Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Drunken Botanist - lessons from Amy Stewart's exploration of the plants that intoxicate

I love a good cocktail. The rise in the popularity of cocktail culture and craft cocktails has made me very happy. As with professional chefs, I find it amazing that people can still come up with unique creations. Our last dinner out included the Nasturtium (citrus vodka, St. Germain, and aperol - served down) for me and an Algonquin (rosemary-infused rye, fresh pineapple, dolin dry vermouth, and orange bitters - served up) for my husband. I admit that I rarely know much about the particulars of these beverages that have become an integral element of dining out. Thinking that it might be fun to learn more about the components that create these little glasses of deliciousness, I picked up The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks from my local library. 
Like Wicked Bugs, The Drunken Botanist is written as a compendium of sorts with accompanying pen and ink illustrations of the plants described. Here, Stewart focuses on the plants that people have used throughout history to create alcoholic beverages. There is good coverage of both the classic ingredients (e.g., rye, wheat, hops, and grapes) and the plants used for the mixers and garnishes that are essential to create the perfect cocktail. In the spirit of the book, here is a litany of things that I learned:

  • The invention of the Moscow Mule highlights the kind of story I love. The drink was first created in 1941 through the collaboration of a vodka distributor, who hoped to introduce Americans to vodka, and a bartender, who had extra ginger beer in stock. Because the bartender's girlfriend owned a company that manufactured copper mugs, these became an element in the recipe. A recent rise in the cocktail's popularity has led to an increase in thefts of the distinctive copper mugs. (In the course of my research, I noticed that Wikipedia has a slightly different version of the story of the invention of the drink, which is to be expected.)
  • The distinctive smell of the dentist office is caused by the use of clove extract as a dental anesthetic.
  • The fragrance of jasmine flowers is due to several compounds, including phenyl-acetic acid. Based on genetic differences, some people find that jasmine flowers smell like honey, while others compare the scent to urine. This is similar to the small genetic differences that cause some people to perceive a horrible smell in urine after eating asparagus or to find that cilantro tastes like soap (Julia Child and I share that one).
  • Some figs must be pollinated by a wasp in order to reproduce. The wasp then lays its eggs inside the fig and dies there. Those figs would contain little bits of wasp carcass. Most figs in use today can bear fruit without pollination. This tidbit makes me love figs just a little bit more.
  • I was surprised by the number of stories about the link between alcoholic beverages and scurvy. For example, in the 1500s, the British navy included beer in their fleet's rations, both because water would spoil at sea and to keep the sailors happy. Unfortunately, beer also went bad on longer voyages, which led to the use of grog (rum mixed with water, lime juice, and sugar). The lime juice was initially added to make the drink palatable, but it had the indirect result of improving the sailors' health. In some cases, the vitamin C deficiency was combated with spruce beer; spruce trees produce ascorbic acid to help them survive the cold. Spanish explorers used bitter orange as a treatment for scurvy.  In the course of their travels, they left seeds on an island called CuraƧao, where the bitter oranges are the ingredient in the eponymous liqueur.
  • Initial attempts to make wine from grapes grown in America were abject failures; both native and imported vines were unsuccessful. One problem was an aphid called phylloxera; the American grapevines were resistant to the pest, but European vines were not. Unfortunately, Americans sent infected grapevines to France, where the aphids quickly devastated the wine industry there. The solution: grafting American vines onto old European vines. The second problem was that the American grapes had undergone natural selection by birds, while the European vines had been subjected to hundreds of years of artificial selection by humans. Even today, researchers are working on making palatable wines from the grape vines native to America. 
  • There were numerous mentions of the Dogfish Brewery, who are resurrecting old approaches to making beer. In collaboration with a molecular archeologist, they have recreated several ancient beers based on the discoveries at dig sites.
There are probably other fascinating stories that I am missing, but I think I need to go make a cocktail.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I can't go to SeaWorld again: a comment on the movie Blackfish

Growing up in Florida, my interest in science was spurred by my love of the ocean. I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist at a very young age. Later, I thought that becoming a trainer at SeaWorld would be the perfect job. My subsequent interest in animal rights and environmentalism made me lose my fondness for SeaWorld.

My dolphin encounter.
When I visited my family in Florida in 2012, my mother suggested that we go to SeaWorld. I figured it was a good compromise as I certainly did not want to go to Disney and I did feel some obligation to let my son experience the place that once brought me such joy. We had a nice day in the park. I touched a dolphin for the first time and got so excited that I flashed back to my younger self. At the end of the day, we went to see the orca show. In past visits, this was always my favorite part, but it had been the better part of 20 years since my last trip to SeaWorld. During the show, I started crying; I eventually realized that I was crying for these poor whales, who were stuck inside this relatively small tank in an overly warm tourist attraction. After that experience, I concluded that I would probably not come back to Sea World.

Last week I watched Blackfish on Netflix, which solidified my opinion. The documentary explores the story of the killer whale Tilikum, who has been linked to the deaths of three individuals during his time in captivity. The documentary is based primarily on interviews with former SeaWorld trainers as well as killer whale experts. The main complaint against SeaWorld Orlando (SWO) in the film is that they did not accurately represent the threat that Tilikum, who had killed one trainer before arriving in Orlando in 1992, might pose to the trainers there. According to the trainers interviewed in the film, SWO never made that history or the incidents that may have precipitated that event known to the trainers. Later, Tilikum was involved in the strange death of a tourist who allegedly wandered into the tank. SWO claimed that hypothermia killed the man, rather than by an attack by the killer whale.

In February 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum. SWO claims that Brancheau's death was due to trainer error. The other trainers in the film argue that this was not the case. A lawsuit by OSHA eventually forced SeaWorld to remove the trainers from the tanks with the animals. SWO isolated Tilikum and kept him from performing, as least until until 2011. However, Tilikum is not likely to leave the park as he has been incredibly profitable as a breeder: the bull orca has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity. According to the film, Tilikum is frequently found nearly immobile for hours at a time in his tank. They speculate that his large size and his treatment while in the Sealand park in British Columbia may be the reason for his erratic behavior. 

In addition, the film charges that SeaWorld does not accurately present scientific facts about killer whales. Science education and species preservation has always been a strong defensive point for the park. However, comparing the talking points of the former and current trainers and tour guides with the facts, it seems that teaching people the science of killer whales is not a priority for the park, especially if the facts can make the organization look bad. For example, whales in captivity frequently have a dorsal fin that is flopped over. SeaWorld claims that this is common in the wild as well. However, the killer whale expert interviewed states that this is only observed in about 1% of whales in the wild. The park also claims that the whales in captivity have a similar lifespan to those in the wild; in fact, captive whales live 30-50 years while those in the wild live 50-90 years. In the end, the film confirmed my view that SeaWorld is just another theme park, which puts its own interests above both those of its animals and its workers.

The film ends with a powerful scene, as the former trainers go on a whale watching cruise; they all seem emotional as they observe a pod of killer whales in their natural habitat, jumping and swimming in the open ocean with their family intact. The film succeeded in making its case against the capture and captivity of whales. It convinced me that I should never go back to SeaWorld. Now I just have to break the news to my mom.