29 Feb

Arkansas, Cheese Dip, Velveeta, and Plastic

stobys_cheese_dip_edited1A great episode from the Gravy podcast on how my home state developed a love of cheese dip.  

There’s a dish you’ll find at every kind of restaurant in Little Rock, from the pizza places to the burger joints: cheese dip. How did it become so beloved in Arkansas? And what does it reveal about the state’s past—and present? In this episode of Gravy, Dana Bialek and I investigate this story of highways, demographic changes, and a food’s shifting identity over time.

Also here is a convenient map of must visit, cheese dip spots in Arkansas. I’ve visited more of these than I care to admit.   Of course a major ingredient of many Arkansas, cheese-dip recipes is a big, oily, orange block of Velveeta.

All this brings me to the age old question of “Is Velveeta one molecule away from plastic?” You have likely heard the same “logic” applied to margarine.   Of course, this is wrong in many ways.

 Both Velveeta and margarine are composed of many different molecules so such a statement is already meaningless.  The ingredient list of Velveeta is milk, whey, skim milk, milk protein concentrate, water, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, modified food starch; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, dried corn syrup, canola oil, malto dextrin, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, cheese culture, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color).   Milk itself, just one of the ingredients listed, contains 12 different fatty acid molecules.  

But adding a single molecule to anything could make a big difference.  Take for example the difference between hydrogen peroxide H2O2 and water H20, which have only one atom, hydrogen, different.  

FIG 6 P13But also the one molecule away is odd because it can take much less to get a significant change.  The structure of the molecule can make a big difference without even changing the chemical composition of molecule. Lactose is made out of two simpler sugars, glucose and galactose. The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. The chemical formula for galactose is also C6H12O6. Yes, they are chemically identical. They are structured differently and that gives them different properties.  

29 Sep

Remembrances of George Washington Carver

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the university’s president, invited George Washington Carver to head its Agricultural Department.  He spent 47 years at Tuskegee developing numerous inventions and agricultural practices.  He was likely one of the first scientists to initiate extension programs and actively train farmers.  The same farmers would often be recruited into Carver’s research in an early form of citizen science.

I have always found Carver a compelling figure.  Born into slavery, Carver rose to become one of the most important and influential scientists of his time. Carver was a true renaissance man; he taught piano at the University and loved to crochet. Carver also represents yet another dichotomy of science in the South. In the early 1900’s when Carver began his career, very few university educated African-Americans existed. To this date, the representation of African American in science is appalling low. However, Carver revolutionized agriculture from cotton to peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, crops now inseparable from Southern culture. No scientist has had such a profound influence on the South.

Equally intriguing is that Carver’s dedication to science was only matched by his dedication to Christianity.  Carver carried a bible every day and taught a bible class on campus.  He developed walnut dies and stained the pews from a local church.  Carver’s evangelism led to disapproval by many in the scientific establishment.  In contrast, the local Alabama and university loved him.

In August, I had the privilege of visiting Tuskegee University.  Dana Chandler, chief archivist for Tuskegee University, showed me items belonging to Carver.  I am indebted to Dana, himself a man of science and religion and scholar of Carver, for discussing Carver’s life and legacy with me. 

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A farmer once brought a 202 lb meteorite by wagon into Tuskegee University for Carver to examine. I am holding 22 lb section of that meteorite.

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Carver’s typewriter and a glass cover for his Zeiss microscope.

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A very old photograph of Carver’s laboratory. In the foreground you can see the glass cover for his microscope.

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One of Carver’s exhibits for farmers demonstrating uses for Wisteria, a common nuisance vine throughout the South.


Carver’s field case.

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12 Jun

Alabama students revolt against federally mandated whole grain biscuits

There’s something special about a fluffy biscuit. Just ask many of the students who attend Etowah County Schools.It’s the one thing students have not adjusted to doing without when presented with healthier menu choices, Laura Parker, the system’s Child Nutrition Program director, told members of the Board of Education at a meeting Tuesday.Whole grains, all the time, became a requirement last year. They were gradually added a few years before.”They’ve revolted, really,” Parker said about the biscuits.

Source: Alabama students revolt against federally mandated whole grain biscuits | AL.com

08 Apr

The Chemistry of Whisky

Because you always need to know more about bourbon…

Whisky is one of the world’s most popular spirits, and comes in many different classes and types. The character and flavour of these differing types vary widely; this, of course, comes down to their varying chemical composition. Here, we take a look at where some of these different compounds come from, and what they contribute.

via The Chemistry of Whisky | Compound Interest.

29 Mar

Finding the Perfect Southern Biscuit: Part 1

Last week, I discussed the chemistry and the roles individual ingredients and steps play in the final biscuity outcome.  This weekend the goal has been to experience the tasty products of this science.  

10155358_10203960086144811_2191562887043568819_nFirst step, Mama Dips.  Overall the biscuits were denser than I was expecting.  I would call these a working man’s biscuit, that would not crumble in a gentle wind.  These little guys are literally the perfect biscuit for packing in a lunch–compact and substantial. Mama Dip’s biscuits were not tall but rather short and squatty with a bread like texture. I suspect the flour used has a high gluten content (See this post for some basics). The choice of lard over butter may have also contributed to this.

Mama Dip's Biscuit Recipe
From the famous restaurant in Downtown Chapel Hill.
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  1. 2 c. self rising flour
  2. 1/4 c. lard or shortening
  3. 1 c. buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Put the flour in a pile. With your fingertips, work the shortening into the flour until well blended and evenly mixed.
  3. Pour the buttermilk and mix until dough is formed.
  4. Roll out to 1/2 inch thickness on a floured board; cut with a 2 inch biscuit cutter or pluck off balls, roll, and flatten them with your knuckles.
  5. Bake on a greased baking sheet for 10-12 minutes or until brown.
The Science of the South http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/
Next step was the P4 Buttermilk Biscuit. I tried this one simply because the recipe has 5/5 star rating after 540 reviews.  Can any recipe live up to the hype? Absolutely.  Simply put this is the best biscuit I’ve ever had.  The texture was spot on; crumbly but not so much the biscuit falls apart.  If you read again this post for some basics and then look at the recipe you can clearly see all the ingredients and steps are in place for the perfect biscuit.

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits
Best biscuits you will ever make and eat.
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  1. 2 cups unbleached White Lily all purpose flour (good because low gluten content)
  2. 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
  3. 1 tablespoon baking powder (use one without aluminum)
  4. 1 teaspoon kosher salt or 1 teaspoon salt
  5. 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold (put it in the freezer a bit to get it really cold)
  6. 1 cup buttermilk (approx, Don't chintz but some good stuff from a local dairy.)
  1. Preheat your oven to 450°F.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, or in the bowl of a food processor.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and cut into the flour until it resembles course meal.
  4. If using a food processor, just pulse a few times until this consistency is achieved.
  5. Add the buttermilk and mix JUST until combined.
  6. If it appears on the dry side, add a bit more buttermilk. It should be very wet.
  7. Turn the dough out onto a floured board.
  8. Gently, gently PAT (do NOT roll with a rolling pin) the dough out until it's about 1/2" thick. Fold the dough about 5 times, gently press the dough down to a 1 inch thick.
  9. Use a round cutter to cut into rounds.
  10. You can gently knead the scraps together and make a few more, but they will not be anywhere near as good as the first ones.
  11. Place the biscuits on a cookie sheet- if you like soft sides, put them touching each other.
  12. If you like"crusty" sides, put them about 1 inch apart- these will not rise as high as the biscuits put close together.
  13. Bake for about 10-12 minutes- the biscuits will be a beautiful light golden brown on top and bottom.
  14. Do not overbake.
  15. Note: The key to real biscuits is not in the ingredients, but in the handling of the dough.
  16. The dough must be handled as little as possible or you will have tough biscuits.
  17. I have found that a food processor produces superior biscuits, because the ingredients stay colder and there's less chance of overmixing.
  18. You also must pat the dough out with your hands, lightly.
  19. Rolling with a rolling pin is a guaranteed way to overstimulate the gluten, resulting in a tougher biscuit.
  20. Note 2: You can make these biscuits, cut them, put them on cookie sheets and freeze them for up to a month.
  21. When you want fresh biscuits, simply place them frozen on the cookie sheet and bake at 450°F for about 20 minutes.
The Science of the South http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/

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22 Mar

There is only one kind of biscuit, the Southern one, and it has special needs

Buttermilk biscuits by jmackinnell on Flickr

I take biscuits pretty seriously, far more seriously that most Southerners. I realize the levity of a statement like this. Years ago before I went to college, I was a professional biscuit maker. I’m not sure exactly if professional applies, but I made a lot of biscuits for money…repetitively. I would start my shift at 3 am at Hardees. By the end of a shift at 11 am, I would have made anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand biscuits. I knew the steps and secrets to get consistently thick, crumbly, and moist biscuits. A biscuit I was proud of. Don’t work the dough too much and keep everything cold. And God forbid use the right flour and do not, under any circumstances, omit buttermilk.

Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits by thebittenword.com on Flickr

Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits by thebittenword.com on Flickr

There is only one kind of biscuit, the Southern one, and it has special needs. The first is the proper flower, low in protein and gluten. Wheat flour contains two kinds of proteins, glutenin and gliadin, found readily inside the wheat kernel. These stored proteins within the seed help nourish young plants during germination. Interestingly both of these proteins are water insoluble. Through the process of hydrolysis these proteins get hydrated allowing linkages to form between them. These chemical bonds between the glutenin and gliadin form gluten.

Soft red winter wheat(Triticum aestivum) grown in Kentucky  http://www.uky.edu/Ag/GrainCrops/ID125Wheat_Management_Kentucky.html

Soft red winter wheat(Triticum aestivum) grown in Kentucky

But in a good Southern biscuit we do not want the chewiness that gluten provides. It’s a biscuit not a bagel. We want crumbly. This really can only be delivered by a soft red winter wheat flour. Wheat is classified into six categories: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard durum, hard white, and soft white wheat. Hard wheat has bucket loads of gluten and great for breads. Soft wheats…will that’s the ticket for the biscuits. White Lily All Purpose Flower is the one you want partly because of the gluten and part because it’s a Southern custom.

18flour.1-190Gluten formation is also the very important reason why we do not work the dough too much. Kneading the wet dough ensures that the glutenin and gliadin come into constant contact to form gluten strands. The more kneading and water, the more gluten formation and that can quickly turn a biscuit into cookie.

The next major ingredient is fat in the form of butter. Fat’s responsibility other than tasting fantastic is many. First, butter needs to melt and leave behind air pockets. These pockets are used by chemical leaveners to release gases and create lift in the biscuit. One needs to distribute butter chunks throughout the crust to form these pockets. Large butter clumps equal a few larger pockets. Even more disastrously, completely mix the butter into dough and you will lose all the pockets. Our need of these air pockets is also of course why keep the butter and dough cool. The melting of the butter should not happen until the biscuit hits the oven otherwise no pockets. Second, butter coats the gluten and starches in the flower and prevent them from becoming tough. Similar to how butter coats your stomach and softens you up a bit first thing in the morning.   Third, the moisture in butter also creates steam and helps the biscuit to rise.

The chemical leavener of choice is baking soda, or sodium hydrogen carbonate. When we heat baking soda it begins a chemical reaction.

2NaHCO3 –> CO2 + H2O + Na2CO3

That forms carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). The last of these is a strong base and we often need an acid to neutralize it. Baking powder is simply a baking soda with acid added that neutralizes this base. 

NaHCO3 + H+ –> Na+ + H2O + CO2

Let’s not forget that all this chemistry here is producing CO2 gas that gives our biscuit rise and water that is keeping our biscuits moist.

Foodie-Friday-_-bottle-buttermilkLast and importantly, a good Southern biscuit demands buttermilk. Buttermilk is acidic (a pH of 4.4 – 4.8). For comparison, acid rain has a pH of approximately 4. The acidity helps to neutralize the baking soda. As well, that acidity from buttermilk also helps tenderize the formed gluten strands.

All along the particulars of the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit were based in just good science.






18 Dec

A tomato for shiftless Arkansas squatters, robbers, cutthroats, and fiddle players

Photo by Corey Burger on Flickr (cc)

In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where I hail from, an heirloom tomato originated before the 1900’s. The Arkansas Traveler is prized for very flavorful, medium-sized tomatoes that resist cracking and keep on coming, even in drought and hot weather. Indeed, the Arkansas Traveler for these reasons became a mainstay tomato for much of the South. Take these user reviews of the tomato from a popular plant company

Great tomatoes for the South! These were one of the first tomato plants to produce tomatoes last year. They kept on producing when it got hot last summer and taste great.

I live in Houston where the heat and humidity boil through September, but the tomatoes continue on, although with less yield beginning in August. The flavor is awesome.

best producing plant ever

Tomato_09_Arkansas_Traveler Despite these positive testimonies the Arkansas Traveler has had a shady past.

Perhaps no other State in the Union has been so misrepresented as Arkansas. She has had much bad advertising, and the ignorant beyond her borders have wrong ideas of her and her people. By such people she is supposed to be the home of shiftless squatters, robbers, and cutthroats, who make the bowie-knife and the pistol the law of the land . . . “The Arkansas Traveler” is largely responsible for the wrong impression of our State.

How could a tomato do this kind of damage? Well the history is complicated. 

Read More

02 Dec

How Do You Spell Barbecue?

Barbeque or barbecue?  I don’t know about ya’ll but I’ve always preferred BBQ.  I guess that makes me a Q man.  Southern Living has a great post on the history of the word.

Back in the 18th century, there were almost as many ways to spell barbecue as there were people cooking it: barbacue, barbicu, borbecue. In his diary entry for September 18, 1773, George Washington recorded that he attended, “a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotink.”…But, even that wasn’t economical enough. After World War II, “BBQ” started to be used as a sort of shorthand to save a few more pennies in classified ads, much like FROG (“finished room over garage”) or OBO (“or best offer”). This faux-acronym is one of the few terms in common usage that’s fully capitalized like an acronym but whose letters don’t actually stand for separate words.

via How Do You Spell Barbecue? | Your Hub for Southern Culture.