Category Archives: History

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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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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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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Porotos Granados

When people talk about food from the Americas, the ones that come up in conversation most often are chocolate, tomatoes, chilies, corn, and potatoes. Maybe avocadoes. But I don’t remember ever hearing anyone mention beans. (They might get mentioned when people speak of the “three sisters”–corn, squash, and beans–but they don’t usually get mentioned on their own.) Perhaps it is because they are so foundational, it’s hard to imagine a world without them. But the beans known as common beans, or haricot beans, are indigenous to the Americas. Everything from dainty French haricots verts to kidney beans or pinto beans in your chili are members of the family. The Etla Valley in Mexico is named for its black beans. The great northern bean was developed in North Dakota. All of them common beans.

The cranberry bean, a variety of borlotti bean, is an heirloom bean that appears to have arisen in the Andes, possibly Colombia, though these beans had spread across the Americas early on and are now grown worldwide. They have a creamy texture and nutty flavor–and they are great in this dish.

Porotos granados, a dish from Chile, is of Indian origin, porotos being the word the indigenous people used for cranberry beans. The recipe contains the New World staples of beans, corn and squash, and is perfect fare for late summer (when corn is ripening) through autumn.

Following the recipe for porotos is a recipe for pebre. Every country has its at least one special sauce, from remoulade to chimichurri, and for Chile, it’s pebre. Traditionally, pebre is used on only two things—any meat and porotos granados. If you don’t want to bother, the porotos is great without pebre. It is also great with pebre. I eat porotos both ways, with and without, and like pebre well enough that, if there is any left over, I use it with corn chips, in lieu of salsa.

Porotos Granados
16 oz. (approx. 2 cups) dried cranberry beans
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. paprika
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped (optional)
1 14-1/2 oz. can (approx. 1-1/2 cups) diced tomatoes
1 tsp. basil
1-1/2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 cups winter squash (about 1-1/2 lb.), peeled and cut
into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup corn kernels (canned or frozen/thawed)

Rinse the beans, then place in large pot with 10-12 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat and allow the beans to soak for 1 hour. Drain the beans, return to pot and add 7 cups fresh water. Bring the beans to a boil again, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Sauté the onion in the oil until it is soft. Add the garlic, paprika, jalapeño pepper, tomato, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is the consistency of a thick purée (about 15 minutes).

When the beans have cooked for 1 hour (they should be beginning to get tender), add the tomato purée and the squash and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are completely tender and the squash is mushy (about 25-30 minutes). Stir in the corn and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Serve hot, with pebre on the side. Serves 8.

Pebre
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. red or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper, or to taste (optional)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt

Combine the oil, vinegar and water in a bowl and beat them together with a fork or whisk. Stir in all other ingredients. Let the sauce sit at room temperature for 2-3 hours, to blend and mature the flavors. Serve with porotos granados, with meat, with anything else you can think of to serve it with. Yum.

(Note: when chopping up something flat and thin, like cilantro leaves, a pair of scissors often works more quickly and more efficiently than a knife.)

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Ibiharage

Continuing the idea from the last post that less expensive but still tasty dishes are particularly appreciated at present, here is another recipe from the first year of the previously mentioned column, along with a bit of background on the ingredients — because I’m a food historian and can’t help myself.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, onions were considered to be virtually a panacea. Well, they weren’t too far from being right — onions are antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, contain a powerful antioxidant (quercetin) which also acts as a sedative, and can lower your cholesterol. (Unfortunately, for some people, they can also aggravate heartburn or cause gas.) The greatest benefit is to be gained from raw onions, but even cooked onions have most of these beneficial properties to some degree.

Onions probably got into Central Africa by way of Egypt. As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptian traders were bartering seeds, tools, agricultural knowledge and domesticated animals with tribes in Eritrea and Somalia, in exchange for frankincense and myrrh.

Africa would have to wait another 4,500 years for the hot red peppers and white beans used in this recipe. All chilies/hot peppers come from the New World, but almost everyone else in the world enthusiastically embraced the “violent fruit,” as Columbus called it, once it was introduced by early traders. White beans (most commonly navy beans or great northern beans in this recipe) are also indigenous to the Americas–along with all the other members of the family known as common or haricot beans (so kidney beans, pintos, black turtle beans, and even green beans).

So African cuisine combines ingredients that stretch back for millennia with those that have been available for a mere 500 years. This recipe for fried beans is from Burundi, in Central Africa, and I think it’s about the easiest thing you can do with beans and still produce a dish that is really delicious.

Ibiharage
2 cups dry white beans
boiling water
1 tsp. chicken or vegetable bouillon
1/2 cup cooking oil
3 large onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
dried hot red pepper to taste (at least 1/4 tsp. crushed)

Wash and sort the beans. Put beans in large saucepan and cover with 4-6 cups boiling water. Boil 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let soak 1 hour or more. Return beans to stove. (As always, if beans cause you intestinal distress, you can drain and rinse beans after they soak, which will reduce “side effects” of bean consumption. Then replace soaking water with fresh.) Add bouillon to water, and simmer beans until tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Heat oil in a 12-inch saucepan. Add onions and garlic to hot oil and cook until onions are transparent and soft. Drain cooked beans and add to onions; cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and hot pepper to taste. Mix well. Serves 8-10 as a side dish, 6-8 as a main course.

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Pozole Rojo

Pozole Rojo is a dish I encountered during my travels in Mexico. It is warming and flavorful, ideal for cold weather and for sharing with friends. However, the reason I developed the recipe below is that it seemed like an appropriate culinary bridge between my book on corn (Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland) and the complement that came out in October 2018 (Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest). Corn and pork define agriculture in the American Midwest, but they also come close to defining the cuisine of Mexico. In fact, it has been said (though it is clearly an oversimplification) that Mexican food is Aztec food plus pigs.

The word pozole comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) pozolli, which means “hominy.” The rojo in the name (Spanish for “red”) both underscores the combined Indian/European influences in the dish and hints at other variations that exist–because not all pozole uses the red chiles found in this dish. (As is true of every dish of any antiquity, there are as many versions as there are people making it, and sometimes even more.)

Hominy is corn that has undergone nixtamalization–that is, it has been processed with lye or lime in a traditional way discovered long ago by the indigenous people of Mezoamerica. Nixtamal is the Nahutal word that refers to the product of the process. It is a process that makes the corn both more nutritious (makes niacin and lysine more bio-available) and able to be stored longer than untreated corn.

Pozole is a delicious, filling soup that, while other ingredients can and will vary, always includes hominy and pork. Traditionally made for large groups, an entire pig’s head is often included in the recipe. I wanted a version that would feed a more modest number of people, and this version makes roughly 6 servings. However, I also wanted the flavor and texture added by the bones and collagen found in the head, so I added a pound of meaty neck bones. It turned out splendidly. Hope you like it as well as I do.

Pozole Rojo

2 lb. stewing pork
1 lb. pork neck bones
10 cups water
2 tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 15-oz. cans white hominy, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried guajillo chiles
1 clove of garlic, whole
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes
tostadas or tortilla chips
2 limes, quartered
1 onion finely sliced
cabbage or iceberg lettuce, shredded
sliced radishes

Place the pork, bones, 2 tsp salt, minced garlic, chopped onion, and hominy in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim scum as it forms. Once scum is skimmed, add black pepper. (You lose a lot of the pepper if you add it before skimming.) When water is at a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is close to falling off the bone, about 1-1/2 hours.

Remove seeds and stems from the dried chiles and discard. Place the chiles in a bowl. After the first hour of simmering the pork, remove enough liquid to just cover the chiles (about one ladleful). Let chiles soak for 30 minutes. Then place chiles, soaking broth, and the final clove of garlic in a blender and puree until smooth.

Remove the soup from the heat and remove the pork to a platter to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred the stewing pork and remove all meat from the neck bones. Return meat to pot, stir in chile paste, and return pot to the heat, and simmer for another hour, until the meat is meltingly tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with a selection of the suggested garnishes/accompaniments. (Not all need to be included to still be authentic.) Enjoy.

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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:
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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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