The Mafia’s lemon roots and other facts – Gastropod turns five

By Gastropod
4th October 2019
Share Article

We launched Gastropod in September 2014, which means we’re turning five this month, and that’s approximately 100 in podcast years. We’re celebrating our birthday with a special episode featuring highlights from the past five years’ worth of episodes, as chosen by you, our listeners—served up alongside a generous slice of cake science and history.

Join the party and listen in now as we revisit fan favorites and behind-the-scenes highlights from our first half-decade, and then sit down with this souvenir list: 25 of our favorite fun facts from Gastropod, or five for each of the five years we’ve been making the show!

The Mafia got its start in the 1860s, in the lemon groves of Sicily. (At the time, growing lemons was the most lucrative form of agriculture in Europe, thanks to scurvy and the British Navy.

Episode: Museums and the Mafia: The Secret History of Citrus

Using gold (or gold-plated) cutlery makes food taste sweeter.

Episode: Episode 1: The Golden Spoon

Olive oil is fruit juice.

Episode: Green Gold: Our Love Affair with Olive Oil

Saliva is filtered blood.

Episode: Guts and Glory

The enamel on our teeth is the hardest tissue in our entire bodies—at 95 percent mineral, it’s basically a rock.

Episode: The Truth is in the Tooth: Braces, Cavities, and the Paleo Diet

The invention of forks changed the shape of our jaws.

Episode: Episode 1: The Golden Spoon

Medieval nuns used to get high on saffron, to help them get through their prayer marathons.

Episode: Meet Saffron: The World’s Most Expensive Spice

In the absence of kitchen timers or affordable clocks, recipes in the earliest cookbooks gave timings in the form of prayers, like two Lord’s Prayers or four Hail Marys.

Episode: Cooking the Books with Yotam and Nigella

True wasabi (most wasabi in the U.S. is just colored horseradish) has a flavor “window”: it has no taste for the first five minutes after being grated, then the flavor explodes—but it fades after another ten to fifteen minutes. You have only a few minutes to enjoy wasabi at its peak!

Episode: Espresso and Whisky: The Place of Time in Food

The word “avocado” comes from the Nahuatl word for testicle.

Episode: Ripe for Global Domination: The Story of the Avocado

The word “cocktail” comes from the practice of putting a piece of ginger up a horse’s butt to make it cock its tail up, and seem younger and friskier.

Episode: The Cocktail Hour

Jell-O was originally sold as a patent medicine that was good for hair and nails.

Episode: Watch it Wiggle: The Jell-O Story

The earliest recorded recipe for ice-cream was flavored with ambergris, which is a salt- and air-cured whale excretion (no one is quite sure whether it’s vomit or poo).

Episode: The Scoop on Ice Cream

New York City’s first soda fountains used marble scraps left over from building St. Patrick’s cathedral to produce their carbonation.

Episode: Gettin’ Fizzy With It

The superiority of New York City’s bagels has nothing to do with the city’s water.

Episode: The Bagelization of America

Donald Rumsfeld was the man behind the launch of Nutrasweet.

Episode: Sweet and Low (Calorie): The Story of Artificial Sweeteners

George W. Bush and a trade deal involving Harley Davidsons were the reason that the Indian Alphonso, the so-called “king of mangoes,” can now finally be imported to the U.S.

Episode: Mango Mania: How the American Mango Lost its Flavor—and How it Might Just Get it Back

Jack Daniel learned how to make whiskey from an enslaved African, Nearest Green, who went on to become the company’s first master distiller.

Episode: The Secret History of the Slave Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey

The first pasta machine was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Episode: Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale

In England in the 1600s, a special breed of dogs were used to turn spits of roasted meat in front of the open fire. (These turnspit dogs are now extinct; their closest relation is thought to be a corgi.)

Episode: Hotbox: The Oven from Turnspit Dog to Microwave

In America in the early 1900s, the pawpaw was voted the native fruit most likely to succeed, ahead of the blueberry.

Episode: Pick a Pawpaw: America’s Forgotten Fruit

The story that carrots are good for eyesight was World War II military disinformation, spread by the British to prevent the Germans from realizing that the Royal Air Force were shooting down so many enemy planes because their cockpits were now equipped with radar and red lighting.

Episode: How the Carrot Became Orange, and Other Stories

Mustard became spicy over the course of a 90-million-year evolutionary arms race against caterpillars.

Episode: Cutting the Mustard

Plants can hear themselves being eaten.

Episode: Field Recordings

A raw human male contains, on average, 143,770 calories.

Episode: Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru

Episode Notes


Alysa Levene is a Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University. We talked to her about her delightfully readable, recent book, Cake: A Slice of History.


It’s gorgeous! And it’s by Jackie Botto, a Gastropod listener who does all kind of food visuals and story-telling.


Want some of the brand-new Gastropod gear we mentioned in our episode? Get over to our shop and kit yourself (and your friends and family) out with the good stuff!

Thumbnail Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash