Illustration by Eva Bee
The first I heard of him, nearly a decade ago, I was immediately hooked on his writing, and the ideas he was offering were surprising to read in a mainstream, if progressive, publication. He introduced me to rewilding. If you have not been reading or perhaps listening to George Monbiot during this decade you may not have noticed how his radicalism has evolved. In this editorial ostensibly about the Pandora Papers I learned something about Madeira that I want to read more about:
…A few decades after the Portuguese colonised Madeira in 1420, they developed a system that differed in some respects from anything that had gone before. By felling the forests after which they named the island (madeira is Portuguese for wood), they created, in this uninhabited sphere, a blank slate – a terra nullius – in which a new economy could be built. Continue reading
Sandra Goldmark’s essay, Built Not to Last: How to Overcome Planned Obsolescence, is worthy of a few minutes:
What you can do as an individual consumer, a business patron, and a voter
In 2020, people worldwide bought some 24 billion pairs of shoes, 64 million cars, and 1.4 billion smartphones—200 million of them from Apple. More than 80 percent of iPhones sold last year went to “upgraders,” not first-time buyers. It’s all part of business as usual. Continue reading
When we posted on his book a few weeks ago the title of our post suggested that it was a frivolous offering. Not so. Surprisingly we have not posted about Nathan Myhrvold before, but the best profile on him was written before this platform launched. Then his dinosaur obsession and invention workshop were his primary talking points. In recent years those have made room for food.
And in case you do not have time for his book, you can get a sense of those talking points on this episode of The Splendid Table podcast:
This week, we take a deep dive into pizza with the co-author of the voluminous Modernist Pizza, Nathan Myhrvold. We get into the history, culture, and techniques behind great pizza. We hear stories from his worldwide travels and deep dives into pizza cultures and traditions. Plus, we hear about the culinary lab research devoted to making the best pizza ever, and he sticks around to answer your pizza-making questions. He is the founder of the Modernist Cuisine Lab…
Old maps, an occasional topic in our pages over the years, are not the only evidence demonstrating who went where, and when:
That was long before Christopher Columbus set sail
That vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Christopher Columbus is well established. Continue reading
General view of the International Perfume Museum’s gardens in Grasse. “The same rose or the same jasmine grown in Egypt or Morocco, it will be different from the rose grown in Grasse,” head gardener Christophe Meze says. “It’s like wine, you can have the same type of grape, but you won’t have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of the terroir.” Bénédicte Desrus for NPR
Perfume appeared early in our pages mostly due to their botanical intrigue–but has only been an occasional topic since then. This story of how the perfume trade developed (if the topic is of greater interest see Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent) in Grasse is a fine fit with our interest in unusual museums and the intersection of farming and innovation:
Perfume flower grower Pierre Chiarla picks jasmine flowers in his field in Grasse, France. Bénédicte Desrus for NPR
GRASSE, France — The town of Grasse sits in the hills above the more famous French Riviera city of Cannes, and it doesn’t have the Mediterranean Sea at its doorstep. What it does have is fields of flowers — jasmine, May rose, tuberose, lavender. It is known as the perfume capital of the world.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the industry took off in Grasse in part because this was an absolutely putrid-smelling town. Continue reading
The Economist brought this to our attention with a brief mention that An old lake bed reveals evidence of America’s first inhabitants – They walked there at least 23,000 years ago. We followed that up with a search on the topic that led to this further detail in the Cornell Chronicle:
David Bustos/Provided. Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands.
Provided. Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas.
Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas and offer insight into life over 23,000 years ago.
The footprints were formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake that now forms part of Alkali Flat, a large playa at White Sands. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey dated these tracks using radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint horizons. The dates range in age and confirm human presence over at least two millennia with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago, Continue reading
A pizza in a wood-fired oven. All photographs by Nathan Myhrvold / The Cooking Lab, LLC.
Phaidon‘s books frequently allow us to offer a fun alternative to our heavier fare. Today is one of those days to go for the fun:
Modernist Pizza might apply the latest science to the pizzaiolos’ role, but it also dishes up deep history too
Modernist Pizza certainly applies a little science to the task of making a great slice. In this huge, comprehensive, three-volume publication, authors Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya share innumerable practical tips and innovative techniques to create great pizzas. Myhrvold is Microsoft’s former Chief Technology Officer and studied under Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge, and so almost all of those tips and techniques aren’t simple repetitions of old hunches and dogma, but the product of numerous test-kitchen experiments. Want to know the precise effects of ageing on mozzarella? Or which parts of your oven really cook your pie? Then get this set of books. Continue reading
The phased opening of Humboldt Forum, a museum in Berlin, includes this exhibit, and of course a beautiful book to boot.
An interesting feature, in the form of an editorial on the museum’s website can help put this exhibit in context. The goal of this museum is anti-colonial, among other things, according to the museum’s editorial:
According to the people behind the project, the partial reconstruction of Berlin’s historic palace was an expression of the power to mend, to repair the urban fabric and the historical associations enshrined in the space it occupies.
Which is unusual for a well-funded museum in a wealthy country to say. So, this book looks interesting from multiple angles, and the text describing the book is a hint at that:
The elephant is an admired but also endangered animal. In all times and cultures, the ivory of its tusks has been sought after. What kind of material is it, how is it used in history and the present, and what can be done today to protect the largest land mammals from poaching? This richly illustrated volume undertakes a cultural-historical journey and a current positioning. Ivory fascinates – and polarises. Continue reading
If your summer reading does not include some dystopian fiction and you want to consider adding some, for your consideration this review b
has a strong recommendation of the above book:
Climate is everywhere in fiction these days. Omar El Akkad’s “American War,” Lydia Millet’s “A Children’s Bible,” N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Carys Bray’s “When the Lights Go Out” and Selah Saterstrom’s “Slab” are just a few of the many recent novels to highlight global warming and related extreme weather. Continue reading
Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” was completed in Italy in 1496. Art work from © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
Rebecca Mead, whose last appearance in our pages was referred to just yesterday, explores a five-century old mystery involving birds that is a fun half-hour read, especially but not exclusively for bird nerds:
“Madonna della Vittoria,” by the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, must have looked imposing when it was first installed as an altarpiece in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small chapel in the northern-Italian city of Mantua. The painting, which was commissioned by the city’s ruler, Francesco II Gonzaga, was completed in 1496, and measures more than nine feet in height. A worshipper’s eye likely lingered on its lower half—where the Virgin, seated on a marble pedestal, bestows a blessing on the kneeling, armored figure of Francesco—instead of straining to discern the intricacies of its upper half, which depicts a pergola bedecked with hanging ornaments and fruited vines. In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon’s forces looted the painting and transported it to the Louvre, where it now occupies a commanding spot in the Denon wing. Continue reading
Illustration by Tim Robinson.
Sometimes one recommendation is not enough, so here is one of the environmental writers we feature most frequently giving us a second look at Junk:
Mark Bittman’s history of why we eat bad food.
Mark Bittman writes the way he cooks: The ingredients are wholesome, the preparation elegantly simple, the results nourishing in the best sense of the word. He never strains; there’s no effort to impress, but you come away full, satisfied, invigorated.
From his magnum opus, How to Cook Everything, and its many cookbook companions, to his recipes for The New York Times, to his essays on food policy, Bittman has developed a breeziness that masks the weight of the politics and economics that surround the making and consuming of food. In Animal, Vegetable, Junk, his latest book, he offers us his most thoroughgoing attack on the corporate forces that govern our food, tracking the evolution of cultivation and consumption from primordial to modern times and developing what is arguably his most radical and forthright argument yet about how to address our contemporary food cultures’ many ills. But it still goes down easy; the broccoli tastes good enough that you’ll happily go for seconds. Continue reading
The experiment is a multicentury attempt to figure out how long seeds can lie dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate. Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
Cara Giaimo has a talent linking science and history, and this article demonstrates it as well as any we have linked to from her. Saving seeds is favorite topic in our pages, so this is in good company:
Every 20 years under the cover of darkness, scientists dig up seeds that were stashed 142 years ago beneath a college campus. Continue reading
Much thanks to Gastropod for reminding us of culinary considerations:
As anyone who’s spent time by a crackling campfire or a barbecue pit can attest, the scent of smoke is unmistakable—and surprisingly mysterious. Smoke clings to clothing but vanishes in the breeze. Continue reading
UNITED STATES – March 30: Visitors gather to watch the sunrise under blooming Japanese cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. The 2021 National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the original gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington in 1912. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
In Washington, D.C. the cherry blossoms came early this year. Plenty was said, including on Texas Public Radio, about the implications related to climate change. Elizabeth Kolbert has this to say, pivoting from cherry blossoms to both environmental and economic policies in the USA:
A few years ago, during a work visit in Athens, Amie and I made a last-minute decision to book a flight to Istanbul. We had both long wanted to visit, the flight was inexpensive, and we had a few days to spare. A primary impetus for the visit was to experience this museum. My memory of Istanbul is mainly my memory of the museum. And it is one of my strongest travel memories in a life full of travel. Reading about this “club” I realized there are more shrines for bibliophiles than I had imagined:
Founded in 1884, the Grolier Club is America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts. Named for Jean Grolier (1489 or 90-1565), the Renaissance collector renowned for sharing his library with friends, the Club’s objective is to promote “the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper.” Through the concerted efforts of an international network of over eight hundred men and women—book and print collectors, antiquarian book dealers, librarians, designers, fine printers, binders, and other artisans—the Grolier Club pursues this mission through its library, its public exhibitions and lectures, and its long and distinguished series of publications.
The story of America can be told through the story of its periodicals. Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty
And the only reason it came to my attention was thanks to Nathan Heller, whose subject likens magazines over earlier centuries to the social media of today in his cultural comment essay What Are Magazines Good For? Tickets to New York are inexpensive, which makes a visit tempting for this one reason, but it will have to wait:
…“The best way to think about magazines is as the analog Internet—they’d foster communities of people, just like on social networks,” Steven Lomazow, a seventy-three-year-old New Jersey neurologist who created the exhibition from his personal collection of more than eighty-three thousand magazine issues, said the other day. Continue reading
Restaurant 51, Xandari Harbour. Photo Credit: Architectural Digest India
The photo to the right shows an interior view of the restaurant we named 51, one of our favorite accomplishments of seven years working in Kerala, India. The painting on the wall shows a traditional onion keeper, and it came to mind when I read these lines in a recipe-essay by Gabrielle Hamilton:
Photograph by Heami Lee. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Rebecca Bartoshesky.
…and, of course, the onion tarts. We were steeped in his cooking and his thinking, and it was an excellent exercise to prepare the dishes of a long-ago iconic restaurant, and to see whether they stood the test of time without becoming museum pieces. Every one, especially the onion tart, was still pitch perfect….
The notion of “not becoming museum pieces” is the evocative part of the essay. Envisioning what 51 should look like, as with the entire exercise of developing Xandari Harbour, we constantly repeated that our goal was to be respectful of history without being a slave to it. By which we meant we wanted the heritage to be clear while also showcasing the new directions of Kerala’s culinary culture. And with all due respect to museums, this was to be a lively eatery.
The recipe-essay stirred another memory, from 1988. We celebrated the second anniversary of our marriage by having dinner at Lutèce. Somewhere in our stored papers is the menu from that evening, signed by André Soltner. Having worked for a chef who inspired me to see a lifetime career in hospitality, this dinner was a perfect mark on the map moving in that direction.
Shoppers waited to enter the Strand on Sunday after the bookstore said its business “had become unsustainable.” Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Books and the love of books have been a constant theme since early posts on this platform. Likewise, libraries are in these pages frequently due to their important and sometimes essential role to communities; and of course librarians can change lives. Bookstores, cultural institutions in their own right, show up plenty in our pages. The Strand has not, even though it has multigenerational resonance in our family. Today it is newsworthy for complex reasons. The title almost says it all. Book lovers respond, for reasons that all our other posts about books and book places hint at. For me the subheading has the word that caught my attention. While book lovers and bookstore lovers respond to this shop’s call for help, some of the shop’s resources were invested awkwardly (I have hinted at such awkwardness plenty of times). When an independent bookseller is an option, consider the value they represent. Meanwhile, thanks to Sean Piccoli and Elizabeth A. Harris for this:
“It’s awkward because the track record for the ownership here is not great,” one customer said. “But it’s also an institution. My parents shopped here.”
For months, the Strand bookstore in downtown Manhattan, from its fiction stacks to its cookbook section to its rare books, has been nearly deserted. But on Sunday, half an hour before the store was scheduled to open, about a dozen people lined up in the cool fall breeze, waiting to get inside. Continue reading
In early May I posted a “this I believe” kind of note, linking to an essay about the importance of the US Postal Service. Several months later Organikos launched its roasting and delivery service in the USA, putting that belief to the test, with dozens of coffee parcels going to all corners of the country’s continental borders as well as remote interior places. Flying colors. Thank you, postal carriers. Thank you, Benjamin Franklin and all those after you who have kept the institution moving forward. Other great institutions, having thrived for more than a century, demonstrate that even great ideas sometimes need help. So, in our own little ways, we support the mission. Costa Rica is one of the many places in the world inspired by both the National Park Service of the USA as well as its Postal Service. In recent months Correos de Costa Rica took the precaution of halting mail service to and from the USA. When it is back providing that service, our first little supportive action will be sending postcards to all those in the USA who ordered coffee.
“The postal service is one of the oldest federal agencies,” says Daniel Piazza, a curator of philately at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. “Maybe for that reason, we tend to take it for granted. But we have always relied on it, whether for news from home, prescription medications or e-commerce.” (Levi Mandel)
We have committed to using the US Postal Service for delivery of our coffees in the USA We already believed it to be a historically essential institution in that country and we want to support it as much as we want to benefit from its services. We have no second thoughts about this commitment, even while it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. We have known the agency needs attention, but we have not known exactly what that attention should look like. So, it is helpful to read this background history:
To forge a nation, the founders needed an efficient communications network
From 1753 to 1774, as he oversaw Britain’s colonial mail service, Benjamin Franklin improved a primitive courier system connecting the 13 fragmented colonies into a more efficient organization that sped deliveries between Philadelphia and New York City to a mere 33 hours. Franklin’s travels along the post roads would inspire his revolutionary vision for how a new nation could thrive independent of Britain. But not even he imagined the pivotal role that the post would play in creating the Republic. Continue reading
Food and Beverage as conservation themes have been long time interests at this site, whether it be recreating ancient ales or maintaining the artisan ethos of ancient food ways.
I have to admit that the blend of cuisine and archaeology are equally fascinating; I would have been one of the first of the “curious passersby” at the feast described here. The article is behind a paywall, but worth the read.
How Fuchsia Dunlop sampled food from the tomb of a long dead king
The four sheep turned on their spits, wafting out rich aromas over the bleached Turkish landscape. Nearby, I stirred a vast potful of lentil stew over an open fire, lashed by smoke and sunlight. A long table in the yard was already laden with dishes: handmade hummus and fava bean paste, whole honeycombs, stacks of tandoor-baked bread and piles of pomegranates. Beyond it loomed the great burial mound of a ruler of the Phrygian kingdom who had died here in the eighth century BC — thought to be a historical King Midas or his father. Aided by a team of Turkish cooks and food experts, I was doing my best to recreate his funeral feast.
This wasn’t an idle exercise. In the 1950s, archaeologists from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania had excavated the tomb, near the old Phrygian capital at Gordion. Although this King Midas was not the mythical man with the golden touch, they still found a treasure trove of bronze cauldrons, drinking bowls and clay pots in his burial chamber, including the largest Iron Age drinking set ever discovered. The vessels contained the physical remnants of a banquet the mourners had shared, but it was about 40 years before advances in science permitted chemical analysis of the residues.
This was done in the late 1990s by experts from the Penn Museum, led by Patrick McGovern, scientific director of its Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health, and author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered & Re-created.
Using modern techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team examined the vestiges of both food and drink found in the bronze vessels. The mourners, they concluded, had shared an unusual brew made from a mixture of honey, grapes and barley — a sort of cocktail of mead, wine and beer. And although the researchers couldn’t be sure, they suspected it had also contained saffron because of the intense yellow colour of the residue (and because some of the finest saffron of the ancient world was produced in what is now Turkey).
The chemical detective work on the brown clumps of food matter showed these were the leftovers of a great stew made from lamb or goat that had first been seared over fire to produce caramelisation, then simmered with some kind of pulse (probably lentils) along with ingredients such as honey, wine, olive oil, fennel or anise and other herbs and spices. Continue reading