EDIBLE GOLD: IT’S A REAL THING. BUT WHY?

I was looking up something entirely different.  When I’d entered “history of” several (presumably popular) topics showed up, one of which was “history of eating gold.”  At the risk of revealing just how out of the food loop I am, eating gold was new to me.  So I read more.

According to Wikipedia, pictures of foods with edible gold are all over social media. (So maybe it isn’t just the food fad loop I’m out of!) Apparently this fad started as a viral phenomenon in Dubai, and now there’s a worldwide proliferation of restaurants and pastries using edible gold, including more accessible (i.e., less expensive) cafés and restaurants.

They missed a spot.
(Church of Camarate in Portugal)

Putting gold on food requires a very similar technique to putting gold on fancy furniture, musical instruments, books, paintings, and just about anything else that stood still long for Baroque decorators to gild. Gilders today primarily use oil gilding or water gilding techniques, both of which are virtually identical to techniques used by Egyptian tomb decorators in the 23rd century BCE. (Ceramic objects, large surfaces such as outdoor statues, and metal or glass surfaces are often gilded with other methods, most of which make food entirely inedible.)

Re-gilding the base of a Wurlitzer BB harp
  • The surface to be gilded is prepared.
    • Non-food surfaces are made as smooth as possible. This usually involves coating it with finely sanded gesso or a similar material.
    • Food surfaces are smoothed and settled. Any cooking should be done before applying the gold.
Only the edge of the gilding brush touches the gold leaf.
  • An adhesive is applied to the surface.
    • The smoothed gesso on non-food surfaces is covered with sizing.
      • Oil gilding uses linseed oil boiled with lead oxide litharge.
      • “Water” gilding uses rabbit-skin glue flooded with high-proof grain alcohol. (A friend who worked as a gilder told me she used Everclear; there was usually enough left for a drink when she finished a commission!)
    • Food surfaces are brushed with alcohol or very small amounts of water.
Gold leaf will stick to anything and tear.
  • The gold leaf, which is only a few molecules thick, is lifted using the static on a gilding brush or a special gilder’s knife. Touching the sheet of gold leaf directly will tear it.
  • Gold leaf is laid on the intended surface, gently pressed into adhesive with a soft brush, and left to dry.
    • For non-food gilding, the drying process includes a chemical bond forming between the gold leaf, the sizing, and the gesso underneath.
    • The adhesive water or alcohol used on edible gilding simply evaporates, leaving the gold leaf stuck to the surface below but not chemically bonded.
Re-gilding the column of an Erard Gothic harp
  • Excess gold leaf is brushed off, usually swept carefully into a jar to be used in another project.
  • After thoroughly drying (usually at least a day), the gilding is burnished. Because the gold is still thinner than the width of a human hair, burnishing must be done gently to avoid rubbing it off altogether.
    • Gold leaf applied with water gilding can be burnished to mirror brightness using agate stones.
    • It is very difficult to burnish gilding on food, though some people are just overachievers.
Show-offs
Gold leaf is very common on religious icons.

Most people are aware of gold used for gilding, artworks, architecture, and general beautification. Ancient Indians and Egyptians used gold in many ways: architecture, decoration, ornaments, religious ceremonies, and jewelry. They also used gold for mental, spiritual, and physical purification. They ingested gold in elixirs for medicinal purposes.

Ancient Egyptian braces
(I’ll bet he still forgot his retainer in the cafeteria.)

Medicines and elixirs made by court physicians, as well as the use of gold as a decorative garnish for foods and drinks, have been found in Japan, China, and India.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, gold as food decoration became a marker of extreme luxury and prestige. By this time, court physicians believed that gold could help with arthritis and other problems of sore limbs. During the Renaissance, this gold-as-medicine use got a big boost from Paracelsus (1493-1541), considered the father of modern pharmacology, who used gold in both pills and powders. This focus on gold for health held until the twentieth century.

Science DirectApplication of Gold in Biomedicine: Past, Present and Future
The gold in this jar, if pressed together, would almost be enough to fill a tooth.

But don’t rush out to grind up your gold jewelry. It won’t do anything for COVID-19! In fact, regular gold doesn’t do anything in the body: it isn’t even absorbed. There is some research underway into the use of particularly controlled gold nanoparticles as a system of drug delivery within the body, but that is still a long way from hitting the shelves at your local drugstore. Although edible gold is safe to eat, it has no nutritional value or health benefits. Also, be aware that edible gold must meet strict requirements under the code E 175. You can also find edible gold that is certified to be kosher or halal!

If you’re interested in eating gold, you can find it everywhere in the online market, worldwide, and from WalMart to Amazon. It’s available in gold leaves, flakes, or powders. And because it doesn’t do anything but look pretty, it’s usually used on top of the dish or drink. The New York restaurant Serendipity 3 has created the world’s (presumably most expensive) dessert: a $25,000 ice cream sundae 23-karat gold.

Hard Rock Café menu featuring a “24-Karat Gold Leaf Steak Burger”

A New York City food truck, 666 Burger, offered a “Douche Burger” for $666, to mock this trend. The burger includes Kobe beef, gruyere cheese, champagne steam, foie gras, and optional toppings such as lobster or caviar, all wrapped in gold leaf sheets. 

Franz Aliquo, the owner of 666 Burger said, “We took everything that people socially associate with rich people food and threw it on a burger and made it the most expensive, disgusting burger ever.” It may have been put on the menu as a joke, but the “Douche Burger” is not too far off from actual over-the-top expensive dishes (and burgers) on the menus at other restaurants. At least one person has tried to order the “Douche Burger” from the food truck.

.

.

“It’s a satirical expression of these burgers that people make and try to sell in all seriousness. We took the most offensive pieces from other famous burgers and just took it up a level. I mean, what’s the point of putting gold flakes on your food? It doesn’t add to the flavor. It’s just to be able to say you ate gold flakes.”

Franz Aliquo

Edible gold doesn’t oxidize or corrode. It is inert, has no taste, smell, or nutritional value. So why consume it?  Bottom line: conspicuous consumption.

Nothing says decadent extravagance like mashed potatoes.
Gilded chocolate crickets, anyone?

HOW THIS BLOG ENDED UP IN THE BAHAMAS

Sometimes a writer (and I’m not alone here) starts out to write one thing and something entirely different emerges.  My metaphor for this is heading for Maine and ending up in the Bahamas.  That’s what happened to this blog.  I started out to write TELLING TIME, about using food to set or reveal the time in which the story takes place.  What I had in mind was a timeline for foods and cooking equipment.

For Example, by 1900

As many of you know, I collect cookbooks, and have done so for decades. As I pulled relevant references off my shelves, I discovered over a dozen books specifically on the history of food and cooking. 

No more than an hour or so into this effort, I realized three things:

  1. Readers might not be as enamored of lists as I am.
  2. The list would go on forever!
  3. Such a blog wouldn’t be helpful in the general scheme of things.

And that’s when I headed for the Bahamas, and turned this blog into a Better Know Your Character effort.

Assuming you don’t want to draw entirely from your own life and experience, there’s a book for that. 

You can get food and cooking information for any time period you need, in as much detail as you need, and for virtually any place you need.  If you write across time periods and/or locations, one of the books covering a broader range would be a good choice. 

Cookbooks for Specific Geographic Needs
  • By region, for example New England, Northern India, the Balkans
  • Any state in the US
  • Virtually any country or territory
  • Virtually any city
    • I say virtually here because I don’t have every one. But given that I have books for Paris; Tbilisi; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; Denver; Rochester, NY; and Westminster, MD (to name a few), I’m confident you could find what you need.
  • Plantation cooking
  • Australian Outback cooking
  • Wilderness cooking
  • Pacific Island cooking
  • Appalachian cooking
Cookbooks by Time Period
  • The American colonial kitchen
  • By decade since at least 1900
  • Food and cooking during war.
    • For example, The Doughboy’s Cookbook (common foods and cooking in the trenches of World War I) or M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (cooking during WWII rationing).
    • Cooking during wars or other conflicts often focus on deprivation.
      • The recently published CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine has recipes Russian cooks developed or adapted to deal with food shortages throughout the Cold War.
      • During the Civil War, there was a time when there were no pigeons left in the city of Richmond because all had been killed for the table.
Cookbooks by Ethnic Heritage
  • African American
  • Native American
  • Results of mixed heritages
    • West African and French influences in Cajun cooking
    • Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences all along the Silk Road
  • Any cuisine by country of origin

Everyone has to eat sometime (except alien cyborgs).

What is your character’s attitude toward food? 

Cover all three aspects of attitudes: think, feel, do.

What does home cooking mean to your character? 

The answer to this question can tell all sorts of things about your character besides ethnicity:

  • Approximate age
  • Social class
  • Family of origin
What is involved in meal preparation?

If your modern character is making a meal, does s/he start with raw ingredients or put a prepared meal in the microwave? Does the answer change if company is coming? Is it a family meal? Do other family members share your character’s attitudes toward food and cooking?

What does your character eat? 

Strictly a meat and potatoes person? Omnivore? PescatarianVegetarian? Vegan And why?

  • Religious prohibitions
  • Animal rights
  • Health considerations
  • Cultural habits
  • Availability
What health concerns does a character address with food?

Many medical conditions are caused by unhealthy eating habits or require dietary adjustments to treat fully. Depending on the diet, this character may have cookbooks addressing the concern, request substitutions when eating out, or be unwilling to eat or cook around others.

  • Lack of a nutrient, such as calcium, Vitamin D, sodium
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance

Consider also the possibility of mental health concerns when eating or preparing food. A character with alcoholism, compulsive overeating, bulimia nervosa, etc. would likely display signs of those disorders that might be noticed by others. On the other hand, a character with severe depression, body dysmorphia, or OCD related to food might avoid social situations involving food altogether.

Food is for everyone

Whether your character lives to eat or eats to live—or is somewhere between the extremes—it’s difficult to write realistically without food coming into play somewhere, sometimes, at least occasionally. Making those mentions specific to your story/character is a big plus.

Bottom line advice to writers: Bring food and/or cooking into your story to add realism, specificity, and richness.