Sunday, May 8, 2011

New Blog

Hi there!

You've probably noticed how I haven't posted anything here in ages. 

Well I've officially abandoned this blog, but I've started a new one.

Here's the link:

If you enjoyed "Too Much Information" you might enjoy some of the things I write on my new blog.

Thanks for reading my stuff and hope to see you on my new corner of the internet

-- Meeg

Monday, June 7, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill

Congratulations President Obama, the United States’ Gulf Coast is getting destroyed on your watch. 

The Gulf oil spill began on April 20th when the Deepwater Horizon moveable oil rig caught fire killing 11 roughnecks.  Since then 5,000 barrels of oil a day have been gushing into the gulf. Grand Isle, Louisiana, the barrier island with a population of less than 2,000 which is always the first place to be evacuated any time there’s a hurricane, has been hard hit by the oil slick as have coastal wetlands in places such as Pass a Loutre.  Tar balls have washed ashore on Petit Bois Island, Mississippi; Gulf Shores, Alabama and even as far as Pensacola, Florida.  This is fast becoming the worst oil spill in our country’s history, and even if the leak were stopped today the environmental and economic impact will likely be affecting the region for decades to come.  When will we feel safe to eat Louisiana oysters again?  Will we feel safe to swim in places like Pass Christian, MS or to dive in places like Key Largo?

Containing oil on a scale like this and attempting to plug a leak 5,000 feet below the surface is unprecedented, and experts have come up with a list of innovative strategies which are being tried one-by-one in an attempt to stop the leak.  Meanwhile BP is drilling relief wells but they aren’t scheduled to be completed until August!  It’s a very slow process.

It’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is all proceeding with a lot more deliberation than urgency.  While the Obama administration may have been active behind the scenes from the get go, many feel as though the president underestimated the disaster and didn’t make it a priority until recently. Democratic strategist James Carville, who is a native Louisianian, has been especially vocal in criticizing Obama’s seemingly hands-off attitude and his entrusting the cleanup, containment and plugging efforts in large part to BP.  Obama is famous for his ability to keep calm under pressure and it is perhaps one of his greatest assets, but sometimes a situation calls for urgency and even rage.  It’s easy to draw parallels to Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s also hard to shake the impression that it is BP and not the government that is running the show down there.  BP is the company responsible for this disaster, why are they being given such wide berth in deciding how its dealt with?  I kind of think this is because no one really knows what to do and the government would rather point fingers at BP down the road than shoulder responsibility itself.  To me this seems even worse than the financial crisis, where the government turned to the “experts” responsible for the meltdown to determine how to dig ourselves out of it.

And to think, before this happened Obama was in favor of expanding drilling off America’s coasts!  This to me is despicable.  Everyone knows that you can open up all the new wells you want and it won’t end our reliance on oil imported from overseas.  Even the effect on domestic gas prices is debatable and at any rate it wouldn’t be felt for years.  But still, Obama was willing to sign off on this in order to throw a bone to the “drill, baby, drill” crowd and so he could talk big about “ending our addiction to foreign oil.”  The true result would be more profits for the oil companies and more states relying on the oil industry for jobs and revenue.  Is this worth the environmental impact?         

I think we can thank George W Bush, Dick Cheney and all the legislators (Republicans and Democrats) who are in the oil companies’ pockets for this catastrophe.  Their “we trust you” approach to regulation and “we’ll look the other way” attitude towards oversight helped make this clusterfuck possible.  One of the most egregious episodes is when oil companies were excused from paying royalties because of losses sustained after Hurricane Katrina.  As if the oil sector were ever really in danger of becoming unprofitable. 

 BP is going to end up paying billions of dollars for this, but by then the damage will be done.  Money can only do so much to clean contaminated wetlands or poisoned oyster beds, or to heal the region’s fishing and tourism industry.  Still, I’m counting on a slow boil of public outrage which won’t peak until after the leak has stopped and the investigations into the oil spill’s causes and BP’s negligence begin in earnest.  I’m hoping for hefty penalties, tougher regulation, and most of all I’m hoping that this will put to rest the debate on whether we should expand drilling.

Oh and a special “WTF?!” to Sarah Palin who actually suggested environmentalists were responsible for the oil leak because if it wasn’t for them we’d be drilling in Alaskan wildlife reserves INSTEAD OF in the Gulf of Mexico.

Images: May 17th satellite image of oil spill (NASA Goddard/Rob Gutro); AP photo taken at Passe a Lotre, Louisiana on May 22 found at Tampa Bay Online.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking back at 40 years of Python

2009 marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the sketch comedy series that ran from 1969 to 1974). In honor of this milestone, IFC has been running a 6-hour documentary entitled Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut). I totally have not been watching that, but I am somewhat curious. It's supposedly chock full of all sorts of things you didn't know about the show and the Python crew. Maybe I'll have to netflix it, but -- then again -- do I really want to spend 6 hours of my life learning about Monty Python (6 hours that I could spend watching reality television)?

I have, however, listened to an episode of the Slate culture podcast (episode #57 dated Oct 21, 2009) in which they discuss the Python anniversary. I thought this raised an interesting question. Looking back on Monty Python's Flying Circus, 40 years later, how do we feel about the series? Is it still funny? Still relevant? Dated? Silly? Gendered? I really wanted to weigh in with my opinions, and I'm anxious to hear what everyone else thinks.

The Basics

For anyone who doesn't know, Monty Python is a 6-man comedy troupe comprised of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. With the exception of Gilliam -- who is American (did you know that?) and went to Occidental College in California --, all the Python boys are Oxbridge educated Brits who got involved in the performing arts at university. Together they created, wrote and starred in the Flying Circus as well as the later Python movies (the big three are the Holy Grail, the Life of Brian and the Meaning of Life).

It's also interesting to see what the Python crew has been up to since the Meaning of Life came out in 1983. Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989. John Cleese went on to write and star in Fawlty Towers together with Connie Booth ("Polly," whom he was married to); he was also in A Fish Called Wanda (along with Michael Palin), and some more recent stuff like those Pierce Brosnan Bond films where he played Q. Michael Palin's become well known for his globe-trotting television programs. Eric Idle (and his voice) has also popped up in some movies, and he co-produced the musical Spamalot. Meanwhile, Terry Gilliam has gone on to have a noteworthy career as a film director, and Terry Jones helped write the screenplay for Jim Henson's Labyrinth.

Getting back to the Flying Circus, today it's fondly remembered and lauded as influential. But back in the day the show had a hard time finding a wide audience, and its future often seemed uncertain. In the documentary, Michael Palin recalls how the group was often on the verge of splitting up, and yet Monty Python seems to have shaped all their future careers and there's still Python-related projects and collaborations going on today.

The Pros


In Almost the Truth, Eric Idle talks about "Beyond the Fringe," a comedy stage revue which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and which inspired Monty Python. Idle says, "they attacked everything that I'd just spent 19 years being oppressed by: royalty, police, authorities, teachers -- every single authority figure was pilloried and destroyed, and my life just changed." We can of course say the same thing about the Flying Circus: among their favorite targets for lampooning are authority figures like policemen and the army as well as the bourgeoisie and the BBC establishment. In addition to being "angry young men" attacking authority figures, Monty Python can also be seen as representing the youth culture of the sixties rebelling against the staid, class-based society of post war years.


The fact that the Python crew are all university educated certainly comes through on the show: they reference the work of Marcel Proust, Latin conjugation, and philosophers like Descartes and Wittgenstein. One retrospective analysis I read (from the Independent) asked what show on TV today would dare to assume so much knowledge on the part of their audience; the critic also said that nowadays Python's name dropping would probably be descried as elitist. Nevertheless, I think all these schoolboy allusions are part of the reason that Monty Python still has a strong, cult following among nerdy high schoolers.


Like the best sketch comedy shows, the Flying Circus usually connects its skits in some way. Sometimes there's a stream of consciousness flow where something mentioned at the end of one skit is picked up on in the next; other times the show keeps on coming back to a sketch that acts almost like a framing device. In still other episodes there may be a central theme or story that runs through the different segments. I suspect the Flying Circus may have been the first show to do this, and it influenced future programs like the Kids in the Hall, the State, Mr. Show and the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show.

Another innovative element is how the Flying Circus would play with the conventions of television. For example, sometimes the opening title sequence won't come on until well into the show and/or the closing credits would roll before the show was actually over. They'd also mimic the BBC interstitials with the spinning globe graphic and the announcer saying "Coming up next on BBC 2...."


Looking back, every bit of every episode of the Flying Circus may not be gold, but you're bound to find some skits that you still find hilarious. For my money, I've always enjoyed the longer skits like "The Funniest Joke in the World" from episode 1, Scott of the Antarctic, Dennis Moore (the story of a highwayman who steals from the rich and gives to the poor), Michael Ellis (the episode that revolves around a trip to the department store), the Golden Age of Ballooning, the Science Fiction episode where alien blancmanges attack. Another favorite of mine is "Happy Valley," which is a sort of fractured fairy tale. I was bummed to find out that that was not included on the ridiculous complete Flying Circus box set I bought on a whim in law school because it comes from a special made for German television.

The Cons


The absurdist nature of the Flying Circus might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't mind it. But, as that army general would say, some of the skits really are just silly. Occassionally Monty Python veers into slapstick or caterwalling in funny voices. Sometimes jokes are drawn out for so long that they try one's patience (I get restless just thinking about the interview of Johann Gambolputty...). And then there's those trippy cartoons which I more often than not find to be a snoozefest.


Aah, now we're getting into the real sour note that you notice in retrospect. The Monty Python crew is obviously a boys club, and -- leaving aside how that might have affected the show's humor -- let's talk about the depiction of women on the Flying Circus. There are basically two types of female roles: attractive young women who at least half the time come off as ditzy. Even more often, these women are reduced to sex objects: they're frequently seen appearing in their underwear or making out with the (pasty, unattractive) Python boys.

The other type of female portrayed on the Flying Circus is the middle-aged, bourgeoise housewife played by one of the Python boys in drag -- employing that one-of-a-kind falsetto, familiar to anyone who's ever watched the show. More often than not, these ladies are shrewish and/or narrow-minded prudes, and they're usually the subject of ridicule.

Whether it keeps you from enjoying the show or not, I do think that it's hard to deny that by today's standards Monty Python's Flying Circus is pretty sexist. The only counterargument that I think one can make is that most of the male characters portrayed on the show are also ridiculed for being either stupid or pompous stuffed shirts (or both). I also think that the portrayal of women may have improved a bit in the Monty Python movies which came out in the '80s (cf. the female characters in the Life of Brian).


This goes along with the sexism charge. The Flying Circus sometimes depicts stereotypically effeminate, flamboyant homosexuals and cross-dressers for comedic effect. It's true that sometimes the true butt of the joke is actually the pompous, stuffed shirt homophobe (like the army general), but the campy homosexual is himself often held up for ridicule. After seeing the show again, probably for the first time since high school, I was really taken aback by this. Even the lumberjack song where it's revealed that the burly woodsman likes to "put on woman's clothing and hang around in bars" might be mildly off putting when viewed from this perspective.


Monty Python's Flying Circus was undeniably a ground breaking comedy show. Looking back, you'll find some skits that are still hilarious 40 years later, but there is also some filler and dull spots. Also, you'll definitely pick up on the fact that the Flying Circus is a product of the sixties and seventies and that our society's sensibilities about the depiction of women and gay people has changed a lot since then.

Bonus Question: If the Flying Circus is sexist than how racist is the character of Manuel from Fawlty Towers?!

Images: title image from Monty Python's flying circus; photo of Monty Python boys by AP found on the guardian website; photo of John Cleese and Graham Chapman and Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion from

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What can we (over)read into yesterday's election results?

So yesterday was election day in America. Here in Virginia, voters chose Republican Bob McDonell, who is apparently crazy socially conservative, as our next governor over blue dog Democrat Creigh Deeds by around 59% to 41% (boo!). In the Great State of New Jersey, unpopular Democratic incumbent John Corzine lost his job as governor to moderate Republican (and fat man) Chris Christie circa 49% to 45%.

On the other hand, in New York's 23rd Congressional District (the northeast corner of the state up by the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain which includes the towns of Oswego and Plattsburg), Bill Owens became the first Democrat to hold this seat since the 1870s. He was up against a Conservative third-party candidate whom Sarah Palin campaigned for after the moderate Republican chosen in the primary bowed out of the race.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg was elected to a third term, winning around 51% of votes. This is a slim margin given that he spent over $30 million dollars campaigning, and he wasn't facing a strong opponent. And then in Maine (where my friend Leigh-Anne almost got her first speeding ticket on Saturday), 53% of voters cast their ballot in favor of repealing the state law authorizing gay marriage. (My source for all these numbers is

The Spin

So the one positive note for liberals, in yesterday's only contest for national office, is that the Democrats picked up another seat in the House (in an historically Republican district to boot). One might also say that the fact that there was a centrist Republican candidate and a conservative third-party candidate at one point in that race is possibly indicative of a division in the wider Republican party.

Meanwhile, right-wingers are celebrating the election of two new Republican governors and saying that -- together with the vote to repeal gay marriage in Maine -- this suggests that perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the right and some independents and moderates who voted for Obama last November may be losing faith in Democratic leadership. But is this maybe reading too much into things? In reponse to AP articles entitled "GOP Sweep," Newsweek's Seth Colter Wallace wrote (in the Awl):

Wait: Virginia elected a conservative? And a moderate in New Jersey was able to unseat an unpopular incumbent? And a gay marriage thing that's never happened before also didn't happen last night? Well, it's a good thing you have me—Mr. or Ms. Political Analyst!—around to detail all the many troubling implications these developments carry for the guy on the national stage who received 69 million votes last year!

So what do I think? Well, first off, the idea that some of the multitude of swing voters who cast their ballot for Obama and the Democrats last year may be having doubts sounds plausible. To some folks who voted for Obama it may seem like nothing is getting done (did you see that SNL sketch?) or that things aren't getting done fast enough. Others may now have reservations about the Democratic agenda (especially healthcare reform) after hearing a lot of vocal criticism from the right.

But do yesterday's results really support this theory? It's hard to read too much into the New Jersey governor race for various reason (both candidates were moderates, Corzine was unpopular and plagued by corruption scandals, etc.); Virginia, however, seems more promising for those wishing to prognosticate about future elections. Before last year, Virginia had been a solid red state (the last time they voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964). But last November Virginia went to Obama, due in part to a fierce campaign offensive in the state, and perhaps also to demographic shifts. But now Virginia just elected a conservative, Republican governor (the Republicans actually won all the state offices up for grabs in VA): does this mean some of those Obama voters have abandoned the Democratic party?

Possibly. It's also possible that many Virginians based their decision on local issues. Likewise, I'd argue that Creigh Deeds -- a conservative, blue dog Democrat -- probably didn't energize the party's liberal base and that probably affected things somewhat.  The Wall Street Journal tells us that many independents voted for the Republican ticket this time, but also that the young people and Blacks who elected Obama were not enamored with Deeds.  So I don't know!

The Exit Polls

Last night I inadvertently caught a few irritating minutes of ABC Nightline where George Stephanopolous parsed the exit polls looking for clues. Ugh, exit polls! These are always used in order to make upsetting generalizations such as "people in red states [such as Louisiana where I lived at the time] are more likely to go to church and cast their vote based on 'values' rather than issues such as the economy, foreign wars, etc."

Incidentally, I was totally asked to participate in one of these yesterday morning as I was leaving the polling place, but I declined since I was in a hurry to get to work and I didn't really know/care all that much about the candidates in this election (That's right, AND I STILL VOTED! Want to make something of it?!). But now I half wish I did stop and put in my two cents.

So anyway, what did Nightline tell us. Question #1 was whether voters approved of President Obama: in NJ 57% answered "yes" and in VA 49% said they support the pres. Eh, not TOO troubling for Obama: that's a good approval rating among NJ voters and just shy of fifty percent in the Old Dominion (he might want to keep his eye on that one).

Question #2 was whether their opinion of the Pres affected their vote, and a majority in both states (60% in NJ and 56% in VA said "no"). Yeah, that right there tells you why the media shouldn't interpret every state election as a vote of confidence for the party in power in Washington.

"BUT WAIT," says Nightline, "let's look at Question #3 -- that's the big one! 89% of NJ voters and 85% of VA voters polled say they are worried about the economy. It's the economy stupid!" That last sentence was actually a direct quote spoken by dumbass Terry Moran. To this I say: NO SHIT! We're in a fucking recession; if they asked me if I was worried about the economy I would have answered "yes" too, and I still support Obama and the Democrats. What I'm saying is that the fact that someone is worried about the economy doesn't necessarily tell you how they're going to vote in the midterm elections next year. It's party neutral.  An article I read in the times online uses these numbers to support their article entitled "New Jersey and Virginia tells Obama -- we blame you for the economy" but that is quite a leap.

Stephanopolous' suggestion that yesterday's results might give some Democrats pause and might even lead to less votes by squeamish Congressmen in favor of healthcare reform is somewhat more sound. But still, we're talking about two governor races! People shouldn't read too much into this.

Patchwork Nation

You know what else I hate? Have you ever checked out that Patchwork Nation shit? This is a project sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor which divides the nation's counties into 12 different types of communities with names like "campus and careers" (lots of college students and young workers), "minority central," "boom town," "industrial metropolis" and "evangelical epicenter."

It is kind of interesting, but then I feel like they make broad statements about what's going on in "teenytowns" or whatever across the country and about how people there tend to vote. I think that this is just another way (albeit a somewhat more precise way) of making generalizations. For example: Arlington County, VA where I live and Westchester County, NY where my mom lives are both "Monied Burbs," but I think there are way more young professionals who are either single or just starting a family in Arlington and more older people in Westchester, and I doubt that we vote the same way on different issues. Likewise, New Orleans, LA (Orleans Parish) and neighboring Jefferson Parish are both labelled as "Minority Central," but there is a big difference in those two populations. John Kerry won over 75% of the votes in Orleans Parish and just 38% in the JP.


We shouldn't read too much into last night's results. When the smoke cleared there are two more Republican governors out there, gays can't get married in Maine anymore, and the Democrats picked up a seat in the House. VA and NJ might suggest support for the Democrats is waning among swing voters, but the numbers seem to discourage any big statements. Likewise, the race in NY-23 suggests that there may be a struggle for power between the conservative and centrist wings of the Republican party.

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that the media should stop trying to make every local election into a referendum on the party in power in Washington, and they should stop making gross generalizations about what Americans think based on exit polls.

Image: photo of Bob McDonnell celebrating his victory by Mark Wilson/Getty Images found on timesonline.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Old-Fashioned Cooking

That post on umami, for some reason, got me thinking about Ancient Roman cuisine. Did you ever wonder what they ate in Ancient Rome? Let's discuss.

What they didn't eat

First off, when you think about food in Ancient Rome (or Medieval Europe for that matter), it's important to keep in mind the many products we take for granted today that would have been unknown to them. Not only things like coffee, chocolate, bananas and corn but also tomatoes, potatoes, chilis and cane sugar -- all of these are indigenous to the Americas and would not be introduced to the Old World for centuries.


The staple of the Roman diet was wheat (remember that in the first century BC they started doling out free grain to the poor masses in the city of Rome). In the early days of the Republic, the Romans subsisted on barley and emmer grown on Italian soil. Emmer is one of the most ancient forms of cultivated wheat: compared to modern wheats it's low yield, it's a pain in the neck to remove the grain from it's hull, and it's less suitable for making leavened bread. On the other hand, emmer is flavorful, relatively high in protein and it grows well in poor soil. Today, emmer is only cultivated in a few parts of the world, but it's popularity is on the rise due to interest in different types of whole grains. In Italy, emmer is called farro and it is often encountered in Tuscan cuisine. Early Romans probably made a porridge out of emmer (maybe mixed with other grains like barley or with legumes like lentils or chickpeas) which could be eaten alone or with whatever other food was available.

By the Imperial age, Romans were importing most of their wheat from overseas provinces such as Egypt. Most of this was durum wheat (hard wheat), which is what most pasta is made out of today. This wheat was used to make bread (which could be dipped in olive oil, honey, wine, whatever...), pancakes which could be eaten with honey and dates (doesn't sound too bad), and other pastries. Poor citizens who lived in tenements might have baked their bread in communal ovens, and by the Late Republic there were also commercial bakeries that sold pre-made baked goods. One simple Roman pastry dish was globuli which were balls of cheese curd and semolina (durum flour) fried in olive oil and probably seasoned with honey. The Romans also made a type of proto-lasagna called laganum (one of the main things that distinguishes this from modern pasta is that it is fried rather than boiled). There is a restaurant in the modern city of Pompei (not far from the ruins) called Il Principe where they actually serve laganum and other Ancient Roman dishes.


Eating meat was something of a luxury in Ancient Rome: poorer Romans probably ate very little meat whereas during the decadent late Republic/High Roman Empire the wealthy might impress their guests by serving exotic animals such as peacocks, flamingos, giraffe, lions and who-knows-what-else at their feasts. Beef was rarely eaten since cattle were important work animals, and the majority of beef available for consumption probably came from animals sacrificed in religious ceremonies (the same may apply to lamb). Chickens were also important for production, and thus you were more likely to find other poultry like ducks and geese (raised for their meat) and game birds at the table. The Romans even knew how to make fois gras. Pork, on the other hand, was probably the most common type of meat found in Ancient Rome: the Romans raised pigs and hunted wild boar.

Fish, oysters and other seafood were well liked, but they were probably hard to come by at any distance from the seaside due to issues preserving food. Fish were likely transported live to large cities like Rome where they were sold out of tanks in the marketplace (no doubt at a high price). The Romans also experimented with farming their own fish in private and commercial fisheries (including "goatfish" or red mullets which were held in especially high regard).

The Romans also bred snails (escargot) and rabbits for food, but by far the weirdest animal which they ate regularly and raised for its meat was the edible dormouse (which has a bushy tail and looks more like a squirrel than a mouse). Romans loved their dormice, and one of the most frequently cited recipes in the Apicius cookbook (available from Amazon) is for dormouse stuffed with ground pork and dormouse meat, chopped nuts and breadcrumbs and spiced with salt, pepper, silphium (see spice section below) and broth. Interestingly enough, wild dormice are still hunted in southern Slovenia where they are a seasonal delicacy.


The Romans loved to flavor their food with different spices and seasonings. We all know that salt was a minor luxury in Ancient Rome: the Romans harvested sea salt and had rock salt mines where slaves and convicted criminals toiled. Rome also imported spices from distant lands to feed her people's frenzy for flavah. A surprisingly large number of the spices we are familiar with today could be found in a well-stocked Roman kitchen (although perhaps in a slightly different form): they had black pepper, garlic, parsley, mint, dill, sage, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, saffron, basil, clove, cardamon, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, fennel, celery seed, anis, caraway, sesame seed, poppy.

Even more interesting are the herbs and spices listed in Apicius' recipes that are not widley used today. Here's a list of some of these:

Silphium: one of the Roman's favorite herbs, silphium grew wild in Northern Libya around the city of Cyrene (founded as a Greek colony in the 7th century BC). Silphium was such an important local export that it was featured on the city's coins. Unfortunately, by the late Roman Empire the herb had gone extinct, presumably due to overharvesting and/or overgrazing (it couldn't be domesticated, apparently). Most people's best guess is that silphium was related to the giant fennel plant. The Greeks and Romans liked to use a resin obtained from the plant in their cooking, and after silphium went the way that the dodo later would, they substituted the Indian asafoetida (see below) although everyone agreed it wasn't as good. This is maybe our only clue as to what sillphium tasted like. The ancients also believed the herb had contraceptive properties (all the more reason to eat up!).

Asafoetida (aka Devil's Dung): the gross-out English name comes from the strong, noxious odor given off by the fresh plant which is remotely similar to overripe garlic. Used in cooking, however, asafoetida must be much more appetising. It was popular not only in the Roman world but also in Medieval Europe and, althought it's since fallen by the wayside in Western cooking, it is still widely used today in India and Central Asia. Asafoetida is an alternative to garlic or onion: its resin (used by the Romans in place of silphium) is stronger and more pungent than the powdered form.

Long Pepper: often used by the Romans in place of black pepper, long pepper is a close relative with a similar flavor only with a bit of a spicy kick. Long Pepper remained popular in Europe until the arrival of chili peppers.

Rue: an intensely bitter herb whose use in cooking has mostly fallen out of favor. Rue was common in Roman cuisine, used for example in the rustic dish moretum which was a spread made out of fresh garlic, aged cheese (probably "pecorino" made from sheep's milk) and different herbs. Today rue is most widely used in Ethiopia.

Spikenard/Fleabane: an herb with a pleasant fragrance and an aromatic, bitter, astringent taste which is related to valerian (an herbal sedative). In later days it seems to have been more commonly used for perfumes and incense and as a herbal remedy.

Savory: an herb still used in European cuisine today, especially to flavor bean dishes. Savory is similar to thyme and to the Indian spice ajwain. It is often included in herbes de provence.

Lovage: an herb still found in Southern and Central European cooking. It is aromatic and works well for pickling (like dill) and in beef stock and potato dishes.

Fenugreek: largely abandoned in Western cooking, where some characterize its flavor as bitter and "goaty," fenugreek is still used in countries like Iran and India.

Pennyroyal: a bitter, pungent and less agreeable member of the mint family, pennyroyal is also somewhat toxic and has been used as an abortifacient.

The Romans had some weird ideas about how to flavor their food. A lot of dishes were served in a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce. The sweet element could be comprised of honey, fig syrup, or a grape juice/sweet wine reduction, and the sour component was probably vinegar. Add to that some garum (see below, some people believe that brine also featured heavily in Roman cooking) and some of those bitter herbs and funky spices and you have a dish that modern gourmets would likely find inedible.

A good example of this is the sauce for boiled or roasted game found in Apicius which calls for "8 scruples of pepper, rue, lovage, celery seed, juniper, thyme, dry mint; 6 scruples of fleabane; pulverize, put together in a vessel with sufficient honey and use with vinegar and garum." There is a lot going on in that sauce. Two possible explanations for why the Romans cooked like this are that (a) it was considered a mark of refinement among the upper classes to serve dishes that were so heavily seasoned as to disguise the natural flavor of the meat and (b) heavy sauces and spices could cover up the fact that meat was beginning to turn.

Garum was one of the Romans' favorite condiments, and it is by far the most misunderstood mainstay of the Roman pantry. It is made from fermented fish (usually anchovies or mackerel). When I first heard about garum in high school or college I remember being like "eww, gross." But when I looked it up more recently -- curious about whether anyone's ever tried to recreate it and maybe wanting to try it out myself -- I discovered that garum is basically the same thing as Southeast Asian fish sauce (something I have in my pantry anyway). Much like soy sauce, fish sauce is splashed into food in order to add salt and umami to a dish (now we see the connection to the umami post!), but I'd say it has a much richer flavor profile. On its own it does have a slightly funky odor, but this quickly disappears onces its stirred into a pot of curry or a bowl of soup. Meanwhile Worcestshire sauce, which also contains anchovies, is often pointed to as garum's successor in Anglo-American cuisine.


The Romans drank a lot of wine, but they were also wusses about it: they normally diluted their wine with water or flavored it with honey (muslum, traditionally served as an aperitif and extremely popular) or a mixture of honey and spices (conditum). Poor Romans could have gotten drunk on a mixture of water and crappy wine that was basically a step away from vinegar: I guess this was the ancient equivalent of Mad Dog or Thunderbird.

They had both red and white wine in Rome; normally the wine came out cloudy and would be strained. Many advances in the art of viticulture were made during this time: wine was transported and preserved in clay jugs where pitch, resin, saltwater and olive oil were among the substances employed to prolong freshness (flavoring could also be added to mask the fact that wine had past its prime). Fine wines were aged in large jugs sealed with cork and cement. The Romans also planted vineyards throughout their empire introducing varieties of grapes to Spain, Southern France and even Britain.

Aged wines tended to fetch a higher price, and the most highly-prized variety was the full-bodied Falerno which was grown in the mountains between Rome and Naples (where wine is still produced today). Wine was the strongest drink around in Roman times as the process for distilling liquors would not be discovered in Europe until the 1200s.

Images: fresco of "still life with eggs and thrushes" taken from Villa Giulia Felice in Pompeii and Pompeian fresco depicting the goddess Flora are both on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy; photo of Slovenian dormouse dish by Borut Peterlin found on; photo of silver didrachym from Cyrene c.300 BC located at Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow Scotland found at scran website; image of garum mosaic from the house of A. Umricius Scaurus in Pompeii found on times online; wine servers mosaic from Roman Tunisia found on tunisia online.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Umami: In Search of the Fifth Flavor

I think I can remember in grade school learning how there are four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. (Incidentally, there was a girl I went to college with whom I called "Salty" -- that might sound obscene, but it's not. Someone gave her that nickname for "throwing salt in people's game." Now I guess it just sounds stupid. Anyway...) I even remember seeing a little diagram that showed where the tastebuds that detected these different flavors were located on your tongue. It turns out that like so much we learned in school (glass is a liquid, really?!) that diagram was bullshit. There are taste receptors all over your tongue that can detect any of the tastes; just try putting some salt on the tip of your tongue where the sweet tastebuds are supposed to congregate.

Also, everybody now agrees that there is a fifth taste called "umami." Umami's been around for awhile: I think I first read about it around 5 years ago. I started thinking about umami again earlier this month after I mentioned it to Amanda and realized that I still wasn't really sure what this taste sensation is like. So I decided to write a blog post and to try and get a better idea what umami is all about. I also wanted to find some examples of foods which illustrate this elusive fifth element of taste.

The Four Classic Tastes

Before we start on our quest to uncover the secret of umami, maybe we'd better make sure we have a good grasp on the four classic tastes. Sweet and salty are no-brainers -- sugar makes food sweet and salt makes foods salty --, but how clear are we on the difference between sour and bitter?

Sour is the flavor that characterizes those ingredients which chefs say add acid to a dish such as lemon and vinegar. The sour tang is what makes greek yogurt (and skyr) taste different from regular ole Dannon/Danone yogurt; it is also what distinguishes buffalo mozzarella from cow-milk mozzarella. The sour taste sensation is basically your tongue detecting something acidic (i.e. something with a PH level below 7.0) in the food you're eating such as citric acid, a chemical compound present in citrus fruit. Citric acid levels are much higher in lemons and limes than they are in oranges, tangerines and grapefruit which explain why they are more sour. Meanwhile, the acid in vinegar is called acetic acid (acetum is the Latin word for vinegar. In Italian the word is aceto.).

The bitter taste, on the other hand, is your tongue detecting some other kind of chemical in the food you're eating. Bitter foods include a lot of greens which are used in Italian cuisine such as dandelion greens, escarole, broccoli rabe (one of my mom's favorite foods) and what we in the States call arugula (the Brits call it "rocket" and in Italian it's usually called "rucola"). Also olives and brussel sprouts. Bitter drinks include coffee and tonic water (it's the quinine that makes tonic water so bitter). Scientists say that our tongues' bitter taste receptors are the most sensitive. The evolutionary reason for this, and for why most people find overly bitter foods unpleasant, is because many toxic substances trigger this taste sensation. Another interesting fact is that there are a couple of chemicals which trigger a bitter taste sensation for some people and not others. These people are sometimes called "supertasters."

The Discovery of Umami

The story of umami begins in 1908 at Tokyo Imperial University. There a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was studying dashi, the kelp broth which is a basic ingredient in Japanese cooking, and he managed to isolate glutamate (i.e. glumatic acid) as the chemical which gave it its characteristic flavor which he dubbed "umami" (旨味) after "umai" (うまい) which means something like "delicious" or "savory" in Japanese. Ikeda went on to find that glutamate was also present in other savory foods, and in 1912 he presented his findings to the International Conference of Applied Chemistry in Washington, DC stating that “those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter…."

After this it was discovered that other chemicals such as guanylate which is found in shitake mushrooms and inosinate found in bonito (dried fish) flakes were also associated with the umami taste. More recently, in the '70s and '80s, studies by scientists in other countries have confirmed that umami triggers a distinct neurological response from the other tastes (like saltiness) and that the human tongue has seperate umami taste receptors. Since then, awareness of "umami" as the fifth taste has spread in the culinary world. It was even featured in one of the challenges on this season's Top Chef where one of the cheftestants helpfully defined it as "you know... it's umami... it's the fifth flavor." Thanks for clearing that up!

The Taste of Umami

So that's all great but what does umami actually taste like? Some attempts to translate the term into English have yielded results such as savoriness, meatiness, heartiness and brothiness. As these words suggest, umami is actually much subtler and harder to pin down that sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Further complicating the picture is the fact that umami foods are often salty as well, so you need to try to put the saltiness aside and focus on what else is there. That said, in order to really understand the umami taste sensation I think we need to discuss (and eat) some different foods which are rich in umami.

Foods Rich in Umami

Broths usually have an umami taste whether we're talking about beef broth or vegetable broth. In addition to Japanese style soups made with kombu kelp, shitake mushrooms or bonito flakes, french onion soup is also very umami.

A lot of dried and fermented foods also tend to have a strong umami taste. Marmite/vegemite, the yeast extract spread "enjoyed" by Britons and Australians, is very umami (in addition to being very salty) as is Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce (made from fermented anchovies), soy sauce and oyster sauce. Fresh oysters and shitake and enoki mushrooms contain umami flavors which are intensified when they're fermented or dried. Other umami foods include nori seaweed (encountered in sushi rolls and seaweed salads), caviar and salmon roe, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes (that's why they call them "beefy").

The food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the most common spice used to enhance foods' umami taste.  MSG gets a bad rap for being artificial and for its unappetizing, chemical name, but its actually produced by fermenting carbohydrates.  A lot of people also claim they have a vague allergic reaction to MSG, e.g. that it gives them a headache, that it makes their fingers feel puffy or numb, or that it causes asthma-like symptoms.  I'm not 100% anti-MSG, but one time when I was at the supermarket with Nicole I found one of those giant spice containers (like you might get garlic powder or red pepper flakes in) filled with MSG and we were both like "Gross! Who would buy that?"   

Primal Strips Meatless Jerky

Speaking of umami... I noticed last week that at the healthy food/juice place where I like to get lunch (the Juice Joint Cafe of Vermont Avenue) they started selling these vegan jerky strips. I was kind of intrigued by these and the flavors that stood out were Thai Peanut with Seitan and Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom. So yesterday I decided I was going to go for it and try one. I was actually leaning towards the Thai Peanut but Nicole (perhaps the only other person I know who would be intrigued by the prospect of vegan jerky strips) convinced me to go for the Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom ("I do love hot & spicy," I remember typing). So anyway I bought some with lunch and ripped into it later that afternoon.

The taste was... interesting. I remember thinking "wow that's umami!" Shitake mushrooms and soy sauce are ingredients #1 and 3, respectively. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I liked it: the flavor is complex, and I can't say whether I might grow to enjoy it (this happens to me all the time. I have ambiguous feelings about some new food, but then later I start to think about it, and then to sort of crave it, and then I try it again and pronounce that I love it. I'm weird, I know.) or maybe I'll end up deciding that it's just nasty. Next time I'm going to try the thai peanut; I bet that will be less complicated.


So I feel like I have a bit of a better idea what umami is all about now. I still don't really know how to describe it -- calling it meaty or brothy is really just saying that meats and broths have this taste, I guess savory is slightly more evocative. I do feel, however, even though my concept of umami is fuzzy that I enjoy and actively seek out foods which have this taste. If you want to go on your own quest to figure out the essence of umami I'd recommend you try something like vegemite, an authentic Japanese soup (like miso soup) with a dashi base and/or with shitake or enoki mushrooms, or maybe a good French onion soup. If you can find it and you're adventurous you can even try that "interesting" Primal Strips Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom jerky and let me know what you think.

For additional information, I direct you to the Umami Information Center.

Images: Umami map taken from umami information center; dashi photograph found on humble bean blog; marmite photo; marmite photograph taken from ryansgoblog; hot & spicy jerky photo taken from .

Monday, October 19, 2009

Scientists weigh in on inbred Spanish royals

Remember my series of posts on inbreeding earlier this year? What's that? You didn't read those? Well, anyway a study was published this spring which adds scientific support to the theory that the decline and fall of Spain's Habsburg dynasty was due to excessive inbreeding. This hypothesis, along with the suggestion that King Carlos II's varied health problems were due to inbreeding depression, has long been espoused by historians, but this is the first time that the claims have been analyzed based on genetic data.

In April, the online scientific/medical journal PLoS One published a paper submitted by three biologists from La Coruña, Spain (in Galicia) entitled "The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty."  Scientists first reconstructed a genealogy of the Spanish Habsburgs, including 3,000 individuals across 16 generations, in order to determine the inbreeding coefficient for each of the Habsburg Kings of Spain. Next, they looked at the incidence of late-term miscarriage, stillbirth and infant/childhood mortality (defined here as death before the age of 10) in the family between 1527 and 1661. Finally, the biologists catalogue Carlos II's physical and mental shortcomings and hypothesize that these might have been due to his affliction with two rare genetic diseases.

How inbred were they?

9 out of the 11 marriages entered into by the Habsburg kings were marriages between close relatives (third cousins or closer): these include two uncle-niece marriages, one double first cousin marriage, and one first cousin marriage. How inbred an individual is can be measured by calculating his "inbreeding coefficient," which is defined as the probability of a zygote obtaining identical copies of the same gene because its parents are related. The inbreeding coefficient of the kings studied ranges from .025 for Philip I (Felipe el hermoso, 1478-1506), the dynasty's founder, to .254 for Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg King of Spain.

This means that Carlos II's inbreeding coefficient is actually HIGHER than that for the offspring of a parent-child or brother-sister union (.25), and it would mean that there was at least a 25.4% chance of Carlos II having received identical copies of any given gene from each parent. Several other members of the family also had inbreeding coefficients over .20 including King Philip III (1578-1621) and Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias (1545-1568), the child of Philip II and his first wife Maria Manuela of Portugal. Don Carlos had his own physical and psychological complaints which might be attributable to inbreeding.

The kings' average inbreeding coefficient was .129 (higher than the coefficient for the offspring of uncle-niece or half-brother/half-sister unions). How is this possible? The paper explains that these high coefficients were as much due to ancestral inbreeding among multiple remote ancestors as they were to unions between close relatives among an individual's parents and grandparents. Thus, one has to go back 10 or more generations in order to get a complete picture of how inbred these people were.

Infant mortality rate

Between 1527 (the year of Philip II's birth) and 1661 (the year of Carlos II's birth) the Habsburg kings and queens produced 34 children, of whom 10 died before completing their 1st year and 17 (50%) died before their tenth birthday. This is significantly higher than the 20% infant mortality rate observed in Spanish villages around this time. The latter statistic, moreover, includes poorer families whose children were adversely affected by malnutrition or limited access to medical treatment, whereas these factors would not have been an issue for the royal family.

The scientists also examined a separate set of data: looking at the pregnancies recorded by historical sources in 8 marriages (the marriages of the Spanish kings from Ferdinand and Isabella up to the two marriages of Carlos II's father Philip IV, excluding the first two marriages of Philip II that produced only one child between them). Out of 51 reported pregnancies, 5 ended in late-term miscarriage or stillbirth, 6 produced babies who died within a month, 14 more produced children who died before age 10, and 26 children who survived infancy. When statistically analyzing this data together with inbreeding coefficients, the study found a significant correlation between the inbreeding coefficient and deaths before the age of 10. This would suggest that excessive inbreeding may have had a negative effect on infant mortality in the families of the Habsburg Kings of Spain. Further bolstering this theory are other studies which show a correlation between infant mortality and unions between closely related individuals (e.g. first cousins).

This makes me think of what I found out about Carlos II's sister Margarita Teresa (1651-1673) when researching the first post. The infanta, who married her uncle Leopold I and who died at the age of 21, had four children: three who died before the age of 2 and one daughter Maria Antonia (1669-1692) who lived to be 23. None of Maria Antonia's three children with her husband Maximillian Emanuel of Bavaria survived to adulthood.

What was wrong with Carlos II?

The paper did a good job of cataloging Carlos' symptoms based on historical sources. We're told Carlos II was a "weak breast-fed baby" and that he had a disproportionately large head. He didn't manage to speak until age 4 or to walk until age 8, and he grew up to be short, weak and thin. The biologists characterize his personality as "abulic" (apparently meaning that he was uninterested in his environment and apathetic). As for reproductive problems, we all know Carlos II had no offspring: his first wife complained of premature ejaculation and his second said he was impotent. Carlos also suffered from occasional hematuria (blood in urine) and gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, vomiting). At 30, we're told he looked prematurely old and that parts of his lower body and face were swollen from edema. In later life, Carlos could barely stand on his own and he was afflicted with hallucinations and convulsions. He died at the age of 39 after an illness characterized by fever, abdominal pain, breathing difficulty and coma.

The possible explanation for Carlos' problems offered in the paper is that he may have suffered from two rare conditions: combined pituitary hormone deficiency (CPHD) and distal renal tubular acidosis (dRTA). CPHD refers to impaired production of growth hormone and other hormones produced by the anterior pituitary gland. It is associated with short stature, hypotonia (low muscle tone), apathetic personality, gastrointestinal problems, and infertility/impotence. The condition is also exacerbated by physical stress which can result in abdominal pain and fever. dRTA, on the other hand, is the condition which results when the kidneys are not removing acid from the blood normally. Symptoms include muscular weakness, rickets, hematuria and a disproportionately large head.

It is only a hypothesis that Carlos II suffered from these two conditions, and the paper's authors are careful to point out that both disorders can be caused by environmental factors as well as genetics. Moreover, in a comment on the paper, a group of doctors dispute the claim that Carlos II suffered from dRTA as unlikely. Nevertheless, Carlos' high inbreeding coefficient makes it much more likely that he may have inherited a recessive genetic disorder, rarely occurring in the population as a whole. In order to inherit a recessive genetic disorder one must receive "bad copies" of the same gene from both parents, and as we said above Carlos' inbreeding coefficient tell us that he had a 25.4% chance of receiving identical copies from both parents for any given gene. What's more, another study shows that genetic homozygosity (i.e. possessing two identical forms of the same gene) for related individuals is often even greater than their pedigree suggests (probably because unrelated or distantly related individuals in the gene pool also have identical copies of the same gene sometimes). This would make the chances even greater.


So, to sum up: the Habsburg Kings of Spain became much more inbred than the population as a whole, and their families were affected by an unusually high infant mortality rate (50% of their children died before age 10). A statistical analysis in this and other studies shows a significant correlation between inbreeding and infant mortality. Thus, one could theorize that the high incidence of inbreeding adversely impacted the Habsburg children's chances of surviving to adulthood.

Spain's last Habsburg king, Carlos II, was even more inbred than the child of a brother-sister union, and thus his chances of having inherited a recessive genetic disorder were greatly increased. He was also mentally and physically handicapped, and he died childless at age 39. Based on his symptoms as recorded by historians, scientists hypothesize that he may have suffered from something like combined pituitary hormone deficiency and/or distal renal tubular acidosis -- two rare conditions sometimes caused by inherited genetic defects.
Now I would really like to see scientists study this man's DNA to better determine how homozygous his genes were and what genetic conditions he may have suffered from.

Images: Portrait of  Don Carlos by Alonso Sánchez Coello and portrait of Margarita Teresa by Jan Thomas van Ieperen both on display at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and both found on wikipedia.