February 6, 2012
One of world’s largest and oldest living organisms also happens to be one of its least-respected. Nicholas P. Money’s most recent book, Mushroom, is something of a corrective and an enthusiastic outpouring for all things fungal—from a 2,400-acre colony of Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon to the supermarket’s white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) right on down to the stuff that makes dandruff (Malassezia). In a testament to his passion, Money criticizes an amateur collector who’s removed a giant bolete the size of her head. “Why do people view mushrooms as so different from other living things?” he says. “Imagine, a meeting of the local Audubon Society that ended with the janitor tossing a sack of songbird eggs in the Dumpster.” Or whaling for research purposes.
Amateur mycologists foster a rare scientific partnership with professionals (a claim that perhaps only astronomers can boast of). Amateurs pioneered the study of mycology and the often-inseparable practice of mycophagy. One of these amateur mycologists was Beatrix Potter. She made careful observations of fungi and lichens, and her watercolors illustrate the 1967 British book Wayside and Woodland Fungi. Potter studied spore germination and wrote a scientific paper, but after being repeatedly snubbed—both for radical botanical views and because she a woman—she turned her attention elsewhere. Money writes:
Potter was, nevertheless, a pioneering mycologist, one whose intelligence and inquisitiveness might have been channeled into a career in science had she possessed the Y chromosome required for most Victorian professions. Fortunately, her considerable artistic talents gave her other outlets for her ambition.
Would The Tale of Peter Rabbit have been conceived had it not been for the biases of Victorian era science? Maybe not. In the paper “Bamboozled by botany, Beatrix bypasses bigoted biology, begins babying bountiful bunnies. Or Beatrix Potter [1866-1943] as a mycologist: The period before Peter Rabbit and friends,” Rudolf Schmid suggests that “her exclusion from botany has been said to have a direct analogy to Peter Rabbit being chased out of Mr. McGregor’s garden, that is, the garden of botany.”
Curiously, though, fungi rarely appear in Potter’s tales, and then mostly as a decorative or whimsical addition. Field mushrooms sprout in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; Agaricus campestris is a species squirrels collect, and elsewhere Potter noted their “nasty smell” and “good flavour.” The species also laid the groundwork for cultivated mushrooms and Heinz ketchup. It’s certainly one of the more subtle depictions of food in a genre rift with delightful donkey picnics and a champagne toast between mice.
As many hundreds of times as I’ve heard the story of Flopsy, Mopsy and Peter Cottontail, I never read it as a tale of enthusiasm for the natural world. Yet, at a time when animals are apparently falling out of favor in picture books (at least among Caldecott-award winners), I thought these observations made by an amateur naturalist were a testament to looking, you might say, where no one else had—towards the lowly fungi.
April 12, 2011
At a Thai restaurant last week, my dining companion convinced me to forego the tantalizingly spicy offerings in favor of a chicken dish served with ginger, pineapple chunks and cashews in a sweet and sour sauce. When the dish came out, I was thrilled to see that it was served in half of a hollowed-out pineapple, with the fruit’s spiky green crown adding some visual flair. How novel! It was the sort of presentation I had seen only at picnics when someone would carve out a watermelon into a bowl or basket to hold bite-sized chunks of fruit. But in Thai cuisine, food carving is an intricate art form meant to turn ordinary dining into a visual spectacle.
Kae sa luk, the centuries-old Thai tradition of transforming fruits and vegetables into elaborate displays, began in the court of King Phra Ruang. Meals were expected to please both the palate and the eye. Using specialized tools to make intricate incisions and excisions, artisans—either palace chefs or the daughters of aristocrats—would craft foodstuffs to resemble plants and animals. Onions become chrysanthemum blossoms, cucumbers are fashioned into leaves to ornament soups, and the vibrant colors of a watermelon’s pulp and rind are used to dramatic effect in the creation of flower blossoms. And while pieces are generally made for garnish and table decoration, produce such as pumpkins may be carved into serving vessels and even some salads are presented as a floral spray to be dismantled and consumed by diners. And the Thai take on the watermelon basket is above and beyond anything I’ve seen at the picnic table.
Radish rosettes suddenly seem pedestrian by comparison (not that I could even carve one of those).
And for those of you wanting to learn the craft, there are books and DVDs on the market to get you started. For the rest of us who don’t have the time or patience, YouTube lets us admire kae sa luk masters and their edible masterworks from afar.
March 10, 2011
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that we’ve given a lot of the-stuff-formerly-known-as-ink to maple syrup. We’ve written about how it’s made, how to turn it into a sticky taffy by pouring it on snow, maple creemees, vodka made from fermented maple sap, even an entire alphabet of ways to eat the stuff. It’s a geographical bias, I’m afraid; my former co-blogger, Amanda, grew up in Vermont, and I live just across Lake Champlain from the state. Pretty much the only exciting thing happening in the Northeast in March is that the maple sap is (usually) running.
Although I moved here from a non-maple-producing state, I sometimes forget how little thought the rest of the country, and world, gives to maple syrup. I was reminded of this recently during my visit to Australia, when someone commented that he didn’t understand why Americans were always going on about how much better their maple syrup is. I was a little baffled by his remark—I thought there were no sugar maples in the southern hemisphere—until a few days later, at breakfast, when our host put a bottle of syrup labeled “maple” in big letters on the table. It was artificially flavored corn syrup, of course, but I realized that a lot of people south of the 40th parallel, much less the equator, don’t know the difference.
There is at least one place outside of the United States that might be as maple-mad as New England: South Korea. Except instead of pouring the syrup on pancakes, they’re drinking the straight sap, and in surprising quantities. According to a 2009 New York Times article, some Koreans drink as much as five gallons of sap in a sitting from the maple tree they call gorosoe, during a spring ritual that may be thousands of years old. Gorosoe translates to “tree good for the bones,” but many Koreans believe its sap is good for all kinds of ailments, including high blood pressure, diabetes and hangovers. They gather for sap-sucking picnics or sit in heated rooms, playing cards and eating salty snacks like dried fish to work up a good thirst.
Health claims haven’t been proven, but maple sap is high in vitamins and minerals, including calcium and potassium. Unlike the boiled-down syrup, sap is low in sugar—it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. When I tasted some straight from a tree last year, it was nearly indistinguishable from water, although sugar content varies over the course of the running season. Some people use the sap in place of water for cooking, as Elizabeth Folwell writes in Adirondack Life (excuse the shameless plug for the magazine where I work), in anything from oatmeal to “faux pho” (recipes at link).
Or you can just drink it as a spring tonic, as the South Koreans do. Dried fish not necessary.
February 4, 2011
As ecstatic as my husband would be if I were, I am not a die-hard fan of any one team, be it football, baseball, basketball or hockey. So when he asked me the other night whether I’d be rooting for the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, I had to chew it over a bit.
He filled me in on statistics that others might normally take into consideration, like the fact that the Steelers have won more Super Bowl titles (six) than any other team. But my thoughts quickly veered from the teams’ talents to the places from which they hail. Then, soon enough, it was on to the cities’ food offerings.
Food is always on my mind, but I would be willing to bet that, for most people, it’s not that great a leap to make when talking about the Super Bowl. Along with clever new commercials, good grub is an essential part of the viewing experience.
Last year, in honor of the New Orleans Saints making it to the Super Bowl, fellow F&T blogger Lisa Bramen paid due homage to gumbo, suggesting that readers incorporate the stew into their game-day menus. Maybe Pittsburgh and Green Bay aren’t as revered for their cuisine as New Orleans is, but, with a little research, I found a few interesting food traditions.
To eat “locally,” so to speak, a Pittsburgh native might suggest you try one of these “Steel City” dishes:
City Chicken. Despite its name, this meal contains absolutely no chicken. The Pittsburgh favorite is basically cubes of veal and pork on skewers, rolled in flour or breadcrumbs and then baked or fried. The recipe took root during the Great Depression, when veal and pork were cheaper than chicken. The 1936 version of The Joy of Cooking refers to them as “Mock Chicken Drumsticks (City Chicken)” because the idea was to assemble a drumstick-shaped kebab out of scraps of other meat. Apparently, some grocery store butchers in Pittsburgh sell packages of cubed pork or veal with a handful of skewers labeled “city chicken.”
Chipped Ham. Most people who grew up in Pittsburgh “Remember Isaly’s,” as the dairy-turned-deli-meat-brand’s slogan harps. The establishment’s chipped chopped ham, a Spam-like loaf of ground ham that’s “chipped” into razor thin slices at the deli counter, became popular after World War II and has stuck around ever since. (According to Isaly’s Web site, Steelers fans across the country have it shipped in for big games.) Traditionally, the ham is fried in a skillet, doused in Isaly’s own barbecue sauce, and then piled high on a bun. But there are many spinoffs: chipped chopped ham scramble, creamed chipped chopped ham over biscuits, chipped chopped ham, rice and spinach casserole….
Pittsburgh-Style Steak. Actually, in Pittsburgh, it’s just called “black and blue.” The steak is cooked so that it is charred on the outside but rare on the inside. Lore has it that Pittsburgh steelworkers used to bring slabs of meat to work and slap them on exposed metal, like a hot furnace, to cook them in this way.
And when it comes to dessert, especially at wedding receptions, Pittsburghers are all about cookie tables.
Snacks for a Packer Backer
For some insider knowledge, I consulted Ray Py of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, whose daughter Beth Py-Lieberman is an editor here at Smithsonian. When it comes to the Super Bowl, he says, it’s mainly beers and brats. But, throughout the year, the Green Bay area offers some of these specialties:
German Beer Spread with Wisconsin Swiss and Cheddar Cheese. Among the usual suspects—chicken wings, chili and nachos—that Mr. Py found listed on the menus of some of his local Super Bowl buffets was something I hadn’t heard of before: German beer spread. I found a recipe from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a nonprofit funded by dairy farmers that promotes more than 600 kinds of Wisconsin cheese. (Green Bay fans are cheeseheads, remember.) The spread is made by mixing shredded cheese, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, garlic and a dark German beer in a food processor and then served on crackers or rye bread.
Pan-Fried Walleye. The Friday night fish fry is a Wisconsin tradition, which began when German Catholic immigrants populated the area and observed meatless Fridays during Lent. Sometimes cod and perch are served, but a staple freshwater fish is the walleye, plucked from the Great Lakes. The fish is often battered or pan-fried with a lemon butter sauce, though there are countless ways to prepare it.
Booyah. “People will argue until the Holsteins come home about what the proper ingredients are,” Terese Allen, a food columnist for Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, has said. But booyah is a stew of meats, usually chicken and beef, and vegatables, such as onions, celery, carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, corn and green peas, often cooked in large kettles for church picnics and county fairs. From what I’ve read, it originated in Belgium, and its name is thought to be derived from “bouillon,” the French word for broth. One local, in an article in the Green Bay Post-Gazette on October 29, 1976, claimed his father had something to do with the naming of the dish. He said that his father had approached the paper about advertising a “bouillon” supper he was hosting at the school where he taught, but the reporter instead heard “booyah” and published it as such.
Ultimately, I’ve decided to rally behind the Steeler Nation. I was born in Pittsburgh, and although I only lived there for my first six weeks and for about a year when I was four, I have to go with my roots.
If you haven’t drawn your allegiance, though, I say go with your gut.
September 27, 2010
Now that we’ve been schooled on college food, it’s time to graduate to a new Inviting Writing series. This month the topic is something on the minds of most American children this time of year, and anyone else who passes the seasonal displays in the supermarket: candy.
Send us your personal essays about trick-or-treating or other sweet memories. The only rules are that the story you tell must be true, and it must be in some way inspired by this month’s theme. Please keep your essay under 1,000 words, and send it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Candy” in the subject line. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included).
By Lisa Bramen
Candy and fear have always been intertwined in my memory. My earliest trick-or-treating outings were haunted by the 1970s hysteria over razor blades hidden in apples. I always figured that this was an urban legend started by clever kids hoping to discourage the do-gooders who gave out healthy alternatives to candy, but according to the myth-busting site Snopes.com, there really have been a number of cases of apple and candy tampering since the 1960s—although many were probably hoaxes. In any case, the fear of sabotage led parents to lay out trick-or-treating ground rules: anything homemade or not in a wrapper got tossed, and—the torture!—nothing could be eaten until it was brought home and inspected.
But my most traumatic candy experience wasn’t on Halloween. It was selling chocolate bars as a Camp Fire Girl.
Camp Fire Girls (now Camp Fire USA) is a club started in 1910 to give girls an experience similar to Boy Scouts; I joined my local troop in around 3rd or 4th grade. According to the Camp Fire USA Web site, wilderness outings are an important part of the program. But instead of walks in the woods or roasting marshmallows over a campfire, the only outings I recall my troop making were to the regional gatherings at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. Even worse than the morbid venue, the Whitman’s Sampler chocolates we were given as a special treat appeared to be as old as some of the headstones—and of a similar texture.
Renting out a cemetery isn’t cheap, I suppose, so another part of Camp Fire Girls was raising money through the annual chocolate bar drive. This was problematic for me in a couple of ways. First of all, unlike the ossified bonbons in the Whitman’s Samplers, the chocolate bars we were entrusted with selling were delicious. Giving an 8-year-old sugar fiend a box of candy she is not allowed to eat is like asking a drug addict to guard a pharmacy. As anyone who’s watched The Wire knows, the best dealers don’t touch their own product. I’m pretty sure I used up all my allowance money eating through my inventory.
I was already a poster child for the dental perils of sugar; the earliest consequence of my addiction (apple juice was my gateway drug) was that my two top front baby teeth rotted when I was a toddler and had to be capped in stainless steel. Who knows—maybe a future rapper saw my blingy smile one day, inspiring the grill trend of later decades?
An even bigger challenge than resisting temptation was door to door sales. I was a shy child, and I didn’t know most of our neighbors beyond the ones next door. I avoided it as long as I could—my parents brought boxes of bars to work to guilt their colleagues into buying, and group ambushes, when my fellow troop members and I stood outside the supermarket hassling potential customers, allowed me to stay in the background and let the more outgoing girls do the work.
But the day finally came when I would have to knock on my neighbors’ doors. I dutifully donned my official blue felt vest and white blouse, and set out on my Willy Lomanesque quest. The first few doors weren’t too bad. I made a sale or two, and even those neighbors who turned me down did so nicely. My confidence grew.
Then came the Tudor-style house with the turret entry near the end of the block. I knocked on the heavy wooden door with the black wrought-iron knocker. Someone opened a small window in the door and peered at me through an iron grate. I couldn’t see more than her eyes, but I could tell from the way she screeched, “what do you want?” that she was very old and not very happy to see me. I wanted to turn around and run back to my mother, who was waiting for me at the bottom of the driveway, but I stammered through my sales pitch anyway. The crone, apparently judging me some kind of third-grade con artist, shouted: “You people were just here last week. How do I know you’re even a Camp Fire Girl?”
I ran down the driveway, tears forming in my eyes, and told my mother what had happened. I’m a little surprised that she didn’t head back up the driveway and give the woman a piece of her mind for treating a little girl that way, but I guess she knew what I have since come to realize: She was probably just a confused old woman who was as scared of the people on the other side of the door as I was.
My mother consoled me and allowed me to cut my sales trip short. I probably even got a chocolate bar out of it.