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.
July 22, 2011
Occasionally a discussion crops up over what constitutes “American food,” wherein some smarty-pants debunks the claim that [insert cherished culinary icon] originated here. I can just picture this person, pushing up her glasses and saying, “Well, actually…” (OK, sometimes this person is me.)
To such know-it-alls I say this: Back off the s’mores. As far as anyone can tell, the ultimate campfire treat is one food that’s as American as apple pie—and even apple pie isn’t an original American creation. But who else would think to sandwich a fire-blistered marshmallow and a chocolate bar between graham crackers, creating a delicious but incredibly sticky mess? If that’s not American ingenuity I don’t know what is.
Frankly, s’mores are a concoction that people of other nationalities often find mystifying; one commenter with the handle English Girl remarked on the blog Unclutterer, “I had no idea what s’mores are but reading through it sounds like a weird roasted combination of marshmallows and um ‘stuff’. Are Graham crackers a sort of savoury biscuit? Sorry but it sounds horrible!” Fine, more for us.
Though no one knows the identity of the genius who invented them (surely not the same person who gave them such a ridiculous name), the first recipe for “some mores” appeared in a Girl Scout booklet in the 1920s. Some sources say the Camp Fire Girls actually came up with the treat first; as a former vest-wearing member of the Shle-Ta tribe, it’s a story I’m inclined to believe.
Of the three main components of a s’more, only one is a natural-born American. Marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt (where they were made from the actual marsh mallow plant). Chocolate is of Mesoamerican origin. But Graham crackers were invented—or at least inspired—by a Connecticut Presbyterian minister, Rev. Sylvester Graham, in the 1820s. Sly Graham was a bit of a health nut and a prude to boot. He advocated a vegetarian diet that included unrefined wheat flour, which he believed would help suppress naughty carnal urges and “self-abuse.” If he were alive today he would probably keel over when he saw the orgy of sugar and refined carbs that is the s’more.
Although kids love roasting their own marshmallows, it usually takes an adult’s patience to do it just right. I define marshmallow perfection as a completely gooey interior encased in a lightly caramelized shell. Achieving this is a delicate art: If you try to rush things by sticking the marshmallow directly into the fire and igniting it, all you’ll have is a charred sponge. If you leave it near the fire too long, or tilt it at the wrong angle, you risk having it slide right into the embers.
Some people like to soften the chocolate by leaving it next to the fire. I’ve also seen people stick pre-assembled s’mores wrapped in foil close to the flames—not a bad idea if gooeyness is your main objective, but I would miss the crispy marshmallow exterior you can only get through unprotected proximity to fire.
Once, during a camping trip on Catalina Island, my friends and I experimented with substituting other candy bars for the chocolate. Peanut butter cups were a hit. Peppermint patties, less so. But I still prefer the original. Why mess with an American classic?
June 1, 2011
Some of the information I learned in school isn’t holding up so well. Pluto is no longer a planet; the basics of CPR have been heavily revised, so I am now the absolute last person you want around in the event of an emergency (though I will be more than happy to dial 911 on your behalf). And now the USDA is razing the food pyramid to make way for a new visual model intended to help Americans figure out how to plan a balanced diet. Set to be unveiled on June 2, the new graphic will be circular in shape. Science 2.0 compared the yet-to-be-released model to a pie, which is a counterintuitive visual given the Obama administration’s devotion to fighting obesity. But officially, we are to consider the new graphic as a dinner plate—which is a little more intuitive and hits closer to home than those monuments of Giza.
Introduced in 1992, the pyramid model had a good run. But it has come under fire for being oversimplified: it visually communicates that people should eat more carbs because they’re good and eat less fat because it’s bad, sidestepping the issue that there are good and bad carbs and fats. Furthermore, with the USDA promoting American food products, lobby groups—notably cattle and dairy special interest groups—complained about how their goods were placed toward the top of the chart, nearer to the foodstuffs one is supposed to use sparingly. The pyramid was revamped in 2005 to a more politically correct graphic that tried to communicate the proportion of each food group people should have in their diet. Furthermore, the color-coded horizontal bands didn’t try to subliminally indicate that some foods are inherently better than others. This redesign drew fire from potato lobbyists since spuds were de-emphasized in the new graphic. Furthermore, you needed to use the USDA website to get any concrete nutrition advice since the image itself didn’t offer any specific advice regarding servings and portion sizes.
The USDA began offering nutritional guides in 1894, which have been tinkered with and updated over the years. We had 12 food groups in the 1930s, and when that system was deemed overly complicated, it was reduced to seven in the 1940s, and for the first time the government suggested how many servings from each group a person should have. This was succeeded by the basic four food group system—milk, veggies and fruits, meats and bread—in 1956, which endured until the pyramid model was introduced in 1992. And of course there are lots of fun posters and other visuals the USDA used to attractively package nutrition information and grab public attention.
The grand unveiling of the new plate-shaped food guide will take place on tomorrow, June 2, at 10:30 A.M. EST and the event will be streamed live.
May 24, 2011
Anyone familiar with Popeye the Sailor—be it the comic strip or the animated cartoons—is also probably familiar with J. Wellington Wimpy, the cowardly mooch with a penchant for plotting schemes for how to get food without paying for it. Notably, Mr. Wimpy has an insatiable appetite for hamburgers, offering his famous catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” when he’s trying to score a patty. But he’s certainly not alone in his burger lust. With Memorial Day kicking off the summer vacation season, people all over the United States are firing up grills and getting their fill of the little beef cake sandwiches that have become a part of our national identity. But how did this country come to “own” the hamburger?
First off, let’s get a few things straight and define what a hamburger really is: a perfect marriage between a beef patty and a bun. Sliced bread is for sandwiches and patty melts. Bona-fide burgers require a carbohydrate complement specially engineered to absorb the meat juices of the patty and any toppings thereon. That said, as with many food origin stories, the hamburger’s beginnings are hazy; however, author Josh Ozersky did some serious detective work into tracing how this food came to be in his simply-title book The Hamburger: A History.
The hamburger had its forerunners—such as the Hamburg steak, a hodgepodge of mixed meats similar to our modern-day Salisbury Steak, that provided the poorest of the poor a cheap meal. Furthermore, it did not come from Hamburg, Germany; the earliest references to hamburger-like dishes come from English cookbooks. A number of people claimed to have had the brilliant idea of flattening a chunk of ground beef and slapping it on a bun. And trying to sort through all the “he says/she says” stories to figure out which one is correct is little more than an exercise in futility. Ozersky does, however, credit fry cook Walter Anderson and insurance salesman Billy Ingram for firmly planting hamburgers into the American consciousness.
Together, the pair founded White Castle, the first restaurant chain that mass-produced and sold burgers to the public. Ozersky credits Anderson, who started his first hamburger stand in 1916, with creating the modern-day hamburger and having the idea of replacing sandwich bread with specially-designed buns. But it was Ingram who knew how to market the product. A relentless promoter, he hawked hamburgers as a perfect foodstuff for tea parties, touted that they were good for one’s health and created a restaurant aesthetic—stately, white and regal—that subliminally told customers that burgers were safe and wholesome to consume. (In the wake of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry, Americans were taking a harder look at their food before they ate it.) Together, the White Castle team elevated burgers from working class junk food to a food for everybody. Other hamburger chains began to spring up and by the 1940s it was a quintessential American meal.
And hamburgers have proven to be a versatile medium—some blogs are entirely devoted to the art and architecture of crafting a burger. The Hamblogger combines burger lust with photojournalism to capture the entire hamburger dining experience, documenting the eateries and their own special spins on the all-beef patty on a bun.
And then there’s the Modernist Cuisine, that lavishly and innovatively illustrated compendium on cooking wherein the authors take a hardcore look at how hamburgers are—and ought to be—prepared. For starters, they dispel the myth that searing meat locks in juices and gives you that desirable crust: all the liquid you want to hold in is escaping into the pan and creating those tantalizing sizzling noises. Their solution is to cook the patty sous vide to cook the meat, and then freeze the burger with liquid nitrogen before deep frying it in oil in order to create a crust. (They say the freeze/fry method prevents the patty from breaking apart during cooking.) Some have tried preparing the high-maintenence burger—it takes roughly 30 hours from start to finish, including making the buns and sauces. And of course the finished product doesn’t look nearly as photogenic as the illustration in the book.
May 19, 2011
With summer on the horizon, many people are making plans to go on vacation, relax a little and see some new sights. Of course, befitting our connection to the Smithsonian Institution, we’re a bit partial to hitting up museums as a means of having fun while traveling. This month Smithsonian presents wonderfully offbeat museums to see here in the United States (and there are plenty abroad). But what if you’re a vacationing bon vivant looking to take in a little food culture? Here’s a quick look at five funky food museums you can visit. (This list is by no means comprehensive—you can search this online directory of over 1,400 food museums from around the world.) Coincidentally, today is also International Museums Day
Designed by Hormel to make use of unused bits of pork shoulder, SPAM debuted in 1937. It gained in popularity during World War II, although this precooked tinned meat had its share of detractors. Some G.I.s dubbed it “meat that failed the physical, while former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recalled the product as a “wartime delicacy” in the midst of severe food shortages. Love it or hate it, SPAM is something of a cultural icon. (In 1997, examples of SPAM packaging were donated to the Smithsonian.) The SPAM Museum, located in Austin, Minnesota, is free to the public and packs its 16,500 square feet of space with vintage advertising, memorabilia and activities. Ever want to try your hand at canning meat? The SPAM Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day.
2. Moxie Museum (there are two to choose from!)
If you’re itching to visit a soda-themed museum, the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta is pretty big blip on the radar. For those of you wanting to get familiar with a regional soft drink, try the Moxie Museum in Union, Maine, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts such as vintage advertisements and soda stands. Patented in 1876 and initially marketed as a medicinal drink, Moxie outsold Coca Cola until the 1920s and is Maine’s state drink. Made with gentian root, some people can’t get past the strong flavor—some bloggers have compared it to chugging a fig newton—but it remains a New England favorite even though Moxie is now manufactured in Atlanta. In Lisbon Falls, Maine, you will find another Moxie Museum, this one with some memorabilia and lots of Moxie merchandise. If you’re in the area the weekend of July 8, 2011, you can enjoy the Moxie Festival, an annual event that features fireworks, recipe contests and Moxie-chugging contests.
After a late-night trip to the grocery store, Barry Levinson (no, not that one) felt compelled to start amassing prepared mustards. He came home with a dozen jars of the stuff on that initial store run and now has a collection of more than 5,300 jars along with an assortment of mustard memorabilia. If you visit the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, you can enjoy exhibits about mustard pots, mustard-themed musicals and saddle up to a tasting bar. The National Mustard Museum is open 7 days a week—except New Years, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas—from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This loving ode to Idaho’s finest is housed in a stone building that formerly functioned as a railway depot. With its giant statue of a buttered baked potato out front, who could resist going in? In addition to learning about the history of spuds and how they became to be synonymous with this particular state, you can see the world’s largest potato chip—a whopping 24 by 14 inches—as well as potato-sack clothing and a potato signed by former vice President Dan Quayle. (He had a potato-related mishap at a spelling bee some years back.) Located in Blackfoot, Idaho, the museum is open from October to March, Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; and from April to September, Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The museum is closed Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, 4th of July and between Christmas Eve and New Year’s.
So this one may be debatable for inclusion. Are you coming because: a) you enjoy the tiny chalky-sweet bars whose flavors bear little resemblance to anything that occurs in nature, or b) you enjoy the plastic novelty dispensers? Whatever your reason, Pez, which was initially marketed to people who were trying to stop smoking, is one of those hallmarks of childhood candy consumption. And it’s a great place to see dispensers that you probably won’t find at your local grocery store. And who wouldn’t want to get their sugar fix from a plastic bust of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Located in Burlingame, California, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.