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Archive for the 'Food' Category

Monday, July 11th, 2016

Natalie Berkowitz on Pairing Wine and Cheese

The Winemaker's Hand

With the recent publication of the paperback edition of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir, the book’s author, Natalie Berkowitz, offers some helpful advice on how to make the most out of the trusted partnership of wine and cheese:

Cheese and wine have a centuries-old tradition as a made-in-heaven match. Gastronomes insist there is a scientific reason for the combination. Balance in the mouth is achieved because the high fat, high protein in cheese is modified by the wine’s astringency. Moreover, we like to think the combination also rests on the fundamental idea that wine and cheese have a something in common: they both start as raw products that go through fermentation. Another great advantage of their union is that cheese and wine can be enjoyed with little or no preparation.

Few hard and fast rules exist to dictate which combinations work best amid the wide spectrum of cheese and myriad wine choices. That said, here are some helpful suggestions, keeping in mind that these are the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg.

One way to simplify the situation is to match wine and cheese from the same region. In general, white wines go better with many cheeses than reds. Young, fresh cheese like Triple or double cremes, fresh goat cheese, mozzarella and ricotta match well with crisp, fruity white wines: Vouvray from the Loire Valley with its light sparkle, Sancerre, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc, Champagne or a sparkling wine like Cava. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are perfect with creamy blue, bloomy rind and Alpine cheeses, brie, and gouda that begin to show more intense flavors. Sweet wine like a Gewurtztraminer contrasts very well with a cheese with high acidity, some blue cheeses, and Munster.

Within the red category, fruity, light red wines such a Pinot noir are especially suited to soft cheeses, especially goat cheese. Very salty cheese looks for a wine with good acidity. Rosés and Beaujolais complement soft goat cheese and buttery styles. More full-bodied reds like Merlot, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent choices with Gouda, Cheddar and other hard, aged cheeses with sharpness and complex flavors.

My personal advice is to uncork a favorite bottle and get it to the right temperature, unwrap the cheese and take it out of the refrigerator bringing them to room temperature. And if this is all to confusing, serve beer!

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Man-O-Manischewitz — Roger Horowitz on Kosher Wine and Its Popularity among African Americans

Sammy Davis, Kosher USA

With Passover beginning tomorrow and with people starting to break out the Seder wine, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Roger Horowitz’s chapter “Man-O-Manischewitz,” from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. In this excerpt, Horowitz recounts the story behind the surprising popularity of Manischewitz and other Kosher wines among African Americans during the twentieth century. As Horowitz explains, the sweetness of Kosher wine was comparable to the homemade wines that many African Americans made. He also looks at how the wine companies began to market their products directly to African American consumers.

In addition to the excerpt below, here is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr. pitching Manischewitz Almonetta Wine:

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Harry Kassell: Kosher Meat Man

Roger Horowitz, Kosher USA

The following post from Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, was originally published on his blog. The post reveals the ways in which Kosher meat production was brought into the processes of the modern U.S. food industry.

I came across an amazing man while looking for information on kosher meat. A Harry Kassel came up in a New York Times search, appearing in a 1973 article about meat shortages and described as the largest wholesaler of kosher meat in the New York area. Other searches turned up nothing more; so I turned to one of the historian’s great resources—the telephone book—and found him living on Long Island just past the end of the Belt Parkway. Spry and sharp at 89, he told me about his remarkable life, and in so doing gave me the backbone of chapter seven in Kosher USA, which I called “Harry Kassel’s Meat.”

He was born in Racine, Wisconsin to a Jewish family that tried to keep kosher. He joined the military during World War II, and rather than trying to build up his military service, joked with me in his self-deprecating manner that since the US wanted to win the war, they kept him in the country. Recently demobilized in 1946, he agreed to a blind date with Zeena Levine, who was then a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. The two hit if off (even though she called him a “cheapskate” in our interview since he took her to a bar instead of a restaurant) and were soon married. Harry joked that since she wouldn’t go to work, he had to, and took the easy way out by joining his new father in law’s business.

Zeena’s father was a butcher—on a big scale. With his partner Sam Cohen, Joe Levine owned several large kosher butcher shops in Brooklyn and a small chain of non-kosher shops. Kosher meat was a thriving business after World War II, and Levine took in his son-in-law and taught him how to evaluate recently-slaughtered meat and decide which carcasses to buy for his butcher shops.

After a few years Kassel went into business for himself and established a meat wholesale company in the Brooklyn plant once operated by Swift & Co. His training made him acutely aware of the peculiar nature of kosher beef – that the same animal yielded kosher and non-kosher cuts. The Ashkenazi tradition was to only consume the forequarters, so even though these cattle yielded kosher briskets and rib roasts, the desirable loin cuts could not enter the kosher trade. Kassel made a name for himself by buying the hindquarters of prime, kosher-killed cattle and distributing the tenderloins and porterhouse steaks so prized in New York’s white tablecloth restaurants.


Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Kosher Coke, Kosher Science

Kosher USA

In the excerpt below from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger Horowitz travels from his family’s Seder table to early twentieth-century Atlanta when Rabbi Geffen had to weigh in on the status of Coke. The excerpt exemplifies the challenge of balancing the laws of ancient religious texts with the demands of the modern food industry and consumer desires.

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Kosher USA, by Roger Horowitz

This week we are featuring Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, by Roger Horowitz.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Kosher USA to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 22 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Andrew Smith writes:

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA! It is three-stories in one: a family narrative within a history of kosher within the industrialization of the American food system. Well researched, insightful, and delightful–even for goyim.”

You can also read the chapter, “My Family’s Sturgeon”:

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

A Sort of Dessert

Eat This Book

“Some ethical vegetarians (not all and perhaps not the majority) can certainly be considered religious fundamentalists who attach the greatest importance to their convictions and believe that they must spread their gospel throughout the world.” — Dominique Lestel

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. For today’s post, we have excerpted Lestel’s afterword: “A Sort of Dessert.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Eat This Book!

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

The following is an excerpt from Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto by Dominique Lestel and translated by Gary Steiner.

The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

Generally speaking, the vegetarian, like the humanist, adopts an attitude of unacceptable arrogance when she makes a moral judgment about how life ought to be and how other beings ought to behave, for in doing so she places herself above other beings

This vegetarian is an omnivorous animal who considers the dietary regimen of her species to be immoral. Such a “demonization” of the natural is not without precedent. We have seen movements campaign against sexuality (even though it is a normal form of behavior) and in favor of the subservience of women to men (even though, from a biopsychological point of view, women are perfectly autonomous and stand in need of no symbiosis with a human being). One may think that it is preferable not to eat meat, and that is perfectly acceptable; but it is only with difficulty that one can turn this position into a major ethical choice. The regime of meat eating is part of what it means to be human today, whether one likes it or not: we have an enzyme for digesting elastin, a fiber of animal origin, and we need vitamin B, a molecule produced exclusively by animals.

Donna Haraway makes the same point when she notes that in denying a specific feature of the living the vegetarian’s position is fundamentally a fatal ideology. As she argues, there is not nor has there ever been a living being that lives without exploiting at least one other living being. In this respect, the vegetarian purports to want to protect living beings at all costs but is in fact opposed to them.

As the American poet Gary Snyder says facetiously, “Everything that breathes is hungry”! Eating—that is, eating other living beings—is part of animal life, and the desire to change life reflects unacceptable vanity. Buddhism, whose adherents include Gary Snyder, is aware of the impossibility of eradicating all suffering, and it has never issued the demand that suffering be eliminated; it satisfies itself with the endeavor to reduce suffering within the limits of what is possible and reasonable for us to do, and it is especially concerned with eliminating needless suffering.

For the feminist Sharon Welch, we are not capable of changing in a unilateral way. The ethics of control, which seeks to reach its objective without taking others into account, needs to be replaced by an ethic of risk, which accepts the fact that our ability to change ourselves and the world is limited but also requires us to take full responsibility for our actions.

Vegetarians systematically overlook the fact that eating meat has a fundamental significance and that it teaches us a lesson about humility in that it reminds us of the interdependence of all living beings.

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

A Sort of Apéritif

Eat This Book

“The ethical vegetarian’s position is tenable only if it is radical, but its very radicality is completely unacceptable for the majority of vegetarians. For this position is antianimal. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it revives the great frontier traced between human and animal by putting it into up-to-date terms, even though everything today shows any such frontier to be insubstantial. Nonetheless, the majority of vegetarians I know sincerely love animals. Such a contradiction poses a problem.” — Dominique Lestel

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. To start the feature, we are happy to present Lestel’s introduction, “A Sort of Apéritif,” in which he lays out his project and situates it in the appropriate intellectual space.

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Book Giveaway! Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto

Why America Misunderstands the World

“Witty and comical yet always serious in its defense of meat eating, Eat This Book is a pure joy to read.” — Brett Buchanan, Laurentian University

This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eat This Book. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, March 11th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

A Winemaker’s Skill Leads To Great Wine

The Winemaker's Hand

Natalie Berkowitz will be discussing The Winemaker’s Hand tonight at 7 PM at Book Culture on 112th! Brush up on what it is that winemakers add to great wine in the article below:

A Winemaker’s Skill Leads To Great Wine
Natalie Berkowitz

What makes the difference between ordinary wine, sometimes jokingly called plonk, and truly great wines with complex characteristics? The current explanation dictates terroir is determined by terroir, those elements nature provides, such as soil, the amount of sun, rain, wind, and the influence of nearby rivers or oceans. The magic that comes to grapes starts when the vines derive various flavors from a soil’s characteristics. It seems counter-intuitive, but a great wine’s concentrated flavors are the consequence of grapes grown in mineral-rich soils that are often volcanic or strewn with pebbles and rocks, forcing the vine’s roots to dig deeper to find water extracting flavors from a soil’s various strata. In contrast, deep, loamy, soils produce grapes without character and flavor since the roots stay closer to the surface, reducing the opportunity to extract complex characteristics. Winemakers at large- scale wineries are less fussy about soils since they prefer optimum quantity over optimum quality while vintners with a goal of complex wines choose soils that give their vines a head-start. (more…)

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Are You Resolved to Eat More Insects in 2016? — The Insect Cookbook

With The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet now available in paper and given that many of us have resolved to eat better, or at least differently, in 2016, we are re-posting Marcel Dicke’s TED Talk. In the video,Dicke, coauthor of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, discusses the environmental and nutritional importance of eating insects:

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Forget the Turkey! Doughnuts!

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

As many of us begin to prepare our turkeys and other fixings, we conclude our focus on Thanksgiving by turning to a surprising chapter in the holiday’s history when doughnuts made an appearance:

In his chapter, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” from Gastropolis: Food and New York City, Andrew Smith describes the role George Washington and doughnuts have played in how the holiday has been celebrated in New York City:

Although it had originated in New England, [Thanksgiving] was quickly adopted in communities throughout New York. Indeed, it was in New York City that President George Washington issued the first presiden­tial thanksgiving proclamation, which set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. New York was one of the first states outside New England to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday. In 1795, John Jay, the governor of New York, tried to establish a statewide thanksgiving day, and in 1817 it was finally recognized as a state holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated with what is now considered the traditional meal of turkey, apple pie, mince pie, and cranberries; New Yorkers often added doughnuts and crullers to the menu. Thanksgiving holiday remained an important holiday throughout the nineteenth century. The Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a mission in the gang-infested Five Points District, and on Thanksgiving Day, under the eyes of their bene­factors, the ladies paraded and fed hundreds of Sunday-school students.

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Choosing the Right Wine for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving wine

The following advice on choosing the right wine to go with your turkey and stuffing is from Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir:

The Pilgrims couldn’t have imagined how their fabled first Thanksgiving would morph into the glorious holiday all Americans treasure. New information redefines the myths surrounding that celebration, but whether fact or fiction, Thanksgiving is embedded, even sanctified, as America’s premier national holiday. Wherever we came from, we all have reason to celebrate the unifying holiday.

Variations of the iconic dinner are prepared in most kitchens across our country. While preparation of the meal may differ from culture to culture, from palate to palate, and from one culinary preference to another, a question often posed is which wine pairs the best with these elaborate meals.

Some good advice begins with the choice of wines with a lower alcohol level ranging from 10 to 12%. A light red wine is considered the best partner for the multicourse dinner, although my friend Michaela Rodeno, former CEO of St. Supéry Wines in Napa suggests champagne or sparkling wine as a perfect pairing. I agree wholeheartedly. There’s no question several other wines are a fine choice when our palates are challenged by an overabundance of holiday foods and we tend to recoil from wines with intense flavors.

Within the range of light wines, there are many to choose from. One of the best is Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine often referred to as “refreshment in a bottle.” Banners in wine shops announce the yearly arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau with fanfare in November, just in the nick of time for the holiday season. The wine is young and fresh, a step away from grape juice, hot off the wine press, bottled two months after fermentation and ready for immediate consumption. It’s meant to be drunk without intense examination. Think of them as adolescents in a glass, a middle ground between white and red wines. Best of all, these wines are accessible since their alcohol levels normally range between 10 and 10.5%, it is suitable for a range of guests from kiddies (diluted with water, of course!) right up to grandparents. It solves the problem of whether to pour red or white.

The Beaujolais region lies just to the south of its more famous neighbor, Burgundy, whose wines are ranked among the best in France. The region has been producing wine since the time of the Romans, and many of the vineyards were planted centuries ago, proof of its longevity and popularity. Unfortunately, these wines can sometimes be thin and lackluster, but finding a lovely version is a worthwhile venture. Reliable bottlers are Bouchard Aîné & Fils, George Du Boeuf, and Louis Jadot.

Wine lovers of a serious sort may turn their noses up at this wine, questioning whether a light wine is as enjoyable as its big, bolder siblings. Since these inexpensive wines are one step away from grape juice, their attractiveness lies in their reasonable prices, and qualities that make them as an easy quaff, light on the palate, yet flavorful enough to pair with this rich dinner. Beaujolais Villages, a step up in quality is produced in several areas in the eponymous region, are more sophisticated and relatively inexpensive. They range from $8.99 to about $15.


Monday, November 23rd, 2015

The Science of Cooking Your Thanksgiving Turkey via Herve This (and a Dishwasher!)

Thanksgiving, Turkey

“Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine.”—Herve This

With Thanksgiving just a couple of days away, we thought we provide some more practical (or somewhat practical) advice on cooking a turkey from none other than Hervé This, author of several books that explore the coming together of food and science to develop new ways of thinking about cooking, flavor, taste, and how we eat.

In an interview with Nature, This suggested the dishwasher as a possible cooking method:

Q: Another professional technique is to cook food for long periods at low temperatures in a vacuum-sealed bag. How might a home chef emulate this ‘sous-vide’ method?

Herve This: Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine. In this way, you can get low temperatures. Butterfly the other turkey and cook it on the grill, creating the maximum expanse of delicious crispy skin. Then serve the moist, flavourful meat from the dishwasher turkey with the grilled skin. A good accompaniment would be foie gras, also cooked in the dishwasher at low temperature.

Now for those not comfortable with Maytag cuisine, here is an excerpt from Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, also by Hervé This, on the science of roasting a turkey:

Since it is juicy, tender meat that we want, it is clear why there is no question of opening the oven while the meat is roasting. The water vapor that is released in a limited quantity could escape and then be replaced by the vaporization of a certain quantity of the juices. Opening the oven dries out the turkey. Neither, however, should one humidify the oven before putting the turkey in. In the presence of too much water, the surface water cannot evaporate, and the skin will not get crispy.

Having thus resolved the problem of the surface, the serious problem of tenderness within remains. We cannot disappoint our guests, who fear the pro­verbial dryness of the turkey.

Since tenderness results necessarily from the deterioration of the connec­tive tissue, let us consider this tissue. It principally contains three kinds of pro­teins: collagen, already discussed many times, reticulin, and elastin. Neither reticulin or elastin are notably altered by the heat of the oven, but the triple helixes of the collagen molecules can be broken up and form gelatin, which is soft when it is in water, as we all know.

Calculating the cooking time requires some skill, because the denaturation of the collagen and the coagulation of the muscle proteins (actin and myosin, mainly) take place at different temperatures and different speeds in the different parts of the turkey. It is necessary to know that the temperature of 70° (158°F) is essential for transforming the collagen into gelatin and tenderizing the mus­cles. But the longer the turkey remains at a high temperature, the more water it loses and the more its proteins risk coagulating. The optimal cooking time, consequently, is the minimum time it takes to attain the temperature of 70°C (158°F) at the center of the turkey.


Monday, July 13th, 2015

My Killer Recipes for Two Sangrias — Natalie Berkowitz

The Winemaker's Hand

Now that we’re fully into summer what could be more timely than a recipe for sangria? And, who better to provide it than Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir. Here you go:

A Victorian summer dinner was a formal affair offering a plethora of substantial courses. When heat and humidity strikes, modern palates cry out for lighter fare. It’s time to throw out antediluvian constraints of white wine with fish and red with meat and step up to new ideas. Opting for grilled meats, salads, fish, paella, and shore dinners of lobster and raw crustaceans. Red and white Sangria are refreshing additions to the pantheon of summer beverages.

Sangrias of all stripes are delightfully refreshing. Its latitude of no-fail ingredients is its great appeal because there is no definitive recipe. I’ve tinkered with choices for years, adding a dollop of this and a soupçon.

My special recipe for red sangria starts with pouring a bottle of a full-bodied red into a large pitcher: A Côtes de Rhone, Chianti, or classic Spanish Rioja works. In fact, any hearty red wine fills the bill. The addition of a substantial dash of orange juice, a cup of good, inexpensive brandy such as E & J or Christian Brothers adds a special kick. To build up additional flavors, add a tablespoon or two of sugar, (don’t make it sweet), and 6 ounces of club soda for sparkle. Fruit is an indispensable requirement. Slices of stone fruit, like peaches, nectarines, and plums together with cantaloupe and/or honeydew soak up the wine. and make a great stand-alone treat or topping on vanilla ice-cream. Allow the ingredients at to meld least an hour before serving.

White Sangria is an equally delicious, if less well-known alternative to its bolder red sibling. It’s so cool and enticing in a clear glass pitcher that it practically lowers the surrounding temperature. Start with a Sancerre, a fruity Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or Napa, a Vouvray from the France’s Loire Valley, or an Auslese Riesling from Germany or Alsace. (Chardonnay is too heavy for my tastebuds.) Add a cup of brandy, (see above), two or three tablespoons of Grand Marnier, a slug of peach nectar, club soda, green grapes and diced honeydew melon or cantaloupe. Serve over ice cubes as an aperitif or as a divine complement to sushi, sashimi, and grilled fish.

Use your imagination to make these inventive wines suit your taste.

Friday, June 5th, 2015

Matthew Smith on History and Understanding Food Allergy

We conclude our week-long feature on Matthew Smith’s Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy with, fittingly enough, the book’s conclusion. In it, Smith examines what history can tell us about food allergy as well as some of the missteps by other experts in understanding the rise of allergies:

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Matthew Smith on the Peanut Allergy

In the following video from the BBC, Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, looks at what has become perhaps the most commonly discussed allergy: the peanut allergy.

Smith considers some of the explanations that have been offered for rise of peanut allergies. As he argues, many of these boil down to changes in modern life and perhaps peanut allergies are the price we pay for cleaner homes, fewer infections, and safer food:

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

What History Can Tell Us About Food Allergy — Matthew Smith

Another Person's Poison, Matthew Smith

“If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues.”—Matthew Smith

The following post is by Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy:

What can the history of medicine tell us about food allergy and other medical conditions?

An awful lot. History is essentially about why things change over time. None of our ideas about health or medicine simply spring out of the ground. They evolve over time, adapting to various social, political, economic, technological, and cultural factors. If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues. This is particularly important if we are dissatisfied with current ways of thinking about and treating particular conditions (as I have argued in the past with respect to ADHD or hyperactivity) or if we are bamboozled by the causes and deeper meaning of other conditions, such as food allergy. Otherwise, we are uninformed and highly likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A few weeks ago, my 16-month-old daughter broke out in spots. As the parents of two remarkably healthy children, my wife and I were bemused. Our first thought was that she may have come down with chicken pox, a real pain, but not the worst thing in the world. We looked up some of the early symptoms of chicken pox online, which appeared to confirm our suspicions and steeled ourselves for a week of scratching and crying.

The following morning however, the spots had disappeared. We were flummoxed. Could chicken pox be a 24-hour thing? No such luck. Then, I remembered that I was the author of a book on food allergy. Could it have been something she ate? I tried to think about what she had been eating and then it struck me: strawberries.

Scottish people are often maligned for never eating fruits or vegetables. While this is true for some people, the traditional Scottish diet is actually chock-full of healthy foods. The cold and rainy climate allows us to grow plenty of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), for instance, and there is also a thriving berry industry in places such as Perthshire, and strawberries are central to this. Every year, when the sun shows its face and the buds begin to emerge, the first punnets of strawberries emerge in supermarkets. And we dutifully buy them up, gobbling up strawberries as fast as we can.


Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

“Do we really need to eat peanuts at AC/DC concerts? Of course not. We accommodate our society to be more livable for other vulnerable people, so I don’t see why we can’t for the severely allergic.”—Matthew Smith

The following is an interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

Question: What is a food allergy?

Matthew Smith: Well, that depends on who you ask. Allergy was originally defined in 1906 by Austrian pediatrician as “any form of altered reactivity,” a broad definition if there ever was. Early food allergists—and many still today—embraced this definition and described a wide variety of reactions to food, ranging from asthma and eczema to migraine headaches and hyperactivity, as allergy. More conservative allergists, however, chose to limit their definition of allergy to instances in which evidence of the immune system reacting against a foreign substance could be proven definitively. Since this is difficult to do for many food allergies, they believed that food allergy was much less common than their food allergists colleagues. Debates about this precise definition have fueled debates about food allergy for over a century.

Q: Do you have any food allergies?

MS: No, not a one. My children seem to get hives if they eat too many strawberries and my wife is allergic to penicillin, but I am, thankfully, food allergy-free. Unlike my previous books on hyperactivity, where I had a strong, personal connection to the topic, I was drawn to the history of food allergy primarily because it is so fascinating. I loved learning about immunology, not least because it is such a deeply personal facet of human physiology. On the surface, we all have immune systems that protect us from the same sorts of pathogens that we encounter in the environment. But at a deeper level, immunology is all about how the body distinguishes self from non-self, as Nobel Laureate Frank Macfarlane Burnet put it. For most people, the immune system sees food as “self” and takes no interest. But for the allergic, food is perceived as “non-self,” a threat that must be countered at all costs. The meaning of it all is bemusing, but also compelling.

Q: Why are rates of food allergy, and especially peanut allergy, increasing?

MS: No one knows. Many hypotheses have been put forth, but none have been conclusively proven, let alone explored in much depth, unfortunately. A few seem more plausible than others. If you think of when von Pirquet defined allergy, this was a time when children were getting vaccinated against once endemic infectious diseases and when improvements in water quality and sanitation mean that people weren’t habitually infected with helminthic parasites (worms). Perhaps with less to cope with, immune systems turned to something else. Similarly, the hygiene hypothesis speculates that children grow up in overly hygienic environments, meaning that their immune systems aren’t exposed to as many pathogens as before. More controversial theories implicate the peanut oil found in some vaccines and environmental pollutants. Of course, genetics play a role, too. I suspect that many factors are at play, as they are in other chronic conditions, but also believe that we need to spend more time investigating them.


Monday, June 1st, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy”

This week our featured book is Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy by Matthew Smith.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Another Person’s Poison to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June 5th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book you can read the introduction, “Witchcraft, a Fad, or a Racket”: