Surprising Onion Rings

I think most of us would think fried onion rings were a fairly modern taste treat. That’s probably because the modern, commercial deep-fat fryer is a fairly recent invention, and it is unlikely most people would have had ready access to deep-fried foods before it came along. But as is so often the case in the world of food, many dishes we enjoy today have been enjoyed for a long time. A good example of this is the fried onion rings in this video, which come from an 1801 cookbook. Today, if a chef added Parmesan cheese to a batter for onion rings, it would be hailed as a remarkable innovation, but here that addition was made in a recipe that is more than 200 years old. These look really good.

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Rinktum Ditty

Rinktum-Ditty-cropped-B.jpg
It was the name of this recipe that caught my eye initially, as I was flipping through an old cookbook. Then, looking over the ingredients, I was definitely interested in trying it. Seriously, anything with melted cheese is going to be pretty good. Rinktum Ditty is something of a spin on Welsh rarebit (or do you say “rabbit”–both terms are ancient and correct), but with tomatoes taking the place of beer.

It appears that Rinktum Ditty came to America from England, specifically from Cheshire. It became associated with New England, but it clearly spread nationwide, even appearing in a 1917 collection of recipes in Arizona.

Some versions call for cooked tomatoes, others for tomato sauce, and a few Depression-era versions used canned tomato soup. I decided to update it a bit, using a can of “petite diced” tomatoes. It made it a bit chunkier, but the flavor of the cheese came through a bit more, and it was thicker and heartier. If you want to try an older version than mine, just use 2 cups of cooked tomatoes in place of the can of diced tomatoes.

The first recipe I ever saw for this simply called for “cheese.” I wondered that no specific kind was named, but after I made it, I realized it was because almost any good melting cheese would work. I used a good, sharp cheddar, but I imagine a nice smoked gouda would be amazing. And since the recipe apparently came from Cheshire, it’s a good bet Cheshire cheese would work.

Because of its antiquity, as it spread, the name got written down phonetically often enough to have created a fair number of spellings, including Rum Tum Ditty, Ring Tum Tiddy, Rink Tum Diddy, and a few other options. But Rinktum Ditty is the most common spelling. It’s an easy dish to prepare, even finding its way into the repertoire of early logging camps on the frontier. And it’s very economical. Some older collections note that, because there is no beer, it is suitable for children. It’s also mighty tasty.

It is traditionally served over toast. Some recipes suggest buttered toast, but I think that’s overkill, with all the cheese in the dish. Some versions specify crackers. I also tried it over pumpernickel, which was great. Enjoy.

Rinktum Ditty
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 Tbs. butter
1 14.5-oz. can petite diced tomatoes
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. sugar
½ pound cheese, grated
1 egg, beaten
Cook the onion in the butter until tender. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, and sugar, and heat through. Add the cheese. Stirring constantly, cook until the cheese is melted. Add the beaten egg slowly, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute longer. Serve over toast. Makes 4 servings.

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Surprising Influences on American Food

No one would be surprised to learn that bratwurst was introduced by German settlers, and Italians gave us pasta (though they only had tomato sauce after the Americas were discovered). But there are a few major influences that you might find surprising.

It was in ancient Rome that people first hit on the idea of lettuce-based salads. Technically, the term salad refers to a wide range of varied dishes that are usually served cold. That’s why, in North Africa, for example, a dish of olives and some eggplant dip is considered part of the salad course. It’s also why cold meat mixed with mayo is considered a salad. But in ancient Rome, they fancied their salads made with lettuce, especially what was called Roman lettuce, but which we now know as Romaine.

The Romans also decided that meals ought to end with dessert. While sweets are fairly universally loved, you only find dessert in cultures influenced by Rome—or in places where American and European tourists show up expecting dessert. In addition, Apicius, whose Dining in Imperial Rome is our best source of information on the food of the era, tells us that sausage should be served with mustard.

Among the least obvious and most frequently overlooked influences, however, is British food. There are, of course, obvious things, like Cornish pasties (iconic in Michigan) and roast beef. The Brits also gave us the idea that a meal was meat and two sides (starch and veg). But there are a lot of not so obvious British things, things we view as iconically American, and in some cases specifically Southern.

For example, collard greens (which were also valued by the ancient Romans), were introduced into the Americas by the British. While the French also ate pig intestines, the word chitterlings and the practice of eating them were introduced by the British. (The word came into use in Britain in the 1200s, though the practice certainly predated that.)

Chess pie, now an American classic, is another British introduction. The origin of the name is uncertain, but the pie was well established in New England and Virginia by the 1700s, though it eventually faded from the Northern repertoire.

Corn got turned into corn puddings of various sorts because the British loved puddings.

Even fried chicken is British. While it is uncertain when it first emerged, our first record of it is in a 1736 cookbook by Nathan Baily. However, Hannah Glasse’s recipe, which appeared in her 1747 book The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, is more like what we came to enjoy in the U.S. Author and soul food expert Adrian Miller notes that Martha Randolph’s fried chicken, from her popular 1824 book The Virginia Housewife, was “remarkably similar” to Hannah Glasse’s British recipe. It was Randolph’s recipe that would become American fried chicken.

In this video, Jon Townsend, the son of Jas. Townsend and Son, reproduces the Nathan Bailey recipe. I was interested to note that Bailey garnishes the chicken with fried parsley, simply because the only times I’ve had fried parsley were in the South.

Obviously, there were lots of other influences: New World ingredients and Native American contributions, African ingredients and adaptations of traditional cooking methods to utilize local ingredients. This is not intended to relate everything that contributed to the remarkable food culture of the United States. It’s just a reminder to not underestimate the impact of the British.

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#ShakespeareSunday

While most folks know that I’m a fan of food history, I have an even longer-standing passion for Shakespeare. Imagine my delight when the remarkable Kathleen Wall posted this on her Foodways Pilgrim blog.

Foodways Pilgrim

Today is the last day of a yearlong celebration celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – #BardYear.

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623 First Folio

April 23rd 1616 is the day he died. It might also be the day he was born. We have his baptismal date, so we know he was born by when. But funerals are a bigger deal, celebration wise, in the 17th century then births (infants are considered to be lumps of flesh in search of their humanity; if you live to adulthood, you’re a person).

A quick run through of a few, very few selected Shakespeare and food books:

Shakeontoast

Last one read, first one mentioned – Shakespeare on Toast

I need to find out what the English “on toast” reference is, but it was well written, fast paced and enormously entertaining and informative   (words that belong together especially when dealing with Shakespeare). Not about…

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Kentucky Tidbits


Even with a convention to attend, with most of my time at meetings, I always try to find a little time to enjoy something about a place I’m visiting. In the case of Louisville, I’d heard that there was an interesting historic district. “Interesting” turned out to be an understatement.

The historic district of Louisville, KY, is the third largest historic district in the United States, and it is the largest district in the country dating to the Victorian era. Block after block of fabulous Victorian architecture kept me busy for a couple of hours. Up Third Street, down Fourth, across side streets, over to Fifth, around to Third again, another side street. I ran out of time before I got to the museum that had been recommended (the Filson Historical Society), though I did pass it (1310 S. Third Street). Then off through the West Main district, with its impressive Victorian-era buildings with cast iron façades—only Soho in New York has a larger collection. It was a stunning visual treat. I returned to the hotel with just barely enough time to get to my first program, but delighted beyond words with what I’d seen.

In the previous post, I mentioned finally trying burgoo, as well as being introduced to barbecued mutton. But another “finally” in town was having a sandwich I’d heard of for decades but never tried: the Hot Brown, a sandwich created at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel in 1926. This open-faced sandwich features sliced turkey and bacon on toast, all smothered in luxurious Mornay sauce. So multiple icons consumed: burgoo, mutton, and Hot Brown.

The conference planners made certain that mint juleps were served one night at the hotel, so chalk up one more icon for this trip. While this is far from a full description of what is available to see and sample in Louisville, it is at least, I hope, an encouragement to those who go to conventions that one can fit in at least a bit of experiencing a destination, even when one’s time is largely committed indoors.

And now I have a list for next time.

(Oh — and the photo above is of a picture hanging in my hotel room. Just in case you want to know how to pronounce Louisville.)

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Kentucky Barbecue

It’s always a delight to try something one has always heard of, but it is equally delightful to find something one didn’t know existed. So to have both things at one meal was definitely joyous.

I’d first read about Kentucky burgoo as a youngster, looking through some of mom’s cookbooks. The really old cookbooks usually included game in this traditional stew, which is generally made in huge quantities and served at large community gatherings. More current recipes leave out the game, though one suspects that it would still appear in some versions. As a result, when a food conference (International Association of Culinary Professionals) took me to Kentucky, I was excited to see burgoo listed as something one could try during one of the offered food tours. But even more intriguing was the mention of something unfamiliar to me but apparently very traditional in parts of Kentucky: barbecued mutton.

Of course, if one has done any research into barbecue, one encounters the fact that different regions, and even micro-regions, have different specialties, from sauces to preferred animals to specific cuts. But even having read about (and as often as possible, having tried) variations on barbecue traditions, I had never before encountered barbecued mutton.

Most of the several hundred in attendance at the conference had opted for bourbon or fried chicken tours, and only three of us picked mutton and burgoo—which was fine with me, as it gave us more time to talk to our “guide” for the day, Wes Berry, college professor and author of the definitive book on all the various regional Kentucky barbecues.

We headed about 15 miles out of Louisville, to a BBQ shack constructed in 1896 (though renovated by the current owners). Shack in the Back was the name of the venue, and there is indeed a shack in the back—a smokehouse with a couple of large, hard-working smokers pumping out vast quantities of hickory smoke. (My clothes smelled great for days afterwards.) We had a long chat with the owner about the restaurant and got to view fires, coals, and cooking meat. But then we headed for the dining area and got to try a bit of everything.

Shack in the Back BBQ


The smokehouse out back

Worth noting is that not every Kentucky smokehouse makes barbecued mutton these days, so this had been special ordered for our visit. But the burgoo is a regular menu item, as are the house-made andouille sausage, pulled pork, baby back ribs, beef brisket, “turkey ribs,” and smoked salmon. Classic sides included mac and cheese, green beans, baked beans, and fried corn. We started with a plate of crispy pork rinds, and after that, the dishes just kept coming.

Before the trip, I’d done a bit of research, learning that Kentucky has an ideal climate and terrain for raising sheep and that a tariff in 1816 made wool production profitable, which led to keeping sheep until they were older and tougher and therefore more suited to long, slow cooking. I also discovered that Calvin Trillin wrote in a 1977 article in The New Yorker that barbecued mutton is “not bad at all.” I, on the other hand, thought it was quite wonderful, but then I like mutton, and mutton cooked long and slow and saturated with smoke has a lot going for it.

Unlike the other barbecued items we were served, the mutton did not come with barbecue sauce but rather with “Mutton Sauce,” aka “Mutton Dip” or “Black Dip.” Wes explained that it is made from Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, pepper, and vinegar. He noted that some places also add tomato paste, to make it stick better, but what we had was the traditional, tomato-free black dip. It was perfect for the mutton.

A few dishes–plus Mutton Sauce

The “turkey ribs” should probably also be explained. They are apparently a growing trend. Not ribs at all, they are white turkey meat attached to the scapula, or shoulder blade. The traditional sauce for these is a mayo-based white barbecue sauce. Very tasty. Easy to see why they’re becoming popular.

The Kentucky burgoo was also delicious. Mike, the owner of Shack in the Back, says he cooks it for two days. As one might imagine of anything cooked for so long, it was thick and flavorful, but for me, the chiefest delight was simply that I was in Kentucky eating so iconic and historic a dish.

You may never have thought of Kentucky in terms of barbecue, but now you can. And, of course, don’t forget the burgoo. For someone like me who loves both history and regional specialties, this was a splendid meal.

Oh – and if you want a little more background on Kentucky barbecue, including burgoo (which is traditionally served at big barbecue events, and is therefore associated with BBQ), here’s the introduction from Wes Berry’s book KY BBQ: https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/southern-bbq-trail/kentucky-bbq/

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What One Thing Most Helped Colonial Agriculture?

There are many things one might consider vital to the success of agriculture in Britain’s North American colonies, and indeed throughout the New World. Plows and scythes, learning about new crops, introducing pigs and cows–so many possibilities. But the introduction that would have the greatest impact on the future success of agriculture in the colonies–and up to the present time–was not even brought along because it would help agriculture.

The honey bee was brought to Jamestown in 1622 because colonists wanted honey. The discovery of pollination was still two centuries in the future when bees landed in the New World. But just because colonists had no idea what the bees were doing didn’t keep the bees from doing it. All the fruit trees and vegetables and other crops brought with settlers were made possible by the introduction of bees. (Corn/maize had been a blessing at the outset, and kept settlers from starving, because corn is wind pollinated, so bees weren’t necessary.)

The bees did more than just make introduced crops viable, however. Unlike some other types of bees, the European honey bee does not specialize. It likes any flowers, whether familiar or new. They loved their new home and, unlike the earlier human settlers, found plenty to eat. They spread rapidly, always staying well ahead of westward human migration, supplying honey to even the earliest pioneers. Native Americans, who called them “English flies,” began to associate honey bees with the spread of European settlement.

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Alfredo

I first had fettuccine Alfredo in 1966–served to me by Alfredo.

I was just fifteen, traveling with my parents. Getting to Italy was a lifelong dream of my dad’s, and we had the pleasure of coming along when he fulfilled that dream. He’d studied Italian history, art, and culture for years, and had been drilling us on useful Italian phrases for nearly a year before the trip–where is my hotel, a table for four please, how much does that cost, bring the check please, and so on.

Long before we arrived, dad had figured out many of the places where he wanted to dine, mostly historic venues (such as Hostaria dell’Orso, which had been a favorite of Dante’s), while leaving plenty of room for discovering charming little trattorias. Among the must-visit places was Alfredo al Augusteo, the source of fettuccine so good that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had given Alfredo a golden fork and spoon for consuming the dish.

At fifteen, I was not as saturated with history as my dad was, and I probably could not at that time have told you who Pickford and Fairbanks were, but I knew if my dad was impressed, I would be, too. The restaurant was a delight, walls covered with photos of movie stars and heads of state who had dined there. Overhead, a massive marble frieze showed Alfredo in a Roman chariot, one hand holding the reigns, the other holding a plate of the namesake pasta.

The menu at the time bore the words Il vero re della fettuccine–the true king of fettuccine. However, when he signed our menus, Alfredo gave himself a promotion, to Imperatore, or Emperor, a title that now seems to have eclipsed his claim to being king.

Alfredo Di Lelio was already famous even then, but far from stuffy or impressed with himself. He was a showman, and he loved anyone who loved what he did. For people with whom he connected, he would toss the fettuccine tableside. Order the crepes, and he would come out dancing, ladling flaming brandy into the air. It was great fun. My dad, who could make friends with a doorpost, charmed Alfredo, and we went back often, each member of the family being offered the golden fork and spoon on subsequent nights (a sign that Alfredo had taken a fancy to you). He related how the fettuccine recipe was born–it was something his wife could keep down while she was pregnant.

A few visits into our first trip to Italy, my dad jotted a bit of light verse on a piece of paper and handed it to Alfredo, sealing the friendship. I sometimes think that our trip back the following year was just so dad could go to Alfredo’s again–and, happily, Alfredo remembered him and welcomed him enthusiastically.

In the photo below, I’m the teen on the left, and that’s Alfredo with his arm around me. The handful of pasta is dry, kept handy as a prop for photo opportunities. Mom thought she was getting out of the photo.

Of course, the experience was memorable, but for me, it was one more reason to be amazed by my father.

And here is the poem:

To Alfredo
Firenze, Roma, or Milano,
Who’s the number one Paisano?
Who’s “tops” with burro and formaggio?
Who should sit for Caravaggio?
This charming Re. This handsome fellow.
No, He should sit for Raphaello.
Better yet, call for Bernini
To sculpt the King of Fettuccine!

And should you be headed to Italy, here is the website for Il Vero Alfredo–the true Alfredo. http://www.ilveroalfredo.it/
family-with-alfredo-2

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Fun Fact: Thomas Jefferson

There are, of course, numerous food stories surrounding Thomas Jefferson, who was remarkably gifted and accomplished in many fields, but not least of them food, from introducing dishes to establishing new crops to inventing recipes. However, this fun fact is only tangentially related to food, because I found it in a cookbook.

As part of my food history research, I read a fair number of antique cookbooks. Not very long ago, I was perusing a cookbook published in 1876, on, and in honor of, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, some reference to Thomas Jefferson had to be made — and there is such a reference. On the last page of the preface, it states that it wishes for readers, “in the renowned classic of Jefferson, ‘May you live long and prosper.'”

So were the creators of Star Trek fans of our talented Founding Father — or does this mean Jefferson was a Vulcan?

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Food and Power

cuisine-and-empire
I read a lot of food history books, and I generally enjoy them, but occasionally, one impresses me more than others I’ve read. While good writing always gets my attention, a different approach can be really captivating. And so it is perhaps not surprising that I found Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History to be a particularly good read. It is very well written, but the thing that sets it apart is that, while most food histories seem to focus on a single item (including my own book, Midwest Maize), a specific period, or a specific country, Laudan’s book takes the novel approach of tracing cuisine by the progress of history’s great empires. Equally importantly, Laudan also draws a clear distinction between humble cuisine and high cuisine, once that division occurred in society.

Of course, in the context of history, this approach makes a lot of sense. A conquering people generally either introduced their ideas into conquered countries, or they adopted what they found in the places they invaded. Controlling or mandating cuisine became a political tool. Plus people in power have, for at least a couple of millennia, eaten better than the man on the street—though modern cuisine (since 1810) adds to this “middling cuisine,” the food of those who are neither rulers nor peasants—i.e., the middle class.

Of course, there have been a lot of empires, and the book could end up with hundreds of chapters, so Laudan further divides the topic by major influences (such as the agricultural revolution or the rise of Buddhism) and time periods. With a timeline running across more than 20,000 years, the book is definitely ambitious, but it offers wonderful insight into how cooking has developed from the first boiled-grain gruels into the sophisticated international cuisines of today.

The book is massively well documented, should you wish to track down the sources of some of her information. It is the kind of book that could be used simply for reference of a period of interest, or read through, as one watches history unfold through the meals that made civilizations possible and cultures identifiable.

So if you’re interested in food history, or the history of the impact of the world’s great empires on food and food’s impact on politics through history, I definitely recommend Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire.

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