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.
May 18, 2012
Whether you’re a craft pickler with a budding small business, a doomsday prepper with a bunker stocked with necessities, or just a home cook curious about that middle ground between fresh and rotten, pickling represents one way of saving the fleeting tastes of spring. These are four short reviews of interesting books that have crossed my desk. They offer instruction, context and recipes for pickling, and they should interest both the earnest experimenter or the armchair historian.
The Art of Fermentation
Sandor Katz, an exuberant post-Pasteurian evangelist who lives on a wooded commune in Tennessee, shares his characteristic blend of instructional advice, contemporary folk wisdom from around the globe and a layman’s take on microbiology. The resulting book has depth enough for home fermenteurs and professional chefs. Includes a recipe for fermented eggs made with miso (a fermented soybean paste).
Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning
Originally published as Keeping Food Fresh, this Old World recipe collection offers ultra-simple, if slightly idiosyncratic-sounding, advice from organic farmers and gardeners in France, Belgium and Switzerland. The authors favor salt and time to opening the freezer or turning on the stove. Includes a recipe for verdurette, a salted, ground-up vegetable stock that could replace a bouillon cube in soup.
Putting Food By
This primer, first printed in the 1970s, offers instructional advice on preserving food with boiling water baths, salt cures and root cellars. Its emphasis on safety in home kitchen should appeal to the cautious canning neophyte. Includes advice on the best types of jars, rubber rings and lids for home canning.
Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods
A series of scholarly essays from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery addresses such topics as the geographic dispersal of Jewish pickles in North America, the theoretical underpinnings of fermentation’s ability to keep our species well fed and the tradition of shad planking. Includes a recipe, of sorts, for garum, approximating the ancient Roman methods for making fermented fish sauce in a modern greenhouse.
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.