Category Archives: culinary history

Ibiharage

Continuing the idea from the last post that less expensive but still tasty dishes are particularly appreciated at present, here is another recipe from the first year of the previously mentioned column, along with a bit of background on the ingredients — because I’m a food historian and can’t help myself.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, onions were considered to be virtually a panacea. Well, they weren’t too far from being right — onions are antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, contain a powerful antioxidant (quercetin) which also acts as a sedative, and can lower your cholesterol. (Unfortunately, for some people, they can also aggravate heartburn or cause gas.) The greatest benefit is to be gained from raw onions, but even cooked onions have most of these beneficial properties to some degree.

Onions probably got into Central Africa by way of Egypt. As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptian traders were bartering seeds, tools, agricultural knowledge and domesticated animals with tribes in Eritrea and Somalia, in exchange for frankincense and myrrh.

Africa would have to wait another 4,500 years for the hot red peppers and white beans used in this recipe. All chilies/hot peppers come from the New World, but almost everyone else in the world enthusiastically embraced the “violent fruit,” as Columbus called it, once it was introduced by early traders. White beans (most commonly navy beans or great northern beans in this recipe) are also indigenous to the Americas–along with all the other members of the family known as common or haricot beans (so kidney beans, pintos, black turtle beans, and even green beans).

So African cuisine combines ingredients that stretch back for millennia with those that have been available for a mere 500 years. This recipe for fried beans is from Burundi, in Central Africa, and I think it’s about the easiest thing you can do with beans and still produce a dish that is really delicious.

Ibiharage
2 cups dry white beans
boiling water
1 tsp. chicken or vegetable bouillon
1/2 cup cooking oil
3 large onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
dried hot red pepper to taste (at least 1/4 tsp. crushed)

Wash and sort the beans. Put beans in large saucepan and cover with 4-6 cups boiling water. Boil 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let soak 1 hour or more. Return beans to stove. (As always, if beans cause you intestinal distress, you can drain and rinse beans after they soak, which will reduce “side effects” of bean consumption. Then replace soaking water with fresh.) Add bouillon to water, and simmer beans until tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Heat oil in a 12-inch saucepan. Add onions and garlic to hot oil and cook until onions are transparent and soft. Drain cooked beans and add to onions; cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and hot pepper to taste. Mix well. Serves 8-10 as a side dish, 6-8 as a main course.

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Happy Chinese New Year

For those who use the lunar calendar, today is the first day of a new year. Buddhist tradition in some Asian countries includes a type of annual zodiac that identifies years by 12 different animals, and this is now the Year of the Rat.

I just received an email from a food-related site I follow (Gastro Obscura) relating that a common treat for celebrating the New Year is a stick of candy-coated hawthorn berries–large berries that look like crab apples, the article related. This caught my eye because I first read about these treats, which the article identified as a tanghulu, when I was a child. My mom had given me one of her favorite volumes from childhood, a book titled Little Pear, about a young boy growing up in China. The book had spelled the word tanghooler, but that could simply reflect a difference in the region where the story was set. (For example, the accent in Beijing adds an “r” to the end of a lot of words–kind of like a Boston accent). Anyway, Little Pear loved tanghoolers.

Several years ago, I posted about one of my trips to China, and in that post I mentioned having been very excited to see someone near the outdoor food market in Wuhan selling this treat. Because the hawthorn berries look like crab apples, that was what I’d always assumed they were. And perhaps because of the heavy, bright red candy coating, I couldn’t really confirm that the round fruit lined up on that stick weren’t crab apples. But either way, I was very pleased to have come across this treat from my childhood reading.

It wasn’t Chinese New Year when I was in Wuhan, so I’m guessing it’s a treat that can appear any time there is something to celebrate. But it pleased me then to see (and taste) the tanghoolers, and it pleased me today to encounter them in the Gastro Obscura article. Always a fun surprise to see threads that connect different parts of one’s life. Anyway, here again is the image I posted years ago of the man selling tanghoolers in the market in Wuhan.

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Pozole Rojo

Pozole Rojo is a dish I encountered during my travels in Mexico. It is warming and flavorful, ideal for cold weather and for sharing with friends. However, the reason I developed the recipe below is that it seemed like an appropriate culinary bridge between my book on corn (Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland) and the complement that came out in October 2018 (Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest). Corn and pork define agriculture in the American Midwest, but they also come close to defining the cuisine of Mexico. In fact, it has been said (though it is clearly an oversimplification) that Mexican food is Aztec food plus pigs.

The word pozole comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) pozolli, which means “hominy.” The rojo in the name (Spanish for “red”) both underscores the combined Indian/European influences in the dish and hints at other variations that exist–because not all pozole uses the red chiles found in this dish. (As is true of every dish of any antiquity, there are as many versions as there are people making it, and sometimes even more.)

Hominy is corn that has undergone nixtamalization–that is, it has been processed with lye or lime in a traditional way discovered long ago by the indigenous people of Mezoamerica. Nixtamal is the Nahutal word that refers to the product of the process. It is a process that makes the corn both more nutritious (makes niacin and lysine more bio-available) and able to be stored longer than untreated corn.

Pozole is a delicious, filling soup that, while other ingredients can and will vary, always includes hominy and pork. Traditionally made for large groups, an entire pig’s head is often included in the recipe. I wanted a version that would feed a more modest number of people, and this version makes roughly 6 servings. However, I also wanted the flavor and texture added by the bones and collagen found in the head, so I added a pound of meaty neck bones. It turned out splendidly. Hope you like it as well as I do.

Pozole Rojo

2 lb. stewing pork
1 lb. pork neck bones
10 cups water
2 tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 15-oz. cans white hominy, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried guajillo chiles
1 clove of garlic, whole
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes
tostadas or tortilla chips
2 limes, quartered
1 onion finely sliced
cabbage or iceberg lettuce, shredded
sliced radishes

Place the pork, bones, 2 tsp salt, minced garlic, chopped onion, and hominy in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim scum as it forms. Once scum is skimmed, add black pepper. (You lose a lot of the pepper if you add it before skimming.) When water is at a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is close to falling off the bone, about 1-1/2 hours.

Remove seeds and stems from the dried chiles and discard. Place the chiles in a bowl. After the first hour of simmering the pork, remove enough liquid to just cover the chiles (about one ladleful). Let chiles soak for 30 minutes. Then place chiles, soaking broth, and the final clove of garlic in a blender and puree until smooth.

Remove the soup from the heat and remove the pork to a platter to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred the stewing pork and remove all meat from the neck bones. Return meat to pot, stir in chile paste, and return pot to the heat, and simmer for another hour, until the meat is meltingly tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with a selection of the suggested garnishes/accompaniments. (Not all need to be included to still be authentic.) Enjoy.

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New Book—Special Price

I have a new book out. It’s titled Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest, and it covers the history of the 12,000-year association of pigs and humans. Early reviews are saying very nice things about it, such as “engaging,” “illuminating,” and “refreshingly thorough and fair.” I’d probably add, “tasty”–because these quirky animals are, and have been for a long time, the most common meat in most of the world.

Like my previous book, Midwest Maize, this book takes from through history up to the present day, offering insights into both how pigs are raised and how they wind up on our plates, as well as looking at some of the problems associated with raising pigs. Also like Midwest Maize, there are recipes–tasty ones that are iconic in the region that raises more pigs than anywhere else: the American Midwest.

So if you like food history and are interested in pigs, you’re in luck. For the next year, the publisher (Rowman & Littlefield) is offering “Friends and Family” a substantial discount off the cover price. More substantial, in fact, than the author’s discount. And since I consider anyone who visits this blog to be a friend, I’m offering the discount to you.

Order directly through Rowman & Littlefield at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538110744 for a 30% discount on Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs. Use promotion code RLFANDF30 at checkout for 30% off – this promotion is valid until December 31, 2019. This offer cannot be combined with any other promo or discount offers.

978-1-5381-1074-4 • Hardback $36.00 list price (sale price $25.20)
Available October 2018

978-1-5381-1074-4
Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs
after discount: $25.20

Discount applies to this ISBN only

• Shipping and handling: U.S.: $5 first book, $1 each additional book | Canada: $6 first book, $1 each additional book, plus applicable Canadian sales tax | International orders: $10.50 first book, $6.50 each additional book
FIVE CONVENIENT WAYS TO ORDER:
• Online: https://Rowman.com
•Call toll-free: 1-800-462-6420
•Email: orders@rowman.com.
• Fax toll-free: 1-800-338-4550
• Mail to: Rowman & Littlefield, 15200 NBN Way,
PO Box 191
Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214-0191
All orders from individuals must be prepaid / Prices are subject to change without notice/ Please make checks payable to Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
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Celery and Celeriac

When we speak of celery in the United States, we are generally thinking of those thick, juicy, crisp-but-stringy stalks with a flourish of leaves on the top. While that’s the most common form of celery here, it is not the only variety.

Chinese celery, also known as smallage, par-cel, and cutting celery, is closer in form to wild celery. It has skinny, hollow stalks, a much stronger flavor, and is almost never eaten raw, but is rather used to add flavor to cooked dishes. The Italians differentiate between cooking celery and eating celery, the eating variety being the one we know best, and the cooking variety actually just being the skinny, strong-flavored wild celery.

Then there is the homely but wonderful variety known as celeriac. Celeriac is not grown for its stalks, but rather for its large, gnarly, brown, turnip-like root. You may see it identified as celery root, which is not inaccurate, but it is not the root of the kind of celery you’re seeing on crudité platters.

Celery is a marshland plant that appears to have originated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It was cultivated and spreading long ago, and appeared in everything from India’s Ayurvedic medicine to Egyptian tombs.

Sacred in ancient Greece, it was worn by winners of the Nemean Games. When Homer wrote of it, he called it selinon, which appears to be the early source of the word celery, though our word came into English (as did so many words, thanks to the Norman Conquest) by way of France, where it was and is celeri.

The ancient Romans used it to decorate tombs and wove it into wreaths that were supposed to ward off hangovers. But they also ate it. While the Romans did develop cultivated celery (though, like modern Italians, they still used the wild for cooking), the techniques for cultivation seem to have vanished with the collapse of the empire. It was not until the Middle Ages that celery was again being cultivated, this time in France. However, celeriac was not developed until the Renaissance.

Popular in Eastern and Southern Europe, celeriac/celery root is not a commonly used vegetable in the US (though it is increasing in popularity). It can be a bit pricey at a regular grocery store, but it’s usually a good bit cheaper if you buy it at an ethnic store that features Eastern European foods, because the demand is greater, as is the turnover.

I think celeriac deserves to be popular. Boiled and puréed, it offers a gentle, silken, subtly celery-flavored, low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes. In soups, it contributes the flavor of celery without the strings, and with a lovely mouth-feel that is more velvety than cooked celery. I love it. And if you want a lovely recipe to try it in, come back in a few days, as my next post will be a recipe for a delightful soup from Poland.

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Alternating Currants, or When is a Currant a Grape

I love the Townsend’s YouTube channel, as it offers so much insight into where our food traditions originated and how much of what we eat now is anchored in history. In this video, Jon Townsend talks about the difference between Zante currants and Ribes currants and how unlike the two are.

The Ribes currants can be black or red. In the video, Jon mentions that raising black currants was banned in the U.S., and since he didn’t mention why, I figured I’d check that out, and it’s because they carry a disease that threatened to wipe out America’s pine trees. As noted in the video, a few states have lifted the ban, but black currants are still rare. So the Zante currants and red Ribes currants will likely be the only currants you’ll find, though the Zante currants will probably be more readily available. Also, the Zante currants will be found in the grocery store along with raisins, while the red currants, if your store carries them, will likely be fresh or already turned into jam.

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Fact Checking–a Sterling Idea

In a book I’m reading, I had just encountered with considerable delight a statement that the word “sterling” came from “Easterlings,” a name often given to the upstanding merchants of the Hanseatic League. I was ready to write that up as a Fun Fact, but years of working in publishing made me feel odd about publishing anything without checking another source. Hmm. Webster’s Dictionary said the word probably came from the Old English steorling, from steorra, or star. Okay, so the dictionary says “probably.” Time for a third source.

So on to Britannica. It said “One theory” is that it comes from the silver coins made by the Germanic Easterlings–so referring to their silver rather than their sterling characters. Then it adds “A more plausible derivation” is the steorling mentioned by Webster’s, meaning “coin with a star.”

So, in other words, there is no absolutely certain explanation–the word arose a thousand years ago, and it’s hard to track precisely all influences and language changes going back that far.

One thing I did discover while looking into this, however, is why British money was originally divided up the way it was–and why it was (and is) called a pound. In Anglo-Saxon times, one pound of silver would be coined into 240 pennies. These pennies were 925 parts silver to 75 parts copper (and one still sees 925 stamped on sterling silver). Each silver coin bore a star, and so it was called a steorling, or “coin with a star.” But that means that, at one time, a pound sterling in Britain really was a pound of sterling.

And what does this have to do with food, you might be wondering. Well, the Hanseatic League made their wealth and gained their power from controlling the salt trade for a couple of centuries–back when salt was the only reliable way to preserve food for most people. So almost no story is more than a step or two away from food.

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A Kitchen Just for Chocolate

In the 1700s, chocolate was still a drink (as it always had been among the Aztecs), and it still inhabited the realm of privilege. The British had, in the mid-1600s, hit on the idea of adding milk and sugar, which made it much nicer than it been previously, but in the 1700s, it was still not affordable. Chocolate was costly, and the sugar and spices used to improve its taste were also costly. So the man on the street was not consuming chocolate–but the monarch was. In the Georgian Era, which started with George I, Hampton Court Palace actually had a chocolate kitchen, with a chocolate maker on site, to make sure the King always got his morning chocolate. Wonder what a chocolate kitchen looks like? Well, fortunately, the original chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court has been located and can be visited. But if you’re not near Hampton Court, here’s a video. Think I’ll go get some chocolate.

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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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