Friday, March 16, 2018

Who invented bread?

                                               Bread from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage 

"Aboriginals' foods , , ,  the land is our mother . . ."  my attention was wandering from the guide's  talk about how indigenous peoples used the native Australian plants His lecture on respect for mother earth droned on while we walked through the lush palms and pines of Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens  Then he caught my attention: "This is the bunya nut, which we ground for bread in Queensland  . . ."

The Aboriginals had bread, and I wanted to know more. I thought of bread as a Middle Eastern invention. How could it have gotten to Australia before the arrival of Dutch explorers in the early 1600s, and the first English settlement in 1788?

Recent discoveries of grindstones suggest that the Australian Aboriginal peoples made bread 50,000 years ago. Some Aboriginal groups say that the creator of the damper (bread) seeds was Ngurlu, the crested pigeon, who collected them and left them for people. The Aboriginals picked up the seeds, ground them between stones,  mixed the flour with water, flattened balls of dough into disks, and baked them in hot ashes. Ngurlu is associated specifically with spinifex seeds, but also more generally with other seeds used for bread. Based on this, and the fact that grindstones elsewhere fdate from only about 36,000 years ago, some argue that the Aboriginals invented bread.

                                                        Crested pigeon, Sydney, Australia

Or was it people in Mozambique who invented bread 100,000 years ago?  Starch grains on stone tools found in caves there suggests that their inhabitants were grinding sorghum (a type of grass) seeds around 105,000 years ago. Skeptics contend that the other technologies needed to harvest seeds and turn them into digestible food did not yet exist, so it is unlikely that people were eating the sorghum. Our present knowledge can't settle the question one way or the other.

Grindstones with starch seeds (oats, and other grains) date from about 36,000 years ago. Stones  found in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic from 33,000 to 30,000 years ago also demonstrate that people were grinding seeds in many places, and that bread itself is much older than agriculture.

We may not have a definitive answer in our lifetimes, but we do know that grinding seeds, nuts, and roots releases much more nourishment than eating them whole. Mixing the dry flour or paste with water makes the seeds even more edible, and flattening the ball of dough to a thin disk allows it to bake all of the way through in the ashes, maximizing the usefulness and tastiness. People have done this for tens of thousands of years.

There might be connections among all of these stories. How did Ngurlu's people get to Australia?  At the present, it looks as if modern humans, Homo sapiens, began to migrate out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. This lends more credence to the possibility that the people who were grinding seeds in Mozambique 100,000 years ago took their technologies with them when they left home. Australian Aboriginals, who are more closely related to Africans than to Asians or  Europeans, probably migrated through Asia soon after leaving Africa -- perhaps discovering seeds and roots to grind for bread along the way.

The small group of people who arrived in northern Australia  moved south over the next thousand years, setting fires to burn the forests and make the land and plants more habitable for themselves. The change in landscape, and hunting by the new occupants drove giant mammals like huge wombats and marsupial lions, to extinction. The fires changed the landscape from forests that thrived in the low-water environment to desert throughout most of the interior. Some of  the remaining plants, including spinifex and millet, provided seeds for making bread.

The Aboriginals were still baking  bush bread or seedcakes when Captain James Cook first set foot on their shores in 1777, and when the first prison ship dropped people off to create a colony at Botany Bay (now part of Sydney). The story of the transition from bush bread to damper (the English name for unleavened bread baked in the ashes) is in the next post.

                                                 Seed Dreaming painting

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Updated! Guest post by Antonia Moras: "Reasons I hate the traditional Thanksgiving" -- with risotto recipe

Update: November 24, 2017: Antonia sent a couple of changes to the risotto recipe. I've made the changes in the recipe itself, so that you have only one version of it. Most importantly, she's reduced the amount of rice to cook from two cups to one cup, and reduced some of the other ingredients proportionately. Buon Appetito!

 A guest post from my friend Antonia Moras, an accomplished writer and cook, about her Thanksgiving plans for this year [bonus recipe for Thanksgiving Risotto]. She noted that next year it will be someone else's turn -- either that or pizza. Jim and I are opting for pizza this year, and desserts with a friend.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Reasons I hate the traditional Thanksgiving

1. Shopping for days beforehand in increasingly crowded stores for ingredients and foods I otherwise never cook.

2. Too much food expected and hence, a refrigerator crowded beforehand and for days afterward. 

3. Hours and hours and hours of cooking dishes I otherwise would never prepare. Pilgrim food that I don't like, and especially don't like when it's all piled into one meal. This reason relates to (4):

4. The horrid mix of flavors.

5. Hours of clean-up after a half-hour of eating.

6. Ghastly turkey carcass.

7. Low November light levels. 

This year I offered the following terms: I'd make a turkey breast with separate drumsticks for D., who loves them. A little stuffing. A risotto as a side (can be done beforehand and reheated. It tastes even better that way as a side, I think) Asparagus: fifteen minutes. Cranberry sauce (already finished). Pumpkin and blueberry pies (half finished). White wine and lemonade for those who don't drink. Whipped creme for the pies. No turkey carcass. No sweet potatoes or yam or mashed potatoes. No salad. No appetizers or soup course. No green beans. No casserole whatever. No special rolls or biscuits. Sliced bread for those who must have it. 

I DO like using the china and silver and crystal, and I can honestly say that I loved the holiday as a kid. Mom did a marvelous job and she was always merry.

Risotto as a Thanksgiving side dish

Ingredients, serving five people as a side dish

One-quarter cup of canola oil
Three or four tablespoons chopped onions
One cup of arborio or carnaroli rice (Carnaroli is better but it can be harder to find.) 
Two beef bouillon cubes
Pinch of dried porcini mushrooms
Three or four button mushrooms, chopped
One-third cup grated Parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste


Dissolve the bouillon cubes in a quart or so of water. Add the dried porcini mushrooms. Bring to a low simmer and continue to simmer throughout.

Cook the onions over low heat in the canola oil until they are almost translucent (not brown). Use a big pan with a flat, heavy bottom.

Brown the rice in the pan with the onions, for about five minutes.
Set timer for twenty minutes. Add about one third cup of the simmering broth mixture to the rice and stir until it is almost totally absorbed. Add another third cup and stir again until absorbed. Continue like this. 

After ten minutes add the button mushrooms and about a half teaspoon of salt -- maybe more. (instead of button mushrooms, you can use another chopped vegetable, like asparagus or zucchini or red bell peppers or .....) Continue to add broth and stir. If the broth mixture gets too low, just add a bit of water.

Begin tasting the rice after about twenty minutes. It should be served al dente. The grains should still be separate, not sticking together. The exact time depends on the weight of the pan and the strength of the burner. (Gas flame is best.)  

Remove from heat. Add the Parmigiano cheese and mix thoroughly. Grate black pepper over the dish, to taste. Serve warm or let cool and store in refrigerator. Reheat in a microwave. If it's going to be the main dish, it's better to serve it right away, but if it's going to be a side, letting it sit overnight works well. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The World Turtle -- Flash Fiction for chefs

The World Turtle

January 8, 2015

World Turtle, Creative Commons Image

Once upon a time, the turtle who holds up the world got tired of looking at distant galaxies, and decided that it was time to see the world right above him. He got the four elephants who stand on his back to take over for a while, and went off to see the Earth. Before he got far, he saw Atlas, who holds up the celestial spheres. “Atlas, my man,” he called out, “I’m off on a walkabout. I’ll be back in a while. Don’t you go anywhere.” Atlas shrugged.

He went onto the Earth, and started walking around. Everywhere he went, he found that people had made things about turtles and out of turtles – statutes, shields of their carapaces, trays of their shells, soup. All over Asia, people chased after Turtle to give him food, and to rub his shell. “You bring us good luck,” they said.

In India they wrapped flowers around his neck to honor him. Turtle nibbled at them and decided that the marigolds were the tastiest. This was a good life and he wondered if he should stick around. But no, there was much more to see, so he continued on.

He walked across Europe, and heard Aesop’s tale of the Tortoise and the Hare. He stopped on the Greek island of Aegina where the people showed him pictures of the turtle on their flags and coins. He saw statues of Aphrodite with her foot on the back of a turtle (fellow did OK for himself, thought Turtle). Then he swam across the Atlantic and found himself at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Looks a bit like Aphrodite, he thought, but more of an attitude.

He hauled out of the water at The Battery, and started up Broadway. It wasn’t long before a cab screeched to a halt beside him.  A guy jumped out and said, “Dude! We are making a musical and you will be perfect for the title role. Come with me.” Turtle did, and spent the next three months as the star of “Tortoise Toes,” a musical that featured dozens of dancers singing the wildly popular hit, “Slow to love, but toe-tally yours.” Luckily, Turtle didn’t have to dance.

His adventures nearly ended one night on his way home from the theater when the cab driver suddenly twisted in his seat, and said, “You and me, bud, we’re going to make soup together.” It turned out that the cabbie was a contestant on a reality cooking show, and had to show up the next morning with an exotic meat of his choice to cook in front of the audience.

The cabbie drove him to his apartment and lugged him up the stairs to the third floor. He sat him on a ratty carpet and said, “Enjoy yourself Bud, because tomorrow you will be soup. But you’ll have an audience.” The cabbie went to sleep, and Turtle, who was noted throughout the world for his cleverness, looked around for hours for a way out. But he couldn’t find any, and resigned himself to becoming a constellation in the sky, like so many other creatures who had died untoward deaths but had claims on immortality.

When they got to the TV studio the next day, Turtle found himself in a room with the cabbie and half a dozen other wanna-be chefs who had among them an emu, a cobra, a forty-four-pound lobster, an alligator, a porcupine, and a giant cane toad. Turtle looked them over and began smiling. “Listen up,” he croaked to the others, who’d all been shoved together in a pen while the contestants readied their pots and stoves. “Here’s how we can escape.”

“Great idea! They chorused.” So Turtle and the emu, the cobra, the lobster, the alligator, the porcupine, and the giant cane toad waited quietly in the cage until the chefs sidled up to its gate looking nervous. Turtle said, “Now!” and the animals charged at the chefs. The emu pecked and kicked, the alligator lashed its tail and snapped its jaws, the cane toad puffed up and began dripping toxins, the cobra struck at the chefs with its fangs, the porcupine shot its quills, and the lobster snapped its claws as it scuttled into the fray. The chefs turned tail and ran screaming out the door, their proposed dinner companions charging after.
When the animals got to the street, a crowd had gathered. As soon as they saw Turtle, they began to shout, “Turtle!” “Tortoise Toes!” and to sing the chorus from “Slow to love” – “Toe-tally yours, I am toe-tally, toe-tally, turtle-ly yours.” Surrounded by admiring hoards of fans, and accompanied by his new friends, Turtle made his way back to the theater, and performed his last show. As he took his tenth curtain call, he waved the audience to silence, and announced, “It is time for me to go back to holding up the world. You’ve been great, and I’ve learned that it’s a world worth supporting. Take care of my friends here, and good luck to you all.” With that, he was gone.

* * * * *

“What did you find?” asked the elephants, as Turtle slid into his spot beneath their feet. “The Earth is a place where some would as soon make soup of you as feed you soup. But if you find a good producer, the world is your oyster. As it were.” And Turtle settled back into gazing out at the distant galaxies, wondering what was there.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wheat in space

I got to wondering about whether anyone had tried to grow wheat in space. People who are raised with wheat are often so attached to it that they will try to grow it even under the worst of conditions. And what could be worse than space, where there's hardly any room for plants, let alone "amber waves of grain?"

Photo from, showing wheat from the space station Mir (on the left), and control plants grown on earth (to the right).

But yes, people early on in the space adventure started to hybridize wheat that would grow in space stations.  The most successful variety from the mid-1990s is called "Apogee," and grows hydroponically or in a soilless medium that supports its roots, under artificial light, ripens fast (one source says 23 days), and thrives in the high carbon dioxide levels found in the closed quarters of space stations. Not surprisingly, given the great symbolic value that humans place on wheat, it was one of the first two crops to be grown entirely in space.

An article about growing wheat in the Russian space station, Mir, in the mid-1990s pointed out that some crop failures were due to the equipment such as the lights, breaking. The next crop, grown with functioning equipment produced plenty of seeds, but they were sterile. For eating, this isn't a problem, but if the goal is a sustainable food system in the space station, the seeds would have to be fertile to provide for continuing series of crops. A followup study found evidence to suggest that too much ethylene in the environment kept the seeds from being fertile. And the photo above, from 2005 shows third-generation plants from the Mir station growing in a lab on earth, so the fertility question was solved in short order.

Photo of Apogee on the Mir Station, from a TED talk summary.

Another article about space farming from 2003 points out that farmers will have to consider the effects of gravity in plant growth -- something that would never occur to most earth-bound farmers because a hundred million years of grasses growing on the planet have solved most of the problems of water transport in plants. Gravity also affects the "movement of heat, water vapor, CO2 and O2 between plant surfaces and their environment."

All of earth's plants grow in relationship to microbes -- bacteria, yeasts, and fungi -- in the environment, and depend on those relationships for health. Wheat is no exception. Creating and maintaining  those relationships in healthy balance in the artificial environment of a space station or a Moon or Mars colony is the topic of other studies. Another factor for many plants in space is whether they need insects for pollination -- wheat, like other grasses, has the advantage of being self-pollinating.

Great - it grows in space -- what about on Earth? Yes, as a matter of fact, the developer of Apogee, Dr. Bruce Bugbee at Utah State University, gave a TED talk about the advantages for using the wheat here, and growing it hydroponically.

Wheat on the space station Mir, ready to harvest.

A 1996 NASA article about Apogee was enthusiastic about its usefulness in making bread -- it works on earth, but baking bread in space had yet to be tried at the time of the article. The plant is a dwarf spring hard red wheat, in the family of wheats often used for bread because of their high gluten content. NASA scientist Doug Ming, quoted in the article, said that Apogee's short height makes it hard to harvest using contemporary machinery, and also creates problems with controlling weeds. Neither of these things are issues in the space station or a lab.

NASA continues to experiment with growing Apogee in space, with control plants grown on earth in identical conditions. A July, 2016 paper found some differences in the thickness of leaves and other characteristics of the space-grown plants, but no significant differences in yield. Food quality was a different matter -- tests on Apogee at Rutgers in 2002 to see how well the cookies, noodles, and bread made with it turned out found that all of the foods fell short of ideal, but were edible. Nonetheless, Apogee wheat may be the forerunner of the next Green Revolution on earth, showing ways to respond to climate change, limited water supplies, and increasing populations and still provide one of the most ancient of foods to billions of people who rely on it today.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Growing Wheat in Alaska -- Facts and Figures

Rachel Saul of Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop invited me to  talk about a paper I finished recently (posted separately) about the history and possible futures of wheat in Alaska. This is the handout that I made for the program (for October 26 and 27, 2016).

The Future of Wheat in Alaska
Wheat farming in Alaska – past, present and possible futures

Image result for creative commons seal of state of alaska

§    How the lack of wheat in Sitka starred in a romantic story of Russian Alaska.
§    What it takes to grow wheat in Alaska in 2016, who grows it, and who buys it.
§    How much wheat Alaskans eat per capita, and where it comes from.
§    How warming temperatures could change wheat farming in Alaska.
§    What that means for local food security and sustainable wheat and grains.

How much flour to make a loaf of bread?
§     One bushel of wheat weighs approximately 60 pounds, and has approximately one million individual kernels.
§     One bushel of wheat yields approximately 42 pounds of white flour OR 60 pounds of whole-wheat flour.
§     A bushel of wheat yields 42 one-and-a-half pound commercial loaves of white bread OR about 90 one-pound loaves of whole wheat bread (because much of the bran and germ are extracted from the whole grains to make white flour). Water or other liquids makes up the remaining weight of the loaf.

How much wheat to feed all of Alaska?
§     In 2010, the average U.S. person ate 134 pounds of wheat flour (not counting breakfast cereals and other ways in which wheat is eaten).
§     Alaska has 737,625 people in 2016, so we need about 98,842,000 pounds of flour each year, or 49,421 tons.
§     Alaska would have to plant 40,772 acres of wheat each year to produce 1,631,000 bushels of wheat.
§     In 2007 Alaska had about 109,000 acres of cropland and pasture: 19,000 acres in the Anchorage-Matanuska-Susitna area, 12,000 acres were in the Fairbanks area, and 72,000 acres were southeast of Fairbanks.
§     In 2015, Alaska produced an estimated 800 bushels of wheat on twenty acres (60 pounds per bushel, and 40 bushels per acre).
§     That equals 24 tons (American tons, at 2,000 pounds each) of wheat in 2015, or less than 1% of the approximately 49,421 tons eaten.

How to grow enough wheat to feed a family of four?
§     A slice of bread is about ½ inch thick, and there are about 16 slices in the average 9-inch-long loaf.
§     One loaf of bread that weighs 1 ½ pounds uses 1 pound of flour (the rest is water, and possibly other ingredients).
§     One pound of wheat berries/seeds equals one pound of whole-wheat flour. Assuming, for the sake of easier calculation that you are only making whole-grain bread (you need about 25 % more whole wheat berries to make one pound of white flour).
§     At two sandwiches per day (or equivalent use of bread), or 4 slices per day, one adult will eat about 2 loaves of bread a week. That’s two pounds of wheat, times 52 weeks, equals 104 pounds of wheat per person, per year.
§     Nine square feet of land (three feet by three feet) is needed to grow one pound of wheat.
§     Nine (square feet) times 104 (pounds of wheat berries per year) equals 936 square feet needed to grow wheat for one person, for one year.
§     Round it up to 1,000 square feet to allow seed to store to grow next year’s wheat.
§     You need a piece of land that is 10 feet by 100 feet, or 20 feet by 50 feet, or ten small plots that are 10 feet by 10 feet, to grow enough wheat to make bread for one person for one year. For four people, you’ll need 4,000 square feet, or about one-tenth of an acre.
§     You also need plenty of sun, a long enough growing season (120 days minimum, but up to 150 days), the right amount of water, land that has enough nutrients to feed the wheat, and a way to avoid pests and diseases. People have been cultivating wheat for close to 11,000 years, so it’s doable.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Future of Wheat in Alaska: October 26,2016 at Fire Island Bakeshop, 6:00 p.m.

New Date! Wednesday October 26, 6:00 p.m.

The Future of Wheat in Alaska
Wheat farming in Alaska – past, present and possible futures
Teri White Carns Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop,
G Street 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Join us at Fire Island G Street café for a discussion of growing wheat in Alaska led by MFA in writing candidate Teri White Carns. Hear about:
§     How the lack of wheat in Sitka starred in a romantic story of Russian Alaska.
§     What it takes to grow wheat in Alaska in 2016, who grows it, and who buys it.
§     How much wheat Alaskans eat per capita, and where it comes from.
§     How warming temperatures could change wheat farming in Alaska.
§     What that means for local food security and sustainable wheat and grains. 

Posted October 20, 2016.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Last day on Oahu -- March 23, 2016

A shop for "authentic, pre-owned designer handbags." [This photo wished to be at the top of the page, and I haven't been able to persuade it to stay further down.]

Last day in Hawaii -- We found some off-the-beaten track sights, visited with friends and relatives, and took one last trip to the beach.
We spotted this building that looked like a Japanese temple, but had a cross on it. 

The sign that said that it was built in 1932 as a Christian church that looked like a Japanese castle to represent the belief of Japanese Christians in their God's protection.

We met Cliff and Mary DeVries for lunch at Sistina -- great company and excellent Italian food, 

with copies of Sistine Chapel murals all around. 

Another building with unusual architecture; both of these are a block away from shiny new apartment/hotel towers.

We spent the afternoon with nephew Paul White at the Zoo. At the Komodo Dragon habitat, we met one of the zoo-keepers who was about to give the dragon (named Doc, and 23 years old) some training in following orders given by medical or other personnel. I asked about her trays of small dead white mice, and she chatted with us (and a growing crowd) about how she was going to train him by getting him to touch his nose to an orange Frisbee on a stick; if he did he would get a treat (aka mouse). If not, he would be fed later. He gets about 1,500 grams of protein each week; today's mice represented about 10% of that quota. She talked for a while about how they bite, whether the bites are bad because of bacteria or venom (or both), how the zoo needed a reliable source of money to get its accreditation back (they more than meet all of the requirements for animal care but because they can't guarantee a steady enough income to suit the accreditation people, they lose their accreditation . . .thereby making it much harder to get accredited . . . one of those very sensible things about the way the world works), and more. 

Here is Doc touching his nose to the Frisbee; 

and eating his reward. We were lucky to get all of that information; not sure that it was scheduled.

Also at the zoo -- Galpagos tortoise eating lunch (several small birds came along to share); 

Gharials (crocodilians) with wicked teeth

lazing in a pond with koi and turtles; 

elephants the color of the Oahu red soil; 

a reflected egret; 

peacock in a tree, 

and Paul and Jim waving their arms at it trying to persuade it to display its tail (unsuccessfully); 



a flamingo who started by making some peculiar honks and then danced across the enclosure displaying and honking -- mating behavior, we assumed, but it wasn't clear who the object of his affections was. Maybe he didn't know either. 

A Buddhist statue in an herb and cactus garden; 

the peacock again; 

an exotic plant that looked as if it ought to be an animal; 

a local Cardinal; 

the flamingos in the pond at the front of the zoo who are much brighter orange than those at the back -- more shrimp, maybe?

Paul took us to the restaurant/bar at the top of the Ala Moana Hotel where he is staying before flying back to LA tomorrow (where he will get to see Peg Lazio and Tom and Joseph Lazio and Jen). The view of Waikiki from the 36th floor is different from those we've had before. The Ala Moana Marina, with a hazy horizon and a sailboat out on the water. 

Evening sun, about 5:09 p.m. (sunset at 6:41). 

Orchids and chandelier in the lobby. 

Jim and Paul.

The Sheraton infinity pool and the ocean after sunset.

A couple of other photos:

Orchids at the zoo. 

Bluish flowers on a vine.