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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

Not only is this World ocean Week, but it turns out today is National Doughnut Day!  What a week…

Pancreatic-Donut

Pancreatic Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015), Oil on Panel

Before I was a dedicated flounderist, the dominant subject matter of my painting was doughnuts (I felt that the torus shape represented the universe/infinity, while the tiny size and sugariness of the confection made it a perfect representation of the hedonic nature of human aspirations).  Like all artists who change direction, I still have a few doughnut paintings I need to finish up.  Who knows what will happen to them? It is unclear if they will ever be finished…

However, I also have some finished paintings which I never showed anywhere or did anything with: they just hang around on my walls perplexing me.  To celebrate National Doughnut Day, kindly allow me to present one of my favorite of these previous generation paintings.  This is “Pancreatic Doughnut” which I painted in 2015.  There is a sugary sprinkled doughnut, a cherry-dip ice cream cone, and a strip of super-fatty bacon (which is glistening with blobs of oil just like a real strip of bacon).  These problematically sugary items are joined by a sinister bottle of rum and an alcohol molecule which looks like a friendly corgi but is definitely something more problematic.

The real thrust of the painting is found in the Congolese Mangbetu knife…a sinister hook which is about to plunge directly into the diseased pancreas in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Yet all is not lost.  Above the pancreas, an axolotl floats serenely like a translucent white angel.  Axolotls seem to possess the secret of regeneration.  Perhaps the grim effects of all of that metabolic damage and gastroenterologic mayhem could be undone…if only we could focus our efforts and our research on the right things instead of desperately trying to trap each other with addictive fixations.  It’s a dream of course, but thus do all great things begin.

Happy National Doughnut Day!

 

An Artist’s Conception of the Theft

Super villains have struck directly at our happy way of life! In the past week, shocking news of an unprecedented large scale crime has rocked the world of…um…breakfast, I guess.  Thieves in Quebec (so probably French-speaking, mustache-twirling thieves with horizontally striped clothes and skull caps) broke into a warehouse in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford and stole 10 MILLION pounds of maple syrup from the global strategic maple syrup reserve.  The warehouse was locked up tight and under constant video and electronic security surveillance.  The syrup was carefully removed from the large barrels in which it had been contained–so the theft was not initially apparent.  Actually this does not sound like the work of super villains so much as aliens.  What earthly purpose would anyone have with 10 million pounds of maple syrup (unless it happens to be the fuel for, say, stellar travel or wormhole lubrication)?

Sure, whatever [ed.]

In case you are dismissively waving your hand and assuming you can get Vermont syrup or something, you should know that Quebec is the source of up to 80% of the world’s maple syrup.  Maybe this crime was not the work of cat burglars or aliens, but rather an attempt by the all pervasive corn lobby to directly replace lovable maple syrup with the insidious corn syrup which is already in every other American foodstuff (but I refuse to believe that molasses farmers or blueberry growers had anything to do with this heinous act).

Contrasting forest maple with farm corn/maize, which is surely one of the definitive agricultural crops of our time, raises interesting musings concerning the history and nature of food production. The harvesting of maple sap falls into the strange gap between farming and gathering. During the spring thaw, starches stored overwinter in maple roots rise up the trunks of the tree as an energy source for the tree’s rapid budding and flowering.  The sugary sap can be harvested by “tapping” the tree—i.e. cutting a notch in the bark and filling a bucket until the buds form (at which points amino acids in the sap spoil the flavor).  Once harvested, maple sap can be evaporated down into sugary syrup which is edible (or potable?) for long periods of time.  Native Americans living in the natural habitat of the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) utilized this technique long before the arrival of the English, French, and Dutch, but the actual beginnings of the process are lost in myth (literally, each different tribe of the Northeast woodlands has its own myth involving culture heroes, trickster gods, or playsome squirrels).

Maple Sugaring (1872, Currier and Ives)

For the people of the first nations, maple was a critical flavoring—something akin to salt or sugar—which worked its way into many dishes.  Maple syrup was the dominant sweetener in Canada and the American mainland colonies (later the nascent United States) during the colonial era, but it was gradually replaced by cane sugar and molasses which were themselves supplanted by corn sweetener.  Nevertheless, maple syrup has staged surprising comebacks throughout American history.  During the years leading up to the civil war, abolitionists used maple syrup instead of slave-produced cane sugar as a sort of embargo.  World War II saw a surge in maple syrup use as sugar was heavily rationed during the conflict.  Maple sap is largely harvested from the sugar maple and the red maple which grow east of the Mississippi from Quebec down into Georgia but invasive European trees (like the monstrous Norway maple located in the garden of my previous rental flat) can also provide sugary sap—although much more is required to make syrup.  Sugar maples also provide a lovely hard pale wood used for baseball bats and pool cues–so sporting people are in debt to the tree as much as breakfast enthusiasts.

Sugar Maple Trees Turning Color in the Fall

I wonder if real maple flavor is as exotic in the tropics as tropical flavors like pineapple, Brazil nut, and vanilla are here?  The maple industry seems to be a uniquely North American phenomenon, but the maple genus itself spread across the Northern hemisphere outward from Northeast Asia (i.e. China).  Does China have a syrup industry?  Is it looking to start one?

The more we look into the great maple syrup heist, the broader the international (and interplanetary?) implications seem to become.  What is certain is that the traditional American breakfast has fallen under threat until these malfactors come to justice.  We must rally together as a people! Only the greedy and desperate would exploit this crime for personal aggrandizement.  Although, now I think of it, if your pancakes are truly dry I have some honey from my grandfather’s bee hives I could sell you, or some sorghum, or elderberry jelly. Plus I’m kind of allergic to maple anyway, and I don’t usually eat breakfast….

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