Food, the Dog Days of Summer, and a Few Other Shocking Facts

The dog days of summer arrive, as they always do, abruptly and relentless with a seemingly never-ending swelter.  Visions of panting tongues and listless tails crowd my thoughts. But what does that phrase have to do with summer heat? A quick glance at an etymological source informs me that real, breathing dogs played no role in the development of that odd phrase. “Dog days of summer” refers to the a star, Sirius, known as the “dog star.” The Greeks and Romans thought that Sirius rose before the sun in late July and believed that this combination of astronomical effects forewarned the hottest days of the year, a time of fever, disaster, and a myriad of other woes.

Of course, the stars aligned in such a way played no role neither in August’s sultriness nor any other time of year, for that matter.

Panting dogs, stars, or whatnot, it’s so beastly hot, I could leave a slice of bread topped with Muenster cheese outside right now, and I’m sure I’d be eating an open-face grilled cheese sandwich inside of 10 minutes.  Just moving from one side of the room to the other brings green spots to my eyes, just as my forehead shines with sweat, recalling the shimmering of Chinese silk.

The only thing to do on a hot day is to lie under a ceiling fan,  reading cookbooks, with a glass of ice-cold water close at hand. And eat certain foods. In spite of a recent thread on Facebook, wherein commentators mentioned glorious cassoulets served in the walled city of Carcassonne during the height of summer heat, I personally could never eat such a dish at such a time, preferring instead much lighter fare.

Seriously, oven-blasting cooking is out of the question. And, truthfully, Mother Nature provides the cook with an easy way out of the kitchen at this time of the year, by offering up a plethora of zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, and other fresh vegetables requiring little or no cooking. The ancient Chinese believed that Mother Nature provided just the right foods for the weather/seasons, cooling melons for maintaining humoural balance in the summer heat and onions and garlic for that of winter. In medieval France, breath-sucking hot weather dictated the use of certain foods; for example, the author of Le Ménagier de Paris recommended serving suckling pig with a cameline sauce in summer and a yellow sauce (Poivre Jaunet or Aigret) in winter. A cameline sauce contained almonds, raisins, breadcrumbs, verjus, cinnamon, and cloves. Interestingly enough, this 14th-century food writer tells his readers that it’s possible to buy ready-made cameline sauce at the sauce-maker’s shop in 14th-century Paris, a clear indication that cooks always sought processed foods. And such foods were available on levels not recognized by many modern anti-processed foods advocates.

Beliefs about which foods to eat, and by whom, also surface in a rather grisly – and possibly off-topic – happening in Virginia in the spring of 1649. Sixteen men and three women found themselves marooned by the crew of the Virginia Merchant offshore, on a barrier island. Having just been through hell – shipwrecks, hunger, etc. – the would-be settlers, fleeing from Cromwell’s stringent rule, fed themselves on oysters and seabirds, but then starvation plucked at them again. Colonel Henry Norwood told two of the women to eat the third, at that moment at death’s door. And he then instructed the men to eat dead bodies also, to survive by following the law of the sea, but to stick to eating the flesh of their fellow males. Trudy Eden explains, in The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World, that this division by gender came from ancient humoural beliefs still widely adhered to in early modern period: “Women were thought to be colder and moister than men.” (p. 21) To eat flesh of the oppsite sex might destroy their chances of survival, and certainly their ideas of what was right. Thirteen of the new settlers survived, in their minds anyway, because of their beliefs about was proper to eat and what was not.

So food and heat and seasons do not always appear as innocent and self-explanatory as we might like.

As for me, the dog days of summer take me – unencumbered by humoural theory – back to a time when I ran out early every evening to pick sweet corn from my family’s garden, grabbing a few tomatoes along the way, creating profound memories that still shake my soul. Yet, not only that garden, but a very special cookbook come to mind every summer as the heat pummels everything in its path.

Summer Cooking, first published by Elizabeth David in 1955, deserves a bit of resurrecting. It’s a classic, yes indeed, but not of the dreary, pompous variety. Let’s permit Mrs. David to explain it all:

“By summer cookery I do not necessarily mean cold food; although cold dishes are always agreeable in summer at most meals, however hot the weather, one hot dish is welcome, but it should be a light one, such as a very simply cooked sole, 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 …. My object in writing this book has been to provide recipes for just such dishes, with emphasis on two aspects of cookery which are increasingly disregarded: the suitability of certain foods to certain times of the year, and the pleasures of eating the vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat or fish which is in season, therefore at its best, most plentiful, and cheapest.” (p. 7 -8)

She wrote that 60 years ago. Just think about that. We may no longer be hidebound by tradition, but our roots lie there, certainly.

Dog days of summer, be gone!

Other classic cookbooks for the dog days of summer, emphasis seasonality. There are many others, but these are mine:

Mireille Johnston, The Cuisine of the Sun (1976)

Richard Olney, Lulu’s Provençal Table (1994)

Catherine Conran, Sud de France: The Food and Cooking of Languedoc (2012)

Hay bales 2 rs

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  • Ah, yes, those days when I sweat just standing still. But one must still eat, and in my “summer cooking” pile is Elizabeth David (of course), Jane Grigson, and Judith Olney’s charming “Summer Food”.

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  • Although I loved reading your post, I have to admit that I love the dog days of summer. I love dinners of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and corn on the cob. I love that I can lay in a hammock with a book and an iced tea and in August it’s perfectly acceptable behavior. I must be at heart, a sloth. :-)

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