October 31, 2012
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you feel like a regionally-specific, hometown-proud confection that you just can’t find anywhere else (or if you can, everyone knows they won’t be as good). This Halloween, we’re saluting those finds that marry place and taste for a lasting bond.
Given our country’s proclivity for sweets, it’s no surprise that the Census Bureau has collected data on the confectionery industry since 1926. All so the government can tell us that in 2010, the average American consumed almost 25 pounds of candy.
And if that average American was living in Ohio, you can bet that included Buckeyes. Or maybe he was living in Texas and snacking on Chick-o-Sticks. Thanks in part to the dedicated foodies over at NPR, Serious Eats and CNN, we’ve created a roundup of the seven best regional finds:
1. Goo Goo, Tennessee: A hunk of marshmallow, peanuts and caramel covered in chocolate, the Nashville-born, century-old treat even has its own app: the Goo Goo Finder. The candy was a regular sponsor of another Nashville icon: the Grand Ole Opry, according to NPR, delighting listeners with its slogan: “Go get a Goo Goo … it’s gooooooood!”
2. Buckeyes, Ohio: Other than being the mascots for the best college football team in the entire country, the buckeye is a time-honored candy tradition enjoyed year-round. Peanut butter mixed with confectioners sugar and dipped into melted chocolate to resemble the actual (and not so tasty) nut, buckeyes are almost always better when made at home.
3. Velatis caramels, Washington, D.C.: Masters of all things caramel, Velatis (whose new location in Silver Spring, Maryland comes after a sad hiatus from its original location in downtown D.C.) brings crowds for its marshmallow-stuffed vanilla caramels. The company’s roots stretch back to 1866, according to the City Paper, and it remains a staple for stocking stuffers.
4. It’s-It, San Francisco: Stretching the definition of candy a bit, It’s-It is an ice cream treat worth the category-bending. First made in 1928, the individually packaged creations sandwich ice cream between two oatmeal cookies before dipping the whole thing in dark chocolate. The sandwich was named “the official food of San Francisco.” Take that, Ghirardelli.
5. Saltwater Taffy, Atlantic City: No one knows how long it will take for the Jersey shore to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or whether or not the taffy shops on the city’s boardwalk will ever return. Ironically, the local delicacy allegedly has its roots in a 19th-century flood which soaked a candy-maker’s taffy with saltwater. Though no one has proved who first invented it, Joseph Fralinger certainly popularized it in the 1880s, from his boardwalk stand to his empire of stores. Chewy, sweet and, of course, salty, it may be the most difficult thing to eat on this list.
6. Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts, Hawaii: Though we’d be happy to receive a box of Hawaiian Host in the mail, it’d be a little sad to miss the Hawaii part. “Oh yes, Hawaiian Host has been imitated by many over the years but the unique quality of our secret milk chocolate has never been equaled,” claims the site. But what about when the French Laundry serves guests chocolate covered caramelized macadamia nuts dusted with sugar? Seems like that’s a safe bet to sample.
7. Bizcochito, New Mexico: Taking the honor of being the first official cookie of any state, the Bizcochito made history in 1989. A shortbread cookie with cinnamon and anise flavoring, it dates back centuries and combines many of the flavors from New Mexico’s past. Another seasonal favorite, the cookies also pop up at major community events.
Other popular items from the lists: New England’s Sky Bar, the Idaho Spud, Kansas’ Valomilk, Chukar Cherries from Washington state and more.
October 30, 2012
The commemoration of the last day of the ancient Celtic calendar was a major influences on how we celebrate Halloween, but one significant tradition has (thankfully?) not survived. Kale, that leafy salad green, was a tool of marriage divination, identifying life partners for men and women in ancient Scotland and Ireland.
But first, some context: According to the Celtic calendar, on the morning of November 1, spirits and the supernatural “bogies” were free to roam the night of the 31st and into the morning as the new year represented the transition between this world and the otherworld. To fend off the spirits and to celebrate the coming year, Scottish youths participated in superstitious games on Halloween night that were thought to bring good fortune and predict the future marital status of partygoers.
Scottish bard Robert Burns describes the typical festivities for the peasantry in the west of Scotland in his poem, “Halloween,” originally published in both English and Scots in 1785. The 252-line poem follows the narrative of 20 characters and details many—often confusing—folk practices: Burning nuts, winnowing the corn, and the cutting of the apple:
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”
Also included among the party games mentioned in Burns’ poem is our first Halloween kale matchmaking activity, known as ”pou (pull) the stalks.”
1) Pou (Pull) the Stalks
In this Scottish tradition, instead of trick-or-treating, young, eligible men and women were blindfolded and guided into a garden to uproot kale stalks. After some time digging in the dirt, the piece of kale selected was analyzed to determine information about the participant’s future wife or husband.
In Burns’ poem, for example, the character of Willie, tries his luck and pulls a stalk as curly as a pig’s tail. He isn’t too happy about it:
“Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander’d through the bow-kail,
And pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow’t that night.”
The analysis was pretty literal according to Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal—meaning poor Willie’s curly-Q’d root didn’t look too promising. Characteristics of the stalk were thought to reveal signs about the potential partner: A short and stunted stalk meant just that for the player’s future mate. Tall and healthy, withered and old, and so on—even the kale’s flavor was thought to hint at the disposition of the future spouse (bitter, sweet, etc.). The amount of dirt clinging to the stalk post pou was believed to determine the size of the dowry or fortune the participant should expect from their husband or wife. A clean root meant poverty was in the cards.
“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”
2) Cook Up Some Colcannon
If you’re not satisfied with letting the “fates” determine the man or woman you will spend the rest of your life with, perhaps this Irish tradition may interest you. For Hallowe’en—what Christianity would later call All Hallows’ Eve—kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’. Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster for the lady lucky enough to discover it. Eating the dinner trinket-free seems to be the best of the three situations, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking. If the Halloween dinner were up to me, the only thing on the menu would be candy.
June 29, 2012
Two friends on a remote Maine island set out to clear a piece of land, felling white pines by axes and handsaws, and build a home entirely by hand. In the fall of 2007, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, a mess of timbers and only one man, Dennis Carter, left to finish the job. Today, the Garrison front, saltbox-style house, based on the 17th-century homes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a hostel. I stayed here while reporting a story on Ted Ames, a Stonington fisherman turned scientist, best known for his receipt of the MacArthur genius grant award. The hand-built hostel feels like a wooden ship of a place, lost in another time—only when the weather turns and it starts blowing, nothing sways; you are firmly moored to Deer Isle.
It was here that I had my first taste of surströmming. The cans were swollen, surreptitiously imported from one of the host’s family in Sweden. (The canneries in Maine are gone so any herring caught here tends to end up as lobster bait). We all held hands and said what we were thankful for (I remember saying something about fish) and then we ate together from the can of whole, fermented Baltic herring. Madjes might be the traditional midsommar meal, but, to me, surströmming is the taste of mid-summer. The entrails, inside their little silver bodies, are optional for eating, we’re instructed, although the host says she would save those for her father as a specialty. We eat the fermented fish with mashed potatoes and onions and sour cream on rye crackers.
The salty herring ferment inside the sealed can thanks to a salt-loving, anaerobic bacteria that produces two distinctive volatile organic acids—propionic acid, commonly found in Swiss cheese and sweat, and butyric acid, probably most familiar as the characteristic odor of rotting butter. According to one study, the anaerobes contribute to the intense ﬂavor and appear in about 10 times the concentration of those found in the fermented fish sauces of Southeast Asia. Pungent stuff, indeed.
But I don’t remember thinking about the smell that night and it wasn’t like I had to choke the fish down. What I remember most was the next day; the kitchen smelled so incredibly rotten and I thought, how did I possible eat that night without holding my nose? Yet, we had feasted on fermented fish from a can and they were, I must say, delicious.
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 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.