Friday, April 17, 2009


The very idea that you can take one egg yolk and a cup and a half of olive oil and turn it into mayonnaise stretches my imagination. With this, I’m just a flat earth-er who would have been happy to persecute Galileo while he was under house arrest had he been going on about sandwich spread instead of heliocentrism. I’m assuming that’s why, in spite of all my culinary escapades, I’ve always sucked at mayonnaise.

I stood in the kitchen in my sister’s pink fleece Eeyore pajamas - the only article of clothing that, when paired with a XXL red Michael Jordon Hoodie stolen from a nephew, can beat back the relentless chill - trying to whip up a batch of olive oil mayonnaise the old fashioned way; with a flimsy balloon Wisk muttering the mantra ‘must not break mayonnaise, must not break mayonnaise . . .” My body swiveled like a dashboard hula dancer gyrating over frost heaves as I tried to generate momentum from the hip. It would have looked intense if I wasn’t all pink, fuzzy and floppy socked. It turns out, the only thing intense about it was the likelihood that the synthetic ensemble would ignite and catch fire given the friction, my own rising body temperature and a spark of frustration.

Apparently the fastest way to break an emulsion is to seethe while stirring much like the fastest way to get killed in a horror movie is to check out the basement. At about a cup of oil poured a tablespoon at a time followed by frantic whisking, my mayo curdled into grainy lumps – technically flocculation, which is roughly reminiscent of the expletive I actually used - polluting a pool like the tide that had finally come in on my Exxon environmental mishap. I might have saved it with an extra yoke but I let it flatline if only so my arm could rest and my pajamas could cool below melting point. Lite Olive Oil - $7 a bottle, Organic Cage Free Omega-3 Eggs – 31 cents each, Coleman’s Dry Mustard – a few pennies per tablespoon, being defeated in the kitchen by a flimsy utensil and a couple of ordinary ingredients – priceless.

I was left with fetal mayo suitable only for stem cell research and a thorough working of my last nerve anatomically positioned in my wrist. ‘Whipping mayonnaise with a flimsy wire Wisk’ even sounds like an expression of frustration one would use in New England where locals have been known to describe feelings with obscure references such as, “it’s like sucking swamp water up your ass with a bent flavor straw!” or so said my high school boyfriend’s father frequently as if I could totally relate to the futility of it. I think I couldn’t. Until now.

This was not my first failed mayo and yes, I have mayo baggage. The alchemy of emulsions escapes me always but my brother-in-law Rolfe eats so damn much mayo that I felt compelled to throw myself in front of his fork for the sake of his arteries. But for me, it’s easier to construct a fertilizer bomb in my sister’s kitchen which would have been no more dangerous to Rolfe than his mass consumption of canola and Soybean oil – the coming together of the two agricultural evils known as corn and soy, Boris and Natasha - and all the raw materials he’d need to plaster shut his aorta. Granted, all that fat had been stoking his metabolism without adding a pound of insulation to his tall, efficient frame. Rolfe, nicknamed “the mountain man” by my sister, has already wandered out to the tent platform in the backyard this week to sleep under the stars and inhale the smells of sprouting spring on the brisk unwilling-to-let-go-of-winter breeze while I stayed inside huddled under three comforters refusing to roll over and risk straying into unheated-sheet territory. I slept in the hoodie and refused to take off my bra to avoid the three seconds of chill while Rolfe headed outside with a pillow and only the one pair of socks. Boggling. It would be too ordinary to see the man felled by the food giant Hellman’s when he’d dodged hypothermia and the sort of snorting, drooly things that I’m convinced hang out just past the tent platform.

Besides my history of unstable emulsions, my tools were simply not up to task and I knitted my eyebrows and occasionally threw a stink-eye into the bowl when I’d pause to add oil as if I could intimidate my ingredients. Sure, I’d save him from canola only to give him indigestion with all the foul energy I was adding. Frankly, I should have left mayo alone but I had gotten cocky.

For weeks I baked for the bookseller testing recipes, swapping out the more harmful ingredients for healthier substitutes, locally sourcing products of greater quality, using as much organic ingredients as possible, making things tastier given those parameters and still keeping an eye on cost. I was beginning to fancy myself a chef but it was also an SAT word problem coming back to haunt me. At moments like this I think of Ludwig Von Beethoven who used exactly 60 coffee beans to make his coffee and he was, after all, a creative genius. I like to compare myself to him only at these moments but not as much when I’m reminded that he died alone, grouchy and with few friends. Perhaps the pursuit of perfection makes you a genius or being a genius makes you tolerable when your pursuit of perfection makes you a royal pain in the ass. Hmm, this opens up a new area of painstaking research.

Searching this town for real ingredients had already proven more challenging than you’d think so I started looking in obscure places just to be thorough. This included a curiously named ‘Ocean State Job Lot’ which is curious because it was here in the ‘Granite State’ while the ‘Ocean State’ was several hours south and it seemed just unlikely enough to qualify as the last stone one would tentatively turn. I got past the overwhelming stench of vulcanized rubber, and even that ‘high ceiling that leaks’ feel which I’d describe in those words like I was telling ghost stories in an attempt to capture the reason places like this freak me right the hell out for my audience. I grew up shopping in the depressing maw of Ames department store – the only department store - dodging the 30-gallon garbage cans catching spring’s thaw between water stains and racks of unnecessarily perky, stiff, pastel outfits warn by me, my classmates and famine refugees in third world countries benefiting from Red Cross donations.

Passing first the clothes racks in Ocean State Job Lot, I began to wonder if the only thing laundered here was money. The random collection of food items, unconvincingly labeled ‘Gourmet’ in case you weren’t clear that the price is a steal, hinted that these foods were either being punished for delinquent behavior on the assembly line or they were inadvertently exposed to trauma that nobody wanted to talk about. The website explained this odd collection in a tone that reminded me of some thuggish mafia heavy politely explaining the finer details of lone sharking, “Although we are known as a closeout company, we prefer to think of ourselves as opportunistic merchants."

Be assured that with no assistance from Ocean State Job Lot, I successfully concocted a maple sticky bun that took two risings under the woodstove and came in at a reasonable cost but only because the backyard maple syrup was donated. Otherwise, it was costly, labor intensive and left puddles of sticky maple syrup and gluey board flour everywhere. If it was my kitchen I would have seriously considered torching it for the insurance money after the first batch rather than cleaning it.

As it was, I’d been trying not to leave a huge environmental impact short of trekking out my own poop in Ziplocs. My sister was already waking up to a sink full of dishes which would lead me to believe that the secret to Abercrombie skinny is that my nephews only eat when they’re sleeping. Between that and hunting socks like wild game, there’s not a lot of time left over for hosing yourself down after a tarring and feathering with syrup and flour.

Some underutilized areas of the kitchen seldom made the cleaning roster after yet another sink full of dishes but luckily the main area of disregard was something I generally avoided entirely myself: the Microwave. Given the opacity of the door, it makes a lousy terrarium but farming is in our blood and perhaps that’s what inspired my sister to grow fauna in a ring around the rotisserie. Though I sounded like Kasandra continuing to yell the insistent and yet ignored alarm, I am sure that subjecting this already radiation resistant strain to continuing zaps like a single-celled Dr. David Banner will only make it stronger and maybe even a little angry.
Does the fact that this master race can already withstand two minutes on high better than singed popcorn left five seconds two long concern anybody but me? You’d have to think after all the hygiene violations in India; I’d be willing to spread this stuff on toast like Marmite. Maybe since I refuse to use the microwave I’ll not only avoid the obvious risk of infection but I’ll be spared as a sympathizer when it stages its coup. I’ve already spotted the advanced team holding position near the shower drain and once that’s secure, I fear the take-over bid is imminent. In the meantime, I just go about my cooking projects in the otherwise clean kitchen but pause to throw a few sacrificial crumbs in as an offering before quickly slamming the door.

One such project was a lemon bread that used so much zest that there was a growing pile of naked lemons littering the counter with that sad sheared-sheep look. I was embarrassed to look at them directly. I tried for awhile to make salads with a lemon juice and olive oil dressing but my consumption slowed and I instead watched them wither. I was too engrossed in the lemon bread geometry to stop and chew through lemony roughage.

The bread, a sort of pound cake, was a whole different kind of problem. According to Shirley O Corriher in ‘BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking,’ it takes a perfect balance of flour, sugar, fat and eggs to make a perfect cake. She explains, “Flour and eggs contain the proteins that set to hold the cake. They are the structural elements; however, they can dry the cake. When some of the proteins in flour form gluten, they absorb water, which removes some moisture from the cake. Egg whites are incredible drying agents.” My first task with this recipe provided by a local cook was to replace the all-purpose flour with cake flour which I believe yields a more tender cake.

“Sugar and fat, on the other hand, make the cake tender and moist but they can wreck the structure. Fat coats flour proteins to prevent their joining to form gluten, and too much sugar prevents proteins from setting, so that the cake ends up being pudding,” says Corriher. This cake was short on sugar but was glazed with a sweetened lemon juice glaze that made up the difference on the top of the cake but didn’t sink as much as I’d hoped even when I poked the whole cake with holes before pouring on the glaze.

Using Corriher’s cake math to tackle the problem, I started tweaking the measures. Why is it that I’m unwilling to balance my checkbook but balancing cake ingredients suddenly seemed like a necessary but long-lost life skill? “For a successful cake, the structural elements (flour and eggs) have to be balanced with the structure wreckers (sugar and fat). If you have too much flour and/or eggs the cake will be dry. If you have too much sugar and/or fat, the cake will not set. The perfect balance of the four main ingredients creates a moist, tender cake.” Pg 12-13 Oh, sure there’s the fancy footwork of adding a third of the dry ingredients followed by half of the wet followed by a third of the dry followed by half of the wet and finally a third of the dry. There’s also the one-egg-at a-time dance in conjunction with beating the butter like stepchildren but, once the flour is added, taking a manic mood swing towards tender-loving care.

Like Mayo, this requires an understanding of emulsifiers like eggs, butter and cream. Why bother? Because Continental Baking Co., the maker of Twinkies and other so-called food companies, don’t care to use eggs, butter and cream anymore and have moved on to synthetic emulsifiers and mechanized processes that are frightening.

After a disillusioning stint as a biochemist for Quaker Foods, Paul A. Stitt in ‘Fighting the Food Giants’ makes the comment, “Quaker doesn’t do animal feeding studies on most of its products anymore, because too often these tests show their ‘foods’ are incapable of sustaining life.” This is an observation Stitt made after finding a 1942 report in which rats fed Puffed Rice cereal died after only two weeks which was considerably faster than the rats fed nothing at all. When confronted with this information that by that time had been available for thirty-eight years, then Quaker Foods president Robert D. Stuart III said, “I know people should throw it on brides and grooms at weddings but if they insist on sticking it in their mouths, can I help it? Besides we made $9 million on that stuff last year.” Stitt surmised, “Why, they figure, should they waste money on tests that are just going to tell them things they don’t want to know? In reality most of Quaker’s research efforts are aimed not at finding new products or improving the old ones, but in cutting the cost of production.” Pg 65

“Proteins are very similar to certain toxins in molecular structure, and the puffing process of putting grain under 1500 pounds per square inch of pressure and then releasing it may produce chemical changes which turn a nutritious grain into a poisonous substance,” Stitt said in explanation of the health implications of puffed wheat. Regarding the extrusion process used to make other shaped cereals, Stitt was quoted in ‘Cereal Killer’ by Alan L. Watson saying, “[extrusion] destroys the fatty acids; it even destroys the chemical vitamins that are added at the end. The amino acids are rendered very toxic by this process. The amino acid lysine, a crucial nutrient, is especially denatured by extrusions.” Watson points out, “all dry boxed cereals are made in this manner – even the dry boxed cereals sold in natural food groceries,“ and yes, to be clear, those are the boxes you pay a couple of extra dollars for because they are ‘healthy.’

When it’s not the process that’s unhealthy it’s the additives designed to do what real food does at a fraction of the cost. One of the most mysterious and yet ubiquitous is Polysorbate 60 which, it turns out is corn syrup and palm oil that have both been hydrogenated, pressed, hydrolyzed, fractionated and hydrogenated to create a high-performance emulsifier added to Twinkie’s ‘creamy filling.’ To find out exactly what it is, Steve Ettlinger went to Uniqema under the Delaware memorial bridge and wrote about it in ‘Twinkie, Deconstructed’.

“Corn syrup and palm oil are pumped at a temperature of almost 500 degrees into six-thousand gallon reactor vessels and blended with a secret, proprietary catalyst for ten hours. What emerges are tens of thousands of pounds of thick, waxy liquid sorbitan monostearate, or SMS,” [pg 194] describes Ettlinger in a process that doesn’t sound even remotely ingestible. What makes PS-60 is the next step described by Ettlinger, “When chemists learned that the petrochemical ethylene oxide reacted with other chemicals to make them water soluble, they tried it on SMS, and polysorbate 60 was born.”

If you’re not scared already, Ettlinger said, “Ethylene oxide is an excellent but entirely unlikely food chemical, seeing as it is highly explosive (it was used in tunnel-busting shells during the Vietnam War), a known human carcinogenic, and a respiratory, skin, and eye irritant.” But I’m sure we would never be misled if it were discovered that PS-60 is really bad for you or something. Of course, when it comes to food, we only ever find out if the toxin kills you quick like a bunny. Not so much if it’s slow, painful, and results in healthcare profits.

“Ethylene and oxygen are mixed – carefully – in a forty-foot-long cylindrical reactor filled with a catalyst, a thin layer of silver on an alumina, silica, or ceramic base in the shape of thousands of 3/8-inch diameter pellets, packed into inch-wide tubes within the reactor. The EO is then cooled and liquefied so some can be shipped in special, protective cylinders to the polysorbate plants, but the bulk of it is used to make polyester fibers and PET, the plastic in our ubiquitous soft drink and water bottles. Much of the rest goes into ethylene glycol for antifreeze, polyurethane foam, and brake fluid.” Which I’m sure would make a great cocktail at your next mixer, if only it didn’t taste really, really bad.

“After some deodorizing and purification, out pours greasy, tan goo: polysorbate 60, ready to be mixed with oil and water. I’m warned not to taste a sample. It is so bitter, and the aftertaste on the back of your tongue is so cloying, that an engineer sternly cautions me, saying “You won’t be able to taste your dinner for a week,” wrote Ettlinger. Could I have been the only one who read this and wasn’t dying to put some of this stuff in lemon bread? Granted, PS-60 appears in very small amounts but without it, Twinkies would take much less than a year or so to spoil thus contributing to waste which in turn increases the cost to the manufacturer. This is why my lemon bread is $2.50 a slice.

Much like PS-60 replaces butter and cream, artificial vanilla replaces real vanilla in most if not all readily available baked goods. The difference in flavor is astounding but most people have so little exposure to real vanilla that the tragedy of it is lost. Were we to rely on real vanilla, which can take five to six years from the time it’s planted to the time that it’s sold, we’d probably purchase fewer baked goods making desert the rare treat as it’s intended rather than the accompaniment to every meal. We’d also enjoy it more.

In Seattle, I’d slice open three or four pods of organic vanilla and stuff them into a fifth of rum to marinate for a month so that I could have decent vanilla to bake with. The month of agitating the bottle every few days seemed like a painstaking process until I read how vanilla itself is pollinated, ripened and cured as described by Ettlinger, “Vanilla beans, which are actually not beans at all but the fruit of the only tropical orchid in the world to bear fruit – are famously difficult to grow and process. Vanilla only grows in tropical, equatorial climates, where the flowers are pollinated by hand in hillside gardens, a technique discovered in 1841 in French Madagascar. The delicate act takes place between dawn and noon on the one day in its life that the flower opens (the unlucky flowers drop to the ground). The beans first ripen on the vine for nine months before being harvested green and flavorless, when the curing process begins. They are dried for three to six months in special boxes and the open air, and are brought in each night and when it rains. Each pod is turned by hand as needed. Curing is an art but technically a way of inducing natural enzymatic action, or fermentation, to create aroma” (Page 203).

In contrast, artificial vanilla, or synthetic 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, starts with another flammable and carcinogenic component Benzene. “Artificial vanilla manufacturing starts a long way form the flower fields, with crude oil and one of its basic components, benzene, a colorless, sweet-smelling, flammable liquid solvent, one of the so-called aromatic compounds in flowers, fruits, and vegetables as well as in crude oil (the major source), natural gas and coal tar.” I can only imagine the chemistry undergrad who sat in the lab sniffing benzene while finishing up a midterm and deciding some time around 3 a.m. to put this stuff on ice cream. To her, that may have been a great idea.

“At the refinery, benzene is oxidized at the steam cracker and reacted with propylene (also from petroleum) to get cumene, an important industrial chemical, which is then further reacted to get phenol, a clear, sweetish-tarry-smelling liquid that used to be sold under its common name, carbolic acid, as a sore throat remedy (it was the first surgical antiseptic used by Sir Joseph Lister, who invented the mouthwash that still bears his name). Phenol is still used in antiseptic products; it was reacted with formaldehyde to make the first plastic, Bakelite, too, but is now mostly used to make polycarbonates (including CDs) and plywood glue, with leftovers going into artificial vanilla.” And, again, the food industry calls this innovation and even ‘product differentiation’ while the medical establishment calls it Pica.

In case you think we’ve reached the almost –radioactive end of the trail, Ettlinger continues, “The phenol is condensed into white crystals called catechol, an oily methyl ester used in photographic developers, which is liquefied and catalyzed into guaiacol, a yellowish semisolid, light-sensitive alcohol that has a slight smoky/woody/spicy vanilla scent. This is dried into off-white crystals or liquefied and sold by the major chemical companies to the major flavor companies for further processing into vanillin” (Pg 207).

The final step –by now I think it would have been easier to drink Hemlock though I’m not sure it tastes anything like Vanilla – Etllinger describes as follows, “Next, the guaiacol is reacted under high temperature and pressure, with a dash of the corrosive, solid glyoxylic acid so a sweet cherry hint (or “note”) develops in addition to the almost delicate, sweet benzene odor. And Bingo: bright, white, aromatic vanilla-smelling crystals drop out of the liquid. Pure vanillin, if you can call something synthetic pure.”

The final product is mixed with propylene glycol, also used in sexual lubricants, to moisten, smooth out and thicken the product as well as hint that your body has been totally screwed. Like the programmers at Microsoft that program little jokes into their code, this has got to be the kind of thing scientist’s who make this stuff chuckle about as they nibble macrobiotic lunches grown in biodynamic window boxes at their home. At very least, ‘artificial butter flavor’ hints that something about the product isn’t quite right, explains Ettlinger, “Packed carefully into twenty-five-kilogram drums and sealed with a layer of nitrogen to protect it from moisture and fire (it is so highly flammable that a vapor mixture can actually explode) it must be stored under refrigeration. On top of that, due to the strength of its apparently awful (but nontoxic) smell, diacetyl must be kept separate from other chemicals and treated carefully to guard against leaks. The containers are labeled “harmful if swallowed,” both ironic and ominous for a food ingredient” (Pg 212). Sure, they add more ingredients after this to ‘round out the flavors’ like, um, more chemicals and of course some lube to make your Twinkie experience more satisfying and no-less explosive.

I finally got my hands on fresh, real vanilla here thanks to Karen at the Bookseller and I was itching to make something with it. I suspected Gunnar had never had real vanilla and I greeted him at the door with, “Quick, what can you put whipped cream on!” which oddly didn’t concern him. He went with Brownie Sundaes and one again the ‘Aunt’ pummeled the crap out of the Personal Trainer and I was handing over my debit card for a quick trip to the store for ice cream and brownie mix. I didn’t even wince knowing I’d be making boxed brownies, a favorite that I haven’t been able to supplant. My nephews’ prefer a palate of hot, sour, pungent and sweet in the form of Spicy Buffalo Doritos, Super-sour gummy worms, pungent plates left under the bed next to equally pungent socks and Dunkin Hines Brownie Mix both baked and sashimi-style spooned straight from the bowl. I replaced the vegetable oil with butter and used yokes instead of whites to make up for the lesser emulsifier and tried not to mention the PS-60 in the ingredients to my smiling and momentarily full nephew.