There is a kind of thread tying most of today’s newsletter items together. More on that in the final piece.
A lot of people have talked a lot of tosh about the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on wheat supplies and prices, impending famines and more besides. For a little sobriety on the subject, I highly recommend Annia Ciezadlo’s thoughtful and well-informed piece in the Washington Post. The world has plenty of wheat. Putin still uses it as a weapon is a sober reflection of the many influences on the price and availability of wheat, which war certainly exacerbates. The article makes its several points succinctly and without fuss, and it is also heavily referenced. So, you can take it at face value and move on or, if you like (and I do), you can dig deeper. That’s how I got to this graph, which shows the profitability of shipping (for everything, not just wheat) over the past 15 years.
Flat until 2020, and despite the pandemic, when supply lines were so disrupted, the profits of shipping companies have rocketed. The graph also shows that shipping is a lot more concentrated than it was in 2008. The top 10 companies (which are actually grouped into three main alliances) control more than 90% of shipping capacity, compared to just over 70% in 2008.
The point here is just that there are so many factors that affect the price of wheat and that very few of the most vocal pundits talk about. I’m not saying there’s nothing to worry about. Nor is Annia Ciezadlo.
The well-fed world can do a few things to stop this inflationary cycle. The first is not to panic.
A couple of years ago, I moaned that “we could not enjoy one of my absolute favourite summertime treats: a giant bucket of blue crabs with a cooler full of beer and a handy outdoor shower for cleaning up afterwards”. My reason then was to link to fish peppers, an alternative to Old Bay seasoning. My excuse now is to link to the story of Old Bay’s Jewish heritage which, frankly, is one of those I-didn’t-know-they/it-was-Jewish stories in which ancestry is the least interesting part of the story.
More interesting to me was that, according to Brunn’s son, McCormick & Company, who hired the immigrant spice-merchant Gustav Brunn, fired him after a few days after learning that he was indeed Jewish. And then spent the next 50 years or so trying first to copy and then to buy Brunn’s company for his Old Bay seasoning, which they finally did after it passed through a few other hands. If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.
This year, crabs will be a go, minus the outdoor shower I suspect. What I need now from you, dear readers, is a recommendation for a restaurant where I can savour fish peppers, preferably in Baltimore and environs.
Have you come across the idea that bananas are radioactive? I had, a while ago, and didn’t give it a moment’s thought. Luckily Randall Munroe, who draws xkcd, every geek’s favourite cartoon, takes this sort of thing very seriously, and uses it to do a brilliant job of educating people and debunking nonsense. Along the way, I learned that while, yes, bananas are radioactive, they are a lot less radioactive than the average human being. For more astounding facts with which to regale the Fraidy Cats among your friends, head straight on over to Randall’s What If? website
The Plant Humanities Lab from the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Washington DC has featured before in this newsletter. Time to do so again, but not entirely wholeheartedly.
The museum has just announced a new project, cunningly called The Recipes Project, which will showcase stories that “highlight the primacy of plants in the history — and future — of human society”. Excellent. Bring it on.
But when the website says “stay tuned” with a link that does not, in fact, allow you to stay tuned except in the most general way, I have to register an objection. As I did more than a year ago, when one of the people responsible said: “Great suggestion! For now, unfortunately Twitter-sullying is required to get alerts of new articles, but we’ll look into other approaches.”
We’re still waiting.
On May 25th I will be part of a discussion on How to Find Reliable Sources of Information around the virtual kitchen table of the Oxford Food Symposium. I’m honoured to join Elizabeth Yorke, Anusha Murthy and Ken Albala, under the benevolent guidance of Ursula Heinzelmann, to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Of course I have been doing a bit of swotting, which included a very relevant article on pellagra, described as one of the diseases of dysfunction. You can probably guess which aspect of truth that addresses; all the same, I would be happy to get your suggestions of anything — reliable or unreliable — you think I should consider.
See you there.