December 18, 2012
This year, I made an extra effort to knock out my Christmas shopping as soon as I could. I enjoy gift exchanges—at least to the extent that it’s a way to show I appreciate the people nearest and dearest to me and that I’m keeping them in my thoughts. Frankly, I’d much rather spend the month of December baking (and sharing the resultant wealth of goodies) and being social. But some years, I’m completely strapped for ideas and find myself—days before Christmas—manically browsing shopping websites or, as a last-ditch effort when sanity has completely escaped me, venture out to the shopping malls in hopes that I’ll find the perfect gift. For those of you finding yourselves in said situation, here are a few last minute gift ideas for the foodie who made it onto your “nice” list this year.
Books: The Village Voice‘s Fork in the Road blog recently pointed out 18 books released in 2012. On that list, I’ll personally vouch for two titles. In Vintage Cakes, author Julie Richardson takes a trove of classic recipes—some dating back to the 1920s—and updates them for the modern American palate. Keeping in mind that the tools and techniques of previous generations are not the same as our own, the amount of sleuthing it took to reconstruct these cakes is amazing. Paired with tips and techniques, historical backgrounds on each of the cakes and fabulous photography, it’s a book that works well in your kitchen and on the coffee table. I need to try her version of Texas Sheet Cake to see how well it stacks up against my grandmother’s.
I’d also heartily recommend giving a gift subscription to Lucky Peach, a cross between a literary journal and food magazine that, wrapped together, makes for a magnificent piece of candy for the eye and the mind. Launched in July 2011, each themed issue pairs photography lush illustrations with fabulous writing in delectable ways. (Contributors have included the likes of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.) If you subscribe now, the person you’re giving this to won’t receive their first issue in the mail until February 2013; however, you can also buy the current issue on newsstands so you can have something under the tree.
There are also the old standbys that always make for good gifts. I’m a big fan of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which is a great cookbook for someone to learn on and contains recipes that are easy to pull together. One year for Christmas I received a copy of The New Basics, and this book has since become my go-to resource for those occasions when I’m having company over and need to lay my table with something a little more impressive than my everyday cooking.
Music: I’m a big fan of the husband and wife duo that writes Turntable Kitchen, a blog that, in addition to expanding your culinary horizons, cultivates your sonic palate. Kasey writes about food, Matthew tackles music—using the language of food and flavor to describe sounds—and together they find tunes and nibbles that complement each other. What’s more is that these internet-based explorations of new flavors and sounds can be taken into our humble, analog realm by way of the Pairings Box. Each month, you get a bundle of music, recipes, suggested pairings and a few ingredients to play with. Unfortunately, the Pairings Box ships out mid-month, so unless you’re OK giving someone a nice card letting them know what goodies will soon be arriving—or do holiday visiting in January— you’ll need a more immediate option. In this situation, try The Recipe Project, which takes recipes from today’s most famous chefs and turns them into songs. (E.g., Mario Batali’s recipe for spaghetti with sweet tomatoes.) This book/CD package can be found at your local bookseller.
Toys: If you know someone culinary aspirations, encourage them to build up the relationship they have with their kitchen. If they are just starting out, giving the gift of standard pieces of equipment are always great. I was thrilled to get a good set of pots and pans when I was in college. Another year I received a slow cooker and a food processor, and for the single working professional, those pieces of equipment made my life in the kitchen so much easier. In the event that you have the budget to splurge on knives, your budding chef will be eternally grateful. There’s nothing worse than bad cutlery. When I finally came into a set of really good knives, it made a world of difference in how I work in the kitchen.
For the established chef, you can add to their collection of kitchen gadgetry. Personally, I’m not a fan of uni-tasker appliances, but if you know someone who enjoys specific foods, find the toys to let them indulge their interests. I highly recommend browsing America’s Test Kitchen Feed’s gadget reviews for handy tools—and whether or not the latest kitchen toys are really the greatest. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, their review of this heavy-duty steel nutcracker has me contemplating a splurge purchase. When you consider how much less expensive nuts are when bought in the shell, it’s a great gift—especially if you give it with a bag of oh, say, chestnuts to roast over an open fire. For sheer whimsy, check out the Foodigity blog’s online shop where you can find dinosaur-shaped tea infusers, unicorn corn holders and ice cream sandwich body pillows. You need to place orders by Friday, December 21 to ensure delivery by the 24th.
Food: Giving the gift of food itself is always a good idea. I’ve yet to hear complaints from anyone who is well-fed. There are a few ways to work within this idea, perhaps the most obvious tack to take being a food basket, be it one you cobbled together yourself or one you purchased prefab. Or if there are seasonal goodies you like to make, attractively package them and give them as gifts. This year a friend gave me some of her homemade fudge, which she wrapped in cellophane and topped with a felt Christmas ornament she also made herself. The presentation—and the food—were equally delightful.
Another tack to take on this theme is to look to your local food bank. These charitable organizations do what they can to ease hunger in the community, and they rely on monetary and edible donations to continue their mission. Some food banks will also let you donate on behalf of another person—so for someone who would rather see money go to charity than to buying them a gift, this is a great way to go. Contact your local food bank to ask if you can give in this way.
August 20, 2012
When James Joyce sat down and wrote, in Ulysses, “Her griddlecakes done to a goldenbrown hue and Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess,” he probably did not imagine that decades later, bloggers in the 21st century would be attempting to cook the very foods he described. But in the past few years a proliferation of literary food blogs have crept up all over the internet, claiming the recipes for literature’s most epic delicacies and culinary disasters.
With both real and invented recipes, today’s literary food bloggers attempt to recreate not just a dish, but also the scene surrounding a dish in its greater literary context. The chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda, for example, is not just an ode to gluttony but also a symbol of the Trunchbull’s demented torture tactics as she forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to gulp down the cake in its entirety.
Nicole Villenueve, author of the popular Paper and Salt literary food blog, digs deep to find the real recipes of famous authors and literary personalities. “I can occasionally find the recipes that they used themselves,” she says, “whether in their letters or their collections of papers.” Villenueve focuses not only on the dishes in fiction but also on the real life favorites of authors like E.B White and Raymond Chandler. (Most recently she posted the recipe for Robert Penn Warren’s favorite cocktail).
Cara Nicoletti, a blogger, baker and butcher in New York, invents recipes inspired by literary food scenes on Yummy-Books, a blog that relies mostly on literary descriptions. “Most fiction novels don’t have actual recipes in them,” she says, “which is what makes them so creative and fun. My favorite literary food scenes are somewhat vague—like the unspecified red berry pie in Steinbeck’s East of Eden—because they leave me lots of space to interpret and imagine.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Nicole Gulotta, whose blog eatthispoem invites readers to try recipes inspired by basic fruits and seasons. She uses the framework of a poem and develops a recipe that “reflects the essence of the original text in some way.” The recipe follows the sentiment of the text as opposed to a measured formula. “The poem now lives on and off the page,” says Gulotta.
And why do this? What good is it to eat like characters from a novel? For most, it’s the chance to insert oneself into a favorite novel or poem by sharing in the most quotidian of human activities: eating. “Because I connected so deeply with these characters,” says Nicoletti, “eating the food they ate just seemed like a very natural way for me to be closer to them.” Cooking the food dreamed up by a favorite author can make us feel part of the bookwriting process, because, as Villenueve adds, cooking “is a very similar process to writing.”
The process works both ways; on the one hand, eating like a character from a novel invites readers into our favorite books, but it also beckons our favorite characters out into the real world.
No one has brought more attention to this theory than historian and curator Lucy Worsley, who performs the feats (most notably by cooking the same foods) of famous historical figures in an effort to experience what life must have been like in say, the days of Henry VIII. On any given day Worsley can be found buying pounds of pheasants and gulping gallons of saltwater. Lauren Collins, in her profile of Worsley in The New Yorker, describes this phenomenon precisely: “Food and drink are perhaps the most effective of Worsley’s tools for revivifying the past.”
Food scenes stand out to readers in the same way that food-related memories seem to triumph over even the grandest events in real life. Of all the scenes in a book, the most memorable are often the ones with visceral descriptions of food, the kind that leave you either starving or retching. “I remember certain scenes in books based soley on the foods that were eaten in them,” says Nicoletti, “but it goes the other way too. My memories of certain foods are bound up in my memories of reading certain novels, as well.”
If food is the way to a man’s heart, then descriptions of foods might be the way to a reader’s eyes. And cooking those descriptions brings them right to the table. “Food often allows you to step into the story just a little bit more than you otherwise could,” says Villenueve. “You may not have been to Paris, but with Hemingway you can down a few oysters and live vicariously through him.”
What food from literature would you most want to be able to cook for yourself? Let us know and we’ll pass along your requests!
July 9, 2012
While Julia Child may have popularized French cuisine in America, she wasn’t the first to lend it prominence in our culinary culture—that credit goes to Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps more precisely, credit should go to the slaves in Jefferson’s kitchen who were trained to cook in this style and were producing meals every day of the year. These highly-skilled people were running the kitchen of one of the most powerful men in the fledgling nation, and yet, their personal stories are aggravatingly elusive because few people thought to write about “the help.” The forthcoming book, Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée, focuses on Jefferson’s life in France, during which time he made a deal with slave James Hemings that if he learned the art of French cooking and imparted this knowledge to another slave, James would receive his freedom. The bargain was kept, with Hemings ultimately freed in 1796 and his younger brother Peter taking the reins of Monticello’s kitchen. The book stops just as Jefferson becomes commander in chief of a fledgling nation, but doesn’t touch much on the cooking that was happening at the executive mansion. In 1802, Jefferson brought two young women, Edith Fossett and and Fanny Hern, to Washington and Monticello research historian Leni Sorensen is able to offer an impression of what life was like for these early White House chefs.
Fossett and Hern were 15 and 18 respectively when they were tasked with cooking for the president. Under the tutelage of a French chef for about six years, they cooked for Jefferson until his death in 1826. ”They were at the absolute top of the chef’s game,” says Sorensen. “But because they were women, because they were black, because they were enslaved and because this was the beginning of the 19th century, they were just known as ‘the girls.’ But today, anyone with that amount of experience under their belt would be Julia Child.” Furthermore, for cooking in their own homes, these women were living off the same foods as the other slaves at Monticello, such as corn, greens, beans, squash and field peas. So why were these two people who were versed in the foodways of the poor picked to prepare haute cuisine for Washington’s elite? Here, Sorensen could only provide a best educated guess looking at contextual evidence. ”We know that Edith was listed as the baby minder for Sally Heming’s daughter, Harriet,” she says. “We know that at 8, she was around the house. That’s exactly the child who might be recruited to do some scullion work in the kitchen. And if they’re the kind of child who is patient, interested, tractable, intelligent, companionable, capable—you keep them and you teach them. And I think that’s how Edith and Francis would have been recognized. At some point a few years later, they were tapped to go to the president’s house. Who’s more logical? Someone who has kitchen experience.”
And we don’t definitively know much more about Fossett and Hern outside of their duties, the children they had, where they lived and that they were ultimately sold. “We don’t even know if they liked each other,” Sorensen observes. “We don’t have a record of that. They worked together for all those years and didn’t manage to cut each other up. Well, OK. All we can really look at is: what are the processes that had to be done =to make a meal that would suit the taste of Mr. Jefferson and see what it takes to do that: to grow it, to buy it, to store it, to cook it, to present it and then start again the next day.” And indeed, this was a tall order, cooking for anywhere between 12 and 25 people a day.
While we will never know these women in great detail, Monticello’s kitchen provides another impression of what their lives were like. “Go to the kitchen,” Sorensen recommends. “The first thing visitors are going to notice is this row of raised holes—the stew stove—and it’s that unit that really made a difference in cooking in that kitchen. At that time, it was like having an eight-burner Viking range. It gave you the ability to cook at waist height, to work with copper pots and to cook creams and sauces and all the delicate dishes that French cooking has in its repertory.” And although visitors to Monticello might not have thought to remark on the chefs themselves, they did remark on the meals while Edith served as head chef there. In 1824, statesman Daniel Webster described the food was “served in half-Virginian, half-French style, in good taste and abundance.”
If you’re planning a trip to Monticello, be sure to stop off at the kitchen—but for those with only a computer at your disposal, you can take a virtual tour of the state-of-the-art 19th century cooking space. Also, for a hearty helping of food, culture and kitchen savvy, be sure to check out the cooking classes offered by Leni Sorensen at her Charlottesville, Virginia, home.
June 4, 2012
Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter of Moby Dick to the substance. The Chinese believed it to be dragon spittle hardened by the sea. Ambergris (that’s French for gray amber) is an opaque, hardened orb that floats for months or years at sea, until its waxy mass washes up ashore. It has have sometimes been described, inaccurately, as sperm whale vomit. Ambergris comes out the other end—the cetacean approximation of a human gallbladders stone, formed in a whale stomach as a protective barrier around sharp, indigestible squid beaks, and then excreted.
Of all the world’s feces, ambergris may be the only one prized as an ingredient in fragrances, cocktails and medicines. It’s eaten, too. Persian sherbets once included ambergris along with water and lemon. Casanova apparently added it to his chocolate mousse as an aphrodisiac. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin recommended a shilling’s worth of ambergris in a tonic of chocolate and sugar, which he claimed would render life more easy, like coffee without the restless sleeplessness.
Christopher Kemp, a molecular biologist who works (by intention, it seems) at a desk “cluttered with marginalia” exhumes these enigmatic tidbits in his new book Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. He includes obscure recipes found in footnotes to the annotated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Regained, in which “grey amber” was melted like butter onto roasted game encased in pastries.
Kemp also cooks with a piece of white ambergris: “It crumbles like truffle. I fold it carefully into the eggs with a fork. Rising and mingling with curls of steam from the eggs, the familiar odor of ambergris begins to fill and clog my throat, a thick and unmistakable smell that I can taste. It inhabits the back of my throat and fills my sinuses. It is aromatic—both woody and floral. The smell reminds me of leaf litter on a forest floor and of the delicate, frilly undersides of mushrooms that grow in damp and shaded places.”
Enigmatic, yes. Legal, no—at least not in the United States, where the mere possession of ambergris is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as is the eating of whale meat itself. The taste remains mostly unknowable, an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the mysteries contained in our oceans at large.
June 1, 2012
Have you heard the one about putting the banana in the paper bag with the unripe avocado? Leave the bag on the counter for a couple of days and the avocado ripens up. Those are fruits communicating. They’re smelling each other.
Fruits that ripen after being picked, called climacteric fruits,* become softer and sweeter thanks to a plant hormone called ethylene. The gas, produced by the fruits themselves and microorganisms on their skin, causes the release of pectinase, hydrolase and amylase. These enzymes ripen fruits and make them more appealing to eat. A plant can detect the volatile gas and convert its signal into a physiological response. Danny Chamovitz writes in What a Plant Knows that a receptor for ethylene has been identified in plants, and it closely resembles receptors in the neural pathway we have for olfaction or smell.
The gas was discovered in 1901 by a 17-year-old Russian scientist named Dimitry Neljubow of the Botanical Institute of St. Petersburg. I like to imagine Neljubow at his window, gazing at trees twisted and abnormally thickened by their proximity to street lights—why did lights do that?
Neljubow appears to have come to his revelation about ethylene through the careful study of germinating pea plants inside his lab. He planted peas in a pair of pitch-black boxes. Into one, he pumped air from the outside; the other he fed air from his laboratory. Those peas fed the laboratory air grew sideways and swelled up. He then isolated ethylene found in the “illuminating gases” burned by lamps in his lab and on the streets at night
In the 1930s, Florida orange growers noticed something similar. When they kept fruits warm with kerosene heaters, the heat itself did not ripen up the oranges, and yet the fruits ripened (and sometimes rotted). The fruits smelled the ethylene in kerosene, much like you or I would get a whiff wafting over from a neighborhood barbecue. And that’s something we know because of a chance discovery hastened by some leaky pipes in Neljubow’s lab.
Photo of peas grown in increasing concentrations of ethylene by J.D. Goeschle/Discoveries in Plant Biology, 1998. Thanks to Robert Krulwich for inspiration on this one.
* Climacteric fruits include apples, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, peaches and tomatoes. Others, such as cherries, grapes, oranges and strawberries, do not ripen after being picked.