Sunday, June 17, 2007

what the world eats

Speaking of food, there is an amazing photo gallery from Time Magazine. (It is based of a book called Hungry Planet.) Each of the 15 photos show family members standing around the food that would make up a series of typical meals for the week, plus the weekly cost and a list of their favorite foods.

Not surprisingly, the most processed food surrounds... you guessed it. The American families. This is even more intriguing to me as I am currently reading An Omnivore's Dilemma. This book discusses the food processing that I (and many Americans) seldom consider. (For instance, did you know there are 38 ingredients required to make a Chicken McNugget?!) If you are not so interested in reading the entire book, you could check out the article author Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times. Some of his advice includes:

Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

food hacking

What happens when the world's leading hacker chefs skill up on organic chemistry and buy centrifuges for their kitchens? Is your palate ready for "meat glue", "cooking" with liquid nitrogen, and "liquid noodles"? ... [this] looks at the growing role of science in fine dining kitchens with examples from the restaurants that are inventing the exciting field of molecular gastronomy. (Dorkbot)
I am a terrible cook, and usually consume food I can carry in one hand (apple, bagel, rice cake). However, my interest in food preparation was piqued when I read about food hacking! This trend, popularized by scientifically-minded chefs, is based on the principle of "creat[ing] dishes based on the molecular compatibilities of foods." For example, a food hacker might combine chocolate and oysters (!) due to the similarities in their molecular make-up.

Marc Powell, a San Francisco-based hacker chef, is well known in the field of "molecular gastronomy." His website ( established a food hacking wiki in June of 2006, where fellow food hackers can go to share ideas and "Experiments/recipes." Many of the recipes require unusual tools such as a nitrous oxide siphon or a centrifuge. Other recipes require exotic chemicals, like "meat-glue" which can combine chicken and beef into a single slab of meat referred to as "chick-a-beef."

Martin Lersch, from Oslo, Norway, holds a PhD within the field of organometallic chemistry and maintains a blog about molecular gastronomy and the connections between science and cooking.

Here in Chicago, interested parties can experience molecular gastronomy bliss at Moto (google map).
You don't just eat chef Homaro Cantu's food. You gape in disbelief as you are instructed in how to handle his offbeat creations with even more peculiar utensils: The whole thinking is like a three-star science lab. (from one of many reviews of the restaurant)
I experienced the 10 course meal there recently. The meal began with an tasty edible menu nestled on top of a micro-salad. I don't want to give away all the good parts, but let's just say the meal included lasers, liquid nitrogen, and dehydrated macaroni. It was an (albeit pricey) experience I would enthusiastic recommend.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

moving giant marine animals

When I read that two new whale sharks arrived at the Georgia Aquarium on Friday, June 1st, while the recently-born beluga whale is making plans to leave the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago some time this summer, I couldn't help but wonder - how do you transport these giant animals?

Well, the two whale sharks were flown 8,000 miles from Taipei, Taiwan on a specially-designed cargo plane with 20-foot-long fiberglass tanks with oxygen machines and other equipment to keep them healthy on their trip. When they arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, their tanks were transferred to two flatbed trucks and driven to the aquarium surrounded by an escort of Atlanta police cars with their blue lights flashing. (video) They will join three other whale sharks in their new home in a 6 million gallon tank.

Qannik, the male Beluga whale born back in August, 2000, is leaving Chicago and heading for Tacoma, Washington's Point Defiance Zoo. Qannik's mother, Mauyak, is pregnant again and expecting the new calf this fall. The mother/son bond between Qannik and Mauyak has all but disappeared as he grows into a sexual mature adult, and he must leave the facility to avoid interbreeding between him and his mother. Qannik is now 11 feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds. In his new home, he will live in a whale pool with Beethoven, a 14-year-old 1,600-pound male beluga.

Qannik will travel in a specially-designed freight plane, riding in a "custom-made, fleece-lined sling suspended in a shallow tank of ice water." Trainers at the Shedd have been putting Qannik in and out of the sling repeatedly this year, using it for check-ups and exams, which will help Qannik be more comfortable with the device during his trip.

UPDATE (6.11.07) Qannik has arrived at the Tacoma zoo!
The aquarium kept the timing of Qannik's move under wraps to stave off protests, officials told The News Tribune of Tacoma for a story posted on the paper's Web site Sunday.

The whale
traveled inside an "enormous, foam-padded plastic tank in the DC-8 plane for a flight that cost $84,000." The zoo website has posted photos of Qannik's adventures!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

so many deformed cicadas

A student asked me why there are so many deformed cicadas. You know, the ones with the shriveled wings, or even the ones who harden halfway out of their old exoskeletons. I read more in the Chicago Gardener blog. (You might want to check out the rest of the cicada posts too!)

John Cooley, a biologist at the University of Connecticut says it is not the lawn chemicals doing the damage, although humans are the ultimate culprit.

When cicada nymphs emerge, they must find something vertical to climb and stake out perching places to molt. At its perch, each cicada slips out of its nymph shell and then must hang undisturbed on that perch until its new exoskeleton unfolds and begins to harden properly. If it is disturbed during that time, its exoskeleton will be deformed ("faulty ecdysis," to the scientists).

In regular woody settings, there are plenty of trees, shrubs and tall grasses to support the cicada population. But here in the suburbs, yards are carefully landscaped, with neatly trimmed lawns and a few strategically placed trees and bushes, which limits the number of perches for the nymphs to hang on.

Since many cicadas must crawl onto the same places, they often bump into or climb over each other. This is a problem for those light-colored, recently molted cicadas who are waiting for their exoskeletons to harden. At the delicate stage when they must hang undisturbed, they are finding themselves trampled by other cicadas. This causes the many deformed cicadas.

The University of Connecticut Dept. of Ecology agrees,
"Cicadas sometimes fail to properly inflate their wings after molting; such individuals can be found in low vegetation in any emergence.... The cicadas in the picture below came from a 1990 emergence in a suburban front yard near Chicago. Many of the cicadas in this area had deformed wings. Possible explanations include crowding (during molting) and use of lawn chemicals."

A University of Illinois entomologist believes it is normal to have so many deformed cicadas, although normally predators would eat them before we would see them. However, with these cicadas, there are so many insects, the predators can't keep up! (
Chicago Cicada Central)