Category Archives: Fun Fact

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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Hopping John

In the American South, black-eyed peas are common, but never so much so as on New Year’s Day. It is said that eating them on New Year’s Day will bring good luck in the coming year (or, alternatively, it may be expressed as “not eating them will bring you bad luck in the coming year”).

But one cannot eat just any preparation of black-eyed peas to obtain this benison (or preventive) for the coming year. One must eat Hopping John. This is a simple and delicious dish. It should be served with rice. White rice is traditional, but the nutty flavor of brown rice nicely compliments the flavors and adds a little chewiness. Both types of rice work well–but I’d hate to have you mess up your fortunes for the whole year by telling you to tinker with tradition. However, this is good enough and simple enough that you may not want to wait a whole year before having it again.

Happy New Year.

Hopping John

1-1/4 cups dry black-eyed peas
4 cups water
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed dried red pepper (or to taste)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
8 oz. coarsely chopped salt pork

Put beans in water, bring to a boil, and let boil for two minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for one hour.

Add onion, black pepper, red pepper, garlic, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the salt pork. Simmer, uncovered, for another hour, stirring frequently. Remove the salt pork and the bay leaf. Slightly mash the pea mixture. Season to taste (though it’s unlikely to need salt, thanks to the salt pork.) Serve with boiled white rice. Serves 6.

Note: Salt pork usually has a considerable amount of fat on it. Don’t worry. Because it’s simmered, little of the fat dissolves into the dish.

Salt pork is quite tasty—somewhere between ham and Canadian bacon—and can be enjoyed on the side, cut up fine and used as a garnish, or saved for snacking. While you don’t need to get rid of the fat for cooking, you definitely want to get rid of it for eating.

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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
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• Fax toll-free: 1-800-338-4550
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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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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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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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