August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
December 30, 2011
This is our last Food & Think post of the year. Sadly, it also happens to be my last ever—or at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date approaching in a few months, I’ve decided one full-time job (I am a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine) plus new motherhood is about all I can handle for a while. I have learned so many interesting things about food in the last two and a half years of writing for the blog—and I still plan to, but now as a reader instead of writer.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite posts of the year—those that I either particularly enjoyed reading or writing. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll go back and give them a look.
1. Beer Batter Is Better; Science Says So. Without T. A. Frail’s important batter research in January, we all might have eaten inferior onion rings in 2011. Thank you, Tom.
2. Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag. Also back in January, Jesse detailed how the practice of wrapping up “bones for Bowser” evolved into bringing home leftovers never intended to touch canine lips.
3. Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners. Jesse’s look at pre-Emily Post do’s and don’ts includes one of my favorite lines of the year: On farting at the dinner table, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.”
4. Inviting Writing: When in Rome. Inviting Writing has always been one of my favorite parts of the blog—to both write and read. Of the ones I wrote, the one reminiscing about a perfect meal in Rome was particularly enjoyable.
5. Law and Order: Culinary Crimes Unit. That Jesse had the material to write not one but six posts on food-related crime is both astonishing and entertaining. Read them all: the original; Jell-O Gelatin Unit; Ice Cream Truck Unit; More Culinary Crimes; Even More Food Crimes; and New Culinary Crimes.
6. Science in the Public Interest: The Beer Koozie Test. I’ll admit, this one was fun to both research and write. But, like T. A. Frail’s onion ring research, I believe it performed an important reader service.
7. Inviting Writing: What to Eat When You’re Adopting. One of my favorite guest essays this year was by Amy Rogers Nazarov, who wrote a touching piece on learning about Korean food while waiting to meet her adopted son.
8. The Other Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Jesse tells us about the cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, famous as the longtime lover of Gertrude Stein and the title subject of one of the celebrated author’s best-known works.
9. The Gingerbread Man and Other Runaway Foods. Who knew there was a whole literary genre of runaway pancakes? Well, anyone who read Jesse’s enlightening post from earlier this month.
With that, I bid you adieu. Have a wonderful 2012, everyone.
Ed. note — Thank you, Lisa, for the 272 posts that carry your byline. You’ll be dearly missed and here’s to a very happy and joyful 2012!
December 28, 2011
About a year ago I went a little crazy in a specialty spice store and picked up all kinds of exotic spices to try. Since then I’ve been slowly working through them, trying to figure what the heck to make with them. I’ve had better luck with some (galangal) than others (annatto). Since their freshness is probably slipping away, it was time to try one of the last remaining unopened packages on my shelf: juniper berries.
What are they?
Botanically speaking, the dark little berries of juniper trees—which are conifers—are female seed cones, not true berries. But we’re speaking culinarily, in which case the dark violet orbs look and taste enough like berries to deserve the name. Dried juniper berries (or fresh ones, when they are available) are used as a flavoring in Northern European cuisine, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and the Alsace region of France. Americans are most likely to have encountered juniper in gin, the liquor that gets its name from the Dutch or French word for juniper.
Where do they come from?
The juniper berries used in food and drink usually come from the species Juniperus communis, which grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as far north as the Arctic.
What do they taste like?
If you’ve ever tried gin you’ll have a fair idea of what juniper berries taste like, although the ones used for cooking are riper. They have a slightly piney flavor with a touch of both fruitiness and pepperiness.
What the heck do I do with them?
I tried them in a chicken dish where I added both too much juniper and too much thyme, and the flavor was a little overpowering. Consequently, I didn’t eat much, which was probably a good thing—it was only after the fact that I read that pregnant women (which I am) should avoid juniper because it can cause uterine contractions. Luckily, I already had a doctor appointment scheduled the next day.
But if you are not pregnant and you use them sparingly, you may want to try juniper in game dishes, one of the spice’s most common uses. Pairing them with prunes over roast duck, as in a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine, sounds like it would make for a nice balance. Jamie Oliver stews the berries with venison, as both the Navajo and British did in days of yore.
Juniper berries are a common ingredient in Germanic food. In Alsace, a French province bordering Germany, choucroute garnie is a hot sauerkraut dish with sausage and other meats that’s especially popular in winter. Jacques Pépin shared a simplified version using store-bought sauerkraut in Food & Wine magazine.
As for me, I’ll be keeping my remaining juniper berries on the shelf until I’m ready to have contractions.
December 24, 2011
I was about five or six years old when I figured out that Santa Claus was a fictional character. (Although my family is Jewish, we used to celebrate Christmas with our half-Christian cousins, so my parents played along with the ruse.) When I told my mother I wanted something or other for Christmas, she slipped and said, “We can’t afford it.” She quickly caught herself and said, “I mean, that’s a little expensive for Santa Claus,” but I was on to her. Instead of being upset, I thought I was really clever.
I ran upstairs and bragged to my older brother that I had figured out that Santa was really just our parents. “Duh,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
If I had thought about it, there were plenty of other causes for skepticism. I mean, how does one guy in a sleigh—even one pulled by flying reindeer—deliver goodies to every household around the world? Does he outsource?
In a way, yes. Although tubby, red-suited Santa Claus is the gift delivery man in most of North America and other countries, many places have their own traditions about who—or what—is responsible for bringing Christmas candies and toys. It also helps that he spaces out the festivities so that in some countries, distribution happens on a night other than the one before Christmas.
Dutch children, for instance, leave out their shoes—those cute wooden ones, traditionally—on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. In the morning they find that Sinterklaas has filled them with chocolate coins, small toys and spice cookies called pepernoten. This Sinterklaas fellow has a similar name and appearance to the American Santa, but he dresses more like a bishop and arrives on a horse. Maybe the reindeer union doesn’t allow them to work more than one night a year? He also has a politically incorrect sidekick named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who wears blackface and metes out punishment to misbehavers.
In Italy, it’s La Befana who comes bearing sweets for good little girls and boys. La Befana is an old witch with a broom and raggedy, patched clothing; according to folklore, she declined an invitation to accompany the three wise men on their quest to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, then thought better of it and wandered the land looking for them. Now she comes down the chimney on the eve of Epiphany (January 6) to fill children’s stockings and shoes with caramelle—or coal, if they were naughty.
But I’d have to say the most colorful, and amusing, candy-bearing Christmas character is the tió de Nadal, or Christmas log—also called cagatió, or pooping log. Beginning on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, children in the autonomous Catalonia region of Spain “feed” their log; meanwhile, their parents discreetly make the food disappear. Come Christmas, the kiddies beat the log with a stick and order it, via catchy little songs, to poop candies for them. The parents then make it appear that the log has indeed eliminated treats such as turron, a type of nougat. When the log plops out an egg or a head of garlic, that means the party’s pooped till next year.
Strange? Yes. But is it really any less plausible than flying reindeer? And when you consider that this was also the land that produced Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, it all begins to make sense.
December 20, 2011
If you’re Jewish—and maybe even if you’re not—there’s an excellent chance that you will eat latkes sometime before the end of Hanukkah next week (it starts tonight). I fully support this: Latkes are delicious. It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without them. (I’m going with a zucchini-potato version this year to fit in with my low-carb pregnancy diet.) But are you going to eat them all eight nights of the festival of lights? Probably not.
I’ve been thinking it’s time to throw some new food traditions into the Hanukkah mix. I have a few ideas to propose:
Have a fryapalooza. The reason latkes are so associated with the holiday is that they’re fried, evoking the miracle of the oil that was supposed to last no more than one night but lasted for eight. So why stop at shredded potatoes? Have a fried-food fest that would put the Iowa State Fair to shame.
There are at least two ways you could go here. One is down-home, with fried pickles from Homesick Texan; corn dogs from Average Betty (using Hebrew National wieners, of course); Paula Deen’s Southern fried chicken; and don’t forget your veggies—Grit magazine’s fried zucchini, perhaps. For dessert, if you and your guests aren’t doubled over with stomachaches by this time, may I suggest funnel cakes, those crispy fried dough treats dusted with powdered sugar? Moms Who Think shows you how to make them.
Another way to go would be a world tour of fried food. Mediterranean appetizers could include Spanish-inspired smoky fried chickpeas from Food52 or Italian fried olives from Giada De Laurentiis. Japanese tempura vegetables have a lighter, more delicate flavor than their Western counterparts; Leite’s Culinaria shares a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s new vegetable cookbook Plenty (which I’m hoping Hanukkah Harry brings me). And, though less famous than the cheesy Swiss version, fondue bourguignonne, where pieces of meat are speared on a fondue fork and cooked in hot oil, lets your guests get interactive. Make your final stop in Israel for a dessert that really is a Hanukkah tradition, the jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot; Chow shows how it’s done.
Whichever way you decide to go, this fatty menu should probably be followed by a juice cleanse. Of course, you could always space these recipe ideas out over the course of the holiday instead of eating them all in one go. But where’s the fun in that?
Dip it, don’t fry it. There’s no rule that says oil is only for frying. In fact, as Italians and other people from around the Mediterranean have long known, some oil is just too delicious to waste by heating away its flavor. You could host an olive oil tasting party with quality oils and slices of good bread, then follow the tasting with a meal of salads and other dishes that highlight the star ingredient. Kim Vallée and Fine Cooking magazine both offer suggestions for pulling it off.
Eat a miracle (fruit). Unlike the Passover story, which requires the whole Haggadah to explain, the Hanukkah story is told succinctly by the dreidel, the spinning top with four sides spelling out in Hebrew, “A great miracle happened there.” Although the name has more to do with marketing than divine intervention, so-called miracle fruit is pretty neat anyway. Miracle fruit is a West African berry that temporarily alters the way you perceive flavors, turning everything sweet—even something as sour as a lemon—for a while. It’s similar, though much more dramatic, to what happens when you eat an artichoke. The berries are available frozen, dried or in tablet form, or you can buy seedlings and grow your own. You could turn the evening into a game, serving an array of foods, some with bitter or sour flavors, and asking blindfolded guests to guess what they are.