Taste of Tech: Breakfast, Shot from Guns

Reverse engineering puffed rice to make Rice Krispies and other secrets of cereal chemistry from a 105-year-old.

This Taste of Tech post written by Matthew Battles is the fifth in a series exploring the science and technology of food in partnership with Gearfuse. Don't miss last week's post on how to genetically modify your own seed and the police bees that could come after you if you do.

My father-in-law's father turns 105 this March, and he attributes no small part of his longevity to his lifelong choice of breakfast: a bowl of puffed wheat in skim milk.

Appropriately, my grandfather-in-law earned his living as cereal chemist for the big grain-processing agribusiness concerns of the central plains, formulating industrial leavening powders and dough conditioners to turn Kansas wheat into interchangeable, infinitely reproducible golden loaves. And to my mind at least, few products seem more industrialized, more processed, more alienated from the ancient means of agriculture and cereal cuisine, than puffed grain.

But that characterization of puffed grain is a straw man (at least it's made of real straw). In fact, puffed grains occupy a fascinating niche in cereal cuisine, one that marries agriculture to other late-neolithic industries that made cities—and hence street food—possible.

Street food is where our atemporal journey begins, in this video reposted from Boing Boing (that I also reblogged earlier this week), which documents a Chinese street vendor making the prototypical puffed grain, popcorn, using an incendiary popper:


It's almost steampunk, this contraption of industrial detritus and cobbled-together bits of metallurgy. It's a version of a popping technology found in varying levels of sophistication throughout Asia—as in this example from Japan:


The Japanese vendor is popping not corn, but rice. But the mechanism is the same: Grain is placed in a sealed chamber and heated, bringing moisture trapped in the grains to tremendous pressure. When the pressure is released, the steam explosively exits the kernels, turning the endosperm into an airy, spongy mass. (Processed rice is missing the moisture that popcorn kernels carry; before puffing, it first needs to be soaked or steamed.) While the technology involved looks like a relic of the industrial era, it also recalls the forges of the bronze and iron ages.

In the mid-twentieth century, Quaker marketed puffed rice as a breakfast cereal by playing on the mysterious, incendiary nature of its manufacture:


It's a funny advertisement: The technology of rice puffing is both celebrated and concealed behind a wall of quirk and comedy. In another advertisement for puffed cereal, the famous Snap, Crackle, and Pop make an early appearance as avatars of a modern, processed foodstuff that would chase away the mushy, messy porridges of old:


It's not surprising that Kellogg's would hide the making of this uncanny cereal behind a veil of magic; Rice Krispies is a reverse-engineered version of puffed rice. Ground rice is made into a batter, shaped into kernel-like extrusions, and then fried.

Throughout Asia, however, puffed grains are processed and consumed in public view, the technologies involved offering a kind of sonic and visual seasoning to the street food experience. Puffed rice is the basis of a variety of sweet and savory street dishes throughout South Asia, where it's called muri, mixed with seasoning and broths or candied into sticky cakes. And the processing needn't take incendiary form; properly prepared rice can be puffed beautifully in a dry wok:



The rice is swirled with black volcanic sand to prevent it from sticking and burning. Consisting of ancient and elemental ingredients—black and white, air and earth and fire—it's a beautiful preparation, worthy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. One can imagine the first street vendors of Mesopotamia and ancient Chinese towns combining the newfangled, magical properties of agriculture and industry into these feral foodstuffs.

Tapping into all the goodness of ancient industries, it's no wonder my wife's grandfather is a centenarian. As a cereal chemist, of course, he knows the uncanny mechanisms that make grains go pop and can trace the properties of protein and heat and pressure that cooks have toyed with for thousands of years—aspects of the food now obscured by the plastic bags and printed boxes from which modern breakfast cereals flow.

Image: Old advertisements for Quaker Puffed Rice and Wheat, from


One mystery in our universe is a step closer to being solved. NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched last year to help scientists understand the sun. Now, it has returned its first findings. Four papers were published in the journal Nature detailing the findings of Parker's first two flybys. It's one small step for a solar probe, one giant leap for mankind.

It is astounding that we've advanced to the point where we've managed to build a probe capable of flying within 15 million miles from the surface of the sun, but here we are. Parker can withstand temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and travels at 430,000 miles per hour. It's the fastest human-made vehicle, and no other human-made object has been so close to the sun.

Keep Reading Show less

McDonalds sells a lot of coffee. Over a billion cups a year, to be exact. All that coffee leads to a lot of productive mornings, but it also leads to a lot of waste. Each year, millions of pounds of coffee chaff (the skin of the coffee beans that comes off during roasting) ends up getting turned into mulch. Some coffee chaff just gets burned, leading to an increase in CO2.

Now, that chaff is going to get turned into car parts. Ford is incorporating coffee chaff from McDonalds coffee into the headlamps of some cars. Ford has been using plastic and talc to make its headlamps, but this new process will reduce the reliance on talc, a non-renewable mineral. The chaff is heated to high temperatures under low oxygen and mixed with plastic and other additives. The bioplastic can then be formed into shapes.

Keep Reading Show less
via Wikimedia Commons

Nike has made a name for itself creating shoes for playing basketball, tennis, and running. But, let's be honest, how many people who wear Air Jordans or Lebrons actually play basketball versus watching it on television?

Now, Nike is releasing a new pair of shoes created for everyday heroes that make a bigger difference in all of our lives than Michael Jordan or Lebron James, medical professionals — nurses, doctors, and home healthcare workers.

Nike designed the shoe after researching medical professionals at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Oregon to create the perfect one for their needs.

Keep Reading Show less