A (Sicilian) Strawberry Tart

A test post from my phone

A test post from my phone

The Millennium Gap: Why Did It Take So Long For Distilling To Take Off?

Distillation, as a process, has been known since at least the first century AD. Yet a readily reproducible process of distillation did not really take off until the 13th century or so. Why the gap of 1000 years?

The answer is almost banal. Yes, a handful of people knew how to distill. The problem was with the technology. Glass broke easily, and ceramic implements were little better, as they transferred heat ineffectively, and inconsistently, depending upon the mineral content of the ceramics. In short, no one knew how to make good distilling vessels.

It was the Venetians, who combined different glass-making techniques (Roman and Syrian), that were able to consistently produce high-quality glassware. However, this didn’t occur until the mid 1200’s in history’s timeline.  Once this glass took off, distilling on a regular basis took off soon afterwards.

Here’s an interesting side-note: You can still see remnants of Venice’s glass industry in work if you visit the city. Murano island has all sorts of places that both sell and pay homage to the industry that helped solidified Venice’s empire.

Sometimes Food Just Doesn’t Matter

On the Rhine

 

In the grand scheme of things, all that happened is that a friend and I had a meal of fruit, cheese, and crackers by a river on an overcast Tuesday afternoon. Painted by these words, the moment seems a bit mundane, even hackneyed.

Let’s take a moment to dress it up a bit. The river was the Rhine, and the location was found in a stretch of road certified by UNESCO as being a World Heritage site. The scenery was beautiful with castles overlooking the river from high atop of hills that seemingly run straight down into the river’s valley. Barges laden with products from north and south lazily found their way around the many twists and turns. Senior Citizens traveled with purpose either upon bicycles or within RV’s. Green was everywhere. The hills were peppered with grape vines and deciduous trees just on the verge of changing their colors for the annual autumn explosion. No one seemed in a hurry, including Andrea and myself, who, on a whim, ventured into a small grocery store to pick up a lunch.

Here’s where I had an epiphany. The food purchased was nothing more than a bit of apple, some cheap crackers, and some cheese that can best be described as “workman-like”. It was good, but not great.

It didn’t matter one bit. I was sitting on the shores of the Rhine, watching the world go by, and sharing the moment with a  friend. It was as perfect of a moment as one can get on this planet, and the size of the grins on our faces was all the evidence I needed to prove this fact.

We who are passionate about food sometimes forget that there is more to life than what we are eating. There are times when what’s on one’s plate does not matter one iota. The law of diminishing returns kicks in, and if everything else is near perfect, the quality of the food does not need to be considered. Sometimes, in the quest to get the best out of life, we forget that some moments do not need micro managed. Fussing over food in moments like these are a horrible waste of energy.

Simply put, sometimes the best way to enjoy a moment is to let it be exactly the way it appears.

(Originally published on Accidental Hedonist on October 7th, 2009)

The Science of Ethanol Fermentation

A foundation of knowledge must be set before I can write/talk about the history of liquor. This is how I operate. In order for me (or anyone else) to talk/speak about, oh I don’t know, let’s say…vodka, a fundamental understanding of fermentation, distillation, and the history of similar such topics is a necessity. This is a subjective opinion, but it has worked well for me in the past, as I feel more confidence in experts when they can not only speak well of a topic, but also to items that directly (and in many cases, indirectly) influenced said topic. Consider this post my initial effort at establishing a solid foundation.

Fermentation sits firmly at the core of any alcoholic beverage. Without it, our planet would be a far more boring place. There would not only be no alcohol, but no leavened bread, no yogurt, no kimchi, nor even a bottle of Tabasco. But what is fermentation?

Simply put, fermentation is the conversion of a carbohydrate, typically sugar,  into an acid or an alcohol.  There  two types of fermentation that are usually studied.  There is Lactic Acid Fermentation, which converts sugar into lactic acid. Then there is the type which brings us our happy goodness, namely ethanol fermentation, or alcoholic fermentation.  This type of fermentation  is the biological process in which glucose is converted into cellular energy and result in ethanol and carbon dioxide. It looks like the following from a chemical formula perspective:

C6H12O6 + Zymase → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2

We start with a mole of glucose (C6H12O6) and add zymase, an enzyme complex found in yeasts. This enzyme is a catalyst that takes the six carbon molecules, twelve hydrogen molecules, and six Oxygen molecules within the glucose , and creates a chemical reaction that results in two moles of Carbon Dioxide (with combined total of two carbon molecules and four oxygen molecules) and two moles of Ethanol (with its combined total of four carbons, twelve hydrogen molecules and two oxygen molecules).

Those two moles of ethanol are what makes life more enjoyable, and their creation are as rudimentary of a biochemical reaction as we can see on a day-to-day basis. We don’t even need a laboratory environment to see it happen. Many grapes contain all there needs to start fermentation, as their fruits have the requisite sugar, as well as ambient yeasts on the grapes themselves. If you find the correct kind of grape, all you need to is wait. 

From this process, we get dozens, if not hundreds of drinks that have resulted in several multi-billion dollar industries. All of them combined affected our culture for almost 10,000 years.

This is where we start.

 

 

 

Why I Vanquished My Post Archives

When rebooting this site, I intentionally removed posts from Accidental Hedonist’s previous incarnation. It seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? After all, it removed all relevant traffic from Google for posts that were (up to) ten years old. Why break that connection? Why lose that access to things previously written?

I did it for a couple of reasons. For one, the archives were a mess. When I migrated to WordPress back in 2012, it played havoc with my 3000+ posts including the tags and categories attached to the posts, and I had neither the time nor inclination to clean it up.

Secondly, they were collectively disjointed. Having 3000+ posts meant there was no cohesiveness to them. Sure, at first glance (and first approach), Accidental Hedonist was a food blog, but at some point it moved beyond that, as my interests and approach to blogging changed. This only increased my perception of the archives as being a chaotic mess.

Finally, and most importantly, I felt beholden to them in a way that was illogical.  The fact was, I felt proud that I was part of the initial introduction of food blogs upon the internet, and the small role I played in publicizing the and advocating the medium.  But at some point, I moved beyond food blogs. Or rather, I moved in a different direction from what food blogging had become. Food blogs, as they became known, rarely talked food politics, rarely discussed food history, and became less and less inspiring to me. As food blogs became its own genre, I found myself less and less motivated by the characteristics that defined food blogging.

If you talk to parents for any extended times, they will eventually tell you an anecdote relating how they spent hundreds of dollars on a gift for one of their children, only to have themselves exasperated when the child shows more interest in the box and wrapping paper that the gift came in. I am that child. While the gift is all well and good, I am more fascinated by, not just the box, but the history of the box, the influences that the discovery of boxes had upon a culture, and who garnered social benefits from said box discovery. How this manifested itself upon my blog is that, while at one point it would have been enough for me to write about going to a restaurant, or tasting the latest food-craze-du-jour, at some point, I became interested in something else.

The archives, however, reminded me of my interests of 2004.  And every time I sat in front of my monitor, I felt the necessity to connect my writing to the archives in some manner.  And as I evolved AH into its last incarnation back in 2012, it showed little connection in ways of themes and approach that defined AH’s previous incarnations. This certainly relates to my second point above, but it’s more than that. The archives became to represent the divergence from myself and food blogs. Having the blog hold that divergence became similar to a small gnat by my ear drum, namely, an annoyance that only I could hear. Regardless of the size of the annoyance, it still needed to be addressed.

I collected the posts I liked, and set free the rest. I will post the ones I saved from time to time, but the others are gone to the great bit bucket in the sky.  In essence, I gave myself a clean slate. I have no idea what I will draw upon this new easel, but it will be for me, first and foremost.

I will say this. Expect liquor, art, and soccer. Especially liquor.

Why I like Art

“I like art,” is possibly the least controversial statement that one can make.  The difficulty comes in how this appreciation manifests itself in one’s life.

I am a museum person. Somewhere in between the statement “I like art” and “I purposefully seek out art at museums” lies a line that some people will not cross. And while an argument can be made that art isn’t (or shouldn’t be) made for museums, I am not so ideologically rigid that I believe that museum visits should be rejected out of hand. In fact, I recognize and even appreciate the fact that, in order to see some of the masterpieces that are available for public consumption, a museum is the only place one can go. This position can be a little daunting for my travel companions, some of whom see museum trips as on par with viewings at funeral homes.

Add to this the fact that,  in this digital world, while in the midst of the silicon revolution, mediums such as paintings and sculptures can seem both quaint and anachronistic. These are the mediums of a bygone era, dinosaurs in an era where even film is now seen as “old-fashioned”.

So why do I go? Why do I consume and consider these mediums? It’s not because they are important (even though they are), or because I feel obliged to in order to feel as if I’m a well-rounded person. I do so because these works provide insight into both the artists, as well as the cultures in which they were produced. As I get older and gather a deeper appreciation of history (which I’ll explain in a different post), that insight that art supplies can be critical to understanding a “bigger picture”. That insight is another data point in understanding what it was like to be alive in Venice in 1500, Amsterdam in 1650, or Paris in 1875.

Additionally, when I view several works of art, patterns emerge which sometimes speaks to some historical meta-narrative. For example, the Impressionist movement is, in part, the result in a change of technology. Paint became more transportable, once the craft of making paints became more industrialized. Once paint became easier to carry, artists left their studios to develop their works outdoors.  Figuring this, and other similar bits of information, has allowed me to understand various movements better.

This “understanding,” as nebulous as it may be at times, is addictive to me. It’s akin to solving a puzzle. It’s what keeps me opening new books, as well as going to museums.

It doesn’t always work this way, as sometimes what the artwork conveys is complex and not always apparent. There are also times when the insight speaks more to who I am than to what the artist’s intent was. But this is a feature and not a bug. In fact, artwork that teaches me something about myself is far more important to me than one that speaks to its era.

Why do I like art? Because it teaches. The ability to learn what it teaches, and acknowledging the challenge in that process  is something I’ve come to appreciate in my life.

Leave it to me…

Yes, I started out interested in food and ended up passionate about history.

The Historical Place of Sugar and Honey

Note: From time to time, I’m going to repost items from the archives of Accidental Hedonist. Some of these items will be of note only to myself. Others may/should provide context for ideas I’m playing with on the site.

Initially posted: December 7, 2009 

At the suggestion of my publisher, my initial idea of a book about chocolate has evolved into a broader subject which may or may not evolve into a book of some sort. So for the past week or so, I’ve been immersing myself into the history and anthropology of sweets in order to write a passable book proposal.

During the course of the readings, there has been one belief of mine that has been pretty much dismissed or diminished by anthropologists. Foods that we deem as “sweet” have, for the most part, been less of an influence on nutrition and less of an influence on food culture than we in the modern age may believe.

In reading Sidney W. Mintz’s book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, he states that, for the most part , civilizations “have been built on the cultivation of a particular complex carbohydrate, such as maize or potatoes or rice or millet or wheat.” The rest of a culture’s food choices have evolved in such a way to make these foundation foods both interesting and varied. Think of the many ways that rice dishes are presented in East Asia, or corn dishes are offered in Mexico, and you’ll have a rough idea on what Mintz is trying to say.

Fruits, at least those domesticated to a point where they could be grown on a regular basis, weren’t as prevalent as some of us would like to believe. Apples have been around since about 8,000 BCE and dates in 6,000 BCE, but the age of domesticated fruits truly doesn’t occur until 4000 BCE with citrus, watermelons, and grapes becoming a farmed crop. That’s 6,000 years into the civilized era. By this time, Homo sapiens have already mastered the way of farming the carbohydrates they need to survive.

Because of this “complex carbohydrates first!” trait found in many cultures, simple carbohydrates take on a unique, and at times, even relegated position in food history. Honey, which popped onto the scene at around 5,000 BCE became an exalted product. Many religions incorporated it into their rituals and undertakings, making it one of the first food stuffs to reach (literally) cult status.

Sucrose (or granulated sugar, as we know it) is a recent food product, not hitting the Western World until about 700 AD (give or take) when Muslim expansion brought the sugar cane into the Southern European growing regions. Its influence was so profound upon the Europeans that finding adequate places for sugar crops and plantations was one of the driving forces of colonization into the New World, second only behind the quest for metal commodities.

While the importance of these sweeteners in food history is absolute, there’s still something about them that separates them from other foods. They are less important than salt, at least from a bio-chemical point of view. But their influence seems greater than other spices in the world.

To me, this is what makes processed sugars so profound. They are venerated, yet we can survive without them. They were one of the world’s pre-eminent luxury items, but now even a child can by a piece of candy for mere pennies. When I see a piece of candy, it’s interesting for me to see what part of history had to occur in order for this candy to exist. What’s even more interesting is that I can now dismiss that piece of candy without consumption, an idea that would have seemed wasteful two hundred years ago.

It’s Been a While

Did you ever have a moment when the world seemed to be telling you something?

Truth be told, I don’t want to believe in coincidences, or fate, or that separate, isolated incidents could be somehow related. If there’s any semblance of truth to Occam’s Razor, it’s more likely that I am seeing a pattern, than it is that the universe is creating one for my benefit. It’s important that this perspective is noted, even if only to remind myself that the universe isn’t here to tell me what to do.

Here are the facts:

  1. I haven’t been putting a lot of energy into both this website, as well as my writing career.
  2. I have instead been putting said energy into my regular, everyday, nine-to-five (well, eight-to-four) job.
  3. I have been less happy.

Whether my state of mind is the result of items one and two, I cannot say for certain. However, certain recent events in relation to Item 2 have made it understood that the energy I have spent may have been misdirected.

In other words, I started to care too much for my job. There’s a philosophical question in here somewhere, along the lines of “How much should one care about their job?”, but that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m writing, because of some deep understanding within myself that I’ve missed many aspects of writing, both via blogging and via books. There are some aspects that I don’t miss, but, as a whole, I am more fulfilled  when I am writing than when I am not.

I hesitate to declare anything more than that, because life is too complex to make promises (such as “I’m going to write more often”) that are at risk of not being met.   But I am making motions that are noteworthy. For instance, I’ve updated the blog engine. I’ve also cleaned up a little, having removed the archives of my past writings, with the intent of not feeling beholden to any format and/or topics of the past. I’m calling this my do-over, as blogging has changed immensely in the past ten years.

Finally, I’ve posted this entry. I’m still unsure about many things surrounding this action. For example, how often should I post? Does it matter? And more curious for me, for whom do I write this? For the longest time, I had a sizable audience, and felt pressured/required to write to that audience. In the end, that didn’t work for me, as it made it feel like a job. A job, mind you, that didn’t pay nearly as well as the one I participate in from eight A.M. to four P.M., Monday through Friday.

I’m working on the answers to these questions on a case-by-case basis.

There are things that haven’t changed. I’m still immensely curious about a whole lot of different things. And I still have a predilection for having a good time. “Hedonist”, accidental or otherwise, is still a good word for who I am. Another question, for me, is how much of my own “good time” should be communicated?

Again, I have no answers.

What I do know is that I am expending less energy at my day-job, energy that needs to go somewhere. It’s a good bet that creativity is where that energy is going to go. And for me, creativity almost always has meant writing.

All of this is my long way of saying “Yeah, I haven’t posted in a long time, because I’ve been distracted. I’m less distracted now, which might mean more attention to my writing. But maybe not. At any rate, hello! Again!”

 

 

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