What you could grow (and when) in 1800

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests, and being President of the United States doesn’t seem to have deterred him from pursuing them. If from the White House he couldn’t putter in his beloved garden at Monticello, he still managed to keep up with the business. During his eight years in Washington, he kept track in his journal of the produce available month by month at the city market and drew up a chart showing each item’s earliest and latest availability during his residence — a fascinating, if a bit foggy and bubbly, window into early American gardening and vegetable consumption.

Because I’ll not be out-geeked by a two-centuries-dead president, I’ve made an HTML version of Jefferson’s chart. His handwritten original was quite clever (you can see it at low resolution on the Monticello website) and I’ve preserved the basic design while adding a bit of interactivity: for now just the ability to mouse over headings to highlight rows and columns, but eventually also to view definitions and commentary on various items of produce. Continue reading “What you could grow (and when) in 1800”

Ye Olde Worcestershire: Eliza Leslie’s Scotch sauce, 1837

For Christmas dinner I wanted to try something historical — besides the cookies, I mean, and other than a plum pudding, which nearly killed me the one time I tried to eat it after the full-on holiday feast. The centerpiece was roast beef (top sirloin, which is nearly as good as prime rib and about a third the price per pound of actual meat), and heaven knows people ate enough beef in the nineteenth century. What did they put on that beef? Well, how about Worcestershire sauce? Continue reading “Ye Olde Worcestershire: Eliza Leslie’s Scotch sauce, 1837”

Have yourself a medieval Christmas

My daughter, who is eight, tells me that her favorite Christmas carol is “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a half-millenium-old Spanish song about the perfection of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. With vivid lyrics about furious wolves and innocent lambs, accompanied by whatever handheld percussion happens to be available, it at once explains the theology of both the incarnation and the immaculate conception (centuries before even the Catholic Church accepted the latter) and gets everyone off their feet to dance and spin — if, hearing it today, they dare dance to a Christmas carol. An eight year-old dares, because she happily doesn’t see the contradiction between devotion and dancing. And I’m realizing that she’s right. Continue reading “Have yourself a medieval Christmas”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”

The Thanksgiving issue: Cranberry sauce

You have, no doubt, come here hoping to learn of some radical old-fashioned method for preparing cranberry sauce, some cabalistic ritual of autumn berrying well known to the ancients but lost to our rational age, the merest taste of which will produce shivers of delight claimed in one long-lost poem (once decoded and translated from the Coptic) to last three full days and create breezes that resonate in the distant tropics. Some search for wisdom, others truth or beauty: you, my friend, seek cranberry sauce. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Cranberry sauce”

The Thanksgiving issue: Stuffing

Plumping up dead birds with bread crumbs is a bit of culinary foolery that dates at least to medieval Europe, as is combining bread crumbs with meat, fat, and spices and stuffing, or forcing, this “forcemeat” into nearly any available receptacle. Stuffing a turkey is therefore not at all an American idea in origin, and it seems not to be an American idea in style, either, because in our perfectionist age we’ve decided that it’s not only detrimental to the quality of the meat but actually dangerous. In the old days, half the point of roasting a turkey was to bring the stuffing to fulfillment by soaking it through with juice and rendered fat and unidentifiable squishy bits of the inside of the bird. The meat was an afterthought, a requirement of the holiday, a vehicle for the stuffing and building block for sandwiches the next day, and if it were a little stringy, well, that’s why God made mayonnaise and gravy. The problem, of course, is that by the time the stuffing is heated through, the turkey has overcooked, and if you don’t heat it through, you will surely die before Christmas of salmonella. Baked on the side, though, the stuffing is dull, sterile, unloved, all wasted potential like an unfreshened heifer. Then the turkey was dry and the stuffing was moist; now we’ve reversed the equation. It’s certainly more precise, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

Let’s pretend, though, that stuffing is a word we mean literally, as opposed to dressing, which is wont feel like leftovers before it’s even been served. It’ll be more fun this way. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Stuffing”

The Thanksgiving issue: Roast turkey

Roast turkey didn’t become de rigeur at Thanksgiving dinner until the nineteenth century. Before Thanksgiving became an institutionalized celebration of Americanness it, and its menus, were a more ad hoc affair, featuring whatever any family thought appropriate. By the 1850s New Englanders had more or less standardized the holiday in an attempt to recapture something that had been lost since colonial days, some simplicity or integrity or je ne sais quoi. Turkey, being identifiably American, fit the bill, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.

I am not, however, going to give you a recipe for roasting a turkey. Roasting a turkey is a simple affair if you are not inclined to be perfectionist about it, which you ought not be on Thanksgiving, for the simple reason that with all that family around, you are going to need to be too drunk to follow through on your perfectionism anyway, and will therefore inevitably be disappointed. You are, moreover, almost certainly not going to roast a turkey next Thursday. You are far more likely going to bake the thing, which is an altogether different matter. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Roast turkey”

The Thanksgiving issue

Under Title 36 of the U.S. Code, “Patriotic and National Observances, Ceremonies, and Organizations,” it is of course mandatory that all serial publications whose primary subject matter pertains to food, cooking, or other domestic affairs and which reach interstate audiences publish a Thanksgiving issue. Probably as a result of my admittedly somewhat whimsical application for an ISSN for my blog, I received a notice last week from the Department of State Office of Patriotic Education, Thanksgiving Section, advising me that as of November 1st I was not in compliance. And so, beginning tonight, I will do my duty as a Good American and publish, in four parts (or possibly five), the First Annual Walbert’s Compendium Thanksgiving Issue. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue”

Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.

Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters. Continue reading “Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.”

Poetry and the industrialization of bread, 1903

In 1903, Washburn-Crosby, the makers of Gold Medal Flour (they would later become General Mills), tried a new sort of magazine ad. Instead of a photo or illustration captioned by a short homily about how wonderful the flour was, this new ad, which ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, was simply a recipe for baking bread, written as a poem, with each verse accompanied by a photograph or an illustration. It’s terribly entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing — the rhymes are forced, the tone is cheesy, and it is, of course, by twenty-first century standards, cheerfully sexist. But it’s also a window into bread and baking at the turn of the last century, and into the ways industry was changing them — even inside the home. Continue reading “Poetry and the industrialization of bread, 1903”