September 19, 2013
It’s September 19, which means it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, your once-a-year opportunity to embrace linguistic absurdism and greet your friends and colleagues with a cheery “Ahoy, matey!” Started in 1995 by John Baur and Mark Summers, the holiday is celebrated all over the world with the official Talk Like a Pirate Day website offering a vocabulary crash course in English, German and Dutch. But really, what’s a holiday without food to enhance the celebration? While we all have a communal sense of how pirates talked—or how we like to think they talked—our sense of how pirates ate sits, by comparison, in uncharted waters. Pirates had to survive on more than a bottle of rum.
From a food standpoint, a pirate’s life was problematic. Being at sea and without easy access to major seaports meant that there was rarely a steady supply of food and hunger was a regular aspect of day-to-day living. Much of their lives were spent on board a ship, and perpetually damp conditions put normal pantry staples such as flour and dried beans at high risk of mold. Climate also presented preservation problems: if sailing in warmer regions of the world, such as the Caribbean, keeping fresh fruits and meats was near impossible. Fresh water was also difficult to keep during long sea voyages because it could develop algae scum. By contrast, alcohol would never spoil, making beer and rum the preferred preferred beverages. Rum, in addition to being consumed straight up, was used along with cinnamon and other spices to sweeten stagnant water and make grog. Dried meats and hardtack, a relatively shelf-stable biscuit, were regular parts of a pirate’s diet, although the latter was frequently infested with weevils.
With such a bleak dining situation, what’s a pirate to do? For one, they pillaged. For pirates sailing the waters of Spanish America, beef was a hot commodity for pirates as a single head of cattle could go a long way when it came to feeding a hungry crew. In 1666, French pirate François l’Onnais promised to leave the Venezuelan port city of Maracaibo if, among other riches, he was supplied with 500 head of cattle. In 1668, Henry Morgan, the namesake of the rum, invaded Puerto del Principe in Cuba, also demanding a ransom of 500 cattle. And in 1682, Captain Jean Toccard took the Mexican port of Tampico for the sole purpose of slaughtering cows for provisions. In addition to beef, turtle was also a valued source of protein, and ideal in that it was readily found along beaches and could be kept alive and serve as a source of fresh meat when out to sea.
Pirates also had to be resourceful with the staples that they had—especially when it came to making pickled and salted foods palatable. In the West Indies, a popular pirate dish among marauders was salmagundi, a stew of the odds-and-ends of meat and vegetables thrown into a communal pot and heavily seasoned. In his book Pirates and Piracy, author David Reinhardt provides a litany of ingredients one might find in the cauldron and the manner of preparation:
Included might be any of the following: turtle meat, fish, pork, chicken, corned beef, ham, duck and pigeon. The meats would be roasted, chopped into pieces and marinated in spied wine, then mixed with cabbage, anchovies, pickled herring, mangoes, hard-boiled eggs, palm hearts, onions, olives, grapes and any other pickled vegetable available. The entire concoction would then be highly seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, and mustard seed and soaked with oil and vinegar.
Legend has it that Bartholomew Roberts, whose years of marauding earned him the posthumous Forbes magazine distinction of being one of the highest-earning pirates, was eating salmagundi when he was attacked—and killed—by the Royal Navy ship HMS Swallow.
The historical pirate diet may not appeal to the modern diner. Nevertheless, for those wishing to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day to the hilt by setting an appropriately-themed spread, you have a few options. The New England Pirate Museum has a freeform salmagundi recipe that’ll allow you to make the classic pirate meal, but without all the pickled and salt-cured ingredients. You can also use the day as a personal challenge to raid ye pantry and figure out how you can turn the provisions you have on hand into a hearty stew.
Although grog in its original conception was utilitarian more than anything else, it has since been re-imagined as a cocktail to be enjoyed for its palate-pleasing merits. Check out these three on-the-rocks versions of the cocktail here, with recipes using a variety of rums paired with grapefruit, lime and orange juices. You can also enjoy your grog hot, spiced with cinnamon and brown sugar. If you’re dying to try hardtack, recipes and videos are out there to show you how to make this classic survival food. Personally, I’d dive into a package of Wasa crackers and call it a day.
Breverton, Terry. The Pirate Dictionary. Canada: Pelican, 2004.
Marley, David F. Daily Life of Pirates. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Hamilton, John. A Pirate’s Life. Edina: ABDO Publishing Company, 2007.
August 23, 2013
On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people peacefully marched between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to show support of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights and to bring widespread public attention to end segregation in public schools and the federal implementation of fair employment practices to prevent job discrimination. The March on Washington was a watershed moment in human rights history that helped to get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law. Organizing an event that large was a formidable task in and of itself, requiring the coordination of grass roots groups to drum up participants and raise the funds to travel to DC. Tackling the issue of handling food for the masses was another issue entirely.
The Chicago Tribune anticipated a bleak sustenance situation. “Tomorrow, should the nation-wide turnout for the march swell from 100,000 demonstrators to 200,000 or more, there may be shortages of food. Even access to portable toilet facilities and to temporary drinking fountains attached to fire hydrants may be at a premium.” March organizers advised participants to bring their own water jugs and two boxed lunches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples were recommended as a durable foodstuffs and discouraged anything with mayonnaise as it would spoil in the summer heat.
In New York, volunteers showed up at the Riverside Church at 3:00 AM to make bagged lunches The bagged meal, comprised of a cheese sandwich, mustard, marble cake and an apple, could be purchased by marchers for 50 cents. Working in shifts until 4 in the afternoon, the assembly line crew paused once for a few words from Dr. Robert Spike, director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches: ”As an act of love, we now dedicate these lunches for the nourishment of thousands who will be coming long distances, at great sacrifice to say with their bodies and souls that we shall overcome.” In all, 5 tons of American cheese went into the 80,000 lunches that were loaded onto refrigerated trucks and shipped down to Washington.
Early reports estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 demonstrators would be in attendance. Fearing unruly behavior, the District of Columbia placed an unprecedented ban on the sale of liquor, beer and wine from 12:00 am on the 28th through the following morning. This extended not just to standalone liquor stores, but to the city’s bars and restaurants. (The only holdout was the House of Representatives cafeteria, which traditionally had beer on the menu and served it on the day of the march. The rest of the city being dry did nothing to boost sales.) The policemen, national guardsmen and others charged with maintaining order were forced to forego their lunch breaks that day and ate boxed lunches while at their posts: two sandwiches, a piece of cake and juice. Rioting did not occur as anticipated.
A mile or so north from the National Mall, on Washington’s U Street, also known as the “Black Broadway,” the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl served people in town for the march. Per the Washington City Paper, Ben’s cofounder Virginia Ali recalls, “I remember the enthusiasm of many people about going down there to march for equal rights and jobs.”
After the day’s scheduled events ended, a delegation of march leaders—which included A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr.—met with President Kennedy at the White House where they were served tea, coffee, canapes and sandwiches and discussed the prospect of civil rights legislation passing. Kennedy was obviously impressed by demonstration, saying that “the cause of 20,000,000 Negroes has been advanced.”
Activist John Lewis was also in attendance and recounted meeting the president to author Michael Fletcher in an exclusive Smithsonian magazine interview. “He stood in the doorway of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.” And yet, there were no great dinners or parties to celebrate the day. “I don’t believe as a group that we got together and had a meal,” Lewis recalls. “But some of the young people in SNCC were able to pick up a hamburger, a sandwich here and there, get a soft drink, lemonade. But we were just pleased that everything had gone so well.”
Even the language of dining was used to describe the event. In his response to the march, activist Malcolm X thought that the organizers and the participation of liberal white groups inappropriately toned down the feelings of anger and inequity that initially fueled the gathering. “It had become an outing, a picnic,” he wrote in his 1964 autobiography. “What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as ‘the gentle flood.’”
The New York Times used the same metaphor to describe the day, but saw the situation differently: ”The picnic atmosphere that pervaded much of Wednesday’s march should not be misinterpreted as betokening any lack of determination on the Negro’s part to insist on the rights he has been so long denied. Rather it was an affirmation of his confidence in the efficacy of an appeal to national morality to make true the dreams so eloquently evoked by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. It is up to all of us to make certain those dreams are not destroyed.”
For more on the 1963 March on Washington, read our oral history from the movers and shakers who made that demonstration a resounding success.
“On the March.” Newsweek. 2 Sept. 1963.
Petersen, Anna. “80,000 Lunches Made here by Volunteers for Washington Marchers.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.
Pakenham, Michael. “Rights Marchers Are Sightseers, Too!” The Chicago Tribune. 29 Aug. 1963.
Rich, James. “1,686 Chicagoans En Route to Washington.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Aug. 1963.
Robertson, Nan. “Capital is Ready for March Today; 100,000 Expected.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.
“The March in Washington.” Time magazine. 30 Aug. 1963.
Wicker, Tom. “President Meets March Leaders.” The New York Times. 29 Aug. 1963.
July 8, 2013
In the realm of the popular mythology of the American West, food rarely comes to the fore. At most, we generally see a token saloon and the barkeep who keeps whistles wet but otherwise amounts to little more than set dressing. But the truth is, people who boarded a westward-bound train were able to eat pretty darn well. This was thanks to entrepreneur Fred Harvey, who launched a successful chain of restaurants (called Harvey House) along the Santa Fe railway and provided fortune seekers access to fine dining on the frontier. And at each location, patrons were served in the dining rooms by an elite force of waitresses known as Harvey Girls, a corps of women who helped settle the West and advance the stature of women in the workforce.
While the American West of the 19th century was a place for great opportunity, it lacked creature comforts, namely access to quality dining. Here, English-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw a chance to launch a business. Working with the nascent Santa Fe railway, he opened a lunchroom at the Florence, Kansas, train depot in 1878. The first location was so successful that additional locations were opened up along the line and by the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey restaurant every hundred miles—America’s first chain dining establishment. Strict standards ensured that a Fred Harvey meal was consistent at each location. Bread was baked on-site and sliced three-eights of an inch thick; orange juice was squeezed fresh only after it was ordered; alkali levels of the water were tested to ensure high-quality brewed coffee; menus were carefully planned out so that passengers would have a variety of foods to select from along their travels. Harvey took advantage of ice cars to transport highly perishable items—fruit, cheeses, ice cream, fresh fish—to the harsh environs of the southwest. For railroad towns eking by on fried meat, canned beans and stale coffee, the Harvey House chain was nothing short of a godsend.
Then there was the factor of the service. After the team of waiters in the Raton, New Mexico, location were involved in a brawl, Harvey fired the lot and replace them with young women. It was a radical idea. As far as respectable society in the late 1800s was concerned, a woman working as a waitress was considered to be as reputable as a prostitute. What else were the high-moraled society to think of single girls working in places that served alcohol, soliciting orders from male patrons? But this facet of Harvey’s venture could possibly succeed if the same structure and standardization used in the kitchen was applied to the serving staff. Placing newspaper ads calling for intelligent girls of strong character between the ages of 18 and 30, Harvey put applicants through a 30-day boot camp. By the time their training was over, they had the skills to serve a four-course meal within the thirty-minute meal stop a train would take at each station. The trial run at Raton was so successful that women replaced the male wait staff at all Fred Harvey establishments.
When working the dining room, Harvey Girls were forbidden to wear jewelry and makeup. They wore a conservative uniform: black ankle-length dresses with Elsie collars, white bib aprons. Waitresses lived in a dormitory supervised by a matron who strictly enforced a ten o’clock curfew. Working 12-hour-shifts six and seven day weeks, when a waitress wasn’t serving a customer, she was busy keeping the dining room spotless. In this way, the Harvey House functioned as a corporate chaperone that was able to provide the waitressing profession considerable social respectability.
Although being a Harvey Girl was hard work, there were considerable benefits. In terms of pay, they were at the top of their profession: $17.50 a month plus tips, meals, rooming, laundry and travel expenses. (By comparison, waiters made, on average, $48 a month, but have to pay for room and board. Men in manufacturing made about $54 a month, but all living expenses came out of pocket.) Not only were these women able to live and work independently, but they were able to save money, either to send home to family or to build a nest egg for themselves. And given that the West had a higher male-to-female ratio, they had improved odds of finding a husband. ”The move west in the late 1800s and early 1900s was, for men, a change to break with the past, look at the world beyone the family porch, and being a new life,” Lesley Polling-Kempes writes in her exhaustive study on the Harvey Girls. “Fred Harvey gave young women a similar opportunity. A sociologist could not have invented a better method by which the West could become inhabited by so many young women anxious to take part in the building of a new region.”
Women of loose morals and rough-and-tumble, pistol-packing mamas are among the stereotypical images of women that abound in the literature and movies. And so too did the Harvey Girls attain their own mythic status, fabled to have married business magnates and to have inspired the ire of the local dance hall girls. The waitresses even inspired poetry, such as the fllowing by Leiger Mitchell Hodges, published in 1905:
I have viewed the noblest shrines in Italy,
And gazed upon the richest mosques of Turkey—
But the fairest of all sights, it seems to me,
Was the Harvey Girl I saw in Albuquerque.
The idea of the Fred Harvey’s waitresses as a force of womanhood that civilized the West saw its fullest expression in the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls. With music by Johnny Mercer, it’s a perfectly hummable treatment of the wild west, although rife with its share of historical inaccuracies. And the musical/comedy treatment detracts from the fact that these women worked a long, hard day. But for the sight of synchronized table setting alone, it’s well worth a watch.
As airplane and automobile travel gained in popularity, business declined in the years following World War II. By the late 1960s, Fred Harvey restaurants were no more and the waitresses who kept the train passengers fed were the image of a bygone America. And while they were simply hard working women, their role as community builders is not to be underestimated. “Harvey Girls became women well educated in the needs, moods, affectations and habits of people from all over the United States,” Poling-Kempes writes. “Harvey Girls were among the most upwardly mobile women of the American West, crossing social boundaries in their daily routines, playing the role of mother and sister to travelers rich and poor, famous and infamous.”
Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West. New York: Random House, 2010.
Henderson, James. Meals by Fred Harvey. Hawthorne: Omni Publications, 1985.
Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
June 27, 2013
Imagine if you will: Agropolis, a supermarket where all your produce is hydroponically grown right there in the store. Even living in dense, urban areas you’d have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It eliminates the issue of transportation, further driving down costs, and because you’d pluck what you wanted straight from the farm/store display, there’d be less waste in the form of plastic bags and cartons. Unfortunately, Agropolis is purely conceptual, the idea of a team of Danish designers who wanted to take the farm-to-table concept to a new level. Their grown-in-store model, while fun, has its drawbacks, namely that the technology required to make an Agropolis-like market a reality is prohibitively expensive. So while these idyllic urban markets remain a figment of the human imagination, grocery stores are finding ways to innovate and make use of technology to create better shopping experiences. Here are five ways in which you may presently see the supermarket of the future:
Same-Day Delivery: Many food retailers now allow customers to fill a virtual cart online and have their order of goods delivered directly to their doorstep; however, there is a delay between the time you place your order and the time you receive your goods—as much as a few days depending on the delivery time slots available. If you’re ace at planning ahead, this works great. Google is looking to change that. In April, they began testing a new service dubbed Shopping Express in the San Francisco Bay area. Customers can order from big box stores—like Target and Walgreens—as well as from participating local stores, which means a person doesn’t have to build their pantry up through a series of trips to different stores. At Slate, Reid Mitenbuler notes that this service could be revolutionary in how it allows a person access to better food, “A lot of times I’m looking for specialty goods—higher quality seafood, some specific ethnic spice, fresh roasted coffee beans, high-end local bread, a snooty variety of coconut water—that requires a trip to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the Chinese or Indian market, or some other out-of-the-way place.” Not to be outdone, both Amazon and WalMart are each testing same-day and next day delivery services.
Receipts in the Cloud: Cloud computing has been promoted as a means to break the bonds of your hard drive and to access your data—music, movies, documents—from anywhere as long as you have access to a data connection. Grocery stores are starting to jump on the bandwagon. This June, Booths supermarket in the UK started phasing out paper receipts, instead sending them to a customer’s cloud-based account. The idea of e-receipts, where a retailer will email you a receipt in lieu of handing you a paper one, isn’t new; however, Booths cloud refines the idea in such a way that digital-only receipts has advantages for the consumer. Shoppers have an account so they can track not just how much they spend on each shopping visit, but also their expenditures by category, allowing them to make budgetary—and dietary—adjustments as needed. There’s also the ecological bonus of eliminating an estimated 100,000 rolls of receipt paper per year.
Scanning With Your Smartphone: Scan It devices have been around for a few years already. On entering the store, shoppers pick up a device that looks like a remote control with a monitor built in and can scan items as they shop, keeping a running total of their purchases that is designed to make the checkout process faster. Some chains, like Giant and Stop and Shop, are taking that concept a step further by publishing apps that turn your smart phone into a barcode scanner. Though these apps are usually free to download, you may get hit in the wallet elsewhere: stores are also using mobile technology to get shoppers to spend more money by offering app-exclusive coupons to spur impulse buys. A supermarket in Paris, however, is taking this a step further. Customers use their phones to scan the item and, in addition to maintaining a running tally of the grocery order, but they will be provided with nutritional information and other data about the item before they decide to place it in their cart.
No More Typing in Produce Codes: While smart phones may be the new barcode readers, Toshiba is figuring out how to do away with barcodes altogether by developing a scanner savvy enough to tell the difference between your Fuji and Granny Smith apples. Unveiled in spring 2012, the Object Recognition Scanner hones in on patterns and colors in food much in the same way that facial recognition scanners use certain criteria—like the distance between a person’s eyes and nose width—to identify people. But here, the scanner can discern between fresh produced and prepackaged goods. While this technology could one day spell the end for barcodes, as of this writing, the scanners have not yet been tested outside of a demo environment.
Shorter Waits in Line: Infrared cameras used to detect body heat are a tool traditionally used by police and the military. But food retailer Kroger sees a use for them in the grocery store. By mounting the cameras at the entrance to the store and at the cash registers, the cameras work with in-house-developed software that records supermarket traffic at different times of day, allowing managers to know how many lanes need to be open and when to open them. Currently in use at some 2,400 stores, the average customer wait time has been reduced from 4 minutes to 26 seconds.
June 20, 2013
Mold in the kitchen has an overwhelmingly negative public image. There’s nothing like opening the fridge and seeing fuzzy welts on your long-forgotten leftovers, and that momentary pang of dread as you feel that you’ve committed some cardinal sin in your housekeeping. (Or maybe I’m just a neurotic.) But fact is that mold spores are everywhere, and given a moist environment, said spores are able to thrive. In many cases, molds are are an easy visual signal that you are in the presence of food that is rotting and is best left un-ingested.
Nevertheless, some molds are perfectly fit for consumption, if not desired to produce fine dining fare. Part of the trick is knowing how to tell the difference between good molds and the molds that will do you some harm. The other part is to overcome some of your reservations try some of the following foods that benefit from a little fungus. (However, it should be noted that if you see mold growing on the following after the point of purchase, you should consider said foodstuff unsafe. The USDA has a handy cheat sheet if you need a refresher course on how to handle fungi in the kitchen [PDF].)
Cheese: Certain cheeses rely on bacteria and mold for their unique flavors and textures. Usually introduced during the finishing phase of the cheese-making process, once applied to the surface, molds penetrate the cheese and breaks down lactic acid, which in turn softens the fats and proteins therein. Strains of penicillium—the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics—are frequently used. In soft cheeses, Penicillium candidum is what produces the characteristic hard, outer rind as well as the garlicky and earthly flavors those cheeses are known for. Without the mold, brie would be a sour and rubbery cheese, but a little fungus allows the cheese to take on its signature soft, creamy texture. Blue cheeses benefit from Penicillium roqueforti, which provides those cheeses with their hallmark blue veins and bold flavors.
Wine: In the realm of viticulture, rotting is a good thing if induced by the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Under the right climate conditions—dry, sunny days followed humid nights—the fungus’ growth and metabolism induced a “noble rot” in the fruit. Once infected, the grapes dehydrate and shrivel on the vine, increasing the concentration of sugar therein and providing the fruit with honey-like flavors. Vintners have been intentionally infecting—or “botrytizing”—grapes since at least the mid-1500s and these moldy grapes are used to produce some of Germany’s Rieslings, France’s Sauternes and Hungary’s Aszù wines. In incredibly rare cases, however, this mold can also harm people by causing “winemaker’s lung,” a hypersensitive pneumonitis where a person’s lungs become inflamed upon inhalation.
Salami: Health regulations here in the United States have placed some tight restrictions on the manufacture and sale of moldy meats. By and large, this is a good thing. But mold plays a vital role in how European butchers make dry-cured sausage. Here, the desired mold is penicillium, the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics. When encouraged to grow on the outer casing, the penicillium serves several functions: by occupying all the physical real estate on the sausage, it prevents bad molds from developing; by consuming oxygen it inhibits oxidation of the meat and lastly it protects the fat from going rancid. Although it’s a centuries-old process, finding meats cured in this style are increasingly difficult to find here in this country. (In 2006, health inspectors destroyed the handmade, dry-cured meats at New York’s Il Buco restaurant. The USDA stipulates that meats should be cured in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder in order to stave off microbial growth. The “contraband” meat was stored at a little above room temperature.) So if you want to try the real stuff, you can try finding a place that imports dry-cured sausage, or you can make good salami an excuse for a trip overseas.
Corn Smut: Corn is susceptible to the pathogen Ustilago maydis, commonly known as “corn smut,” which infects the kernels and causes bulbous, gray tumors to grow. In this country, corn smut growth is a sign of diseased crops and is something to be eradicated. South America, however, has long regarded the fungus—known there as huitlacoche, Mayan for “excrement of the gods”—as a delicacy. When processed, it’s a slimy, black substance that can be used as an ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine or as a standalone quesedilla filling. The appearance and colorful nicknames have made it hard for huitlacoche to break its niche market status, although some chefs are trying to do some re-branding by using more plate-positive terms like “corn mushrooms” or “corn truffles.” But there also seem to be some nutritional benefits to eating this fungal slush: a 2010 study showed that huitlacoche is rich in beta-glucens, the same cholesterol-reducing fiber found in oatmeal. And flavor? It’s been described as a cross between corn and mushrooms, earthy and fungal. But there are a few factors that get in the way of widespread huitlacoche production. In addition to being known exclusively in
South American Mexican cuisine, the fungus is highly perishable, making it difficult to get from field to market. And while canned versions are available, the flavor doesn’t compare to the fresh product. Furthermore, if you’re not expressly looking to cultivate this fungus, it can be highly destructive. In addition to decreasing total corn yield, infected ears need to be immediately removed lest mold spores go airborne and effect adjacent plants.
Smith, Tim. Making Artisan Cheese: Fifty Fine Cheeses That You Can Make in Your Own Kitchen. Boston: Quayside Publishing Group, 2005.
Jackson, Ronald S. Wine Science: Principles and Applications. Elsevier, Inc. 2008. Burlington: Elsevier, Inc. 2008.
Ruhlman, Michael and Brian Polcyn. Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.
Deutsch, Jonathan. Ed. They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food From Around the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.