The sound of horses’ hooves clattered on the cobblestone streets and the golden light of the setting sun cast shadows over the faces of the people pawing through the piles of sweetgrass baskets in the City Market. I could close my eyes and think I’d gone back in time, the smell of horse manure ripe in my nose, lulled by the cries of the vendors, their sing-song Gullah- accented tones bringing back a sense of the West Africa I once knew. I turned and started down Church Street, passing Broad Street after several blocks, ending up on the waterfront, passing house after house with decorative pineapples adorning the gateways, mailboxes, and doors of immense mansions, a sense of the past emanating from every window, every staircase, every porch. Continue reading
What does it mean to cook? Some – Harold McGee for example – would say that cooking means to prepare food by heating, while others, such as historian Rachel Laudan, extend the definition to include modes of preparation beyond heating. I tend to agree with the latter and not the former.
So, with that sticking point out of the way, why do we cook? And why ask that question? Looking at literature from the past, at least among the elite, questions surrounding the pleasure of eating and drinking appeared. Grave goods held food and cooking utensils and other culinary-based implements. Clearly for people who did not have to cook, examining the philosophy of food and eating seemed just another pleasure-ridden activity of daily life (think, too, of Brillat-Savarin, with his Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), 1825).
As we do more often than not these days, we who do not need to lift a wooden spoon or even turn on the stove if we choose not to.
I began contemplating this current human condition as I turned the pages of one of the still-irresistible glossy food magazines, the multitude that the post office delivers to my door every month. And there it was. With a bit of amusement, and admiration I must add, I read the advertisement for soup stocks produced by a major company.
Arranged in a nine-block grid, the center grid reading “Why I Cook,” superimposed on a black background, the ad consisted of delicious food photographs surrounding the center and giving reasons for “Why I Cook.”
To feed my creativity
Because a new ingredient is like a new toy
To show my love
Because I love food
Why I cook
To feel like an artist
To unleash my inner chef
Because my kitchen is my sanctuary
To remind me of home
All of these phrases represent excellent, if not somewhat self-absorbed, reasons to cook, past or present. Contrast these reasons to prepare food with those listed in the 1909 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s The Book of Household Management, originally published in 1861. Note that the authors (not Mrs. Beeton, as she died in 1865) stress many of the theories touted by the new science of nutrition/home economics. (See my two previous posts about her: Part I and Part II.
- To render mastication easy;
- to facilitate and hasten digestion;
- to convert certain naturally harmful substances into nutritious foods;
- to eliminate harmful foreign elements evolved in food (e.g. the tinea or tapeworm in beef and mutton; trichinae in pork; the ptomaines resulting from tissue waste);
- to combine the right foods in proper proportions for the needs of the body;
- to make it [food] agreeable to the palate and pleasing to the eye.
In Chapter 5 of Michael Symons’s excellent A History of Cooks and Cooking (“What Do Cooks Do?”), Symons delineates many of the reasons that cooks cook. Many touch on the same points raised by the ad.
But there’s something that troubles me about that ad, and I want to go back to that.
These reasons for cooking reflect our modern (and affluent) Western culture, where food appears in great abundance. Many writers today approach cooking this way, as an activity of choice.Look at the piece by Michael Ruhlman, which probably started the ball rolling with that ad.
And they’re right; cooking today can be a pleasurable choice, if several criteria are met.
- The cook knows how to cook.
- There’s ample money available to buy food.
- And food exists in easily accessible variety.
When it is possible to just stop by the grocery store and pick up a roasted chicken and pre-packaged, pre-cut salad ingredients, and throw a meal together in a few minutes, prior to collapsing in front of the television or computer screen, cooking today is a far cry from the 30 hours a week that the average American woman spent cooking in the 1920s. Employed women nowadays spend about 4.4 hours a week cooking, according to the USDA (2007). People over the age of 15 years spend about 67 minutes per day eating and drinking as a “primary activity,” while spending another 23.5 minutes eating and 63 minutes drinking per day while engaged in other activities, like watching television. (USDA, 2011) Prior to the technological innovations that allowed women to only spend 30 hours a week, women/cooks likely spent most of their waking hours in the kitchen or preparing food in some manner, unless they had servants, who did the work surrounding the daily tasks of cooking.
Yet for the vast majority of women [people], even if they do not spend a lot of time cooking nor subscribe to the reasons given in the ad or Mrs. Beeton of 1909, cooking until recently has been a primary activity, because cooking – not just the growing and gathering of food – ultimately means the difference between life or death.*
So the answer to the question, “Why do we cook?,” I believe, ought to be, “So we may live.”
In other words, cooking isn’t just about you. It’s about perpetuation of the species.
Cooks & Other People, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (1995)
Cuisines et cuisiniers, de l’Antiquité à nos jours, by Marie-Laurre Verroust (1999)
Histoire de la cuisine et des cuisiniers : Techniques culinaires et pratiques de table, en France, du Moyen-Age à nos jours, by Jean-Pierre Poulain and Edmund Neirinck (2004)
*It’s always perplexed me how so much attention has gone into the study of the growing of crops and care of livestock, but so little has been done to determine just what happens to those raw materials once women (or men) applied heat or other treatments. I recall a survey done in Zambia, and written up by Pauline Whitby. Sponsored by the National Food & Nutrition Programme, Zambian Foods and Cooking (Lusaka, Zambia, 1972), a booklet of 68 pages, contains a wealth of information about the state of cooking in Zambia between 1969 and 1972, including step-by-step descriptions of how different grains are prepared for pounding, followed by recipes using the pounded grain/flour. I wish other countries produced similar materials.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
Have you ever dreamed of opening a restaurant, where people swooned over your food and generations later, the children of the children of your first customers would say, “ We would have no food memories if it weren’t for (fill in the blank) __________________!”
Well yes, I will confess, it’s been a dream of mine since forever. And I haven’t given it up yet. I read the other day that the town council here – a bunch of retros if I’ve ever seen any – actually might approve food trucks! How cool is that?
But what would I cook and what would I serve?
I think the question to ask these days is this: “What is comfort food for people today?” It’s becoming a generational thing, comfort food.
According to Grub Street, on February 5, 2013, the most cited comfort food was Ramen Noodles. But then comes cassoulet, fried chicken, meatballs, meatloaf, chicken soup, braised beef ribs, roast chicken, grilled cheese, shrimp & grits, mac & cheese, lasagna, and pot pie. Buzzfeed trots out a list of the dishes that people born after 1970 think of when they think of comfort food: Mac & Cheese from a box, frozen Stouffer’s lasagna, mashed potatoes (thankfully not from a box, which are absolutely revolting, IMO), Chef Boyardee Anything, Entenmann’s Raspberry Twist, Pancakes (any kind), Fried Chicken (on a biscuit, waffle, or in a bucket, the Lord help us), Chili (including Fritos), Pie, and Cinnabon rolls.
Yes, food people, “sweet dreams are made of” that, not broccoli or spinach or eggplant or any of the “good for you” stuff.
When I’m in an uncomfortable situation, for what do I yearn? I can tell you: vanilla milkshakes, just like the ones that Culver’s makes in the American Midwest. Or maybe a big fatty breakfast from Waffle House, with gooey American cheese stirred into the scrambled eggs with a side of raisin toast and cinnamon-streaked apple butter. Of course I won’t turn my nose up at spaghetti and meatballs or chicken-fried steak. Or a big bowl of chili, fragrant with chili powder, best with freshly fried tortillas.
The last thing on my mind is broccoli or the veggie tray when life throws me a curve ball. Give me a helping of mashed potatoes and roast beef with gravy that could stand in for library paste. Hand me a biscuit, soft and slightly salty and saturated with butter and honey. And don’t forget the cookies, the sugary ones that crack apart with one snap of my molars, the chocolate-filled thumbprints, and the soft gingerbread “little cakes” spread with powdered sugar icing, the ones that almost melt in my mouth.
I find recipes for these delights in most American cookbooks, at least the ones that purport to save our culinary heritage, even the latest editions of The Joy of Cooking, The Gourmet Cookbook so superbly edited by Ruth Reichl, and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, in spite of the somewhat pretentious title … .
The glut of gluten-free cookbooks, their authors jumping on a bandwagon due for a sure and quick demise; the cookbooks extolling farmers markets and the direness of not eating organic; and the frankly tasteless recipes of so many vegan cookbooks reminds me so much of the early days, when Diet for a Small Planet topped the bestseller lists and college food service officials scrambled to meet the demand for vegetarian dishes.
And yet that movement collapsed like a soufflé left to sit for far too long. Because the food frankly tasted horrible.
So what would a thriving food truck serve when so many people think that mac & cheese from a box actually tastes good?
I truly believe that if someone had enough guts to cook food from scratch, the kind of food that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers dished up for the hired men who helped to harvest the corn every summer, the big platters of food cooked up by immigrant families – whose food the home economics movement so denigrated, and the food relished by people from Africa and the Middle East, not to mention southeast Asia, well, THAT would be a food revolution indeed. A food truck for the ages.
The big food companies feed vast numbers of people, with food that might not meet the standards of the organic crowd. Things are changing, the big companies are answering consumer demand, there’s more so-called organic food out there, prices are somewhat more accessible to more people (but organic food is still the prerogative of the wealthier class), but are we happier because of it?
I think not. Food today carries with it so much guilt and denial and sacrifice. In spite of the supposed freshness, in spite of the so-called healthy attributes of organic food, I sense no pleasure in food, the kind of pleasure that people accustomed to hunger found in eating.
I ask you, what do you see when you look at photographs of people from the past? Do you see stick thin women or men with gaunt cheeks (unless they’ve been starved in the South during the Civil War or imprisoned in Andersonville or suffered the ravages of famine or the Great Depression or Nazi concentration camps or other social calamities)? Or do you see people well-fed, lucky them, not overly obsessed with looking like a Photoshopped model?
In those photographs, I see people happy to have food to eat.*
I think we should be happy to have food to eat. I think, too, that teaching people to cook and exposing them to food cooked as it used to be in most homes would go a long way to help people reach an equilibrium with food. No, not a new concept at all, I don’t claim that it is, but I continue to feel sad at the lack of cooking ability that I see around me. But who’s going to do the cooking, time-consuming as it can get to be at times?
A comforting thought, though, that people might one day end up thinking of their childhood food as something that didn’t come from a box, that cooking is more than throwing together a series of pre-fabricated foods.
Could food trucks help? I don’t really know, but it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?
*Yes, some changes could be made in the humane treatment of the animals bred and raised for human consumption. Yesterday I saw two long semis carrying hundreds of white turkeys, squashed into tiny compartments with no room to move. I again asked myself how I can eat meat when I see this sort of thing. I think the most important aspect of the current food movement lies in the raising of awareness of how our food is produced, but it must be understood that the enormous populations that must be fed, that the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube – in other words, industrialization of the food supply is unfortunately necessary. I just hope that workers, the land, and the animals end up being treated more humanely and with reverence for the sacrifices that they make.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
I still smell the smoke of many fires, its pungency hauling up memories, deep from that hidden place where forgotten things wait until the right atoms collide. With each of my slow short breaths, a picture of West Africa emerges, behind my eyes where I can see the past scrolling like a Technicolor movie. The old granary door, a treasure from Burkina Faso, carved with chisel and finished with fire, gleams against the white wall, in half-hearted chiaroscuro.
With summer’s persistent humidity, even after all these years, the odor of smoke lingers around the door, creating a mental image of the hundreds of cooking fires that greet the mornings in the Africa I once knew. Cooking breakfast or smoking fish, always the fire, forever the smoke.
On the other hand, for many of us with roots in the West, the idea of cooking with fire likely conjures up visions of soft flickering light, the door barred against wolves howling in tune with the wind, and the looming darkness of the forests, thick with wood for cooking, good it seemed until far-off Judgement Day. Cooking with fire seems romantic indeed, for we believe it brings us closer to the natural world, fraught as the so-called real world is with artificiality and a reality divorced from the nature we yearn for.
There’s something about the aroma and taste of smoke, prodding the prefrontal cortex and unleashing a torrent of memories, maybe even cellular memory. Perhaps that’s why smoked paprika or chipotles taste so marvelous.
Stories weave in and out of our mythological history, one suggesting that women died fiery deaths from cooking fires. Their long skirts caught in the embers, so the legends go. But many historians scoff and dismiss these stories as no better than old wives’ tales. Perhaps. But certainly many women and children suffered burns, just like the ones we see in parts of Africa, where women wear nylons or other types of stockings to cover unsightly scars on their legs, in spite of the unearthly heat. Or where very small children, playing and oblivious, brush into the cooking fire, often with horrendous consequences, written in the withered flesh of beggars who cluster in the streets of many cities.
Burns, like signs, show us outwardly the hazards of cooking fires. Coughs do the same, and coughs appear often in people who cook over open fires. Air quality inside and outside suffers when smoke competes with fresh air. “ ‘Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour in your kitchen,’ says Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley.”
The enigma of smoke – it feeds, it preserves, and it kills.
I rub my fingers over the smooth carved surfaces of the granary door and the odor seems to stick to them. For a moment, like a fish in a lake, another memory surfaces. Enormous burlap sacks of charcoal line the roads of cities like of Ouagadougou. Deforestation, for the sake of eating today, that’s the way to understand it. Eat today, with the fuel provided by the few trees remaining. As for tomorrow, who knows? Vast, barren areas scoured and picked clean by little girls and old women searching for firewood, walking for miles with heavy loads of branches and twigs strapped to their backs, this is the reality of cooking, as well.
Smoke, and fire, both made us human. But what else have they done?
*And not just in Africa; the problem encompasses the entire world.
BRINGING EFFICIENCY TO THE COOKING FIRE THROUGH ENHANCED COOKSTOVES, plus another link to issues surrounding traditional cooking methods.
Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, by Mary Theobald and The Colonial Williamsburg Fundation (2012)
Indoor Air Pollution and Health, by World Health Organization
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
When I finally discovered that anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) weren’t just for crappy pizzas anymore, I was pretty long in the tooth, so to speak. It took me a long time to even dare to add anchovies to the food I cooked. In that, I am not unlike other cooks over the centuries: What if I ruined the little food I had stored in my larder? What if I tried something new and my family went hungry? But what if I went to a feast given by a neighbor, whose daughter married a young man from a village near the coast, just south of Perpignan? How would my worldview shift then, as I begged the cooks to tell me what they added to the stew to bring out the meaty taste of the flesh from Saffire, the scrawny cow that the bride’s father slaughtered for the wedding feast?
I think of this as I pull open the flat tin of anchovies that’s sat on my pantry shelf for far longer than I care to admit. I’ve lied to the person dearest to me, as I slid pizzas into the oven, pulling back on the peel with a quick snap of my wrist, “Oh, no, I don’t have any anchovies.”
Normally, the pungent taste of these small salted fish overpowers everything they touch, with a strong and frankly offensive mouthfeel, one of the flavors I just cannot abide.
Unless … I mince them and stir the mash into sauces and other concoctions, thus imbuing those dishes with the coveted “umami” taste, essentially an effect similar to adding mushrooms to gravies and sauces. Even anchovy haters like me do not believe their taste-buds when they learn that the delicious flavor of a stew, for example, comes not from caramelized beef, but rather from the contents of a flat little can, filled with tiny fish fillets marinating in a thick and oily bath.
Yet, it is true, anchovies add immense flavor to certain meat and vegetable dishes originating around the Mediterranean. Other salted blue fish, such as sardines, appear in recipes too and are used in similar ways.
I love the idea that this fish, with its very long history in European cookery, imparts a flavor similar to one relished by ancient Greeks and Romans. Salted and fermented, the process of preserving large catches of these fish became one that routinely produced the Romans’ garum (garo in Greek), rumored to be the ancestor of Worcestershire Sauce, which is not quite so noisome. And in the Languedocien town of Collioure, women blessed with deft fingers filleted the anchovies by hand, preserving them in salt for later, leaner days.
West Africans also add salted fish to stews, as well as utilizing smoked and fermented fish. Some of the meaty-flavored sauces sold on the street in vast vats reminded me of the lush stews of southern France, and probably for good reason. Salted fish comprised a major trade item all around the Mediterranean, and up and down the African coastline jutting into the Atlantic.
But I really started warming up to anchovies while reviewing a couple of cookbooks about the food of the Languedoc, a mystical place in southwestern France, near Spain and punctuated by the Pyrénées, a place that reminds me of the mountainous Blue Ridge. I felt something extraordinary there, the minute I drove out of Foix in the Ariège. A place where each stone, each carving, each symbolic lair makes visible the Catalane spirit.
If you read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and learned of Rennes-le-Château, you may sense the allure of the Languedoc, albeit perhaps not always the most accurate historically.
This is the place where the Inquisition got its start, where heretics died en masse, escaping to high mountainous fortresses, laid siege to by Catholic troops bent on killing any and all heresies.
For further reading and experimenting:
Africa Cookbook, recipes by ingredient, scroll down to “fish, salted”
Sud de France: The food and cooking of Languedoc, by Caroline Conran (2012) One of the more comprehensive bibliographies available on the cuisine of the Languedoc.
“A Roman Anchovy’s Tale,” by David Downie, Gastronomica 3(2): 24-28, 2003.
Languedoc-Roussillon: Produits du Terroir et Recettes Tradionnelles, par L’Inventaire du Patrimonie Culinaire de la France (1998)
Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savoring the Food, History, and Mystery of the Languedoc, by Angela Murrils (2008)
Note: I will be taking a summer break for a few weeks.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
Although my father used to fry fresh okra, rolling it first in beaten egg and then coating it with crushed saltine crackers, he never grew it in the vast backyard gardens of my childhood.
So, quite by accident, I learned about the okra plant in an entirely different place.
Rigoberto and his cousin dug the garden patch, stirring up the Honduran earth with a rusted shovel and a hoe missing a screw, which made a loud squeak each time it hit the ground. Once the plot measured as wide and long as the inside of a banana shipping container, the boys then sowed seeds as the sun glinted off the sweat rolling down their noses and collecting at the base of their throats.
I salivated at the thought of the red tomatoes and peppers, the sweet yellow corn and squash, the pinto beans and the papaya.
Incessant afternoon rains provided ample water and every day I checked the ground for signs of life. Small green shoots surfaced fast in the heat and the damp.
One day, as I walked through the rows of young plants, I noticed an odd plant, actually several rows of them. And I froze at the sight. What on earth were we doing here? Oh my goodness, it looked like we had dozens of marijuana plants on our hands!
But, after I caught my breath and looked more closely, I realized that okra plants look a lot like pot plants. Yes sir, they sure do.
Summer sped by and the plants flourished, and I learned something I wasn’t expecting to learn – okra flowers thrilled me. Resembling delicate morning glories, the yellows and purples and even pinks shone as beautiful as any hot-house hibiscus. And at the core of each one nestled a dark garnet ring, as rich in color as a king’s royal robes.
At the time, every week, I visited an elderly woman from Jamaica who lived on the other side of the small river dividing the United Fruit Company compound from the local village. She cooked conch soup for me one day, using some of the okra I’d brought her. And ever after that’s the way I cooked okra most of the time, in the gumbo-like stews heavily imprinted with Caribbean and African flavors.
Years later, I discovered the Margaret Holmes brand of canned tomatoes and okra, sitting on a shelf in my local Wal-Mart. I thought, “How terrific, now I can make gumbo a lot faster using this.”
And I do.
If you examine the Margaret Holmes Website or the labels of their products, you’ll see their company dates back to 1838, when family patriarch James McCann farmed 2000 acres – mostly cotton – in Effingham, South Carolina. Obviously, farming 2000 acres at that time required a lot of labor, provided by slaves.
McCann Farms acquired the Margaret Holmes label in 1954, by buying a canning operation started by Ed and Margaret Holmes in the 1930s on a nearby farm. Margaret, a “meticulous cook,” canned white acre peas. Today, the company cans/freezes many Southern vegetables such as beans, peaches, collard greens, tomatoes, okra, and peanuts. They contract with local farmers for a lot of their products, actually at least 60 percent.
You may also use canned tomatoes and okra, along with some onions and bacon, to make Limping Susan, a pilau-like cousin to the more widely known recipe using rice, Hoppin’ John. And Virginia’s famous Brunswick Stew traditionally called for okra.* Not to mention the myriad recipes found in countries ranging from Syria to India to the Philippines and Greece.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it, that a vegetable with origins in Ethiopia ended up all the way across the seemingly endless continent of Africa and the expanse of a virtually islandless ocean, to grace the pots of a new world.
Gumbo, from Charleston Receipts, p. 180:
1 quart okra
2 No. 2 cans tomatoes (5 cups)
3 slices bacon
2 large onions
Salt, pepper, and thyme to taste
Grind okra and onions coarsely in meat grinder [or food processor]. Cook bacon and remove from pan. Add okra and onions to bacon grease and cook until all juice is cooked out, then add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and thyme. Let this simmer or 3 or 4 hours, add a little water if necessary. When cooked, serve with rice with bacon crumbled on top. Shrimp or seafood of any kind may be added to make a seafood gumbo. The seafood should be added after the gumbo is finished. Serves 6. Mrs. Charles H. Burn (Nina McAdoo)
Click HERE for my previous, fact-laden post about okra!
*Karen Hess writes that Mary Randolph’s 1824 The Virginia House-wife contains the first published recipes – three – for okra, but I wonder if she checked any French or Spanish or Portuguese sources (she probably did). Hess, Karen. Okra in the Diaspora of Our South. In: Cornbread Nation 1, edited by John Egerton. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new,” or so confessed St. Augustine, a Catholic saint born in 354 A.D., in what is now Algeria.
And I, I could also say the same, about many things.
One of them being sweet potatoes, a beloved Southern staple.**
It was a Thanksgiving Day. I was five, going on six. Old enough to know what I liked to eat. But that day I added another “yuck” food to a list that already included liver and the overcooked broccoli my mother served with distressing regularity.
A friend of my mother’s, from Mississippi, brought a sweet potato casserole, all decked out with slightly browned marshmallows. I remember thinking, “How could anything with marshmallows taste terrible?”
With the first shocking bite, amid memories of marshmallow-infused S’mores, I grabbed my napkin and spat out the gloopy orange mess coating my mouth. When nobody was looking, I sneaked the rest of it off my plate and hid the disgusting goo under the rim.
If you’d told me that the Incas ate sweet potatoes, roasted in the embers of fires in the High Andes, or that Renaissance-era French courtiers tittered about the aphrodisiac qualities of these odd-shaped roots, it wouldn’t have made any difference in how that first bite tasted to me. The Spanish sailed with sweet potatoes in their ships’ holds and spread them across the world, from Europe to Asia. Sweet potatoes may have saved Revolutionary War soldiers from sure death and I couldn’t fault George Washington for growing them at Mt. Vernon. Full of vitamin A, thanks to the beta-carotene signaled by their bright orange-red color, sweet potatoes pack a powerful lot of nutrition into a rather ugly little package.
But no matter how nutritious a sweet potato might be, no matter what George Washington Carver wrote about their virtues, I never touched another bite until a cold and rainy and windy Thanksgiving night, far from my own stove and family table. I still yearned for the foods that symbolized an American myth, the one that keeps Americans tied to a past both glorious and inglorious. So when I walked into the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW in Washington, DC, I had no idea what a culinary about-face I would soon be doing. As I sat down in a plush red-velvet-covered booth, eyeing the animal trophy heads covering the walls, some rumored to be bagged by Teddy Roosevelt, I glanced at the Thanksgiving prix-fixe menu lying on the freshly pressed white damask tablecloth.
“Sweet Potato Gratin.”
As the waiter hovered over me, pen in hand, foot tapping, I hesitated. And then I thought, “I am supposed to be adventurous when I eat, right?” So I plunged into it and asked for no substitutions.
Sweet Potato Gratin it would be.
And what a treat it was!
Tender slices of sweet potatoes bathed in a thick creamy sauce with hints of smokiness.
I’ve loved sweet potatoes ever since. Roasted, grilled, gratinéed, creamed, fried, puréed in soups, and baked into biscuits.
Food dislikes and aversions keep people from enjoying tastes and culinary experiences. When we step out of our comfort zone and try (and accept) new and strange foods, we expand the range of foods available to us. It’s taking that first step, that leap of faith, so to speak. That’s when we arrive at a place where we will never able to return to where we were before. That’s probably how culinary migrations have occurred throughout history, as long as people moved from one place to another.
**Note that yams are not sweet potatoes, although in the 1930s Louisiana growers began calling theirs “yams” to increase their marketing potential. African yams do not resemble sweet potatoes at all.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
The ocean there, it’s infinite, a place where horizon and water meet like a seam in a dress, a little bump and then smoothness again. Sunlight pierces the dawn’s fading blackness and, overhead, the parasitic gulls swirl, their curved yellow beaks moving incessantly, filling the air with their own peculiar songs.
And then human voices join in, throbbing, shutting out the pounding noise of the waves.
Men, women, and children rush to the boats, thrusting their hands toward the glistening fish lying in mounds on the bottom of the boats or in crude wooden boxes.
An idyllic picture in so many ways. But one fraught with uncertainty.
A fishing crisis exists in Senegal. Fishing, an occupation forged by tradition. And necessity. Fish comprise a significant part of a culture nurtured by the sea and its creatures. Dried fish provides much sustenance for the local people, including economic livelihood and crucial protein for diets not known for rich sources of it.
According to a story from AllAfrica (February 16, 2012),
However, West African waters including those of Senegal have been subject to overfishing for decades, the effects of which are being felt by local communities. The scientific community recognizes that fishing capacity of many stocks must be reduced in order to ensure the long term sustainability of West Africa’s marine resources.
After overexploiting fish stocks in their own waters, foreign fleets, in particular Russian, Asian and European have moved their focus to the waters of countries like Senegal. These fleets are plundering our seas, thus compromising the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities who have been depending on artisanal fishing for centuries. The fish is caught, processed and then frozen on board, with little or no benefits for the local markets.
The French first arrived in Senegal around 1600 and became more entrenched in the nineteenth century when Senegal served as the administrative headquarters for the metropole, or the French government. Traces of French culinary influence tend to be hidden, as this recipe for Mullet Stuffed with Spices illustrates. It comes from the old colonial city of St. Louis. The signs of French influence include the manner of stuffing the fish ( à la ballotine), thyme, and bay leaves, as well as the braising method of cooking.
1 whole large mullet, around 2 pounds, cleaned
1 bunch chopped parsley leaves – save the stems for the stock
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white part only
2 bay leaves
1 lb. tomatoes – finely chop half of them and quarter the other half
½ lb. stale bread crumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 habanero pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Carefully remove the skin of the fish so that it remains whole. Remove the bones and save for the stock. Save the flesh of the fish and set aside.
To make the stock, add 2 cups of water to a large pot, toss in the fish bones, parsley stems and the bay leaves. Let simmer while you make the stuffing.
Take the boneless flesh of the fish and pound or process it in a food processor with the garlic, green onions, parsley leaves, salt, and pepper. Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl, add the milk and let soak for a few minutes. Add the processed fish mixture and stir until well mixed. Stir in the finely chopped tomato and a few tablespoons of peanut oil. Sew up the fish along the place where the guts were taken out. Note that in Senegal, the cut is made by the dorsal fin.
Place the fish on a lightly greased baking sheets with sides. Drain the stock and reduce it to about 1 1/2 cups.
Scatter the chopped onion, sliced pepper, and tomato quarters around the fish. Pour the stock over the fish. Bake 30 minutes.
Before serving, lightly score the fish and drizzle with a tablespoon of peanut oil. Serve with rice and a fiery hot sauce if desired. Garnish with chopped parsley if desired.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
While studying The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (Steel and Gardiner, 1888), I found the instructions concerning servants a fascinating insight into the mindset of the authors and – by extension – their time period.
And the current intense interest in the British TV series “Downton Abbey” allows us to answer some of the questions of how servants, their roles, and their presence, made possible many things in history that we take for granted.
Cooking, for one thing. And not just the one-pot meal hung over a smoking fire in rustic peasant huts, a scene that elicits sighs of nostalgia among certain proponents of the simpler life.
One tremendously important source of information for us about servants lies in the popular household manuals. Although chiefly prescriptive – that is, the genre identifies the ideal way of doing things, much as viewing the House & Garden network counts for us today – the household manual offers insights into what ambitious people aspired to and what they desired their lives to look like.
And the household manual also dictated the behavior of the servants who made those rarefied lives possible. Nineteenth-century household manuals like Mrs. Beeton’s’ might be the most familiar. But household manuals began appearing during the Renaissance, aimed at stewards of large noble households competing with each other, like a more sophisticated versions of males-only pissing contests. The person who threw the largest party won …
That women played no role in this state affairs goes without saying. But French chef Menon, in La cuisinière bourgeoise (1746), according to Stephen Mennell, believed that “only the less well-to-do members of the middle class would, by that date, make do with a woman cook in charge of their kitchen.” (Mennell, All Manners of Food, 82)
Given the prevalence of these household manuals in Britain, I have to say that I’m wondering these days about the organization of kitchens in the American South and how much influence these manuals had on the kitchens from early colonial days to the Civil War.
That is not to say that we can just willy-nilly take the information in the manuals, no questions asked – far from it. To get a grip on the day-to-day facts of servants’ lives takes a lot more. Fiction and art provides us with material, as do memoirs, diaries, letters, and oral history, as well as newspaper positions-wanted/positions available ads, etc. And a look at the architecture of the grand houses also suggests just how the logistics of meals feeding hundreds of people a day took place.
Victorian kitchen servants, and we know quite a bit about them, followed a hierarchy that looked something like this:
Cook – in charge of kitchen and supervisor of kitchen staff
Kitchen Maid – The cook’s assistant; prepared simple dishes and cleaned the kitchen
Still-Room Maid – Attended the room where preserves were located (cordials, jams, pickles, etc.)
Scullery Maid – Lowest on the hierarchy of household servants; generally the youngest. - Kitchen Boy – Ran errands for the cook
See the following for more on servants and household manuals in the past:
Not in Front of the Servants, by Frank Dawes (1974)
A New Present for A Servant-Maid: containing Rules for her Moral Conduct, both with respect to Herself and her Superiors: The Whole Art of Cookery, Pickling, and Preserving, &c, &c. and every other Direction necessary to be known to render her a Complete, Useful and Valuable Servant, by Eliza Haywood (1771)
Lest We Forget the Servants, an analysis by historian Rachel Laudan
Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century France: The Uses of Loyalty, by Sarah C. Maza (1983)
Household Servants in Early Modern England, by R. Richardson (2010)
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
The Belleville market — straddling the crossroads of Paris’s 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements — presents the determined photographer with a tremendous dilemma: how to take pictures without being literally swept up in the crowds and jostled like a buoy bobbing in heavy seas?
Although the market runs from the Menilmontant metro stop to Belleville (about 2 km.), the easiest way to tackle it seems to be to get to the Belleville stop, the beginning (or end, depending your point of view) of this market, the likes of which I’d never seen before. And I’ve seen quite a few. Unlike some markets, there is only one aisle for shoppers to walk through.
Perched precariously on the median of a quite busy road, the width of the median determined just how much space shoppers could co-opt. In two words, not much. After I climbed up about twenty grimy stairs, cluttered with tattered plastic bags and other trash fluttering lightly in the morning breeze. Almost immediately, I slipped into the stream of people – mostly North Africans, although a few people from West Africa braved the surge with the rest of us.
And then it happened: I realized I would never be able to lift up my camera to get any pictures because like Cuban cigars packed into a small wooden box, shoppers completely filled the passageway between the vendors. My arms remained pinned to my sides. Cradling the camera, fearing the accidental smack of a sack filled with potatoes or the odd melon, I stumbled by mounds of fruit: apples, grapes, nectarines, all the usual fruits found in France. A few vendors, and only a few, sold the spices I expected of a market catering to North Africans. A fish monger here, a charcuterie there selling beef- and lamb-based meats, a poultry man, the market consisted mostly of produce.
As I spotted the egg man, the center aisle of the market widened for some reason. I popped out of the crowd like a cork out of a champagne bottle. I grabbed my little recyclable 6-egg carton and held it out to the vendor as I muttered “Bonjour, monsieur.” You have to remember that he sold more types of eggs than we’ll ever see in a supermarket, so the next obvious step was to choose which eggs would go into my cloth bag and suffer through the crush of bodies still behind me.
Brown eggs, I like those, though I know the color makes no difference, so I decided that six large ones would do nicely. Into the carton they went. I flipped out my euros and paid. He said a few words in English to me. And I asked him how he knew I spoke English (like it wasn’t obvious … ). He pointed to my camera and sunglasses. (Nobody seems to wear sunglasses in Paris and only tourists carry cameras, which get looks verging on the evil eye sometimes.) I ended up giving him my business card and he passed it to the vendors next to him. ”No pictures of me,” he said sternly, “but you can take pictures of the eggs and his onions.”
And so I finally found an opportunity to take a few pictures. Eggs and onions, mostly.
Fast flicks of the shutter, smiles all around, and off I went into the madding crowd. When I saw an opening out to the street between two trucks, I took the easy way out.
The shops lining the market street offered more picture-taking opportunities. The breads displayed in the windows especially caught my attention.
As I walked around the trucks to get back to the metro stop, an injured woman sat lolling like a Raggedy Ann doll in the road, her market bag torn and produce of every kind lay squashed on the asphalt, women milling around her, onlookers staring. Someone brought a caned bottomed cafe chair for her to lean against as she held her jaw in one hand. Given the location of the market, it wasn’t surprising that accidents happen. Helplessly, I stood for a moment, knowing I couldn’t help her, but hoping she would be alright, I started down the stairs to the train and into another world.