My father-in-law’s father turns 105 this March, and he attributes no small part of his longevity to his lifelong choice of breakfast: a bowl of puffed wheat in skim milk. Appropriately, my grandfather-in-law earned his living as cereal chemist for the big grain-processing agribusiness concerns of the central plains, formulating industrial leavening powders and dough conditioners to turn Kansas wheat into interchangeable, infinitely reproducible golden loaves. And to my mind at least, few products seem more industrialized, more processed, more alienated from the ancient means of agriculture and cereal cuisine, than puffed grain.
That characterization of puffed grain is a straw man, of course (at least it’s made of real straw). In fact puffed grains occupy a fascinating niche in cereal cuisine, one that marries agriculture to other late-neolithic industries that made cities—and hence street food—possible.
Street food is where our atemporal journey begins, in this video reposted from BoingBoing (and which I reblogged earlier this week), which documents a Chinese street vendor making the prototypical puffed grain, popcorn, using an incendiary popper:
It’s almost steampunk, this contraption of industrial detritus and cobbled-together bits of metallurgy. It’s a version of a popping technology found in varying levels of sophistication throughout Asia—as in this example from Japan:
The Japanese vendor is popping not corn, but rice. But the mechanism is the same: grain is placed in a sealed chamber and heated, bringing moisture trapped in the grains to tremendous pressure. When the pressure is released, the steam explosively exits the kernels, turning the endosperm into an airy, spongy mass. (Processed rice is missing the moisture that popcorn kernels carry; before puffing, it first needs to be soaked or steamed.) While the technology involved looks like a relic of the industrial era, it also recalls the forges of the bronze and iron ages.
In the mid-twentieth century, Quaker marketed puffed rice as a breakfast cereal by playing on the mysterious, incendiary nature of its manufacture:
It’s a funny advertisement: the technology of rice puffing is both celebrated and secreted behind a wall of quirk and comedy. In another advertisement for puffed cereal, the famous Snap Crackle and Pop make an early appearance as avatars of a modern, processed foodstuff that would chase away the mushy, messy porridges of old:
It’s not surprising that Kellogg’s would hide the making of this uncanny cereal behind a veil of magic; Rice Krispies is a reverse-engineered version of puffed rice, in which ground rice is made into a batter, shaped into kernel-like extrusions, and then fried.
Throughout Asia, however, puffed grains are processed and consumed in public view, the technologies involved offering a kind of sonic and visual seasoning to the street food experience. Puffed rice is the basis of a variety of sweet and savory street dishes throughout South Asia, where it’s called muri, mixed with seasoning and broths or candied into sticky cakes. And the processing needn’t take incendiary form; properly prepared rice can be puffed beautifully in a dry wok:
The rice is swirled with black volcanic sand to prevent it from sticking and burning. Consisting of ancient and elemental ingredients,—black and white, air and earth and fire—it’s a beautiful preparation, worthy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. One can imagine the first street vendors of Mesopotamia and ancient Chinese towns combining the newfangled, magical properties of agriculture and industry into these feral foodstuffs. Tapping into all the goodness of ancient industries, it’s no wonder my wife’s grandfather is a centenarian. As a cereal chemist, of course, he knows the uncanny mechanisms that make grains go pop, can trace the properties of protein and heat and pressure that cooks have toyed with for thousands of years—which are effaced and forgotten by the plastic bags and printed boxes from which modern breakfast cereals flow.