We will look at how overall microbial communities correlate with quality traits in the wine, and whether you can predict quality from the microbes present

Was how graduate student Nickolas Bokulich described his endeavour to begin to quantify viticultural terroir in this New York Times article. Despite their reputation as a literate and sober paper for the intellectual classes, the NYT of the digital age likes to gin up outrage from their readership by inserting language and ideas that they know people will find controversial — even if they have to invent a controversy. Here’s the hook that Nicholas Wade uses:

There must be something to terroir, given that expert wine tasters can often identify the region from which a wine comes. But American wine growers have long expressed varying degrees of skepticism about this ineffable concept, some dismissing it as unfathomable mysticism and others regarding it as a shrewd marketing ploy to protect the cachet of French wines.

You see what he does there? Terroir is a matter of fact to people in the know, but American viticulturalists, those skeptical Yanks, aren’t so sure. The comments section explodes with vitriol. Steven Koplan, professor and chair of Wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park New York wants the lead author of the study to know that he and his ilk are idiots and they’ve always hated terroir and everybody who gets terroir is laughing at him. Funny, it looks like UC Davis and the CIA held a conference some years back called “Terroir 06.” Perhaps Dr. David Mills and Professor Koplan had a spat when Mills insulted the way that Koplan’s wife constantly swirled the wine in her glass as if she was going in for her first noseful.

“Why are you doing that? You know that’s just to expose more surface area to the air in the glass to bring a maximum of volatile aromatic compounds to your olfactory organs for tasting, right?”

Koplan seethes.

But enough fucking around with these cork dorks, let’s examine the quote. How do “overall” (regional, I imagine) microbes affect the quality of the wine produced from the grapes on which they live? Granted, I had to have a bunch of context to pull all that from the quote, but I think that’s what the graduate research student is getting at. What I don’t like about this quote, besides its unwieldy galumph, is the “quality” language. What is a scientist doing throwing around lazy, vague language like “quality?” Do researchers in the wine field view quality on a linear scale, like the Wine Spectator 100 point scale? (and if you aren’t familiar with the critiques leveled at that scale, you should click that link.) Let’s look at the release on UC Davis’ website where Bokulich uses a decidedly more specific vernacular to describe his work:

I apply combined molecular techniques including terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism and high-throughput sequencing (HTS) technologies to reveal the deep community structure and genetic expression patterns underlying a range of mixed-microbial food systems and systems-level interactions with product quality

And what the fuck does that mean? I think it means that he sequenced the DNA of a bunch of germs so he could figure out what they did to the product, in this case wine.

But then there’s that “quality” language again. Do they mean, “do some germs make the wine better or worse,” or “do different germs impart different characteristics to the wine?”  I’m gonna go with the latter, especially seeing as how this study was made possible with generous assistance from Constellation Brands, the alcoholic beverage megalith behind such treats as Robert Mondavi wines, Cook’s champagne and Corona. Yum!

But why does a beverage corporation whose portfolio includes precious few (probably no) non-interventionist winemakers care what bacteria are on the grapes? Since, I can assure you without having interviewed them personally, Robert Mondavi is using a generous application of microbicide before starting the fermentation process, with a yeast strain developed in a lab. Ah, we see the relevant passage here in the NYT piece: “Microbes could exert an influence both during the lifetime of the grape and during fermentation,” which is to say, they feel that those germs could be fucking up the product before they even pick the grapes. And when I say — nay, when Constellation says — “fucking up the product,” we mean it could be interfering with the consistency of the product. Next step, pre-harvest microbicide application on an experimental basis. Because when I buy a bottle of Clos Du Bois merlot, I want it to taste exactly like the last bottle I bought, 12 years ago, on that drunken road trip to Baja with the girls right after graduation. Even if every bottle tastes worse than it could.

During that road trip we discussed some of the ideas we were introduced to in our women’s studies classes, including the critique that the suggestive language used to describe scientific discovery is intended to appeal to a male audience. Scientists probe and penetrate and pry. They seek in unhallowed places that which is not intended for the hand of man. So when we announce the findings of a study that two guys at our university conducted, we should probably have contacted the women’s studies department before we titled it, “Sequencing study lifts veil on wine’s microbial terroir.” Because, are you going to marry that microbial terroir or just sleep with it, tell all your dickhead friends, and slut-shame it in public?

Meanwhile Wade, over at the NYT uses rougher language still, “American researchers may have penetrated the veil that hides the landscape of terroir from clear view.” The wedding’s over, now we’re “penetrating” the veil. The women’s studies department at UC Davis is on fire. But Mr. Wade is an older, British gentleman, he covers science. What does he know about about the sensibilities of modern, feminist language students? What’s more, what’s an old guy like him care?

But Poor Nickolas, now he suffers under the twin crosses of being an Eastern European (immediately suspect), and being associated with this problematic veil language. How’s he gonna get laid by those brainy humanities students?

And that’s the outrage provoked by Mr. Wade’s little article: is terroir really “ineffable” or is it reducible to a series of measurable variables? And the NYT wants you to chime in in the comments section: “Do you want the mystery to be solved or would a scientific explanation spoil the magic of great wine?” Is that really the question, New York Times? Or is the question more like, “how are we ever going to be pleasantly surprised when we can control every variable?” or, “what is the role for intuition and experience in a world that’s increasingly engineered?” or even, “should these subconsciously sexist scientists be putting their dirty probes into my pleasure spots?”

Over at the UC Davis site they assure us that no one questions the existence of a terroir, they just would like to see it become a little more predictable. Because if we’re going to do this, I’d just like to have a time of day, day of the week, location, position, and so forth planned in advance. Because what is this a marriage or a vehicular collision?




Eating For Sociopaths

If I were a single parent making 10 dollars an hour, living in a one bedroom, and had my folks around to take care of my kid while I was at work, I might get about $290/month in food stamps, now euphemistically referred to as SNAP. Euphemistically because it’s likely not a SNAP to feed yourself and a kid on less than ten dollars a day. Yet many people, who are no doubt hard-working American boot-strappers, feel that this is over-generous of the government. These tireless slaves of the tax-man spend every spare minute they can wrangle from their punishing schedules to awaken the sheeple of the internet to the insatiable cruelty of their welfare-addicted overlords, via the comments section.

Let’s pretend we’re lawmakers whose constituents want us to put a stop to the largesse for the freeloading class. We need to strike a balance between keeping the stomachs of the impoverished satisfied, so they don’t start shooting, and convincing both our funders and voters that we are tough on their bloodsucking fellow citizens, so they keep funding and voting. And we see the price of food isn’t going down.

Food is as cheap as we can get it or, at least, it’s as efficient as we can get it. There is precious little profit margin to trim, even by large manufacturers, retailers and preparers. Food is inherently inefficient. Acerage, seeds, water, fuel, tires, asphalt, brake pads, styrofoam trays, plastic wrap, plates, sanitizer, linens — this shit costs money. We need a new way to deliver nutrients. I hear you screeching, vegans—just read on….

And then along comes Silicon Valley and their new buddy, Rob Rhinehart. Rob was doing some software development stuff and he was working a whole lot. He really wanted to get people the best software he could build. Problematically, Rob had to eat, which takes time and money, both of which are short supply when you’re coding as fast as you can. So he set his hacker brain to the human frame, and came up with— you’re never going to believe this — a beverage called Soylent.

Many people worry that Soylent can’t possibly be healthy, that their nutritional needs are different and more special than those of a pig or a potato. Many people hospitalized with long-term or terminal illnesses already live on liquid food though, and they’re, you know, really sick. The cat eats the same engineered food day in and day out and climbs trees and bounces into the air to kill birds. When was the last time you leapt into the air and brought down a bird with your teeth? Thriving.

Shit Senator, I just had me a damn brilliant idea! How cheap do you think we could get this Soylent shit if we just reallocated some of this agricultural subsidy? Rhinehart’s starting price is $255 per person, per month, so almost twice what we’re giving out now, but I bet we could get that down by a lot

Why, it says so right here on his website: “If you’re short on time you can fuel your body in seconds. If you’re trying to save money Soylent is hands down your cheapest option in terms of nutrition per dollar, and will only get cheaper.” He claims feeding the world as a goal of his and stresses his devotion to bringing down the cost of Soylent in a reddit “Ask me Anything” session. I think he’d be amenable to a government contract. He could keep his branding, we’d just call it Government Aided Instant Nutrition Supplement, or GAINS for marketing. Who wouldn’t love this shit? If it’s good enough for Silicon Valley workaholics, who are these loafers to demand solid food?

Let’s say we’re regional managers of a national chain of upscale casual restaurants, and we work with razor sharp margins and high volume. We’re slaves to food commodities prices and the slimming American wallet. We have only one thing left we can control, labor. Small restaurants just make their employees work without a break, but we get calls from the labor relations board, OSHA, the Department of Agriculture and so on. Is it really necessary for people to spend a half-hour eating? No. But we can’t have them picking at olives and berries and croutons throughout the shift either, that’s illegal, unseemly, and hurts profits. Perhaps the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) could do a little lobbying for us. A ten-minute Soylent break should be plenty.

Why it says right here, “Soylent, Free your body,” to get the fuck back to work!

Seriously, everything I read by the people involved with Soylent unnerves me. Although I find even the quality of Rhinehart’s sentences suggestive of a quiet sociopathy, I fear I’m just too lazy to embrace the future. It’s also possible that this whole thing is just a big elaborate hoax, an explanation that the top post on his blog seems to favor. Motherfucker is clever.

When I was a wee line cook in a decaying municipality along a dirty midwestern river, I said that someday robots would be doing my job. Others thought that was a tad dystopian. Well, the future is now the past. You can resist technology, but it will win as surely as time passes.


Mo’ Nitrates

A lot of people for whom personal health is paramount in importance — and who carefully manage their risk factors so they can accumulate a surplus of joyless, vacant years for their dotage — believe that nitrates are to be avoided at all costs. I started to write a post wherein I posit a few facts that I already knew about nitrogen-centered ions á la this post by Michael Ruhlman, and then feel real smart and smug, leaving health fanatics to cry into their resveratrol supplement bottles. But then it turned out that Ruhlman had already sort of written that post for the internet. And really, how much more minimally-researched ranting does the internet need?

So I started doing some research, which is a dangerous thing for a Gangster, since that shit not only takes up a lot of time that I could be using  to pop caps into your prosciutto (ass! Get it?), it often turns out that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And that shit pisses me off. Then things get all confusing and outrageous and I get all confused and outraged and then… and then…

And then nitrate and nitrite are ions. That’s why people talk about “nitrates” —as in, “Oh those nitrates, you know they don’t belong in our bodies”— because the chemical added to foods is actually one of several salts of which nitrate or nitrite is only one half. Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, and potassium nitrite are the old fashioned ones, rarely used on this side of the Atlantic anymore. Nowadays sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite are the most common. But the sodium or potassium part aren’t what’s important— when mixed with wet meat the ions disassociate, and what we want is the nitrate or nitrite part. If the meat is to be cured quickly, like bacon or smoked sausage, we generally start with nitrite (cure #1 or modern cure), since it works much more quickly. If it will spend a while drying out at ambient temperatures we generally start with a mix of nitrate and nitrite (cure #2) for long lasting protection.

Nitrate is NO3- in chemistry parlance. That means there’s three oxygen atoms per nitrogen atom and the whole bit has a negative charge because it has more electrons than it wants to have. It would much rather be paired up with that sodium so it could offload some of that negative charge and gain some stability. Isn’t that romantic? Alas, we need it roaming around lonely and unbalanced so that a dentrifying bacteria can come along and reduce it even further to nitrite or NO2-. By reduction I don’t mean that the bacteria cooked the nitrate ions down into a velvety, rich demi glace for its lamb chops (metabolic raw materials); I mean that it lost an oxygen atom. Some people say cooking is chemistry; here we see that chemistry is a lot simpler than cooking.

Dentrification is something you might have learned about in biology class if you paid any attention. That’s the process whereby large nitrogen ions are eventually reduced to dinitrogen gas or N2 by bacteria. The dentrification step before that  sees the still-unbalanced nitrite ion being reduced to nitric oxide gas (NO), and that’s where the magic happens.

Muscle cells contain a pigment called myoglobin that has an iron atom at its center. Biologists apparently call this the binding site because that’s what oxygen sticks to. But, nitric oxide also sticks to myoglobin, and doesn’t let go. The molecule now goes by the clever moniker “nitric oxide myoglobin.” No fucking shit. It also doesn’t allow the myoglobin to degrade to the sickly brown of metmyoglobin, the pigment of old meat.

While critics of nitrate-treated meat often cry that this is the only real benefit of curing meat (besides, you know, preventing botulism, whatevs), you and I know that nasty brown vinegar-braised beef peddled as corned beef at natural markets is not what you want on a reuben. We want that vigor! That snap of nitric oxide myoglobin! Unfortunately, the scientists don’t seem real interested in figuring out why it tastes better, or I just don’t feel like looking very hard. I’m pretty sure it’s because oxidized foods generally suck, and nitric oxide prevents oxidation of the myoglobin. That’s my hypothesis. Let’s test that out:

“Ring Ring!”

“Hello, New Seasons Market.”

“Hi, how’s your nitrate-free bacon?”

“Fucking sucks, tastes like old spare ribs.”

“Great, peace.”

That dentrification we were talking about before, that sort of occurs in our own bodies which produce (endogenously, as the scientists like to say) nitrate and then reduce it to nitrite and nitric oxide and then recycle it to produce nitrate again. Which not only means that we’re full of nitrates, but that we have the metabolic pathways and bacterial colonies to strip nitrate down to nitric oxide. And it turns out that we consume plenty of nitrates every day whether we indulge in salami and bacon, or are strictly vegetarian. Matter of fact, turns out that vegetarians might consume more nitrate than anybody, since vegetables contain loads of it.

Celery, beets, carrots, spinach are especially rich in nitrate, and nitrate-free meat manufacturers take advantage of that fact to “cure” their meats without putting nitrates on the ingredient list. Manufacturers favored nitrate sources are celery juice or powder and beet concentrate, beet also being the favored nitrate source for modern-day Hans and Franz’s to increase vasodilation for big pumps. Cook’s Illustrated sent some bacon off to a lab for analysis a couple of years ago  (subscription required, two week trial is free) and found the nitrate-free products to contain more nitrite (and plenty of nitrate) than their conventional counterparts. New Seasons Market, to their great credit, engages in no such chicanery.

So why don’t vegetarians all drop dead from cancer? Good question. Because nitrates aren’t what causes cancer, it’s a class of chemicals called nitrosamines or n-nitroso compounds. And this is the real deal, the carcinogens in tobacco are nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are formed when the nitrite reacts with the amines (components of amino acids) in meat, facilitated by exposure to high heat, like the heat of frying bacon (tha’s why I like my shit chewy). However, in response to concerns about the carcinogenic potential of previously benign hot dogs and bacon, the FDA both limited the amount of nitrite that can be added to cured meats to 120 ppm and mandated that all cure mixes contain an antioxidant such as ascorbic acid (scary name right?— vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (Even scarier!— vitamin E) or erythorbic acid (related to ascorbic acid, cheaper) which have been shown to inhibit nitrosamine formation.

Crazy right? What’s even crazier is that nitrosamines are found all over: cheese, beer, dehydrated milk, stomach acid…. Yes, your own stomach is trying to give you cancer. So how did nitrosamines in meat get singled out as being especially detrimental to human health? If you ask me, I’d just say it’s the vegetarian conspiracy that tries to bust up my daily meat party, but you probably want a more informed answer. And it turns out that that answer isn’t boring as fuck, it’s actually more fascinating than my party.

Since Wikipedia’s writers have absolutely no problem plagiarizing whatever they find on the internet to “write” their articles, I can just C&P this:

Christopher Hill v Ashington Piggeries

Ashington Piggeries devised a recipe for mink feed, contracting in 1960 with Christopher Hill to supply ingredients and compound them. The food was marketed under the name “King Size”. At first, there were no problems, but in February 1961 Christopher Hill entered into a contract with Norwegian company Sildemelutvalget to supply Norwegian herring meal rather than the herring meal previously used.

As you can guess: the Norwegian company preserved their herring meal with nitrite, dimethylnitrosamine was formed, and mink started dropping dead from… liver failure. This incredibly credible seeming gentleman at Oregon State University (GO BEAVERS!) claims that “various” farm animals came down with a variety of gut illnesses, including cancer, a decade later in Norway.

So researchers started looking at it, and when researchers start looking you know they will find. Am I accusing Science of having a confirmation bias? No. I’m just saying that I’m surrounded by, nay built of, carcinogens. That said, there does seem to be some epidemiological evidence that a diet high in “processed meats” leads to “higher all-cause mortality,” and you know that’s bad. I’ve read elsewhere that the epidemiological evidence is weak, but this meta-metastudy states that the correlation between colorectal cancer and cured meat is very strong and that the nitrosamine hypothesis is just one of many, including that the meat itself could be made toxic through the curing process. Goddamn savages just want strip every small happiness from an otherwise meaningless existence.

What I don’t know (and don’t care to find out at this point) is what is meant by the term “processed meat,” as some of these studies seem to include ground beef. They certainly include dried hams, many of which are made without nitrate. And how the fuck is that? This guy (and if you just read one article about dry cured ham, this should be it) says that the pink color of prosciutto is due to bacterial metabolic processes, but Harold McGee says that it’s unlikely that bacteria are the main factor since the inside of a ham is a surprisingly sterile environment. My point being, is prosciutto a processed meat, or not? Do you have to assault your guts with Vienna Sausages and Hormel potted meat product in order for them to retaliate by killing you in what must be an agonizing way?

Or is processed meat consumption just a lifestyle indicator, hopelessly entwined with confounding variables? Remember resveratrol? Oh, you still think that’s why red wine drinkers have reduced heart disease risk. Yeah, most of the reduced risk is shared by beer and spirit drinkers as well. That’s your affluence keeping you alive.

And so we are left with a seeming paradox: nitrosamines cause cancer, but we’re only getting very small  (probably negligible) amounts of nitrosamine from cured meat. Still, several epidemiological studies show a correlation specifically between processed meat consumption and a variety of illnesses of the gut. Eaters on the hedonistic end of the scale get behind the first fact, those on the health fanatic end champion the latter. Of course, as that R. L. Santarelli et al. study makes clear, there are several possible causal links between processed meat consumption and cancer risk besides nitrosamines. And in any case, as much as people who like to regularly geek out on this science shit tout the double-blind randomized study as the golden standard, and the only one that can be trusted, that’s not always feasible for studying long term health outcomes in human beings. Right, you fucking sociopaths? That’s the kind of doubt that food industry lobbyists exploit to pry a relaxed regulatory environment for their employer’s products.

But this study states, in no uncertain terms, that feeding rats cured meat products increases the incidence of precancerous lesions of the colon, you wily Gangster. True, but it also says that you can reduce your risk of getting said lesions by intake of calcium carbonate, aka lime. Takeaway? Wash down sausages and ham with plenty of delicious mineral water. And what luck, DIY mineral water will be the subject of my next post.