Sunday, October 16, 2016

Moringa Leaves and Other Emergency Food Plants of Pacific Islands

Let's start this post with a bit of fiction:
It's 1944, you're a bomber pilot in the United States Navy, flying missions over Southeast Asia. It's a dangerous job, but you've got a great crew: there's Knute, a.k.a., "Swede", the navigator, a quiet, big-hearted 18-year old blonde kid from northern Minnesota; Tony, the bombardier, a tough-talking street hustler from Brooklyn who's really a Mama's boy; Larry, the tail gunner, a farm boy from Kansas; Bobby, the co-pilot, a laid-back kid from California; Leonard, a.k.a. "Glasses," the radio operator, a nerdy college student from Vermont, who operates the radio. Everyone picks on Leonard because he'd rather read books about Southeast Asia during off-duty hours than hit the bars.

On one mission, you hear an awful sound to your left: the sputter, sputter, sputter of an engine going out. Your plane starts losing altitude, and when it's clear you won't make it back to the carrier, it's bail out time, and soon you're parachuting onto unknown territory. You have a general idea of where you are and where you need to go to reach safety, but your emergency rations aren't enough to feed you on your long journey to safety.

That nerd Glasses might be your life line. One of his interests is botany — he's always looking at plants on the base — and so his flying kit includes a book called Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific. And so now the crew knows which plants are food — and which are poisonous — as they make their way across the jungle to a safe haven.  

The little fictional lead-in above sets up one of my recent finds in the Internet Archive (via Flickr Commons). While looking in the Flickr Commons, Google Books and Hathi Trust for images of the Moringa oleifera plant, I ran across an ink drawing of the moringa plant in a book from the U.S. War Department that was published in 1943 (I also found the beautiful 19th-century painting that I used in my post about Moringa Leaves). Reading the introduction, I learned that the book was written for members of the U.S. military to help them survive on their own ("live off the land") if they were separated from their unit or escaped from a prisoner of war camp.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Moringa Leaves, One of Today's Superfoods (Unusual greens, Part 8)

It's been almost 10 years (!) since I last updated my "Unusual Greens" series — I haven't been exploring markets like I used to and the places I shop almost always have the same few greens (chard, kale, rapini, etc.). Today's featured greens are Moringa oleifera leaves (a.k.a. drumstick tree, horseradish tree, Tree of Life, Miracle Tree [1]).  I found them in a round-about way.

I occasionally attend the Slow Money Northern California meetings to learn about new methods of funding or investing in small businesses (like Credibles). At the most recent meeting, samples of a food bar from one of the past presenters (Kuli Kuli) were offered, so I took one. "Moringa Superfood" is prominently written across the middle of the bar, and it turns out that Moringa is the key ingredient in Kuli Kuli's plans for "Nourishing you, nourishing the world." (The bar was OK, a bit high in sugar and with a slightly dissonant grassy undertone.)

At the following week's Berkeley Farmers Market (Tuesday), I noticed that one of the farmers had bundles of moringa leaves for sale. I bought a bunch, and, when he asked me "What are you going to do with them?", I was unable to give a good answer because I didn't know. When I got home, I started hitting the books and internet to find out more about the ingredient.

Painting of Moringa oliefera from Flore médicale, by F.P. Chaumeton and others, Paris (1815)
Painting of moringa oleifera leaves, pod and etc.
from Flore médicale, 1815 (!)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Eleven Years of Mental Masala

Mental Masala at eleven years

While updating my post list the other day, I realized that it had been almost exactly eleven years since my first post on Mental Masala. My first real post was The Indian Restaurant Menu, in which I tried to understand why almost all Indian restaurant menus in the U.S. are nearly identical. 

For the remainder of 2005, I went in many directions (as usual), with the following posts being my favorite from the first few months of Mental Masala, eleven years ago:
My ersatz editorial calendar is full of great ideas, so stay tuned for the return of "Unusual Greens," new charts, some posts about food in ancient Rome, and much more.

To close, here's a song by Fairport Convention with an appropriate title, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?":

Composted and sung by the great Sandy Denny, the song was first released on Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking. (1969). Richard Thompson was a founder of the group and provides superb guitar work on this track (I'm a big fan of his long post-Fairport Convention career). Outside of this amazing song, the album is only OK, with some weak tracks.

For a Fairport Convention album that provides much better examples of Sandy Denny's amazing talent, Liege and Lief (1969) is the one to grab:  "Reynardine," "Farewell, Farewell," "The Deserter," "Crazy Man Michael" are all outstanding. Another Sandy Denny high point is the epic 10+ minute "A Sailor's Life" on the early 1990s compilation of Richard Thompson's work, Watching the Dark. It starts with a dreamy somewhat a capella introduction, and at about 3:33 the pace quickens as we hear the story of a search for a missing sailor, building to a few minutes of a stormy instrumental (with Richard Thompson on lead guitar, I presume).

Random link from the archive: Revenge of the Orchard

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Millet Production and Use

Photo of millet plants
Millet plants at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract
This is my second post about millet, a class of grains that doesn't get much attention.  The first post gave some background on millet and UC Berkeley's Millet Project, and can be found here: The Millet Project Looks at the Nutritious, Drought Tolerant, Gluten-Free Grains Called Millet.

After learning about the Millet Project, millet's attractive features, its history, and how people eat it, I wanted to find out more about this fascinating group of plants. Where is it grown? Who eats it?

Since this was an international question, I pointed my browser to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and found their statistical collection (FAOSTAT). (For domestic U.S. statistics, I usually start at the USDA Economic Research Service or National Agricultural Statistics Service).

Millet In Three Charts and One Map

In this age of globalization and homogenization, millet is one of a few staple foods that has a sharp geographical concentration:  it is the primary staple along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. And with this concentration, millet is a minor grain on the world stage: in 2014, only 27 million tonnes were produced, compared with 741 million tonnes of rice, 729 million tonnes of wheat and 1,038 million tonnes of maize [1] (1 tonne = 1,000 kg = 2,200 pounds).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Millet Project Looks at the Nutritious, Drought Tolerant, Gluten-Free Grains Called Millet

Photo of millet inflorescences at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract
Millet inflorescences at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract

I can get quite nerdy about ingredients (see my ingredients category), so when one of my newsletters told me about an upcoming event called The Millet Project at the nearby Gill Tract, I knew I did not want to miss it.

When I think of millet, I think about the pale yellow spherical grains I see at the health food store or in bird feed. But when an agricultural specialists think about millet, they think about a group of plant.  This was the first thing I learned at the event: millet describes a bunch of different plants, and it isn't a botanical term, but an agricultural one. Millets are annual grasses with small seeds, generally including the grain labelled millet in the U.S. and Europe (the proso variety, Panicum miliaceum), its close relatives (like Enchinocloa frumentacea,called shanwa in Japan), teff (Eragrostis tef, also spelled tef and t'ef,the staple grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea), and sorghum (great for making alcoholic beverages). The Millet Project has a page on millet taxonomy that includes photos of some varieties.

Although millet doesn't cross my mind often, if asked to stir up memories of millet, I actually have a few pretty strong ones: fun dinners with my graduate school housemates eating piles of injera and spicy stews at Ethiopia Restaurant on Telegraph in Berkeley, a delicious sorghum molasses gifted by a fellow food blogger, or a delicious millet-fortified bread baked by a housemate.

Thrills at the Millet Project

The Millet Project is an interdisciplinary research project at UC Berkeley that hopes to "establish a knowledge base about the feasibility of growing millets in Northern California, the drought tolerance of millet, and best-practice protocols for farmers on how to grow different types of millet."  The team is running experiments in Berkeley and working with farms across the state to get practical experience in California fields. Their 2015 research work is described in a post by undergraduate researcher Ramji K. Pasricha (super-short summary: at the Gill Tract in coastal Alameda County, pearl millet was more resilient to water stress than Japanese or foxtail millet).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Visiting a Pear Orchard Triggers Interest in Fruit Crate Labels, Part 2

Southern Cross lemon fruit crate label from California Historical Society on Flickr Commons

This is part 2 of a 2-part series about fruit crate labels.  Part 1 is here.

"Accidental Artifacts"

In the excellent Pat Jacobsen's Millennium Guide to Fruit Crate Labels, the author calls fruit crate labels "accidental artifacts." It's a good description. They were never meant to be collected, put into price guides, or hung on a wall.  They were created to sell fruit, to build or maintain a brand, to be used to label a crate and then be discarded. Yet an active collector community has evolved, libraries build collections (some holdings in California libraries), and many websites and antique stores sell labels. They are actively sought by private and public collectors:  Jacobsen reports that in 1992 there were $250,000-300,000 in label sales (in 2016 dollars, that's $428,000-514,000, via BLS Inflation Calculator); individual collections have sold for $250,000 (early citrus labels) and $51,000 (Washington apple labels).

Most of the spare or obsolete labels were destroyed: tossed in the trash, burned, used as scratch pads in the packing house or at the farm. But some survived. They were forgotten in the back of warehouses; or saved by employees because they looked nice or for sentimental reasons; or saved as a record of who you worked for or with. Some design houses kept archives of their label work, or had boxes full of extra labels. Discoveries still occur now and then: a box in the loft of a packing house, packages in the bottom drawer of a dusty file cabinet, a file folder in an attic.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Visiting a Pear Orchard Triggers Interest in Fruit Crate Labels, Part 1

Label for LIFE brand pears from California Historical Society collection on Flickr Commons

(Disclosures: the farm tour was a pre-conference excursion arranged by the International Food Bloggers Conference. Although I paid to go on the excursion, it is possible that California Endive or the California Pear Board provided some subsidies to reduce participants' costs. In addition, I received a discount on the registration fee in exchange for writing three posts about my experiences at the conference.)

The second half of the farm excursion organized by the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC) and California Pear Board was a visit to Stillwater Orchards, a pear farm in Courtland, California (the first half was California Endive Farms).

Photograph of bosc pears on a pear tree
Like most July days in the area, the skies were clear and the temperature was high. The sun was almost directly overhead, but shade could be found under some of the pear trees (which are generally not very tall to simplify harvest). The conference attendees had a chance to talk with the farmers about pear growing, followed by a delicious lunch beneath a 100+ year old sycamore tree that included a salad with pear and endive, and pear crisp. 

Seeing the Stillwater logo on the marketing material at the orchard (which must be many decades old), I started thinking about fruit crate labels — the labels that farmers and packers attached to their fruit crates before they were shipped to markets near and far. I had a bunch of questions:  Where did these labels come from? How long were they used? Who designed them?