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The Secret Lives of 4 Common Condiments

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ThinkStock

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

Wikimedia Commons 

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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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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