It’s the most wonderful COOKING time of the year! Everyone has their traditions, those recipes that they pull out once a year. Maybe you’re the kind of chef who likes to spice it up and try new recipes each year. No matter what you are cooking, you’re probably using some sort of flavoring.
One of my favorite Christmas recipes around our house is my mom’s famous sugar cookies!! Mmmmmm!
One of the most important ingredients for these cookies is the vanilla extract! Companies who make flavorings can get them from natural resources, but often that is unsustainable so they have brilliant scientists in a lab working to find out what compound gives it that specific flavor. Take vanilla for example, you can extract the vanillin compound from vanilla beans OR you can chemically synthesize it in a lab. In fact, taste testers preferred a slightly altered ETHYL vanillin over the natural vanilla.
Many people get nervous when they hear “ARTIFICIAL” flavoring. They want their foods to be all natural! Unfortunately for them, the term natural flavoring is very broadly used. First of all, the term “natural flavoring” can be used for anything that originates from nature, even if it was then adjusted or chemically altered in a lab. Secondly, even though it says natural flavoring, it might not come from the expected natural source you’re thinking of.
My first example of this is grapefruit juice. Some of what you are drinking is in fact juice from a grapefruit, just like you would expect. You have a very juicy fruit right there, why would you need anything else to make bottled grapefruit juice? Well, the truth is that grapefruits are pretty expensive. Oranges are much cheaper. SO, in order to make the “essence of a grapefruit”, companies will often isolate a chemical in oranges then manipulate it in a lab to get a grapefruit flavoring. I would’ve never guessed grapefruit juice didn’t always come from grapefruits.
Then we get to some more… OUT THERE “natural” ingredients.
A lot of foods need assistance looking appealing, so we employ food dyes. One of the most commonly used ingredients in red food coloring is flakes of mashed-up bugs, more specifically, Dactylopius coccus. The naturally occurring compound in these bugs, cochineal, has been used by humans for hundreds of years and provides an important source of cash for a lot of rural Central and South American people. This compound may appear on labels as cochineal, carmine, carminic acid, Natural Red 4, or E120, and it provides colors for all kinds of foods like sausage, artificial crab, and yogurts.
I talked about natural and artificial vanilla before, but scientists have found another natural, but very unexpected, source of vanilla flavor… the back side of a beaver!
You heard me right. Beavers have glands near their tail that produce the chemical castoreum. Beavers normally use this substance to mark their territory, but scientists use it not only for NATURAL vanilla flavoring, but also for NATURAL strawberry and raspberry flavorings too. They might be used in your favorite ice creams, soda, or yogurt.
It blows my mind to think of all of the unexpected places we find things in nature. Who was the first person to discover some of these things… and how? BUT I am thankful those inquisitive scientists are out there to bring us such delicious flavors. Being open to the unexpected is a necessary trait for scientists. It is also important for Catholics. In fact, our story begins with the unexpected.
Every Christmas we celebrate the birth of the tiny baby Jesus, but this was not the messiah that the Jews had expected.
During the time of King David, they were told that the messiah would come from the line of David and “…his throne shall stand firm forever.” (2 Samuel 7: 16) If you had David as an example and you were told another would follow him, you would not think of a tiny baby in a manger. You would think of a WARRIOR! In his time, King David was able to spread his kingdom far and wide, but he accomplished this through fighting and war. Since the messiah was to come from his line, they assumed he would be the same.
If you look at other great leaders of the Israelites, the story is very similar. Look at Moses, he didn’t lead the Israelites in a normal-type war, but he did lead them in a large rebellion and uprising. Because of this it was widely believed the messiah would lead his people in a rebellion too. When Jesus announces He is the Christ, he is actually accused of inciting a rebellion. (Luke 23:2-5)
Despite their grand ideas, none of these were true. Jesus entered the world in the humblest of ways. He rules forever on the throne in heaven, not in some earthly kingdom. He did not come to start wars; he spoke of peace. This is how he sought to unite the world, with love. This Christ that we now celebrate was not at all what the people of that time expected, but many came to follow Him and learn that the greatest gifts can come from the unexpected.
This Christmas we too need to take this lesson to heart. This past year has DEFINITELY been unexpected. So many terrible things have transpired, but also so many unexpected good things. Even though we couldn’t travel and see extended families, many of us spent more time at home with the loved ones living under our roof. We got to see great compassion among the helpers of the world. Each of us were given unexpected opportunities to help those around us.
Everyone is so excited to be done with this calendar year, but 2021 will certainly bring us plenty of unexpected things too. It is in those unanticipated events that we must adapt and listen to what God is calling us to do. I know I have recently had a few unexpected challenges arise, but I have been praying and asking God to help me with them. We may all get a few new challenges, but God will help us through them if we let ourselves be open to Him. We do not know what God wants to do with us, but we can always choose to be open to those unexpected blessings He has in store.
Merry Christmas everyone. Stay safe.