Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

How Thomas Jefferson Pioneered the Tomato, Championed Urban Farming, and Taught Americans to Make Coffee

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The Founding Father’s lesser-known but monumental contributions to modern culture.

If you, like me, believed that Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, you’re off — nearly two centuries off. It turns out we owe the feat to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James “Jame” Hemmings, to apprentice him to one of France’s finest chefs. In exchange for going along with the plan, Jefferson would grant Jame his freedom. “Thus began the most interesting and influential culinary partnership in American history,” writes Thomas J. Craughwell in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (public library). But perhaps most fascinating in Craughwell’s account is the role Jefferson played in championing vegetables and minimal animal products more than 200 years before Michael Pollan, popularizing indispensable plant species previously thought inedible, and even pioneering modern-day buzzword concepts like urban farming.

For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:

I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.

And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:

In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways, including the intersection of food and aesthetics and the notion of edible architecture:

The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.

So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:

There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.

More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:

He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.

He also had a soft spot for cabbage:

[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's maître d'hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from his slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.

His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:

In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.

In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.

boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.

pour in three times through a flannel strainer.

it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.

an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.

the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.

The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.

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16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Are We Nearing the Maximum Capacity of the Human Brain?

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How “the cleverest organ in the known universe could suddenly become one of the dumbest.”

“If you ever feel lazy or dull,” neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote of the human brain, “take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” But are you, or at least are you for long?

Much has been said about the perils of information overload and what we can do about it. But what if the issue was not simply one of will over wiring? In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating look at the science of “chunking” and how pattern recognition fuels creativity — Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor turns to the potential hard-wired limitations of our human brains as they grapple with the rapidly proliferating influx of available information:

Human eyes have around 100 million photoreceptors, each of which can pick up about ten visual events every second, so our eyes are effectively receiving a billion pieces of information each second. If you include the information pouring in from our other senses, that’s a staggering quantity of data for our brains to sift through every moment of our waking lives.

[…]

If we had an infinite resource of energy by which to crunch the numbers, and an infinitely fast brain by which to make the calculations, then there would be no problem, as we could analyze every scrap of data to its fullest capacity and never miss an opportunity or be caught by a threat. But, of course, in reality, it takes time to process anything, and human brains consume a frighteningly large proportion of our body’s total energy resources.

Computing pioneer Charles Babbage's brain

Public domain image

Then, Bor adds in a footnote:

Even though the human brain is a mere 2 percent of total body weight, in newborns this single organ requires a staggering 87 percent of the body’s total energy. A five-year-old has a brain that greedily guzzles nearly half of all the energy the child consumes, and even in adults this figure is at least a quarter, though that proportion can rise dramatically if we’ve had a mentally taxing day — for instance, when studying for exams. In fact, some biologists have suggested that the energy demands and complexity of a human brain are nearing the endpoint of what is biologically possible and that if you started trying to cram even more neuronal wires into the brain, the additional miniaturization that this would entail would turn all brain signal into random noise — and the cleverest organ in the known universe would suddenly become one of the dumbest.

Of course, for those of us who believe it’s less a matter of what machinery the skull houses and more a matter of how we use it, this is merely of curiosity rather than of concern.

Babbage’s brain image via Public Domain Review

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15 NOVEMBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut: You’re Allowed To Be In Love Three Times In Your Life

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An existential quota held in three long fingers.

It’s a fertile season for unprecedented glimpses of Kurt Vonnegut’s character, thanks to the newly published anthology of his letters, which has given us such treats as the author’s uncompromising daily routine and his playful, romantic poetry. But in the introduction to the recently released We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works (public library) — a slim volume containing Basic Training, Vonnegut’s first-ever novella only published after his death, and If God Were Alive Today, his last unfinished novel — the author’s youngest biological daughter, Nanette Vonnegut, shares a piece of the author’s life-credo that feels at once more personal and more relatable than the vast body of what has been written by and about Vonnegut in his lifetime.

Most times I’d find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like ‘How many times have you been in love?’ His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers. I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair. Whether or not my mother really did not love him enough did not matter; he felt that love was lacking, and I believed him.

Indeed, in this wonderful recent interview on The Rumpus, she corroborates the anecdote and cites her father’s words directly:

I think you’re allowed to be in love three times in your life.

What is it about famous intellectual-authors having such prescriptive rules about love? And where does that leave the essential process of doubting love? Perhaps the poets of yore knew best in observing that “Love is not kindly nor yet grim / But does to you as you to him.”

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