Category Archives: Fun Fact

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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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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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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What One Thing Most Helped Colonial Agriculture?

There are many things one might consider vital to the success of agriculture in Britain’s North American colonies, and indeed throughout the New World. Plows and scythes, learning about new crops, introducing pigs and cows–so many possibilities. But the introduction that would have the greatest impact on the future success of agriculture in the colonies–and up to the present time–was not even brought along because it would help agriculture.

The honey bee was brought to Jamestown in 1622 because colonists wanted honey. The discovery of pollination was still two centuries in the future when bees landed in the New World. But just because colonists had no idea what the bees were doing didn’t keep the bees from doing it. All the fruit trees and vegetables and other crops brought with settlers were made possible by the introduction of bees. (Corn/maize had been a blessing at the outset, and kept settlers from starving, because corn is wind pollinated, so bees weren’t necessary.)

The bees did more than just make introduced crops viable, however. Unlike some other types of bees, the European honey bee does not specialize. It likes any flowers, whether familiar or new. They loved their new home and, unlike the earlier human settlers, found plenty to eat. They spread rapidly, always staying well ahead of westward human migration, supplying honey to even the earliest pioneers. Native Americans, who called them “English flies,” began to associate honey bees with the spread of European settlement.

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Fun Fact: Thomas Jefferson

There are, of course, numerous food stories surrounding Thomas Jefferson, who was remarkably gifted and accomplished in many fields, but not least of them food, from introducing dishes to establishing new crops to inventing recipes. However, this fun fact is only tangentially related to food, because I found it in a cookbook.

As part of my food history research, I read a fair number of antique cookbooks. Not very long ago, I was perusing a cookbook published in 1876, on, and in honor of, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, some reference to Thomas Jefferson had to be made — and there is such a reference. On the last page of the preface, it states that it wishes for readers, “in the renowned classic of Jefferson, ‘May you live long and prosper.'”

So were the creators of Star Trek fans of our talented Founding Father — or does this mean Jefferson was a Vulcan?

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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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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: 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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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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Fun Fact: Sugar

Even though the spice trade between the Middle East and India dates back more than 4,000 years, sugar didn’t make it into the mix of traded goods until much later. People knew about sugarcane; the prophet Jeremiah wrote of “sweet cane from a distant land.” But it just didn’t make it to Europe from Asia until the 1100s. When it hit, it came in slowly and was hugely expensive, but it was instantly popular with people who could afford it, and became a way people could show off their wealth (other than the usual palaces and fancy clothes).

People figured out pretty quickly that a lot of sugar rotted your teeth. However, because only the rich could afford sugar, it became a status symbol. In the 1500s, as sugar began to trickle into England from the newly discovered and planted islands in the Caribbean, the teeth of more and more wealthy people were endangered.

However, because people knew you had to be rich to have rotting teeth, people who couldn’t afford sugar actually started cosmetically blackening their teeth, so they would look wealthy.

Kind of a contrast to today, where wealth means having perfect teeth, even if they’re not the ones you were born with.

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