A very special and unique place.

Strange Water — Mono Lake Gourmet: An Unusual Recipe
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

Good morning! We have two very unusual recipes for today's program, so grab your measuring cups and spoons and prepare to make: 'Mock Mono Lake Soup' and 'Tufa Porridge Extraordinaire'. Sounds yummy? As always, we offer only the unique and highly seasoned on the Mono Lake Recipes Show.

Ingredients! Mock Mono Lake Soup can be made with normal items you keep around the house, but I'll list the ingredients slowly to give you time to gather them together. Some of these things are not generally kept in the kitchen. Mono Lake has been busily accumulating its various ingredients for over 700,000 years, we figure, so speed is obviously not of the essence.

Oh, yes, you'll need some sort of closed container. Something that will hold the ingredients in place, creating the perfect environment for a highly seasoned soup. No seives, you understand. The Mono Basin has no outlet; neither should your bowl.

So, those ingredients: as you see, we have fresh clean water, direct from the tap. And regular old table salt (sodium chloride, to you chemistry buffs). Then some baking soda; this is very critical to both recipes we are preparing. Do you recall its chemical name, "sodium bicarbonate"? Yes, it is that bitter stuff that helps you burp and feel better when your tummy's upset. Mono Lake is loaded with baking soda. And then, some epsom salts (magnesium sulfate, that is), along with a little borax. Finally, just a pinch of a phosphate-containing laundry soap.

Ah, your mouth starts to water, no? The key to this recipe is mixing the various ingredients in their correct proportions. Sure, other lakes contain similar minerals, but Mono has its own unique mix of these ingredients. (Perhaps sometime we'll feature a Great Salt Lake recipe, although, personally, I find a certain subtlety lacking in that particular saline soup).

Here is our first recipe:

Mock Mono Lake Soup
1 quart fresh water
2-1/2 Tb salt (chloride)
4-1/2 Tb baking soda (carbonate)
2 tsp epsom salts (sulfate)
pinch of borax
pinch of detergent (phosphate)

Mix well. Exactly how you bring everything together is not important. Mono Lake uses streams, wind, and volcanoes to stir. Eruptions every 500 years or so, thoughout most of the lake's history, have contributed much to the special character and bouquet of Mono Lake's soup.

To check for 'doneness', rub a little of the soup between your fingers. It should feel slippery. Go on, lick off those wet fingers. Savor the essence of the three primary 'salts', the chloride, carbonate, and sulfate, mixed in just the right proportions.

What can you do with this soup? You might try washing your hair. Really! At one time the salts from Mono Lake were commercially evaporated and packaged for just that purpose. There are some who say that a soak in the water will ease arthritis, but I'm no doctor. If you want to try soaking, rather than mixing up a bathtub-sized batch, you might just come to Mono Lake when it's warm and go for a swim. You'll float like a bobbing cork; all those chemicals dissolved in the water will hold you up. Careful! It will sting if you get the water in your eyes. This is the best way to appreciate the special qualities required of trillions of critters that live their lives in the lake — the brine shrimp, alkali flies, and birds.

One of the best ways to cap off the experience is to take a freshwater shower after your swim. You will discover that the soapy quality (remember the baking soda, borax and detergent?) really works. Not lots of lather, although waves in the lake often produce mounds of white soapsuds along the beach, but you will get clean and your hair, especially, will end up mysteriously conditioned — soft and easy to comb. (Not that you'd want to shampoo daily in the lake, unless your scalp is so oily that you produce Exxon-size slicks in the water when you bathe.)

But now, on to our second featured recipe: 'Tufa Porridge Extraordinaire'. This is built around our first concoction, but you'll also need an ingredient that is rarer in most households — calcium chloride. To dissolve properly it should be in a granular or powder form, most often available from chemical supply houses. If you have none handy, just watch closely. My hope is that, after seeing this, you will be motivated to track down the correct stuff. As I always say, a properly stocked spice cabinet is a must if you are going to cook the Mono Lake way.

So! We mix 2 teaspoons of calcium in a pint of fresh water. That is not a highly concentrated solution, but neither are the springs that come up under Mono Lake. And then, the moment of truth. I now pour the calcium mixture into the Mock Mono Lake Soup, just like a groundwater spring rising up into the lake. Well, not just like — but, what can I say? It is not easy to mimic the way the lake brings the two water solutions together. So we will just pour them together, like so.

Voila! Look! See it? As soon as the two waters meet, white solid stuff forms. Solid tufa from the mixing of waters! Amazing! I know, I know, it does not look very solid. That is why the recipe is called 'Tufa Porridge.' But if you let it sit awhile, all the solid white calcium carbonate, or tufa, will settle to the bottom of the bowl.

Should you taste it? Well, actually, this extraordinary porridge is best enjoyed for its decorative qualities — just like the photogenic tufa towers of Mono Lake.

What's that question? Why did we not form a tufa tower? Good, audience! It is because we stirred the waters as we mixed them. But under Mono Lake, the little tufa crystals can securely anchor themselves to the bottom, where a spring emerges. And them more crystals hook on those first ones as the spring keeps flowing. Over time, if conditions are just right, a big tower, as much as 50 feet tall, might grow there. The spring will continue to flow around and up through the building tower. Of course, once the tower reaches the top of the lake it can grow no more. As you now know, the tufa tower must have both Mono Lake, with its carbonates, and fresh springwater, with calcium, to make the reaction work.

And that is our program for today. Thank you for joining me for more unique recipes from that incredible place, Mono Lake. Be with us next time, when we will prepare 'Brine Shrimp Louie' and 'Alkali Fly Pupa Popcorn'. Enjoy!

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