If You Happen To Be In Berlin

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

Appleseed, For Your Consideration

If your summer reading does not include some dystopian fiction and you want to consider adding some, for your consideration this review bhas a strong recommendation of the above book:

A Novel Charts Earth’s Path From Lush Eden to Barren Hellscape

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

Mysterious Appearances Of Non-Migratory Birds

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:

Where Did That Cockatoo Come From?

Birds native to Australasia are being found in Renaissance paintings—and in medieval manuscripts. Their presence exposes the depth of ancient trade routes.

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

McKibben’s Thoughts On Bittman’s Book

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

Seed-Saving & Science

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:

One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt

Every 20 years under the cover of darkness, scientists dig up seeds that were stashed 142 years ago beneath a college campus. Continue reading

Smoke’s Soulful Side

Much thanks to Gastropod for reminding us of culinary considerations:

Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Whiskey, Fish, and Barbecue!

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

Cherry Blossoms & Public Policy

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:

Biden’s Jobs Plan Is Also a Climate Plan. Will It Make a Difference?

The Administration has an ambitious vision for combatting global warming, but it’s only a start.

Illustration by João Fazenda

The first known reference to Japan’s cherry blossoms comes from the country’s oldest surviving text, the Kojiki, completed in 712. Japan was trying to shrug off the influence of its more powerful neighbor, China, and cherry blossoms became a symbol of Japanese identity, in contrast to the plum blossoms of the Chinese. By the early ninth century, the practice of cherry-blossom viewing had become so well established that the date of the peak bloom appeared in Japanese poems and other literary works. Continue reading

Remembering Books Not In Libraries

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:

The Grolier Club: Celebrating the Art & History of the Book Since 1884

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

A Classic Dish, A Keeper

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.

If You Can, Consider Buying Your Books From An Independent Bookstore

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:

The Strand Calls for Help, and Book Lovers Answer

“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

Postcards From Costa Rica

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.

Centuries-Old Government Agency, Mission Still Intact, Widely Appreciated

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“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:

A Brief History of the United States Postal Service

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

Remains of a Feast

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.

A taste of antiquity: what’s it like to eat 2,500-year-old food?

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

Hats, History, Heritage

Mr. Espinal, 52, is widely regarded as the greatest living Panama hat weaver. All photographs by Roff Smith

Having lived and worked in Central America and South India, weaving with palms for shelter and adornment has been part of cultural norms. But in most cases, the craftsmanship has been simplified versions that lacked permanence – for the sake of festivals, traditional artesania , or with the knowledge that the woven shelter would last several seasons of rain before requiring replacement.

The artisan ethos described here mirrors both the fine work and collaborative efforts of Kerala sari weaving communities like Chendamangalam. In all cases, the “stuff of royalty.”

A Glimpse Inside the Workshops of the World’s Finest Panama Hat Makers

Creamy as silk and costlier than gold, a Montecristi superfino Panama hat is as much a work of art as it is of fashion.

Creamy as silk, costlier by weight than gold, the color of fine old ivory, a Montecristi superfino Panama hat is as much a work of art as it is of fashion. The finest specimens have more than 4,000 weaves per square inch, a weave so fine it takes a jeweler’s loupe to count the rows. And every single one of those weaves is done by hand. No loom is used — only dexterous fingers, sharp eyes and Zen-like concentration.

“You cannot allow your mind to wander even for a second,” says Simón Espinal, a modest, soft-spoken man who is regarded by his peers as the greatest living weaver of Panama hats, possibly the greatest ever. “When you are weaving it is just you and the straw.”

Mr. Espinal’s hats average around 3,000 weaves per square inch — a fineness few weavers have ever even approached. His best has just over 4,200 weaves per square inch and took him five months to weave.

The 52-year-old Ecuadorean is one of a dwindling number of elite Panama hat weavers, nearly all of whom live in Pile, an obscure village tucked away in the foothills behind Montecristi, a low-slung town about 100 miles up the coast from Guayaquil.

Continue reading

I Believe In The United States Postal Service

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For the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage the U.S. Postal Service, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.Photograph by Dan Brouillette / Bloomberg / Getty

The first time Casey Cep came to my attention, from the vantage point of our life in India, it was like reading a message from a future we had left behind. A couple months after that, a historical note of interest. Both times, I was captivated. Nearly seven years later, I am captivated and motivated by We Can’t Afford to Lose the Postal Service. I have been watching this story unfold during my adult lifetime, and while it is not the only ideology-driven frustration I have, it is one so wrapped in big picture history that the personal history here motivates me to respond by sharing:

I am probably one of the least consequential things my mother has ever delivered. She has two other daughters, for starters—one’s a public servant and the other is a special-education teacher. But she’s also spent her working life delivering love letters, college acceptances, medications, mortgage papers, divorce filings, gold bars, headstones, ashes, and care packages. In her thirty-eight years as a rural letter carrier with the United States Postal Service, she’s delivered just about everything you can legally send through the mail. Continue reading

Pep Shot Is The New Bee’s Knees

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For those who can afford it, culinary experimentation could become a practical hobby.HERITAGE / BETTMANN / GEORGE MARKS / AFP / GETTY / PROZHIVINA ELENE / SHUTTERSTOCK / KATIE MARTIN / THE ATLANTIC

$_35Dalgona is a name I did not know until five minutes ago. But I intimately knew the thing itself ages ago. For the 1981-82 academic year I worked with a tutor in Athens to learn my mother’s first language.  Her aunt, who I lived with, had only one way to prepare coffee, using this device to the left. Greek coffee, aka Turkish coffee, was fine.

m-6D-MUyWNCFYE0NFBe6z9wBut I did not love it. My cousin showed me an alternative, cautioning me that our great-aunt did not allow this foreign product in her home. So, I bought the contraband and each morning before she awoke I mixed the instant coffee with the milk and sugar and shook it in a jar and gulped it. It was a brief love affair. Instant coffee is not in our cupboard these days, but I have a fond memory of that fling. I appreciate Shirley Li’s article for reminding me of it.

Current circumstances are pushing us all in new directions of food and beverage production and consumption and for me, for now, the Pep Shot is the new bee’s knees:

In 1950, Americans Had Aspic. Now We Have Dalgona Coffee.

Unlike food innovations from crises past, coronavirus-inspired recipes are more about stress relief than survival.

Allison Ward used to grab coffee during her commute to work. The 34-year-old, a project manager for the McMaster Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, told me she needs caffeine every day, and that ever since the coronavirus pandemic put the city on lockdown, she’s been missing her Starbucks fix.

Then she learned about dalgona coffee. Continue reading

A Corrective History Of Coffee

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The literature of coffee has produced a new genre: corrective history. Illustration by Ilya Milstein

An essayist’s review on one of our favorite topics is a nice surprise for a start to a new week:

The War on Coffee

The history of caffeine and capitalism can get surprisingly heated.

What would life be without coffee?” King Louis XV of France is said to have asked. “But, then, what is life even with coffee?” he added. Truer, or more apt, words for the present moment were never spoken, now usable as a kind of daily catechism. At a time when coffee remains one of the few things that the anxious sleeper can look forward to in the morning (What is life without it?), giving as it does at least an illusion of recharge and a fresh start, the charge has invariably slipped away by the time the latest grim briefing comes (What is life even with it?). Imagining life without coffee right now is, for many of us, almost impossible, even though the culture of the café that arose in America over the past couple of decades has, for some indefinite period, been shut down.

The growth of coffee as a culture, not just as a drink, can be measured in a unit that might be called the Larry, for the peerless comedy writer Larry David. In “Seinfeld,” which he co-created in 1989, coffee came as a normal beverage in a coffee shop—bad, indistinct stuff that might as well have been tea. (Paul Reiser had a nice bit about the codependency of coffee and tea, with tea as coffee’s pathetic friend.) Then, on “Friends,” the characters gathered in a coffee-specific location, Central Perk, but the very invocation of a percolator, the worst way to brew, suggested that they were there more for the company than for the coffee. Six or so Larrys later, by 2020, the plotline of an entire season of David’s own “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned on a competition between Mocha Joe’s and Latte Larry’s—the “spite store” that Larry opens just to avenge an insult over scones, with many details about a specific kind of Mexican coffee bean he means to steal. The audience was expected to accept as an obvious premise the idea that coffee was a culture of devotion and discrimination, not just a passable caffeinated drink.

This change is real, and is reflected in the numbers. As Jonathan Morris documents in his recent book, “Coffee: A Global History” (Reaktion), epicurean coffeehouses in the United States numbered in the hundreds in 1989, and in the tens of thousands by 2013. Continue reading

Rites Of Spring

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Photo © Chiot’s Run / Flickr

A seasonal distraction, more than welcome, and we thank Cool Green Science for featuring Ken Keffer’s primer on North American tree-tapping:

Tree Tapping Isn’t Just for Maples

March is tree tapping season across the upper Midwest, New England, and southern Canada. As the cardinals start to sing again in the northwoods, the long-dormant timbers are also responding to the first signs of early spring.

Sap is stored in the roots over winter, but as temperatures begin to rise, it starts flowing through the xylem layer of the tree.

For a number of species, the sap flow becomes a sweet treat and a renewable resource for those working the sugarbush.

Photo © Eamon Mac Mahon

Tapping Throughout History

The exact origins of making maple syrup are a bit of a mystery. It is clear that a number of indigenous tribes in northeastern North America were utilizing this natural resource, and the process predates European settlers. Continue reading

Recipe From Another Time

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The Yale Babylonian Collection houses four unique tablets that contain various recipes for stews, soups and pies. Three of these tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C. Klaus Wagensonner/Yale Babylonian Collection

A meal from ancient history, decoded, and the scholar who sleuthed the recipe discusses it in a brief interview:

Eat Like The Ancient Babylonians: Researchers Cook Up Nearly 4,000-Year-Old Recipes

What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes.

The recipes were inscribed on ancient Babylonian tablets that researchers have known about since early in the 20th century but that were not properly translated until the end of the century.

The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Continue reading

Elderberries, Up & Coming From The Past

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Heiko Wolfraum/dpa/AP

Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

Respect your elder-berries.

Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.

Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather. Continue reading