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Music – “Penicillin Boogie” from Tuitti Fruitti by Slim Gaillard. Released: 2010.
We’ve all had the experience of finding a plastic container, retrieved from the far reaches of the refrigerator and reeling in disgust upon opening it, assaulted by it’s intensely overpowering odour, not to mention the rainbow of fluorescent colours it now exhibits.
Although we hate to waste food, tossing the offending item is safer than risking our health (possibly our lives). But, wait. Some instances of food “going bad” have, over the course of history, actually benefited us and many of these occurrences were purely serendipitous.
Years ago in studying anthropology, I was intrigued to find several articles about ancient Nubian skeletons, which were located during archaeological excavations. The remains dated to approximately AD 350 to AD 550. During analysis, the bones, when viewed under ultraviolet light, appeared to fluoresce in a manner typical of modern bone, which has been affected by tetracycline (a broad spectrum antibiotic).
Research studies suggested that the Nubian practice of storing grain in deep jars for later consumption provided an ideal environment for the production of the little critters that produce tetracycline, approximately 1400 years before the antibiotic era! Without realizing it, this particular population was ingesting preventative doses of antibiotics, quite possibly staving off infections. How cool is that?
Without a lot of these little organisms, many of which seem to show up in foods we would normally deem a little “off”, we wouldn’t have penicillin, wonderful blue cheese, beer or wine and such treats as corn smut, or huitlacoche, a fungus (Ustilago maydis), which results in a blue/black mold on corn (depending on whom you ask, the corn smut fungus is considered either a disease or a delicacy -it is sometimes packaged as “corn truffle”!)
That wonderful sauce that millions of us enjoy, soy sauce, would not be possible except for Aspergillus oryzae, which is used to ferment a mixture of soybeans and wheat.
Sake is manufactured using a mold of the same group, which breaks down the starch in rice.
Even the familiar salami frequently has a culture of mold to improve flavour and where would we be without the mold which results in the delicious blue cheeses?
We have a lot of little organisms to thank for many of the foods we love. The moral of the story: savoury stuff may spring from serendipity!