The Fat of the Land

Month: January, 2013



We have always known it. Some revere it, some only partially perceive it, others shrug it off. Whatever stance we take in the face of it, flavor runs a deep line through our lives, revealing ancient preferences, feeding our current ones, and performing, without us knowing it, a concert of molecular movement and electricity that triggers emotion, memory, pleasure or alarm.

Conventional Western thought once divided our tongue into regions of perception corresponding to four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Added recently, umami (a borrowed Japanese word meaning “good flavor”) is considered the fifth taste. It refers to savory sensations, such as those created by meat or mushrooms. Sweetness, we were told, is perceived on the front of the tongue, bitterness at the back, salty, sour and umami at various locations along the sides.

This, of course, is over-simplification. Taste bud receptors of various kinds are located throughout the tongue, and in a range of concentrations. Our ability to taste is related to the number of papillae our tongue contains, and this concentration varies among ethnic populations.

Papillae are small bumps that house the taste buds and molecular receptors that attract certain flavor molecules in the food we eat. Bitter taste receptors attract bitter flavor molecules, transferring that information through tiny pore openings in the taste buds, where it is perceived by nerve endings and transferred to the brain.

Tongues, however, are blunt sensory instruments compared to those in our nasal passages. The old trick of holding your nose to swallow a distasteful bite works so well because it reduces our experience of flavor to the tongue alone.

When the nose becomes involved, flavor increases exponentially. Our olfactory sensors are themselves nerve endings. Unlike tongue receptors, which must pass flavor molecules through several channels of perception, olfactory nerves have a direct connection to the brain, giving them their heightened sensitivity. When working together, tongue and olfactory sensors are capable of detecting a delightfully wide range of flavor variation.

Olfactory signals go directly to the part of the brain involved with memory, especially that of place and experience. Tongue receptor signals travel to parts of the brain that, among other things, regulate our perception of fullness, control salivation, and, combined with the olfactory signals, create a conscious sense of taste, what we experience as the flavor of our food.

There are many reasons for our bodies to have a refined sense of taste. Flavor reliably indicates chemical attributes of the things we put in our mouths, and thus can function as an assessment of calories and nutrients. Sweetness indicates sugar and its associated vitamins and carbohydrates, salt provides an essential nutrient for organ function, sour indicates acidity that could assist the detection of rotten foods, while umami may reflect the presence of protein. Bitterness stands as our strongest indicator of danger—most poisonous alkaloids have a bitter taste, though this does not mean that all bitter foods contain harmful substances.

No taste exists in isolation. Greens such as mustards and radicchios do contain a strong bitter note, but one laced with sweetness. In the case of grapefruit, sweet and sour are also detectable. The presence of sweetness in particular can (but does not always) indicate that the type of bitter compound present is not dangerous. Such benign bitter compounds promote gastric juice production, thus aiding the digestion of accompanying vitamins, carbohydrates and fats.

Flavor is revelatory, and while it is a highly subjective enterprise (physiologically and otherwise), we are rewarded for paying it attention. We are not necessarily predisposed to try new things, to break the spell of habit and grab that unfamiliar bunch of greens to take home and sample. Yet, the more flavors we try, the more we learn about their nuances, and the more capable we become of discerning the many ways in which our foods feed us.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, January 31, 2013)


Origins of Cooking

Nb1.629 3/4 View

I was looking recently at a gorgeously photographed cookbook from the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Led by the young and talented chef Rene Redzepi, Noma is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine by using exclusively local ingredients, foraging and exploring the edible potential of what seems a bleak and limited landscape. I had heard about this chef and was interested in his zeal for found foods, though what I saw in his cookbook looked more like contemporary art than any meal I have eaten—beautiful but weightless, these dishes do not convey sustenance.

One dish, titled Vegetable Field, tricks the eye into seeing a patch of dirt with carrots and other root vegetables lifting their shoulders out of the ground. In reality, it is made of roast vegetables and malt “soil,” and although I have never eaten such a thing, I assume it tastes at least as intriguing as it looks given the restaurant’s Michelin stars. Pressing the familiar into whimsy, Redzepi’s creations seem as interested in imagining nostalgia as simply tasting like the exquisite ingredients they likely are. They are dinner in the form of an art gallery.

But how has fine food come to this degree of abstraction? We once, long, long ago, wandered our world picking and eating as we went, taking only what lay before us in whatever form we found it. Fruits plucked, herbs sampled, we filled our stomachs without thought of preparation or storage: an improvised Eden. Then, some 250,000-odd years ago, we harnessed the nuances of fire. Under its tutelage we learned, slowly, to coax from the vegetables and meats we were accustomed to eating raw, new and perhaps more agreeable flavors and nutrition.

Cooking has taken many forms over time. Fire, an open flame that singes and chars, is the most basic (and still one of the most delicious). Underground cooking chambers made by burying coals or hot rocks in the earth have translated to the high tech convection ovens of our day. Clay or metal vessels used to hold and heat water or oil for more controlled, precise cooking are the forbears of our myriad stockpots and sauté pans.

Even wood itself, a fuel of combustion, was once fashioned into a container for heating food: the folded cedar boxes of some Pacific Northwest coastal Indians, heated by adding fire-hot rocks to the water-filled interior rather than heating from below, boiled seal meat, berries or starchy roots. The endless combinations of what we cook and how we cook it have enthralled and nourished our species for millennia.

Scientists quibble over which came first—cooking or the larger brain. But in either equation, the practice of cooking our food has, over time, played a crucial role in our cognitive ability. When we expose food to heat, we alter its complex chemical structure and make more of its nutrients available to our ravenous brains, which on average consume 25% of our modern caloric intake. Cooking unlocked hidden potential in the food we took so much time to hunt and gather, providing increased return for the effort.

In this way, the practice of cooking has contributed to our cognitive capabilities. The most “recent” addition to our brain, the cerebral cortex, is responsible for the feats of language and reasoning, and for the capacity of a brain that once merely existed to begin to know itself. This remarkable development was likely encouraged by the simple but profound notion of applying heat to food. Cooking has nourished both our physical and mental capabilities alike.

From its very inception, cooking has always been a creative impulse, an abstract thought garnered from observation. The first limb seared in flame was likely both an informed and impulsive experiment. Watching the effects of wild fires on nearby vegetation, ancient hominids may have wondered what would happen if they took a piece of this heat and applied it where they chose. Cuisines such as Noma’s sparse but artistic plates reside in this same conceptual realm. Food preparation has always been a form of art, sustenance drawn from the ethers of our interior and exterior wildernesses, feeding our present minds as much as capacities yet unknown.

Kalapuya Calendar

The Kalapuya, native people of the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, divided their year into twelve lunar months, beginning with the first new moon of autumn. Anyone who has spent a year or two in this area can appreciate the familiar cycle their calendar represents, especially the short summer and extended spring. Being a transplant from the Midwest, I often have difficulty distinguishing the nuances of fall winter and spring in the PNW, and often think of this region as only having two seasons: wet and dry. The Kalapuya add a touch more poetry:

(Our August/September)  This first month was a time of abundance: living in dispersed summer camps, the people gathered and stored nuts, berries and roots.

(Our September/October)  “Hair falls off,” a reference to the dropping deciduous leaves. Camps move to where wapato grows and harvest of that root begins.

(Our October/November)  Winter approaches and it is time to prepare winter camps and lodgings.

(Our November/December)  “Good Month,” when Kalapuya moved into winter camps.

(Our December/January)  “Month of the burned breast,” when the weather turns cold and the elders sit in close to the fire, perhaps singing the breast of their clothing.

(Our January/February) “Out of provision month,” a hungry time when winter stores begin to run low and hunters begin to go looking for food in the woods.

(Our February/March)  “First Spring.” Brief camping trips yield young camas shoots and other greens.

(Our March/April)  “Budding Month,” when food collection on the valley floor begins in earnest.

(Our April/May)  “Flower time,” when camas blooms and the winter camps disperse into smaller, widely scattered summer camps. Spring runs of salmon bring a flush of color to the diet.

(Our May/June)  Month of camas, when the bulbs are full-size and ready to collect and dry. Fishing and berry collecting are in full swing.

(Our June/July)  “Half-summer-time.” Summer drought is in full, and the weather is hot and dry.

(Our July/August)  “End of Summer,” when it is still hot and dry, but the eyes turn toward winter and the necessary preparations of hunting and harvesting wild foods.

Source: The World of the Kalapuya by Judy Rycraft Juntunen, May D. Dasch and Ann Bennett Rogers.

Counting Days


We live in a world ruled by clocks that divide the moments of our lives into hours, days and months. When the pages of a calendar run out, we replace it with another, marking the shift with celebration, shrugging off the old and embracing the new. The first week of January feels like a gift—it is fresh, unspoiled, an offer to try again. The New Year holds new possibility.

Calendars imbue our annual cycle with meaning. Some occasions are public holidays, others are personal anniversaries, and all are marked by dates on the calendar. That a week has seven days and an hour sixty minutes seems like immutable fact, true as the bedrock under our homes, but these constructions were choices made along the way and have influenced our understanding of time.

Many early calendars marked the lunar cycle, counting each moon from its appearance to its disappearance. The Islamic calendar still does so, illustrating to our contemporary world the defining characteristic of a lunar calendar. Slightly more than twelve lunar cycles fit within the length of four seasons, so each year the lunar months shift in their relation to the seasons. The Islamic month of Ramadan may be observed in the long days of summer and the short days of winter within a practitioner’s lifetime.

Agriculture influenced the calendar as its predominance rose in human societies. A calendar that does not line up with the seasons cannot mark accurate planting or harvesting dates. To accommodate their need for calendars linked to the seasons, many ancient cultures traded the moon for the sun as their calendar’s foundational element, dividing the 365-day, twelve-month year into quarters marked by equinoxes and solstices.

Plants also follow a calendar. A seed germinates when its needs are met in the form of adequate light, water and temperature. The same environmental factors, in combination with the physical and chemical properties of the soil, influence a plant’s cycle of flowering, fruiting and death or dormancy. These factors only occur simultaneously during certain seasons of the year: in our climate, tomatoes bloom and fruit only in the late summer months.

Many plants also contain proteins that are sensitive to seasonal changes in night and day length, flowering once the sun has reached the particular angle in the sky that facilitates the photoperiod required by that plant. This level of precision is not so different from our own compulsion to calculate and live by a calendar that oscillates with nearly exact regularity between the longest and shortest days of the year.

That our measurement of a year has something in common with the plants we rely on to sustain us seems appropriate, yet plants do not lay out long calendars filled with to-do lists, nor do they (to our knowledge) maintain a cultural sense that time is slipping out of their grasp, that it moves too quickly. We may have constructed the pages of our calendar based on close observations and careful calculations, but construct it we did. A calendar moves because we turn the pages. Though as a species we have largely settled into permanent dwellings, we are nomadic still in our experience of time.

Time, for something like a plant, exists as various combinations of the characteristics of the place it sits. Time, calendars, minutes can and do stand still. Various cultures of the world apply this concept—one that focuses on the spatial quality of time through its connection to place. In this perspective, historic events belong more to the place they occurred than to the date. Meditation and mindfulness utilize this aspect of time, teaching that the only sense of time we are capable of experiencing is the present moment.

Though I certainly wouldn’t throw out the calendar or stop celebrating on December 31st, we can allow ourselves a little freedom from the obligations of our datebook. January is a fresh start, an opportunity to try something new. As the days move one to the next and slip into momentum and monotony, take a moment to step outside the minutes, sit as a plant does and feel the place you are in, what has come before, what is there now.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, January 3, 2013)