Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Whiskey, Fish, and Barbecue!

As anyone who’s spent time by a crackling campfire or a barbecue pit can attest, the scent of smoke is unmistakable—and surprisingly mysterious. Smoke clings to clothing but vanishes in the breeze. You see it, but you can’t hold it. It’s fantastic in whiskey and terrible in toast. So what exactly is smoke—and what does it do to our food and drinks? What’s the difference between cold and hot smoked salmon—and what's a red herring? Is Liquid Smoke made from real smoke? And how did barbecue— smoked meat, cooked low and slow—become a uniquely American tradition?

More

Phage Against the Machine

If you thought food poisoning was just a matter of the occasional stomach upset from a dodgy shrimp or two, the CDC has some unsettling numbers for you: foodborne bacteria is responsible for at least 48 million cases of illness, more than 130,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. And those numbers aren't going down. But wait: a new fighter has entered the ring! Say hello to the bacteriophage, a small-but-mighty bacteria-busting virus that can wipe out entire colonies of harmful pathogens—and that is starting to be sprayed on packages of cold cuts near you. While most Americans haven’t heard of phages (as they’re commonly called), they’ve been saving lives in the former Soviet Union for decades now. So why has it taken so long for the U.S. to get on board? How do these teeny-tiny bacteria fighters work, and what’s their connection to Elizabeth Taylor and chlorinated chicken? Should we—and could we—get our food systems on the phage train?

Lambda Phage
Ben Wolfe urged us to Google Image Search lambda phage, and we were not disappointed! "They kind of look like a lunar lander coming down onto the surface of a bacterial cell," Ben told us. "It's really beautiful."
More

Why Thai?

It’s hard to imagine the American restaurant landscape without Thai food: Tom yum and pad see ew are practically household names, and pad thai is the ultimate quarantine comfort food. (It's apparently zombie apocalypse comfort food, too, as shown on the Walking Dead.) According to the Thai Embassy, more than 50 percent of all Thai restaurants abroad are located in the United States and Canada. So why did the U.S.—and Los Angeles in particular—become the epicenter of Thai food’s global rise? How did Cold War politics and a shortage of ingredients lead to the creation of shrimp curry recipes made with anchovy paste and sour cream—as well as the jackfruit industry in Mexico? What does this all have to do with one street kid from Bangkok? Listen in now for these stories and more: it's a vacation for your tastebuds!

More

Hot Tips

If you live in the United States, you’re familiar with a curious mathematical ritual that takes place at the end of every restaurant meal—it’s time to tip, with all the stress the process entails. How much should you leave? Who's getting that money? Is it enough? (And will you look like an idiot if you start counting on your fingers?) Unlike many other countries, where people tip by rounding up to the nearest ringgit or krona—or don’t even tip at all—it’s become standard in the U.S. to leave an extra 20 percent of the bill's total for your server. But how did we get here? How did tipping, a practice with roots in feudal Europe, become so ubiquitous in the United States while nearly disappearing from its home continent? And what does the abolition of slavery in the U.S.—and Herman Cain—have to do with the sub-minimum tipped wage of $2.13 today? Is tipping fair—and is there anything we can do about it? …More

TV Dinners

Cue the dramatic music, it’s quiz time: Can you identify the people behind these catchphrases? “Yum-O!” “Pukka!” “Bam!” “Peace, love, and taco grease!” The answers are below—but if you’ve already caught on, then you’re well aware of how entrenched TV chefs are in mainstream pop culture. But how did a medium where you can’t actually smell or taste the food get so popular? What was the very first food TV show, and how has food TV changed—and changed us?

More

The Brightest Bulb

Imagine, for a moment, a world without garlic: garlic-free garlic bread, tzatziki sans Allium sativum, a chili crisp defanged. If this sounds like the makings of a horror story to you, you’re not alone. Garlic consumption in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, and people around the world have been enjoying the stuff for thousands of years. But alliums smell like sulfur, and sulfur is something humans are born *not* liking—so why did we start adding garlic, onions, and their kin to our food? This episode, we join microbiologist Rob Dunn and food safety specialist Ben Chapman to follow along as they conduct the world's first experiment designed to figure out whether alliums started out as a food safety additive designed to keep our lamb stew safe for longer, and only later turned into a flavor we crave. Plus, why did the British government send garlic to the trenches in WWI? What do fetal sniffing, Egyptian fertility tests, Korean mythology, and the world’s first-recorded labor strike have to do with the stinking rose? Listen in now for all this and more!

More

Like Water in the Desert

Over the past century, we've transformed the arid lands of the American west into year-round, well-irrigated agricultural powerhouses. Today, fruits, nuts, and nearly all of our leafy greens are grown in the desert, using water diverted, stored, and supplied at taxpayer expense. This intense irrigation is having an impact: Reservoir levels are dropping, rivers are drying up, and the state of Arizona is literally sinking. With the help of agroecologist Gary Nabhan, farmers Ramona and Terry Button, and others in the region, we ask the big questions: Should we be farming in the desert? What would a water-saving system even look like? And does a tiny bean that smells like desert rain hold the secret to survival in a hotter, drier world?

More

The Magic Cube

You could call it the Swiss Army knife of the kitchen: bouillon is a handy ingredient, whether it comes as bottled brown gloop, or a cube wrapped up in shiny foil like a tiny present. Today, cooks around the world rely on this secret ingredient to add depth, flavor, and umami to their cooking. It wasn’t always so; like many of today’s packaged shortcuts, condensed bouillon got its start in the 1800s, when nutrition science was just taking off. How did the (mistaken) discoveries of a German chemist pave the way for these umami bombs—and what is umami anyway? How did bouillon brands like Maggi and Knorr become part of national dishes as far afield as Nigeria, India, and Mexico? And how did the invention of these early "essences of meat" lead to the creation of the love-it-or-hate-it spreads Marmite and Vegemite? Listen in now for all that, plus a matriarchal subterranean master race with electrical superpowers!

More

The Big Apple Episode

There’s nothing more American than apple pie—or is there? We might prescribe an apple a day and call our largest city the Big Apple, but this legendary fruit originally hails from the mountains of Kazakhstan. This episode, Michael Pollan (something of a legend himself) tells us how apples become so important on the American frontier, and what cider (the alcoholic kind) had to do with it. We talk to apple fan Amy Traverso and apple detective Dan Bussey to figure out how many thousands of apple varieties used to grow in America, and why are there only a handful—including the notorious Red Delicious, which, while red, is far from delicious—in supermarkets today? All that, plus we get out in the orchard with Soham Bhatt to learn about the cider renaissance that's sweeping the nation.

"The Red Must." Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library.

More

The Hangover: Part Gastropod

Morning fog. Gallon-distemper. Busthead. These are all names for alcohol's age-old after-party: the hangover. But, aside from being a physical (and painful) manifestation of regret, what exactly is a hangover? What's happening in our bodies—and specifically in our livers—and can science do anything about it?

More