A Reality Checklist about Romanticizing Kitchens Past

Every year during the holiday season, many media sources provide lists of cookbooks, primarily to jump-start the gift-giving proclivities of their readers. This year I’m getting a head start. Only thing is, my list is different. Most of the books I'm suggesting are free - they're all vintage. And not as “vintage” seems to be defined nowadays, as…

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Lettice Bryan’s Forgotten Cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, and Squirrel Soup Two Ways: A Touch of Americana

It’s maddening, but true: we know very little about the authors of some of best cookbooks ever written in America. Thanks to today’s 24/7 media cycle, Paula Deen’s foibles and Rachael Ray’s battle with her weight are no mystery. But we know next to zilch about Lettice Bryan, who wrote an amazingly detailed, 1300-recipe cookbook,…

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…

What’s A Turnip Got to Do with Halloween? Or Rutabagas, Beets, and Gourds, for That Matter?

Folklore or fakelore, the general consensus seems to be that the Irish who came to America brought their custom of carving turnips for All Hallows Eve. They must grow large turnips in the sod over there! Lacking a turnip, rutabagas, beets, or gourds would also do. Delicious legend, that's what started the practice of carving…

The Legend of the Blackberries on Michaelmas Day

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…

Why Do We Cook?

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…

The Story Behind a Kitchen-Counter Sweet-Potato Patch

There’s something about sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) that I cannot seem to shake. Maybe there’s some sort of cellular memory thing going on, like perhaps my ancestors sat around somewhere, gratefully chewing on roasted sweet potatoes, surviving a dry spell in food production. A good reason to foster a sweet potato patch. We Americans now…

Ode to the Great Pumpkin [Pie]: Speak, Memory*

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? ~ John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Pumpkin," 1850 Some people moan and descend straight into mourning with the first frost. Not me. You'll find me in my kitchen, with clanging pans and steaming windows, eager to put…

Feeding France’s Grande Armée: A Pictorial Tribute for Memorial Day

An army marches on its stomach. ~~Napoleon Bonaparte~~ And Napoleon Bonaparte would know. He, like Adolph Hitler in another time, tried unsuccessfully to conquer Russia. What he fed his soldiers in large part depended upon the invention of a Mr. Nicolas Appert, who invented a [relatively] safe way to preserve food by canning, or sealing…

News and Views

First of, I would like to point out a new feature on "Gherkins & Tomatoes / Cornichons & Tomatoes." Go to the sidebar on the right and scroll down until you see ALL 700+ POSTS – CLICK ON THE BOX AND USE DOWN ARROW KEY This feature gives you the ability to browse through a…

Of Herbs and Other Country Messes

When the  sage comes to life again, after its long, lonely slumber in the freezing winter, I always just stop for a moment and marvel. How could this happen? Left outside the kitchen door, the sage bows before the relentless blasts of icy winds and heavy snow. Its leaves and branches shrivel to skeletal silhouettes,…

From Mother Russia with Love: Great Lent, the Beginning

Many years ago, a high school history teacher of mine asked our class to write down everything we knew about Russia within the space of about 30 minutes. Most people wrote a brief paragraph, describing the red Communist flag with its hammer and sickle. Some delved a little into the cruelty of the tsars and…

A Bloody Fish Story

The price of fish is something nice -- for fishmongers through the centuries, that is. And over the years, observers noted the rise and fall in the cost of fish according to the liturgical season and changes in the rules of the Roman Catholic Church.* Because of the price of fish, or even the mere…

The Eels of Hannah, Or, Hannah Glasse’s Lenten Recipes

Poor Hannah Glasse. Literally. Except for Martha Stewart, she may be the only cookery book writer who did hard time for financial woes. Author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, this eighteenth-century woman lived a life that her contemporary Jane Austen could have invented in one of her novels. You know, young…

The Black Fast, a Mortification of the Appetite

With Lent fast approaching (February 17, 2010), an examination of fasting and other fleshly challenges seems apropos. Religious-based fasting, in the history of English speakers anyway, belies its importance in the commonly used word for the first meal of the day: breakfast or “break fast.” After all, for much of Western European history, almost half…

Dig for Victory! Locavorism in Eons Past

Looking at the past almost always calls up that old adage: "There's nothing new under the sun."* Take locavorism's wartime antecedents ... As these WWII posters from England's "Dig for Victory!" campaign prove, the idea of local foods is not one whose time has come, but whose time has come again. Aimed at encouraging the…

Mulled Wine, a Timeless Taste of the Divine?

"He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure," said Fred, "and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, 'Uncle Scrooge'!" "Well! Uncle Scrooge!" they cried. "A Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to…

Captain Robert Scott’s 97-Year-Old Butter

Captain Robert Scott died in the Antarctic in 1912 as he and his fellow explorers tried to return from the South Pole. His camp, preserved by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, rendered up an interesting find: two large squares of butter, still labeled with the original labels and wrappers.  An article from The Times Online (December…

Buttering Up

Peppermint flavoring, almond extract, gooey candied fruit, thick dark molasses, perfumey cardamom … the list could go mouth-wateringly on and on. Christmas cooking and Christmas baking demand many ingredients not normally used in everyday cooking. And that’s what makes the holiday season such a sheer delight for those besotted with all things culinary. But one…

Civil War Christmases

I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton. Telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln, December 22, 1864 Many authors write about the austerity of American Christmas celebrations prior to the Civil War (1861…

Oxford Food Symposium 2009

The Oxford Food Symposium 2009, from an article by Corby Kummer of The Atlantic. The 2010 Symposium will take place in July 9 - 11, at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, England; the conference topic is very timely --- "Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods." January 15, 2010 marks the deadline for proposals for talks. Guess what…

Saints, Souls, and Haints: Still Nuts

Jonkheer L. C. van Panhuys, in Proceedings, Vol. 2 (p. 698, 1904), from the Internationaler Amerikanisten-Kongress held in Stuttgart in 1904, said: In the different names [for Halloween] we find also an explanation. The first of November, still called New-Years day on the island of Man, was the new years day on the beginning of…

Saints, Souls, and Haints: Nuts

Nuts, being a delicacy associated with autumn, seem to naturally be part of the Halloween pantry of the past. And Robert Chambers elaborated on this in his 1883 The Book of Days: a Miscellany of Popular Antiquities: Indeed the name of Nutcrack Night, by which Halloween is known in the north of England, indicates the…

Saints, Souls, and Haints: Apples

In Rustic Speech and Folk-lore (1911, p. 299-300), Elizabeth Mary Wright describes a Halloween custom we still practice: October 31 is Halloween, the Eve of All Saints' Day, a night specially devoted to love-divination ceremonies, and other superstitious customs such as we have noticed in a previous chapter. The game of hanch-apple is a favourite…

Saints, Souls, and Haints: Cabbages and Rings

In Rustic Speech and Folk-lore (1913, p. 300), Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote: In parts of Ireland a dish called colcannon, made of potatoes and cabbage mashed together with butter, used to form part of the Halloween dinner. In it was concealed a ring, the finder whereof would be the first of the company to be…

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition (Medieval History and Archaeology), by C. M. Woolgar, Dale Serjeantson, and Tony Waldron (paperback, 2009) In the unending quest to find models for culinary historiography, here's another fairly up-to-date addition to the growing list: This book draws on the latest research across different disciplines to present the most…