I am not a kitchen kind of person, so most of my culinary memories from childhood tend to involve some calamity, like the green takkie / omelette I proudly fed my father or the day I set alight to the oven.
But there is one gastronomic memory, that leaves a warm fuzzy feeling. The friendship cake.
The friendship cake
It arrived in my class, a gooey dough – as a friend of the owner of the gooey dough, I was allocated a heap of it in an old ice cream container, minus the lid.
I am sure getting it home was a nightmare, but I must have successfully piloted that container onto the bus and then off, and walked it the three blocks from the bus stop to our kitchen, because it ended up in the fridge. It lived in the fridge for quite some time.
As with the other “pets” in the house, it was my friend, but I took little to no responsibility for it. But I cried buckets when my mother finally put it to rest.
The ever expanding “friend”
The friend had to be fed with a special mixture every week.
To keep the friend from falling out of the confines of the container each week, a significant portion had to be removed during the weekly feed. The idea was of course to share “the friend” with friends and neighbours, or to bake it up into a cake.
My mom nutured that friendship cake for several months.
We did eventually get “friended out” as it didn’t take too long for it to be “shared” among friends and family and even through eating cake was cool, the novelty wore off pretty quickly.
Good memory incredible idea
The biology behind it was simple, a yeast was being passed on from one household to the other.
Each week the special mixture that was added was the ingredients for a cake. The yeast fermented the sugars, producing miniscule amounts of carbon dioxide, which acted as the leavening agent in the cake. The majority of the mixture was removed leaving the remaining yeast to seed next week’s cake mixture.
As I said, the friendship cake left an impression, so when I read about a modern twist to the idea I was once more impressed.
Friendship cakes in the biotech era
It is relatively easy to fill up your belly with food, but being healthy is not just about getting enough energy to fuel the engine, the engine needs several additives to function properly.
Shortages of these additives can cause major malfunctions. One additive that is missing from the diet of many people, particularly those in the developing world, is vitamin A. Too little vitamin A causes blindness.
Although mother nature produces this additive in abundance, in yellow coloured fruits and vegetables, getting these veggies to the communities that need them the most is often extremely difficult. One problem is cost, the other is distribution, specifically providing a continuous supply.
One way to solve the problem – create a deluxe version of that friendship yeast.
Another strategy which is being tried in Uganda is to teach bananas how to make beta-carotene.
Share the vitamins
A group of undergraduate students from John Hopkins University are working on a way to cheaply share vitamin A around the globe using a “friendship” yeast.
Bread baking forms part of the routine of many cultures around the world. Some cultures eat unleavened bread i.e. flat bread, but most use yeast to give it a bit of lift.
Yeast is not programmed to produce vitamins.
But using a little genetic tweaking, yeast can be taught to produce all sorts of things, including vitamins, which is precisely what the John Hopkins students did.
The students taught normal bread yeast, how to make the chemical beta- carotene. Beta-carotene is the chemical which gives carrots their orange colour, when we eat it, our body is able to turn it into vitamin A. They named their creation VitaYeast.
Baking loaves of health bread
VitaYeast makes great looking and smelling bread, which has trace amounts of beta carotene.
Maybe some day soon, children whose families are at risk of vitamin A deficiencies, will be able to bring home a special friend in an old container just like I did. The special friend would cost them nothing and help save their eyes.
NOTE : At this stage, the biotech era friendship cake is still an idea. It will take several years of careful testing and fine tuning to make sure that the bread produced by VitaYeast is 100 % safe for people to consume and that the only extra ingredient in the bread is beta carotene, at just the right levels to work. Let’s hope this is an idea that one day sees the light of day !VitaYeast website: http://2011.igem.org/Team:Johns_Hopkins
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