The Iceman Stuffeth: 20 stocking stuffers under $20

Forget the fruit cake – get your family and friends something they could actually use for the holidays! Here are 20 items under $20 for everyone on your list (including you) from the Museum Store:

1. FOR THE CARBIVORE: Pastasaurus

“There are too many dinosaur references in my kitchen,” said no one, ever. Liven up your space with this ingenious pasta server! Your guests will be so entertained by your serving ware they’ll hardly notice your terrible cooking.

2. FOR THE SWEET-FANGED BAKER: Fossil Food Silicone Cupcake Baker

Do you have a vicious sweet tooth? Tired of trampling children as you dash for that last delicious cupcake? With these delightful trays you can make all the cupcakes you want and more! The fossil mold at the bottom is more of a warning than decoration: “If you don’t want to end up like these guys (extinct) keep your claws off my cakes!”

 

3. FOR THE 3D ENTHUSIAST:  3D Dino Cookie Cutters

They make you see every 3D movie that comes out. Give them a reason to stay home once in a while! Heck, with these, they can even recreate their own Jurassic Park — complete with T. rex, Brachiosaurus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus!

 

4. FOR THE SEXY MATHEMATICIAN: Mathlete Button

Everyone can see your brawn, but what about your brain? This button says, “I’m good at math, and that’s sexy.”

 

5. FOR THE TECH-SAVVY WINO: Save Wine Stopper

For when you just need to hack life … it just makes sense.

Also, this bottle opener, because you’ve got to get to the wine to save it.

6. FOR THE BOOKISH LUSH: Chem. 101 Flask Book

You give off a shy, quiet vibe but know how to have fun. Whether you’re in the library, park or attending a family event, you can maintain your bookworm reputation while having your own party!

7. FOR THE DEVOTED CAFFEINATOR: Caffeine Molecule Mug

Allows you to perfectly measure the ridiculous amounts of caffeine you use to power your body. Natch.

 

8. FOR THE DAREDEVIL(ISH): Climber Tea Infuser

You live life on the edge, but sometimes want to sit back and relax with a nice cup of tea – you’re just classy like that. This tea infuser captures the spirit of exploration, and heck, if it can have an adventure in your mug, there’s no reason why you can’t on your couch!

 

9. FOR THE PERIODIC FASHIONISTA: Houston Elements Tee

Looking good is simply elemental in this stylish tee. Perfect for a stroll through the museum, to the lab or to buy your new Bunsen burner.

 

10. FOR THE LONELY ELECTRIC CAR ENTHUSIAST:  Nikola Tesla Finger Puppet

Tired of long commutes by yourself? Love your electric car? Bring Tesla with you for a fun-filled ride! And if you really want to make it a party, you can bring along his friends Madame Curie, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Leonardo DaVinci, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin.

 

11. FOR THE DEFENSIVE GAMER: Space Intruders Drink Markers

Perfect for the gamer in your life! Or yourself. If you hold arcade games close to your heart, show everyone just how dedicated you are with these drink markers.

 

12. FOR THE THIRD WHEEL: I Love Nerds Button
Have a third wheel weighing you down? Tired of setting them up on dates only to find out your matches aren’t nerdy enough? Get them this badge of honor, announcing to the world their undying devotion to nerds — it’s sure to attract the perfect mate!

 

13. FOR THE GIRL YOU USED TO BURN ANTS TO IMPRESS: Red Glitter Ant Ornament

Remember when burning ants used to be the only way you could say, “I love you”? Well, now you have more pizazz (and are being investigated for arson…). So these decorative ornaments are sure to light a new fire in her heart with a nostalgic longing for those youthful days.

 

14. FOR THE WHOVIAN: Dr. Who Mug

You’ve been wanting your own TARDIS for a long time, haven’t you? Well, here’s your chance! Use this mug as you travel through space and time with your favorite brew.

 

15. FOR THE FORCEFUL STAR WARS FAN: May the F=Ma Be With You Backpack

Tired of choosing between science and science fiction? This bag combines the two seamlessly (except the ones holding the bag together) with witty simplicity — perfect for carrying beakers to the lab or as an overnight bag for a stay on the Millennium Falcon.

 

16. FOR THE WISE TRAVELER: Einstein Luggage Tag

Luggage tags say a lot: where you’ve been, where you’re going, and now, insights from one of the great minds if the 20th century. You’re on a mission to find your place in the universe. At least with this tag, you won’t have to worry about finding your luggage.

 

17. FOR THE MODERN CAVEMAN: Arrowhead Laser Pointer

Neanderthals ain’t got nothing on you! Perfect for presentations or tormenting your cat, this laser pointer is a precision tool for the modern caveman.

 

18. FOR THE PALEO-DIETER: Tricerachops Mug

Tired from running between CrossFit and work? Tough Mudder wore you out? What you need is Tricerachops! Let’s face it: you’re dedicated to the paleo diet — now go all the way! This mug will show you how to get the perfect cut of dino meat. Make our hunter-gatherer ancestors proud.

 

19. FOR THE ARTSY ENVIRONMENTALIST:  Paper Watch

They care about the environment and leave their own unique stamp on everything — why not this watch, too?

20. FOR THE FUTURE SPACE EXPLORER: Zero-Gravity Fridge Rover

The final frontier: the back of the freezer. No one’s ever made it back from the icy edges of the universe — but that doesn’t scare you, not with your Zero Gravity Rover! Dare to go where no one has gone before: to freezer burn and beyond.

Order online from our Museum Store by Tues., Dec. 17 for delivery before Christmas, or call 713-639-4665 for pick up and expedited delivery options.

Color me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drink

At the liquor store the other day I noticed a bottle of shocking pink tequila, called “Pasión.” It would make a great Valentine’s Day gift (“Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker,” as the saying goes) and is certainly eye-catching. More interesting, I learned that the pink color came from cochineal bugs – as stated right up front on the label!

Most people don’t know about cochineal bugs or the widespread use of colorant that’s extracted from them, but cochineal, or carmine, has been valued for centuries as a red dye. One of the few natural and water-soluble dyes that resists degradation with time, cochineal is the most light-stable, heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than some synthetic dyes. Moreover, depending on the process used, it yields a range of vibrant colors, from light oranges and pinks to deep crimson.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal, close up

Unfortunately, when you inform people that their raspberry yogurt, maraschino cherries, Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino, brand of lipstick, or hundreds of other items are colored with this natural extract, most are revolted instead of intrigued. In fact, outraged vegans have pressured Starbucks to look for another, non-insect-derived product to use in the frappuccino concoction (just do a web search for “cochineal and Starbucks”).

So what IS a cochineal bug, exactly?  It is a small, chubby scale insect that feeds on prickly pear cactus, with the scientific name of Dasylopius coccus. There are many species of scale insect. Most are very small (i.e., less than ¼ inch long, some smaller), sedentary insects that suck plant sap with tiny, piercing mouth parts. They belong to the same order of insect that includes aphids, cicadas, and leaf hoppers: the Homoptera.

However, you might not even recognize some scale species as insects. Adult females have no legs or wings and are basically bags of guts and eggs that seem glued to the stems or leaves of their host plant (the smaller, winged males are seldom seen). Some scales have hard, shell-like coverings, and indeed look like tiny shells. Mostly considered plant pests, a few have economic value. For example, shellac is another natural product derived from a different scale insect.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal as they appear feeding on prickly pear cactus

Cochineal bugs are covered with a waxy or powdery white coating, and often cluster on the surface of the prickly pear pads, looking like tiny cotton balls stuck to the plant. But if you squish these cottony balls, your fingers will be covered with copious amounts of a thick, dark red fluid. This intense color has been used to dye fabric for many centuries, and more recently, has become an important colorant in foods and drinks.

Cochineal bugs are native to Central and South America, where their host plants, the cacti, also originated. Both Incas and Aztecs used cochineal as a dye, which was so highly prized that bags of the dried bugs were used as currency or as tribute. The Spaniards took cochineal back to Spain, and during colonial times, cochineal was Mexico’s second-most valuable export after silver. Cochineal was much superior to the red dye used in Europe at that time, and became hugely popular. It was used to dye the cloaks of Roman Catholic cardinals and the “redcoats” used by the British army.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal-dyed yarn

In the mid 1800s, with the advent of chemical dyes, which were cheaper to produce, the demand for cochineal in the fabric industry waned and the industry all but collapsed. But in the late 1900s, the push to use natural products rather than chemical ones in foods have made cochineal and carmine, its purified form, increasingly important as food colorants.  Today cochineal is again produced on a commercial scale.

To quickly summarize the production process: cochineal bugs are allowed to grow on prickly pear pads for about three months. They are then scraped off the pads and thoroughly dried (often sun-dried) for several days. The resulting seed-like pellets are ground and mixed with water to produce cochineal, or are further refined to produce carmine or carminic acid. It takes about 70,000 bugs to make one pound of cochineal extract.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Dried, harvested cochineal

Today most cochineal comes from Peru, the Canary Islands, and Mexico. Check out this YouTube video to see traditional cochineal farming in the Canary Islands. You might also be interested in this great video from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science about cochineal in foods.

If you’d like to learn more, just do an online search for “cochineal bugs” (by the way, they have occasionally been misnamed “cochineal beetles” – but they are NOT beetles). For those of you who prefer old-fashioned reading, Amy Greenfield has written an entire book about the fascinating history of cochineal titled A Perfect Red.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal harvesting in colonial Peru

I have to roll my eyes a little (at least internally) at those people who act horrified when they learn that the red color of their energy drink, or popsicles, or other foods comes from or is enhanced by these insects. In fact, we eat insects all the time. There are government-approved amounts of insects allowed in almost all foodstuffs (also other, ickier stuff such as rat feces, animal hair, and dirt). That chocolate bar, slice of bread, bowl of cornflakes, serving of pasta, dollop of ketchup – all are likely to have bits of insects in them.

I encourage you to visit the exhibit on this theme in our entomology hall, where you can also purchase some unadulterated insect treats from our vending machine. Did you know that the average American eats – unknowingly – one to two pounds of insects per year? But not to worry, insects contain lots of protein and are good for you!

A very few people – vastly fewer than have peanut or wheat allergies – may have an allergic reaction to cochineal extract (one source says the allergy is due to impurities introduced in the production process rather than to the carminic acid). These people should certainly read labels and avoid products that contain cochineal or carmine.  The coloring ingredient may be identified on labels as cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, or even “natural coloring.”

Other people do not want to eat cochineal because of ethical or religious concerns (insects are not considered kosher). However, if you are truly concerned about eating or using products containing cochineal, you will have to read the fine print on a lot of products.  Here is a short list of items that may contain cochineal-derived colorant:

  • Frozen meat and fish (e.g., artificial crab meat)
  • Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and powdered drink mixes
  • Yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks
  • Candy, syrups, popsicles, fillings and chewing gum
  • Canned fruits including cherries and jams
  • Dehydrated and canned soups
  • Ketchup
  • Some wines and liqueurs (sadly, according to Wikipedia, as of 2006 carmine is no longer used to give the Italian aperitif Campari its distinctive deep red color)
  • Lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, nail polish, and other cosmetic items
  • Pills, ointments and syrups used in the pharmaceutical industry

Personally, not suffering from a rare allergy or having any ideological qualms, I would far rather ingest a time-honored, natural dye than artificial food colorings made from coal tar, many of which have been proved to be carcinogenic and/or cause behavioral problems (for which reasons an increasing number have been banned from use in foods).

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cheers to that!

I have never seen cochineal insects in Houston, but have found them on prickly pears growing in and around Austin – so they certainly occur in Texas. If you know where some prickly pears are growing, check them out!

Are you hungry, Houston? Big Bite Nite is coming!

Have you ever dreamed of eating at many restaurants at once; perhaps taking a bite from Morton’s Steakhouse seared fillet and then popping a chewy P.F. Chang’s vegetableshrimp dumpling? I know. You’re already eyeing that Kobe beef hot dog from the Lake House you’ve been dying to try… How would you like to take a big bite? That’s right, Houston. BIG BITE NITE has arrived.

Join the Houston Museum of Natural Science and discover the culinary explorer inside as you taste the talents of some of Houston’s most prestigious restaurants. Delve into the cultural traditions of our diverse city with dancers and musical entertainment. Explore the intricacies of cuisine from our spotlight country: China. Experience an epic (oh yes – EPIC) journey of world food as we highlight delicacies from across the globe in this lavish culinary affair.

You want restaurants? Here’s a sneak peek:  17* at Alden Hotel; Arcodoro; Bedford Restaurant; Blue Nile Authentic Ethiopian Restaurant; The Capital Grille Restaurant; The Grove; Hungry’s Cafe and Bistro; The Lake House; Maggie Rita’s Tex-Mex; Magnolia Club at Magnolia Hotel; Monarch at Hotel ZaZa; Morton’s, The Steakhouse; Nelore Brazilian Churascurria; P.F. Chang’s China Bistro; Polo’s Signature; Post Oak Grill; Qin Dynasty; Quattro at the Four Seasons; RA Sushi; Reggae Hut; Ruggles Green; Saffron Moroccan Cuisine; and many more!

BIG BITE NITE will take place on Thursday, April 30th, from 6 – 9pm at HMNS. 21 and up only. Buy your tickets today for only $35 – this event WILL sell out.

Eating The Way To A New Wing

We’re turning 100 next year – and we’ve launched an $85 million capital campaign that will help us fulfill our mission – the advancement of the general knowledge of natural science – throughout our second century. Among many goals, the funds will be used to expand our exhibition halls, including the creation of a new Hall of Paleontology, designed to be one of the most dramatic and comprehensive in the world. Today, Nicole fills us in on one of the easy ways you can support this mission, just by eating out.

Katz’s Deli on Westheimer – just off Montrose – has given the Museum the “Benefit Table” for the month of August.  What does that mean?

Smoked Salmon, Creme Fraiche, Capers, Onion, Roquette, multigrain baguette - The French Quarter
Creative Commons License photo credit: avlxyz

The benefit table is a special table for parties of 6 or more who come to nosh at Katz’s. Ten percent of your bill at the end of the meal (not including tax) is donated to the cause of the month and, for August, the Museum’s capital campaign has been selected as the cause.   

Eat delicious goodness and support your favorite Museum at the same time.  (I reccomend the rueben and Dave likes the fried pickels and bortsch.)
Stir Fry
Creative Commons License photo credit: jugglerpm

All you need to do is eat, pay, and repeat if you are seated at the benefit table.  IF THE TABLE IS ALREADY TAKEN, alert your server that you wanted to sit there and that you would like a portion of your bill donated to the Museum and that should take care of it.  What could be easier?

We will see you there.