Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Recent History: Crispy Kale

I have fallen in love with kale chips. Their recent history calls up a celebrity chef, the raw food movement, and the blogosphere, and raises a question in my mind about what constitutes an historical trend.

We grow a fair amount of kale in our garden, more than a small household can profitably use so I was delighted to acquire the directions for making kale chips. You can see the recipe by reading my newspaper column for this week here.

Of course, I wondered where the idea came from, how long it has been around, and how it has been disseminated. I encountered kale chips only this past summer via word of mouth from a neighbor who described her method to me. Then this past weekend I ate some in a restaurant that specializes in using local seasonal foods, and with the weather increasingly cold outside here in Maine, kale is one of the last things still in the garden for fresh picking.

Now mind you, I spent all of a half hour poking around on the web to learn about kale chips. The earliest date I found for a mention of them was February 2, 2005 at food.com where the raw food site radicalhealth.com was cited. Further exploration found the method attributed to the celebrity chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill fame in New York.

More mentions about crispy kale or kale chips come up in 2009 and 2010. So the idea and the directions have been around at least five years. Googling crispy kale, however, connects one to lots of food blogs where the bloggers offer advice, luscious close-up pictures, and praise.

I wouldn't call crispy kale a raw food because one bakes it. While there was a flurry of activity with raw food a few years back, even "cook" books, and the occasional raw food restaurant start up, I do not observe a vigorous trend of raw food becoming mainstream.

I doubt crispy kale will ever be mainstream fare either until someone figures out how to produce it commercially. Other increasingly mainstream trends, however, like trickle down chef cookery, and the power, or at least ubiquity, of food blogs certainly are revealed with the current interest in crispy kale.

Two genuine historical trends, in my opinion, are increasing vegetarianism, which has a few centuries of history behind it, and growing interest in local foods which, at least here in Maine, has three decades of back story. Perhaps, the word trend is the bug-bear here. For a food historian, much of what is passed off these days as trends are blips on the radar of time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Two Classic Maine Cookbooks

Marjorie Standish's Cooking Down East, and Marjorie Mosser's Good Maine Food both dating to the mid-20th century, reflect traditional Maine cooking. One is a "her's" book, and one is a "his" book.

Both have recently been reprinted by Down East Books. I'm fresh home from the launch on Wednesday in Portland, Maine, where I spoke about the two, having written a new foreword and scattered commentary for the Mosser book. Star chef Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant did a foreword for the Standish book and inserted some of her own recipes. Melissa cooked from Standish and her own repertoire: Oysters Rockefeller, two kinds of crab cakes, a fish stew and a clam chowder, doughnuts, cannoli, and blueberry cake, all passed around for our delectation. Truly lovely fare.

What do I mean by his and her books?

Cooking Down East is a companion in the kitchen for the household cook (at the time the book was written, that would have been most commonly a woman). The recipes are homey--chowders, blueberry desserts, meatloaf, finnan haddie, pot roast, baked beans, squash pie. Good home cooking. Standish writes in an advisory fashion. Her recipes have incredible legs. In the column I write weekly for the Bangor Daily News, the response to various queries I post for recipes results in family favorites that someone's mother or gram found in Standish's book.

The copy of the book I own is full of splatters and spills, and handwritten recipes on scraps of paper stuck into the book. Used constantly, Standish's cookbook was a friendly, useful, woman-to-woman kind of book.

Good Maine Food by Marjorie Mosser is dominated by Mosser's uncle, the historical novelist Kenneth Roberts. The cookbook was assembled when Robert's Trending into Maine chapter on Maine food, kicked up a pile of nostalgic correspondence. Readers sent recipes and Roberts seemed to be determined to put together a profile of traditional Maine food in the form of a cookbook, heavily larded with his own commentary. No lack of opinion there. He had experienced the last of the Maine culinary tradition, he was sure, with his grandmother's mincemeat and ketchup.

Robert Tristam Coffin similarly held forth similarly in Mainstays of Maine, where the sainted black iron stove in the kitchen under the control of the dominating female relative generated memorable smells and hearty boy-supporting fare. Roberts was not to be outdone.

Besides, the swashbuckling, thumping good tales that Roberts wrote, point to a man's man: someone who fished and hunted and presented some patient woman in the kitchen with dead animals and birds to cook toothsomely. In Mosser's book there is no lack of game and fowl recipes. In the earliest version there is hardly any effete fare at all, though apparently Roberts thought the book ought to have wider appeal and recipes from what Mainers invariably describe as "Away", all of which Maine is surrounded by, invade the cookbook. Timbales, au gratins, aspics and omelets were in fact, going out of fashion even as they were added to the book. Extra-regional favorites as scrapple, jambalaya, and burgoo crop up unaccountably.

One gets the impression that old Uncle Ken sat in the living room with his pipe rack by his side, foot on a hassock, and bellowed out from time to time, "Mrs. R., listen to this," as he read a letter from a reader who suggested a recipe, and then he's holler for his secretary and niece Marjorie to add it to her file for the next edition of Good Maine Food. It was his cookbook, after all.

The 1974 edition of Mosser's cookbook, the one reprinted by Down East is a fun read for men and women alike, suitable for the living room. The Standish one you will take into the kitchen and spill and spatter on. Both represent Maine food history both in the traditional form, and in the gradual overlays that time and change invariably make.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Is True About Lobster?

A query about the myth of lobster being poor man's food in early New England and rejected by apprentices, lumbermen, prisoners, boarding house occupants etc. etc. arrived in my email in-box. At www.foodhistorynews.com, there is an article about this topic on the Debunk House page, and a food writer read it and then wrote saying, "I recently read your article about lobster not being a poor man's food in New England. You stated that this is a common misconception … but [I] wanted to offer you this as an example of apparently documented historical mention of the unimportance of lobster, along with a citation as to the source."

He then quoted John Mariani's Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, 1999 edition: "They [lobsters] sometimes washed up on the beaches of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in piles of two feet high. These settlers approached the creatures with less than gustatory enthusiasm, but the lobsters' abundance made them fit for the tables of the poor...In 1622 Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation apologized to a new arrival of settlers that the only dish he "could presente their friends with was a lobster...without bread or anything else but a cupp of fair water."...The taste for lobster developed rapidly in the nineteenth century, and commercial fisheries specializing in the crustacean were begun in Maine in the 1840s…" etc. etc.

The writer wanted to know, "In your opinion, is this mention of Governor Bradford in 1622 a fabrication? Even the American Lobster Institute supports the position that lobsters were once so abundant in New England as to be used a fertilizer and generally viewed as 'poor man's' food." Then the writer said "I'm engaged in publishing a cook book and am hesitant to cite your article given the abundance of contrary evidence."

The questions posed by the Bradford citation and the other miscellaneous information tucked into Mariani's work is an object lesson in how to frame a question. Here is my response:

Mariani is a very weak source. Pitch it out and replace it with the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andy Smith. It is true that Bradford said that about lobsters, and that must be put into the context of a proper, formal 17th century meal containing animal meat, not merely seafood alone. Bradford is saying they had no beef or pork or mutton which, in the days when a gentry meal had on the table several dishes some of which included one or more of those served in a rather whole condition, in a joint, plus bread, and wine or other brewed beverage. It is not a slam against lobster---merely a statement of fact. AND further it needs to be understood in the context of large joints carrying significance and formality while a lobster, even a big one, is, when picked, still in smallish pieces.

Commercial lobster fishery had its origins much earlier than the 19th century. In the 1740s in NYC, for example, there was a regular market for it, with lobsters caught in Long Island sound conveyed into the city and sold live. And lobsters were not used for fertilizer though the empty shells were -- a misconception rising I think because of the amount of lobster refuse from 19th century canneries hauled off by farmers who spread it on their fields where city slickers saw it and concluded that the poor dumb farmers were using the lobsters...

Lobsters were a subsistence food where there was no market but were sometimes too valuable to eat if where was a market, hence the story about it being food for the poor. One has to make the effort to hold these two seemingly conflicting notions in mind at the same time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Southern Lady, Northern Food

Edges are the most fruitful places to look for information about what is and what used to be historically. An edge is a point of time when things are changing and people experiencing change comment on what went before. An edge is a stressful situation, like war, deprivation, or new settlement. An edge can also be a traveler in a new place commenting on differences between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

A good example is this little bit of insight I dug out of the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I love this little passage from a letter written by Mary McNeill McEachern, a young woman raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who went to spend a bit of time with friends in Fishkill on Hudson, New York, in 1876. She spoke quite a bit about food and living arrangements, even household apparatus like furnaces and cisterns which impressed her very much for the comfort that they provided. She even commented on the manner of dressing in the North writing, “the people don’t dress much – they seem to go for comfort more than looks, and in their actions and dress are much more regardless of what the world will say than we are at the South.” As I reckon we still are. (I always take my make-up when I go South.)

Here are Mary's observations of food:

"Now I must tell you what I get to eat. In the way of fruits we have quantities of currants growing in the garden; it is beautiful fruit - I wish you could see it growing, We have also two or three kinds of raspberries and also quantities of cherries of different kinds, gooseberries --- after a while they will have quinces and pears and grapes. I see and hear but little of apples and peaches and think that these fruits that I have mentioned are the only ones that are much cultivated. We never sit down to table without those kind of fruits on it - always raspberries and currants and often pineapples and oranges."

If there are currants, she is writing in summer, and apples and pears will come later.

"In the fish line we have salmon for supper every night - for breakfast we have mackerel and for dinner we have "holbert" [halibut] - I reckon that is the way to spell it; it is beautiful white fish and is cut in slices and fried - no bones in what we have had; the fish they say is very large, sometimes a yard or more long. One day we had clam fritters for dinner and they were nice, tasted like oysters. Mrs. Van A let me see her open the clams and she roasted one for me to eat."

"We have beef but I never would have recognized either the dish or the appearances-it is much whiter meat than our beef and does not taste so strong. Mrs. Van A says the difference is in the feed. I have seen corn bread once, but the meal was so yellow it looked like sponge cake made of brown sugar; they never get white corn meal. That cornbread was the only hot bread I've tasted - light bread all the time and it is delicious."

Mary McNeill McEachern Papers, 1871- 1876 (Coll. 5094 SHC)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two or Three Slices in Your Club Sandwich?

Sandwiches as we know them have been around quite a while and though humans have been eating food on bread for centuries, the Earl of Sandwich made the idea of two pieces of bread the standard. Nowadays we think of the club sandwich as a three-slice affair but some of the earlier recipes for Club Sandwiches, by name, don't necessarily call for more than two.

What does seem to distinguish club sandwiches from contemporaneous sandwiches is a filling featuring more than one sort of meat: bacon, lettuce, tomato and sliced turkey or chicken, sometimes tongue or ham. From the later 1800s into the twentieth century most sandwich fillings presented in cook books seem to have been mixtures: cheese blended with another ingredient, or a salad of chicken, or tuna fish, or eggs. Lettuce was often laid on the salad filling, too, and the bread was sliced thinly. These sandwiches seem to have often been dainty fare for tea but heartier sandwiches had been offered for a couple of decades before in bars. A club sandwich, with its robust filling, however, seems masculine. The name certainly implies that the sandwich was to be found at gentleman's clubs. One 1909 recipe in The Good Housekeeping Woman's Home Cook Book, Chicago, by Isabel Gordon Curtis says "complete this delicious 'whole-meal' sandwich with the remaining slice of toast." A whole meal in a sandwich was a far cry from little tea sandwiches beloved of ladies.

In the first decade or two of the twentieth century, there probably were overlapping practices in club sandwich construction, as a quick look shows sandwiches called club with only two slices of bread. Lowney's Cook Book, 1907, Boston, page 199, has a two-slice club containing tongue, lettuce, and tomato with mayonnaise. Lily Haxworth Wallace's Rumford's Complete Cookbook, 1908, basically calls for a BLT with sliced chicken and two slices of bread.

An example from The Neighborhood Cook Book compiled by the Portland Section Council Of Jewish Women. Portland, OR. published in 1914, is named "Li Hung Chang Sandwiches," and goes like this: "One slice of white bread, one slice of rye bread; butter each slice, place on the white bread the sliced white meat of either chicken or turkey, on top of this two slices of smoked beef tongue; if desired one or two pieces of bacon may be placed between the white meat and the tongue; cover with the rye bread, trim away the crust and cut through diagonally." (pg 282.) Li Hung Chang was a famous Chinese general and statesman who had died in 1901, though since I don't know the context for this reference, his connection to any sandwich at all puzzles me.

From the same cook book comes this three-slice sandwich called "Club House Sandwiches." "Toast thin slices of white bread, butter lightly and place on them thin slices of crisp fried bacon. Lay on another slice of buttered toast, then slices of chicken well seasoned, another slice of toast and then cucumbers, pickles sliced crosswise and another slice of toast. A third one from Portland called "club" called for only two slices of bread.

I'd love to see Mrs. Rorer's 1894 sandwich cookbook, to see if three-slice clubs appear there or if they are all two-slicers. From my own reference collection I can't detect when the tipping point is to a three-slice club. Not until after the 1920s, I am going to guess. It would not surprise me one little bit if something like Howard Johnson's restaurants or a similar phenomenon codified the three-slice club sandwich. It bears more research.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Peanut, Butter, African Americans, and Invention

Peanut butter invention turns out to be a bit controversial. Seems that neither John Harvey Kellogg or George Washington Carver invented it. All is revealed by patents and their dates. But there is a little racial ugliness involved which you can read about here.

Here is a riff on inventions and origins of various foodstuffs. No one is going to learn a damn thing if we keep looking for so-called "the origin" of various dishes. Cookery evolves, dishes change slowly over time. The question needs to be about development, further extension of certain ideas. Food and cookery is very like genealogy, as as you know people are not invented, but rather they descend. Rarely, if ever does something spring forth fresh new, unprecedented.

It is also incorrect to claim or assign a certain cookery method to any one group out of the context of all the rest of humankind and all you are going to do is get into trouble if you try to do that. The more I look, the longer I do this work, the more I realize that what all groups and regions have in common is greater than what distinguishes them from each other, and that holds true over time.

Give up the invention stuff. Give up the origin struggle. It is the wrong question, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Look for what we all have in common and go from there. The bugbear here is ownership of an idea. So forget effective food history until everyone stops trying to say "mine, mine."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Salad Dressing Poem

One species of recipe comes as a poem. I find these often in my travels through nineteenth century women's magazines, early community cookbooks, and miscellaneous other sources. A few years ago, Carolyn Blackstock of Toronto wrote an article on salad dressings for Food History News and included the following charmer. Unfortunately the citation has gone astray, so you will merely have to enjoy it for itself:

"To make this condiment, your poet begs

The powdered yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;

Two boiled potatoes, passed through the kitchen sieve,

Smoothness and softness to the salad give;

Let onions atoms lurk within the bowl,

And, half suspected, animate the whole;

Of mordant mustard, add a single spoon;

Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;

But, deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault

To add a double quantity of salt;

Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca crown,

And twice with vinegar, procured from town;

And lastly, o'er the flavoured compound toss

A magic soupcon of anchovy sauce.

O, green and glorious! O, herbaceous treat!

'Twould tempt the dying anchorite to eat;

Back to the world he'd turn his fleeting soul,

And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl;

Serenely full, the epicure would say,

'Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."