Category Archives: Culture

Pão de Queijo

My first experience of the delightful Brazilian snack pão de queijo–Portuguese for “cheese bread,” though it is also often rendered “Brazilian cheese roll”–came during the years I was working with Maria Baez Kijac on her iconic cookbook, The South American Table. It’s a pretty irresistible treat that has the benefit of being gluten free. Maria’s cookbook includes a recipe for the dish, and she taught me how to make it–but life is pretty crazy, between working for a living and caring for my aging mom, plus other activities, and baking has pretty much slipped out of my life. And with Maria now semi-retired, I didn’t think I’d have the chance to enjoy these chewy, cheesy little balls again any time soon.

Fortunately, this last weekend at the National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, while I spent most of my time looking at fabulous kitchen equipment (I was there representing Foodservice Equipment Reports, a magazine for which I write with some regularity), I did visit a few of the booths of food vendors, including that of Forno de Minas, a family-owned Brazilian business that not only produces pão de queijo (from a generations-old family recipe), it sells them frozen in U.S. grocery stores. Having been delighted by the samples they were handing out at the show, as soon as I got home, I looked Forno de Minas up online and found that they sell their frozen pão de queijo in several local grocery stores.

For me, this was a happy discovery. For those who might need to be gluten free, this could be a lifesaver. Instead of wheat flour, pão de queijo is made from yuca (also known as cassava or tapioca). While yuca/tapioca/cassava flour is now available in many stores–and really pretty much anywhere, if you have a computer–if you don’t want to tackle making these from scratch, I can assure you that the pão de queijo from Forno de Minas is the next best thing to homemade–and in most cases, even better than homemade, if your home doesn’t come equipped with a Brazilian baker.

Anyway, I do highly recommend the pão de queijo from Forno de Minas, even if you’re not worried about gluten. Really a dandy, flavorful, and rather comforting taste treat.

And if you want to find out which stores near you might carry it, here’s their website: http://www.fornodeminas.com/

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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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Night Markets

I love markets–those tempting, impressive, generally open-air gatherings of vendors selling things they have grown, caught, made, or traded. Any country I visit, I’ll try to find a good market to explore. I’ve wandered through wonderful markets in dozens of countries, from bright, fragrant Mexican mercados to London’s venerable Borough Market to local farmers’ markets from Egypt to Ecuador, as well as the lovely though generally less bustling gatherings near home.

The title of the post, Night Markets, might conjure images of Asian after-dark markets — such as the Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong or the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar in Thailand. Loved them both. But what I’m thinking of now is the markets that happen late at night/early in the morning and are geared toward supplying restaurants and grocery stores. Probably the most famous one I’ve visited is the astonishing Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. But thanks to this video, I now have two new destinations next time I make it to the UK. Of course, this also makes me want to find out what might be happening closer to home–but I haven’t found those yet, so I’ll have to settle for the video. Hope you find this as fascinating as I did.

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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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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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