June 7, 2012
In 1906, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the father of American horticulture, predicted that America’s next big wild fruit, joining the ranks of strawberries, cranberries and gooseberries, would be the common elderberry, which he wrote was “almost certain to become the parent of a race of domestic fruit-bearing plants.”
Elderberries can be pressed into a magenta wine. The plant is a distant relative of honeysuckle, and its distinctive umbrella of cream-colored flowers makes an aromatic alcoholic cordial. Within the past decade, this elderflower elixir and its sui generis floral flavor has been given some credit for reviving the popularity of liqueurs. The most recognizable version behind the bar is a bottle of St. Germaine. The European elder (Sambucus nigra) gives Sambuca its name, although the modern version of the Italian liqueur tastes more like licorice.
Many alcoholic elder-containing concoctions came about, much like Angostura, as remedies, inspired by elder’s age-old medical claims; the plant was thought to have the ability to ward off colds, for instance. Some of these folk remedies may potentially have some basis. In 2009, researchers found that elderberry extracts in vitro compared favorably with Tamiflu® (a drug that is derived in part from star anise) in blocking the swine flu virus.
Despite its remarkable history, the primary use of elderberry today in the United States has little to do with anything Liberty Hyde Bailey or the early European apothecaries could have foreseen. Its pigments are extracted and made into a food-safe dye. And unless you’re a vegetarian or slaughtering your own meat, you’ve probably benefited from the elderberry. When the USDA inspects meat and its inspectors stamp a label—”U.S. Inspected” or “USDA Prime”—they use a purplish, food-safe dye that comes in part from elderberries.
Photogram of elderberry blossoms by Bertha E. Jaques/Smithsonian American Art Museum
May 11, 2012
I love my mom and all, but I also want to recognize another set of mothers—those blobs of yeast and bacterial cultures found floating in unpasteurized cider, wine vinegar, and other fermented liquids, like cloudy constellations of pond scum. The Dutch have a word for mud and mire (modder) that may have lent its name to these mothers, but given the proliferation of the term across Europe—French mère de vinaigre or Spanish madre del vino—etymologists suspect that these slimy sediments of mother derived from the mother who takes care of you.
Two mothers seemingly at odds, right? Well, thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary made a valiant, if somewhat perplexingly worded attempt, to tease out exactly why the lees at the bottom of the barrel came to be named for your female parent:
The transition of sense is difficult to explain; but most probably the scum or dregs of distilled waters and the like was regarded as being a portion of the ‘mother’ or original crude substance which had remained mixed with the refined product, from which in course of time it separated itself. (The term may possibly have belonged originally to the vocabulary of alchemy.) An explanation sometimes given, that ‘mother of vinegar’ was so called on account of its effect in promoting acetous fermentation, does not agree with the history of the use. It has been pointed out that ancient Greek γραῦς old woman, is used in the sense ‘scum, as of boiled milk,’ but the coincidence is probably accidental.
Wine left out in the open air will spontaneously ferment into vinegar if the right airborne microbes land on the surface (Acetobacter bacteria and Mycodermi aceti yeast); the oxidation process can also be kick-started by mixing in the cloudy undeﬁned bacterial and fungal cultures left at the bottom of an old vinegar container—an old, yet reliable, mother. These cultures work in much the same way that yeast or sourdough starters give rise to beer and bread (why these cultures are more often called starters and not mothers remains one of the many vagaries of the English language). Perhaps, then, it’s not all surprising that one mother gave birth to another.
May 10, 2012
Before any major holiday, I see a slew of ads in my email inbox that tout certain foods as being must-have additions to the celebratory table. It’s usually fairly run of the mill fare: special menus at local restaurants, deals on appliances and kitchen tools. The headline “For the Zero Calorie Mom: Sparking Ice Beverages” struck me as a bit odd. I’d be wary of subliminally suggesting that Mom needs to cut the calories on any day of the year, but do you absolutely have to say it on Mother’s Day? I dug some more into how food companies are positioning their products for this time of year, and some of my findings were, well, unconventional.
The prefab foods camp was by far the most entertaining. Their angle: give Mom the gift of not working in the kitchen. In and of itself, this is a brilliant idea. Freschetta created a standalone website to market their gourmet frozen pizzas as ideal fare, going so far as to create a video of moms waxing rhapsodic about the joys of being a parent before going on about how all they really want is a frozen pizza. There is nothing wrong with frozen pizza, but if I were a mom, I would have a much more developed sense of culinary entitlement and would demand a little more. I later went to Schwan’s website—Freschetta’s parent company—and typed in “Mother’s Day” to see what would pop up. The results included things like microwave brownies and sausage patties. The product description pages in no way promoted these things as Mother’s Day foods, so why they appeared before me is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pizza-flavored snack roll, which was also among the search results.
Hormel—the company that brings us SPAM and Vienna sausages—points to open-faced foods as perfect fare, such as toast with cream cheese and fruit. They also suggest sprinkling cheese on a tortilla and spelling out “MOM” in pre-sliced pepperoni. Is edible Mother’s Day branding necessary for people to know that the meal set before them is a sign of love and appreciation? Would a scattershot arrangement of pepperoni—as one might see on, say, a frozen pizza—seem disingenuous? Or maybe I’m too jaded to get excited by luncheon meat typography.
Pop Tarts takes the cake by offering the opportunity to personalize your toaster pastry packaging with your own images and text. It’s too magnificently kitsch for me to rib. Unfortunately, you had to place orders by May 7 to get your personalized Pop Tarts by the 13th, but it seems that this promotion is available year-round and is certainly suitable for a number of occasions.
And what of liquor? This can be a sensitive subject, since presenting Mother’s Day as a reason to drink does perhaps smack of poor taste. Surely this most sacred of relationships could never induce alcoholism in parent and/or child. In Connecticut, the holiday is held dear to the point that liquor restrictions explicitly state that Mother’s Day cannot be referenced in any way, shape or form in advertising. (Father’s Day is apparently fair game, which makes one wonder about about our culture’s opinion of the paterfamilias.) Pennsylvania law, on the other hand, has no such restrictions, and in 2010 the state’s liquor control board mounted an ad campaign promoting wine and vodka as celebration enhancers, going so far as to suggest mixing a Mother’s Kiss—equal parts strawberry kiwi vodka and lemonade. “So many flavors for only $9.99 each,” the radio ads ran. “That is a $4.00 savings. With deals like this you can afford to treat all the mothers in your life this year.” There was some backlash, with the Independent State Store Union calling for the replacement of the liquor board’s director of marketing and merchandising.
Will you be going traditional brunch route this Sunday when you fete the women who hold your family together or will you be venturing into quirkier culinary territory? Tell us about your meal plans in the comments section below—and don’t forget to call your mother.
April 19, 2012
When it came to fighting the Civil War, the South may have been rich in military leadership, but the North had superior resources, especially when it came to industrial strength. Still a largely agrarian society, the Southern states had to import most of their manufactured products, and with a poor railway system, keeping troops well-stocked was a battle in and of itself, especially when enemy blockades interrupted supply lines. Combined with inflation and scorched-earth military campaigns—such as General Sherman’s march through South Carolina—food shortages were a problem for both military and civilians. But even in those hard times, people could find relief in peanuts.
Before the Civil War, peanuts were not a widely cultivated crop in the United States—Virginia and North Carolina were the principal producers—and were generally viewed as a foodstuff fit for the lowest social classes and for livestock. When they were consumed, they were usually eaten raw, boiled or roasted, although a few cookbooks suggested ways to make dessert items with them. The goober pea’s status in the Southern diet changed during the war as other foods became scarce. An excellent source of protein, peanuts were seen as a means of fighting malnutrition. (And they still are, with products such as Plumpy’nut being used in famine-plagued parts of the world.) In addition to their prewar modes of consumption, people used peanuts as a substitute for items that were no longer readily available, such as grinding them to a paste and blending them with milk and sugar when coffee was scarce. “This appreciation [for peanuts] was real,” Andrew F. Smith wrote in Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. “Southerners continued to drink peanut beverages decades after the war ended.” Peanut oil was used to lubricate locomotives when whale oil could not be obtained—and had the advantage of not gumming up the machinery—while housewives saw it as a sound stand-in for lard and shortening as well as lamp fuel.
Peanuts became ingrained in the culture, going so far as to crop up in music. For Virginian soldiers wanting to take a dig at North Carolina’s peanut crop, there was:
The goobers they are small
The goobers they are small
The goobers they are small,
And they digs them in the fall,
And they eats them, shells and all,
The humorous song “Eatin’ Goober Peas” also surfaced during the war wears. (You can hear the song in full as performed by Burl Ives and Johnny Cash.)
Just before the battle the General hears a row,
He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear the rifles now,”
He turns around in wonder, and what do you think he sees?
The Georgia militia eating goober peas!
There is also an account of a July 1863 episode where the Confederate Army’s Fifth Company of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans was entrenched in Jackson, Mississippi, and burned down a mansion in order to clear their view of the battlefield—although not before saving a piano. As the Union Army drew nearer, one soldier took to the ivories, encouraging his compatriots to join in song, including a round of “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts”:
The man who has plenty of good peanuts,
And giveth his neighbor none,
He shan’t have any of my peanuts when his peanuts are gone.
While the Fifth Company succeeded in keeping the enemy at bay that day, peanuts just weren’t enough to save the Confederacy in the long haul.
March 20, 2012
In 1803, the Farmer’s Cabinet, an agriculture periodical published in Philadelphia, first mentioned the word “cocktail” to refer to a drink—and not a horse with a shortened tail. Another early description of a cocktail, from 1806, calls for four ingredients: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Bitters occupy a curious niche in the history of food and drinks, especially given their early history as patent medicines with rather dubious reputations. Take one of the oldest, Angostura. Originally, the company’s greenish-tinted bottles contained an herbal concoction made from roots, bark, and spices. The “Aromatic Bitters” took their name from the Venezuelan city where they were first created (Angostura was subsequently rechristened Cuidad Bolivar in 1846). Interestingly, early botanists also gave the name Angostura to three different species of trees, including Galipea officinalis. Because the bitters’ recipe is a tightly guarded secret, locked in a vault and known by only five employees, whether the trademarked concoction once contained the bark from any of these Angosturas remains something of a mystery. Either way, the recipe’s since to be reformulated—in much the same way that Coca-Cola removes the potent alkaloids in coca leaves—and now Angostura neither contains Angostura, nor is it produced in Angostura.
I was curious about how bitters went from being drugs to an intrinsic part of today’s cocktail renaissance. I spoke with Brad T. Parsons, the author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas from his home in New York.
How did bitters evolve from a substance kept behind the apothecary to a staple in the modern cocktail?
The English used bitters in this drink called Canary wine. They were putting medicinal herb-based dashes and drops in these drinks, but bitters really exploded in American Colonial times, up through Prohibition. The word “bitters” is in the definition of the first printed usage of the word “cocktail.” It was any drink consisting of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters… There is some murkiness about when it went from being something someone sipped on its own as a medicinal to when it went into a cocktail, but people were taking these high-proof root-, botanical-, fruit-, or seed-based infusions for medicinal value.
Around 1824, Johann Siegert, who was a doctor in Venezuela, began making Angostura as a stimulant for the troops to help them with malaria and keep them on their feet. As we get to the golden age of the cocktail, the late 1800s, bitters became more synonymous with cocktails no matter what bar you went to.
Even during the Temperance movement, people who were teetotalers were still drinking bitters even though it was a high-proof infusion. During that time, people were putting these bitters into a poorer quality spirit, which was a way for it to taste better, or people were applying alcohol to their bitters to help their medicine go down, so to speak. I was never really able to pinpoint the year we went from these corked, apothecary bottles that people would nip to when they started putting them into their drinks and it became more of a concentrated drop versus a splash or a nip.
Then we get up to 2004, when Gary Regan put his bitters back on the market and now you can get a dozen different bitters. There is a little bit of “everything old is new again” charm to it, but also it was a lot of people seeking out old copies and the internet leveling the playing field by finding old, rare books, you didn’t have to physically travel around and buy them at auctions, you could buy them online.