Taste of Tech: Breakfast, Shot from Guns
This Taste of Tech post written by Matthew Battles is the fifth in a series exploring the science and technology of food in partnership with Gearfuse. Don't miss last week's post on how to genetically modify your own seed and the police bees that could come after you if you do.
My father-in-law's father turns 105 this March, and he attributes no small part of his longevity to his lifelong choice of breakfast: a bowl of puffed wheat in skim milk.
Appropriately, my grandfather-in-law earned his living as cereal chemist for the big grain-processing agribusiness concerns of the central plains, formulating industrial leavening powders and dough conditioners to turn Kansas wheat into interchangeable, infinitely reproducible golden loaves. And to my mind at least, few products seem more industrialized, more processed, more alienated from the ancient means of agriculture and cereal cuisine, than puffed grain.
But that characterization of puffed grain is a straw man (at least it's made of real straw). In fact, puffed grains occupy a fascinating niche in cereal cuisine, one that marries agriculture to other late-neolithic industries that made cities—and hence street food—possible.
Street food is where our atemporal journey begins, in this video reposted from Boing Boing (that I also reblogged earlier this week), which documents a Chinese street vendor making the prototypical puffed grain, popcorn, using an incendiary popper:'>
It's almost steampunk, this contraption of industrial detritus and cobbled-together bits of metallurgy. It's a version of a popping technology found in varying levels of sophistication throughout Asia—as in this example from Japan:'>
The Japanese vendor is popping not corn, but rice. But the mechanism is the same: Grain is placed in a sealed chamber and heated, bringing moisture trapped in the grains to tremendous pressure. When the pressure is released, the steam explosively exits the kernels, turning the endosperm into an airy, spongy mass. (Processed rice is missing the moisture that popcorn kernels carry; before puffing, it first needs to be soaked or steamed.) While the technology involved looks like a relic of the industrial era, it also recalls the forges of the bronze and iron ages.
In the mid-twentieth century, Quaker marketed puffed rice as a breakfast cereal by playing on the mysterious, incendiary nature of its manufacture:'>