19 April 2008

Banquet of the bizarre

A Saturday morning is perfect for wandering the stalls of your local farmer's market. Not only is it a great place to pick up fresh produce on the cheap, but it is often also a place where nutrition turns exotic. Markets, grocers and fruit 'n vegetable stalls are infinitely fascinating to me; there are always new varieties of old favourites and by now you've sussed that I'm a sucker for variations on a theme. There are often strange and wonderful new things that entice me: weird fruit from the tropics, or sometimes from someone's backyard; strange vegetable shapes that the Korean lady assures me you cook "like potato". The world is too big and life is too short to bore yourself with green beans and Golden Delicious apples. We should indulge in the variety of tastes and textures that sprout from the Earth (except for okra - that stuff's wholly inedible). So let me unpack my electronic brown paper bag onto my digital countertop here, and I'll share with you some of the virtual veg I scored at the Cyberfarms Cybermarket this morning. Be a love and put the kettle on, will you?

Romanesco Broccoli [Brassica oleracea var. botrytis]. Isn't this gorgeous? It's the mathematician's favourite vegetable, Romanesco broccoli. Which is technically classified as a type of cauliflower, not broccoli. Something to do with the maturity of the developing flowers, apparently. Cruciferous systematics aside, isn't it just the coolest thing? It has an alien symmetry. The whorls of florets have a fractal nature. Some people find it too pretty to eat. I don't: it's delicious simply steamed whole and tossed in butter with some pine nuts and crushed green peppercorns.

Tamarillo [Cyphomandra betacea]. Hailing from the forests of the Andes and now found in gardens everywhere, the tangy tamarillo is a delectable beast. Bursting with colour and zip, I used to eat these straight off the tree. Just don't try the bitter skin; the easiest way is to halve it and spoon the refreshing pulp within. Gorgeous with ice cream, they also make fine chutneys, jellies, jams and compotes. The best thing about the tamarillo is that you can get a giant fruit-bearing tree in as little as two years from seed. This explains why tamarillo seeds are such popular fodder in gardener trades, but also why the trees tend to be rather tender, with shallow root systems. Protect them from frost and strong wind and you too can have juicy freshness straight from the garden.

Water caltrop [Trapa bicornis]. Depending on your frame of reference, it resembles a steer skull charred by a brushfire, or the Baron of Hell from the Doom universe. The water caltrop is the seed of an aquatic plant, which grows with its roots anchored in the mud of lakes or slow-moving rivers. It was cultivated in China for thousands of years as an edible crop, and has recently regained prominence on the international food markets. They need to be cooked in order to be edible, and can then be used in an analogous way to the (unrelated) Chinese water chestnut. Water caltrops feature in several Asian dishes and I shall search them out at the Asian markets in Denver, although they do look rather intimidating, I must admit!

Horned melon [Cucumis metuliferus]. Hello, what's this? In essence, the horned melon is a cucumber gone psycho. Slice it open to reveal the green gelatinous inside, filled with seeds resembling those annoying underdeveloped white ones found in watermelons. Those who can overcome their fear of pips are rewarded with a refreshing taste somewhere between passion fruit, lemons and, well... cucumber. These beautiful and bizarre cucurbits grow in the red soil of the Kalahari desert and so represent one of the few commercial fruits - along with the watermelon - to have their origin in southern Africa. They'll make a colourful and surprising addition to any fruit salad, especially when combined with the white flesh and pink skin of the fabled dragonfruit, the pitaya.

Crosne [Stachys affinis]. Another Chinese introduction, and a member of the Mint family, no less. These made their way to France in 1882 and were long cultivated in the area of Crosne, whence the name. Crosnes are also known as knotroot because of these small, ridged tubers. They are kind of difficult to clean (a potato brush works best) and have therefore proved not to be very popular. However, they are very versatile and can be employed in roasts, or to add a nutty crunch to salads. Crosnes can be stir-fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette as a dish on their own.

Mangosteen [Garcinia mangostana]. The single most astounding fruit I ever had the privilege to taste. I found these at the famous Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, and couldn't resist purchasing a couple. Dubbed "the queen of tropical fruit" by the American explorer David Fairchild in 1903, the dark, sexy rind full of tannins hides virginal white segments, resembling those of the orange. The biggest segments contain one seed each. They are originally from the Malay archipelago and historically did not travel well. However, mangosteens have been popping up on the dessert menus of fancy restaurants in North America, imported from Hawaii or Puerto Rico. Lucky foodies in big cities might even find them at the fresh food markets now, where they typically retail for about $10 apiece. And what did it taste like, I hear you ask? A combination of muscadel grapes, muskmelon, lychees, vanilla ice cream, raspberries, yellow cling peaches and somehow none of those things. In short, it tasted like mangosteen.

Tell me about the strange fruits and vegetables you've eaten, grown or fondled in some exotic marketplace. Links to pictures are welcome. More tea?

Photography credits: Romanesco broccoli © rattyfied; tamarillo © evag29; water caltrop © Exif; horned melon © Nadia McIlhany; crosne © @rgs; mangosteen © sasithorn_s. Please visit these talented Flickr users for more exotic produce.

9 April 2008

Charlatans in white coats

So we all know The Ancients were whack jobs. They built pretty temples and sturdy aqueducts, sure, but they not only thought the world was flat with an edge you could actually fall off of, but also that the sun revolved around it, a notion which persisted until the arrival of that crazy Copernicus with his heliocentric theory in the 16th century. They also believed a sneeze was the gods' way of trying to tell you something and that perturbations in the relative levels of the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) were the cause of all disease and personality defects. Oh, and not to mention their hideously antiquated taste in orgies: pigs' wombs in brine? Stuffed dormice? I think we'll stick with mini pizzas and garlic dip, thanks.

Modern science is The Truth. None of it is made up. Ever. Second-hand smoke causes cancer because the researchers say it does. If scientists warn that global warming may kill us all, we do our best to lower carbon emissions. The laundry detergent in the commercial must be scientifically proven to be superior, because the actor is wearing a white coat. Oh, wait... The public perception of science can so easily be hijacked. Science is not infallible, of course. It is a construed version of The Truth, based on observational evidence. Good science is objective honesty, but can never be absolute. Therefore, science is not The Truth, but it provides an explanation of natural phenomena that is damn well closest to The Truth. And that's why butter is really bad for you one week, and then much better than margarine the next. As more evidence is gathered, science inches closer to The Truth all the time. Now you can visualize just how far we've come since the days of ancient history.

The problem with the public perception of science is two-fold. First: people equate science with The Truth. Second: people equate anything that appears technical with science. If it sounds sciencey, we should trust it, because it must have come from an expert who knows what The Truth is. Not only is this rationale utterly absurd, it is also exceedingly dangerous. We are preconditioned to trust those who seem like authorities, even if they have hidden agendas. And even if these so-called authorities aren't inherently evil, they may themselves fall victim to indoctrination, disinformation or - worse yet - delusions of grandeur. Dabbling with pseudoscience not only detracts from the slow crawl to The Truth, but can bring a whole nation to its knees.

Trofim Lysenko was born in 1898 to a Ukranian peasant family. He attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute from 1921 to 1925 and was posted at Gandzha agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan as head of legume selection - whatever that is. Lysenko constituted the perfect fodder for the Communist Party to create a working class agricultural scientist to inspire disenfranchised peasants to embrace forced collectivist farming. Lysenko had lots of novel ideas: in 1928, he proclaimed to have "invented" vernalization, a revolutionary new technique for increasing the yield of crops. By storing wet wheat seeds in snow over the winter, the resultant seedlings would flower earlier. This is of course nothing new - many temperate species require a cold vernalization period in order to break dormancy. It's a natural mechanism evolved to help the plant survive the cold, dark winter and sprout in the spring. However, Lysenko claimed that his technique ensured that the offspring of vernalized crops would already be vernalized themselves, and not require a new round of cold induction. This would stave off the looming food crisis. Could the next potato harvest be enormous? He had the results to back it up. No-one bothered to investigate the experimental practices at his agricultural research station. In reality, a lot of his data was inconclusive, but none of it was closely scrutinized at that point. It was too good not to be true. He could fertilize exhausted fields without applying any fertilizers at all! Lysenko was no mere agronomist, he was an agricultural messiah.

Soon Lysenko became majorly influential in Soviet agriculture. Sound Russian plant breeding was shifted to the sideline as Lysenko's procedures were adopted. Much of his work paralleled aspects of Lamarckism. Lamarckian evolution is the discredited scientific theory that acquired characteristics can be passed on to progeny. This is akin to saying that a man who lost an arm in a car accident will go on to sire armless children. Lamarck's theory was a pretty good one for the early 19th century perhaps, but since that time Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin had provided much improved explanations for how heredity and evolution worked. Lysenko put in a lot of effort in denouncing the burgeoning geneticists of his country. After all, they were playing around with the chromosomes of fruit flies and seemed disinterested in helping to feed the people. The proof that DNA was the genetic material was still some decades away. Such bourgeois academics were of little use to the Soviet government; Lysenko's research output was tremendous, with edible results. His promises were the best way of motivating the kolkhozniks to stay on the ailing collective farms. In 1940, Lysenko became director of The Institute of Genetics for the USSR Academy of Sciences. All so-called counterproductive scientific activities were halted. The study of Mendelian genetics was essentially outlawed. Scientists and researchers all over the Soviet Union were ousted from their positions, imprisoned, or sent to labour camps.

Dark days for science. Georgii Karpechenko, a cytologist and plant breeder, was arrested for "anti-Soviet" inclinations. He was sentenced to death and executed on 28 July 1941. The real reason for his execution was his affiliation with Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was a Soviet botanist and director of the Leningrad All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences. He was especially interested in finding the centres of origin of crops like wheat and maize. Because he realized the importance of preserving the genetic diversity found at these centres of origin for future plant breeding projects, he was responsible for establishing what continues to be one of the world's largest seedbanks. Vavilov was quite vocal and openly criticized Lysenko's non-Mendelian initiatives. This did not go down well and Nikolai Vavilov was duly arrested. He died of starvation in a prison in 1943.

"He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists." - physicist Andrei Sakharov on Lysenko, 1964

Lysenko's stranglehold on Russian agriculture continued well after Stalin's death and into the 1960s. However, the world had changed by then; mainstream science could no longer be suppressed. A case was brought against Lysenko in 1962 (by three physicists, no less). Lysenko's use of political power to silence opposition and eliminate his scientific opponents was condemned and his work criticizd as pseudoscience. Appeals for the restoration of the scientific method to all fields of biology and agricultural science pervaded the Soviet press. No longer immune to criticism, Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in Moscow's Lenin Hills. The Institute itself was soon dissolved. Trofim Lysenko passed away on 20 November 1976.

Science is not infallible, of course, because scientists are human. Inevitably, researcher bias clouds results: the desire to see the data support the theory - that human need to be vindicated and validated - is very strong. A hypothesis can only be rejected or fail to be rejected, never proven. Truly objective science will allow the theory to describe the data, and so bring us an inch closer to The Truth. That is the beauty of the scientific method. The fact that the guy on TV is wearing a white coat doesn't make him a scientist. Listen to what he is saying: does he juggle technical terms? Does he whip statistics out of clean air? How reliable are the references he uses? Does he rely on your innumeracy to convince you? Is this a conjuring trick disguised as statistics? In the 21st century, now that everyone's an expert, it is more prudent than ever not to become sold on the hype.