Category Archives: Food

When the French Laundry Began

This is not very old history. In fact, the person around whom it revolves, Sally Schmitt, just passed away this year. But it is a reminder that a lot of things we think of as “the first” actually weren’t—not truly the first. And I’m guessing the fact that Julia Child not only visited but actually went into the kitchen to ask for a recipe, suggests that the French Laundry was producing some pretty fine cuisine even before Thomas Keller appeared on the scene. Very worthwhile video—great introduction to a truly remarkable and under-appreciated person.

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Book Review: Near a Thousand Tables

Just started reading a book by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, and it is reminding me how much I love his work. So I thought I’d share a review I wrote of a previous book of his: Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.

Near a Thousand Tables is thoughtful, wide-ranging, iconoclastic, brilliant, elegant, and packed with fascinating, abundantly documented information. It’s an exhilarating race through the entire history of where food came from and what it means to humankind. It encompasses psychology, sociology, science, culture, literature, religion, and politics, along with its culinary history. Fernández-Armesto doesn’t shy away from anything, delving into everything from cannibalism to the raw food movement. (“Culture begins when the raw gets cooked.”)

This book is so rich in facts, history, and insights that it is difficult to even imagine where to begin describing it. Of course, he covers the transition from hunting to farming and discusses the foods that have had the biggest impact on the planet (rice, wheat, maize, sugar, and so on). But it is the scope of the work, the passion, and the insights into the significance of food that elevate it. (And he does all this in less than 300 pages!) We can almost imagine Fernández-Armesto in a lecture hall (because he does teach), his voice rising with the heat of his argument, as he holds forth on the importance of some key point, such as in the chapter “The Edible Earth” when he writes about farming.

“Whether invented or evolved, the farming of plants did more, in the long run, to alter the world than any previous human innovation. The impact of the hunters, fishers, and stockbreeders of the last chapter could not compare—not on the landscape, or on ecological structures or even on diet. … Plants are 90 percent of the world’s food. Plant farming still dominates the world’s economy….We still depend on it absolutely. It is the basis of everything else.”

Fernández-Armesto joyously explodes a lot of popular myths. For example: “The idea that the demand for spices [during the Middle Ages] was the result of the need to disguise tainted meat and fish is one of the great myths of the history of food. It is more likely that fresh foods in the Middle Ages were fresher than today, because locally produced, and that preserved foods were just as well preserved in their different ways—by salting, pickling, desiccating and conserving—as ours are in the age of canning, refrigeration, and freeze-drying (a technique which, by the way, was known in antiquity and developed to a high degree by Andean potato growers in what we think of as the Middle Ages).” Or “It was probably pigs and horses, not people, that took, to the New World from the old, the diseases that began the precipitate collapse of Native American populations” (he notes, as he explains why herding is more dangerous to humans than hunting). Or even, “More than 50 percent of those with afflicted hearts do not have high cholesterol counts.”

He worries about our relationship with food. He notes that, “The loneliness of the fast food eater is uncivilizing. Food is being desocialized.” He observes that the health-obsessed and food faddists share in common with cannibals the tendency to take their meaning from what they eat. He frets over what the microwave is doing to our dining habits, and opines, “Readers who could have Brillat-Savarin settle for the Williams-Sonoma catalogue.”

The book sweeps from “The Invention of Cooking: The First Revolution” to “Feeding the Giants: Food and Industrialization in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” scooping up “The Meaning of Eating: Food as Rite and Magic,” “Food and Rank: Inequality and the Rise of Haute Cuisine,” and “Challenging Evolution: Food and Ecological Exchange,” among other topics, as he whirls through the millennia, weaving together a tapestry of what food has meant to our world and what it means to us now.

This is not breezy writing. It is the kind of dense, rich, juicy prose that we language arts majors relish. But if you love rich writing, as well as rich food, this book is a real treat.

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Hadrian’s Villa Update

My dad was the one who always did the serious research for our travels, though he never considered it a chore, as it was his heart’s delight. Among the places his research turned up that he wanted to visit, the first time we went to Italy as a family, was Hadrian’s Villa (or Villa Adriana in Italian), which is about 20 miles outside of Rome. Even at 15 years of age, and with not particularly great experience of the world, I could tell this place was special. It was, in fact, mind-blowing. The huge, sprawling villa covers 250 acres—because the ruler of the Roman Empire needed more than a nice palace—there were ponds and monuments and buildings everywhere.

I was delirious. Like my dad, I loved history, and I took tremendous delight in “running around in ruins,” as I stated it back then. The day we spent there was one of my favorite memories (among many) of that trip.

The reason it came to mind today is I just saw an article in Gastro Obscura about the villa—or, rather, about the ancient olive trees that grow there. Apparently, there are no trees like this anywhere else in the world. Local farmers now make oil from those trees, though it’s only available to visitors at the villa. But That almost constitutes a reason to return to Italy.

If you’re interested, here is the link to the story. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/emperor-hadrian-villa

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18th Century British Curry

Most folks know that today, curry is Britain’s favorite dish—probably chicken tikka masala, if you need a specific dish. But Britain has a long history with Indian food and spices—more than 400 years, in fact. The first Queen Elizabeth sent a ship to India in 1583, and within a few decades, the British East India Company was setting up offices in Bombay. Food ideas from the subcontinent were flowing into the British Isles with returning traders and soldiers and government officials. Of course, substitutions had to be made, as tropical ingredients such as coconut milk and mangoes would not be available in England. But spices were coming in, and the Brits did the best they could—as evidenced by the inclusion of a curry in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook.

I have previously shared videos of often-surprising dishes that date to the 1700s, and so here again, I turn to Townsends, to let them share with you a curry recipe from Hannah Glasse. Enjoy.

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Thoughts from Milk Street

Among the magazines I get, only one is what I would call “pure fun.” The other magazines are either largely for research or in some cases are potential outlets for my own writing. But Milk Street magazine—or more completely, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street—is for pleasure. It combines two of my favorite pursuits: food and travel.

In addition to travel tales and insights into destinations, there is also an Editor’s Notes entry in each issue, and while not every one is an eye opener, and I even occasionally disagree with Kimball, more often than not, I find some interesting insight or a well-phrased reflection that resonates. This is actually from a couple of years ago (I rarely throw out good food magazines), but it’s something I just opened to and thought it was worth sharing. So here from the Nov.–Dec. 2019 issue is the passage that I wanted to pass along—because it’s so true. And I like to think that understanding this will help folks actually come to have a greater appreciation and respect for their own culinary traditions. Because other than a few tools and some spices, we’re more alike than we are different.

Kimball wrote: “The world is not exotic; it’s just life in a different place. Spend a little time in Croatia, Galilee or Tunis and you realize that the cooking is practical, not romantic. People make the best they can out of whatever is at hand.

“And so you end up drinking arak or mezcal at a table a long way from home, but it’s the same everywhere. It’s the one where we come to drink, eat and celebrate what makes us human.”

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Wheat Around the World–and Through Time

If you visit my Midwest Maize blog, you’ll discover that I have written a book on places one can travel to learn about and even relive the history of the Midwest. But an interest in history, even in agricultural history, is far from limited to the heartland. I loved this video about how different countries around the globe preserve the past in living-history venues and historic farms, recreating centuries of techniques and tools for producing food—in the case of this specific project, of wheat. It’s a lovely video that underscores how much has changed in recent years. Enjoy.

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Florentine Steak

When lemon pepper seasoning first appeared in U.S. markets, I had a good idea what might have inspired it. Thanks to dad’s job with the airlines, I’d gotten to Italy quite young (first trip, age 15). Dad always did a huge amount of research before trips, so we knew—in addition to history, art and language—what foods to eat and where to find them (kind of sounds like I take after my dad). One specialty that dad particularly wanted to try, and which we managed to enjoy in a few different restaurants during our ten days in Florence, was bistecca alla fiorentina—Florentine steak

As I often found in Italy back then, a lot of dishes were finished at the table—and as one who loves ritual and process, that always delighted me. Even the simple whisking of oil and vinegar dressing directly over the salad delighted me.

Florentine steak was part of just such a ritual. A thin steak was salted and cooked over charcoal quickly at high heat, with the result being meat that had flavorful char on the outside but still had a pink interior. In some restaurants and trattorias, the grill was visible from the dining area. The steak moved swiftly from fire to plate to table, where the waiter would squeeze fresh lemon juice over its surface and then grind over it an abundance of fresh, black pepper. It was wonderful.

I think the taste of charcoal is indispensable to the success of this dish. But if you have a charcoal grill and a thin (about ½ an inch) steak, you might want to try this. Salt applied to the steak before cooking is the only seasoning other than the lemon and pepper – but the lemon should be actual lemon, not bottled lemon juice (and I use bottled juice often, just not here) and freshly ground black pepper.

And if you visit Italy, while Florence remains famous for steaks, know that many upscale places now target tourists rather than locals, and the steaks are often very thick. Not a bad thing, by any means, but a different experience. But it’s simple enough to not have to wait for that trip abroad. Buon appetito.

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Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup

As noted in the previous post, sour cherries are most commonly cooked and usually sweetened. That is the case in pies and jams, but it is also true of meggyleves, a wonderful sour cherry soup from Hungary.

While this soup is enjoyed through the summer months, because sour cherries are the earliest of the spring fruits, this soup is often associated with spring festivals and, among Hungary’s Jewish community, is a favorite for Shavuot. This soup has a wonderful, sweet-tart flavor. Served cold, it makes a refreshing first course on a warm day. Enjoy.

Meggyleves

Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup

6 cups water

zest of 1/2 lemon

1 stick cinnamon

1 lb. sour cherries, pitted (see note)

3/4 cup sugar

3 Tsp. flour

1 cup sour cream

1/2 tsp. salt

Put water, lemon zest, and cinnamon stick in a large pot and bring to the boil. Add cherries and sugar, stir, and simmer for 10–20 minutes, or until cherries are tender. Remove cinnamon stick. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and sour cream, and beat until smooth. Ladle about a cup of the hot cherry liquid into the sour cream mixture, and stir vigorously to combine. Then pour the sour cream mixture into the soup pot and stir well to combine with cherry soup. Simmer for an additional 5 or 6 minutes, until the soup begins to thicken. Cover the soup. Let it cool for a while before putting it in the refrigerator, then chill, still covered, until chilled through. (Soup will discover a “skin” if you don’t cover the pot.) Serve cold. Serves 6–8.

Notes: While the ideal is to use fresh sour cherries, these are not always available. Frozen is the second choice, and canned is your third option (even though some recipes state “never use canned”). If you don’t have a handy purveyor of sour cherries (and they are by no means ubiquitous), you may have no other choice than canned — and that’s okay. Just make sure you’re getting sour or tart cherries and that the ingredients list reads “cherries, water.” Don’t get anything with sugar, flavoring, other fruit, or syrup, and don’t get sweet cherries. When you drain the canned cherries, save the liquid from the can and use it as part of the water you’re using for the soup—gives you a little flavor boost. You might want to use a few more cherries, too, if you’re not using fresh, and especially if you’re using canned.

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Cherry, Cherry

Taken at face value, Prunus might be assumed to have something to do with prunes. However, in actuality, all stone fruits are members of the Prunus genus.Of course, plums (and future prunes) are members of the genus, but Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus happen to be cherries.

Cherries are unusual among foods in having their point of origin described as an entire hemisphere—the northern one. Since prehistoric times, cherries have grown across Europe, Asia, and North America. It seems that most of the cultivated species came from western Asia and eastern Europe, but there were varieties everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, waiting to be crossbred. Unusual among domesticated plant foods with long histories, the wild precursors of cultivated cherries have not been lost, and in fact have not been abandoned. Wild cherries still enjoy wide popularity.

While the use of wild cherries stretches back through prehistory, the cultivation of cherries is believed to date to about 300 b.c. Our word cherry comes from the Turkish town of Cerasus, seen unchanged in the name of one species of cherry. This reflects the western Asian origin of cherry cultivation—and Turkey is, in fact, still one of the planet’s top producers of cherries. Like several other words (for example, pease and eaves, likely to soon be joined by kudos), the nearest linguistic ancestor of the English word—cherise—sounded too much like it was plural, and in time was “singularized” to cherry.

The Roman Empire being what it was—an absorber of all it liked from wherever it went—it is probably not too surprising that Italy became a major cherry grower during the time of the Empire. Pliny attributes the introduction of cherries in the Empire to the Roman general Lucullus, famous both as a warrior and a gastronome. However, it seems likely that Lucullus probably simply introduced a new species of cultivated cherry when he returned from fighting in Asia Minor. The only uncertainty in that introduction (was Lucullus the first or not) lies in the fact that, while we know that there were cherries being cultivated in Italy by the time of Lucullus (who lived from 117 or 118 b.c. to around 56 b.c.), we also know that cultivation was a relatively new thing in the Mediterranean at this point, as the Greeks wrote only of wild cherries, which they didn’t particularly like. So it could be that what Lucullus introduced was the cultivated cherry.

Cherries favor temperate regions. While they don’t like it too frigid, they won’t bloom at all without a cold winter. And for some species of cherry, it’s all about blooming. Almost none of the ornamental species favored in Asia, and most particularly Japan, bear fruit, or if they do bear fruit, it is inedible. They are grown entirely for their beautiful flowers. It is from among these purely decorative Japanese species that Washington, D. C. got its famous blossoming cherries (and, unfortunately, it was from this same gift from Japan’s government that the Oriental fruit moth was introduced into the U.S.).

While there are many species of cherry, there are two main species that are grown for their fruit: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). In addition to there being two species that are commonly cultivated, there are also many varieties. Among sweet cherries, the Bing cherry is the most popular variety in the U.S., though the yellow-red Rainier cherry has been gaining traction in the marketplace in recent years. (But if you want to search, there are still many more sweet cherries to try—or to grow, if you have the space and the climate.)

In addition, there are cherries known as dukes, which are crosses between sweet and sour cherries. (The Germans call dukes Bastardkirschen.) Sweet cherries are heart-shaped, range in color from purplish black to red to golden, and include all the common eating cherries.

Sour cherries are smaller, softer, and more spherical than sweet cherries. They are also known as tart cherries, cooking cherries, and pie cherries. About 75 percent of all sour cherries are grown in Michigan.

While some people do enjoy eating sour cherries fresh, most people agree that they benefit from cooking, usually with sugar. But they are wonderfully flavorful in a wide range of applications—and if you’re eating any pastry with cherries, it will most certainly be sour cherries that you’re enjoying.

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Chakchouka

In most fields of study, one finds that a standard has been established or recognized, something against which other things are measured. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and assimilable, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth, and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen’s egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you have met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

Of course, eggs are by no means limited to breakfast. Most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little nutrient bundles. In the egg recipe below, tomatoes and peppers offer that bit of vitamin C that completes the nutritional profile of an egg meal. This recipe is actually old enough to predate some of North Africa’s current political boundaries. It is indigenous to a region called the Maghreb (or Magrib). This Arabic word means the West, and refers to the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Once known to the ancients as “Africa Minor,” and long including Moorish holdings in Spain, the Maghreb now comprises essentially the Atlas Massif and coastal plain of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Chakchouka

4 large onions, sliced
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 large sweet green pepper, cut in strips
4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. vinegar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
6 eggs

Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan until golden brown. Add pepper strips and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, spices, vinegar, and salt and blend well with onions and pepper. Simmer until the vegetables are quite soft, about 30 minutes.

Make six indentations (the back of a ladle may make this easier) in the vegetables. Carefully break an egg into each indentation. Cover the frying pan and cook over low heat until eggs are well set, about 10 minutes. Serves 6.

Notes: When I cook this for myself, I just break one or two eggs in a corner of the simmering vegetable base. Then I refrigerate the rest of the veggies and simply reheat a portion of them when I’m hungry, adding the eggs as veggies begin to bubble.

In the Maghreb, this might be served with spicy sausage on the side, and bread or rice would certainly be a reasonable accompaniment.

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