Friday, April 13, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #138: Did Cats Domesticate Themselves?

You may not have realized this, but I like cats.

And they like me.

But how did we get so lucky as to be blessed with a world in which cats exist? Out of all the animals that we could have domesticated, how did we end up with God’s perfect killing machines shedding all over our sofas?

For some time, it was believed that cats were first domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago – something about all those cat mummies. But in 2004, that theory was put to sleep when archeologists discovered the remains of a 9,500-year-old domesticated cat in a grave in Cyprus. While these cat remains weren’t exactly wearing a collar at the time of discovery, scientists deduced that the cat was domesticated because it was found alongside human remains. I like to think that they both died at the same time, of natural and painless causes.

In 2007, a study published in the journal Science found that domestic cats originated, not from North Africa, as previously thought, but from the Near East in a little region called the Fertile Crescent, aka, the cradle of human civilization. Early domestic cats may also have appeared in Central Asia. DNA from the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), traditionally believed to be the ancestor of the domestic cat due to their similar appearance, was compared to DNA from several subspecies of F. s. silvestris, including the central Asian wildcat, F. s. ornata; the Near Eastern wildcat, F. s. lybica; the Chinese desert cat, F. s. bieti; and the Southern African wildcat, F. s. cafra.. The researchers found that the Near Eastern wildcat specimens, which came from the deserts of the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, shared mitochondrial DNA with the domestic cat specimens, as well as other genetic similarities that point to the Near Eastern wildcat being the most likely ancestor of the domestic cat. The researchers think it’s likely that cat domestication is as old as human civilization itself – or at least 10,000 to 12,000 years.

F. s. gordoni, a subspecies of the Near Eastern wildcat.

So, how did we domesticate cats? Early farmers’ food stores attracted rodents, and scholars believe that those rodents attracted cats. Presumably, as time passed, those cats realized that humans could offer warmth, affection, and a greater variety of easier-to-obtain vittles -- thus, a beautiful friendship between two species of bloodthirsty killers was born.

Some argue, however, that we didn’t domesticate cats, so much as they domesticated themselves – we were just kind of doing our thing, and cats just kind of showed up and started benefiting from that. Some even argue that cats are not yet fully domesticated. They point to the fact that domestic cats often survive just fine in feral colonies, without human intervention, and that feral domestic cats continue to interbreed with European, Near Eastern, and other closely-related wildcats, to such an extent that this interbreeding is threatening some species. Even a domestic cat that has lived all of its life with humans could, at least in theory, strike out on its own and make a life for itself just by killing and eating things, although I think it totally depends on the cat, and also why would it do that when it can just get some other schmuck to feed it, I mean, come on, that’s what they do.

You may have noticed that, unlike some domesticated species, like dogs, cats all kind of look the same. Sure, some have long fur and some have short legs, and some are completely bald, and some have pushed-in faces. And, of course, domestic cats have all different kinds of markings – they come in tabby, marmalade, calico, tuxedo, black, white, gray, tortoiseshell, and any combination of rosettes, stripes, spots, and points. But, when compared to different breeds of dogs, different breeds of cats are all pretty similar – they’re all roughly the same size, they mostly have the same kind of tail (except when they don’t), the same kind of ears (except when they don’t), the same face (except when they don’t), the same air of casual disdain, and the same obsession with pointless murder.

When early humans domesticated most other animals, they, the humans, needed them, the animals, to do specific things that the animals weren’t otherwise inclined to do, like herd sheep, or kill rats, or bring back dead waterfowl from the middle of the lake, or look stupid. No one really needed cats to do anything, except kill mice and rats, and they were already doing that. Domestic cats probably became a lot more social through domestication; they’re not only much friendlier to people than they might otherwise be, but they also bond more readily with other domestic cats and even other domestic species, like dogs and goats. But they may very well have self-selected for that trait, so for many millennia, there was really no need for humans to selectively breed cats the way that we have other domestic animals. They've remained pretty much the same, while we’ve become more and more interested in opening their cat food cans and stealing their poop. If anything, they’ve domesticated us – with a little help from their old friend, Toxoplasmosis gondi.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #137: Is White Chocolate Even Chocolate?

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a bag of what I thought was my favorite Easter treat, Cadbury Mini Eggs. When I got home, I was dismayed to discover that I had bought, not delicious milk chocolate Cadbury eggs, but disgusting white chocolate Cadbury eggs. How could Cadbury do this to me?

In the interest of 100% pure journalism, I ate a few of them anyway. So when I say they were disgusting, you know I’m telling you the truth. White chocolate is not chocolate.

Or is it?

There is apparently some debate about whether or not white chocolate is chocolate. While Wikipedia remains appropriately neutral on the matter, publications as august as Mental Floss and Huffington Post assert that white chocolate is not chocolate. It doesn’t contain any of the delicious cocoa solids derived from the cocoa bean and used to make milk and dark chocolates. It is made with cocoa butter, the vegetable fat extracted from cocoa during the (real) chocolate-making process. As the beans are processed, cocoa nibs are removed from the bean, roasted, and then crushed into a paste known as chocolate liquor. This paste is further processed in a cocoa press, which separates the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. The cocoa solids can then be reincorporated with cocoa butter to create milk or dark chocolate; or the cocoa butter can be mixed with milk fat, milk solids, sugar, emulsifiers, and other flavorings to make white chocolate. Cocoa butter is also valuable in the cosmetic and pharmaceuticals industry; I’ve got a jar of cocoa butter Vaseline upstairs, but I’m not going to eat it, because cocoa butter isn’t food.

A block of not-food. ~Image by David Monniaux from Wikimedia Commons

I mean, okay, it’s food. But only technically.

Of course, the people who make and sell white chocolate would have you believe that’s it’s chocolate. Cookbook author, pastry chef, and presumed member of the White Chocolate Illuminati, David Lebovitz, told the Chicago Tribune that saying white chocolate isn’t real chocolate  is“bickering over nomenclature” because, after all, it’s made from cocoa beans. I’m squinting real hard at this assertion, by the way.

But, apparently cocoa butter doesn’t even have a flavor of its own; the flavor of white chocolate comes from added milk and sugar, because who doesn’t love sweetened milk. As a matter of fact, I’mma go pour myself a nice refreshing glass of sugared milk right now. Yum.

Nestlé, purveyor of sh*tty chocolate and pure evil, invented white chocolate in the 1930s, marketing the world’s first white chocolate bar, the Milkybar, to European customers. It’s believed, or at least widely repeated, that Nestlé needed to use up a surplus of powdered milk left over from World War I, which…ewwwww. World War I ended in 1918; if Nestlé started selling white chocolate in 1930, that means they were using 12-year-old powdered milk. I know powdered milk lasts a long time, but it does go bad eventually -- after about five years, according to members of this survivalist forum -- and this website claims the Milkybar (marketed in some countries as the Galak bar, after the sound you make when eating it) was introduced in 1936. That means they were using 18-year-old powdered milk. If they’d just been patient for another couple of years, they could have used that powdered milk for World War II and saved the rest of us the trouble of existing in a world in which white chocolate is a thing.

A Milkybar.

If you like white chocolate, though, you’ll be happy to know it’s improved in quality somewhat. Prior to 2004, the sale of white chocolate wasn’t regulated in the U.S., so some manufacturers were just using vegetable oil or some other, cheaper, even grosser vegetable fat instead of real, genuine, tasteless and yellow cocoa butter. Thanks to Standard of Identity regulations passed by the FDA in 2004, products labeled white chocolate in the U.S. are required to be at least 20 percent cocoa butter, 14 percent milk solids, and 3.5 percent milk fat – and no more than 55 percent sugar and sweeteners. Milk chocolate may have added flavors, such as vanilla, the most interesting flavor of them all, after milk sugar itself, that is.

It is alleged that there is such a thing as good white chocolate. Artisanal white chocolate appears to be taking off, and high-quality white chocolate is yellowish, just like pure cocoa butter and my Vaseline.