Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Has it ever been so easy to learn? Has it ever been so easy to track down otherwise obscure concepts or assemble tenuous scraps of connections into a meaningful whole? Or for that matter, to follow up on one concept only to find yourself wandering off onto something related but utterly unanticipated? How did we survive without the Internet, Google and Wikipedia?

One amazing aspect of all of this is that it is not only the major, important issues which get the in-depth treatment. The mundane and trivial also get a good going over.

Until today I knew, or thought I knew, about the botanical families Aceraceae (maples) and Sapindaceae (various mostly tropical trees and shrubs). What I didn’t know is that some contemporary botanists now place these two groups into one family, one family for which they use the name Sapindaceae. The term I grew up with, Aceraceae, is no longer used by those botanists.

But it is how I learned this which is the point of this piece. The other night I was skimming through a forty-year-old cook book, Latin American Cooking, from the Time/Life Foods of the World series. Much of what I read was by now a bit stale: our eating habits have changed a lot in the last forty years. Ours is a household where the tortilladora gets a frequent workout, and the diners (with one holdout) have long since made their peace with cilantro (but not hot chilies). But our knowledge of south-of-the-border cooking has a strong central American flavor; other than a few well-known national dishes, South American food does not appear on our table too often.

Now try to imagine a sixty-five year old man tasting Pepsi or Coca Cola for the first time. I had that experience today. But it wasn’t Pepsi or Coke I was tasting, it was guaraná, the Brazilian soft drink. And it was all due to what Jonathan Norton Leonard, author of Latin American Cooking, had to say about it those forty years ago: “To my palate, no commercial soft drink in the United States is nearly as good”. I was not only intrigued, I was pretty sure I had seen guaraná on the shelves of the local import store.

When I got to the store I discovered that I had two brands from which to choose. Within a hour I was home having my first sip. It’s hard to describe the taste – it’s fruity, but unlike any particular fruit I know. And it’s delicious and easy to drink. It’s also sweetened with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup.

At this point an appeal to Wikipedia was in order: what is guaraná made with? And that’s where the big tie-in happened. Guaraná is made with the fruit of a sapindaceous vine, and since one thing led to another I was soon also learning that maples are now placed in the Sapindaceae by some botanists.

To celebrate all of this I poured myself another glass of guaraná.

1 comment:

Chris U said...

I was also intrigued to discover this drink; it made me wonder if maybe there could be a specialized high-end sort of market for all those exotic/esoteric tropical fruits I have read about. I suppose though, now that the economy has gone south, and gratuitous consumerism is (hopefully) headed in the same direction, the answer is no! Rats!

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