Sunday, January 31, 2016

Apple #726: Honeydew Melon

Let's talk about Honeydew.

I know, it's the blah placeholder in hotel and restaurant fruit salads.  I know it's filler.  I know that its blah-ness has annoyed people to the point of outrage.  Kirsten King on BuzzFeed said, "It's about time we acknowledge the havoc honeydew melon is wreaking on all of our lives."

(No hyperbole there.)

Honeydew melon. Not actually wreaking havoc on anyone's life, and actually capable of being delicious.
(Photo from ProduceGreek)

King goes further, saying, "honeydew has this magic* ability to stay unripe [This, by the way, is categorically untrue] and taste like you're biting into a ball of spa-flavored Styrofoam." Her asterisk takes you to another asterisk which says "*shitty".

Then she puts gigantic capital red letters over various stock photos of people, shouting things like, PUT HONEYDEW IN MY SALAD AND I WILL CUT U. Over a picture of a couple happily eating fruit salad on a beach balcony she wrote, FINDS HONEYDEW IN SALAD, GETS DIVORCE.

OK, that last one is funny.

The point is, people are annoyed by honeydew.  I get it.  I've lost patience with it too -- in those crappy pre-made fruit salads.  Even The New York Times is fed up with honeydew (or maybe just Josh Barro at the NYT): "Every time I see a fruit platter at a hotel or a conference, I ask myself the same question: Where does all this honeydew melon come from, and does anyone actually want to eat it?"

Dawn Eisner, who used to be head of the buffet at the Radisson Plaza in Kalamazoo, Michigan (rather an odd source for Barro's article, but OK), said, “Nobody eats the green melon.” So why even serve it? “It looks nice next to watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple.”

In other words, who cares what it tastes like?  It looks good.  That's its sole purpose on the plate.  Can you imagine the aneurysm Tom Colicchio would have if he heard such a statement?

"You put something on the plate just for looks? And you don't care how it tastes? That's criminal."
(Photo of Chef Tom Colicchio from Bravo, sourced from the Dallas Observer)

One sentence tucked into the midriff of Barro's article says, "Partisans emphasized to me the importance of finding the right honeydew melon; under their theory, those of us who think we dislike honeydew are just scarred from all the hotel breakfasts and conference buffets where it is served underripe and out of season."

This theory is correct.

Ladies and gentlemen, don't blame the melon.  In fact, never blame the fruit.  Just as rock-hard underripe peaches sold in chain grocery stores across the country are giving peaches everywhere a bad name, so too are these hunks of underripe honeydew dumped into piles of fruit that lazy-ass hoteliers and cheap-ass restaurant owners want to call a fruit salad.  That is not fruit salad.  That is a bowl of laziness and food maltreatment that they want you to think is fruit salad.  That's somebody trying to work a Jedi mind trick on you and failing miserably.

The hotel & restaurant miserable fruit cup. Giving a bad name to good fruit everywhere.
(Yes, this is a stock photo that I did not pay for. That's what these lousy fruit cups are worth. And what the heck is that meat on the plate? From alamy.)

Think about it.  Fruit is nature's sugar-enticement.  Fruit is intentionally designed to make you want to eat it.  That plant's continued survival depends on you eating its fruit and fertilizing its seeds.  It is a matter of life and death for that plant that it must taste good.  If a fruit doesn't taste good, nobody eats it, the plant dies.

By serving these lousy, underripe, half-frozen, tasteless hunks of what never had the chance to become full-fledged honeydew, wedding caterers and buffet managers everywhere are contributing to the death of a species -- Cucumis melo, to be exact.

So, let's get to some truths about honeydew melon and maybe we can rescue it -- and ourselves -- from perdition.

  • Honeydew was first grown in the tropics of West Africa, and then the French discovered it. They cultivated it in southern France and most particularly in Antibes.  The name of the cultivar that we now grow in California and Arizona is called the White Antibes.

Antibes in southern France is on the coast of the Mediterranean between Cannes and Nice. Napoleon lived here for a while, at first by choice and then in prison.  For centuries, this has been a favorite spot for celebrities, everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Madonna. You think these people are going to eat lousy melons, or do you think they're going to eat some of the most delicious melon in the world?
(Photo from SunHat France)

  • Honeydew is also popular in China. It was an American who introduced honeydew to the Chinese -- finally, something we brought to them instead of the other way around.  It was a former US Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, who had founded his own seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, who gave seeds of the honeydew to some Chinese planters when he was there on a visit.
  • Let's put that in perspective too.  A guy who had been in charge of the entire US Department of Agriculture, who knows all the good stuff that can be grown in this country, and starts his own seed company, gives what to the Chinese? Honeydew. "I think this is good and I think you'll like it too" -- and he's saying that about honeydew.
  • In China, honeydew are sometimes called Wallace melons, after the guy who gave them the seeds.
  • (Wallace went on to become Vice President of the United States under FDR.)

Honeydew grow on the ground among vines, like their relatives the cantaloupe and pumpkin and cucumber. It is possible to grow them off the ground on trellises, but the melons get so heavy, it's best to support them with specially-made slings.
(Photo from Cherry Gal)

  • A lot of people say if they're going to eat melon, they'd prefer to eat cantaloupe rather than honeydew.  I think they think the cantaloupe is sweeter.  But in nutritional terms, honeydew & cantaloupe are the same.  Same amount of sugar per slice, same amount of calories.
  • Cantaloupe is also often victim to being served underripe or cut too close to the rind. But since it's easier to tell when you're doing that to cantaloupe, because the flesh of the melon will be an obvious green versus orange, that doesn't happen as often as it does with honeydew.  Even so, a lot of places do serve green-edged cantaloupe.

If you look closely, you can see that the edges of the cut chunks of this melon are green. This is a major violation in melon-eating. If you get a fruit cup and it's got cantaloupe with green corners on it like this, send it back. Don't stand for this unripe melon business anymore!
(Photo from CitiClean)

  • In fact, those green corners on cantaloupe are, to me, the bellweather indicator for how good or lousy a fruit salad is going to be. If I see those green corners in a container of fruit, I won't buy it. Somebody doesn't care enough to get the cantaloupe right, they're probably not going to get anything else in the salad right either.
  • Even if they did get the cantaloupe right, they probably didn't get the honeydew right.  One of the ways they may have gotten honeydew wrong is they may have frozen it.  This is just outright idiocy, but some people do it.
  • Don't freeze the honeydew.  You might as well suck all the flavor right out of it and call it a sponge. There's no resurrecting it after it's been frozen.
  • More often, people serve honeydew when it's just plain not ripe.  To be fair, it is not always easy to tell if a honeydew is ripe.  Here are some of the indicators to look for:
    • The outside skin should be a creamy, near-yellow color.
    • If it's white, it's not ripe
    • The skin should feel almost waxy, not fuzzy.
    • The melon should feel really heavy when you pick it up. (The cashier said after she'd bagged my honeydew, "Feels like you got a head in there." And no, I do not mean the dirty pun -- either of them.)
    • Press the round spot on either end of the melon. (I think of this as the fontanelle.) It should give a little to pressure.
    • Run your hand over the surface of the melon. If you can distinguish fine wrinkling, it's ready.
    • Smell it. If you don't smell anything, it's not ripe. If you smell the soft scent of melon, it's ready.
    • If the outside is creamy-colored but it's dinged up and looking a little bruised, it's probably overripe. But if you're going to eat the whole thing today and every other melon is not even close to being ripe, that might be the best choice in the bin.
  • The Produce Guy says the honeydew is probably the easiest melon to tell when it's ripe, but interestingly enough, he kind of gets his selection wrong in this video. His method (45 seconds in) is to wet his thumb & wipe it off on his clothes to remove the oils present in his skin, and then rub his thumb on the outer surface of the melon. He says if it squeaks, the melon is ripe. In my opinion, there are a lot of reasons why this method could produce faulty results, and it looks like that's what happened in this instance.

  • Something else to consider is the time of year. Honeydew does have a season, in spite of the fact that it seems to be always present in produce sections and fruit cups all year long. Honeydew are best at the end of summer, beginning of September.  
  • The good news is, once you get a honeydew home from the store, it will continue to ripen at room temperature. 
  • I just want to highlight this statement because it directly contradicts Kirsten King's hyperbolic and crude and factually incorrect remark that honeydew have some magic ability to stay unripe. In fact, honeydew are the only type of melon that will ripen after it's been picked, even if it has been picked way too early.
  • Since most melons (and most fruit in general) that are sold in grocery stores are sold in a very underripe state, it may take a couple days before your honeydew is fully ready.
  • If you want it to ripen faster, put the honeydew in a paper bag. This will trap the chemicals the fruit emits during the ripening process, and you'll hasten ripening maybe by about a day's worth or so.
  • If you want to delay ripening, or keep your ripe melon from becoming too ripe, that's when you put it in the refrigerator.  But in most cases, once you've got your melon home, refrigeration won't be necessary.
  • After you cut it open, then you'll want to refrigerate it.

This honeydew is overripe. See how the flesh has turned dark in places, almost to a liquid? You could still use this, I suppose, but the flavor will be a little off, not quite as light and delightful as it should be.
(Photo from Everyday Healthy! Everyday Delicious!)

Here's the overripeness in cube form.  The points on some of these chunks are kind of a yellowish-green. They've gone too soft, almost pithy.
(Photo from Everyday Healthy! Everyday Delicious!)

Also not what you want to see in cubed honeydew.  Pale, almost white, no juicy glisten, unripe tough green at the corners. Unappetizing.
(Photo from Aunt Mid's)

This is what cubed honeydew should look like. Mostly green, glistening with juice, firm but with a little bit of softness at the part where the seeds grew. Much more appealing.
(Photo from Fresh Start Foods)

  • When you cut open your honeydew, scoop out the seeds only from the part you're going to eat.  Leave the seeds in the other portion, wrap it snugly in plastic wrap, and put that in the fridge. The seeds will help the melon stay a little fresher longer.
  • Once you've scooped out the seeds from the part you're going to eat, when you cut away the rind, aim for about 1/4 inch away from the rind.  You don't want to cut too close to the peel because the flesh tends to be tougher there and have less flavor.  That tougher flesh also looks whiter than the rest of the melon, so cut off whatever looks white and keep what looks green.
  • (That's another thing the Produce Guy got wrong; he cut way too close to the rind.)

See how the flesh of the cut melon gets lighter right next to the rind?  That's what you want to cut away.
(Photo from fit brains)

  • As with any fruit, you can assist the flavor of the cut honeydew by sprinkling it with sugar and lemon juice. Let it sit in the sugar & lemon for a bit, and it will start to break into the fruit and release more flavor. Chefs call this "macerating" the fruit, which sounds either violent or sexual. But it's only lemon juice & sugar. 
  • If the fruit is fully ripe, that shouldn't be necessary. The fruit should be juicy & sweet enough on its own.
  • All that should pay off with this: the taste of a ripe, delicious, juicy honeydew. When you cut into the melon, juice will run out and you'll be able to smell its light, sweet fragrance. When you bite into a piece, it will be soft and giving, and the taste will be somewhat delicate but still sweet, with a kind of light green lusciousness. It has almost a pear-like texture but without the graininess. It will be smooth, cool, juicy, delightful, sweet, lovely, and lush.
  • Now that's a honeydew.

I got a honeydew from the store today, knowing I was going to do this entry. I'm going to go downstairs right now and see if it's ripe.
(Photo from Food for Thought)

P.S. I almost forgot to tell you my favorite honeydew joke!
What did the two melons say to each other?
"Sorry, dear, I cantaloupe."
"Oh, honeydew."

Josh Barro, That Honeydew Melon Looks Good, but Does Anyone Eat It? The New York Times, August 2, 2014
WebMD, Honeydew: 7 Fun Facts
University of Arizona, Collecge of Agrciulture and Life Sciences, Honeydew Melons (use to this source with caution; there are a lot of contradictory and even incorrect statements here)
Tucson Community Supported Agriculture, About Honeydew Melons

Monday, January 25, 2016

Apple #725: Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs

I've had a request!  Daily Apple reader Millicent wants to know, in short, what's the deal with stinkbugs.  She said:

What is up with so-called stink bugs? I just moved one out of the house yesterday, not handling it directly but with a Bounty paper towel, and my hands still stunk afterwards. A friend and I were talking about them this weekend, and we both think that these bugs weren't around--certainly not in these numbers--even ten years ago.

I'm a little surprised that Millicent discovered one of these bugs in her house in January, because I'm willing to bet that, like ladybugs, they hunker down and sleep for the winter and emerge in spring.  I'm also willing to bet an enormous amount of money that these are a non-native species that arrived here recently and have no predators, and that's why they're suddenly everywhere.  Ten thousand dollars, that's what I'll bet.

I asked Millicent to send me a picture of the bug she saw because often the common name one person has for a bug is different than another person's common name, so I wanted to make sure I was going to talk about the bug she meant.

She sent me a link to a general Google search page for "stink bug," so I am 95% certain that the particular stink bug she saw is the Brown Marmorated Stink bug.

The stink bug in question -- Brown Marmorated, that is.
(Photo by Thomas V. Myers, National Pest Management Association, sourced from USA Today)

And it turns out, your Apple Lady is correct on all points.  I'll take that $10,000 now, please.

  • There are some 4,700 stink bug species in the world, and about 250 of them are native to the US and Canada.  We never paid much attention to any of them because they weren't here in hordes.  Then the Brown Marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) showed up.
  • The Brown Marmorateds are native to several countries in Asia -- China, Japan, Korea (North and South, presumably), and Taiwan. They made their first recorded appearance in the United States in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998.  It is presumed that they traveled here on some sort of shipping container.

Billy Joel should probably write another verse about the stinkbugs showing up in Allentown.

  • This species of stinkbug does have predators that are native to the US and Canada -- other types of stink bugs, assassin bugs (yes, there is such a thing), and parasites that feed on their eggs.  But these predators also prey on several other bug species, so there aren't enough of them to tackle the ever-expanding Brown Marmorated population.
  • They have now been sighted in at least 40 states, and in very high numbers in 19 of those 40.
  • They pretty much eat everything.  They like just about every kind of fruit that grows on a tree -- citrus fruits, apples, peaches, plums, mulberries, persimmons, figs, you name it they eat it -- plus sweet corn and field corn, ornamental trees, soybeans, lima beans -- pretty much every kind of bean --  green peppers, and weeds.
  • They will poke a straw-like appendage through the skin of the fruit and suck up the sap, leaving behind clusters of brownish white badness.  Some people say the damage they leave behind is often in the shape of a cat face, but I think those people are a little creative with their visualizations.

Damage to an apple caused by the pernicious Brown Marmorated stink bug.
(Photo from Penn State University Department of Entomology)

  • When the bugs are frightened or disturbed or squashed, they emit a very unpleasant stink from their glands.  It can be difficult to get the stink off your hands or your clothes. Some people are allergic to it.
  • They're otherwise harmless to people -- they don't sting or bite -- but they can be annoying as all get-out, especially because of the stink.  And they're hard to get rid of.
  • Most pesticides don't work on them, including the kinds of sprays that are sold to the general public for in-home use.  If you smash them as you would any other bug, you'll get the stink on your skin or your clothes or your carpet or your furniture. 
  • People suggest using a vacuum to suck them up, but if you get enough of them in your vacuum, they can stink up the vacuum.
  • One entomologist from Cornell University says a better way to kill these stink bugs is to fill a household spray bottle with a solution of soapy water, which is about 1% or 2% soap.  Dish soap is probably the easiest thing to use.  Spray 'em to death.
  • The best thing to do is to make sure the stink bugs don't get in your house in the first place.  Seal up cracks along window frames or around doors with caulk, use those shields you can stick on the bottom of your door, do as much as you can to stop up any crevices a stink bug could sneak through.
  • They'll most likely want to get into your house before winter comes so they have a place to sleep through the cold weather.  Then when things warm up in spring, they'll start stirring again.  That's when most people notice them out and about.  If you happen to catch them just after they've woken up, it won't take much to bump them off because they'll still be groggy and hungry and slow. 
  • The good news is, it looks like some birds here in the US are beginning to develop a taste for the Brown Marmorateds, and people have also reported seeing some lizards eating them too.  So maybe more natural predators will emerge and help us keep these stink bugs from eating every last thing in sight and stinking up the joint besides.

Normally, I include more pictures in an entry, but these bugs are not so attractive looking, and photos of their eggs or of them swarming give me the willies.  So I'll provide links for those who don't mind looking at such things and move on.

Penn State University, Department of Entomology, Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Bill Cary, Indianapolis Star via USA TodayIt's stink bug season: Here's how to get rid of them, April 3, 2015
Doyle Rice, USA Today, Ding, dong, stink bugs calling on warm, cozy homes, October 15, 2013
New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers, Brown Marmorated Stink Bug FAQs
Orkin, Stink Bugs 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Apple #724: Champagne and Headaches

I was talking with a co-worker about various Christmas and New Year's celebrations we each had in the past month or so, we discovered we'd both had some champagne. She said, "I don't usually drink champagne because it always gives me a headache."

I said that was usually true for me too, but this particular time, I didn't get a headache.  I suspected this was because the champagne that was purchased for the group was higher-quality than what I've had at New Year's celebrations in the past.

My co-worker and I aren't alone in this champagne-gives-me-headaches business, I know.  I've heard other people say that of champagne.  But why is that?  Is it something to do with how champagne is made compared to other wines?  And please don't say it's the bubbles.

Champagne: festive beverage, or headache producer? This champagne is from Château de Bligny in France.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

  • First of all, let's get it off the table right now that if you drink too much of any alcohol, you're going to get a headache.  That's a given. But I'm not talking about hangover headaches, I'm talking about drink half a glass and bang, you've got a headache.  This happens to me only with champagne and with no other alcohol that I've tried.
  • There are a lot of theories out there that say various compounds in this or that wine may give you a headache.  Most of the compounds are those that are present in red wines -- sulfites or tyramines, or tannins from the barrels in which the red wines are aged or fermented -- but champagne is a white wine, so none of those can be the headache-inducing culprits in champagne.
  • The other compounds which people say could be a factor are histamines.  Yes, the same thing that can trigger allergic reactions or make you sneeze. If you drink a wine that has lots of histamine in it, your blood vessels could dilate in response to the histamine, and bang, you've got a headache.
  • However. Sources disagree about whether white wine has more or fewer histamines than red wine. Histamines come from the grape skins, one source says. Champagne does not have grape skins, as you'll learn, so there won't be histamines there. Histamine comes from bubbly wines, another source says. But how can there be histamine in carbon dioxide? I smell a poorly-researched explanation that's just getting passed around the internet without any rigorous inquiry.
  • I also think the histamine explanation is kind of bogus. It smacks of Americans' tendency to view food and drink as a vitamin-resource or a curative thing or a nutritionally problematic thing, and if you eat this like a pill or drink that like a restorative draft you'll be healed.  
  • The theory that holds more water with me is that most champagne is bad liquor.  It's not the champagne that's giving you the headache, it's the badness of it.
  • The reason I think this is probably the truth is I discovered this about gin.  If I had some well gin, the next day I'd have a powerfully bad headache. But when I upgraded to Tanqueray, the headache the next day was not so bad.  I upgraded further to Bombay Sapphire. Barely a headache, if any at all the next day.  So Bombay Sapphire is my gin of choice and I've enjoyed all the gin & tonics I've had since.

Bombay Sapphire. Fewer headaches than the well gin. It's their big selling point.
(Photo from Bacardi Limited)

  • Back to the champagne.
  • People who actually know things about wine (this is not me) say that most of the stuff that's drunk on New Year's Eve or other celebratory occasions is not actually champagne.  It's white and it's bubbly, and it's got the word champagne on the label, but it's a distant imitation of the real stuff.
  • Real champagne is first of all made not in California or Australia or who knows where else, but in the northeast region of France called Champagne.
  • This is not just the French being snooty; actual champagne from Champagne has several characteristics that make it unique -- and better, compared to sparkly stuff made elsewhere.

The northern region in France called Champagne includes the town of Riems, which is the visually impaired Dom Pierre Pérignon's Benedictine monastery was located.
(Map from Wine Lovers Village)

  • To explain this, let me tell you a story.  In the late 1600s, the only wine being made was red wine. A nearly blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon (Dom is an honorary title for monks) took over as cellar master for his monastery.  The red wine that his monastery was producing was coming out as a pinkish red because of the cooler temperatures of the region where they lived.  The king was preferring a darker red wine from Bourgogne -- a Burgundy -- so Pérignon wanted to try to make his wine competitive.
  • Worse, not only was his wine turning out pink, it had bubbles in it.  This was a mistake!  Wine is not supposed to have bubbles!  
  • The cause of the bubbles was the same as the reason for the pink color: the region's cooler temperatures (Riems is at about the same latitude as southern Canada). When the monks bottled their pink wine, the cooler temperatures halted the fermentation process.  Then when spring came along and warmed up the wine in the bottles, the fermentation started up again.  The resulting gases could not escape inside the sealed bottles, so the wine became bubbly.
  • The bubbles were causing all kinds of problems, actually.  Come springtime, bottles of wine were exploding in the cellar, shattering glass and spraying wine everywhere.  If the glass wasn't exploding, the stoppers that were made of hemp and oil were shooting out and wine was spraying everywhere.  The Dom had to do something to fix the problem.

Statue of Dom Pierre Pérignon
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • Pérignon made various alterations to try to get rid of the bubbles: he removed the skins of the grapes, and he declared that the grapes should be pressed quickly and efficiently to keep any part of the skin out of the resulting juices. 
  • He also experimented with blending three types of grapes: Pinot Noir (red grape that hails from nearby Burgundy), Chardonnay (white wine grape also from Burgundy), and Pinot Meunier (red wine grape which, by itself, does not produce stellar wines).
  • He further dictated lots of quality improvements: the first press (cuvée) of grapes should be achieved  only by the weight of the grapes piled on top of each other.  Any bruised grapes were to be rejected. Harvesting was to be done only in the cool of the morning. The vines should be pruned so as to grow no taller than 3 feet, which would produce small, flavorful, and easily harvested yields.
  • Legend has it that when Pérignon tasted his new 3-grape blend (the first white wine, by the way), he said, "Come quickly, brothers! I'm tasting stars!"  (True champagne enthusiasts will dismiss this story as hogwash.) His new wine was lighter in color and although the bubbles weren't entirely gone, he found the new wine so delightful, he decided to keep going with it. The king apparently found it delightful, too.
  • Pérignon came up with still more improvements.  He changed the shape of the bottle and used heavier glass, which kept the bottles from exploding. He also had stoppers made of cork shipped from Spain, and the cork did not shoot out of the bottles as the other stoppers did.  So he and his monastery continued to produce champagne -- the wine named after the region where they lived -- to great success.
  • About a hundred years later, a young Frenchwoman whose husband died unexpectedly took over the running of his champagne house.  She improved her husband's product still further.  This was the Widow (Veuve, in French) Clicquot.
  • She had her cellar master rotate the bottles once a day to reduce the build-up of bubbles. She also had the bottles stored on their sides so the sediment collected there, and then she had the bottles uncorked during the second fermentation period (in the spring, when temperatures warmed up again). The bubbles that had accumulated would force the collected sediment out of the bottles, and then they would be re-corked to retain the wine.

Champagne bottle tipped sideways, sediment visible at the bottom. This is what they would uncork the bottle to get rid of.
(Photo from Ekaloria)

Champagne bottles are stored on special racks that allow the neck to tilt downwards. Each day the bottles are rotated and the racks are tilted so that by the end of the process, the bottles are almost entirely upside down.
(Photo from Ekaloria)

  • These two procedures, called riddling and dégorgement respectively, are still undertaken in houses that produce the real French Champagne (together, these processes are called the méthode traditionelle).  It's very expensive to have somebody turn each bottle of wine each day, and then undertake the tricky business of getting rid of the sediment and re-corking the bottles without losing the wine. 
  • Places that produce the cheap stuff don't do these things.  Or they may do the riddling and the disgorging, but they don't use the particular 3-grape blend  (most omit the lesser-known Pinot Meunier). The worst offenders use the cheapest white grapes/wine available, they dump a crapton of sugar into it, they don't put the wine through a second fermentation period but rather inject the bubbles into the wine, and they don't even age the wine in bottles but use vats.
  • You see? Once you know how the real stuff is make, the pretend process seems pretty offensive, doesn't it?
  • But people buy the cheap stuff because it's much more affordable than the real thing. Unfortunately, with the cheap stuff you get headaches. 
  • I return to my initial question, why should that be?

Och, if only I'd gone for the actual champagne instead of the cheap-o sparkling wine!
(Photo from Juicing for Health)

  • Any cheaply made liquor is going to be harder on the noggin than better-made stuff because the better-made stuff has gone through more processes that remove the impurities.  The liquor has gone through extra distillation or filtration of some sort so that the sludgy by-products of fermentation have been removed.  When you buy a more expensive bottle of liquor or wine, the extra that you're paying for is mostly someone's time to make the contents of the bottle better.
  • The bad by-products of fermentation that the better houses filter out can't be processed by our bodies.  Our bodies therefore interpret those by-products as toxic. Poison. Drink a little of it, you get a headache. Drink a lot of it, you throw up.  The more poorly-made the thing is that you're drinking, the faster you're going to hit those toxic levels and get a headache or other Reject signals from your body.
  • So I'm going to recommend that, if you're going to go with champagne, choose the higher-priced and probably better-made stuff if you can. The truly good stuff can go for around $100 to $200 a bottle, so that may not be the best choice for most people.
  • The true French Champagnes are made by vintners you've heard of: Mumm, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Perrier-Jouet, Moet et Chandon, Louis Roederer, etc.  But they are often really expensive. Are there other options to choose that might be tasty and non-headachey but that aren't so pricey?
  • There are some vintners in California which are owned by French wineries. They grow their grapes in the Champagne district and ship them to California where they use nearly all French grapes and maybe some California grapes to bottle and produce the wines there. These California-produced wines are called champagne, even though they don't entirely originate in Champagne. These French-American champagnes include
    • Domaine Cameros (owned by Taittinger in France)
    • Domaine Chandon (owned by Moet and Chandon in France)
    • Mumm Cuvee Napa (owned by G.H. Mumm in France)
    • Piper Sonoma (owned by Piper-Heidsick in France) 
    • Roederer Estate (owned by Louis Roederer)
  • Also, it is better to choose the Brut (dry) champagne because this means it's not as sweet. Extra-dry is a little sweeter than Brut. Sec or demi-sec and it's downright sweet. The sweeter the champagne, the more likely it is to make your head hurt. 
  • If the bottle says cuvée, that means it's made from the first press of grapes. Like extra virgin olive oil, that means it's the good stuff. If it says faille, it means it's from the second press. Not so good.
  • If the bottle says "charmat bulk" or just plain "charmat," that means it was fermented in a vat. Put that bottle down and run in the other direction.

Once the champagne is poured, the bubbles are an indicator of its quality. The bubbles should be small -- pinpoint size or smaller -- and they should travel in a trail up from the bottom or along the sides of the glass.  Large bubbles mean more gas, which means more impurities in the champagne. Bubbles that cling to the glass as opposed to traveling indicate a lower-quality champagne -- and in fact, it's probably only a sparkling wine.
(Photo from Fodor's Travel)

  • Even those California/French hybrids can be costly, so some people will choose the even less expensive stuff anyway. But be warned, if you choose a cheap masquerader instead of the real thing, your body will start giving you the Toxic Alarm (headache) signal way sooner than you'd like, and you won't enjoy it much at all. And the whole point of champagne, after all, is to enjoy it.
  • Finally, a serving tip: If you do serve true champagne, do not wrap a towel or napkin around the label.  This may seem to us now like a tried & true convention, but it's only become common when waiters were instructed to hide the cheap-o label so the host could pass it off as the good stuff.  Richard Nixon was famous for serving himself Chateau Lafite Rothschild or similarly super-expensive wines and then serving his guests dreck and having the waiters cover the label so they'd assume they were getting the good stuff too. The practice of obscuring the label for this purpose is called "pulling a Nixon."

If you're going to go to all the trouble of purchasing a real Champagne, don't go hiding the label with a towel. You wouldn't want anyone to suspect you of pulling a Nixon, would you? Pour the champagne as you would any wine, but keep the towel handy to catch any condensation drips.
(Photo from WikiHow)

  • P.P.S. Some research suggests that compounds in the 3-grape blend in Champagne may improve spatial memory, our ability to navigate and perform complex tasks. Researchers are investigating champagne as a substance that may delay or possibly even prevent dementia.

champagnebythebottle, Champagne headache (Why you don't get them from Champagne)
Wine Searcher, Champagne Blend Wine
Etiquette Scholar, Champagne
Laurel Hiestand, The Story of Champagne
The Wine Company, Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne, December 6, 2012
About Food, Champagne History
Ekaloria, Champagne -- The Most Delightful and Romantic Wine in the World
CNN Money, Why this champagne costs $2,000 a bottle, November 7, 2014
Veni, Vidi, Vino, Wine FAQ: Why Do Some Wines Give Me Headaches? July 21, 2013
Gizmodo, Why Cheap Booze Makes Your Hangover So Horrible, 12/7/2012
The Wall Street Journal, Why Do I Get Headaches From Wine?
MigreLief, Don't Start the New Year with a Champagne Headache, December 28, 2011
David Wolfe, Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease with Champagne

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Apple #723: Dementia

I've been looking up all kinds of thing about dementia and Alzheimer's Disease because it seems more and more apparent that my family is looking down the long barrel of what is most likely Alzheimer's where my mom is concerned.  She hasn't been officially diagnosed as having that (it's unfortunately common for a doctor not to tell a patient when he or she may have Alzheimer's because it's an upsetting diagnosis), so I could be wrong (but I don't think I am), or maybe I'm speaking too soon.  But I don't think it's ever too soon to get information.

And I figured, as long as I'm looking up all this stuff, why not share some of what I'm learning with you.  Since we're all living longer, chances are better than good that most of our parents will experience some form of dementia at some point.  So while I'm one of the first among my friends to be facing this in my parents, I'm sure that many of my friends will soon be entering this territory too.

It's not really a fun place to be.

But information helps, as much as anything can.  It helps to understand what's going on and why, helps to know that the changes that are happening are not the result of some conscious decision but are rather the result of some uncontrollable change in brain biology.  So that's why I keep looking up stuff, and that's why I think it might be helpful for someone else to read what I'm learning.

One of my big questions is, what is dementia, exactly?  People keep throwing this word around and I'm having a hard time getting a fix on what the word actually means.  I get especially confused by how people use the word in relationship with Alzheimer's.

A good visual representation of dementia
(Image from the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists, London)

Definition of Dementia

  • A lot of sources will say that the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's is that dementia is a generic term that refers to a set of symptoms, and Alzheimer's is a specific disease.  But then when they further describe dementia, they describe it as being characterized by symptoms, so I get confused.  
  • One site calls dementia a syndrome, and based on what I've read elsewhere, I think that's probably the best way to think of it.  So let's go with that, and I'll break it down further from there.
  • Dementia is
    • A generic term that may apply in several circumstances
    • A syndrome, or a combination of symptoms that together indicate dementia
    • A term used to describe a significant loss of cognitive function 
  • In order for the symptoms to add up to dementia, at least two of the following have to be present:
    • Memory loss
    • Difficulty finding the right words
    • Inability to focus or pay attention
    • Problems in logical reasoning
    • Problems with problem-solving, such as planning or organizing or carrying out complex tasks
    • Difficulty with physical coordination and motor functions
    • Disorientation issues, such as getting lost
    • Problems with visual perception
  • The symptoms need to be significant and lasting, as opposed to occasional or passing or temporary.
  • The symptoms do not resolve with changes in medication, or the cessation of an illness or an infection.

Another problem with trying to understand dementia is that everybody's list of symptoms is slightly different.  But the major elements are often the same, and they all indicate significant, noticeable cognitive impairment.
(Image from LifeStyle Options, Inc.)

  • Additional symptoms may include psychological changes, such as
    • Inappropriate behavior
    • Agitation
    • Paranoia
    • Hallucinations 
  • A lot of people equate dementia with aging, or they think it's just a normal part of aging.  This is partly because it has become so common.  About 1% of people aged 65 have some form of dementia.  In people age 80, it's around 11%.
  • That may not sound like much, but in 2012, about 41 million people in the US were 65 or older.  Applying those percentages of frequency of dementia within certain age groups, somewhere between 410,000 and 4 million people had dementia in 2012.

Somewhere between 1% and 10% of people over 65 have dementia.  Looks like there are about 30 people in this photo.  Taking this as a representative sample of the general population, 1 to 3 of the people in this photo would have dementia.
(Photo from the Town of Queensbury)

  • So, dementia is common, but that doesn't mean it's normal.  In fact, dementia is a sign that something is wrong. Pain is something else that's common, but just because lots of people have pain for any number of reasons, that doesn't mean nothing's wrong.  In fact, pain is the alarm bell that something is wrong.  Same is true of dementia.

Causes of Dementia

  • A lot of different types of illnesses or conditions can cause dementia.  These illnesses or conditions each have their own suite of cognitive symptoms.  There is a lot of overlap in the symptoms of each of the causes, but the causes are often distinguished from each other in terms of which symptom appears first, or which of the symptoms is most prevalent.
  • Things that can cause dementia:
    • Alzheimer's Disease -- the most common cause of dementia
    • Lewy Body Dementia  -- similar to Alz in terms of the protein bodies in the brain, but with this, short-term memory is OK, but you get hallucinations.
    • Parkinson's Disease --  primarily characterized by muscle rigidity and tremors, plus the dementia
    • Vascular Dementia -- in most cases, this means caused by a stroke.  This kind of dementia looks very similar to Alzheimer's, and some people may have both. Some symptoms that may be different than Alz include laughing or crying inappropriately, loss of bladder or bowel control, or hallucinations. Second-most common cause of dementia.
    • Other medical conditions such as alcoholism, thyroid disease, thiamine deficiency, electrolyte imbalance, or HIV infections
    • Drug interactions or toxicity
    • Brain injuries or illnesses other than stroke, including infections like meningitis or syphilis or fluid build-up in the brain, or brain tumors, or Pick's disease which is due to atrophy of the brain.
Of the possible causes of dementia, Alzheimer's is the most common
(Pie chart from Cargo Collective)

  • Isn't this fun? All the things that can go wrong with your brain?  Egad. 
  • The point is, if you think you are experiencing dementia, or if you think someone you know has dementia, it's important to get thee to the physic to get it diagnosed.  Dementia means there's a problem in the works someplace, and it's important to identify the cause of the problem.
  • In some cases, the cause of the problem is really depressing and not very treatable.  But in other cases, it is treatable and it's important to act sooner rather than later.  And for those conditions which aren't treatable, it's helpful to start making plans sooner rather than later, so nobody's scrambling later on.
  • Also, if you need to start looking for resources to help you help someone who has dementia, the Area Agencies on Aging is a good place to start.  This agency has offices located throughout the country, in accordance with a 1973 federal law that says we have to do more for our aging family members.  They are there to help people of all income levels find resources and support for the challenges we all face as we age.  They have to be there, and they have to help, so take them up on it.

WebMD, Dementia and lots of other related pages
Mayo Clinic, Dementia
Alzheimer', What Is Dementia? and lots of other related pages
Prevention Magazine, 55% of Doctors Keep a Patient's Alzheimer's Diagnosis Secret, April 1, 2015
Alzheimer's Disease International, The Prevalence of dementia worldwide
Ortman, Velkoff, and Hogan, US Census Bureau, An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States