November 8, 2011
Fast-food aficionados are all abuzz over the McRib, the sandwich with a sizable cult following enjoying a return engagement at McDonald’s locations through November 14. Seriously, how many foodstuffs do you know of that have their own locator map so that die-hard fans can get their fix? The pork patty itself is something of a technological marvel, with emulsified bits of pork meat molded into the shape of ribs.
The more I pondered the McRib, the more it seemed like a descendant of scrapple. For those not in the know, this traditional breakfast food combines grain with the scraps and trimmings of meat, including organ meat, left over from butchering a hog. The mixture is boiled and allowed to set before being molded into a loaf, sliced up and finally pan-fried until golden brown. Like the McRib, scrapple is a distinctively American pork product and remains a regional favorite.
The dish has its roots in the black blood puddings found in Dutch and German cuisine. Immigrants brought the dish, also known as pawnhoss, to the New World in the 17th century, where it became most closely associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. In this country, blood was omitted from the meat mix and European grains were replaced with American ones, such as buckwheat and cornmeal. Seasonings can vary depending on locality, with Philadelphia scrapple going heavy on the sage, while more Germanic versions favor marjoram and coriander. The dish was a commonsense means of extending leftover meat and avoiding waste, making as much use of an animal as possible. While pragmatic, the flip side is that organ meats can be very high in fat and cholesterol, so regularly incorporating scrapple into your diet might not be the best idea. Nevertheless, it remains popular and has spawned local celebrations, such as Philadelphia’s Scrapplefest and Bridgeville, Delaware’s Apple-Scrapple Festival, which sports events like a scrapple shot-put contest. (And XBox users out there might also recall the scrapple commercial that was worked into the game Whacked!, with a line of dancing pigs being sent down a conveyor belt before being sloshed into tin cans. And I have to admit, the jingle is pretty catchy.)
My first encounter with scrapple was at the L&S Diner in Harrisonburg, Virginia, courtesy of an uncle who treated me for breakfast and didn’t explain what it was I was eating until after my plate was cleared. I took pause, but didn’t dwell on the matter too long because, frankly, the nondescript brown slice of pork-flavored something-or-other tasted great—though it’s difficult for anything that’s fried to be rendered unpalatable. When Snowpocalypse hit the D.C. area last year, this meatloaf of the morning was my comfort food of choice to get me through being stuck indoors for a few days. Former Food and Think blogger Amanda Bensen, on the other hand, seems to have had an unpleasant introduction to the dish, so much so that she turned vegetarian. Though based on her description of being served pork mush, I’m not sure that it was properly prepared. But, like with any regional cuisine, there are dozens of variations that can be had with the dish. Do you enjoy scrapple? If so, tell us in the comments section how you like it served.
January 5, 2011
2010 was a good year.
We started it off by gabbing about the weird things people put in coffee, the evolution of the sweet tooth, and the history of cereal boxes, among other topics. We explored five ways to eat many kinds of seasonal produce. We launched a new Monday feature called Inviting Writing, and you all have been responding with wonderful stories on themes like road trips, college food and eating at Grandma’s house.
Yes, it’s been a wonderful year. But personally, it’s not just 2010 that I’m wrapping up and waving goodbye to… I’m also leaving Smithsonian to work for another magazine. While that’s certainly exciting, it’s bittersweet, since it means parting ways with Food & Think, the blog I helped launch just over two years ago. We really hit our stride last year thanks to Lisa Bramen, the fantastic freelance co-blogger who joined me “temporarily” and is still going strong. You can look forward to reading more of Lisa’s work here, as well as posts from a few new and returning writers in months to come.
It has challenged to me to pay closer attention to serious issues of the day like food safety, childhood obesity and sustainable seafood, as well as track down answers to not-so-serious questions like “Does cheese pair better with beer or wine?” and “Why are chocolate Easter bunnies hollow?”
And it has inspired me to taste or cook many things for the first time: fresh sardines, jellyfish, lionfish, biltong (South African jerky), poutine, kohlrabi, sunchokes, purple long beans and more. Heck, I’d never even cracked into a crab or a whole lobster until I became a food blogger! I’m grateful for those opportunities, and to all of you for reading.
Happy New Year, everyone!
January 4, 2011
A question for the end of the year, a time to look back: What’s the oldest kind of wine still in modern production?
If you answered “Commandaria,” I’m impressed. I had never heard of such wines until a few weeks ago, when I attended a Smithsonian Resident Associates lecture about the cuisine of Cyprus. It’s a sweet dessert wine, with a dark amber to light brown color, and an intriguing taste that starts like honeyed raisins and figs and ends like coffee. It reminded me somewhat of Hungarian Tokaji wine, while the woman next to me said she found it pleasantly similar to Portuguese Madeira.
I learned that Commandaria’s history dates back at least 3,000 years, although it was called Mana for much of that time. The ancient Greeks drank it at festivals celebrating Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to myth, was born from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The wine’s modern name can be traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John established a headquarters (commandery) in the growing region and began to produce and export the wine commercially. Commandaria proved so popular with European palates that it is said to have been served at King Richard the Lionheart’s wedding, and to have won what was perhaps the world’s first wine-tasting competition in France.
Commandaria is made from two kinds of native grapes which I’d also never heard of before—white Xynisteri and red Mavro—which are partially dried in the sun to concentrate the juices before pressing and fermentation. By law, Commandaria wines must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but many of the best are aged for a decade or more. (I sampled a phenomenal 30-year-old vintage, Etko Centurion, although at $100 and up a bottle I don’t expect I’ll drink it again. But younger versions are also excellent, and much more affordable at around $20.)
Although its international popularity faded in the centuries after the knights lost power, Commandaria has been staging a comeback in recent decades. The name has been given “protected designation of origin status” in the European Union, the United States and Canada, and there is an official Commandaria wine region in southern Cyprus.
To learn more about the history of Cyprus, currently the subject of an exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, read this Smithsonian magazine piece.
December 17, 2010
As Christmas draws closer, have you finished your shopping yet? If not, try turning to your local bookstore to find something for nearly everyone on your list:
The Aspiring Home Cook
Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease, by Rozanne Gold. All the recipes in this lovely cookbook are described in 140 words or less, and many have only 5 ingredients, making even sophisticated-sounding dishes like “sauteed chicken with roasted grapes and grape demi-glace” quite approachable.
How To Repair Food, by Tanya Zeryck, John Bear and Marina Bear. The third edition of a perennially helpful classic that offers tips on everything from makeshift ingredient substitutions to stale marshmallows.
Williams-Sonoma: The Art of Preserving, by Rick Field with Rebecca Courchesne. An essential reference guide for anyone interested in making and cooking with their own canned and pickled produce.
The Original King Arthur Flour Cookbook: 200th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, by Brinna B. Sands. A sturdy, ring-bound classic devoted to all things flour-based, from pancakes to pie, and of course, bread.
The Cosmopolitan Foodie
My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South, by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher. The first cookbook to focus on Calabria, the region at the tip of Italy’s “boot,” its recipes celebrate ingredients like olives, anchovies, hot peppers… and pasta made on knitting needles.
Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes, by Mark Bitterman. A fascinating tribute to the history and nuances of the many types of “artisan salt” in the world, written by a self-described “selmelier.” Includes a field guide to dozens of specific salts found in the Mongolian steppes, the deserts of Timbuktu and more.
Around my French Table: More than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan. The warm, conversational tone of Greenspan’s writing, combined with gorgeous photographs and tips about serving and storing, welcomes readers into the exciting world of French home cooking.
Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes, by David Lebovitz. From classics like creme brulee to unique concepts like Guinness-gingerbread cupcakes, the Paris-based pastry chef’s heavenly-sounding recipes are anchored in his funny, down-to-earth style. (“If you don’t have a pepper mill, shame on you. Go get one.”)
The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion, by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark. A collection of 80 sure-to-impress recipes from the White House pastry chef, helpfully organized by occasion (birthdays, brunches, bring-to-a-party desserts, etc.).
Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Cooking and Sourcing Sustainable Meat, by Deborah Krasner. A satisfyingly thick tome, broken down into chapters on beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, poultry and eggs. Includes recipes for every part of the animals, and explains the terminology and practices involved in meat production and processing.
Planet Barbecue: An Electrifying Journey Around the World’s Barbecue Trail, by Steven Raichlen. More than 300 grill-centric recipes from 60 countries, ranging from South African braai to Korean pork belly.
The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour, by Kim O’Donnel. As O’Donnel explains, the inspiration for this marvelous book was helping her mother come up with heart-healthy meals that would pass muster with the meat-loving man in her life, “Mister Sausage.” O’Donnel isn’t condemning carnivores, she’s simply asking them to take a day off: “Meatless Mondays.”
The Very Best of Recipes for Health, by Martha Rose Shulman. A collection of simple, healthy, largely vegetarian recipes from Shulman’s popular New York Times column, including nutritional analyses. Mediterranean chickpea salad, creamy cabbage soup, “rainbow tofu” and much more.
The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat and Moral Crisis, by Tara Austen Weaver. This food writer’s memoir is both entertaining and thought-provoking, as she grapples with the relationship between her vegetarian upbringing and some serious health issues, and gets a crash course in the world of meat production and consumption.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, by Amanda Hesser. A hefty treasure chest, bursting with gems of culinary history culled from the newspaper’s archives by one of its best food writers.
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon. Fans of Julia Child will devour this collection of her personal correspondence with her friend and literary mentor Avis in the 1950s. Although the letters discuss much more than food, they offer a window into the process of recipe and testing and development for Child’s famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Memories of a Farm Kitchen, by Bob and Rob Artley. A charming and utterly unique memoir about growing up on a 200-acre farm in Iowa in the 1920s and 1930s, this homespun book recalls bygone days of icebox refrigerators, cellar larders, and ham hanging from the rafters.
The Pop-Culture Geek
Cooking With the Movies: Meals on Reels, by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr. With recipes based on the foods featured in 14 different films, from 1985′s Tampopo through 2007′s Waitress, this could be the basis for some seriously fun dinner parties.
Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History, by William Woys Weaver. I’ve already told you how much I enjoyed this collection of vintage advertisements, food packaging, menus and tidbits of trivia from culinary history.
Or how about one of these cookbooks by non-culinary celebrities, like Dolly Parton or Coolio?
The Drinks Connoisseur
Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, by Jason Wilson. From the first chapter, titled “The Ombibulous Me,” this alcohol-soaked memoir from The Washington Post‘s Spirits columnist turns the esoteric into the entertaining. Includes dozens of cocktail recipes.
Whiskey: A Global History, by Kevin Kosar. This intriguing, stocking-stuffer-sized volume from the Alcohol Reviews blogger chases the history of whiskey around the world and through the ages, explains the differences between various types and includes several classic whiskey cocktail recipes.
The Great Domaines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Finest Wine Producers of the Cote D’Or, by Remington Norman and Charles Taylor (3rd edition). Serious oenophiles and/or Francophiles will savor this detailed reference book, which elucidates the methods and personalities at the heart of Burgundy’s best wines.
Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, by Laura Catena. As described in a previous post, this is an excellent primer on the Argentine wine industry and its beloved malbecs.
December 13, 2010
For the next round of Inviting Writing, and to celebrate the impending new year, we’re seeking your stories about “first taste” experiences.
To be considered for publication, please e-mail your submissions to FoodandThink@gmail.com by this Friday (Dec. 17) morning. We’ll read through all of them and pick our favorites to edit and publish on subsequent Mondays through mid-January. Just a reminder, we’re looking for true, original personal narratives of roughly 500 to 1,000 words. The rest of the details are up to you!
I’ll start with an example…
My Goodness, My Guinness
By Amanda Bensen
Ever heard the term “goody two-shoes?” That was me in high school, and that was still me at 19, as I entered my junior year of college. Up until then, I had never had an alcoholic drink. After all, I wasn’t 21—and underage drinking was not only illegal, but at my college it was an offense that could get you expelled (along with having opposite-sex visitors in your room overnight, or with the door closed).
But my junior year was different. I was studying abroad in England, where the drinking age was only 18, which meant that the mysterious world of alcohol was suddenly wide open to me. I was eager to experience British culture, and I quickly discerned that drinking was a necessary part of this—even the church I visited held its “young adults’ Bible study” at a pub.
When Ryan, another American student in my program, heard that I’d never had a drink, he was both incredulous and adamant that we remedy this strange condition immediately. He dragged me into a pub on the outskirts of Oxford. It was early on a weekday evening, and the place was quiet. We sat at the bar, where a handful of middle-aged men were silently watching television and nursing pints of beer.
“She’ll have a Guinness, and so will I,” Ryan announced loudly, as if this were something extraordinary. The bartender smirked as he handed us our drinks. I was about to take a sip when Ryan stopped me.
“Wait,” he said, lowering his voice. “Just so you know, this is a real local pub, not a tourist trap. They know how to drink. That means you have to take at least an inch or two out of the glass in your first swig, or they’ll probably laugh you right out of here.”
I was alarmed. That wouldn’t be a good way to experience the local culture. So, I took a big gulp, choking slightly and getting foam on my nose in the process. It tasted bitter, but not bad…kind of like dark chocolate, or coffee. I liked it!
Trying to ignore the fact that the other customers were now watching us more than the television, we hunched over our pints and tried not to talk. I looked at the vintage beer ads displayed on the pub’s wall, with slogans like “Lovely day for a Guinness” and “My goodness, my Guinness!” and debated whether it would be nerdy or cool to mention that I was reading a biography of the British mystery author Dorothy Sayers, who wrote those slogans in the 1930s. I was hoping it would help prepare me for a tutorial on C.S. Lewis I’d be taking that fall, since Sayers was a friend of his. Probably nerdy, I decided.
By the time my pint was nearly drained, Ryan was already finishing his second. “What did you have for dinner?” he asked. I said I hadn’t had dinner yet.
He put on a look of mocking seriousness (although the mocking part went straight over my head at the time).
“What?!? No food in your stomach? That means you’re going to be sick in…” he looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes.”
I felt fine, but he sounded certain, so I was worried. We tossed a handful of pound coins down on the bar and hurried out to the street in search of a quick bite. With only five minutes left in our ridiculous countdown, we found a food truck. I ordered a tray of fries and a greasy veggie burger, and downed them quickly, as if they were medicine. I don’t know how Ryan managed to keep such a straight face through it all.
By the end of that year, I was the one dragging visiting friends to the local pubs, although I never got into heavy drinking. After buying me eight shots in a row one night without seeing any effect, Ryan declared me the best drinking buddy he’d ever seen: “Such a tolerance! Never seen anything like it in a girl!”
What he didn’t realize is that I was the one doing the leg-pulling this time — it was a dark pub, there was nothing behind my chair but a dead-end stairwell, and I’d been tossing the shots over my shoulder the whole time.
I’ve long since lost touch with Ryan, but I still love Guinness.