Category Archives: Video

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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Radishes

If you can grow vegetables in your backyard and eat them fresh every day, at least in the summer (for those of us who live in places with winter), you know how nice it is to have something that was just picked. However, for most of us, there simply isn’t enough backyard, or enough time in the day, to come close to raising all the vegetables we want to eat. Fortunately, there are farmers who do this for a living. Also fortunate is that clever people have devised machines that make every part of the process move more swiftly. This helps compensate for the fact that the number of farmers keeps dropping. It also makes food both more readily available and a lot more affordable. So please, go ahead and plant your garden, if you can–but then be grateful that you don’t have to limit consumption to a few warm months or what you can grow yourself.

Here’s one good example: radishes. This video shows a machine harvesting radishes in the Netherlands. The machine also gathers the radishes into bunches of 20, ready for the market. Remarkable.

If you want something interesting to do with radishes other than just put them on a relish tray or pack them in lunches, here’s something a friend suggested for when the radishes you buy are too strong to be enjoyable–or if you just want a new side dish, to shake things up a bit. This is a variation of a French approach to consuming radishes. It makes the radishes mellow and nutty.

Trim the top and stem ends of the radishes. (If the greens are fresh and green, look up a recipe that uses them, as they’re very nutritious.) Cut radishes in half lengthwise or, if they are very large, in quarters. Preheat oven to 400˚. Drizzle radishes with olive oil to coat and sprinkle with a bit of salt. Spread the radishes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until beginning to get lightly golden brown and tender. Enjoy hot.

Of course, you can also toss the radishes into the roasting dish with a chicken or pot roast, or mix them in with other root vegetables you’re roasting. Roasting vegetables brings out the sweetness of root vegetables.

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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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Supersizing History

I love studying food history. I read a lot of books. I do a fair bit of travel. I interview experts. Happily, thanks to YouTube, I also have access to a wide range of wonderful videos that focus on different periods of food history. Among the many options I’ve discovered, one of the delightful ones is a BBC series known as the Supersizers. This is a program in which restaurant critic Giles Coren and entertainer/comedian Sue Perkins pick different periods of history and then relive them. They wear the clothing of the period, live in suitable housing, and, most importantly, eat or discuss every aspect of the culinary arts from the period. The programs are tremendously varied, and include, among others, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, pretty much every age defined by who was on the throne (Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian), the Regency period (Jane Austen’s times), and one year, they went through England by the decade (once they got to the ’70s, things began to look familiar, which actually made them even more entertaining).

The show employs top chefs, to prepare the period-appropriate foods, and a wide range of experts (culinary historians, cultural anthropologists, farmers, foragers, politicians,and so on) to comment on how food was obtained and consumed in each period. So while Giles and Sue focus on being entertaining, the scholarship is excellent.

Since we’re just a few days past the anniversary of D-Day (June 6), I thought that perhaps the best example to post would be dining in England during World War II. This video, while still entertaining, contrasts somewhat with the lavish repasts that are the focus of most of the videos. However, it is a period that many still remember and that had a lasting impact on the world. Still, do check out some of the other videos. So many fascinating eras, fabulous costumes, and over-the-top dinners — truly delightful. But now, here is dining in Wartime.

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Taming Those Foil and Wrap Rolls

I actually discovered this about five or six years ago (after a lifetime of not knowing about it), but I find that there are still people who haven’t discovered this trick. It makes life in the kitchen just a tiny bit easier. This applies to most (though not all) of the things that come in roll form, including waxed paper, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap. Hope this helps.

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Farmer Style

I spent the better part of 2012 working on a book on the history of corn/maize. I haven’t heard from the publisher yet when the book will be released — and when it is, I’ll probably start a separate blog for that (we’ll see). But I thought it might be fun to share this video, which went viral earlier this year. I interviewed Greg, the eldest of the three “Peterson Farm Bros,” because I had a lot of older, tremendously experienced farmers and experts in the book, and I thought that it would be good to show the younger, hipper side of farming–the future of farming, as it were. Because the Peterson Farm Bros have a great message that I think a lot of folks need to know: without farmers, we don’t eat. I have found that a lot of folks in big cities have lost sight of that. However, the brothers manage to get the message across in a very entertaining way.

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