Mournful Wails From the Oven

Lately I’ve been baking quite often, creating variations of classic recipes for basic foodstuffs such as French bread, cinnamon rolls, and banana bread. I’ve had to adjust my techniques and my intuitive by-guess-and-by-gosh measurements to the local altitude, which is about a mile above sea level. I’ve also become a bit careful about plunging my hands into the dark recesses of bowls in a cupboard and within flour-sacks — scorpions lurk in such places from time to time.

I’m particularly fond of my invisible flocks of domesticated single-celled fungi. They are my partners in culinary crime and I am quite grateful for the services they provide, which include flatulent emissions of CO2 gas. The interaction of fungal farts with the gluten in elastic wheat dough is a crucial component of successful bread baking, a partnership which has existed for thousands of years.

Over the years I’ve spent quite a few hours observing and classifying various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the ubiquitous brewer’s yeast used both in bread baking and in the fermentation of certain beers. Although in my baking and brewing experiences I had come to think of the tiny fungi as willful beasts which had to be coaxed and cajoled into satisfying my needs, under a microscope the organisms looked blandly ovoid, without much character to speak of.

My views of these single-celled fungi were greatly enhanced by a chance discovery and acquisition several years ago.

I happened to be on foot in a poor district of St. Louis, Missouri one fine October afternoon when I realized that I was seriously lost. The twisting lanes and alleys had defeated my rudimentary sense of direction and I sat down on a park bench next to a sleeping beggar. While I contemplated my options I happened to notice a shabby storefront across the street. I was startled, and thought, “Could that stuffed figure hanging in the store window actually be a dusty and ancient griffin?”

My curiosity was aroused as, after all, I’ve only seen a griffin on a lamentably small number of occasions. I crossed the street, narrowly avoiding a collision with an insane bicyclist, and opened the massive creaky door of the shop. All was in shadows within, and I called out:

“Is there anyone here?”

I heard a door open quietly in the back of the shop and a robed figure emerged from the dimness. The proprietor appeared to be Chinese; his robe was decorated with faded Chinese calligraphy and his beard was thin and wispy, but quite long. Oddly enough, he held a Turkish narghile in his hand, a water-pipe which appeared to be loaded with tobacco. I could smell the sweetish odor of the oily tendrils of smoke which drifted languidly from the glass bowl of the pipe.

The bald and wizened man chuckled and said, “My first customer of the day! How might I serve you, my pale friend?”

“I am curious about the creature hanging in your window — is it indeed a griffin?”

The shopkeeper smiled as he ran his hand lightly over the dusty feathers of the embalmed creature. “Yes, this is one of the very few surviving specimens of the Moroccan sub-species. The Bedouin tribesmen hunted them unmercifully and with little thought for the future, as they were essential for certain Sufi rituals. The beaks, claws, and feathers of the Saharan griffins emit a very potent odor when burned, an incense powerful enough to draw djinns from far and wide.”

I must admit that I was fascinated by these details. I asked the shopkeeper:

“So is the griffin extinct now?”

“Odd that you should ask, my inquisitive friend. I happen to have the sole remaining griffin confined in a bamboo cage in my back room. The creature was born in the Caucasus several centuries ago and spent several unpleasant years in P.T. Barnum’s sideshow before I acquired custody of him during a late-night Mah Jong session.”

“Can I see him?”

The shopkeeper smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, my curious friend, I’m afraid that this is not possible. The sight of a human other than myself would be a fatal blow to the aged creature. He believes that our race is extinct, aside from myself, and disillusioning him would not be wise. The beast is living his waning years eating a diet composed mostly of pigeons, rats, and curly dock leaves; I keep him fed and he spends his hours reminiscing about past glories and triumphs. That griffin might outlive me, though!”

I tried to conceal my disappointment. I had my camera with me — what an opportunity that could have been! I can count on the fingers of one hand the chances I’ve had to photograph mythical creatures. My thoughts strayed to that incident in the Appenines, my sole encounter with a basilisk.

The kindly shopkeeper looked sympathetic and said, “I can tell that you are a man with a keen interest in the natural world. I have something in my store-room which just might interest you.”

With a swish of his silken robes the man left the room, returning a short time later with an ebony box cradled in his arms. He deposited the box, which had tarnished brass hardware, on the counter next to the cash register.

The shopkeeper plucked a small brass key from a pocket hidden in the folds of his robes. He opened the glossy black box and withdrew an antique brass microscope.

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He asked me, “Are you familiar with the career of Carl Zeiss? This is a rare example of the output of his firm during a particularly innovative period.”

I examined the optical instrument, which was flawlessly constructed, and said, “Oh, sure, I’m familiar with Carl Zeiss. The company he founded is still producing top-quality optical instruments, as far as I know.”

The shopkeeper said, “You may not know of Mr. Zeiss’s partner, Ernst Abbe. He was another fine optician and optical theoretician, and he had a particular interest in natural history, especially in the microscopic examination of single-celled organisms. Mr. Abbe was concerned that the education of children in such subjects was being neglected. He invented a very unique type of microscope which he called the Anthroposcope, an instrument designed to make visible certain little-known segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. These normally invisible frequencies allow the viewer to perceive the emotional states of organisms which had hitherto been thought to have no mental or emotional life at all!”

I said, “This sounds like pseudoscientific bullshit to me, but I’m willing to take a chance! How much do you want for the Anthroposcope?”

The shopkeeper looked me in the eye, clasped my hand, and said, “I feel that this instrument belongs with you, my friend. Take it as a gift from a fellow student of the marvels of this world!”

I thanked the man profusely and, after asking directions, drove home to my sanctum. The Anthroposcope provided me with many insights into the private lives of my friends the yeasts.

Here’s a typical domestic view showing the interactions of several yeast cells:

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Notice the gaseous outbursts, the single-celled flatulence of the creatures.

Seeing such images increased the empathy I felt for the tiny fungi. I began involuntarily wincing as I slid pans full of bread dough into the blazing heat of my gas oven. I imagined that I could hear the shrieks and screams of the innocent organisms as they died a painful and agonized death.

I began to rationalize, just as human carnivores have done for ages in order to keep guilt at bay. After all, I had provided food and shelter to these fungi and treated them humanely while they were alive, and they wouldn’t have been nearly so numerous without my assiduous care.

I was reminded of the Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus And The Carpenter, a grimly humorous tale which deals with similar issues. Here are three stanzas from that poem:


“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

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Larry