They say that you learn as much from experiments that failed as experiments that succeeded. I don’t know who “they” are, or if they’re related to every emergency medical tech’s nemesis, “Some Guy.” Like Some Guy, “They” tell you to do, say, or act in a way that immediately threatens life, limb, or sanity. The difference is that Some Guy is more active. Some Guy tells you to pee on an electric fence, and when you do it, he disappears, leaving you to explain the situation to family, spouses, or law enforcement officials. They simply stand back, whispering ideas, and let you take the hit yourself. They tell the absolute truth, and They have no reason to dissemble or fabricate anything. The problem, of course, is that you only learn this when you’re trying to explain to your wife exactly WHY the cat’s head is shaved on only one side.
The power of They particularly presents itself with any of the culinary arts. You’ll hear a murmur of “They say that canning tomatoes is easy,” or “They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with Buddha’s Hand citrons.” What THEY never tell you is the details, so you have the learning experience, and they never will. They always hide in the background while you do something “easy”, like extracting honey from honeycomb, and vanish when you look over your shoulder, covered in honey and waving an electric uncapping knife over your head like Toshirô Mifune, and yell “So what do I do NOW?” And that’s how They got me to try frying ginkgo nuts.
It was inevitable that They were going to get me once again, and I heard the bullet before it got me. A few months back, a confluence of factors led to further study of ginkgo trees, which led to contemplations of the proper way to roast and eat ginkgo nuts. “People have been doing it for thousands of years,” I thought. “Nobody would be doing it if it weren’t worth the effort, right?”, They whispered. I’m sure They were just as persuasive when convincing Napoleon that invading Moscow in the winter was a good idea, and it might have been so if They hadn’t left out just a few teeny tiny details.
Procuring fresh ginkgo nuts itself wasn’t a problem. Being this close to Chinese New Year, many local grocery stores have at least a few mesh bags of ginkgo or “white nuts” on hand, and many of the Asian grocery stores in the vicinity sell ginkgo nuts in bulk. I knew that the nutmeats are toxic unless cooked, and that some people have issues with contact dermatitis from working with or eating them. Okay, that’s a start. I came across a lot of fascinating recipes for using the nutmeats in stirfry and in soups, but not much on their preparation. Most started with “get a skillet, put one tablespoon of oil in the bottom, heat until the oil starts to smoke, and add nuts.” Yeah, They left out a few details that made the experience a lot more interesting.
The first thing to consider is that the shell of a ginkgo nut isn’t particularly tough. It’s not as thick as, say, that of a pistachio. However, it makes up in ability to retain pressure what it lacks in armor, which means that a critical failure leads to a small steam explosion. Picture a popcorn seed popping, only with sharp shells going in one direction and a green lump of what looks like slug snot flying in another. Do that in an open skillet without a lid or cover, and your kitchen rapidly resembles the scene of a Drazi loogie-chucking competition. Oh, and popcorn merely burns a bit when a freshly popped kernel flies out and lands on your hand. Ginkgo nutmeats fly out and stick.
Lesson #1: ALWAYS KEEP A STOUT LID ON ANY PAN USED FOR FRYING GINKGO NUTS.
Since They didn’t warn about detonating nut hulls, it stands to reason that They wouldn’t say anything about the type of oil necessary. That’s because They didn’t say a damn thing about how hot those ginkgo shells would get when resting on the bottom of the skillet. To get enough heat to cook the nutmeats sufficiently, the shell tends to scorch. If the shell is scorching, then it stands to reason that the oil will smoke. Well, it might appear to do so, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools and children. In a classic example of “failing to master the basics before moving to experimentation,” I thought “I really like chili oil, and I can only imagine that it would improve the flavor of the ginkgo nuts.” And with the same hubris, General George Armstrong Custer went to Little Big Horn.
Nearly 30 years ago, I found myself in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, going through Nuclear/Biological/Chemical warfare training as part of US Army Basic Training. At the end of the day, while wearing protective masks, all of us were marched into a chamber loaded with CS gas, told to take off our helmets and masks, and the drill sergeants waited to see our reactions. Not only did the indescribable pain of a lungful of CS gas teach us all the importance of getting on our masks in future encounters so we’d never have to deal with this again, but it still haunts my occasional nightmares. Even better, since I was the “nice guy” in the platoon, I knew that the drill sergeants were waiting for us to bolt for the door, where they’d ask a herd of semi-paralytic teenagers such vital questions as “What’s your name, Private?” and “What’s your First General Order?” before letting us through. Therefore, I stayed in for about twenty minutes, not realizing that two groups had entered and left past me, waiting my turn for interrogation and release.
I’m not saying that chili oil smoke compares to CS gas. Among other things, exposure to chili oil smoke still allows you such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control. However, I now know how grizzly bears feel.
Lesson #2: NEVER USED CHILI OIL WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.
Because They never whispered a word about the use or misuse of chili oil, They also got great mirth from the realization that a standard kitchen stove fume hood wasn’t going to be enough. The smoke detectors in the house went off. The cats ran to hide in the bathroom. The Czarina didn’t say anything, other than to open up the windows and turn on the industrial-grade venting fan in the garage. Asking her “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” didn’t do a whole lot, either, and I now know exactly how long it takes for a bruised spleen to stop aching and pulsing.
Lesson #3: ALWAYS HAVE GOOD VENTILATION WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.
Finally, the house cleared, and since the outside air was running just about freezing, the command decision was made that we’d vented as much smoke as possible. I swore that if I ever used chili oil again, I was to do it outside. The current batch was finished anyway, so I poured it into a bowl, waited for the nuts to cool, and started to dig in. Before that, though, it was time to turn off the fan, close the windows, and reset the heater, because while it wasn’t going to get brutally cold, the great outdoors weren’t going to get any warmer.
The next morning, I woke up to find one of the cats in one of the windows opened for venting. Specifically, Cadigan was letting me know her supreme displeasure in discovering the one window I’d missed. Did she make her displeasure known before dawn? Oh, of course not. Her amusement just increased when I looked at her and told her “Okay, cat. You’re getting a job or you can move out.”
Lesson #4: ALWAYS CLOSE THE WINDOWS AFTER FUMIGATING THE HOUSE WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.
Not only are They really good at avoiding complete information, but They’re also good at passing on what seems to be good advice. Since I’d received several warnings that ginkgo nuts needed to be cooked because the raw nuts are toxic, I worried about the nuts that hadn’t popped. “What if they’re only medium rare, and I turn purple and explode?” Reasonable, but They gave a suggestion: “why not put the unpopped nuts into the microwave? A minute or so should settle the matter, right?” In retrospect, this was a classic example of the Texas demonstration of an individual’s fitness for public office: “Hold my beer and watch this.” Again, remember what I said about fools and children.
When I was in high school, one of my favorite meals when left to my own devices was an egg and cheese sandwich. Pulling out a skillet and frying up the eggs was too much effort, and I discovered very rapidly that putting two or three eggs in a bowl, covering it with Tillamook cheddar, and putting the mess into the microwave was a lot more fun. I knew that leaving the bowl uncovered was an impending disaster, so I covered the lot with a good stout plate, set the microwave for about 4 minutes, and let it rip. I didn’t have to listen for the oven’s beeper: instead, I listened carefully for the aftermath of the outside of the yolks cooking faster than the inside. After a time, enough steam pressure built up inside that the yolks exploded, and THAT was my Pavlovian cue. I also knew enough to let things cool down, because I didn’t want red-hot egg yolk spattering me when the yolk ruptured while being moved.
These days, I look back on that recipe and remember Dallas musician Jeff Liles‘s crack in his first Cottonmouth, TX spoken-word album about a sandwich “grabbing my heart like a fist.” Even though I haven’t had one in nearly three decades, those sandwiches taught me very valuable lessons about microwave oven science. Namely, when something starts going off in the oven with very sharp reports, don’t assume “Oh, my wife is storing 5.56 mm ammo in the microwave again.” You cut the power. Thankfully, I had a top, too, but the ginkgo nuts built up a bit more pressure before detonating. The successive percussions didn’t take out the cover, but it did look like Yog-Sothoth took one long sneeze in the bowl. The nuts were still edible, but they were missing something. I think what was missing were the seedling embryos’ souls.
Lesson #5: NEVER PUT GINKGO NUTS IN THE MICROWAVE.
Will this escapade stop me? Oh, hells no. Another batch later, and practice makes perfect. Just so long as They don’t convince me that the best thing to wash down ginkgo nuts is a durian smoothie, the Czarina won’t kill me in my sleep this week.
From a botanical and mycological standpoint, the understanding of organism migration, with and without human help, keeps offering up more surprises. For instance, discovering that the death’s cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is spreading across the planet, isn’t news. I can see that every time the fruiting bodies emerge from the thatch in my front lawn and threaten to block out the sun. (Go ahead and laugh. After three steady days of rain, you’d think I was growing Prototaxites in the front yard. It’s also endlessly engaging to note that many plants, including orchids, depend upon a symbiosis between the plant and a similarly unique fungus, which fuse the plant’s root system to the fungus’s mycellia network. In this case, the plant supplies carbohydrates while the fungus provides nitrogen from various sources. Those “various sources” can include decaying organic matter (hence the fungus in my lawn feeding on grass thatch, dead leaves, and the occasional squirrel dropping), but in the case of the eastern white pine tree, its symbiote gets its nitrogen by capturing and absorbing springtails and other insects that it catches and digests.
The real surprise, though, is coming. As a recent article in Slate by Cat Adams notes, A. phalloides is now found on every continent but Antarctica, mostly due to the transport of spore- or mycella-contaminated soils to new locales. The kicker? Its expansion across the planet involves it not being so fussy about its oak symbiote as other fungi, and it moving to support different oaks as well. Considering that the one absolute component of North Texas flora is its wide range of oaks, the surprise is that A. phalloides hasn’t taken over the entire state. Which it probably has.
Likewise, most people today don’t consider the noble bottle gourd other than for its shapeliness, a few look at its historical value, and very few consider its origins. Those who do, though, have a great story to tell. Based on DNA analysis between known North American bottle gourds and those of Asia and Africa, it appears that the bottle gourd came across the Atlantic on its own, instead of being transported by humans. Obviously, the “how” is an interesting question, but it’s not impossible: it’s very easy to see bottle gourds and other squash species being transported via flotsam rafts in floods, as it seems to work very well for other species. The “when”…well, that’s a question where I suspect that the answer will be even more entertaining than anyone realized.
Now that the snow and ice are gone and we can be reasonably sure that the Dallas area won’t be hit with crippling temperatures for the rest of the year, it’s time to start plotting and scheming plans for miniature gardens and arrangements. This means lots of time in the work area, building new frames and setting up new enclosures, so it’s time for inspiration. When contemplating taking a series of enclosures to a new level, it was time to dig out my copy of High Aztech by the exemplary Latino science fiction writer Ernest Hogan. Part of this is because I’ve been proud to call Ernest a dear friend for 25 years now, and part is because his view of the resurgent Tenochtitlan of 2045 offers a lot of room for experimentation. As he’s always pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the past if you’re using it to build the future, and I already have some serious ideas involving Mexican butterworts and futuro-Aztec backdrops.
Likewise, most reading material should have a soundtrack, so it’s time for suggestions in that regard. This week, check out the new album Down Time by DJ earWIG. It’s not necessarily greenhouse music (as related many times, my preferred greenhouse working music is a bit more lively), but it’s excellent music for reading, writing, studying, and generally expanding the cerebrum beyond all normal limits.
I’m of two minds about beekeeping these days. While I certainly support anyone raising and caring for honeybees these days, I’m nostalgic for my beekeeping days back when I was in high school, but not so much as to get my own hive. That said, I know that at least one hive is in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, considering the number of honeybees who come out to drink water from the Sarracenia pools, slurp up nectar from the fresh blooms in spring, and collect by the dozens in the traps in fall. This is the time of year where I start looking fondly at the Dadant beekeeping equipment catalog, not because I want to spread myself further with my own hive, but because I missed the smell of fresh wax and propolis more than I knew. One bee suit…one suit wouldn’t be bad, would it?
Any excuse to head out to Fort Worth is a good one. Whether it’s causing trouble at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History or wandering about in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, I look forward to reasons to make the road trip. February 20, we have a humdinger, as author Amy Stewart presents a chat on her new book The Drunken Botanist at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas. Considering how much I enjoyed her book Wicked Plants, I may skip out of work early to make sure I can make it.