History and Culture

Lemon sponge pie

The lemon sponge pie is simply a lemon custard pie with separately beaten egg whites, and I think it began as an attempt to lighten lemon custard pie — an attempt that failed, but produced something entirely different. When you fold beaten egg whites into cake batter, the batter is thick enough to hold the egg whites in place, but custard filling is thin enough that in the oven, the egg whites separate out and float to the top before they set. They bring some of the custard filling with them, though, so that the top layer is essentially a very light lemon sponge cake, which floats over a soft lemon custard. It’s a neat effect, but one I doubt was predicted by the first woman to bake it. (more…)

The hen in winter

Researchers have found the oldest known collection of medieval food recipes:

The recipes, which include both food and medical ointment concoctions, were compiled and written in Latin. Someone jotted them down at Durham Cathedral’s monastery in the year 1140.

It was essentially a health book, so the meals were meant to improve a person’s health or to cure certain afflictions. The other earliest known such recipes dated to 1290.

There really was no distinction between food and medicine in the thirteenth century, or for several centuries thereafter; every food was thought to have properties that affected health. So even the recipe for “hen in winter,” which a researcher says is just a seasonal formula relying on herbs available in cold weather, looks to me like a preventative for colds and flu: “Heat garlic, pepper and sage with water.”

For an explanation, I’m going to excerpt from a talk I gave last year on “Herbs for Meate and Medicine”: (more…)

Zest, wow wow sauce, and William Kitchiner’s magazine of taste

“Magazine” as in powder magazine, that is, not the periodical kind. A personal arsenal of condiments, created by Regency England’s foremost gastronome. As for zest and wow wow sauce… well, we’ll get to those in a minute.

William Kitchiner (1775–1827) was a physician, optician, amateur musician, and above all a lover of good food. His father, a coal merchant, had left him enough of a fortune that he could spend his career as he chose, and he spent a considerable portion of both his money and his time on food. He wrote a number of books, including a guide to choosing opera glasses, but he was best known for The Cook’s Oracle, as comprehensive a cookbook as ever there was, and as good a read as you’ll find in one too, at least if you like early nineteenth-century English humor. Most of the recipes in the book were tested by Kitchiner’s “Committee of Taste,” a panel of fellow gastronomes who gathered regularly at his home. These dinners were famous and famously strict: if the invitation was for five o’clock, the door was locked at two minutes after, and dinner was served precisely on schedule lest it suffer by waiting. At eleven, guests were expected to leave just as promptly.

He made all this clear in his standard invitation to dinner: (more…)

The manly art of baking

As a guy who bakes a lot, I get sort of tired of seeing baking portrayed as some cutesy thing that mommy bloggers do while their toddlers crawl around the kitchen, licking flour off the flour. Nothing against mommy bloggers, understand. Or toddlers. But sometimes I wish there were a more, you know, manly depiction of baking.

Enter the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Jost Ammam, who produced this woodcut for The Book of Trades, a collection of illustrated poems: (more…)

A brief history of USDA nutritional advice

The USDA has made a big deal the last couple of years about its “healthy plate” model of good eating, which replaces the old food pyramid, which replaced the four food groups, which replaced… well… I thought a chart might help. Today’s post is a visual history of the USDA’s nutritional advice, showing how food groups and recommended servings have changed over the past century. You may note, first of all, that the government has been telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables since 1916. You may also note that until 1943, sugar was a food group. And you may note still further that despite all this advice, our diets are still crap.

Click the screenshot to view the live “interactive” chart:

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Juliet Corson teaches the poor to cook, 1877

Juliet Corson, cooking teacher and writer and founder of the New York Cooking School, was born this date in 1841. Amid the excess and middle-class striving of the Gilded Age, Corson saw the hardships of working families — perhaps because a bad family situation had forced her out on her own at the age of 18 — and she made it a personal crusade to teach working-class women to cook as a way of improving their lives. Well-off women paid her bills, but she used the proceeds to offer inexpensive and free classes to the wives and daughters of working men. Some of those classes focused on helping women find work as professional cooks to the wealthy, but Corson was equally committed to improving their home cooking.

In 1877, after four years of double-digit unemployment and a nationwide railroad strike violently suppressed by federal troops, Corson printed a pamphlet called “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Working-Men’s Families” and distributed fifty thousand copies at her own expense. The pamphlet offered simple, balanced meals to feed a family of six at a cost of three dollars a week (about $65 today). This was not exciting food; a typical day’s meals in Corson’s book included breakfast of broth and bread, a dinner of mutton and turnips, and a supper of macaroni and cheese, or perhaps lentils. Corson’s advice was unflinchingly, and sometimes unpleasantly, practical, as in these instructions on buying second-quality meats: (more…)

Are personal recipes more usable?

When I asked last week which cookbooks and authors offer the most usable recipes, I got some interesting responses. Some people listed cookbooks that really are teaching cookbooks for true beginners, while others listed authors whose recipes are easy to refer to and cook from once you know what you’re doing. It should be fairly easy to identify the former sort, though there aren’t many — assuming it’s possible to learn to cook from a book at all. But I had a harder time seeing what the easy-reference, quick-idea works have in common.

Then a friend pointed out that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is one of her favorites in part because Katzen doesn’t lock a cook in; she gives a basic formula and then, usually, offers variations. Flipping through the cookbook again, I realized that it isn’t just that Katzen offers specific variations; it’s that her entire style encourages you to go your own way. She handwrote her recipes and decorated the margins of the pages, and her tone is that of a friend passing on her recipes. You couldn’t possibly think you were meant to take her advice as gospel — not that she isn’t reliable, but that she doesn’t come off as remotely prescriptive.

What’s more, though, she doesn’t even consistently offer linear instructions. Look at, for example, this recipe for lentil soup: (more…)

The dangers of eating hot bread

One of the perks of baking bread at home — maybe half the point of baking bread at home — is the privilege of hacking off the crust while it’s still hot, slathering it with butter, and eating it messily over the sink. Cookbooks will tell you that bread only develops its full flavor after it cools, which may be true. They will also tell you that if you slice bread while it’s hot, you’ll crush it, which is definitely true. But I do it anyway. Damn the torpedoes and all that.

Thank God I didn’t live in the nineteenth century, though, because then, it would probably have killed me.

Back then, it was commonly believed that eating hot bread was unhealthful — dangerously unhealthful. The famous health reformer Sylvester Graham said bread shouldn’t be eaten until at least twelve hours old. Magazine articles about what ladies should eat for breakfast (of which I’m afraid there were lots) recommended day-old bread and warned sternly that hot buttered toast was “hostile to health and female delicacy.”

Tea, coffee, and milk, are the most wholesome beverages for the morning meal; which should be accompanied, if possible, by home-made bread, at least one day old. This seldom disagrees with any one; if it should, it may be toasted, and buttered cold and slightly; but warm buttered toast is by no means advisable: indeed, it is far preferable to use only hard biscuits, which require no butter, and are of easy digestion. 1

Even the high mortality rate of Indians living on reservations was blamed (by white observers, anyway) on severe indigestion caused by their diet of hot biscuits — not that white flour and cheap fat, which was all they had access to at that point, had no nutritional value, but specifically that the biscuits were eaten hot. (more…)

Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. (more…)

Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”

Daaaad.(more…)