A brief history of USDA nutritional advice

The USDA has made a big deal the last couple of years about its “healthy plate” model of good eating, which replaces the old food pyramid, which replaced the four food groups, which replaced… well… I thought a chart might help. Today’s post is a visual history of the USDA’s nutritional advice, showing how food groups and recommended servings have changed over the past century. You may note, first of all, that the government has been telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables since 1916. You may also note that until 1943, sugar was a food group. And you may note still further that despite all this advice, our diets are still crap.

Click the screenshot to view the live “interactive” chart:

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On the propriety of urinating in the dining room

On the screen the Regency period of Jane Austen’s novels always looks so prim, but in reality it appears not quite to have lived up to our expectations of public-broadcast propriety. Louis Simond, a French-born American who traveled through Britain in 1810–11, described in his journals some (to his mind) shocking practices of the English aristocracy at table — practices, as he said, “not quite consistent with that scrupulous delicacy on which the English pique themselves.” For example:

Towards the end of dinner, and before the ladies retire, bowls of coloured glass full of water are placed before each person. All (women as well as men) stoop over it, sucking up some of the water, and returning it, perhaps more than once, and, with a spitting and washing sort of noise, quite charming,—the operation frequently assisted by a finger elegantly thrust into the mouth! This done, and the hands dipped also, the napkins, and sometimes the table-cloth, are used to wipe hand and mouth.

Victorian delicacy and manners, in short, had not yet crept into fashionable dining rooms and straitjacketed the pleasures of the table. As a practical matter, with no bathrooms to offer, a host had to provide her guests with some means of washing up after the meal, especially given that much of the dinner was still intended to be eaten by hand, and surely postprandial conversation could only be made more pleasant if everyone washed the remains of roast joint and flummery out of their mouths. There being no good place to do this discreetly, discretion simply wasn’t thought necessary. Everyone knew that everyone else got a bit greasy at dinner; why not wash up in the same room? The colored glass bowls indicate that these were elegant people, dressed for dinner, knowing themselves to be on display and washing up, therefore, as elegantly as they could. But there was no pretense of being unaware of one another’s bodily functions. No seeing a man about a horse, or any such nonsense.

Speaking of which, washing-up wasn’t the only bodily function of which everyone was openly aware. Continue reading “On the propriety of urinating in the dining room”

Juliet Corson teaches the poor to cook, 1877

Juliet Corson, cooking teacher and writer and founder of the New York Cooking School, was born this date in 1841. Amid the excess and middle-class striving of the Gilded Age, Corson saw the hardships of working families — perhaps because a bad family situation had forced her out on her own at the age of 18 — and she made it a personal crusade to teach working-class women to cook as a way of improving their lives. Well-off women paid her bills, but she used the proceeds to offer inexpensive and free classes to the wives and daughters of working men. Some of those classes focused on helping women find work as professional cooks to the wealthy, but Corson was equally committed to improving their home cooking.

In 1877, after four years of double-digit unemployment and a nationwide railroad strike violently suppressed by federal troops, Corson printed a pamphlet called “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Working-Men’s Families” and distributed fifty thousand copies at her own expense. The pamphlet offered simple, balanced meals to feed a family of six at a cost of three dollars a week (about $65 today). This was not exciting food; a typical day’s meals in Corson’s book included breakfast of broth and bread, a dinner of mutton and turnips, and a supper of macaroni and cheese, or perhaps lentils. Corson’s advice was unflinchingly, and sometimes unpleasantly, practical, as in these instructions on buying second-quality meats: Continue reading “Juliet Corson teaches the poor to cook, 1877”

The dangers of eating hot bread

One of the perks of baking bread at home — maybe half the point of baking bread at home — is the privilege of hacking off the crust while it’s still hot, slathering it with butter, and eating it messily over the sink. Cookbooks will tell you that bread only develops its full flavor after it cools, which may be true. They will also tell you that if you slice bread while it’s hot, you’ll crush it, which is definitely true. But I do it anyway. Damn the torpedoes and all that.

Thank God I didn’t live in the nineteenth century, though, because then, it would probably have killed me.

Back then, it was commonly believed that eating hot bread was unhealthful — dangerously unhealthful. The famous health reformer Sylvester Graham said bread shouldn’t be eaten until at least twelve hours old. Magazine articles about what ladies should eat for breakfast (of which I’m afraid there were lots) recommended day-old bread and warned sternly that hot buttered toast was “hostile to health and female delicacy.”

Tea, coffee, and milk, are the most wholesome beverages for the morning meal; which should be accompanied, if possible, by home-made bread, at least one day old. This seldom disagrees with any one; if it should, it may be toasted, and buttered cold and slightly; but warm buttered toast is by no means advisable: indeed, it is far preferable to use only hard biscuits, which require no butter, and are of easy digestion. 1

Even the high mortality rate of Indians living on reservations was blamed (by white observers, anyway) on severe indigestion caused by their diet of hot biscuits — not that white flour and cheap fat, which was all they had access to at that point, had no nutritional value, but specifically that the biscuits were eaten hot. Continue reading “The dangers of eating hot bread”

  1. From the Females’ Encyclopedia, mentioned below, but the advice was republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular American women’s magazine, in 1835.

Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. Continue reading “Frugal celebrations”

Sugar cookies with historical flavor

I actually don’t dislike sugar cookies, despite tweaking them yesterday. They’re fun and they’re traditional, which is good enough in December. But they’re limited in two ways — one structural, one avoidable. The first is that if you add enough butter to make them rich and really tasty, they’re an awful pain to roll — you certainly can’t let your kids do it. And even if you can roll them, too much butter will make them spread in the oven so that your angels look a little pudgy and Santa downright blobbish. You can have fabulous butter flavor and texture, or you can have pretty things your kids can roll. Most recipes compromise.

The second problem is that we flavor them only and exclusively with vanilla. Now, I like vanilla — don’t bite my head off — but it’s so overused in American baking that we don’t even notice it unless, say, we steep a real bean in milk to make custard and scrape in the flecks to draw attention. I didn’t mind or even notice the ubiquity of vanilla until I started baking cakes and cookies from the time before vanilla extract was widely available, and then I realized, for example, that it doesn’t actually bring anything to peanut butter cookies; nutmeg is better.

Now, sugar cookies have always had wonderful cousins that avoid one or both of these problems. Continue reading “Sugar cookies with historical flavor”

A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why. Continue reading “A brief history of the sugar cookie”

What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12

Intrigued by Thomas Jefferson’s calendar of the Washington city market (see the previous post) and liking the design, I decided to use it as a model for mapping produce available right here, right now. So with some help from Erin Kauffman, market manager for the Durham Farmers’ Market, I compiled a produce calendar for Durham, North Carolina, 2011. Continue reading “What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12”

Jumbals

In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today. Continue reading “Jumbals”

Candlemas

Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed: Continue reading “Candlemas”