food knowledge

Are There More Pigs or People Where You Live?


Eccentric. Arcane. Kooky, even. It’s the 2010 Census.

The big count takes place every ten years.
It’s a snapshot of us at a point in time, and when we compare it to the baby pictures of past census-taking, it says a lot about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re heading.

Since the census is only held once each decade, it leaves us with plenty of time to sift through the data; and there’s tons of the stuff. Naturally, it’s full of demographics: it tells us who lives where and how they voted. We know how wealthy the neighbors are and what the kids are majoring in at college. We can see who’s getting married, having babies, and moving to the suburbs; who needs public assistance; and where the hot retirement communities are located (Sarasota, Florida; Fort Collins, Colorado).

The census is also full of curiously chosen data: we can see that people in their 20’s vastly prefer bowling to bicycling; white and black adults attend jazz concerts at nearly the same rates; more men get a good night’s sleep than women; and in the decade since the last census, what we lost in bookstores we gained in pharmacies (500).

The census data contain plenty of fascinating, food-related factoids:

We’re eating less red meat (but drinking more red wine), less fruit (down by 36 pounds per person since the 2000 census), and fewer vegetables (down by 33 pounds), and most of the vegetables we do eat are canned, frozen, pickled, or otherwise processed.
We’re eating way more cheese and yogurt; we’re drinking less milk, but are six times more likely to demand that it be organic.
We’re drinking twice as much alcohol as we did back in 1990, and for the first time, it’s most likely a woman serving us our alcoholic beverages.

Texas has the most farms; Alaska and Rhode Island the fewest. We’ve added more than 3 million acres of organic farmland since the 2000 census— but also 244% more genetically engineered varieties of corn, and 72% more soybeans.
The honeybees really are disappearing—they were counted too.

And yes, there are five states—Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Dakota— that have more pigs than people.

It’s like a family photo album crossed with the Guinness Book of Records. The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually since 1878, takes piles of government data from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and other federal agencies. The numbers are crunched to give an authoritative and comprehensive summary of social, political, and economic status. You can download earlier editions (dating back to 1878) from the Census Bureau’s website, or order your own copy of the current edition (it’s the government’s perennial top-seller) from the U.S. Government Bookstore.


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How Much of Your Life is Spent Eating?

image via Harvey Ralph


Americans spend less time eating than just about anyone else on the planet. We’re also among the most overweight.

A graph has been making the rounds.
Taking data from a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it plots minutes spent eating per day versus national obesity rates (based on a body mass index of 30 or more). In the US, our eating and drinking add up to 75 minutes a day. We edge out portly Mexicans and Canadians, but don’t come close to the 2+ daily dining hours of the slender French. […]

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A Witch in the Kitchen: Food Superstitions

image via Ware You Fit In

.Who couldn’t use a little help in the luck department?

You throw rice at weddings and snag the long end of the Thanksgiving wishbone, toss salt over your left shoulder, blow out the candles on your birthday cake, and clink wine glasses together before taking a sip. We all have our superstitions. And look how many of them revolve around food.

Superstitions can defy logic, scientific knowledge, and rational thought. They are beliefs without scientific foundation; a way to understand the incomprehensible. The funny thing about superstitions is that they are all a matter of perspective. One person’s superstition is another’s cultural or religious truth.

Here are some of our more common food-related superstitions:

Thunder will turn your milk sour, and moonlight will spoil a ham.

Take the last cookie and you’ll end up an ‘old maid.’

Two yolks in an egg means a marriage is coming soon. A spot on a yolk is a bad omen, but nowhere near as bad as an egg with no yolk at all.

Timing is everything: Bake your cake while the sun is rising, and never gather blackberries after October 11th.

Rub rum on a bald man’s head to grow hair.

Drop your silverware and company will come calling: a fork means a woman will visit, a knife means a man will visit.

.You can laugh at broken mirrors and take a black cat for a walk under a ladder on the next Friday the 13th. Health, wealth, happiness, and true love can all be yours when you eat your way to a lucky break.


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Potato Chips: Tasting With Our Ears

image via the Loud Food Club


We Love the Crunch.
Its just potato, hot fat, and salt, but together they make magic. The first chip out of the bag—pristinely crisp and salty, with a crunch that is unsullied by time or ambient humidity— it’s one of our most underrated gustatory pleasures. And it’s an auditory pleasure as well.

It turns out that in the sensory vocabulary of food scientists, crispy and crunchy are not the same thing. When we eat potato chips, we hear the crunch, but we’re really sensing it in our mouths. When it comes to crispness, even though it’s bound up with the crunch, we’re assessing the crispness with our ears. […]

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French Fries Make Me Insanely Happy

image via DazeyChic


Deep golden brown, crisp on the outside and fluffy, oh so fluffy, on the inside. Fat, starchy batons, crispy, salty shoestrings, crinkle-cut, double-fried, and oh-my-god duck fat fries. I’ve met a few that I didn’t like, had my heart broken a time or two, but my ardor is unabated. It’s not exactly a romance for two: the rest of America joins me in eating 2 billion servings of french fries a year; that’s 30 pounds of fries for every man, woman, and child. […]

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Mincemeat Pie: Because you can never have enough desserts with meat in them.

image via SomeeCards


Mystery meat… or is it?
Mincemeat leaves us with more questions than answers.

In theory, mincemeat pie’s got a lot going for it: it’s sweet and savory; your entrée and your dessert all rolled into the one dish. It appears at holiday time amid a veritable minefield of culinary missteps— think bone-dry turkey, mini-marshmallow sweet potatoes, and doorstop fruitcake. Still, nothing receives the seasonal snubbing and drubbing of mincemeat pie. […]

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Food for the Brain


Architect and food urbanist Carolyn Steel shows how modern cities have been shaped by food.
Malcolm Gladwell tells you why spaghetti sauce is a metaphor for happiness.
Self-proclaimed anti-foodie Fred Kaufman explores the extremes and excesses of our love affair with our stomachs.

It’s a far cry from the Food Network.

If you’re not already watching online lectures, you are in for a treat. Every aspect of food is dissected, studied, discussed, and celebrated by some of the world’s most inspired thinkers, writers, creators, performers, and policy makers. If you’re already a fan, I’ll point you toward the best of what’s out there.

As foodies, we are distinguished by our seemingly limitless capacity for all things food. We are curious, nostalgic, and hedonistic. We reflect on past meals and anticipate those in the future—and can do so while we are enjoying the current meal.

The range of online resources suits our appetites: there are food lectures on topics of sustainability, science, politics, health and nutrition, economics, and cultural issues. There is entertainment value and scholarliness. It’s all out there; so dig in.

Some of the best:

How about a 14-session kitchen chemistry course that uses Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen as its accompanying text? It’s available through the MIT Open Courseware project.

Judith Jones, Julia Child’s longtime publisher and editor, lets you know what Julia would have thought of Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her on film. The talk took place at this year’s Boston Book Festival.

Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman gives us a good talking to in a TED Talk, telling us what’s wrong with what we eat.

The historical significance of the potato, the ethics of selling dairy products in contemporary China; it’s all covered in the Edible History of Humanity.

Kosher Hollywood is a smart and entertaining lecture, with (heavy on Woody Allen) film clips, that looks at screen portrayals of the food-centered Jews.

You’ll find more lectures on a variety of food-related topics that they don’t go near on television:

TED Talks are always edgy, thought-provoking, and forward-leaning. Everyone from Michael Pollan to Jamie Oliver to Ann Cooper, the renegade lunch lady, has stepped up to the TED podium.

Free University Lectures Online has links to thousands of classroom lectures that are posted online. goes beyond academia to stream talks from book tours, museums, and public lecture series.


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Talk Turkey to Me


Put down that phone!

The Thanksgiving Talk-Line is so old school.
The real action this Thanksgiving will be on laptops and smart phones. Even the Butterball phone line ladies will be twittering.

Online search volume for cooking tips and recipes starts to build in early November, reaching a fever pitch by the week of Thanksgiving. Last year, in the days leading up to the holiday, 785,000 people searched for turkey recipes on; by Thanksgiving Day, the site was logging one million page views an hour. The volume is so great that cooking sites build their server capacity around that single day, seldom needing more than 50% during the rest of the year. […]

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Everything But the Squeal

[image via Snorg Tees]

.My friend, I don’t know how to break it to you, but you’ve been eating pig.

That’s right, pig. Not what you would properly call pork, but pig parts—the bits and pieces and byproducts left in the slaughterhouse after the chops and ham and bacon are gone. Gelatin from pig skin puts the chew in gum and licorice and the creaminess in cheesecake and tiramisu. Pig hair protein makes sandwich wraps pliable and keeps bread squeezably fresh. Even the plate you eat from could contain ash from pig bones, and your napkin was probably made with bone gelatin.

Most of these products are not labeled to tell you this.
Often, processors will deliberately remove the word ‘animal’ from their ingredient list. For example, hydrolyzed animal protein becomes hydrolyzed collagen, and animal protein is labeled L-cysteine. There are thousands more technical and patented names for ingredient variations that can appear on product labels. Adding to the confusion are the pig parts that don’t wind up in the final product but are used in the manufacturing process: bone char to whiten sugar; gelatin to clarify beer and remove tannins from wine. These don’t even have to be mentioned by the manufacturer.

Pig-derived food additives are hiding in plain sight:

stearic acid made from fat is found in vanilla flavoring and pill coatings
pepsin, a pig stomach enzyme, can be used in cheese-making
calcium stearate from fat is commonly found in garlic salt and spice blends
energy bars often rely on collagen as a protein source
pig skin-derived gelatin is used to absorb cloudy elements in juice drinks, add texture to low-fat dips and spreads, and cut down on the formation of sugar crystals in ice cream; it’s also added to marshmallows, yogurt, and frosted breakfast cereals

Some of the other names for pig-based additives that are familiar to anyone who reads product packaging are capric acid (decanoic acid), glucose (dextrose), glycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and oleic acid (oleinic acid).

If this is stunning news to you, think of vegetarians and vegans, and people who keep kosher or observe halal.

Truly going whole hog
The staggering array of food and non-food uses of pig parts is portrayed in the book Pig 05049. The parts of a single animal, known by its ear tag as number 05049, were followed and photographed as they moved from the slaughterhouse into a complex and globalized food chain. The result is a visual essay of a mind-blowing 185 products derived from just one pig.

Learn what’s really in your pantry. The PETA website maintains a list of common animal-derived ingredients.

The iPhone app  iVegan is a reference guide for many common and hidden animal ingredients.


Posted in food knowledge, vegetarian/vegan | Tagged | 7 Comments

Got Milk? How About the Not Milks?

Calvin and Hobbes comic via United Feature Syndicate


Got milk?
Gotten milk recently?
It’s no easy feat. The dairy case seems awfully crowded these days.
Soy milk, the dairy alternative, has been joined by a slew of soy alternatives. Now you’ll find milk made from nut varieties, grains, and even law-skirting hemp seeds. […]

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Ugly, Unloved, Unappreciated

Oh, grow up!
Do you have an allergy? Do you object on political grounds?
No? Then shut up and eat your vegetables!

It’s time to stray outside of your comfort zone of carrots, green beans, zucchini, broccoli, and spinach. You will encounter unfamiliar tastes, odd textures, and the occasional aroma of feet. But there will be no pouting, food phobias, or knee-jerk reactions. These are vegetables for grown-ups, so act your age.



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Big Plate Big Meal (Big Butt)


image via Beard Crumbs

We’ve all heard the statistics about how often we think of sex, but what about food?
Studies have shown that we face an average of 226 food-related choices in a day, but we are only conscious of our decision making in about 15 of them. That’s more than 200 mindless decisions of the what-when-where-how much-who with of food occurring each day. It’s helping yourself to seconds because the bowl is right there; taking a gulp of orange juice because you saw the carton when you opened the refrigerator; or a doughnut because someone brought a box into the office. Scientists refer to these as environmental cues, and when we aren’t mindful, they rule our food choices. […]

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Filth in Food: We might as well drink out of the toilet.


Let me state at the outset:

I am not a germaphobe.
I don’t have food rituals, issues, or obsessions. I use the silverware set out for me, I let different foods touch on my plate, and I am well-acquainted with the 5-second rule.
What I do have is a healthy respect for bacteria and a reasonable gross-out threshold.

Every once in a while a bit of news is reported that makes me want to take a bath in hand sanitizer.
You know the kind of news I’m talking about. Reports like when the the FDA increased allowable levels of filth in food (currently it’s 30 insect fragments plus 1 rodent hair per 100 grams, or about 4 spoons’ full of peanut butter), or when a middle school student’s science project proved that the ice in fast food restaurant soda machines is dirtier that toilet water.

Take a deep breath, maybe gargle some mouthwash, and let’s look at some tales from the annals of yucky, germy, disgusting things you probably put in your mouth. […]

Posted in food knowledge, food safety, health + diet | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Sweetener Formerly Known As…


It worked for Prince.

By now you’ve probably heard about the public relations disaster that is the sweetener formerly known as high fructose corn syrup.
After years of waging a losing battle to convince the American public that HFCS is not really so bad, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the FDA for an ‘alternative labeling declaration,’ preferring the more natural-sounding moniker ‘corn sugar.’

Name changes are a common practice in today’s marketplace .
When a name—for one reason or another—just isn’t working, the strategy is to regroup, rebrand, and relaunch. We’ve seen it in the corporate world: who even remembers that AirTran was once ValuJet, an airline best known for safety violations and fatalities? Philip Morris hoped to distance itself from tobacco when it became Altria; the Nashville Network added CSI reruns to its low-rent lineup and reinvented itself as Spike TV; and then there is Sean Combs, patron saint of name changes, aka Puff Daddy, er Puffy, I mean P. Diddy, or is that just plain Diddy?

The food world has a long history of name changing.
Consumer tastes, diets, perceptions, and health concerns are constantly shifting, and food names and brands have had to be especially mutable to survive.

How Sweet it Was.

. […]

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Architecture for the Taste Buds

SpaghettiPipette Rigate

Bow Ties, FarfalleReginette


Pasta is a marvel of geometry and construction.

It’s architecture for the taste buds. Long or short, thick or thin, smooth or ridged; each shape is a unique construction of form and consistency designed to capture and absorb sauce differently. The classic pairings—linguine with clams, spaghetti and meatballs, cavatelli and broccoli—have persisted in the Italian culinary repertoire because of their ideal expressions of taste. It’s what the Chinese call kou gan: the harmonious interplay beyond flavor that we translate as mouth-feel.   […]

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I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know…

Ken Jennings' brain via Villard/Random House


You can be the life of the party;
Or the world’s leading authority of an esoteric knowledge domain;
Or know the special pleasure that comes from stockpiling obscure facts because some day they might, just might, be useful—and that day arrives.

We love trivia.
And because we love food, we love food trivia most of all. […]

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How Big is Your Water Footprint?

Who knows their water footprint?
You know about your carbon footprint, that it looks at the impact of your day-to-day life on the environment by measuring the greenhouse gases produced as a result of your activities. Your water footprint takes the same kind of look at water usage.

The water footprint concept just hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because fresh water is so commonplace and ubiquitous, at least in the developed parts of the world, that it’s easy to forget what an incredibly valuable resource it is. But we can’t afford to forget. Here in the U.S., where water is generally plentiful and well-managed, water managers in 36 states anticipate periodic water shortages over the next 3 years.

Americans are the water hogs of the planet.
That should come as no surprise, given our resource track record. It takes 1,800 gallons of water a day to keep each of us afloat, the vast majority going toward the production of the food we eat. On average, each of us uses water at twice the world-wide rate. Typical usage in China is less than 500 gallons a day per person, and even much of Europe uses less than 1000 gallons a day per person.

When you drink a 12 ounce cup of coffee in the morning, you’re actually gulping down 37 gallons of water when you account for the growing, processing, and transportation of  the coffee beans before they even got to the local roaster. A glass of wine at the end of the day? It takes 57 gallons of water to produce just 8 ounces of chardonnay.

The worst culprit of all is beef. Dairy products, poultry, pork—they’re all heavyweights—but nothing guzzles water like an industrially-raised, grain-fed cow. It takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, mostly due to the ton of grain the cow has eaten by the time it gets to market.

Of course it is not simply the amount of water that’s used, but where the water is located. It takes about 500 gallons of water to produce a single bag of peanut M&Ms, and only 50 gallons to produce a jar of spaghetti sauce. The cocoa and peanuts are grown in temperate zones with high rainfalls, while tomatoes need heavy irrigation to grown in their typically warm and dry climates. This makes the pasta sauce much more likely to contribute to water scarcity.

Know your water footprint. National Geographic has an online calculator that tallies your personal usage based on home, garden, diet, and energy practices.

At Water, you can explore a water footprint database of 132 countries, and a footprint gallery of food products.



Posted in food knowledge, sustainability | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

It’s in season, but what is it? Three fall fruits to try.

Can you name this fruit?

It’s called the ground cherry, but it’s not a cherry and it doesn’t grow on the ground.
It’s a fruit but it’s got plenty of savoriness.
It looks like a tomatillo, tastes like a strawberry crossed with mango, and is usually mistaken for a cape gooseberry.
Is there an identity problem here? […]

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Home Economics Class: It’s Not Like You Remember

Creative Commons image via San Jose Public Library

How do you teach Home Economics to a generation raised on Top Chef and Project Runway?

For starters, it’s not Home Ec, but Family and Consumer Sciences. Cooking is now culinary arts, and sewing has given way to fashion design. And many believe that’s the problem. […]

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Slow Food University

University of Gastronomic Sciences


Nary a pot or pan in sight.

300 college students from around the world have come to Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences to learn about food. They are not training to become chefs or hospitality workers, food chemists or farmers. They will graduate with the title of gastronome.

The school was dreamed up six years ago by Carlo Petrini, the patriarch of Slow Food— the international movement that works to preserve biodiversity in our food supply, fight globalization, and guarantee ‘good, clean, and fair food’ for the future. […]

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