Coffee and craft

Julian Baggini writes in a thoughtful essay that high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom have thrown out the idea of “artisan” espresso and bought Nespresso machines, which use factory-sealed capsules of precision-ground coffee and can be operated with the push of a button. In fact, as Baggini discovered in a blind taste test, Nespresso is consistently better, or at least more consistently good, than “artisan” espresso made by hand. But, he asks, is a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee — just the momentary pleasure it gives us, a mere utilitarian instrument? Or is it something more — the sum of its relationships to other things? Continue reading “Coffee and craft”

The idea of a sandwich

A couple of weeks ago I spent the morning with the family at an art museum, and we wanted to stay past lunchtime, so we decided to grab a sandwich at a temporary café they had opened. “Temporary café” is a phrase that makes me nervous. I tried to size the place up. There were some upscale things on the menu that cost more than I wanted to spend. On the flip side, I suspected that anything potentially greasy was likely to be severely greasy, perhaps disastrously so. The only vegetarian option I could see was a kids’ PB&J. So I ordered what looked safe, a turkey and brie sandwich.

Which the guy promptly handed me from a refrigerator case.

The turkey was at least recognizable as roasted turkey. The bread appeared on sight to be some sort of foccacia-like thing, but refrigerated it was just bland and chewy. The brie had no flavor whatsoever. Even good brie served cold is pretty bland; cheaper stuff straight from the fridge might as well be cream cheese or commodity baby Swiss. To make matters worse, the architect of this sandwich had determined curry mayonnaise and chutney to be the appropriate accoutrements. Had the sandwich been toasted, the brie gooey and aromatic, the condiments might have set off the strong flavor of the cheese.. Cold, I couldn’t taste anything but curry. Cold, chewy curry.

The sandwich was, in short, a waste of cheese, bread, meat, and money, all because somebody stuck it in the refrigerator for a few hours. Did I mention this sandwich set me back nine bucks? Did I mention we were a captive audience?

My first impulse at times like this is to gripe about attention to detail. For want of a nail, etc.. They made other sandwiches to order (including a Reuben); why not this one? Why not make the little extra effort to do it right? Or else serve me a decent plate of beans and rice, with which I’d have been perfectly happy.

On reflection, though, I hadn’t paid nine dollars for a sandwich. I paid nine dollars for the idea of a sandwich. Continue reading “The idea of a sandwich”

The dangers of eating hot bread

One of the perks of baking bread at home — maybe half the point of baking bread at home — is the privilege of hacking off the crust while it’s still hot, slathering it with butter, and eating it messily over the sink. Cookbooks will tell you that bread only develops its full flavor after it cools, which may be true. They will also tell you that if you slice bread while it’s hot, you’ll crush it, which is definitely true. But I do it anyway. Damn the torpedoes and all that.

Thank God I didn’t live in the nineteenth century, though, because then, it would probably have killed me.

Back then, it was commonly believed that eating hot bread was unhealthful — dangerously unhealthful. The famous health reformer Sylvester Graham said bread shouldn’t be eaten until at least twelve hours old. Magazine articles about what ladies should eat for breakfast (of which I’m afraid there were lots) recommended day-old bread and warned sternly that hot buttered toast was “hostile to health and female delicacy.”

Tea, coffee, and milk, are the most wholesome beverages for the morning meal; which should be accompanied, if possible, by home-made bread, at least one day old. This seldom disagrees with any one; if it should, it may be toasted, and buttered cold and slightly; but warm buttered toast is by no means advisable: indeed, it is far preferable to use only hard biscuits, which require no butter, and are of easy digestion. 1

Even the high mortality rate of Indians living on reservations was blamed (by white observers, anyway) on severe indigestion caused by their diet of hot biscuits — not that white flour and cheap fat, which was all they had access to at that point, had no nutritional value, but specifically that the biscuits were eaten hot. Continue reading “The dangers of eating hot bread”

  1. From the Females’ Encyclopedia, mentioned below, but the advice was republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular American women’s magazine, in 1835.

Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. Continue reading “Frugal celebrations”

Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?

“Let’s start the new year on scientifically sound footing,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (“What You Think You Know (but Don’t) About Wise Eating,” December 31), and quotes “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds” to the effect that “chemical” shouldn’t be a dirty word, because all food is made of chemicals and there’s chemistry going on everywhere. True enough. Sadly but predictably, she (and, one has to presume, Joe Schwarcz, the scientist she cites) jumps straight to the conclusion that food is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals, and uses it as an excuse to justify industrial food and fling barbs at the alternatives. Continue reading “Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?”

Abundance and want: A thought for St. Stephen’s Day

The beef has been roasted, the cookies devoured, the wine and the eggnog drunk. Bits of ribbon still litter the floor. But there are leftovers, glorious leftovers, and it’s nearly lunchtime on the east coast. Huzzah, indeed.

In between shopping for bigger pants, though, let’s give a thought to those who had too little, or nothing at all, to eat yesterday, and today, and the day after. Better yet, let’s actually do something. Giving money isn’t all that needs to be done, but it is one thing, and thanks to the internet we can do that one thing without even getting off our holiday-sized behinds. (As a dozen emails a day remind me, not nearly all of them charitably.) Continue reading “Abundance and want: A thought for St. Stephen’s Day”

Sugar cookies with historical flavor

I actually don’t dislike sugar cookies, despite tweaking them yesterday. They’re fun and they’re traditional, which is good enough in December. But they’re limited in two ways — one structural, one avoidable. The first is that if you add enough butter to make them rich and really tasty, they’re an awful pain to roll — you certainly can’t let your kids do it. And even if you can roll them, too much butter will make them spread in the oven so that your angels look a little pudgy and Santa downright blobbish. You can have fabulous butter flavor and texture, or you can have pretty things your kids can roll. Most recipes compromise.

The second problem is that we flavor them only and exclusively with vanilla. Now, I like vanilla — don’t bite my head off — but it’s so overused in American baking that we don’t even notice it unless, say, we steep a real bean in milk to make custard and scrape in the flecks to draw attention. I didn’t mind or even notice the ubiquity of vanilla until I started baking cakes and cookies from the time before vanilla extract was widely available, and then I realized, for example, that it doesn’t actually bring anything to peanut butter cookies; nutmeg is better.

Now, sugar cookies have always had wonderful cousins that avoid one or both of these problems. Continue reading “Sugar cookies with historical flavor”

A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why. Continue reading “A brief history of the sugar cookie”

Lessons from Julia

Today is the hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, and even Google is remembering her. (Although Google has a new home page every day anymore, so I’m not sure this is noteworthy.) What is there to say, really, that hasn’t already been said? When a few years ago I watched The French Chef on DVD, even after two decades of cooking almost every day and reading endless cookbooks I picked up a trick or two from nearly every episode. She was an effective teacher if one wanted to learn and an entertaining teacher even if one didn’t, and the instructional writing in her cookbooks is impeccable. Those aren’t compliments I give out lightly, and they ought to be enough of a commemoration.

In our hyperbolic culture, though, they’re barely noticeable. Witness Julia Moskin in the New York Times yesterday proclaiming the Apotheosis of Julia: Continue reading “Lessons from Julia”

Craft and ornament in baking

One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt. Continue reading “Craft and ornament in baking”