Psychophysics of Flavor Complexity

If I need evidence that we like complex flavors, I will quote this passage from The New Yorker:

“This sauce is really good,” she said. “It’s so Jean-Georges. He does this French-and-Asian thing.” She warned me that she would need a few seconds to figure out its precise ingredients. (She refused to divulge them, on the ground that Vongerichten would consider the recipe “a trade secret.” I later learned from one of the waiters that the ingredients include powdered English mustard and soy sauce.) “It’s so complex,” she said. “It makes me smile.”

The soy sauce is fermented. As any regular reader of this blog knows, I believe we evolved to like complex flavors so that we would eat more bacteria-rich food. So we have something in our brain that measures complexity of smell/flavor and translates that into pleasure: the more complexity, the more pleasure.

My experience of cooking is that it isn’t easy to produce a lot of complexity using spices and stuff like garlic and ginger. It’s possible but not easy. Ordinary recipes, such as in Saveur, aim for a low level, with 5-8 spices. Chinese Five Spice has 5 spices; spice mixtures might have 8; curry powders might have 10. At Whole Foods, the ready-to-eat soups have twenty-odd ingredients. Apparently their soup designers don’t find it easy, either.

Then I discovered that miso by itself produced sufficient complexity. Miso soup doesn’t feel “under-complex”. Finally I understood why wine is such a powerful flavoring agent; wine, like miso, is fermented. It makes sense that foods that our complexity detector  evolved to make us eat do a better job of setting off that detector than other foods.

Now consider how that detector works. Suppose you have two sources of sodium — two different salts, for example. You get the same saltiness from 2 g of Salt A as you do from 1 g of Salt A and 1 g of Salt B. I think complexity is quite different. I suspect that 2 g of Source A (e.g., miso) will produce a lot less complexity than 1 g of Source A and 1 g of Source B (e.g., wine).

I tried adding two fermented flavoring agents (miso and tsukudani) to soup. It worked! The result tasted clearly better than miso alone. Now I do this routinely. It’s very easy. The results have a level of deliciousness I can’t remember encountering before. Everything else I can eat (such as restaurant food) now seems less delicious. I think that three sources works better than two; whether four is noticeably better than three I don’t know.

The basic idea is there are strong sources of complexity (fermented foods) and weak ones (all other flavoring agents). One strong source = 10-20 weak sources. You get the best results by using several strong sources of complexity, perhaps three or more. Once you know this you no longer: 1. Obsess over recipe details (as in the New Yorker quote) because all complexity is alike and easily produced, just as no one worries about the source of saltiness. 2. Think traditional, time-honored recipes are better than what you can make yourself (e.g., Saveur). As far as I can tell food professionals (with one big exception) don’t understand this. I really enjoyed Top Chef Masters (a competition between 12 of the best chefs in America) but there was an almost total absence of fermented foods. Perhaps one chef used soy sauce. The winner, Rick Bayless, made a mole sauce. Mole sauces, which combine 20-odd weak sources of complexity, take hours. I think they produce less complexity than three fermented sources put together, which takes about a minute.

My Theory of Japanese Aesthetics

Japanese packages are beautiful. One after another. Old-fashioned Japanese buildings, Japanese posters, and so on, are also gorgeous. Even the Japanese flag is better-looking than other flags. The look of the IBM Thinkpad came from bento boxes. Why is Japanese visual design so great?

The usual answer is that Japan is an island, with scarce resources, therefore the Japanese learned to do much with little. This might explain a certain minimalism but there are plenty of island countries with undistinguished visual aesthetics.

My answer is different. It starts with the fact that Japan has a very large coastline/area ratio. It isn’t just an island, it’s a skinny island. That’s why the Japanese eat so much seafood. Seafood has a mild flavor. To preserve variety, you cannot spice it much otherwise everything ends up tasting like the spice. The differences between different fish are lost. This is why Japanese cuisine is weakly-flavored.

This created a problem for cooks. If the main food is weakly-flavored, everything else must also be. You want to show you care but you cannot do it with time-consuming complex sauces (such as harisa or mole, which takes a whole afternoon to make) or complex spice mixtures (such as curries) or complex cooking methods (French, Chinese). You are basically serving raw or lightly-cooked food with almost no spices. The solution — the way to show you cared — was presentation. The emotional energy of Japanese cooks went into making their food beautiful. Japanese food isn’t just the least-flavored of all major cuisines, it is also by quite a bit the best-looking. That’s how it started. Japanese cooks figured out how to make food beautiful. The lessons they learned and taught (at every meal!) spread to other design. When you grow up surrounded by beautiful things, as Japanese designers do, it helps you make beautiful things.

A friend of mine is a Chinese design student. She has met Japanese design students. How do they explain it? I asked her. They didn’t talk about it, she said. “We communicated in English. Their English is even worse than mine.”

National Fisheries Institute: Stop Misleading Us

After Jeremy Piven won a legal decision saying yes, he may have had mercury poisoning from sushi, the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry group, issued a statement. Its crux was this:

Despite the fact that the arbitrator ruled in Piven’s favor, NFI cautions reporters and editors to continue to treat Piven’s statements with skepticism. It is important to note that no peer reviewed medical journal has ever published any evidence of a case of methylmercury poisoning caused by the normal consumption of commercial seafood in the U.S.

Excuse me? Surely they know about Jane Hightower’s work. I suspect this is why they used the term medical journal. Hightower’s work on mercury poisoning was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is peer-reviewed. Hightower is a doctor. So what if EHP isn’t a medical journal? This statement, although literally true, is completely misleading. Hightower’s article is here. It supports exactly what Piven claims.

Here’s a quote from Hightower:

I think I provided a missing piece of the puzzle: That this [excessive mercury] exposure is coming from fish that we purchase at the grocery stores and restaurants. . . . Some people are eating so much of the commercial, high-mercury fish that they are over the mark for tolerable allowances set by the Environmental Protection Agency, the FDA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the World Health Organization.

Japanese Ice Ouca versus Bi-Rite Creamery

Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco has the best ice cream I’ve had. The ice cream at Japanese Ice Ouca in Tokyo is maybe 95% as good but the presentation is so much better than Bi-Rite I was stunned. The prices are about the same at the two places. At Ouca you get a choice of three flavors (versus two at Bi-Rite). The three flavors are mixed in an attractive pattern. You get a pretty round wafer to add crunch. And you get a little bit of salty chewy seaweed to eat after you’re finished. Ouca doesn’t stand out from other high-end Japanese food, which is full of these sorts of effective small touches. In Iceland I met a Japanese teacher of English who said, “I like everything about America except the food.” American food is like barbarian food — except worse.
When she was a teenager, Jane Jacobs visited a relative of hers in isolated rural Pennsylvania. Her aunt had moved there to oversee the building of a church. The inhabitants had forgotten that buildings could be made out of stone. American cooking reveals a similar vast forgetting.

Do They Eat Dogs? (Continued)

In answer to the question “Don’t they eat dogs?” a blogger living in Taiwan stated flatly: “No. They don’t eat dogs.” Now, from a Beijing University student named Xiong Lilin, here is a definitive answer about Mainland China:

Yes, we do. But not every Chinese person eats dog and never for everyday meals. In some provinces, there are restaurants that serve dog meat in the winter. A few people will have one or two meals every year during the coldest days. Eating dog meat can make people warm and prevent colds. Although these kind of restaurants exist, they are disappearing. In fact, mutton has the same function as dog meat. In my home town, Chengdu, many people eat mutton on DONGZHI, the day winter begins according to the Chinese traditional calendar.

More In this New Yorker article, published today, Michael Savage, the radio host, contemplates eating dog. Xiong Lilin later wrote: “Yesterday, my roommate asked me what kind of dog we eat. She seems to think that we eat pet dogs. In fact, we do not eat pet dogs, the dogs we eat are raised specially for eating and belong to different kinds from the pet ones.”

Tsinghua Dumplings

Jennifer Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, has a nice post about dumplings, including this:

I once made 888 dumplings for a party, my personal record. . . . You might have crudites, warm cheese, stale hummus, left over at the end of the party. You will never have leftover dumplings — unless you burned them.

This reminds me how much I liked the dumplings a the Tsinghua student cafeterias. I think they were served at every meal but I associate them with breakfast, maybe because there was less choice at breakfast. Fresh and homemade and chewy and well-spiced and incredibly cheap (like all the cafeteria food). Maybe 6 for 25 cents. There was an optional vinegar-like sauce (speaking of fermented foods). There were two types (pork & ??) but I didn’t understand the Chinese names.

I tried to avoid them. They were too easy and familiar. But it takes a certain amount of stamina to eat strange food so if I was tired, I’d have dumplings.

Less of a Foodie

Two weeks ago I was in New York City. I have been there many times. For the first time, I was unexcited by the prospect of eating in the city’s fascinating restaurants. I think it’s all the fermented food I eat (at least two servings per day). All of it has complex flavors; all the New York restaurant food I liked had complex flavors. I am no longer complex-flavor-deprived.

Do They Eat Dogs?

From a post about life in Taiwan:

Don’t they eat dogs and other odd stuff like snakes?
No.  They don’t eat dogs.

I think a small fraction of restaurants in Beijing serve dog, but I never encountered one and I never saw dog meat for sale. In Seoul, however, they obviously eat dogs. I saw dog meat for sale in a traditional market. The dogs were alive (as many animals are in Asian “wet markets”). I later saw a booklet aimed at visitors to Korea that dismissed dog-eating as some sort of urban legend.

Umami Burger

A new restaurant with the excellent name Umami Burger has just opened in Los Angeles. According to The Foodinista, the food is as good as the name:

An attractive space with an attractive clientele. The tightly edited menu consists of 10 burgers, and a few sides including fries and a market salad. But, we’re told at 12:45 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, they’ve run out of buns. . . . amazing homemade ketchup . . . The beef patties on all of the above, really flavorful and just plain GOOD. I don’t know how they can make such a great burger and charge so little. . . . I’m telling you, the burgers are great.

Review by Jonathan Gold.
Thanks to Tucker Max.

What to Do about Beijing Air

Beijing’s dirty air is easily the worst thing about living there. You might think what to do about it is obvious. Many people do, including this man who wants to sell the expensive air filter he bought:

I remember the day IQair Sales Rep Justin Shuttleworth came to my place [in Beijing] to give me a demo. This guy has the easiest job in the world. All he does is come with his little air quality measuring device, show you how bad the air you are breathing is in your apartment (indoor air is sometimes worse than outdoor air for those who don`t know), and as the minutes go by, you literally see the amount of particles in the air go down, until it’s basically nil. This was the first time that I could actually smell the difference.

This is from an email list I’m on.

I got the same demo.  But it had the opposite effect: It made me not want to buy the IQair filter.

The air coming out of the IQair filter was very clean, yes. But there was only so much it could do. More dirty air was always coming into my apartment and no matter how high (= noisy) they ran the machine the overall level of dirt was no more than cut by 2/3rds. I already had an air filter. The air it produced wasn’t quite as clean as air from the IQair filter but it was still much much cleaner than the intake air. The IQair machine cost about 11,000 RMB. My filter had cost about 1,000 RMB. For 1,500 RMB I could buy a bigger version of what I already had, an air filter that cleaned twice as much air per minute as the IQair machine while producing roughly the same amount of noise. Its output was slightly dirtier than the output of the IQair machine but the overall cleaning effect — the reduction in dirt — was much greater. I ended up getting two of the 1,500 RMB filters.

I think of this demo when I hear someone talk about how this or that traditional diets is better than our modern diet. They make a simple point: People who eat the traditional diet are healthy, people who eat the modern diet are unhealthy. Just as the IQair demo guy has “the easiest job in the world.” They inevitably conclude: Eat the traditional diet or at least closer to it. Just as the conclusion of the demo is supposed to be: Buy an IQair filter. It seems so simple.

But it isn’t so simple. Eating the traditional diet isn’t easy, just as the IQair filter isn’t cheap. Maybe their abstraction — their description — of the traditional diet leaves out something important. Just as the IQair people do not measure cleaning power per decibel, which turns out to be what matters. (I traded air pollution for noise pollution. I wanted the best deal possible.)

If you read Good Calories Bad Calories you may remember the Canadian anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson who spent many months with Eskimos eating what they ate. He came back and told the world “you can eat only meat.” In his conclusions and subsequent field experiment, he ignored the fact that the Eskimos ate a lot of fermented meat.

More Great Food at the Fancy Food Show

  • Or great packaging. Agua de Piedra, a brand of mineral water, uses only the bottles that would otherwise be wasted when a glass-bottle manufacturer changes production from one color to another. Not only is this a great idea but it gives their bottles an attractive variation in color. I really liked the water, too.
  • The Pacari line of chocolates includes “raw” chocolate, that is, chocolate that is “minimally processed and unroasted to maintain the antioxidants and complex flavor profile of the cacao.”
  • I was surprised that there is a drink based on tumeric: Sajen Jamu.
  • One of the most interesting features of the show was the vast increase in the amount of cheese (all artisanal cheese) compared to all previous shows I attended, such as the show 2 years ago. Perhaps the best cheese I had was from Quickes Traditional, a farm in the south of England. They make many kinds of cheddars.

Butter: Bad or Good?

At the Fancy Food Show, I heard someone say that the better a food tastes the worse it is for you. “What’s an example?” I asked. “Butter,” he said. “It goes straight to your arteries.”

What a choice. I have three pounds of very expensive butter in my freezer, purchased from an Amish farmer who raises grass-fed cows. I eat it as often as possible. I believe butter may have fat-soluble nutrients we need to be healthy, nutrients that are found in high concentration in growing plants (such as grass) but not in ordinary animal feed. In the Swiss Alps, in the 1930s, Weston Price found small communities that produced almost all the food they ate. Because of the altitude, they couldn’t produce much. They did have grass-fed cows and prized the butter from those cows. They were in much better health, especially dental health, than their neighbors who ate mostly industrial food.

There was a time, long ago, when exactly the opposite of the overheard statement was true: The better a food tasted the better it was for you. Now it is complicated.

Powdered Ice Cream

At the Fancy Food Show, Kriss Harvey, a pastry chef and frozen dessert solutions specialist, served me a spoonful of powdered chocolate ice cream, his invention. It looked like chocolate ice cream but it tasted unlike any ice cream (or any food) I’ve ever had. It was there and not there. It was in my mouth and then it was gone. It was the most ethereal food I’ve ever had.

We had been talking about El Bulli, the Spanish restaurant of experimental food. Two friends of Mr. Harvey’s had worked there one summer and had come back complaining about the food (rabbit ears) and the workload. Just because people will pay a lot for your unusual food doesn’t mean you are advancing things, said Mr. Harvey. Maybe your food doesn’t taste very good. He pointed to a certain now-forgotten fad among New York dessert chefs a few years ago. That’s fashion, I said; it has a perfectly good purpose (to support experimentation). Then Mr. Harvey served me his powdered ice cream. Which was more memorable and impressive than anything I had at Alinea, an American version of El Bulli.

Chinese Takeout Beijing Style

In the elevator in my apartment building I realized the student holding hot food had just had it delivered. She gave me the menu. The restaurant, I learned, is called Kyoto. it serves mainly Korean and Japanese food. Free delivery. The surprising part: There’s no address. And it never closes, even on holidays.

An example of the general truth that there are many more kinds of restaurants (food-serving businesses) in Beijing than in America. Today I bought sugar-coated banana on a stick from a street vendor.

Interview with William Rubel, Food Historian (part 3)

William Rubel, a friend of mine, author of The Magic of Fire and co-founder of the children’s literary magazine Stone Soup, is writing a history of bread.

RUBEL I think that, in terms of culture–human culture–it seems that rich people have liked purity. We’ve been smelting metals for a very long time and smelting metals is taking dirt and out of the dirt creating a refined silver or brass or copper, even gold. I know that gold exists in little pieces, but nonetheless, there’s a lot of melting and purifying. So it just seems to me that logically once a culture had gold, once a culture had metal, the idea of purifying the grain to get white is not a huge conceptual leap.

White flour is a form of conspicuous consumption because you are keeping the endosperm–the starchy part–and throwing away the rest of it. And when you do it by grinding and sifting, and you leave an efficient system, you might throw away 75% of the grain to get 25%–the super white or 50% of it that will be white and 50% that you will throw away. You’re not throwing it away into the trash can, but you’ll feed it to a lower status person–the servants will get the rest of it–and of course you can also feed it to the pigs. But you would keep the white flour for yourself and make a lower status bread for servants and slaves. Historically the slaves were the ones who ground the flour. In the biblical period they did, and presumably before that as well. The earliest reference I’ve seen is in a book on cooking in Byzantium, I think about 800 AD, in Constantinople and someone is saying, ‘Oh the bread here is just white and fluffy like clouds. It’s degenerate, awful bread.’

ROBERTS You mean they did not like white bread at that point?

RUBEL This is a person who is criticizing it. He is saying that the white bread in the city, which is fluffy and white as clouds, is a sign of cultural decay. It’s a bad thing. And that critique of white bread, which we have today–that you’re throwing all the best parts away, that there’s something almost morally wrong about eating white bread–is a very common critique. I think by someone named Tyson in the book called The Way to Health, I think, in the early 1600s . . . I read certainly in medical texts from the 1500s and early 1600s, people saying, ‘This white bread is essentially empty calories and it’s a bread for courtiers,’ who are eating it because they are aping the social class above them, but that it’s not really very healthy. In the 18th century when people in France, in particular, became concerned about having enough good to feed the general population, one concern was that Paris had a culture of white bread and there were often grain shortages because it takes, out of a bushel of grain, you only get half a bushel of white flour. It was an inefficient use of flour, so the government was trying to push more whole grain or kept bemoaning the fact that the peasants in Paris didn’t want to eat this more whole grain flour. They felt that whole grain flour was better for workers–this is also a big motif in medical books of the 1500s and 1600s, that if you’re a worker, if you’re a laborer, you need to have a more whole grain bread. But if you’re a student, if you’re a person like us, who don’t have calluses on our hands and just work the computer keyboard, then people like use don’t need all that good value from the bread and white bread is more appropriate for us. They also recognized that there was more calories per unit–they sensed that it was denser calories, because they felt that someone who was very thin should eat white bread but somebody who was fat should eat the more whole grain bread because they knew from being very close to their excrement–they were close to their shit since they shat into holes . . .

ROBERTS Chamber pots?

RUBEL Chamber pots, yes. So they knew if they ate something grainy it just went right through them. They thought that fat people should eat a more whole grain bread than white bread.

ROBERTS So you’re saying that this preference for white bread and a reaction against this preference are both quite ancient?

RUBEL Yes, absolutely. That’s right.Now the bread that you like that I make is a very dense bread and part of this idea of using the past to look at our own bread culture is to say, ‘Gee, what breads were there back then and what were they like?’ The rich people have liked open crumb for a very long time and the medical books do say that the best breads have eyes, have air holes in them. On the other hand, the most common breads were fairly dense: rye bread and rye wheat bread or in England, breads just made with barley flour that could be fairly dense. But the old texts also often speak about the nice flavor of some of these dense breads. I find making bread, while you are a great fan of the dense bread and seem to respond to its flavor and . . .

ROBERTS Texture, too.

RUBEL Right. But I have a friend who’s (I don’t like to use that term foodie) like a gourmet–he likes to eat a lot, he’s very focused on food, but has very definite ideas about what’s good and what isn’t good and is very concerned about what’s good and not good. He just says, ‘William, when are you going to make a bread that’s any good, when are you going to make a good bread?’

ROBERTS You’re kidding. He says that now?

RUBEL Yes. He does not like the dense breads. He says they’re not well made.

ROBERTS What is his complaint?

RUBEL That they’re dense. Because density, or a lack of density, is a cultural attribute. Germans don’t feel that a 100% rye bread you see made and exported in those plastic, square loaves in plastic packages in the deli shop–and those obviously have no air holes–people in Germany are not saying, ‘Oh my god, this bread would be great if only it had air holes.’ It’s a style of bread, it’s a style and they appreciate.

ROBERTS You’re saying that the preference for an airy bread is cultural.

RUBEL Preference for an airy bread is cultural. For example the high status white bread in the 1400s and the 1500s (probably also earlier than that) was a white bread that was made with a very dense dough, 50% water to 50% flour, which would be very dense. Using modern flour, your ciabatta, is 75% water, maybe 78% water, by weight of flour. If you have 100 pounds of flour, the baker will be adding 78 pounds of water. Whereas this other bread would have been made with 50 pounds of water. The more hydrated the dough is, there’s some other factors involved, but the wetter the dough is, the easier it is for it to expand and make big air holes. All of this artisan bread that we like that has nice air holes–those are all yeast breads, so they’re moving to very, very hydrated doughs relative to historic practices.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, a standard English bakery book said that 50% water was the standard recipe. I have one book, a big English commercial bread book, the biggest book for bakers, by a man named Kirkland. He traveled around continental Europe and he said he was quite surprised to find that in Holland they were making breads with more water than they do in England. They were not following that 50% standard.

If you get back to 50% water by weight, and then they worked it for a long time. There’s an American biscuit called a beaten biscuit, where you work the dough in a mangle over and over again, for an hour. You just break down the gluten chains; you make a dough that is very elastic, very velvety. But it will never give you big air holes. What you’re getting is lots of really tiny holes. They would work the dough with their feet or they would work it with a tool called the break, which was a stick attached by a pivot to the wall. The baker would work this stick over the dough (actually with his body weight he would sit on the stick, sort of bouncing on the dough) for a long, long time until it was, as we would say, overkneaded. You would also be oxidizing it. It would turn whiter as you worked it a lot. They would get a very white bread with a very soft interior. They did not want a crust on it, a dark crust, so they also baked it in an over probably at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe even a little bit less.

ROBERTS Do you buy Thorsten Veblen’s view of this, why people like white bread? You use the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ from Veblen. Do you think that’s pretty close to what’s going on? People are trying to advertise their leisure time or their ability to pay. It’s like having a fancy gadget today. It’s a way of showing status.

RUBEL Yes. You buy imported butter. Most peoples’ tables, especially in our social class–the people who are reading your blog–are filled with cultural signs. What salt do you use? Are you using Leslie salt in the blue container and the little umbrella or are you buying sea salt? Are you buying salt from France? What kind of cheese do you eat? If you don’t eat Velveeta cheese, or some commercial American cheese, are you doing that entirely for flavor or is there some aspect to a little bit of showing off? Food is all about signs. Once you’re not just eating to eat, you’re saying a lot about who you are by . . .

ROBERTS Especially if you have guests, or tell other people what you eat.

RUBEL That’s right. Exactly. When you have people over to dinner and have that special olive . And also, we develop cuisines that work together with the foods that we like. White bread works well if you’re having a refined meal where the cook has spent a lot of effort to highlight ingredients or spices or herbs or whatever it is that is the highlight of that cuisine. White bread is more neutral than ____ or rye bread, which has a stronger flavor in of itself. Whole grain bread is giving you all that bran, which is filling and the bread’s not the meal; the bread’s the side dish. I think that there gets to be, also, confusion between bread as a meal and bread as a side dish. Even in the modern critique of white bread. Like, ‘white bread is bad for you, it has no roughage in it.’ But how much of it do you really eat? Does it make any difference? Or, ‘it’s empty calories.’ Well, okay, it’s empty calories; so is having a Coca-Cola, obviously. Or one of those fancy vitamin drinks. We eat a lot of empty calories; your wine is empty calories.

ROBERTS Water is empty liquid.

RUBEL Water is certainly empty calories.

ROBERTS  We’ve covered the main points. But if you have more time, I’d like to ask you one or two more questions. When you’ve been going into this history, what sort of things have surprised you or have been different than what you’d expected?

RUBEL There’s a lot more variety. I found cornbread from France which apparently was a staple bread in southern France in the 18th century. I’m also finding that most of our ideas are just not right. We’ve fixed on this French bread that only uses water but in real life–and it’s a high status French bread that we have fixed on–but in read life high status French people also liked bread that had fat in it. They had milk bread–breads made with milk and a little bit of butter. There was more variety then, even at the rich person’s table than we have now. I’ve been surprised–maybe not as surprised about them, but once again surprised and sort of disappointed or shocked to see how narrow-minded our own culture is in some respects.

ROBERTS I totally agree. I think that’s such a great point. There’s a story that Jane Jacobs tells that I keep retelling because it just comes up again and again. When she was a teenager, she went to a small town in rural North Carolina, maybe. She visited an aunt, and her aunt told her the story that when her aunt had come there, maybe 10 years ago, her aunt was assigned the task of building a church, or overseeing it. She told the villagers, ‘Hey let’s build it out of stone.’ And the villagers said, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ So they laughed at her. They had forgotten that it was possible to build buildings out of stone. You’re saying that it’s not just a small town–this isolated little town in rural South Carolina–it’s our whole culture. We’ve forgotten all these ways to make bread.

RUBEL Yes, or we’ve rejected them. Because it’s somebody else’s bread. You go to a Mexican bakery and they have milk rolls.

ROBERTS They have what?

RUBEL They have bread that has milk in it. Or eggs or butter. We used to have Parker House rolls; that was a big American roll, and now our social group–we’ve rejected that. It’s gone. And yet high status French people in the 18th century would have loved Parker House rolls and had breads that were very similar to that. I guess going back has reminded me of that.

ROBERTS Can I call it the new elitism?

RUBEL I don’t think that’s unfair. We have this particularly American variety of elitism, and I can’t speak for our European cousins, where we don’t recognize class in it. You go to a Mexican market and they’re selling Wonderbread or the equivalent and you go to our market–I live in Santa Cruz–and where the professors go, and we don’t have that bread at all. Or we have a weird industrialized version in Orowheat breads, which may be ostensibly whole grain but are actually industrialized products that make a whole grain bread so they can say that it’s whole grain or say that it has nine grains in it but effectively they’re really offering you something with the texture of a white bread.

We’re elite without recognizing the class. Whereas in old books–cookbooks and books that talked about bread in the 18th century and the 17th century–they were very up front. This bread was for the owner, this bread was for the servant and this bread was for the farm worker, the lower status person. They saw the status in bread; they recognized that it was there. They lived in a more overtly hierarchical society. Not more overtly, but they recognized that it was hierarchical, whereas we tend not to recognize it, especially in America where we have this mythos that everybody can be anything we want. Obama can be president, yes, but the social system is not quite so open. And there are breads associated with that lack of openness.

ROBERTS  Do you mean that our choice of breads is a reflection of a lack of openness?

RUBEL Yes. I think that if you do an anthropological study, in the greater Berkeley area, of social status and bread, you’re going to find very clear correlations.

ROBERTS Yes. How dare we!

RUBEL And part of it is just based on cost. It’s cheaper to buy a double packet of Wonderbread at Safeway even if you might want the other. On the other hand, there’s reason why Wonderbread is a good bread for many purposes.

ROBERTS Yes; I use it in my research. Thank you, William, that was wonderful.

Part 1. Part 2.