Rank #1: Caffeine: The World’s Most Popular Drug
A tablespoon of it will kill you, but most of us feel like death without it: we’re talking about caffeine this episode. Inspired by a listener question — does green tea have more or less caffeine than black? and what about yerba mate? — Cynthia and Nicky explore the history and science of the world’s most popular drug. Listen in as we discover the curious effect of birth control pills on how our bodies process it, calculate how much of an edge it gives athletes, and learn what dolphin dissection and the American Constitution have to do with each other, and with caffeine.
Mar 21 2016
Rank #2: Menu Mind Control
At its most basic, a menu is simply a way for a restaurant to communicate its offerings and their prices to its customers. But, perhaps even more importantly, says Alison Pearlman, author of a new book on menus called May We Suggest, a menu has to persuade diners that they want what the restaurant is selling. So how do menus do that—and are they somehow subconsciously manipulating our choices? Are there universal principles of effective menu design that savvy diners can identify and outsmart? Listen in this episode as we decode the history and science of the not-so-humble menu.
Nov 18 2019
Rank #3: Of Ghost Foods and Culinary Extinction
The earliest humans favored juicy, meaty mammoth at mealtimes. Ancient Romans loved their favorite herb, silphium, so much that they sprinkled it on everything from lamb to melon. In the 19th century United States, passenger pigeon pie was a cherished comfort food, long before chicken pot pie became commonplace. And, for dessert, Americans a century ago might have enjoyed a superlatively buttery Ansault pear, reckoned to be the greatest pear ever grown. What did these foods beloved by previous generations taste like? Well, apart from some written descriptions, we’ll never know: they’re all extinct. Join us this episode as culinary geographer Lenore Newman takes us on a tour of lost foods—and the lessons they can teach us as we fight to save our current favorite foods from disappearing forever.
“Shooting wild pigeons in Iowa,” illustration from the 2 July 1867 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (vol. XXV, no. 625, p. 8), from “Large-scale live capture of Passenger Pigeons Ectopistes migratorius for sporting purposes: Overlooked illustrated documentation,” by Julian Hume.
“This project started because of a bird,” Lenore Newman told Gastropod. “And that bird was Martha.” Newman’s project is a new book titled Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; Martha was a passenger pigeon and the last living member of her species—an “endling,” as such lonely creatures are evocatively called. Her death, on September 1st, 1914, represented the first time that humanity watched a species disappear, in full awareness of the concept of extinction and our role in causing this particular one. “There was no denying it was us,” said Newman: somehow, together, we had eaten so many pigeons that we had wiped the most abundant bird in North America off the face of the planet.
But the passenger pigeon wasn’t our first culinary extinction. This episode, Newman takes us on a tour through the foods we have eaten to their end, such as the Pleistocene megafauna, which early humans destroyed as our numbers spread around the world, and the leek-flavored silphium that was so valuable its last stalks were hoarded, alongside gold and jewels, by Roman emperors. In each case, we sift through the evidence that points to human appetite as the leading cause of extinction, and unpack the response of a bewildered, bereft humanity.
Gold coin from Cyrene, from between 308-250 BC; the tails side depicts silphium.
The Romans clung to the belief that their beloved silphium could perhaps spontaneous reappear someday; the idea that that something could be gone forever was simply, at the time, inconceivable. The concept of extinction—along with its mirror, evolution—wasn’t formulated until the end of the eighteenth century, and it finally gave humans a framework within which to understand their actions. But, as Newman describes, the pace of culinary extinctions has only increased since then, with thousands and thousands of varieties of plants and breeds of animals vanishing in the early 20th century.
Why have we allowed so many of the foods we love to vanish? What impact has their loss had—and what lessons can it teach us for the future? Listen in this episode as Newman helps us tackle these morbid questions, leaving us with some hope, as well as a whole new perspective on chicken.
Lenore Newman holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she is currently an associate professor of geography and the environment. Her most recent book is Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; prior to that, she authored Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey.
The Ansault pear, painted by Deborah G. Passmore on 10/13/1897, from the collection of the USDA National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland.
Nov 05 2019
Rank #4: Eat This, Not That: The Surprising Science of Personalized Nutrition
This episode, we’ve got the exclusive on the preliminary results of the world’s largest personalized nutrition experiment. Genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector launched the study, called PREDICT, to answer a simple but important question: do we each respond to different foods differently? And, if so, why? How much of that difference is genetic, how much is due to gut microbes, and how much is due to any one of the dozens of other factors that scientists think affect our metabolic processes? You’ve heard of personalized medicine, will there be such a thing as personalized diets? And should there be? Can teasing out the nuances of how each individual body processes different foods make us all healthier? To find out, we signed ourselves up as study participants, sticking pins in our fingers, weighing our food, and providing fecal samples, all for science—and for you, dear listeners. Listen in now as we take part in this ground-breaking study, discover our own differences, and find out the early results!
Jun 10 2019
Rank #5: The Bagelization of America
Today, it’s a breakfast staple, but, as recently as 1960, The New York Times had to define it for readers—as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.” That’s right, this episode is all about the bagel, that shiny, ring-shaped, surprisingly dense bread that makes the perfect platform for cream cheese and lox. Where did it come from? Can you get a decent bagel outside New York City? And what does it have in common with the folding ping-pong table? Come get your hot, fresh bagel science and history here!
Mar 26 2019
Rank #6: To Eat or Not to Eat Meat
With flexitarianism on the rise throughout the developed world, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Beyoncé endorsing the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, it can sometimes seem as though meat is just a bad habit that the majority of us are too weak-willed to kick. But is giving up meat morally superior, healthier, and better for the planet, as its advocates insist? This episode, we fearlessly dive into the long, tangled history and surprisingly nuanced science behind those claims. Listen in now for the truth on Pythagoras, cow farts, and more.
Feb 14 2017
Rank #7: Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast: the most important meal of the day. Or is it? In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the science and history behind the most intentionally designed, the most industrialized, and the most argued about meal of all.
Armed with a healthy dose of caffeine chronopharmacology, we embark on a global breakfast tour that exposes the worldwide dominance of Nutella, as well as the toddler kimchi acclimatization process. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we trace the American breakfast’s evolution from a humble mash-up of leftover dinner foods to its eighteenth-century explosion into a feast of meats, griddle cakes, eel, and pie—followed swiftly by a national case of indigestion and a granola-fueled backlash. Breakfast has been a battleground ever since: in this episode, we not only explain why, but also serve up the best breakfast contemporary science can provide.
Jan 20 2015
Rank #8: Say Cheese!
Cheese is the chameleon of the food world, as well as one of its greatest delights. Fresh and light or funky and earthy, creamy and melty or crystalline and crumbly—no other food offers such a variety of flavors and textures.
But cheese is not just a treat for the palate: its discovery changed the course of Western civilization, and, today, cheese rinds are helping scientists conduct cutting-edge research into microbial ecology. In this episode of Gastropod, we investigate cheese in all stinking glory, from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval France, from the origins of cheese factories and Velveeta to the growing artisanal cheese movement in the U.S. Along the way, we search for the answer to a surprisingly complex question: what is cheese? Join us as we bust cheese myths, solve cheese mysteries, and put together the ultimate cheese plate.
Mar 23 2015
Rank #9: We’ve Lost It: The Diet Episode
Diet dreams are splashed across magazine covers and blare from the T.V., offering tips and tricks, that will, readers and viewers are promised, make weight loss easy and fast. Diet books making similar claims can be found at the top of the best-seller list without fail, every January. But where does this obsession with losing weight to reach some kind of idealized body type come from? How long have gurus and doctors alike made millions from the West’s preoccupation with the “d” word, and why do strange fads such as chewing each bite hundreds of times stick around for centuries? This episode, we explore the history of diets, before asking a scientist: Does anything actually work?
Jan 30 2018
Rank #10: Ripe for Global Domination: The Story of the Avocado
Avocados are on a roll. More precisely, they’re on toast—a lot of toast. Last summer, British Vogue reported that more than three million new photos of avocado toast are uploaded to Instagram every day. But how did this humble fruit, originally named after testicles, get from its Mexican forest home to a tattoo on Miley Cyrus’s upper arm? This episode, we unravel the avocado’s amazing journey, a story that involves not only conquistadors and cartel violence, but also a Southern California postman and actress Angie Dickinson lounging in a white leotard. And we discover where the avocado is headed next—a place where it’s known as the butter fruit, and often consumed in shake form. Listen in now for all this creamy green goodness and more.
May 08 2018
Rank #11: Secrets of Sourdough
Today, you can find a huge variety of breads on supermarket shelves, only a few of which are called “sourdough.” For most of human history, though, any bread that wasn’t flat was sourdough—that is, it was leavened with a wild community of microbes. And yet we know surprisingly little about the microbes responsible for raising sourdough bread, not to mention making it more nutritious and delicious than bread made with commercial yeast. For starters, where do the fungi and bacteria in a sourdough starter come from? Are they in the water or the flour? Do they come from the baker’s hands? Or perhaps they’re just floating around in the foggy air, as the bakers of San Francisco firmly believe? This episode, Cynthia and Nicky go to Belgium with two researchers, fifteen bakers, and quite a few microbes for a three-day science experiment designed to answer this question once and for all. Listen in for our exclusive scoop on the secrets of sourdough.
Dec 18 2017
Rank #12: Can Diet Stop Alzheimer’s?
Every three seconds, someone in the world develops Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a devastating disease: millions of people, as well as their caretakers, spend years dealing with disabling disorientation and memory loss. Today, it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. By 2050, an estimated 15 million people in America will have Alzheimer’s—the combined populations of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But, after years of failed drug trials, scientists are now realizing that the disease begins with structural changes in the brain decades before sufferers show any symptoms. And some researchers now believe that diet may be the most important factor in determining whether or not those brain changes take place. Listen in now to find out: Can changing what you eat prevent Alzheimer’s?
Mar 11 2019
Rank #13: Meet the Queen of Kiwi: the 96-Year-Old Woman Who Transformed America’s Produce Aisle
The produce section of most American supermarkets in the 1950s was minimal to a fault, with only a few dozen fruits and vegetables to choose from: perhaps one kind of apple, one kind of lettuce, a yellow onion, a pile of bananas. Today, grocery stores routinely offer hundreds of different fruits and vegetables, many of which would be unrecognizable to time travelers from a half century ago. What changed, and how did Americans learn to embrace spaghetti squash, sugar snap peas, and kiwi fruit? This episode, we tell the story of the woman behind this transformation: Frieda Caplan, the Queen of Kiwi.
Dec 17 2019
Rank #14: Kombucha Culture
If you haven’t tasted kombucha yet, you probably will soon. The sour-sweet, fizzy, fermented tea is becoming ubiquitous in trendy cafes, workplaces, and health food stores across America. Where did it come from, and how did it get so popular? And what in the world is the slimy, beige blob that produces it? From German POWs to Lindsey Lohan to a kombucha zoo at Tufts University, this episode explores the history and science of summer’s hottest drink.
Aug 08 2016
Rank #15: Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan
From rainbow-hued enameled stew pots to lightweight nonstick frying pans, the metal and ceramic vessels we use to heat our food are such an everyday aspect of the kitchen that they’re easy to take for granted. But make no mistake: the invention of the pot was, after fire, one of the most important innovations in cooking. You’ll want to hug your favorite skillet after coming along with us on this journey, which ranges from some of the earliest clay pots ever found in what’s now the Sahara Desert, to the British round-bellied cast-iron number that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution, to a legal challenge in Ohio that raised the question of Teflon’s health and environmental impact. Plus, can science help us find the perfect pot or pan? Listen in to find out.
Jun 19 2018
Rank #16: Guts and Glory
What does it mean when your stomach rumbles? How do our bodies extract nutrients and vitamins from food? Does what you eat affect your mood? Digestion is an invisible, effortless, unconscious process—and one that, until recently, we knew almost nothing about. On this episode of Gastropod, we follow our food on its journey to becoming fuel, from the filtered blood that helps slide food into the stomach, to the velvet walls and rippling choreography of the small intestine, to the microbial magic of the colon and out the other end. And we do it by visiting the world’s most sophisticated artificial gut at dinner time—a plumbing marvel named TIM that chews, swallows, squeezes, farts, and poops just like the real thing.
May 21 2019
Rank #17: Green Gold: Our Love Affair with Olive Oil
Olive oil is not what you think it is. According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, an olive is a stone fruit like a plum or cherry—meaning that the green-gold liquid we extract from it “is, quite literally, fruit juice.” And, while we’re blowing your minds, have you ever stopped to wonder what “Extra Virgin” means? “It’s like extra dead or semi-pregnant,” Mueller said. “I mean, it doesn’t make any sense at all.” This episode we visit two groves—one in the Old World, one in the New—to get to the bottom of olive oil’s many mysteries. Listen in this episode as we find out why the ancient Romans rubbed it all over their bodies, and whether the olive oil on our kitchen counters really is what it says on the label.
Dec 05 2017
Rank #18: The Good, The Bad, The Cilantro
On the surface, it’s just a leafy green herb. Its feathery fronds add a decorative note and a distinctive flavor to dishes across Latin America and Asia, from guacamole to phở. And yet cilantro is the most divisive herb in the kitchen, inspiring both deep dislike and equally deep devotion. What’s the history and science behind these strong reactions—and can cilantro disgust ever be overcome?
Oct 06 2015
Rank #19: The Salt Wars
Salt is a magical substance. It reduces bitterness, enhances sweetness, boosts flavor, and preserves perishable foods. Without it, we would die: the human body can’t make sodium, but our nerves and muscles don’t work without it. It was considered rare until quite recently, so it’s hardly surprising that, throughout history, salt has been the engine behind empires and revolutions. Today, there’s a new battle in the salt wars, between those who think that we eat too much of it and it’s killing us—and those who think most of us are just fine. Join us for a serving of salt, seasoned with science, history, and a little politics.
Aug 23 2016
Rank #20: The United States of Chinese Food
Wander into any town in the U.S., no matter how small and remote, and you’re likely to find at least one Chinese restaurant. In fact, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King combined. And the food they serve is completely unlike anything you’ll find in China. In this episode of Gastropod, we ask one crucial question: why?
From the Gold Rush to MSG, via the scandalous story of gender-bending Chinese restaurants in 1920s New York City, this episode of Gastropod serves up a tasty buffet of American Chinese food. Grab your chopsticks and dive in!
Aug 25 2015