Curious Cook: Odd food stories

Warmer oceans have caused the spread of a virus that specifically attacks oysters and destroys their immune system in under 48 hours. — YUKIKO KANADA/Unsplash

I injured my knee recently, resulting in a lot of resting on the sofa, reading lots of books, and no hiking at all. And also surfing on my tablet to uncover interesting food stories. The column today reflects some findings from the sofa.

No oysters

It was a little disconcerting shuffling gingerly through the supermarket a day ago and not encountering any homegrown molluscs. Normally, several aisles would be heaving with oysters at this time of the year, but they are now nowhere to be seen. This is worrying because it is likely to be yet another consequence of global warming.

Warmer oceans have likely promoted the spread of the Ostreid Herpesvirus Type 1 virus (OSHV-1). This is a variant of the herpes virus which specifically attacks bivalves, in particular, oysters. Infected oysters lose their natural immunity to various ocean-borne bacteria which then rush in to kill the oysters. It can take less than 48 hours for OSHV-1 to destroy an oyster’s immune system and other bacteria can then invade and kill it within a short time after that.

This issue with oysters (and other shellfish) may explain the increase in food poisoning outbreaks in France earlier this year. There were also similar problems in South China and Hong Kong. So, despite my immense fondness for oysters (and the most popular species in France and China is the cupped oyster known as Crassostrea gigas), it is probably a sensible idea to be wary of them for a while, at least until scientists find a remedy for the problem.

Salty habits

I always remember watching my grandfather eat his lunches. He had a great fondness for fried salted fish over which he would pour soy sauce as it was just “not salty” enough. I could never eat what he was eating as the saltiness was so strong, it was almost like an acid attack on the tongue.

A person’s predisposition for saltier foods can often be determined even while in their mother’s womb. — COTTONBRO/PexelsA person’s predisposition for saltier foods can often be determined even while in their mother’s womb. — COTTONBRO/Pexels

But now I can understand his fondness for salt. Various studies have established that a person’s ability to tolerate saltiness is a consequence of the amniotic fluid in the womb before birth. A mother susceptible to morning sickness and vomiting during pregnancy would lower the electrolyte levels in the amniotic fluid in the womb and this, for reasons not fully understood, would often result in a baby with a preference for much saltier foods than normal.

If you are curious, my grandfather lived till he was over 93 years, so his odd salty food habits apparently did him no great harm.

What a mother eats during pregnancy also affects the dietary habits of her offspring, according to several papers. This is not surprising as a human foetus can swallow and cycle through up to a litre of amniotic fluid every day. Studies have indicated that a fondness for garlic and various spices can be introduced to a child by the mother’s consumption of such foods during pregnancy, as molecules of the flavours of many foods get transmitted into the amniotic fluid after digestion.

This may be a plausible explanation for why many people seem to instinctively like their grandmother’s cooking, especially if grandma did the cooking while the mother was pregnant.

Breakfast cornflakes

Another curious story was the history of how breakfast cereals became the staple morning meal for much of the West, especially in the United States. We start by revealing that breakfast cereals these days can contain large amounts of sugar, which make them irresistibly appealing to young children – and many adults – especially if they also collect the free toys that are bundled together in many brands of cereals.

There may be some added nutrients in modern cereals to allow producers to claim them as “healthy” or “wholesome”, but the reality is they are mostly sugar-coated, highly processed carbohydrates, designed to be addictive, and therefore possibly one of the least necessary foods for humans to eat.

The story of breakfast cereals started in the early 19th century with an American, Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), who was fanatically predisposed against self-perceived sins like pornography, among other religious beliefs. Mainly, he believed that industrialisation had reduced human lifespans to mere scores of years rather than the hundreds of years depicted in the Bible, and he attributed this to the foods people were eating at the time.

There is a strange, interesting history behind the development of modern-day cornflakes. — CALUM LEWIS/UnsplashThere is a strange, interesting history behind the development of modern-day cornflakes. — CALUM LEWIS/Unsplash

He had a point because food quality was simply horrific in those days. Bread was often baked using spoilt flour and bulked with chalk or clay. Tea was made by boiling all kinds of leaves and coloured with toxic pigments and sheep dung. Coffee was derived from burnt peas and swept grounds recovered from floors, and rotten beers were mixed with powdered oyster shells and wood shavings to disguise the soured taste. Diseased meat was routinely sold as fit for human consumption. The list goes on.

Graham’s very public outspoken stance against such practices earned him a large following as an expert on health and the “science of human life”, and he did speaking tours across the United States on the evils of bad food and other malevolent stuff such as feather beds, masturbation and pornography.

To counter the latter two issues, Graham produced a flour known as Graham’s Flour which was basically coarsely ground raw whole wheat flour, including parts of the husks as it was not sifted. Foods made with Graham’s Flour would end up coarsely gritty and usually somewhat unpalatable; such foods would be the opposite of pleasurable eating. The idea was this lack of pleasure in food would somehow eliminate notions of lustfulness in people.

After Graham’s death, one of his ardent followers named James Caleb Jackson tried to make pre-packaged meals based on baked Graham’s Flour in the 1860s. The result was a product called Granula, and it was not a huge success because granula needed to be soaked in milk overnight before it was even possible to bite into it. However, granula might be considered as the first breakfast cereal.

The story continues with John Harvey Kellogg. Born soon after Graham’s death in the town of Battle Creek in the state of Michigan, Kellogg was raised by parents who fervently believed Judgement Day was imminent and hence any form of education was meaningless apart from studying the Bible and salvation.

Like Graham, Kellogg believed that anything considered “fun” was simply “wicked”. He also suffered from severe gastrointestinal issues and by his mid-teens, he had a scarred colon, constant severe constipation, piles and an anal fissure, all conditions which eventually shaped his life’s work to come.

As Judgement Day did not happen, John Kellogg eventually studied to become a doctor and at the age of 24, became the medical director of a religious health spa in his hometown.

He expanded the small spa into the luxurious Battle Creek Sanitarium with a capacity of close to 1,000 rooms, where up to 10,000 guests came a year.

Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium was unique for its time. There were mechanical camels which guests rode like exercise bicycles, a tropical garden, over 50 medicinal baths (one of which was radioactive), steam-operated lifts and all the mod cons of the period.

Guests could have their bowel movements forensically examined chemically and with a microscope in a garden of palm trees or await their colon radiographs while having a yoghurt enema delivered from the in-house creamery, or partake in aerobics classes often conducted by Kellogg himself.

There was a plush 800-seat dining room with its own orchestra and a 1,000-seat concert hall and lecture room. Kellogg would frequently give lectures which warned of the lust-inducing dangers of dancing (especially the waltz, for some inexplicable reason), consuming peppers, mustard, ginger, other spices, alcohol, etc.

Nowadays, we all associate the Kellogg name with cornflakes, of course, but the Kellogg involved in spreading the product globally was in fact Will Kellogg, John’s brother. John was absolutely fanatical about his ideas about nutrition, but the original cereal he developed was so hard there were constant complaints of broken teeth chewing Granola, the name John used to avoid lawsuits from James Jackson.

Eventually, John created Granose, the forefather of modern cornflakes, which became immensely popular probably because it did not cause teeth to break while eating it. The first bowl of Granose cornflakes (rebranded as Toasted Corn Flakes) was poured in 1895 and within seven years, there were over 50 copycat cornflake producers across the United States. The one thing they all had in common were the unfounded “scientific” health claims made for the products.

But cornflakes as we know them did not seriously take off until 1906 when Will Kellogg started producing sugar-coated cornflakes which were sold as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Previously, cornflakes were sold as an unsweetened “health food” but Will made them universally available to everyone as a convenient, attractive, sugary breakfast dish. And he also introduced the concept of enclosing little gifts and prizes in packs of his cornflakes.

The rest is history. You now also know where the word “granola” comes from. It is a recycled fancy name used these days to promote sugary, sticky muesli.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Curious Cook , Chris Chan , cornflakes , oysters , salt


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