Stuffed (14)

By: Tom Nealon
July 22, 2016

almonds

One in a popular series of posts by Tom Nealon, author of the forthcoming Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste (British Library Publishing, September 2016). STUFFED is inspired by Nealon’s collection of rare cookbooks, which he sells — among other things — via Pazzo Books.

STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | Etc.

*

ALMONDS: NO JOY

trailmix

If you have lately been in the market for a box of breakfast cereal, trail mix, or chipotle/wasabi/bbq coated nut, you have no doubt noticed that the always-popular almond is ascendant and waxing one week to the next. A bag of trail mix that I bought the other day had eleven ingredients but was at least half almonds. By some calculations, fully 30% of all breakfast cereals contain some sort of almond product, bi-product or side product. And that is before you’ve poured your almond milk over it, because you’ve heard that cow milk is weird or you’ve been turned off lactose.

Almond milk, which should be made by tapping almond trees and collecting their milky discharge — but is, in fact, made by blending them in water and fishing out the nut bits — has become more popular than all other “plant milks” (soy, coconut, rice, peanut, hemp, quinoa, lupin, spelt, etc.) combined. It had its first peak of popularity not, as you might suppose, during the 1970s, when it competed with carob products and food derived from gravel, but in the 14th century! In those days, almond milk was wildly popular both as a novel ingredient for dishes like blancmange, and as a milk substitute for fast days.

forme_am_001

In fact, even before the 14th century craze, almonds and almond milk were a big deal. When he needed to impress a bunch of tribes with his mojo, Aaron planted his rod and it bloomed and produced almonds. When a 9th-century ruler of Baghdad had a hankering for something sweet, it was marzipan (its near ancestor, really) that fit the bill and could be molded into a caliph-pleasing shape. No less an authority than Pliny (1st century AD) fancied an almond milk for easing kidney and liver pain and bitter almond with honey for treating the bites of mad dogs.

*

schwinn-cheerios-01

Which brings up an interesting point. Which almond are we talking about, when we talk about almonds? There are two sorts of almonds, bitter and sweet. They are easy to tell apart because one tastes sweet and the other will kill you.

Bitter almonds famously contain cyanide, but they also contain benzaldehyde, a chemical that is responsible for what we think of as “almond flavor”. Sweet, edible almonds have no real almond flavor at all and, for culinary uses, often have this flavor added to them. Even weirder, the added almond flavor often comes from “almond” oil that is actually made, not from bitter almonds, but from an extract of the stones of peaches and apricots (because they contain benzaldehyde but not so much cyanide).

This is a surprising level of abstraction for such a common flavor… which then leads to further abstraction when it is revealed that, for example, Honey Nut Cheerios doesn’t contain nuts. Its “natural almond flavor” is derived from peach and apricot pits.

*

marzipan pigs

Even after almonds waned a little in popularity following the Protestant Reformation, almond milk continued to be used widely in desserts — marzipan, macaroon, nougat — and drunk regionally as horchata or orgeat. When the Arabs spread almond cultivation to Spain and Italy, they also spread marzipan. Leonardo Da Vinci, who, like a lot of Renaissance artists trying to make a living, had a gig crafting marzipan statues for the Milanese court, famously lamented “they gobble up all the sculptures I give them, right to the last morsel.”

qanat

The spread of almond recipes and popularity meant that almond trees had to do some spreading as well. But almonds have always been problematic from a water usage standpoint. However, the very restraint posed by water intensive crops like almonds, rice, and sugarcane led to many of the Arab’s most impressive advances in irrigation — for example, in Arab Sicily, they constructed a labyrinth of underground channels (qanāts, shown above) to feed the city’s suddenly bulging population. The technology for growing almonds often spread along with the trees.

how-to-make-marzipan-fruits

Now, of course, all the almond trees, and little of the water, have ended up in California. Even as California suffers under permament drought, and the profit margins of the almond slowly erode (showing a limit, perhaps, to the percentage of almonds we’ll tolerate in our trail mix), more trees are planted every year. California has cornered over half the world’s almond market, a market that took a thousand and a thousand years to grow, and still they plant. Because there’s money in it — eroding margins are still better than planting alfalfa, after all.

If I was in paranoid mode, I would wonder at the true origin of these health fears — soy milk and estrogen, lactose and intolerance, rice allergies — that have led, Lenten fast-like, to so much of almond milk’s popularity. But let’s put a pin in that, for now. Because almond milk has always been a delicious lie! It’s not milk. You use it to make fake fruit, not butter or cheese. Even its flavor is not its own.

*

almonds

We have been eating too many almonds for a thousand years. They spread across a narrow band of the Earth where it was neither too hot nor too cold, and not too wet. And when they were done spreading they began to pile up in California. At first gradually so that no one really noticed, and then more and more, in great piles, mountainous heaps of almonds that blotted out the sun and finally completely counter-intuitively, gathering momentum despite common sense, drought, and burgeoning disinterest, their growth having taken on a life of their own, the almond commercial industrial complex having grown so large that it began to exert its own gravity, seek its own ends.

But I’m sure it will abate soon, before California dries up and falls into the ocean, an almond-specked desert sinking gently through the kelp. We’ve done this all before, after all. I mean, I’m pretty sure.

***

STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | Etc.

MORE POSTS BY TOM NEALON: Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War, Golden Apples, Crimson Stew, Diagram of Condiments vs. Sauces, etc., and his De Condimentis series (Fish Sauce | Hot Sauce | Vinegar | Drunken Vinegar | Balsamic Vinegar | Food History | Barbecue Sauce | Butter | Mustard | Sour Cream | Maple Syrup | Salad Dressing | Gravy) — are among the most popular we’ve ever published here at HiLobrow.

Share this Post
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on Tumblr