Category Archives: Food

The (Secret) History of the Banana Split

Inexpensive exotic treat drugstore ad
Inexpensive exotic treat drugstore ad
If there is a quintessential American dessert it is the banana split. Why? Although we can credit Persians and Arabs with invention of ice-cream (nice try China) the idea of putting lots of ice-cream on a split banana covered in everything you can find but the kitchen sink…surely that is pure American innovation.

After reading many food history pages and mulling their facts a bit I realized something important was out of place. There had to be more to this story than just Americans love big things — all the fixings — and one day someone put everything together. Why America? When?

I found myself digging around for more details and eventually ended up with this official explanation.

In 1904 in Latrobe, the first documented Banana Split was created by apprentice pharmacist David Strickler — sold here at the former Tassell Pharmacy. Bananas became widely available to Americans in the late 1800s. Strickler capitalized on this by cutting them lengthwise and serving them with ice cream. He is also credited with designing a boat-shaped glass dish for his treat. Served worldwide, the banana split has become a prevalent American dessert.

The phrase that catches my eye, almost lost among the other boring details, is that someone with an ingredient “widely available…capitalized”; capitalism appears to be the key to unlock this history.

Immigration and Trade

The first attribution goes to Italian immigrants who brought spumoni to America around the 1870s. This three flavor ice-cream often was in the three colors of their home country’s flag. No problem for Americans. The idea of a three flavor treat was taken and adapted to local favorites: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Ice-cream became more widely available by the 1880s and experimentation was inevitable as competition boomed. It obviously was a very popular food by the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which infamously popularized eating it with cones.

In parallel, new trade developments emerged. Before the 1880s there were few bananas found in America. America bought around $250K of bananas in 1871. Only thirty years later the imports had jumped 2,460% to $6.4m and were in danger of becoming too common. Bananas being both easily sourced and yet still exotic made them ideal for experiments with ice-cream. The dramatic change in trade and availability was the result of a corporate conglomerate formed in 1899 called the United Fruit Company. I’ll explain more about them in a bit.

At this point what we’re talking about is just Persian/Arab ice-cream modified and brought by Italian immigrants to America, then modified and dropped onto the newly marketed banana of capitalism. Serving up all the fixings over a banana-split make a lot of sense if you put yourself in the shoes of someone working in a soda/pharmacy business of 1904 trying to increase business.

Back then Bananas and Pineapples Were The Exotic New Thing

Imagine you’re in a drug-store and supposed to be offering something amazing or exotic to draw in customers. People could go to any drugstore. You pull out the hot new banana fruit, add the three most-popular flavors (impressive yet not completely unfamiliar) and then dump all the sauces you’ve got on top. You now charge double the cost of any other dessert. Should you even add pineapple on top? Of course! The pineapple arrived fresh off the boat in a new promotion by the Dole corporation:

In 1899 James Dole arrived in Hawaii with $1000 in his pocket, a Harvard degree in business and horticulture and a love of farming. He began by growing pineapples. After harvesting the world’s sweetest, juiciest pineapples, he started shipping them back to mainland USA.

I have mentioned before on this blog how the US annexed Hawaii by sending in the Marines. Food historians rarely bother to talk about this side of the equation, so indulge me for a moment. Interesting timing of the pineapple, no? I sense a need for a story about the Dole family to be told.

The arrival of James Dole to Hawaii in 1899, and a resulting sudden widespread availability of pineapples in drugstores for banana splits, is a dark chapter in American politics.

James was following the lead of his cousin Sanford Ballard Dole, who had been born in Hawaii in 1844 to Protestant missionaries and nursed by native Hawaiians after his mother died at childbirth. Sanford was open about his hatred of the local government and had vowed to remove and replace them with American immigrants, people who would help his newly-arrived cousin James protect their family wealth.

"I swear I just was examining large juicy warm fruit for quality"
“I swear I just was examining large juicy warm fruit for quality”

1890 American Protectionism and Hawaiian Independence

To understand the shift Dole precipitated and participated in, back up from 1899 to the US Republican Congress in 1890 approving the McKinley Tariff. This raised the cost of imports to America 40-50%, striking fear into Americans trying to profit in Hawaii by exporting goods. Although that Tariff left an exception for sugar it still explicitly removed Hawaii’s “favored status” and rewarded domestic production.

Within two years after the Tariff sugar exports from Hawaii had dropped a massive 40% and threw the economy into shock. Plantations run by white American businessmen quickly cooked up ideas to reinstate profits; their favored plan was to remove Hawaii’s independence and deny sovereignty to its people.

At the same time these businessmen were convinced they would need to remove Hawaiian independence, Queen Lili`uokalani ascended to the throne and indicated she would reduce foreign interference on the country, drafting a new constitution.

These two sides headed directly at each other and disaster in 1892 despite the US government shifting dramatically to Democratic control (leading straight to the 1894 repeal of the McKinley Tariff). Republican damage had been done, Dole was using his own party’s platform as excuse to call himself a victim needing intervention. As Hawaii hinted towards more national control the foreign businessmen in Hawaii begged America for annexation to protect their profits.

An “uprising” in early 1893 (a loyalist policeman accidentally noticed large amounts of ammunition being delivered to businessmen planning a coup, so he was shot and killed) was used as the premise to force the Queen to abdicate power to a government inserted by the sugar growers, led by Sanford Dole. US Marines stormed the island to ensure protecting the interests of elitist businessmen exporting to America, despite only recently operating under a government that wanted reduction of imports. Sanford’s pro-annexation government, ushered in by shrewd political games and US military might, now was firmly in place as he had vowed.

The Hawaiian nation’s fate seemed sealed, however it actually remained uncertain as the newly elected US President openly opposed by principle any imperialism and annexation. He even spoke of support for the Queen of Hawaii. Congressional (Republican) pressure mounted and by 1897 the President seemed less likely to fight the annexation lobby. Finally in 1898, as war with Spain unfolded, Hawaii was labeled by the military as strategically important and abruptly lost its independence definitively.

Few Americans I speak with realize that their government basically sent the Marine forces to annex Hawaii based on increased profits for American missionaries and plantation owners delivering sugar to the US, and then sealed the annexation as convenient for war.

Total Control Over Fruit Sources

Ok, segue complete, remember how President Sanford’s cousin James arrived in Hawaii in 1899 ready to start shipments of cheap pineapples? His arrival and success was a function of that annexation of the independent state; creation of a pro-American puppet government lured James to facilitate business and military interests.

This is why drugstores in 1904 suddenly found ready access to pineapple to dump on their bananas with ice cream. And speaking of bananas, their story is quite similar. The United Fruit Company I mentioned at the start quickly was able to establish US control over plantations in many countries:

Exports of the UFC "Great White Fleet"
Exports of the UFC “Great White Fleet”

  • Columbia
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Jamaica
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Santo Dominica
  • Guatemala

Nearly half of Guatemala fell under control of the US conglomerate corporation, apparently, and yet no taxes had to be paid; telephone communications as well as railways, ports and ships all were owned by United Fruit Company. The massive level of US control initially was portrayed as an investment and benefit to locals, although hindsight has revealed another explanation.

“As for repressive regimes, they were United Fruit’s best friends, with coups d’état among its specialties,” Chapman writes. “United Fruit had possibly launched more exercises in ‘regime change’ on the banana’s behalf than had even been carried out in the name of oil.” […] “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities,” a former United Fruit executive once explained, “because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.”

Thus the term “banana republic” was born to describe those countries under the thumb of “Great White” businessmen.

US "Great White" power over foreign countries
The “Great White” map of UFC power over foreign countries

And while saying “banana republic” was meant by white businessmen intentionally to be pejorative and negative, it gladly was adopted in the 1980s by a couple Americans. Their business model was to travel the world and blatantly “observe” clothing designs in other countries to resell as a “discovery” to their customers back home. Success at appropriation of ideas led to the big brand stores selling inexpensive clothes that most people know today, found in most malls. The irony of saying “banana republic” surely has been lost on everyone, just like “banana split” isn’t thought of as a horrible reminder of injustices.

In other words the banana-split is a by-product or modern representation of America’s imperialist expansion and corporate-led brutal subjugation of freedoms in foreign nations, during the early 1900s. Popularity of “banana republic” labels and branding, let alone a dessert, just proves how little anyone remembers or cares of the history behind these products and terms.

Nonetheless, you know now the secret behind widespread availability of inexpensive ingredients that made this famous and iconic American dessert possible.

Mining and Visualizing YouTube Metadata for Threat Models

For several years I’ve been working on ways to pull metadata from online video viewers into threat models. In terms of early-warning systems or general trends, metadata may be a useful input on what people are learning and thinking about.

Here’s a recent example of a relationship model between viewers that I just noticed:

A 3D map (from a company so clever they have managed to present software advertisements as legitimate TED talks) indicates that self-reporting young viewers care more about sewage and energy than they care about food or recycling.

The graph also suggests video viewers who self-identify as women watch videos on food rather than energy and sewage. Put young viewers and women viewers together and you have a viewing group that cares very little about energy technology.

I recommend you watch the video. However, I ask that you please first setup an account with false gender to poison their data. No don’t do that. Yes, do…no don’t.

Actually what the TED talk reveals, if you will allow me to get meta for a minute, is that TED talks often are about a narrow band of topics despite claiming to host a variety of presenters. Agenda? There seem to be extremely few outliers or innovative subjects, according to the visualization. Perhaps this is a result of how the visual was created — categories of talks were a little too broad. For example, if you present a TED talk on password management and sharks and I present on reversing hardware and sharks, that’s both just interest in nature, right?

The visualization obscures many of the assumptions made by those who painted it. And because it is a TED talk we give up 7 minutes of our lives yet never get details below the surface. Nonetheless, this type of analysis and visualization is where we all are going. Below is an example from one of my past presentations, where I discussed capturing and showing high-level video metadata on attack types and specific vulnerabilities/tools. If you are not doing it already, you may want to think about this type of input when discussing threat models.

Here I show the highest concentrations of people in the world who are watching video tutorials on how to use SQL injection:

#HeavyD and the Evil Hostess Principle

At this year’s ISACA-SF conference I will present how to stop malicious attacks against data mining and machine learning.

First, the title of the talk uses the tag #HeavyD. Let me explain why I think this is more than just a reference to the hiphop artist or nuclear physics.

The Late Great Heavy D

Credit for the term goes to @RSnake and @joshcorman. It came up as we were standing on a boat and bantering about the need for better terms than “Big Data”. At first it was a joke and then I realized we had come upon a more fun way to describe the weight of big data security.

What is weight?

Way back in 2006 Gill gave me a very tiny and light racing life-jacket. I noted it was not USCG Type III certified (65+ newtons). It seemed odd to get race equipment that wasn’t certified, since USCG certification is required to race in US Sailing events. Then I found out the Europeans believe survival of sailors requires about 5 fewer newtons than the US authorities.

Gill Buoyancy Aid
Awesome Race Equipment, but Not USCG Approved

That’s a tangent but perhaps it helps frame a new discussion. We think often about controls to protect data sets of a certain size, which implies a measure at rest. Collecting every DB we can and putting it in a central hadoop, that’s large.

If we think about protecting large amounts of data relative to movement then newton units come to mind. Think of measuring “large” in terms of a control or countermeasure — the force required to make one kilogram of mass go faster at a rate of one meter per second:


Hold onto that thought for a minute.

Second, I will present on areas of security research related to improving data quality. I hinted at this on Jul 15 when I tweeted about a quote I saw in darkreading.

argh! no, no, no. GIGO… security researcher claims “the more data that you throw at [data security], the better”.

After a brief discussion with that researcher, @alexcpsec, he suggested instead of calling it a “Twinkies flaw” (my first reaction) we could call it the Hostess Principle. Great idea! I updated it to the Evil Hostess Principle — the more bad ingredients you throw at your stomach, the worse. You are prone to “bad failure” if you don’t watch what you eat.

I said “bad failure” because failure is not always bad. It is vital to understand the difference between a plain “more” approach versus a “healthy” approach to ingestion. Most “secrets of success” stories mention that reaction speed to failure is what differentiates winners from losers. That means our failures can actually have very positive results.

Professional athletes, for example are said to be the quickest at recovery. They learn and react far faster to failure than average. This Honda video interviews people about failure and they say things like: “I like to see the improvement and with racing it is very obvious…you can fail 100 times if you can succeed 1”

So (a) it is important to know the acceptable measure of failure. How much bad data are we able to ingest before we aren’t learning anymore — when do we stop floating? Why is 100:1 the right number?

And (b) an important consideration is how we define “improvement” versus just change. Adding ever more bad data (more weight), as we try to go faster and be lighter, could just be a recipe for disaster.

Given these two, #HeavyD is a presentation meant to explain and explore the many ways attackers are able to defeat highly-scalable systems that were designed to improve. It is a technical look at how we might setup positive failure paths (fail-safe countermeasures) if we intend to dig meaning out of data with untrusted origin.

Who do you trust?

Fast analysis of data could be hampered by slow processes to prepare the data. Using bad data could render analysis useless. Projects I’ve seen lately have added weeks to get source material ready for ingestion; decrease duplication, increase completeness and work towards some ground rule of accurate and present value. Already I’m seeing entire practices and consulting built around data normalization and cleaning.

Not only is this a losing proposition (e.g. we learned this already with SIEM), the very definition of big data makes this type of cleaning effort a curious goal. Access to unbounded volumes with unknown variety at increasing velocity…do you want to budget to “clean” it? Big data and the promise of ingesting raw source material seems antithetical to someone charging for complicated ground-rule routines and large cleaning projects.

So we are searching for a new approach. Better risk management perhaps should be based on finding a measure of data linked to improvement, like Newtons required for a life-jacket or healthy ingredients required from Hostess.

Look forward to seeing you there.


by Penguin Café Orchestra

In 1972 I was in the south of France. I had eaten some bad fish and was in consequence rather ill. As I lay in bed I had a strange recurring vision, there, before me, was a concrete building like a hotel or council block. I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied. In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made gray and anonymous. The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart. Next day when I felt better, I went to the beach. As I sat there a poem came to me. It began ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe. I will tell you things at random.’

Does your company actually need a security department?

Gunnar Peterson prompted us yesterday in Dark Reading with this provocative question:

Does your company actually need a security department? If you are doing CYA instead of CIA, the answer is probably no

It’s easy to agree with Gunnar when you read his analysis. He offers a false dichotomy fallacy.

Standing up a choice between only awful pointless policy wonks in management and brilliant diamonds found in engineering, it’s easy to make the choice he wants you to make. Choose diamonds, duh.

However, he does not explain why we should see security management as any more of a bureaucratic roadblock than any/all management, including the CEO. Review has value. Strategy has value. Sometimes.

The issue he really raises is one of business management. Reviewers have to listen to staff and work together with builders to make themselves (and therefore overall product/output) valuable. This is not a simple, let alone binary decision, and Gunnar doesn’t explain how to get the best of both worlds.

A similar line of thinking can be found by looking across all lines of management. I found recent discussion of the JAL recovery for example, addressing such issues, very insightful.

Note the title of the BBC article “Beer with boss Kazuo Inamori helps Japan Airlines revival

My simple philosophy is to make all the staff happy….not to make shareholders happy

Imagine grabbing a six-pack of beer, sitting down with engineering and talking about security strategy, performing a review together to make engineers happy. That probably would solve Gunnar’s concerns, right? Mix diamonds with beer and imagine the possbilities…

Inamori had interesting things to say about management’s hand in the financial crisis and risk failures in 2009, before he started the turnaround of JAL

Top executives should manage their companies by earning reasonable profits through modesty, not arrogance, and taking care of employees, customers, business partners and all other stakeholders with a caring heart. I think it’s time for corporate CEOs of the capitalist society to be seriously questioned on whether they have these necessary qualities of leadership.

Gunnar says hold infosec managers accountable. Inamori says hold all managers accountable.

Only a few years later JAL under the lead of Inamori surged ahead in profit and is now close to leading the airline industry. What did Inamori build? He reviewed, nay audited, everything in order to help others build a better company.

An interesting tangent to this issue is a shift in IT management practices precipitated by cloud. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) options will force some to question whether they really need administrators within their IT department. Software as a Service (SaaS) may make some ask the same of developers. Once administrators and developers are gone, where is security?

Those who choose a public cloud model, and transition away from in-house resources, now also face a question of whether they should pursue a similar option for their security department. Technical staff often wear multiple hats but that option diminishes as cloud grows in influence.

In fact, once admin and dev technical staff are augmented or supplanted by cloud, the need for a security department to manage trust may be more necessary than ever. This is how the discrete need for a security department could in fact increase where none was perceived before — security as a service is becoming an interesting new development in cloud.

Bottom line: if you care about trust, whether you use shared staff or dedicated services, dedicated staff or shared services, you most likely need security. At the same time I agree with Gunnar that bad management is bad, so perhaps a simple solution is to build the budget to allow for a “beer” method of good security management.

I recommend an Audit Ale

This style had all but disappeared by the 1970s, but originated in the 1400s to be consumed when grades were handed out at Oxford and Cambridge universities…. At 8 percent ABV, it has helped celebrate many a good “audit” or soften the blow of a bad one.

This Day in History: 1900 Carrie Nation Vandalizes Wichita Saloon

Carrie Nation was married to an alcoholic and faced economic hardship. These apparently were a primary cause of her desperate attempts to ban alcohol in Kansas, although she claimed a religious pretense.

PBS provides this quote about Nation, said to be her self-description

a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like

Her crusade, although based on her own struggles, also resonated with others who believed widespread use of alcohol during the Civil War (to boost morale, deaden pain or fight disease) was to blame for the “problem” of alcohol after conflict ended.

Reflecting upon those seeking temperance, and noting their arguments, [Confederate physician William Henry Taylor] wrote, “These may be formidable objections to the use of alcohol, but the military surgeon of my day would have thought that they were offset by the fact, demonstrated by innumerable instances, that it promptly rallies the deep sunk spirits of the wounded soldier, and snatches him from the jaws of imminent death.”

In reality, while General/President Grant was well-known for being the most heralded officer and leader in America and not afraid to take a drink, veterans were not necessarily more likely to drink and there were several economic and cultural factors that were behind the rise of alcohol consumption.

Heavy taxation ended after the war, which made alcohol more affordable. A huge boom of immigrants from Ireland and Germany brought a strong drinking culture with them in the mid-1800s. These two elements combined were a significant influence on the direction of American social customs by 1900. A large consumer base emerged and saloons opened and inexpensive beer was brewed to support them.

In this context Nation soon became famous for violent outburts and her irreverance for damaging property. Few men dared challenge her strong-arm antics, which eventually helped ignite the prohibition movement.

The following newspaper clipping, found in the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, KS shows the headline “Carrie Nation Wages War”; from The Wichita Daily Eagle (1890-1906), December 28, 1900, Page 6, Image 6

Mrs. Carrie Nation of Medicine Lodge walked into the Carey annex and commenced the demolishing of the fixtures in that place. She was armed with two short pieces of iron. She also had some rocks.

In short, prohibition was an attempt by social conservatives to block changes in American culture, despite obvious underlying economic and cultural foundations. Today it is easy to see why prohibitionists not only failed to stop the trend towards consumption but actually refined American ingenuity to circumvent regulations.

National Eggnog Day

December 24 is a celebration in America of copying a recipe from Britain, making an inexpensive version of it, then proclaiming it as our own.

As with most things considered distinctly American, eggnog is a tweaked and tinkered version of an import. The story, as I heard it many years ago, is that a fashionable drink that grew during the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) called syllabub was imported and renamed in America, as it died off in England.

The drink started with the fact that only the well-to-do of England before the 1700s could own cows and afford to drink milk fresh hot from the source let alone laced with exotic spices and expensive alcohol.

THE principal sale of milk from the cow is in St. James’s Park. The once fashionable drink known as syllabubs — the milk being drawn warm from the cow’s udder, upon a portion of wine, sugar, spice, — is now unknown.

The once fashionable celebratory drink is now unknown, says this person in 18th Century London. It was relegated to the recipe books such as the 1786 “Complete English Cook“, buried among the many other options.


What about Posset?

Some have written that Posset, not Syllabub, is the correct lineage for today’s celebratory drink. I find this to be a leap, given that London cookbooks of 1762 categorized Posset in this context:

I. Of Soups, Broths and Gravy.
II. Of Pancakes, Fritters, Possets, Tanseys

Pancakes, Fritters and Tanseys all are fried, which leaves Possets to be cooked into a curdled cream or even a custard.

Some have pointed to an even starker context: Shakespeare’s Macbeth reference to the posset as a healthy nightcap, a drink conveniently easy to poison before bed.

The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms
Do mock their charge with snores. I have drugg’d their possets
That death and nature do contend about them,
Whether they live or die.

The poison context seems a bit off. Spiced anything is easy to poison. Anyway the greater context is the “health” aspects of a posset, which were rooted in medieval times. Eating a cooked (sanitized) protein and alcohol slurry may have given the appearance of curing the sick because better than not eating at all. (From Eearly English Book Online “Food and Physick”, for which 18th Connect gives a sneak preview)

Another special Preservative: Take an Egge, make a hole in the top of it, take out the white, and the yolk, and fill the shell only with Saffron; roast the shell and Saffron together, in Embers of Charcole, untill the shell wax yellow; then beat shell and all together in a Morter, with half a spoonful of Mustard-Seed: Now so soon as any suspition is had of Infection, dissolve the weight of a French Crown, in ten spoonfulls of Posset-Ale, drink it luke-warm, and sweat upon it in your naked Bed

Enjoy your medicine. Yuck. In other words, the medicinal muck of a posset served in a person’s darkest hour, as they lay waiting for death, is unlikely to be a direct root for today’s party serving eggnog. There is a transition/fork at the very least from posset to syllabub, or perhaps a disconnect, when milk with spice and booze became fashionable for partying. A modern descendant of posset is more likely to be kumyss.

I mean syllabub, hot milk pulled from the udder and mixed with flavorings, is typically for celebration not solitary nightcaps or plagued deathbeds. Thus syllabub makes far more sense when you think about what you’re doing with eggnog today.

The demise and intellectual property transfer of syllabub

Serving syllabub at parties lost favor in England around the time its colony (e.g. America) was importing anything it could for celebratory significance. Dairy economics of the colonies were a key factor in transfer of high-brow beverage to common table. Privileged recipes of status in England easily were transformed into replicas with new resource abundances (also found with Cheddar cheese).

There was a small catch to the American colony use of syllabub. Import costs for fine wines and liquors forced change in the ingredients. Alcohol found easily on ships sailing in America — rum of the Caribbean — was an obvious substitute to start with. A more likely substitution later was based on variations of whiskey such as the corn-based bourbon (rum trade and imports were scuttled during the Revolution).

Americans became so accustomed to the English idea of a milk and spiced alcohol drink for celebrations, despite the decline in England, that an attempt at the US Army academy to regulate consumption in 1826 led to dangerous riots.

A few of the cadets took Thayer’s regulations [of eggnog] as a challenge and intended to outsmart the superintendent and his staff by having the best holiday celebration West Point had seen. The term “celebration” may not apply in this case, but the incident of the “Eggnog Riot” was something West Point had never experienced. At least seventy cadets took part in the shenanigans, resulting in assaults on two officers and destruction of North Barracks, as some of the students, in their inebriated state, had smashed several windows.

This level of anti-authority violence might need perspective. Consider how in the 1800s Americans carried forward another aristocratic tradition from England. The British Kingdom passed its Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. It took another 30 years and a bloody protracted Civil War started by the Southern states before America could abolish slavery. In 1913 a book called “Dishes and Beverages of The Old South” even recommended making syllabub as an “Old South” tradition for special occasions!

Harking back to the supper table – syllabub, as nearly as I recall, was made of thick cream lightly reinforced with stiffly beaten white of egg – one egg-white to each pint – sweetened, well flavored with sherry or Madeira wine, then whipped very stiff, and piled in a big bowl, also in goblets to set about the bowl…

Thus, today in America what we really celebrate is the commodity effect, aristocratic-like access made inexpensive, to fresh milk and alcohol. Eggnog is not the only product like this, borrowed and interpreted from the wealthy abroad without attribution. There are many others such as cheddar cheese mentioned above (officially only from the caves of Cheddar and at some point declared by a King the finest cheese in England).

Here’s a fun chart of eggnog showing up in menus over time in America, from the New York Public Library, where you can see price:


Isn’t big data amazing?

A new recipe

Given this history, here’s my simple recipe to celebrate America’s National Eggnog Day:

  • Six Tbsp of Grassmilk
  • Six grass-fed eggs
  • Six cups of Wild Turkey 101 Rye
  • 1 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1Tbsp Grass-fed butter (Note: Irish butter is often cited as grass-fed. It really is only about 300 days a year of grass feed. German butter can be grass fed year round. An excellent alternative butter is from Yak)

Mix the milk, eggs and spices. Heat a saucepan with the butter. Pour the whiskey and hand remaining five cups to your guests. Take a sip of the whiskey. Pour the dairy mixture into the pan and wait until it’s cooked. Take another sip of the whiskey. Scramble the mixture in the pan, adding other ingredients as desired. Sip the whiskey. Serve scrambled eggs to your guests as you all enjoy your unspoilt American whiskey.

Now that’s American.

An old recipe

On the other hand, if you still think you want to drink the stuff of origin ala the Tudors (or at least the Victorian version of it, before it disappeared), the BBC offers this recipe from Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 “Book of Household Management

  • 570ml/1 pint sherry or white wine
  • 1/2 grated nutmeg
  • sugar to taste
  • 900ml/1 1/2 pt milk
  1. Put the wine into a bowl, with the grated nutmeg and plenty of pounded sugar, and add it to the milk.
  2. Clouted cream may be held on the top, with pounded cinnamon or nutmeg and sugar; and a little brandy may be added to the wine before the milk is put in.
  3. In some countries, cider is substituted for the wine: when this is used, brandy must always be added. Warm milk may be poured on from a spouted jug or teapot; but it must be held very high.

…and just remember when she says jug or teapot that’s a reference to an aristocrat’s cow udder tended by his milk girl.

Don’t get me started on the security issues in trusting an aristocrat’s milk girl. Seriously, auditing milk girls for fraud was important business in old England. Milk often was diluted with water, for example, if the customer wasn’t watching carefully.

Instead of that hassle, just head out to a local dairy in America and ask if they will let you pull an udder for hot milk into a large bowl to celebrate Eggnog Day.

Bring this recipe and show it to the dairy:

Reynolds, Mrs. George W. M. (1871). The Household Book of Practical Receipts. 18th ed.. London: John Dicks. p. 12.

Updated to add: Compare and contrast the original Syllabub with President Eisenhower’s Whitehouse cook book, which you can find in his archive today. Here’s a recipe for eggnog that prefers bourbon, “coffee cream” and doesn’t even mention spice until a garnish at the end.


Pu-erh Tea – the New Black Coffee

Once upon a time as a student I wandered the empty, dark and wet streets of London in search of coffee. No place seemed to serve the stuff I had become accustomed to in America. How was I expected to work through the night without a pot of hot black coffee? A lonley Dunkin Donuts near the corner of Kingsway and High Holborn became my solace.

I was living in a city of half-empty jars of instant coffee powder and nothing better. Pub and restaurant staff would give me a look of confusion after I would order coffee but then protest “That’s not what I meant. That’s not coffee.” Their response? “So do you want tea then?” No. I didn’t want tea. Thank you Dunkin Donuts for keeping a pot of hot black coffee on for me. Sorry I never ate the donuts.

Perhaps the problem was one of marketing. Nescafe was an influential voice for so long (since 1938 — per the ad above) that by 1993 the UK still was under the impression that Americans stirred a spoonful of flavored sawdust into a cup of hot water…and why would anyone want to drink that rubbish when they could take tea, scotch or beer? I told native Londoners about my quest for coffee but they just snickered and said “I s’pose you also want peanut-butter, a shower and a burrito? Haha!”

A few years after I navigated the troubled waters of coffee in London I headed north to explore throughout the highlands of Scotland; sampling scotch to study the ingredients, methods of distillation and general history.

Waters near The Glenlivet. Photo by me.

Tomatin's cellar. Cask 20697 et al from 1965 that probably were bottled in 2008 (42 years). Photo by me.

This awoke my fascination with whiskey and small-batch bourbons back in America. I found it curious how Jim Beam had created in the late 1980s four low-cost brands of single-barrel bourbon that were far less expensive than the mainstream brands but of better quality. Things were going smoothly until I witnessed a big change. Prices sky-rocketed in America as quality diminished or was made constant. The price for Knob Creek doubled from $16 to $32 in just two or three years. The need to understand process and ingredients (e.g. the search for a particular bean and roaster, the hunt for a single-barrel or for a particular bottler) lost meaning and value.

It became a question of just which giant conglomerate was running brands and for what margin (Bush Pilot was forced out of production by American lawyers, Lagavulin reduced production and sold to Diageo*, and Laphroig was acquired. As far as I can tell there is now only one independent distillery in Scotland. Oh, and Starbucks were popping up all over London). The challenge to learning about roasters or distilleries and their details…gone. Consistent mediocrity replaced the risk of dealing with inferior and superior quality. It was like the scene in Kubrick’s 2001 when all food and drink is reduced to baby-formula, even for adults.

Meanwhile, during the fall and decline of interest in other beverages, I was repeatedly exposed to tea. I mean I always had been interested in the odd tea, especially some of the stranger herbal collections from Minnesota and Colorado like Morning Thunder Barley and Good Earth, but I soon realized it was undervalued, open to innovation and incredibly complex. By 2007 I found myself exploring it like never before and paying more attention to the risks and rewards of discovery.

Along came Pu-erh

After many many days wandering through tea shops it seemed to me that I was using the same taste filters for tea that I had for coffee and whiskey; I was finding full-bodied smokey or woody flavors with a touch of bitter and a sweet aftertaste.

One day I stumbled upon the fact that a post-fermented tea from the Yunnan province in China, called Pu-erh, fit the profile more than perfectly. Not only can it replace coffee in taste and effect, it blows away any residual fondness I had for coffee culture (with the exception of drinking Bedouin hot coffee under the noon-day sun in the desert):

One cup of coffee for the guest, one for enjoyment and one for the sword

In short, Pu-erh provides the procedures and smooth mental stimulant effects without any of the side-effects of coffee.

Further research has really opened my eyes to a deep sea of details. While coffee and whiskey had a few things to ponder, ancient Chinese tea goes to an absurdly further level. It’s beyond even ancient beer and wine. Here are some of my notes so far:

  • Pu-erh is named for a town where it could be bought. It actually comes from a range of mountains in south China Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture that have a particular soil and humidity. An ethnic group (the Dai) was growing tea there in at least the Bronze age (3000 years have passed since cultivation and trade by the Shang Dynasty) using fermentation and adding spices and milks to their drinks (versus young and green tea favored elsewhere). Tea trees planted nearly 1,000 years ago may still be found.
  • Horse caravans formed a tea route with five directions and brought Pu-erh into China and eventually other countries. Here’s a map from Hou De Asian Art Horse Tea Road
    Because of the long journey the tea leaves were compressed with hot steam into cakes. The cake looks something like a giant coin and is very stable for transportation and trade. By the 1300s Pu-erh tea was one of the most important commodities in the Chinese market and by the 1600s it had become a well-known and popular tea througout China. Tibetan butter tea is made from Pu-erh, for example. China interest rose quickly again in 2007 and investors drove up prices, which prompted tea fraud (fake cake). Risk settled down in 2008 as Chinese regulators imposed rules of origin and quality.
  • The fermentation process on the tea leaves makes Pu-erh unique. Microbes cause it to darken to a reddish hue and make different flavor profiles. The value of the tea therefore can increase over time. Environmental factors can lead to flavors such as peaty, musky, earthy, fruity, grassy and of course smooth (like soy milk). The time from when the tea was picked in the mountains until it was delivered by horse to the market is said to be related to how the tea looks and tastes. The size and appearance of a tea cake can make it valuable yet it also is related to fraud (hard to tell what’s inside a cake without testing it).
  • The 1970s created a split in quality. Sheng Pu-erh involves the traditional process, which is not oxidized and can be stored/aged for decades before prepared to drink. The tea absorbs its environment so wherever the tea is kept can be important to the value and taste. Sheng style is often 20 or even 30 years old. Shou Pu-erh was developed in the 1970s using oxidization to accelerate the aging process so it could be used after just a couple years.

How to buy Pu-erh today

That’s just a tiny snapshot of the huge amount of background information that has formed over many centuries. I don’t recommend skipping it or ignoring it as it impacts the final step in selecting a Pu-erh. But first you have to consider a large variety of production and source factors like the source of leaf, style of farming, season, and ten different grade levels.

Leaves are sourced from bushes, cultivated trees or wild trees. Farming styles can be modern plantations (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides), ancient gardens or foraging/wild. Believe it or not the ancient tea industry is thus linked with the new and vibrant organic and sustainability movement in China. The Pu-erh vendors I have come to know tend to be highly educated and very particular about heathy food without additives or chemicals. The seasons are fairly obvious; they basically start after the Chinese new year (March) and are related to moisture. Then the ten grade levels are based on where a leaf is on the branch. Older leaves towards the trunk are high numbers while leaves near the bud end of the branch are lowest. All of that has to come before you take into account, as mentioned above, how the leaves are shaped, packaged and stored.

It’s a fantastic experience to find a good Pu-erh. In summary, my experience has been that not only does it have the stimulant effect of coffee, bringing the kind of mental clarity and energy that writers/coders crave, but also it offers the complexity of flavors that you would find in fine whiskies.

Cake of Tea

Bonus: unlike American tea bags, which are tasteless after one steep, the Pu-erh tea leaves can be reused at least five or six times. I often use them ten times. Preparation of Pu-erh is a discussion for another day. They are so full of flavor that even after being brewed many times the used leaves can be put in a pot of water to boil eggs in them or they can be added as the secret ingredient to the now famous San Francisco Burmese fermented tea salad.


*My ’84 Lagavulin 17yr seemed to quadruple in value after the distillery was sold

Guerrilla Grafters Lose Their Fruit

A popular YouTube video from 2011 about guerrilla fruit tree grafters has turned out to be their undoing.

The clever theory is that if you graft fruit-bearing branches onto city trees then people can eat for free. It would be public produce since it’s public property, similar to the 1968 Summer of Love efforts. The city doesn’t want the obvious liability.

Sadly, they recently discovered that the trees they grafted in the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco were severely pruned, including all of the grafted branches. This was unnecessary solely for ‘pruning” purposes.’ They lost all of the grafted Asian pears that were ripening there.

Apparently the now popular YouTube video about the grafters inadvertently gave away the location of these grafted trees. The video was never meant to circulate widely and advertise their activities. It was made for a demonstration the Guerilla Grafters were giving at a conference, but they never even used it.

They’ll be more careful next time, Tara assures.

Here is the video, where the grafters point out they are “not very selective” — their work is easy to spot with multi-color leaves — and that fruit trees bring rat problems:

What Smokers Really Smoke

A humorous and well-written investigation of cigarettes has been posted by the Wall Street Journal.

Under “c” alone we find cardamom oil, carob bean extract, cinnamon oil, coffee extract, coriander oil, corn syrup and an oil made from camomile flowers. Gone, apparently, are some that appear in earlier lists: “civet absolute,” for example, which turns out to be a secretion from the anal gland of the civet cat, and castoreum, a comparable secretion from the Siberian beaver.

The real story here actually is that the massive amount of data generated by litigation over risk has allowed researchers to mine for historic ingredient information. Another way to look at it is that transparency forced by compliance upon product manufacturers and providers has led to some surprises.

Note: “secretion from the anal gland of the civet cat” might sound unusual but it also has been used by the sugar industry as an “ingredient in the food additives used to add butter, caramel, and rum flavorings to sweets”.