Friday, October 2, 2020

Intelligent Plants: What's A Vegetarian To Do?

May, 2017

In a recent New Yorker article, Michael Pollan details major new scientific research suggesting that plants are far more sentient than most of us think. .Pollan writes:

The tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it. Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger.[1]

            What does that mean for vegetarians? If that grain of wheat, or a potato, or the celery stalk, are all ripped from intelligent living beings, able to sense chemicals, sounds, and light, and react accordingly, should we be eating them? Should we eat only fruits, nuts, and seeds ­ things that the plant wants to have separated from itself, to further its species? 

What about fermentation? Should we allow other creatures -- bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, to partially digest our fruits and nuts before we eat them, as suggested by Sandor Katz and others? When we eat the pickles, chocolate, coffee, yogurt, bread, and the like, we are consuming whole clouds and colonies of these helpful creatures, some dead, some alive.

            But then ­ fruit. Should we even eat that? Eve ate of the fruit of the tree. Why was it a fruit, and not the leaf, or flower? Does this mean that fruit contains knowledge, like the pills that are distributed by the Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated Woggle-Bug in L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz?

            Of course, much of the human race is omnivorous, eating meat and dairy products, along with fruits and vegetables. As long as it’s not their next door neighbor, whether their food item is sentient or not generally doesn't factor into the decision to eat it. For some vegetarians and religious groups, however, the intelligence of the creatures or plants that became food is an important issue. For them, the new research might raise questions about the ethics of eating the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

[1]  Michael Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant,” The New Yorker, December 2013.

When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed,” Pollan writes, “the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the [antelopes].”. A plant that can produce its own weapons to kill an attacker sounds intelligent to me. Even better, “Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars.”[1]

            Plants use chemicals to communicate with each other, to defend themselves, and to attract creatures that will pollinate their flowers. An example is caffeine, which attracts bees but is toxic in larger doses to herbivores. Some plants deploy high doses of caffeine in seedlings, leaves, and stems as toxins to discourage creatures that might eat them. Citrus plants, including lemons, grapefruits and oranges take the opposite approach, storing caffeine in their flowers, where it draws honeybees. Like truckers favoring certain roadside diners, the bees remember those flowers for the caffeine boost, and return for subsequent doses.

            Another example of apparently intelligent behavior is the ability of mushrooms to create little winds that help spread their spores. Oyster and shiitake mushrooms release water vapour that cools the air around them, creating convection currents. This in turn generates miniature winds that lift their spores into the air.[2] Dr. Emilie Dressaire, professor of experimental fluid mechanics at Trinity College in Connecticut and co-author of the study, characterized the mushrooms as “ingenious engineers.” 

What about wheat – what is it up against?

These days, people often write about wheat’s evil qualities. Is wheat attacking us, poisoning us with phytochemicals and gluten so we will stop eating it as some writers seem to be saying? But today's wheats exist only because of human breeding. They could not live in the wild. Their seeds are too tightly encased in the hulls and can’t be spread by wind or other means. For wheat to poison the only species that can assure its continued existence would be suicidal.

For its short-term survival, wheat doesn’t depend entirely on humans. It has a few of its own weapons. Faced with a variety of menaces ­ in particular the larvae of Hessian flies ­ wheat produces lectin to protect itself. The lectin poisons the insects after the larvae dine on it. Wheat defends itself against aphids as well. Wheat seedlings that haven’t been chewed on by Hessian flies and other creatures attract aphids. But when the aphids show up, the seedlings give off chemical odors that repel them.

            Those aphids eating the wheat don’t give up so easily. They continue to eat it even while it is doing its best to drive them away. British scientists genetically modified wheat to repel the persistent aphids. Huw Jones, who co-authored a report on the genetically-modified wheat, said that the experiment didn’t work. “The real world is much more complicated that then laboratory,”[3] he said. To make matters worse, the government had to pay for security to protect the experimental fields from activists objecting to GMO research– about $2.9 million, three times the cost of the actual research. Others scientists are trying to change what happens in the aphids' digestive systems so that they die from eating wheat. They hope to find other mechanisms that will shift the natural balance in favor of the farmer. Aphids gotta eat too, son, but hopefully something else.

            Wheat doesn't just have to fight against insects and other creatures from the animal kingdom. Field bindweed is a pretty vine with a small white flower that is cousin to the morning glories and sweet potatoes.[4] It sends chemicals through its roots to inhibit the growth of nearby wheat.[5]  Winter wheat that grows earlier in the spring than other crops may hog the water and sunlight that the bindweed needs, and destroy its competitor. Farmers could plant winter wheat to free their fields of bindweed, then grow other crops on the cleansed land. 

The microbiome -- wheat and microbes serve each other

          At the cooperative end of the spectrum, wheat survives within in a complicated network of microbes. To survive, the microbes need the wheat that they are growing on as much as the wheat needs them. Some types of fungi grow on wheat roots from which they draw nutrients. In exchange, the fungi send out filaments to draw moisture that surrounds the wheat roots, acting as tiny irrigation systems. The wheat uses nutrients and minerals from soil set free by other neighboring microbes.

            One experiment showed how changing the wheat’s microbiome ­ its community of microbes ­ could allow wheat to grow in high heat and drought. Scientists sterilized wheat seeds to remove their existing microbiomes. They coated the seeds with microbiomes found on grasses that live near Yellowstone hot springs at temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrapped in its new microbiome, the wheat thrived in the heat, and used 50% less water.[6] The lead researcher on this study, Dr. Regina Redman is co-owner of a company that suggested that working with microbiomes could eliminate the need for the genetic engineering that many people find objectionable. When she’s not engaging the microbiome, Dr Redman has hosted a cooking show in the Seattle area, scuba dives, travels to the Poles, and engages in 1,000 –mile bike rides.

            What about the effect of music on plants? Remember when we played Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix to our philodendrons in the 1970s? Does wheat respond to stimuli like this? Maybe it likes the lines from the musical ­ “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain, Where the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet, When the wind comes right behind the rain.” The jury is out. Most of the research has not been done with randomly selected plant populations under strict scientific protocols, and it has not been replicated. The Canadian engineer, Eugene Canby  reported in the mid-1960s that wheat seeds exposed to Bach’s Violin Sonata produced 66% more grain.[7] Other researchers found that plants seemed to like classical music, and perhaps jazz and country. Many plants appeared to be averse to rock music in the various unscientific studies reported, so Jimi Hendrix is not advised.

            It does begin to look as if wheat, like other plants, can act with purpose to protect itself, and can shape conditions to improve its lot in life. Italian plant physiologist Stefano Mancuso, “a slight bearded Calabrian” from the University of Florence[8] says that because plants can’t run away and are likely to get eaten, they evolved modular structures, and “intelligence” or abilities to respond that are spread throughout their “bodies.” He compares this distributed intelligence to the Internet, which relies on billions of basic modules (individual devices) for its survival and health.[9] Mancuso says that “plants evolved to be eaten. It is part of their survival strategy.”[10]

Michael Pollan points out the controversy that surrounds Mancuso’s views and those of other plant physiologists. Some botanists dismiss Mancuso’s research and his interpretations of it as “foolish distractions” and products of “the nuthouse.”[11]  Pollan characterizes Mancuso as a poet-philosopher of the field, saying that proving the intelligence of plants might make people more humble about their place in the world. [12]

            One ethnobotanist wondered why people would want to attribute animal characteristics to plants: “They can eat light. Isn’t that enough?” he asked.[13] Although some scientists are working on ways to allow mammals to photosynthesize, others point out that mammals are constructed in ways that don’t readily lend themselves to supplying all of their nutritional needs with light.[14] And some ask, why bother? .“We have effectively outsourced the process of photosynthesis on a massive scale”[15] by creating agriculture. Wheat’s evolutionary strategies include photosynthesis, a variety of “intelligent” behaviors, cooperative relationships with microbes, and the ability to persuade humans to grow it for its gluten and nourishment.


[1] Michael Pollan,     New Yorker, 2013.

[2]  Allegra Staples, “How the Ingenious Mushroom Creates Its Own Micro-climate.” Dogo News, December 2013,

[3] Jones, Huw, et al, “Designer Wheat Fails Anti-Aphid Field Test,” Scientific Reports, June 2015.

[4]  Farmers don’t like bindweed. They consider Convolvulus arvensis to be one of the most noxious plants around. Horses that eat it get sick, it carries viruses that infect other plants, and it has a dozen different ways of invading and choking off other plants, both above and below ground. From a human standpoint, though, it has value. It may inhibit tumor growth, and may have other uses in medicine.;

[5] The process is called “amensalism.” It is the same process that allows penicillin and streptomycin to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

[6]  Jeff Leach, “Microbiome Swapping: It’s All the Rage,” Human Food Project, August, 2012.

[7] Mazlan, “The Effect of Music on Plant Growth,” DenGarden, May 2017.

[8] Michael Pollan, The New Yorker.

[9] Jeremy Hance, “Are Plants Intelligent? New Book Says Yes.” The Guardian, August 2015.

[10] Pollan.

[11] Michael Pollan, Id.

[12] Michael Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant The New Yorker, December 2013.

[13] Michael Pollan, Id.

[14] Ed Yong, “Will We Ever Photosynthesize Like Plants?” BBC Future, September 2012.

[15] Ed Yong.


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Nursery Rhyme Pies with surprises inside

Illustration by William Wallace Denslow.

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating his Christmas pie
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, "What a good boy am I!"

It's a familiar nursery rhyme that has been said to be about stealing land during the reign of Henry VIII. Whether true or not, the story goes that the Abbot of Glastonbury, one of the last abbeys to be confiscated by Henry VII in the 1530s, decided to bribe the king with a Christmas pie that contained the deeds to twelve of his properties (other than the Abbey itself) rather than the ingredients of a regular Christmas Pie.

The classic Christmas pies were large, well suited to hiding deeds, and the sort of thing that an abbot would be expected to send to the king. In Henry's day, they were filled with mincemeat containing thirteen ingredients (one for Christ, and twelve for the apostles). They had mutton, representing the shepherds in the Nativity story, and a rectangular box shape like that of the manger  Thus, the Abbot's pie had symbolic meanings, as well as being a gift he hoped that the king would accept.

The abbot delegated delivery of the pie to his steward, Thomas Horner (who became Jack in the nursery thyme, because the name "Jack" was often associated with someone up to no good). Thomas took the pie to the king, but before he got there (so the story goes), pulled out the deed to Mells Manor. Because he was Protestant, Thomas got to keep the manor. The King had the abbot hung anyway, took the rest of the abbey and properties, and everyone continued on. The Horner family owned Mells Manor into the twentieth century; no word about whether they kept up a tradition of Christmas pies.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

Another familiar nursery rhyme had blackbirds instead of plums in the pie:

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Now wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before a king!

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

In this case, the pie was an entremet, an entertainment served between courses by wealthy hosts. Birds, pigs, and frogs, even people, could be trapped inside a big pie shell, and let out by breaking the crust, to amaze the guests. One interpretation of this nursery rhyme also ties it to Henry VIII.  Henry VIII was the king in the counting house, and the singing birds were people who turned others in to save their own hides, or to get rewards (a pocket full of rye) from the king. The queen was Catherine of Aragon (note that she was eating bread and honey, not pie), and the maid in the garden was Anne Boleyn.

Both of the rhymes demonstrate one of the essential qualities of pie crust. Properly made with wheat, it is a structurally sound container. An engineering school's experiments with building the perfect gingerbread house led to the conclusion that "Dough with a tough, springy consistency and decreased moisture content is ideal, and can be achieved by using flour with high protein content, such as bread flour. Higher-protein flours contain more glutenin and gliadin proteins, which create the springy gluten network that gives dough its elastic properties." From the Middle Ages into the present, pie crusts have been used as free-standing structures in which food was cooked, or  as containers holding entertainments of live creatures.

A German cookbook from 1553 described how to make the crust. It advised the cook to take flour, mix it with eggs, melt some fat in boiling water (which could have been butter or lard, or other meat fats), pour that over the flour, and  "work it well." (i.e., knead it to develop the gluten). The cook shaped the dough into whatever three-dimensional shape was needed. Then they shaped a lid and fastened it to the box with water,  crimping the edges together with their fingers. After filling the crust (or "coffin," from a French word meaning basket), the cook baked it.

Sometimes the crust was inedible, but just as often, it could be eaten as part of the meal. If the nobility didn't eat the crust, they often passed it on to poor people, who relished the pastry soaked with the juices of the meats and spices that had filled the pie.  Alternatively, baking food in the relatively dry and impenetrable crust could preserve food, if the top layer of crust was sealed with fat of some sort.

Blackbirds in a pie (Creative Commons, 8-5-2018)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Saint Roch of France, and the dog that brought his bread

Image of Saint Roch, with the dog bringing bread

August 16 is the feast day of St. Roch (also known as St. Rocco, or St. Rollox), a patron saint of dogs. He was born into French nobility in 1295, but orphaned at 20. He gave away his money to become a pilgrim, wandering through the countryside. Arriving in towns near Rome that were afflicted by the plague, he stayed there to help the sick. After several years curing people and whole towns in the area through his prayers, he caught the plague himself, and went into the forest to die. A count’s hunting dog (assumed to be a greyhound) found him, and brought bread from his owner to St. Roch. St. Roch believed that his guardian angel brought the dog to him, and showed the dog how to heal him by licking his wounds. Paintings of the saint portray him in pilgrim’s robes with a dog by his side carrying bread in its mouth.

After St. Roch recovered, the count, who had become his friend and student, gave the dog to St. Roch. The pair traveled back to Montpelier, France. Arrested as a spy during a civil war in the area, the saint and the greyhound spent five years in jail. Some say that he was cared for by an angel in jail, and some say that he and the dog ministered to other prisoners. Both could be true, of course. He died in jail in 1327.

These dates might not be precise.  A Dominican priest and archbishop, Blessed Jacobus de Varagine, Archbishop of Genoa, wrote one of the best known saints' books of the medieval times. He published the Golden Legend in 1295, and included a detailed account of St. Roch, who (in theory) would still have been alive at the time.

How Saint Roch's dog also became a saint to some

Image of St. Guinefort, the holy greyhound

This is not the end of the story. The dog, named Guinefort, lived on, and became part of another noble family. One day the family went out leaving the baby, a nurse, and Guinefort. When the nurse was in another room, a serpent approached the baby, but Guinefort killed it, leaving a fair amount of gore around. When the family returned they saw the blood, thought that Guinefort had harmed the infant, and killed the dog. But then, on closer look, they saw the snake and realized their mistake.

The nobleman buried Guinefort in a well, and planted trees to mark the grave. Local women began bringing their babies to the site, praying to the dog for protection. In days past, the same peasants had made offerings to the fauns and spirits in the area; now they brought their children's clothes and lit candles as ritual offerings. Despite numerous criticisms and attempts to quash the beliefsa historian passing through the area noted that it was still practiced after World War 1. "Saint" Guinefort even has his own day, August 22.  The Catholic Church certainly does not consider Guinefort a saint, but many people appreciate the story and sentiment and continue to tell it.

Dogs and bread

Fire Island bread cooling on rack [photo by TWC, July 29, 2018]

The association of the dog with bread might seem accidental, but in fact it is likely that we owe our friendship with dogs to the fact that they developed a love of wheat when people began to plant it 11,000 or so years ago.  One of the most important ways in which dogs differ from their ancestors, the wolves, is their ability to thrive on grains. To do this, dogs evolved genes that increased their starch-digesting enzymes. Human digestive systems also developed more of these genes and enzymes at about the same time. The Nature article that described the genetic research concluded, “The results presented here demonstrate a striking case of parallel evolution whereby the benefits of coping with an increasingly starch-rich diet during the agricultural revolution caused similar adaptive responses [i.e., new ability to digest starches from grains] in dog and humans.” So wheat may be a crucial part of the process that gave us not only the food of life, but our best friends in the animal kingdom. Although other theories about how dogs joined their fates to humans exist, evidence supports the wheat theory, and the other theories are not mutually exclusive.

The American Kennel Club advises that it's still OK to feed your dog certain kinds of bread, in moderation. No raw bread dough, however, and no bread with raisins (raisins are toxic) or some sorts of nuts (especially macadamia), some brands of peanut butter, and no Xylitol.

Mom Oreo advises her young daughter on how to catch the tastiest dinners and invite your humans to provide some tasty bread [photo, Micki Glueckert, July 28, 2018].

My thanks to Barbara Armstrong, a dog lover who told me about St. Roch, and the dog who brought his bread.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The designer flour sack, from mid-1800s to mid-1900s

Ad for a bag company showing some of the things made with their products.

People used every bit of the wheat plant – chaff, straw, and leaves. They also used all of the containers that carried the wheat, flour, hardtack, and all else made from the plant. Boxes, barrels, and tins held the flour and wheaten foods, along with sugar, salt,  animal feed, and fertilizer before about 1850.  From the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s, companies packaged flour and feed in cotton sacks that were cheaper, took up less space,  and were more durable. Stitching machines invented in the mid-1800s reinforced the seams to make them even sturdier.

It made sense: fabric cost a lot, and most people had the habit of re-using things as much as possible. The average family used enough flour that they often bought it in fifty and hundred-pound sacks. One sack would make a child’s outfit, and three were enough for a woman’s dress. Women used cotton fabrics for curtains, bedspreads, underwear (which they made themselves), diapers, and toys. When an item had outlived its first life, women recycled the fabric into strainers, dish towels, scrub rags, braided rugs, quilts, and tote bags. Even the strings that tied the mouths of the bags shut had new lives in knitted and crocheted goods.

Log cabin quilt made with fabrics that could have come from flour sacks (National Park Service)

It didn’t take long for flour merchants to realize that women would buy the brand of flour with the nicest bags. They created fashionable florals, novelty designs, border prints, patterns for children’s stuffed toys. The instructions printed on the bags, and the company’s logo washed out, leaving permanent colors for the prints. Kansan Nancy Jo Leachman who collects flour sacks said that one mill advertised on the bag that its sacks were  “[M]ade of percale, which makes a better dishtowel than our competitors.”

We think of the flour sack clothing as uniquely American, but Europeans, Chinese, and other cultures that relied on flour made similar uses of the bags.

The clothes had downsides. If the person who made your clothes (which could be you if you were 9 or 10 years old, or your mother or an older sister) hadn’t mastered seamtressing, your clothes did not look like a tailor made them, or store-bought. You and all of your siblings might have matching shirts and dresses, setting you apart as poor kids. For all of the admirable frugality and creativity that a flour sack dress could represent, often the most obvious message was one of class.

A fanciful flower sack pattern showing a ballerina (Kindness blog).

World War II demanded that citizens sacrifice many things for the military. Uniforms needed cotton, so manufacturers began to ship more flour in paper bags. Still, Disney licensed Alice in Wonderland and other characters for flour bags in 1951, and people were winning contests for the best flour sack dresses as late as 1959. These days, high end housewares stores sell cotton "flour bag" style towels for a premium, printed with patterns that twenty-first century buyers find charming rather than the prints that appealed to the earlier flour sack buyers.

Modern flour sack towels by Now Designs.

Thanks to Pat Fitzharris Newman for the inspiration for this post.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

14,000 year-old bread discovered in Jordan

Stands of wild einkorn wheat ( T. boeoticum ) in the Karacadag mountain range. Picture taken by H. O ̈ zkan in early July 2004 

Someone burned the toast, apparently, and that's part of the reason that researchers still found bits of it in 14,400 year-old ovens in Shubayqa 1, a hunter-gatherer archaeological site in northeastern Jordan.  Headlines on July 16, 2018 described the study about the oldest bread known, led by Amaia Arranz-Otaegu from the University of Copenhagen. Turning most beliefs about agriculture and society on their heads,  it showed that our ancestors baked bread with einkorn, a wild wheat, thousands of years before the first cultivated fields.

Scientists already knew that people managed existing stands of einkorn (wheat) and many other plants, that they harvested and stored grains, that they ground grains, and that they made them into flat cakes that they cooked, long before they began to grow wheat in fields. Archaeologists have discovered grinding tools with grain fragments in Mozambique from 105,000 years ago; from Australia about 50,000 years ago; and from several places in Europe about 33,000 years ago. Shubayqa 1 is the first site, however, to have the burnt bread in the hearth.

Australian Aboriginal grindstone, about 30,000 years old.

Even Paleolithic hunters and gatherers had a good reason to go through the laborious process of harvesting grains and tubers, and preparing the bread. Grinding and cooking plants allows people to gain substantially more energy from them than from the raw ingredients.  Some archaeologists think that the bread discovered at Shubayqa 1, however, may have taken even more energy to make than it gave back in nutrition, in part because it was so hard to gather wild wheat seeds.

Professor Dorian Fuller at the Institute of Archaeology in London, a co-author of the report, said that the bakers might have intended the bread for religious ceremonies, which would justify the extra work. After all, the bread was in a well-made stone building with flat floors, built-in hearths, and other fragments of food from the long-ago feast. Dr. Fuller said, "This discovery . . . reveals that people . . . had begun to consume food for social, cultural, and potentially ideological reasons."

Dr. Fuller's hypothesis finds strands of support in other wheat-related discoveries in the Middle East. People had been cooking and eating wheat at least 23,000 years before the present, and nearly 10,000 years before the bread at Shubayqa 1. The earliest evidence so far (new discoveries are made every year) is from the Ohalo II site, about 23,000 years ago, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Charred seeds of emmer (another ancient form of wheat) were found in a settlement that contained six huts, six open air hearths, and a grave.

Three thousand years after Shubayqa 1, the first fields of cultivated grains were einkorn and emmer  discovered near the temples at Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey. Archaeologists there hypothesized that the hunter-gatherers who built them started planting wheat so that they could be close to their places of celebration and burials.

A modern version of Australian Aboriginal seed bread, from Gurandgi Munjie group.

Scanning electron microscopes allowed researchers to analyze 24 fragments of the several hundred pieces of bread. Most of them (75%) were made only from einkorn, further supporting the idea that the people of the area valued wheat above other grains. The gluten-rich seeds would make flatbreads that were 1/4 inch-thick, more delicate and perhaps better-tasting than those  made of oats, barley and ground tubers from sedges.

                                        Flat bread -- naan (TWC, 5-19-2012)

This bread was baked near the end of the Upper Paleolithic era, which started about 50,000 years ago and ended with the beginning of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. It suggests that the Paleo diet may need some revision.  How long now, until a recipe comes out for the "real" Paleo bread, and people can return to enjoying the food of their ancestors?

               The Shubayqa 1 site, with oven where researchers discovered ancient bread.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

From Kangaroo grass to wheat: Europe arrives in Australia

                      Wild emu at the edge of the New South Wales Outback (TWC).

Gifts of bread

Aboriginal stories credit Captain James Cook with bringing bread to Australia.  The stories tell about all of things that the mythical "Cook" brought: clothes, axes, animals, and bread and flour. Even though few tribes encountered  him in person, they still have Cook tales. The Rembarrnga people of Arnhem Land, where he never ventured, tell of the "real" Captain Cook, their ancestor law-man from millions of years ago. When that Captain Cook is killed, the story teller says that people tried to make him another way, and many "Captain Cooks" (i.e., white settlers) arrived.

              Captain Cook statue in Sydney, Australia (March 4, 2018) (TWC)

Cook's first expedition on the Endeavor in 1770 spent nearly two months in Queensland repairing the ship after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef.  Percy Mumbulla (an Aboriginal living in New South Wales) tells how Cook arrived at an island there in a large ship.  He gave Mumbulla's ancestors clothes and hard biscuits. After he left, the ancestors threw the gifts into the sea.  In his journals, Cook confirmed Mumbulla's report, saying that the Aboriginals saw the gifts as things "they had no manner of use for."

Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway of Queensland tell a second story of Cook's arrival bearing bread:  "Captain Cook and his group seemed to stand up out of the sea with the white skin of ancestral spirits, returning to their descendants. Captain Cook arrived first offering a pipe and tobacco to smoke (which was dismissed as a 'burning thing... stuck in his mouth'), then boiling a billy of tea (which was dismissed as scalding 'dirty water'), next baking flour on the coals (which was rejected as smelling 'stale' and thrown away untasted), finally boiling beef  (which smelled well, and tasted okay, once the salty skin was wiped off). Captain Cook and group then left, sailing away to the north, leaving Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway's predecessors "beating the ground with their fists, fearfully sorry to see the spirits of their ancestors depart in this way."

Growing wheat

The English soon returned to Australia in force. In 1788, England now bereft of American colonies to which it could ship criminals, landed a boatload of convicts at Botany Bay (Sydney).  Within a few months of their arrival, the prisoners turned farmers began to grow wheat. It took  several years of hunger while they learned how to farm, found decent soil, and tried planting new varieties of grain, but by 1799, the colony cultivated 6,000 acres of wheat.

                          A harvested field in New South Wales, February 2018 (TWC).

 As was the case around the world,  wheat culture in Australia evolved significantly during the 19th century. Early Australian farmers trying to clear ground and plant wheat lacked any sort of sophisticated equipment. Until the first plows arrived in 1797, the convicts and settlers used hoes and spades. The farmable areas near the coasts of the continent were forested, and often hilly. After cutting the trees, farmers hitched teams of oxen to wooden plows. An innovative farmer by the name of Mullens drove spikes into a V-shaped log, which his horse dragged along the plowed soil. The cultivator loosened the dirt and dropped the seeds in behind it. Iron plows didn't arrive until the 1850s.

A few years later, the Australian government paid Richard Bruyer Smith 500 pounds sterling for his invention of the "stump-jump" plow. Smith's plow went along as usual until it came to a stump or rock, at which point a hinge mechanism allowed the share and mould board to lift over the obstacle and come down on the other side. A new Australian wheat variety, "Federation," greatly increased production after 1903 when it was first marketed. New seeds, new machines, and the networks of railroads that were largely in place by the 1880s made wheat farming possible on a large scale.

                        Wheat sheaves, around 1884 - 1917, Sydney, Australia.

Cooking and eating wheat

     During the second half of the 1800s, English in Australia might well have turned to Eliza Acton's The English Bread Book for their bread recipes.

The English and other settlers adapted to their new environs. Occasionally they ate indigenous foods prepared in the same ways that the Aboriginals were accustomed to use them. Far more often than not, they substituted local foods in their own recipes because they couldn't get the ingredients that they usually ate. They cooked parrots instead of pigeons into soups, and prepared kangaroo meat as if it was beef or mutton.  Mrs. Lance Rawson's Antipodean Cookbook from 1895 gave recipes for flying fox (tastes like pork), bandicoots, and iguanas (tastes like chicken),  preparing them all using English techniques and seasonings.

                  Flying fox, Sydney Centennial Parklands, 2/10/2018 [TWC]

The indigenous peoples also adapted. They continued to prepare their traditional foods, often using English ingredients -- flour, sugar, the new meats such as mutton, beef, and pork -- to make their traditional dishes. More often, they substituted English foods for their own. The English foods tasted better to them, were far easier to get, and were recommended (or at times, required) by the English who ruled over them. Some English paid indigenous people who were working for them in English foods, including flour.

That's one part of the story.  In addition, it's also true that the English brought domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle and sent them out to graze  on the Aboriginal lands. Some of the grazed areas had been fields of murnong (yam-daisy tubers) that the Aboriginals managed by judicious use of fire to keep down pests and fertilize the soil. The English took over the grain fields and grass lands that the Aboriginals cultivated and used them for their own crops. Because many of the Aboriginal populations were decimated by Old World diseases, or by deliberate killings, they didn't have the ability to resist, or to continue to cultivate their own foods. English foods were all that were available in many places.


                   Classic damper, cooked in campfire ashes (which would be brushed off   before eating) [From 2012, in Yandeyarra, Wendy Wood)]

One new shared food was the flatbread called damper. People have made flatbreads with ground seeds and tubers  and water for thousands of years. They have cooked them buried in ashes or over hot coals. The English brought hard tack, a basic form of dried flatbread, to Australia. Once there, they created damper from the same ingredients that they used in hardtack, but prepared  it differently. William Bond, a baker in Sydney's Pitt Street, gets credit for baking the bread in the oven's ashes, "damping" them around the dough.

A 1946 recipe emphasized the kneading process for damper, which is strikingly different from hardtack. "Take 1 lb of flour, water and a pinch of salt. Mix it into a stiff dough and knead for at least one hour, not continuously, but the longer it is kneaded the better the damper. Press with the hands into a flat cake and cook it in at least a foot of hot ashes" (Bill Beatty, in the Sydney Morning Herald). Hard tack or ship's biscuit is not kneaded, merely mixed until the dough holds together, then flattened very thin, and baked for a long time at a low temperature until it dries out completely.

The Aboriginals claimed damper as their own as well. Before the English arrived, they made flatbreads by grinding Spinifex seeds, miller, Kangaroo grass, Bunya nuts, cattail tubers, and other local plants. mixing them with water, and baking the dough in ashes of a campfire. Today, as is shown in the next post, ground seeds and nuts are often mixed with wheat flour to take advantage of the fact that it has gluten and thus will rise when leavened.  In a bit of reverse cultural appropriation, the English version of damper is sometimes credited to the Aboriginals, as in this snack characterized as "Damper and Dip: An Aboriginal Tradition."

Australian damper with kangaroo (buffalo can be used instead) curry dip, Maria Rodale

The next post describes wheat in Australia's present, from damper to ramen to Aussie pies. The first post in the series is Who Invented Bread? at this link.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Who invented bread? The Australian contribution

                             Bread from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage [TWC]

"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 became a background drone as 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  . . ." Bread? I care about bread, even if the rest of the lecture was not so compelling.

                                Bunya cone ready to harvest (Queensland).

Before Aboriginals set foot in Australia, dinosaurs ate bunya nuts. For millions of years after that, other animals feasted on them.  When the Aboriginals arrived 50,000 or so years ago, they began to grind bunya nuts  into flour, mix the flour with water, and bake the  flattened dough in hot coals.

Aboriginal clans and tribes traveled hundreds of miles to harvest and share bunya nuts, sometimes from trees that belonged to a single family and were passed from father to son. The last of the traditional festivals happened in 1902 (some sources say 1887). Much of the history may come from a colonist's account published in 1904 of her father's acquaintance with Aboriginals in Queensland during the middle 1800s. Families revived the traditional feasts in 2007. Today, bunya flour appears in breads, gnocchi, and pancakes, among other dishes.

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, and not just from bunya nuts. Most of the Aboriginal breads were made from grains (i.e., grass seeds), and from smaller seeds  or roots and tubers of other plants.

         Aboriginal grindstone image, Australian Museum (Stuart Humphries)

Some Aboriginal groups say that the creator of the 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 date from only about 36,000 years ago, some argue that the Aboriginals invented bread.

                                                        Crested pigeon, Sydney, Australia [TWC]

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 and other 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.

Other gndstones 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 wharrived 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, millet, and kangaroo grass, provided seeds for making bread.

                               "Seed Dreaming," painting by Angela Nangala Parlinjirri

The Aboriginals were still baking  bush bread and 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 in 1788 (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.