History and Culture

Sugar cookies with historical flavor

I actually don’t dislike sugar cookies, despite tweaking them yesterday. They’re fun and they’re traditional, which is good enough in December. But they’re limited in two ways — one structural, one avoidable. The first is that if you add enough butter to make them rich and really tasty, they’re an awful pain to roll — you certainly can’t let your kids do it. And even if you can roll them, too much butter will make them spread in the oven so that your angels look a little pudgy and Santa downright blobbish. You can have fabulous butter flavor and texture, or you can have pretty things your kids can roll. Most recipes compromise.

The second problem is that we flavor them only and exclusively with vanilla. Now, I like vanilla — don’t bite my head off — but it’s so overused in American baking that we don’t even notice it unless, say, we steep a real bean in milk to make custard and scrape in the flecks to draw attention. I didn’t mind or even notice the ubiquity of vanilla until I started baking cakes and cookies from the time before vanilla extract was widely available, and then I realized, for example, that it doesn’t actually bring anything to peanut butter cookies; nutmeg is better.

Now, sugar cookies have always had wonderful cousins that avoid one or both of these problems. (more…)

A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why. (more…)

What’s “processed”?

Suppose you want to eat less processed food. Given how and what most Americans eat, that impulse is probably a good one. But once we go beyond the obvious (cheese curls, sugar cereal, hot dogs) you find yourself down the rabbit hole. What about that bottle of salad dressing you use to perk up your unprocessed salad? Is hot sauce ok? What boxed cereal can you eat? You start squinting over ingredients lists, blocking the grocery aisle with your empty cart. You accept an invitation to a potluck and sit horror-struck by the potential dangers lurking in the dishes, feeling your appetite slipping away like blue cheese dressing off a greasy wing. To bolster your flagging courage, you read endless blog posts about why the things you’ve given up are killing other people’s children. You develop an evangelical zeal, gnawed by the fear that your friends will make fun of you the moment you step out of the room. You begin to wonder if you should get new friends.

And then you throw up your hands and dive into a bag of Doritos.

Now, I am the last person to advocate eating most of the food available in American supermarkets. I make my own jam and pickles, I bake bread, I cook practically every meal from scratch, I shop at farmers’ markets. After twenty years of living and eating like this, industrially processed food no longer really tastes like food. Forget health concerns; it just isn’t particularly satisfying.

But having lived this way for twenty years — and having put a great deal of thought into it during that time, and having done a lot of research on how foods were historically prepared — I’m painfully aware that any notion of purity about this business is foolishness. Cooking is, after all, processing, and humans have been doing that for what, fifty thousand years? We’ve been grinding grain into meal for five thousand years, and we’ve been processing and selling food commercially (mainly as grain, oil, and spices) for probably four thousand. I can, if I try, justify the natural origins of practically any edible substance — or find fault with the freshest of fruits. (What the heck is “food-grade wax”?)

Obviously, any sane and sensible person is going to draw a line somewhere. But any line we draw will to some extent be arbitrary; any principle we set will inevitably include some things that seem thoroughly unnatural and exclude others we can’t manage without. I’m going to consider some possible standards, suggest an alternative that’s (you won’t be surprised to learn) largely historical, show how difficult it is to apply even that comparatively objective standard — and then draw some conclusions about navigating this mess sensibly. It’s a long piece, but hit-and-run easy answers are exactly what we need to avoid. (more…)

Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, which is simple enough, but the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white. (more…)

Fastnachts

I don’t guess I can let Fastnacht Day pass without saying something about the doughnuts. On what the English call Shrove Tuesday and the French call Mardi Gras, the day before Lent begins — “Fastnacht” means “eve of the fast” — Pennsylvania Germans have traditionally made potato doughnuts instead of pancakes or beignets. Of course I made some, as I do every year. (more…)

Candlemas

Everett in the snow

If the basset hound fails to see his shadow tomorrow morning, he will continue taking up your entire couch for another six weeks. But he’s likely to do that anyway.

Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed: (more…)

What you could grow (and when) in 1800

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests, and being President of the United States doesn’t seem to have deterred him from pursuing them. If from the White House he couldn’t putter in his beloved garden at Monticello, he still managed to keep up with the business. During his eight years in Washington, he kept track in his journal of the produce available month by month at the city market and drew up a chart showing each item’s earliest and latest availability during his residence — a fascinating, if a bit foggy and bubbly, window into early American gardening and vegetable consumption.

Because I’ll not be out-geeked by a two-centuries-dead president, I’ve made an HTML version of Jefferson’s chart. His handwritten original was quite clever (you can see it at low resolution on the Monticello website) and I’ve preserved the basic design while adding a bit of interactivity: for now just the ability to mouse over headings to highlight rows and columns, but eventually also to view definitions and commentary on various items of produce. (more…)

Ye Olde Worcestershire: Eliza Leslie’s Scotch sauce, 1837

For Christmas dinner I wanted to try something historical — besides the cookies, I mean, and other than a plum pudding, which nearly killed me the one time I tried to eat it after the full-on holiday feast. The centerpiece was roast beef (top sirloin, which is nearly as good as prime rib and about a third the price per pound of actual meat), and heaven knows people ate enough beef in the nineteenth century. What did they put on that beef? Well, how about Worcestershire sauce? (more…)

Have yourself a medieval Christmas

My daughter, who is eight, tells me that her favorite Christmas carol is “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a half-millenium-old Spanish song about the perfection of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. With vivid lyrics about furious wolves and innocent lambs, accompanied by whatever handheld percussion happens to be available, it at once explains the theology of both the incarnation and the immaculate conception (centuries before even the Catholic Church accepted the latter) and gets everyone off their feet to dance and spin — if, hearing it today, they dare dance to a Christmas carol. An eight year-old dares, because she happily doesn’t see the contradiction between devotion and dancing. And I’m realizing that she’s right. (more…)

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. (more…)