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."


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cincinnati Chili and Editor's Notebook

This week's Editor's notebook is up on the Food History News website with a sudden insight I had on the seasonings of Cincinnati Chili plus an announcement about a Culinary Historians of New York event honoring Dr. Jacqueline Newman and considering Chinese food in America plus a day dedicated to the history of food and dining in Hudson Valley, NY.

Here are my thoughts on the chili.

Cincinnati Chili showed up on the food site Zester Daily. This fascinating dish, unique to Cincinnati, consists of a pile of spaghetti topped by chili, and cheese, and sometimes onions and other stuff. It is a fine example of a micro-regional dish, and it has a decades old history by now. Apparently developed by a pair of Greeks who ran an eatery, the dish still is found in diners, and small restaurants, and migrated into the home kitchen. The sauce consists of ground beef, seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and unsweetened chocolate in a beef and tomato base, and no beans. Some descriptions report that the seasonings are "unusual" and if you are thinking of a Tex-Mex style chili then yes, it would be. However, if you are conversant with late 19th century chili sauces, then the spicing wouldn't seem so odd.

I first encountered chili sauces in my research on late 19th century New England foodways. They are a fairly common relish cropping up in manuscript sources as well as imprints. Typically they are made with tomatoes, green peppers, and onions and are seasoned with cloves, cinnamon, sometimes ginger, red pepper, and/or allspice. They have sugar and vinegar and the whole is boiled until it is quite thick. I've made it, and it is a favorite at our house, suitable for use as one would use tomato ketchup. I love it on fishcakes, myself. It is not always spicy hot with capsicum, but, depending on the recipe, it is spicy and can be sharp with vinegar. By the early 20th century, this species of chili sauce was pretty common in most places in the North and Midwest.

Here is a pretty typical Chili Sauce which comes from the Cincinnati Cookbook, 1908, originally published by F. C. H. Manns Company, and reprinted by the University of Iowa Press in 1994, edited by David Schoonover, page 65.

Chili Sauce

Twenty-four large tomatoes, eight large onions, thirteen green sweet peppers, four cups vinegar, eight tablespoons sugar, four tablespoons salt, one teaspoon ginger, one teaspoon cloves, one teaspoon cinnamon, one teaspoon red peppers. Cook three hours. Makes one gallon.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Janet Clarkson, The Old Foodie, whose charming blog has been enlightening us for years, is doing "Meals of the Day" this week and today's topic is lunch.

This put me in mind of a lunch I ate on Cape Breton, Canada, about thirty years ago. My husband Jamie MacMillan's family were all from Cape Breton, Mabou and Port Hawksbury, to be specific. In our first year together, Jamie and I traveled through Nova Scotia using our thumbs and went to Mabou to the house that Jamie's dad was born in and where his dad's sister Aunt Jean lived. One evening that we were there Aunt Jean took us visiting to a friend's house, Malcolm, the plumber, and his wife.

Malcolm grew up speaking Gaelic and in his adulthood ate three lunches a day. He had breakfast, then a lunch mid-morning, then dinner, and a mid-afternoon lunch, then supper, and then a lunch in the evening. His wife, hospitably offered us a "lunch" which included a cup of tea, cheese and crackers, a small cookie, a small piece of iced cake, and a piece of bread with butter. She apologized saying it was a "mean" lunch -- in the sense of "paltry" or scant.

It was lovely, and I had for that moment the sense that I was experiencing something fleeting as indeed it was.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This Week's Editor's Notebook at Food History News Website

In this issue: Florida history digitized. Leeds symposium. Fried chicken and black (food) history. Styrofoam coolers. Living bannock tradition.

Go here to read all about it.

PALMM site full of good stuff for the likes of we with thanks to Rachel Laudan for telling us about it. Follow my exploration...

Leeds (England) plans Crunch-y Symposium.

Fried chicken and the Black history connection. It may be inflammatory but I am dubious...but read this before you fly off the handle.

Styrofoam coolers and their place in food history and Canadians are still making bannock.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Jonathan Chronology for Johnnycakes

The name for the simple bannock form of cornbread which came to be known as johnnycake in America evolved from a British prototype known as jonakin or jonikin. An alternative explanation for the name johnnycake rests on the use of John, Jonathan, or Johnny to indicate the common man, and the corn bread as the common man's bread. Yet another explanation attributes the word to a corruption of journey cake. I do not find satisfactory either of these latter two explanations, despite the Oxford English Dictionary weighing in on the Jonathan connection.

The term Jonathan to describe an American was a relative latecomer, and its common usage postdates the appearance of the cornbread and besides the term Jonathan was preferred over "Johnny." We do not hear of Jonathan cakes. I offer this chronology to support my assertion.

1675: Benjamin Thompson, in a poem "New England's Crisis," "Then times were good, merchants car'd not a rush, For other fare than Jonakin and mush."

1724: Hugh Jones in The Present State of Virginia refers to a local as a Jonathan.

1739: South Carolina Gazette reports on "New iron plates to cook Johnny Cakes or griddle bread on."

1765: Samuel Deane's diary quote, "So we breakfasted on tea and johnny cake, without butter, and fled for our lives."

1780s: Royal Tyler develops the character Jonathan as a New England bumpkin in his play "The Contrast," and Brother Jonathan as the American version of John Bull appears in the last quarter of the 18th century and into the early 1800s. (Discussion of this appears in Joseph Conforti's Imagining New England, 2001, p. 155-156).

I'd welcome comments on this, particularly information on the use of the word jonikin in the British Isles. Other opinions? Prove me wrong?