zaterdag 19 april 2014

Wild plants in Berlin after 1945

Without a countryside to go to the plant watchers of West Berlin looked within the city and urban ecology was born out of the surprise of what they found. So the story goes. A very nice article is 'Flora and Vegetation Reflecting the Urban History of Berlin' by Herbert Sukopp (2003). The effects of the Blitz on the wild plants of England and especially London has been covered here, here and for WW1 France here. Sukopp writes about Berlin in '45.
In a historical context, sites bombed during World War II have played an important part in the development of the urban flora and its investigation. Only few years after the bombing various plants had colonised the ruined houses. In many cities the war damage and its effects gave rise to special studies of the rubble flora and fauna (Düll and Werner 1955/56, Scholz 1960 and others). During the colonisation of rubble, which offers warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats, plants and animals from warmer regions of the world found suitable conditions. Many plants that had been rather rare have become permanent membersof the urban flora in war-damaged Berlin.

After World War II an intensive and spontaneus development of vegetation began on the rubble, proceeding in more or less rapid succession from short-lived and perennial stages of herbaceous vegetation to shrub and forest-like stands. The variety of species on such inner-city waste land is surprisingly large. Thus a site at Lützowplatz in Berlin-Tiergarten accommodated 140 species of seed plants and at least 200 taxa of insects (Weigmann et al. 1978).

Dispersal of organisms and development of vegetation can be studied on rubble sites on a large scale and in an environment that differs considerably from previously known ruderal places. As Pfeiffer (1957) wrote: “The recolonization of rubble, created in many cities due to the activity of bombers in the last war, has unintentionally become a tremendous natural experiment, which with respect to its size, must be compared to the colonisationof new habitats created by volcanic activity”

zondag 13 april 2014

Polemobotany or war botany


Polemochores, 'seeds distributed by dispute'.  Quote from.

vrijdag 11 april 2014

Ruminating majestic reindeers

Norway! Land of difficult spelling.
Hiding your beauty behind strange vowels.
Land of long nights, short days, and dots over 'O's.
Ruminating majestic reindeers
Tread wearily on ice floes
Ever aware of what happened to the Titanic
One day I will sojourn to your shores
I live in the middle of England
Norway! My soul resides in your watery fiords fyords fiiords

- Adrian Mole

woensdag 9 april 2014

Surtsey and the tomato as weed

The island Surtsey arose from the sea, south of Iceland, in a volcanic eruption that took from 1963 to 1967 to complete. Like Krakatau it has been extensively monitored by ecologists and biologists studying biological succession.

Here is how John McPhee writes about in The Control of Nature (1990):
From Surtsey's inception, scientists of many disciplines have carefully observed the island, taking advantage of any number of exceptional opportunities - for example, to observe the very beginnings of the process of forest succession, as seeds from who knows where invade and colonize freshly forming soil. For many months, they watched intently for the first green shoot to make its appearance in the black grit. This could offer insight so deep it might extend illumination even as far as the Silurian world. At last, a leaf appeared, unfurled, and was followed by a vine - a tomato plant.
The first plant to arrive was actually sea rocket, but the story of the vagrant tomato is well known. Introduced by human defecation (it was well manured, yes) and removed. 

If you want to know history, know the plants.

donderdag 3 april 2014

Guestimate the cuisine ingredients mapped.

My personal favorite feature of Map your Recipe is the Guesstimate function that from the ingredients of a recipe will guess/estimate the cuisine it represents. It is far from perfect and only knows a limited number of cuisines but I find it amazing that it manages to produce results that are relatively often decent. Having produced the above network of the ingredients (click to enlarge) it looks for however it looks all wrong, almost like a parody on national cuisines.

maandag 31 maart 2014

Big Food; parsing 26 cookbook

Just so you know I am not procrastinating: 26 historic cookbooks (1390 to 1955), year of publication on horizontal bottom line, blue line is total number of ingredients recognized, red line is meat, yellow is seafood. You can't really see it, it's huge. Test image!

woensdag 26 maart 2014

Dry Cooking with nine Filipino recipes

The Philippines were an important half-way station between China and the west, both for those coming from Europe and from Spanish South America. Trade station, pirate hide-out, smuggling capital and, inevitable also, a hotspot for culinary fusion. The Filipino recipes I found at AllRecipes do indeed look unusual to me (much soy sauce and Mediterranean herbs, rice and pasta, tropical fruits and (according to another source) Spanish sausages). From Map your Recipe (using 9 recipes, which might be based on what you can buy in US supermarkets) I got a 83.3% use of old world ingredients, which is a number common for most cuisines. The Cuisine guestimation I think nicely sums up the fusion/uniqueness of Filipino food.

To see if it would be possible for the program to recognize Filipino cuisine I fed the same recipes to a new tool (Compare your Recipe) that takes up to 10 recipes simultaneously and compares occurrence, frequency and type of ingredients. The radar graph below shows what ingredients were used and in how many recipes. I am struggling to find the unique combination but will try again later with more recipes. I have added the recipes to the example section so you can see for yourself

With thanks to Rachel Laudan (earlier) for making the suggestion.

vrijdag 21 maart 2014

The Flora of Utrecht in 1843

Plant watcher are an industrious lot and they like nothing better than share their observations with others, in book form if possible. P.M.E. Gevers Deynoot (1816-60) studied law in Leiden, not very successfully as he never specialized and never practiced, was shunned for his social disgrace, he was married to a woman of low social standing (like Thomas DeQuincey!), came to Utrecht for a year, does not seen to have done much other then walk around and botanize, he published his results as 'The Flora van Utrecht' in 1843 and moved on to Nijmegen. He never seems to have had a proper job and was therefore probably 'in money' and his double last name gives a clue to where that came from. Not much else is known. The foreword to my 1970 reprint states that his Latin was good, his plant knowledge sufficient but his taxonomy outdated. The area he covered was the radius of a two hour walk from the city of Utrecht. Depending on which way you go the first 30 to 60 minutes of those two hours would keep you within built environment. A number of plant he mentions haven't been seen here for a century, some that are common now, like Giant Hogweed (see below), he found only at one place. 

If you are into this kind of stuff, if you know the area it is about, this little book can really transport you to another century. Most of my direct environment was still wet and peaty in those days, waiting for irrigation in the early 20th century, but when I look up plants that grow in my street now (greater celandine for instance) I learn that Gevers Deynoot observed them in the bushes just outside of the city, that is not very exact but it could be right here. This continuency, even if only imagined, makes looking at plants even more interesting.

donderdag 20 maart 2014

Slow Food Manifesto

From 1989. The Slow Food manifesto. I have always wondered, giving its Italian origin, if it was also making a deliberate step away from futurism, which also had its own cooking philosophy
Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modelled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: 'the fast life' that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest "fast- food".
Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the 'velocity' that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of 'the fast life' with tranquil material pleasure. Against those - or, rather, the vast majority - who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.

Appropriately, we will start in the kitchen, with Slow Food. To escape the tediousness of "fast-food", let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines.

In the name of productivity, the 'fast life' has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes. Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde's riposte.

Real culture is here to be found. First of all, we can begin by cultivating taste, rather than impoverishing it, by stimulating progress, by encouraging international exchange programs, by endorsing worthwhile projects, by advocating historical food culture and by defending old-fashioned food traditions.

Slow Food assures us of a better quality lifestyle. With a snail purposely chosen as its patron and symbol, it is an idea and a way of life that needs much sure but steady support.

zondag 9 maart 2014

The little man of Willemstad

Been bending over this today in the Dutch Royal Museum of Antiquities, its an oak figure with a C14 age of 5300 to 5000 years before present. Its 12.5 cm high and fits in the hand. The image does no justice to seeing the object in front of you. This Fibula was another favourite.

vrijdag 7 maart 2014

Some Vavilov updates [non-centers of food domestication]

The food hearth theory of  Nikolai Vavilov is obviously outdated. In searching for later insights I stumbled on the Dictionary of cultivated plants and their centres of diversity (1975) by a student of Vavilov, PM Zhukovsky together with AC Seven. The book lists domesticated plants (for food as well as fodder, industrial and medicinal uses) using a centers of origin list expanded on that suggested by Vavilov. The differences can be seen above, for South America three centers are contracted into one, the Chinese center incorporates Japan, the Ethiopian center has disappeared in a vast African one and Australian, North-American and Euro-Siberian centers are added.

The entire Vavilovian system came under criticism from JR Harlan who in Agricultural Origins: Centers and Noncenters (1971) argues for three separate origins of agriculture and three non-centers (spanning 5000 to 10.000 km) where domestication took places in dispersed areas. Resulting in the map below. Note that the three temperate climate centers (Mexico, Near East China) are all matched by a tropical non center, and that the three centers are all thought to have independently developed writing. Very Neat.

dinsdag 4 maart 2014

The Islami-Mex Mole on the Map

Recently I have been enjoying several pieces by food historian Rachel Laudan. Her recent book I have not yet read but here is an interview. She writes in praise of fast food and about the origin of our diet. The latter is especially interesting for the historic perspective it brings to our modern love for freshness. You can also take her to a supermarket near you. An older piece is The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection that contains the following: 
When Mexico’s leading writer, Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz, arrived in New Delhi in 1962 to take up his post as ambassador to India, he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole (pronounced MO-lay). Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained?


Paz was right to point out that mole resembled curry, he was wrong to imagine that Mexican cooks had created mole as imitation curry, or that Indian cooks composed curries in an effort to emulate mole. He would have done better to picture both moles and curries as vestiges of the cuisine of medieval Islam, a cuisine that was enjoyed from southern Spain in the west to northern India in the east.


In the early 16th century, as the Spaniards were introducing their version of Muslim cuisine to Mexico, the Mughals conquered northern India half a world away. They came by way of Persia, which had become the cultural and culinary center of the region since the Mongols had ruined Baghdad more than 200 years earlier. It was this Persian version of Muslim cuisine that their cooks adapted to Indian circumstances, creating the sophisticated Mughal cuisine of New Delhi. By the mid-16th century, then, a belt of high cuisine could be traced from northern India westward to Mexico. Although in every area it had been adapted to include local ingredients, the basic techniques and the basic dishes of medieval Islam continued to form the basis of all the local variants.
The article provides a brief glimpse into the way food-cultures wander, how tradition incorporates new ingredients without losing integrity, but also how incoming styles of food become naturalized and localized. Food history as study of the way old dishes are created from new and new dishes from old. By placing such processes in the context of state-making and empire building Laudan can write about cuisine-formation (what a word) within an evolutionary framework. 

Within evolutionary biology sits is the study of biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of life, its most famous case study is the recolonization of Krakatau after its explosion. So if such a thing as gastrogeography can exist within the History of Food what would be its Krakatau? The introduction of the potato in the diet of the old world? The patenting of Coca-Cola? The release of Islamic cuisine in the new world? Or perhaps we should look at islands like biogeography has done since the time of Wallace and Darwin. Lauden provided for that too with her earlier book The Food of Paradise, Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage which tells the story of Hawaiian gastrogenesis (yeah!) from three different cuisines meeting on the culinary clean slate of Hawaii.

If you would want to take this one step further you could look to formalize and describe events of cuisination (read cuisine speciation, the process of cuisine formation), cuisine radiation (the splitting of a cuisine into several cuisines), cuisine revolution (the sudden and drastic change of a cuisine), cuisine decay (the process of a cuisine losing its coherence), cuisine collapse (the complete annihilation of a cuisine).

Map your Recipe is my way to address these things and what else could I do but get a recipe for Mole and feed it to the program. The resulting map is above. In terms of food regions it brings together the two Indian and Mediterranean centers, the lateral extremities of the the Islamic empire, but there is also a very strong presence of new world ingredients as the graph below shows. It is extremely rare to find a recipe that exceeds the 50% use of new world ingredients and for this achievement alone I find Mole impressive.

I was how wondering how Map your Recipe would guestimate the Mole, would it recognize it as Mexican or maybe (also) as Indian or Indonesian or Moroccan. After a little adjustment it now recognizes Mole as Mexican.

maandag 3 maart 2014

Outlines for a History of Urban Foraging in the English Speaking world

The first image to appear when doing a Google image search for 'Urban Foraging'. Source.

- Second draft -

Foraging, the act of looking or searching for food or provisions, tends to be regarded with wary. When practiced by isolated bands of hunter-gatherers, now or in the past, it may be regarded with a certain admiration for the practical skills involved. But in our own time and in our own lives we can only associate foraging as an activity of the last resort, to be rediscovered after societal collapse or personal catastrophe has severed our ties with normal ways of producing and/or procuring food. Only when we are starving will we resurrect the almost inhuman act of foraging. That war has often provided the circumstances for a return to foraging can be demonstrated by numerous examples. The Hedgerow Harvest brochures (1943) issued by the UK government during World War II are well remembered. A technical manual like Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific (1943) compiled by Elmer Drew Merrill and issued to US war pilots is an obscure but fascinating predecessor to John Lofty Wiseman's SAS Survival Handbook (1986). The edible plant section in the SAS handbook is probably the best available source of information on wild foods today. The link between war and foraging is currently (2014) reinforced by news stories about the beleaguered population of Syrian Homs surviving on soup cooked from weeds.


The mental shift that informs contemporary foraging, here called ‘urban foraging’, from more standard attitudes about food and nature is considerable. An urban forager is someone who botanizes to eat from overgrown and derelict spaces, someone who spies for weedy plants growing in the cracks of the pavement in order to cook them. Urban foraging is not done for survival but for the good of the environment, for the benefit of health, for flavour, for freshness, for the joy of the search and for more intimate familiarity with nature and ancient lifeways. For the urban forager foraging is not a matter of life and death but an opportunity to positively affirm a moral position. The urban forager is a non-agricultural locavore, someone who literally eats her or his own environment.


It is useful to compare the attitude that informs the spirit of the SAS Survival Guide to the two classic books of urban foraging, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962) by Euell Gibbons and Food for Free (1972) by Richard Mabey. Wiseman devotes almost as much space to edible plants as he does to poisonous ones. Gibbons and Mabey have only little to say about the dangers of foraging and restrict themselves to stating that you should never eat what you don't recognize. Statements that read as legal disclaimers. The difference is fundamental. To a forager nature is good, giving and benign, to the elite soldier nature is cruel, hostile and untrustworthy. The common sense of the forager is that you need to be extremely stupid to die from eating poisonous plants, the common sense of a survivalist is that you need to be smart and determined if you are to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of wild nature. The ‘Wild Food’ (2007) book and TV series by survival expert Ray Mears bridges the two strands with his typical a-political and anthropological-informed approach of re-enactment.


The use of wild food has never stopped in the industrialized world but it is not something that is much noticed. There are no data and no theories. Urban foraging as an catechism of local freshness, as a half-formed ideology of nature, does only accidentally cross paths with foraging as the village folklore of home-made jam and nutting. Urban foraging was created out of thin air, through its own internal logic and need, as a consequence of the circumstances and ideas of its time. As a synthetic practise, that its proponents nevertheless have always presented as possessing total authenticity, it could only emerge after the loss of foraging skills for large numbers of people had become total. Urbanization is the most obvious cause for this loss, but certainly not the only one. One can argue about when this process of amnesia, the process of urban dwellers becoming completely dependent on purchased and imported goods, was completed. A personal theory dates the demise of foraging as a ‘normal’ activity as contemporary with the life of Jane Austen (1775-1817). This is also the time when increased literacy created the modern cooking book and rationalized the recipe.


Starting from the 1850ties the discovery that wild plants can be eaten and that this has philosophical ramifications comes as such a surprising insight that people want to share and formalize their excitement. Henry David Thoreau began his Wild Fruits manuscript in 1859, published only in 2000, but in a lecture named Wild Apples (1862) he captured the intent behind his private and ultimately unfinished manuscript for his audience. Thoreau's tone and purpose is remarkably modern. To eat a berry straight from the bush satisfies hunger but does so in a way that no overseas plant could ever do, argued Thoreau, wild fruit liberates its eater from the shackles of polite but corrupt society. A book that was published in the late 19th century is F. Buchanan White's Edible Wild Plants of Scotland (1871) and here too we are told in messianic terms about the superior taste of wild food and their inherit message of freedom.


Like Thoreau before them urban foragers must acquire their skills consciously and with intent. The marked exception is Euell Gibbons (1911-75) who learned his plants and their uses from his mother. Gibbons claims that during the crisis of the 1920ties he managed to safe his family from starvation by foraging for additional sources of food. After a life of many trades and failed attempts to publish his novels he acted on the advice of his literary agent to write a book on his knowledge of wild plants. Stalking of the Wild Asparagus became a best-seller and is credited with shaping urban foraging as we know it today. Gibbons was not a naïve philosopher discovering nature for the first time during a rare outing away from university. He did survive on foraging and beachcombing alone in later years but he did not recommend it. For him foraging was not done for nutrition or health but for spiritual reasons, as a method to keep your sanity in a world that was severing its ties with nature. Gibbons was not a hippie but when they came to him they would recognize him as one of theirs.


Urban foraging as something unalienable ‘hippie’ does not begin with Richard Mabey but him “sitting cross-legged on the lawn in a kaftan” ensured that everybody understood that roadside snacking constituted a stance against the agro-industrial complex. Looking back on Food for Free Mabey regretted the “pious” tone. But we have already seen that piousness is part and parcel of the literature of urban foraging. Created from scratch, not weighted down by the accumulated baggage of tradition and spurred on by desire for transcendence over cheap materialism, the urban forager is a gullible victim to nutritional naivety. And nobody more so than the young and the novice. Rebecca Lerner, in her book Dandelion Hunter, Foraging the Urban Wilderness (2013), describes how she, as a newly converted forager, attempted to live on foraged goods alone. 48 Hours were enough to learn that a few meagre salad leaves and herb tea do not get you through the day. And that it all tastes bitter!


There does not exist a tradition for urban foraging, but people have tried to construct one. Those in a country with indigenous people try to tap into local and presumably ancient knowledge. The Australians have their Aboriginals and the North Americans their Indians, Native Americans and First Nations. Thoreau and Gibbons paid lip service to the original people of the land and they were not alone. Biologist Perry Medsger Oliver was so enthralled by the knowledge of an Indian who temporary joined his group that he decided to learn more about the Indian tradition. His findings he reported in his book Edible Wild Plants (1939). Muriel Sweet’s often reprinted Edible Wild Plants of the West (1962) also goes into Native American plant use. In this they Americans were helped by the voluminous and detailed reports by Franz Boas, William Sturtevant, Francis Densmore and many others working for the Bureau of American Ethnology in the late 19th and early 20th century. The North-American scene has the additional benefit of proper ‘wild’ nature and the continuing existence of knowledge pertaining survival in the outdoors. Chris McCandless, as portrayed by John Krakauer in Into the Wild (1993), is the prime example of an urban forager as only America could produce them. With an Indian plant lore book in his bag pack he dies of starvation in vast and empty Alaska.


Foraged foods may be free as in ‘freedom’. Foraged foods may be free as in ‘free beer’. But foraging is done seldom without ulterior motive. Urban foragers go foraging because they desire to do so, but in the back of their minds they are often dreaming of making it their life changer. While digging up thistle roots they are already composing paragraphs about the sensation it gives them. They have blogs or hope to write a book. They add GPS coordinates of plant locations to online forage databases, of which several are available. Or they run such a website or are developing one. Maybe they want to become forage tour guides, showing groups around like Steve Brill has done in New York’s Central Park since 1981. Perhaps they want to become restaurant suppliers and graze a few bucks in that way. Urban foragers are all industrious members of the ‘cupcake economy’.


In the forty years since the publication of Food for Free, urban foraging has become recognizable to outsiders. But it remains without a lineage and without a shared history. It is a life style that begins anew with every person who looked through a copy of Food for Free and then tried a bramble. Urban foraging is a skill you start to learn from a book, not directly from nature because, despite all intentions, we don't really trust nature, especially when it is urban. The portrayal of urban foragers as eating from the road is almost entirely rhetoric. Foragers go to parks and forests, as these areas are deemed freer from contamination from chemical pollution both through the soil and the air. Dog shit is another worry when thinking about wild food from the street even though dog shit is often the manure that allows plants to grow in the sterile sand underneath the pavement. The actual health risks of eating self-willed urban plants are uncertain and dependant also on the specifics of locality and the nature of the plants themselves. That the urban forager as an environmentalist is already convinced that the earth is poisoned beyond remittance must create unresolved psychological dissonances.


What are the effects of urban foraging on society? Richard Mabey claims that the now common appearance of marsh samphire on restaurant menus can be credited to its rediscovery as edible by foragers. There must be more examples on this level. Foraging has certainly received a lot of attention through a recent fad in higher-end restaurants for wild foods. There is a French wild cooking pedigree to this, but it also borrowed heavily on the knowledge of individual urban foragers, and their books. The prime example of the rediscovery of foraging by avant-garde cookery is Rene Redzepi’s restaurant NOMA that offers dishes belonging to a self invented tradition of Nordic food that relies heavily on the use of foraged ingredients. NOMA was voted best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and this visibility and prestige reinforced an already happening revival of interest in the subject. The real impact of urban foraging on society because of all this is the sudden attention paid in the news and by park authorities to overharvesting of plants. As a radical fringe amidst larger debates about the environmental sustainability of our globalized food system, the presence of urban foragers, as a conceptual category rather than as an actual movement, is providing useful alternative visions about the city as a food source. In the near future, as ideas about community gardens, food forests and other examples of so-called food commons will become more acceptable and enter the language of town planning, urban foraging may well find that its legacy will be in the way its presence challenged and changed the design of the city itself. The creation of places intended for foraging would matter little when expressed in calories or bulk volume but the symbolic impact would be enormous.

vrijdag 28 februari 2014

Cartography by a Four year old

When growing up in such a household it was only to be expected that the four year old in the house has started to make maps. Lots of them. There is always the sun at the top, a horizontal line which is the road and crosses or scribbles for houses. The one in the middle is a map he made from the house to the supermarket. He then led us, map in hand, without a wrong turn to the supermarket and back so we can only conclude that the map was correct. For perspective: the images below are from the almost six year old and from the just turned two year old. 

donderdag 27 februari 2014

Foraging in Scotland in 1871 and The pacific in 1943

The copy of Edible Wild Plants of Scotland (F. Buchanan White, 1871) on begins at page 22 so I don't know what is missing but these words from the introduction are a high-trumpeted claret call to graze the bonny hills. It reminds me of this earlier fragment from Gilbert White.

[I]n civilized nations, it is the naturalist — not the mere classifier of species, nor he who gathers together a collection of objects of natural history as he would a collection of postage stamps, coins, or old china, but the true lover of nature — who is the chief inheritor of this love of the wild freshness of the earth's morning, still lingering on the mountain's side, in depths of the primeval forest, or amidst the waves of ocean. And thus it seems to me that to the naturalist, wild flowers and fruits will always be more beautiful and attractive than all the richest treasures of the garden. 

But a comparison should scarcely be made, perhaps, between wild fruits and those which have become subject to man. The whole character of the latter has become changed; the bitter has been made sweet, and the small large - all freedom has been lost.
 Of a completely different time and tone is Emergency food plants and poisonous plants of the islands of the Pacific by Elmer Drew Merrill, issued in 1943, technical manual published by the US War Department. The images are from that book.