Sunday, October 26, 2008

John Barleycorn Must Not Make Corned Beef

Recently I saw a corned beef in the grocery; one of those already-brined and flavored things sealed in plastic, refrigerated, ready to cook.

So I had a yen for some sandwiches and bought it. The instructions of course say to boil it. So I did. Novice, I decided not to use as much water as it said, so it was a bit salty, but not too much so. I crockpotted it for 6 or 7 hrs. That turned out well; the sandwiches were very good. A few weeks went by, so after several days of not enough veggies, I spotted a deal on cabbage and immediately knew I was gonna have some corned beef and cabbage. (I chopped and rinsed half the cabbage, added a tbs. or two chopped onion, got it mostly cooked by simmering in butter and a little water, and then, nearing doneness, I added a can of corned beef. Brought it to a simmer again for a while, and it was ready. Yum.)

A week went by. Deciding to go ahead and cook the other half of the cabbage, I looked for a can of corned beef at my local low-end grocery store. It was pretty much on my "must have" list for the visit. No canned corned beef! Corned beef hash, yes. But no corned beef. So I found a small brisket and knew I could use the internet to learn how to "corn" that beef. I already knew I would brine it, so I used the net to devise a recipe to spice it. It said use some "pickling spice." Doh! No dill in the house! But, oddly, there is no dill in many pickling spice recipes. I had most of the necessary spices.

It's soaking now. In fact, it's day three and I'm going to add some garlic and maybe a few cumin seeds to finish up another 24-48 hrs. I'll let you know how it turns out. Okay, here's where I get speculative. I told you that so I could tell you this: All the recipes call for sugar as well as salt. I used white sugar and added a couple squirts molasses. In other words, followed the recipe. And you're smart, I think it just dawned on you, too. What did they use for sugar before sugar cane?
Now all the anecdotal wisdom on the net, including a kosher website, claim that it's known as "corned beef" (which obviously has no corn in it) because "coarse salt grains are about the size of corn, so they referred to the salt as 'corn.'" Well my B.S. meter started ringing pretty loudly. Despite the fact that we say "a grain of salt." In fact, almost every reference to salt grains being known as "corns" is located in a reference to corned beef. So here's the obvious proposal or hypothesis I made: nobody ever called salt "corn." Then I thought: "originally corned beef used malted barley corn, or more likely oats."
But this idea does not seem to be true.

Malting barley is a simple process wherein the barley is soaked; the starches turn to sugars in preparation for sprouting; and then the barley is dry roasted. Added to the brine, a brief boiling of the the salt / malt combination would provide the needed sugar. As well, it could be middle eastern in concept. It could in fact be very old.

The online recipes stress that saltpeter, otherwise known as potasssium nitrate, be used in the brine. Indeed, some recipes hint that one needs less salt if saltpeter is used. It keeps the meat from losing the red color while it's brining. I also discovered that barley can contain a fair amount of this nitrate in it. I do not know how much. I doubt as much as the recipes call for. I was starting to think that the higher protein barleys may in fact be higher in nitrates. Some barley has too much protein for beermaking. It clouds the brew. Some plants used as silage, especially oats, develop a fair amount of nitrates. Barley grown in drought apparently does. Thistles can accumulate so much nitrate they tend to burn explosively, according to the internet.
But to throw a curve into all this, I found an old terminology: gunpowder is indeed "corned." Different grain sizes make for different ignition properties. And gunpowder is 75% potassium nitrate. Did, out of desperation, someone store some beef in gunpowder and find it preserved the beef wonderfully? People used to do weird things, and hungry people might turn an oddity into a regular practice. Did a sneaky sailor hide a purloined cut of beef in a load of saltpetre? Did a ship's cook try to save some spoiling beef by rolling it in salt and saltpetre? This sounds ominous. A huge source of saltpetre was found in South America, in the form of guano and its concentrated leachates deposited in nearby soil. The precious stuff even caused the Saltpeter War. (Abraham Lincoln's grandfather also mined saltpeter in Tennessee.) Upon recovering the beef, the sailor might have, upon rinsing it off and boiling it, discovered it tender, red, and delicious. Or was this technology borrowed from elsewhere?
Now saltpeter has been used to preserve meat for quite some time, but tracing it back before gunpowder was known in the West is difficult. Everyone knows gunpowder originated in China. Saltpeter's use in China in food is only hinted at, and I read a report that vaguely suggested eggs were preserved in saltpeter there.
Here's an 1860 recipe for corned beef:
"To one gallon of water, take 1½ pounds of salt, half pound of brown sugar, half ounce of saltpetre; in this ration, the pickle to be increased to any quantity desired. Let these be boiled until all the dirt from the salt and sugar rises to the top and is skimmed off. Then throw the pickle into a large, clean tub to cool, and when *perfectly cold*; pour it over the meat, which must be in a tight barrel or box, which will not leak. After three or four weeks it is cured. The meat must be kept well covered with the brine by putting something heavy on it. The meat must not be put in the brine until it has been killed at least two days, during which time it must be spread out and lightly sprinkled with saltpetre. Twenty gallons of water, 30 pounds of salt, 10 pounds of sugar and 10 ounces of saltpetre will fill a barrel. The same brine can be used a second time by boiling and skimming it well. " - from the Albany Patriot
I will leave for another day the topic of all more modern hot dogs, preserved meats, and nitrate / nitrite health related issues.

I had no saltpeter in the house, (in the name of all that's holy, who does??) but I did have a half oz. of malted barley corns. After a simmer, in they went into the brine. We will see, Mr. Barleycorn, we will see.
Here's something claiming salt is known as "corns:"
"While the process of preserving meat with salt is ancient, food historians tell us corned beef (preserving beef with "corns" or large grains of salt) originated in Medieval Europe. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word corn, meaning "small hard particle, a grain, as of sand or salt," in print to 888. The term "corned beef" dates to 1621-"Source. Also, see
The words grain, grind, grown, ground, grist, coin, corn, kernel, granule, groats, grange, garner, granary and garnish all come from a very ancient Indo-European word. Perhaps all this speculation is wrong, and corned beef means "grained" in the sense of "wood grain."
Morton has some products for modern home meat preserving.
This post links to articles on corned beef, saltpeter, Saltpeter War, gunpowder, barley, oats, silage, cabbages, pickling spices, and salt. And a few other things.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Trick or treat!

You really not like me when I'm angry! Give me chocolates! Hulk like chocolate! In fact, Hulk revert to Jumper when eat chocolate.

For fun I'm going to try to influence the Google ads at the top. Since I love chocolate, that's what I will go for. I want delicious French chocolates, with caramel nougat centers, or chocolate-covered brandy-soaked cherries. I'd even take some chocolates just faintly seasoned with habaƱero peppers. Yes, I am that weird. For some reason I don't like chocolate mints. They're okay, but I just don't. I like chocolate, and I like mint. Just not together.

I like milk chocolate. I prefer the European style, with non-sour milk. I would love some Pyrenees chocolates. If I ever go to France, that will be why.

Update: Google Ads about chocolate show up when this article is opened in a separate window. For the unsure, this is accomplished by clicking on the article title. That url will serve as the permalink also. Sqirlz morph

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Jumper's Geographic Dream

After having an oft-recurring dream several years ago, I made a point to remember it and puzzle over it.

In the dream, I visit continents number 8 and 9. In the dream, I always visualize a globe and zoom in on one or the other; usually both, and spend some time there. As usual in dreams, all is hazy, including the names and exact locations. (I sort of feel they belong in the Indian Ocean or even the South Atlantic, but I assembled this illustration by another feeling: remoteness.) And today I'll call them Yelliria and Xillmiu.

In the dream, I am always sort of amazed, but then I recall that these are the "continents everybody always forgets." We all learned about them in elementary school, but no one has really thought about them since. As always, in dreams, this makes perfect sense.

One of them is quite wild and relatively unpopulated. The other has a larger colonized population of modern sorts, with a feel of '50s Australia or New Zealand, only wilder, and without any particular negative attributes. I visit and have entertaining dream adventures. It's all new and bizarre and exciting..

I keep a globe in my living room, and one day while pondering another matter, I recalled my dream. And that's when I realized I had known about continents 8 and 9 all along. It was an "aha!" moment.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Links, Letters, Art and Life

click each example for close-up views

I was lamenting the other day the death of chain letters. The internet has many chains, and seems to have absorbed nearly all of the phenomenon. I haven't gotten a chain letter, that is, written on paper and sent through the mail, since 1992. And just when I decided to begin collecting them as artifacts. (I actually incorporated a chain letter into a painting then). And I hadn't thought too much about actual chain letters since then.
Back then, they were well-crafted in the sense that Nature "crafts" species: those with compelling memes survived, and those without perished. By compelling, I mean a meme that, by whatever magic, actually got the receiver to go through the trouble of making handwritten copies and sealing and stamping envelopes. Quite a lot of effort, really. Of course their internet descendents are far easier to transmit, but far less robust, in my view.

Back then I classed the best-surviving chain-mail memes into two classes: those that promised luck and good fortune, and those that used fear: "Do not break the chain, or horrible harm will come to you!" It's easy to tag and rate each strong memic fragment. I found it life-affirming that most chain-letters I received were richer in good-luck memes than fear-memes.
There does not seem to be a clear path of descent from the paper and stamp variety into their internet analogs. There are a few documented "jumps" from paper to internet, but in most modern cases I presume the email things evolved independently. Life was created twice! The "meta-meme" of chain letters made the hop, actually.
I will propose that a chain letter requiring 100 copies be sent might die out as fast as one requiring only two copies. Too much work involved in the former case, too much chance of stalling out with non-superstitious folks in the latter.

A fragment of yet another article: "The chain letter reproduces asexually. After all, the odds are pretty slim that someone would get two chain letters on the same day, and somehow merge them. If you like to daydream, though, you might imagine chain letters mating this way, with the recipient randomly taking a sentence from one or the other to build an 'offspring'... After reproducing, the chain letter, like a salmon, dies. Unless someone is really cheap, and makes 19 copies and then mails out the original!"

My investigation started with a "trollstorm" on a blog that normally has maybe a hundred comments show up under each article. I was thinking about optimal size of a comments section for the transmission of ideas (and also anecdotal disinformation!), and how the "six degrees of separation" work. Too many comments means people may post comments, but they won't read them all. (The section becomes what my friend Stevie Toledo sardonically calls "write-only memory.") Communication becomes one-way. In contrast, too few comments may mean too few readers (of the comments) and thus too high a bar - insufficient critical mass for an idea to take off. Optimal is a popular writer with a reasonable number of comments which can be followed by a casual reader, and in which a theme might be established; a dialog which takes the readers' fancy.
All of which in turn, I thought, has something to do with transmissibility - survivability / population increase - of memes in general. It's been fruitful. I was reminded that there are several distinct historical environments for chain letters. Pre-copy machine is one, and then fax machines, and now the internet. Other old environments were the mimeograph, "no typewriter in the house" and probably "a typewriter, but no carbon paper." Plus pen and paper only: The "teenage girl" letter, seen at the top.