Florida Oranges, and Other White House Desserts

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.  Although wars and economic depressions plagued the…

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9 Years of Writing about History … A Celebration!

Nine years ago, I decided to poke a toe into the world of food blogging. I settled on the name, "Gherkins & Tomatoes," based on a painting by Luis Meléndez, a tribute to the period of history known as "The Age of Exploration." Faced with a blank screen demanding something, anything, the first words that…

Seeking Food at the Crossroads of History

When it comes to the kitchen, I've always been a seeker, a pilgrim in a more modern sense of the word, "A person travelling to a place of particular personal interest."* It all began on a diesel-perfumed street corner in Puebla, Mexico. I stood in the shadow of a broken streetlight, sunshine and sweaty bodies…

Place and Food, Genius Loci and Terroir

Genius Loci* 1. The prevailing character or atmosphere of a place. 1.1 The presiding god or spirit of a place. ~ Oxford English Dictionary Years ago, psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn published a book titled Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). He certainly had a point, and a very, very apt one. You can't shed your…

Muscling in on Mussels

In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone As she wheel'd her wheel barrow Thro' streets broad and narrow (Chorus) Crying "Cockles and Mussels alive, alive O!" Alive, alive O! Alive, alive O Crying Cockles and Mussels Alive, alive O! She was a fishmonger,…

The Power and the Glories of Eating Alone

King Louis XIV did it. M. F. K. Fisher did it. The faceless man in Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” did it. Mr. Bean did it, too. And so did I. Daring to eat a proper meal alone in public probably ranks as one of the few acts that cause normally confident people to quiver a…

SLIVERS OF BACON, SWEET ONIONS, AND FRESH CHEESE: TARTE FLAMBÉE, FLAMMEKUECHE, OR ALSATIAN PIZZA BREAD

I just cooked this for dinner tonight, in anticipation of the storm-of-the-decade. Strasbourg in the Cold (Photo Credit: Cyril Bele)One cold, rainy day in October, I sat in front of a fireplace in a  small weinstub, or bistro, in Strasbourg, France, listening to my growling stomach. I couldn’t face another round of choucroute, that heavy…

From Velouté to Casserole: A Question of Green Beans, Amandine, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup

I didn’t mean to write about Campbell’s soup. You see, I started out pondering a super French soup recipe, Velouté aux Champignons. Somehow I ended up contemplating Campbell’s canned Cream of Mushroom Soup, definitely not one of Antonin Carême’s sauces mères or Mother Sauces (velouté, espagnole, allemande, béchamel)! Though you could argue that Campbell’s soups…

France and America: Why Paris Haunts Us So

It's been several days now, the media stream moves onward, darting here and there to other news, other disasters. And yet I remain static, stuck, still mulling over the attacks on Paris, mourning the loss of all those lives, as well as the so-very-French joie de vivre. Why does Paris haunt me, and others, so? In the hours and…

Paris, Mon Amour

Paris will always be my first love, at least as far as cities go. I've spent many, many days and nights loving Paris, and France, in the company of people I deeply love, as well as on my own. Yet another ode here, yes, among many. I cried when I heard of the mayhem in Paris, not because…

Parsleyed Ham and Kitchen Breezes: The Letters of M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child

Today is the 20th anniversary of M.F.K. Fisher's death, so in tribute and at the request of her friend Leo Racicot, I am reposting this, something I wrote last year after attending Barbara Wheaton's "Reading Historic Cookbooks" seminar at Harvard. Sometimes words, both spoken and written, take on terrible power. Use the wrong word and,…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part III

Once settled into their bungalow overlooking Stanley Pool in Brazzaville, the Vassals faced the problem of hiring household help, especially a cook. Unlike many Europeans, they found a cook who knew his business, of whom Gabrielle wrote: I am glad, too, to have a change from German cooking.* Our primitive black Matamba is far superior…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part II

Like many writers of her era, Gabrielle M. Vassal tended not to be very complimentary of Africans in Life in French Congo (1925) and compared them negatively and constantly to the Asians she'd known during her sojourns in Vietnam and China. She recorded her experiences during a trip to Libreville early during her stay in…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part I

When the French government appointed Dr. Joseph Vassal, Englishwoman's Gabrielle Vassal's French husband, Head of Health Services for Equatorial French Africa (A.E.F.), he exclaimed happily to her, "Je suis nommé en A.E.F." Naturally she asked, "What's A.E.F.?" So he replied "Afrique Equatoriale Francaise," and pointed to Gabon, Tchad, Oubangi-Chari, and the Congo, with its capital…

December 12: The Virgin of Guadalupe

Patron Saint of Mexico and the Americas Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that "...one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe." Apocryphal or not, the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe makes fascinating reading. And the food's pretty…

High Society Dinners: Dining in Tsarist Russia, a Model of Culinary History Methodology and Translation

Many writers and researchers around the world now write prodigiously on the topic that engages all of us several times a day: food. And its history. It used to be that those of us interested in the history of food found the pickings pretty slim. Of course, there was Reay Tannahill’s Food in History (1973)…

Cutting Boards and French Comfort Food

Worn and well-used cutting boards like mine, made from one piece of blonde oak, tell stories of past meals. This gouge here, that’s from the day I sliced the boule with the extra thick crust, for the open-faced cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. And that dent there, well, I pressed a little too hard on the chef’s knife…

The Gift of French Cuisine

The French peasant cuisine is at the basis of the culinary art. By this I mean it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes. -Alexandre Dumaine I don’t remember exactly when it happened. One day I resisted even opening my then-pristine copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking…

Les Rêves de Julia (Julia’s Dreams): Meditations and Memories

Food and cooking serve as metaphors for life and love. Each plays a huge role in the way I see and photograph the world. I seek to nourish both eye and soul with my photography, in much the same way I feed bodies through my cooking. The work of food photographer Penny de los Santos…

Eating Dessert at the White House + A Word about Dallas, November 22, 1963*

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…

Pears – an Exploration of Ancient Food Preservation

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…

The Ancient Story Behind Veterans’/Armistice Day, or, The Significance of St. Martin of Tours

"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 -…

Remembering Julia Child, “Our Lady of the Ladle”*: A Reprint and More

(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…

The Little Fish with Big Taste: The Much-Maligned Anchovy and its Cousins

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…

In My Grandfather’s Garden, or, a Long Apothegm on Apricots

I don’t really remember my grandfather very well, for he died just a month before I turned 14. Yet he left a legacy that lies hidden deep in my brain, a usually dormant place where I apparently shelve all my food memories. But in the right circumstances, and with the right stimulus, that place –…

The Zen of Artichokes

I love autumn. If it’s not the leaves and all the color, then I find poignancy in the drying and dying weeds littering the ground. They embody survival to me. One plant I particularly love is a thistle-like plant, filled with tiny seeds attached to billowy white parachutes. The least puff of wind forces the…

Reflections on a Green-Grape Tart

Sugary milky sweetness, that first delicious taste, imprints itself on a baby’s tiny tongue, and seals forever a great love. From the very beginning of life, then, a yearning for that nectar haunts us forever and never leaves us in peace. This primal urge for sweetness led to the scourge of slavery and fuels the…

Another Holy Trinity of the Kitchen: The Magic of Milk, Eggs, and White Flour

Every time I pour crêpe batter into my 8-inch Teflon*-lined crêpe pan, I see deep scratches, the ones that Habiba made with the fork she used while cooking a three-egg cheese-and-herb omelet one wintry Moroccan morning. The scratches don’t affect the pan’s performance, just as wounds and scars don’t fundamentally change who we are and…

Waiting for Pears

I bought four very green, very hard pears four days ago. Waiting for them to ripen made me think about how quickly everything happens in our lives today. There’s something soothing about watching the ripening process, something profound actually, because no matter how much I might have wanted to make a pear cake, I just…

Dear Julia, Happy Birthday! #100, or, Why I Loved You

Dear Julia, Happy 100th birthday! Today lots of famous food writers will write or post reams of flattering words about you. I know, I’ve already seen them, the New York Times leading the charge with three features about you, one by your friend Jacques Pépin. Like Jacques, many others will point out, once again, that…