by Scott Moeller
I love to think about strange “food firsts.”
Cheese is a good example. Cheese, it turns out, can only be made using rennet, which is a complex of enzymes that occur only in the lining of the stomach of mammals like cows and sheep. For this reason, most historians agree that the very first cheese was probably made entirely by accident when someone carried some fresh milk on a long trip in a bag made of an animal’s stomach.
That’s a pretty cool story, but what really makes me curious is, who was that first person, and what went through his or her head? I like to imagine them sitting down, parched after their long trip, anticipating a drink of refreshingly smooth milk, but finding a foul, disgusting lump of clumpy goo instead. I assume some primitive expletives were uttered, but then came the moment that changed history: they looked down at the quivering mass of clotted sludge and said “I’m gonna eat it anyway!”
It must have been the same thing with alcoholic beverages. Somebody had to have been the first person to discover an oozing pile of berries way past their prime and proudly proclaim “I’m still going to eat this!”
Think about it. Wine and cheese owe their very existence to the fact that someone said to themselves, “This is probably a bad idea…. But I’m gonna do it anyway!” We can relate to that. It’s the attitude that settled this continent, founded this country, and continues to provide endless fodder for reality TV. It should probably be on our coins and license plates.
And, once alcohol was invented, I can only assume that these strange food firsts probably took off like a rocket. I’m sure that if we could have been there to document them, we would find that many of these strange firsts were born of either desperation, or a dare from a friend. Take a group of teenage Neanderthal buddies around a campfire, one of them dares another one, and you could easily have the first person to milk a cow, the first person to get honey from a beehive, the first person to eat mushrooms and the first person to make pudding from tree roots (possibly all in the same night if fermented berries were involved).
Of course, some strange food firsts are difficult to explain even with desperation and dares. I can picture the first person to make lutefisk or haggis leaning over the stove and reassuring the gathering crowd of horrified onlookers, “Trust me…. This is gonna be great!”
So what do these strange “food firsts” have to do with fish? Well, it seems to me that a few of these strange firsts apply to our very own lake sturgeon. The once-abundant lake sturgeon of the upper Midwest had their populations decimated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The extreme overharvest of these sturgeon happened because people want the sturgeon for: fuel, meat, caviar and something called “isinglass.”
First, before we fully discovered their value for meat, somebody had to be the first person to catch a sturgeon and say “hey, instead of eating this fish, I think I’ll burn it to power my boat!” And, for that reason, believe it or not, countless sturgeon were harvested and stacked like cordwood so their oil-rich flesh could be used as fuel to power steamships.
Eventually, somebody had to be the first person to stop shoveling them in the furnace, lick their fingers, and realize that they could eat these things.
And, somebody else was the first person, presumably while gutting a sturgeon, to notice the jelly-like mass of eggs in the fish and decide “I don’t normally eat fish guts but, this time, I think I'll try it.” Caviar is still viewed as an obscure, high-end luxury food by most, but the common usage of caviar in Europe helped fuel the overharvest of lake sturgeon here in North America.
Now, this last one is a real head-scratcher: Sturgeon harvested in the 1800s, were also harvested for their swim bladders. It turns out that, if you take a sturgeon swim bladder, dry it completely, then pulverize it into a fine powder, this powder was necessary for the production of beer and wine. The powder is call “isinglass,” and it was an essential step in making beer and wine, as it binds to the exhausted yeast cells and causes them to precipitate, thereby turning the beverage from cloudy to clear.
Now, this is all very well and good, but who in the world was the first person to discover this, and how did they make this discovery? Peanut butter and chocolate I can understand, but under what circumstance is it appropriate for fish entrails to come into contact with your chardonnay? Someone has some explaining to do.
However these strange sturgeon firsts came to be, the important thing is that we appear to have learned the error of our ways and have put conservation measures in place that have at least stabilized the lake sturgeon populations.
As for the other strange food firsts, I’ll keep wondering, as I eat my cheese and sip my glass of clarified fermented beverage.