Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading “Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating”

Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?

An article in The Atlantic suggests that they do:

Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?

Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children’s food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.

The article, adapted from a book-length study by a pair of UCLA researchers of “dual-earning middle-class families” in Los Angeles, describes families in which the mere fact that kids snack frequently and eat “special” meals makes it difficult for them to grasp, or parents to enforce, shared mealtimes. Oh, and guess what else? Using packaged convenience foods did not save these families time over cooking from scratch. Continue reading “Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?”

Zest, wow wow sauce, and William Kitchiner’s magazine of taste

“Magazine” as in powder magazine, that is, not the periodical kind. A personal arsenal of condiments, created by Regency England’s foremost gastronome. As for zest and wow wow sauce… well, we’ll get to those in a minute.

William Kitchiner (1775–1827) was a physician, optician, amateur musician, and above all a lover of good food. His father, a coal merchant, had left him enough of a fortune that he could spend his career as he chose, and he spent a considerable portion of both his money and his time on food. He wrote a number of books, including a guide to choosing opera glasses, but he was best known for The Cook’s Oracle, as comprehensive a cookbook as ever there was, and as good a read as you’ll find in one too, at least if you like early nineteenth-century English humor. Most of the recipes in the book were tested by Kitchiner’s “Committee of Taste,” a panel of fellow gastronomes who gathered regularly at his home. These dinners were famous and famously strict: if the invitation was for five o’clock, the door was locked at two minutes after, and dinner was served precisely on schedule lest it suffer by waiting. At eleven, guests were expected to leave just as promptly.

He made all this clear in his standard invitation to dinner: Continue reading “Zest, wow wow sauce, and William Kitchiner’s magazine of taste”

The vegetable plate as status symbol

Twenty years ago last fall I made my first purchase at a farmer’s market. I was on my own, in my second week of graduate school, in a new state, a new region, with an empty stomach and an empty refrigerator. On a lark I rode my bicycle, not because I was young (though I was) and environmentally conscious (I wasn’t, particularly) but because I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed, to a market for which I’d seen a sign the previous weekend.

I found myself at a stand owned by a woman with a blonde braided ponytail, middle-aged (by which I mean about the age I am now), chattering cheerfully with customers she’d clearly known for years, idly rearranging the produce to keep it attractive and accessible. Comfortable, she seemed, and welcoming, but it wasn’t she that drew me. It was, rather, the array of peppers on the table: red, orange, yellow, and green; long and short; round and squat and pointed and oblong. I had never seen anything like them. Bell peppers I knew, and jalepeños, but this mad cornucopia of capsici baffled me. I might have asked which were hot or sweet and what their flavor, but I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t have kept track of it all anyway. So I pioneered the gleeful defense of the introverted gourmet, to which I’ve repaired almost continually in the decades since. I bought some of everything, with not a clue what I was going to do with them. Continue reading “The vegetable plate as status symbol”

The manly art of baking

As a guy who bakes a lot, I get sort of tired of seeing baking portrayed as some cutesy thing that mommy bloggers do while their toddlers crawl around the kitchen, licking flour off the flour. Nothing against mommy bloggers, understand. Or toddlers. But sometimes I wish there were a more, you know, manly depiction of baking.

Enter the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Jost Ammam, who produced this woodcut for The Book of Trades, a collection of illustrated poems: Continue reading “The manly art of baking”

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: Continue reading “Area man still not eating his veggies”

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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How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)

Last week I was trying to figure out what portion of their incomes Americans spend on food. (Why is a long story.) A lot of numbers are bandied about, but usually by people trying to make one political point or another, and it was more difficult than I expected to nail down anything reliable. But I managed to find out not only what people at various income levels do spend on food, but also what they’d have to spend in order to eat a healthy diet. The answers were, respectively, more than I thought… and considerably more than that.

The claim I most often read is that American food is ludicriously cheap. By historical and global standards, it is — but how cheap? The Gates Foundation reported last year that only 6 percent of Americans’ household expenditures went to food, compared with more than 10 percent in most of Europe and 35% in India. Their point is that the world’s poor spend a great deal more of their money on food than we do, which is true, and they intend to fund agricultural research so that the rest of the world can have cheap food like we do. Mother Jones republished the Gates Foundation’s bar chart to make a different point, that Americans spend very little — probably too little — of our incomes on food, and that this cheap food is possible only because we subsidize large-scale agriculture through taxes and externalize costs to the environment, to animal welfare, to workers, and to our health. (Since 1995 we’ve given $277 billion in subsidies to just 38 percent of U.S. farms, including more than $100 billion just to produce cheap corn and soy, most of which goes into various processed foods, most of which are far more caloric than nutritious and are by nearly every standard a major reason so many Americans are overweight.) This is, I think, also true, and we’re paying for those cheap calories through our health care expenses.

But I question this 6 percent figure. It seems impossibly low, and the Gates Foundation’s chart is drawn so vividly that it makes me suspicious. (Why is the bar for India’s food expenditures several times taller than the bar for all its expenditures? Even if the numbers are wrong, the chart is exaggerated for visual effect.) So I dug a little deeper. Continue reading “How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)”

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”

Are personal recipes more usable?

When I asked last week which cookbooks and authors offer the most usable recipes, I got some interesting responses. Some people listed cookbooks that really are teaching cookbooks for true beginners, while others listed authors whose recipes are easy to refer to and cook from once you know what you’re doing. It should be fairly easy to identify the former sort, though there aren’t many — assuming it’s possible to learn to cook from a book at all. But I had a harder time seeing what the easy-reference, quick-idea works have in common.

Then a friend pointed out that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is one of her favorites in part because Katzen doesn’t lock a cook in; she gives a basic formula and then, usually, offers variations. Flipping through the cookbook again, I realized that it isn’t just that Katzen offers specific variations; it’s that her entire style encourages you to go your own way. She handwrote her recipes and decorated the margins of the pages, and her tone is that of a friend passing on her recipes. You couldn’t possibly think you were meant to take her advice as gospel — not that she isn’t reliable, but that she doesn’t come off as remotely prescriptive.

What’s more, though, she doesn’t even consistently offer linear instructions. Look at, for example, this recipe for lentil soup: Continue reading “Are personal recipes more usable?”