Archive for the ‘Cuisine’ Category

What’s for Dinner II

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

[No prurient photos along with this posting]

In College, my favorite professor was an anthropologist, Earl Count by name, lately deceased, who also held a divinity degree. One of his hobby-researches was into the practice of placentophagia. The dots Count connected were these: 1. the abrupt transition from the pregnant state to the post-partum state requires a huge hormonal reprogramming; 2. in humans, this reprogramming frequently goes badly awry, with the consequence of post-partum depression or insufficient lactation; 3. non-human mammals, including primates, and whether herbivorous or carnivorous, eat their placentas, and don’t, so far as we can tell, suffer post-partum depression; 4. placentas are chock-full of steroid and peptide hormones, growth factors, immunological factors — the biochemical companies know this, and use placentas as a raw material from which to purify several of these substances for sale; 5. most human societies, particularly those you might think of as “primitive”, have strong views, either pro or con, that is either ritual or taboo, on placental disposition. I remember Count’s exposition of the theory particularly well, since it was delivered from the pulpit of the Hamilton College Chapel, with Count in his full ecclesiastic raiment. Not to prejudice the argument further, but I also recall our nickname for Prof. Count was “Noah” , Noah Count.

Not a typical dinner-time conversation topic in China, but, like a cue-ball sunk on an unanticipated cushion-bounce, there it was one day, hardly to be ignored. The upshot of the conversation was that the Chinese, or least a traditional seam among them, advocate placentophagia. Its advantages have been reputed by Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial, and include promotion of lactation and prevention of depression.

A thorough literature search would require fluency in Chinese, in classical Chinese no less. But an aperitif may be had by googling for “placenta in traditional Chinese medicine”. Among the hits you will find descriptions of the biological bases (echoing Earl Count’s talking points), recipes and citations to National Institutes of Health research publications on the subject.

In reading some of this material, I detect few scruples as to whether it is your own or someone else’s placenta you are eating. Indeed, apparently men have been known to indulge, perhaps unwittingly, though the reputed benefits are hard to extrapolate to males. Who knows? A good dose of estrogen may be salutary in some males; Dick Cheney springs to mind.

Some of the recipes involve cooking or stir-frying. Maybe tastier that way, though most suggest chemically gentler forms of preparation, like drying or freeze-drying — a sort of jerky — with subsequent powdering and encapsulation for the more squeamish. Additional seasonings — ginger seems a favorite — are suggested, with a more or less explicit nod that some of the flavor components could do with a bit of camouflage. As a biochemist, I would concur with the gentler means, and note that even then, the many esoteric, peptidic components are not likely to survive the digestive process. But please don’t construe my view as a suggestion for parenteral administration.

Chinese regard for the placenta is such that it has prompted a recent law giving ownership of a placenta to its “mother”, and forbidding donation or sale to other parties without the owner’s consent. (Chinese laws should be seen as acknowledgement of existence of a phenomenon, not necessarily as a political will to abate it, unless the “phenomenon” is defamation of the government, in which case the opposite is true: it is not acknowledged, but strongly abated.)

As a member of a fairly primitive society myself, I cannot help not being neutral on the issue. So many ramifications! I can guess the “Choice” crowd’s answer, but am curious about the “Right-to-Lifers'” line on placentophagia. Or the Church’s. Or Oprah’s. Or George Bush’s. My dictionary fails to qualify its definition of cannibalism to exempt ingestion of placental tissue, cooked, dried, diced or otherwise. Yet I assume there are legal strictures against cannibalism in our fifty states — I can’t cite sections of code — and wonder if criminal code makes exception. Whether criminalized or not, placentophagia seems spiritually aligned with natural foods advocates: Would vegetarians partake? Vegans?

And the Health Care Industry, which I will have to regard as the major “producer” of placentas, what’s its role? Do they recognize the mother’s ownership? Offer it to her? Sell it without her consent? Cook them? Burn them? Trash them?

Ah, Count. Count on a good meal to stimulate a good discussion on eating habits.

Caught in the Act

Monday, December 31st, 2007

the scenean actor

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Now that the rampage of year-end feasting has subsided, I take time to consider the spectacular Chinese art of eating. Not of cooking, of eating.

First of all disabuse yourself of your mother’s admonition that what goes into your mouth is not intended to come out. Your mother was not Chinese. This dictum simply propagates the cheap swindle Western chefs have put over on their eating public for a couple hundred years. The codeword, of course, is “presentation”. Like a pin-up-girl, food colors and contours are intended to stimulate salivation, but preclude really moving on to serious wrangling. All the fun of dissecting the tasty from the inedible is usurped by the chef, but with a coarseness that leaves the real morsels at the interface to their fate in the garbage can. Chinese cooks do not dissect, they divide, indiscriminately, for the sole purpose of convenience in transfer with chopsticks from dish to mouth. To the exquisitely articulate tools of the oral cavity is left the pleasure of microdissection, with only an occasional assist from that next most articulate human appendage, the digit. With tongue and teeth and palate, one plies the soft tissues from the hard, and then passes judgement on whether the hard might not indeed be amenable to molar crushing, as are the delicate bones of a near-term chick embryo, or needs simply to be ejected whence it came.

We do not talk here of the pretty or presentable, but of pure, lingual pleasures. God meant us to eat with our mouths, not with our eyes. The Chinese are not given to this Western sacrilege.

Of course, this eating-act is a little messy, emitting the occasional odd sound or awkward mandibular posture, and re-ejection is not always so deft as the initial transfer. But it is an all-engaging act, which mostly renders one oblivious to the antics of the other actors around him. Though, I note, that almost as pleasurable as the act itself, is observing others engaged in the act. For a human, that is; to the hypothetical-Martian-observer it must seem very peculiar indeed.

Sake Socialism

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Tokyo Ginzagood foodexcellent sakeprofound conversation

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If you are fortunate, as I am, to have a friend and former scientific colleague willing to show you the sights in Tokyo, I suggest allotting equal time to some quiet, far-from-Ginza sashimi bar as to the glitz itself. Perhaps it was the sake more than the fish that facilitated our joint retrospections into the just-so stories of how we came to the laboratory bench. My tale was routed through Madison, Wisconsin, which provided both a cover in the form of an academic deferment from the draft and a stage for anti-war boisterousness. The University thrived on the former while squelching the latter.

Tamie’s tale was more interesting. It was routed through Moscow, where, uniquely for students outside of the Eastern Bloc, Japanese students were courted in a Soviet effort to win hearts and minds. Reaction to MacArthur-styled occupation and the persistence of Japanese denial of guilt had spawned a post-war generation of Japanese youth that viewed socialism as the path out of that morass. So the young chemistry student dropped out of Tokyo U in favor of Moscow State. During the next five years he learned Russian and earned a degree in physical chemistry. The contingent of Japanese students — I believe is was only forty some — had brought their political commitment with them. As the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong grew ever more brutal, they did what red-blooded idealists were doing in all parts of the world: they organized a protest demonstration at the American Embassy.

In Madison, the University’s tactic was to summon city police, bloody a few heads as examples, and drag the rest off the streets to city jail, only to drop charges when the demonstration was thus defused — you can’t have a demonstration without people. In Moscow, the University’s tactic was to threaten expulsion and deportation — you can’t have a demonstration without people. The very idea of people-power was just as threatening in the one capital as in the other.

But the Japanese students were at least as savvy at politics as at chemistry. The Russian students, they realized, had long since been drained of their spunk, but not so the other foreign student contingents, especially the Cubans. Three times the Japanese students organized demonstrations along side the Cubans and Africans. Three times they were threatened with expulsion and deportation. But thanks to student solidarity, the little bastards had the Dean by the short hairs — Japanese were expendable, but no way could he get away with ejecting the Cubans and Africans.

With another glass of sake the irony turned from amusing to bitter. That was not socialism, but feudalism – or something to that effect is the summary I remember. Tamie returned to Tokyo, Russian degree in hand, pursued a doctoral degree in molecular biology, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. Still a keen and able scientist, even in retirement, I glimpsed a former keeness in that very Japanese bar, far from Ginza, far from present realities.

Supper was…

Friday, March 30th, 2007

gathering tea leavesPaul Can Cookdinner spreadsatisfaction

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…a small fish, perch, more or less, steamed in a wok with ginger, scallions and beer, and still swimming 30 min before I ate him. A Chinese would have recognized it as authentic, if a little amateurish. How they manage to wield a clever to deliver such small spears of ginger, and still have flesh left on their finger tips baffles me. The ginger and beer is absolutely essential — Paul (a good Chinese friend, concerned about my ability to survive) was horrified the first time he cooked a fish here when I found I had no beer. When you gently point out that you have been cooking and enjoying fish for forty years without ginger and beer, they just as nonchalantly reply that Americans can do without ginger and beer only because they don’t have fresh fish. Lest you think that after using a couple of tablespoons of beer the cook gets to consume the rest, be assured that it’s totally undrinkable — look it says here “cooking beer”; godawful stuff to drink!

The starch course would have appeared less familiar: a diced potato, a diced taro root, some cauliflower, a bit of onion, all wokked, with a dash of soy sauce and a large dash of vinegar. Quite tasty to my palate , but not requiring supplemental rice. With a tangerine and two pipas for Nachtisch.

And leaving out the obligatory soup. If soup is obligatory, it’s also unavoidable. Whereas Judy saves her cooking waters to nourish the plants, Chinese cooks collect them, add a few bits of tofu or meat scraps or fish heads, possibly an egg, and voila, there’s soup.