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.