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10 Popular Foods Once Considered Unfit To Eat

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1. Potatoes

When you think potatoes, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A side of fries? Eating them all mashed up and buttery with gravy on Thanksgiving? If you were a Frenchman during the 18th century, your answer might have been “leprosy” and “rampant, unchecked sexual urges,” since consuming potatoes was believed to lead to both of these things—probably because the starch was thought to resemble lepers' feet and testicles.

Potato cultivation was actually banned for a time until French agricultural pioneer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began promoting the potato in the late 18th century. Parmentier gave potatoes a PR campaign boost by serving potato dishes to the likes of Benjamin Franklin (whose sexual appetite was famously always intact, potato or no potato) and hiring armed guards to protect his prized potato patch.

2. Tomatoes

It’s hard to believe that the tomato, so versatile and central to European cuisine, was thought of as poisonous on the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries. The savory fruits had a reputation for killing the elites of society, and for good reason, since quite a few upper-crust folks did fall gravely ill after eating them. However it was actually their pewter plates, high in lead content and made even more potent by acidic tomato juice, that were the culprit.

So what turned the corner for the tomato? Among other things, the invention of a cheap and undeniably delicious new dish called pizza, in the 1880s, is said to have helped the so-called “poison apple” gain Beatles-like levels of popularity.

3. Tuna

Tuna is currently the most widely eaten fish in America, but it took some crafty PR campaigning to bring the tasty, healthy saltwater fish to popularity. At the turn of the century, yellowfin and skipjack—the two darker tuna varieties most widely eaten today—were avoided by fishermen and largely thought of as “junk fish” due to America’s preference for lighter meat.

But once World War I and the Great Depression rolled around, the widely-available and efficient protein source was slapped with the label “chicken of the sea,” and Americans started eating tuna by the literal boatload. The rest is smelly, oily history.

4. Lobster

These days, lobster pretty much serves as shorthand for “fancy food.” But as anyone who’s read David Foster Wallace’s treatise on the American delicacy, Consider the Lobster, knows, the marine crustacean was once considered unfit for human consumption and was mostly eaten by prisoners and the poor. In fact, up until the 19th century, the abundant creatures were considered a nuisance and frequently ground up as a fertilizer after washing up on the East Coast.

So how did the massive, near-insects get fancy? Part of the shift has been chalked up to the American railroad, which spread the food well beyond the Northeast, where they were most abundant. Lobster was also one of very few foods that wasn’t rationed during World War II, which made it a more regular part of the American diet. It should also be noted that dipping anything in melted butter never hurts.

5. Hamburgers

With the rise of gastropub culture over the past twenty years, burgers have gone from greasy fast food fix to a gourmet American dish. But since being invented around 1900, the burger has come even further. Due to the nature of the meat industry during the early 20th century (as famously explored in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) hamburgers were widely viewed as unclean food for the poor.

In his landmark book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser touches on the rise of hamburgers in America, largely crediting White Castle—which used "white" to give the impression of cleanliness—as the chain that helped burgers become a quintessential American meal. Steak 'n Shake also positioned itself to change perceptions of ground beef, calling their burgers “steakburgers” and grinding their meat within public view to show off their untainted product.

6. Oatmeal

Oatmeal: tasty for breakfast, even better in a cookie. But back before oats could be found in pantries across America, they were considered strictly animal feed in the States. It wasn’t until a German immigrant named Ferdinand Schumacher marketed his ground oats as an alternative to breakfast meat that the food started to catch on as a morning meal.

Schumacher’s Akron-based empire (which would eventually become part of Quaker Oats) expanded even further once the Civil War took hold. The federal government put in oatmeal orders quicker than Schumacher could supply them after Union soldiers gave an initial order of his product rave reviews.

7. Peanuts

Thought to have been brought to North America by African slaves, peanuts were once considered food fit for only the poorest poor and livestock. Peanuts started taking off as an American staple following the Civil War, and there’s a good chance you recognize a few of the names involved with the pro-peanut shift.

First, there’s PT Barnum, whose circus started selling “Hot Roasted Peanuts” in the late 19th century—baseball stadiums and food carts would soon follow suit. There’s also the famous African American botanist George Washington Carver, who advocated for switching from cotton crops to legumes during the early 20th century and developed some 100 recipes involving the peanut. The undeniable, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth deliciousness of peanut butter, popularized a few years later, cemented the peanut as an omnipresent American ingredient.

8. Garlic

Garlic makes pretty much everything tastier, and pretty much everyone smellier, as well. The “smellier” part has led the pungent vegetable to be viewed as uncouth in England for centuries, and stigmatized in the United States until surprisingly recently.

Because of its odor, the English have long viewed garlic as a vulgar food and considered its smell unacceptable, especially on the breath of young, courting couples, and have only gotten on board with the ingredient over the last few decades. For many years, the United States borrowed the anti-garlic attitude of its mother country, and it wasn’t until Polish, German and Italian immigrants settled in massive numbers that public perceptions started to shift in favor of the once forbidden vegetable.

9. Portobello Mushrooms

The story of the portobello mushroom is yet another reminder you should never underestimate the power of great PR campaign. Until the 1980s, the large, meaty mushroom—which is really just the common agaricus bisporus (aka crimini) mushroom, left to grow and mature—was considered an unsightly waste product to be tossed in the trash.

It wasn’t until the 1980s rolled around and when raw, dark and whole foods started to come into fashion that these earthy shrooms were tagged with the schnazzy Italian-sounding name “portobello” and marketed as a healthy meat replacement to be stuffed with cheese, veggies, and bread crumbs, or marinated and covered with cheese steak-style.

10. Chicken Wings

It’s hard to think of any food Americans eat more voraciously in the 21st century than the almighty wing, particularly come football season. While wings have been enjoyed in various regions both in America and around the world (hey, if it’s edible, people have found a way to eat it), they were largely thrown away as scraps, used for broth, or generally considered far less valuable than the leg and the breast in much of the country prior to the 1960s.

So what happened in the 1960s? Someone in Buffalo, New York deep fried and threw some hot sauce on the suckers, and people pretty much lost their minds. The regional delicacy gradually swept the nation, to the point that we now consume 1.25 billion wings on Super Bowl weekend, an amount that the National Chicken Council Reports that would circle the earth twice if laid end-to-end.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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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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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]