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Ketchup and a Moon Rock
CHAPTER 101 Potpourri
Last month's column concentrated on the University of Pittsburgh and such topics as surgeon Thomas Starzl and Pittsburgh itself. I concluded with a very brief mention of ketchup and Henry Heinz, who was born in Pittsburgh. This past week saw the Kraft Heinz company make news in the financial market with a sharp drop in stock value and mention of Warren Buffet's role in the past merger of the two companies. Let's talk here of better days back around the turn of the twentieth century when Henry Heinz and ketchup made a lasting impact on the food business, the subject of an article by Deborah Blum in the February National Geographic titled "How Ketchup Made Food Safer".
Ketchup was being sold in the 1800s but it was not the ketchup we are familiar with today. It was typically a thin sauce concoction of tomato scraps, ground pumpkin rind and possibly skins, seeds and stems of apples left after the apples were pressed for juice. There might be cornstarch and the mixture was quite prone to decomposition, leading a French cookbook author to describe the ketchup sold in French markets as "filthy, decomposed and putrid"! Not what I would want to spread on my hot dog or hamburger. Preservatives came into use to try to make products more palatable and safer but some of the preservatives (borax, for example) were not that tasty or safe. One, sodium benzoate, proved safe in small quantities and would be used by Heinz in his ketchup products.
Heinz, the son of German immigrant parents, was born in Pittsburgh in 1844 and as a kid sold vegetables from their garden to neighbors. He had his own garden at age 10 and used a wagon to transport his vegetables to grocers in the area. In his teens he had a horse cart to deliver his vegetables, along with small jars of horseradish, which he sold in clear glass jars so the customer could see the contents. This was in contrast to others, who would deliberately use colored or decorated jars to obscure the contents. By 1888, he had his own food manufacturing business, the H. J. Heinz Company, and by the turn of the twentieth century he sold some 200 products. When in bottles, the bottles were clear glass. Heinz was dedicated to pure and safe products and promoted tours of his factory in Pittsburgh to show off its cleanliness.
Heinz had joined others in using sodium benzoate as a preservative but there were questions about its safety and Heinz decided to do away with preservatives. To do this, he tasked one of his cousins, Sebastian Mueller, to come up with a preservative-free ketchup. Though skeptical, Mueller attacked the task and he ended up finding that he needed a certain level of acidity to kill the bacteria and had to adjust the levels of vinegar and pectic acid, a bacteria-killing acid found naturally in tomatoes. To get that amount of acidity required high quality tomatoes and a higher amount of pulp so Heinz switched to a thicker tomato-rich version of ketchup of the type we use today. Not only that but Heinz began advertising the purity of his products and spread the word among politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt and helped influence the eventual passage in 1906 of the Pure food and Drug Act and the Meat Safety Inspection Act. So when you pour that ketchup on your hamburger or hot dog from that clear glass bottle, think of Pittsburgh's Henry Heinz.
On a completely different subject, I was taken by an article by Richard Lovett in the February 1 issue of Science titled "Ancient Earth Rock found on the moon". The article fits in with my admiration for the patience required if you're in space business. Back in 1971, Apollo 14 astronauts brought some rocks from the surface of the moon. In a recent paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, David Kring and an international team of coworkers describe work they've done on a 2-centimeter fragment of one of those rocks. The fragment contained quartz, feldspar and zircon crystals. From measurements of the amount of uranium and its decay products, the researchers could date the age of the rock. Measurements on the other elements in the rock were interpreted to give information about the conditions under which the rock was formed.
The results - the rock is 4 billion years old and was formed with water present and under temperatures and pressures that would have corresponded with conditions 19 kilometers under the surface of Earth. It also could have formed about 170 kilometers under the surface of the moon. The scientists consider the latter possibility highly unlikely since at that depth it would take some sort of major event for the rock to find its way to the surface. The much more likely scenario is that an asteroid banged into Earth, and some of the debris made its way to the moon, which was three times closer to Earth than it is today. The rock is also well preserved compared to really old rocks here on Earth, where rain, wind, heat and cold, fire etc. weather the rocks changing their composition and appearance . So, where do you go to find 4 billion-year-old rocks in relatively pristine condition. To the moon!
Finally, a completely different subject I just couldn't resist. In the decades I've been writing these columns, space has been my obsession. However, a close second is the writing about animals, especially when it comes to their intelligence. A favorite was Alex, the African grey parrot, whose fame was such that his death merited an obit in the New York Times a couple of years ago. I was especially taken with an account that told of Alex playing with new arrivals in the lab or facility. He would deliberately give wrong answers to them until admonished by his owner/trainer. The subject of animal emotions and criticism of those who ascribe human-like feelings to animals is the subject of a review in the Book Review section of the March 3 New York Times. I don't think I've read a book since Tom Clancy's last novel and rely on the Times to at least give the flavor of what's going on in the literary world.
The review in question is Sy Montgomery's review of the book "Mama's Last Hug" by Frans de Waal. The book begins with an incident giving rise to the title. Two old friends hadn't seen each other for a while. Now, one of them, Mama, was old and dying and her friend came for a last visit. When the friend came to visit, at first Mama didn't notice him but then she broke into an ecstatic grin and reached out to him to stroke his face and pull him toward her in a hug. You may have seen this last reunion on TV or the internet. The visitor was Jan Van Hooff, a Dutch biologist and Mama was a chimpanzee!
What got me was the fact that the reviewer, Sy, finished his review of the book with an experience of his own that matched Mama's last hug. Montgomery's friend Octavia was old and dying and he went to say goodbye. They hadn't seen each other for quite a while. When Sy walked into the room, Octavia pulled herself up with great effort and put her arms around him. No, Octavia was not a chimp; she was a giant Pacific octopus!
Finally, I can't help calling attention to an article in the March issue of National Geographic on treehoppers. I had gotten an email from Geographic on this highly unusual class of insects. If you want to see the weirdest bunch of animals take a look or search the internet. There are large numbers of very different looking bugs in this bunch, one of which has an appendage on top of its head that is like nothing I've ever seen.
Next column on or about April 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum