Fantastically Interesting Lectures About Food from TED

Interested in food?

I’m a huge fan of the TED conference, a legendary yearly event in which some of the smartest and most dynamic thinkers and speakers come together to present ideas, the only condition being that the talk has to be limited to 18 minutes.

These are twenty of the most interesting talks on food related subjects. All these lectures cater to the passionate foodie who pines to learn all he or she can about the meals in front of them. For them, taste comprises only a fraction of the appeal. Sample these lectures and I’m sure you’ll find at least some of them absolutely riveting. At the very least, you won’t be bored!

1.             Marcel Dicke: Why not eat insects?: Many Americans may cringe at the thought of crunching down on crickets, but in reality, insects are a popular, protein-packed snack enjoyed worldwide. Incorporating them more and more into meals and snacks also appeals to the eco-conscious concerned about sustainability issues. It will take some time to convince many demographics of all the advantage of eating insects, but Marcel Dicke works tirelessly to promote their validity as a nutritious, ecologically sound food source.

2.             Carolyn Steel: How food shapes our cities: One architect delves into the heavy influence that infrastructure holds over food distribution — and vice versa. With so many individuals flocking to urban areas, the way meat and other agricultural products are raised will directly impact the environment, most notably in the rainforest acreage cleared for cattle farms. Foodies need to understand more than just appreciating amazing tastes and textures. They must also put forth the effort to learn about the whos, hows and whys behind how such meals make it to the table. Some of the details may surprise them.

3.            Peter Reinhart on Bread: Such a simple staple inspires sensuous feelings, especially when baked fresh and served warm with jam, homemade butter or a favorite flavored oil and herbs. Any foodies who enjoy sinking their teeth into a comforting slice of bread will love watching Peter Reinhart wax philosophical on what it means to him personally and how loaves have come to shape history and the culinary arts alike. The more scientifically-minded should pay close attention to his talk of how he developed a recipe based on epoxy’s characteristics and ensured its edibility and quality.

4.             Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world: Another rumination on the role bread plays in diet and society alike, this time peering into how mass-production techniques may not be as evil and destructive as many believe. Memetics, history, economics, health and agriculture combine into one enlightening lecture, wrought with heavy questions regarding how bread directly relates to each topic. For example, many rural bakers in poorer communities could adapt some of the production and distribution protocols associated with Wonderbread and its ilk without compromising on quality. Doctors link its carbohydrate content to obesity, especially as it became more affordable. A fascinating talk with many provocative statements to stimulate the more philosophical epicures out there.

5.             Barton Seaver: Sustainable seafood? Let’s get smart: Some aficionados of all things oceanic struggle with resigning their love of fish and shellfish with environmental concerns. Noshing on the sea’s bounty seriously taxes one of the planet’s most delicate ecosystems, but there may be a workable strategy for changing that. Consumers concerned about their global impact should stick with heartier species with rapid reproduction rates. They should reduce the amount of seafood in their diet, reserving it for more special occasions, and stick with smaller portions. Salads make for a healthy side to help foodies safely fill up when their main proteins shrink. Making economical decisions does not have to mean complete abstinence from a beloved tuna or oyster dish, but one must stay mindful of ecology as well should they hope to continue their indulgence.

6.             Dan Barber’s foie gras parable: Foie gras elicits so much controversy, many countries and regions have outright banned its production. The process involves the force-feeding of geese and ducks to artificially swell their livers for consumption, which more than understandably raises considerable questions regarding animal rights. Dan Barber’s incredibly intriguing lecture brings viewers to Eduardo Sousa’s farm in Spain for a glimpse at how he produces rich foie gras without resorting to any ethically sketchy means. All of the ducks and geese he raises eat of their own free will rather than having humans shove obscene amounts of grain down their gullets. They wander around his expansive properly, gorging themselves on the figs, grass, olives and other delights available for their taking. This leads to the beloved fatty texture cherished by foodies using a completely natural methodology, and the fowl are slaughtered shortly after their fall binges to maximize quality and yield.

7.             Christien Meindertsma: How pig parts make the world turn: After pigs goes to slaughter, they find their way way to more than just kitchens around the world. Some end up in roughly 185 different consumer and medical products, including soap, heart transplants, bullets, cigarette filters, bone china, paint and paintbrushes. This number also includes foodstuffs such as gelatin that many people don’t realize also contains bits of pig (and other animals). While this doesn’t exactly paint a perfect portrait of Fergus Henderson’s “nose to tail” philosophy of eating, many foodies may find the versatility of this overlooked barnyard denizen a fascinating study. Less of everyone’s porcine pals goes to waste than one would generally think, though an appreciation for sampling “the nasty bits” (as Anthony Bourdain calls them) is never a bad thing to develop, either.

8.             Ann Cooper talks school lunches: Truly loving the culinary arts means cultivating an understanding and appreciation of its importance on all levels — not just the fine dining only afforded to fewer and fewer individuals, as per the unfortunate stereotype. School lunches, for example, have provoked the ire of many a parent concerned with the unhealthy levels of carbohydrates, sugars and fats heaped on their children daily. Their understanding and appreciation of food led them to fight for healthier options, and “renegade lunch ladies” such as Ann Cooper joined them in providing fresh, local, nutritious and even educational meals.

9.             Benjamin Wallace on the price of happiness: Although most of this lecture revolves around food and beverage products, its core message resonates to many different audiences. Thanks to the snobberies of many an elitist diner, foodies have a popular reputation of caring only for expensive, trendy dishes by the most prestigiously-trained chefs — and many, unfortunately, feel the need to perpetuate this viewpoint. True aficionados of the culinary arts know that even a humble street cart vendor can yield spectacular finds, and seek out quality in all its myriad forms rather than limiting themselves to expensive eats. Sadly, though, the industrialized world’s obsession with status and money has led to a strange psychological phenomenon where people can actually talk themselves into enjoying a cheap wine just by being told it cost a much more exorbitant price. It’s a fascinating, humbling and wholly necessary study to explore.

10.         William Li: Can we eat to starve cancer?: By this point, most people who care even one iota about their health knows that maintain a nutritious diet reduces their risk of contracting certain cancers later in life. Not everyone, though, can understandably cite the biological workings that allow this to happen. William Li explains the hows and whys behind angiogenesis and diet’s intimate relationship with cancer prevention.

11.         Michael Pollan gives a plants-eye view: The author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire (among plenty of other ruminations on food) pulls from his research and passion to deliver an excellent, insightful look at the world from a simultaneously alien and familiar perspective. Plenty of people know what life looks like through the eyes of the animals they nosh upon, yet they rarely take the time to really understand plants — perhaps due to their relatively stationary nature. This is rather unfortunate, as taking the time to gauge the shape of things from their point of view casts meals and snacks in an entirely revelatory light.

12.         Mark Bittman on what’s wrong with what we eat: American diets come packed with an overabundance of meat at the expense of fresh fruits and vegetables and too much reliance on restaurant food that comes crammed with salts, carbohydrates and calories. Though convenient and delicious, such eating habits place the populace at an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other health hazards. But they also negatively impact other nations as well, since many of the production methods utilized in meeting American demands damage the environment and dip heavily into the world’s overall food supply.

13.         Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso: Chinese food has become fully engrained in American cuisine, yet almost all of the most popular dishes are nowhere to be found in the original country. Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee engages viewers in history lessons explaining how one of the most familiar forms of fusion food in the States popped into existence. This is a must-watch for all culinary aficionados with a particular affinity for learning the myriad ways in which cultures merge and produce curious new flavors inspired by different palates and traditions.

14.         Graham Hill: Why I’m a weekday vegetarian: Not everyone can (or wants to) pull off a fully vegetarian or vegan diet, yet they’d still like to enjoy the health, environmental and financial benefits. The weekday vegetarian movement allows them to indulge their not-so-inner carnivore while simultaneously reducing their expenditures and ecological impact and boosting their overall wellness. It strikes the right balance for those who find an exclusively meatless, eggless and dairy-less intake far too limiting.

15.         Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce: One jar of spaghetti sauce comes packaged with a hundred different stories — about the people involved, the ingredients cultivated and the research that goes into picking the perfect components and the perfect process creating a perfect offering. Even beyond this, though, it also serves as an unexpectedly apt conduit for broader philosophies regarding contentment and the nature of choice. An excellent TED Talk for the foodies who enjoy using their passion to raise larger questions about life, the universe and everything.

16.         Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world: Fungi of all shapes and sizes end up on plates at cheap, delicious mom-and-pop diners and the trendiest of upscale bistros alike — and everything in between. But this intrepid mycologist points out how mushrooms do more than just add a lovely, earthy flavor to soups, salads and meats. They play an integral role in keeping the environment as safe and healthy as possible and have been widely cultivated for their medicinal properties. Without them, both humanity and the planet it inhabits would not possess the ability to function properly. If at all.

17.         Heribert Watzke: The brain in your gut: Eating well transcends the merely sensual — it also involves complex metabolic processes extending long after that carnitas taco grew into a grey, masticated wad of cornmeal, pork and saliva. Believe it or not, the hundreds of thousands of neurons lining the digestive tract (mostly, if not exclusively, in the intestines) that play a heavy role in defining eating habits. Understanding them enhances the mind-body connection so lovingly cultivated by foodies, but it also helps scientists and chefs alike use the culinary arts to formulate the perfect meals taking full advantage of the body’s potential.

18.         Arthur Potts Dawson: A vision for sustainable restaurants: Another TED Talk delving into how the world’s eating habits directly affect the surrounding environments. Beyond the production facilities, restaurants themselves have taken up sustainable practices when it comes to whipping up and serving meals. Not only do they patronize more eco-friendly vendors, they also take to composting, rigging their buildings to utilize alternative energy sources, recycling, encouraging “nose to tail” dining and much more.

19.         Barry Schuler: Genomics 101: Controversy abounds over genetically modified foods, with both sides creating compelling arguments for and against its agricultural incorporation. Epicures desiring to learn all they can about the origins of their favorite meals would do well to research what different experts have to say on the subject, looking at both sides before formulating a cogent opinion. This lecture by Barry Schuler offers up one perspective to consider, explaining the genomics process and the positive impact it has on the food supply. He uses pinot noir grapes to illustrate these points.

20.       Adam Grosser and his sustainable fridge: Some clever developers have found a way to manipulate existing technology familiar in homes across the industrialized world in order to bring refrigeration to isolated areas — many of them lacking reliable electricity. Not only will they help prevent terrible spoilage and waste, they power themselves using sustainable sources. Foodies who enjoy both cooking at home and protecting the environment (and possess the means) may want to look into purchasing these revolutionary appliances.