Readers’ wildlife photos

August 15, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have another informative contribution from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior; his narrative is indented and the photos (credited) can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Cognitive dissonances: chocolate vs midges, wine vs wasps

Theobroma cacao. Named after the Greek theos (god) and broma (food), the cacao plant is, as any chocoholic would agree, the’ food of the gods’.

Cacao beans made their way to Europe as medicine: the cocoa drink cacahuatl (bitter water) of the Maya and Aztec peoples was considered a palliative to abdominal pains and other illnesses. When someone thought of sweetening the paste made of cacao beans, chocolate left the apothecary’s shelf for the kitchen and then for the factories. Joseph Fry – who created the first chocolate bar and Easter egg – Henri Nestlé, Rodolphe Lindt, Milton Hershey and many others helped build an ever-growing industry. Today, Americans and Europeans consume more than US$100 billion worth of chocolate annually, produced mostly in West Africa.

Fig. 1. A possible Maya lord sits before a container of frothed chocolate. Wikipedia (image in the public domain).

Not many people know that chocolate production, and by extension the livelihoods of countless small-scale cacao farmers in the developing world, depend on the finicky pollination requirements of the cacao flower.

Cacao blooming occurs simultaneously and extensively: in a short time, the plant’s trunk and main branches are covered with thousands of flowers. This feature is known as cauliflory.

Fig. 2. Cacao flowers sprouting from a tree trunk © Kurt Stueber, Wikimedia Commons.

The flowers cannot self-fertilize, so they are entirely dependent on pollinators. But the blossoms are small, have a convoluted hooded shape and face downwards. So bees, hoverflies and other common flower visitors do not bother with them, or just can’t reach their pollen and nectar. If flowers are not fertilized, they abscise (drop off) the next day: only 1 to 10% of all flowers develop into a fruit.

Fig. 3. A cacao flower © Crista Castellanos, Wikimedia Commons.

Fig. 4. Cacao beans in a pod © Aude, Wikipedia.

This apparently inefficient reproductive apparatus makes no sense until we are reminded that the cacao plant originated from the rainforests of Central and South America. These are hot, dense, dark and moist environments, choked with rotten wood and decomposing leaf litter. This type of habitat is hostile to many sun-loving pollinators, but it’s perfect for one group of insects – biting midges.

These are ceratopogonid midges (family Ceratopogonidae), of which the 1,000 or so species from the genus Forcipomyia are particularly important for our story. Male and female flies spend most of the day hidden in the forest’s shady spots, coming out in swarms of enormous numbers in the early morning and late afternoon to collect nectar from cacao flowers. Adults live for about a week, but there are about 12 generations per year. Thanks to their small size – 1 to 3 mm in length – midges can squeeze their way into the pollen-producing anthers of the unreceptive cacao flowers. For pollination to happen at a satisfactory scale, all it takes is a few pollen grains attached to the thoracic hairs of a fraction of the millions of pesky flies.

Fig. 5. A male Forcipomyia sp. midge © Christophe Quintin, CC BY-NC 2.0

Traditionally, cacao has been grown in shaded areas intercropped with native trees that were spared when the forest was cleared for cultivation. Today, cacao often grows in open plantations, which do not have the damp and shady conditions required by biting midge larvae. Also, within commercial plantations, the time of peak flower abundance may be out of synch with the peak of midge populations. The loss of midge habitat may explain in part why cocoa production has been decreasing, even though demand has increased annually.

However limited our knowledge about midge pollination, it’s far more than what we know about other potential candidates: aphids and thrips. In some situations, these may pollinate more cacao flowers than midges. Whatever the relative contribution of these insects, it’s evident that the cacao plant is a peculiar customer; it has no use for the traditional pollinators (bees, moths, bats or birds).

Fig. 6. Advertisement for Cadbury’s cocoa in The Graphic, 1885. Wikipedia (image in the public domain).

I saw a wasp upon a wall
And did not like his face at all:
And so the creature had no time
To wonder whether he liked mine.

‘Plain Murder’, by A.G. Prys-Jones

As you undergo an epiphany about midges, you may find room to accommodate wasps in your positive thoughts.

Social wasps (yellowjackets in America) of the genera Vespula such as the common (V. vulgaris) and the German wasp (V. germanica) surely are contenders for the accolade of most hated and feared insects. That’s a shame, because there is more to them than being flying thugs.

Adult wasps feed mostly on high-energy sugars and carbohydrates from foods such as nectar and fruit. They are not covered with fuzzy hair, so are much less efficient pollinators than bees. Even so, wasps are thought to be the main pollinators of ivy (Hedera spp.), which flowers late in the year, a time when the number of bees diminishes. Because of their high energy content, ivy fruits are important for many farmland and garden birds, so wasps contribute to their food supply.

Fig. 7. A German wasp © Richard Bartz, Wikimedia Commons.

But no sugar will do for the larvae – they need protein. Which is provided by the adults in the form of soft-bodied invertebrates such as caterpillars, flies, spiders and beetle larvae. Researchers in New Zealand (Harris, 1991. N. Zealand J. Zool. 18: 159–169; Brock et al., 2021. Biol. Rev. 96: 1645–1675) estimated that wasps capture ~0.8 to 4.8 million prey items per hectare per season (1.4 to 8.1 kg of prey/ha), which is equivalent to what is taken by all insectivorous birds in the same area. The figures elsewhere are likely to be lower, but nonetheless it is evident that wasps are voracious predators, and thus gardeners’ and farmers’ allies.

Fig. 8. A common wasp captures a horsefly © Robert Goossens, Wikimedia Commons.

Wasps may spoil your picnic, but without them, your hamper could have been deprived of bread, beer and wine.

Yeasts – especially Saccharomyces cerevisiae – have been fundamental to baking, brewing and winemaking throughout human history.

Fig. 9. Marmite, a black goo made from yeast extract (a by-product of beer brewing). This quintessentially British product was discovered by the German scientist Justus Liebig (1803-1873) of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum fame © WestportWiki, Wikimedia Commons.

In nature, yeast cells are found primarily on ripe fruits during the summer months. Since S. cerevisiae is not airborne, it must rely on vectors to move from plant to plant. For years it has been assumed that birds or bees were responsible for transporting yeast cells, but nobody could explain how they survived the winter. Italian and French researchers (Stefanini et al., 2012. PNAS 109: 13398–13403) suspected that wasps were involved because they feed on yeast-harbouring grapes, and their nests are hibernation havens for microorganisms.

The research team analysed samples from vineyards around Italy to find several species and hundreds of strains of yeast in the wasps’ guts. Some were related to wine strains of S. cerevisiae, others were similar to bread strains. Also, yeasts persisted through the winter in the insects’ guts, and were transferred to the larvae via the food regurgitated by the queen. And there’s more: S. cerevisiae produced spores, germinated and mated inside wasps’ guts (Stefanini et al., 2016. PNAS 113: 2247–2251). The results demonstrated a strong connection between social wasps and the diversity and abundance of yeasts.

Fig. 10. Wasps breaking and eating grape berries © Thomas Quine, Wikimedia Commons.

Wasps may be a nuisance now and then, but possible clashes with us are easily avoided. They are not aggressive outside the nest; when they hover persistently over your bottle of lemonade or sandwich, they are interested only in the food and will not deliberately attack you. If a wasp flies towards your food, wait for it to go away; flapping your arms increases the chances of entrapping it, which could end up in tears. However, wasps will defend their nest aggressively if disturbed or threatened. If you find yourself near a nest, retreat without producing much vibration or noise.

So next time someone asks what’s the point of wasps, you can say they are fascinating creatures with complex social organisation; they help control pests, and your wine or beer may depend on them. So there.

Fig. 11. A Michelangelo moment thanks to humble wasps.

On the way home

May 5, 2022 • 8:00 am

Well, I would have gotten home today at a reasonable time (about 8 pm) until I got an email message from United Airlines that our flight to IAD (where I was supposed to change for Chicago) was delayed for 2.5 hours. (It involved something about giving the crew proper rest time.) This means I’ll miss my scheduled connection and have been rebooked to arrive in Chicago at midnight.  And then I have to decide whether to try making it home at that late hour (it’s a long way) or waiting at the airport till the trains from O’Hare start running at about 5 a.m.

At any rate, I was relieved to pass my covid test (a rapid test) when we left the ship, as I didn’t want to quarantine in Lisbon until I tested negative. (We had was no covid on our small ship, though two prospective passengers tested positive in Tenerife and couldn’t go on the trip.)

So, in honor of Portugal and its thriving sardine canneries, producing a product I can’t abide, here’s a store at the Lisbon airport that sells only duty free sardines. It’s a pity I can’t abide this malodorous fish.

Still eating. . .

April 25, 2022 • 10:00 am

I can tell already that our days are so packed with sightseeing that I’ll have little time to write posts and put up photos. We have two days at sea soon, so I’ll try to catch up.

Today we are at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria island, and have a whole-day trip, including a visit to “Christopher Columbus’s House,” which must have been where he stayed on his trip. I will take pictures, but am starting to realize that most will be posted after my return.

So have some food. Lunch today will be at Gabinete Literario in town, a “historical local restaurant in the Vengueta-Triana area.

Dinner is very fancy on the ship; apparently they brought in a big-name chef aboard, and it shows.

La carte:

Chickpea and lentil salad (a bit bland, but what do you expect?). The goat cheese definitely improved it.

Rack of lamb dijonnaise. Excellent!

Varhoina chocolate tart (many of these dishes are assembled at a table in the dining room. This was spectacular (desserts are the best!), and that’s a cylindrical chocolate-soaked biscuit to the right.

I decided to have a relatively healthy breakfast: coffee and avocado toast with a poached egg:

On to Las Palmas!

Dinner on board

March 1, 2022 • 5:22 pm

The passengers are learning their way about the ship, and I needed some relearning as well, for the food-dispensation system has changed. My situation is doubly complicated because I’m a hybrid between crew and passenger, and the crew eats in the crew mess, usually gobbling down food to get back to work. It’s not a place to linger, but it’s where you have to go to meet the terrific group of young staff and the working crew who serve everyone else.

I secured permission to eat in both places, as I want to eat with both passengers who listen to my talks and like to learn about evolution at dinner or lunch. I swear: cruise-ship passengers are a gazillion times more enthusiastic than many undergraduate students, and love to discuss stuff and ask questions.

But the first five days, as a “bubble”, I couldn’t swap around, so I’ll eat with the PAX (ship and plane slang for “passengers”) for five days and then swap as the laws of physics dictate between the crew mess and the dining rooms.

Tonight, though, hungry and sleepless, I opted to do the simplest thing: order takeout from the informal “Fredheim”, which is bascially a very high-class burger joint that serves burgers and other simple things for dinner, but for takeout only burgers. They let me order one of their milkshakes, though, which are justifiably famous (you’re not supposed to take out the shakes). I just ate in my cabin what is below: a rare “Fredheim classic” burger with fries, garlic aoli, pickle chunks, and a piece of raisin spice cake. It was terrific. I’ll wait till tomorrow before I eat “normal” passenger food, but I do tend to avoid the fancy dinners served in courses. And there’s a side of hand sanitizer if you want a drink.

Did I say the shakes were terrific? This being a Norwegian ship, sometimes that have lingonberry or cloudberry shakes, and those are to die for. I don’t think I’ve had a milkshake in over five years, and have forgotten how well their sweetness complements a good burger.

More to come as I slowly absorb the rhythms of the cruise and my tasks. I haven’t even looked at the news from Ukraine today!

p.s. The name Fredheim comes from a famous trapper’s cabin in Svalbard (Spitzbergen):

The goal for the tour is Fredheim, the hunting base of the legendary trapper, Hilmar Nøis, who spent 38 winters on Svalbard. Nøis was known as the ‘King of Sassen’, but actually planned to be a fisherman. He was so troubled by sea sickness however, that he decided to become a hunter on Svalbard instead. Many of the trappers cabins on Svalbard are of the simplest sort, but Villa Fredheim is an exception. With its flag pole, potted plants and curtains, this two storey villa was a palace in comparison to the other. Despite the ‘luxurious’ standard, it is hard not to feel enormous respect for Nøis and his family who lived in the wilderness winter after winter.

 

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 11, 2021 • 8:00 am

When I was a kid in Virginia, I knew where there was a pawpaw tree in the woods, and at the right time of year I’d gather the ripe ones and gorge myself. They are superb: the American equivalent of mangos.  Here’s a post from reader Leo Glenn about the American pawpaw and its fruit.  They’re not much grown commercially, as far as I know, so try to find a wild tree—or plant one yourself, as Leo did.

Leo’s captions are indented and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

In heeding your call for more wildlife photos, I thought I would offer something a little different. The photos themselves are no great shakes, but hopefully the subject matter will be informative and of interest to your readers. After acquiring our house and property in western Pennsylvania 15 years ago, we began to look for interesting and unusual native trees and shrubs to plant, particularly ones which provide food and/or wildlife habitat. I’ve had a keen interest since childhood in edible and medicinal wild plants, so I was very surprised to learn of a native tree that I had not heard of before, apart from a vague memory of a childhood song. The Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is indigenous to the eastern United States and Canada, and its fruit is the largest native tree fruit in North America. It’s also the only species in its family (Annonaceae) that is not tropical. It’s related to the custard apple (Annona reticulata), soursop (A. muricata), and the cherimoya (A. cherimola).

We have been growing pawpaws now for over 12 years, and have around 20 trees, eight of which are bearing fruit. We also discovered a wild patch along a river bank about a half-hour drive from our home.

Here is a map of the pawpaw’s native range, including some of the Native American names for it. Prior to the ice ages, the species was propagated by megafauna, which ate the fruit and distributed the large seeds. After the extinction of the megafauna and the introduction of Homo sapiens, the fruit was widely eaten and propagated by Native Americans. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello, and they were supposedly one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. Lewis and Clark survived on them during part of their travels, and Mark Twain extolled their virtues. At some point, however, they were all but forgotten.

Pawpaws are understory trees that form clonal patches, which may partly explain their scarcity in Pennsylvania, as the majority of woodland was clearcut here by the early 1900s. The only remaining wild patches here tend to be along river banks. They are more common in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and elsewhere in their native range, where they are sometimes called “Prairie Banana.” Here is a pawpaw tree, surrounded by its clonal “children.”

Pawpaw blossoms are perfect, containing both male and female parts, but are protogynous—the stigma matures before the pollen—generally requiring two genetically different trees for pollination (though some self-fertile trees have been found). This is why many clonal patches often produce little or no fruit. The blossoms are pollinated primarily by flies and beetles, have a fleshy color and a slightly fetid odor. Some pawpaw growers hang animal carcasses on the trees to attract pollinators, a practice I have not been tempted to try.

Pawpaws are often compared to bananas, partly because of the flavor and the fact that they are highly perishable, but also because of the manner in which the fruit grows.

Pawpaws growing in a wild patch along the Allegheny River.

Some of our pawpaws:

Pawpaws have few insect pests (the bark and leaves contain annonacin, a natural pesticide), though they are the exclusive larval hosts for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Protographium marcellus). I have yet to find one on any of our trees or at the one wild patch I know of, so sadly I cannot offer a photo. I did notice some signs of caterpillar damage on the leaves, but was unable to discover the culprit, until I ventured out at night with a headlamp and caught this fellow, a Tulip-Tree Beauty caterpillar (Epimecis hortaria), happily munching away.

Pawpaws ripen in late August and September in the warmer parts of their range, but here in northwestern Pennsylvania, we have to wait until early October, and keep our fingers crossed that we don’t get an early hard frost. They can be picked when the surface gives slightly to the touch and they begin to emit a sweet aroma.

The flesh of pawpaw fruit varies in color, from a pale, cream color to bright yellow-orange, and has a rich, custard-like consistency, often described as a vanilla or banana custard, though it can have hints of mango, cantaloupe, and other flavors. Some find it too cloying, but my family and I consider it to be one of the most exquisite fruits we have ever tasted. Unfortunately, it is highly perishable and, like bananas and avocados, can go from under-ripe to perfect to over-ripe in the blink of an eye. This has presented formidable challenges to the efforts of some people to commercialize the fruit. Interest in the fruit has been building, however. You can find them at some farmers markets, and there are small-scale pawpaw growers in parts of the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

For those seeking additional information about this remarkable native species, I recommend looking up R. Neal Peterson (petersonpawpaws.com). As a plant geneticist in the 1970s, he came across some pawpaw trees, tasted one of the fruits, and had an epiphany. He has since devoted his career to studying the species and promoting it as a commercial crop. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of interest in the fruit and has developed a number of exquisite cultivars. I had the great pleasure of meeting him, and he very kindly and patiently endured my many questions. A good book to read is Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, by Andrew Moore. There are a handful of festivals devoted to the pawpaw, but the first and by far the biggest is the Ohio Pawpaw Festival (ohiopawpawfest.com), in Albany, Ohio, which is happening soon (Sept. 17-19). It’s a wonderful mix of educational presentations, live music, and fantastic food, including pawpaw beer. We first attended in 2008 when, after planting a half dozen young pawpaw trees, it occurred to me that it would be a great disappointment if, after waiting for 7-10 years for our trees to bear fruit, we discovered that we hated pawpaws. So we went to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival to try one, and went back every year after that for the next 10 years.

How to get ketchup on your hot dog in Chicago

September 10, 2021 • 1:45 pm

by Greg Mayer

Kim and Carlo’s Hot Dog Cart, on the plaza northeast of the Field Museum, serves genuine Chicago style dogs, and has a very specific policy about putting ketchup on hot dogs:

Kim and Carlo’s ketchup policy.

The Museum Campus (the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium are all right there) attracts lots of of out-of-towners, and on a recent visit to Kim and Carlo’s I overheard a discussion among a family as they approached the cart that included the line, “I just want one with ketchup.” I did not stay to see how that went!

(One addendum to Jerry’s list of ingredients— green relish, which on a true Chicago dog is a neon shade of green not often seen outside of a Chicago dog.)

JAC: Oy, how could I forget that??? But this sign shows you how seriously Chicagoans take their dogs. Seriously, ketchup on a dog throws the whole thing out of balance!

Unintentional humor of the day: Why French food is racist and expresses white supremacy

June 24, 2021 • 11:15 am

The days are gone when I was compelled to take apart papers about feminist glaciology or the unbearable whiteness of pumpkins, yoga, and Pilates. This kind of insanity has become daily fare, and one no longer has to wonder whether it’s a parody or not—it isn’t.  Below, for example, is a long screed about how French food is the apotheosis of white cuisine, ergo is white supremacist, racist, and colonialist. You can read it, but the laughs quickly diminish as you realize that author Mathilde Cohen is absolutely serious in her contentions.

Now it’s no surprise to readers here that I’m a big fan of French food. But I’m not that keen on the the haute or nouvelle cuisine that’s pricey and comes in small portions. I prefer bourgeois cuisine, what the regular people eat who aren’t so poor that can’t afford any decent food. Give me a cassoulet, a coq au vin, a good steak frites, or a haricot mouton, and I’m in paradise—so long as there’s endless bread and a decent bottle of wine. But it turns out that, to Mathilde Cohen, the whole megillah of French food is white, white, white, as well as colonialist and oppressive. Now nobody will deny that France has been a colonial power, and that racism persists in France. But to assert that racism is embodied in the cuisine is an insupportable claim.

Click on the screenshot to read. You can also download a pdf at the site.

Her argument, which I claim works for any cuisine from white countries (or indeed, any cuisine anywhere), is to connect food, which is invariably something a nation prides itself on, with some bad trait of the nation, and then say that they’re connected because they’re both part of the same country. I kid you not! Here’s the abstract!

Food is fundamental to French identity. So too is the denial of structural racism and racial identity. Both tenets are central to the nation’s self-definition, making them difficult, yet all the more important to think about together. This article purports to identify a form of French food Whiteness (blanchité alimentaire), that is, the use of food and eating practices to reify and reinforce Whiteness as the dominant racial identity. To do so, it develops four case studies of how law elevates a fiction of homogeneous French/White food as superior and normative at the expense of alternative ways of eating and their eaters—the law of geographical indications, school lunches, citizenship, and cultural heritage.

Well, Galoises cigarettes and polite behavior (politesse) are fundamental to French self-definition, too, and yet do we want to see papers on how they’re connected? What about fish and chips and a love of the British monarchy? In fact, most European countries, even if they have racial friction, “deny structural racism or racial identity”, and try to assimilate immigrants.

One of Cohen’s beefs is that France, when deciding to confer citizenship on someone, looks for evidence that they’ve assimilated to some degree into the culture. To her—and she really has to stretch to make this argument— this means eating the national dishes. But that’s bogus, as there are plenty of French citizens who eat the food of their ancestors. Algerian food like couscous, for example, is so ubiquitous that it’s almost a French food now. (Cohen also argues that in this transformation it’s somehow become “white”.) And she has not the slightest evidence (well, she has one dubious anecdote from 1919), that eating French food is considered evidence of
assimilation.”

But I digress. I’ll just reprise her four arguments and pass on (or pass out):

The law of geographical indications.  This is the French use (and not exclusively French; Italians and other countries do it, too) of controlled appellations, so that a food or drink must be from a specified region of origin to be labeled as such. Champagne is the classic example, as it has to be made in the Champagne region of France. American bubbly or Spanish cava cannot be labeled “champagne.” Likewise with Roquefort cheese, as I recall. This system designed to give the consumer some confidence in the quality of the product, but Cohen says these are signs of French colonialism and “the racialized project of ensuring that the White majority can maintain its foodways and agricultural wealth.”  Enough said.

The law of school lunches.  France specifies a school lunch programs, with many lunches offered cheaply or free to poorer kids. The food is hot and designed to be nutritious. What foods are offered differ among municipalities. What Cohen objects to is that the cuisine doesn’t cater to special diets, even though Cohen adds that many schools “quietly accommodate students with religious based dietary restrictions”. Students are also allowed to bring lunches from home.  This is part of the French tradition of laïcité , or secularism, avoiding entanglement of religion and government.

Cohen says that this is imposing Christian whiteness on the school food, though Wikipedia contradicts her, saying “food menus served in secondary schools pay particular attention to ensuring that each religious observer may respect his religion’s specific restrictions concerning diets.”  Since I don’t know the truth, I’ll pass on.

The law of citizenship. People applying for citizenship in France need not be white, as you’ll notice immediately when you see the high proportion of North Africans, Asians, and black Africans in the big cities. What exercises Cohen is that prospective citizens must show some evidence of assimilation, though of course not full assimilation. The implication is that assimilation requires adoption of French food, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Sohen gives only one example, and that’s from 1919:

To illustrate, in 1919, one Ignace, born in Madagascar to a Malagasy mother, applied for citizenship on the ground that he was the unrecognized son of a French national. The records of the Antananarivo colonial civil bureau contain a memo mentioning approvingly his service in the French Foreign Legion during the war, his seriousness and humility, before scrutinizing his lifestyle. A shift in Ignace’s dwelling and diet is observed. Before the war, Ignace “lived with his mother . . . in a simply furnished cottage kept in the indigenous style [à l’indigène]. The basis of their diet was rice.” Upon returning from the front, Ignace moved in with a Greek friend from the Legion. The memo observes that now “he always eats with this European and is nearly constantly in his company,” concluding that the application should be granted. While Ignace’s service in the armed forces is the primary basis for the positive appraisal, his transition from the typical rice-based, Malagasy diet despised by colonists to a “European” diet clearly militated in his favor.

. . .Ignace’s renunciation of rice and eating on a mat on the floor together with his commensality with a White man must have been assessed as signs of White enculturation and performance

She must have dug hard to find the story of Ignace! Now Cohen doesn’t say that Ignace abjured rice, only that he “ate with a European.”  At that, brother and sisters, friends and comrades, is the totality of Cohen’s “citizenship” argument for the whiteness of French food. She mentions people being denied citizenship for other reasons, like gender segregating in their homes, but that has nothing to do with food.

The law of cultural heritage. This rests solely on UNESCO’s having designated the “gastronomic meal of the French” as an item on its list of “intangible cultural heritage” items. This is defined “as a four-course repast beginning with apértif and ending with digestif, served with appropriate wines and tableware, and made up of carefully chosen components.”

Why is this racist and expressive of Whiteness? Cohen tells us:

The creation and defense of the idea of a gastronomic meal of the French involved erasing not only the diversity of eating practices of French citizens across races and ethnicities, but also among Whites, essentializing a supposed innate national (and racial) character. For Ruth Cruickshank, “[t]he repas gastronomique des Français seeks to solve a perceived problem of French decline by inventing a codified ‘French’ meal which, as well as eliding cultural diversity, fails to grasp how food cultures survive by maintaining their currency through the negotiation of change and the accommodation of external influences.” In short, it is a White washed (and bourgeois) version of French foodways which is now consecrated by the World Intangible Heritage List.

Give me a break! The diversity of eating practices remains in France, but you can’t make a diversity of habits an “intangible cultural heritage”. It would be a different list in Italy, with antipasto, pasta, contorno, etc., and in China it would also vary among provinces, but would include multiple courses served at once, usually with rice or another starch, and the dishes often stir fried. Just because each nation has some characteristic ways of eating, as does France, does not mean that France is trying to enshrine whiteness. Let me add that the “heritage” French meal is something that should be experienced, and something I love, for it’s not just dinner, but theater as well.

Such is Cohen’s argument for the Unbearable Whiteness of French food. It’s much worse than I make out here, as the whole essay is larded with the usual jargon and with arguments that have nothing to do with her main point. The poor scholar must be hard up for topics to write about.  And yet she threatens to continue!

This article connects critical Whiteness studies and food studies in the French context. It has shown that the set of eating habits known as French are racialized in a way that reinforces White dominance. The four cases studies examined here—geographical indications, school lunches, citizenship law, and world heritage law—buttress an ideal of White alimentary identity implying that non-White and non-Christian communities are insignificant, alien, or deviant. Law has been a primary tool to shape food production and choices, privileging and normalizing certain alimentary practices and stigmatizing others. The current legal regime marginalizes racial and ethnic minorities in their foodways through the elevation of White French food as the high status, legally protected food.

. . .Though this article focused on the Whiteness of French food from within, it has relevance for the broader understanding of racial identity formation through eating in other socio-cultural contexts. As such it is but one installment of what I hope will be a series of scholarly contributions on the Whiteness of French food in France and outside of France.

By the way, I found the description of the author at the end, well, interesting. . . .

Mathilde Cohen is the George Williamson Crawford Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut and formerly a research fellow at the CNRS. She works in the fields of constitutional law, comparative law, food law, and race, gender and the law. Her research has focused on various modes of disenfranchisement in French and U.S. legal cultures. She has written on why and how public institutions give reasons for their decisions and the lack of judicial diversity. She currently examines the way in which bodies coded as female are alternatively empowered and disempowered by the regulation of the valuable materials they produce and consume, in particular milk and placenta.

As the Wicked Witch of the West said, “What a world! What a world!”

À la fin: cassoulet in Paris and a decent red. Ah, France is paradise enow!

 

Stuff that’s gotten more expensive

May 31, 2021 • 9:15 am

There’s not much news to post about during this Memorial Day weekend, so here’s a small kvetch about consumer prices.

We all know that gas has gotten more expensive, and in Chicago, City of the Big Gas Prices, petrol is inching up towards $4 per gallon (yes, I know that sounds cheap to Europeans). Gas prices in May were up 22% from a year ago. (I remember fondly when gas was 19¢ per gallon; but of course I couldn’t drive then.)

Here are a few other things that I notice have risen substantially in price during the pandemic:

a.) Meat (this is reported on the news as due to a shortage of meat-plant workers and truck drivers). I don’t eat much meat these days, but I do like my weekly or once-every-ten-days steak. (Duke Ellington had steaks every day, and often tucked a steak sandwich in his pocket.) The small T-bone I bought yesterday was normally $16/pound for choice grade, but it was on sale for $6.99.

b.) Grocery prices in general. As CBS News reports:

Demand for groceries rose 11% because people hunkered down at home, putting pressure on suppliers, which drove up food prices.

“This’ll start changing as people shop less at grocery stores and as they go out more to restaurants,” said Feler, who doesn’t think it’s the start of an inflationary period. “This is very different than 1970s. Consumers have a lot more power these days.”

But consumers can still expect basics like toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste to cost more. Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Coca-Cola announced that they are increasing prices because they’re paying more for raw materials in short supply.

As I’ve said before, toothpaste is one of the great ripoffs for the American consumer. If you can get Pepsodent for $1 per tube, which you can, then equivalent toothpastes, which can cost three or four times as much, are true ripoffs. Now, of course, I use a special and expensive prescription extra-fluoride toothpaste for my aging choppers, so the days of Pepsodent are gone.

Bob Vila gives a list of ten grocery items with the biggest price increases during the pandemic, with some suggested alternatives. Among the overprices goods are canned tuna, dairy products, cereal, and fruit & veg. Can you believe that I paid 88¢ for a single green pepper yesterday? I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t have a hankering for tortilla, refried beans, and sauteed green pepper.

c.) Haircuts. Before the pandemic I would pay $22 for a haircut and $20 if I got it on Tuesday (“cheap day”). When I got one yesterday, it was $30. That is at least a 36% increase in price. (The tip was correspondingly increased as well.) I’m not sure why the price increase, unless it’s to make up for money lost during the pandemic when barber shops were closed. Is this true for other readers who visit the tonsorial parlor? (Yes, I know that women have to pay more for haircuts, which I regard as a reprehensible act of shaking down that sex.)

But at least I look reasonably unshaggy:

d.) Stamps. The U.S. Postal Service is about to increase the price of a first-class stamp from 55 cents to 58 cents, an increase of 5.5%. Stamp prices keep going up faster than the cost of living, despite the increasingly poor quality of USPS delivery. Were I smart, I’d buy a few hundred dollars of “forever stamps”, which have no printed value and are good for first-class letters forever.  But something seems wrong about spending so much money on stamps at one time. The Post Office seems to be run by a bunch of chowderheads and I’ve noticed that for some reason Post Office employees seem to be mean.

What have you found that is overpriced these days? I can understand some explanations as reasonable, for example the rise in meat prices, but other stuff, like my haircut, seems like simple price-gouging, with the pandemic being a reason to raise prices in the hopes that people will ascribe it to the virus.

Texas, Day 10: Lagrange to Austin via Lockhart

April 8, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Yes, today is my last half-day in Texas, as I’m flying home around noon from Austin. But I didn’t leave without one more visit to a BBQ joint. Yesterday I decided to go back to Black’s (homage to Amy Winehouse) in Lockhart, as I hadn’t tried their famous Giant Beef Ribs, and it was only a half-hour drive to the Austin Airport, near where I stayed last night.

The drive from La Grange to Lockhart was lovely, going mostly on small roads through tiny towns—just the kind of drive I like. I’ve managed to almost completely avoid the Interstate Highway system here, though Texas state roads can also be large and soulless.

When I saw a bunch of cows huddled around a giant wooden cross, I knew I had to stop. How often does one see good Christian beeves?

I stopped and communed with the cows for a while. They were much tamer than most of the cows I’ve encountered, which tend to move away from you. One even came up to me and thrust its muzzle against the fence, demanding a petting:

This cow was really demanding, so I had to pet and scratch its head for a while:

On to Black’s, where my heart was set on a giant beef rib. I haven’t had too many ribs this trip, and Black’s serves the Mother of All Ribs. You’ll see what I mean below.

The unprepossessing entrance with a GIANT BEEF RIBS! sign:

The line at 11:15 (Black’s opens at 10 a.m.) Ten minutes later it was out the door.

As you wait for your ‘cue, salivating over the smells from the pit, you pass a picture of one of the Black family with LBJ, who used to throw BBQs, complete with a chuck wagon, for dignitaries visiting the Western White House.

These, I guess, are the owners themselves in days of yore:

The dining room (there are two), full of happy people. How can you be glum when eating BBQ?

The menu. You have to choose quickly. The giant beef ribs aren’t cheap—$18.99 per pound—but I was going to get one come hell or high water.

You start by ordering the sides (usually the meat order is first), and then go one-on-one with the Meat Man, who cuts and weighs your BBQ:

My plate: a giant beef rib with my usual sides: potato salad and pinto beans. There were also gratis onions and pickles, and I purchased one of their homemade jalapeño corn muffins. I got a small container of sauce, but used it for only one dip. Texas BBQ is invariably degraded by sauce—except at the City Market in Luling, which makes a magic elixir that really enhances the meat.

That rib weighed well over a pound, but I was hungry. Here’s a side view with my finger for scale. It’s like a huge gob of brisket on a stick!

And praise me, people, for I ate well and finished the entire plate except for some big pieces of fat on the rib:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, concludes my BBQ tour of Texas. Here’s a list of my bests for foods (and remember, I had but one visit to every place but Black’s):

Best brisket: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Best brisket with sauce: The City Market, Luling

Best beef rib: Black’s, Lockhart

Best sausages: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Best BBQ pork chop:  Cooper’s, Llano

Best breakfast: Migas at The Monument Cafe, Georgetown

Best pie: Chocolate cream pie with pecan crust and a thick topping of whipped cream, The Monument Cafe, Georgetown

Best coleslaw: Louis Mueller, Taylor (it was really fresh and had some spice to it)

Best local ambiance: Peter’s BBQ, Ellinger

Best chicken-fried steak: (not this trip, but overall): Hoover’s, Austin

Coyne’s Blue Ribbon for BBQ: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Remember: this represents only ten days of eating. Texas is big and there must be thousands of BBQ joints here. I have not yet begun to eat.

Texas, Day 9: Around La Grange

April 7, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I’ve spent two nights in La Grange, Texas, a small town (population about 4,600) near the Colorado River. I’d hoped to go to a well known (non-BBQ) restaurant in nearby Round Top, but it’s open only from Thursday-Sunday, as are many of the other recommended places around here, including BBQ joints. However, I saved the day by finding a very good local BBQ place out in the sticks, and today I’ll head back to Lockhart to either try another BBQ place or (as Jen Psaki says), “circle around” and return to Black’s BBQ, the site of my first meal on this trip.

After the trip is over, I’ll make a list of the best places I’ve been, and which places are best for which items, including side dishes. But be aware that I’ve had only ten days of culinary fieldwork in Texas, and the state is very large.

Back to La Grange. Google says that the town is famous for two things:

La Grange may be best known for two things: being the home of the Chicken Ranch, the inspiration for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the subject of a classic ZZ Top song. The town began as a small fort built in 1826 to protect settlers in the area from Indian attacks.

For the first time I had a bit of breakfast, for I woke up at 5 a.m. and wasn’t going to eat for at least six hours. I headed two blocks north to a famous food emporium in town, Weikel’s Bakery, which specializes in one thing: kolache.  These are a sweet bun heavily laden with fruit (not really jam, as it’s very thick—more like thick preserves. There were many kinds on offer (see below), but I was abstemious and chose only one type: blueberry. I knew I’d be returning later in the day.

It was absolutely spectacular, laden with full-flavored fruit. With it I had a large Colombian coffee, and that was all I needed to hold me until lunch.

After a bout of feverish restaurant-Googling last night, and having gone through several places, all of which were closed until Thursday, I found one that had good ratings, and was only 15 miles away. It was Peters BBQ in Ellinger, Texas, right on route 71. The ratings were good, and so the laws of physics sent me there.

And here ’tis, as they say. Note that, at about 11:15 a.m., the parking lot was already crowded and most of the vehicles were pickup trucks. Both of these are very good signs. Note that the guy is wearing a mask.

This was the most “authentic” BBQ I’ve been to—not in terms of authenticity of the food, but because it was truly local. Everyone there seemed to know everyone else, and all spoke with a heavy Texas accent. I was the only Yankee, but everyone was super nice to me.

As with most such places, you go to the meat counter first, order what you want (including sides, which are dished out by a nice lady from a steam table in the next room), and pay. Sweet and unsweetened ice tea are available ad lib in the dining room.

The locals (a lot of older people) were enjoying their lunch. Many got BBQ to go, as well. It’s cattle country here, and some of these folks may be ranchers or workers on a ranch.

My plate is below. I had the lunch special: two meats, two sides, free bread, jalapeños pickles and onions,along with tea and BBQ sauce (to be used only sparingly) on the side. My meats were brisket (of course) and pork ribs, and the sides were, as usual, pinto beans and potato salad. (There was no cole slaw, which also counts as a vegetable.)

I was lucky to find the place, as the food was very good. The pork ribs were tender and meaty, and the brisket, pictured below, while not the best I’ve had, was better than at other “famous” places I’ve eaten, like Cooper’s or the Southside Market. (Again, there can be brisket-to-brisket or day-to-day variation.) Here is “juicy” (i.e., fatty) brisket, and by now you should know to look for the outer char, the red “smoke layer”, and a ribbon of fat.

Yum! I was plenty full, believe you me, and it was about $15.

All over Texas I’ve been seeing signs with just a picture of a beaver wearing a hat. I guess the Texans know what it means, and I found out yesterday that it’s a chain called Buc-ee’s, which has 39 locations in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They are convenience stores and gas stations that also sell food (see below). I wouldn’t eat there, though occasionally, as with Weikel’s Bakery, a gas station can have great food.

As I drove around the area, I saw a bunch of cars pulled off onto the shoulder of Route 71, and of course I stopped to see what was going on. Below the road was a sunken field, glorious with blooming Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis), the state flower. People were luxuriating in the flowers, taking selfies, and even having picnics. I’m told that entire hillsides can be in bloom like this, with many different flowers, but this is the only mass bloom I saw:

What a lovely sight to see, especially with a belly full o’ BBQ:

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Bluebonnets and Texas Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa).

An unflattering selfie. I need a haircut and am unshaven, but so be it.

A few miles down the road, I pulled over because I saw a field of Texas longhorn cattle, the official State Large Mammal. (The Official Small Mammal is the armadillo, and the Official Flying Mammal is the Mexican free-tailed bat.) Look at those horns! They have a cool history; as Wikipedia notes:

The Texas Longhorn is a breed of cattle known for its characteristic horns, which can extend to over 100 inches (2.54 m) tip to tip for cows and bulls, with the biggest-horned steer measuring 127.4 inches (3.23 m) tip to tip. They are descendants of the first cattle introduced in the New World, brought by explorer Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonists.

Descended from cattle that thrived in arid parts of Southern Iberia, these cattle have been bred for a high drought-stress tolerance. Texas Longhorns are known for their diverse coloring, and can be any color or mix of colors, but coloration mixes of dark red and white are the most dominant.

Here’s a group (I can’t tell if the adults are male or female):

As the article notes, there’s substantial variation in color among individuals:

Adult and adult in statu nascendi:

A longhorn calf with the horns starting to sprout.

In the afternoon I took a tour around La Grange, which of course didn’t take long, for the good bits of these towns comprise the courthouse and a few blocks around it, with sprawling roads out of town lined with McDonald’s, Wal-Marts and the like.

Here’s the Fayette County Courthouse, built in 1891.

And the customary courthouse square, lined with old buildings (“old” in America means “older than 100 years”).

Finally, I went back to Weikel’s to get two kolache for an evening nosh (as I said, I have one meal and one treat per day, though I also had a kolache at breakfast). You can see that the bakery is part of a gas-station/convenience store/restaurant complex, which proves that you can get good food in gas stations.

I found the place because the Sterns gave it a “memorable” rating on Roadfood, but I’ve heard of it from other food sites as well. Kolaches are a remnant of the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas long ago.

Here are all the kinds of kolaches they had. Hard to choose!

Left to right: cream cheese, strawberry,peach, apple, blueberry, and cottage cheese.

I got a strawberry and a cream cheese, which seemed to me a good pairing. The strawberry one got squished a bit in the car. The cream cheese one was good, but the strawberry, with whole berries, was fantastic.

As I head out to BBQ in Lockhart today, I’ll stop by Weikel’s again to get a few kolaches for an evening treat, for I’ll be spending the night in a motel near the Austin airport, ready to catch a flight home tomorrow. That’s when I start my kale juice cleanse. (Only kidding! But I am going to eat very abstemiously for a while. . . )