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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Christmas, 1992. We ate a spiced beef roast that I had cured with juniper, allspice and salt for two weeks and a Country Christmas Cake, a heavy, dark fruitcake swathed in marzipan that had been aging since October. I’m sure they were wonderful, but I can’t quite remember how they tasted. What I do remember is  knowing that I had to make them, next Christmas, as soon as I read  “How to Face the Holidays” by Laurie Colwin in the December 1991 issue of Gourmet magazine. It began:

When Thanksgiving has passed and the leaves are off the trees, the harried modern person looks to the winter holidays like someone slumped across a railroad track contemplating an oncoming train.

She has found two splendid things to eat that can be made long in advance. “There is nothing else like them. They must be made by hand. And they cannot be bought.”

The cake will amaze your friends:

Most impressive is the fact that you have made this gorgeous, amazing, traditional cake yourself  from an ancient recipe. Hands down, it is the best cake I have ever made—and also the best I have ever eaten.”

The spiced beef, from a recipe by Elizabeth David “…is perfectly expressed, perfectly correct, and perfectly delicious. The fact that I produced this rather magnificent thing shocked even me.”

ColwinLaurie Colwin was a well known novelist by the early 1990s, when she began writing a series of columns for Gourmet. Their irresistible combination of food writing, memoir, and life advice made her immediately beloved by Gourmet’s readers, including me.  She was funny, opinionated, personal, and, most of all, forgiving. She wrote about simple, delicious food that could be flung together easily by a frazzled cook. She also told wonderful stories about bad food: kitchen experiments gone awry (a pudding that tasted like “lemon-flavored bacon fat”) and repulsive dinners (“There is something truly triumphant about a really disgusting meal.”). Several of the recipes — fried chicken, tomato pie, creamed spinach, gingerbread — were instant sensations that are still kept in many cooks’ clipping files.

The Gourmet columns are collected in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. The second book was published after Colwin’s untimely death in October 1992.

Long before the term “comfort food” came into fashion, Colwin understood and relied on the consoling power of food and, by extension, food writing:

 … for those of you who are suffering from sadness or hangover, or are feeling blue or tired of life, if you’re not going to read Persuasion, you may as well read Italian Food by Elizabeth David.

Or, better yet, read Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

Check the WRL catalog for Home Cooking

Check the catalog for More Home Cooking

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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WhyDidtheChicken

The title of this book poses an interesting question: why do chickens occur all over the world, and have for a long time? The short answer is that people took them around the globe because they are useful and noble birds.

Penguins (which I blogged about yesterday) are relatively rare birds and are considered cute, while chickens are so ubiquitous as to be thought boring. Andrew Lawler has done a great job of convincing me that chickens are not in the least bit boring, and hopefully the photo below of Henny Penny and Co. (wondering if my iPad is edible) will convince you that they are cute. Readable, surprising and captivating, this book will make you want to immerse yourself to find out more about this fascinating bird of contradictions.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is dense with facts, including many surprising ones such as that there are more chickens in the world than cats, dogs and rats put together, in fact, so many chickens that they outnumber people. Andrew Lawler argues that chickens are far more useful and important to human history than they are generally given credit for. They have been significant for religions from Zoroastrianism to Christianity for thousands of years and, because of the rooster’s habit of crowing just before dawn, they have frequently been seen as symbols of light and resurrection. As small animals that will eat scraps, they have always been economically important to poor or marginalized populations such as American slaves. They are important to medicine and scientific research in areas from growing vaccines to chick embryo development.

Chicken1

The chicken’s own history is somewhat murky. They are almost certainly descended from Asian Jungle Fowl (probably Red), but whether it was once or multiple times, and exactly where, is still controversial. We know why the chicken crossed the world, but how is not as clear, because chickens are small animals with tiny, easily eaten, scattered or rotted bones. Archaeological evidence of chickens is scarce, but it does suggest that Polynesians took chickens on their remarkable Pacific voyages, and that Tandoori Chicken recipes may have been invented in Indus Valley civilizations around 5000 years ago!  For local history buffs, in 1752 the College of William and Mary banned their students from attending cockfights, but that didn’t stop George Washington attending one in nearby Yorktown!

One thing I found missing from this book was illustrations. When the author talked about the Red Jungle Fowl or Queen Victoria’s many exotic breeds, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I used a copy of Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius with its great illustrations.

This book will appeal to readers who are interested in the intersection between humans and animals such as  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog, or the effects of animals on human history like Spillover, by David Quammen.

Check the WRL catalog for Why Did the Chicken Cross the World.

WyandotteChicken

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waffleI was up late, reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, and needed a snack before turning out the light. Lovecraft is heavy going, so I wanted something to restore my spirit:  a grilled cheese sandwich. I found some Cabot’s Extra Sharp, bread, and butter, and fired up our trusty SuperLectric waffle iron. A few minutes later, the hideous excrescences of Lovecraft’s imagination were forgotten as I ate my hot, crispy, perfectly melted, dimpled grilled cheese.

Will it Waffle? has rocked my world. The waffle maker, which I used to haul out of storage on rare Sunday mornings, now lives in the middle of the kitchen counter, an essential part of my batterie de cuisine. It glorifies sandwiches, hash browns, fruit, and other things that I’d never thought to use it for. Right this very minute, I am thinking about trying waffleized churros for breakfast tomorrow.

Daniel Shumski is the genius who thought to ask, “What can I cook in a waffle iron besides waffles?” For several years, he has been blogging about his experiments in waffling, and Will It Waffle continues the project with a collection of 53 recipes.  Any dish that is meant to be hot and crisp is better when cooked in a waffle iron — thanks to all that additional surface area. Ergo, waffled bacon, falafel, leftover mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and stuffing. These are actually some of Shumski’s less daring dishes. If you’re a thrill seeker, try throwing a soft-shelled crab or cookie dough into your waffle maker and see what happens. The book includes a short list of foods that won’t waffle, such as soup and drinks. Beyond these liquids, almost anything goes. There’s even a section where readers are encouraged to document their own waffle experiments. The message is clear: play with your food.

Check the WRL catalog for Will It Waffle?

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mcgeeWriting yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?

Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.

Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”

On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.

Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking

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pollanEver since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.

Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.

Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.

Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.

Check the WRL catalog for Cooked.

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NativeAmericanGardeningNative American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.

The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.

The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.

Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.

Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods

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