November 17, 2010
Years ago, during a three-week trip to Turkey (and after recovering from a bout with “sultan’s revenge“), I went with some newfound Turkish and German friends to an outdoor café following an evening in the pub. (This was in a Mediterranean resort town that was far less conservative than the places I visited in the interior.) The late-night snack of choice wasn’t pizza or hot dogs or chili-cheese-fries; it was soup. The tomato-y red lentil stew we ordered hit the spot. The Turks told me that soups like the one we were eating were also common breakfast fare in Turkey.
For some reason, Americans usually banish soup to the post-noon meals. But that appears to be another of our national quirks, like shunning the metric system, in which we are out of step with the rest of the world. Not just in Turkey but elsewhere in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, soup is considered up to the task of being part of the most important meal of the day.
I never learned the name of the dish I ate that night in Turkey, but I recently did some research and found recipes for one that sounds right—a mixture of red lentils, bulgur wheat and tomatoes, sprinkled with dried mint. It’s called Ezogelin çorbası, and the story behind it could make you cry in your soup.
Ezo the gelin (bride) was a real person who lived in the early 20th century. According to an article on the Web site for Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “Legend has it that Ezo, with her rosy cheeks and black hair, was admired by travelers along the caravan route who stopped to rest in her village. Many men longed for her hand in marriage and Ezo’s family hoped to secure a worthy match for their daughter.” But she was unlucky in love—her first marriage ended in divorce; her second took her to Syria and a hard-to-please mother-in-law. “It is for her, the story goes, that Ezo created this soup. After bearing 9 children, poor Ezo died of tuberculosis in the 1950s and has since become a Turkish legend, depicted in popular films and lamented in folksongs.”
Not all breakfast soups have such a depressing backstory, but many share one bit of folklore in common: they are considered hangover cures. Here’s what people around the world are slurping while in their pajamas:
Mexico: Our neighbors to the south swear by menudo, a spicy tripe and hominy stew that, like the boy band of the same name, many Americans have heard of but haven’t acquired a taste for. In the words of Gustavo Arellano, who writes a California alt-weekly column called Ask a Mexican! (and a book of the same name), “Menudo is amor. It’s the soup Mexican women slave over for their hungry families on weekend mornings, the dish over which families unite and teens fall in love as they pitch woo while passing along a wicker of tortillas. Menudo nowadays exists in canned form, but that’s heresy.”
Colombia: Just saying the word changua makes me feel good, so I can only imagine the restorative effects of the actual soup. Changua is a popular breakfast in the South American country, including in the capital, Bogotá. It consists of eggs poached in a milky broth with onions, salt and cilantro.
Japan: Miso soup—the yeasty-tasting broth made from fermented soybean paste and often served with tofu, seaweed and scallions—is well known to Americans who frequent sushi restaurants. But it’s also an important part of a nutritious Japanese breakfast.
China: Congee, called jook in Cantonese, is somewhere between a rice soup and a porridge, depending on its consistency. In any case, it is a staple breakfast food in China. Although the basic recipe is pretty much the same everywhere—just rice cooked in a lot of water—the options for customization are endless, including meat, fish, vegetables, herbs and eggs, alone or in combination.
When you think about it, congee is not all that different from the cream of wheat or grits that many Americans eat. Just mix in a little extra water and a few add-ins, and voilà!—you’d have an American breakfast soup.
Do you ever eat soup for breakfast?
February 2, 2010
This may be hard to believe, but long, long ago—in the days before creatures like Costcosaurus maximus and Walmartius rex had evolved to dominate the shopping landscape—there were no words on the back of cereal boxes.
Okay, I knew that, and you probably did too. But I’d never given it much thought until I read food historian Andrew F. Smith‘s latest book: “Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine.”
One of the chapters is devoted to Quaker Oats, which in 1877 became the first trademarked breakfast cereal in the United States. People already ate oatmeal, sure, but they bought their oats in bulk from a local grocer or street peddler—no brand names or cartoon mascots involved. No morning ritual of reading the cereal box at the breakfast table.
Then a guy named Henry Crowell came along and changed everything. He took over a struggling oat mill business in Ravenna, Ohio, getting the rights to the Quaker trademark as part of the deal (after it had been briefly and unsuccessfully used to market whiskey). Canned foods were a hot new trend back then, and Crowell noticed the public’s growing appetite for colorful, conveniently sized packaging, so he began selling his oatmeal in distinctive cardboard cartons adorned with the brand’s trademark image.
Soon the cartons also featured recipes, since, as Smith notes, “most Americans had no idea what to do with oatmeal other than boil and eat it for breakfast.” The first, added to Quaker Oats packages in 1908, was extremely simple: Oat Cakes: 1/2 pound butter, 3 cups Quaker Oats, 2 eggs. (No instructions on how to combine or cook). These days, the company’s website features more detailed recipes like “Spicy Oat Crusted Chicken with Sunshine Salsa.”
By the turn of the 20th century, Quaker had some serious competition from ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which Smith covers in another chapter of his book), so it turned toward products that required less preparation, like “quick oats” (introduced in 1922), Life cereal (1961) and instant oatmeal (1966). Now, the brand’s reach extends to granola bars, pancakes mix and even tortilla chips—which, as far as I can tell, don’t contain any oats.
Crowell was apparently a marketing genius, and many of his tactics influenced the way food products are sold even to this day—placing coupons and “free gifts” on or within a cereal box; using salespeople dressed as Quakers to hand out free samples to the public; and touting the food’s health benefits.
So, the next time I’m standing in the cereal aisle, feeling completely overwhelmed by the sea of slogans, logos, and sweepstakes opportunities, I’ll shake my fist at that serenely smiling Quaker dude.
June 8, 2009
Everybody eats. And almost anybody can get a lawyer these days—which means there are plenty of food-related lawsuits each year.
Now, I can certainly understand the complaints based on illness or even death from contaminated food products. I’d consider suing, too, if I found a rat in my salad, a snake in my broccoli, or way too much fiber in my granola. And I can see some merit in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s efforts to press food manufacturers for truth in labeling.
But here’s a recent case that seems to fall squarely in the “frivolous” category…
Crunchberries aren’t real fruit?!?
A California woman filed a class-action lawsuit against PepsiCo, the corporation that makes the sugary “Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries” cereal. The front of the box features a perky cartoon sea captain holding out a spoonful of colorful round nuggets that vaguely resemble berries (well, if berries came in colors like teal).
The woman contended that “the colorful Crunchberries, combined with use of the word ‘berry’ in the product name, convey the message that Cap’n Crunch is not all sugar and starch, but contains redeeming fruit…In actuality, the Product contains no berries of any kind…Had she known that the product contained no fruit, she would not have purchased it.”
The judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, citing the precedent of a similar case involving Froot Loops. Seriously.
What’s next, someone discovering the shocking truth about Grape Nuts cereal? Or that there are no real rocks in Cocoa Pebbles?
May 26, 2009
I had a relative who lived to be 99, according to family lore, by eating yogurt every day. I’m starting to wonder if there might be something to that theory—last week, Daniel Carasso, the man credited with popularizing yogurt as a snack food in Europe and North America, died at the age of 103. Carasso was founder of the Danone company in France, known as Dannon when it came to the United States. If you were born in this country before about 1980, Dannon is probably the only brand of yogurt you remember from your childhood.
According to a press release from Danone, Carasso was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1905. His Sephardic Jewish family sought refuge from persecution in Spain four centuries earlier. Yogurt was a popular part of the cuisine of Greece and a few other nearby countries, but was little-known elsewhere.
In 1916 Carasso’s father, Isaac, decided to move the family back to Spain, and was struck by the number of intestinal disorders suffered by children there. He was inspired by the research of Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff, who believed that the lactic-acid bacilli found in yogurt held life-extending properties.
Isaac started making yogurt in 1919 using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute, and sold it as a health aid through pharmacies. He named the product Danone, for the diminutive form of his son’s name, Daniel, in Catalan. When Daniel grew up he went to business school, and then attended a training program in Paris at the Pasteur Institute to learn more about bacteriology and fermentation. He launched Danone in Paris in 1929, again emphasizing yogurt’s health benefits. Although it was the beginning of the Great Depression, his business thrived.
At a press conference in April celebrating the 90th anniversary of Danone, according to his obituary in the New York Times, Carasso said, “I barely realized that there was a financial crisis raging around me. I was too caught up in trying to find dairy stores to sell my product.”
Carasso’s success in France lasted until 1941, when the Nazis arrived and he was forced to flee to the United States. He formed a partnership with family friends and bought a Greek yogurt company in the Bronx. The business didn’t thrive, though, until 1947, when they added strawberry jam to the yogurt to make it more palatable to the American population. Sales skyrocketed, new flavors were added, and the company—with the Americanized name Dannon—was bought by Beatrice Foods in 1959. Carasso returned to Europe to restart Danone there, and eventually bought Dannon back, in 1981.
Today the company is the number-one seller of fresh dairy products in the world, with a revenue of nearly $19 billion in 2008. But it’s no longer alone on the dairy shelf. The average supermarket now sells at least half a dozen brands of yogurt in countless varieties. In an interesting twist, one of the latest foodie trends is the preference for thick, often unflavored, Greek-style yogurts.
March 25, 2009
I’m going to admit something that could earn me the scorn of my neighbors here in upstate New York: I grew up putting Aunt Jemima on my pancakes. In maple syrup country, that’s akin to putting Velveeta on pizza in Naples. But I promise I’ll never do it again.
It’s maple sugaring season, those few short weeks each year when the nights are cold enough and the days warm enough to make the maple sap flow. Old-timers collect it in metal buckets, which is far more picturesque but less efficient than the modern method of connecting tapped trees by plastic tubing to a single collection source.
In the interest of increasing my maple IQ, last weekend I visited Up Yonda Farm, an environmental educational center in Bolton Landing, New York, for a tour of its small maple syrup operation.
Angela, the guide, told us that the only places on the planet that can produce maple syrup are the eastern provinces of Canada (especially Quebec) and the northeastern United States. The vast majority of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada. In the United States, Vermont is number one in syrup production, with Maine or New York usually coming in a distant second. Sugar maples have the highest sugar concentration in their sap, though a couple other species of maple can also be used to make syrup.
The Algonquin Indians were the first people known to turn maple sap into syrup, long before Europeans were introduced to it. There are several theories about how they discovered it. The first, and least plausible, is that a Native American chief pulled his tomahawk out of a tree. A container that happened to be at the base of the tree collected the sap that trickled out, and the chief’s wife mistook it for water. She boiled dinner in it, resulting in deliciously sweet meat. Other, more likely, theories are that the Native Americans observed animals licking the sap, or that they tasted sap icicles (freezing, like boiling, concentrates the sugars). However they discovered it, Native Americans made syrup by putting heated rocks in the sap, a slow process that evaporated the extra water without burning the sugars.
To tap a maple tree, a small hole is drilled about two inches into the tree trunk and a metal or plastic tap is inserted. I tasted a drop of the sap that was trickling from a spout at Up Yonda, and I was surprised that it was indistinguishable from water.
Once the sap has been collected, it’s filtered and boiled in an evaporator. Some large producers use reverse osmosis to remove some of the water from the sap before it goes into the evaporator, which saves time and energy but which purists believe produces inferior syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. The syrup can be further evaporated to make maple cream or maple sugar.
Since I’ve lived in New York, I’ve tasted maple candy, maple cotton candy and maple milkshakes. I’ve yet to try maple syrup pie, the ultra-sweet Quebec specialty.
If all this sweet talk is making your mouth water, beware: Bloomberg is reporting that demand for real maple syrup is pushing prices though the roof and prompting Vermont restaurants to ration. The culprit: Beyonce Knowles and her maple syrup cleansing diet.
Undeterred? First, you might want to check out this important scientific research: a British scientist has worked out the formula for the perfect pancake.