August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
December 30, 2011
This is our last Food & Think post of the year. Sadly, it also happens to be my last ever—or at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date approaching in a few months, I’ve decided one full-time job (I am a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine) plus new motherhood is about all I can handle for a while. I have learned so many interesting things about food in the last two and a half years of writing for the blog—and I still plan to, but now as a reader instead of writer.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite posts of the year—those that I either particularly enjoyed reading or writing. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll go back and give them a look.
1. Beer Batter Is Better; Science Says So. Without T. A. Frail’s important batter research in January, we all might have eaten inferior onion rings in 2011. Thank you, Tom.
2. Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag. Also back in January, Jesse detailed how the practice of wrapping up “bones for Bowser” evolved into bringing home leftovers never intended to touch canine lips.
3. Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners. Jesse’s look at pre-Emily Post do’s and don’ts includes one of my favorite lines of the year: On farting at the dinner table, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.”
4. Inviting Writing: When in Rome. Inviting Writing has always been one of my favorite parts of the blog—to both write and read. Of the ones I wrote, the one reminiscing about a perfect meal in Rome was particularly enjoyable.
5. Law and Order: Culinary Crimes Unit. That Jesse had the material to write not one but six posts on food-related crime is both astonishing and entertaining. Read them all: the original; Jell-O Gelatin Unit; Ice Cream Truck Unit; More Culinary Crimes; Even More Food Crimes; and New Culinary Crimes.
6. Science in the Public Interest: The Beer Koozie Test. I’ll admit, this one was fun to both research and write. But, like T. A. Frail’s onion ring research, I believe it performed an important reader service.
7. Inviting Writing: What to Eat When You’re Adopting. One of my favorite guest essays this year was by Amy Rogers Nazarov, who wrote a touching piece on learning about Korean food while waiting to meet her adopted son.
8. The Other Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Jesse tells us about the cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, famous as the longtime lover of Gertrude Stein and the title subject of one of the celebrated author’s best-known works.
9. The Gingerbread Man and Other Runaway Foods. Who knew there was a whole literary genre of runaway pancakes? Well, anyone who read Jesse’s enlightening post from earlier this month.
With that, I bid you adieu. Have a wonderful 2012, everyone.
Ed. note — Thank you, Lisa, for the 272 posts that carry your byline. You’ll be dearly missed and here’s to a very happy and joyful 2012!
December 28, 2011
About a year ago I went a little crazy in a specialty spice store and picked up all kinds of exotic spices to try. Since then I’ve been slowly working through them, trying to figure what the heck to make with them. I’ve had better luck with some (galangal) than others (annatto). Since their freshness is probably slipping away, it was time to try one of the last remaining unopened packages on my shelf: juniper berries.
What are they?
Botanically speaking, the dark little berries of juniper trees—which are conifers—are female seed cones, not true berries. But we’re speaking culinarily, in which case the dark violet orbs look and taste enough like berries to deserve the name. Dried juniper berries (or fresh ones, when they are available) are used as a flavoring in Northern European cuisine, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and the Alsace region of France. Americans are most likely to have encountered juniper in gin, the liquor that gets its name from the Dutch or French word for juniper.
Where do they come from?
The juniper berries used in food and drink usually come from the species Juniperus communis, which grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as far north as the Arctic.
What do they taste like?
If you’ve ever tried gin you’ll have a fair idea of what juniper berries taste like, although the ones used for cooking are riper. They have a slightly piney flavor with a touch of both fruitiness and pepperiness.
What the heck do I do with them?
I tried them in a chicken dish where I added both too much juniper and too much thyme, and the flavor was a little overpowering. Consequently, I didn’t eat much, which was probably a good thing—it was only after the fact that I read that pregnant women (which I am) should avoid juniper because it can cause uterine contractions. Luckily, I already had a doctor appointment scheduled the next day.
But if you are not pregnant and you use them sparingly, you may want to try juniper in game dishes, one of the spice’s most common uses. Pairing them with prunes over roast duck, as in a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine, sounds like it would make for a nice balance. Jamie Oliver stews the berries with venison, as both the Navajo and British did in days of yore.
Juniper berries are a common ingredient in Germanic food. In Alsace, a French province bordering Germany, choucroute garnie is a hot sauerkraut dish with sausage and other meats that’s especially popular in winter. Jacques Pépin shared a simplified version using store-bought sauerkraut in Food & Wine magazine.
As for me, I’ll be keeping my remaining juniper berries on the shelf until I’m ready to have contractions.
December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
December 14, 2011
When I decided, at age 40, that I wanted to try to have a child, I knew I faced a few elevated risks over younger women: first and foremost, I might not be able to conceive at all. I mentally prepared myself—as much as I could, anyway—for that and other possibilities, including the higher risk of the baby having a genetic defect.
So far I’ve been fortunate. The one risk I hadn’t given much thought to—the higher chance of developing gestational diabetes—is the only one that has been a factor in my pregnancy. I’m fairly healthy, I have no history of diabetes in my family, and I try to eat well—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few highly processed junk foods.
But older pregnant women—and that means even women as young as in their late 20s, believe it or not—can have a harder time regulating insulin, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes, if not controlled through diet and exercise, can cause high-birth-weight babies and potentially lead to delivery complications, as well as increasing the risk that the child will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. For the mother, there’s also the risk of high blood pressure and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
I haven’t been diagnosed with gestational diabetes so far. But because my blood sugar was a little high during my early glucose tolerance test (this is given to all pregnant women around 28 weeks, but women of my age are also sometimes tested earlier), I was advised to exercise more frequently and follow a low-carbohydrate diet, the same advice given to those with the diagnosis.
The last thing a pasta-loving pregnant lady with a sweet tooth wants to hear is that she should cut out carbs. I have always been skeptical of the low-carb diet craze, suspecting it was a ploy by meat-lovers to make eating triple bacon cheeseburgers acceptable—as long as they’re sandwiched between lettuce leaves instead of a bun.
Luckily, the diet prescribed for me was not so extreme. The point is not to lose weight or to cut out carbohydrates entirely, but to limit them and to ration out their consumption throughout the day, always combining them with protein and a little bit of fat.
There were a few surprises in the information the dietician gave me. An unpleasant one was that my usual breakfast—a bowl of cereal—was out. Even sugarless, high-fiber varieties far exceed my maximum allotment of 30 grams of carbohydrates for the morning meal. (Blood sugar levels are especially prone to spiking in the morning, so the breakfast allotment is lower than that at lunch and dinner.) On top of that, I was surprised by how many carbs there are in a glass of milk—about 13 grams per cup. My other favorite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese, was also way over the mark. Instead, I’ve switched to a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter.
On the upside, I’m not going to starve. In addition to the three regular meals, I’m supposed to eat a morning and afternoon snack, plus a smaller evening snack. And I can still have pasta, but instead of a big bowl of it on its own, it should be a side dish or mixed with enough vegetables and protein so the carb portion is limited. The happiest news of all? On those rare occasions when I am allowed to squeeze in a little treat, I was told it’s better to go for ice cream than sorbet, because the fat helps slow down the breakdown of carbs. Can do, doc.