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5 Moments in Sauce History That Changed The Way We Eat

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Whether it’s the classic brunch staple Hollandaise or Guy Fieri’s Donkey Sauce, human beings have always seemed to have a love affair with condiments. From the murky history behind Worcestershire sauce to the great French culinary tradition of the five Mother Sauces, here are five key moments in sauce history that have changed the way we look at everyday food.

1. The Mother Sauces

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Julia Child once said that “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” and these days, no cook can take the title of master chef unless he masters the five mother sauces. The idea that these five sauces are the base of every chef's repertoire came from Antonin Careme, the founding father of French grande cuisine. He consolidated hundreds of sauces under five basic varieties, a sort of periodic table for chefs: white (Bechamel), blond (Veloute), brown (demi-glace), butter (hollandaise), and red (tomato). These sauces are the foundation of all French high cuisine and most Western dishes, from a simple marinara to the roux behind a classic macaroni and cheese.

2. Mayonnaise

Despite the claims of the mother sauces, the real mother of all sauces is mayo. It's the DNA that binds a variety of culinary superstar sauces—remoulade, aioli, Marie Rose, Ranch, tartar—together. There are several theories as to how this emulsion of egg and oil came to be the cream of the culinary world. One theory states that it originated after the French Duc de Richelieu defeated the British at the Spanish port of Mahon. Having no cream in the kitchen for a traditional sauce, the chef substituted olive oil. He named his new sauce "Mahonnaise" in honor of the Duc's victory, and paved the way for thousands of creamy, dreamy dishes.

3. Tabasco Sauce

When Maryland-born banker Edmund McIlhenny moved to Louisiana in 1868, he was so charmed by the local flavor that he decided to bottle his signature hot sauce (a simple recipe consisting of tabasco peppers, salt, and vinegar) into thousands of tiny cologne bottles, and Tabasco sauce was born. The original Tabasco red sauce measures in at 2500 to 5000 Scoville heat units. The scale, devised by pharmacist Wilbur L. Scoville in 1912, gives a measurement of spiciness based on the amount of capsaicin—the chemical responsible for heat—in hot peppers. A pimento pepper measures in between 100 to 900 Scoville units; a habernero chili comes in at 100,000 to 350,000 units; and law-enforcement grade pepper spray comes in at 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 units. Now found at restaurants all over the United States, it is Tabasco that has partially given Louisiana cuisine the reputation for being so spicy and flavorful.

4. Worcestershire Sauce

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This steakhouse staple was created by English chemists John Lea and William Perrins in the early 19th century. The official history, per Lea & Perrins, is that Lord Sandys, a nobleman living in the English county of Worcester, returned home from his travels in Bengal with a recipe for a sauce. He called up the chemists to recreate his find. Unimpressed with the first batch, they left the bottles to gather dust in the cellar. After a few years passed, they rediscovered their creation, dusted off the bottles and decided to taste the condiment once again. This seemed to be the trick as the aging process had apparently made it a delicious, tangy delight.

But Brian Keogh, who wrote the book The Secret Sauce - A History of Lea & Perrins, contested the official story. He cited the fact that the Sandys in Worcester line had ended in 1797, 38 years before Lea & Perrins are said to have met him. Additionally, no Lord Sandys had ever travelled to India, let alone had been Governor of Bengal. Despite the contested history, the sauce is universally said to be a product of the English presence in India. The concoction is a mixture of several ingredients, including cloves, soy, fish, vinegar, lemons, pickles, and peppers, and has been recreated by several companies, making it a sauce almost as ubiquitous as ketchup.

5. McDonald’s Special Sauce

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Who can forget the signature ingredients for the Big Mac? As the 1974 ad campaign boldly proclaimed, it features “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions—on a sesame bun.” The mysteriousness of the name “special sauce” stuck around, making consumers wonder what actually made the Big Mac all that special. It turned out, however, that the mixture it wasn’t really all that mysterious or secret: it turned out to be a mixture of store-bought mayonnaise, relish, and yellow mustard whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. Now that the recipe is available online, aspiring Ronald McDonalds can make the sauce at home. But still, the “special sauce” remains part of our culinary heritage, with many, including Fieri, trying to recreate the mysteriousness that makes a good sauce into a great one by simply changing the name.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]