Category Archives: culinary history

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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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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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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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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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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Nathalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Nathalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Florida Crackers

I had heard the term “Florida Cracker” before this trip, but had never heard it explained. The term comes from the early days of Florida settlement. When Spanish explorers in the early 1500s failed to find gold, silver, or the fountain of youth, they headed back to the well-established Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, leaving behind all the livestock they’d brought with them, including large herds of cattle and many horses. The animals became feral and adapted to the Florida climate. When English settlers began arriving, about a century after the Spanish had left, they found the makings of a cattle industry just waiting for those resourceful enough to take advantage of the by now substantial, if wild, herds of livestock.

Some came on horseback, while others captured the wild horses abandoned by the Spanish. With nothing more than a horse and a whip with which to move the herds of cattle, these early settlers founded successful ranches. In time, they became known for the loud crack of their stock whips–hence, crackers.

The small, agile, wild horses they adopted were so indispensable to the success of the crackers that they became known as cracker horses, much as mounts in the American West would become known as cow ponies. They were the horses needed by those managing cattle.

However, this was long before the American West had even been explored, let alone settled. So the first American cowboys, horses, and cattle ranches were all Floridian. Even today, Florida is a major beef producer, and Florida Cracker culture lives on.

The culture lives on, but the traditional horses were eventually replaced by quarter horses. However, efforts have been made to preserve the bloodlines of the handsome, little Florida Cracker Horse. Here’s a video about their history and those efforts to keep them around.

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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 the 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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