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.

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“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?

SALT

It’s everywhere!  And surely anything as ubiquitous as salt has a place in your writing. The English language is sprinkled liberally with salt.  The following phrases are so common that they are clichés, and writers note: as such these may have a place in dialogue but seldom, if at all, in narrative. No doubt most if not all of these are familiar, so take this as a nudge to use them.

Basamaci Restaurant in Shiraz is made entirely of salt.
Wieliczka-Zwiedzanie Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland
  • Rub salt into the wound: make a painful experience worse
  • Salt a mine: bring in ore or something else to make the source seem rich
  • Salt the books: inflate receipts to falsely show more money 
  • Salt of the earth: a really good person
  • Salting the earth: victors sowed salt to prevent the growth of plants on enemy land
  • Worth one’s salt (or not): has earned his money (or not)
  • Take something with a pinch/grain of salt: view skeptically, think something is exaggerated
  • Salt away: save for the future
  • Old salt: old seaman
  • Above/below the salt: above is closer to the seat of power, indicating the diners’ relative status
  • Salt mine: figuratively, work, especially a difficult job or task
  • Salty language: somewhat rude or shocking 

Writers: Consider building a scene or a plot around one of these

Salt Mines in India

Salt in Religion 

As valuable as salt has been, finding it used in religious ceremonies is only to be expected.

Different types of salt can make a rainbow of flames
  • In Hittite rituals, during Semite and Greek festivals at the time of the new moon, salt was thrown into fire where it popped and crackled.
  • Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made offerings of salt and water to their gods.
    • Some historians think this may have been the origin of Holy Water in Christian rituals.
  • In Aztec tradition, the fertility goddess (Huixtocihuatl) presided over salt and salt water.
  • Hindus consider salt auspicious and use it in weddings and house-warmings.
  • Devotees of Jainism lay an offering of raw rice with a bit of salt before a deity to symbolize devotion.
    • Salt is sprinkled on cremains before they are buried.
  • Mahayana Buddhists use salt to ward off evil spirits.
    • After a funeral, a pinch of salt is thrown over the left shoulder to prevent evil spirits from entering the house, a practice that is also copied by superstitious people of many cultures.
Shinto Priestess
  • In Shinto Buddhism, salt is used for ritual purification (people and places).
    • Small piles of salt are placed at the entrances of shrines to ward off evil and attract patron spirits.
  • In Judaism, salted bread is recommended for passing around the table after the Kiddush.
    • Sabbath bread is dipped in salt, as are the bitter herbs at Passover.
  • Both Jewish and Muslim dietary laws require removing blood from freshly slaughtered meat; salt and brine are used for the purpose.
  • In Wicca, salt is symbolic of the element Earth; it cleanses harmful or negative energy. A dish of salt and one of water are nearly always present on an altar, and salt is used in many rituals and ceremonies.

What if a character not of a particular culture or religion learned something about the rituals and decided to practice them?

Catedral del Sal, Colombia

When most people think “salt” they think of seasoning food.  In fact, only 6% of salt is consumed by people.  Even so, gourmets identify at least 12 salts used in food preparation. Also, salty is one of the five basic tastes (along with sweet, bitter, sour, and umami). In addition, salt releases food molecules into the air, giving food an aroma. And FYI, apart from the basic tastes, almost all other tastes are actually smell. In small amounts, salt curbs bitterness and enhances sweet, sour, and umami. In higher amounts, it reduces sweetness and enhances umami, great for savor and meat dishes.

  • Table salt: most common, from underground deposits, highly refined and finely ground, usually treated with an anti-caking age. Often iodine is added to prevent goiter.
  • Kosher salt: flakier and coarser grained than table salt, good for sprinkling on food and cooking. Does not have additives. Not kosher itself, it’s used in the koshering process
  • Sea salt: from evaporated sea water, usually unrefined and coarser grained than table salt. Contains minerals (e.g., zinc, potassium, iron) and flavor from where harvested.
  • Himalayan pink salt: purest salt in the world. It contains the 84 elements found in the human body.
  • Celtic sea salt (gray salt): harvest off the coast of France, mineral rich, chunky grains.
  • Fluer de sel (flower of salt):delicate, paper-thin crystals, harvested by hand with wooden rakes, the most expensive of all food salts
  • Kala namak (black salt): it’s Himalayan, with a faint sulfur aroma that goes tofu (for example) the taste of eggs
  • Flake salt: harvested by boiling sea water, thin irregular crystals, very low mineral content
  • Black and red Hawaiian salt: both coarse-grained and crunchy, great with seafood and meat.
  • Smoked salt: slow smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire (e.g., hickory, mesquite, apple, oak, alder); varies in flavor
  • Pickling salt: used for pickling and brining, no added iodine or anti-caking agents, not many base minerals

Consider a character who has 5 or 6 types of salt on hand: which kinds and why?

Salt Mine in Belarus

Myriad Uses for Salt 

In researching this topic, I read that there are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Searching online for uses for salt turns up lists of all sorts of lengths—6, 12, 20, 55—more than enough to establish salt’s place in the life of your character.  Is your character thrifty, and thus finds salt a less expensive alternative to cleaning, medical, or beauty products? Does your character strive for simplicity, and want to purge as many products as possible? Here are a few examples. Each bigger topic could be researched separately.

  • Around the home
    • Keep wicker looking new
    • Put out a fire
    • Deodorize shoes
    • Prevent new towels from fading in the wash
  • Health and beauty
    • Alternative to mouthwash
    • Exfoliate your skin
    • Dandruff treatment
    • Gargle saltwater for sore throat
  • Cleaning with salt
    • Remove tea and coffee stains from mugs and carafes
    • Clean a dirty room
    • Refresh chopping boards
    • Get rid of watermarks on wood furniture
Pickled Lemons
  • Salt in the kitchen
    • Quick and easy nut shelling
    • Test the freshness of an egg
    • Extend the life of cheese
    • Whip egg whites and heavy quicker
    • Keep sliced apples and potatoes from browning
  • Salt outside
    • Keep car windshield frost-free in winter
    • Pain relief from a bee sting
    • Keep stains from setting in clothing
Salt Flats in Bolivia

Importance of Salt—Past and Present

Or you could go to a salt cave in Minneapolis and sit
  • It is essential for human and other animal life.
    • At the same time, excessive salt consumption is related to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Salting food is one of the oldest methods of preservation, along with drying and smoking, dating to at least 6050 BCE in Bulgaria, 5400 BCE in Romania, and 6000 BCE in China. It’s still used as a preservative in processed foods.
  • Other uses include water conditioning (12%)
    • De-icing highways (8%)
    • 68% of world-wide salt production is used for manufacturing and industrial processing (PVC, plastics, paper pulp, aluminum, soaps, glycerine, synthetic rubber, and firing pottery, drilling, to fix color in dying textiles, tanning hides)
  • Salt was used for barter pretty much world-wide:
    • Moorish merchants in the 6th century traded salt for gold, weight for weight.
    • Salt was traded like gold or silk everywhere along the Silk Road and throughout Europe.
  • Salt has been used as money in Ethiopia, other parts of Africa, and Tibet.
    • An allowance of salt was made to officers and soldiers in the Roman Army.
The Road (2009) from the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Writers: Consider an apocalyptic story in which the basic necessity of salt returns.

The Lasting Stamp of Salt 

In many places, in many forms, the historical significance of salt continues to reverberate today.

サラリーマン !
  • Naming rights:
    • One of the oldest roads in Italy is Via Salaria, salt route
    • The river Salzach in Austria translates to salt river
    • Salzburg means salt castle
  • The Roman allowance of salt turned into a monetary allowance to buy salt, and this salarium gave rise to the English word salary 
    • In Japan, a person who works a M-F office job is often referred to as a salaryman (サラリーマン )
Gandhi led people on a march to the sea to distill salt after British salt laws were imposed.

Salting the Dead—and Not Dead

Somehow, I don’t think salt water is going to help alleviate torture…
  • Salt accelerates the process of decomposition of the body.
  • It helps to prevent bad odor from leaking out of the soil where the corpse is buried, so dogs and other predators don’t dig up the body.
  • If someone is buried in salt up to his/her neck: the salt would start to draw water out of the body slowly. The skin starts wrinkling and drying as time goes by, mouth becomes parched and eyes become irritated because of the loss of moisture. It becomes harder to breathe as water leaves the body and the blood becomes thicker and more coagulated. The terrible thing is that unlike being buried alive, the person would likely remain conscious and eventually delirious before dying a long time later.  The corpse would be dehydrated and preserved by the salt and thus become a mummy.

Writers: consider the dark possibilities of torture and/or murder.

Cristal Samana Salt Hotel in Uyumi, Bolivia

Bottom line for writers: sprinkled throughout!

No discussion of salt is complete without mentioning legendary musicians Salt N Pepa!

As American as Apple Pie

apple pie

What’s wrong with that?

First of all, with the sour exception of crabapples, apples themselves aren’t American. Apples as we know and love them probably originated in Asia and migrated to Europe.

 

apples in bowl

 

Apples and apple pie were brought to the colonies by British, Dutch, and Swedish immigrants during the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, that was pretty late in the history of apple pie.

 

Fossilized evidence of apples date as far back as the Iron and Stone Ages in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Although most sources trace apple pie to Europe, there is a minority view that the first apple pie was made in Egypt, 9500 B.C.E.

English apple pie recipes go back to the time of Chaucer. A 1381 recipe calls for good apples, good spices, figs, raisins, and pears in a pastry casing. It is the first known written recipe for apple pie. Fruit sweeteners were typical of the times. Early apple pies had no sugar because of the expense but were sweetened with fruits such as these.

Apple pie was a prized dessert in England by 1577. The first mention of a fruit pie in literature was apple-pyes in Robert Greene’s Arcadia. Greene wrote between 1580 and 1592. A medieval Dutch cookbook (around 1514) has a recipe for apple pie that is almost identical to modern recipes. Such a pie was featured in a Dutch Golden Age painting from 1626.

 

In 1941, newspaper reporters talked about GI’s fighting for Mom and “good old American apple pie.” This seems to be the origin of apple pie attached to American identity—even though apple pie did not originate here. Vermont even made apple pie the official state pie in 1999.

 
The history of Mock Apple Pie (made with crackers instead of apples) is a bit murky. It may have been invented by pioneers on the move in the 19th century, or possibly in the South during Civil War food shortages. But in the 1930s, Ritz Crackers provided a recipe using Ritz Crackers, water, sugar, cream of tartar, lemon juice, grated lemon peel, margarine or butter, and cinnamon. The one thing that’s clear is that anything that leads to an imitation must be very popular indeed.
 

According to the American Pie Council, Apple pie is the most popular pie in the U.S., the favorite of 19% of Americans (approximately 36 million people at the time of the survey).

 

And now we get to the downside. Although homemade apple pie hasn’t changed much over centuries, anything that popular has to go commercial, including fast-food chains. McDonald’s started in California in 1940. In 1969, McDonald’s opened 211 new franchises, and the first Wendy’s was born in Columbus, Ohio.

 

Welcome to the world of food additives. L-cysteine, an amino acid used to condition dough for increased pliability, is derived from human hair and/or duck feathers. It’s used in McDonald’s Baked Hot Apple Pie (among other offerings). McDonald’s is only one of many fast-food providers who rely on L-cysteine in bakery products.

 

Bonus facts: Sand (silica dioxide) is an anti-caking agent that shows up in chili and other processed beef and chicken products on the menus of Wendy’s and Taco Bell; processed wood pulp (cellulose), used to thicken and stabilize everything from cheese to strawberry syrup, is on the rise because products  can boast less fat and more fiber. For more disturbing food additives, go to mnn.com.

 

And to know what happened when with food, go to good books!

 

The Century in Food and The Food Chronology

Food and Fiction

I was sitting in my recliner, much as I am now, sipping iced decaff coffee and leafing through catalogues from discount booksellers. (My favorites among these are Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller and Daedalus Books.)

three catalogs from booksellers, bargain books and deadalus books
Catalogs from discount booksellers

After ordering more books than I have shelf-space for—about half cookbooks for a vegan kitchen and half books I think will be useful writing references, such as Funerals to Die For—my thoughts drifted, as they are wont to do. I’ve been collecting cookbooks since long before I started writing fiction. Over the years, I’ve donated and gifted hundreds of cookbooks and mysteries. Even bookcases in every room of the house except the bathroom weren’t enough!

As best I can remember, my first connection between fiction and food was the Rex Stout mystery series featuring Nero Wolf. I’ve had the The Nero Wolf Cook Book so long I can’t remember.

Cook books for Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Nero Wolf
Cookbooks for Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Nero Wolf

I became enamored with Sherlock Holmes in college. But Dorothy L. Sayers is probably my all-time favorite mystery writer. She didn’t make a big deal about food in her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books. Still, I had to have The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.

Perhaps mystery writers are especially attracted to food. Think poison? These two books are especially appealing to me.

two books for mystery writers , A Taste of Murder and Cook With Malice Domestic
Mystery writers’ cookbooks

More than one mystery has taken up a food theme. Perhaps the best known is Diane Mott Davidson. She’s written 17 novels featuring Goldy Schulz, a small town caterer who solves mysteries on the sides. Goldy Schulz also has a cookbook, although I haven’t seen it.

Of course, food isn’t solely the purview of mystery writers. See for yourself.

books and food connection from Margaret Atwood and Deal Wells
Non-mystery writers and food

Book covers for "The Romance of Food" and "The Zane Grey Cookbook"

And as in all fan activities, Jane Austen leads the pack. I don’t have them, but look for The Jane Austen Cookbook, Cooking With Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Food, Tea with Jane Austen, Tea With the Bennets, Dinner With Mr. Darcy, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

And the options are never-ending. Consider A Feast of Words, for Lovers of Food & Fiction by Anna Shapiro. It includes excerpts from 25 novels, from Jane Austen to Alice Munro. Shapiro comments on the food scenes and includes her own menus and recipes inspired by each work. Eat Memory: Great Writers at the Table, edited by Amanda Hesser comes from her work as the New York Times Magazine‘s food editor. In this book she presents 26 food memories from leading writers, and the recipes they involve.

If you are more into the words than the food, consider this slim volume: Food Tales: A Literary Menu of Mouthwatering Masterpieces. It presents 8 stories, including “A Vicomte’s Breakfast” by Alexandre Dumas, “The Luncheon” by W. Somerset Maugham, and “Tortillas and Beans” by John Steinbeck.

Once you start on writing and food, it’s a short step to food writers. One of my favorites is M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf. She wrote it in 1942, the point being to cooking during the WWII food rationing.

book spine of "How to Cook a Wolf" by M.F.K. Fisher
How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

inscription from M.F.K Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf," "There's a whining at the threshold, There's a scratching at the floor..."
From M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

But enough! There must be an end somewhere!

Your Links Between Food and Fiction

What are your favorite cookbooks?

Don’t collect cookbooks? Do you have a collection that’s taking up your house?