The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
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Madame_Jeanette_and_other_chillies The venerable journal The Atlantic is now publishing pieces with these headings: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation: Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive. “Potentially positive”? The very fact that that needs to be specified suggests how far we’ve come. Whole cuisines are based on borrowing from other cultures. When I was visiting Bangladesh in 1990 my cousins were surprised to find out that potatoes were indigenous to the New World. I didn’t even want to bring up the history of the chili pepper. The same people who assert that race is a fluid incoherent arbitrary social construct can render judgments about the boundaries and values of cultures, often not their own, and act as if they’re Platonic timeless ideals (all the while asserting that they don’t hold to this model, when admitting to realistic flexibility about the fluidity of culture and identity would render their Maoist jeremiads toothless).

Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food

Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food

Brass tacks: the idea of “cultural appropriation” is an academic term that has bled into mainstream discussion as a way for various elites to police people and put them in their place. By creating an academic construct whose boundaries and criteria are known (OK, honestly, made up ad hoc on the spot) only to the initiate they can deign to provide lists of “dos and don’ts” to the plebs. It is 21st century abracadabra. You feel uncomfortable with something, and generate the appropriate academese to justify your feelings post hoc. The whole project would seem farcical if it weren’t so serious. Oberlin’s cafeteria cultural appropriation fiasco shows what happens to this sort of cultural tool; pedantry is drafted to serve prosaic needs. Basically, the food was shitty, so the students started making recourse to the garden variety ideological levers that they’re taught to take seriously. In the 1960s privileged students at elite universities taught Marxist theories realized that they were the oppressed class which needed to ignite the revolution. How far campus radicalism has fallen! Oppressed by shitty mystery meat modern day students are offended and declare that it’s “Not OK.”

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Food, Miscellaneous 
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bobos Authenticity is a big deal. But it comes at a price, and we might finally be near the point where a backlash ensues. Perhaps. Paul Bloom outlined the evolutionary and cognitive roots of this preference in Descartes’ Baby, but perhaps more illuminating for most is David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, which prefigured Stuff White People Like. Though a quest for authenticity is generally a feature of the cultural Left, Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons made the case that this lifestyle is an aspiration of the urbane and intellectual more generally. To a great extent authenticity has become a consumption good, a way in which the upper middle class can expend their discretionary income.

Often it is harmless, but sometimes it is not. And sometimes it attracts opportunists. Today Quartz has a piece out, How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate. The story is simple: entrepenurial “bros” grow beards and transform into “hipsters,” and create a story of artisanal chocolateering which is designed to allow them to mark up retail prices, while making recourse to mass economies of scale and modern know-how and tech to reduce their inputs. Basically, these guys are scamming the public by selling the image of authenticity, but under false of pretenses. This is a general issue, not limited to Brooklyn. The show Duck Dynasty morphed an upper middle class conservative Southern white family into rougher and more earthy “rednecks.” All the way to the bank.

But this impulse imposes costs. There have been dozens of stories like this over the past few weeks: Was Chipotle too busy avoiding the fake dangers of GMOs to focus on actual food safety? There’s a lot of schadenfreude at work here. Chipotle made a big show about avoiding GMOs, in part on grounds of safety, though there is no evidence that they’re unsafe. And yet Chipotle did make a commitment to fresh ingredients that are made by hand, and admit freely that this increases the risk of food poisoning (in short, machines don’t have to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom!). This authentic “slower” process, and fresh locally sourced non-GMO produce inputs, allowed Chipotle to mask the reality that their items are often very high in calories, with the same supposed downsides as conventional fast food. In other words, it was great capitalism. But now we’re coming up to the reality that there’s a reason that mass production, standardization, and mechanization, were adopted in the first half of the 20th century in the first place. Avoiding vaccines and antibiotics are also “authentic.”

• Category: Science • Tags: Food 
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This is what I ate on Tuesday night

I am of the generation of people who purchase experiences, rather than things. OK, well, at least my bias is toward experiences, rather than things. For several years now I have had an obsession with Sichuan cuisine. I was introduced to one particular restaurant in a major American city by a Chinese (Fujian-born and bred) coworker, and now every time I am in that particular city on business I make a sojourn to that restaurant. In my fever dreams I fantasize about synthesizing Sichuan and Korean, two of my favorites.

My question: is East Asian cuisine, and in particular Chinese, simply better in some Platonic sense? If so, what are you favorite restaurants? If not, what are your favorite restaurants?

I’m trying a new Sichuan place tomorrow which has great Yelp reviews. Hope I’m not disappointed….

• Tags: Food, Miscellaneous 
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220px-Gimchi When I went to New York last month I was very excited to be eating some Korean in mid-town with some friends. It’s probably my favorite cuisine overall at this point in my life, and has been for a few years. Serious Eats has an interesting article up on how it’s become so trendy, How Korean Cuisine Got Huge in America (And Why It Took So Long). 220px-Korean_barbeque-Galbi-02 One thing I would want to note is that I’ve been told by friends that Korean cuisine does have some serious regional variation. So we should perhaps be a little cautious about bracketing it all into one class. The seafood inflected fare of Busan is different from what you’ll find further north. I suspect my love of Korean cuisine is due to its very strong flavors. As someone who has something of a hot sauce addiction that’s the sort of thing I crave.

• Tags: Food, Miscellaneous 
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He liked a good brew!

Kevin Zelnio recently made me aware of this fascinating piece in The New York Times, For Its Latest Beer, a Craft Brewer Chooses an Unlikely Pairing: Archaeology. Here’s the catchiest aspect: a microbrewery is attempting to recreate the taste of ancient Sumerian beer! Why? Though it’s purportedly educational, obviously it’s also the “cool” factor which is at the root of this enterprise. The brewery doesn’t aim to sell this. I say why not!

A few years ago Paul Boom wrote the book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. This may seem like a trivial exploration of a topic, after all, who doesn’t know how pleasure works? But when you plumb the depths of genuine hedonism there are often rapid diminishing marginal returns when you simply apply a robotic calculus of more sensory vividness. Rather than a stronger chocolate, sometimes you want a finer chocolate. But what does that even mean? One thing that a standard hedonistic account of pleasure often underplays is that it is not a simple toting of sensory qualities. Rather, it is the essence of the thing that matters.

Lover of fine things!


An example will suffice to illustrate what I’m talking about. There is a bizarre story in the media right now about Vladimir Putin being involved in stealing a Patriots Super Bowl ring. I haven’t followed the story closely. But, I can tell you that the reason this is a story is not because of the physical value of the ring. It is because it is a Super Bowl ring. Rationally as human beings we understand that things are reducible to quarks and leptons, but hundreds of millions of years of evolution have hard-wired us with a sort of essentialism which tell us deep in our bones that there is a fundamental ineffable ontology to particular objects in the world. The nature of these objects is tied not just up in what they are in a proximate sense, but where they have been.

How does this apply to Sumerian beer? I believe one of the appeals of the Paleo diet is that it is purportedly the diet of our ancestors, and that has an innate appeal, because it feels deeply authentic.* This has pleasurable consequences. Similarly, the idea of drinking like the Sumerians has genuine value in and of itself in terms of hedonism, no matter the quality of the beer. Because of the downsides of modern processed foods one might argue that a fad for retro ancient food rooted in irrational instincts may actually be greatly beneficial to our society.

Delenda est processed food!

Of course the qualifier here is that we’d eat like a prosperous Roman, not the marginal peasant subsisting on gruel. But though there is an aspect of contemporary culinary arts which tend toward futuristic sophistication, such as molecular gastronomy, there is also a strain which leans upon simple and spare preparations. It may benefit American public health and our gustatory experience if an industry arose which marketed itself not as “health food,” but as “authentic food.” Eating a hearty Roman meal worthy of Cato the Elder, and wash it out with a beer which would have brought a smile to stern Hammarubi’s face! Silly, but sillier than a twinkie?

* I do not wish to get into discussing the Paleo diet, but I do think that empirically it is beneficial for many people because it gets them away from loading up on processed sugar rich foods.

• Category: Science • Tags: Beer, Culture, Food, Sumerians 
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Da Bomb hot sauce

300,000 Scoville units

Recently I tried four of the Da Bomb hot sauces. I was prompted by a story in The Los Angeles Times about a student who got in serious trouble for putting Da Bomb: The Final Answer into the marinara at a cafeteria. Coming in a >1 million Scoville units I can see why this is a serious offense. But Da Bomb features other lines as well. Here are the four I tried out recently with some friends:

Da Bomb Ghost Pepper. This is a relatively mild sauce, and is more notable to me for its saltiness than anything else. The label says ~30,000 Scoville units, and that seems about right.

Da Bomb Beyond Insanity. At 100,000 Scoville units it’s taking it to the next level. I can’t really say there’s much distinctive for me about this sauce. It sufficed in terms of the spice, but it wasn’t exceptional in either that or flavor.

Da Bomb Ground Zero. Definitely not the least. At 300,000 Scoville units this will test a hardened pepper hound, but, it’s not physically dangerous. The taste isn’t as artificial and metallic to me as the Dave’s Insanity line. This is the closest in terms of utils to fresh habanero.

– Finally, Da Bomb: The Final Answer. I enjoyed this…but this sauce is a serious hazard. To be safe and comfortable you should handle it with disposable gloves, and store it somewhere that the unsuspecting won’t be able to stumble upon. In the end I have to go with Ground Zero because it’s not a pain in the ass. The Final Answer is really just a “stunt sauce’ in terms of usage as a condiment. Of course it would still be useful for cooking, but then I have to ask why you just don’t go with a pure capsaicin extract of some sort.

• Category: Science • Tags: Food, Hot Sauce 
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Those who have dined with me in “real life” know that when I eat savory foods, with the occasional exception of salads, I tend to enjoy a great deal of spice. By “great deal,” I am someone who can down eight habaneros in 15 minutes while eating potato bread, even if I’m going to regret it later (true incident from June of 2010). Now, I understand for my long term sanity I need to be a bit more moderate, so I usually limit myself to two habaneros per sitting. Additionally, I’m always on the look out for habanero sauces which can combine spice with a richer flavor. Dave’s Insanity hits the spice spot, but unfortunately it lacks the fresh and subtle flavor which can be imparted by Thai peppers.

So today I was curious when I saw a habanero sauce from an outfit called The Cultured Kitchen. It was more than $5.00 for a small container, but I decided to get it. I was very disappointed, as it was basically spice flavored carrot juice. Instead of putting it on my salad, as was my intention, I just drank it down like an energy drink so as not to waste it. The Cultured Kitchen seems to market itself as the true “symbiosis of flavor and nutrition.” If so, why may I ask do you have to make your habanero sauces so insipid? I have a nice little pitch for the habanero sauces which The Culture Kitchen produces: hot sauce so bland that even a W.A.S.P. will retain their composure and grace!

If you are a small company which produces spicy and delicious hot sauces, feel free to contact me. I’ll send you a mailing address, and if I like your stuff I’ll be happy to tell everyone that it’s great. Of course to be frank I doubt that the market for my level of spice is going to be very large, but there are always suckers out there who want to impress their girlfriends!

Image credit: Ryan Bushby.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Food, Hot Sauce 
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As some of you know, I have a problem. An addiction that is. For most of the year I stock up on fresh habanero pepper. Usually I try to limit myself to 1-2 peppers per meal…but when not in the company of others who may civilize me I can lose control and eat more than half a dozen in a sitting. After the first few peppers they just don’t taste as spicy, and I suppose psychologically I am under the illusion that enough peppers will bring back the pleasure high of a few moments earlier. I developed this habit not through cultural inculcation. Rather, when I went off to college and no one supervised me I began to eat more and more peppers, and developed an extremely high threshold of tolerance. By the end of college I began to raid my parents’ thai peppers at home to the point where they complained that I always left their stock depleted before going back to school. At this point I can drink tabasco sauce like gatorade.

But the different parts of the gastrointestinal system adapt differently. When I “habanero gorge” I develop extreme pain in my bowels in a few hours, and of course there are issues the next day. Over the years I’ve poked around the literature on possible correlations between pepper consumption and stomach cancer, or the anti-pathogenic properties of peppers. I’m pretty sure I’m well beyond the limit of normal consumption in any of these studies.

My primary motivation in consuming peppers is pure hedonism, as can be attested by the fact that my consumption is constrained by the presence of others. But there are clear social consequences to eating extremely spicy food. People take notice when you pile on crushed read peppers onto pizza, or pull out a habanero at In-N-Out Burger. At nice restaurants you sometimes get well known for being the guy who likes the habanero paste lathered onto his beef, to the point where new servers might drop by to gawk. There can be a clear element of social signalling in consuming very spicy foods. In short, people can think you are a “badass.” Of course actually I’m a cheerful and self-effacing individual! (granted, with a casual tendency to verbally bludgeon people)

I thought of this when Amos pointed me to this report in Discover on a hot sauce made from Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. According to some reports this pepper is about 1 order of magnitude spicier than habaneros! (in scoville units) I’m not totally unfamiliar with such levels of spice. A few years ago I tried a bunch of hot sauces, and I also ordered pure capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers. If you want a hot sauce that is very hot, I’d go with Dave’s Insanity. The pure capsaicin was crazy spicy. Really I got overwhelmed with one drop. What you’re really supposed to do with that stuff is make sauces with a drop here and there. I did do that. But what I prefer is to take fresh habaneros and make sauce out of that. A sauce shouldn’t just be diluted spice, it should have other flavors. I like habaneros, cilantro, oil, vinegar, and water. It seems that beyond a certain level of heat you can’t really experience any more sensation. The spicier the quality, the less quantity you can take in. So the subjective feel of a tiny drop of capsaicin can be equivalent to a whole habanero, despite there differences on the scoville and physical scales.

Below are two charts showing differences on the scoville scale. I grabbed the data from Wikipedia (with some averaging):

Image Credit: Ryan Bushby

• Category: Science • Tags: Food, Health, Spice 
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Catfish plan risks trade war:

It looks like catfish, it tastes like catfish, and it acts like catfish.
But to U.S. catfish farmers, the whiskered, bottom-feeding fish from Vietnam is something else: a cheap variety that’s usurping the humble catfish’s place on Americans’ tables and threatening their livelihoods.

So after years of arguing that the Vietnamese fish isn’t catfish – and winning a federal law saying as much – the U.S. farmers are now trying to have it both ways. Under their latest lobbying strategy, they want the Vietnamese imports considered catfish so that they will be covered by a new inspections regime that they pushed through Congress last year.

The move – an example of how influential industries work their will in Congress – could block Vietnamese imports for years and risks a broader trade war.

It doesn’t taste like catfish.

• Category: Science • Tags: Food 
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In False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World* there’s a chapter which covers “The Catfish War” between Vietnam and the United States in the early 2000s. Basically Vietnamese catfish were cheaper than American catfish, so American farmers got the government to force the Vietnamese to not label the fish catfish (it’s a different species from the American variant). So Vietnamese catfish are now termed “basa” in the United States. Interestingly this might have backfired, the author of False Economy claims that many American consumers ended up thinking basa were an exotic premium import. But here’s another reality: in blind taste tests people prefer Vietnamese catfish to American catfish.

I only mention this because I’ve been getting basa for a few weeks now. Today the supermarket was out of basa, but did have American catfish (where there used to be basa). So I got American catfish because I figured catfish is catfish. Well…American catfish kind of sucks compared to basa. I don’t find catfish meat repellent or anything, but basa has a much nicer flavor and smell than American catfish. It’s also easier to cook. And I don’t have a subtle palette; I use a lot of hot sauce, so I can tolerate a large range in flavor. There just isn’t any comparison. Perhaps it was a bad batch of catfish, but I’ve actually had catfish sandwiches and the like in New Orleans and Houston, and I think this was typical American catfish thinking back to that. Wikipedia said that people prefer basa to American catfish 3:1, but I would have expected 10:1.

* It’s a well written work which illustrates general economic principles with concrete contemporary examples, but is far inferior to Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World in terms of factual density.

• Category: Science • Tags: Food 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"