Category Archives: Thoughts

#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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Alfredo

I first had fettuccine Alfredo in 1966–served to me by Alfredo.

I was just fifteen, traveling with my parents. Getting to Italy was a lifelong dream of my dad’s, and we had the pleasure of coming along when he fulfilled that dream. He’d studied Italian history, art, and culture for years, and had been drilling us on useful Italian phrases for nearly a year before the trip–where is my hotel, a table for four please, how much does that cost, bring the check please, and so on.

Long before we arrived, dad had figured out many of the places where he wanted to dine, mostly historic venues (such as Hostaria dell’Orso, which had been a favorite of Dante’s), while leaving plenty of room for discovering charming little trattorias. Among the must-visit places was Alfredo al Augusteo, the source of fettuccine so good that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had given Alfredo a golden fork and spoon for consuming the dish.

At fifteen, I was not as saturated with history as my dad was, and I probably could not at that time have told you who Pickford and Fairbanks were, but I knew if my dad was impressed, I would be, too. The restaurant was a delight, walls covered with photos of movie stars and heads of state who had dined there. Overhead, a massive marble frieze showed Alfredo in a Roman chariot, one hand holding the reigns, the other holding a plate of the namesake pasta.

The menu at the time bore the words Il vero re della fettuccine–the true king of fettuccine. However, when he signed our menus, Alfredo gave himself a promotion, to Imperatore, or Emperor, a title that now seems to have eclipsed his claim to being king.

Alfredo Di Lelio was already famous even then, but far from stuffy or impressed with himself. He was a showman, and he loved anyone who loved what he did. For people with whom he connected, he would toss the fettuccine tableside. Order the crepes, and he would come out dancing, ladling flaming brandy into the air. It was great fun. My dad, who could make friends with a doorpost, charmed Alfredo, and we went back often, each member of the family being offered the golden fork and spoon on subsequent nights (a sign that Alfredo had taken a fancy to you). He related how the fettuccine recipe was born–it was something his wife could keep down while she was pregnant.

A few visits into our first trip to Italy, my dad jotted a bit of light verse on a piece of paper and handed it to Alfredo, sealing the friendship. I sometimes think that our trip back the following year was just so dad could go to Alfredo’s again–and, happily, Alfredo remembered him and welcomed him enthusiastically.

In the photo below, I’m the teen on the left, and that’s Alfredo with his arm around me. The handful of pasta is dry, kept handy as a prop for photo opportunities. Mom thought she was getting out of the photo.

Of course, the experience was memorable, but for me, it was one more reason to be amazed by my father.

And here is the poem:

To Alfredo
Firenze, Roma, or Milano,
Who’s the number one Paisano?
Who’s “tops” with burro and formaggio?
Who should sit for Caravaggio?
This charming Re. This handsome fellow.
No, He should sit for Raphaello.
Better yet, call for Bernini
To sculpt the King of Fettuccine!

And should you be headed to Italy, here is the website for Il Vero Alfredo–the true Alfredo. http://www.ilveroalfredo.it/
family-with-alfredo-2

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Food and Power

cuisine-and-empire
I read a lot of food history books, and I generally enjoy them, but occasionally, one impresses me more than others I’ve read. While good writing always gets my attention, a different approach can be really captivating. And so it is perhaps not surprising that I found Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History to be a particularly good read. It is very well written, but the thing that sets it apart is that, while most food histories seem to focus on a single item (including my own book, Midwest Maize), a specific period, or a specific country, Laudan’s book takes the novel approach of tracing cuisine by the progress of history’s great empires. Equally importantly, Laudan also draws a clear distinction between humble cuisine and high cuisine, once that division occurred in society.

Of course, in the context of history, this approach makes a lot of sense. A conquering people generally either introduced their ideas into conquered countries, or they adopted what they found in the places they invaded. Controlling or mandating cuisine became a political tool. Plus people in power have, for at least a couple of millennia, eaten better than the man on the street—though modern cuisine (since 1810) adds to this “middling cuisine,” the food of those who are neither rulers nor peasants—i.e., the middle class.

Of course, there have been a lot of empires, and the book could end up with hundreds of chapters, so Laudan further divides the topic by major influences (such as the agricultural revolution or the rise of Buddhism) and time periods. With a timeline running across more than 20,000 years, the book is definitely ambitious, but it offers wonderful insight into how cooking has developed from the first boiled-grain gruels into the sophisticated international cuisines of today.

The book is massively well documented, should you wish to track down the sources of some of her information. It is the kind of book that could be used simply for reference of a period of interest, or read through, as one watches history unfold through the meals that made civilizations possible and cultures identifiable.

So if you’re interested in food history, or the history of the impact of the world’s great empires on food and food’s impact on politics through history, I definitely recommend Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire.

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Waste Not, Want Not

A lot of attention is being focused these days on waste–especially food waste. Most of the stories I see published are looking at the food system–crops that don’t get bought because they don’t match a store’s ideal, imperfect food that gets thrown out, and so on. But as much of the attention shows, people are working hard to avoid these kind of situations where food gets wasted. It’s not fixed yet, but it’s not being ignored.

However, there’s a huge area of waste that isn’t getting talked about as much, and that’s the food that consumers waste. I know people who actually brag about how much stuff they buy that just spoils in the fridge because they’re too busy to get to it. So buy frozen. It will wait for you–and because it’s frozen in the field, it probably has more nutrients than the stuff in the produce section. Or if heads of lettuce are dying in the fridge because you don’t have time to prepare them, buy pre-washed, chopped lettuce. Do what it takes to not be throwing out the food you buy. Plan meals around things you have, so it gets used up in time.

And in restaurants, think about what you’re ordering. I regularly see people over-order by an astonishing amount, and then walk away from the table, not even bothering to ask for their food to be boxed to take home. To avoid the spread of disease (a good thing), all that food has to be thrown away. Granted, there are times that you can’t take a carry-out container with you — but then order less. And at buffets — take less with each trip. I see stunning amounts of food left on tables by people who pile more than they can eat on their plates and then just leave it. (Some buffet restaurants now post signs that you will be charged for wasted food, but this is still not common.)

So instead of simply looking to the food industry to “save the day,” consider making it a priority to not waste the food that comes through your house or when you go out to dinner. Teach your kids or challenge your friends to be less wasteful. When I was a youngster, we were always told to “finish what’s on your plate, because children are starving in [fill in the blank with place currently in the news]” That’s still a legitimate consideration. You might think that a restaurant would have to throw out the food anyway, if you hadn’t taken it, but they can send the food to shelters if it hasn’t left the kitchen. They can’t do that once you get it at your table. Health laws. (Again, a good thing.) So buy what you can use and use what you buy, and then smile and feel good about yourself, because you’re part of the solution to a very real problem.

As for the phrase, “waste not, want not,” it may just be that you’ll have more money to spend because you’re not over-ordering or throwing out food you don’t get to in time. But it may be someone else who doesn’t “want” — that is, go hungry — because you didn’t waste.

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Avgolemono

While my mom was a truly wonderful cook, it was my dad who was the serious food adventurer. He would come home from the office at the end of the day excited because he’d discovered some new ethnic restaurant—which may not sound all that remarkable now, but in the late 1950s through the 1960s, this was not the norm for most families. My mom was from Chicago, and she’d grown up going to Chinatown, but my dad was from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he’d grown up eating Cuban, African American, and Spanish foods. Then he went to North Africa and the Middle East with World War II, where he sampled every local food available. He returned home a dedicated pursuer of culinary alternatives.

While we were certainly not the only people eating outside the mainstream, our habits were not common. Sometimes, the things I took to school for lunch got me strange looks and unkind comments. But I didn’t care, because by the time I was in grade school, I was already a convert to international dining.

Dad could cook, too (most happily on his Weber kettle, where he turned out marvelous lamb shish kabob on a regular basis), and he and mom even joined forces with the rare couple who shared their interests to prepare dishes that took a full day of construction (especially Mexican food: enchiladas or chiles rellenos) However, dad was especially delighted when he found a new place to dine.

One day, returning from the office (walking from the train station, as most men in our suburb did), he burst through the kitchen door gushing about a new little hole-in-the-wall place downtown that served Greek food. It was called Dianna’s Grocery. Here, you stood in line inside the grocery store part of the establishment, waiting for one of the very few tables in the back room. The “restaurant” opened in 1961, and was unique at the time. It would be a few years before owner Petros Kogiones would open the larger Dianna’s Opaa, and we would follow him there, since the lines weren’t as long. But in 1961, Dianna’s Grocery was pretty much the entire Greek dining scene.

Today, I had something of a flashback to that time. I just moved my mom to a retirement home near me, and to help her recover from selling her house two states away, I’m taking her out to lunch a few times a week. Today, we went Greek—and we both ordered a soup that we first loved all those years ago at Dianna’s—avgolemono—Greek egg lemon soup.

I actually learned how to make this while I was still living at home, and it was the late-night snack with which I sustained myself through college. In college, I made it with water and bouillon cubes, rather than with good chicken broth, but I improved the soup once I was out on my own. For some reason, it fell out of my repertoire—I still ordered it on occasion, but I didn’t make it any more. But today, I decided I need to remedy that. This is a wonderful soup, and while there are some fairly complex recipes available, it can be tremendously easy, depending on how much effort you want to put in. It’s quite tasty even made with bouillon, canned broth works well, or you can start with a chicken and make your own broth. If you make the broth from scratch, you can shred a bit of the chicken and add it to the soup, to make a meal of it. However, it’s dandy without it.

Avgolemono
Egg Lemon Soup
4 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup uncooked white rice
2 eggs
2-3 Tbs. lemon juice

Cook the rice in the chicken broth (follow instructions on the rice package). Just before the rice is done, beat the eggs and lemon juice together, until slightly frothy. (The first time you make this, you can start with 2 Tbs. lemon juice at this stage and then adjust upwards, if the soup is not sufficiently tart for your taste.) When rice is done, remove from the heat. Use a ladle to get some of the hot broth out of the pot, and add it to the egg-lemon mixture, whisking constantly. Add another ladle of broth, and continue to whisk. Then pour the now-warm egg-lemon mixture into the pot with the broth and rice, and continue to whisk until it is smooth. Return to the heat for about 2 minutes, until heated through. You should have a very pale yellow, velvety, flavorful soup. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary (never necessary with bouillon, but might be if you made your own broth). Serve and enjoy. Makes roughly 4 servings. Unless you’re a college student.

 

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Nathalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Nathalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Tampa Bay: My, How You’ve Changed

My dad was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. As a result, while I was growing up, our family spent a lot of summer vacations visiting dad’s relatives down south. This was long before Walt Disney had even considered building anything in Orlando. We loved the beaches, and I became a world-class shell collector, combing the beaches in the early morning with my dad. But there was always a lot more than just the beaches to enjoy.

A few favorite food memories are associated with these trips. Warm-water lobster was cheap enough that you could feed it to kids. Smoked mullet was one of the best foods imaginable, and they sold it from stands along the road, which made it even more fun. And black bean soup, tostones, and flan at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City were definite favorites, as well.

On top of the dining, beaches, and relatives, there were wonderful things to see and do on the Gulf side of Florida. We examined raw sponges and the brass-helmeted diving gear of Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, watched entertainers at the Kapok Tree in Clearwater, got fresh seafood in Pass-a-Grille, explored Fort De Soto down on Mullet Key, and delighted in the remarkable museums on the Ringling estate in Sarasota.

Then life got busy, relatives died, other destinations called, and I didn’t get to the Tampa Bay area for decades. I’d been to Miami on business and to Key West with friends, but not to the place where I’d spent so much time growing up–until last month. A writers conference offered an opportunity to find out what had changed and what was the same in the destination of my youth.

The palm trees, banyans, and birds of paradise still made me smile. The red-tiled roofs of older buildings led me to wonder if the reason I fell in love so quickly with Southern California was because of the similarities of architecture and plants that were so familiar to me. I learned that Tarpon Springs was still Greek, Columbia Restaurant still had black bean soup, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota was still a destination, and Pass-a-Grille was still good for seafood–but there were a lot of changes. Roadside stands selling smoked mullet had vanished. In St. Pete, small, old-Florida architecture shared the streets with modern high-rises.

While I missed a few things, I quickly learned that there were new delights, from excellent museums to sensational dining options, mixed in with the old delights of tropical ambiance and lovely beaches. There are a lot more people–but also more air conditioning, which is a good thing.

The conference kept me busy most of the time, but I still managed to fit in a bit of exploring and a fair bit of excellent dining. As a result, it will take a few posts to share all that I experienced.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

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Sensitivities vs. Poisons

I have spent much of the summer looking after my mom, who had a devastating reaction to a powerful antibiotic. Nurses keep telling me that there are no side effects to this drug, and I have explained, again and again, that side effects may not be widespread, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Most people don’t die from eating peanuts or wheat, but if you’re allergic, you do. And, seriously, all you have to do is read the insert that comes with most medications to know that everything does something to someone. (Fortunately, the doctors acknowledge that there are side effects, so I have gotten support there.)

It’s frustrating, when I point to mom’s sensitivity, to see reactions that range from disbelief to contempt. As a result, I understand the frustration of people who are sensitive to various substances, from medications to ingredients. And yet I find myself frustrated as well by campaigns to get rid of things that are, in fact, perfectly safe for the majority of people. I want my mom to recover from the horrible reaction she had to the antibiotic, which has stolen both her mind and her strength, but I don’t want the drug outlawed, as it has saved thousands of lives.

While it might seem odd to compare MSG to an antibiotic, I don’t think it’s a bad comparison. People have argued often and loudly that we use too much of both. The biggest difference is that MSG occurs naturally. Perhaps it is because it is natural that even when there are side effects with MSG, they aren’t as shattering as the side effects of many drugs. Which is why I wonder about the continuing crusade to get rid of MSG (or reduce its use — can’t really get rid of it as it is a natural substance that occurs in many common foods). MSG is a potential allergen, but it’s not a poison. I’m all for the free-market practice of creating and labeling foods “no MSG,” to reach the market of those who are sensitive, but I think the rhetoric is making people afraid of something that need not be feared — unless you’re sensitive. I’ve got my own range of sensitivities, but I don’t want others to have to do without things they enjoy just because I can’t handle them. Because for most of us, MSG is just fine. And here is no less an authority than Harold McGee telling us so.

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Learning from History

As a food historian, I read a lot about the past–not just where our foods come from, but also how the whole process of obtaining food works. There are a lot of things we can learn from the past that might actually help with our own survival.

Most of the history of the world has focused on getting enough to eat. Avoiding starvation is remarkably hard work. Things that worked well didn’t always work for long. For example, ancient Rome. As the city of Rome grew, more and more food was needed—more food than could be supplied by the surrounding farms. So Rome started conquering everyone around them, to get more farms and, as conquered people were enslaved, to get cheaper food. They set up fabulous trade routes, and food poured into Rome. Unfortunately, the cheap food coming in from distant lands dropped food prices to where farmers near Rome couldn’t compete. They left their farms and moved into the city. So more food was needed, but now most of it had to come from far away. That was great–until the pirates became a problem. When pirates cut off all food coming by sea, Rome was in danger of starving. That’s when they decided that, to guarantee their food security, they’d turn almost limitless power over to Pompey. And thus, the republic finally disintegrated.

So it sounds as though eating local is the answer, right? Well, one historian spoke of the “tyranny of the local.” Local food is wonderful until there is a drought or an especially long winter or locusts come through. Then, eating local means dying of starvation.

Sound hopeless? I don’t think so. I think the key concept is balance. Eat local when you can. Support local farmers. You want to make sure they don’t go broke and move to the city. Go to farmers’ market or shop at stores that buy at least some of their produce locally.

But don’t abandon the imports. If local isn’t available, usually because of climate, don’t stop eating. However, try at least to buy things that you could get from somewhere reached by truck or train, as opposed to something that needs an airplane or ocean voyage. Garlic from California vs. from China, for example, at least if you live in North America. Support the people who will be able to feed you if transportation is disrupted. (Remember how long planes didn’t fly after 9/11?)

Feel free to enjoy exotica–things that simply don’t grow where you live. But don’t rely on it. It’s great that we can get food from everywhere, and it’s great that we don’t starve every time there’s a tough winter, but we need balance. And, whatever else happens, we need to make sure we take care of our farmers.

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Falling Water

When planning my trip to Pennsylvania, one of the things I definitely wanted to see was Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabulous Fallingwater, the secluded vacation house he built for the Kaufmann family in the 1930s, to give them a place to escape the bustle of Pittsburgh. Nestled amid greenery and perched in the mountains, Fallingwater takes its name from the waterfalls it straddles. I love waterfalls, so I’d always been enchanted by the photos I’d seen and the concept. I found the house and its history fascinating. However, the fact that was shared that both surprised me and interested me the most is that Wright didn’t really intend to have the house outlive the Kaufmanns. It takes millions of dollars every year to keep it from falling to pieces. Pretty crazy. But it is a remarkable bit of design, even if the engineering was not planned for the long term. Definitely worth visiting, however.

It’s a bit of a hike to the spot that gives one the most iconic view of the house.
THE-image-FW-

And because this blog mostly focuses on food, here’s the view from the kitchen.
ViewFromKitchen

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