Innovations in Taste
We like to think of the platypus as a superhero of the animal kingdom. It takes the best elements of the duck, the beaver, and the otter and rolls them into one egg-laying, venom-possessing badass: a creature so remarkable that when researchers first discovered it, they thought they were being pranked. Our annual Platypus Awards honor ideas that draw from disparate fields to form something worthy of a double take. It’s not just these little ideas that captivate us, but also their world-changing potential for awesomeness. This year, we honor nine innovators who are turning our notions of food upside down. We all need to eat. But these trailblazers are demonstrating how, with a little ingenuity, the grub before us also has the power to right social wrongs, bring communities closer, and, potentially, save the world. Now that’s something to chew on.
It’s not hard to see why so many Americans opt for preprepared food: It seems cheap, simple, and quick. This, of course, is despite the wisdom (repeated by everyone from doctors to chefs to public health advocates) that cooking for yourself is healthier. For many people, that’s easier said than done: Cookbooks can seem like exercises in fantasy. The cost of creating the recipes typically goes unmentioned. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, a trip to the grocery store could get pricey, fast.
Leanne Brown, 30, doesn’t think home cooking should be a luxury. Indeed, for lots of people, it can’t be: Fifteen percent of Americans rely on food stamps, with their average budget amounting to just a little more than $4 a day. And while there are some cookbooks for this demographic, when Brown perused them she found a lot of hot dogs, macaroni, and clip art. Little of their real estate was devoted to fresh veggies, healthy recipes, or making the meals appealing. So, for her master’s thesis project in food studies at New York University, the former public health professional started writing her own cookbook. It includes a collection of recipes for all types of meals in a variety of cuisine styles, and is designed for chefs of all skill levels (including those who’ve never cooked). Illustrated with beautiful, high-quality photographs, the recipes are easy to follow, inexpensive to shop for, and delicious—everything from banana pancakes to shrimp and grits to peach coffee cake.
She called it Good & Cheap. After it was completed in 2014, there was just one thing to do: get it into the hands of the people who needed it most. So, Brown offered the cookbook online for free. Then the project went viral. After hundreds of thousands of downloads, her Kickstarter campaign funded a print run (which included a buy-one-get-a-second-copy-donated charity component), followed by a second run in July 2015. At this rate, all of America should be digesting Brown’s message of culinary empowerment in no time.
Fresh and Direct
Why Solveiga Pakštaite thinks we need to revolutionize the sell-by date.
Most of us rely on expiration dates to know whether our groceries are still fresh. But as British-based industrial designer Solveiga Pakštaite learned when she interviewed blind people for a project on public transportation, if you can’t see, you can’t read those dates.
The revelation inspired the 23-year-old to design the Bump Mark, a series of raised bumps coated with a layer of gelatin on food packaging. As the gelatin protein decays, the bumps become tangible. That’s when you know the food is past its prime. This works because gelatin—made from animal hooves—rots at roughly the same rate as a steak, fish fillet, or bag of salad.
The potential for this technology is even greater than what you might think. Printed dates are just guidelines, not true indicators of food spoilage, so we waste a lot of perfectly good food. (In the U.K., grocery stores and consumers throw away a total of 12 million tons of food every year.) Because the Bump Mark measures real rates of decay, the invention could help fix that. Pakštaite is now doing market research, studying manufacturing, and running lab tests to increase the accuracy of the gelatin-to-food decay rate. From a fresh idea, fresh food.
Coffee’s relationship with social justice usually starts and ends with a buzzy label on a bag of beans (think terms like “responsibly sourced”). Community activist and café owner Keba Konte, 48, is looking to change that by adopting a new business model that emphasizes equal opportunities, second chances, and a stronger community for all.
Konte’s career has included everything from photojournalism (he covered Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election in South Africa) to aquaponics to the popular coffee shops he owns in Oakland, California. He’s also an artist: Earlier this year, he created a series of murals by spray-painting on chain-link fences, then enlisting community members to cover them with thousands of pieces of ribbon to produce massive, striking portraits. His latest business venture, Red Bay Coffee Company, is born of the same ethos. Red Bay hires and trains the formerly incarcerated and other people who may have trouble finding jobs because of their race, socioeconomic status, weight, or disabilities.
At Red Bay’s soon-to-open café housed in a shipping container, Konte’s employees will be paid minimum wage, plus tips, plus a monthly bonus figured by splitting the shop’s profits among its workers. It’s not quite a co-op because, as with the murals, Konte is the one making final decisions and establishing the vision. But, also like the murals, the coffee shop is a community project, and it’s the community—and the workers—who benefit. If you’re working in one of his shops, “you’re working together and you don’t really see what you’re doing until you back up and it’s done,” Konte says. That’s a job with perks.
Let's All Go Eat Bugs!
So says Harman Singh Johar, anyway.
The first time Harman Singh Johar ate a cricket, he was an undergrad at the University of Georgia. It was supposed to be barbecue-flavored, but it tasted more like dust and sadness. “It was dry and pointy, and the flavor was like something that had sat in a gas station for three years,” says the 24-year-old. But where others saw a gag gift gone wrong, Johar saw room for improvement. He knew insects are high in protein and nutrients, and consume fewer resources than livestock—pound for pound, cricket meat requires 1/500th the water and 1/1,000th of the land needed to farm cattle. Johar also knew none of that matters if people won’t eat bugs. So, ever since, he’s dedicated his career to making bug meat marketable.
He founded a successful insect wholesale company, World Entomophagy, worked with another company to use automation to lower the cost of insect farming in the U.S., and currently serves as a consultant to various bug-meat businesses that have sprouted up in recent years. Still, he faces an uphill battle: While insect supply chains exist all over the world, it isn’t exactly a short order to get Americans to see bugs as a viable food source. But the fact is, they are. Johar has two words to describe the future: cricket flour. Flavorless and without an off-putting texture, it’ll eventually be used to add protein to energy bars and other foods, he explains, making a balanced, nutrient-rich diet more accessible and less costly to you and the world you live in. In fact, in Austin, where Johar lives, you can already buy bars made with “powder of insects.”
Generally, we refrain from focusing on bad news, but this is serious: Chocolate is in crisis, and that means terrible things for your candy bars. Because the cacao plant is in increasingly short supply, producers like Cadbury are reducing the size of their treats. Quality is suffering as well, as cacao-derived cocoa butter, which gives chocolate its creamy taste, is replaced with cheaper, palm oil–based substitutes. The roots of the problem are tangled: Plant diseases, droughts, and cacao genetics are just a few. But not all of these problems are governed strictly by nature—some are man-made, and Carla Martin, a 34-year-old social anthropologist at Harvard, spends her days looking for answers.
Martin’s research concerns a major element of the crisis: Nobody wants to be a cacao farmer anymore. In Ghana, many farmers have never even tasted the chocolate their work yields. Worse, they make the equivalent of $0.30 a day, tending to crops with just their bare hands and a machete. “The median age is hovering around 50,” Martin says, “and most don’t want their children to go into the business.” What would happen, she wondered, if the conditions for cacao farming improved?
To find out, she’s been documenting the nuanced effects of Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and similar certifications. She says part of the solution lies in giving Ghanaian farmers more control in supply lines so they can deal directly with the producers making chocolate. She also suggests that pay scales tied to the quality of cacao and the chocolate it produces would result in the proliferation of better chocolate (even if it also results in consumers paying more for their candy). The bottom line: Farmers with more control are happier farmers, which leads to more cacao in the market, and, ultimately, bigger, tastier treats for us all.
The Little Metal Fish That Saves Lives
For Christopher Charles, fighting anemia is (and isn’t) a drop in the bucket.
When Christopher Charles, 30, arrived in rural Cambodia from Guelph, Ontario, he was shocked to see villagers lying exhausted on the ground. The public health researcher had come to study the effects of anemia on the population, and here they were: Fatigued children were dropping out of school; adults were convalescing beneath their stilted houses, too tired to work.
The World Health Organization estimates 50 percent of the world’s anemia is caused by iron deficiency, which is often caused by malnourishment. Good treatments are hard to find. Iron supplements are expensive and can have nasty side effects. And while food cooked in cast-iron pots absorbs iron, its release is unpredictable and the pots rust easily. What if, Charles thought, there were a lump of iron that people could drop into boiling water? The water could then be used for cooking or drinking. Inspired, Charles shaped an ingot into a smiling fish called a try kantrop, an important food source beloved by Cambodians as a symbol of luck.
Six months after distributing the first batch of these iron fish, Charles was amazed by what he saw: people starting their own small businesses and children playing in the street. Blood tests revealed a 50 percent drop in anemia. Ninety percent of the villagers who’d gotten the fish were using them!
Today, a plant employing Cambodian workers makes Lucky Iron Fish out of recycled scrap metal. The project has distributed fish to more than 10,000 families, changing the lives of more than 50,000 people. It’s proof of the old adage: It is possible to make your own luck.
When conservationists preach about preserving the earth’s biodiversity, saving a whale or rhinoceros generally comes to mind. We rarely think about protecting microscopic critters, but Sister Noella Marcellino wants to change that. A Bethlehem, Connecticut–based nun, Fulbright scholar, and one of the world’s leading authorities on traditional cheesemaking, she’s helping save the world’s most delicious cheeses—and the fungus that makes them possible.
Traditional cheeses would be nothing were it not for a rich community of microorganisms. The fungus Geotrichum candidum, for instance, helps make Camembert taste like Camembert. But it will only form under just the right conditions. All of the different parts of the microbial community have to support each other. And you need raw milk to make that happen. But in 1985, a raw-milk cheese contaminated with listeria was blamed for 52 deaths, leading the FDA to spearhead an international ban on raw milk–based cheeses. A crackdown in favor of industrialized, processed, pasteurized cheesemaking could’ve wiped out the naturally flavorful fungi that made traditional cheeses possible.
So Sister Marcellino, 64, got a PhD in microbiology in order to defend the tradition with hard science. For four years, she traveled France, exploring cheese caves and collecting samples of Geotrichum candidum. It was landmark work—nobody had ever studied the biodiversity of these fungi before. Her research showed, and continues to show, that consuming cheese made according to the centuries-old craft is indeed safe. It’s a humble reminder that a world exists beyond Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and it’s heavenly.
How Mushrooms Will Power Our Future
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre grow their own ... everything.
Some people look at mushrooms and see shish kebabs and pizza toppings. Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, 30, look at them and see the end of plastic. The engineers are using fungi to make packaging material, automotive parts, insulation, and surfboards. Their products could someday replace Styrofoam. They’ve even developed mushroom circuits—which can conduct electricity—by bonding fungus with metals.
At their upstate New York headquarters, the team takes agricultural waste, like rice husks and cottonseed hulls, and packs it into a mold. They add mycelium—the microscopic rootlike branches that provide the foundation for the bodies of mushrooms—and wait five days. The waste hardens into a sustainable, fire-resistant bioplastic. The mycelium does most of the work, consuming far less energy than traditional plastics.
In January, the duo’s company, Ecovative Design, released a DIY kit. “People kept calling with suggestions of what we could make with the material, and it got really distracting,” they say. “We decided to let people do it themselves so we could focus.” For the humble fungus, it’s a star-making turn.