The Gonzo Scientist

Happy 300th Birthday, Linnaeus

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Science  02 Nov 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5851, pp. 752
DOI: 10.1126/science.318.5851.752b

John Bohannon

A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

One thing was clear to me by the time Åke Bruce entered the room wearing a powdered wig and finery: This was by far the strangest birthday party I had ever attended.

The birthday boy, Carl Linnaeus, is long dead—he was born 300 years ago. But to mark this nicely round number, Sweden was determined to throw a party befitting one of her most famous scientific sons. He is best known as the inventor of modern taxonomy, the Latin names that divide organisms into species based on shared traits. The innovation helped pave the way for Darwinism a century later. But like a rock star who is only remembered for that one catchy song, Linnaeus's numerous other contributions are appreciated only by the groupies.

He invented field biology. Linnaeus named thousands of species himself and trained a generation of biologists who journeyed to the four corners of the world in search of the rest. (Half of them died in the process.) And that's not all. He helped local astronomer Anders Celsius design the modern thermometer. He wrote important treatises on physiology, history, and economics—and the list goes on. There seemed to be no academic realm the Swede left untouched. So it was not surprising that while I was in Sweden, there were no fewer than three Linnaeus-celebratory conferences under way.

Bruce wanted his party to stand out. As a nutrition scientist at the Swedish National Food Administration, he knew just how to do it. “Linnaeus was passionate about food and diet,” he says, and not just as an epicurean or a “foodie.” Based on the man's published works, says Bruce, food—its origins, how best to prepare and serve it, and its effects on health—lay at the intersection of all of Linnaeus's interests.

So for the past 3 years, Bruce has led a team of Swedish researchers to prepare the ultimate Linnean foodfest. Scholars from around the world were invited to explore the culture and science of food in the time of Linnaeus, as well as the progress that food science has made 300 years hence. And to get everyone in the proper frame of mind, master chefs collaborated.

The output was 3 days of food-related lectures by diverse experts—biochemists, historians, agricultural scientists, and psychologists—punctuated by recreations of 18th century meals. And to entertain us, Bruce wrote a play based on Linnaeus's journals and correspondence. The 10 roles were divvied up, with Bruce playing Linnaeus. His wife, Ingar Ribbe Bruce, not only performed in the play, but she also designed and handmade all the period costumes for the troupe. (She is a surgeon at Uppsala University Hospital when not acting or sewing.)

For the title of the event, Bruce turned to a treatise by Linnaeus in which he compares the food culture of his time with that of ancient Rome and Athens: Culina Mutata, the changing kitchen.

What people ate in 18th century Europe depended on their place in the social order. The diet of a farmhand was strikingly different from that of a Swedish nobleman just down the road. So the meals, researched and designed by food scholar Gunilla Lindell, provided a kind of walking tour through late Baroque society. We worked our way up through the strata, starting from the bottom with a peasant's lunch.

And here was my first surprise. What comes to mind when you think of peasant food? For me, it's a steaming bowl of gray gruel. But I would be proud to serve this smörgåsbord for my own birthday. To wake up the tongue, it began with salted herring and fresh onion. (The fish was prepared as in the time of Linnaeus, even saltier than what you find today—so “shock” the tongue is more accurate.) Balancing this blast of flavor were green peas and an addictive warm salad of pearl barley, parsley, and pork. Then came a sort of light omelet with embedded crayfish morsels, washed down with a drink made from lightly fermented juniper berries, and rounded off with a creamy dried plum tapioca.

Additional Features

Audio Slideshow

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John Bohannon narrates a food-saturated slide presentation of the Linnean birthday celebration. (Flash 8)


From the Print Journal:
Recipe Box

In the Books et al. section of this week's print journal, another Gonzo treat: a few scrumptious, Swedish, throughly Linnean recipes from the Uppsala event.

Like any good birthday bash, the opening speeches offered a detailed and at times wry overview of the life and times of the birthday boy. By the end of his immensely productive, 71-year life, Linnaeus had become a man of curious contradictions. Much of his intellectual life became wrapped up with the preparation, cooking, and digestion of food, “and yet he almost never stepped foot in a kitchen,” says Gunnar Broberg, a science historian at Lund University in southern Sweden. “He left that entirely to his wife.” And although he regularly addressed packed theaters due to his renown as a popular lecturer, women were never invited, even when the topic had everything to do with the practicalities of food preparation. In spite of being a revolutionary thinker in so many ways, Linnaeus was a product of his time.

He was also a product of his place. “This was Sweden in the wake of the Great Nordic Wars,” says Lars Magnusson, an economic historian at Uppsala University. The once great kingdom had been laid low, he says, and the national ambition was to regain power on the world stage, “but through economic rather than military might.” And just like today, the leaders called on their scientists to pitch in. Linnaeus is remembered for his fundamental research, but “his sponsors had an agenda,” says Magnusson. The real grant-winning goal of his field trips and specimen collections was to identify untapped economic resources, making them “at least as much for applied science as basic,” says Magnusson.

Which brings us to the kitchen. The globalization of food was well under way by the time of Linnaeus. Spices were arriving from India, squash and corn from the New World. But his research sped up the process mightily. Using the new Linnean taxonomic system, it became far easier to recognize a new plant species when you found it and to “fast-track” the information to colleagues around the world, says Broberg.

Just telling people about a fantastic new fruit on a distant continent doesn't get it onto their plates. For that you need horticulture and plant breeding, and Linnaeus was a master in these arts as well. For example, he was the first to coax tropical bananas to grow in his northern climate. His botanical garden attracted a stream of international visitors, from academics to kings. It was so famous that it became nearly self-perpetuating, with people voluntarily sending seeds from around the world.

But being the man of contradictions that he was, Linnaeus was both a forefather of food globalization and one of its great skeptics. In fact, says Lindell, he can be considered one of the first advocates of the “slow food” movement. “It's as if we've come full circle in 300 years,” she says. “He preferred very ordinary, simple food,” and he was critical of diets replete with expensive, exotic items shipped from distant lands. (He forbade his family to eat the New World potato.)

The Linnean diet consisted of traditional food, locally sourced and seasonally grown. Luckily for him, a major perk of being a professor 300 years ago was that the job came with land and animals. The Linnaeus estate was equipped with a garden—providing vegetables and herbs throughout the year—as well as cows, pigs, geese, and chickens. And with the help of a household staff of more than a dozen, “all of that became food,” says Lindell.

Our first dinner was designed to match what Linnaeus enjoyed. In both flavor and appearance, the dishes were painted in primary colors. Bites of deep red beetroot dipped in horseradish vinaigrette were nicely alternated with pale yellow wax beans and turnips with fried parsley. Protein was the heart of the meal, of course. Oven-baked chicken was spiked with a surprisingly tart gooseberry sauce. We were also confronted with an enormous whole salmon—poached, skinned, and festooned with chives, dill, and ripe caper berries. Dessert was pleasantly understated: lingonberry pears with a dollop of sour cream.

Not far away at the same table, also rolling his eyes with pleasure, was David Richardson. “If Linnaeus could see the modern world, he would be shocked,” he said. Richardson is a nutrition consultant in London and has been involved with food science from every angle, first as an academic researcher, followed by 20 years as a scientist at the NestlÈ corporation, and lately as a consultant to the European Union's effort to write new food-labeling laws.

Most of the changes have been positive, according to Richardson. “We're at a golden age of the food supply,” he says. Not only has the production, transport, and preservation of food been nearly perfected, “but you don't even need to cook.” With nothing more than a microwave oven, a press of the button produces “a magnificent dish.” And if that's too much effort, you can have cooked food delivered. By comparison, the meal set before us required a herculean effort.

That effort is all the more impressive considering the constraints of recreating a dinner that Linnaeus himself might have eaten, down to the last detail. Lindell, the meal's designer, was sitting across from me, so I quizzed her on its authenticity. Everything I pointed to checked out. The vegetables? Local. The salmon? From Norway—close enough. “But no,” she admitted, “of course it has not been possible to be completely accurate.”

One of the more surprising anachronisms had slipped pleasantly into my stomach earlier at lunch. Linnaeus did indeed eat crayfish cake 300 years ago. But Sweden's native crayfish species (Astacus astacus) was decimated by a fungal infection in the 1980s. The hardy American crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) was introduced and has invaded its habitats.

“So those were American crayfish?” I asked, resisting an ironic smile.

“No,” she said. “The crayfish around here are too expensive. We used imported crayfish from Southeast Asia instead.” Now that truly would have shocked Linnaeus.

But the detail of the menu is the wrong place to look, according to Broberg. “The biggest difference between today and 300 years ago is not what they ate,” he said, “but how much.” About once every 4 years, “there would be a bad harvest and people would go hungry”—and not the sort of hungry with which I would be acquainted, he added. “Those were the times when children started dying,” said Broberg. “Feasts like the ones that we're having here—those were truly rare and special.”

So the quest for an authentic Linnean dining experience could never have succeeded. Even if I traveled back in time to the Linnaeus household dinner table, I would still be the jaded, overfed 21st century slob that I am. The 18th century pleasure in food is beyond my grasp.

“You know, I remember,” said Broberg, folding his arms, “during my own childhood here in Sweden, we really went hungry sometimes.”

And there it was—Broberg had thrown down the gauntlet. My plan was suddenly clear. I would starve myself in preparation for tomorrow night's meal, an 18th century royal banquet. If hunger was really the missing ingredient in the Linnean experience, then I would spoon on a generous helping. Thus began my experiment.

Things began to fall apart within minutes of waking up the next morning. I was able to resist the hotel's pastries, but then my body reminded me that it was time for its daily dose of caffeine. “Coffee doesn't have significant calories,” I told myself lamely. And besides, as I had learned the day before, Linnaeus was himself a coffee fiend.

So I had a cappuccino. Then I made it a double.

My self-enforced restraint finally broke down under the sensory onslaught of the “Bourgeois lunch anno 1750.” My nose found the pea soup before my weakened eyes could even focus. Beneath its earthy aroma floated the potent scent of fried bread—big, spicy croutons plopping into bowls. I might have held out through the soup course, but one whiff of the stewed venison with cherry sauce and it was over. Fangs sprang from my lips as I neared the rich, dark meat. Regaining myself briefly, I forced myself to take a tiny portion.

But what's this? Black salsify! A medieval root (Scorzonera hispanica) that has been rediscovered by haute cuisine. Well I had to have some of that. “And while I'm at it, I really can't let that soup go to waste.” You get the picture. Once on the slippery slope, I slalomed through two servings of everything.

So my experiment failed, but it failed in an instructive way. I realized this during a lecture on obesity by John Blundell, a psychologist at the University of Leeds, U.K. “There is an epidemic of obesity in Western countries,” he said, and the only way to reverse the trend is “social engineering on a scale that has never been considered before.”

“Happy is he who keeps to moderation!” Linnaeus famously admonished. But to what extent are diet and obesity really matters of conscious choice? Three hundred years later, scientists still have not settled the question. What is clear is that people gain weight when they eat more calories than they burn. But what to eat, how much, and when “is not strictly under volitional control,” says Blundell. Like breathing, which is automated unless you force yourself to concentrate on it, diet has only “the illusion of control,” he says. The real drivers are your “physiology and the environment.”

We are “eating machines,” says Blundell, with a physiology inherited from ancestors who were constantly working to find scarce food resources. So when your senses detect energy-dense foods, such as a fatty hamburger and French fries, your body urges you to go get them and put them in your mouth. That would be fine if hamburgers and fries were few and far between. But of course, they're not. “Our environment is obesogenic,” he says, a nonstop symphony of food signals.

The solution, according to Blundell, is to treat eating like smoking. “The lesson from tobacco,” he says, “is that its frequency has been considerably reduced in countries where they've restricted the environment, making it forbidden in certain places.” Blundell isn't calling for fines to be smacked on people for eating fast food in public. “But we should consider, for example, identifying every obese child who has two obese parents and giving them a special diet at school,” he says. He also has a list of options for “cleaning up the environment,” such as limiting the use of escalators to the disabled, banning candy dispensers from public places, and regulating fast-food restaurants so that people must walk there rather than drive. “The idea is to start with a pilot study at a local level with everyone's full consent,” he says, “and then expand locally elsewhere.” Considering that obesity-related illnesses, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, cost society at least as much as smoking-related illnesses—estimates run as high as $100 billion annually in the United States alone—isn't it worth the effort?

Many scientists at the meeting were skeptical. “Reality is a bit more complicated,” says Stephan Rössner, a behavioral scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. “Three meals a day is needed for survival, while smoking isn't at all.” According to Richardson, that fact makes legal restrictions unacceptable. “I bristle at the thought of government telling me what I can and can't eat,” he says.

There are less radical options on the table for restricting our food environment. For example, Marion Nestle, a nutrition scientist at New York University, calls for curbs on food advertising targeted at children, “especially in schools and on television.” Public campaigns promoting healthy lifestyles could be funded by “small taxes on junk foods and soft drinks,” she says.

What would Linnaeus make of our modern debate on diet? “It's impossible to say,” says Rössner, but he feels that Linnaeus got it right 300 years ago. “In moderation,” he says, “fast food is no problem.” But the question is whether we can trust ourselves to follow this advice.

I pondered this during the royal banquet at which I spectacularly failed to resist second helpings of everything. It didn't help that my powers of judgment were disabled within seconds of arriving by the chef, Örjan Klien, who served glasses of brännvin (literally: burn wine), a scorching alcohol flavored with herbs. Eighteenth century banquets were first and foremost social events, so the first course consisted of milling about on foot and picking from a dozen drinks and appetizers, including pickled herring (Clupea harengus), anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), cheeses, cured meats, and bread.

There were welcome speeches and then, suddenly, everyone broke into song. I never did find out what the Swedish lyrics meant, but I mouthed along happily. Warmed up and goofy, we filtered into the next chamber and took our seats.

I knew there was roasted lamb by the wonderful smell in the air, but first we had to break bread—a nice, crusty sourdough loaf—spread butter, and get to know our tablemates. Roasted root vegetables and steamed broad beans came next. Luckily it wasn't too much longer before the lamb chops were presented. They were tender and juicy, but even better than the flesh was the accompanying green parsley and thyme sauce, applied in situ.

The most exotic item was saved for last, a rose-hip mousse with sour cream, pickled rose hips, and sweetbread—but not so fast! It was time for a triumphant round of speeches from the Lord Mayor of Uppsala, Åke Bruce, and some of the conference participants.

Afterward, we learned how people burned calories 300 years ago. The upper-class dance craze at the time, a slow-motion swirl of partner-swapping called the menuet, burns about 200 kilocalories, and the lusty folk dancing of the commoners is closer to 400. Considering today's obesity trends, we would do ourselves a favor to live more like Linnaeus.

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