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Ⓒ Jason Wallis

The Secret to Homaro Cantu's Genius

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Ⓒ Jason Wallis

Last week, the legendary chef Homaro Cantu took his own life. It’s a sad and familiar story of someone too talented leaving us too soon. At mental_floss, we were very much in awe of Cantu’s special breed of genius. And we were floored by his ambitions (one of the many things he expected to do was to use edible paper soaked with nutrients to end world hunger). Eight years ago we put him on our New Einsteins list for all the madcap inventing he was doing on and off the plate. He was one of the first interviews we ever landed (we had our pal Erik Vance report the story), and couldn’t have been nicer, giving his time to a little magazine from Birmingham. Just a few weeks ago, I was wondering about something he’d said in this interview—that he’d figured out a way to flip a gene that would turn tomato plants into organic nightlights, and I made a note to myself to schedule a follow-up. Unfortunately, we never got the chance. In light of Cantu’s passing, I thought it would be a good time to post this short interview. I remember reading Cantu's words and feeling inspired to tinker and invent and dream bigger. I’m hoping others will stumble into this interview and feel the same way.


 Jason Wallis

The Restless Chef

by Erik Vance

In the back of Homaro Cantu’s chic Chicago restaurant, Moto, hangs a Salvador Dalí poster that reads, “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”
It’s in the right place. With his penchant for cooking with lasers and liquid nitrogen, Chef Cantu has created one of the edgiest dining experiences in the country. On the Moto menu, you might find doughnut soup, flapjack popsicles, and, to drink, a glass of vanilla-bean smoke. “First we shock people, and then we awe them with the fact that this stuff is real food,” Cantu says. “If it doesn’t make you go, ‘Holy sh**, that was the greatest spaghetti I’ve ever eaten—and it looked like a cheeseburger!’ then it’s just not worth it.”
As a teenager in California, Cantu says he was on a one-way track to juvenile hall when a high-school science teacher got him hooked on science. A love for experimentation led to a passion for tinkering in the kitchen, which eventually evolved into his peculiar brand of high-tech gastronomy. Obsessed with new ideas, Cantu believes he is more inventor than chef. Indeed, he spends many waking hours on projects that have nothing to do with cooking, such as making tomatoes glow in the dark. Recently, mental_floss grabbed a few minutes on the phone with Cantu to ask him about his latest pursuits. In a dialect that’s one part California surfer and one part Chicago construction worker, he tends to throw ideas around one on top of the next. All them could be dismissed as hare-brained, except that most of them are proving remarkably successful.

Q: What is the worst thing you’ve ever created?
A: This thing called the Black Course. It was calamari with red sauce, but everything was pitch black. The ladies didn’t like it because after about five minutes, their lips and their teeth turned black. They’d be looking at their date and trying to be sexy, but they weren’t very sexy.

Q: You’ve been working with products from a company called American Anti-Gravity. What’s that about?
A: This guy created a particle gun that pumps out 40 watts of negative ions, which can levitate some objects. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘We’ve got to see if there are any edible products that we can electrify to make them float around!’ And that’s when I thought of salt. You can actually charge certain types of sodium chloride so that they store energy, which can be released on demand.

Q: So you had levitating salt floating around your restaurant?
A: Yeah. We were just shooting salt with this particle gun, and it bounced around. It was cool and novel, but how do you turn that into a product? Instead, it led me to this other invention I’m working on now that’s essentially going to turn every building in America into a net energy producer. It’s a motor that I’m hoping will create more energy in a building than the building consumes. I’ve got eight households in my neighborhood that use it, and they’re going to start cutting me checks for all the energy they’re saving.

Q: Why do you think there’s an energy crisis?
A: Because we’re over-thinking everything these days. I’ll give you one example. Tomatoes actually have a gene in them that can be switched on and off, enabling them to glow in the dark. And if a tomato can throw off 240 lumens, that’s equivalent to 10 LED lights. So you take your tomatoes and you put them in an upside-down planter and you grow them, and then they glow at night. I think the key to unlocking energy potential is looking at food as a means of dense energy storage. If you could take something that you can eat and use it to light your home, that’s a double whammy. When it’s ripe, it burns out and you eat it! Man, that’s how we’ve got to start thinking.

Q: How long do you work every day?
A: [loud, grinding, whirring sound] Until six o’clock.

Q: Hello? I think I’m losing you. Did you say you work regular hours?
A: Yeah. Sorry about that background noise [sound goes to a lower pitch]. That thing you heard right there is a motor I’m working on.

Q: The net energy producer?
A: No, this one’s a little different. It’s an internal combustion engine for a remote-controlled car that uses hydrogen gas to boost the car’s fuel economy by 60 percent. The hydrogen gas is extracted from falling water. I know that sounds weird, but any building can do it. Everyone in my neighborhood watches me come out here every day with this thing.

Q: [More grinding] Are you working on the motor as we speak?
A: Yeah, I just fired it up again.

Q: Do you do this often, or am I getting a treat?
A: I do it quite a bit, actually.

 Jason Wallis

Three Questions
1. What piece of advice has stuck with you?

Never be too good to listen. My first chef taught me that. I listen to everybody, including my dishwashers.

2. What would you have been if not a chef?

What I am right now—an inventor. I haven’t handled a single piece of food today, just so you know.

3. What is “genius”?

Doing unconventional things. Lock yourself in a room with two things and stare at them. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be willing to sit there and do what it takes to create the end result. 

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Food
Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
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Alison Marras, Unsplash

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
iStock

In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

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Essential Science
What Is a GMO?
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If you've followed the debate about GMOs with any sort of regularity, there's a strong chance you've come across a picture of a tomato stabbed by a giant syringe. That image, though a complete fiction, seems to perfectly capture what's preventing public acceptance of these foods: We don't really know what makes something a GMO.

GMOs aren't made with syringes and, at the moment, they aren't even made with tomatoes, at least not commercially. But that false image is everywhere, and surveys indicate consumers fear GMOs without knowing much about them.

So what exactly is a GMO?

FROM THE FIRST SWEET POTATO TO THE QUEEN'S CORGI

The initialism stands for "genetically modified organism," but it's a term lacking scientific precision. Moreover, it's hard to find an organism in any way connected to humans that hasn't been genetically modified, says Alison Van Eenennaam, a geneticist at UC-Davis who specializes in animal biotechnology. "I might argue that a great Dane or a Corgi are 'genetically modified' relative to their ancestor, the wolf," she tells Mental Floss. "'GMO' is not a very useful term. Modified for what and why is really the more important question.”

GMOs are often described as if they were a recent invention of our industrial food system, but genetic modification of food isn't new at all. It's been happening for many millennia: As long as farmers have been saving high-performing seeds for future harvests, we've had GMOs. Perhaps the earliest known example of a GMO is the sweet potato, which scientists believe became modified when wild sweet potatoes became infected, quite naturally, by a particular kind of soil bacteria. Realizing these sweet potatoes were edible, people began saving the seeds and cultivating them for future harvests. That was about 8000 years ago.

These days, when people say "GMO," they tend to mean one particular modification method that scientists refer to as transgenesis. As Van Eenennaam explains, transgenesis is "a plant-breeding method whereby useful genetic variation is moved from one species to another using the methods of modern molecular biology, also known as genetic engineering."

Transgenic crops and animals have been modified with the addition of one or more genes from another living organism, using either a "gene gun," Agrobacteria—a genus of naturally occurring bacteria that insert DNA into plants—or electricity, in a process called electroporation.

The first commercial transgenic crops debuted in the early 1990s: a virus-resistant tobacco in China [PDF] and the Flavr-Savr tomato in the U.S., which was genetically altered to not get "squishy." (It's no longer on the market.)

As to the health risks of GMO foods, the scientific consensus is clear: Transgenic crops are no riskier than other crops. Van Eenennaam points to a 20-year history of safe use that includes "thousands of studies, eleven National Academies reports, and indeed [the consensus of] every major scientific society in the world."

THE ROLE OF HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES

Today, the most ubiquitous transgenic crops in the U.S. food system are cotton, soybeans, and corn, including those modified to resist the effects of the herbicide Roundup. Branded "Roundup Ready," these crops have been modified so that farmers can apply the herbicide directly to crops to control weeds without killing the crops themselves.

For farmers, the result was better weed control and higher yields. For critics of GMOs, these crops became their smoking gun. These opponents argue they're bad for the planet and bad for our health.

There's no question that use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, has increased since the introduction of GMOs, but measuring its environmental impact is a far more complex equation. For example, as glyphosate use has increased, so has the prevalence of conservation tillage, a beneficial agricultural approach that helps sequester carbon in the soil and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Bt crops—transgenic crops modified with genes from the all-natural bacterial toxin Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis—have also reduced the use of insecticide, according to a 2016 National Academies of Science report.

And though evidence suggests herbicide use has increased since Roundup Ready GMOs were first commercialized in the U.S., herbicide use has increased amongst some non-GMO crops, too. Glyphosate also replaced more toxic herbicides on the market and, if farmers were to stop using it, many would likely replace glyphosate with another herbicide, possibly one that's more toxic. Glyphosate-resistant weeds are a problem, but banning glyphosate, or glyphosate-resistant GMOs for that matter, wouldn't solve the problem.

In recent years, opponents of GMOs have increasingly aimed their fire at glyphosate. The source of many of these claims is a 2015 assessment [PDF] by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to categorize glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic." That categorization has been hotly contested by many scientists, as other governmental agencies have concluded glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic hazard. And, in June, reporting revealed that the lead researcher at IARC withheld important studies from the research group's consideration.

Weighing criticisms of glyphosate against its benefits certainly brings up complex issues in our agricultural system, but ultimately these issues are not unique to GMOs nor would they magically disappear if transgenic technology were eliminated altogether.

OTHER METHODS OF GENETIC MODIFICATION

Most consumers probably can't name all the different methods of genetic modification, but there's a good chance they've eaten foods modified by one of these methods all the same. Layla Katiraeea human molecular geneticist at Integrated DNA Technologies and a science communicator, has written about these methods to illustrate why it makes little sense to single out transgenic crops. Examples include polyploidy, which gave us the seedless watermelon, and mutagenesis, which scientists used to engineer a brightly colored grapefruit. As Katiraee points out, sometimes two different methods can even create a very similar end result. For example, the non-browning Opal apple was developed using traditional cross-breeding, while the non-browning Arctic apple uses transgenic methods to silence the genes that control browning.

Katiraee says the most common objections to GMOs aren't exclusive to transgenic crops: “Don't like ‘Big Ag'? They use all methods of crop modification. Don't like herbicide-tolerant crops? They've been made with other methods. Don't like patents? Crops modified by all methods are patented. If you go through the list, you won't find one [objection] that applies exclusively to transgenesis.”

Katiraee's arguments illustrate why it doesn't make sense to label transgenic crops "GMO" while omitting the non-browning opal apple or a seedless watermelon. And the non-GMO label can often be misleading. Van Eenennaam points to one of the more ridiculous examples: non-GMO salt. "Salt doesn't contain DNA, so salt cannot be genetically engineered," she says. "All salt is 'non-GMO' salt."

DISEASE-RESISTANCE SUCCESSES

The noisy GMO debate has often overshadowed the successes of lesser known, disease-resistant GMOs. Van Eenennaam argues that no one should object to these crops since protecting “plants and animals from disease aligns with most everyone's common interest in decreasing the use of chemicals in agricultural production systems, and minimizing the environmental footprint of food production." Examples include ringspot virus–resistant papaya in Hawaii [PDF] and the American chestnut, both rescued from the devastating effects of lethal plant viruses.

Disease-resistant crops often face an uphill battle for approval. In Uganda, scientists developed a disease-resistant banana that then faced difficult regulatory obstacles until a new law was finally approved in October by the country's Parliament. In Florida, where the disease called citrus greening has caused widespread crop damage and loss to the citrus industry, orange trees have been modified with a spinach gene to help crops resist the virus. But orange juice manufacturers will have to persuade consumers to buy it. 

Scientists have used transgenic modification to address health concerns too. For example, some variations of the wilt-resistant banana also include a boost of vitamin A. Scientists are working on a form of wheat that would be safe for people with celiac disease.

Van Eenennaam fears the controversy over GMOs has meant that, over the years, the public has missed out on important technologies. In the field of animal biotechnology, for example, animals have been produced that are resistant to disease, "that produce less pollution in their manure, [and] that have … elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids," but none of these have been commercialized in the U.S.

Given that these crops and animals have a 20-year history of safe use, Van Eenennaam argues there's no reason that "fungus-resistant strawberries, disease-resistant bananas, and virus-resistant animals [should] sit on the shelf" unused.

Editor's note: This post has been updated. 

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