July 1, 2009
At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival last week, three chefs demonstrated their techniques for making Welsh cake.
I had never heard of Welsh cakes. At first mention, I pictured something like this video of the process of making a chocolate cake, but it turns out that baking a Welsh cake is quite different.
Angela Gray, a Welsh cook who has regularly appeared on BBC Wales and teaches at the Shires Cookery School, hosted the cake bake-off. She started off by asking the three participants to list their ingredients. The base consisted of flour, species, butter, egg, dried fruits and “secret spices,” which usually included nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, sugar and cloves, as the participants revealed after the demonstration.
While the cooks were mixing the ingredients by hand, Gray reminded the more than 100 people in the audience that the mixture should not be “over-handled.” The chefs rolled out the dough and used a circular cutout to make individual cakes about the size of an American cookie.
Then the circles of dough were arranged on a bakestone, which is traditionally a flat stone placed over a fire or stove. The bakestone helps to cook the Welsh cakes on a low, even heat, for two or three minutes on each side. If you don’t have a bakestone, a flat electric griddle or baking pan would work well, too.
Within minutes of the cakes going on the bakestone, a sweet aroma filled the tent. As the chefs plated their creations, Gray said that even though the cakes looked like scones and cookies, they were different in their taste and texture.
The perfect Welsh cake, said Gray, should be “light with just enough spice to make it interesting.” Interested in making your own Welsh cakes? Check out this recipe or head over to the Folklife Festival this week for more cooking lessons.
June 30, 2009
The meals of the 1960s and 1970s had a wide variety of influences. The environmental movement increased the amount of granola and other whole foods consumed, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. Meanwhile, the Kennedys and Julia Childs popularized French cuisine. Even with the culinary experimentation, mainstay sandwiches like peanut butter or tuna were common in lunch boxes.
The Times: The 1960s exploded with cultural changes. The Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation and Vietnam War protests all flourished in this decade. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. Acid rock, psychedelic drugs and folk music were popular.
Iceberg wedge salad
Nutmeg date bars
Why it was popular: The wedge salad could be as simple as a chunk of iceberg lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise and would have been easy to pack, Olver says. The orange-flavored drink Tang didn’t become popular until NASA used it on Gemini flights in 1965 and since then it has been associated with the space program.
The Times: The 1970s were a continuation of the changes in the 1960s. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office because of charges of corruption in 1973 and the next year President Richard Nixon resigned, rather than face impeachment for his involvement in Watergate. The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and the first Gay Pride march was held in New York City, honoring the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Grasshopper pie (mint filling in an Oreo crust)
Why it was popular: Quiche was easily packaged in a lunch. Americans were intrigued by different flavors and textures; They weren’t satisfied with the same food that they had had since the 1950s, Olver says.
Don’t miss the last lunch box blog post coming Thursday!
June 26, 2009
Employing food tasters to test for poison may seem like an anachronism in the 21st century, but the profession has enjoyed a recent resurgence. Earlier this month, President Obama made headlines when a food taster tested his food in France, and last summer, Olympic officials fed milk, salad and rice (among other things) to white mice to test food for safety and thus prevent food poisoning in athletes.
Testing food for poison goes back to the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire, wrote John Emsley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, in an email.
For example, Halotus was the official taster for Roman Emperor Claudius. He’s famous because he failed at his job. Claudius was killed by poison in A.D. 54 (and Halotus was a suspect in the murder). But in all fairness, what chance did Halotus, or any taster, have to warn their employers?
Chemicals like arsenic trioxide, cyanide, strychnine and atropine have traditionally been used to poison people. Of those, only cyanide can kill within minutes, thus giving the tester enough time to fulfill his job description by notifying others of the tainted meal, Emsley said. If given in large doses, alkaloid poisons like strychnine and atropine can kill within 24 hours, while arsenic would make the victim vomit within a few hours and possibly die within a day.
Because noticing the effects of poison can take so long—I doubt royals, presidents or other dignitaries would wait an entire day to eat their food—I tend to think that the taster was like a placebo. The taster made the royal eater feel safer, but didn’t really protect him or her. Then again, if I were royal, I would take as many precautions as possible to avoid death and feel safe about enjoying my food.
June 25, 2009
In these two decades, America bounced back from the Great Depression and solidified its position as a world leader. One particularly popular food item was a grilled cheese sandwich, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. For people today, it seems like a lunch staple, but in the 1940s and earlier, it was considered a “hardship meal” — eaten when meat wasn’t available.
The Times: On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval based at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after this, the U.S. joined the Allied forces in WWII. Germany surrendered in May of 1945, and the war in the Pacific theater came to a close in August of the same year after the U.S. detonated two atomic bombs in Japan.
Tomato soup and club crackers
Victory Garden Salad
Why it was popular: During WWII, many goods were rationed. About 20 million Americans planted Victory Gardens, growing their own food to save war supplies for the troops. People cooked sauces, made salads or canned produce. Spam was introduced in 1937, but become very popular in the 1940s because it was an inexpensive meat product.
The Times: Alaska and Hawaii became the forty-ninth and fiftieth states. The Civil Rights movement progressed with the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in Alabama. During this Baby Boom decade, many Americans moved from the city to the suburbs. With the extra yard space and the international tastes of returning GIs, the backyard BBQ became a staple of cooks around the country, Olver says.
Cheez Whiz and crackers
Why it was popular: In the 1950s, Cheez Whiz and other new products filled shelves at local grocery stores. Household cooks did some “interesting things” in the 1950s, Olver says, including making personal pizzas with Kraft American cheese.
Be sure to check back for the last two lunch box blog posts!
June 23, 2009
From ‘cocktails’ to baked beans
Lunches have always varied depending on individual taste, family tradition and economic factors, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. The menus in this five-part series about lunches are meant to capture the spirit and culinary creations of their eras. Notice the stark contrast between the 1920s and 1930s.
The Times: The Roaring Twenties were in full swing — accompanied by jazz music — as Americans recovered from WWI. The 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation in Paris. Prohibition had the most influence on what Americans did (or didn’t) consume.
Egg salad sandwich
Why it was popular: During Prohibition, which began in 1920 and outlawed the sale of alcohol, anything that was named after an alcoholic drink was popular. Fruit and shrimp cocktails were usually served in traditional cocktail glasses — restaurants weren’t permitted to use those glasses for their original purpose.
The Times: The Great Depression gripped the country for most of the decade. Americans elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who immediately began pushing through his New Deal. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Baked beans on white bread
Why it was popular: The baked bean sandwich was packed with protein and very economical. During the Great Depression, local food pantries often distributed free portions of bread, soup and baked beans. The first U.S. food stamp program, which allowed citizens to buy surplus foods at a discount, began in 1939 and lasted until 1943, when many people returned to work during WWII. Farmers who lost their property and source of food to the Dust Bowl were among the most likely to go hungry; one third of the population at the center of this natural disaster fled, usually to California.
More lunch box blog posts coming soon!