Grounds for Revolution: The Stimulating Story of How Coffee Shaped the World

About 400 years ago, a dark and mysterious stranger arrived in Europe and sent the jitters—really, shock waves—through society. That newcomer was the coffee bean, and it's hard to overstate its effects on the world. From its early days as a religious aid to its pivotal role in the founding of the London Stock Exchange, the first scientific society, and even one of the earliest forms of social media, this bitter brown beverage has democratized culture and sparked innovation, all while fueling capitalism and inequality. With the help of Gastropod's own founding godfather, Michael Pollan, as well as a crew of all-star historians, coffee growers, botanists, and coffee scientists, this episode we're telling the story of how coffee has changed everything it touched, from the humble workday to the fate of nations. This is the first of a two-part series on coffee, sponsored by Nespresso: listen now, and then come back in two weeks for the scientific secrets behind the perfect cup.

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The Fortune Cookie Quest

No dish of General Tso's, chow mein, or beef and broccoli is complete without a fortune cookie at the end. In fact, factories churn out an estimated *three billion* of these folded confections every year, mostly for the U.S. market. So how did fortune cookies become not just a quintessential part of Chinese takeout, but also an American cultural icon? This episode, we crack open the history of the fortune cookie to get at the conflicted origins—or, at the very least, the winning lottery numbers—hidden within. With the help of author Jennifer 8. Lee, we trace the origin of this oracular cookie back in time: from a court case pitting one set of cookie pioneers in San Francisco against their Angeleno rivals, all the way to the tiny town that may have started it all...a town that's (gasp!) not even in China! Your fortune today: listen carefully, and all will be revealed. 

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Your Mystery Date

Allow us to indulge our inner aunties: We’ve set you up on a really hot date this episode—with one of nature’s sweetest fruits, the date! Adored by pleasure-seekers and paleo dieters alike, dates are a Christmas baking standby, and the first bite when breaking fast during Ramadan. These fudgy, caramelly, brown-buttery fruits are so important in their Arab homelands that they're known as the "bread of the desert" and thought to be the tree of life in the Garden of Eden story. We reveal why this episode, plus we've also got the story of how a Native American couple in Nevada may have saved the Medjool date for the world, as well as how California built an Orientalist fantasy around its burgeoning date industry, complete with Wild East shows, hoochie-coochie dances, and camel races. All that, as well as the squidgy, soft, and oh-so-sweet dates you've been missing out on—and why you might want to play the field a little in future, at least when it comes to dates.

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The Most Interesting Oil in the World

Here’s a little riddle for you: What’s all around you, but can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted? Hint: It’s in your Oreos, Nutella, instant noodles, dish soap, shampoo, lipstick, potato chips, pizza dough, packaged bread, chocolate bars, ice-cream, and biodiesel. The answer is ... palm oil, the hidden ingredient on just about every aisle of the grocery store. It's the most ubiquitous, most important, most interesting oil that most of us don't really know. But palm oil wasn’t always so big, or so anonymous—in its West African homeland, it’s a fragrant red oil traditionally used in cooking and ceremonies. So how did palm oil go global? What does it have to do with the European colonization of Africa, soap for grimy factory workers, Girl Scout cookies, and Alfred Nobel of Nobel Prize-fame? How has growing demand for all things palm oil driven deforestation and peat fires in Southeast Asia—and what can we do if we want to rethink our destructive palm oil addiction?

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Are Plant-and Fungus-Based Fake Meats Really Better Than the Real Thing?

Move over, beef: there’s a new burger in town. Plant-based meats are sizzling hot right now; in 2020 alone, the alternative meat industry saw a record $3.1 billion in investment, with 112 new plant-based brands launching in supermarkets. These juicy, savory, chewy fake burgers are a far cry from the dry, weird-tasting veggie patties of the past. This episode, we visit the Impossible Foods labs to swig some of the animal-free molecule that makes their meatless meat bleed, try fungal food start-up Meati's prototype "chicken" cutlet, and speak to the scientists and historians who can help us compare these new fake meats to their predecessors—and to real meat! Can a plant-based sausage roll be considered kosher or halal? Are plant-based meats actually better for you and for the environment? And how might a mysterious protein-powerhouse fungus named Rosita help feed the world?

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Balls *and* Brains: The Science and History of Offal

It’s pretty rare to find organ meat on the dinner table in most American households today, but 90 years ago, the earliest editions of The Joy of Cooking contained dozens of recipes for liver, sweetbreads, and even testicles. For much of history, offal was considered the best part of the animal—so what happened? Why are brains banned in the UK and lungs illegal to sell in the US, and why are Scottish haggis-makers up in arms about it? And the question we’re sure you’ve all been pondering: What do testicles taste like?

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Trick or Treat: Soul Cakes, Candy Corn, and Sugar Skulls Galore!

If you live in the U.S., chances are, your first hint of fall isn’t a russet-colored leaf landing on the sidewalk—it’s the orange-wrappered candies taking over the aisles of your local grocery and convenience stores. Forget decorative gourds: it’s officially Halloween candy season! But how did a 2,000-year-old Celtic festival marking the sun's death and the beginning of winter morph into a family-friendly sugar-fest? With the help of Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, historians and hosts of the Vox Media Podcast Network show Now & Then, we explore the surprisingly recent introduction of trick-or-treating, and the all-American invention of Halloween as the ultimate candy-permissive, religion-free Frankenholiday. Plus, why do so many cultures around the world celebrate deathy things at this time of year—and why do so many of them involve sugar? All this, plus a rigorous candy corn tasting bravely undertaken by your indefatigable hosts!

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Buried Treasure: Weeds, Seeds, and Zombies

If you’ve ever engaged in mortal combat with a patch of ragweed, dandelion, or crabgrass in your garden, you might understand the twin emotions of rage and begrudging admiration when it comes to weeds: They. Just. Won’t. Die. When it comes to commercial agriculture, weeds pose a more existential threat—globally, the proportion of our harvest that is lost to weed infiltration is enough to feed millions, and, even with advanced herbicides, weeds cost farmers in North America an estimated $33 billion in lost yield each year. No matter what we throw at them, weeds just seem to get stronger. This episode, we follow a group of scientists along on a 149-year-old quest to see just how long weeds can survive—and, along the way, figure out what we can learn from weeds, what we really ought to thank them for, and what is a weed, anyhow? Listen in now for zombie seeds, a midnight treasure hunt, and the wild ways that weeds have outwitted us for millennia.

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The Barrel That Could Save A Forest

Bourbon has to be aged in barrels, by law; whiskey usually spends years in barrels, by custom; and between 20-30 percent of wine spends some time in one. And almost all of those wooden vessels are made from just two kinds of tree: American white oak and French oak. This episode, we tell the story—and try the whiskey—of the distiller and the barrel-maker who, together, are figuring out how to use the huge, elegant, native oak of the Pacific Northwest to create new flavor, and, in the process, restore an ecosystem that has nearly vanished. Along the way, we figure out the science behind how a barrel affects the taste of what you sip, and we trace the trajectory of barrels from their pinnacle, as the go-to container for everything from fish to petroleum, to their current niche status. Finally, we explore why oak became the default wood for barrel-making—and meet the coopers experimenting with different woods, and an entirely new flavor universe for booze.

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Tofu for You: Meet the Cult Leader, the Spy, and the Pioneering Chinese Woman Doctor Who Brought Tofu to the West

For a lot of Americans, tofu conjures up images of bland, squishy cubes: a sorry alternative to meat. Even in Asia, where tofu was born, the soybean was initially seen as unappetizing, not to mention flatulence inducing. This episode, we tell the story of how people in what's now northeastern China figured out how to turn this legume of last resort into an array of nutritious, delicious foods, from  slippery beancurd skins to silken puddings, and chewy soy crumbles to funky, fermented hairy tofu. Then we introduce the parade of unlikely figures—including Ben Franklin and a 1970s acid casualty who believed he could communicate telepathically with animals—who finally brought this "soybean cheese" to the Western masses. And, finally, we meet the twenty-first century immigrant entrepreneur trying to rebrand tofu from virtuous but boring into something much more delicious and desirable. Listen in now for all that plus Camembert tofu, anarchist zines, and the curious origins of that Thanksgiving favorite, Tofurkey.

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