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.
One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore.
When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)
These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good.
For a few summers several years ago I made ketchup from half-bushel boxes of paste tomatoes, using a recipe from an old issue of Fine Cooking. The ketchup had good flavor, but it was a little too reminiscent of something Italian, with lots of bottom notes from charred onion and the faint pizza-aroma of oregano. We liked it but never used up a batch. The problem was that it substituted for industrial ketchup in only a few of its uses. It made a good topping for burgers and dipping for fries, but as a base for cocktail sauce it was terrible. Industrial ketchup essentially has no aroma; it’s pure mouth-taste — sweet, sour, salt, and umami. To emulate that blend at home would be a waste of time and money; homemade ketchup ought to have flavor. But making ketchup flavorful makes it something entirely different.
I decided to give homemade ketchup another try this summer, and this time, I went back to the nineteenth century for inspiration.
For the past month I’ve been working on a chapter about the rise of the white cake, the layer cake, the fluffy and utterly unflavored cake, the “sweet nothings,” as I’ve tentatively titled it. I’ve nearly finished a draft that explains this phenomenon, really nothing less than the evisceration of the American sense of taste, by way of Victorian table manners, the invention of the eggbeater, a gastric fistula, yogurt enemas, jello salads, and fears of sexual excess. And that is just one chapter. People, seriously, you will want to reserve a copy on Amazon as soon as humanly possible.
In the meantime, I’ve needed to bake a number of Gilded Age recipes, including something called “cornstarch cake” that tastes distressingly reminiscent of an expired snack cake found in the trash after the vending machine has been refilled. But not everything that came out of that era of American baking was inexcusable. The angel food cake is lovely when made well. And the layer cake isn’t inherently bad; it’s just too often made that way. It can be redeemed. Consider, for example, the coconut cake.
Most of you probably have at least one charity cookbook on your shelves — those cookbooks compiled by women’s organizations and sold to raise money for a good cause. Thousands of charity cookbooks have been published in the United States since the 1860s, and most never passed beyond the borders of the towns that wrote them. A few, though, went on to far bigger things, and this story concerns the first small-town cookbook made good.
Of course I had to make gingerbread men for Christmas. You can’t be halfway through a book on gingerbread and then pass up the obvious opportunity to bake it; it simply wouldn’t be allowed. And, of course, I’m no longer happy with the recipes I had at hand. So I came up with a recipe with a genuinely historical flavor but the tenderness and richness we expect from a Christmas cookie.
One more apple recipe before we move on to winter. My grandmother used to make these, but I’d forgotten them until recently when my mother and sister mentioned they were looking for the recipe. They’re simply apples baked in pastry with a brown sugar syrup, a sort of single-serving pie, and I have no idea why they’re called “dumplings,” because every other dumpling I’ve ever heard of was boiled, and these are of course baked. In any case, I was compelled to try to reconstruct the recipe from a memory that is, by now, a quarter-century old and pretty foggy.
I spent half the weekend making apple butter. Twenty-two half-pint jars of apple butter, from a half-bushel of apples, a completely unnecessary quantity that will be foisted off on unsuspecting friends come Christmas. In the meantime it occurs to me that this is the twentieth consecutive year (!) I’ve made apple butter, and so I ought to know something about it by now. Yet what I know isn’t anything I can reduce to a recipe. Apple butter is a pure expression of the apple’s essence, an exercise in simplicity; easy to make, impossible to perfect. It has, after all, only two ingredients: apples and time, both of which can seem to have minds of their own. Here’s what I know about each.
Cook’s Illustrated finally went off the deep end this month. I’ve seen this moment coming for years, as they gradually ran through the classic American repertoire and resorted to publishing home versions of questionable restaurant fare and revisiting recipes that were already perfect. I’m a charter subscriber; I’ve been getting this magazine in the mail every other month since 1993, and every time I think about dropping it they run something that is so good that it pays for the year’s subscription. I refer to my back issues more than to any cookbook on my shelf. So I don’t say this lightly. But my old reliable has gone off the deep end. What’s finally done it? What’s inspired one of my rare full-on Internet rants and a corrective recipe?
Extreme banana bread.