A modest Thanksgiving dinner

So what are y’all having for Thanksgiving dinner? I’m taking my cue from “Aunt Babette’s” Cook Book: Foreign and domestic receipts for the household, a Gilded Age Jewish-American cookbook. The key to Thanksgiving is, you want to enjoy yourself — it’s a feast, after all — but you don’t want to overdo it and have guests stuck in the doorway like Winnie-the-Pooh until St. Lucia’s Day, and besides, you still have Christmas to go into debt over. Continue reading “A modest Thanksgiving dinner”

Now be a good boy, and eat your pie.

I ran across this line today in an article I was reading: “A great deal is being written now… about provisioning our households with an eye to the nutritive value of what we buy.” Ain’t that the truth? Hang on, though: This was 1915, and “nutritive” didn’t mean what you think it means. Continue reading “Now be a good boy, and eat your pie.”

What’s really in the molasses?

Sometimes the things that are ostensibly the simplest turn out to pose the most interesting problems. Molasses, for example, which I’ve been using by the gallon to bake all this gingerbread. In an age when practically everything Americans use in the kitchen is constructed to industrial specifications — unless, like farmers market produce, it’s specifically branded and marketed in opposition to that sort of standardization — it’s surprising to find that a packaged, branded product has enough variation to fundamentally changed the character of baked goods, but that’s exactly what I’ve found with molasses. Continue reading “What’s really in the molasses?”

Crisp gingerbread biscuits

There are countless recipes for gingerbread in 19th-century cookbooks, most simply called “gingerbread” (or, to distinguish them, Gingerbread No. 1, Gingerbread No. 2, and so on), but most of the recipes fall into a few types. There’s soft gingerbread, which is what we’d call a cake. There’s “common gingerbread,” which is typically a soft cookie and always contains molasses — which is what made it “common,” molasses being cheaper than even brown sugar. “Sugar gingerbread,” by contrast, used sugar. And then there’s hard gingerbread, which was designed to keep well.

I assumed that hard gingerbread would give me something like a gingersnap (or, I hoped, like Sweetzels Spiced Wafers). But this recipe, at least, turned out completely different from what I expected — somewhere between a cookie and a cracker, rather like an English biscuit. Which is, as they say, why you play the game. Continue reading “Crisp gingerbread biscuits”

When we are not looking

Four deer are nosing through the pine straw for acorns the squirrels might have missed, barely shimmering against the background of russet-brown and dappled snow. Where have they been all week? I expected to see them out in the snow, but maybe some instinct tells them to stay hidden when the ground is pure white. What do they do, then? Huddle in the deep woods? Stare dumbly at the white stuff, trying to remember where they’ve seen it before? Sit by the fire, the bucks watching basketball on TV and the does working on their knitting? Grumble to each other that the weather is proof that global warming is just a liberal conspiracy to take everybody’s SUVs? Which would be a good thing for deer, because the small cars can more easily dodge them, but being only ruminants they are easily swayed by cable news reports?

I imagine up north they just suck it up. Like everybody else.

Early American gingerbread cakes

In researching 19th-century American cooking I started with gingerbread — why, exactly, is a long story — and in researching gingerbread I started with Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery. This was the first cookbook written by an American author and published in America, and although nearly all of the culinary influence is (unsurprisingly) English, there are American touches, such as recipes for cornbread and cranberries.

One American influence on Simmons’ cooking is the use of a chemical leavener, pearlash, for baking. Continue reading “Early American gingerbread cakes”

More tender morsels

The matter of grass-fed beef and dental hygeine has me thinking some more about the connection between cuisine and agriculture, or between what we might think of as personal or cultural preference and the on-the-ground facts of how food is raised.

A couple of weeks ago Melissa Clark had a recipe in the New York Times for boneless chicken breasts — essentially chicken cordon bleu with sauerkraut, which cries out to my Alsatian-Rheinischer soul, but equally interesting to me was her hand-wringing about white meat. Continue reading “More tender morsels”

Tender morsels

James McWilliams writes today in the Freakonomics blog that advocates of grass-fed beef are mistaken in asserting that until very recently, all beef was grass-fed. He’s right, as far as he goes: Agriculture experts advocated raising beef cattle on corn as long ago as the early nineteenth century. As one commenter pointed out, advocacy and practice are not the same thing. But they’re not always that far apart, either, and so I think it’s worth thinking about why progressive nineteenth-century agriculturalists thought corn-fed was better. Continue reading “Tender morsels”