Archive for the 'Unearthed Texts' Category

People Have Been Eating For A Long Time

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I’ve been browsing a fascinating book, The Food Chronology, by James Trager.  It’s a massive timeline, following eating habits and issues affecting them (& affected by them) from prehistory through 1995.  At over 700 pages, it’s hardly portable—but it’s comprehensive.  The glimpses into history that it provides are fascinating, especially because they all relate to things edible.  A couple of tidbits that have caught my eye:

Two Early Cookbooks

Trager calls out two volumes as being the first known collection of recipes: in 350 BC, “the Greek author Archestratus records a collection of recipes,” and in 14 AD, “Of Culinary Matters (De Re Coquinaria, or De Re Culinaria) by the Roman gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius is the world’s first known book of recipes.”

It’s pretty obvious which of the two really is first, but regardless, the key phrase is ‘first known.’  It seems to me that since eating is so important to our survival, one of the first applications of written language would have been to write down how to make food.  I’m guessing that there were likely earlier collections of recipes (perhaps by the Egyptians, Phonecians, and/or Sumerians) that have been lost to posterity.

A Successful Establishment

1157: “Ye Olde Bell opens at Hartley, outside London.  The public house (pub) will survive for more than 800 years.”

Based on Trager’s description, I figured that meant the establishment closed sometime in the late 1950s or perhaps early 1960s, and turned to the internet to try to track down some more information.  There’s not much that I can find about this place.  Apparently, it is open today (though I can’t determine if it has operated continuously or took a hiatus for a few years in there somewhere).  A sketch of the pub with mention of its establishment can be found here, and the sketch matches photos that are on the Olde Bell website, which states that parts of the building date to 1135.

Chinese Restaurants Ain’t What They Used To Be

In 1280 AD, before any mention of restaurants in the west, Trager describes restaurants in Hangchow, China, “that specialize in particular foods—blood soup, perhaps, or dishes made of heart, kidney, and lungs—and particular cooking styles. [...]   The restaurants have menus, and waiters carry orders in their heads, repeating them when they get to the kitchen and remembering who ordered what with absolute precision (mistakes are severely punished).  Many restaurants have adjoining quarters for prostitutes, and patrons sometimes stay for 2 days.”

Food, the International Language

In 1585, “Jesuit missionaries introduce deep-fried cookery (tempura) into Japan.  The word tempura is derived from the Portuguese word temporras, meaning Friday, when deep-fried fish is eaten.”

Remember Tan?

One of the last couple entries in the volume comes from 1995, when “Mars Inc. terminates tan M & Ms in September after conducting a poll on color preferences.  Introduced in 1949 to replace violet M & Ms, the tan candies are replaced by new blue M & Ms.”  The violet candies have made a comeback in springtime mixes, so I suppose it’s possible we could see tan candies again in the future (maybe for fall?)

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Lots of stuff happened between Japan receiving tempura and Mars axing the tan candies, of course.  With so many different topics related to food, though (population growth, exploration, war, merchandising, agriculture, literature, etc.), there’s a tidbit in this book for everyone.  Check it out from your local library today.

Inauguration Doughnuts

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Apparently, there’s some big to-do in Washington, D.C. today.  In honor of the occasion, I’ve reached into my copy of The White House Cookbook for a recipe that can be brought into modern times and enjoyed all around.

Figuring that some sort of hand-to-mouth pastry would be appropriate for the party atmosphere of the day, I decided to update the recipe for Puff-ball Doughnuts:

As it appears in my 1902 edition of The White House Cookbook (page 302): “These doughnuts, eaten fresh and warm, are a delicious breakfast dish and are quickly made.  Three eggs, one cupful of sugar, a pint of sweet milk, salt, nutmeg, and flour enough to permit the spoon to stand upright in the mixture; add two heaping teaspoonfuls of baking powder to the flour; beat all until very light.  Drop by dessertspoonfuls into boiling lard.  These will not absorb a bit of fat and are not at all rich, and consequently are the least injurious of this kind of cakes.”

As adapted for the modern kitchen:

Quick Doughnut Drops

* 3 eggs
* 1 cup sugar
* 2 cups milk
* a small pinch of salt (optional)
* 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
* 1/4 teaspoon ginger
* 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
* 5 1/2 cups flour
* 1 tablespoon baking powder

sugar mixing for tossing doughnuts with:
* 1 1/4 cups sugar
* 1/4 cup cinnamon

Heat up a couple of inches of cooking oil in a heavy pot over a medium-low flame.  As the oil heats, beat the eggs with the sugar, then add the milk.  Combine flour, baking powder, and spices together, then beat into the liquid mixture.  When you have combined all of the dry ingredients, the dough should be thick enough that your spoon will stand upright briefly.

Use two spoons to scoop portions of the dough into the hot oil.  The oil should be hot enough that the batter floats when added to the oil, but not so hot that the doughnuts turn dark brown too quickly.  Let the doughnuts cook 2-3 minutes on one side, then turn them for another 2-3 minutes of cooking time.  Doughnuts should be golden brown and cooked through when removed from the oil (if in doubt, cut one in half to make sure that it is totally done).

Toss the doughnuts with the cinnamon and sugar mixture, and serve immediately.  Great for breakfast or any occasion!

Homeland Security I Can Believe In

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

from Michael Pollan’s article “Farmer in Chief” in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

“For decades now, it has been federal policy to shrink the number of farmers in America by promoting capital-intensive monoculture and consolidation. As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.”

Read the whole article here! With any luck, our future president is reading it, too, and will implement Mr. Pollan’s very logical and persuasive arguments about the direction our nation’s food policy needs to go.

Metonymical Barns

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

I was browsing through the Sunday Times today and I came a cross this fascinating examination of the disappearance of the barns that used to serve the small farms.  As the farms are snatched up by agribusiness, the barns get in the way.  They’re purposefully eradicated, or neglected until they crumble.

This is a deft use of metonymy, the rhetorical construct whereby an issue is illuminated by a symbolic examination of a related object, and Monica Davey uses it to great effect in this piece.  By tugging at the loose threads of the crumbling barn, she reveals the crumbling status of the agrarian class and the concentration of resources into the hands of the few and the wealthy, whom, it seems, often place higher priority on their potential gain than they do on families: as Davey writes, “Some here tell of people who call the widows of farmers who have died days or hours earlier, hoping to secure land.”

The conglomeration of our food production leads to reduced quality because the larger volume leads to decreased attention on the details; reduced options because the big guys are going to tend toward mono-cropping; increased reliance on chemical additives because farming untold acreage of a single crop reduces soil quality and is often only viable through production of a modern, spray-resistant hybrid varietal; and reduced security because the land that used to support several families now is tended by a relatively small number of individuals and their “air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors.”

Every time you shop for produce and wind up with pretty peaches that taste as fake and plastic as they look; sculptured tomatoes that have white interiors that taste like rice cakes (and are almost as hard); eat a sweet that gets is flavor from high fructose corn syrup… think of the barns, think of the families, think of hte lifestyle that’s being eradicated with the quality of your options—and make an effort to go to the farmers’ markets, to the roadside stands, to the orchards in your area and buy your food from the families who are still farming so that they can still farm in the years to come.

Or else, the barns may continue to dwindle and die.

PGH Project to Help Whom Find Local Food?

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports today that Produce Grown Here (aka the PGH project) is going to begin a push to get more local foods into restaurants and consumers by focusing its efforts on Eat ‘N Park and Giant Eagle. Providing assistance to these two corporations in finding food seems akin to offering the Red Sox and the Yankees assistance in finding baseball prospects.

I, of course, fully support the idea behind the PGH Project: that everyone ought to be using as much locally-grown produce as possible. On the other hand, it seems to me that targeting their efforts at the big boys of the local food chain doesn’t make all that much sense. After all, both Eat ‘N park and Giant Eagle have massive amounts of resources at their disposal. Eat ‘N Park already has a Director of Sourcing and Sustainability on staff and Giant Eagle has a vertically integrated food supply chain and handles all of its own warehousing and distribution. Surely these corporations could use some of their muscle to get local foods without having a nonprofit give them assistance?

Why not target smaller operations that don’t have as many resources behind them? Really, I want to know. Anyone out there associated with this effort? I’d love to hear your reasoning.

I’d also love to see you throw a bone to the little guys.

PLU Codes

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

PLU codes are the produce look-up codes that every grower, wholesaler, and retailer uses to inventory, stock, ship, and sell their food.  You probably have seen the stickers on the items you buy at the store–the numbers on these stickers are how the foods are tracked.

I just found a site that has an alphabetical listing of all PLU codes.  You’d think something like that would be somewhat dry reading, but surprisingly it’s quite interesting: while many of the items are fruits and vegetables that I know well and am quite familiar with, others are completely foreign to me.  When I come across one of those items (like cherimoya, feijoa, gobo root, or homli fruit [no image found; if you know anything about this one, please let me know]), I type it into an image search and track down some information about it.  It’s kind of cool to see how many different things are out there.  Try it, it’s fun!

Read This Book

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I was driving on Monday afternoon and had the radio tuned to NPR, where I heard a snippet of an interview Terry Gross was doing with Dan Koeppel, author of a new book called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. I was entranced and I stopped the car at Barnes & Noble so I could buy the book—the sort of quick purchase that I almost never make, but in this instance was glad that I did.

I suppose that when it comes to bananas, I’ve always been the typical consumer described on the book’s dust cover, who takes for granted that bananas will always be on the grocery store shelf and never thinks about them much beyond that. Certainly, I’d never dreamed that I’d become so entranced with a book on them that I would tear through it in two days; in fact I had never considered that there would be enough information about bananas to even fill a book.

Of course, if I had thought, I would have realized that there was something strange about the fact that there seems to be only one kind of banana, whereas with every other fruit and vegetable, I’ve fascinated myself by finding and trying as many cultivars as possible. The thing is, there really are thousands of kinds of bananas out there, and we only see one main one on our shelves. It is known in the banana world as the cavendish. The plantain, according to the book, is genetically identical to the cavendish though larger and starchier—a point I am not certain I grasp and I’ll likely be trying to track Mr. Koeppel down to ask him if he can explain it to me a bit more clearly (if it’s genetically identical, why is it different). The red banana that is sometimes on the grocery shelf and that I have never sampled is a different variety—one of the few non-cavendish bananas that makes its way to the USA.

The rest of them have been rejected for widespread sale for one reason or another: either the taste is foreign to USA consumers, it has too thin of a skin to travel well, or both. All that is likely to change over the coming decades, as the cavendish banana is falling victim to Panama Disease, a fungal infection. It’s the same fungal infection that destroyed the plants that bore the bananas my parents ate as children: through the fifties, the cavendish was rejected by fruit companies for its flavor deficiencies and thin skin, but as the gros michel perished, the cavendish stepped in to fill its shoes.

And as for the fruit companies, I’d heard rumors about their misdeeds (Tulane University, where I completed by undergrad, was a beneficiary of Sam Zemurray, onetime president of United Fruit), but I hadn’t realized the extent to which they had used violence to protect their business model, nor the extent to which they have (and continue to) expose workers on banana plantation to toxic chemicals to protect the banana plants from a variety of diseases that they are susceptible to.

Also news to me were the many African nations where bananas are a subsistence crop, and the main source of nutrition. Some of the highland bananas in Uganda come in hues of orange and purple, again, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.

There’s so much about the history and development of bananas and the search for disease-resistant bananas and the technologies developed by the banana companies that I obviously don’t want to spoil for you because Mr. Koeppel did a great deal of research to write it in his book. So, if you enjoy the taste of bananas, whether out of the peel (a snack that was considered scandalous in Victorian times), sliced over cereal, split with ice cream and whipped cream, in a sandwich with peanut butter, in a cream pie, otherwise, or all of the above, you owe it to yourself to get this book and read the fascinating history behind this seemingly simple snack.

Rodents as Food

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Rodents are a classification of mammal that, on the surface, don’t sound appetizing as a food source.  But, if you think about it, examples of rodentphagia aren’t all that unusual.  I enjoy a bit of rabbit every now and again.  In New Orleans, I used to hear about people eating nutria, though i never had the chance to try any.  Dormice were popular during Roman times and are still eaten in Slovenia today.  My dad’s college roommate used to get weekly deliveries of squirrel brain sandwiches from his family (okay, so that one is a bit odd).

I’ve been reading an almanac of food trivia lately (Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany), and mention of porcupine (said to taste like suckling pig or fowl) and beaver (said to taste like pork) as food sources got me thinking about how wide-ranging of a habit eating rodents might be.

A brief bit of internet research turned up a very informative article on “Rodents as Food Source” from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference in 1990.  It turns out that rodentphagia is a much more widely spread phenomenon than I had ever imagined.


The History of Carrots

Monday, January 21st, 2008

My sister-in-law’s sister-in-law sent me this link back before Christmas and somehow it got lost in my email until this week, but the information contained within is fascinating: how carrots were transformed through selective breeding from being a small, bitter, black, or yellow root prized mostly for its leaves and flowers to being the large, sweet, orange root from which the leaves and flowers are almost always discarded. And, surprisingly, the orange color that we all associate with a carrot is a fairly recent development: a political machination by the Dutch in the 16th Century, to support the current king, William of the House of Orange.

The history is broken into three parts: pre-200 AD; 200-1800 AD; and 1800 to present. It makes for fascinating, extensive reading—but there’s no reason to try to hammer through the entire history of the carrot in one sitting. I recommend breaking it up into 3-6 chunks and making an effort to flip back to it whenever you have a few minutes to kill.

And, for info on the easiest way to dice carrots, visit

A Book I’ve Been Reading

Friday, January 11th, 2008

I’m almost done with a book I got for Christmas, The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp, which, in short, is a history of celebrity chefdom in America, beginning with Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne (though Craig was only a writer who worked closely with a chef by the name of Pierre Franey who didn’t get a byline in any article for years, despite the fact that he was the force behind the food), and I’ve just gotten to Emeril.  It turns out that Emeril’s big break was creating a special for Commander’s Palace that incorporated lamb.

I’m somewhat surprised by that—for me, lamb is a no-brainer: one of the few meats that really incorporates its own flavor anymore (what with factory-minded agricultural methods robbing most other meats of their identities)—I find a great deal of pleasure in most lamb preparations.  The Brennans (owners of Commander’s Palace) apparently didn’t agree with me on the subject before Emeril changed their minds.

“‘I went to Ella Brennan and said, “Have you ever run lamb here?” and she said, “It’s impossible, it’ll never sell—New Orleanians hate lamb,”‘ Lagasse says.  ‘So I asked her to at least let me try it as a special: rack of lamb with Creole mustard crust, apple mint relish, and rosemary mashed potatoes.  And we sold out the first night.  I ran it again the following week, and it sold out again.  A couple of weeks go by and I’ve got Ella coming to me saying, “You know, Dick [Brennan] and I decide we’re gonna give you the right-hand side of the menu.  Be creative but don’t be out there.”‘” [page 302]

I’m extremely surprised that the dish that gave Emeril his big break was so straightforward.  I mean, when you think about it, apple mint relish isn’t so far flung from mint flavored apple jelly, the classic accompaniment to lamb dishes (one of my favorite Simpsons quotes comes from Grandpa Abe who in one episode says, “Call me mint jelly ’cause I’m on the lam!”); and a mustard crust on lamb rack is one of the most played-out ways that any continental cuisine restaurant serves the damned thing.  Though, I suppose played out in 2007 indicates that it was new and different twenty-odd years ago when Lagasse was the chef at Commander’s.

What I’ve really enjoyed about the book, though, is discovering the pedigree behind some of my most cherished food beliefs: how fresh and local snowballed out of being a mantra for a very small number of knowledgeable individuals into a rallying cry for people across the country; the development from Julia Child helping home cooks across the country discover their inner gourmet to 24/7 food programming on a dedicated cable channel.  Though the USA is admittedly a late arrival on the world gourmet stage, it’s fascinating to see how (and how quickly) we’ve graduated from jello molds with various scary inclusions to rack of lamb with creole mustard, etc.

Kamp’s history of the Untied States’ culinary pedigree is a fascinating read that clued me in to the indirect influences of many great culinary thinkers with whom I hadn’t previously been familiar have had on the way I perceive the world of food and the culinary landscape of America.