depth of flavor. And, frankly, the grapes don’t even have to come from Modena.

TWILLEY: So if you want the real balsamic—the stuff that Emilio and Cristina make, painstakingly transferring vinegar between barrels each year—you need to be specific. It has to be called traditional balsamic vinegar of modena and it has to have a DOP symbol—a protected designation of origin. Which is confusing, because the IGP label really looks quite similar.

GRABER: Let’s make this all even a little more confusing for you, and more frustrating for Emilio. If you go to the supermarket and you see something called ‘balsamic vinegar,’ no mention of Modena, it could just be industrial wine vinegar with added sugar. That’s what most of the stuff in America is. You can tell, too—it flows like water, it’s not thick at all. It’s just slightly sweet vinegar.

TWILLEY: I would say be careful here. If you do try the real stuff, it’s very hard to go back! And it’s a really expensive habit, although a little does go a long way. But oh my god is it good.

GRABER: Emilio cooked us lunch, homemade focaccia and all, and spared no expense on the balsamic vinegar.

BIANCARDI: One of the most common appetizers is Parmesan cheese with traditional balsamic vinegar. So we’re drizzling some drops on the Parmesan. And then you will tell me how it tastes.

GRABER: I can already tell you how it tastes.

TWILLEY: I’m looking forward to it. I’ll just put it that way.

GRABER: I could see the future, and I was right. It was just as delicious as I’d expected.

BIANCARDI: So that’s the frittata with the zucchini.

GRABER: With some balsamic.

BIANCARDI: And on top we’re pouring some traditional balsamic vinegar on top of it. I don’t know if you want to take a picture of that.

GRABER: In a beautiful shape of a spiral.

TWILLEY: At this point, I asked Emilio whether he just puts balsamic on everything, because everything tastes better with it.

BIANCARDI: I put balsamic. Yeah.

GRABER: The frittata was amazing. I’m going to start drizzling balsamic on all my eggs. If I can afford it.

TWILLEY: I am afraid that podcasting and a balsamic habit may not be compatible. Then to finish our balsamic feast, Emilio brought us some gelato drizzled with the at least 25-year-old balsamic.

TWILLEY: It looks like hot fudge sauce. I have a feeling it’s going to taste a lot better.

GRABER: I was going to say, this is much more appealing to me than hot fudge.

TWILLEY: Toni—her eyes literally rolled backwards in her head at this point.

GRABER: Nicky, so did yours.

TWILLEY: If I could only have one ice cream topping in the world for the rest of all time, it would surely be this. Like no competition at all with anything ever.

GRABER: We kept asking everyone in Modena if anyone else in the world makes a similar vinegar, something this sweet and rich and complex. Of course, they’re Italian, they said nobody else. Just them. But Michael—he’s the one who wrote the cookbook on vinegar—he told us about an insane Japanese sweet potato vinegar that smelled like Beaujolais but was really sweet.

TURKELL: Akihiro Io who is a many generation vinegar maker who has taken it over from his father and mother in the past few years poured it over vanilla ice cream. And I have a little bottle of that vinegar, it’s called Benimosu, at my house specifically to kind of like blow people’s mind and pour it over ice cream for dessert.

TWILLEY: And that’s the thing. For Michael and also for Andy, it’s not about, ‘Oh you have to spend 50 bucks on fancy balsamic.’ Yes, fancy balsamic is amazing. If you get the chance to try it, you have to. But their point is, vinegar in general is so much more than the industrial product most of us have on our shelves.

TURKELL: It’s often overlooked as something that’s important

GRABER: Because most people think of it just for salad dressing. Which Michael doesn’t mind.

TURKELL: But then when everyone starts thinking that, ‘Oh yeah I have vinegar and I do this, you know, I get fruit flies with it.’ I hate that vinegar has somehow been relegated to cleaning more than it has to culinary purposes.

GRABER: Andy and Michael are campaigning to break vinegar out of its salad dressing bottle. We had it on eggs in Italy. Andy uses it in casseroles and paella and gazpacho. Michael has an entire book full of recipes that require vinegar. Me, personally—I almost always splash some at the end when I’m cooking greens or other vegetables.

TURKELL: Acidity is one of those, you know, handful of elements that needs to happen in a well balanced dish. And I know a lot of chefs—actually I’ll say most chefs will say if a dish is missing something, it’s usually acidity. So I think a lot of people just don’t even know how to use it. They’re a little scared of what vinegar is.

TWILLEY: I know before we made this episode, it wouldn’t have ever crossed my mind to add a dash of vinegar to my stew or my pan-fried fish or whatever. At most, I would use like a squeeze of lemon to add that acidity.

HARRIS: If you go into supermarkets, it’s rather second-rate balsamic and a few other vinegars. So you know every—people have kind of discovered good quality olive oil and how you can use different oils for different things and they should be able to do the same with vinegar.

GRABER: That’s really the point, as we discovered in Andy’s shed. There are so many different vinegars, each with its own acidity level and flavor. Andy loves the cinnamon and cloves-infused vinegar to deglaze the pan when he’s cooking duck, and he uses a cider vinegar to poach rhubarb.

TWILLEY: Vinegar: the gateway to a new dimension. As Captain Picard never said.


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

TWILLEY: Thanks to Andy Harris of the Vinegar Shed, Michael Harlan Turkell whose new book is called Acid Trip, and then, in Italy, Emilio Biancardi of the Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca and  Cristina Sereni of the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilamberto. We have links to their books and their online shops so you can buy vinegar and cook with to your heart’s delight. It’s all on our website, along with lots of amazing photos of our vinegar adventures. And I have to thank my parents for cutting out and saving an article about Andy Harris for me: they provide a dedicated clippings service for which I am extremely grateful!

GRABER: And of course, thanks to Gastropod’s in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University. He answered all our appropriate vinegar questions, and then some that were maybe not quite in his wheelhouse.

TWILLEY: The other thing people do is they put it on their hair in the shower to make their hair shiny. Why on earth would that work? Would it?

WOLFE: Um, again…

TWILLEY: LAUGHS A tiny bit outside your expertise.

WOLFE: Sorry.

GRABER: We’re taking you way out of…

WOLFE: Yeah.

TWILLEY: I know, I’m like ‘Professor of Hair Shininess at Tufts Ben Wolfe said…’

WOLFE: LAUGHS I could put that on my CV somewhere. You know, I think it makes sense that these acids are really good at denaturing proteins. And so they can help loosen up and denature proteins that are stuck on things and other, you know, fats and other kinds of things that can help solubilize those. So it does make sense to put vinegar on your hair, it’ll probably clean your hair. But again, yeah, I’m not a hair specialist.


Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar

It's found in almost every home, whether it's destined to dress salads or clean surfaces and kill fruit flies. But, effective as it is at those tasks, most of us struggle to get excited about vinegar. Today, however, a handful of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are trying to launch a vinegar renaissance—one in which we appreciate vinegar (nearly) as much as the alcohol from which it's made. This episode, we visit vinegar attics in Italy, conduct an epic tasting in a backyard vinegar shed in west London, and chat with our in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, in order to explore vinegar's long, frequently accidental history, its rumored health benefits, and its culinary potential. Plus: is the balsamic vinegar on your shelf the real thing? Listen now for all this and more!


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!