Learning from History

As a food historian, I read a lot about the past–not just where our foods come from, but also how the whole process of obtaining food works. There are a lot of things we can learn from the past that might actually help with our own survival.

Most of the history of world has focused on getting enough to eat. Avoiding starvation is remarkably hard work. Things that worked well didn’t always work for long. For example, ancient Rome. As the city of Rome grew, more and more food was needed—more food than could be supplied by the surrounding farms. So Rome started conquering everyone around them, to get more farms and, as conquered people were enslaved, to get cheaper food. They set up fabulous trade routes, and food poured into Rome. Unfortunately, the cheap food coming in from distant lands dropped food prices to where farmers near Rome couldn’t compete. They left their farms and moved into the city. So more food was needed, but now most of it had to come from far away. That was great–until the pirates became a problem. When pirates cut off all food coming by sea, Rome was in danger of starving. That’s when they decided that, to guarantee their food security, they’d turn almost limitless power over to Pompey. And thus, the republic finally disintegrated.

So it sounds as though eating local is the answer, right? Well, one historian spoke of the “tyranny of the local.” Local food is wonderful until there is a drought or an especially long winter or locusts come through. Then, eating local means dying of starvation.

Sound hopeless? I don’t think so. I think the key concept is balance. Eat local when you can. Support local farmers. You want to make sure they don’t go broke and move to the city. Go to farmers’ market or shop at stores that buy at least some of their produce locally.

But don’t abandon the imports. If local isn’t available, usually because of climate, don’t stop eating. However, try at least to buy things that you could get from somewhere reached by truck or train, as opposed to something that needs an airplane or ocean voyage. Garlic from California vs. from China, for example, at least if you live in North America. Support the people who will be able to feed you if transportation is disrupted. (Remember how long planes didn’t fly after 9/11?)

Feel free to enjoy exotica–things that simply don’t grow where you live. But don’t rely on it. It’s great that we can get food from everywhere, and it’s great that we don’t starve every time there’s a tough winter, but we need balance. And, whatever else happens, we need to make sure we take care of our farmers.

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Fun Fact: Daily Grind

We still talk about the daily grind, but generally without thinking too much about the origin of the phrase. It dates back a few thousand years, to when people had to grind their own grain — every day. It took at least a couple of hours of grinding or pounding to create enough meal or flour for that day’s porridge or bread for a family. It was hard work, which is why people generally didn’t grind more than they needed each day. (Plus, of course, there was the issue of things spoiling faster once ground.) Worth remembering is that most of those doing the grinding were doing it at the end of a full day’s work or travel.

Various people at different times developed easier ways to grind grain, using animals or slaves or running water, but on the march or on the frontier, hand grinding remained the only option until the last few hundred years — though it is still the main method of processing grain in some places.

So next time you pick up a loaf of bread on the way home for work, you can be grateful that your daily grind doesn’t actually end with a daily grind.

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Supersizing History

I love studying food history. I read a lot of books. I do a fair bit of travel. I interview experts. Happily, thanks to YouTube, I also have access to a wide range of wonderful videos that focus on different periods of food history. Among the many options I’ve discovered, one of the delightful ones is a BBC series known as the Supersizers. This is a program in which restaurant critic Giles Coren and entertainer/comedian Sue Perkins pick different periods of history and then relive them. They wear the clothing of the period, live in suitable housing, and, most importantly, eat or discuss every aspect of the culinary arts from the period. The programs are tremendously varied, and include, among others, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, pretty much every age defined by who was on the throne (Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian), the Regency period (Jane Austen’s times), and one year, they went through England by the decade (once they got to the ’70s, things began to look familiar, which actually made them even more entertaining).

The show employs top chefs, to prepare the period-appropriate foods, and a wide range of experts (culinary historians, cultural anthropologists, farmers, foragers, politicians,and so on) to comment on how food was obtained and consumed in each period. So while Giles and Sue focus on being entertaining, the scholarship is excellent.

Since we’re just a few days past the anniversary of D-Day (June 6), I thought that perhaps the best example to post would be dining England during World War II. This video, while still entertaining, contrasts somewhat with the lavish repasts that are the focus of most of the videos. However, it is a period that many still remember and that had a lasting impact on the world. Still, do check out some of the other videos. So many fascinating eras, fabulous costumes, and over-the-top dinners — truly delightful. But now, here is dining in Wartime.

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Grand Opening: Read It and Eat

So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time


Last night, I attended the grand opening of a new bookstore in Chicago — a bookstore dedicated to food. It is named, appropriately, Read It & Eat. The handsome, bright venue is dominated by pristinely white shelves crammed with cookbooks, food histories, food literature, volumes on food and culture, works on food and science (have to get Harold McGee in there) food fiction–thousands of books — but there is also a spiffy kitchen along one wall, for doing demos and teaching classes. So definitely food-centric — and deliriously fun for those who love food and books.
Test and demo kitchen

Test and demo kitchen


For the opening, Mindy Segal was on hand, signing copies of her new book, Cookie Love. The bonus here was that she also supplied some of the cookies featured in the book. Impressively elegant sweets. Saw a lot of friends there, including Patty Erd of The Spice House, Catherine Lambrecht, creator of LTHforum.com and the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and guiding spirit of Culinary Historian of Chicago, and Scott Warner, president of Culinary Historians. But all those who crowded the new shop were clearly enthusiasts. It looked as though as many were buying books as were enjoying the cookies, wine, and chatting with other book lovers. A highlight among many highlights for me was, of course, seeing my own book–Midwest Maize–on the shelf.

The bookstore is the brainchild of Esther Dairiam, who was inspired by a splendid culinary bookstore in Paris. She hoped that Chicago, among the country’s most food-centric locations, would be a good place to try to create something similar, but with the addition of the kitchen facilities, to create a more complete food experience.

Read It & Eat is located at 2142 N. Halstead, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. If you’re in the area, it is definitely worth visiting.

Well-labeled shelves

Well-labeled shelves


It’s a great concept well executed. I hope they do splendidly well.

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Tips From the World of Spice

A few posts ago, I mentioned an event in Philadelphia called The Life of Spice. There was a lot of interesting information shared by the other two speakers, but the most useful was from the representative from McCormick Spice. Here are the highlights from her presentation.
• Mexican oregano is a completely different plant than Mediterranean oregano. Mexican oregano is mustier than Mediterranean. It’s great in chili and Mexican dishes, but don’t use it in spaghetti sauce.
• Oregano is the most commonly adulterated herb. That means if you see an off brand that seems to be too cheap, it’s probably not all oregano.
• “Cinnamon” coming out of China can be as much as 50% adulterated with the bark of trees other than cinnamon.
• Red pepper makes you feel more satisfied with your meal.
• Smoked paprika can help people who are trying to reduce their salt intake–adds big flavor so salt isn’t missed.
• California bay leaves are not the same as Mediterranean bay leaves — and are not necessarily completely safe, at least in large quantities.
• McCormick has developed tests to show what emotions spices trigger. For cinnamon, it’s love.

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Midwest History Conference

I’m posting this as something of a public service announcement. All who are interested in U.S. history are invited to the first conference of the new Midwestern History Association. The conference runs April 30-May 1, and it is being held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The conference itself is free, so the only expense is getting there and spending the night.

The speaker lineup looks amazing. I’m really looking forward to this event. Here is a full description, with speakers, topics, and links where you can register. http://hauensteincenter.org/common-ground-summit-on-the-midwest-2/

The Midwest is a region that has long been snubbed by those who are into U.S. regions — and that’s a pity, because the region has had a major impact on U.S. history, not to mention continuing to feed everyone. So hope you’ll come out for this event, which looks to be fairly remarkable.

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Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes

When I visited Spain, I found that garlic is a mainstay of Spanish cooking, and is often used with great abandon. I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of garlic soups and garlic sauces. Ajo Blanco is a cold soup–particularly welcome in warm weather–that combines garlic and almonds. The recipe comes from Málaga, in southern Spain. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC, was controlled at various times by the Romans and Visigoths, and was among the first cities to fall to the Moors in 711 AD, when they began their invasion of Spain. Almonds remain one of the main exports from the port of Málaga, and remain an important part of the local cuisine.

A couple of notes about this recipe. I love garlic, and usually look for the fattest cloves I can find, or add more than a recipe requires. However, in this recipe, since the garlic is not cooked, it’s pretty potent, even with three average cloves, so don’t get carried away. Traditionally, this would be made using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender makes the process significantly easier.

And finally, some really good news. Almonds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may cut the risk of lung cancer, even if you smoke. Throw in the garlic and olive oil that this recipe contains, and this delightful and unusual recipe is almost frighteningly good for you. Enjoy.

Ajo Blanco con Uvas
(Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes)

5 oz. blanched almonds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
3 cups ice water
3 dozen seedless green grapes

Place the almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. (Do not over-process, or the oil will separate out of the almonds. Stop while almonds look like crumbs, and not peanut butter.) Add the bread crumbs, salt, and 1 cup of water, and process until mixture is a fine paste. With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Next, gradually add the vinegar and as much of the remaining ice water as your food processor can comfortably accommodate. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in any remaining ice water.

Adjust salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or (even better) overnight. Peel grapes (not absolutely required, but they float more easily if peeled). Float the grapes in the soup just before serving, or serve soup and float grapes in the individual bowls. Alternatively to using grapes, you could substitute 1 cup of chopped apple. Serves 4–6.

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