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Banana Flavor, Caligula’s Feasts, Rainforest Cafe, and More Long Reads

Worthy weekend reading material

Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Chain restaurants have long found ways to keep customers returning, from ubiquitous Harvey restaurants at every train station to the call of the wild at the Rainforest Cafe. Banana flavoring shares chemicals with the specimen it came from, which lends credence to that yellow Laffy-Taffy. This week, authors also delved into deadly dinners with Roman emperors, spoke with a rare water sommelier, examined how food culture ripened in the midst of a recession, and discussed how pork, which has always been a staple in China, has boomed since the revolution. Here are seven of the week's best food-inspired longform reads to chew on this weekend.

The True Story of the Rainforest Cafe is Even Wilder Than You Thought
Atlas Obscura

Also, animals. "Forty tropical birds, two 150-pound tortoises, a baboon, an iguana and a bevy of tropical fish housed in ten 300-gallon fish tanks," Schussler writes in his memoir, It's a Jungle In There, about his menagerie. A greenhouse laboratory he had installed on the roof not only housed a full bar and tables, but also real butterflies bred "to determine how long they would survive and whether they would fall in the food."

Railway Paradise: How a Fine-Dining Empire Made the Southwest Palatable to Outsiders
Collector's Weekly

Orders would be sent ahead from the train via telegraph so the staff would know how many people to expect and what meals they had to serve. "They could even predict what percentage of the people on each train would be served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and the largest crowd was always breakfast. When the train arrived, somebody would hit a big gong," Melzer says. "That was like the starter pistol, so everyone was in place and knew what they had to do.

The History of Banana Flavoring
Lucky Peach

Dozens of chemicals contribute to the flavor of bananas, whether Gros Michel, Cavendish, or any of the hundreds of other banana varietal — €”green, blue, red, pink, and yellow. We learn to attend to certain sensations in the multisensory complexity of flavor, and to mark those as the significant ones€” — to recognize and know the flavor of banana in amyl acetate, and vice versa.

Dinner with Caligula
The New Inquiry

It is no wonder then that interesting times were also likely to be had by guests at dinners hosted by Caligula. Sometimes he startled his consuls from their dining by laughing uproariously. When they asked why he laughed so, he would reply that it was because he could have them executed at any second. As if to emphasize this fact, he often had a prisoner dispatched before them.

The Water Sommelier
Pacific Standard

Then, Iskilde ($12), a Danish spring water that looks bubbly in the glass but is actually still. It's available only in restaurants because, as Riese puts it, "You don't want a Louis Vuitton bag in Ralph's." And after Fiji, it did taste slightly ... heavier. Next up was Vichy Catalan (also $12), a naturally sparkling Spanish water that Riese calls the "Arrowhead of Spain." To me, it tasted like a more-refreshing, less-medicinal Alka Seltzer.

How ‘Foodie' Culture Survived the Recession

Johnston explained that the growing income gap accentuates the paradoxical elements of "foodie" culture: There are moments of status-seeking whereby the food-obsessed pride themselves on hunting for the rarest and most "authentic" of dishes, as well as nouveau trends in the molecular gastronomic realms. Yet there are also many democratic elements like eating low-brow foods such as corn dogs and hamburgers.

China's Favorite White Meat
Roads and Kingdoms

Few outside China, however, remember that the protestsâ — which swept across many major cities and unleashed the fiercest political unrest in recent Chinese history — €”were preceded by a year of high food inflation and pork rationing in much of the country. The government now keeps 200,000 tons of frozen pork in a strategic reserve to help ease supplies when prices rise, just as the United States has a strategic petroleum reserve.