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Posts Tagged ‘Food History’

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The book remaining longest on my shelves, therefore deserving of Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral, is Waverly Root’s ‘Food’. Why should this be so? The poor old thing is broken-backed, it looks as if someone hit the edge of the bottom pages with red spray-paint lightly at some time, and the cover is the most repulsive olive-green to ever exist in the world.

In this case you can’t tell a book by its cover. Well, maybe you can. Depends on who you talk to.

Many people think Waverly Root was not quite de rigeur. Or rather, he may have been de rigeur but he was not right about a lot of things he wrote. This could be so. But above all, Waverly was entertaining, even in his sickening pea-green overcoat.

Let me show you Waverly. I’m going to flip open the book and see where it lands.

Broccoli. And E.B. White on broccoli. Chives. And He who bears chives on his breath Is safe from being kissed to death and then on to Martial on chives. FO, stands for fogas, a Hungarian fish. Yes, I know the fellow! LY stands for the lycopodium, whose root is no longer eaten as an aphrodisiac.

Parsley warrants a couple of pages, with a final mention of Platus then on to Chaucer in critical mode about a cook named Hogge of Ware who had some problems with parsley and a goose whose freshness might have been questionable

Of many a pilgrim hastow Cristes curs,

For of they persly yet they fare the wors,

That they han eaten with thy stubbelgoos;

For in thy shoppe is many a fly loos.

In the entry on rye we learn of witchcraft and ergotism.  SO stands for soump oil, a fat universallly used in the Ivory Coast, Chad, and East Africa, made from the intensely bitter fruit of the zachun-oil tree, which fails to explain why it is also called heglik oil

And Venus, of course, stands for a family of clams, notably the quahog, eaten with gusto in New England and when we get close to the end of the book, Waverly tells us that yellowtail (which in some places is called snapper or flounder) is called a I-don’t-know-what in Japan.

I don’t know what, either. But I do enjoy trying to figure it all out with Waverly.

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks

By shallow rivers, to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

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You’ll have to see it to believe it:

Extreme History – Cooking on the Chisholm Trail

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In this vintage ad from the 1940’s we’ve now discovered how the Chiquita Banana Helps the Pieman – and have also had a fascinating demonstration on how to flute a banana.

But that’s only dessert. ‘Where’s the beef?’ (Clara would ask) – and here it is:

Recipes from Gourmet magazine during the 1940’s, from the archives. Note the simplicity of the instructions, and remember – the founder (in 1939*) and publisher of Gourmet was a fellow named Earle MacAusland, who loved huntin’ and fishin’  . . .  in a gentlemanly-gourmet sort of way.

Tequila Por Mi Amante

Oyster Waffles Shortcake

Creamed Woodchuck

Bachelor’s Defense

Moving right along, if you’re still prone to hunger pains, to some

Blacktail Buck Steaks

finished off with (don’t forget the banana pie too)

Imprisoned Fruit

. . . the recipe for which starts off with

Look over your tree carefully in the springtime, when the blossoms are gone and the fruit is just beginning to form. Choose a few choice specimens, each at the end of a branch, and insert the branch gently into the neck of a large bottle, until the fruit is well inside. The next job is to support the bottle so that it stays in place in the tree. This may be done with ropes, if the tree is large enough, or it may be necessary to build up wooden supports to hold the bottle.

At first, the native feel of the menu made me think of gentle old-timey innocent images in my mind. Little boys goin’ out to catch a mess of fish, oh so cute in their rumpled overalls

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But then upon musing on the menu components a bit further, it seemed to me that (more likely) the intent of all this cooking (whether done by the above-mentioned ‘bachelor’ or by his feminine equal) would be in hopes of something more along the lines of this, from Tino Rossi, 1945:

P.S. Edit added: *This date (1939) is not confirmed by source (yet). No bessame mucho here. Yet. 🙂

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Ouch. It’s January 2009, and wallets previously ready to fly open at the slightest beckoning call of the local free-range organic rabbit (head still on, bones intact, tiny tail bone looking rather pitiful now shed of its cute fluffy fur) for $7 per pound – which effectively makes the cost of the meat shorn of the bones somewhere around $15 per pound – those wallets are balking.

But it is not 1940. And we are not in London. And we are not kept busy in the ways the Women Firewatchers shown in the above photograph (from British Vogue in 1940 by Lee Miller) were kept actively busy at that time.

But getting back to the wallets of 2009. Some will still open. Many more will not.

Pain shows in the hearts and faces of men and women when facing their finances. Not only have their retirement funds been hobbled but food – right now – today! – is becoming more and more expensive. What’s a person to do?

This poverty is a different shape, here and now in 2009, than it has been in times past. For aside from the fact that the grocery stores are still filled to over-brimming with every product from almost everywhere in the world, there is the question of those wallets. Are those wallets as damaged as they have been in past times of hardship? Not being an economist, I can’t answer that.

But I do know that in past times though there may have been mortgage payments and utility bills and all the usual expenses of day-to-day life, there was no monthly cell-phone bill . . . there was no monthly cable or internet connection bill . . . there was no high health insurance payment due . . . there usually was not a second or third car payment bill due . . . and let’s not even start talking about the cost of a higher-education where funds must be saved or financed for the Masters or Ph.D rather than for the Bachelors degree – which now for the most part is about as useful to the job-seeker as a High School degree was in times past – useful, that is, as a mere nod into the door of a low-paying entry job.

In times of hardship one looks to times of past hardships for answers: what to do, how to survive. There’s also the sense of seeking reassurance that indeed, people did survive. They did live and love and eat and hate and plot and plan and dream and finally either regain their feet – or if not – simply go on living, somehow.

One of our most-revered writers on life, food, and hungers – MFK Fisher – wrote a huge body of work during the 1940’s during times of war and some hardships. Consider the Oyster (1941) was written as she and her husband Dillwyn Parrish fled a war-torn Europe to come back to the US. Dillwyn was dying – in a most painful way – in a way where his body was slowly, bit by bit, being claimed by Buerger’s disease. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942 – the year when the rationing (already in place in England) finally came to US shores.

Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Soon afterward, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were rationed by November 1943.[3] (Source wiki-rationing-US)

How To Cook A Wolf is full of information about how to survive when there is little to survive on. I’ve read this book more than once, in varying circumstances. The time I most appreciated it was when I moved to Paris into a wonderful apartment whose heating system required the insertion of coins into a small box on the wall. It seemed apt to read MFKF then and there.

Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers, looking for answers in terms of ‘what to eat’ when the pocketbook is hurting. Gently given advice to ‘Go fishing for your dinner‘, or to ‘Gather wild foods for the one daily meal’, and ‘Eat mush‘ (recipe provided) come to mind.

In 1943 MFKF published The Gastronomical Me – to my mind the greatest of her works. Here is life, punctuated by food. Food is the thing that binds, that ties, that rocks, that cradles – a river that the larger themes of existence flow upon, with the prose of MFKF as wind goddess moving it all along.

Then followed a novel, then the translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

There are many ways to face being pinched by the dollar. As for myself, I won’t try cooking and eating mush – unless I really have to. And I am grateful that my days are not spent scanning the skies for warplanes and fires.

But I will read MFK Fisher. And not just only (or not even substantially) for the advice she gives (though some of it is good).

I’ll read her just for her words, alone. They’re better in some ways than even the most perfect slab of Kobe beef.

An added bonus? They are sustainable.
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Live recording of Billie Holiday from the 1940’s: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

William Carlos Williams – This Is Just To Say (1934)

Ice. Most of us don’t think about it a lot. It’s there in the freezer, or dispensed by the icemaker.

Clink clink. The ice cubes go into the drink!

William Carlos Williams penned the lines above in a fleeting moment – one of those brief moments when the time is taken to ‘just say’ something innocuous to stand as a ‘hello’ to the other. Yet those few lines now sit sturdily in the common consciousness of all who have read them.

At the core of the poem-vision are plums. Not just any plums. Iced plums.

Plums with red-purple delicate skins dotted with the bloom of chill.

Plums promising an icy dribble of densely sweet juice to swallow, on a scathingly hot summer day.

The icebox in this poem was (in all probability) a real icebox – which is a box to keep things cold, with real blocks of solid ice within it.

Would those plums have been so startlingly evocative that the power of poetry grew amassed within them if they had been sitting on the countertop, not chilled, not icy, not essentially a thing made from ice?

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Mental Floss had an article titled The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice in this month’s issue.

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Ice is here with us at this very moment – in icicles long and sword-like hanging from the eaves of houses, on car windows frozen and frosted. Ice has wrapped its glittering glory around trees, completely enveloping every branch, gripping tightly each rare determined nubby emerging tip of bud, in some parts of the world.

When the car window needs scraping from the solid impermeable ice it is difficult to sense a poetic gesture anywhere nearby.

Remember, though.

The plums.

An icebox, filled with ice.

A handwritten note, hastily scrawled yet intentful.
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More on the history of ice can be found here:

What’s Cooking America

And here are several pages written by Elizabeth David on ice.

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I haven’t trounced the ballontine yet. It continues its sneaky advance.

There are a few recipes for ballontines online. Not a lot. The ballontine has lost to the galantine in recent years, badly.

Here’s part of a recipe for a galantine I found online – it does make mention of a ballontine some number of paragraphs into the recipe: (Note – this recipe is from a cookbook published in the year 1889 titled ‘Choice Cookery’ by Catherine Owen. Please try to stay awake – the directions are not only lengthy but also loquacious!)

Galantines are so useful and handsome a dish in a large family, or one where many visitors are received, that it is well worth while to learn the art of boning birds in order to achieve them. Nor, if the amateur cook is satisfied with the unambitious mode of boning hereafter to be described, need the achievement be very difficult.

Experts bone a bird whole without breaking the skin, but to accomplish it much practice is required; and even where it is desirable to preserve the shape of the bird, as when it is to be braised, or roasted and glazed for serving cold, it can be managed with care if boned the easier way. However, if nice white milk-fed veal can be obtained, a very excellent galantine may be made from it, and to my mind to be preferred to fowl, because, because as a matter of fact, when boned there is such a thin sheet of meat that it but serves as a covering for the force-meat (very often sausage-meat), and although it makes a savory and handsome dish, it really is only glorified sausage-meat, much easier to produce in some other way. This is, of course, not the case with turkey; but a boned turkey is so large a dish that a private family might find it too much except for special occasions. On the other hand, galantines of game, although the birds may be still smaller, are so full of flavor that it overwhelms that of the dressing. The following process of boning, however, applies to all birds. To accomplish the work with ease and success, a French boning-knife is desirable, but in the absence of one a sharp-pointed case-knife may do.

That’s just the beginning of the directions. I had a startled moment of recognition when first reading this, then realized that the author sounded very much like my friend Katerina la Vermintz (who actually has a habit of sounding exactly like me if I don’t edit everything I write really rigorously!)

The cookbook, which is online here, starts everyone off on the right foot by instructing the readers as follows:

Choice cookery is not intended for households that have to study economy, except where economy is a relative term; where, perhaps, the housekeeper could easily spend a dollar for the materials of a luxury, but could not spare the four or five dollars a caterer would charge.

Many families enjoy giving little dinners, or otherwise exercising hospitality, but are debarred from doing so by the fact that anything beyond the ordinary daily fare has to be ordered in, or an expensive extra cook engaged. And although we may regret that hospitality should ever be dependent on fine cooking, we have to take things as they are. It is not every hostess who loves simplicity that dares to practise it.

Well, dearie me! I daresay I could spare four or five dollars for a caterer. Where is the phone number? Please advise.

Right now I must take my leave. Something to do. I think it might be something along the lines of making dinner!

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The Fast Food Feminist posted a collection of links to sugar plum recipes last year around this time – along with some philosophic musings.

Here is the post:

Sugar: Many Ways of Sweetness


Photo Flickr-Phil Gyford


Are there different ways to be “sweet”? Women are defined in general presumption to be like the rhyme “sugar and spice and everything nice” (whether we wish to be or not)(personally I have no problem with the sugar or spice part but that word “nice” does tend to grate on my nerves)(nice nice nice blech)(reminds me of how guys sometimes look at a girl and say “Smile!” to her. Pah. Smile yourself, my friend.)


Does sugar have more than one flavor or bite?

I decided to look to sugarplums for wisdom.

Sugarplums are thought of as a Christmas sweet – though many people have never seen or tasted one. What are they?

Fast Food Feminist put on her detective hat to find out.
Food Reference.com tells us that sugarplums were originally sugar coated coriander, rather like the sugar coated seeds which many know from the end of a meal at an Indian restaurant. In olden times these were called “comfits”. Comforting things.

tells us that Queen Isabella and Benjamin Franklin loved sugarplums. I’m not sure whether that fact will make me run out to chow down on some, though the examples shown are well-rounded and solidly bourgeois and even look as if one alone might make a delicious meal.
has a different take on the sugarplum, saying they may have been actual plums preserved in sugar. I wish sugar could preserve me, too, but so far there is no proof that this could occur.

website has an excellent recipe for sugarplums made in the Victorian fashion (always so jolly, you know) that includes crystallized ginger, which I personally adore. It’s pretty fast to make, too.

Those who prefer the intellectual gourmandism of Saveur Magazine
will likely swear by the recipe provided in their forums.

There is a blogger named Sugarplum
who this year did not make sugarplums at all but who instead provided sweetness in life through cranberry-pistachio bark, a recipe I too know and love, as much for its fastness as for its foodie-ness and imagined femininity though of course one does have to imagine a bit to guess at that.
knows sugarplums as wild plums to be gathered from the fertile earth, then to be carefully laid out, sugared and dried. A simple feast, an earthy thing of honor.

The women who write in the Traditional Witches Forum
speak of the same ingredients and technique for sugarplums as Saveur does. Which brings to mind the question: Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Playing on the sweetness and light of sugarplums,
gives us a recipe for Sugarplum Tofu with Udon. Another way of sweetness, this one with a corporate relations link at the top of the page.

Sugarplums are many things, of differing varieties.

Therefore sugar apparently is as you like it, if we follow the wisdom of sugarplums.

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There have been a few changes since last year: Whole Foods changed the title of their recipe to not include the word ‘sugarplum’ but rather just ‘plum’. I wonder why. Was the word ‘sugarplum’ just a bit too perky for Whole Paycheck Foods? Oh well. Likely we’ll never know.

And the link to the sugarplum recipe from Diary of a Kentucky Cook is now here.

Sugarplums always start their rounds this time of year – the visions of them created by the well-known poem, dancing round in our heads – is so warming, so old fashioned, so slow food. But sugarplums are fast food.

They are so easily made in the home kitchen today. Most recipes are just chop stir shape for the most part.

It’s funny to think of sugarplums being fast food.

Now if I had to grow the ingredients that went into them, or if I had to dry or shell things, or chop down sugarcane or even peel and distill the stuff to make sugar, then to my mind sugarplums would be slow food.

Actually I’m sort of glad that sugarplums are fast food. I don’t have a whole lot of time around the holidays and no wish to wear an apron (or chefs coat for that matter) for two or three weeks straight.

So I will dream of fast food tonight.

Sugarplums. They dance in my head, and rather quickly too!

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(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)

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Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Here’s my favorite bit of the book – it comes from the chapter titled ‘The Edible Earth’ and the subject is wheat, which the author has nick-named ‘The World Conquerer’:

No relief of the Triumph of Progress, of the kind which often decorates the tympana of our academies and institutions, would be complete without some ears or sheaves. Yet I can imagine a world in which this perception will seem laughable. A few years ago, I invented creatures of fantasy whom I called the Galactic Museum Keepers, and invited the reader to picture them, as they look back at our world in a remote future, from an immense distance of time and space, where, with a degree of objectivity unattainable by us – who are enmeshed in history – they will see our past quite differently from the way we see it ourselves. They will classify us, perhaps, as puny parasites, victims of feeble self-delusion, whom wheat cleverly exploited to spread itself around the world. Or else they will see us in an almost symbiotic relationship with edible grasses, as mutual parasites, dependent on each other and colonizing the world together.

I’d love to go on quoting, but I’d have to go on forever.

Fernandez-Armesto writes of cannibalism and of the family dinner table. Not in the same sentence, of course.

He writes of Nenets who ‘chomp living lice lifted from their own bodies “like candy” ‘. Of the claim that ‘the only objectively verifiable fact which sets our species apart from others is that we cannot successfully mate with them’, of meals that can become ‘sacrificial sharings, love feasts, ritual acts, occasions for the magical transformations wrought by fire’. And this is all before page 12.

The forging of community through food is explored (and I’m not sure I agree with his final conclusions about this but that’s part of the fun of it all, isn’t it?).

I thought of locavores when reading in the chapter ‘Food and Rank’ that

Diversity in diet is a function of distance: it attains impressive proportions when the products of different climates and eco-niches are united on the same table. For most of history, long-range trade has been a small-scale, hazardous, costly adventure; so diversity of diet has been a privilege of wealth or a reward of rank.

Have locavores flipped this thing over in terms of social rank today?

Crop yield comparisons, the ‘Green Revolution’, industrialized food and hygiene, non-eating and discussion of the Campbells soup can as postmodernist icon (another place where I had some questions about his conclusion but my head is spinning at the moment just trying to even list the ideas to think of so far, the few I’ve pulled out from this marvelous, dancing history book).

Books with lots of facts and research are often written with little index cards spread all over the place, to create the architecture, to keep the structure in mind, to remember what to write.

But I can not believe it with this book. The way it swoops around and sings, the way it gives off sparks within the gathered thoughts – makes me think that the author not only knows his subject incredibly well but that it’s just possible he’s been blessed with a photographic memory.

To end . . . from the frontspiece of the book, by Wordsworth:

And oft I thought (my fancy was so strong)
That I, at last, a resting place had found;
“Here I will dwell,” said I, “my whole life long,
Roaming the illimitable waters round;
Here I will live, of all but heaven disowned,
And end my days upon the peaceful flood.” –
To break my dream the vessel reached its bound;
And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.

I wonder if Wordsworth’s dusky hunger and sense of loss would have been salved by the glowing ball of light that is this book.

I’d guess . . . yes.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

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(This is part 2 of 3 posts.)

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Plod, plod, plod.

Plodding is a fact of life.

Everyone does it. There are those who embrace plodding as the most virtuous and acceptable way to live. Within this form of thinking, the idea of stepping out of the circle of plodding to do a little jig or a mad pirouette or a sudden break-dance is a nefarious idea.

I’m rather anti-plod myself. Although I plod often enough and know that life requires plodding, I also believe that if one can escape it, one should.

The writing of history often starts off with a traditional form. It’s called a time-line, and the thought of time-lines (outside of the idea of memorizing facts, which is not the highest calling I personally can think of) leaves me feeling a deep despair.

Open the book and there they are – the march of history goes forward from beginning to end, measured out by time. My mind goes to thoughts of Alfred Prufrock.

I opened the pages of ‘Near a Thousand Tables’ and there was no time-line.

Instead, there was a dance. A dance of ideas, a whirling through history viewed as concepts plucked in gathered handfuls. History not viewed straight-line but rather as a sea.

Instead of ‘And at the beginning there was . . . ‘, there is this: The Invention of Cooking. Followed by (gasp) (see me doing a little dance myself) The Meaning of Eating – Food as Rite and Magic. Then Breeding to Eat; The Edible Earth; Food and Rank; The Edible Horizon; Challenging Evolution; and finally Feeding the Giants.

He’s not coloring within the lines.
Thank goodness I do not have to think of Alfred Prufrock.
Halleliuija!
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Though I would like to write more on this, at the moment I must go plod at some usual things. My mind is filled with dance and the sea, though – and if I have the least chance to set in a bit of anti-plod here and there, I will.

And I’ll also come back to write more on this dancing book of food history in the next post.

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Sorry, dudes. I think it already happened.

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(This is part 1 of 3 posts.)

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‘Near a Thousand Tables’ is a very different book within the genre of food history than I’ve ever seen or read before. There may be books equal to (or similar to) it – my reading on food history is only a small part of the other sorts of reading I do so I may have missed something like it along the way. If so, I rue it. There should be more books like this.

Let me set my placement as ‘food history reader’ so my thoughts on this book can be weighed and measured knowing that stance:

* The first food history book I ever read (aside from grammar school lessons on turkeys and pumpkins et al) was Larousse Gastronomique. The volume was the 1971 edition. Though Larousse is not defined exactly as a ‘food-history’ book there exists within it a tremendous amount of food history nonetheless. The reading of it (in my mind at the time) was as preparation to be a chef – the idea of which was a vague stirring inside me. I read each entry from A to Z and loved it. In retrospect (in view of the marketplace for these sorts of things) it’s shame I didn’t read it now instead of then and try to sell a book based upon following the entries! But I can not read that thing from A to Z again.

* Masses of Gourmet Magazines, from the years anywhere between 1960 and 1990. The writers during those years of Gourmet often wrote of food history under the guise of merely writing of gourmet food. Somewhere around 1990 this sort of writing disappeared from Gourmet – swallowed below the wide swaths of surface food: how to cook and what to cook to be a gourmet cook par excellence, where to travel, what to buy for the kitchen. I can understand how this happened – the foodie revolution had begun and as a group-in-general foodies are interested in the ‘now’ of things: what’s hot and what’s not. The urge was for a fashion statement and Gourmet shifted its tone to suit the readers. I’m glad it did, and glad it survived. In recent years, Ruth Reichl has been gently and intelligently re-shaping the magazine to be more than just an ephemeral statement about acquisition and food fashion. Today Gourmet has morphed back from being a rainbow-colored gigantic lollipop wrapped in shiny cellophane with a nice big stick to hold tightly while waving around in the grip of a well-manicured hand, into something more than that. Thank goodness.

* Waverly Root – and how he has come under attack in later years! James Beard – who is not as well known for his writings as he is for the charitable Foundation created with his name whose Board often appears to be trying to figure out how to handle or mis-handle the fairly decent lashings of money they manage to gather. MFK Fisher – who writes of food history almost by default as she writes, as she does write to entertain and story-tell, to gather her audience close with their ears eagerly perked. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. Roy Andries de Groot, Evan Jones. The Settlement Cookbook. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Marion Cunningham. Patricia Bunning Stevens. Margaret Visser, Charles Perry, John Egerton, Sherrie Inness, Rachel Laudan, Clifford Wright, Paula Wolfert, Madeleine Pelner-Cosman. And so many more I can not remember at the moment. These readings come from this part of the globe and not other parts of the globe solely due to the fact that I can only read my native language (English) (as opposed to other languages) at a level that allows the understanding of any subliminal intonations in the text (or as many as a general reader might try to find, anyway). I dearly love the writings of all the above authors. And aside from love which is a fanciful thing, I respect them all immensely.

* Cambridge ‘World History of Food’ sits on my bookshelf, as do the Oxford ‘Companion to Food’ and Oxford ‘Food and Drink in America’. All great reference books, but I’m unsure how much I really ‘learn’ from them as I dread to pull them off the shelf for fear of falling asleep due to the generally dry academic writing styles and the length of the entries. I am not a true scholar, in this sense.

That’s where I’m coming from as a reader. Add the fact that I also have a strong aversion to reading things wherein the author appears to have pulled out a bunch of facts from somewhere and plopped them down like a lesson plan on to the page with little or no value added: no creative POV to take the thing to the next level – or alternately, if the author’s voice is not the sort that would independently charm me into not really caring if there were a next level added or not.

Having said all that, I am madly in love with ‘Near a Thousand Tables’.

In the next post I’ll tell you why – and tell you of my respect for the book too. Right now I’ve ranted on for so long that it is past time to go make breakfast – or be charged with Treason by my children. Treason by Reason of Blogging.
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P.S. In my urge to rush off to feed these obviously-starving-to-death children I forgot to add a very important something (or rather someone) – Reay Tannahill. Her book ‘Food in History’ is my very favorite food history book in the world till now.

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I'm Not Sure I Like This Sort of Talk

Turtle Soup, anyone?

IN 1879, a homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and wrote a long fantasy menu of all his favorite American foods. The menu began as a joke, with Twain describing the 80-dish spread as a “modest, private affair” that he wanted all to himself. But it reads today as a window into a great change in American life — the gradual, widespread disappearance of wild foods from the nation’s tables.

Thus starts the succinct and warmly-laden op-ed from Wednesday’s New York Times. Strategically placed to be read on the day before our Thanksgiving, it reads in taste like an elegant prelude to the day – a frame upon which thoughts could be hung and embroidered.

Clicking the link to this story (which on my usual homepage was mixed in with all the other Thanksgiving offerings) the title appeared: ‘Where the Wild Things Were’. Maurice Sendak makes me jump with joy, so I started to jump with joy at even that least hint about anything to do with his books. If I were not just scraping by with barely enough sanity to know that I don’t want to embarrass my children by ruining the idea of ‘mother’ in some vital way for them, I’d buy and wear the T-shirt I picked up and held onto tightly at a store I saw recently – it was silkscreened with the cover illustration from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. It made me sad to finally put it down and walk out of the store without it.

Discontinuing momentarily my musings on ‘what motherhood should be’, Maurice Sendak and goofy T-shirts I continuing on with reading the NYT piece.

The authors name was Andrew Beahrs, writing from Berkeley, California. Andrew Beahrs – where had I heard that name? Berkeley I dismissed from my mind – as much as I could, anyway. This wasn’t going to be about Sendak but it just might be good anyway.

Andrew Beahrs rocks when talking Twain. (Or when talking Samuel Clemens, who of course was who Twain was.) Here’s another snippet from his piece:

The Pilgrims appreciated wild foods for their contribution to survival; Twain, for their taste and their hold on his memory. All saw the foods as fundamental to the America they knew. None would have imagined that many would one day be seen as curiosities.

After finishing reading this piece, I knew where Andrew Beahrs had entered my mind before. And why this all seemed vaguely familiar.

In the Gastronomica Spring 2007 Issue: Investigations – Twain’s Feast – “The American” at Table, Beahrs writes of Twain and of the American foods he described in ‘A Tramp Abroad’ in a much more extensive piece. Not an appetizer, limited in size to the smaller plate of the op-ed page – but as a longer piece, as a full-course meal.

(That particular issue of Gastronomica is one of my favorites to date. If you do not subscribe to the journal, there is one downloadable article per month available through the website. The Spring 2007 offering was not the Beahrs piece, but H.E. Chehabi’s ‘How Caviar Turned Out to be Halal’ is an astonishing tale of political intrigue, social mores and tradition, the ways of formalized religion, ritual, and more.)

From Publisher’s Weekly Oct. 10, 2008:

Penguin Press has just acquired Twain’s Feast: ‘The American’ at Table. Laura Stickney beat one other bidder for North American rights via Emma Sweeney. In the book, author Andrew Beahrs will search for America’s lost foods with Twain as his guide, weaving passages of Twain’s writing and historical research into a narrative of Twain’s travels; Sweeney compares the book to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (also published by Penguin Press) or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

Yes, I think I’ll read it. 🙂

Links:
“A Tramp Abroad” by Mark Twain (section with menu)
New York Times Op-Ed “Where the Wild Things Were” by Andrew Beahrs

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The countdown has begun. The plans are being discussed. The larders (that means cupboards and refrigerators for those of you who prefer modern speech) are being filled and filled and filled.

It’s the Day to Be Thankful. Or (more commonly) the Day to Get Stuffed Till You Hurt. Add a pinch of the usual dissonances that happen when family (sorry, Family) must gather from all their own homes to the Gathering Place of Holiday and what you have is Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day used to be the start of the Holiday Season. It was the date on which one could expect to have to start worrying about gifts, money, food, people, other people, parties, diets, party clothes, decorations, credit card debt, wrapping paper, ribbons and tape, red tape, lines at the stores, malls with parking lots the size of small cities, office gatherings filled with charming lechery from the least charming people who’d slugged down a bit too much punch (make that wine – punch is ‘out’), plans for alliances and non-alliances, health club memberships for the New Year when one would get Skinny and Gorgeous, and what stuffing would be served and with what on what day. Ham, Turkey, Roast Beef. We need large ones. We need Heirloom ones. (I always think of the turkey-pluckers on these days, their fingers chilled as those pinfeathers continue to stick even after the boiling water dipping machine and the tossing around like a whirlwind feather-removing machine have done their industrial jobs yet not well enough, not well enough for whatever-price per pound these babies are costing their investor-eaters).

We need Brussel Sprouts, and God Only Knows Why.

Thanksgiving is not the start of the holiday season anymore – Halloween holds that place of honor as the plans grow more startlingly consumptive (yes, two meanings to that word!) and well-caramelized.

We have a lot to be thankful for. But let’s get real. Are we really celebrating an American Traditional Thanksgiving at our tables with this meal of choice and habit?  Or . . . is it all a little trick played on us?

Could it be that a writer invented this holiday as we know it and celebrate it, and that somehow we have simply forgotten the real way of the holiday in an excess of the sort of jolly jingo-istic sentiment that seems to grab the masses by the throat heart, and with the soft prettiness of it all manages to serve up a paint-the-kitten-on-velvet-by-numbers kit for dinner?

One does like things to be nice nice. Nice nice is so nice.

Lets’ try this on for size, instead – for our Thanksgiving dinner:

First, wild turkey was never mentioned in Winslow’s account. It is probable that the large amounts of “fowl” brought back by four hunters were seasonal waterfowl such as duck or geese.

And if cranberries were served, they would have been used for their tartness or color, not the sweet sauce or relish so common today. In fact, it would be 50 more years before berries were boiled with sugar and used as an accompaniment to meat.

Potatoes weren’t part of the feast, either. Neither the sweet potato nor the white potato was yet available to colonists.

The presence of pumpkin pie appears to be a myth, too. The group may have eaten pumpkins and other squashes native to New England, but it is unlikely that they had the ingredients for pie crust – butter and wheat flour. Even if they had possessed butter and flour, the colonists hadn’t yet built an oven for baking.

“While we have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available in 1621, just what was served is a tougher nut to crack,” Ms. Curtin says.

A couple of guesses can be made from other passages in Winslow’s correspondence about the general diet at the time: lobsters, mussels, “sallet herbs,” white and red grapes, black and red plums, and flint corn.

That makes for a different sort of table, a bit.

Then how did this reality of a holiday which-is-not actually occur?

Until the early 1800s, Thanksgiving was considered to be a regional holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection.

But the 19th century had its own Martha Stewart, and it didn’t take her long to turn New England fasting into national feasting. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, stumbled upon Winslow’s passage and refused to let the historic day fade from the minds – or tables – of Americans. This established trendsetter filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving.

It was also about this time – in 1854, to be exact – that Bradford’s history book of Plymouth Plantation resurfaced. The book increased interest in the Pilgrims, and Mrs. Hale and others latched onto the fact he mentioned that the colonists had killed wild turkeys during the autumn.

In her magazine Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies – all the foods that today’s holiday meals are likely to contain.

In the process, she created holiday “traditions” that share few similarities with the original feast in 1621.

In 1858, Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote: “Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation, when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the length of the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”

Five years later, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

“[Hale’s] depiction is wrong much more often than it’s right,” says Nancy Brennan, president of Plimoth Plantation.

So. Is it Turkey Day or is it not? I’d say it definitely is Turkey Day in some ways. In more ways than one.

In the final analysis one must gather one’s turkeys where they may, as they batten the hatches momentarily against the onslaught of the rest of the ravaging hoolidays holidays to come along on the rampage in short shrift.

One of my favorite questions in the whole wide world is raised by all this. The question is: What is real?

When it looks really pretty and nice, it’s worth poking at to be sure it is true. Or even real.

Enjoy your bird no matter the feather! Even if you are quietly thankful, and choose to not stuff yourself or any bird, fish or fowl whatsoever. Eat what you like, for the day belongs to you – not  to some dead editor of a ladies magazine who lived a long time ago.

And if the bird pecks you, peck right back. It’s the holiday season, after all. And listen up, all you groaning-table and screaming football fans:

‘fasting and quiet reflection’

appears to be quite American after all.

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Source of quoted material: The First Thanksgiving CS Monitor November 2002
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From a different Thanksgiving day:

A Modern Woman’s Thanksgiving


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In a general sense, every person who blogs on food is blogging food history. A rather remarkable record exists of our current times free of most of the constraints which limited real-time documentation of foodways in past times – today’s blogs document both high-end and lower-end dining. What’s blogged today is what is actually on the tables across the world of everyone who has access to a computer and the internet and who is literate enough to create a blog. Oral histories – served up on a plate!

Aside from food bloggers who write of the foods they cook (or the places they have dined) there are bloggers who delve into the topic of food history. What a wonderful way to look upon times past! Food is so close to us in our daily lives – reading of the history of it can conjure up a picture of “the way things used to be” with such intimacy – moreso for me than do stories of historic wars or political conflicts. In some way the history of food makes the past personal and know-able, whereas the stories of historic wars blend the past pretty much into one big mass of sameness with not too much different but the names of the people and the tactics they undertook. Chacun sa gout. I, remember what hits my tongue . . . the smell of garlic rising from around the corner of the next street, the crisp bits of breadcrumb upon the tablecloth, the essence of soy sauce, or chicken stock, or steak grilling in undertones as one walks by a window, the pots or pans and fires and electric coils or charcoal briquets, the bamboo steamers so soft and light, the firm grassiness of a black eggplant in a pile of firm grassy black eggplants capped with their elfin stem of bitter green. I like to know how others have experienced this, in past times. So much the same, so much different. So much to know.

Several of my favorite bloggers-of-food-history are already linked to in the sidebar, but happily today I have another to add: Gherkins and Tomatoes is a fairly new entry into this group – and I love it. I hope you do too.

The history of food always must touch upon the mysteries of food, and of the people (all of us) who eat and what we eat – for so very many reasons, and not only just to fill the tummy.

It’s always about more than just filling the tummy. Ask anyone who makes a meal.

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organic prius

You put your left foot in

You put your right foot out

You put your left foot in

And you shake it all about

You grab yourself a partner and you turn yourself about

That’s what it’s all about!

Anybody remember the hokey-pokey dance? Always fun, even the confusing parts that should not have been but were, in the silly way of these song-and-dance routines.

What to eat. Why to eat it. Who does it affect, this seemingly not-all-that-important-decision made three or four or five times a day.

These are questions that run through every thoughtful person’s mind – some more, some less.

What a luxury of questions they are too – when one stops to consider that many people in the world can only ask themselves one question regarding their food: Where can I get enough of any sort to survive and thrive?

I haven’t come up with my own clear-cut food philosophy when it come to the (big? small?) questions of what I should eat. Like many others I know, I do the hokey-pokey. One day at a time, sorting and sifting the masses of information surging over the information superhighway, hoping that what I read is true enough to lead me down the right paths.

One writer I trust to give me accurate and useful information and ideas is the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In a compelling article in the Times-Online yesterday his essay begins:

The State exists to feed people. Politicians proclaim defence or law and order or social issues or wealth creation or health as their priority. But without food, nothing else matters. For most of history, leaders were those who knew how to get it – sometimes by hunting prowess, sometimes by means of a gift for commanding herds, sometimes by naked power, forcing subjects to work in the fields and dig ditches, and sometimes by mediating with the gods or spirits of nature.

The article can be found here. It’s one of the most interesting essays I’ve read on this topic (ever).

Artwork credit Mike Licht/NotionsCapital

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