maandag 2 februari 2015

Herbal with treatises on food, poisons and remedies, and the properties of stones

The things you can find online (via Twitter). From the 16th century comes the manuscript of  'Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal with treatises on food, poisons and remedies, and the properties of stones (Peutingerorum Liber Botanicus) (Harley MS 3736)'. As the pictures show the draftsmanship is tremendous but it is also interesting for its position somewhere between the stylization ans conventions of earlier ages with the drive towards naturalism (to draw form nature rather than copy from the ancients).

zaterdag 31 januari 2015

Pride, Prejudice, Context

Here is a link to a small thingie I did over the weekend. It uses WordTree, the latest addition to Google's webcharts, and lets you see all words in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a tree. While it works fine for smaller segments of text (words that do not appear too often) it unfortunately needs more work when the Tree gets larger. To prevent it from crashing or returning an empty frame I have added a data limit so when searching for 'Mr' it starts alphabetically end never gets to the 'D' of Darcy. It still occasionally  takes some time or freezes up your browser for a few seconds.

vrijdag 30 januari 2015

Subordination to and participation in a global system

In the preface to a book collecting some of his lectures "The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes, and Community" (1992) William H. McNeill makes the following statement about his motivation for being a 'world historian'. McNeill's attempts to write world history within the larger patterns of disease and demographics are fully incorporated by writers better know than him (think Charles Mann) but here he explains it with the clarity of an ideology:
Consciousness of the human species as a whole is potential rather than actual. But just as most of the nations of the earth were created by political events, and then, with the help of historians, achieved a common consciousness, so, it seems to me, real human consciousness can only be expected to arise after political and economic processes have created such a tight-knit human community that every people and polity is forced to recognize its subordination to and participation in a global system. We are not far short of that condition in the last decade of the twentieth century, and world historians, if they are able to construct plausible accounts of how that circumstance arose across the centuries, can perhaps do for humanity as a whole what national historians did for emerging nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and what more specialized historians have done with conspicuous success for a number of aggrieved subnational groups since World War II." - William H. McNeill

woensdag 24 december 2014

Chef Watson: reciparrhea

Earlier I wrote about IBM's attempt at computational gastronomy, finding it a bit of a trainwreck. Recently I have been accepted as a Beta-tester for their Chef Watson, an online program that helps you create novel recipes calculated from ingredient relationships culled from 1000ands of recipes. The exact mechanisms are kept under wraps. Every time I read their description of it as "a system that could reason about flavor the same way a person uses their palate by capturing tens of thousands of existing recipes through natural language processing techniques to understand ingredient pairings, ingredient-cuisine pairings and dish composition" I can't stop giggling like a second rate Jonathan Creek but still, I can't help being fascinated.

Here is how you start, let's see what we can do with broccoli.

Watson suggests matching ingredients, dishes and cuisines. It seems that the style is optional but the dish mandatory to proceed to the recipe. Notice that these suggestions are in classic mode and the top matching ingredient is butter. Open the creativity notch a bit and the suggestions change with it:

What happens I think is that it works on frequency counts of ingredient pairs. Whatever you do with your broccoli it will involve butter at some point making it the most associated ingredient and therefore the most classic. It begs the question if butter really is an ingredient you would use as a key component of a dish. Further proof of Watson selecting ingredients on frequency comes when we are selecting for 'surprise' as much as possible:

Now there is some weird vinegar at top but look at the second one: first it was black pepper and now it is black peppercorns. This is the same ingredient but named slightly different which eludes the program. Mustard will be used in conjunction with broccoli often but rare are the recipes suggesting Dijon mustard and consequently it becomes a novelty ingredient for experimental chefs. If you would force all these variations into one the number of possible recipes would shrink enormously. I have checked if these suggestions are explainable by foodpairing based on aroma compounds and the answer is: no. So this based on recipe predominantly.

While you are selecting the ingredients, styles and dishes Watson gives you plenty of info, as you can see.

Add a few more ingredients and generate the recipe:

This is not all, the steps go on after the screenshot. It is a lot of text and by changing the slide at the top there are a number of variations of this recipes (50? 100?) to be explored. I think you will need the patience and the free time of a monk to evaluate them all and that is just for one set of ingredients. Wisely IBM has added the following disclaimer:

"Remember that Chef Watson eats data, not real food. The ingredients and steps are suggestions, so be sure to use your own judgement when preparing these dishes. And, give us feedback to make the Chef smarter."

If you want a bit of fun it can create recipes for things like: Indian lemongrass bouillabaisse, Korean turnip stroganoff cheesecake and French almond milk tiramisu pancake. The biggest problem with Chef Watson is that food is not about data but about memory and place, company and good times. It generates data but it fails to translate into an experience. It only goes to show that every Watson needs a Livingstone.

dinsdag 16 december 2014

Nature Printing

Nature printing is a special technique for representing plants on paper that was developed in the 15th century (according to Wilfrid Blunt) in Germany and its last prominent user was Henry Bradbury who worked in the middle of the 19th century. It works by blackening a plant with soot, then pressing it between two soft leaves of paper, and rubbing it down with a smoothing bone. It is a laborious task that destroys the plant but the result has beautiful texture hard to reproduce by hand as you can see by consulting Bradbury's most famous book The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1857).

maandag 15 december 2014

Polynesian navigator sketching Lobster exchange

Tupaia, Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator, sketched a Maori man exchanging a large, live spiny lobster for a piece of cloth when the Endeavour landed in New Zealand in 1769. (VIA)

donderdag 27 november 2014

Chef Livingstone: Food Memory Generator

Food writers write no more and generate your food memories and your recipe introductions with Livingstone.

Foraging in Southern Italy my favorite, slightly eccentric, aunt explained to me how to prepare tomato sauce, it takes food to a whole new dimension. Drizzle with olive oil.

When I was studying in this tiny curry place in Jaipur a toothless fisherman showed me how to cook regional lentils, it takes food to a whole new dimension. A glass of red wine will completely finish it.

When I was a student in Thailand the great-grandson of the Moghul of the Punjab explained to me how to prepare offal, it brings back so many memories. Also delicious with bread or rice.

The months after my divorce in a place not mentioned in any guidebook a very experienced chef made me understand how to combine spicing and Yorkshire pudding, it brings the cuisine of Southern France to your kitchen at home. Yummy.

When I was in the Canadian wilderness the South-African mother of my best friend showed me how to cook regional cabbage, is has that sharp richness you normally associate with China. It is tender and juicy.

I was looking for inspiration in a teahouse in Jakarta the great-great-granddaugther of Napoleon's cook showed me how to combine Ethiopian flavors with rabbit, it tastes like nothing else. Add ginger for extra punch.

dinsdag 18 november 2014

The #FungiVerse [updated]

Recently I read Cynthia Bertelsen's compact but dense 'Mushroom, A Global History', a book on the cultural and gastronomic history of the mushroom. My favorite chapter deals with the domestication of the mushroom, it argues that large scale exploitation of mushrooms is a very recent phenomena and that much is still being done to bring new species under domestication. To see if I could reproduce this observation I turned to the 'What's on the Menu' dataset hosted and created by the New York Public Library. One of their files (Dish.csv) contains the first and last occurrence of over 400.000 dishes. I searched he names for all these dishes for the occurrence of a number of different mushrooms. This resulted in the following image that clearly shows how new fungi other than the common white mushroom still are for American restaurant visitors. Enoki, ceps, shiitake and even chestnut mushrooms are all recent additions. The file used gives titles and not actual ingredients. But I would think that it catches at least every use of the truffle as they are too expensive to use without telling. Click to enlarge.

This image shows with what other ingredients the mushrooms were combined with. 

Could we by combining the data behind these 2 images in order to say how the use of mushrooms has changed through the years? I wish you luck if you want to find out. You will need it.

vrijdag 14 november 2014

The Columbian Exchange in Three examples

Example one:

Bernal Diaz, author of the only eye-witness account of Cortez' conquest of Mexico writes:
"I sowed some orange pips near another of these temples ... The trees came up very well, for when the papas saw that these were different plants from any that they knew, they protected them and watered them and kept them free from weeds. All the oranges in the province are descendants of these trees." 
Interestingly enough Diaz scratched out this passage from his manuscript thinking it was of no consequence.

Example Two:

From Cynthia D. Bertelsen's book "Mushroom, A Global History" I quote from page 44: 
"Ethnographic studies indicate that many of the ancient cooking practices can still be found in isolated Italian villages... where the older woman within the community fry field mushrooms with sweet green peppers"
A sweet pepper is of course in the capsicum family, a plant from the new world. 

Example three:

Below is a table copied from William Balee's fabulous book on Ka'apor ethnobiology "Footprints of the Forest". The Ka'apor practice swidden agriculture in the Eastern Amazon, the kind of people often portrayed as isolated and living according to ancient ways. Here is a list of the old world plants and trees in their gardens, 22 in all.

The Columbian exchange is final and has touched even the most obscure corners of this planet.

woensdag 12 november 2014

Gary Snyder & Julia Martin: Nobody Home [review]

This is proving to be a good year for us fans of Snyderiana. Earlier this year the correspondence between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (my review here) appeared and now there is 'Nobody Home Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places'. It is a beautiful slim volume that fits perfectly in the side-pocket of your backpack, the perfect format for all books. It collects three interviews with Gary Snyder and the correspondence (1983-2011) with the interviewer Julia Martian, a South-African academic and Buddhist. The interviews are nice but hardly surprising, Snyder as a writer and thinker has a one-track-mind that amtraks towards the next station at his pace and without room for deviation. A near 100% of his output sits on a continues line of what he wants to say and for his steadfast reader these letters allow you to get a ever closer look on the minutiae of his intellectual development. Compared to earlier volumes you do get a little closer to Snyder as a man of teaching and travel, and there is also slightly more shown of the emotional events in his life. The real star of this book for me is Martin. I never heard of her before but we get to know her in her students years writing long overbearingly intellectual letters from the isolation of South Africa to her self-chosen teacher. As the years go by you follow the way she matures and comes into her own. At the background are the great events of her countries recent history: the fall of apartheid, the presidency of Mandela, the normalcy of violence, the presence of deep history and nature. A better title for this book would have been: "Growing up with Gary Snyder".

At the end of the book letters turn into email and this changes the entire tone of the correspondence, less formal, more kindhearted and also quicker, shorter and more pragmatic.

Not once does the word beat or beatnik fall. 

I like seeing Snyder with one of those 1980's pen holders. I always wanted one when I was a child but the only thing I could do was try to make one with toilet paper rolls. And he had one: lucky bastard.

dinsdag 21 oktober 2014

How to read Cookbooks

Here are two interesting papers on how to engage with historic cookbooks by historian Barbara Wheaton. One is called: A Structured Approach to Reading Historic Cookbooks, the other is Finding Real Life In Cookbooks: The Adventures Of A Culinary Historian.

She especially has my attention when she writes about how to approach ingredient-lists and what questions can be asked about them:

Cookbooks tell us more about the repertory of ingredients than anything else. An inventory of the foodstuffs called for in a single cookbook can be compared with a list of commonly used Western foods. Thus, one can get a sense of how much variety in the diet there may be in the course of a year, and how opulent or impoverished the kitchen addressed by a particular work may be. When seasonal availability is taken into account, even a long list of ingredients may not be enough to prevent inadequate variety in the depth of winter, or in the *starving season* of springtime. The list may well begin to reveal how the food is obtained. Some books are plainly rural, while others are urban. Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery, begins her discussion of peas with recommendations about what varieties to plant, while Eliza Acton, writing in her Modern Cookery, is concerned with helping the housewife not to be cheated by her greengrocer. Urban cookbooks are much more likely to measure food quantities by price -take 3d. worth of salt fish- or -a punnet of strawberries- rather than by amount. The rural kitchen is supplied by a flock of poultry in the barnyard, by the kitchen garden, by barter with local people, and by hunting, fishing, and foraging. The urban kitchen is visited by a multitude of ambulant vendors who sell seasonal foods, and herd flocks of goats (ready to be milked at the door), as well as meat pies and other baked goods. Street markets, covered markets, and shops bring a much wider variety of ingredients to the city dweller than to his or her country cousin. It must be added that, by the nineteenth century, there is a much greater concern with the adulteration of foods in the cities. A more general question must be asked: What proportions of the most commonly-used foodstuffs are obtained within and outside of the
cash economy?

The ingredients repertory displays economic and geographic patterns and raises questions such as: What are the points of origin of different food plants and animals? How long have they been present in the region represented by the cookbook? Which are the luxury ingredients, which are the staples, and which are the foods of the poor, or famine foods?

Here, I should point out a caveat: the mere mention of an ingredient does not guarantee its availability. In the past, as today, some cookbook writers seem to feel obliged to call for esoteric ingredients to demonstrate how recondite are their tastes. By the nineteenth century, the repertory expands: canal transportation, then the railroads, and finally steamboats greatly improve the selection of foodstuffs available in most parts of Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America. Pineapple and coconut, for example, are featured in Eliza Leslie's cookbooks published in Philadelphia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By shortening the time spent in transit, the railroads in particular did much to improve the quality of foods sold in urban markets.

woensdag 8 oktober 2014

The 'Sioux Chef' on the Map

A nice piece came my way via Twitter: "The 'Sioux Chef' Is Putting Pre-Colonization Food Back On The Menu" about Sean Sherman, cook and student of the ethnobotany of his own Oglala Lakota tribe. I like projects like these. Map your Recipe, a website that can find the fruits and vegetables in a recipe and show where they were domesticated, was created with the intent of analyzing exactly such things. I do not have Sherman's recipes of course but using the gallery page from his website it is possible to get some of his ingredients. Here is what happens when you put them on the map:

The graph on the right shows that for these few ingredients as many are native to the new world as are native to the old world. The second thing that is immediately clear is that most of these plants were never domesticated at all.

But what does this mean in regard with the claim of Sherman cooking food from before pre-colonization? As I have been saying all cooking is fusion cooking and the origin of an ingredient has nothing to do with authenticity (the pizza is no less Italian for using the South American tomato). In this case it is even more interesting because it is perfectly feasible for a 17th/18th/19th century non-colonized prairie Lakota to eat plants brought to the continent by European invaders. This is the point made by Alfred W. Crosby in his book Ecological Imperialism. A plant like the humble dandelion was preparing the ground for the European onslaught long before they themselves got that far west.

My great plains anthropology is sketchy but it is to be remembered that this was a way of life made possible by the horse, a European animal. The various nations (or even empires) of plain Indians who learned how to re-domesticate (and later breed) feral horses in order to live out on the prairie are among few recorded examples of formerly sedentary people becoming nomadic. Their way of life was a creative and successful response to new pressures and new opportunities. It makes sense that this creativity would also act on new plants. It is part of their genius. The map is a way to show this.

zaterdag 4 oktober 2014

AEAR (Average Etymological Age of a Recipe)

One can take a random recipe, like Jamie 'proper delish' Oliver's rainbow salad wrap, and look up the year each ingredient entered the English language. It would result in the following etymological timetable:


With this data you are able to calculate the AEAR or Average Etymological Age of a Recipe. As the word 'average' says it is derived at by dividing the grand total of years by the number of ingredients. For Oliver's salad wrap the AEAR is a respectable 1329. It is bogus, of course, but it is a way to add a metric to recipes (or entire cookbooks) that few will have experimented with. With good reason I hear you say.

The following graph shows the AEAR of 77 historic cookbooks published between 1390 and 1936. In those 546 years the AEAR went up with only 220 years. The vertical line is for AEAR, horizontal is for year of publication of the cookbook.

For the period after 1936 cookbooks within the public domain are scarce but for with a little help from our friends from the Pirate Bay we can add Nigella Lawson's Express (2007). The trend line does not move visibly but the book is way above the trend. She scores a AEAR of 1359. Between 1390 and 2007 (so between the Forme of Cury and Nigella Lawson), a period of 617 years the AEAR went up 326 years. These numbers one could once again compile to calculate relative growth rates per decade or century but this I will leave to a PhD with the time and the inclination who can than proceed to theorize about punctuated etymological equilibriums. 

The challenge is this: who can find the newest and the oldest recipe as measured by AEAR? 

Can you beat the AEAR of this recipe for "Teriyaki tofu wrap with macadamia roasted garlic spread" which is an impressive 1461?!

Map your Recipe can calculate.

zaterdag 20 september 2014

A foraging poem by Seamus Heaney

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. 

Seamus Heaney (1960ties)