Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

Summer Fare, or, Steamroller Chicken

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Old Ball Canning Jar Poster

Today, when the throbbing heat of a summer day might mean grabbing a salad at the local deli, it is hard to realize that in the past people conjured up other solutions for food on the days when sweat poured off of brows like tiny streams rushing to meet a river.

Everyone knows that the dog days of summer used to lead to a flurry of canning and preserving, an all-out assault on bacteria, the eternal enemies of freshness.

But what did people eat, what did people (e.g., women) cook, when all the hours of the late summer day slipped by, sealed into a Ball or Mason jar?

Elizabeth David, in her 1955 classic, Summer Cooking, let it be known that:

By summer cookery I do not necessarily mean cold food; although cold dishes are always agreeable in summer at most meals [no kidding!], however hot the weather, one hot dish is welcome, but it should be a light one, such as a very simply cooked sole [Julia would agree!], an omelette, a soup of the young vegetables which are in season — something fresh which provides at the same time a change, a new outlook …

Back in 1978, Judith Olney, sister-in-law of Richard Olney, author of several excellent books on French food, wrote Summer Food. Most of her dishes required a firm commitment to slaving over a hot stove. A year later, in 1979, interior designer Chris Casson Madden wrote an Elizabeth David-Inspired book, The Summer House Cookbook, a decided improvement over the Olney recipe repertoire because many of the recipes could be crafted in much less time and with much less heat.

Simla, 1850s

Might not the some of the truest connoisseurs of summer food be the women of the British Raj in India, who spent the intolerable hot seasons of the Indian year in the famous hill stations of Darjeerling, Gulmarg, Simla, Murree, and Ootacamundi?

As Jennifer Brennan says in her Curries and Bugles: A Memoir & Cookbook of the British Raj (2000):

Life in the hills was simple and slow-paced — strings of riders would their way around wooded hillsides and from the tennis courts the gentle blat of racquet hitting ball was heard throughout the day. To discover one’s own picnic spot was a high priority; wicker hampers were stuffed with naan bread, steamroller chicken,* potato cutlets and cold ham. Beer, ginger beer and lemonade completed the occasion.

We shall see. Of course, in this case, English women did not cook (see my previous post on women in the colonies). At least not often …

For further, albeit contemporary, reading

Some of the more recent offerings in regard to summery American cookbooks include the following:

The Black Dog Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook, by Joseph Hall and Elaine Sullivan (2000)

The Cottage Cookbook: Recipes For Summer Up North, by Emily Betz Tyra (2008)

Summer Gatherings: Casual Food to Enjoy with Family and Friends, by Rick Rodgers (2008)

The Summer House Cookbook: Easy Recipes for When You Have Better Things to Do with Your Time, by Debra Ponzek and Geralyn Delaney Graham (2003)

The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food, by Jasper White (2007)

Hiking in Simla, 1933

*Steamroller chicken, according to Mathures Paul, unrolled as follows:

One popular prepartion was the steamroller chicken. It was so named because it looked as if a chicken leg had been run over by a heavy object. After cutting a chicken lengthwise, it is beaten by a heavy cleaver under a sheet and then rolled out with a pin. A steamroller chicken was usually complemented by shami kebabs and nargisi kofta.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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