I'm looking for real life food mysteries. Where would I find them?
September 26, 2014 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I heard a story on This American Life HERE and it's a story about a sausage maker who inadvertently ruins their product by getting a new building. IN the end, it turned out the problem was they had shortened the route of the final delivery of the sausages and removed what was thought to be the unimportant work of a clerk named Irving. I thought it was fascinating and I want to find other stories like that. Where would I look for them?
posted by rileyray3000 to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 212 users marked this as a favorite
The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus (by Adam Rogers, about James Scott) was a delightful Wired article from a few years ago, mainly about how interesting fungi are.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:03 PM on September 26, 2014 [17 favorites]

I heard a story once (from my high school biology teacher, I think), but a very quick Google search didn't corroborate it. Anyway, the story went like this: Way back in the day, apple growers used to think that they could ripen apples by warming them up a bit. They used kerosene stoves to heat the storage rooms, and the process worked well -- the apples ripened. However, the apple farmers tried to modernize, and they switched to electric heat. Strangely, the apples didn't ripen as well. Much investigation revealed that the kerosene stoves were creating small amounts of a ripening gas (perhaps ethylene?) that was doing the actual ripening. The heat was a red herring.

Please take this story with a grain of salt. If I had more time, I would research it more.
posted by alex1965 at 2:26 PM on September 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Are you familiar with the story of the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist? In 2012 it was discovered that roughly $30,000,000 worth of maple syrup had gone missing from Canada's strategic reserves (yes, Canada has strategic maple syrup reserves.) Lots has been written on it, which you can find by Googling "canadian maple syrup reserve theft" or (to pick one at random) you can start with this brief blog post on it.

It's more a mystery about the theft of food than about the qualities of the food itself, but still amusing.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: So far all of these are good. I love the food diversity.
posted by rileyray3000 at 3:18 PM on September 26, 2014

There's been a host of stuff in recent years about wine fraud - blending modern wine and passing it off as historical antique wine for huge prices. The Jefferson Bottles from the New Yorker is one example but there are more stories, and followup on that one, if you search.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:25 PM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

And there have been a host of articles and videos in the last, say, ten years about rare fruits and the people who study/collect them. "Fruit detective" is one good search term, you'll find a ton of stuff. (Here's one with a bunch of good links to follow; "Apple Detective" is another.) There are a million different interesting histories there, not all mysteries exactly but might scratch the same itch for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:37 PM on September 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Why are Vidalia onions sweet?
How can you cultivate truffles?
Why was HMS Bounty carrying breadfruit trees? Similar to this, you may be able to find stories about how seeds were stolen to break some local's monopoly on a certain food.

I think that there is a story about brandy, cognac, or some other spirit being discovered when wine was aged too long.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:40 PM on September 26, 2014

The Dark Tide about the great molasses flood in Boston in 1919 is a really great portrayal of the various political and social events taking place at that time in history. We read this book aloud to each other on a road trip and it was awesome.
posted by DuckGirl at 3:41 PM on September 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

Not a mystery but it is curious: The Tree With the Apple Tattoo.
posted by glasseyes at 4:52 PM on September 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've always liked this yeast in the rafters anecdote from Uncorking the Past. It has many similar hypothesis and descriptions about booze through time, so you might like reading the full thing.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:24 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

What's Noka chocolate worth?—might not read as a "mystery" at first, but read all ten parts of the story in order and I think you'll find it satisfying.
posted by Orinda at 6:52 PM on September 26, 2014 [34 favorites]

Here are some books that are fun:
  • Visser's Much Depends on Dinner: "Presented as a meal, each chapter represents a different course or garnish, which handpicked from the most ordinary American dinner: corn on the cob with butter and salt, roast chicken with rice, salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and ice cream. Visser tells the story behind each of these foods and in the course of her inquiries reveals some unexpected treats: the history of Corn Flakes; the secret behind the more dissatisfactory California olives (they’re picked green, chemically blackened, and sterilized); and the fact that, in Africa, citrus fruits are eaten whole, rind and all."
  • Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork: "Wilson blends history, science, and personal anecdotes as she traces the different technologies that have shaped—or slashed, pounded, whisked, or heated (and reheated)—our meals over the centuries."
  • I have become a Bee Wilson fan so her book, Swindled, was next to read. In that one, "Through a fascinating mixture of cultural and scientific history, food politics, and culinary detective work, Bee Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and even poisoned our food throughout history."
I love food history books so these may answer some mysteries and interesting problems.
posted by jadepearl at 6:56 PM on September 26, 2014 [11 favorites]

The New Yorker did an article about David Karp, who calls himself the fruit detective.

This American Life did another segment about the rumored practice of some restaurants, knowingly or not, serving fake calamari.
posted by stuart_s at 8:17 PM on September 26, 2014

The history of sweet potato in the Pacific has long been an enigma.

Apparently nobody knows how the sweet potato made its way from South America to Polynesia. NPR briefly discusses the issue and the theory that the Polynesians made the 5,000-mile trip "nearly 400 years before Inca gold was a twinkle in Ferdinand and Isabella's eyes." Ars Technica has a slightly slightly longer article.
posted by taz at 7:25 AM on September 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

There have been a few stories about how lots of olive oil is not what it claims to be.
MeFi 1
MeFi 2

And the Noka chocolate story that Orinda posted above is one of my favorite investigative stories on the Internet. I've gone back and read it a few times. I also learned a lot about chocolate and have tried a few high-end brands as a result of reading it.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Red Obsession (currently available on Netflix Instant) is a great look at the history of the chateaux of Burgundy and their entry into the emerging Chinese market. It touches on the counterfeiting and marketing of wine, but doesn't have a real whodunit narrative.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:16 AM on September 27, 2014

The real origin of carbonara, previouselfly.
posted by progosk at 11:56 AM on September 27, 2014

Linje Aquavit is named after the tradition of sending oak barrels of aquavit with ships from Norway to Australia and back again, thereby passing the equator ("linje") twice before being bottled. The constant movement, high humidity and fluctuating temperature cause the spirit to extract more flavour and contributes to accelerated maturation.

Norwegian aquavit distillers Arcus has carried out a test where they tried to emulate the rocking of the casks aboard the "Linje" ships while the oak barrels were subjected to the weather elements as they would aboard a ship. The finished product was, according to Arcus, far from the taste that a proper linje aquavit should have.[citation needed]

Therefore to this very day boats loaded with "Line Aquavit" set sail from Norway to Australia and back again before they are tapped on bottle and sold as part of the Norwegian Christmas traditions.

posted by Think_Long at 1:18 PM on September 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Honey laundering might be something you'd enjoy looking into.
posted by peppermind at 4:52 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Madeira was discovered due to having to ship the wine. It's shelf stable and won't skunk, and that's due to the combo of grape spirits added and heat, movement, and oxygenation.

This is more culture than food related, but one of the theories for why the first Norse people who found North America were killed instead of forming a new colony is due to their shelf-stable dairy drink which was quite sweet and which they shared with the tribes they met on this new land. Unfortunately, the sweet part was lactose, and most non-Northern Europeans become lactose intolerant as they grow older, like other species of mammals. So after consuming this sweet drink, the indigenous tribe got violent stomach pains, reasonably assumed they'd been poisoned, and retaliated.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:40 PM on September 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

Monsooned Malabar coffee also goes through an extensive wetting and aging process to replicate the de-acidifying effects of the old sea voyages from India to Europe.
and is also delicious
posted by mimi at 6:37 AM on September 28, 2014

Figuring out beriberi took some sleuthing.
posted by jbradley at 11:34 AM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also The Billionaire's Vinegar
posted by jbradley at 11:52 AM on September 29, 2014

The Telling Room is a great book about what at one stage was the world's most sought after cheese.

I can't do the book justice so I might let the Amazon page help.

Stunning book and great read.
posted by chris88 at 11:11 PM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

just google balsamico + scam and you're in for hours worth of ooohs and aaahs.
posted by ouke at 1:53 AM on October 1, 2014

The Mystery of Lambic Beer
"During this process, brewers exposed their concoction to the air, causing it to be seeded (or, more accurately, inoculated) by whatever wild, wind-borne yeasts happened to drift in. Only within a roughly 500-square-kilometer area around Brussels and in the Payottenland, a valley of the Senne River on the west side of the city, did the right mix of airborne spores ensure that this spontaneous fermentation occurred consistently."
posted by Betty Tyranny at 11:51 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

This may not be what you're after, but...apropos sausage mystery.
posted by Betty Tyranny at 11:55 PM on October 7, 2014

The Great Pine Nut Mystery! (Google "pine nut mouth" for news coverage).
posted by embrangled at 10:33 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault may have been part of this previous conversation.
posted by Betty Tyranny at 2:52 AM on October 11, 2014

A food mystery I wished happened more often: The Maple Syrup Event. All of NYC smelled like maple syrup.
posted by mkultra at 10:55 AM on October 31, 2014

Twenty [thirty-some] years ago , the Spanish "cooking oil" disaster began as a mystery illness. Years later, the toll was put at more than 1,000 deaths and more than 25,000 seriously injured, many of whom were permanently disabled. It was the most devastating food poisoning in modern European history.
But that's just the beginning of the mystery . . .
posted by jamjam at 2:49 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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