TRANSCRIPT Ask Gastropod

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Ask Gastropod: White Chocolate, Jimmies, Chile vs. Mustard Burns, and Asparagus Pee, first released on November 21, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

LISTENER 1: Hey, Gastropod!

LISTENER 2: Hello, Cynthia and Nicky!

LISTENER 3: Hello Cynthia. Hello Nicola.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Hi listeners! We always say we love hearing from you and it’s really true—Cynthia and I talk to each other all day long, it’s kind of a bubble, so it’s really lovely to hear from you all and realize our bubble is actually a dome!

CYNTHIA GRABER: You all ask us a lot of questions and have suggestions for episodes, and we’ve been thinking: we’d love to answer them all, but sometimes it seems like the story we would tell wouldn’t quite fill an entire episode. So we came up with a solution! Answer a handful of your questions in an Ask Gastropod quickfire round!

TWILLEY: Well, quick for us—I mean, these are really interesting topics so we still had to do our regular kind of deep dive! You listeners really ask the important questions. like, is white chocolate even chocolate? And why is asparagus pee so stinky?

GRABER: What’s the difference between the burn we experience from chile peppers and the sinus blow-out that happens when we eat horseradish and wasabi? And finally, this is news you can use, in particular for people like me who live in New England: why are chocolate sprinkles called jimmies here, and in a few other places in the US, and…is the word jimmies racist?

TWILLEY: We’ve called up the experts and figured stuff out, and we’ve made this episode as our gift to you. To bring you some answers and to say thank you for listening!

GRABER: We now have a favor to ask of you, too. Sometimes when you send us these emails with your questions, you also say lovely things about the show. You say how you are constantly quoting us at dinner time, you’ve told us we’re your favorite podcast, you’ve said we’re one of the best examples of food journalism out there, and honestly, we’re blushing.

TWILLEY: You love us, we love you, it’s a beautiful thing. And we’d like to keep it that way. Which brings us to our question for you: can you support us? We don’t ask often, but we do really rely on listener support, and so we need you to give if you can.

GRABER: You hear ads, and you might even have noticed that sometimes an episode is supported by a foundation, and those are great, but they’re not enough to make the show. If that was all we got, we couldn’t keep putting out Gastropod. You listeners are critical—it’s because of the support we receive from you that we can keep the show going. But we need more of you to chip in.

TWILLEY: Any amount helps, a dollar an episode, a dollar a month, a one-time donation of whatever you can—more if you want the special extra newsletter we save for supporters, but really, any amount you can give us will help us keep making the show that you love.

GRABER: So head over to or find us on Patreon, whichever you prefer, and please, if you are a fan of the show, help us keep making it for you. And if you already give, thank you! As we always say, we couldn’t do it without you.

TWILLEY: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


HOLLIS MICKEY: Hi Cynthia and Nicky, this is Hollis from Anchorage, Alaska. And so I’m calling in because I eat about three ounces of chocolate every single day. And, some of that chocolate is white chocolate. So, in the elitist chocolate community, it feels a little bit like there is some serious shade on white chocolate. And, it feels like maybe white chocolate… isn’t even chocolate? So, can you help me find out: is white chocolate really chocolate? And, am I just a schlub for including it in my chocolate consumption diet?

GRABER: This is a really valid question. Hollis you are definitely not alone, there are plenty of very opinionated people out there on the internet telling you that you shouldn’t enjoy this food you enjoy—because it’s not really chocolate.

TWILLEY: The argument is that white chocolate doesn’t have any cocoa solids in it—so it’s not brown like cocoa nibs or cocoa powder.

WILLIE HARCOURT-COOZE: But in actual fact, you know, a cocoa bean is made up of more than 50 percent cocoa butter. And although that white chocolate doesn’t have any solids in it, it has a lot of cocoa butter.

TWILLEY: This is actually a bit of a fangirl moment for me. To answer Hollis’s white chocolate question, we decided to call up none other than Willie Harcourt-Cooze.

GRABER: Nicky, you say “none other than,” but I have to admit, I had never heard of Willie Harcourt-Cooze before we called him up.

TWILLEY: He has a special place in my heart because he makes what is, in my opinion, the best chocolate in the world. I’m not surprised you’re not yet acquainted though, Cynthia—Willie’s chocolate is definitely more well known in my home country of England, which is where he’s based. Willie is famous for his single-origin dark chocolate bars, but he told us that actually, his white chocolate, and the way he makes it, is kind of what it’s all about.

HARCOURT-COOZE: I think my white chocolate, on a pedestal, says it all. Simply because it’s just laid bare.

GRABER: This sounds lovely and a little racy.

TWILLEY: My relationship with Willie’s chocolate is passionate.

GRABER: But we still haven’t actually defined white chocolate, other than saying that it has cocoa butter. Is there a standard definition?

HARCOURT-COOZE: So white chocolate is typically made up of, of cocoa butter, sugar. Milk powder. And some people put vanilla and soy lecithin in if you’re an industrial manufacturer.

TWILLEY: Cocoa butter is the key, there has to be a minimum of 20 percent cocoa butter in your white chocolate for it to even count as white chocolate under FDA rules.

GRABER: We’ve said that cocoa butter is half of the cocoa bean, but to make white chocolate, you had to be able to separate out the fat from everything else, from all the brown parts that could be dried and turned into cocoa powder.

TWILLEY: People only figured out how to do that in the 1820s and 1830s. They were trying to make cocoa powder, but they ended up with cocoa butter as a byproduct.

GRABER: Today we think of chocolate mostly in the bar form. But as you might remember from our chocolate episode, chocolate was a drink for a long time. The first contemporary chocolate bar wasn’t made until the mid 1800s. To make a bar, you needed a special press to be able to separate the cocoa solids from the fat, that wasn’t even invented until the 1800s. And then chocolate bar makers combined the fat back in, in the right percentage for a chocolate bar.

TWILLEY: Like Willie said, more than half of a cacao bean is fat. But a normal chocolate bar—whether it’s white, milk, or dark—that’s usually only something like a fifth or a quarter cocoa butter. So there was some spare.

GRABER: At first, like lots of things, this leftover cocoa butter was used in medicine. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature but it melts in your mouth, and so it was good to coat things like pills.

SARAH WASSBERG JOHNSON: And so a lot of the early references for chocolate, particularly white chocolate, are pharmaceutical. And I think it’s because of the cocoa butter. It’s a very smooth coating. So it makes it easier to swallow, literally.

GRABER: Sarah Wassberg Johnson is a food historian, and she’s tried to figure out the origin story for white chocolate.

TWILLEY: Leaving the drugs aside for a second, the standard story about the origins of the very first white chocolate *candy* bar—the story you’ll find if you Google it—is that it was invented about 80 years ago in Switzerland.

WASSBERG JOHNSON: Yeah, so generally, the accepted story of white chocolate is that Nestle introduces it in the 1940s with their commercial candy bar with almonds.

GRABER: The backstory for the candy bar takes us back to medicine. Mr. Henri Nestlé actually first used the white chocolate as a coating for a milk and vitamin tablet called Nestrovit. He was working with a pharma company, they’d created a new product that was made up of condensed milk enriched with vitamins, and he needed an outer layer to protect it from heat, humidity, and light.

TWILLEY: And like we said, white chocolate was well known as the perfect way to help the medicine go down. So far, so great for the vitamin deprived kiddies, but Mr Nestlé thought his dried condensed milk and cocoa butter combo was tasty enough on its own to sell as a candy bar.

GRABER: He launched it in Europe, in mainland Europe it was called Galak and in England it was called a Milkybar. Until now I’d never heard of either one.

TWILLEY: Are you kidding, Cynthia? You grew up without the Milkybar kid?

SINGERS: The Milkybar kid is strong and tough, and only the best is good enough; the creamiest milk; the whitest bars; the good taste that’s in Milkybar.

MILKYBAR KID: The Milkybars are on me!

TWILLEY: Milkybars and Milkybar buttons are two sweetshop staples in the UK, and, as a youth, they were part of my regular rotation alongside Snickers and Mars bars.

GRABER: But so this story of the invention of the Milkybar, this is the legend. Nestle was the first. They used it as a vitamin tablet coating, and then they launched the world’s first use of white chocolate as a confection. But Sarah wasn’t so sure this story was true.

WASSBERG JOHNSON: So one of the first print references I found to white chocolate was from 1869. From the Royal Cookery Book, which is the English translation of a French book, Le Livre de Cuisine, by Jules and Alphonse Gouffé. It’s a cookery book, but it also includes a fair amount of confectionery.

TWILLEY: And one section is devoted to different flavors of what are called caramel tablets. They sound kind of like toffees.

WASSBERG JOHNSON: And then they, so they have a crème de thé, right, a tea caramel. And then underneath that they have white chocolate caramel tablets. So instead of boiling sugar and double cream, instead, you’re boiling sugar and cocoa butter.

GRABER: Sarah found a number of references to white chocolate that show it was being used in sweets before Nestle.

TWILLEY: What’s more, Nestle’s Milkybar or Galak—that wasn’t even the first white chocolate candy *bar.* The very first white chocolate bar was made in the USA, and it was called a Zero Bar. Apparently you can still find it today.

WASSBERG JOHNSON: A zero bar is like, a caramel nougat with almonds, right? And then instead of being enrobed in regular chocolate, it’s enrobed in white chocolate.

GRABER: So clearly Nestle wasn’t the first!

WASSBERG JOHNSON: The zero bar was introduced around 1920. And then it gets the official Zero Bar name in 1934, and that’s really the earliest commercial application of white chocolate in a candy.

TWILLEY: Surprise, surprise the internet is wrong about the origins of white chocolate. But is the internet correct when it says that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate?

GRABER: So one of the reasons people say it’s not chocolate is because it doesn’t taste like chocolate. It tastes like vanilla and sugar. And Willie says that’s because of the industrial white chocolate complex.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Typically, they’re using industrial cocoa butter, which has no flavor or taste. It’s been deodorized, you know, it’s been made from very poor quality beans, which might have all sorts of flavors you can imagine. And so they take all the flavor out of it. So it’s basically just the fat.

TWILLEY: There I was thinking deodorizing was just something you did to your pits. But no. Deodorized cocoa butter has all the chemicals that would give it a smell or flavor removed, using either steam heat, or a solvent, or a mineral-type filter or some combination thereof.

GRABER: Commercial chocolate companies do this for a couple of reasons. As Willie said, they’re often using bad quality beans, so they want to get rid of any off flavors, like something a little rancid, or maybe some notes of mold. But they have other aims in mind, too.

HARCOURT-COOZE: If you’re producing something on a large scale, you know, you want to be able to control the flavor notes all the way through. And by having deodorized, you know, they can make sure their product tastes the same year in, year out.

TWILLEY: So if the only product of the cacao bean in white chocolate is cocoa butter and that cocoa butter has been deodorized, what are your flavor notes?

HARCOURT-COOZE: None at all. None at all. I’ve tasted it. It’s flavorless. It’s absolutely, it is literally just the fat. It’s got no odor, no flavor.

GRABER: So these industrial white chocolate makers have to create a flavor.

HARCOURT-COOZE: They would use white sugar, which has no flavor at all, just sweetness. And they would use milk powder, which probably has very little. It makes things a little bit richer. And so they have to put vanilla. If they don’t put vanilla, there really isn’t any flavor. So that’s why people always associate white chocolate with the flavor of vanilla.

TWILLEY: Oof, things are not looking good for white chocolate here. But then Willie told us that actually, if you start with good quality cacao beans, the resulting cocoa butter does have a unique flavor all of its own.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Oh, it’s, it’s soft, aromatic, cocoa-y… you could almost say sweet, but it’s not. It has a very rounded, full flavor. It’s very hard to describe, actually. When you, when you smell it, it smells like it’s got a cacao aroma of softness.

GRABER: We were able to get our hands on some of this beautiful undeodorized cacao butter from another chocolate maker, his name is Eric Parkes and he makes incredible chocolate in Somerville, called Somerville Chocolate. And he loves to make white chocolate bars too.

TWILLEY: Okay I’m unwrapping my cacao butter.


GRABER: It looks like soap.

TWILLEY: Crumbly soap. It is yellowish. Creamy yellow.

GRABER: Yup. But it has that like fatty look. Like you might kind of rub it on your body, which you do. [NICKY GIGGLING] People do that with cocoa butter. So you know, no reason not to.

TWILLEY: I mean, people do that with chocolate Cynthia I hate to break it to you.


GRABER: I meant as a moisturizer.

TWILLEY: Oh, my god. [SNIFF] It smells like chocolate.

GRABER: It smells like chocolate. It smells like chocolate. This is not deodorized.

TWILLEY: So it passed the sniff test, but what about taste?



TWILLEY: So when you taste it, it’s more just a melting experience.

GRABER: Mm-hmm.

TWILLEY: Although I will say there is an aftertaste of the chocolate-y cacoa perfume, whatever. Whatever we’re calling that.

GRABER: But it’s very delicate.

TWILLEY: Yeah, it’s very delicate, but it is very kind of—it’s slightly floral and very delicate and.

GRABER: It has a sweet flavor… without being sweet, it has, like, sweet notes. I certainly wouldn’t eat it on its own, but if I were to close my eyes and you put this in front of me, I’d know it’s chocolate.

TWILLEY: So when Willie started making white chocolate, of course, he used this high quality un-deodorized cocoa butter. And he didn’t dress it up too much.

HARCOURT-COOZE: You know, I put 30 percent sugar in it, whereas everybody else was putting 40 to 60.

GRABER: So better cocoa butter, less sweet—*and* he didn’t put any vanilla in, because he wanted people to get the real taste of the cocoa butter.

GRABER: So, shall we move on to Willy’s chocolate bar?

TWILLEY: Why not?


TWILLEY: All right.



GRABER: Okay. That was a satisfying break there. [BITE] Oh, my goodness.



TWILLEY: Oh, my God. Mmmm. [EATING] Oh, I’m just getting a wave of pleasure.

GRABER: And it doesn’t—amusingly or interestingly, the smell isn’t as strong a cacao smell as just the plain cocoa butter. And so that and the experience of it is less chocolate-y than the smell of the cocoa butter itself was because you have all this other stuff, you have the milk solids and the sugar and all that. But it’s not like that boring white chocolate covering like, industrial stuff at all.

TWILLEY: No, it tastes like a, very creamy… slightly cocoa-y. Not very cocoa-y. Very creamy. Delicately sweet.


TWILLEY: Rich. Melty. Goodness.

GRABER: Yeah. There’s definitely cocoa notes to it.

TWILLEY: This is kind of the naked version, like Willie said—it’s bare, the cocoa butter really shines. And it’s lovely. But Willie says the other lovely thing about white chocolate is how well it captures and brings out the best in other flavors. He makes a raspberry white chocolate bar, and a matcha white chocolate bar too.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Because matcha is such a delicate flavor, and the matcha was super high quality, it’s Kotobuki, which is ceremonial quality matcha, I lowered the sugar all the way down to 23%, and then suddenly you could taste the matcha in its glory. So, you know, white chocolate is a great medium.

GRABER: Eric of Somerville Chocolates also loves making chocolate bars with white chocolate and he agreed that it can showcase more delicate flavors. We got a couple of those to taste, too, one with maple sugar—it’s kind of like Willie’s naked bar but with a hint of maple. And then another that’s infused with saffron.

TWILLEY: Maple. Okay.

GRABER: Mm-hmm. [EATING] Mmm.

TWILLEY: Mmmm. The thing that I’m liking about both of these chocolates is there’s a lot of lingering effect, you know.

GRABER: And you get the cocoa notes too with this too.

TWILLEY: Exactly. And they keep coming through, like the maple is the first note, but then the cacao follows. Mm. Yum.

TWILLEY: And then the saffron.


TWILLEY: This is my favorite activity that we’ve done for Gastropod in a long time.


GRABER: If you don’t like saffron, you would not like this because it has such an intense flavor.


GRABER: Mm-hmm.

TWILLEY: Mmm! This is actually fascinating because saffron is such a… interesting flavor.

GRABER: It’s not usually a dessert flavor.

TWILLEY: No, but it works Really well.

GRABER: Mm hmm.

TWILLEY: I like this a lot. Mm hmm. It feels very sophisticated. I mean, Which is the opposite of what people say about white chocolate. That feels like oooh that’s a grownup chocolate.

GRABER: It does.

TWILLEY: So our research has conclusively proven that good white chocolate is great for carrying flavors, but it can also have a unique taste of the cocoa bean—not the dark cocoa-y part we associate with chocolate but its more delicate floral side in the cocoa butter. And to Willie that means that white chocolate it is indeed chocolate.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Well, I’m a chocolate maker, you know, and white chocolate is most definitely chocolate. We’ve talked a lot about flavor, but actually, you know, you know, what is it about chocolate that is so beautiful and lovely? You know, that’s why they call it food of the gods, you know, because it melts at body temperature, what melts body temperature, cocoa butter, you know, so, you know, cocoa butter, whether it’s white chocolate or dark chocolate, it’s all food for gods.

GRABER: Yum. But let’s get back to Hollis’s other question, and it’s whether she’s not being refined enough by eating white chocolate, whether she’s kind of a schlub, as she says, for including it in her chocolate consumption.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Well, it’s funny, you know, people really see it as a, you know, a poor cousin of chocolate. And actually, that’s simply because of the manner it’s made. And so if you’ve got a beautiful white chocolate with low sugar and all the flavors from the cocoa butter and the, and the, the sugar and the milk powder, then of course it’s on a completely different level. It’s no longer the poor cousin. And it’s a real gem.

GRABER: Eric told us when he first added white chocolate to his lineup, he thought he’d get people yelling at him for making such a lowbrow bar. Instead they came out of the woodwork wanting to buy it, but they were kind of embarrassed, like, “um, can you get me another four bars, put it in a paper bag, meet me in the parking lot…”

TWILLEY: But Willie says no shame necessary. Good white chocolate not only qualifies as legit chocolate, it’s actually the first thing the world’s greatest chocolate connoisseurs want to eat.

HARCOURT-COOZE: Funnily in, in the Salon de Chocolat, which is a very famous, you know, chocolate fair in Paris. I always used to sell out of white chocolate first.

GRABER: So the answer is: you should enjoy your white chocolate, Hollis, and don’t worry about the haters. We have links for how to find Eric and Willie’s chocolates on our website, But onward, we still have asparagus pee, wasabi heat, and sprinkles to go.

TWILLEY: All the elements of a balanced diet. Coming up after the break.


GRABER: Next up, a burning question.

GINO SEGRE: Hi, I’m Gino. I’m calling from Berkeley. And… I had a question, or many questions, about wasabi. I’ve always been curious about why that spicy experience is not the same as what you would find in peppers.

TWILLEY: For Gino, wasabi and chiles feel really different, and for different amounts of time, too.

SEGRE: Why does the… heat disappear from your palate so quickly, unlike other spicy foods?

TWILLEY: Turns out Gino is not alone. A bunch of you are curious about why different hot things are, well, different. Like why is the tingle of mustard and horseradish different from the burn from chiles, and why does it go up your nose?

GRABER: So basically, botanically and biologically, is the heat from mustard and horseradish and wasabi the same as the heat from a chile pepper?

PAM DALTON: No. [LAUGHS] They’re not the same. They are produced by two different chemical compounds and they bind to two different types of channels in our airways. And so the way we experience them is and should be different.

TWILLEY: Yay, it’s Pam! Pam Dalton is a scientist at the Monell Center in Philadelphia, she was on our chile pepper episode. And in the lab she studies the particular sensory system that feels the burn.

DALTON: We have a third chemical sensing system that’s separate from smell and taste. We call it chemesthesis, but actually it’s more like chemical feel.

TWILLEY: It’s really different from how we sense taste or flavor—it’s more like touch.

GRABER: So Pam said that wasabi and chiles bind to two different channels, those channels are part of a group called transient receptor potential channels, or “trip” channels. These go from our mouth and our nose to our brain.

DALTON: And those are the ones that different chemical irritants bind to and activate differently. So for example, TRP V1, the vanilloid receptor, is the one that the capsaicin, the spicy component of chile peppers, will activate. Whereas the compounds that are irritating in things like mustard or wasabi, horseradish, even radishes, those are isothiocyanates and those bind to the TRP A1 receptor channel.

TWILLEY: Pam says its not like wasabi and mustard only light up the TRP A1 channel—those chemicals also register on the same TRP channel as chile peppers—but they trigger the A1 channel more strongly. So the burn is literally different at the receptor level.

GRABER: And so then how about the fact that when I eat horseradish at the seder on Passover, I feel like my sinuses are getting totally blown out. Hot sauce burns my mouth and my lips but horseradish burns my nose. Why is that?

DALTON: So, even though you put them in your mouth, they vaporize, and they travel up the back of our throat into our nasal cavity. And that’s where they hit those TRP A1 channels and start the burn. And that happens really quickly. It’s, it’s, it’s like somebody punched you in the face, right? When it’s really pungent.

TWILLEY: Pam says there’s also more TRP A1 channels in your nose, there’s just a lot of them there. So of course you feel that wasabi or horseradish especially hard in your nose.

DALTON: In contrast, capsaicin is not volatile. It really only gets semi-volatile when you heat it. So you’ve probably experienced that, if you’re cooking a lot of hot peppers on the stove, and you will volatilize some of the capsaicin then. Now, it doesn’t mean that capsaicin can’t burn your nose. You know, if you rub it on your fingers and then rub the inside of your nose, it will hurt. But that capsaicin isn’t going to be able to be volatilized in your mouth. So it’s not going to hit your nose the same way that the other chemicals in mustard oil, for example, do.

GRABER: Don’t touch the inside of a chile pepper and then stick your finger in your nose, folks. Because while the sinus pain I experience on Passover blows over pretty quickly, and as Gino says, so does wasabi, a chile burn sticks around.

DALTON: Right. Well, certainly when it comes to the mustard irritant, that’s very quick, right? I mean, you feel it almost immediately and then it peaks very quickly and then it’s gone. Capsaicin, on the other hand, has a much different duration. It builds slowly, but once it’s there, it can last for quite a long time. And that’s because it’s not washed away by our saliva. It’s not water soluble. So you can drink all the ice water you want, and it’ll make your mouth feel temporarily cooler, but it’s not going to get rid of those capsaicin molecules that are in your oral cavity. So. Mustard oil, fast, but quickly over. Capsaicin, a slow rise, but it can burn for a really long time.

TWILLEY: So basically they’re activating different receptors, they’re hitting different parts of your body, and they stick around for different amounts of time. Totally different kinds of burn.

GRABER: What would be useful is a way to measure the burn-i-ness of both of those burns. And in fact Pam told us that one of her colleagues is trying to compare the burn from a bunch of these chemicals at different potencies. She’s doing the study in mice and trying to come up with, like, a rating system.

DALTON: Which would be a more objective way of doing it than actually asking people to put it on a scale. And it would be helpful to a lot of people, I think, in the food industry. You know, in chemical regulatory things. To know that you could scale potency of irritation without having to ask a person.

TWILLEY: When Pam’s colleague is done, dear listeners, you’ll be able to put a cold hard number on your varying burn sensations rather than just enjoying them.

GRABER: But here’s the real question: they might be different burns, but they’re all burns, so why are we eating something that feels like it’s hurting us? Clearly these channels in our mouth are there to protect us.

DALTON: Well, this is obviously a system that can sense noxious pain, noxious cold, and also chemicals that produce inflammation. So, this is a safety system for us to be able to experience these. Now, that always begs the question as to why people enjoy having these noxious sensations. And there’s a million speculations about this. Some of it has to do with it being sort of like, being on a roller coaster, doing something that feels dangerous, but you ultimately know isn’t, and it’s over and you’re fine. And that little bit of endorphin rush that comes from that.

TWILLEY: We talked about these endorphins in our chile pepper episode, and you should go listen to that. But meanwhile, if you’re a fan of heat in all its shades of burn, then spare a thought for the poor naked mole rat and also all birds—they can’t feel this kaleidoscope of different burns. Birds can feel wasabi heat but not chile heat, and naked mole rats don’t get a tingle from either.

GRABER: Many reasons to pity the naked mole rat. But onto question number 3:

CHRIS BRAINARD: My name is Chris Brainard, and I am from Maynard, Massachusetts. And my question is, I’ve heard that… sprinkles can come in chocolate variety and rainbow variety, and I’ve also heard the chocolate sprinkles called jimmies. And I’m curious to know more about where that came from. I was out for ice cream with a friend of mine and, you know, I’ve grown up calling them jimmies. And so I asked for, you know, my normal chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream with jimmies on them and my friend was horrified that I said the word jimmies. And I said, you know, I had no idea what I’d said wrong.

TWILLEY: Chris’s friend said that the term jimmies is racist, and Chris wanted to know, is that really true?

GRABER: We are here to investigate. So I should say that I grew up in Maryland and then moved to Boston a little after college, and that was the first time I’d heard the term jimmies.

TWILLEY: This episode is the first time I’ve heard it.

GRABER: So to define them for all you listeners out there, jimmies are chocolate sprinkles.

RICHARD AUFFREY: And they’re usually put on ice cream, cakes, and as a decoration, an added little chocolate bit for a lot of desserts.

TWILLEY: This is Richard Auffrey, a freelance food and drink writer who has gone deep on sprinkles. Or jimmies, assuming it’s not offensive to call them that.

GRABER: It seems like there are a few places where you might have grown up calling chocolate sprinkles jimmies. New England and the Philadelphia area seem to be the two prime ones, and there are a few others… sprinkled around the US. Not a lot, though.

TWILLEY: But why? Why call a sprinkle a jimmy?

AUFFREY: The most prominent legend is Just Born candy company. Which was, originally up in New England somewhere. They claimed that during the 1930s, they were making these chocolate sprinkles. And one of the operators of the machine was named Jimmy. So they decided to come up with this cool name using Jimmy. To call their new chocolate sprinkle invention.

GRABER: So Just Born says they invented chocolate sprinkles from scratch and they claim they invented the name ‘jimmy’ for this delicious creation.

TWILLEY: Just Born is still a legit candy company today, they make such gourmet delights as Peeps, and Mike and Ikes, and Hot Tamales. But Richard felt like their jimmy story was not so legit.

GRABER: So he started to do some research.

AUFFREY: Well, I tried to find where they might have originated first, going through all old newspaper archives.

TWILLEY: And sure enough, chocolate sprinkles turned up in the archives before Just Born’s supposed invention in the 30s.

AUFFREY: Around 1915, they were called chocolate shots. And it was basically, that’s what a sprinkle was, was a chocolate shot.

GRABER: And actually sprinkles themselves go back even earlier than 1915. Stella Parks was on our cookie episode, and she wrote a great cookbook called Brave Tart. In it she has a bit of the history of sprinkles in general.

TWILLEY: So, like white chocolate, sprinkles started out as a vehicle for medicine. These early sprinkles were not little strings but instead the tiny round ball type of sprinkles—we call them hundreds and thousands in England.

GRABER: And the reason you call them that is apparently pharmacists liked little sugar balls, and they said they wanted ones so tiny that an ounce would contain hundreds and even thousands of them. And that became the pharmacists term for sprinkle balls, hundreds and thousands.

TWILLEY: At the time, these tiny little sprinkle balls would have been the coating on a super potent drug, like opium. But by the end of the 1800s, medicine was moving on from its sugar pellet phase, and sprinkle ball makers had to focus on a new market.

GRABER: They marketed the sprinkle balls as decorations for cakes and cookies and the like, and they made them in different shapes and sizes. They were called things like pellets, mites, and rifle balls and shots. Like chocolate shots.

TWILLEY: As Richard discovered. At the time, in the early 20th century, it seems like a lot of different people were coming up with their own version of tiny sugar decorations, some were multicolored, some were chocolate flavored. They were the trend. In part because ice cream was the trend.

AUFFREY: During the early 1900s, ice cream and soda fountains were extremely popular. Women could go to ice cream parlors without any problems. They did have some issues sometimes going to different restaurants and such on their own. But ice cream parlors were a place that women were permitted to go, so they did a lot of social activities there. And of course, children love ice cream and such.

GRABER: And soda fountain owners were looking for fun new exciting flavors and treats.

AUFFREY: And so adding chocolate sprinkles to something was something new and exciting.

GRABER: There originally were lots of different names for these decorations, but everyone knows you sprinkle them on, and so somehow sprinkle just became the generic term for them.

TWILLEY: So where did the name jimmies come from?

AUFFREY: There’s no actual person I can identify who created it. But a couple of different sources in Pennsylvania had mentioned it. And what’s kind of key is that in 1932, Just Born moved their plant down to Pennsylvania. So they would have heard the term jimmies being used down there. And I think they probably just adopted it at that point, and then created this myth later on.

TWILLEY: Richard hasn’t stopped searching for the true origin of jimmies, and recently he made a new discovery from 1925 in Chicago.

AUFFREY: There’s a reference to ice cream, jimmies, and cake. But they don’t exactly describe what that is. And if it’s actually jimmies on top of the ice cream or a combination. Which, they did have combinations at a time where they would combine jimmies with ice cream, chocolate sprinkles with ice cream. So. Jimmies could go as far back as 1925 in Chicago.

GRABER: Maybe this is why there are some communities in the midwest that call them jimmies, too. But Richard hasn’t solved this question definitively, nobody knows where the term jimmy actually started and why.

TWILLEY: Some sources suggest that it comes from a British expression, jim jams, which these days actually means pajamas, like oh I’m just watching TV in my jimjams. But apparently used to mean the jitters, like he’s got a bad case of the jimjams. Which maybe? Who knows. The quest continues.

GRABER: In New England, jimmies has long been basically THE term for chocolate sprinkles, and Richard thinks it’s because of a popular local ice cream company named Brigham’s, it’s been around for more than a century.

AUFFREY: Brigham’s, you know, they’ve—at one point they also claimed to have invented jimmies.

GRABER: They claim they named it after the charity the Jimmy Fund which raises money for a very well respected research center at a local hospital. But that only started in 1948, Brigham’s definitely did not create the name.

AUFFREY: But they did use it a lot. I mean, when I was growing up as a child, anytime I’d go to Brigham’s, they’re always talking about jimmies and such. And every little kind of ice cream shop that you stopped at had jimmies.

TWILLEY: All of this is important information but it doesn’t help our poor listener Chris who is worried that she’s accidentally saying something racist. Should she be worried?

AUFFREY: There’s nothing I found in my research that would indicate it had a racist origin, but the term itself, jimmies, does have racist connotations.

GRABER: It has that association because of the similarity to Jim, like Jim Crow laws. These laws mandated racial segregation in the south after the Civil War. And they lasted until the 1960s.

TWILLEY: And those Jim Crow laws were apparently named after a song in a minstrel show from the 1830s where a performer in blackface had a whole song and dance routine that made fun of a not very bright black man. Because of that the term Jim or Jimmy became a slur for black men in the 1800s.

GRABER: But the term jimmy doesn’t seem to have had any negative connotation about Black men as a term to call them, like calling someone a jimmy, for well over a century. So as far as we can tell, chocolate jimmies are not racist.

TWILLEY: So when we order our soft serve with the little chocolate bits in Boston or Philly, should we call them jimmies or sprinkles?

AUFFREY: [LAUGHS] I probably use both terms only because I’ve been doing it so long and you know, I don’t think about it as much. I don’t think of it as a racist term, but I do understand, you know, the concern.

GRABER: I can say that around Boston these days, you’re less likely to see chocolate sprinkles called jimmies in a local ice cream shop than you used to be. There’s definitely been a change—I wonder if the term might end up dying out entirely.

TWILLEY: Listen, hundreds and thousands works for me! Although I think you’d get a blank stare if you tried that in most of the US. I like the Dutch term too, hagelslag, very satisfying to mispronounce.

GRABER: Now that we’ve satisfyingly answered Chris’s question about sprinkles, we have one more question this episode—asparagus pee is coming up, after the break.


ANGELA HESTER: Okay, this is Angela. I’m in Greenville, South Carolina area. And my question was about asparagus pee. My sisters and I all get it. It’s just like this really, really rancid smelling urine you get after eating asparagus. And I always thought it was just kind of a small percentage of the population that it affected, but… the more I talk to people the more I found out that other people experience it too. So. [LAUGHS] I just wonder what causes asparagus pee.

TWILLEY: First of all, my mind is already blown because I thought everyone got asparagus pee. I mean, I do.

GRABER: I do, too. And I never quite believe it when people say they don’t.

TWILLEY: And Cynthia, you and I are not alone. The people of Tiktok are shocked, too!

MAN: Here’s something I didn’t know until I was in my 30s. Not everyone can smell asparagus pee. …Honey, can you smell asparagus pee?


MAN: What?!

WOMAN: Okay. So, I just found out something nuts and I can’t… I’m not okay. I thought it was a universal experience that when you eat asparagus, like, half hour later when you pee, you smell the asparagus pee. And THEN I found out that this is not a universal experience. That there are people who do not smell asparagus pee.

GRABER: So we called up an expert.

DANIEL WHITEHEAD: My name is Dan Whitehead. I’m an associate professor and associate department chair of chemistry at Clemson university.

TWILLEY: Dan is obviously not a professor of asparagus pee, but he is kind of a bad smell expert—a big part of his research focuses on how to capture and mitigate noxious odors. And asparagus pee qualifies.

WHITEHEAD: Well, the smell is pretty putrid. I mean, it smells sort of like a rotten egg, sulfury, smell. Typical of small sulfur-containing molecules.

GRABER: And sulfur is relevant because it’s the culprit. Asparagus contains a compound called asparagusic acid, and it’s made up of sulfur and carbon.

WHITEHEAD: And then when we consume asparagus, those materials get trafficked to our kidneys and they get metabolized into small molecules that are much more volatile and smelly.

TWILLEY: Basically, your kidneys chew up this bigger molecule and unlock the sulfur, so that it’s now in much smaller molecules that, importantly, are also much lighter.

WHITEHEAD: They take to the air very easily and they smell… pretty bad. They all have this rotten egg kind of putrid smell.

GRABER: And it happens fast. These chemicals go straight from your stomach into your bloodstream and from there straight to your kidneys, so if you had asparagus in your salad course, you might even notice it in the bathroom by dessert time. Daniel says that funky pee smell can last up to about 24 hours.

TWILLEY: You can’t smell the sulfur while it’s still in the asparagus because it’s in that larger asparagusic acid format. And that acid is also bound up with other chemicals in the plant.

WHITEHEAD: And so they’re sort of incorporated in the plant fibers themselves. And so they don’t tend to, don’t tend to get out into the air until you start to break the material down in your stomach.

GRABER: But so why does the plant make asparagusic acid in the first place?

WHITEHEAD: So, people have studied asparagusic acid that has been isolated from asparagus. And it does tend to have some mild biological activity. So it can actually prevent fungal growth. It can help and inhibit the growth of parasites, like nematodes, which are flatworms. And they seem to think it may also repel insect attack on the plant.

TWILLEY: Sounds great, and it’s kind of asparagus’s exclusive super power. No other plant that we know of makes asparagusic acid.

GRABER: But other foods like brussels sprouts and cabbage and even garlic and coffee also have sulfur compounds in them, why don’t they make our pee smell?

WHITEHEAD: So, you know. The way I think about this is that, you know, anything that we eat, it has two primary exit routes and depending on the nature of the compounds that are in that food, they get processed in one direction or the other. And so, for whatever reason, asparagusic acid tends to go the route of the kidneys and whereas the other sulfur based compounds and other foods may, take the other route.

TWILLEY: And the material that takes exit route number 2 tends to end up with its own whole bouquet of odors anyway, so we don’t notice the sulfur as much.

GRABER: But now the question that has stumped all of us who experience asparagus pee—what, some of you out there don’t? What is going on?

WHITEHEAD: So, there are two things there. So, there is a subset of people that do not produce odor when they eat asparagus. There is also a subset of people who have a genetic mutation that prevents them from smelling these compounds.

TWILLEY: That first subset, the people who don’t make the smelly compounds when they eat asparagus, they are a pretty niche group. It seems based on the small amount of research on this topic that about 8 percent of people don’t have smelly pee post-asparagus consumption.

GRABER: When it comes to people who don’t smell it, both the DNA testing company 23andMe and Harvard University have looked into that recently. And that’s more like maybe 30-50 percent of all people.

WHITEHEAD: And so if you say that you don’t produce these odors, it may be possible that you don’t produce them, but it also may be possible that you just can’t tell that you’re producing them.

TWILLEY: Check with a bathroom buddy I guess.

GRABER: Please, any friend out there, don’t ever ask me to come in and smell your pee. That might be a step too far.

TWILLEY: I’m not offering it as a service either. But we were curious, given Dan’s expertise in designing materials that can capture odorous molecules: could he design an anti asparagus pee toilet?

WHITEHEAD: We can capture that material with the, with the nanoparticles that we make. So, it is possible to design things like that. It just depends on, you know, the cost of doing something like that versus… just putting up with asparagus pee every now and then.

GRABER: I’m guessing it’d be kind of expensive, so you know, I can live with asparagus pee. It’s surprising sometimes, I go to the bathroom and I’m like, wait, I ate asparagus last night? Oh yeah I did! But it’s also not a big deal.

TWILLEY: Maybe I’m weird but, I don’t even think it’s that gross. But hey, toilet entrepreneurs looking for new features to add to your high end models? Dan’s your man.


GRABER: And that is it for our Ask Gastropod quickfire round. Keep the questions coming, we had a lot of fun making this, and we’ll definitely do it again some time in the future!

TWILLEY: We also need you to keep the support coming. Like we said at the start, we actually rely on listener support to be able to keep making the show, so if you enjoy what you hear, please go to gastropod dot com slash support and help us keep making the show you love. Any amount helps, truly.

GRABER: Thanks this episode to all our listeners for their questions, and especially to our donors at the supreme fan level: Jim Webb, Anna Mogavero, Robert Fenerty, Joan Hessidence & Rick Wall, Aspen Carner, Gemma Ross, Jeff Mosqueda, Jackie Winston, and Ann and Hugh Bynum.

TWILLEY: You are legends, and we are so grateful. Thanks also to my true chocolate love, Willie Harcourt-Cooze, as well as to Sarah Wassberg Johnson, Pam Dalton, Richard Auffrey and Dan Whitehead for jumping on the phone with us to answer your questions.

GRABER: Thanks also, as always, to our superstar producer Claudia Geib. Happy Thanksgiving to those of you in the US who are celebrating, and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks, ‘til then!