Like cars and computers, a surprising number of us interact every day with things we don’t understand very well — including our food. With the advent of grocery stores taking away much of the up-close-and-personal processing we used to have to do to our food, we of course understand less about it. Some food items have little tricks that help you prepare and understand them. Others have strange or even, dare I say, seedy histories.
1. Celery was once too flavorful
Before the domestication of celery, it was a wild plant known more commonly as “smallage,” and it was so potent and bitter that it had to be cooked down for hours before it was edible.
This veggie started out dark green with hollow stalks and a serious bite. When the English started cultivating and breeding celery for something more to taste (the bland stalk we know now), they bred stalks to be more dense. The farmers found that by “banking” the celery while it grew — covering the plant with dirt to prevent it from reaching sunlight and from creating chlorophyll — it became sweeter, paler, and more tender.
2. Your meat can tell you if the animal was stressed
Better milk might come from happy cows, but it turns out that better meat does, too. Research has shown that the meat you buy and bring home can tell you how stressed your pig or cow was leading up to slaughter. Animal muscle contains a sustaining sugar called glycogen that, post mortem, converts into lactic acid. This is what makes meat tasty, tender, and bacteria-resistant. When an animal experiences stress, disease, or exhaustion, the glycogen in the muscle tissue burns up and there is a marked decrease in the lactic acid production after slaughter. This could be from life-long stress, undernourishment, disease, stress from transport to the slaughterhouse, rough handling at the slaughterhouse, or improper and repeated stunning before slaughter.
Turns out animals don’t like waking up tied and upside down before being “processed.” The effects of this chemical change come to us in handy acronyms: stressed pigs become PSE pork and stressed cows become DFD beef. PSE stands for Pale, Soft, and Exudadive. Look for pork that is paler than the rosy raw pink it should be, a little watery or oozy, and soft or even mushy to the touch. This pig was scared, stressed, and angry in its last days or moments. In beef, look for meat that is dry, firm, and dark. Beef should be juicy and bright red with a little give to the touch (though not soft, that’s no good either). When you see a cut of beef that’s a dull, dark color, dry, and has little give, you know that this cow was not a happy cow.
Beyond the comfort and emotional state of the animal, this seriously affects taste and texture of the cooked meat. PSE or DFD meat is just not as good; who wants to eat dry steak or exudative pork chops? More than that, though, it’s a matter of health and safety: the lactic acid produced by healthy, happy animals is a necessary part of fending off bacterial growth on the carcass. An unhappy or sick cow can very quickly turn to an unhappy and sick consumer on the processing floor.
3. Pure almond extract is often not made from almonds
According to research done by Cook’s Illustrated, pure almond extract is made from three ingredients: alcohol, water, and bitter almond extract. Bitter almonds are part of the “drupe” family containing stone fruits like apricots and peaches, and it is actually more common for bitter almond extract to be extracted from the pits of these fruits than from almonds. Cook’s contacted four manufacturers of pure almond extract, and here are the results:
- One used apricots for their extract.
- One used plums, apricots, peaches, cherries, and almonds for their extract.
- One admitted they did use stone fruit instead of almonds, but declined to reveal which stone fruit.
- One used only almonds.
Interestingly enough, the Cook’s Illustrated taste testers found the pure almond extract actually made with almonds to be the weakest-tasting of the bunch. Fun fact: drupe pits — including bitter almonds — contain cyanide and are toxic until heat-treated.
4. Your chicken could be causing a UTI
Maybe you heard about this in the news back in June of 2012. Maybe you didn’t. Researchers found a link between urinary tract infections and factory-farmed poultry. Not only that, but it’s a particularly persistent infection that’s resistant to antibiotics, and it’s caused by a particularly resistant “superbug” strain of E. Coli.
Since the way chickens are built genetically in conjunction with the way they’re farmed in close quarters and pumped full of antibiotics, the effects of which lessening by the day, they’re really good carriers of disease. That allows the disease to mutate and, because of the “close quarters” of chicken factory farms, it spreads quickly. When a chicken is slaughtered, the bacteria stays around and finds its way onto your kitchen counter. Accidental cross-contamination means that the salad you made as a side to your chicken breast dinner could be just as guilty for your burning urinary tract as the poultry itself.
5. Supermarket tomatoes are tasteless because they’re so red
When supermarkets became the place to shop for produce, it became necessary for farmers to breed tomatoes that were spherical red beauties that all ripened at once and held together during rough shipping. Unfortunately, researchers found, the gene mutation that made for sturdy red globes also made them taste like cardboard. If you’ve ever had a vine-ripened heirloom tomato straight from a field or farmer’s market, you know that they’re light years in taste from the “tomato” you get from a supermarket.
Taste in tomatoes is complex and due to many compounds, some of which suppress our ability to taste sugar and some enhance it, for example, but one has been singled out. In non-supermarket tomatoes, a protein called GLK makes the tomato ripen from the shoulders down, turning a darker green near the stem before then turning red from the top down to the bottom. Since supermarket tomatoes are picked green, not red, and ripened during transport with ethylene gas, it was important that farmers pick tomatoes that turned a uniform green color all over before turning red all over — so they bred GLK out of the tomatoes.
Produce ripened chemically is at a taste disadvantage to begin with, but with the demise of GLK went the tomato’s ability to produce sugars. Americans got beautiful, smooth, red tomatoes, but we got completely shafted on a fruit that actually tastes good. Scientists are now working on developing a breed of tomatoes that tastes like a tomato should. Those of us with qualms about GMOs can keep on doing what we always have been: eating heirloom tomatoes in the season they’re naturally supposed to be grown in.
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