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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Waste Not, Want Not

A lot of attention is being focused these days on waste–especially food waste. Most of the stories I see published are looking at the food system–crops that don’t get bought because they don’t match a store’s ideal, imperfect food that gets thrown out, and so on. But as much of the attention shows, people are working hard to avoid these kind of situations where food gets wasted. It’s not fixed yet, but it’s not being ignored.

However, there’s a huge area of waste that isn’t getting talked about as much, and that’s the food that consumers waste. I know people who actually brag about how much stuff they buy that just spoils in the fridge because they’re too busy to get to it. So buy frozen. It will wait for you–and because it’s frozen in the field, it probably has more nutrients than the stuff in the produce section. Or if heads of lettuce are dying in the fridge because you don’t have time to prepare them, buy pre-washed, chopped lettuce. Do what it takes to not be throwing out the food you buy. Plan meals around things you have, so it gets used up in time.

And in restaurants, think about what you’re ordering. I regularly see people over-order by an astonishing amount, and then walk away from the table, not even bothering to ask for their food to be boxed to take home. To avoid the spread of disease (a good thing), all that food has to be thrown away. Granted, there are times that you can’t take a carry-out container with you — but then order less. And at buffets — take less with each trip. I see stunning amounts of food left on tables by people who pile more than they can eat on their plates and then just leave it. (Some buffet restaurants now post signs that you will be charged for wasted food, but this is still not common.)

So instead of simply looking to the food industry to “save the day,” consider making it a priority to not waste the food that comes through your house or when you go out to dinner. Teach your kids or challenge your friends to be less wasteful. When I was a youngster, we were always told to “finish what’s on your plate, because children are starving in [fill in the blank with place currently in the news]” That’s still a legitimate consideration. You might think that a restaurant would have to throw out the food anyway, if you hadn’t taken it, but they can send the food to shelters if it hasn’t left the kitchen. They can’t do that once you get it at your table. Health laws. (Again, a good thing.) So buy what you can use and use what you buy, and then smile and feel good about yourself, because you’re part of the solution to a very real problem.

As for the phrase, “waste not, want not,” it may just be that you’ll have more money to spend because you’re not over-ordering or throwing out food you don’t get to in time. But it may be someone else who doesn’t “want” — that is, go hungry — because you didn’t waste.

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Radishes

If you can grow vegetables in your backyard and eat them fresh every day, at least in the summer (for those of us who live in places with winter), you know how nice it is to have something that was just picked. However, for most of us, there simply isn’t enough backyard, or enough time in the day, to come close to raising all the vegetables we want to eat. Fortunately, there are farmers who do this for a living. Also fortunate is that clever people have devised machines that make every part of the process move more swiftly. This helps compensate for the fact that the number of farmers keeps dropping. It also makes food both more readily available and a lot more affordable. So please, go ahead and plant your garden, if you can–but then be grateful that you don’t have to limit consumption to a few warm months or what you can grow yourself.

Here’s one good example: radishes. This video shows a machine harvesting radishes in the Netherlands. The machine also gathers the radishes into bunches of 20, ready for the market. Remarkable.

If you want something interesting to do with radishes other than just put them on a relish tray or pack them in lunches, here’s something a friend suggested for when the radishes you buy are too strong to be enjoyable–or if you just want a new side dish, to shake things up a bit. This is a variation of a French approach to consuming radishes. It makes the radishes mellow and nutty.

Trim the top and stem ends of the radishes. (If the greens are fresh and green, look up a recipe that uses them, as they’re very nutritious.) Cut radishes in half lengthwise or, if they are very large, in quarters. Preheat oven to 400˚. Drizzle radishes with olive oil to coat and sprinkle with a bit of salt. Spread the radishes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until beginning to get lightly golden brown and tender. Enjoy hot.

Of course, you can also toss the radishes into the roasting dish with a chicken or pot roast, or mix them in with other root vegetables you’re roasting. Roasting vegetables brings out the sweetness of root vegetables.

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Fun Fact: Individuals

The term “individual” was not applied to humans until the mid-1600s. Before that, everyone was identified as part of a village. Village society was not about individuals but about the success and survival of the village. People didn’t live on their farms; they lived in the village and walked or rode to their farms (which were nearby, but were not considered home). In a time where villages were few and far between, considering the village as the irreducible unit would have helped ensure that everyone had food and a degree of protection.

The original source of the modern word is the Latin individuum, a noun that meant “an atom” or “an indivisible particle.” In Middle English individuum began to be used in the early 1400s to mean “individual member of a species.” But the idea that it could mean “a single human being” (as opposed to identifying people as a segment of a group) emerged in the 1640s. The current, common meaning of “a person” has only been traced back as far as 1742.

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Avgolemono

While my mom was a truly wonderful cook, it was my dad who was the serious food adventurer. He would come home from the office at the end of the day excited because he’d discovered some new ethnic restaurant—which may not sound all that remarkable now, but in the late 1950s through the 1960s, this was not the norm for most families. My mom was from Chicago, and she’d grown up going to Chinatown, but my dad was from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he’d grown up eating Cuban, African American, and Spanish foods. Then he went to North Africa and the Middle East with World War II, where he sampled every local food available. He returned home a dedicated pursuer of culinary alternatives.

While we were certainly not the only people eating outside the mainstream, our habits were not common. Sometimes, the things I took to school for lunch got me strange looks and unkind comments. But I didn’t care, because by the time I was in grade school, I was already a convert to international dining.

Dad could cook, too (most happily on his Weber kettle, where he turned out marvelous lamb shish kabob on a regular basis), and he and mom even joined forces with the rare couple who shared their interests to prepare dishes that took a full day of construction (especially Mexican food: enchiladas or chiles rellenos) However, dad was especially delighted when he found a new place to dine.

One day, returning from the office (walking from the train station, as most men in our suburb did), he burst through the kitchen door gushing about a new little hole-in-the-wall place downtown that served Greek food. It was called Dianna’s Grocery. Here, you stood in line inside the grocery store part of the establishment, waiting for one of the very few tables in the back room. The “restaurant” opened in 1961, and was unique at the time. It would be a few years before owner Petros Kogiones would open the larger Dianna’s Opaa, and we would follow him there, since the lines weren’t as long. But in 1961, Dianna’s Grocery was pretty much the entire Greek dining scene.

Today, I had something of a flashback to that time. I just moved my mom to a retirement home near me, and to help her recover from selling her house two states away, I’m taking her out to lunch a few times a week. Today, we went Greek—and we both ordered a soup that we first loved all those years ago at Dianna’s—avgolemono—Greek egg lemon soup.

I actually learned how to make this while I was still living at home, and it was the late-night snack with which I sustained myself through college. In college, I made it with water and bouillon cubes, rather than with good chicken broth, but I improved the soup once I was out on my own. For some reason, it fell out of my repertoire—I still ordered it on occasion, but I didn’t make it any more. But today, I decided I need to remedy that. This is a wonderful soup, and while there are some fairly complex recipes available, it can be tremendously easy, depending on how much effort you want to put in. It’s quite tasty even made with bouillon, canned broth works well, or you can start with a chicken and make your own broth. If you make the broth from scratch, you can shred a bit of the chicken and add it to the soup, to make a meal of it. However, it’s dandy without it.

Avgolemono
Egg Lemon Soup
4 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup uncooked white rice
2 eggs
2-3 Tbs. lemon juice

Cook the rice in the chicken broth (follow instructions on the rice package). Just before the rice is done, beat the eggs and lemon juice together, until slightly frothy. (The first time you make this, you can start with 2 Tbs. lemon juice at this stage and then adjust upwards, if the soup is not sufficiently tart for your taste.) When rice is done, remove from the heat. Use a ladle to get some of the hot broth out of the pot, and add it to the egg-lemon mixture, whisking constantly. Add another ladle of broth, and continue to whisk. Then pour the now-warm egg-lemon mixture into the pot with the broth and rice, and continue to whisk until it is smooth. Return to the heat for about 2 minutes, until heated through. You should have a very pale yellow, velvety, flavorful soup. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary (never necessary with bouillon, but might be if you made your own broth). Serve and enjoy. Makes roughly 4 servings. Unless you’re a college student.

 

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Which State Consumes the Most Brandy?

I couldn’t decide whether to post this on my Midwest Maize blog, since it’s about the Midwest, or here, since it includes a couple of “fun facts,” a category I created for this blog — so I decided I’d post it there and link to it here. So if you want to know the answer to the question in the title, you can click through here: https://midwestmaize.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/and-the-nations-top-brandy-market-is/

I think you may be as surprised as I was.

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Already Planning to Go Back

While I’ve focused almost entirely on the fun stuff, our days were largely spent studying at the famous journalism school, the Poynter Institute. We heard programs on everything from topic trends to useful software. This cartoon hung on the wall at Poynter reminded us that, while writing is a serious business, it’s good to see the lighter side of it.

Poynter-PeanutsCartoon-B

Definitely worthwhile, but it meant we saw a lot less than if we were on vacation.

The conference kept me too busy to get to the Sunken Gardens, which were the first thing suggested by just about everyone I asked for recommendations. I also missed the Dali Museum, which got rave reviews. I never got to the beach, and I learned too late that there is still a place in St. Pete that serves smoked mullet.

Plus there are all the other delights of the area. I’m determined to dine someday at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. I want a full meal, and not just a snack, at Columbia. Plus I want to visit again some of the places from long ago—the Ringling Estate, Tarpon Springs, Fort De Soto.

And I’m certain that when I check out sites such as Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay, I’ll find even more things to lure me back to the area.

So farewell for now, Tampa Bay. I’ll definitely be looking for an opportunity to return.

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Tampa, New

Tampa has in the last few years experienced an explosion of craft breweries, which seems to be happening in a lot of places, largely as a result of so many folks losing high-paying jobs and figuring that, if they can’t make a lot of money, they might as well have a lot of fun doing something they love. I’m not a beer drinker, but I know enough people who are that I figured this was worth passing along.

Along with the increase in the number of new beers, there have been increases in other areas of consumption. While in Florida, I tasted a dangerously tasty cocktail made with coconut rum from Wicked Dolphin Artisan Rum Distillers, from Cape Coral, Florida. (Here’s the recipe for their Wicked Punch, if you’re interested.)

One of the more remarkable places we visited was the Epicurean, a new food-focused hotel created by the owners of Bern’s Steak House. The hotel features a cooking school, organic greens growing on the walls in the main restaurant, and gourmet amenities in the guest rooms, from butcher blocks and wine coolers to delightful goodies in the stocked fridge. And it’s across the street from the steak house and its remarkable wine collection, so one need not drive home if one samples a bit too much of that collection.

A lot of the new restaurants in the area are focusing on artisanal foods and beverages. Haven was remarkable for having the fabulous, climate-controlled cheese locker shown below, which both displays and protects their remarkable, international collection of cheeses.

Cheese room at Haven

Cheese room at Haven

Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee; it’s the name of a legendary Native American princess) has the advantage of lovely views across the Hillsborough River, great gardens, and a fabulous building: the repurposed 1906 Tampa Water Works Building. Ulele focuses on the abundance of Florida, particularly indigenous ingredients. Everything we ate there was just crazy good, but the standouts for me were the alligator hush puppies, spicy lobster cakes, garlic-laden charbroiled oysters, Ulele salad (greens, cheese, beans, roasted peppers, onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette) and the crab mac and cheese. Everything was good, but those were the “wows” for me. The house-made ice cream was pretty special, too.

Ulele Restaurant

Ulele Restaurant

So Tampa is definitely a good choice for people who like to eat.

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Tampa, Old: Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant

The Columbia Restaurant was the only food destination from my childhood that I was able to revisit on this trip. It was as fabulous as I remembered—not just the food, but the décor, the Old World charm, the sky lights and balconies, and most especially the gorgeous tile work inside and out.

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa


The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida, having opened in 1905. It was created by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. I love that kind of history.

As well as being the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is also the largest—and in fact, according to their website, is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Everything I have ever eaten there has been wonderful, but they are particularly known for their Cuban black bean soup, sangria, flan, “1905 salad,” Cuban sandwich, and seafood dishes.

Over the years, a few other locations were opened for the Columbia, including what is now the oldest restaurant in Sarasota. But the original Columbia is at the outer edge of Ybor City in Tampa. Ybor City is a National Historic District that has been home to a wide range of immigrants over the years, most especially Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish.

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa


Ybor City is now a top destination for cigar aficionados, as the main street is lined with shops carrying hand-rolled cigars. We explored the length of 7th Avenue, enjoying the historic markers, statues, and old buildings, and stopped in a couple of cigar shops to watch the artisans at work, appreciating the care and skill needed to make really good cigars. Then, we headed for the Columbia.
Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars

Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars


Should you get to Florida, here is more information on the Columbia Restaurant (including a lot more history, plus the menus) and on Ybor City (again, more history and lots of useful information for visitors).

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Tampa, Old: Bern’s Steak House

In Tampa, we divided the time we had between new developments and iconic classics.

Among icons, it’s hard to beat Bern’s Steak House, which opened in 1956. Remarkably, it is still in the same family, run by the heirs of Bern Laxer, for whom the restaurant was named.

Bern's Steak House, Tampa, Florida

Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Florida


While it is famous for its steaks, Bern’s is even more remarkable for its wine collection. There are more than 100,000 bottles in the restaurant’s cellar plus another half a million in the nearby wine warehouse. It is the largest wine collection in the world owned by one restaurant. Number 2 is the Tour d’Argent in Paris. The oldest bottle here is an 1813 port, but the costliest is a 1947 Chateau Latour.
One small part of the wine cellar at Bern's.

One small part of the wine cellar at Bern’s.


The general consensus among the food experts I know is that the side dishes are a little predictable, though still good, but the steaks, desserts, and most especially the wines are what you go for. In addition to being numerous, more wines are within range, economically, than one might imagine. As the sommelier who was guiding us through the cellar said, their priority is giving people a remarkable experience, rather than getting top dollar for the wines. They had someone offer them more than double the asking price for one of their rarest wines, but to take it and add it to their collection, rather than to drink it. The owners said, “No. It is to be drunk here.”

The ambiance is probably also a big draw. The lobby has a decidedly European castle feel to it, with soaring stone walls covered with art. There are seven dining rooms, each named for a wine region or a dominant design elements (such as the Bronze Room). When one is finished with the meal, one can go upstairs to the dessert rooms, which are astonishing. The dominant feature of the room is a stunning amount of gorgeous, highly polished wood, which divides up the room, making it a popular place for things like marriage proposals or other transactions that might benefit from a touch of privacy. Near each table, there is a telephone, which can be used to call the pianist, for special requests.

We didn’t have the chance to dine at Bern’s, but they didn’t want us to pass through without having some idea of their culinary abilities. As we were led through the splendid kitchen, we were offered lamb meatballs and grilled octopus and bruschetta on a slice of potato. Really excellent. Definitely on my list of “reasons to get back to Tampa.”

Ahead: another old Tampa icon, and then some new Tampa trends and destinations.

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