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Tales from the Tip: Medieval Garbage Pit Reveals Glimpse into Jewish Life

Tales from the Tip: Medieval Garbage Pit Reveals Glimpse into Jewish Life

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t encounter this story until Passover ended. But I definitely can’t hold onto this fascinating archeological news until the next holiday; so please, feel free to imagine your own thematic tie-in here!
 
A team of researchers from the University of Bristol have recently published their findings from an archaeological dig in the medieval Jewish quarter of Oxford, UK, which they began in 2016. They were “blown away” by evidence, in a combination latrine and garbage dump at the site, of the Jewish community’s adherence to kosher dietary laws.
 
Jewish life in Oxford had a narrow window in which to flourish: between 1066, when William the Conqueror specifically invited Jewish merchants from the Continent to settle in England; and 1290 when Edward I expelled the Jewish population due to rising discrimination. While communities were well documented on paper, the Bristol team’s research is especially interesting because it’s the first scientific and physical evidence of specifically Jewish day-to-day life in the ancient city.
 
And the science itself is particularly cool: First, they studied the bones dumped in the pit after meals.
 
“‘Normally you would expect a mixture of cow, sheep, goat and pig,’ [biomolecular archaeologist and team leader Julie Dunne] says. ‘Instead, we found a massive, I mean massive, amount of chicken and goose bones.’

Crucially, none of the food remains found at the site came from pigs, shellfish or other non-kosher foods. […]

In addition to the bones, the team found more than 2,000 fragments of ceramic cooking vessels. They analyzed organic residue left in the pottery to determine what it had once held.
 
‘This process allows us to distinguish animal fats from ruminants and non-ruminants, as well as from dairy products,’ Dunne tells the Jewish Chronicle. ‘And what we found was astonishingly precise.’

The researchers found no evidence of non-kosher fats, or of milk and meat being cooked together – a practice prohibited by kosher tradition.”

The archeological evidence was also neatly siloed by time – the bird bones and kosher pottery dated to specifically the 11th and 12th centuries, while pig bones found nearby were determined to be 9th century and decidedly Saxon.
 
It is amazing what kind of information surfaces from past cultures’ tell-tale garbage dumps. (We might do well to remember that for ourselves!) I’m fascinated now by how this community’s least valued items have become its most important scientific documentation. Garbage has hidden worth after all!

Chocolate Hunt Yields Historical Treat

very old chocolate

It’s said that honey has no expiry date; pots uncovered in ancient Egyptian tombs are routinely found to be perfectly edible after thousands of years underground. Would that the same held for another sweet treat, chocolate! If it did, a bar of the stuff recently found in Norfolk, UK would have quite the sugar high to go with its amazing story.
 
This particular goodie was made to cheer troops in the 1899 – 1902 Boer War and was recently found among the mementoes of centenarian Frances Greathead, the daughter of English soldier and baronet Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfield, by the staff of the National Trust. The original packaging and Paston-Bedingfield’s bar itself were completely intact (though unappetizingly dusty), turning this humble snack into a time capsule from 121 years ago! With a decidedly political aftertaste: The half-pound bar came in a tin with Queen Victoria’s portrait on it and included messages from the monarch to her troops engaged in one of the colonial endeavours that marked her long reign. Intrigue followed its production at home as well.
 
“British confectionery giants Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree manufactured chocolate batches in 1900 to boost morale for soldiers fighting in the Second Boer War in South Africa, although it’s not certain which company made this particular tin. […]

[National Trust curator Lynsey] Coombs said Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree initially refused to brand the chocolate because they were pacifist Quakers who opposed the war in South Africa.
Eventually they caved to Queen Victoria’s request and produced 100,000 tins, many of which the soldiers preserved, she added.”
 
And the historical organization will continue to preserve it, reporting it has wrapped the bar in acid-free paper, pending future display along with the helmet and helmet case in which the chocolate was found.
 
It’s in honour of Easter that we bring you this tale of a chocolatey treat, that has experienced its own resurrection of sorts. Here’s hoping the little ones in your life have found all the chocolate the Easter Bunny left this weekend… Something tells me finding a grody old Kinder Egg under the couch in July won’t be as welcome a discovery!

The State of the Shape of Pasta

Did you know that the number of Italian pasta shapes out there is estimated to be between 260 and 600? Even the low number came as a shock to me – who can count on two hands the pastas I can remember off the top of my head, and on one hand those I routinely keep in my pantry. (Penne for life!)
 
Well, add one more shape to that mind-boggling tally, as The Sporkful podcast host Dan Pashman has partnered up with artisanal pasta makers Sfoglini to create cascatelli – adorably, “little waterfalls.”
 
The saga is covered in a five-part arc (“Mission: ImPASTAble”) on Pashman’s popular podcast, describing his trip through the pasta design world. Turns out, the seemingly simple food item, quickly cooked, and just as quickly devoured, is not simple at all.
 
“The result of many rounds of designing, engineering, and trial and error, the final product resembles an oversized comma with ruffles on either side of a curved half-tube. It’s supposed to maximize three core qualities: ‘sauceability’ (how well sauce adheres to it), ‘forkability’ (how easily it stays on the fork), and ‘toothsinkability’ (how satisfying it is to sink one’s teeth into it). […]

Long, short, round, flat, ridged, smooth, curved, even angular — if you can picture it, a shape probably already exists. Or if it doesn’t, then there’s a reason why. Turns out that designing a shape that is both original enough to count as its own entity, practical enough to be able to be manufactured at some scale, and tasty enough to even warrant being brought into this world, is not a walk in the park. Sorry to all the would-be inventors whose late-night buzzed idea is ‘just combine, like, a macaroni with a mafaldine.’”
 
Pashman’s cascatelli success (the shape, at least via Sfoglini’s website, is on massive backorder brought back the last time I remembered this happening when French designer Phillipe Starck created a new pasta shape back in the 1980s. Dubbed “mandala,” the deeply ridged tube was buttressed inside by a ying-yang-like crossbeam. But, despite Starck’s considerable qualifications, the shape flopped for a very basic reason – it cooked too unevenly! It seems outsider Pashman’s innovation avoids that particular pitfall; I wonder if cascatelli will stand the test of time, and enter the pasta shape hall of fame?

“Mineral Farms” May Yield Tasty Mining Harvest

00SCI-METALFARM1-jumbo

We all know that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” But what happens if it actually does… just not in the form we expect?
 
A team of scientists from the University of Melbourne are pushing the boundaries of that metaphor with a study of hyperaccumulators — plants that love minerals and thrive in particular contaminated soils; they draw those minerals up into their bodies and keep them until the sap can be harvested and “smelted” into metal. The process is called “phytomining”: Imagine crossing a mine with a sugar maple stand, making for a far more sustainable and less destructive way of extracting metals from the earth!
 
The New York Times has done a deep dive into the possible applications of these hyperaccumulators, of which there are over 700 known among this planet’s plant life. Dr. Alan Baker, botany professor, and his international team have rented a plot of land on the island of Borneo. There, they’ve collaborated with farmers to process the sap of the plants grown there into nickel citrate, a valuable mineral that can be used to manufacture batteries and stainless steel. This proof of concept has laid the foundation for a bigger, 50-acre trial, which the team hopes will grab the attention of the very industries they want to disrupt.
 
“Currently, the most common way to extract nickel for electronics requires intense energy — often derived from coal and diesel — and creates heaps of acidic waste. A typical smelter costs hundreds of millions of dollars and requires increasingly scarce ore that is at least 1.2 percent rich with nickel.
 
In contrast, plants on a small nickel farm could be harvested every six months on land where the nickel concentration is only 0.1 percent. After two decades, the roots would struggle to find enough nickel, but the land would have been sucked dry of its toxic metals, and fertile enough to support more common crops.’
 
The minerals are extracted from the plant matter itself by burning or compression, both processes easily scaled up or down. While phytomining can’t totally replace traditional mining, it can be used in places where traditional mining is untenable. Additionally, the plants used can draw minerals from soils polluted by traditional mining, stockpiling that much more material for the mining companies — thus incentivizing a cleanup that leaves the earth reinvigorated for other crops! And nickel is not the only “fruit” these plants can bear: different species slurp up other useful metals like cobalt and zinc.
 
I’m entranced by visions of “metal farms,” where (metaphorical) bushels of key minerals are brought in after a growing season that respects local climate and terrain. It seems so bucolic! And necessary: If we can’t wean ourselves off these industries entirely, it’s on us to find sustainable ways to get results. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the bigger trial and watching companies get on board “harvesting” crops of pure minerals.
 

Up, Up and Away In My Beautiful Bento

Either folks miss air travel more than I thought, or Japanese regional airlines have way better in-flight meals than I’ve ever encountered! Nagoya Air Catering Co. has entered the market for cute lunches through an inspired pivot: repurposing in-flight meals as bentos (the modular boxed meal that hails from Japan). 
 
This is no simple reallocation of food resources, as we saw on a smaller scale early in the pandemic with home cooks turning extra milk into so cheese. Nagoya Air Catering is straight-up serving its most popular in-flight meals to hungry supermarket shoppers, and commuters at a pop-up kiosk near the massive Nagoya station. From The Japan Times:
 
“The daily number of in-flight meals made and shipped by Nagoya Air Catering Co. at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, fell from 6,000 to around 100 as passenger demand dropped sharply. The plummeting sales numbers forced the company to make efforts to find a new market. […]

On sale are three kinds of bento featuring Japanese, Asian and European cuisine, as well as a Kobe beef bento and beef fillet sandwiches originally intended for business-class passengers. […]
 
Nagoya Air Catering is considering making the in-flight meals available at convenience stores as well. It is also planning to launch a baguette meal that was originally for cabin crew members.”
 
I’ve looked into a bit of the science behind in-flight meals — namely, how catering services bump up the salt and sugar content to compensate for the dry air and white noise of a plane cabin affecting the way we taste. I wonder if Nagoya Air Catering has dialled down these flavours in their earth-bound bentos — or maybe the blast of seasoning is all part of the charm? While I wouldn’t cross the street for one of Air Canada’s offerings, I’m intrigued by the popularity of these lunches… I’ll put them on my list to sample when — if — I’ll be able to visit Japan!

3D Printed Meat — and “Meat”

meat in the form of ribeye

Two Israeli companies have just made near-simultaneous announcements of their respective alternatives to traditional slaughtered meat. Though philosophically different — Redefine Meat is vegan, while Aleph Farms uses lab-grown cow muscle cells — both aim to reimagine humanity’s future dependence on meat. There are lots of reasons to try both tacks, from lessening our impact on the environment to taking a moral stand on factory farming. And, both companies use everyone’s favourite accessible future techs to build their products: 3D printing!
 
Though Redefine Meat’s “Alt-Meat” is made without animal products, it’s existentially terrifying in a different way. It’s printed from components the company has trademarked as “Alt-Muscle,” “Alt-Fat,” and “Alt-Blood,” and while they assure eaters those are all “made from sustainable, highly nutritious, and commonly available ingredients such as plant-based proteins, fats, and natural colors and flavors,” (link: https://www.redefinemeat.com/faq) they don’t say precisely what those are. (Soy? Gluten? Sawdust?) Plus, they result in a scarily accurate steak — which fulfils the company’s aim of providing an easy switch for active meat eaters, but would give current veg folks pause.
 
Meanwhile, Aleph Farm’s process is, despite the science-speak, a bit easier to wrap your head around:
 
“To create the meat, researchers used 3D bioprinting and real cow cells. The technology allows them to print living cells that can grow and interact in a vascular-like system helping nutrients move and resembling real steak. […]

Aleph Farms’ process uses a fraction of the resources required for raising an entire animal for meat, without antibiotics and without the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS). Part of the cost savings comes from using natural pluripotent cells that are cultivated in large quantities. Pluripotent cells, such as stem cells, can be used to make all of the other cell types in an organism.
 
‘The natural pluripotent cells can multiply efficiently and can mature into the cell types that make up meat, like muscle and fat cells. It is enough for us to harvest the cells once, and the procedure we use is non-invasive,’ [CEO Didier] Toubia explained.”
 
At DFC, we’re also invested in this tension, because we occupy an inclusive space with our sauce lines: Sure, you can use them on traditional meats, but what other mind-blowing options are out there? I’d be very interested to try both companies’ options, if and when they get international regulatory approval. I have no idea which would even be my favourite… And that’s a delicious kind of uncertainty!

A Bright Idea from Food Waste

A student innovator from the Philippines has turned a major problem in his country — food crops destroyed by climate change — into a surprising concept for sustainable power generation. Carvey Ehren Maigue has recently won the very first James Dyson Sustainability Award for AuREUS System Technology: Clear plastic panels, which can be made into windows or building cladding, that use embedded luminescent particles derived from food to harvest UV light and convert it to electricity. The invention is part-solar-panel, and part-aurora-borealis — Maigue was inspired by that natural phenomenon, which features sensitive particles which absorb energy and emit it as visible light.
 
I often find, with sustainable innovations, that they’re only sustainable in one way, or address only one part of a many-sided issue (paper drinking straws, anyone?) But, by incorporating waste crops as raw material for his solar panels, Maigue effectively doubles AuREUS’s beneficial impact on the environment! As the inventor himself puts it:
 
“We need to utilise our resources more and create systems that don’t deplete our current resources. […] With AuREUS, we upcycle the crops of the farmers that were hit by natural disasters, such as typhoons, which also happen to be an effect of climate change. By doing this, we can be both future-looking, and solve the problems that we are currently experiencing now.”
 
The bioluminescent particles are collected from the damaged crops by pulverizing them and straining the resultant slurry. The particles are then suspended in clear resin, which is then formed into approximately three-foot by two-foot panels. Maigue envisions future panels that are curved, or come in a variety of colours — no more “solar panels are too ugly” NIMBYism here! Eventually, he hopes his R&D yields threads and fabrics based on this technology. While I’d love a solar-panel sweater, made from recycled food no less, I’d be more than thrilled to start with some swanky windows! Isn’t the future bright — in more ways than one?

Wiiiiine Iiiiiiin Spaaaaaace (wine in space)

wine in space

For only the second time in human history, one of our planet’s most interesting beverages has slipped the surly bonds of Earth — for science! For only the second time in human history, one of our planet’s most interesting beverages has slipped the surly bonds of Earth — for science! Space Cargo Unlimited, a startup that supplies pressurized vehicles for space research, has recently taken delivery of a package that has spent over a year on the International Space Station: 12 bottles of Bordeaux wine and 360 vine canes. Part of the company’s MissionWise program (which investigates how agricultural products react in space as a trial for the pressures of climate change), the vino and vines will head to the University of Bordeaux’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV). There, they will be checked for any changes their trip has caused — and the wines (six bottles each of Cab Sauv and Merlot) will later undergo a private tasting! From Decanter:

“Properties in the wines and vines will also be compared against control samples that stayed behind on earth.

‘We’re going to look at everything that has evolved,’ [Space Cargo Unlimited’s CEO Nicolas] Gaume said.

‘We’ll do a whole genome sequencing of the plants, to provide a clear view of all the DNA changes that could have happened on the stay on the ISS.’ […]

Gaume described the absence of gravity, or microgravity, as the ‘ultimate stress’. He said researchers involved in the project were interested in learning more about how the vine canes may have adapted or evolved in a relatively short time to be resilient to the stressful conditions.”
 
The previous oenological mission was STS-51-G, a flight of the space shuttle Discovery in June 1985, on which a French payload specialist brought a bottle of Château Lynch Bages (again, a Bordeaux), more as a publicity stunt for the region than anything else. This time around, the full analysis that ISVV promises will hopefully teach us something key about wine, space, and climate change, all at once. Thirsty work, indeed!and 360 vine canes. Part of the company’s MissionWise program (which investigates how agricultural products react in space as a trial for the pressures of climate change), the vino and vines will head to the University of Bordeaux’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV). There, they will be checked for any changes their trip has caused — and the wines (six bottles each of Cab Sauv and Merlot) will later undergo a private tasting! From Decanter:

“Properties in the wines and vines will also be compared against control samples that stayed behind on earth.

‘We’re going to look at everything that has evolved,’ [Space Cargo Unlimited’s CEO Nicolas] Gaume said.

‘We’ll do a whole genome sequencing of the plants, to provide a clear view of all the DNA changes that could have happened on the stay on the ISS.’ […]

Gaume described the absence of gravity, or microgravity, as the ‘ultimate stress’. He said researchers involved in the project were interested in learning more about how the vine canes may have adapted or evolved in a relatively short time to be resilient to the stressful conditions.”
 
The previous oenological mission was STS-51-G, a flight of the space shuttle Discovery in June 1985, on which a French payload specialist brought a bottle of Château Lynch Bages (again, a Bordeaux), more as a publicity stunt for the region than anything else. This time around, the full analysis that ISVV promises will hopefully teach us something key about wine, space, and climate change, all at once. Thirsty work, indeed!

Peanut Butter: Sticking to the Roof of the Mouth of History

peanut butter

Between the standard winter blahs and the pandemic, we at DFC HQ have been leaning heavily on the comfort food. Among them is a childhood favourite that is actually a secret nutritional superstar: peanut butter! Not only is the spread high in protein, it also boasts a good dollop of dietary fibre, vitamin E, and magnesium. (Sticking with “natural” PB — without added sugars — is the key to healthy eating here!)

Also, delving into its history is a fascinating trip through technology and American culture, as Smithsonian magazine shows.

The patent for “food compound” prepared from boiled peanuts or almonds was filed in 1895 by John Harvey Kellogg, a doctor who wanted to give healthy, easily digested preparations to patients at his sanitarium, and whose Seventh-Day-Adventist inflected approach to food science also gave us another breakfast essential, cornflakes. This proto-butter was simple in execution, but complicated in the care required to store it. It took a while to get to today’s common pantry staple.

“Manufacturers sold tubs of peanut butter to local grocers, and advised them to stir frequently with a wooden paddle, according to Andrew Smith, a food historian. Without regular effort, the oil would separate out and spoil. Then, in 1921, a Californian named Joseph Rosefield filed a patent for applying a chemical process called partial hydrogenation to peanut butter, a method by which the main naturally occurring oil in peanut butter, which is liquid at room temperature, is converted into an oil that’s solid or semisolid at room temperature and thus remains blended; the practice had been used to make substitutes for butter and lard, like Crisco, but Rosefield was the first to apply it to peanut butter. This more stable spread could be shipped across the country, stocked in warehouses and left on shelves, clearing the way for the national brands we all know today.”

Commenters on the Smithsonian article have already called out the piece’s American bias, by chiming in that Montreal’s own Marcellus Gilmore Edson patented a roasted peanut paste in 1884. Not only was this significantly earlier than Kellogg, but I also bet Edson’s results were far tastier — as well as being more in line with the peanut butter we know and love.

Whoever claims this stroke of genius, the peanut butter we’ve ended up with has definitely changed North American food habits over the past century. It fills the niche of an easy, cheap, and tasty protein that can be used in sweet and savoury alike. We’ve even adapted the production process to create a whole range of nut and seed kinds of butter, both for taste and allergen-safety! I’m glad this simple invention isn’t leaving our culture — or the surface of my toast — anytime soon.

Child Labour and the World’s Most Popular Vegetable Oil

Palm oil — derived from the seeds of the West African oil palm — is a high-smoke point, highly saturated fat of remarkable versatility. Not only can it be eaten, in things like baked goods, spreads, and candies, it can also be found in cosmetics, personal cleansers, and industrial lubricants; byproducts like the seed shells can even be used in concrete. The palm oil industry is so lucrative in habitats like Malaysia and Indonesia that it’s caused devastating deforestation in pursuit of monoculture; making your muffin or car or shampoo a direct contributor to the decline of the wild orangutan.
 
Palm oil’s evil extends beyond damage to the environment though. AP has produced an exposé on the industry’s reliance on child labour, contrasting two childhood experiences — that of a Girl Scout who sells cookies in Tennesee, and that of the estimated 1.5 million children who work in the Indonesian agricultural sector producing the palm oil for those cookies.
 
“Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.

‘Let them enjoy it,’ said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate, but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.

‘Let me work, just me, helping my father,’ Abang said. ‘I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.’”
 
As the world’s most popular vegetable oil, palm oil is present in an estimated 50% of packaged products. Manufacturers obscure its presence in ingredient lists by using up to 200 different names for it. Even ethically sourced palm oil can “greenwashed,” as the investigation of the above-mentioned Girl Scout uncovered.
So, it’s tricky to manage our dependence on palm oil. It’s also easy to not see the people (or endangered animals) whose pain goes into these products, being so far away from their origin. Awareness that it’s everywhere is maybe the first action towards reducing consumer dependence; finding alternatives is second. Third is reframing the market entirely — here’s hoping we’ll make it in time.