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11/30/1999

Kava And Other Culinary Treats

I presume that, except for vegetarians and other nontraditional
types, you had turkey with all the trimmings sometime during the
past week. Chances are you had the same thing more than once if
your leftovers were as plentiful as ours. One of my few culinary
talents (actually, I can''t think of any other) is preparing the
cranberry-apple-orange relish for the Thanksgiving feast. Ok, I
admit it''s not very complex a task - just grind up 2 delicious
apples, 2 navel oranges and 1 pound of cranberries in a blender
and add a cup or two of sugar. However, sorting through those
cranberries one by one to weed out the bad ones is a tedious job.
I guess after last week''s "cooking" column, you''re not surprised
that I''m pulling a Martha Stewart, giving out my prize recipes!

Surprisingly, when shopping for my oranges, the only ones that
looked good were Australian navel oranges. They turned out to
be quite tasty and the relish was up to my usual high standard.
However, they led me to reminisce about our tour to Australia
and New Zealand a decade or so ago. Naturally, I wondered
what other countries and cultures eat on their Thanksgiving days.
Fiji comes to mind. After our tour, we had planned to visit Tahiti,
including Bora Bora. However, while we were in New Zealand,
the natives became restless in Papeete. In fact, a New Zealand
Air crew was being held hostage and a flight attendant may have
been killed. In addition, the hotel in Papeete where we were
scheduled to stay before going to Bora Bora was the scene of
considerable harassment of tourists. So, we changed our plans
and visited Fiji instead.

We had a very enjoyable time there and the Fijians were quite
friendly. A standard bit of humor expressed by guides or
entertainers was telling us that we didn''t have to be worried about
being eaten! Back in 1951, an archaeologist named Gifford, at
the University of California, Berkeley, found human bones mixed
in with animal bones at ancient Fiji sites. After analyzing various
markings on the bones, Gifford''s opinion was that, with the
exception of fish, man was the favorite vertebrate food of the
Fijians! This helped to inspire cartoonists to come up with those
ubiquitous depictions of the big pot containing a missionary with
natives standing or dancing around, licking their chops. There
were, however, doubts as to whether Gifford''s work really
constituted definite proof of such culinary tastes. In particular,
there were questions as to whether the markings on the bones
were really made by humans or were the result of some other
nonhuman activity.

Often, an elegant experiment is one that you might say, "Hey, I
could have thought of that!" Bring on David DeGusta, a
graduate student, also at Berkeley. DeGusta, almost 50 years
later, has reanalyzed the bones Gifford collected from a midden
on the island of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. In case you''re
wondering, the word midden comes from the Scandinavian for
muckheap, which to me means a garbage dump. This Fijian
midden covered a period of 2,000 years but the article I read in
the October 1 issue of Science didn''t say which 2,000 years.
What DeGusta did was to compare the midden bones with bones
from a Fijian burial site, which happened to be near the midden
and spanned the same time period. DeGusta figured that the guys
and gals that were buried would have been treated with a bit more
respect than the ones who allegedly served as the main course for
dinner. He found that the bones from the midden bore cut marks
and breaks that were similar to the markings on the animal
remains in the midden. This was fairly good evidence for the
cannibalism theory. But the clincher came from the burial site
bones, which were quite normal, showing no signs of untoward
behavior. Conclusion - the Fijians did indeed eat each other!

This hunt for cannibalism by paleoanthropologists seems to be
quite the rage today. A second article in the same issue of
Science contains the research of a French and American team that
checked out 100,000 year-old bones found in a French cave.
They concluded that our Neanderthal cousins also consumed each
other on occasion and that among the delicacies were filet of
chewing muscle, tongue and a bit of bone marrow. Like the
Fijians, certain Neanderthal groups treated their fellows more
respectfully, burying them in ritualistic manner. Ironically,
investigators are taking this diverse behavior as evidence that the
Neanderthals were closer to us Homo sapiens types than we''ve
given them credit for. The recent finding of a skull of a young
child bearing characteristics of both Neanderthal and modern man
has been put forth as evidence for a little hanky panky going on
between the two groups. Whether this will hold up under further
scrutiny is certainly worth watching.

Back to Gifford''s statement about the Fijian diet, he did say that
fish was the major dietary item. While we were in Fiji, a handful
of us tourists got to participate in a "fish drive". We gathered on
this crescent-shaped shoreline while the natives lined up quite far
out, probably 500 yards or more, in chest-high water. Each
person held a section of a long "net", consisting of a line of vine
or rope on which were tied palm leaves closely enough spaced so
that fish would shy away from trying to swim through the rather
porous structure. I would guess the line to have been perhaps
200-400 yards in length. After standing out there in the hot sun
(it was noon) for about an hour waiting for some auspicious
moment, the line of natives started advancing to the shore,
herding the fish ahead of them. When they got within a hundred
yards or so from the shore, we were allowed to wade out to join
them. After the circle had been pretty well closed around the fish,
one of the natives pulled out a little bag of powder make from
some kind of tree or bush. He sprinkled it into the water and
Wow! All of a sudden, there were hordes of fish literally flying
through the air and swimming erratically at the surface of the
water. Everyone was feverishly trying to catch fish with the tool
of choice. The leader of our little group, a colorful Fijian who
was the entertainment director at our hotel, used his spear to land
the biggest fish of the day, a hefty 3-foot long specimen. I even
managed to snag one myself in my bare hands. To tell the truth, it
was only 3 inches long and definitely not a keeper.

Actually, this fish drive was a quite serious event in that the
natives depend on the fish drive for a significant part of their diet
and, because of damaging storms the year before, the palm leaves
to make the nets were in short supply. Therefore, the drives
could only be held every few weeks and we were quite fortunate
to witness one. Apparently, the powder they put in the water,
while having quite a stimulating effect on the fish at first, is
supposed to end up stunning them and make catching them easier.
While it was truly a memorable experience, I would be queasy
about doing it again, having seen an octopus and other strange
creatures plucked from the water by the natives.

We haven''t discussed what the Fijians drink. The day we left Fiji,
our trusty leader conducted a poolside ceremony. In this
ceremony, a potion of some sort was concocted, again from
powdered roots. When the big pot of muddy looking liquid was
ready, our leader insisted it was customary to pass around a half
coconut shell filled with the stuff and everybody was to take a
drink of it. My wife to this day berates me for following that
custom. Actually, I drank it and suffered no ill effects. In fact, I
don''t remember much about the long plane ride from Fiji to
Hawaii.

Recently, I read an article by a fellow visiting some island in the
South Pacific. He related his experience with a rather potent
drink that a visitor should imbibe when offered; otherwise the
visitor insults his host. In this article, probably from National
Geographic, the writer was taken by his guide/pilot to meet a
local chief. The writer took one drink, which he described as
tasting somewhat like manure. I certainly didn''t detect that
flavor, not that I''ve ever deliberately indulged in manure! His
guide/pilot apparently indulged quite heavily in the beverage and
had to be supported on the way back to the aircraft. Fortunately,
he apparently had sufficient sobriety left to pilot the writer back
safely to his destination.

But, I''ve wandered off the main thrust of this column. Getting
back to cooking, it seems as though the Neanderthals, even
though they had fire, had not perfected the art of roasting.
Instead, they seemed either to have eaten the humans raw or at
least sliced the meat from the bone prior to any heating. It also
seems that cannibalism was around as far back as 800,000 years,
based on evidence from a site in Spain. Thus, we can hardly
blame the more modern Fijians and, in fact, there is evidence that
in our own southwest there was a taste for human flesh.

At our Thanksgiving dinner, we had our young grandson, who
refused to join us in the customary turkey, my hard earned
cranberry relish, or anything else on the menu. Rather, he dined
on part of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some ice cream,
despite our pleas to broaden his tastes. It occurred to me that it''s
a "good thing" (Martha again) that over the millennia, humankind
has evolved to broaden its menu sufficiently that we
overwhelmingly prefer to eat other vertebrates, not ourselves!

Allen F. Bortrum

Addendum: After finishing this column, I stumbled upon Rob
Kay''s Fiji Guide http://www.fijiguide.com/Facts/kava.html and found
out what I had drunk on Viti Levu. It was yaqona, the national
drink of Fiji, derived from the root of the kava plant, a member of
the pepper family. While yaqona is not an alcoholic drink, it does
have a generally calming effect and can generate "fuzzy-
headedness to mild euphoria". It''s also a diuretic and probably
had a favorable effect on my high blood pressure! I am
reasonably sure that the yaqona I drank was not made by young
virgins chewing on the kava root before mixing, as reported by
some early explorers of Fiji. Mr. Kay''s Web site has 4 pages of
interesting material on yaqona. If you plan to visit someone on
Fiji, a good gift to bring along is a kava root or two, and you
won''t spend more than about $10! I suspect, but can''t confirm,
that the powder employed in the fish drive was also kava root.

Addendum to the Addendum: You herbal types are probably
saying, "This Bortrum guy is really behind the times." Searching
the Web for "kava", I was surprised to find there is currently a big
boom in kava as a purported anxiety treatment and even a sexual
stimulant! I found an article attributed to the Wall Street Journal
on the emergence of kava as an herbal superstar and a possible
alternative to Xanax and Valium. No wonder I don''t remember
anything about the flight out of Fiji! Perhaps I was actually ahead
of the times when I imbibed that yaqona. Please don''t take this as
an endorsement in any sense! I am not a physician, herbalist or
any kind of expert in this field and would be quite leery about
taking any herb that has not been extensively studied and does not
have the medical community''s approval.



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-11/30/1999-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/30/1999

Kava And Other Culinary Treats

I presume that, except for vegetarians and other nontraditional
types, you had turkey with all the trimmings sometime during the
past week. Chances are you had the same thing more than once if
your leftovers were as plentiful as ours. One of my few culinary
talents (actually, I can''t think of any other) is preparing the
cranberry-apple-orange relish for the Thanksgiving feast. Ok, I
admit it''s not very complex a task - just grind up 2 delicious
apples, 2 navel oranges and 1 pound of cranberries in a blender
and add a cup or two of sugar. However, sorting through those
cranberries one by one to weed out the bad ones is a tedious job.
I guess after last week''s "cooking" column, you''re not surprised
that I''m pulling a Martha Stewart, giving out my prize recipes!

Surprisingly, when shopping for my oranges, the only ones that
looked good were Australian navel oranges. They turned out to
be quite tasty and the relish was up to my usual high standard.
However, they led me to reminisce about our tour to Australia
and New Zealand a decade or so ago. Naturally, I wondered
what other countries and cultures eat on their Thanksgiving days.
Fiji comes to mind. After our tour, we had planned to visit Tahiti,
including Bora Bora. However, while we were in New Zealand,
the natives became restless in Papeete. In fact, a New Zealand
Air crew was being held hostage and a flight attendant may have
been killed. In addition, the hotel in Papeete where we were
scheduled to stay before going to Bora Bora was the scene of
considerable harassment of tourists. So, we changed our plans
and visited Fiji instead.

We had a very enjoyable time there and the Fijians were quite
friendly. A standard bit of humor expressed by guides or
entertainers was telling us that we didn''t have to be worried about
being eaten! Back in 1951, an archaeologist named Gifford, at
the University of California, Berkeley, found human bones mixed
in with animal bones at ancient Fiji sites. After analyzing various
markings on the bones, Gifford''s opinion was that, with the
exception of fish, man was the favorite vertebrate food of the
Fijians! This helped to inspire cartoonists to come up with those
ubiquitous depictions of the big pot containing a missionary with
natives standing or dancing around, licking their chops. There
were, however, doubts as to whether Gifford''s work really
constituted definite proof of such culinary tastes. In particular,
there were questions as to whether the markings on the bones
were really made by humans or were the result of some other
nonhuman activity.

Often, an elegant experiment is one that you might say, "Hey, I
could have thought of that!" Bring on David DeGusta, a
graduate student, also at Berkeley. DeGusta, almost 50 years
later, has reanalyzed the bones Gifford collected from a midden
on the island of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. In case you''re
wondering, the word midden comes from the Scandinavian for
muckheap, which to me means a garbage dump. This Fijian
midden covered a period of 2,000 years but the article I read in
the October 1 issue of Science didn''t say which 2,000 years.
What DeGusta did was to compare the midden bones with bones
from a Fijian burial site, which happened to be near the midden
and spanned the same time period. DeGusta figured that the guys
and gals that were buried would have been treated with a bit more
respect than the ones who allegedly served as the main course for
dinner. He found that the bones from the midden bore cut marks
and breaks that were similar to the markings on the animal
remains in the midden. This was fairly good evidence for the
cannibalism theory. But the clincher came from the burial site
bones, which were quite normal, showing no signs of untoward
behavior. Conclusion - the Fijians did indeed eat each other!

This hunt for cannibalism by paleoanthropologists seems to be
quite the rage today. A second article in the same issue of
Science contains the research of a French and American team that
checked out 100,000 year-old bones found in a French cave.
They concluded that our Neanderthal cousins also consumed each
other on occasion and that among the delicacies were filet of
chewing muscle, tongue and a bit of bone marrow. Like the
Fijians, certain Neanderthal groups treated their fellows more
respectfully, burying them in ritualistic manner. Ironically,
investigators are taking this diverse behavior as evidence that the
Neanderthals were closer to us Homo sapiens types than we''ve
given them credit for. The recent finding of a skull of a young
child bearing characteristics of both Neanderthal and modern man
has been put forth as evidence for a little hanky panky going on
between the two groups. Whether this will hold up under further
scrutiny is certainly worth watching.

Back to Gifford''s statement about the Fijian diet, he did say that
fish was the major dietary item. While we were in Fiji, a handful
of us tourists got to participate in a "fish drive". We gathered on
this crescent-shaped shoreline while the natives lined up quite far
out, probably 500 yards or more, in chest-high water. Each
person held a section of a long "net", consisting of a line of vine
or rope on which were tied palm leaves closely enough spaced so
that fish would shy away from trying to swim through the rather
porous structure. I would guess the line to have been perhaps
200-400 yards in length. After standing out there in the hot sun
(it was noon) for about an hour waiting for some auspicious
moment, the line of natives started advancing to the shore,
herding the fish ahead of them. When they got within a hundred
yards or so from the shore, we were allowed to wade out to join
them. After the circle had been pretty well closed around the fish,
one of the natives pulled out a little bag of powder make from
some kind of tree or bush. He sprinkled it into the water and
Wow! All of a sudden, there were hordes of fish literally flying
through the air and swimming erratically at the surface of the
water. Everyone was feverishly trying to catch fish with the tool
of choice. The leader of our little group, a colorful Fijian who
was the entertainment director at our hotel, used his spear to land
the biggest fish of the day, a hefty 3-foot long specimen. I even
managed to snag one myself in my bare hands. To tell the truth, it
was only 3 inches long and definitely not a keeper.

Actually, this fish drive was a quite serious event in that the
natives depend on the fish drive for a significant part of their diet
and, because of damaging storms the year before, the palm leaves
to make the nets were in short supply. Therefore, the drives
could only be held every few weeks and we were quite fortunate
to witness one. Apparently, the powder they put in the water,
while having quite a stimulating effect on the fish at first, is
supposed to end up stunning them and make catching them easier.
While it was truly a memorable experience, I would be queasy
about doing it again, having seen an octopus and other strange
creatures plucked from the water by the natives.

We haven''t discussed what the Fijians drink. The day we left Fiji,
our trusty leader conducted a poolside ceremony. In this
ceremony, a potion of some sort was concocted, again from
powdered roots. When the big pot of muddy looking liquid was
ready, our leader insisted it was customary to pass around a half
coconut shell filled with the stuff and everybody was to take a
drink of it. My wife to this day berates me for following that
custom. Actually, I drank it and suffered no ill effects. In fact, I
don''t remember much about the long plane ride from Fiji to
Hawaii.

Recently, I read an article by a fellow visiting some island in the
South Pacific. He related his experience with a rather potent
drink that a visitor should imbibe when offered; otherwise the
visitor insults his host. In this article, probably from National
Geographic, the writer was taken by his guide/pilot to meet a
local chief. The writer took one drink, which he described as
tasting somewhat like manure. I certainly didn''t detect that
flavor, not that I''ve ever deliberately indulged in manure! His
guide/pilot apparently indulged quite heavily in the beverage and
had to be supported on the way back to the aircraft. Fortunately,
he apparently had sufficient sobriety left to pilot the writer back
safely to his destination.

But, I''ve wandered off the main thrust of this column. Getting
back to cooking, it seems as though the Neanderthals, even
though they had fire, had not perfected the art of roasting.
Instead, they seemed either to have eaten the humans raw or at
least sliced the meat from the bone prior to any heating. It also
seems that cannibalism was around as far back as 800,000 years,
based on evidence from a site in Spain. Thus, we can hardly
blame the more modern Fijians and, in fact, there is evidence that
in our own southwest there was a taste for human flesh.

At our Thanksgiving dinner, we had our young grandson, who
refused to join us in the customary turkey, my hard earned
cranberry relish, or anything else on the menu. Rather, he dined
on part of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some ice cream,
despite our pleas to broaden his tastes. It occurred to me that it''s
a "good thing" (Martha again) that over the millennia, humankind
has evolved to broaden its menu sufficiently that we
overwhelmingly prefer to eat other vertebrates, not ourselves!

Allen F. Bortrum

Addendum: After finishing this column, I stumbled upon Rob
Kay''s Fiji Guide http://www.fijiguide.com/Facts/kava.html and found
out what I had drunk on Viti Levu. It was yaqona, the national
drink of Fiji, derived from the root of the kava plant, a member of
the pepper family. While yaqona is not an alcoholic drink, it does
have a generally calming effect and can generate "fuzzy-
headedness to mild euphoria". It''s also a diuretic and probably
had a favorable effect on my high blood pressure! I am
reasonably sure that the yaqona I drank was not made by young
virgins chewing on the kava root before mixing, as reported by
some early explorers of Fiji. Mr. Kay''s Web site has 4 pages of
interesting material on yaqona. If you plan to visit someone on
Fiji, a good gift to bring along is a kava root or two, and you
won''t spend more than about $10! I suspect, but can''t confirm,
that the powder employed in the fish drive was also kava root.

Addendum to the Addendum: You herbal types are probably
saying, "This Bortrum guy is really behind the times." Searching
the Web for "kava", I was surprised to find there is currently a big
boom in kava as a purported anxiety treatment and even a sexual
stimulant! I found an article attributed to the Wall Street Journal
on the emergence of kava as an herbal superstar and a possible
alternative to Xanax and Valium. No wonder I don''t remember
anything about the flight out of Fiji! Perhaps I was actually ahead
of the times when I imbibed that yaqona. Please don''t take this as
an endorsement in any sense! I am not a physician, herbalist or
any kind of expert in this field and would be quite leery about
taking any herb that has not been extensively studied and does not
have the medical community''s approval.