About Cat

I am a food scientist and nutrition educator and advocate. I am interested in community-centered food system change. I also play with yarn; either making new yarn on a spindle or converting made yarn through knitting. All opinions on this blog are my own and do not reflect those of any organization with which I am associated.

Food Ways: Sea biscuits

Hardtack

OLDEST SHIP BISCUIT. This specimen appears at the Maritime Museum in Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark. The biscuit dates from 1852. Image: Paul A. Cziko (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardtack#/media/File:Oldest_ship_biscuit_Kronborg_DK_cropped.jpg)

It has been an interesting journey doing the research on sea biscuits and I am sure there is more information I haven’t found doing a quick internet search. Sea biscuits are the Navy’s equivalent of hardtack, which is a relatively new comer as it was named by the 19th Century American army. Given the simple recipe (mix flour and salt with water to make a dough, roll out into patties, bake in a medium oven for 30 min at least twice) these biscuits were probably around in prehistoric times and still surviving in some hidden cave somewhere. These biscuits last longer than flour as they have a lower moisture content and water activity. One disadvantage is that sea biscuits will absorb moisture if the humidity increases. This was a problem when Royal Navy ships first traveled in the tropics.

When I travel, even on short journeys, I am in the habit of carrying some food and water with me. Travel delays on trains and planes have been part of my travel experience and I prefer to know I have food rather than hope I can buy something if necessary.  Travelers need food that has a long shelf-life, is robust, safe to eat, and calorie/nutrient dense. Many travelers’ food is dried as removing the moisture  extends the shelf life by essentially making the food inedible to bacteria. While removing water has the advantage of stopping bacterial growth, it doesn’t always give us a food that is robust and could stand up to the rigors of travel. There have been a number of times I have reached into my rucksack for a cookie/biscuit and found crumbs. Not the snack I was hoping for!

The sea biscuit has more in common with Terry Pratchett’s Dwarf’s rock cakes than any modern cookie or cracker. So robust that, typically sea biscuits need to soaked overnight or smashed with a hammer or rock to able to eat it. Sea biscuits are the original cracker that was crumbled into New England chowder, probably because that was the only way the biscuits could be eaten. The British navy used to bake/dry their biscuits 4 times. So if you think biscotti are hard to eat without dunking, double the force needed to bite into a sea biscuit and book that trip to a dentist to replace your teeth. They were so hard that apparently an American civil war soldier wrote a letter on the side of a hardtack and mailed it with the address on the other side and it survived in the mail without any protection. No wonder British soldiers were envious of American food rations in World War 2.

In the process of making sea biscuits you knead the flour and water together. This allows for gluten formation and most of the recipes have a 2:1 ratio of flour to water which is perfect for gluten formation. Gluten is the protein that gives bread its springy texture and the network of gluten stays in place once heating is complete which means that bread keeps its structure after baking. While soft bread goes stale very quickly due to the retrogradation of starch, the starch in hardtack is probably all retrograded before leaving the oven. An interesting question would be to find out how much starch granules hydrate and swell in making of sea biscuits. Is enough for the starch molecules to gelatinize? Perhaps the water is removed too quickly for gelation and retrogradation occurs very quickly with little rearrangement of the starch molecules. (Confused – see my post on starch here!)

If you want to make your own sea biscuits there are lots of recipes online due to reenactors and survivalists wanting a food that is traditional and/or last a long time. They are also popular in Hawai’i and Alaska. Personally I would prefer water biscuits or Scottish oatcakes carefully wrapped than a food that is hard to eat. Trail mix would be more desirable still. However, if a zombie apocalypse is ever threatened, I know what I could bake to help my long term survival.

References

All references visited on 29 January 2018

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardtack background
  2. https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Hardtack recipes
  3. http://www.survivalnewsonline.com/index.php/2012/02/hardtack-a-great-survival-food-stock/ recipe
  4. http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/904-hardtack-ships-biscuits.html recipe
  5. http://www.gone-ta-pott.com/hard_tack_sea_biscuits.html recipe and history
  6. https://youtu.be/FyjcJUGuFVg video, history and recipe
  7. https://reclaimingtheloaf.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/biscuits/ history
  8. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcookies.html#shipsbiscuit and http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcookies.html#hardtack history
  9. http://www.menshealth-questions.net/royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheet_ship_biscuit.htm history
  10. http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/07/11/hard-to-swallow-a-brief-history-of-hardtack-and-ships-biscuit-2/ history
  11. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/ships-biscuit history
  12. http://www.janeausten.co.uk/ships-biscuit/ history

 

Advertisements

Food Ways: An Introduction

Plane wing at dawn

Dawn in the air

So I am stuck on a plane, eating rather tasteless penne and cheese while reading Rob MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways”. While Rob writes about walking in a way that resonates, he rarely eats. My memory of walking seems to be centered around food whether it be the Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut squares that Dad and I ate to keep us going, the corned beef and ketchup sandwiches that Dad loved, our discovery when visiting the Lake District for the first time of Kendal Mint Cake or the afternoon teas at the end, food was very much part of my venturing into the British countryside. In fact, I missed that most when I started hiking in the US as there was no pub lunch and no afternoon tea.

The second chapter in “The Old Ways” is an anthology of writers who have written about walking. So many books to read. I realized that I want to write about food the way Rob writes about wildness. I think food might be harder to do; food is civilized and urbane; cuisine has defined what we consider to be a meal, snack, beverage, fruit and vegetable. Culture has defined food down to when we should eat what; including the meals on planes. Why are we provided food on planes? What is the history behind air travel and food. After all food isn’t bought to you on a train or a bus. Stage coaches had to stop at inns so passengers could get food. On boats I guess food was provided or were steerage passengers expected to bring their own food with them?

What is the history of food on the move?

I read somewhere that our taste is affected by the pressure/altitude/air circulation on planes. Unfortunately these food providers aren’t aware of that fact. The overcooked broccoli was the only thing with any kind of flavor, even though its texture had been destroyed. The penne in white sauce was flavorless – the texture was redeemed by some minor crunchy bits where it had been overcooked. I have never liked cooked carrots, so I can’t judge what their flavor. No wonder my seatmate bought her own sandwiches.

I tried to search food for journeys on Google. The problem is that there are lots of journeys centered around food; mostly exploring the food of a new-to-you culture. I tried portable food and discovered that Lewis and Clark took portable soup with them on their journey. It wasn’t very popular apparently! GLEW by name, gluey in nature. The Smithsonian has a good summary of food in space. Of course we have popularity of Tang® and freeze-dried food thanks to NASA.

I checked through my library of food books. In “Pickled, Potted, and Canned” Sue Shephard has a chapter on “Great Journeys” that discusses some of the history of food on the move. Wealthy travelers on familiar routes were able to use monastery guest houses, hospices, and inns. Poorer people typically carried food with them, as did all people travelling less well known roads. A list of portable foods throughout the world includes a lot of dried or cured food, such as dried fruit, fish, meat, hardtack, jerky, pemmican and Johnny or journey cakes. Later in the chapter, Sue discusses polar explorers who weren’t so great at nutrition. I remember being told by one of my nutrition professors that Scott (of the Antarctic) partly failed because he didn’t believe that fruit was necessary to prevent scurvy. Sue agrees that Scott failed because of malnutrition and exhaustion.

As a food scientist, I am interested in the descriptions of what happens to food during travel. The shelf-life of dried meats and fruit dramatically decreased when ships reached the tropics. This is probably caused by a mixture of the high humidity and heat. At the other end of the climate spectrum, explorers in the Arctic and Antarctic found that the extreme cold changed their food. It must have been a shock to see that molasses had mostly solidified and that dried fruit was frozen tight in their wooden barrels. “Sugar formed a funny compound” is one description. Now I want to find out what that meant; what happens to sugar at 32 oC.

References

Dismukes K and Petty J I (2002)Food for Spaceflight, NASA, https://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/factsheets/food.html

MacFarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways. Penguin, London.

Rupp R (2014) The Luke-Warm, Gluey, History of Portable Soup. National Geographic, http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/25/the-luke-warm-gluey-history-of-portable-soup/

Shephard, S (2000)  Pickled, Potted, and Canned. Simon and Schuster, New York. Chapter 13 “Great Journeys”.

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (nd) Food in Space. https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/apollo-to-the-moon/online/astronaut-life/food-in-space.cfm

Walker H (editor) (1996) Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1996. Prospect Books, Devon.

 

Equity and the American Idea

As an naturalized American, I have always struggled with the idea of American exceptionalism especially considering the injustice I see daily through poverty and food insecurity. Could understanding equity help me appreciate the American idea? Two articles allowed me to start thinking about this question.

The first article “Is the American Idea Over?”[i] looks at the original ideology that lead to the founding of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857. The original mission statement, if there had been mission statements in the nineteenth century, was for the magazine to be an exponent of what they believed to be the American idea as expounded by Theodore Parker in 1850. He stated that the American idea was comprised of three statements:

  • That all people are created equal;
  • That all people possess unalienable rights;
  • That all people should have the opportunity to develop and enjoy those rights.

This article concludes that the American idea is essentially that “prosperity and justice do not exist in tension, but flow from each other” and that’s what we should be currently defending. While I think I agree, I am concerned that there are too many ways to interpret both prosperity and justice[ii].

As someone moving into the food justice nonprofit world, I’ve read a lot of mission statements and vision statements and objectives that promise equity without necessarily defining what equity means to them. I took equity for granted until I read the second article, “Can We Agree on this Simple Definition of Equity?”[iii]  in which equity is defined as it applies to nonprofits and philanthropic foundations:

“Equity is about ensuring the communities most affected by injustice get the most money to lead in the fight to address that injustice, and if that means we break the rules to make that happen, then that’s what we do.”

Now I can see a way to make a connection between the American idea and equity. Considering this definition and looking at “What the heck does equity mean?”[iv] and “Stop Calling Everything Equity”[v], I think equity is the last statement of the American idea. Thus, we should make sure the American idea continues by giving the most resources, as money, to those communities who have suffered the most injustice so they can have the opportunity to develop and enjoy their rights.

Footnotes
[i] Appelbaum, Y. Is the American Idea Over? The Atlantic Magazine, November 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/is-the-american-idea-over/540651/
[ii] Jen Rovetti, Defining Justice, FoodCorps Blog, June 26 2017, https://foodcorps.org/justice/
[iii] Vu Le, Can we agree on this simple definition of equity? NonProfitAF, Oct 16 2017 http://nonprofitaf.com/2017/10/can-we-agree-on-this-simple-definition-of-equity/
[iv] Putnam-Walkerly, K. and Russell, E. What the heck does equity mean? Stanford Social Innovations Review, Sept 15 2016, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/what_the_heck_does_equity_mean
[v] Okuno, E. Stop Calling Everything Equity, Fakequity, June 9 2017 https://fakequity.com/2017/06/09/stop-calling-everything-equity/

Food and Race Dialogue

food and race menu

Menu from the Eat Café from the Food and Race Dialogue

Yesterday I went to the Eat Café to participate in the Urban Consulate‘s discussion about Food and Race. What could be better, an opportunity to visit the Eat Café and find out what that was like, while hearing about the issues of food and race. The panelists were Dwayne Wharton from the Food Trust, Kirtrina Baxter from Soil Generation, and Noelle Warford of the Urban Tree Connection. I met lots of other people and at introductions realized that there were more interesting people in the room who would be fascinating to meet. I did get to chat to the founder of the Eat Café, Mariana Chilton.

food and race entre

Curried Vegetable Cakes with Sautéed Chard

One of the questions at the end of the dialogue asked what one thing would you lobby on. The panelists answered that they wanted land and resources for African Americans, and proper regulations about shelf life labeling, amongst other things. I woke up this morning realizing that I would ask for education. Properly funded and fully supported public education especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Education at all levels from pre-K to elderly, formal and informal. Make the inner city public schools something that the suburbanites desire and are jealous of. Also do the same for the rural school districts. Give all children access to the same resources and opportunities; science camps, art camps, drama camps. Additionally, while we are on the topic of food and race, make sure that food science, agriculture, cooking, nutrition, food culture, and food history is taught properly at all levels to all. Give them the opportunity to say “no, I’ve tried that and I don’t want to do it.” Let’s move away from the fact that only 10% of Americans like cooking, perhaps if more of us knew how to cook well, more of us would cook!