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07.09.08

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Phaedra

Gum Blondes: Toronto artist Jason Kronenwald constructs celebrity portraits with chewed gum and plywood.

Abecedarian of Fun

Alphabetical food facts: Further proof that summer's doldrums are upon us

By Amanda Yskamp


Animal Crackers In the sticky fist of 108 years of kids, Barnum's Animal Crackers have taken the shape of 54 different animals (or sometimes just the sticky fist). A string was added to the brightly colored box so it could be hung on a Christmas tree.

Bubbles In a glass of Guinness stout, the bubbles float downward. Bubbles at the center rise and create a circulating current in the glass, causing those bubbles along the walls of the glass to be pulled down in the draft.

Civet coffee (kopi luwak) Palm civets, furry little critters that live in tropical forests, have become unwitting factories for a strange brew. Swallowing coffee cherries whole, their stomach acids and enzymes "process" the cherries, removing the fruit, leaving the bean. After the civet does its, ahem, civet duty, the beans are collected from the scat, cleaned and dried before roasting. Enthusiasts rave about the "distinctive" coffee that can sell for up to $450 a pound.

Diamond Jim BradyA typical day's consumption for this early-20th-century rail baron with a legendary appetite could include hominy, eggs, cornbread, muffins, flapjacks, chops, potatoes, beefsteak, a full gallon of orange juice, two to three dozen clams and oysters, a brace of boiled lobsters, three deviled crabs, a joint of beef, several kinds of pie, a platter of seafood, six more crabs, two bowls of green turtle soup, six lobsters, two canvasback ducks, two portions of terrapin, steak, vegetables and an entire platter of pastries for dessert. Brady's autopsy revealed a stomach six times larger than the average person's.

Eggs The white part of an egg is called the glair. The empty space at the base of the egg between the white and shell is the air cell. The candler uses the size of the air cell to determine an egg's grade. The chalazae are those mucousy strands of egg white that anchor the yolk in the center of the thick white. The more prominent the chalazae, the fresher the egg.

FuguConsidered a delicacy in Japan, fugu (blowfish) contains a deadly poison in its organs. Prepared correctly, it creates a mellow, tingling buzz in the mouth; incorrectly, it can cause seizure or death. Only licensed cooks can prepare it; training takes 10 years. Fugu is cooked in separate kitchens, and by law every chef must taste his preparation personally before serving it to customers. Disposal of fugu's toxic wastes is also strictly regulated, following the death of homeless people who ate fugu waste from dumpsters.

Gum blondes Toronto artist Jason Kronenwald constructs portraits of such celebrities as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan entirely out of ABC gum (that's "already been chewed" gum, for those of you who skipped childhood) stuck to plywood. All the colors are "natural" to the gum and "mixed" in the mouth by a band of willing chewers. Kronenwald keeps his own teeth out of it.

Huitlacoche From the Nahuatl, "huitlatl" meaning "excrement" and "coche" meaning "raven," this black fungus, known to most farmers as corn smut or soot, grows on ears of corn making the kernels swell with spores until they are bulbous and black. It has a long history in the cuisines of Aztecs, Hopis and Zunis for its pungent, earthy taste and reputed life-giving properties.

Ice cream Squid, bacon, whale, Stilton cheese, pit viper, silk, ox tongue, natural Viagra, raw horseflesh, fried pork rind, garlic, sauerkraut, cold sweat are all ice cream flavors. Puts Baskin's 31 to shame.

Jello Technicians at St. Jerome Hospital in Batavia, N.Y., tested a bowl of lime jello with an EEG machine and found it to have the same brainwaves as adult men and women.

Kwispelbier "A beer for your best friend," this canine beverage named after the Dutch word for wagging a tail, was invented by pet-shop owner Gerrie Berendsen, who wanted to share a Miller-time moment with her dogs after a day of hunting. It's nonalcoholic, so your best friend will have no trouble drinking you under the table, then licking you mercilessly.

LutefishPurported to be the food of the Vikings and still a Nordic tradition around Christmas, lutefish is made from dried cod or ling prepared with lye, creating its famous jelly-like consistency. But be careful not to let it lie in the lye too long, else the fats of the fish turn to soap.

McDonald's Think Big Macs are universal? In India you'll find a Maharaja Mac, of lamb or chicken meat, and a vegetarian McAloo Tikki. In Israel, there are three kosher versions of the Golden Arches. Sweden has the first ski-through McDonald's in the world. Germany's serve beer. In Chile, you dress burgers with avocado paste, not ketchup. And in Hong Kong, burgers come between two patties of glutinous rice.

New Year's rituals In Spain, the special tradition is to eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds as the clock bell tolls the hour and rings in the New Year. Each grape represents the 12 months to come, sweet or sour. You can even buy a tin of 12 peeled, seeded grapes all ready for popping.

Olives This fermented fruit holds a place of glory in history (not to mention on pizza slices). Victors in the Olympic games were crowned with olive leaves. Athena won the favor of the Greeks and the naming of their capitol by the most useful gift of an olive tree. A twig of an olive tree brought back by his white dove assured Noah land was ho, and lo, became a symbol of peace.

Peanuts An ingredient of dynamite. Peanut oil can be processed to produce glycerol, which is used to make nitroglycerin, one of the key components of the explosive.

Quinoa Cultivated from before 3,000 B.C., quinoa was worshiped by the Incas (explaining why the Catholic Spanish conquerors evidently felt moved to suppress it almost 400 years). Each planting season, the Inca leader planted the first seed using a solid gold shovel. Although most people believe it is a grain, it's really a fruit.

Roadkill cook-off Since West Virginia legalized harvesting roadkill some 20 years ago, it was no big surprise when the cook-off was born. In Marlinton, W.V., this September, expect to sample such dishes as Thumper Meets Bumper and One Ton Wonton. The number one contest rule is that the entry must include animals typically found dead on the road—groundhog, possum, deer, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, etc.—though they need not actually come from there.

SushiThe best sushi chefs prepare octopus by first giving the live animal a long, full-body massage.

Turkey testicle festivalAfter the road kill cook-off, head over to Byron, Ill., in October to have a ball—a turkey ball, that is. Go ahead and have two (they come in a matched set.) Gobble, gobble.

Uses for food A teaspoon of pepper sprinkled in the washing machine before adding clothes will keep colors from fading. Dry orange peels, which contain flammable oils, can be used to start a fire instead of paper, with a much nicer aroma. To speed up the ripening of tomatoes, place in a brown paper bag with a ripe apple and seal for a few days.

Vinegar Pliny the Elder tells of how Cleopatra bet Marc Antony she could host the most lavish feast ever. After a pretty luxe meal, she dropped one of her pearl earrings (said to be worth 15 kingdoms) into a glass of vinegar where it dissolved. Bottoms up!

Watermelon A 17-pound black Densuke watermelon sold for 650,000 yen or $6,100 on June 6, 2008, making it the most expensive watermelon ever. 

Xanthan gum A polysaccharide produced by fermenting corn starch with the Xanthonomonas campestris bacterium, xanthan gum has acquired currency in the latest molecular gastronomy craze. It helps "stabilize," "thicken" and "emulsify." Add it to foods or liquids to change them into gel, paste, foam or glop.

 

Yeast In the production of lambic, a Belgian ale, no yeast is artificially added to the wort (the liquid mash); instead, it's exposed to the open air of the "Zennevalei" (Senne Valley). Wild yeast cells do their natural, spontaneous magic to start fermentation. 

Zedoary An ancient spice, related to turmeric, native to India and Indonesia, with a bouquet and taste like ginger. Although quite rare in the West, it is used in Indian pickles and curries, and in Chinese medicine to purify the blood and cure flatulence.


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