A Treatise about Frogs: On the Boiling, Swallowing, Eating, and Metaphorizing of Such

January 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

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A Frog in Every Pot

A frog likes water, but not hot water — Swahili proverb

You’ve heard it said that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put it in cool water that you slowly bring to a boil, the frog won’t notice and will eventually die. It’s supposed to demonstrate how people often find themselves victims of tragic circumstances that are introduced incrementally—and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Whenever I hear this frog story, I think of two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why in the world would you boil a live frog?

The answers should be simple, right? Well, think again.

German physiologist Friedrich Gotz comes close to answering both questions with experiments he conducted 150 years ago, publishing the results in 1869. According to the English philosopher, literary critic, and scientist George Henry Lewes, writing in Nature in 1873, Gotz was testing for the presence of a “spinal soul” in frogs. To that end, he placed a frog in water that was slowly heated. At 25º C (77º F), the frog “manifest[ed] uneasiness” and as the heat increased, “vainly struggl[ed] to get out.” This was in contrast to another frog, exposed to the same conditions, from which Gotz had previously removed its brain. As the water grew warmer, the brainless frog, while responding to other stimuli, “never once attempt[ed] to escape the impending death,” which came about at 56º C (132.8º F).

Put a tally down for “not true,” since the first frog would have gotten out if it had been allowed to, and the second one expired under less than normal circumstances.

In the years that followed, several scientists, in several countries, replicated Gotz’s experiments, with some verifying, and some contradicting his results. In his “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” MIT professor William Thomas Sedgwick gave a summary in 1888 of the research. He writes that J. Tarchanow (Russia, 1871) and M. Foster (England, 1873) show that normal frogs try to escape gradually heated water, while A. Heinzmann (Germany, 1872) and Carl Fratscher (Germany, 1875) show that a gradual increase in temperature results in the frogs’ death. Sedgwick concludes that the differences in results come down to the definition of “gradual.” While a gradual increase in the heat of the water may cause a frog to at least try to escape, a “sufficiently gradual” increase will not.

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In a more modern look at the situation, in 1995, Fast Company consulted George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University Biology Department’s Doug Melton. The two agree that the science behind the boiling-frog metaphor is complete bunkum (with Zug using more colorful language). First, they say, frogs put in boiling water will not jump out, they will simply die (I’ve ignored this half of the scenario until now). Second, a frog won’t sit still long enough to be boiled in slowly heated water.

Australian science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki jumped in in 2011 with his own rebuttal of the yay-sayers. Not only does he quote University of Oklahoma herpetologist Victor Hutchison, who declares, “The legend is entirely incorrect!” he also points to a book written by Yale’s Edward Wheeler Scripture in 1897, using it to refute one of the earlier experiments. In The New Psychology, Scripture writes about research (he lists Heinzmann, Fratscher, and Sedgwick as possible sources) in which the water containing the frog was heated at the rate of .002º C per second over 2 1/2 hours. Kruszelnicki does the math for this example and finds it impossible. But in the interesting and well-sourced post “The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” a self-described “second-generation Asian INTP male expatriate” disputes Kruszelnicki’s disputation. He writes that Scripture’s reference is to an experiment by Heinzmann, and a look at Heinzmann’s original text shows that Scripture got the facts wrong.

So here’s my conclusion. Will frogs jump out of boiling water? No. Will they die in water gradually heated to boiling? Um . . . maybe.

We’ll probably never have a definitive answer for the boiling-frog metaphor, as slowly boiling live frogs is frowned upon in today’s general community. It is interesting to note, that it was not so popular even back in the days of Gotz, et. al. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, published in 1876, records the response of the aforementioned Lewes, to the questions, “But would you give us an instance or two of the most distressing experiments that you have performed? Have you ever performed Goltz’s experiment of boiling a frog till it died?” Lewes answers, “No; but to disprove his conclusion, I dipped a frog [from which the brain had been removed] in boiling water.”

At the same proceedings, British physician Arthur de Noé Walker gives examples of what he considers inhumane experiments, “in the hope of convincing [the commission] how urgently legal interference is called for in order to check and control the practice of performing experiments on living animals.” One such experiment was performed by the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who created gastric fistulas in dogs and inserted live frogs into the openings to observe their responses to the gastric juices. Not only was this cruel, he explains, but it was also “against the order of nature.” “Dogs do not swallow live frogs,” he says, “and frogs do not jump down into the stomachs of dogs.”

This last one sounds like a horrible experiment, but it does serve as a nice segue into my next topic.

(The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., MJF, 1986; George Henry Lewes, “Sensation in the Spinal Cord,” Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, vol. 9, December 4, 1873; William Thomas Sedgwick, “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” Studies from the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, vol. 2, Murray, 1888; “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant?” Fast Company, November 31, 1995; Edward Scripture, The New Psychology, Scribner’s 1897; The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” INTP things, November 16, 2017; Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, eds., 1876)

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Got a Frog in Your Throat?

As odd as it may seem, some people like to swallow frogs—live and whole and with no boiling necessary. Take, for instance, Englander George Augustus Sala, who thought it not unnatural at all for frogs to hop into someone’s stomach. He wrote in 1863,

When you were a little boy at school, you probably ate a good many frogs. Our practice was, when we had caught them, to pinch our nostrils with the fingers of one hand, and holding the dapper little froggee lightly with the other, to allow him to jump down our throats. There was a tradition among us that to swallow live frogs (for the process could not be called eating) made a boy strong and valorous, and almost insentient to the cuts of the cane. As we advanced in years we took a distaste for frogs. We were patriots. We grew to hate frogs because we heard that the French liked them and that they formed a principal item in the diet of that vivacious and ingenious people.

But frog swallowing hasn’t been limited only to the young. The Hungarian-born illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini writes about the “repulsive” frog swallowing performers of his day, finding only one, a Frenchman named Norton, “who presented his act in a dignified manner.” The two performed on the same program at the Circus Busch, Berlin, which gave Houdini a front-row seat. He recounts one instance where the act didn’t go quite as planned:

Norton could swallow a number of half-grown frogs and bring them up alive. I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.

Modern-day American magician and escapologist David Blain does not share Houdini’s disgust. In fact, he’s devoted much effort into honing his frog gurgitation and regurgitation skills.

Mr. Sala, Mr. Blaine, and Norton’s practices aside, most people see only the negatives of frog swallowing. Take, for instance, the women of northeast Brazil. When they refer to the pain of holding in anger and resentment and quietly tolerating unfairness, they call it “swallowing frogs.”

And wasn’t it Mark Twain who said,“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”? Actually, no.

Though the saying is often attributed to the American author, Garson O’Toole, of the Quote Investigator, tells us that a similar phrase predates Twain by many years. It appeared in French in the 1790s, with the publication of writer Nicolas Chamfort’s Oeuvres de Chamfort (Works of Chamfort). In 1851, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve published Causeries du Lundi (Monday Chats), which included the relevant passage by Chamfort, translated into English. In it, Chamfort refers to M. de Lassay, whom he uses as his “mouthpiece” in his writings:

Nature, in overwhelming us with misery and giving us an unconquerable attachment to life, seems to have behaved to man like an incendiary who sets fire to our house, after placing sentries at our doors. The danger must be very great to oblige us to leap out of a window.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

I’ve also seen no evidence that Mark Twain ever said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

(George Augustus Sala, Breakfast in Bed; or, Philosophy between the Sheets: A Series of Indigestible Discources, Bradburn, 1863; Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Dutton, 1920; L. A. Rebhun, “Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1994; Garson O’Toole, “Eat a Live Frog Every Morning, and Nothing Worse Will Happen to You the Rest of the Day,” Quote Investigator, April 3, 2013; Nicolas Chamfort, Oevres de Chamfort, tome 4, 1795; Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, vol. 7, E. J. Trechmann, trans., Routledge, 1851)

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Tastes like Chicken

It’s not that Twain was averse to eating frogs, per se. It’s just that they needed to be prepared the right way (and I assume he preferred only the hind legs.) In his account of his travels through Europe, A Tramp Abroad, Twain writes that during his trip he longs for the familiar food of the States:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows. . . .

He then goes on to provide a lengthy menu of his favorite foods, beginning with “Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs. American coffee, with real cream. American butter,” and “Fried chicken, Southern Style. . . .”

Of course, the French like their frog legs, too. And while they do eat their share of cuisses de grenouille, they’re far from alone.

According to the global study “Canapés to Extinction,” the EU is the largest importer of frog legs, followed by the US, Canada, and Japan—though when only countries are ranked, the US comes out on top. In the EU, France isn’t even the leading nation. That distinction goes to Belgium, and by a wide margin.

And it’s not just the legs of frogs that find their way onto tables worldwide. Here’s a sampling: The “wildlife trade specialists” at TRAFFIC, report that frogs are “an important food source” in West Africa, where they’re dried or fried whole—with or without disemboweling—for consumption. A dish in Indonesia is pepes telur kodok, frog eggs cooked in banana leaves. And a search on the internet will garner videos of a Japanese woman eating “live” frog sashimi (sushi), a woman in China chewing frogs whole, and another woman in China spoon feeding her toddler tadpoles. Who needs a circus when you have YouTube.

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So where do all these frogs come from? Back to frog legs, the top exporters are Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in that order. The world’s leading suppliers used to be India and Bangladesh, but over harvesting decimated their frog populations, leading the two countries to ban frog exports in the late 80s. It is feared, say the writers of “Canapés to Extinction,” that Indonesia may be headed to the same fate.

I would guess that if the residents of a country, such as Indonesia, were to wake up one day and all their frogs were gone, they would bemoan not only the loss of income, but also the absence of the frogs’ role in controlling mosquitos and agricultural pests. But as long as the decrease in the frog population is slow, it’s hard for them to recognize how bad things are getting—maybe even until there’s no turning back.

Hmmmm, that reminds me of a story.

(Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, American, 1880; Sandra Altherr, Alejandra Goyenechea and D.J. Schubert, “Canapés to Extinction: The International Trade in Frogs’ Legs and Its Ecological Impact,” Pro Wildlife, 2016; M. Mohneke, et al., “Dried or Fried: Amphibians in Local and Regional Food Market in West Africa” TRAFFIC Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010; 

[photos: “Big Red,” by Matt MacGillivray, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Mike Maguire, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Jon Wiley, used under a Creative Commons license; “kermit’s legs,” by Chewy Chua, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dried Frogs,” by Shawn Harquail, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Go Eat a Bug! Seriously

December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

WEBSITEento_cubes2_1259“Most of the world already eats insects,” says Arnold van Huis, entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and collaborator with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “It is only in the western world that we don’t. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don’t know why. . . .”

These comments from van Huis appeared in The Observer, in 2010. Two years later, it seems that we westerners are not much closer to wide-scale acceptance of edible bugs. In a post last month, I had fun writing about entomophagy, but for people like van Huis, the eating of insects is a very serious topic.

It’s a serious topic for the folks behind the Ento project, too. If they have their way, insects will be an accepted part of our menus and shopping lists in the next ten years. Seriously.

The team behind Ento is made up of four postgraduate students at London’s Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. They are Aran Dasan, Jacky Chung, Jonathan Fraser, and Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky, working with Kim Insu, a chef-in-training at Le Cordon Bleu.

They’ve put together a video, explaining their goals and methods, embedded below. In it, they lay out reasons for why we should all be eating insects, including the following:

  • The rapid growth in the world’s population requires us to look into alternatives for meeting the increasing demand for sustainable foods.
  • Compared to cattle, edible insects can provide nine times the amount of protein for the same amount of feed.
  • Insects are also lower in fat than beef.
  • Raising insects uses much less energy and space than traditional livestock and produces far less greenhouse gases.

But even with this information, and even though over 1000 different insects are already being eaten in 80% of the world’s countries, we in the West have a general disgust at the thought of eating bugs. Van Huis, a westerner himself, understands this. “It is very important how you prepare them,” he says. “You have to do it very nicely, to overcome the yuk factor.”

That’s where Ento comes in. They have developed a “roadmap,” consisting of 6 steps for introducing edible insects into the mainstream, culminating in the year 2020:

2012: Travel to festivals and markets WEBSITEento_entobox-closeup_1259to grab the attention of “adventurous eaters”
2013: Create the first Ento restaurant, serving insects in the form of innovative “entocubes”
2015: After opening more restaurants, market entocubes in “takeaway entoboxes” for lunch
2017: Sell a line of “ready meals” in supermarkets
2018: Introduce Ento ingredients for use in cooking
2020: Sell fresh insects as an accepted staple in the supermarket meat aisle

This seems like a rather aggressive plan, so I asked Fraser how things are going so far. He tells me that they are in the process of developing the roadmap above into a business plan. “Festivals and markets will still be a major goal for us in 2013, but we have also added event catering and pop-up restaurants to our plans.” All this to create a buzz about Ento. “Primarily we want as many people as possible to experience our food in a fun and social context,” he says.

So when will the first Ento restaurant be open for business? “As we improve our recipes and refine the Ento brand, a London restaurant will be our next major milestone,” says Fraser. And at this point in the progress, the restaurant opening is still on schedule: “We can’t reveal much about it at this stage, but it is in the works for later next year.”

And even though the group sees overcoming westerners’ aversion to entomophagy as a major obstacle, Fraser believes that once eating insects becomes more popular, then will come the biggest challenge: keeping up with demand. “At the moment we use external suppliers to source our insects, and currently the infrastructure base is quite small,” Fraser says. “This is why we proposed the creation of an adaptable network of urban farms that could meet the growing demand requirements as insects become accepted by more and more western eaters.”

The Ento team’s 10-year plan seems rather aggressive, but in an article in the design magazine Core77, they point out that something similar has happened before: Just three decades ago, they write, “tourist guides warned British tourists about the strange and off-putting Japanese habit of eating raw fish.” But now, sushi has become a global phenomenon.

Maybe, with the help of these creative students, it won’t take quite so long to get us eating bugs.

(Damian Carrington, “Insects Could Be the Key to Meeting Food Needs of Growing Global Population,” The Observer, July 31, 2010; “Case Study: Ento, the Art of Eating Insects,” February 27, 2012)

[photos from Ento, used with permission]

Cooking Up a Trip “Around the World”

December 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

8050162462_87cdc95d86_nBack when I was a kid, waaaaay back before self-serve soda dispensers, we used to ask our friends behind the counter for an “Around the World.” That meant we wanted a little bit of every flavor in one cup. Can’t say that it tasted so great, but it was fun. I see that others call it a “Suicide” or “Swamp Water.” As I said, it wasn’t the flavor that made us order it.

This past weekend, my family and I were at a Burger King that had a “Coca-Cola freestyle,” serving over 100 flavors of drinks out of one machine. It’s just one example of how our kids’ globe is shrinking. My Around the World recipe had only about six ingredients. Now there’s a lot more “world” available for them to go “around.”

So much for my intro. What I’m really looking at in this post are other kinds of recipes—ones that don’t make an Around the World, but ones that come from around the world. Want to cook up some piri-piri sauce, vartabit, or bun ho? Here are some recipe sites I’ve found that will show you how, and take you on a world tour along the way. (Each of these sites is searchable by ingredient, recipe name, or country, and a couple have background information on each region and its food.)

And in honor of the tradition that’s become a part of this time of the year—putting pumpkin flavor in just about everything that’s edible—here are some pumpkin recipes, one from each site:

Who knows, maybe Coca-Cola will take a cue from Maine Root Handcrafted Beverages and add another soda flavor to their drink machine: Pumpkin Pie.

[photo: “Pumpkin carrot soup with cheddar, fried apples & pumpkin seeds,” by Blake JaBB, used under a Creative Commons license]

Please Don’t Ask Me to Eat That

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

Earlier this year we were with a group of missionaries who were asked to name the worst food in their host country. One lady, who had spent time in Belgium told us about a raw hamburger dish that I remember her calling something like “American beef.” No, not American beef, but American something. . . . Then I saw this article from Public Radio International. Filet américain. That’s what it’s called. Of all the dishes named by the missionaries, this is the one that most kicked in my gag reflex—just to hear about it. Some people eat it with a raw egg on top. That’s just going too far. The author of the article voices his own fear of this Belgian favorite, but not for health reasons. Rather, he’s afraid he’ll actually like it. And then, one thing would lead to another . . . .

Try it once, and soon you’re asking for it regularly at lunch, along with half a liter of red wine. And then you’re having coffee after, along with a digestif. Your afternoon productivity, what’s left of it, starts to slump. Like a good Belgian, you simply shrug your shoulders. . . . Six months go by, and you’re slipping out after you’ve finished a plate for a few quick drags on an unfiltered Lucky Strike. You try to go grow a handlebar mustache. . . .

And then you apply for Belgian citizenship because you know you’ll never get your filet américain fix back in the US.

Maybe it’s not an unwarranted fear, that you’ll become addicted to something that disgusts you. One of the foulest foods in Asia is the durian. Most people can’t even stand the smell. But, they say, try it once, you hate it. Taste it the second time, it’s tolerable. Try it again, and it’s your favorite.

I have a theory. One day our great great great grandparents were going through a famine, and they were forced to eat something that no one had ever needed to eat before. Out of necessity they got used to it. And then when times got better, they still kept it as part of their diet. Maybe it didn’t taste good, but it felt right. It became part of them, part of their story. And then it became part of everyone’s story, kept alive, if by no one else then by the person who could always get attention with “No, I really do think it’s good. Watch me eat some.”

Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest US, I learned to like a few things that might make my city friends squeamish: cow tongue and heart, calf brains (well, I never really enjoyed that one), and Rocky Mountain oysters (fried calf testicles). But I don’t have to go back to old-time examples of Americana to find foods that could gag my international friends. Take for instance a new item soon to be introduced on Burger King’s menu. I’d love to see what my non-American friends would think about their recently announced sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with fudge, caramel, and that all-américain favorite topping, bacon.

(Clark Boyd, “The ‘Américain’ Dream,” PRI’s The World, May 31, 2012; Dylan Stableford, “Burger King to Introduce Bacon Sundae,” Yahoo! News, June 12, 2012)

[photo: “Filet Americain (Raw Beef),” by Kyle Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license]

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