Tag Archives: biology

Cooking With George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver with a flower arrangement of sweet pea.
The flowers in this portrait look suspiciously like sweet peas, too, which are legumes – although they’re not edible. Nice.

All too often, Black History Month is treated as an exercise in tokenism. Middle school students across the country get assignments to do biography reports, and George Washington Carver ends up on the list of subjects as That One Black Scientist Who Did A Thing You Can Relate To. I seriously have a problem with this approach, since it assumes that students can’t understand what he actually did do, making this whole peanut butter invention fiction an elaborate way to talk down to people while also de-fanging history. Well. NOT TODAY! I’m aiming for this to go up deliberately well clear of February, and this post is all about just how important George Washington Carver actually was, his key accomplishments, and why his work was so badly needed.

The Agricultural South – King Cotton

In the early years of the 20th Century, as before, the Southern United States was deeply dependent on cash crop agriculture. Centuries of putting cotton back on the same land had sapped nitrogen and other nutrients out of the soil. The crop on which the region’s economy depended was slowly weakening. To make matters worse, even as soon as the Civil War, other cotton-producing regions in the world had increased production, and the price of cotton had continued a slow slide downwards. Cotton remained as labor-intensive as ever, but wealthy landowners used sharecroppers rather than slaves – although these tenant farmers were often the descendants of slaves themselves, still tied to working another’s fields, through economic hardship. A sharecropper is a farmer who doesn’t own the land they work, and in exchange for their labor, gets a share of the profit from the crop grown on the land. Although some could work a portion of the land for their own kitchen gardens, it was more economical to put as much of a cash crop on the landlord’s fields as possible, and hope for a high profit. Frequently, they bought seed from the landlord, as well as other supplies, and were constantly in debt, unable to purchase their share out, and take up land for themselves elsewhere, or even move away. This fragile cycle of debt-slavery and cash cropping for cotton continued, with harvests getting slowly weaker, and the sharecroppers steadily poorer, continued.

The Nitrogen Cycle

While this slow-motion death spiral of soil degradation and poverty continued in the South, some important advances in our understanding of how plants grow changed the way we farm forever. Most significantly, for Carver’s impact, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault recognized in the late 19th Century that legumes like beans, vetch, and peanuts can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, and therefore add nitrogen to the dirt they grow in rather than take it away. This nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes can be used to increase crop yields; if you’re growing crops that need a lot of nitrogen, it’s best to plant them either after legumes on a rotation, or with legumes in the same field. Intercropping and crop rotation for healthier and more fertile crops had been well-known and practiced before – by several Native American groups, for example, as in the Three Sisters intercropping system – but this approach was new to commercial agriculture in the United States, and required a change in culture. The picture below shows a cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) plant’s root system, and the round nubs attached to the roots are the root nodules, which house a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that works with the legume to suck nitrogen out of the air and feed the plant with it.

Cowpea root nodules. Nubbly.
Stdout [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletins

Working at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver ran the agricultural experiment station, and published scientific research as well as a series of booklets, which contained advice for farmers on best practices and increasing crop yields. Carver’s genius lay not only in scientific study, but also in understanding that economic, ecological, and social systems are interwoven. If you wanted to improve the life of the sharecropper, you had to increase the productivity of the land. If you wanted to increase the productivity of the land, planting legumes could go a long way toward nurturing the soil. But it wasn’t enough just to tell people to plant beans, peanuts, and cowpeas. These crops had to make money for it to make any sense for farmers to grow them. You had to provide people a concrete benefit for themselves. Rather than merely promoting the sowing of soybeans, Carver developed lots of recipes and uses for legumes, and popularized them through the widely-circulated bulletins, developing an economic rationale for introducing them into the regular crop rotation in the South.

Here’s a selection of these bulletins, so you can go read a few yourself (all of these are available at Archive.org):

A Study of the Soils of Macon County, Alabama, and Their Adaptability to Certain Crops

Alfalfa: the King of All Fodder Plants, Successfully Grown in Macon County, ALA

And, of course, the blockbuster smash hit –

How to Grow the Peanut: and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption

They’re a very interesting read, actually. Some of them are closer to scientific surveys, presented for the public. Some of them focus on home economics tips, like how to preserve the kitchen garden harvest and save money. Many of them, of course, promote growing legumes, notably the one on alfalfa, above. The message is clear – grow alfalfa, make money on fat, healthy livestock (and, incidentally, restore nitrogen to the soil).

Disaster and Recovery

Meanwhile, as cotton yields gradually dropped, disaster finally struck the weakened cash crop. The boll weevil arrived in the United States and proliferated in the vast cotton fields. Cotton crops across the South were ruined. Famously, however, the town of Enterprise, Alabama turned away from cotton, and planted peanuts instead. As other communities scrambled to find and plant new crops, Enterprise prospered as early adopters of legumes. They commissioned a giant neoclassical statue of a woman holding aloft a giant boll weevil, crediting the insect with saving the town by forcing the farmers to wean themselves off the cash crop early. The statue’s still there, and it’s glorious.

A woman in a toga holds up a giant bronze beetle with a long face - a boll weevil.
Martin Lewison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

When you drive past a corn field planted in soybeans this year, you’re seeing the results of George Washington Carver’s tireless promotion of legumes and crop rotation. The agricultural South could well have collapsed with its dying cash crop, but Carver’s work at the Tuskegee Institute Agricultural Experiment Station and the bulletins paved the way to a more sustainable future – the one we live in. If you want to make a difference on a large scale, it’s not enough to just tell people to do things differently; you have to provide them with real improvement to their own lives, and a pathway to success.


As promised, here’s a couple of recipes adapted from the bulletins. I chose two that looked good, and were pretty different from each other, and had accessible ingredients for us city people of the slightly more Northern future. Interestingly, food ways have changed quite a bit in the century between the bulletins and the present, so it’s absolutely worth reading the original, to see what’s different. For example, the peanut recipes take it for granted that you have access to raw peanuts, not roasted and salted ones, and the regular raw peanut, or at least blanched, is probably what the recipes are calling for, unless they actually specify otherwise. Interesting. Also, with recipes of this age, they tend to assume that the cook knows more about techniques than we might today. So for a biscuit recipe, they’ll just say “to any good biscuit dough add…” rather than explaining how to actually make biscuit dough from scratch, which is a pretty involved process that you’d definitely have to learn first. I’ve gotten these as close as I could to what the original probably was like, while substituting ready-made ingredients where possible and convenient (thanks to Carver, of course), and explaining things that the recipes don’t.

Very obviously, the peanut salad contains peanuts.

My take on No. 61, Peanut Salad Number Two from How to Grow the Peanut: and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption. I use ready-made mayo as a close approximation of the scratch-made salad dressing in the original recipe.

One tart green eating apple. One cup of roasted salted peanuts. Mayonnaise or plain salad dressing to taste. Romaine lettuce. Core and chop the apple, and pulse in a food processor with the peanuts until small pieces. You can also just chop them up, as long as it ends up the same way. Add mayo to the peanuts and apple mix and stir. Clean and carefully pull off the lettuce leaves whole, portioning them out onto serving plates. Spoon apple/peanut salad over the leaves and serve. (You’ll need a knife and fork to cut the lettuce up and eat the salad.)

A version of No. 39 – Cow Pea Loaf (A fine substitute for meat) from How to Grow the Cow Pea and 40 Ways of Preparing it as a Table Delicacy.

You’ll need: a sturdy mixing bowl, a very strong fork and unflinching resolve, or some sort of mixing machine like an egg beater. A baking pan, and an oven. A cup of sauteed diced green peppers and onions (think: fajita leftovers, or get someone to help you cook them). A can of black-eyed peas (they’re cow peas and they’re already cooked). Melted butter or neutral tasting vegetable oil. Okay, here we go! Open the can of black-eyed peas into the bowl, reserving the can liquid, and mash and whip the peas with the fork, until smooth and light. This is going to take a while. Mix in the peppers and onions. If the mix is too tough and crumbly, add the pea juice until it’s like a very stiff pudding that can be sculpted. Grease the baking pan, and form a loaf out of the pea/peppers/onions pudding. Bake in the oven on about 350 F, and brush the butter or oil over it periodically to keep it from drying out. Cook until browned and firm. Basically, pretend it’s a meatloaf. There’s a recipe for cow pea custard pie, too. I also really want to try the cow pea salads, which look honestly great, but we already have a salad on this list. Oh, and it’s a substitute for meat because meat was expensive.

Go read the bulletins, seriously. There’s so much more than peanut butter to be found here.

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:


Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.


Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.

Bon Air Science Fair!

This upcoming Tuesday at 6pm, Bon Air Library will be hosting a program full of science experiments for teens, all supplies provided! Experiments will include Elephant Toothpaste, Silly Putty, Ice Cream, and building a wave machine. Come check it out!

What’s Elephant Toothpaste? Here’s a more extreme demonstration!

Teddy Bear Cholla

Sometimes, names are abject liars, and something that sounds harmless, or actually cute can be horrible. Probably the mascot of all things so much worse than they sound is the downright adorably-named Teddy Bear Cholla ( Cylindropuntia bigelovii ). Even the scientific name of this vegetable horror sounds cute: bigelovii. D’awwww.

Here’s a patch of them:

a patch of teddy bear cholla looking chubby and cute.

By Homer Edward Price (Teddy-Bear-Chollas-c Uploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I mean, they even look sort of cute. Nubby and chubby and maybe plush and fuzzy. But it’s not fuzz. It gets worse.

It’s wicked sharp needles.

Closeup of teddy bear cholla needles. Sharp.

Stan Shebs [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ouch. But wait, it gets even worse. The needles have tiny serrated edges, so that like a harpoon head, once they stick, they’re hard to pull out. By which I mean an entire chunk of cactus is now stuck to you by its spines. Cholla segments are very weakly attached to the rest of the cactus and they break off at the slightest touch.

Teddy Bear Chollas reproduce primarily through this process of harpooning and hitching rides on unfortunate animals, who transport the chunks to new locations until they can finally work the spines out. The cactus chunks can take root where they land, and a new Teddy Bear Cholla is born. They also flower and produce fruit with seeds in it though.

cup-shaped teddy bear cholla blooms.

Quite pretty flowers, actually.

Teddy Bear Chollas, like many plants, can reproduce either sexually (with flowers and pollination) or asexually (cloning via pieces of the plant taking root). Cloning is much faster and more effective, but all the plants that root from pieces of a mother plant are genetically the same, and so all of them share the same vulnerabilities. That’s why genetic diversity in a species is so important. The more different versions of genes are available, the more chances there are to resist any one disease or other threat.

Like So:

A drawing of a patch of cholla, where most are one type, but there's two that don't match the rest.

A Wild Cholla Patch Appears! Most are clones of the mother plant, but a few are from seeds, and have other genes mixed in.

the mother and clones are killed, leaving the different two cholla.

Although the parasite kills the mother plant and the clones, which were vulnerable to it, it doesn’t get the others.

Cholla patch with a mix of the two surviving cholla plants.

And the cholla keep on spreading mostly by cloning, but sometimes by seeds.

Teddy Bear Cholla are very good at spearing and spreading.

Cholla patch spreading out into the far distance.

By Jack Dykinga [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a (mostly) clone army, stretching out to the far horizon. They feel no remorse or compassion. They know no mercy. Their numberless children are bred on blood and agony… Dang.

Teddy Bear Cholla are METAL.

Fortunately, we live outside their natural range. But, anyway, if you go to the desert Southwest of North America, keep an eye on the Cholla.