A Little History of Glass & The Mason Jar

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Blue sea glass is a special prize for those beach comers who keep their noses to the sand. The pearls polished by the ocean’s constant churning, whose previous life may have been a jar, emerges from the water laid on to a nest of sand. There are so many accounts across cultures and time of life originating from the great mysterious ocean. It is a wonder to consider the edges that hold those waters, made by the waters themselves, constitute the elements to make one of our great mythical and literal containers, glass.

Sand, the arms that hold earth’s massive liquid temperament, is a loose term primarily describing size. Formed by the long weathering of inland rocks who journeyed down to the waters to be finely broken down, sands made of quartz specifically are the ones when heated to extremely high temperatures (+3000 degrees) melts into a liquid that hardens off into glass. The first known glassmaker in history is nature. A bolt of lightning striking the beach will do the trick. (Fulgurite.)

The earliest glass human made glass is entirely unknown- a detail always worth celebrating. But some of the furthest back dating evidence of glass making employs liquid glass being poured into a breakable mold, and much of these earliest-known glass objects tend to be containers. This early glass-making process was so laborious- plus the additional production of other additives like plant ash and lime- that its luxury came and went through time according to the rise and fall of complex civilizations as it needed a structured civilization to carry it.

Sometime around the mid-first century in maybe somewhere around present day Lebanon a shattering breakthrough in glass-making occurred. It was discovered that glass could be blown into a bubble. Perhaps to some this was exciting enough, to others it meant that glass objects could be made quicker and with more variety which allowed glass to not be only a rare luxury item but something for anyone to own. Eventually in the 19th century a fellow in Toledo, Ohio patented the glass blowing machine which ensured the general mass affordability of glass jars.

Side step: In France during the Neopoleanic Wars a challenge was set for someone to find a method to preserve food for the soldiers aboard ships on long voyages. A candy-maker eventually figured out a method for creating a vacuum by using a hot water bath- the beginning of canning. The early days of canning worked its way to a certain point of maturation with the help of a whole variety of wars to keep figuring out how to feed more and more soldiers and eventually World War 1 that brought us the first whole meals in a (tin) can! Home canning with glass was mostly done by the rural homestead. The way to seal jars then was with wax as Appert had figured out way back when.

Then John Mason randomally swept in and changed all of food preservation forever. Using glass bottles that originally were blue due to impurities in the sand, he designed the very first screw top as an improvement to the wax finish. Secondly on the metal lid he added a rubber ring to create a better seal. Many-a company jumped aboard Mason’s innovations and some stayed true to his standards and design, including Ball who continues to make them today (and who at some point cleverly geared their marketing to appeal to the emerging hipster thing and won over fancy cocktail bars everywhere). Additionally, if you ever saw a Kerr jar you can attribute/ blame them with coming up with the two-peice lid thing we all have fumbling around in our kitchens.

But hipsters aside, the popularity of the Mason jar seems forever bound to society’s back-to-the-land urges as it ebbs and then peaks again with world ending events like WW2, the 60’s, and the Covid pandemic. As opposed to metal and plastic who can potentially leach, glass is a fantastic small scale fermentation device, as Mason jars have gracefully filled the role for so many of us. There have been plenty of times that I’ve pursued the romance of ceramic only to remember, amidst that one fatal lapse in refilling the water reservoir, my affection for Mason’s wonderful screw cap.

Dearly holding on to the speculative story of the first salt-based fermentations originating from sea water enabled by the dramatic alteration brought about by the container that rose its edges around it to hold its contents. That small dose of ocean was spliced to go with those humans anywhere they went. And today while we make our own salt water far away from an ocean, we carry a piece of it, made from the sands that contain it to plunge our vegetables in.

A Brief Rundown of Eggplants & Fermentation

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Garden egg, Guinea squash, bitter tomato, aubergine, brinjal, gaji, eggplant- whatever you call it- amidst my comprehensive spread of cookbooks and culinary and world history they offer next to no substance save a single customary eggplant recipe or two and move on. Maguelonne Toussaint- Samat’s History of Food, a usual starting point for many-a food research, with an eggplant on the cover of the second edition, offers nothing about eggplant at all, while the other texts say something silly like “Europeans brought it back from India/ Africa. It was bitter.”

The eggplant lineage that we eat at some point split to what we can roughly call eggplants from China or India and eggplants from Africa. They are related, but not the same. Thailand, Japan, etc adopted the China/ India eggplant and then Europe claimed all of them including some of the African ones (making pre-European contact historical research about them quite difficult to do as that’s where a lot of sources like to begin). Researchers believe eggplants were first domesticated in China/ India but those plant’s wild origins came from Africa, where many eggplants still roam wild.

In addition to their excellent fiber, minerals and antioxidants, eggplants are great sponges for fats and sauces. It’s commonly known around these parts too that many eggplants need salted and some rest time to remove their natural bitterness. I first heard it from fancy cook Deborah Madison who thinks we’re dabbing with paper towels because we aren’t eating them fresh. That does seem true, but it’s also worth thinking about red eggplants from Africa who are always bitter and moreso the longer they stay on the stem. Picking early is a way to temper the bitterness, however one Ethiopian writer when describing eggplants never mentions any process to de-bitter it, instead he waxes about how prized the bitterest ones are- I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Deborah also classifies skin toughness by color which, as a grower of eggplants seemed bunk at first but I’ll agree in regards only to green skinned, which also have a neat apple-like tartness. Picked on the younger side seems to make for a more tender skin all around. The lesson here boiled down is clearly to get your eggplants in season from the farmer’s market, rather than the grocery store, but also maybe to consider embracing some bitter?

One of the earliest known writings on eggplants by a Persian scholar from around the 900’s made a big list of reasons not to consume it because of its harm to your health. He then went on to rattle off a slew of great health benefits it offers after it is prepared for eating. And in the 2000’s there was up-to-date confirmation by a researcher from Vietnam who found that fermenting raw eggplant in a salt brine for 8 days purged the anti-nutrients it contained such as tannin, phytate, oxalate, and steroidal glycoalkaloid. Great news considering that since eggplant has such a high water content its perishabilibity is fast on the horizon, that coupled with how we need to buy them in season too, fermentation coming in handy again!

Last year we got really into this pickle & marinate technique for our eggplants. It’s very delicious but just be mindful to not over poach your eggos or they’ll turn to mush in the marinade. But apparently there is also an Eastern-European tradition of doing something similar that’s sometimes called Sour Eggplant. Most recipes describe it as eggplants first roasted whole, then cut in half and stuffed with a shredded carrot mixture (garlic, herbs, etc), then either packed in oil or just left at room temperature covered to allow to ferment and get sour. Otherwise preserving eggplant by lacto-fermentation is a breeze, especially because raw they are quite firm and hold shape and texture no problem. There are also recipes around for things like fermented baba ganoush. While I have made it before I can’t honestly say it was on purpose (though the popular technique is to ferment the eggplant and use that instead of roasted eggplant rather than just forgetting baba on the counter).

What to Do Once You Found Morel Mushrooms

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As we venture deeper into springtime, perhaps some of you are venturing into the woods in pursuit of the morel mushroom. Some people think just finding them is hard part when knowing what to do when you find them could be even more important. There’s all kinds of mixed information on the internet, but here are some tips I think you’ll find remarkably useful.

  1. When you go looking for morels it’s important to like you’re doing something else. You see, morels can hear your thoughts, and in addition to ears they also have legs. If they can hear you coming for them they’ll always take off running.

2. Along those same lines let’s say you do stumble on a solo morel. Since one is not enough it’s good form to keep up the ruse. May be say, “Oh… hello.” but keep on your way as if you’re just passing through to retrieve a sock you lent to your friend over yonder. The morels will overtime become less afraid of you and think you’re just a lone-sock-retrieving traveler.

3. Let’s say you see two morels. Well you can’t take just one or the other will take off and alert the others. If you took both you’d better hope no one see you leave with the whole lot! Best thing to do here is to strike up a conversation about the weather, morels love talking about the weather, then carry on.

4. Maybe as you carry along you wander into a whole group of morels. This is a morel meeting where they talk about all sorts of things important to morels, like that person whose been clumsily bumping around in their forest. It’s important to be courteous and wait until the meeting is done, and when everyone begins to leave you can invite a few over to dinner with you. They’re usually glad to because as we all know meeting are long and boring and they’ll be happy for some fun.

5. Much of finding morels can feel hit or miss at times but I’ve found that building a good, strong friendship makes them eager to find you every spring and catch up on the past year.

6. The best place to start in making a lasting friendship is to treat them and their community with respect and not as a “product” or “ingredient” or “social media status elevator”, but as their own unique living thing. For instance a good tip is to not call them weird science names within earshot. That’s like calling you a homo sapien. Barf! If you can’t think of anything, saying “Hello friend, who do you do?” is a fine start.