Thinking About Rice in America: The Black Rice Theory – Mysteries, Myths, and Misconceptions

Note: My point here, and elsewhere, on my blog and in my work, is to present information in as truthful a manner as I can, in order to raise questions and, hence, awareness. The truth is that there are more than ways than one to look at issues. Blindly accepting points of view only serves…

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Happy Hogmanay!

Perplexed as to what to serve for New Year's Eve? Look no further than Scotland's Hogmanay - or New Year's Eve - celebration, rich in history (read more HERE), with just the right touch of ancient practices. Raucous, animal-skin dressed revelers call to mind Viking invaders of the 9th and 10th centuries, Hogmanay a substitute…

Hoppin’ John, or Dashing Myths Galore

(Due to a foul up with WordPress and dates, this post appeared on December 30. I was not finished with it yet!  But now I am!) Black-eyed peas, a gift to the New World from Africa. These beans were there as early as 1659 at St. Louis, now present-day Senegal, but they actually originated in North Africa, in…

Happy Thanksgiving

No matter what your feelings about the origins of Thanksgiving -  it did NOT really start with the Massachusetts Pilgrims post-1620 - and the impact of the English settlers in North America or Sarah Josepha Hale's influence on Abraham Lincoln, today's holiday has more to do with re-enforcing family ties and culinary traditions often far…

Lefse, and Giving Thanks via a Food of Immigration, Poverty, and Oppression

Term: lefse (food) Definition: thin, unleavened bread of Norwegian origin, traditionally made of a potato-based dough and baked on a griddle [Source: Dictionary of American Regional English] Thanksgiving is a day when Americans recall the myths of their founding, usually associated with the English Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1620, ignoring the Jamestown settlers who arrived…

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…

The History and Present State of Food in Virginia

There was nary a cook among them. Nor a single woman, the usual gendered division of labor notwithstanding. No, in December 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent 104 men into the treacherous, wintry Atlantic, with stopovers in the Canary Islands and later Bermuda and the Caribbean. After a brief reconnaissance stop at Cape Henry, they made…

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…

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,…

Hey, Wait a Minute: Glimpsing What’s Really Behind Words like “Ethnic”

NOTE: Today marks SEVEN years since I first started writing this blog. It's been an interesting journey, with many bends and curves along the way. It's fascinating to observe the increasing awareness of how language defines so many cultural attitudes and reveals long-held biases. Take a recent article, "Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food 'Ethnic,'" by Lavanya Ramanathan, a Washington…

Prometheus Unbound: New Evidence on Humans’ Early Use of Fire

I woke up this morning fully intending to end my two weeks of silence on this blog - due to familial obligations - with a preliminary examination of the role of ducks in French cuisine. But that alluring topic took a sudden backseat when I opened up my local newspaper and read, "Humans May have…

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…

The Curse of Modern Food Writing: The Dearth of Pleasure

Thankfully, the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames didn’t sway under my feet that day, giving lie to its other name, the Wobbly Bridge. But the chilling wind whipped at everything not tied down, painting a disagreeable redness on my nose and a deep-seated hunger in my belly. The aroma of roasting sugary peanuts floated…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

Tomato Sauce with Butter: Thinking About Marcella Hazan, My Nonna in Spirit

My little brother took his first breath on a cold day in February, when doctors still made house visits and new mothers still spent days in the hospital. And that was good, as far as I was concerned, for during those 4 or 5 days that my mother lay exhausted in the maternity ward, I…

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…

What it Means to See Art: The Intricacies of Duende

James Elkins’s essay, “Just Looking” (in The Object Stares Back,1996)  appears to be ambiguous, because the emotions associated with seeing are so complicated, as he says (p. 29). He seems also to have been influenced by Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1981), Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida (among others), all highly imitated French philosophers, popular among academics…

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…

Cookbooks Tell the Story of Our Lives: Remembering Penelope Casas and The Foods and Wines of Spain

Penelope Casas, an expert on Spanish cuisine, passed away last week, not too long after the death of yet another one of my favorite food writers, Leslie Land. Now this may seem strange to you, and it does feel odd to me at times, but through the books these writers wrote and the recipes they…

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…