June 19, 2012
When temperatures start climbing, ice cream trucks and frozen treat stands start popping up on the streets. And although available year-round, popsicles, Italian Ice and Icees have greater appeal as a sweet way to cool off. These desserts are also delightful in their simplicity. Who knew that flavored frozen water could be such a marketable concept? For people who have to get their fix as fast as they can, specialty rapid-freezing appliances have hit the market that can produce frozen treats in as little as seven minutes. Frivolous? Perhaps. But I say this before 100-plus-degree weather has hit my neck of the woods. For those of you who want to explore chilly desserts outside of ice cream, try these treats.
Granita: According to the Food Timeline, this Sicilian semi-frozen dessert became popular in the late 17th century, about the same time that ice cream came into vogue. (Some trace its history even farther back, pointing to the Romans, who used lumps of snow to chill their wine.) The texture is slushy and granular, and the consistency is somewhere between a drink and a frozen treat. Flavored with fruit or coffee, granita is eaten at breakfast during the summer months, accompanied by a brioche, which the diner can use to sop up the slowly melting dessert.
Shave Ice: The delineation between this dessert and a snow cone is that the ice is shaved, not crushed, making for a fine powdery snow that absorbs flavors from fruit juices or syrups. Offhand, this might not make one seek this treat out. But what makes this an interesting dessert is the other components you can pair with the flavored ice, which are typically a scoop of ice cream and/or a dollop of sweet azuki beans. Yup, beans. Popular in Hawaii, some food historians think that shave ice has its roots in Malaysian cuisine, which has a dish called ais kacang (“bean ice”), which can include corn and jellied toppings.
Snowball: Another shaved iced treat and regional favorite, the snowball was the forerunner of the modern snow cone—but while you’ll likely be able to find the latter at almost any swimming pool, you may be hard pressed to find snowballs outside of Maryland. When mass-produced ice became widely available in the late 19th century, someone had the idea to fill a cup with ice shavings and add flavoring, which was originally egg custard. The whole concoction was sometimes topped with a dollop of marshmallow. They took off in popularity during the Great Depression of the 1930s as a frugal—but nonetheless tasty—alternative to ice cream. But once economic conditions improved, the treat fell out of favor and now you have to actively seek them out. For those who won’t be passing through Baltimore this summer, New Orleans has also laid a claim to the snowball, although that city’s version is topped with condensed milk.
June 14, 2012
Food-wise, what will you be doing to fete your father this weekend? This time of year, you start seeing ads promoting grills and all the fun toys that go with them—tongs, brushes, mops, novelty aprons—and an internet search for Father’s Day fare will bring up lots of ideas for how to pull together a meal over an open flame, with the paterfamilias gladly taking the food prep reins. But why do we have this idea that grilling is a guy’s thing?
Globally, it seems that this gendered division of cookery is an American phenomenon. Across cultures, women generally do most of the cooking, period. In some parts of the world—such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Serbia and Mexico—you will see female street vendors selling grilled food. The cost of starting up a barbecue business is nominal: charcoal, a grate and you’re good to go.
Is it a matter of territory? At the first barbecue I attended this season, the guys were quick to declare the patio a “men only” area, which elicited a fair bit of eye rolling from the wives and girlfriends in the bunch. In my family, women generally have rein over indoor cooking spaces, but when it comes to outdoor cooking, it’s the guys’ turf. (And when men try to help out on indoor cooking projects, arguments over their technique will likely ensue.)
Meghan Casserly offered her observations in a 2010 Forbes article. There’s the element of danger—fire! sharp tools!—and the promise of hanging out with other guys. But she also finds that the tendency for men to grill is a construct of the mid-20th century and the rise of suburban living. In the United States, family dynamics and attitudes toward parenting were changing and there was an increasing expectation for fathers to spend their free time with their families instead of with their buddies at the local bar. Why not hang out in the back yard? Weber sweetened the prospect of outdoor cookery in the early 1950s when the company introduced the first backyard grill—basically, a streamlined and easy-to-clean fire pit.
In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Makes Us Human, Richard Wrangham points out that in hunter/gatherer societies, the sexes each seek out different types of food: women forage and handle dishes that require the most preparation, while men go out to find foods that are more difficult to come by—namely, meat. Furthermore, they tend to cook on ceremonial occasions or when there are no women around. “The rule,” Wrangham writes, “that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” His observations don’t directly link men to the grill, but it makes one wonder if guys are just somehow primed to cook that way.
May 22, 2012
The Cajuns are one of Louisiana’s unique subcultures. They are descended from French settlers exiled from Acadia. For a long time, they were met with derision. Holding onto their French heritage, the Cajuns were discriminated against by the English-speaking population, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that efforts were made to preserve Cajun culture. One major development came in the 1980s, when chef Paul Prudhomme earned Cajun foodways some long-overdue attention and respect. His restaurant, K-Pauls’s Louisiana Kitchen, and a number of cookbooks pushed this unique cuisine to the forefront of the American consciousness. If you’ve yet to have the pleasure, of if you have only had the pleasure of eating a bowl of gumbo, queue up some Beausoleil and crack open your pantry to make the following classic Cajun meals.
Blackened Redfish: This is the dish that put Cajun food on the cultural map in the 1980s and is the thoroughly modern invention of Prudhomme. He aimed to recreate the taste of food cooked over an open fire by using a searing hot cast iron skillet and a mix of herbs and spices that creates a sweet crust on the outside of the filets. Part of his original Louisiana Kitchen cookbook, and later refined in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, the recipe was often imitated in restaurants at the height of the Cajun craze—although not necessarily well, with some interpreting Cajun cuisine as anything that is ridiculously over-spiced. When done properly, the fish is supposed to taste sweet and smoky.
Boudin: These are specialty Cajun sausages, usually served as a snack food, that blend hog meat with rice, onion, bell pepper and spices. They come in two varieties. Boudin rouge incorporates blood into the mix and, given federal food regulations, is nearly impossible to find due to public health concerns—although you might have some luck if you go directly to a slaughterhouse. Boudin blanc is the widely-available, bloodless variety, recipes for which are available. Recalling my family making homemade Italian sausage, I would count on this being an all-day affair, but the results will surely be worth the effort.
Étouffée: Étouffée is another relatively modern dish that sprang up in Cajun cooking sometime in the 1930s in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. From the French word for “to smother,” étoufées are similar to gumbos and start with a roux—a mix of flour and butter—that classically engulfs a mix of onion, bell pepper, celery and crawfish tails and is served over rice. Lots of variations exist, including one that subs in alligator meat for the crawfish.
Jambalaya: This dish comes in two varieties: if it’s red, you’re noshing on the tomatoey Creole variation, but if it’s brown—of slow-cooked meat drippings—it’s Cajun. One story goes that this stew of vegetables, spicy andouille sausage and seafood originates from Spanish settlers in Louisiana’s French Quarter trying to create a New World approximation of paella. And should you be down in Gonzales, Louisiana, later this month, the Jambalaya Capital of the World will be hosting its annual jambalaya festival, where you can sample a number of variants on the stew from cooks who are all vying for a world champion title. Could there be a better opportunity to introduce yourself to this stew?
Macque Choux: No one seems to be entirely sure about the origins of this corn dish. The name alone is confusing, with “maque” maybe being a Natchez Indian or Creole word for “corn,” and “choux” being French for “cabbage,” even though that veggie isn’t usually used, at least not in modern iterations. Where there is some consensus is that when the French Acadians came down to Louisiana once upon a time, they adapted corn, a distinctively American Indian crop, into their cuisine. Whatever its origins, this spicy corn and tomato stew laced with peppers and onions can include meats such as chicken or crawfish or can be completely vegetarian.
Note: For easier referencing, please use the links below to explore recipes for the above Cajun dishes.
Blackened Redfish: The original version of Paul Prudhomme’s famous recipe
Boudin: The bloodless variety.
Jambalaya: Chicken, sausage, bacon, and a host of spiced veggies make for a decadent stew.
May 17, 2012
Yesterday, I posted the first part of an interview with author Mark Kurlansky, who, in addition to writing about Clarence Birdseye, the father of our modern frozen food industry, penned a sweeping biography of salt. For many of us, it’s a mundane compound that we casually use to brighten up the flavors in our cooking, but salt has a rich and tumultuous history and considerable cultural importance the world over. Here is part two of our conversation:
Why write about salt?
I always wanted to write a book about a common food that becomes a commercial commodity and therefore becomes economically important and therefore becomes politically important and culturally important. That whole process is very interesting to me. And salt seemed to me the best example of that, partly because it’s universal. Only hunter-gatherer societies aren’t concerned with salt. So almost every society and culture has a story of salt, either the producing or selling of it or how to get it.
How do you go about researching and writing about something that predates written history?
There’s a lot about the early history of salt that isn’t known, including who first used it and when or how it was discovered that it preserved food. We were sort of handed, in history, this world where everyone knew about salt. And it’s not clear exactly how that developed. The one thing that is clear is that it’s when a society goes from hunter-gatherer to agriculture that it becomes interested in salt. In agriculture, livestock, just like human beings, need salt, so you have to provide salt for livestock and also sometimes to maintain the pH of the soil. Also, a major source of salt is red meat, which hunter-gatherers eat almost exclusively, so they have no need for salt. But once your diet becomes cereals and vegetables, you’re not getting the sodium chloride you need so you need additional salt.
Is there a defining moment in history that signifies salt’s importance in human culture?
How to choose? The importance that it played in the French Revolution is one example. The salt tax is one of the great grievances that led to the French Revolution, and one of the first things that the revolutionary Assemblée Nationale did was repeal the salt tax. Showing the same thing is the Ghandi salt march, where he used salt to bring together the masses for a movement—also protesting a salt tax. I think that the great lesson of salt history is that salt lost its value. This thing that people were willing to fight and die over and form economies with became much less valuable and much less important than it had been over a fairly short period of time.
Why fight over salt?
You have to remember that before the industrial revolution, a very large part of international trade was food products, and the only way a food product could be salable internationally was if it was preserved in salt. There was no refrigeration or freezing. It became central to international trade.
What turned salt from a commodity worth fighting over to a commonplace, inexpensive condiment on our grocery store shelves?
Two things. One of them was that the relationship—in geological terms—between salt domes and oil deposits was discovered and then there was this frantic search for salt domes to find oil deposits in the great oil boom in the early 20th century. It was discovered that the earth was full of salt much more than anyone realized—just huge swaths of salt beds running over all the continents. And almost at the same time was Clarence Birdseye—salt was no longer the leading way of preserving food.
You also touch on how salt is integrated into religion and mythology. Why was salt important to our spiritual lives?
Things that become important to economies become ritualized and become deified. Because I’m Jewish I always thought it was interesting that in Judaism, salt seals a bargain, particularly the covenant with God. Some people when they bless bread, they dip it in salt. Same thing exists in Islam. But I spent a lot of time in Haiti and I always found it interesting—maybe useful to know—that salt cures a zombie. Good to know if you’re ever in danger of zombification.
Update: For those of you looking to explore salt beyond the run of the mill iodized variety, you might try one of the following:
Bolivian Rose: Salt from Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni flats unfortunately isn’t readily available—Mimi Sheraton had to order her supply from La Paz, and unless you can handle the shipping charges, this is going to be cost-prohibitive for most home chefs. Still looking for a taste of this region? Try salt from the Andes Mountains as an alternative.
Fleur de Sel: Harvested from the waters of the Atlantic in the summer, this French salt isn’t meant to cook with, but rather, to finish dishes with its delicate, salty flavor. David Lebovitz recommends Fleur de Sel de Geurande, which is hand-harvested and termed by some as “the caviar of salt.”
Red Alea Salt: Who says that salt always has to be white? This crimson Hawaiian salt is harvested from tidal pools and owes its color to the high iron content of the volcanic clay content of those pools. Mild in flavor, it can be used in soups or stews.
Salt Made from Human Tears: The site claims that its line of salts are derived from tears harvested from humans during various emotional states: laughing, crying while chopping onions, sneezing. Don’t believe everything you read online, but at the very least, if you’re hunting for a novelty gift for the gourmand in your life, these might fit the bill.
May 16, 2012
In a local supermarket, a frozen food section is a matter of course, but have you ever wondered who had the idea to make a business out of preserving food this way? The short answer is right there in the freezer aisle when you pick up a package of Birsdeye frozen vegetables. For the long answer, consult the latest book by Mark Kurlansky. The author who gave us biographies of everyday objects such as salt and cod now delves into the entertaining history of Clarence Birdseye, an adventurer and entrepreneur who revolutionized the way we eat. I spoke with Kurlansky by phone about the mastermind behind frozen food and the place these products have in a culture that increasingly prefers food that’s fresh and local.
People had been freezing foods well before Clarence Birdseye, so why write a book about this one person?
He did not invent frozen food but he clearly invented the modern frozen food industry. Before Birdseye, hardly anybody ate frozen food because it was awful. New York State banned it from their prison system as inhumane. It was mushy and terrible because it was frozen just at the freezing point so it took a day or so to freeze. Also you couldn’t commercialize it because they would freeze a whole side of beef or something. Nobody figured out how to put it in a packagable, marketable form. On a number of levels he truly was the creator of the frozen food industry.
How did Birdseye make frozen food a desirable product?
In history, most of the inventors aren’t the ones who invented the thing. They’re the ones who figured out how to make it profitable. (Robert Fulton didn’t invent steam ships, he just had the first profitable steam ship.) You see a lot of that. Birdseye first of all had to figure out how to make frozen food a good product, which he did by realizing that when he lived in Labrador the food he froze for his family was really good—not like the frozen food that was available everywhere. He realized that that was because it froze instantly because it was so cold—that was the key to making frozen food good. An old principle that salt makers know is that the quicker crystals form, the smaller they are. So if you get really small crystals the ice doesn’t deform the tissue. So that was the first important thing. But then he had to figure out a way to package it so it could be frozen in packages that were saleable size that people in the stores could deal with and did a lot of experimenting with packaging and packaging material. He actually got the DuPont Company to invent cellophane for cellophane wrappers. Then there were all these things like transportation, getting trucking companies and trains to have freezer cars and getting stores to carry freezers. There was absolutely no infrastructure for frozen food. He had to do all of that and it took more than a decade.
Was this a difficult book to research and write?
It really was detective work. Birdseye didn’t write an autobiography. Nobody has ever written a biography on him. Almost everything on the internet is wrong and they keep repeating the same mistakes, which shows you that internet articles keep copying each other. So anytime I could really document something was exciting. Just going to Amherst and I found his report cards, it was exciting to see how he did in school. One of his grandsons had—I forget now how many—something like 20 boxes from the family that he somehow inherited and were in his attic and he had never opened them. And by threatening to go to Michigan and go through his attic myself, I got him to go up there and look through the boxes and he found a lot of letters and things that were very interesting. Going to the Peabody Museum and looking at the whale harpoon he built—one of his inventions. It was very illuminating because it was so completely mechanical and kind of simplistic. You could see that this was a 19th century, Industrial Revolution guy who built mechanical things out of household objects and things that he could get in the hardware store. I started off sort of dreading how little there was available, but it became just great fun unearthing things.
In your book, Birdseye comes across as someone who was prone to exaggerating events in his life a bit. How difficult was it to write about someone who embellished his life stories?
I don’t know that Birdseye did that more than other people. What you seem to find when you get into this biography business is that people tend to have an image of themselves that they want to project and they want to color statements by this image. It’s not so much that he was a wild liar. He just had a certain view of himself that he liked, so he would emphasize certain things. He always emphasized himself as an adventurer and a wild guy. He always described his years in the Bitterroot Mountains and talked about the hunting he did there and the incredible amount of animals he shot—over 700 animals one summer—and he loved to talk about that stuff. He never talked very much about the fact that this was a major medical, scientific research project on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and that he played an important role in this research, which is an important chapter in medical history. What they learned about controlling that disease later had an impact on dealing with malaria and even later in Lyme disease. It was important scientific work, but typical of Birdseye, he mainly talked about himself as the mighty hunter. Fortunately that was the chapter of his life that was easy to document.
And in certain ways he didn’t talk about himself very much. When he was in Labrador, he kept a daily diary, and this was during the period that he courted and married he wife, and he barely ever mentioned her. There’s a letterhead clipped to a page in his diary without any comment. Well there’s a description of staying in a hotel and the things he did but what he didn’t mention was that it was his honeymoon. So there are lots of gaps. I could never find out if he was a Republican or a Democrat. And interestingly, his family doesn’t know. Even his daughter-in-law, who’s still alive and was quite close to him, didn’t really know what he was.
Was there an especially fun moment you had while working on the book?
The New York Public Library has every directory ever printed of New York, so it took me about five minutes to find out which house he grew up in in Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill, and I went there and it didn’t seem to have changed much. It was still a single family dwelling, it had chandeliers and a lot of late 19th century décor and a kind of elegance. It solved a mystery for me because everybody who’s ever met Birdseye talked about what an unpretentious, easygoing guy he was, and yet in Gloucester he built this pompous mansion with pillars up on a hill. And I always wondered: If he really was so unpretentious, why did he build such a pretentious house? Seeing the house he was born in, I realized that this was the way he was raised.
In your book, Birdseye’s frozen food products are desirable, but over time attitudes have changed. Our modern culture is placing a lot of emphasis on fresh foods and eating locally.
I don’t think that we are really going to go back to that world. To begin with, there were drawbacks to that world that nobody in the foodie world thinks about. Like most places where you live, there isn’t much fresh food available for a number of months of the year. So unless you use frozen food or canned food, which is what they used to do, you can’t be a locavore all year round except for a few climates. You could be a locavore in Florida or southern California. But I tried that. It was really limiting.
So does Birdseye’s frozen food innovations still have a place in our modern culture?
Oh, it has a huge place—bigger than ever. And now you see more and more sophisticated versions of frozen food—frozen gourmet food. Places like Trader Joe’s, where you can get frozen truffle pizza and things like that–that’s one of the things that has changed public perception.
To us, frozen food isn’t like fresh food. We know the difference. But when somebody in Birdseye’s day tasted frozen food, they weren’t comparing it to fresh food; they were comparing it to canned food or dried, salted food. And by that standard, it was so like fresh food. But today we tend to compare it to actual fresh food. While it comes a lot closer than canned food, it’s not really as good as fresh food. One of the things that has happened with that market is that they have figured out how to make frozen food a middle priced or even inexpensive product so that’s one of its selling points is that it’s easily affordable and it’s often cheaper than really good fresh food. So it has taken a completely different place than where it started off.
Check in tomorrow for Part II of our interview with Mark Kurlansky about his masterpiece on the history of salt, the only edible rock on the planet.