Dining with Professor Miriam Rossi and Life as a Chicken

This was a relatively calm week in the life of the Coop. Besides sifting through sources for our final projects, tasting honey in Candice’s class, extracting DNA in Mark’s lab, and discussing dairy production with Mary Ann, the highlight of our week consisted of a dinner with chemistry professor Miriam Rossi. Before I share the learning and laughter from our dinner, I’d like to give a quick update on the lives of our bountiful ladies, Whiskey, Moonshine, Midnight, Henrietta Mary Ann, Aspen, and Vodka. The apples of our eyes, our gorgeous hens are a constant priority in our lives and as such deserve some blog space.

chickens on roost

Standing proud as they get ready for bed. Moonshine, Henrietta Mary Ann, and Aspen.

eggs in carton

Look at those BEAUTIFUL eggs!

The last month has been a bit rocky for our gaggling group of gals as they settle into their new surroundings and establish the pecking order. Our very innovative Coop members made an effective water dispenser out of a Tupperware and an old container, and we’ve established feeding, putting to bed, and wake up shifts for our peckish poultry. The ladies seem to be averaging about 4 eggs per day, but this past week brought some exciting anomalies to their egg laying patterns. First I found a giant egg that, when cracked into the pan, revealed two yokes! An exciting two-for-one breakfast special. A couple days later Meghan discovered our very first blue egg, courtesy of resident “queen hen” Aspen. She does things on her own time, including bullying the other hens for first dibs on the compost and dominating the roosting space. However, along with her recent decision to lay eggs, I’ve noticed Midnight is now allowed to sit on the bar at night with the other hens, so Aspen must be warming to her new surroundings.

double yokes

Twin Yokes!

blue egg

First blue; Maddie is proud of her chicken.


chickens in coop

The girls enjoying their new bedding

In order to ensure our girls’ absolute comfort, a few of our most daring Coop members ventured out in the middle of our first snow storm to empty the roost of its nutrient rich chicken poo and straw and put down new bedding. Not only that, but the chicks have been given new pecking grounds every couple weeks as we wheel our coop to different areas of the yard. Luckily, I’m able to speak chicken, so we know they’re thriving. In fact, our one concern is that our lovely ladies might get cocky with the amount of attention they get daily; we’ve seen students leading parents behind our house to see the new tourist attraction. Let’s hope the fame doesn’t go to their heads!

The family

Despite the coop cleaning in inclement weather, Emma and Yael managed to whip up a wintery feast of Spanish potato soup and a delicious salad. One thing I love about the Coop is the diverse backgrounds and eating styles that we bring to the table. At this particular meal, I shared a tradition I learned in Ecuador of putting fresh popcorn in your soup; it was a hit. Even better was our engaging conversation with Miriam Rossi, a source of abundant food knowledge, fun facts, and Italian recipes. Her experience teaching The Culture and Chemistry of Cuisine with biology professor Dave Jemiolo made her the perfect guest for a multidisciplinary group studying food. Our conversation ranged from daily food choices to the chemical compounds that make up our cuisine. I’ve outlined a few of these fascinating topics below.

picture of professor

Our charming dinner guest, Professor Miriam Rossi

  • Why do onions make you cry? Apparently when you cut open an onion you’re breaking cells which release a volatile sulfur gas that reacts with the moisture in your eyes to create sulfuric acid which burns and causes you to release tears. We discussed the likelihood of the enzyme that causes this having been bred out of commercial onions. We’ve all noticed how the onions from our fieldwork farms make us cry a lot more than the onions we buy at the store; Mariam said she wouldn’t be surprised if our hypothesis is correct!
  • Preventing cancer: We were all fascinated by Professor Rossi’s research project in Italy which she’ll be returning to work on in the spring. She and a team of scientists are extracting compounds from Curcumin (commonly known as turmeric), a member of the ginger family, that appear to be anti-carcinogenic. Apart from the olfactory pleasure of working with Curcumin, she celebrated its powers as an effective natural dye. This led to a conversation on our expectations of colored foods that are anything but natural such as green pistachio ice cream or colored cake batter. Curcumin is highly concentrated and effective so why don’t we use it instead of yellow dye 40? This multipurpose spice is certainly something worth our consumption!
  • The Ponderosa Pine: Have you ever smelled the bark of these magnificent trees? Sweet and surprising wafts of vanilla, cinnamon, or butterscotch will greet your nostrils.
  • Is Aspirin natural? Why yes, in fact it comes from the willow tree and is one of the compounds that although bitter to taste and therefore disagreeable to pests, is beneficial to humans. I was surprised to find out that many of our pharmaceutical drugs that I assume are synthetic actually come from the plants that surround me.
  • Does food lose nutrients when it’s cooked? Not usually. In fact, many foods release certain compounds only when they are heated and are only edible in this way, such as potatoes.
  • Lactose and gluten intolerances: With a few of these around our table, we were curious to hear Professor Rossi’s take on these growing intolerances. She reinforced the idea that more gluten and lactose intolerances exist in places that have less experience with these foods. An example is the frequency of lactose intolerance in China’s population since cows are a new addition to their farming system. When asked how one could survive in Italy with gluten intolerance she laughed and said they eat more than just pasta.

The lovely meal came to an end with Professor Rossi’s enthusiastic suggestion to use our ladies’ eggs for desserts that require raw eggs because “you can’t trust those store bought eggs anymore.” We’ll have to plan another meal where she teaches us to cook the delicious Italian custard Zabaione. In the meantime we’ve all gained a deeper appreciation for the chemistry of our food and will doubtless eat with expanded awareness.

picture of italian custard

Zabaione: our next dessert undertaking