The sterile and expensive Denver International Airport

November 6, 2022 • 1:30 pm

You know what really bothers me?

I have to cool my heels at DIA for several hours before catching a flight back to Chicago, and I swear that I’ve never seen a more sterile airport in my life.  There are long, soul-less corridors of gates, with nary a nom to be found unless you take a long hike towards Baggage Claim. The place may be efficient, but it provides little comfort.

Here are two panoramas of the corridor (click to enlarge):

Can you name a more sterile airport?

Well, at least the restrooms are clean. But the restaurant is also victim of another pet peeve: overpriced food. After you hike a mile to find something to eat, what’s on offer is grossly overpriced food.

Now all airports (like ballparks and movie theaters) have overpriced food, but it’s gotten worse since the pandemic.  One could explain this with reference to the captive audience: there’s not much competition, and if you remember what happens when demand is high and supply is low, well, that’s what you see.

In the San Francisco Airport I wanted a bagel with a schmear, and it was around five bucks. Here I had a chicken salad sandwich, and had to part with $12, not including tax. Now I have to admit the sandwich was good (photo below), but really—twelve bucks?  Do airport food places make a deal with the airport to charge astronomical prices, or do they kick back a lot of their profit to the place?

Well, if you Google “why is airport food so expensive?”, you get a ton of answers. This site gives six, and I was partly right:

  1. Airport rent and regulations, which include extra fees besides rent.
  2. COMMISSIONS TO THE AIRPORT. These can be as high as 10%
  3. Delivery fees of foodstuffs to airports are higher than delivery to normal outlets. For example, delivery people have to go through security
  4. Limited storage space, so you have to rent more space.
  5. Delivery people have to pass extra background checks.
  6. Airports are out of the way and that makes it harder to retain employees, ergo they have to pay them more.

Their solution is twofold. First, avoid beverages in airports, which have an even higher profit margin. But the best solution is to bring in your own food (but not drinks, which aren’t allowed to go through TSA!). That was not an option for me.

But the chicken sandwich was good, and on my Southwest flight I got a free can of cranberry juice (actually, a mixture of cranberry, apple, and grape juice, with the first ingredient being water and the second HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP. The damn can had two ounces (ca. 60 grams) of sugar in it!)



In which I go to In-N-Out Burger

October 30, 2022 • 11:50 am

Yesterday I discovered that Davis has an In-N-Out Burger, a chain highly extolled by food experts like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey (see below). It’s not found anywhere outside of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Oregon, so I haven’t had one in many a moon.

After this discovery there was nothing else for me but to take my host to this joint for a late lunchl. There were two of us and this our visit.

First, the location, right off the freeway (I-80). It’s a pleasant sunny spot, and the restaurant is bright and spotless. If you’re driving from San Francisco east, hop off at the Davis exit and get yourself a burger.

Click photos to enlarge them. The exterior:

A pano of the inside.

The menu below looks limited, but there’s a whole slew of stuff not on it—the so-called “secret menu” (see it here). You can get root beer floats, grilled cheese sandwiches, get your fries or burgers “animal style”, and have that burger prepared a gazillion ways.

Below: our order. My friend Phil’s is on the right side: a hamburger served animal style and fries cooked animal style (fries prepared this way on the secret menu).

Mine on the left: the famous “double-double”, animal style, medium well (they don’t do medium rare) with lettuce, tomato, and grilled onion, and regular fries. Phil had lemonade on the side, and I had a root beer float (from the secret menu).

A double-double, animal style. As Bourdain argues below, this is a work of culinary art. Look at that thing: veggies on the bottom, where they should be, and fresh (the potatoes are also cut from fresh spuds and fried on site), two patties of proper size with American cheese, and a schmear of “animal sauce” (sort of like Russian dressing) on the bottom. The regular animal style burger has raw onion, but I like mine grilled.

My first bite: a cheeseburger in paradise!

And my root beer float, half root beer, half soft-serve ice cream. It was a better accompaniment than a milk shake (they do those, too), as it was lighter: a hybrid between a milkshake and a soft drink.

It was a great meal. Price for two people: $19.

The experts weigh in:

I put this short video up the other day; it’s Anthony Bourdain extolling the virtues of In-N-Out burgers (he’s eating a double-double, animal style). Note his claim that this is his favorite restaurant in Los Angeles.

And here’s Gordon Ramsay, who names this the chain as purveyors of favorite fast food, and also praises the double-double, animal style.

Readers’ wildlife photos

October 3, 2022 • 8:45 am

Today we have another biology story from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior, this time about beetle pollination. His text is indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Uncouth visitors

Athayde Tonhasca Júnior

If you were to go shopping for fruit in tropical countries and in Florida (USA), you would have the option to take home some sugar apples (Annona squamosa). This rich, tasty and aromatic fruit is a favourite in the West Indies, and its cultivation has been increasing vigorously in many countries. Perhaps too vigorously: sugar apples have become invasive in some places.

Other related species are also valued as desserts and as food for wildlife, such as the cherimoya (A. cherimola) – which Mark Twain considered ‘the most delicious fruit known to men’ – the araticum (A. coriacea) and the atemoya, which is a hybrid of A. squamosa and A. cherimola.

A ripe sugar apple readily breaks apart to reveal segments of pulp-encased seeds © Pouletic, Wikimedia Commons.

An araticum fruit © Etore.Santos, Wikimedia Commons.

These plants, together with more than 90% of species in their family (Annonaceae), have one particularity that sets them apart from the majority of cultivated fruits: they are pollinated by beetles.

As the story goes, J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), British/Indian geneticist, evolutionary biologist, mathematician and more, found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could learn about the Creator from studying his creation, Haldane – an atheist – is said to have answered ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles.’ Indeed, a Great Designer would have needed to be partial to the order Coleoptera, which is one of the most diverse groups of animals on Earth. With over 400,000 known species, and certainly a much larger number waiting to be discovered, beetles make up one of the largest biodiversity segments of virtually every terrestrial habitat.

Beetle diversity is believed to be associated with the explosive expansion of flowering plants during the Cretaceous period (145-65 million years ago). A greater variety of plants created more opportunities for beetles and other insects that fed on living plant tissue. The resulting coevolutionary arms race – plants’ chemical and physical defences against herbivore-promoted counter-measures from plant-munching beetles – helped the diversification of plants and beetles. Today about 50% of all herbivorous insects are beetles.

Among those early plant feeders, some specialised in pollen – which is not an easy thing to do because pollen is hard to digest. These pioneer palynivores (pollen eaters) are believed to be the first pollinators. By moving from plant to plant to feed, they became contaminated with pollen, thus enabling plant fertilisation. With time, bees, flies and moths took over the role of main pollinators. But some plants, especially of ancient lineages such as magnolias (Magnoliaceae), retained cantharophily – from the Greek kántharos (beetle) and philos (loving), it means pollination by beetles. The Annonaceae, arums (Araceae), palms (Arecaceae), and orchids (Orchidaceae) are also well represented in this form of pollination.

Mordellistena cervicalis beetles on a magnolia flower © Beatriz Moisset, Wikimedia Commons:

Beetles have none of the elegance or restraint of a nectar-sipping moth or a pollen-picking bee. They plough through a flower, wolfing down pollen (some eat nectar and petals as well), often spilling more grains than eating them, defecating as they go. That’s why they are called ‘mess and soil’ pollinators. And they like to hang around. While most insect pollinators stay on a flower just long enough to collect pollen or nectar, beetles usually are in no hurry: they may stay put for hours or days. The flower beetle Carpophilus mutilatus, one of the main pollinators of atemoya, stays inside a flower for up to 22 hours.

A scarab beetle helping itself on a California brittlebush flower (Encelia californica) © Marshal Hedin, Creative Commons.

Plants adapted to these uncouth and destructive visitors by evolving thick or leathery flower parts and copious amounts of pollen to compensate for losses to consumption and spillage. And they encourage beetles to stay: their flowers usually have sepals and petals curved inwardly to form a pollination chamber, which is a dark, safe and cosy space for beetles to frolic to their heart’s content. But there’s more: most cantharophilous flowers produce strong perfumes, which people have described as spicy, sweet, musky, or as reminiscent of overripe fruit – thus irresistible to some beetles. A number of these flowers are also thermogenic – they produce heat – when they open and become functional (the anthesis period). A warm flower disperses its scents with ease and welcomes beetles fleeing the cold.

The flower of soursop (Annona muricata) © Ton Rulkens, Wikimedia Commons:

Most cantharophilous plants would not win a prize in a flower show, but never mind our aesthetic preferences; their objective is to reward the creatures that help them reproduce. Sap beetles (Nitidulidae), long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae), leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae), rove beetles (Staphylinidae), scarabs (Scarabeidae), tumbling flower beetles (Mordellidae), click beetles (Elateridae), blister beetles (Meloidae) and weevils (Curculionidae) are welcomed with a place to feed, mate, and shelter from the weather and predators. Many of these visitors are hairy, so with luck, some pollen grains get attached to their bodies and transported to another flower.

A flower of Annona coriacea with the external petal removed to reveal a Cyclocephala ohausiana feeding on the floral chamber © Costa et al., 2017. PLOS ONE 12(2): e0171092.:

Plants that rely on beetles for pollination are more common in tropical-Mediterranean regions and in semi-desertic areas like South Africa and southern California. But temperate regions have their share of cantharophilous species such as goldenrod (Solidago spp.), water lilies (Nymphaeaceae), and the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia).

Rowan has deep roots in Celtic folklore, thanks mostly to its bright red berries, which have long been associated with spirits and all things magic. The rowan is a ubiquitous feature of the British landscape, and has a significant ecological role to play.

A rowan tree leaves and berries © Jonik, Wikimedia Commons:

The sweet-smelling rowan flowers attract many insects, but they appear to be fertilised primarily by beetles. The resulting berries are eaten by a variety of birds; in fact, the rowan is one of the most important food sources for frugivorous birds in northern Europe. Rowans produce large crops of seeds in some years (plant ecologists call these episodes ‘masting’), and very little to almost none in others. The erratic availability of rowan berries has far-reaching consequences. The distribution and abundance of bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) in parts of the Fennoscandian region (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) are synchronized with rowan masting events, and the arrival of fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) and redwing (T. iliacus) flocks to Britain is affected by the dwindling supply of rowan berries in Scandinavia and continental Europe at the onset of winter.

Fieldfare feeding on rowan berries © Kim Hansen, Wikimedia Commons:

Considering the number of beetle species out there, and the likely much greater number yet to be described, the list of cantharophilous plants is bound to increase as we learn more about these unsophisticated ‘mess and soil’ flower visitors.

A flower Beetle vising the Jardin Botanique de Montréal. © Ewok Slayer, Wikimedia Commons:

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 ( 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 (, 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

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!