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The Secret Lives of 4 Common Condiments

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They rest in your fridge or kitchen pantry, minding their own business. But your condiments have lives beyond your dinner plate. Sometimes the secrets are ancient and shrouded in mystery. Sometimes they're the result of business and culinary wrangling. But they all add a new, deeper dimension to that sauce you slop on your plate.

 

1. WORCESTER OR WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE

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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A difficult-to-pronounce mixture with an old-time label.
ITS SECRET: Behind that label, you'll find a tale of empire, British chemists, and an accidental discovery.

The sauce you know and (possibly) love was first made in England’s Worcester County, but its true origins are in South Asia. Lord Sandys, a British nobleman, had spent time in Bengal in the early 1800s and became enamored with a local sauce.

When he came home, he gave a recipe to a pair of local chemists—John Lea and William Perrins. They whipped up a batch but found the taste decidedly disagreeable. Perhaps wanting to spare themselves from any unpleasantness with the lord, they packed the mixture away in the cellar and forgot all about it.

Years later, they came upon their containers of sauce and—being true tinkerers of the old school—decided to taste it. They found that aging had mellowed the flavor, producing a delicious result. The sauce, named Lea and Perrins after its accidental creators, became an instant hit in Europe after going on sale in 1838 and was imported to the United States the next year.

2. TOMATO KETCHUP


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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: An all-American tomato reduction that goes great on everything.
ITS SECRET: An ancient sauce achieved its modern form by avoiding preservatives.

Ketchup has been around in various forms since at least the 1600s. Some of these early versions were based on mushrooms and fish. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that tomato variants became popular (many people still believed that tomatoes were poisonous). Even then, the sauce was thin and watery.

But change was in the air in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Commercial food production was spreading, and the tomato ketchups available were awful, and loaded with preservatives. Coal tar was tossed in to make the sauce red.

Food magnate Henry J. Heinz thought he could do better. He set his chief food scientist, G.F. Mason, the task of finding a tomato ketchup recipe that didn’t use preservatives. Mason came up with a recipe in 1904—it used ripe tomatoes, whose pectin helped make a thicker sauce, and more salt, sugar, and vinegar than competitors' concoctions. The natural preservative qualities of those ingredients meant Heinz could avoid, say, benzoic acid, and offer an all-natural product.

He put the finished result in a clear bottle to highlight its freshness, and within two years the Heinz company was cranking out five million bottles of the stuff.

3. MAYONNAISE


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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A comforting white concoction that you never want to leave outside the fridge.
ITS SECRET: Despite an unsanitary reputation, mayonnaise has a secret life as a germ-fighter.

Ask anyone who cooks, and they will probably warn you about mayonnaise. It goes bad easily, they claim. Watch out for food poisoning!

As a matter of fact, though, mayonnaise's reputation is almost entirely undeserved. The modern condiment is made using pasteurized eggs, meaning there’s little risk of salmonella. And the spread includes lots of salt, vinegar, and lemon juice. Some studies have suggested that the high acidity and salt level in modern, commercially produced mayo can actually slow the growth of bacteria, or even prevent it entirely.

So why the bad rap? It’s simple. Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which means that it’s made from two base ingredients that don’t mix naturally (in this case, oil and either vinegar or lemon juice). To make the ingredients cohere, you need an emulsifier—and egg yolk is the most common. Homemade versions often call for raw eggs, which can be risky.

There’s another problem, too. Mayo is often used with chicken, potatoes, ham, and other low-acid foods that can be at risk of bacterial contamination. But don’t blame the spread!

4. SOY SAUCE

WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A salty concoction used in Asian cuisine.
ITS SECRET: It’s produced by an ancient family business spreading its influence around the globe.

Soy sauce can be traced back to the ancient Chinese jiang, a combination of preserved foods with spices. Jiang was created in several ways—some used meat and seasonings, some used fish and seasonings, and some used grain and seasonings.

That last variety of jiang (often made from soybeans and wheat) was the ancestor of modern soy sauce. The sauce made its way to Japan, evolved a bit, and by the 1600s was a fixture in the island nation. At the same time, the Mogi and Takanashi families started brewing the stuff. The small businesses grew, and in 1917, the Mogi and Takanashi operations, along with others, were merged into the Noda Shoyu Co.

In 1964, that company changed its name to Kikkoman. That means that the most common name in soy sauce has been manufactured by a line that goes back further than three centuries. (And the company hasn’t stopped growing, either; the company now ships its soy sauce to more than 100 countries around the world.)

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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