Australia's Ancient, Cultivated Crops

And journeys with tuna and Cheetos

No newsletter next week. Either way.

When Noah Cho said he wanted to talk about Flamin' Hot Cheetos, I had no idea the journey we were embarking on: 1800s Ohio (a pervert) to present-day Rancho Cucamonga (a visionary), with a stop in 1940s Dallas to meet the extremely naive inventor of Fritos.

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Canned Comfort

By Jeremy Fuchs

Of all the things I’m missing during quarantine, what tops the list, for me, is a tuna sandwich. A good tuna sandwich, preferably from a Jersey diner, on rye toast, with lettuce, tomato and onion. Coleslaw on the side. Pickle, too.

That tuna salad — finely chopped tuna salad, probably from a can, with tons of mayo and celery — is eons better than anything I can create in my kitchen with the scores of canned tuna in my pantry.

We’re overflowing with tuna. Tuna in water. Tuna in olive oil. Sustainably-caught tuna. Mass-produced tuna. It was the first thing I panicked-bought. It was in the next wave of panic-buying. I’ve bought on Amazon, at Trader Joe’s, from big box stores. I look longingly at gourmet canned tuna from Portugal, soaked in luxurious olive oil, and think that one can at $45 is actually worth it. We’re in a pandemic, after all. I should treat myself!

Sometimes I feel that I’m personally propping up the canned tuna industry. In 2014, canned seafood sales fell to their lowest level in 15 years, according to the Washington Post. Per capita canned tuna consumption, the Post reported, fell by nearly 30 percent. That was a stark fall from a high of 85% of American households having canned seafood in their pantries.

Though tuna was, at one point, truly the chicken of the sea — four pounds, on average, of tuna per year for Americans in 1989 — it fell by nearly half by 2010. Millennials, apparently, were killing canned tuna. Americans were, wary of mercury, and were seeking out fresh and organic foods, as an overall trend.

But then the pandemic hit. And canned tuna sales increased by 142%. And now every website worth their salt has canned tuna recipes. (Today: 7 easy tuna salads for lunch or dinner; Vice: 16 Recipes That Prove Canned Fish is Actually Rad as Hell; Daily Mail: The Incredible Recipes You Can Make With Canned Tuna, Revealed)

And so, I strive to perfect my tuna salad. Every lunch brings something new. At first, I was on a Japanese kick. Tuna, mayo, dried nori, sesame seeds. I went Mediterranean. Tuna, olive oil, oregano. I went back to Japan. Tuna, miso-ginger dressing. I went simple. Tuna, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper. Then I went American. Tuna, mayo. Lots of it.

I find normalcy in tuna, which is not surprising given the inherent un-normalcy of the times. The New York Times reported that Campbell’s soup sales increased by 59 percent, while Conagra Brands, which makes Slim Jim and Chef Boyardee, turned a five percent decline in the quarter ending in February, into 50 percent growth in March.

When this is all over, my wife and I are going to walk the two blocks to the diner. We’re going to sit in a booth. And when they ask me what I want, the answer is a simple: A good tuna sandwich, on rye toast, with lettuce tomato and onion. Coleslaw on the side. Pickle, too. 🐟

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Photo: Northern Territory

The Ancient, Earth-Saving Cuisine of Australia

By Emily Morgan

When you think of Australia’s outback, what comes to mind? Sheep? Cattle? There are an awful lot of them down under: sheep outnumber Australians more than three to one. Most people believe that the dusty, red center of Australia is good for nothing more than ruminant ranching.

Still, cattle ranches, or “stations,” must be absolutely enormous for the cattle to find enough to eat. The largest cattle station in Australia is Anna Creek. At over 9,000 square miles, it is larger than Israel and over seven times bigger than the largest cattle ranch in the U.S.

But here’s something that most people, including many Australians, do not know.

Before white people arrived to take over Australia in 1788, this dry, lifeless countryside was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was a fertile farmland that had been cultivated for uncounted generations, and reliably produced massive crops of grains, yams, and other tubers, enough to feed the entire population of Australia with extra to spare: huge cultivated fields of tubers reaching to the horizon. Terraced beds of vegetables. Massive fields of grains unheard of today, but when milled to flour and baked as bread tasted lighter and sweeter than any other. Bread! A food that today is often believed first originated in the Middle East around 8000BC - perhaps that’s not the whole picture.*

What happened to these miles of delicious, sustainable crops in a land that did not flood or fall under drought the way it does today?

It all comes back to those sheep and cattle. Today, apart from some trendy “discoveries” by high-profile chefs, such as bush tomatoes and lemon myrtle, native Australian produce has vanished, and those once-fecund agricultural lands are ground down under the hard hooves of the imported animals.

Australia’s soil is brittle and ancient. It needs a soft touch and lots of aeration to keep it fertile. The native animals’ soft wide feet along with traditional tilling practices ensured that the native crops, which are adapted to require little water, prospered.

But sheep and cattle have hard hooves that compact the dirt. As the ground hardens and dries, it can no longer be cultivated. The sheep and cattle traveled ahead of the growing numbers of white colonizers, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. By the time the majority of the white people arrived, all they saw was dust and emptiness.

Looking to the future, food crops that require little to drink may offer a key to our very survival in our thirsty world. Researchers are combing private and public gardens for samples of these lost native crops, and experimental farms are springing up. Soon, we might begin to see Australian grain available as flour for bread and cakes, Australian yams to roast with butter and salt. It’s an exciting time for Australian cuisine: The treasures of the forgotten past might just help to preserve our future. 🇦🇺

*Bruce Pascoe (2014) Dark Emu, Magabala Books - a great read to find out more about Australia’s lost agricultural history.

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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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