maandag 26 mei 2014

Old world plants in the new world as seen by John Josselyn

John Josselyn is known in environmental history as the first author to record changes in the floral landscape of the new world as a consequence of European settlement. Read: the first to write and identify common agricultural weeds. His 1671 book 'New England's Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country' is small but trailblazing. Josselyn was not a botanist and his findings are not deemed 100% trustworthy, but his reliability goes up when giving the list of plants 'that sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New-England'. The list is small and the footnotes by Edward Tuckerman in the 1865 reprint available on Archive almost crowd them out. Here they are:

dinsdag 20 mei 2014

Rene Redzepi and Alfred W. Crosby

Yarrow (Gerarde 1597)

To most people the common yarrow will be a weedy roadside plant best kept out of the garden. It is easy to overlook that this humble plant was a witness to all of the 'Rise of the West' (McNeill). Its botanical name refers to Achilles who purportedly took it along as an antibiotic on his travels, the Norse introduced it to Greenland about 1000AD and it is now common in large parts of the world.

Yarrow also features as a foraged green in Rene Redzepi's NOMA kitchen where it is a common ingredient. It is also included several times in Redzepi's tome: 'Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine' (2010). Out of thin air, despite its generalist cosmopolitanism, Yarrow (or bloodwort or milfoil) was made to stand as a symbol of environmental awareness, hyper-regionality and creative idealism, a pawn in the battle for global food security and Michelin Stars. Yes the yarrow is local but it is local to, back of the envelope calculation, everybody living in the temperate zone. This is a pattern, not just a particular aspect of yarrow which is actually a very bad example as the new world already possessed yarrow, a variation with a genetic link so close that it continues to baffle taxonomists. 

The foraging locavore (from Euell Gibbons to Richard Mabey) is almost always subsisting on plants that have long ago left their natural boundaries and gone global. Yarrow, nettle, dandelion, cowslip, garlic mustard, chickweed and sorrel, all used at NOMA, are all extremely hardy and thrive on human disturbance. These are plants that were introduced to the Americas and Australia as a consequence of European farming practices, as so well described by Alfred W. Crosby in The Columbian Exchange (1972) and Ecological Imperialism (1986).

The ironies are several. Regionality is celebrated by making use of plants that have gone global (making it possible for a cook in New Zealand to reproduce a Nordic recipe). The chef who made his stake claiming that at least one third of his ingredients was foraged is relying heavily on plants associated with farming to do so. The plants that are used to make his food 'distinct' are some of the commonest plants on earth. The dandelion, after all, is the plant on which the sun never sets (Crosby).

Redzepi is famous for not using olive oil as the token symbol of him turning his back on the high tradition of French cuisine. When running the entire ingredient list of the NOMA book through Map Your Recipe you would expect a large part of the plant-ingredients to be domesticated in the Euro-Siberia center. A relatively small center missing from the original scheme proposed by Vavilov but added by his students. It is the origin of such plants as kale and kohlrabi. It has those but the book includes ingredients originally domesticated in every global center of diversity bar Tropical Africa and Australia, just like the Big Mac:

Earlier I already reported that food pairing visualizations may suggest that Redzepi still thinks like a classical (read French) chef. The abundance of plants domesticated in the Mediterranean also confirms this.
I am not a geo-food fundamentalist; there is no cuisine in the world that does not make use of globalized plant resources (perhaps only apart from the one you find in the Eskimo Cookbook). Cooking is culture not nature and the concept of an evasive plant makes no culinary sense. This is not meant to detract from Redzepi's project, which I continue to find admirable, but it is meant to remind us of the fact that in a globalized, anthropogenic landscape every claim made about regionality needs to be understood and evaluated against a backdrop of global environmental transformation.

World history weighs in on every locality on the planet, plants tells that story.

dinsdag 13 mei 2014

Big Ma(c)pped!

This is a paper right up my street: "Plant Diversity in the Human Diet: Weak Phylogenetic Signal Indicates Breadth" (2008; Procheş Şerban, John R. U. Wilson, Jana C. Vamosi and David M. Richardson). After noting that "it is often argued that globalization leads to uniformity in human diets" the paper continues:
The ingredients of a Big Mac hamburger are considered varied enough to make the price of a Big Mac relevant in economic comparisons between countries ("the Big Mac index"). We therefore thought it would be interesting to list the plant species that go into a McDonald's meal. A typical McDonald's meal——a Big Mac accompanied by french fries and coffee——contains at least 19 plant species from 12 families (table above). These species originate in all of the eight global centers of cultivated plant diversity identified by Vavilov (1926) and largely confirmed by more recent reviews, which means that a Big Mac is quite an apt symbol of globalization. That a single meal contains about 20 species is impressive, given that some human societies——those that are largely unaffected by current globalization trend——commonly include only 50 to 100 plant species in their entire diet.
The paper does not include a map but Map Your Recipe can provide one. MyR is using an updated scheme developed by students of Vavilov and instead of recognizing foodstuffs from eight centers of domestication it is counting eleven. Not all ingredients will be present in every Big Mac. Sugarcane may be domesticated in New Guinea but that is probably not where the sugar in your sauce came from. If you want see who are the top producers of these crops today Foodmap has a tool for that too. Eat your BigMac with some Macadamia nuts (Australia) and Lemon (West Africa) and you can bring the number of food regions up to the absolute maximum of 13.

zaterdag 10 mei 2014

Food pairing / gastronomy with a telescope

The theory of food pairing inspires little faith (see earlier) but when moving away from culinary applications perhaps it can be used to differentiate cuisines and cooking styles. How Chinese is Jamie Oliver? How similar are Mexican and Indian cuisines? How do French and Indian cooking differ? How unique is Rene Redzepi? 

The aim is to find a way to reveal the inner structure and logic of a cuisine, if such a thing exists, by comparing the way a cuisine or a cook combines ingredients with other cuisines and cooks. The first step is turn a collection recipes (a cookbook) into ingredient pairs, here is what a fragment of a looks like:
Two recipes use both potato and pork, one recipe combine chicken and cucumber, 15 recipes combine chicken with grapeseed oil and so on down the list. In a graph the pairs look like this:

The problem is in the data more than in the code. To get to lists of ingredients as recipes that are easy to process I am using Eat Your Books, a website that catalogs recipes and cookbooks. The ingredient lists are not complete (what exactly are 'cupboard ingredients'? a reference to the mock turtles of the soup) but they will do for my purpose.

Here is the graph of 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking' by Madhur Jaffrey (1975). It is pretty much what you would expect, a chaotic self-referential hairball with the core ingredients in the center with the rarer or less staple ingredients pushed to the edge. All graphs can be enlarged, the real information however is in the shape of the graph, not in the name of ingredients.

A different projection shows the connections differently, clearer on the eyes but not necessarily better: 
If you were creating something that would generate options for chefs you could take a book like "French Home Cooking: An Introduction to Classic French Cooking" by Paul Bocuse (1989) to generate diagrams like the following that shows what Indian (blue) and French (red) cuisines combine with potato and carrots.
It is of course bad practise to use one cookbook as representing an entire cuisine, but we are here in illustrative mode. Indian and French cuisine are national cuisines; how do they compare with someone like Rene Redzepi. With what ingredients does he (in green) combine the humble potato and carrot in his book "Noma: Time and  Place in Nordic Cuisine" (2010)? I a French manner.

But from the perspective of dry cooking this is still puny and close to home. The next image compares French and Chinese cuisines. The French is the Bucase book (blue), the Chinese (red) is Ken Hom's "A Taste of China" (1990). Again we are not actually comparing cuisines but cookbooks representing a certain regional form of cooking to a Western audience but the differences are real. Chinese and French cooking are worlds apart and only share some basics like vinegar, onion and pork. Chinese cooking comes across as much more homogenous and compact.

Now add Jamie Oliver's "The Naked Chef" (2000) to this French/Chinese data and see what happens: Jamie Oliver's cuisine is like a giant flesh eating amoeba devouring both cuisines whole and it still remains hungry. For now it is seems more French then Chinese.
Here is what happens when comparing Rene Redzepi (red) and Jamie Oliver. Even though the two appear to be opposites (the wild vs the supermarket, the avant-garde vs the popular) this graph does not really show it as you can see by the overlap. Both are Western chefs cooking Western food even when many ingredients are not shared.

The next image returns to the observation that Indian and Mexican food are historic twins. Would food pairing confirm this? Comparing Jaffrey (blue) with "Rosa's New Mexican Table" by Roberto Santibañez (2010) resulted in the following. The two cuisines are structured as separate spheres with a few heavily contested ingredients. Ingredients do not a cuisine make, as Rachel Laudan would possibly say as this graph seems to say.

In conclusion, to show that two similar bodies of recipes will overlap, I have compared Jaffrey with "50 Great Curries of India: Tenth Anniversary Edition" by Camellia Panjabi (2006). Both writers are of course using different ingredients but this image, in combination with the images above, do suggest a metric of displacement and uniformity: similar recipes will generate similar and overlapping hairballs.

zondag 4 mei 2014

Erick the Red's Exchange [The biological consequences of the Norse presence in Greenland]

The Columbian Exchange (as coined by Alfred Crosby), the process of two separate ecosystems mixing, is something that continues to this day. But what biological exchanges took place with the Norse exploration of the new world around 1000AD? Greenland and beyond: Baffin Island, Labrador and New Foundland. The Norse colony in Greenland always was an isolated and precarious undertaking and the answer is very little. It has long been argued that the Norse brought with them, along with grains and livestock, many plants new to Greenland. Weeds that remained long after the colonists left.

"Palynology supports ‘Old Norse’introductions to the flora of Greenland" by Schofield, Edwards. Erlendsson and Ledger (2013) takes up this question and answers it affirmative: yes, according to their pollen research, some plants did not occur until the Norse colonists settled in Greenland. In a table (above) they show how, through the ages, ever smaller numbers of plants were suspected to be invasive. Their research is for only three plants: Rumex acetosella (sheep's sorrel), Polygonum aviculare (common knotgrass) and Achillea millefolium (common yarrow) which is perhaps not much but still fascinating. These are plants that are weedy almost everywhere but the Norse connection still makes it something magical. The conclusion from the paper:
In this paper we have demonstrated the utility of integrating pollen-analytical data from a network of sites as a series of maps in order to add an objective historical perspective to a long-standing debate over which plants were introduced to Greenland by the Norse settlers. A convincing case has been shown for three taxa – Rumex acetosella, Polygonum aviculare and Achillea millefolium. The patterns that have emerged from this exercise, particularly those for R. acetosella, appear to open wider debates related to the pattern and character of the Norse colonization of Greenland. For example, were there key differences in the function/role of some ‘farm’ sites that led to the creation of more favourable habitats for ‘Old Norse’ flora in some locations relative to others, and could differences in the patterns of colonization and the spread of ‘Old Norse’ elements in the flora of Greenland be accounted for through the initial introduction of these plants at only a few key sites? Palaeoecology may be able to pose but never fully answer these questions. A next step would be for geneticists to try and advance this debate by exploring the links between the floras around the Norse farms of western Iceland (or further afield), and those sites in Greenland where it is believed that the first settlers disembarked around ad 985.

zaterdag 3 mei 2014

Wild Plants and the escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy

In her Ilfracombe Journal (May/June 1856) we find George Eliot excitedly botanizing, she saw no plants only vivid ideas; to name the world is to own it. Compare with Gilbert White.
I have talked of the Ilfracombe lanes without describing them, for to describe them one ought to know the names of all the lovely wild flowers that cluster on their banks. Almost every yard of these banks is a "Hunt " picture — a delicious crowding of mosses, and delicate trefoil, and wild strawberries, and ferns great and small. But the crowning beauty of the lanes is the springs that gush out in little recesses by the side of the road — recesses glossy with liverwort and feathery with fern. Sometimes you have the spring when it has grown into a brook, either rushing down a miniature cataract by the lane-side, or flowing gently as a " braided streamlet " across your path. I never before longed so much to know the names of things as during this visit to Ilfracombe. The desire is part of the tendency that is now constantly growing in me to escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct vivid ideas. The mere fact of naming an object tends to give definiteness to our conception of it. We have then a sign 'which at once calls up in our minds the distinctive qualities which mark out for us that particular object from all others.

vrijdag 2 mei 2014

The tragic case of distant reading


Franco Moretti teaches literary at Stanford and I feel conned in spending 15 Euro on his 2005 book 'Graphs, Maps, Trees, Abstract models for literary history.' Moretti is also a Marxist of some kind and as a working man I feel doubly ripped of: at my minimum wages that represents 2 hours of work.

For some reason in literature, in academia, scholars are expected to write with the convolution of the Mississippi river and the jargon of a turbine-engineer. It is good because it will always prefer to make you read the original rather than its interpretations. Mr Moretti is no exception: his prose is 'magical' in the personal and extrapsychological spectrum, or spectra, (the model is not the map and the network is an inverted social doxa of personalized metastatis vis a vis Hegel [in his early period]). Like, obscure, self-referencing and self-aggrandizing.

The outset of Mr Moretti project I can completely follow and admire: millions of book have been published, it is impossible to read them all, perhaps, from a distance, using text mining and statistics, something of value can be learned.

What happens next however is of a quality that I find staggering. The absolute bottom is reached on page 25 where a geograph shows 'US film comedies as a percentage of top five box office hits 86-95'. In some places, Central Europe and Israel, this can be as high as 30%, elsewhere, Serbia and Taiwan, it is 0%. Why there is the need to suddenly mention film I do not know BUT if an academic in the humanities can do no better than explain why comedies "are hard to export" with the observation that "contemporary comedies make large use of jokes, which are often lost in translation" I can only petition any serious body giving to man a forum to discontinue all their connections with him. Not only is it bad science: the statement needs proof with linguistic analysis (would Hungarian really be better suited to translate US jokes than Serbo-Croatian?). It is incomprehensible that a professor in literature can't come to the idea that humor is, at least in part, culturally defined.

The book continues without ever picking up steam, some graphs are nice, most seem pointless, most visualizations fail to convince me. There is much talk about form and genre and evolutionary metaphors but it is all cliquish more about reference than real understanding. If you want to do quantitative science, provide the data and the software, tell the world exactly how you came to your results, make it falsifiable. Mr Moretti begins with the right idea and then manages to ruin it completely with his own continuing presence, he seems concerned more with staking his claim than with doing a proper job.

I refrain from using the world charlatan but I am not sure why.