Archive for April 2017

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced.

Crushed Ice
To make icewine, you must wait until the grapes have frozen naturally on the vines—typically, you look for two solid days of temperatures in the range of 9°F (–13°C) to 14°F (–10°C). This implies a very late harvest, of course, which in turn means that the grapes will have a very high sugar content. Grapes are picked by hand (sometimes in the middle of the night to ensure that the temperature does not rise above freezing) and pressed while still frozen. This is the crucial step, because when frozen grapes are pressed, most of the water remains behind as ice crystals, and the juice obtained—just a drop or two per grape—is highly concentrated. (In fact, the colder the grapes, the higher the percentage of sugar in the juice, and this is exactly what you want for icewine—a minimum of 35% sugar.) This juice is then fermented naturally over a period of weeks or months and bottled more or less like regular wine. But because production is so labor-intensive, with yields around 10% of a regular harvest, icewine is sold in half bottles (375ml) at prices averaging about US$38 (CDN$50) per bottle.

The smaller bottles are a good idea for another reason, too: icewine is very sweet (and usually high in alcohol, too), so it’s only consumed in very small quantities. What does it taste like? Imagine a sweet white wine, then imagine letting half the moisture evaporate away so that you have something not only sweeter but twice as viscous. That’s roughly the idea of icewine: it’s like a highly concentrated white wine. It’s always served chilled, usually with (or following) dessert.

Saving Grapes
Icewine was discovered by accident in 1794 in Franconia (which is now part of Germany). After an early freeze, vintners decided to press the grapes anyway to see what could be salvaged. The unexpected result was an exceptionally sweet wine, dubbed Eiswein. It was several decades before icewine was produced intentionally in Germany, and production in North America didn’t begin until about 30 years ago. Production is always a bit risky since the vineyard is at the mercy of the weather; yields, quality, and price vary significantly from region to region and from year to year. Icewine has now become a bit of a fad and a status symbol—it’s what fashion-conscious wine snobs finish expensive meals with.

On the other hand, wine snobs who have not already been sold on how hip icewine is supposed to be often don’t like it. A comment I’ve heard from more than a couple of people is, “Ewww. This isn’t good wine; it’s way too sweet.” But there are also people who believe a martini with more than a misting of vermouth is too sweet, or even that the quality of any alcoholic beverage is determined by its position on the dry-sweet continuum, with sweeter meaning less desirable. I have no such prejudice myself. Besides, icewine is in the same league as port, sherry, and perhaps even mead—it’s not something you would generally drink in large quantities along with a meal, but a small glass as a sweet digestif can be quite nice.

Icewine is not that much different from any other late-harvest dessert wine, except in cost. But that’s not to say it isn’t worth a little extra, if only to compensate the grape pickers for freezing their buns off in the middle of the night for your drinking pleasure. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Icewine…

[[http://rcm-images.amazon.com/images/P/1894622138.01.TZZZZZZZ][http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=itotd-20&path=tg/detail/-/1894622138][To learn more about icewine, read this article on About.com or pick up a copy of Icewine: The Complete Story by John Schreiner. You can also buy a DVD documentary about icewine production: Canadian Icewine Harvest.]]

A number of icewine producers have Web sites. Here are a few samples:

To order icewine online, try IceWineNiagara or Volubilis Imports, Inc..

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Paris Plage

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off.

Summer Barbecue
Mostly, though, people do what they normally do on beaches: lie on the sand or in hammocks in their swimsuits and get sunburned. The crowds are often dense, and those who arrive late in the day, especially on weekends, may have trouble finding a spot. Unlike other crowded beaches, though, the one thing you will not see is people going in the water. Apart from the fact that the beach is separated from the river by a wall and a road, it’s not the sort of place you would want to swim, wade, or simply get your toes wet even if you could. It would be easier, safer, and probably more hygienic to take a dip directly in the sewers.

However, if you go down the river a bit farther, you’ll find another Paris Plage location that features La Piscine Joséphine Baker, a huge swimming pool that actually floats in a barge on the river. So you can swim in the river, in a manner of speaking, without risking your health. At other spots in the city you can enjoy everything from beach volleyball or rugby (in front of the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall, just steps from the central Paris Plage) to canoeing and kayaking (at the Bassin de la Villette).

Surf’s Up
Another thing you can do at any of the Paris Plage locations is, appropriately enough, surf—on the internet, that is. That’s right: the whole area has free Wi-Fi service. Which, I’m sure, was a very thoughtful and modern and generous notion on behalf of the organizers, but…seriously? I walked the entire length of the Paris Plage along the Seine and didn’t see a single laptop in use. Apart from the obvious fact that electronics don’t tend to get along well with sand, water, and bright sunlight, people really do go to the beach to relax. I’m teasing a bit: Wi-Fi is useful for numerous gadgets that are more beach-friendly, and there are certainly some dry, shady, and sand-free spots near the beach that would make a lovely spot to sit and type for a while if that’s your thing. But I know I wouldn’t choose a beach based on its internet connectivity.

Well, for that matter, I pretty much wouldn’t choose a beach at all. My personal preference is to enjoy those nice sunny days and the beautiful scenery from the comfort of a cool, dark, and uncrowded room somewhere. The Catacombs are lovely this time of year. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Paris Plages…

In case you missed the news, Joe Kissell and Morgen Jahnke are now living in Paris. You can read all about their adventures there in Truffles for Breakfast.

To learn more about the Paris Plages, you can visit their official Web page (in French) on the Paris city government’s site.

Other resources about Paris Plages include:

The success of the Paris Plages has prompted numerous other European cities, including Brussels, Berlin, and Budapest, to begin similar programs. More cities are sure to follow.

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Absinthe

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights.

Absinthe is among the most popular drinks around this time—not only in France but across Europe and even in the United States. But it is more than just a tasty alcoholic beverage: it’s a ritual. To prepare your absinthe in the traditional way, you begin by pouring about an ounce of the greenish liquid into a glass. On top of the glass you place a flat, slotted spoon on which a single sugar cube rests. You pour cold water over the sugar cube—slowly enough that it dissolves by the time your glass is full. As the water mixes with the clear liquid it turns cloudy—an effect called louching, caused by the oils in the absinthe. Finally, you stir the liquid with the spoon, and then drink. (A more theatrical variation on this ritual, performed by Johnny Depp’s character in the 2001 film “From Hell,” is to soak the sugar with absinthe first, and then set it on fire, allowing the heat to melt the sugar before you mix in the water.)

Absinthesis
What you are drinking is a spirit made by distilling herbs. But that could describe many drinks; what makes absinthe special is the presence of a particular herb—Artemisia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood. This concoction was invented in 1792 by a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire. While living in Switzerland, Ordinaire was trying to create a patent medicine to cure stomach ailments. He tried wormwood in one of his recipes—along with anise and a variety of other herbs—and found it very successful. Eventually the formula became commercialized, and absinthe began to shift from an over-the-counter remedy to a refreshing drink, acquiring the nickname “the Green Fairy.” Absinthe has a high alcohol content—nearly 70%—and a slightly bitter flavor. Adding water and sugar before drinking it worked wonders in improving its mass appeal.

Unlike other alcoholic beverages, which have a sedative effect, absinthe was reputed to provide exceptional clarity of thought. Artists relied on it for inspiration and imagery. Among those who swore by absinthe were Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Hemingway, and Edgar Allen Poe. Oscar Wilde was a fan too, and was famously quoted as saying: “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” Behind this wry commentary, though, was a troubling implication. An increasing number of people became convinced that absinthe was not a benign stimulant but a dangerous drug. Among those who drank absinthe excessively, there were numerous reports of hallucinations, convulsions, and even insanity.

It’s Not Easy Being Green
In 1905, public anxiety came to a head when a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray shot his whole family. The newspapers were quick to point out that Lanfray had been drinking absinthe, not bothering to mention that he had also consumed a great deal of wine and other spirits that day. This was the final straw for those who vilified absinthe, and political pressure to rid society of this evil quickly mounted. In the years that followed, absinthe was banned in most parts of Europe, as well as in the United States.

The deleterious effects of absinthe were typically attributed to a substance called thujone, a component of wormwood. Nowadays, scientists believe there’s little or no truth to the notion that it is a dangerous drug. Every modern study of thujone suggests that the amount required to harm human beings is many times that found in even the strongest brands of absinthe from a century ago. In fact, to ingest enough thujone to do any damage, you’d have to drink so much absinthe that you’d have died—or nearly so—from alcohol poisoning. Thus one common explanation for the disturbing behavior witnessed in absinthe drinkers is that they were simply drunk—a problem, for sure, but not one unique to absinthe. However, a more interesting explanation is based on evidence that unscrupulous absinthe producers in the nineteenth century, in an effort to lower their costs, added a variety of toxic chemicals to their absinthe—such as a copper compound used to provide a green color. The effect of these toxins—added to that of the alcohol itself—is a more plausible cause of the legendary absinthe madness.

The Glass is Greener on the Other Side of the Fence
All over the world, absinthe is enjoying a comeback, as the old laws prohibiting its manufacture and sale are being revised or at least reinterpreted. There have been two main legal sticking points over the years: thujone content and labeling. Both the United States and the European Union have long had rules requiring thujone levels in beverages of this sort to be less than 10 parts per million. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually calls any beverage meeting that test “thujone-free.”) But that’s more or less a moot point, because most brands of absinthe sold in the 19th century were already within this limit—not that it matters much anyway, given the research that shows the thujone wasn’t the problem in the first place.

A bigger issue is that regulatory agencies in some countries (including the U.S. and France) still don’t want anyone selling something that’s called absinthe, even if that’s precisely what it is, largely because of a perception that this word connotes a drug of some sort. So absinthe distillers have reached compromises with various government agencies such as using the word absinthe only as part of a phrase, or in smaller type, or otherwise adjusting the label to make it sound less like you’re going to be drinking something that’s likely to make you hallucinate.

As a result of lengthy and expensive legal wrangling over a period of several years, in mid-2007 the United States finally began granting permission for genuine absinthe to be imported, manufactured, and sold. You can now buy brands such as Lucid (made in France), Kübler (made in Switzerland), and St. George (the first brand to be made legally in the U.S. since 1912). In Europe, many brands and formulations are available, with some trying to get as close as possible to the original taste, and others going in more trendy directions. (You can even find red, blue, and clear absinthe.)

Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Canada, meanwhile, never bothered to restrict the sale of absinthe because it was never perceived to be a social or political problem there. I had my first encounter with the Green Fairy while I was living in Canada several years ago, when absinthe was still unavailable in the U.S. I experienced a subtle, but noticeable, increase in the clarity and vividness of my thoughts shortly after drinking absinthe—a much different effect than I’d have expected from alcohol alone. Then again, I couldn’t say with complete certainty that the effect was not imagined, and there was an additional complication: the uncertain authenticity of the formula.

The only brand of absinthe commercially available in Canada at that time was Hill’s Absinth, made in the Czech Republic. Absinthe experts roundly dismiss Hill’s as undrinkable—a pale imitation of real absinthe. Personally, I quite liked it—but then, I had no experience with other varieties to serve as a frame of reference. (I also found it mildly ironic that detractors should use the word “undrinkable” because that is exactly the definition of the Greek word from which the name absinthe is derived.)

I moved to France in 2007, right around the time legal absinthes were starting to appear in the U.S. I’ve had the pleasure of sampling quite a few varieties of authentic absinthe here. It’s easy to find bars in Paris with wide selections of absinthe on the shelves, and there’s even a little shop called Vert d’Absinthe that sells only absinthe and related paraphernalia. To be honest, although I’ve enjoyed every absinthe I’ve tried, my unsophisticated palate sometimes has difficulty differentiating the taste of absinthe from that of pastis, a similar (but wormwood-free) anise-based distilled beverage that rose to popularity when absinthe was banned. (During the time when absinthe was legally unavailable, numerous companies began producing pastis with names suggestive of absinthe—brands like Absente, Versinthe, and La Muse Verte.) I can’t say the absinthe I’ve had here has made me more creative or clear-headed, but perhaps I simply haven’t been diligent enough in my experimentation. I’ll press on. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Absinthe…

There are plenty of absinthe resources on the Web. One of my favorites is la Fée Verte—an extensive guide to absinthe, including history, recipes, art, and a buyer’s guide. There’s also The Virtual Absinthe Museum and the Absinthe Buyers Guide, which among other things shows pictures of many different brands, and suggests sources for purchasing them. And, of course, the Wikipedia has a detailed article on Absinthe.

The Mystery of the Green Menace by Brian Ashcraft in Wired covers the valiant efforts of Ted Breaux to reverse-engineer classic absinthe formulas and reintroduce them in France.

David Lebovitz, in his article Vert d’Absinthe: Absinthe in Paris, takes readers on a tour of a little shop in Paris that sells only absinthe.

Articles about absinthe’s newly legal status in the United States include:

I also suggest checking out Yes, Absinthe Is Legal in the US and Absinthe in the US – Which Are Real? at the Wormwood Society and Absinthe in America – US Legalization in 2007 at the Virtual Absinthe Museum.

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One of the best books on absinthe is Barnaby Conrad’s Absinthe: History in a Bottle. There’s also a novel called Absinthe by Christophe Bataille (and yes, it actually is a story about absinthe). For a detailed look at the impact of absinthe on art, check out Absinthe: the Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century—A History of the Hallucinogenic Drug and Its Effect on Artitsts and Writers in Europe and the United States by Doris Lanier. (Don’t you hate it when they give away the ending in the title?) And just for the sake of completeness, I should mention a slim booklet Aleister Crowley wrote on the use of absinthe in New Orleans around the time of Prohibition—Absinthe: The Green Goddess.

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Absinthe figured prominently in Moulin Rouge, both as the drink and as the imaginary Green Fairy herself. Likewise, the film From Hell is worth seeing just for the classic absinthe scene. (Warning: absinthe and opium do not mix.)

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Absinthe is featured in a number of famous paintings, including The Absinthe Drinker (Manet, 1859), L’Absinthe (Degas, 1876), Café at Arles (Gauguin, 1888), and Monsieur Boileau at the Cafe (Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893). In addition, there are quite a few well-known prints advertising various brands of absinthe. Examples are Absinthe Robette by Gustav Klimt, Absinthe—J. Édouard Pernot and Absinthe Ducros Fils by Leonetto Cappiello, and Absinthe Parisienne (artist unknown).

Hill’s Absinth has a very nice Web site—including a list of all the stores in British Columbia where you can buy it. I enjoyed it myself, but keep in mind that the brand is deprecated by those in the know.

A (much) higher-end product is Sebor Absinth, which is made in England and claims to contain the highest concentration of wormwood of any commercial brand.

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While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell?

Name That Smell
All smells result from molecules of various chemicals floating through the air. Not all substances have a smell—only those containing chemicals that are volatile (meaning they evaporate easily). Our nasal cavities contain millions of neural receptors, of about 350 different types—all of which respond to different chemicals. Depending on which chemicals are present and in what quantities, different sets of odorant receptor neurons are activated; the brain decodes each pattern and assigns a meaning to it: “floral,” “putrid,” “Grandma’s house,” or whatever. Therefore, getting a machine to do the same thing involves two challenges: detecting individual chemical components, and figuring out what a specific combination of components in a given proportion represents.

One way to detect chemicals in the air is to use large, expensive laboratory machines such as gas chromatographs and time-of-flight mass spectrometers. These devices can very accurately detect miniscule amounts of volatile chemicals in air samples—but they also detect substances that have nothing to do with smell, so determining just which parts of their output are relevant adds more complexity to the problem. They are also, so far at least, not very portable. But other, more direct—and more compact—methods of artificial smell detection are under development. Here are some examples:

  • A quartz crystal microbalance (QCM) sensor is a tiny device that can detect a single, arbitrary chemical. This sensor consists of a quartz crystal vibrating at a known frequency. It’s coated with a material that can absorb molecules only of a very specific size and shape. When it does, its mass increases slightly, changing the frequency of the crystal’s vibration. A simple circuit detects the change and signals that the chemical in question is present. Given an array of QCM sensors, each with a coating that responds to a different chemical, you can detect a wide range of smells.
  • A variation on this idea under development by IBM in Zürich is the cantilever sensor: a series of flexible, microscopic silicon beams—each coated with a different polymer. When one of the beams absorbs a specific chemical, it bends slightly; the chip to which the beams are attached detects this change.
  • An entirely different approach being studied at the University of Illinois involves using vapor-sensitive dyes called metalloporphyrins that change color when exposed to certain chemicals. By examining the “before” and “after” states of an array of these dyes, a computer can essentially “see” smells.

Decoding output from an array of sensors (of whatever sort) is an interesting challenge, because substances that are very similar chemically sometimes smell much different from each other; conversely, substances that smell nearly the same can be completely different at the molecular level. For this task, researchers often rely on neural networks, software that can be trained to identify patterns and make educated guesses about new combinations based on their similarities to patterns that have already been verified.

So where is all this technology going to be put to use? And what about those robots?

Follow Your Nose
Artificial noses show the most promise in applications where the human nose is insufficiently sensitive or discriminating. For example, sensors could detect when food is spoiled long before a human nose could—an artificial nose may be built into your refrigerator one day. Just as the bacteria that cause spoilage produce distinctive odors, so do some disease-causing bacteria. Devices now in development will be able to diagnose certain illnesses by smelling blood samples.

But it’s one thing to be able to identify an odor in a test tube; it’s another to be able to trace the source of an airborne scent. This is where robots come in: a mobile platform with an artificial nose can continuously sample the air, reorienting itself dynamically to move in the direction where an odor is strongest. This makes robots that can smell ideal for locating gas leaks, explosives, drugs, and other dangerous stuff—since robots can go places where it would be unsafe to send a human or a dog. One rather gruesome use for sniffing robots is locating buried bodies; this is but one of many possible forensic applications. A mechanical bloodhound may be years in the future, but it’s not at all far-fetched.

If You Could Bottle This Smell…
Several years ago a company called DigiScents made headlines with its iSmell device, a desktop computer peripheral that could synthesize thousands of scents. Their idea was that games could be enhanced with smells (presumably lots of smoke and burnt rubber), email from that special someone could be scented with perfume, and so on. When DigiScents went out of business in 2001 before the iSmell became commercially available, no one was particularly surprised—why do we need to smell computer games, anyway? But I think the real problem was that they only had half of the solution ready: the output but no input. I suspect that if someone created a pocket-sized gadget that could record the scent of a bakery, garden, or any other smell you encounter and play it back accurately on command, it would be a huge success. I, for one, would gladly pay for a machine that could make scents of my childhood. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Robots that Smell…

This article was featured in The Synapse, Volume 1, Number 2.

Artificial Nose Technology

Special Applications

  • You can learn about research to use an artificial nose for detecting blood-borne bacteria in E-Nose Sniffs Out Nasty Bugs by Louise Knapp in Wired News.
  • Technology Scent-sation by Abigail Sawyer in Wine Business Monthly describes the potential uses of artificial noses in the food and wine industry.

Robots that Smell

  • A project to design a small robot that can search for gas leaks is ROBONOSE: Gas Source Localization with a Mobile Robot at the University of Tübingen’s WSI Computer Science Department.
  • Another robot with an artificial nose, a project called NOSE (this time, for “Neuromimetic Olfactory SEnsing”), is being developed at Loria in France.
  • In the July, 2004 issue of Wired, Robert Capps discusses a wide variety of human capabilities now finding their way into robots in The Humanoid Race. The sense of smell is mentioned on the second page.

Smell You Later
The long-defunct DigiScents was profiled in You’ve Got Smell! by Charles Platt in the November, 1999 issue of Wired.

You can find out more about the human olfactory mechanism at HowStuffWorks.com (“lite” version) or Tim Jacob’s Olfaction tutorial at the University of Cardiff (detailed version).

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The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr tells the entertaining (and true) story of a man with a novel—and possibly correct—theory of the way the human olfactory sense works.

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Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures.

Putting the Shine On
It seems odd to think of mud as something that could become shiny or even smooth. Polished rocks are one thing, but mud wouldn’t seem to be hard enough or dense enough to be polished. With the right technique and a lot of patience, however, it can be.

The full procedure has numerous important details, but essentially the idea is this. You start with a lump of mud, squeeze most of the water out of it, and slowly and gently add layers of ever-finer dry dirt on top, all the while shaping into as perfect a sphere as you can and smoothing off any rough spots or irregularities. Over a period of hours, as the ball dries and you continue refining the surface, a hard shell (or “capsule”) forms on the outside. If you’ve executed the procedure just so and timed it correctly, this surface can be buffed to a high gloss with an ordinary rag.

The result should be an orb about the size of a billiard ball, and just as shiny; its color depends on the kind of soil used, but can vary from nearly white, through yellow, red, and brown, to nearly black, with subtle shadings that make it look more like a fine marble carving than what was recently a mixture of dirt and water.

Having a Ball
In the past several years, the art of dorodango has enjoyed a surge in popularity—first in Japan, and more recently in the United States. The renewed interest is largely due to the work of a developmental psychologist at the Kyoto University of Education named Fumio Kayo. Kayo developed a simple method of making dorodango that could be taught even to young children, and besides keeping them occupied quietly for long periods of time, this activity enabled Kayo to study aspects of children’s play that had gone largely unnoticed, and which have interesting implications for his academic work. One of Kayo’s most striking observations was that children invariably become deeply attached to the mud balls they’ve spent so many hours creating, even if they’re misshapen or otherwise flawed. (Not a surprise to me: I knew that kids get attached to mud, or vice-versa.) Adults who have tried the procedure have reported similar feelings.

Children who spend their afternoons making dorodango do, I’m afraid, end up with dirty hands and clothes. But they also have a stunning work of art to show for it, and that’s got to count for something. I have yet to try dorodango myself, but I love the idea that you can make something so beautiful with three ingredients (dirt, water, and a rag) that virtually anyone in the world can obtain for free. As any child knows, mud is one of life’s simple pleasures. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Hikaru Dorodango…

Thanks to reader Bruce Gardner for suggesting today’s topic! Bruce is an artist living in New Mexico who makes truly gorgeous dorodango. You can see examples on his Web site dorodango.com, which also includes background information on the art form and helpful instructions for creating your own.

Professor Kayu’s own instructions, including several videos, can be found on his Dorodango site.

Other resources include:

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Last but not least, if you need any further evidence that mud actively pursues children, look no further than Mud Puddle by Robert N. Munsch. It’s supposedly a work of fiction, but we all know better.

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