Quotulatiousness

October 18, 2017

QotD: The course of economic progress in a nutshell

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is customary in these days of “slow food” to sneer at these devices, to aver that a real cook doesn’t need more than a cast-iron dutch oven, a good chef’s knife and a sense of adventure. As someone who took herself off to Chicago for three months with pretty much exactly this set of equipment (okay, also an electric pressure cooker), I can testify that this is true — sort of. You can get by with a very minimal set of equipment if you know how to cook. But as someone who has done so, I have to ask: Why would you?

I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles. I know how to make great lemon curd, béchamel, hollandaise, caramelized onions. But my Thermomix makes them just as well, and I can read a novel instead of standing at the stove, stirring. I can whisk up an angel food cake in a copper bowl … or I could let the stand mixer do that, and my arms won’t hurt.

For that matter, I could also go out and grow my own wheat, mill it myself, and then mine some salt and cultivate some wild yeast to bake bread. But I don’t do these things, because subsistence farming is actually pretty arduous and unrewarding, which is why few of us have chosen to live off the grid. I see no reason to romanticize the grunt labor of the kitchen. If a machine does it as well as I do, and fits in my paycheck, I’ll happily outsource to the machine, and save my labor for the stuff the machine can’t do. This being basically the entire history of human economic progress to date.

Megan McArdle, “Give Thanks for Williams-Sonoma and the Garlic Press”, Bloomberg View, 2015-12-07.

September 10, 2017

In search of silphium, the lost herb of the Roman empire

Filed under: Africa, Environment, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Zaria Gorvett recounts the story of a Roman-era herb that was at one point literally worth its weight in gold:

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

[…]

A coin of Cyrene depicting the stalk of a Silphium plant. (Source: 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35, via Wikimedia)

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.
With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

August 10, 2017

Words & Numbers: Has Tipping Gone Out of Control?

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 9 Aug 2017

In 1922, famed etiquette writer Emily Post advised her readers that 10% is the standard for tipping your waiter. Since then, “gratuity creep” has been so steady that tip jars are now ubiquitous and 25-30% is considered the rule in New York City. Uber once resisted this trend, but recently added a tipping feature to its app.

What is the economic rationale behind tipping? Does the usefulness of tipping diminish the more that a certain rate becomes an expectation? At a certain point, would it be better to do without the fuss involved and simply include that portion of a service-provider’s compensation in the wages paid by the employer?

Our valiant hosts, Antony Davies and James Harrigan explore these questions and more!

August 6, 2017

Shock, horror – “local or organic food is … often available only in Canada to the wealthy”

Filed under: Cancon, Germany — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Chris Selley just got back from a European vacation, where he observed some odd German activity:

Last month, on vacation, I happened across what might be the platonic ideal of a fancy urban farmers’ market. The smell of wood smoke led me to a quiet street in Berlin’s leafy Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, where a man was smoking various kinds of fish in the middle of the road. As one does. There was a little mobile bicycle-powered coffee shop selling vastly overpriced espresso. There was the requisite improbably expensive produce and charcuterie and cheese. (My God, the cheese. Why do Canadians put up with our benighted dairy industry?) And to shock my Ontarian senses, there was a big booth selling local wines — which one could drink, out of glasses, in whatever quantities one saw fit, right there out in the open. Tipplers weren’t even confined to a secure pen. There wasn’t even a security guard!

Even more than at Toronto’s fancier farmers’ markets, it was abundantly clear this was a place for wealthy people with time to spare. And it never occurred to me that was a problem. A new study co-authored by Kelly Hodgins and Evan Fraser of the University of Guelph suggests it is, however — and a recent headline on the matter made my eyes roll so far back in my head I feared they might get stuck: “Access to ‘ethical’ food often available only to the wealthy, study says.”

“While eating local or organic food is often touted as superior from a health, environmental and oftentimes ethical perspective, such foods are often available only in Canada to the wealthy, with limited access for those living on lower or even middle incomes,” The Globe and Mail reported.

I know. I’m just as shocked as you are. Who would ever have expected that?

July 11, 2017

The 905’ers – “the bridge-and-tunnel barbarians at the city’s gate”

Filed under: Business, Cancon — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Sniffy Torontonians have apparently adopted the NYC snobs’ favourite term for out-of-towners:

Not satisfied by the socioeconomic barriers to fine dining, downtown gourmands imagine any behaviour not matching their arbitrary standards of etiquette to be uncouth, going so far as to label outsiders to their tribe with a distinct pejorative: “the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.”

Originally a derisive description for commuters to Manhattan (the earliest known instance of its use is found in the December 13th, 1977 edition of the New York Times), the term has been adopted by the inhabitants of urban centres across North America to further alienate outsiders. In Toronto, it is used interchangeably with “905er,” a reference to the common area code for the suburbs surrounding the city.

To fully grasp the classism and snobbishness inherent in the term’s use, one is best advised to revisit an episode of the second season of The Sopranos, in which an annoying bar patron in Manhattan refers to the well-meaning, but simple-minded Christopher as a “bridge-and-tunnel boy.”

There is much sense, but little grace, to the formulation of such a descriptor. The self-absorbed downtown-dweller, you see, requires constant justification for their choice of domicile. The idea that one could escape the claustrophobic propinquity of the city and its higher cost of living while still enjoying its cultural amenities and nightlife on occasion is an affront – a threat that undermines not only the urbanite’s domestic decision-making, but to some extent, their very identity.

[…]

That an expectation of sustenance from ordering food at a restaurant would be scoffed at represents, at least on some level, a misappropriation of values. Oh, yes: It’s definitely the suburbanite who balks at the $35 plate of deconstructed spaghetti who is the fool. Believe it or not, you can live in a home with a dual car garage and still watch Chef’s Table on Netflix – and even understand why one might travel to Chicago to experience a meal at Alinea. However, if a chef is offering a Saturday night prix fixe, they’re probably not Grant Achatz.

Furthermore, it seems that if only one side of the urban versus suburban divide must be labelled ill-mannered, it should be the allotment who greets the other for an economic infusion in their service sector with disdainful mockery. The summer is littered with festivals and three- to five-course restaurant specials purposely constructed as an invitation for out-of-towners to come and open their wallets, and yet, the derisiveness projected toward them suggests a suffix should be attached to the Field of Dreams axiom: if you build it, they will come … for you to disparage them.

July 6, 2017

Words & Numbers: Let Amazon Play Monopoly

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 5 Jul 2017

Amazon’s offer to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion sounds pretty great to both parties, but it seems that isn’t good enough. The proposal has a lot of people worried about Amazon becoming an indestructible monopoly, and the government is all too happy to step in and settle the issue. But this concern ignores consumers’ own preferences as well as business and entrepreneurial history. This week in Words and Numbers, Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan discuss the probable future of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, what it could mean for us, and what it could mean for another once-equally feared corporation: Wal-Mart.

July 3, 2017

Explaining the food of yesteryear

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In a post from a few years back, Megan McArdle explained why the North American diet of the mid-20th century was so dreadful (at least to a modern-day foodie):

Here are my prime candidates for why I think they ate like that:

  1. Most people are not that adventurous; they like what’s familiar. American adults ate what they did in the 1950s because of what their parents had served them in the 1920s: bland, and heavy on preserved foods like canned pineapple and mayonnaise.
  2. A lot of the ingredients we take for granted were expensive and hard to get. Off-season, fresh produce was elusive: The much-maligned iceberg lettuce was easy to ship, and kept for a long time, making it one of the few things you could reliably get year round. Spices were more expensive, especially relative to household incomes. You have a refrigerator full of good-looking fresh ingredients, and a cabinet overflowing with spices, not because you’re a better person with a more refined palate; you have those things because you live in 2015, when they are cheaply and ubiquitously available. Your average housewife in 1950 did not have the food budget to have 40 spices in her cabinets, or fresh green beans in the crisper drawer all winter.
  3. People were poorer. Household incomes grew enormously, and as they did, food budgets shrank relative to the rest of our consumption. People in the 1960s also liked steak and chicken breasts better than frankfurters and canned meats. But most of them couldn’t afford to indulge their desires so often.
  4. The same people who chuckle at the things done with cocktail franks and canned tuna will happily eat something like the tripe dishes common in many ethnic cuisines. Yet tripe has absolutely nothing to recommend it as a food product, except that it is practically free; almost anything you cooked with tripe would be just as good, if not better, without the tripe in it. If you understand why folks ate Trippa alla Romana, you should not be confused about the tuna casserole or the creamed chipped beef on toast.

  5. The foods of today’s lower middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons. Before the 1890s, gelatin was a food that only rich people could regularly have. It had to be laboriously made from irish moss, or calf’s foot jelly (a disgusting process), or primitive gelatin products that were hard to use. The invention of modern powdered gelatin made these things not merely easy, but also cheap. Around 1900, people were suddenly given the tools to make luxury foods. As with modern Americans sticking a flat panel television in every room, they went a bit wild. As they did again when refrigerators made frozen delights possible. As they did with jarred mayonnaise, canned pineapple, and every other luxury item that moved down-market. Of course, they still didn’t have a trained hired cook at home, so the versions that made their way into average homes were not as good as the versions that had been served at J. P. Morgan’s table in 1890. But it was still exciting to be able to have a tomato aspic for lunch, in the same way modern foodies would be excited if they found a way to pull together Nobu’s menu in a few minutes, for a few cents a serving.
  6. Over time, the ubiquity of these foods made them déclassé. Just as rich people stopped installing wall-to-wall carpeting when it became a standard option in tract homes, they stopped eating so many jello molds and mayonnaise salads when they became the mainstay of every church potluck and school cafeteria. That’s why eating those items now has a strong class connotation.

  7. There were a lot of bad cooks around. These days, people who don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at it, mostly don’t. They can serve a rich variety of prepared foods, and enjoy takeout and restaurants. Why would you labor over something you hate, when someone else will sell you something better for only slightly more than it would cost you to make something bad? […]
  8. Look at the sources of our immigrants. Immigration is still the major way that countries get new foods (if you don’t believe me, go out for Mexican food in any European country and report back). With the notable exception of the Italians, in the 19th century, most immigrants were from places with short growing seasons and bland cuisines, heavy on the cream and carbohydrates. After we restricted immigration in the 1920s, that’s what we were left with until immigrants started coming again in the 1960s. Of course, Louisiana had good French food, California and Texas had a Mexican influence, but by and large what we ate in 1960 was about what you’d expect from a German/English/Irish/Eastern European culinary heritage, adapted for modern convenience foods. And people liked it for the same reason I like jello salad: It’s what they were used to.
  9. Entertaining was mandatory. Because people didn’t go to restaurants so much, they spent time having people over, or eating at someone else’s house. If someone had you over, you had to have them over. This meant people had to have “company dinners” they could make, or at least a stock of canapés they could throw together for a cocktail party, even if they weren’t very good at it. Cue the weird focus on prettying everything up, more than occasionally to the detriment of the food itself: if you can’t make it good, you can at least make it pretty, to show people you made an effort.

June 22, 2017

The EU regulators want to get rid of a Belgian food tradition

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Carol Off reports for CBC Radio’s As It Happens:

Belgian Fries, traditionally served with mayonnaise
(photo by vokimberly at Flickr)

Belgium’s government says a new proposal by the European Union could spell disaster for the country’s world-famous fries.

“We adore our fries the way we make them, so just let us do so for the next 100 years, because the last hundred years it wasn’t a problem, so why should it be a problem now?” Flemish Tourism Minister Ben Weyts told Carol Off, host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens.

Traditionally, Belgian fries, are twice fried in fat. First, they go in raw to generate a soft, fluffy interior. Then they are refried at a higher temperature to create a crispy, golden exterior.

This process sets Belgian fries apart from soft and chunky British chips, or the sleek and thin fries preferred by the French.

But the European Commission is proposing that all potatoes be blanched — briefly cooked in boiling water — before they hit the fat.

It’s part of an EU effort to curb exposure to acrylamide, a chemical that can form in foods cooked at high temperatures, and has been linked to cancer in animal tests.

[…]

On the heels of the Belgian backlash, the European Commission has insisted the proposal is a suggestion, not a ban.

“The commission has no intention whatsoever to ban Belgian frites — or any other frites, for that matter,” spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday.

“Instead, the commission is preparing a new regulatory measure to oblige food business operators to apply a code of practice to reduce acrylamide in food, as it is carcinogenic.

“We are all very attached to the rich culinary heritage we find in our member states.”

For more information on Belgian Fries, see The One and Only Original Belgian Fries Website (which hadn’t been updated with this latest existential threat when I checked it).

H/T to Chris Myrick for the link.

June 14, 2017

“How Do They Do It” – Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Filed under: Europe, Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Nov 2014

It was a pleasure to host the crew of “How do they do it” at the Villa of our membership Davide!!
More info: http://www.balsamico.it

June 13, 2017

Vegetable impostors on your table

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The vegetable pushers are clever: they can disguise vegetables in such a way that you don’t realize where they came from. A prime set of examples are all variations of a common Mediterranean weed called Brassica oleracea:

Click to see full-size image

Brassica is also known as the wild mustard plant.

“The wild plant is a weedy little herb that prefers to grow on limestone outcroppings all around the coastal Mediterranean region,” Jeanne Osnas, a researcher at Purdue University who blogs as “The Botanist in the Kitchen,” writes of Brassica oleracea.

“It is a biennial plant that uses food reserves stored over the winter in its rosette of leaves to produce a spike of a few yellow flowers at the end of its second summer before dying. Those nutritious leaves make its domesticated derivatives important food crops in much of the world now.”

This one plant was selectively bred over hundreds of years to create dozens of wildly different vegetables.

By selecting and breeding plants with bigger leaves, or larger buds, the various cultivars were created.

[…]

The amazing evolution of Brassica oleracea goes to show that humans have been tinkering with the genetics of our food – creating what are now known as genetically modified foods, or GMOs – for a very long time.

New lab techniques just let us do that in a more precise and directed way.

June 4, 2017

QotD: The Empire of the Cow

Filed under: Economics, History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Whatever you might say against European imperialism and colonialism, it was good for the dairy industry. Ditto the railways which, beginning with the Great Western, made a fortune delivering rural milk supplies to the Great Wen of London, using methods soon copied by entrepreneurs in Paris, New York, Bombay. We forget, don’t we, that before 1860 or so, almost all dairy farming for urban consumption was done within the cities; to say nothing of other animal feedlot operations, including poultry and eggs; market gardening, horticulture and so forth. I’m with the hipsters for bringing it all back.

I cast no aspersions on the milkers of buffalo, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, horses, reindeer, yaks, when I recognize that the Holstein/Frisian cow was the great cause and inspiration for the rise of what Max Weber murkily called the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, emanating from the north-west of Europe. Instead, as will be seen, I champion them.

Neil Cameron interviewed the learned Professor Gerhard Fleischkopf, in a cover piece for the Idler magazine, more than a quarter-century ago, to publicize a thesis that still hasn’t been taken seriously enough by the historians. Contra Weber, Fleischkopf showed that it wasn’t the Germans, Dutchmen, Normans, English who launched this cultural revolution. Rather it was their cows, who forced them to rise very early every morning, lest they be kicked upon finally approaching the engorged teats with their milk-stools and pails; forced them otherwise to adopt patterns of behaviour entirely in the interest of the cows. Their philosophical and theological outlook — a dramatic break from the mediaeval scholastic synthesis — was not in any sense original to them, but instead an artefact of their cultural and intellectual manipulation, by cows. And so, too, their adaptive pushiness towards those of other lands — those lesser breeds without modern dairying techniques — whom they subjugated in turn, as agents of the cow.

David Warren, “A new model for society”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-07-20.

May 30, 2017

The Disgusting Contents of Worcestershire Sauce (and Why It s Called That)

Filed under: Britain, Business, History, India — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Mar 2017

In this video:

Worcestershire sauce, sometimes known as “Worcester sauce” is a savoury sauce that is often added to meat and fish dishes or, if you like your alcoholic beverages, the Bloody Mary cocktail. It may (or may not depending on how much you research your sauce choices) surprise you to learn that it’s literally made from fermented fish and spices.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/10/worcestershire-sauce-called/

May 15, 2017

Comparing Royal Marine field ration packs

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

A fascinating insight into the way the Royal Marines take care of the troops in the field, showing both enlisted mens’ and officers’ ration packs:

May 13, 2017

University life – it’s even worse than you think it is

Filed under: Education, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

As we have learned over the last few years, university campuses are worse than active war zones for women at risk of sexual assault with one in five four three suffering an assault during their time there every year. However, it now appears that American campuses are also dystopian hotbeds of hunger:

Over the last generation or so, major progress has been made in reducing hunger and malnourishment worldwide. Working together, governments, NGOs, and the private sector have almost halved the proportion of hungry people around the world—from 23 percent in 1990 to under 13 percent in 2014. And yet, if some recent studies are to be believed, one group appears to be suffering disproportionately: American college students. According to an October 2016 survey, “Hunger on Campus,” 48 percent of respondents “reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days,” which means that college students suffer this way in the same proportion as the population of countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Congo. “There’s a Hunger Problem on America’s College Campuses,” CNN’s website reported late last year. Who knew that American universities were famine zones?

Well, not so fast. One problem with this discussion is the fuzzy definition of “food insecurity,” which many general readers might confuse with the more empirically rigorous, medically defined category of malnutrition. By contrast, food insecurity is a self-reported, broadly defined indicator, heavily influenced by how questions are asked in surveys (and how different cultures and populations respond to those inquiries). The USDA estimates that 12.7 percent of Americans are food-insecure, or what it defines as lacking “ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods“ acquired in “socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies).”

Of course, 12.7 percent is a far cry from 48 percent. The disconnect between the on- and off-campus numbers grows partially out of the fact that almost all the research behind the high collegiate numbers has been collected by partisan advocacy groups with a vested interest in portraying a campus hunger crisis. “Hunger on Campus,” for example, was put together by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups. These groups use much vaguer measures of food insecurity than the USDA does. “Hunger on Campus,” for instance, is based on self-reported responses to prompts such as “I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more”; “The food that I bought just didn’t last, and I didn’t have money to get more”; and “I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.” Respondents were asked to indicate whether these statements were “sometimes true” or “often true” over the previous 30 days.

The imprecision of the questions is compounded by problems with statistical methodology. An appendix [PDF] to “Hunger on Campus” explains that the findings are based on convenience surveys, “collected through face-to-face outreach by staff and volunteers affiliated with the organizations that coordinated the research,” and that, as a result, the findings were “not directly generalizable to the U.S. student population at large” (emphasis mine). In social science, convenience sampling — sometimes known as “grab sampling” or “opportunity sampling” — is at best considered a preliminary, rough-cut approach, generally plagued by sampling bias and always lacking in statistical rigor. If careful probability sampling is the gold standard, convenience sampling is its distant, poorer cousin.

May 6, 2017

QotD: Cooking for one

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

You thought about cooking. You had frozen fish filets in the freezer and a rather nice-looking head of broccoli sitting right there in the produce drawer. But then, somehow, it was 8:10, and it all seemed like too much trouble, so instead you grabbed a bowl of Tostitos, a jar of salsa, and three slices of pepper jack, and you ate it in front of “Chopped.”

Or at least, that’s the explanation that an NPD analyst gave Marketwatch for America’s snacking habits.

    “It’s hard to shop and cook for one.” That’s one reason why people are buying more snack foods, she says. “They are individually packaged and often have a very long shelf life. That, and an awful lot of people do not have cooking skills.”

Those whitefish filets were probably going to be overcooked anyway. Tostitos, on the other hand, are always done to a turn.

I have some sympathy. When the Official Blog Spouse travels, sometimes I make things he doesn’t like, such as tofu stir-fry. And sometimes, I surrender to the siren call of Trader Joe’s Mac and Cheese Balls, which require no effort and are every bit as good to eat as they are bad for my waistline.

There are any number of articles and books that promise to tell you how to solve this problem. The best are merely adequate; the worst emit the quiet despair of an unmarked grave. I’ll concede that cooking for small numbers simply isn’t as much fun as cooking for a bigger group. Part of the joy of cooking is sharing the results. The labor-to-output ratio is lower for one or two, and you have to spend a lot of time fiddling with small amounts. Some things simply can’t be done efficiently for one or two people, which is why I save the rib roast for dinner parties. Other things shouldn’t be done for one or two people, which is why I am trying not to give in to the urge to make a layer cake this weekend.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: 10 Tips on Cooking for One”, Bloomberg View, 2015-08-21.

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