July 16, 2013
Lettuce has been harvested for millenia—it was depicted by ancient Egyptians on the walls of tombs dating back to at least 2,700 B.C. The earliest version of the greens resembled two modern lettuces: romaine, from the French word “romaine” (from Rome), and cos lettuce, believed to have been found on the island of Kos, located along the coast of modern day Turkey.
But in Ancient Egypt around 2,000 B.C., lettuce was not a popular appetizer, it was an aphrodisiac, a phallic symbol that represented the celebrated food of the Egyptian god of fertility, Min. (It is unclear whether the lettuce’s development in Egypt predates its appearance on the island of Kos.) The god, often pictured with an erect penis in wall paintings and reliefs was also known as the “great of love” as he is called in a text from Edfu Temple. The plant was believed to help the god “perform the sexual act untiringly.”
Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo who specializes in Ancient Egyptian food explains Min’s part in lettuce history. “Over 3,000 years, [Min's] role did change, but he was constantly associated with lettuce,” she says.
The first of these depictions appeared around 1970-80 B.C. in the The White Chapel of Senusret I, though there may be earlier examples, Ikram says.
This relief, from the funerary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, for example, depicts Min’s harvest festival. At the center is a statue of Min. Behind him, a procession of priests holds a small garden of lettuce. Min is also sometimes depicted wearing a long, red ribbon around his forehead that some say represents sexual energy.
“One of the reasons why [the Egyptians] associated the lettuce with Min was because it grows straight and tall—an obvious phallic symbol,” Ikram says. “But if you broke off a leaf it oozed a sort of white-ish, milky substance—basically it looked like semen.”
When the butt of modern Romaine lettuce is cut off, a similar substance oozes from the plant and gives it a bitter flavor. Lettuce’s scientific classification lactuca sativa, is derived from the Latin word for milk and shares the same root as lactose, the sugar
enzyme found in dairy products. (Ed. — corrected thanks to feedback from reader joelfinkle) (While we’re talking etymology, raw lettuce dishes known as herba salata (“salted greens”) gave rise to the English word “salad.”) Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book provides further options for what the lettuce milk of the “ithyphallic god of increase” may represent:
Lettuce was sacred to him because of the “straight vertical surge” of their growth, milky juice they exude which could be taken as a symbol of mothers milk or semen.
Ancient Egyptians used the lettuce differently than those who would come later. The leaves had a greenish blue color and were often removed from the plant due to their bitter taste. Instead of being part of a meal, the seeds from the bud of the flowers were harvested and pressed for their natural oils which were used for cooking, medication—even mummification. Lettuce oil was a standard in the Egyptian materia medica and even today is used as a traditional remedy for hair regrowth.
The Greeks and Romans later popularized the leafy veggie as an appetizer during the 81-96 A.D. reign of Domitian. When they first introduced a set order of courses, the meal included a salad at the beginning to stimulate the appetite and also at the end to encourage digestion, according to author Gil Marks. It was still considered a medicinal goldmine by the Greeks and Romans, but for a different reason than the Egyptians—they believed it helped people sleep. Under Domitian’s reign, as the story goes, the ruler would force his guests to eat lettuce before the meal so as to make them struggle to remain awake for the remainder of the visit.
Another interesting lettuce-related story in Ancient Egypt, not for the faint-of-stomach: In Egyptian history there are many battles between the Egyptian deity Horus and Set, the god of the desert. Though the argument was usually over which of the two had the rightful claim to rule Egypt, one rather odd battle involves lettuce. According to Papyrus Chester-Beatty I, as interpreted by Ikram, Set at one point tries to overpower Horus by seducing him and then having intercourse with him. Horus places his hand between his legs, catches Set’s semen and throws it into the river. “Horus [then] tricks Set by basically spurting his sperm and throwing it into a lettuce plant, ” Ikram says. Because Set eats the semen-covered lettuce, in the eyes of the gods, Horus was dominant—at least until the next battle.
June 18, 2013
In the late 1700s, a large percentage of Europeans feared the tomato.
A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.
Around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato grew widespread in popularity in Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato didn’t get blamed just for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.
One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac. The mandrake has a history that dates back to the Old Testament; it is referenced twice as the Hebrew word dudaim, which roughly translates to “love apple.” (In Genesis, the mandrake is used as a love potion). Matthioli’s classification of the tomato as a mandrake had later ramifications. Like similar fruits and vegetables in the solanaceae family—the eggplant for example, the tomato garnered a shady reputation for being both poisonous and a source of temptation. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to clarify that it was the mandrake, not the tomato, that is believed to have been referenced in the Old Testament)
But what really did the tomato in, according to Smith’s research, was John Gerard’s publication of Herball in 1597 which drew heavily from the agricultural works of Dodoens and l’Ecluse (1553). According to Smith, most of the information (which was inaccurate to begin with) was plagiarized by Gerard, a barber-surgeon who misspelled words like Lycoperticum in the collection’s rushed final product. Smith quotes Gerard:
Gerard considered ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savour.’… The fruit was corrupt which he left to every man’s censure. While the leaves and stalk of the tomato plant are toxic, the fruit is not.
Gerard’s opinion of the tomato, though based on a fallacy, prevailed in Britain and in the British North American colonies for over 200 years.
Around this time it was also believed that tomatoes were best eaten in hotter countries, like the fruit’s place of origin in Mesoamerica. The tomato was eaten by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD and called the “tomatl,” (its name in Nahuatl), and wasn’t grown in Britain until the 1590s. In the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors returning from expeditions in Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica were thought to have first introduced the seeds to southern Europe. Some researchers credit Cortez with bringing the seeds to Europe in 1519 for ornamental purposes. Up until the late 1800s in cooler climates, tomatoes were solely grown for ornamental purposes in gardens rather than for eating. Smith continues:
John Parkinson the apothecary to King James I and botanist for King Charles I, procalimed that while love apples were eaten by the people in the hot countries to ‘coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches,” British gardeners grew them only for curiousity and fo the beauty of the fruit.
The first known reference to tomato in the British North American Colonies was published in herbalist William Salmon’s Botanologia printed in 1710 which places the tomato in the Carolinas. The tomato became an acceptable edible fruit in many regions, but the United States of America weren’t as united in the 18th and early 19th century. Word of the tomato spread slowly along with plenty of myths and questions from farmers. Many knew how to grow them, but not how to cook the food.
By 1822, hundreds of tomato recipes appeared in local periodicals and newspapers, but fears and rumors of the plant’s potential poison lingered. By the 1830s when the love apple was cultivated in New York, a new concern emerged. The Green Tomato Worm, measuring three to four inches in length with a horn sticking out of its back, began taking over tomato patches across the state. According to The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac (1867) edited by J.J. Thomas, it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death. The description is chilling:
The tomato in all of our gardens is infested with a very large thick-bodied green worm, with oblique white sterols along its sides, and a curved thorn-like horn at the end of its back.
According to Smith’s research, even Ralph Waldo Emerson feared the presence of the tomato-loving worms: They were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it.”
Around the same time period, a man by the name of Dr. Fuller in New York was quoted in The Syracuse Standard, saying he had found a five-inch tomato worm in his garden. He captured the worm in a bottle and said it was “poisonous as a rattlesnake” when it would throw spittle at its prey. According to Fuller’s account, once the skin came into contact with the spittle, it swelled immediately. A few hours later, the victim would seize up and die. It was a “new enemy to human existence,” he said. Luckily, an entomologist by the name of Benjamin Walsh argued that the dreaded tomato worm wouldn’t hurt a flea. Thomas continues:
Now that we have become familiarized with it [the worm] these fears have all vanished, and we have become quite indifferent towards this creature, knowing it to be merely an ugly-looking worm which eats some of the leaves of the tomato…
The fear, it seems, had subsided. With the rise of agricultural societies, farmers began investigating the tomato’s use and experimented with different varieties. According to Smith, back in the 1850s the name tomato was so highly regarded that it was used to sell other plants at market. By 1897, innovator Joseph Campbell figured out that tomatoes keep well when canned and popularized condensed tomato soup.
Today, tomatoes are consumed around the world in countless varieties: heirlooms, romas, cherry tomatoes—to name a few. More than one and a half billion tons of tomatoes are produced commercially every year. In 2009, the United States alone produced 3.32 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes. But some of the plant’s night-shady past seems to have followed the tomato in pop culture. In the 1978 musical drama/ comedy “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” giant red blobs of the fruit terrorize the country. “The nation is in chaos. Can nothing stop this tomato onslaught?”
March 27, 2013
In Newfoundland, having a “scoff” (the local word for “big meal”) includes some pretty interesting food items unique to the region: scrunchions (fried pork fat), cod tongues and fishcakes, for example. But perhaps the least appetizing dish, which is traditionally made during the Lenten season—specifically on Good Friday and Easter—is seal flipper pie.
The meal, which originated in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, tastes as strange as it sounds. The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare (appropriate for America’s favorite Easter mascot, no?). Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.
While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat). Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps (at one time, London’s street lights were fueled with seal oil), but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie. As the hunting industry grew, seal meat became a major resource for oil, leather and food for locals after the long, harsh winter in these regions.
Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:
The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.
By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84 percent of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.
And that’s not to say that the annual seal hunt hasn’t generated some controversy. The practice has been criticized by plenty of animal rights activist groups over the years including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though, the organization has received its fair share of flack from Newfoundland locals (in 2010, a protester dressed as a seal was “pied” in the face by a man wearing a dog suit).
In 2006, in a live interview with Larry King on CNN, Sir Paul McCartney had a few things to say to Danny Williams, the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador about the seal hunt: “It isn’t hunky dory, it’s disgraceful.” Williams maintained that seal hunting is a sustainable resource for Newfoundland.
The seals hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador are not officially endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Though the IUCN considers other species of seal including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Mediterranean Monk Seal to be “critically endangered.”) According to the region’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and the total currently stands at 5.6 million animals.
The hunt is closely regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with quotas and specific rules regarding the method of killing the mammals. Last season, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper, published an article about a fundraiser for a local sealer organization that commemorates those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives in the 1914 sealing disasters. Seal meat was the featured item on the menu—something many locals argue is the most sustainable protein in the region. (You can watch one of the staff reporters try flipper pie for the first time here).
Despite arguments against the commercial selling of seal products, a certain nostalgia remains baked into the flaky crust of seal flipper pie. According to Annie Proulx’s best-selling 1993 novel The Shipping News, which takes place in the fishing town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, the dish is quite tasty, but mostly evokes fond memories for the Newfoundlander characters:
“It’s good. From the shoulder joint, you know. Not really the flippers…The pie was heavy with rich, dark meat in savory gravy.”
The book was later made into a movie of the same title in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, which references the dish in the soundtrack with a song aptly called “seal flipper pie.” No news on whether the flipper pie Spacey bit into on set was the real deal, but if you’ve got a hankering for the breaded pie, it’s still served in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, at eateries like Chucky’s, which offers a different take on the classic dish. If you want to make it at home without the hassle, the meal is also available frozen and canned at local food stores like Bidgood’s.
One tip if you’re brave enough to try the breaded pie this Easter: When you’re done, remember to say in true Newfoundland fashion: “I’m as full as an egg.” Or maybe that was “Easter egg?”
March 20, 2013
The most-visited tourist attraction in the state of Hawaii is the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (also known as the Pearl Harbor bombing site). The second most visited attraction is about 20 miles north: the Dole pineapple plantation. In peak season between March and July, this tropical fruit evokes the 50th state in the Union for many. It’s a strange notion considering that, of the 300 billion pineapples farmed worldwide, only 400 million come from Hawaii. That’s only .13 percent. And while it’s true that Hawaii was once the big kahuna in global pineapple production, it’s an American industry that had a meteoric rise and fall over the course of the 20th century.
While its exact origins have yet to be determined, botanists agree that the pineapple originated in the Americas, most likely in the region where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet [PDF]. As to how the plant arrived, and was domesticated, in Hawaii is apocryphal. Some sources point to Spanish sailor Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who arrived in the Islands in the early 1790s. In addition to serving as an interpreter for King Kamehameha I, Marin had a reputation for being an ace horticulturalist credited with introducing citrus and mangoes to the island nation. He does, however, provide us with the first written record of this fruit in the New World, the simple January 1813 diary entry: “This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.”
But to enjoy pineapple meant you had to buy local. In the age before refrigerated transportation, ripened fruit spoiled easily during shipment to the mainland, resulting in high losses of product. Even if pineapple were shipped green, the premature harvesting severely impacted the flavor. The 19th-century development of canning technology provided the much-needed, failsafe delivery mechanism for the fruit; however, high tariffs placed on the good exported to the mainland from Hawaii caused the first canning companies to fold. The Hawaiian pineapple industry wouldn’t take a turn for the better until the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 after the Spanish American War and the arrival of 22-year-old Massachusetts native James Dole the following year.
Despite knowing nothing about canning, Dole opened the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, which the local press begged as being “a foolhardy venture.” And in its early years, it did indeed operate at a loss. However, Dole invested in developing new technologies—notably hiring a local draughtsman to develop machinery that could peel and process 100 pineapples a minute. He was also savvy to the power of advertising. Banding together with other local growers, Dole mounted an aggressive nationwide advertising campaign to make consumers aware of his product.
Dole was certainly not the first to introduce pineapple to the mainland American market. Rather, his business savvy and the economic conditions of the times allowed him to champion the fruit. Pineapple was cultivated in Florida, but recurring frosts destroyed the crops and what survived was of sub-par quality. Baltimore had a canning industry, but its fresh fruits were imported from the Bahamas, which heightened production costs due to importation taxes. With the combination of ideal growing conditions, the consolidation of cultivation and production and advertising that asserted the superiority of Hawaiian pineapple over all competitors, Hawaii was poised to dominate the canned pineapple trade. And it did. By the 1920s, it developed into a culinary fad, most notably in the form of upside down cake. (Author Sylvia Lovegreen collects a number of recipes from this era, from classic to questionable, in her book Fashionable Food.)
By 1923, Dole was the largest pineapple packer in the world. The agricultural sector took note and pineapple industries sprung up on other islands. Between 1930 and 1940, Hawaii dominated the canned pineapple industry and at its mid-century peak, eight companies were in operation and employed about 3,000 people. After World War II, the canned pineapple industry spread to other parts of the world, namely Thailand and the Philippines. Not only did these countries provide an ideal environment for growing, but labor costs were significantly lower. (Where U.S. labor accounted for about half of the cost of production, ranging between $2.64 and $3.69 per hour, compared to the 8 to 24 cents per hour paid to Filipino workers.)
The Hawaiian industry began to collapse in the 1960s. In response, the industry tried to focus on growing and shipping fresh fruit with faster, refrigerated means of transportation now readily available. Additionally, the development of the pesticide DBCP in the 1950s was invaluable to the industry as a means of protecting the pineapple tree’s root systems from attacks by ground worms (the EPA would ban the chemical in the late 1970s).But those innovations weren’t enough. Dole’s Honolulu cannery closed in 1991 and competitor Del Monte moved production out of islands in 2008.
The state’s pineapple industry currently exists primarily to satisfy local demands, much as it did before the arrival of James Dole. It is, however, worth noting the one element we lose with pineapple produced on a global industrial scale: flavor, or rather, variations thereof. Chances are, the fresh pineapple you find in your supermarket is the MD-2 cultivar, a hybrid developed because it’s sweet, low in acid and not susceptible to browning when refrigerated—a common problem in the Smooth Cayenne, which had been Hawaii’s industry standard variety cultivated since the 1880s. But there’s a host of other varieties that come in different shapes, sizes, colors and flavor profiles.
Dissatisfied with the taste of fresh, industrially-produced pineapple, the husband and wife team of Craig and Lisa Bowden developed their own variety that evoked the flavors of fruit they enjoyed in their youth. Together, they founded Hawaiian Crown, an independently-owned company in Honolulu. Though just a 20-person operation, Hawaiian Crown has not only carved out a niche for itself in the local farmer’s markets, but is finding distribution in grocery stores. Although the fruits of Hawaiian Crown’s labors are currently available only on the islands, here’s hoping that a new wave of pineapple innovation can re-invogorate an American industry.
Taylor, Ronald. “Hawaii Study Links DBCP to Reproductive Problems.” LA Times, 28 November 1980, pg. B31.
February 1, 2013
With the Super Bowl around the corner, it seems that buffalo chicken wings may have become the country’s favorite football-watching food. While the annual rumors that we’re running out of wings simply aren’t true, wings have indeed become the most expensive part of the chicken due to their popularity when fried and covered in buffalo sauce.
Few of us realize, though, that less than 50 years ago, wings were considered one of the least desirable cuts of the chicken—a throwaway part often cooked into stock—and “buffalo” was just a wooly ungulate that wandered the Plains.
Despite the recency of the invention, the event itself is shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, there is one thing we know for certain: the “buffalo” in the name definitively refers to the city in Western New York. The most authoritative account is by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, who investigated the dish’s history in 1980 as he sampled the city’s most well-regarded wing joints. He presented two competing versions of how a stroke of serendipity led Teressa Bellissimo, proprietor of the Anchor Bar, to invent the dish in 1964.
Her husband Frank Bellissimo, who founded the bar with Teressa in 1939, told Trillin that the invention involved a mistake—the delivery of chicken wings, instead of necks, which the family typically used when cooking up spaghetti sauce. To avoid wasting the wings, he asked Teressa to concoct a bar appetizer; the result was the wing we know today.
Dominic—Frank and Teressa’s son, who took over management of the restaurant sometime in the ’70s—told a slightly more colorful tale:
It was late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays…Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings—parts of a chicken that most people do not consider even good enough to give away to barflies—and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.
Both Frank and Dominic agreed on a few other crucial details—that Teressa cut each wing in half to produce a “drumstick” and a “flat,” that she deep-fried them without breading and covered them in a hot sauce, and that she served them with celery (from the house antipasto) and blue cheese salad dressing. They also both reported that they became popular within weeks throughout the city, where they were (and are still) simply called “wings” or “chicken wings.”
But there are even more competing versions of the story. John E. Harmon, a professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University who wrote the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States as a sabbatical project, writes that Teressa actually improvised the recipe to serve Dominic and a group of his friends when they ambled into the bar late at night.
The most dissimilar account is also mentioned by Trillin, who wrote that on his trip to Buffalo, he met a man named John Young who bluntly stated, “I am actually the creator of the wing.” Young points out that growing up in an African-American community, he’d frequently eaten chicken wings as a standard dish; what he invented was a special “mambo sauce” for the wings he served at his restaurant, John Young’s Wings ’n Things, during the mid-’60s. But he served his wings breaded and whole (rather than chopped into flats and drumsticks), distinctions that suggest to many wing traditionalists that they belong to an entire different category.
While it’s uncertain which creation myth is most accurate, what happened over the next few decades is clear: buffalo chicken wings exploded in popularity across the country. During the 70′s, the recipe spread to other eateries in the city and state—Duff’s, an early adopter, remains a favorite wing joint of many Buffalonians—then went national with the founding of chains like Wings N’Curls in Florida. Harmon reports that Trillin’s article itself sparked further interest, as did the 1983 founding of Hooter’s, which featured wings at the center of its menu.
In 1994, Domino’s spent $32 million advertising their national roll-out of wings, and Pizza Hut quickly followed suit. Since, the growth of chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and the placement of wings on countless local menus means that they’re essentially available anywhere in the United States. They’re gradually penetrating international markets, too, with Buffalo Wild Wings planning to open locations in Dubai, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia later this year.
Nowadays, buffalo sauce has gone beyond wings—it’s frequently used for boneless chicken fingers and pizzas, and gas stations sell everything from buffalo-flavored Combos to Pringles. In Buffalo, though, wings are still eaten roughly the way they were invented by Teressa in 1964: served in either hot, medium or mild buffalo sauce, with blue cheese and celery.