Why do so many rich tropical spices come from a few basal branches of the plant evolutionary tree? Katherine looks to their ancestral roots and finds a cake recipe for the mesozoic diet.
I think it was the Basal Angiosperm Cake that established our friendship a decade ago. Jeanne was the only student in my plant taxonomy class to appreciate the phylogeny-based cake I had made to mark the birthday of my co-teacher and colleague, Will Cornwell. Although I am genuinely fond of Will, I confess to using his birthday as an excuse to play around with ingredients derived from the lowermost branches of the flowering plant evolutionary tree. The recipe wasn’t even pure, since I abandoned the phylogenetically apt avocado for a crowd-pleasing evolutionary new-comer, chocolate. It also included flour and sugar, both monocots. As flawed as it was, the cake episode showed that Jeanne and I share some unusual intellectual character states – synapomorphies of the brain – and it launched our botanical collaborations.
Branches at the base of the angiosperm tree
The basal angiosperms (broadly construed) are the groups that diverged from the rest of the flowering plants (angiosperms) relatively early in their evolution. They give us the highly aromatic spices that inspired my cake – star anise, black pepper, bay leaf, cinnamon, and nutmeg. They also include water lilies and some familiar tree species – magnolias, tulip tree (Liriodendron), bay laurels, avocado, pawpaw (Asimina), and sassafras. Continue reading →
The story of the nightshades is usually told as a tale of European explorers, New World agriculturalists, and a wary bunch of Old World eaters. But what about the birds? And the goji berries? Jeanne and Katherine introduce you to the Solanaceae family and walk you through the botany to be observed while making ratatouille, the classic French collision of Eastern and Western nightshades.
Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes? The Irish without potatoes? Chinese cuisine without spicy, fruity chiles? Such was the case prior to the discovery of the New World nightshades (family Solanaceae) by sixteenth-century Spanish explorers. And they couldn’t help but run into them. Solanaceae is a huge family, with over 100 genera and nearly 2500 species, most of which are in Central and South America. Continue reading →
Chili, black pepper, white pepper, and Sichuan pepper
Black pepper, pink peppercorns, chili pepper, Sichuan pepper – except for being “hot,” these spices have as little in common as Sergeant Pepper and Pepper Potts. Their homelands are scattered across the world, and they were spread through distinct trade routes. They are not closely related; they belong to families about as far apart as possible on the phylogenetic tree below. They even aim their heat at different sensory receptors in your mouth. Continue reading →