In 1959 a Pepsi executive successfully showcased his product at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, an event created to foster cultural exchange during the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev himself tasted the beverage, and years later Pepsi became one of the few American products widely available in the USSR. Pepsi’s deal with the Soviet Union was essentially a gigantic barter deal: They’d ship Pepsi syrup to the USSR, and in return they’d get Stolychanaya vodka. This worked well until 1989, when a vodka boycott forced Pepsi to ask for other compensation. Instead of vodka, the USSR paid them in decommissioned naval vessels: 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. Because of that deal, Pepsi was briefly the sixth largest navy on Earth.
Beef occupies a unique place in American culture. In his new book Red Meat Republic Joshua Specht examines the history of the American beef industry. He examines how ranching and range land was seized from Native Americans, how beef shaped industrial and labor history, and the role beef still plays in American ideas of class, gender, and identity.
Crystal King is the author of two novels about Italian food history. Her first book Feast of Sorrow delved into the world of food in ancient Rome, and her follow up moves forward over a thousand year to explore food in Renaissance Italy.
Crystal’s expertise extends beyond the page. Her Parthian chicken recipe has become a favorite of mine, and a go-to recipe when I’m cooking for company.
On April 1st, 1957 a BBC One news program ran a straight-faced and ostensibly real report on Switerzerland’s spring spaghetti crop, and convinced some of their viewers that spaghetti grew on trees.
Bonnie MacBird (the co-writer of Tron) is writing new, novel-length Sherlock Holmes adventures. We talked about her experience with Conan Doyle’s stories, how she adapted the author’s voice for a modern work, and other Sherlock media. We also discussed whiskey, which features prominently in her new book, Unquiet Spirits. The plot centers on a real-life catastrophe in the French wine industry, that led to more widespread consumption of whiskey in European upper classes.
Pad Thai is now heavily associated with Thai cuisine, but it’s a relatively modern invention. Noodles were probably imported to Thailand via either China or Vietnam, and the style of cooking of the noodles seems to indicate that it stems from other noodle dishes from southeast China. Noodles in general, and pad Thai in particular, were popularized in the 1930s and 1940s as a way of intentionally giving Thailand a national dish. The prime minister behind reforms, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, also attempted to give his country a militaristic code of valor, fewer vowels, gendered names, and mandatory hats. Of his reforms, pad Thai is the only one that remains.
Crystal King is the author of Feast of Sorrow, a novel about ancient Roman cooking that takes the first known cookbook as its inspiration. We talked about what it would have been like to go to a Roman dinner party, what the common people would have eaten, Roman fast food, and putting spices in your wine.
In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”
This week’s show is an interview with Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Chilies: A Global History. We talk about the origins of chilies, their spread around the globe, how they were perceived and used by the people who found them, and how, occasionally, they have been used as a highly painful weaponized plant.
As far as your humble podcaster is concerned, pasta is a wonder of the world right up there with the Pyramids and the Internet. We don’t exactly know where it came from, though. In the United States Pasta is often erroneously identified with Marco Polo. Supposedly, Polo brought back a variation on Chinese noodles from his travels, and introduced it to Italy. This story originates, though, in the United States. In 1929 a publication called the Macaroni Journal invented the Polo story, and ever since then that myth has refused to die.
Some Italian sources claim that pasta originated with the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization on the Italian peninsula, but evidence for this is spotty. It is more likely that pasta originated in the Middle East and traveled to the Italian Peninsula via the Emirate of Sicily.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
The origins of coffee are encircled by myth and legend, sometimes involving goats. It’s one of the most popular beverages on Earth, and for many people (including your humble podcaster) one of the most important. Drinking coffee is a daily ritual enjoyed by millions, and there are myriad stories about coffee’s history that seem to buttress its importance and mystique.
Dancing livestock, beverages on trial, self-sacrificing Frenchman, a sexy Portuguese guy, and a totally wired philosopher all figure into coffee’s mythology. In all probability none of these events ever happened, but their very existence says something about humanity’s reverence and need for the fortifying beverage.
The planet Earth holds over seven billion humans. Somehow, against all manner of predictions to the contrary, we feed all of them. This would have astounded Thomas Malthus who, in 1798, predicted that humanity was careening toward a demographic catastrophe, despite the world population still being under a billion at that time.
Part of the reason why humanity can now feed itself is because of agricultural advances in the 20th century known as the Green Revolution. Advances in crop yields, land use, pesticides, herbicides, and general efficiency have given us a food supply unlike anything that our ancestors knew. At the forefront of the Green Revolution was a biologist named Norman Borlaug who developed a type of semi-dwarf wheat that saved an estimated billion lives.
This week’s episode has a slightly different format from previous entries. We sat down with food historian Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Breakfast: A History, and talked about this history of breakfast. Topics ranged from how orange juice became a breakfast drink, how bacon was marketed as an essential morning meat, the accidental invention of corn flakes, and the gender politics surrounding breakfast.
And, because I mentioned it on a tangent, here’s a time lapse of the Ottoman Empire over time.