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
Bill Yosses, the current White House pastry chef says pie is the all-time favorite in the Obama White House, but adds that “The dessert that was the biggest hit last year was a sugar cookie in the shape of the First Family’s dog, Bo. This year we have a black and yellow bumblebee to celebrate the first-ever White House beehive. Cookies are huge here. We make five to six kinds of dough and freeze it. Then every day during the holiday season we roll it out and bake and decorate. We easily make up to 15,000 to 20,000 cookies for the holidays.”
Desserts and sweets served in the White House reflect the culinary history of the United States. The patterns of cooking, eating, and serving food in the White House originally relied heavily on the British heritage of the Thirteen Colonies, a pattern that generally continues until the present day, as indicated by Yosses’s comment about pie. Although wars and economic depressions plagued the nation from time to time, the fare served in the White House, particularly for formal and official events, remained rooted in traditions that dated back to the first days of the colonies. Other influences on White House desserts included the family heritage of the president and his wife, the geographical location from which the president came, food trends of the times, available ingredients, and protocols of the day
In November 1800, John Adams became the first American president to live in the White House. Like him, a few of the first presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, spent significant amounts of time in France as diplomats, exposed to French culinary practices. Furthermore, the British aristocracy, during the 18th century, developed a taste for French cuisine which influenced the tastes of the American colonists. Ingredients, and their availability, also affected dessert choices. Fresh lemons and oranges, available in Britain for some time due to commerce with Spain, emerged in American desserts through trade originating in the West Indies. Later, during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, the menu for Christmas 1890 read “Florida Oranges.”
At the very first reception held in the White House, on New Year’s Day, 1801, John Adams served cakes and pies, and any number of puddings, trifles, and other sweets. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson hired a French chef, Honoré Julien, and served ice cream at many of his official functions, as Congressman Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts related about a dinner served on February 6, 1802: “Ice cream very good … .” Jefferson’s cooks relied on Menon’s La cuisinière bourgeoise, published in Paris in 1746.
Many of the cooks who worked in the White House were African Americans, many of whom who were slaves. And James Monroe’s family served Jumbals/Jumbles, small cookie-like cakes rich with molasses and ginger with a long history in English cooking. Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia took on an Italian chef named Melah, who doctored up Grant’s favorite rice pudding and gingerbread. Other, homier desserts such as bread pudding appeared on First Family tables after informal suppers.
Menus consistently appeared written in French over the years, as in the case of the desserts served at a White House ball on February 5, 1862, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln: Chocolate Bavarian, Charlotte Russe à la Parisienne, Fancy Cakes, Meringues, Orange Glacé, and Biscuit Glacé. Cookbooks of the time, specifically devoted to sweets and available to cooks – Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1832) and Eleanor Parkinson’s The Complete Confectioner (1864) – detailed the steps for creating a number of French-influenced desserts, but these cookbooks also included desserts peculiar to American cuisine, such as Indian pudding and fruit or cream pies, among others, especially pumpkin pie, a favorite of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.
Between 1850 and 1900, tremendous changes occurred in the way American procured, stored, and cooked their food. Some of these changes included the rise of rapid rail and sea transportation; refrigeration; expansion of different types of canned foods; commercial production of butter (which began in the United States in1861); and commercial baking powder. The invention of the wood-burning stove also impacted cooking and allowed cooks to bake cakes and bread in a way never before possible. Refrigeration (or ice boxes) increased in urban America – prior to that, people relied on ice houses, as at Jefferson’s Monticello. And perhaps most revolutionary of all, the switch from loaf sugar to granulated sugar, which became more widely available in 1871.
Many of the recipes, even up to the 21st century, reflect the preferences of the original occupants of the White House: fresh fruit in the form of pies, mousses and puddings, Petits Fours, ice cream and sorbets, Floating Island, and trifles. President U. S. Grant served Petits Fours at a birthday, with the entire menu written in French. Jack and Jackie Kennedy served Petits Fours at many luncheons and dinners, as did Barack and Michelle Obama for a state dinner on November 24, 2009 honoring Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India. White House chefs strove to serve desserts that reflected the cultural and historical origins of distinguished guests.
President and Mrs. Obama, in keeping with the food fashions of 21st-century America, served fresh Meyer lemon steamed pudding sauced with huckleberries at a state dinner on March 14, 2012 for David Cameron, the British prime minister, pudding being a dessert choice harkening back to the early days of the American colonies. In spite of the early French influences, desserts tended to gravitate toward American tastes and habits more often than not.
Since the beginning of the United States as an independent nation, 43 men have served as president, with Grover Cleveland serving 2 non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th presidencies. Each president left a political legacy. And each left a culinary patrimony confirming the archetypal American sweet tooth.
A look at the desserts served in the Obama White House confirms it – the pattern of baking still points toward America’s original British culinary heritage: Sticky Toffee Pudding, Steamed Lemon Pudding, Gingerbread Cake, Baked Apples, Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, Berry Cobbler, Sweet Potato Pie, Huckleberry Pie, etc.
Steamed Lemon Pudding
Note that, as everyone knows, Meyer lemons did not exist during the early days of the Republic, but lemon pudding certainly showed up on dinner tables, and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia-housewife (1824) included a recipe for the pudding, a distinctly British concoction.
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice (70g)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Heat oven to 320F
2. Butter six individual custard dishes and coat with sugar
3. Place a folded towel on bottom of a roasting pan and boil water for water bath.
4. Whisk the sugar and flour together; set aside.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks and butter until smooth; whisk in the milk, lemon juice, salt and lemon zest until blended; whisk the flour mixture into this. (Note: the batter will be very liquid)
6. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the above mixture.
7. Immediately ladle into the custard cups and place in the prepared baking pan filled halfway with hot water. Bake until the puddings are puffy and golden on top, about 50 minutes.
8. Serve warm
Makes 6 individual servings.
Cannon, Poppy and Patricia Brooks, The Presidents’ Cookbook (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968).
Gilette, Mrs. F. L. and Ziemann, Hugo. The White House Cook Book (Chicago: The Werner Co., 1887).
Hanny, John R. Secrets from the White House Kitchens (Gordonsville, VA: LaMarque Publications LLC, 2010).
Klapthor, Margaret Brown, The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1969).
Landau, Barry H., The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
Mesnier, Roland. All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House: A Memoir (New York: Flammarion, 2007).
Scheib, Walter. White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
Smith, Marie, Entertaining in the White House (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1967).
*In light of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which will seem like ancient history to anyone under the age of approximately 58, I must say that for me, the assassination was a pivotal point. I was a young teenager determined to be a Peace Corps volunteer, because JFK’s call to serve resonated with me, corny as it might sound. And I did become a volunteer, in Paraguay. The moment I heard of JFK’s killing is a moment I can call up and reach back in time and be that innocent kid again for a moment, the shock of the announcement coming over the school intercom, the looks on the faces of my fellow students, the gush of tears, the question “Why?” still being asked after all these years. The only other event that comes close to that one is 9/11.
As so many commentators have said over the years, the assassination changed America in many ways. So much followed after that: Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Summer of Love, more assassinations (RFK and MLK), Watergate, etc. Perhaps all of it would have happened as it did, and maybe it would not have.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
The soft, beguiling fragrance permeates the air, rising above the aroma of the Jonagolds and the Galas, even over the sweet perfume of the Golden Delicious apples piled in baskets, resembling yellow baseballs. The knobby Bartlett pears (Pyrus communis), also known as the Williams pear, still slightly green but with a small and promising pink blush, crowd each other in the flat rattan baskets, the price 99¢.
I grab one of the more “embarrassed” pears and, holding it up to my nose (but not touching it, no), inhale the aroma. Yes, the pear will be ready for its duty in a cake within a few days. Although my parents used to can the Bartletts that grew on a tree looming outside our dining room window when I was a child, I never have done so.
But for a moment, as I plopped three more pears into a plastic bag and laid the bag gently in the grocery cart, I started thinking about the need in the past to preserve pears quickly once they started ripening. Yes, eating fresh is a joy, but the reality is that fresh only lasts for a short window of time. And in the days before refrigeration, the presence of root cellars notwithstanding, preserving pears took some ingenuity. “Winter pears may be laid between the folds of an old clean blanket, on a shelf, in a dry cellar,” so said Miss Corson’s Practical American Cookery and Household Management (1885).
Pears likely originated in China, from where travelers and possibly birds and other animals took seeds to Europe. Most European languages contain a Celtic-based word for “pear,” suggesting a fairly ancient pedigree, according to French-Swiss botanist Alfonse de Candolle.
Apicius’s De Re Coquinaria contains one of the earliest written recipes for pears and other similar fruits:
To preserve fresh figs, apples, plums, pears and cherries
Select them all very carefully with the stems on and place them in honey so they do not touch each other.
The honey – or similar sugar syrup – worked to prevent certain molds and bacteria from thriving during the preservation process, thus equalizing the osmotic pressure of the fruit in the solution.
Much later, Miss Corson’s Practical American Cookery and Household Management (1885) suggests the following method, similar in nature to that of Apicius:
Choose firm acid pears for preserving; if the fruit is small, preserve it whole; if large, cut it in halves or quarters; peel the pears with a silver fruit-knife, dropping them into cold water as fast as they are peeled, to prevent discoloration; when the fruit is all prepared, weigh it, and allow an equal quantity of sugar; put the fruit over the fire in sufficient cold water to entirely cover it, and heat and gently boil it until it is tender enough to yield to a slight pressure of the fingers; meantime put the sugar into the preserving-kettle, adding to each pound a pint of cold water, and to every five or six pounds the thinly pared yellow rind and juice of two lemons, and two ounces of green ginger-root scalded and scraped; boil the sirup, and remove all scum as it rises; when the pears are boiled, as directed above, put them into the sirup, and boil them until they look clear; when the pears are thoroughly penetrated with the sirup, remove the preserving-kettle from the fire, cool the preserves in the sirup, and then put them up as already directed.
When I think of pears, I think of that tree in my yard, true, but I must confess that in my mind, at least nowadays, pears and France intertwine very closely, because pears were especially important in France, a symbol ripe for caricature, among other things.
Drying pears, as people in the Touraine region of France have done for centuries, was another option. Poires tapées provided a form of dried fruit not unlike dried plums (prunes), added to stews and meat dishes, recalling the use of fruit and meat common in Arab cooking.
Alcoholic beverages, such as perry and Poire William eau-de-vie, offered yet another method for preservation of a windfall.
Whatever, however, the pears you see in your supermarket are there because of a long history, of orchards and survival and preservation. That they are “fresh” tells us more about what we desire than what reality is. The reality is this: the freshness never lasted more than a few weeks. Or days. Don’t be deluded.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
“On the morning of November 11 I [Colonel Thomas Gowenlock] sat in my dugout in Le Gros Faux, which was again our division headquarters, talking to our Chief of Staff, Colonel John Greely, and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Peabody, our G-1. A signal corps officer entered and handed us the following message:
|Official Radio from Paris – 6:01 A.M., Nov. 11, 1918. Marshal Foch to the Commander-in-Chief.1. Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front beginning at 11 o’clock, November 11th (French hour).
2. The Allied troops will not go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders.
Almost all the leaves lie at the feet of the oaks and maples, and the azure skyline juts over the tops of the bare branches. Blood-red mercury hovers at 32 F on the thermometer and matches the red of the morning sun. Winter arrived with a little stealth and it’s clearly time for cooking soups and stews and all the other dishes we associate with winter, dishes that mostly originated in the kitchens of Europe.
It’s November 11, known as Armistice Day in Europe and Veterans’ Day here in America. And what isn’t surprising is that by choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month*, the Allies who sought the end of World War I revealed their heritage, seeped in the Catholicism that, for all practical purposes, built European civilization once Rome fell.
But other wars and conflicts also ended with treaties signed on this significant day.**
Not only was the Treaty of Versailles signed in 1918 in a railroad car at the eleventh hour, the day – the eleventh of November – marked an important saint’s day, the day of St. Martin of Tours***, Bishop of Tours and patron of soldiers, beggars, vintners, and innkeepers, as well as geese. Traditionally thought of as the first day of winter and the beginning of Advent penitential rites, St. Martin’s Day – also called Martinmas or Martinstag – became the day when farmers slaughtered animals. Great feasts took place while the peasants began curing meat for winter. An old English saying refers to this slaughter: “His Martinmas will come to him as it does to every hog,” meaning that someone will surely have his comeuppance for misdeeds.
St. Martin’s Day, a harvest feast since it coincides with the production of new wine, meant that people associated certain foods, too, with his day. One fowl almost always eaten was goose, likely because of an apocryphal story that Martin did not wish to be Bishop of Tours and so he crouched down amongst a gaggle of geese, who honked and betrayed his hiding place to those looking for him to become their bishop! Since these people were apparently carrying torches, one might forgive Martin for hiding!
However, the most interesting food linked to St. Martin’s Day is bread baked in human form, long a tradition with many feasts and celebration, and probably a manifestation of earlier human sacrificial practices.
Feasting often began at the eleventh hour.
And old superstitions had it that a person standing at the back of the church at Mass on St. Martin’s Day could see halos appear around the heads of the people who will die before the next Martinmas.
*Matthew 20:6 refers to the eleventh hour. Other treaties signed on the same day before 1918 include the following:
**Treaty of Granada – 1500 – Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon divided the Kingdom of Naples between them
Treaty of Zstiva-Torok – 1606 – Turkey and Austria
Canandaigua Treaty – 1794
Treaty of Sinchula – 1865 – Bhutan ceded lands east of the Teesta River to the British East India Company
*** St. Martin came into the world as the son of a Roman soldier in what is now Hungary, ca. 316. At the age of ten, Martin wished to become a Christian, but his father refused. Martin became a soldier at the age of fifteen and spent most of his life in France, eventually becoming a priest and then Bishop of Tours. Clovis of the Franks took St. Martin as his patron in the sixth century and observance of the day began in France.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
I still have my very first cookbook, now wearing a faded gingham cover, much like a well-worn and well-loved apron that used to belong to the archetypal American grandmother, possibly one with British antecedents like mine. A three-ring binder for all practical purposes, the book allowed fledgling cooks like me to add recipes, ideally from the parents’ magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, to augment the basic offerings of the book’s authors. The lists of recipes at the beginning of each chapter sound good, but most call for some sort of highly processed food. On the list for Chapter 2, “Breads and Sandwiches,” Gooey Rolls stand out.But turning to page 40, I see “1 package brown-and-serve rolls” among the ingredients. To be sure, the little cook learned to make a sticky glaze with from-scratch ingredients, but that is all.
Stuck in between the simple, “little kid” recipes, French Onion Bread, Pumpkin Meringue Pie, Flaky Danish Crescent, and other such delicacies now crumble under my fingertips as I try to find a date for these gems. 1961. Oh.
The basic message of the book seems to have sunk in:
I do still love to cook. But now as I examine the book and the inserts I made, I see messages that scream, in subliminal hindsight, “Watch out, you will get what you wish for!”
Push-button cooking, the title of one insert, suggests that “When time’s flying and the family is ‘starving,’ let a can opener be your best friend. This combo is as delicious as it is quick –
Tuna Jackstraw Casserole
1 4-ounce can (4 cups) shoestring potatoes
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 6 1/2- 7-, or 9 1/4-ounce can tuna, drained
1 6-ounce can (3/4 cup) evaporated milk
1 3-ounce can (2/3 cup) broiled, sliced mushrooms, drained
1/4 cup chopped pimiento
Reserve 1 cup of shoestring potatoes for topper. Combine remaining potatoes with the other ingredients. Pour into 1 1/2-quart casserole. Arrange reserved potatoes on top. Bake uncovered in moderate oven (375) 20 to 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Trim with a sprig of parsley. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Mrs. Virgil Neher, LaVerne, California
If that weren’t enough for me to thank Alice Waters for breathing, I find gender-specific illustrations throughout the book. No surprise there, of course, but still, a chilling reminder of how things were. And unquestioned. Even though the book’s subtitle indicates that it’s aimed at the hosts and hostesses of tomorrow, the emphasis reflects more the female side of things, with the woman in the kitchen.
Cookbooks, I think we’d all agree, convey far more than just recipes.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.
NEWS FLASH: My book, Mushroom: A Global History, which covers the culinary history of mushrooms, may well arrive at the University of Chicago Press (the distributor here in the U.S.) by end of next week, so the book will be available far sooner than expected!
Mushrooms crop up everywhere these days; just about every day a new story about these mysterious entities appears somewhere. Neither animal nor vegetable, and still poorly understood, mushrooms seem to be relative newcomers to the American kitchen. But they’re really not.
They graced the tables of some of Virginia’s gentry, before and after the Revolutionary War.
Take George Washington’s wife, Martha Custis Washington, for example.
Her family cookbook - Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, actually a manuscript cookbook dating to Elizabethan and Jacobean days, and passed down to her in 1749 – contains one recipe for mushrooms on their own, “To Dress a Dish of Mushrumps,” and also includes “mushrumps” to be included in “To Make the Pasty [Royall]. (1) And Mary Randolph, well-known for her cookbook, The Virginia House-wife (1824), urges the reader forward with 4 recipes for mushrooms, although the word “mushroom” appears 36 times, including the use of the famous mushroom catsup in such dishes as Gravy Soup and Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head.
Compared to, say, the Russians or the French, the English tended to believe mushrooms to be noxious and not to be trifled with, in part due to certain writings, such as those of botanist John Gerard, as well as folk culture which associated mushrooms with the devil and witches. This attitude no doubt crossed the ocean on the sailing ships that brought the English to the New World. Added to that state of affairs was the fact that Native Americans, for the most part, did not eat mushrooms either, although some groups used shelf mushrooms in healing and ingested “magic” mushrooms in certain religious and spiritual rituals.
Until 1796, with the publication of Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, no truly American cookbooks existed, and so, naturally, housewives turned to cookbooks from England and France, the latter particularly since the English elite lionized French cuisine and sought to hire French cooks – male – whenever possible. (See my previous posts on this phenomenon: French Chefs Abroad: Clouet to Newcastle; The Duke of Newcastle’s Pique, or, A Good Chef is Hard to Find; and Recipes from the White Hart Inn: An 18th-Century Cookbook for Today’s Cook.)
Some English cookbooks used in the American colonies during the 1700s were Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727) (2), Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife (1770), and possibly Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery (1790), where mushrooms come up 64 times. Smith’s book offers recipes for mushroom powder, pickled mushrooms – five different variations, potted, and stewed. She exhorts her readers to “Gather your mushrooms in the morning, as soon as possible after they are out of the ground ; for one of them that are round and unopened, is worth five that are open ; if you gather any that are open, let them be such as are reddish in the gills, for those that have white gills are not good … . (p. 103)” Glasse, on the other hand, provides a couple of recipes for “Mushroom-sauce” for white fowls. She also describes just how households might grow their own mushrooms, “To raise Mushrooms” (p. 279, of the 1805 “American” edition). Raffald mentions mushrooms 12 times in her book and includes a recipe for “Mushroom Catchup” that reads suspiciously like the recipe from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife. (3) Amelia Simmons did not include mushrooms at all in her oeuvre.
Another book, found in households boasting French speakers -such as Thomas Jefferson at Monticello -proves the point that French cuisine, in spite of the protestations of various cookbook authors, still held sway over the English and American kitchen. Menon’s La cuisinère bourgeoise (1746) contains 88 references to champignon. (4)
So there you have it, a very abbreviated survey of the written record on mushrooms in early American cuisine. As Karen Hess rightly states, in many cases written recipes lag behind actual hands-on practice.
(1) Karen Hess edited and annotated this cookbook, as well as The Virginia House-wife, with useful asides about the recipes and ingredients, placing things in some sort of historical context.
(2) The Compleat Housewife, published in Williamsburg in 1742 in an American edition by William Parks, who removed several recipes, because of the difficulty of acquiring certain ingredients in the colonies.
(3) Jane Carson lists the popular cookbooks of the day in Colonial Virginia Cookery: Procedures, Equipment, and Ingredients in Colonial Cooking (1968), p. xi-xviii.
(4) For more about the French influence on British cooking of the time, see Gilly Lehmann’s The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2003); it contains a wealth of information about cookery books, readers, and cooks.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
~ Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry Picking”
So much happens on some days that it’s easy to let something important slide past, ignored, but not willfully. Famed Italian culinary diva Marcella Hazan passed away yesterday morning, on Michaelmas Day, a traditional feast day in the Roman Catholic Church, with goose being the traditional fare served in England. So caught up the accolades, I paid little attention to this day, ironically the very date I first met my husband, whose name is … Michael.
I have long been fascinated by the associations of various foods with the various saints of the liturgical year and all the feasting and fasting that went along with the changing of seasons and cultures.
An old Irish folk tale, an apocryphal story like so many, relates how blackberries came to be harvested and used up by St. Michael’s Day. The saga goes that when God kicked Satan out of Heaven, the demon angel landed in a bramble patch. Each year he returns to curse and spit on the fruits of the blackberry bushes, thus rendering them inedible thereafter. This belief, I suspect, could well be the inspiration for Seamus Heaney’s poem about blackberry picking, which I mentioned in my previous post on foods black in color, “Black is the Colour of Food, Too.” He refers to late August, but still, the frantic rush to pick all the berries at once seems apt.
So the ideal ending to a Michaelmas Day meal might be a blackberry dessert like blackberry crumble.
Blackberry Crumble (serves 4)
2 cups washed blackberries (thawed if frozen)
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Place blackberries in a shallow 1-quart baking dish, sprinkled with half of the sugar. Drizzle with lemon juice. Cream butter, mix in remaining sugar, flour, and salt together; distribute mixture over berries. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes. Serve warm or cold with cream, ice cream, or dessert sauce.
Optional: Say “From the snares of the devil, deliver me!”
© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.
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
(Julia Child died on August 13, 2004. Her birthday was August 15; she would have been 92 years old. The following article originally appeared in The Roanoke Times on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004, page 3 of the Horizon section. I wrote this with tears in my eyes, I’d only met her once. And yet, what an impact this news, that I could no longer expect a cookbook, a TV show, or a conference appearance.)
“Julia Child dies at 91.” I still miss this woman. She inspired me no end. And I remember the date well.
Stunned at the breaking news, I read the flickering words on my computer screen one more time, tears slowly welling up in my eyes.
Why should I be crying for Julia Child?
I only met her once, spending a half an hour with her alone in an art gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1997. She presented a keynote address at that year’s national conference of the American Society of Indexers. Basically, although at the time I indexed books professionally, I was there as a fan, because cooking is like breathing to me. When the president of the Society asked me to squire Julia around before the keynote address, I almost refused for fear of messing up. What on earth would we talk about?
As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. We had a lot to talk about, and Julia put me, a complete stranger, at ease right away.
After the elaborate banquet prepared for the conference attendees, Julia insisted on calling out the entire kitchen staff for a standing ovation and a hug for the young nervous chef. Who wouldn’t be sweating with fright at the idea of cooking for the great Julia Child?
Later, after Julia’s wry keynote address, I opened copies of her books for her book signing that followed. You see, she would only sign the books on a certain page and in a certain place. Having read and cooked from most of her cookbooks, I wasn’t surprised at this unwavering attention to detail. Over 250 indexers and others lined up with copies of her books. Julia signed every one of those books, smiling, laughing, asking people about themselves. Her glowing face, so full of energy from interacting with the scores of people in the room, is something I have never forgotten. That was Julia, a real person, giving, caring, and meticulous. The Julia we read about as her long-term and close friends and colleagues continue to pay tribute to her.
But I am not mourning her death just because I just happened to meet her once, a picture of us together on a wall in my kitchen as proof. Rather, my sorrow comes from knowing that, with Julia’s death, America lost a strong voice of hope and optimism. Her wise comments in her book, The Way to Cook, sum up her feelings about food and human community:
Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.
For Julia, true hospitality meant welcoming the stranger. Julia’s way is a way to remember our shared humanity with all human beings in these very troubled times. Eating, cooking, and sharing food together are all things that we all need very much these days when even families, much less strangers, do not eat meals together very often.
In memory of Julia, invite a new acquaintance to a meal this week. Cook the food yourself. And remember that once people have eaten together, there are no longer strangers.
Goodbye, Julia. Thank you.
Books About Julia Child:
Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child, by Nancy Verde Barr (2008)
Julia Child: A Life, by Laura Shapiro (2007)
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell (2005, paperback 2009)
My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme (2006)
Books by Julia Child:
Mastering the Art of French Cooking (with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). New York: Knopf, 1961; The 40th Anniversary Edition of Mastering. Knopf, 2001.
The French Chef Cookbook. New York: Knopf, 1968; The 30th Anniversary Edition of the French Chef. New York: Ballentine Books, 1998.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II (with Simone Beck). New York: Knopf, 1970, 1983.
From Julia Child’s Kitchen. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Julia Child & Company (in collaboration with E. S. Yntema). New York: Knopf, 1978.
Julia Child & More Company (in collaboration with E. S. Yntema). New York: Knopf, 1979.
The Way to Cook. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook. New York: Wings (Random House), 1991.
Cooking with Master Chefs. New York: Knopf, 1993.
In Julia Child’s Kitchen with Master Chefs (with Nancy Barr). New York: Knopf, 1995.
Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home (with David Nussbaum). New York: Knopf, 1999.
Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom (with David Nussbaum). New York: Knopf, 2000.
*Time magazine, 1966.
© 2004, 2010 C. Bertelsen