Juliana, our science-illustrating museum-loving friend, is back after another event! Here’s hoping her guest postings become a regular feature because this one sure left me hungry for more! (yuk yuk) – Ryan (the photographer)
When I wrote about the Exploratorium’s Iron Science Teacher Competition, I confessed that I’d never seen an Iron Chef competition before. Which is kind of odd because — another confession! — I’m a bit of a foodie. Not in the “raw food is the only food” way or the “I own every gadget from Williams Sonoma” way, but in the “I’m doing science and it’s delicious” way. Thankfully, the local Adventure Science Center (ASC) in Nashville had a food-based program this weekend so I could get my foodie fix.
The target audience for “Chomp!” was families and kids; not surprising, since that’s the whole MO of the Adventure Science Center. For some people, a ton of kids running around sounds nightmarish, but I actually appreciated the energy that they added to the whole event. The first time I went to the ASC it felt empty, which made me feel self-conscious about playing around with the hands-on exhibits. None of that this time, with the “foodie” tables interspersed among the permanent exhibits. Now that I’ve set the mood, it’s time for the main courses.
The Food Petting Zoo was a funny and cute idea — you get to handle crazy looking fruits and veggies! they can’t bite or run away! — but if you think about it, it’s potentially depressing: is this the only contact some of these kids have with fresh vegetables? When it comes to dikon radishes and kohlrabi, probably. But I do hope they know what a tomato looks like, or a squash. The descriptive labels included information about the taste, texture, and potential uses of the food, as well as nutrition facts, so hopefully there will be more fresh produce in Nashville households as a result. In any case, the idea of an inanimate petting zoo is pretty neat and I’m hoping to see more of that around.
The petting zoo wasn’t the only hands-on-food activity at the ASC (this is after all an interactive kids museum). One of the classrooms jut off the main floor housed the Edible Art Lab, where kids grabbed leafy greens, deep purple cabbages, oddly shaped squash, crinkle cut carrots, bright red tomatoes and cute-as-a-button mushrooms to make whatever they could think of. The resulting sculptures were displayed out on the main floor, with impressive results. I’m not sure if kids were allowed to take their artwork home, or what happened to the food at the end of the day, but I hope someone got to enjoy it.
“How Many Bugs Have You Eaten Today?” was one table I was looking forward to visiting, but it ended up being somewhat disappointing, in that it left me with more questions than answers. What kind of bugs, specifically, make it into our canned food? Who decides that X grams of bug is ok, but X.1 grams is not? If any of you know the answers, let me know. I did, however, get to try some dried and spiced bugs, so that was nice. I recommend the “mexican spiced” version, unless you’re more of a cheddar fan.
Are you a supertaster? Apparently I’m not, as I found out at the Supertasting Booth. Many of you may have taken the supertaster test in high school or middle school, where you put this strip of paper on your tongue and it either tastes like paper, slightly bitter, or cat piss. Fun story: a friend of mine knew her brother was a supertaster, so she put a bunch of the strips in a glass of water to dissolve the PTC, and kept drinking her water till he asked for a sip. Poor guy was gagging and spitting for the next 5 minutes. Ok back to the science. What is PTC? It’s phenylthiocarbamide, a compound whose properties were discovered in the 1930s when a chemist poured PTC powder into a container and some of it started floating around the lab, causing a coworker to complain of a bitter taste in the air. Turns out that the ability to taste PTC is linked to your genes (which control the density of taste buds on your tongue), and it’s a dominant trait. This means that 25% of the population finds PTC extremely bitter, 25% finds it tasteless, and 50% finds it slightly bitter. These ratios change depending on the genetic makeup of the population, but it’s thought that the ability to taste really bitter things could be a form of protection to help us avoid poisonous plants. Then again, non-tasters get to enjoy broccoli and chocolate, so I guess there’s a reason the recessives stay in the population.
Speaking of chocolate… any museum event that serves chocolate is A-OK by me. Nashville’s own Olive & Sinclair served samples, had a demo cacao grinder, and table piled with beans. We talked to the founder about the difference between beans from Guinea and the Dominican Republic (the former is more of a standard chocolate flavor, with more vanilla tones, while the latter is brighter, more intense, with more citrus).
Another local Nashville establishment, Bongo Java Roasting Co.,brought along two giant vats of brewed coffee, one that had been fully roasted and the other that hadn’t, so you could actually taste what roasting does to the beans. In fact, they had an entire display of beans at various stages in the roasting process, as well as an explanation of the caramelization and Maillard reaction, which is the reason that browned/toasted things taste so damn good. Bongo Java also supplied visitors with a coloring book (!) and a pamphlet of fun coffee facts, such as:
- coffee is native to Ethiopia but more than half the world’s supply is now grown in the Americas (a practice that started in the 1720s).
- Robusta beans pack up to 50% more caffeine than Arabica beans and start producing in a year, whereas Arabica trees take 3-5 years at high altitudes before they produce cherries.
- for either type of bean, 550lb of wet cherries yield only 100lb of dry polished beans, which lose even more water weight (16-22%) when roasted.
- caffeine increases the effect of some painkillers like aspirin and paracetamol.
- at 200°C, the bean cracks and the cafeol oil is released, which gives coffee its unique flavor.
- Turkish men had to promise to keep their wives supplied with coffee, since failure to do so was grounds for divorce.
How many people are Eddie Izzard fans? All of you? Great! Then you’ll remember this bit: “I like my women like I like my coffee — covered in beeeeeeees!” Yes, the ASC had a beehive at the event. Actually, they always have a beehive upstairs for observation, but this one came from a local beekeeper. I tasted buckwheat honey (dark and molasses-like), orange flower blossom honey (light and citrus-y) and honeydew honey (fruity and sweet); I watched the queen interacting with the other bees; and I learned why keepers put smoke in the hive in order to take honey: the smoke itself doesn’t put the bees to sleep, but it makes them think the hive is on fire, so they eat a ton of honey to store up reserves (for when they have to abandon the hive), and it’s all this honey in the tummy that makes them lethargic and less inclined to sting.
There were a ton of other activities that we missed, like the Chomp! Olympics pancake toss, the pie face contest and the expert cooking lessons, but at least we saw the chickens. I am very happy that humans domesticated chickens because eggs are awesome (the contents of an unfertilized chicken egg are basically just one cell: a germinal disk with the yolk as an extra-large cytoplasm). And yet, I do not feel the need to own a chicken in order to further appreciate what they do for us; however, your paleopal Ryan does not share these feelings, and has his heart set on raising chickens in the yard. I am holding out for a duck.
For more food science, check out these resources:
- Good Eats with Alton Brown — a show about food with lots of pop culture, history, and science, with a healthy dash of nerdy humor.
- Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter — it’s not just a cookbook, it’s a book about cooking, address everything from how we taste food, to why we use certain metals in pans, to the reactions that occur at specific temperatures. (Check out this excerpt)
Juliana Olsson is an energetic ex-San Franciscan surviving the summer heat of Nashville by drinking tasty beers, drawing (potentially) tasty eels, and writing tasty blog posts. Be sure to follow her on Twitter to experience her passions 140 characters at a time.