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”

What’s a chicken worth?

Occasionally I see arguments to the effect that eating red meat is dangerously damaging to the environment — red meat specifically, as compared to poultry. For example, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 800 gallons to produce a pound of chicken. (“Only” is relative here.) Or that 27 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of beef consumed, but only 7 pounds of CO2 per pound of chicken. The figures vary so wildly that I won’t bother citing sources: I assume these numbers are inaccurate; I offer them only as examples of the argument being made, which is that eating chicken is more “environmentally responsible” than eating beef.

I wrote recently about my objection to this sort of bean-counting, this reduction of lives and complex realities to mere data. Here’s another example of what I meant: linking pounds of meat with pounds of CO2 or gallons of water ignores the fact that those pounds of meat come from once-living creatures, which somebody has to kill. Continue reading “What’s a chicken worth?”

Not just for breakfast anymore!

In 1900, Pillsbury held an amateur recipe contest, with $680 in cash prizes going to the twelve best uses of Pillsbury’s Vitos. Introduced in 1897, Pillsbury’s Vitos were the flour-miller’s answer to the boom in breakfast cereals begun by Shredded What and Corn Flakes, a packaged, ready-made, processed cereal product. Advertising proclaimed it “the ideal wheat food, [which] needs to be boiled only and is then ready to serve as a breakfast food.” Ah, but not only as a breakfast food! “It can be served in thirty other ways—breads, cakes, puddings, desserts, etc.” A free cook book, available by mail, showed you how.

Also, according to the packaging, they were sterilized. Yes! “Pillbury’s VITOS, the ideal wheat food, is sterilized. Unlike other cereals, it does not have to be critically examined before using and none need ever be thrown away.”

Fourth prize in the recipe contest went to Pillsbury’s Vitos Cheese Ramekins — individual serving-sized cheese soufflés made with breakfast cereal. What, I ask you, could be more indescribably scrumptious than that? Continue reading “Not just for breakfast anymore!”

Can we just eat, Mom?

Is anybody else getting tired of the constant drama about what we should and shouldn’t eat? Maybe it is because I have been thinking about this stuff for fifteen years and I am just tired of it, but it seems that everybody, now, is telling me what I should or shouldn’t eat. Many of them are growing increasingly angry about it. Others are going further and further into the speculative thicket. Here’s a sampling of what my Twitterstream and blogroll have pointed me to just in the past three days: Continue reading “Can we just eat, Mom?”

The maid and the tart: Or, a pie to die for

One finds the strangest flotsam in the backwash of the early nineteenth century. I found this gem while sifting through the private papers of Sarah Hale, to whom it appears to have been submitted while she was editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly she never published the poem, and I couldn’t find a copy of any accompanying correspondence, either from the author or from Mrs. Hale rejecting the work. The poem thus remains untitled and anonymous.

The poem, in (mostly, if occasionally somewhat addled) heroic couplets, tells the tragic story of a “humble maid” who gives life and limb to save an apple tart. It’s at once charming and simply dreadful. Its palpably oozing sincerity evinces a giggle from the modern reader. It goes on, as we would say now. The verses strain under the weight of its overwrought verbiage (“gossamer gauze of alabaster skin”? Seriously?) And it’s hard to know how to read it — as a cautionary tale, about the dangers of women’s work? As a love letter to a departed domestic? Or as a simple paean to a damn fine apple tart? The poem’s meaning sleeps with its author, or did, at least, until I dredged the thing up last week.

In any case, until I can manage to write something of my own for this space, enjoy. And don’t be too hard on our departed would-be Byron. No doubt he meant well. Continue reading “The maid and the tart: Or, a pie to die for”