“Gambler’s grass” was the name given to the seaweed nori that has been used in Japanese cuisine for centuries, and that you might recognise as the wrap around your sushi. It was called gambler’s grass because some years, randomly, it just didn’t grow, to catastrophic effect for those who depended on it for their livelihoods; yet nobody knew why. Then, shortly after the end of the Second World War, the nori just disappeared for several years.
Twenty years earlier (1928), a British botanist – Kathleen Drew-Baker, “Drew” to her friends – lost her job at the University of Manchester because she got married, and in those days that wasn’t allowed for a female lecturer. However, they generously allowed her to stay on as an unpaid researcher.
By the 1940s, Drew was studying Welsh laver seaweed which is closely related to nori. She was trying to understand the life-cycle and so tried to grow it in a tidal tank in her lab. For realism, she added a few oyster shells to the tank and noticed a pink sludge forming around the shells. She realised that the pink sludge was actually the seed or spore stage of the seaweed, and that it seemed to need the protection of shellfish such as oysters and mussels in order to grow and develop into the adult seaweed plant. She then submitted her findings to the scientific publication Nature.
A Japanese marine biologist read her paper, and immediately understood what had happened to nori. The years that nori historically didn’t appear seemed to correlate to periods of violent storms, but the longer post-war disappearance appeared to be down to the dropping of underwater mines in Japanese coastal waters by the Americans during WWII. These destroyed the shellfish beds, with the result that the nori spores could not develop.
A group of Japanese marine biologists then set about creating the conditions for farming nori on an industrial scale, now understanding how to produce it consistently. What had seemed a random risk event was now understood and could be addressed, indeed exploited, to create a multi-million dollar industry.
And once a year, nori farmers in Japan still gather at a shrine they built to Drew, to honour a woman they refer to as “the mother of the sea”.
Data source: atlasobscura.com