Category: Food and Drink

Freakonomics of the sea

"Before the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus," said Jones. "It was considered trash fish that people didn’t want"

Glenn said his interest in menus as historical resources evolved from a project in which he assigned students in a coastal resources class to study seafood price data based on prices in a 1950s restaurant menu he came across.

Besides documenting the rise and fall in popularity and prices of fish and mollusk species in restaurants, menus also provide scientists with serious documentation of the economics of commercial fishing over the decades, he said.

"Sea scallops don’t show up on the menus until the 1940s," Jones said. "Before that, it was all bay scallops on menus. Now, bay scallops are pretty rare and the ones you get are real small"

Other U.S. seafood resources are depleted as well, Jones said. Industry records show oyster harvests from Chesapeake Bay are down 96 percent from annual hauls in the early 1900s, he said.

In recent decades, American consumers in particular have chewed their way through two trendy delicacies, Jones said.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, orange roughie starts showing up on menus," Jones said. "But it’s a very slow-growing species and they were harvesting it much faster than the species could replace itself so it’s becoming commercially extinct"

Fishing boats simply shifted from chasing roughie in waters around New Zealand and Australia to pursuing Chilean sea bass in the southern Pacific and southern Indian oceans.

"They just moved on to another species," Jones said, citing catch statistics. "Now, the same thing is happening with the Chilean sea bass"

The same type of progression took place among Atlantic ocean species from the 1850s into the 1900s, Jones said.

Analysis so far has included menus mostly from coastal cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Providence, R.I., Jones said.

Here is the full story, and thanks to Dylan Alexander for the pointer.  Here is another summary, try this one too.  In Colonial America, servants wrote contracts specifying they would not be asked to eat lobseter (how fresh? and did they give you a bib and that little fork?) more than twice a week.  Here is a Canadian summary of the work.

Did I mention that we are running out of many species of fish, and that we will be consuming lower and lower items on the marine seafood chain?  I favor private ownership of fish stocks, to alleviate the commons problem, but a) this is not always technically feasible, and b) where possible, it would cause current prices to skyrocket, making those fish a luxury good.  Quotas can be a second best solution but they are hard to enforce.  I hope you like seaweed.

New food bleg

This coming weekend I will be in Memphis, Tennessee, looking for barbecue.  I know or know of the famous places, can you suggest a dump instead?  Don’t even bother if they have their own web site.  How about a place with an open barbecue pit?  I also will be driving down Rt.61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi, how about something there or along the way?  Comments are open.

Seth Roberts in NYTimes

Seth Roberts may soon be waking up to see his own face on television.  That ought to make him happy!  Roberts, as you may recall, is the Berkeley psychologist whose novel self-experiments have led to some strange but important new ideas.  Stephen Dubner, who read about Roberts on MR, and Steve Levitt have just profiled him in the NYTimes Magazine; they do an especially good job of explaining Seth’s theory of weight loss:

[Roberts] had by now come to embrace the theory that our bodies are
regulated by a "set point," a sort of Stone Age thermostat that sets an
optimal weight for each person. …But according to Roberts’s
interpretation of the set-point theory, when food is scarcer, you
become less hungry; and you get hungrier when there’s a lot of food

This may sound backward, like
telling your home’s furnace to run only in the summer. But there is a
key difference between home heat and calories: while there is no good
way to store the warm air in your home for the next winter, there is a
way to store today’s calories for future use. It’s called fat….

During an era of scarcity –
an era when the next meal depended on a successful hunt, not a
successful phone call to Hunan Garden – this set-point system was
vital. It allowed you to spend down your fat savings when food was
scarce and make deposits when food was plentiful. Roberts was convinced
that this system was accompanied by a powerful signaling mechanism:
whenever you ate a food that was flavorful (which correlated with a
time of abundance) and familiar (which indicated that you had eaten
this food before and benefited from it), your body demanded that you
bank as many of those calories as possible….

Roberts tried to game this Stone Age system. What if he could keep his
thermostat low by sending fewer flavor signals? One obvious solution
was a bland diet, but that didn’t interest Roberts. (He is, in fact, a
serious foodie.) After a great deal of experimenting, he discovered two
agents capable of tricking the set-point system. A few tablespoons of
unflavored oil (he used canola or extra light olive oil), swallowed a
few times a day between mealtimes, gave his body some calories but
didn’t trip the signal to stock up on more. Several ounces of sugar
water (he used granulated fructose, which has a lower glycemic index
than table sugar) produced the same effect. (Sweetness does not seem to
act as a "flavor" in the body’s caloric-signaling system.)

The results were astounding. Roberts lost 40 pounds and never gained it back.

I can verify the appetite suppressing properties of the fructose water.  A glass of fructose water and I can easily go without lunch.  The only problem is that the sophists lure the unsuspecting to lunch anyway.

Jokes about opportunity cost

So this guy is driving down the high and passes an orchard… 

He sees this farmer holding up a pig so that it can gobble apples right off the tree.  The pig is going crazy eating apples. 

"That’s the craziet thing I ever saw," the guy tells himself and he pulls over to the side of the road, gets out of the car, and goes up to the farmer. 

"Hey, I couldn’t help noticing what you were doing.  Does your pig like apples?"

The farmer says, "My pig loves apples." 

"Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, if you took a stick and knocked the apples on the ground instead of lifting the pig up, you would save lots of time." 

And the farmer answers, "What’s time to a pig?" 

That is attributed to Paul Willis, and is from Peter Kaminsky’s new and excellent (for foodies) Pig Perfect.

What went wrong with red delicious apples?

I now find these apples inedible.  Why?  Falling prices led to overbreeding and lack of care:

Who’s to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations, or "sports," that they could find, and growers bought them by the millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would store for ages…

The Washington harvest begins in mid-August and runs to late October, and most apples sold through December are simply stored in refrigerated warehouses. Fruit shipped later in this cycle is kept in a more sophisticated environment called controlled-atmosphere storage — airtight rooms where the temperatures are chilly, the humidity high and the oxygen levels reduced to a bare minimum to arrest aging. Last year’s fruit will be sold through September, just as the new harvest is in full swing.

Storage apples must be picked before all their starches turn to sugar. Pick too late, and the apple turns mealy in the supermarket, but pick too soon, and the apple will never taste sweet. Growers test for optimum conditions, but today’s popular strains of Red Delicious turn color two to three weeks before harvest, making it difficult for pickers to distinguish an apple that is ready from one that isn’t…

The grower could deliver a better apple by harvesting a tree in two or three waves — the outside fruit ripens earlier than fruit in the center of the tree. This is done for Galas and other premium varieties, but the prices for Red Delicious are so depressed that farmers can’t afford that. "You would put yourself out of business," said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., a major grower in Wenatchee. In addition, the redder strains’ thicker skins, found to be rich in antioxidants, taste bitter to many palates.

The bottom line is that this practice has backfired.  Consumers are no longer looking to buy artificial fruits simply for their color or durability.  Here is the full story, and please support this trend by refusing to buy the standard red delicious apple.

Peruvian Food

You can eat pizza in Cusco but why would you?  Neverthless, many people must since the places are everywhere – lcd dining.  The local speciality is cuy (click on the link if you do not know what it is.  But do not tell my children what Daddy has been eating!)  Roasted cuy is an old tradition – recall the discussion of syncretism and subterfuge and check out this Cusconian painting of the last supper (scroll down to the third picture for a good view.)

You can get western cuy in town but I wanted the real thing so I asked the hotel guide where the locals go.  After some argument (si, si, yo no quiero cuy touristico, yo quiero muy bien cuy tipico) she relented and got me a taxi for the next day.

We traveled well out of Cusco, past the shanty towns and out into the countryside where cows roam next to the highway and the occasional llama can be seen on the mountains.  After about 40 minutes we arrived at a downtrodden pueblo.  I thought this was it but we then headed out on a dirt road finally pulling into an alley/driveway behind a house.  Just like in the movies a fat goose and a skinny dog (you work it out!) moved slowly out of the way as we pulled up to a terrace behind the house. The restaurant, if you can call it that, wasn’t much to look at but opposite were the mountains.

Two Andean mamas right out of the tourist book seated us and began to stoke a large earthenware stove with wood.  The cuy was roasted and served with excellent Andean potatoes as well as macaroni and cheese (!).   

The cuy: good.  The view: great.  The experience: priceless.

Meat without Feet

Earlier I wrote that the animal-welfare movement will explode as in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable.  A new paper discusses some novel techniques for growing in-vitro meat.  New Harvest, a non-profit firm, has been created to experiment with and promote the technology.   We will soon need a new word for people who eat meat but not animals.  Email me if you have suggestions and I will publish the best.