The Digest

The Myth of the Family Meal & Other News

9th June 2017

Words: James Hansen

Family meal - Bochoven

In this week’s survey of the best food media on the web: robots at the table, food fraud on a grand scale, and the family meal under the microscope

Sam Dean puts technology on the menu over at Lucky Peach. The piece reflects on the erosion of waiters’ jobs in favour of the tablet. “It can take a normal order, and lets me pay with a card at the precise moment I want to leave”, whereas “It definitely can’t compliment my date’s haircut… or answer my questions about whether or not it likes working at a place with tablets on every table”. This gives way to a larger debate: the economic pressure on middle-income jobs in restaurants, and the new battles created by millennial dining genres like fast-casual. Pair with a similarly probing talk from Matt Perger on automation in specialty coffee.

Meanwhile at WIRED, Wayne Curtis documents a noble quest: producing 20-year aged spirits in just six days. The spirit: rum. The distiller: Bryan Davis. At his distillery in Los Angeles, the mode of transport is a barge hearkening back to his days as a theme park designer – so far, so Willy Wonka. His process is far from fantasy. Davis maps the molecular footprints of aged spirits to replicate them in his purpose-built reactor, which breaks down flavour compounds in oak barrels with intense light and heat. The compounds leach into the spirits inside, “ageing” them rapidly. Having stolen a march on fermentation’s limiting factor, time, whether speed trumps romanticism remains to be seen – much like the tablets above.

Take a break from reading and plug in your headphones with GastropodCynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley ruminate on food fakery in the latest episode. This is a wide world, encompassing painted olives, mislabelled prosecco and the ignominy of Horsegate. It’s a source of dubious pride to hear from Bee Wilson that “Britain was probably the first country in the world that properly industrialised food fraud”, expanding from the odd watered down jar of honey at a family business to a systemic introduction of floor sweepings into ground pepper. Check your grinders next time you’re in the kitchen, and pair with another podcast: Dan Saladino looking at food’s place in cult fiction for The Food Programme.

From fraud to family with Feast JournalJo Pike and Deana Leahy explore how the family meal becomes a political tool, using Tracy Letts’ play August, Osage County as a touchstone. An occasion laden with cultural capital and symbolism, what a “normal” family meal consists of has powerful consequences for family meals that fall outside of that norm. The actuality of the meal naturally changes over time; in the case of Pike and Leahy’s essay, our atomising age, with people more readily eating separately, means that “the reality of family mealtimes is often very different from the imagined and idealised constructions of family meals deployed by educators”.

Finally, maggots. Ludovic Ehret reports on the grubs’ place in, well, digesting grub for On one farm in near Pengshan in southwest China, maggots chew away on discarded food with considerable efficiency: “On average, one kilo of maggots can eat two kilos of rubbish in four hours.” What makes the maggot truly remarkable is that it forms its own closed system: once fed, the maggots can be fed to animals, while their faeces are used to fertilise crops, recovering proteins and sugars in the waste otherwise lost to landfill. This might take a while closer to home: EU regulations on feeding livestock with insects are stringent.

Image: Portrait of the painter Andries van Bochoven and his family (1629), by Andries van Bochoven

Posted 9th June 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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