Tag Archives: food

In which we are reminded of the importance of specificity. And also the deliciousness of apples.

7 Oct

So the food I set out to dig some info up on today is a pretty difficult one to research: apple cider! You’re probably thinking, “Jules, what’s so difficult about that?” In response to which I might punch you! It turns out, there is a lot that’s difficult about that.

Not only is cider about as old as apples (the only question seems to be whether the Egyptians were making it; while they grew apples, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they were making any kind of juice or beverage from them), but trying to figure out which particular cider any given source is talking about is pretty tricky, too. American cider, which is unsweetened, unclarified juice (cloudy and brown, as opposed to the clear yellow stuff sold as juice), is completely different from what we call hard cider and the rest of the world just calls cider, which is also clear and yellow but will get you drunk! This brings me to a very important Serious Historical Research Tip: always specify your terms. A lot of the sources out there are just throwing “cider” around without any modifiers whatsoever. Is that useful to the Serious Historical Expert? It is not. Not when you’re trying to find information on one particular kind, anyway.

As far as other early mentions, a couple of different sources mentioned that when the Romans reached Britain, the locals in Kent introduced them to some kind of apple-based drink. But the earliest records of cider-making in England are from after the Norman Conquest, although there were references from France early in the ninth century, from no less a source than Charlemagne. It also turns out that in the late nineteenth century, cider actually outstripped wine as the beverage of choice in Paris! In America, meanwhile, during the early years of the colonial period, apples were a lot quicker and easier to grow than grains, so cider was generally more prevalent than beer.

But this ended up being as much a chance to talk about the Serious Historical Research Process as delicious autumnal beverages. Here’s the thing: in a lot of the sources where I found this information, I ended up having to deduce for myself which kind of cider the author was referring to (usually hard). In the case of an article from a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages, this was kind of a no-brainer, but in other cases, I’d have to go on references contrasting cider with beer, remarking on the differences in “fermentation processes”, and mentioning that a general decline in popularity was followed by the blow of Prohibition. These are the kinds of context clues that the Serious Historical Expert needs to be on the lookout for, you see. And while it’s easy to write one source off, especially one found by the Grueling Research Method of googling for two minutes, the need to pay attention to context because no one would specify whether they were talking about hard or soft cider was a constant one–even a New York Times article confused me for awhile until its middle, where there were references to alcohol content. This timeline, further, has an interesting graph at the bottom. I had assumed (from the fact that the URL is a UK-based one, and it’s generally only Americans who refer to soft cider as merely “cider”, without any modifiers) that it was generally tracking hard cider, and if you’ll look at that graph, you’ll notice something else that corroborates that assumption: there’s a huge drop-off in US cider consumption right after 1919. Again, this is an important context clue–Prohibition went into effect shortly after, and that would’ve affected hard cider sales drastically.

Personally, for dinner tonight I’m going to make these pork chops braised in (soft) cider. I suspect they will go down in history for DELICIOUSNESS.

In which a grudge is hinted at

6 Oct

Ugh what the hell, that was supposed to post around nine AM this morning. My eternal quest to master the “Schedule Post” feature continues.

So, as you have probably noticed, I love food history. I would like to give you guys more in the way of hilarious anecdotes from history, but a lot of what I end up studying tends to involve material culture and attempts to find out how the general populace lived in a given society, rather than the oustanding few whose names we know. This means that a lot of what I’ve got tends to be more on trends and fashions, instead of the kind of delightful stories one gets from biographies. But I’ll try to work on that a bit more, because I’m sure I just need to dig a little deeper!

Anyhoo, this isn’t so much an anecdote, but it’s kind of awesome: while poking around a couple of food history sites, I came up with this: Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for vanilla ice cream, written by Jefferson himself, is over here at the Library of Congress web site! Oh Thomas Jefferson. Here is the deal with me and Thomas Jefferson, guys: you know how sometimes you meet someone, or you watch a TV show and there’s some character on it, and you can’t explain why, but you just really want to punch them a lot? That is how I get with Thomas Jefferson. I don’t even know! He did a lot of great stuff for the United States, and humanity in general, and he was a pretty interesting dude, objectively, and yet somehow I just want to get a time machine, go back to the eighteenth century, and (after I have gone on my amazing date with George Washington) punch Thomas Jefferson in the face.

Now, if you are like me and you grew up in Virginia, you spent a whole lot of time hearing about how freaking great Thomas Jefferson was, and among his many accomplishments was credit for bringing ice cream to America.* Turns out this is BS! While the earliest known recipe for ice cream in America is Jefferson’s, according to Monticello, “George Washington’s papers contain a prior reference to an ice cream maker”. IT ALL COMES BACK TO GEORGE IN THE END, MY FRIENDS. Seriously, though, the deal was that TJ was just kind of famous for serving it a lot at Monticello, and that’s the earliest known recipe in America (although there are ones in England from as early as 1718). Sorry, TJ, you are just going to have to rest on that whole Declaration of Independence thing and hope it is enough to keep me from punching you. No promises, though; that’s just not how I roll.

* In fairness, I spent a lot of time tuning out whatever my teachers were talking about, especially when we returned once more to the subject of how great Thomas Jefferson was, so maybe I am just piecing this together from hearing about how much he liked ice cream and the approximately five billion other things he is credited with bringing to America (not to be confused with the six billion things Ben Franklin invented or brought to America.

In which berries abound!

24 Sep

Blueberries are apparently “mostly” native to North America, but I can’t figure out where else they might be native to from any Serious Historical Research (read: poking around on the Internet for awhile). They were apparently introduced to Europe, but that was in the 1930s, and Australia and New Zealand (1950s, and not successfully until the 1970s). They grow in South America, but my Serious Historical Research has not, thus far, yielded any results as to the history of their cultivation there, apart from Chile, where they were introduced in the 1980s. And in 1996 they were adopted as the official berry as Nova Scotia (as of 2008, they were Canada’s #1 fruit export)! But nothing more about South America. I am sorry for failing you, my friends. :(

I can tell you, however, that they were referred to as “skycolored berries” in colonial America, which is a fact that’s been floating around in my head for a few weeks now, and which delights me for reasons I cannot possibly figure out. Not gonna lie, I was mostly building towards that, and I felt like that wasn’t fact enough to support its own post. Whatever whatever. They were also frequently mistaken for the bilberry, which was native to England, and so were sometimes referred to as “skycolored bilberries”! In 1672, at least, they were frequently eaten dried, having been bought that way from the Indians, according to John Josselyn in his New England’s Rarities. Sad truth: I am not being sarcastic when I say that I think that’s pretty cool.

In which a venture is proposed.

14 Sep

The New York Times says that Dogfish Head brewery in Rehoboth Beach has a new idea for beer, using a traditional Peruvian method! This sounds pretty exciting—

“You need to convert the starches in the corn into fermentable sugars,” the always entertaining Mr. Calagione said by phone from his headquarters in Rehoboth Beach. “One way is through the malting process. But another way — there are natural enzymes in human saliva and by chewing on corn, whether they understood the science of it, ancient brewers through trial and error learned that the natural enzymes in saliva would convert the starch in corn into sugar, so it would ferment. It may sound a little unsavory.”


“We’re going to have an archaeologist and historians and brewers sitting around and chewing 20 pounds of this purple Peruvian corn,” he said. “You kind of chew it in your mouth with your saliva, then push with your tongue to the front of your teeth so that you make these small cakes out of it, then lay them on flat pans and let them sit for 12 hours in the sun or room temperature. That’s when the enzymes are doing their work of converting the starches in that purple corn.”

—okay, though, I have to say, if I get to drink it afterwards, I am so up for historically-accurate beer. I need to round up some historians to make beer with. Or at least drink beer with.

This attempt in particular ended up flopping pretty epically, but man, now I am all jazzed about historical beer. Drinking it or making it. Look, being a Serious Historical Expert does not pay all that great, and I will definitely take Serious Historical Beer-Making as a job. I mean, it combines two of my favorite things: history and beer.

In which there is a lot of saturated fat.

13 Sep

Wow, looking at my stats apparently there has actually been traffic to this blog lately! I am surprised, and now I am sure I’ve jinxed it and I’m probably going to forget all about it soon. Consider yourselves warned. I should also apologize for my lack of interaction; besides generally being terrible at replying to comments and having a pretty terrible couple of days (I spent about six hours straight on Friday crying for no really good reason, that was good times), I am not used to having comments to reply to! It is a strange and somewhat disturbing development. But I really appreciate the thoughts, and, heck, the traffic. It is very cool to know that people are interested in hearing me yammer about things. Well, okay, let’s be honest: complain about things.

Anyhoo, I feel like I have neglected the whole history aspect of this blog pretty badly lately, and that is a shame! Like I say, I had a pretty lousy couple of days, so today my mother and I got together and made brown-butter oatmeal cookies. I saw this recipe in the June issue of Vogue while waiting around for a job interview yesterday, and I didn’t quite trust myself to be stealthy enough to rip it out, nor was I quite shameless enough to just rip it out regardless of stares. Fortunately, the Internet exists, so I used the magic of Google and turned it up at another blog! Hooray!

I would give you delightful photos, but alas, I have lost the charger for my camera’s battery. Instead, because I am sure you are wondering what the heck this has to do with history (we can have a philosophical debate about this, I’m sure—rather, people can, but I am pretty crappy at philosophical debates, so I will probably not have much to say—but I’m fairly certain the June ’09 issue of Vogue does not have that much significance as a primary historical source just yet), here are a few facts about butter throughout history! Who doesn’t love lists of random facts about butter.

  1. According to Peter Hammond’s Food & Feast in Medieval England, gentry families could (did is probably another matter, but they could) purchase butter all year ’round, although “fresh butter must have been in very short supply at some times in the year”. Hammond also says that butter was apparently “very heavily salted”, citing by way of example that “in 1305 the Bishop of Worcester used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese”.
  2. This 1835 article on butter suggests that “The Romans, who adopted it as an unguent or medicine to anoint the bodies of their children, learnt the invention from the Germans; but neither Greeks nor Romans applied it to the art of cookery.” However, historian Andrew Dalby finds that Northern Europeans did eat butter during the classical period. Frankly I consider that article even more interesting than the facts it contains, since I find the way historical studies and writing have progressed to be pretty interesting in and of themselves. Personally, I’m reassured by the fact that I am not the first person to think it would be interesting to learn a little more about the history of butter. When you start saying to yourself that butter might be interesting to learn about you also start to get a little troubled by the state of your life.
  3. How far back brown butter might go, I’m not sure; a little cursory Googling turned up a recipe from 1918, and no instructions for how to brown butter are given, which suggests that it would’ve at least been common knowledge among chefs. It’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line, probably came up with the idea of cooking butter, especially since it’s made in much the same way as clarified butters like ghee.
  4. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of peat workers in Ireland found an Iron Age barrel filled with butter out in a bog. Alas, it’s now hardened into a waxy substance called adipocere, so there can be no exciting museum heists that result in cookies made with three-thousand-year-old butter. :(
  5. The seventeenth century finds samp (dried and powdered corn) mixed with milk and butter and “eaten hot or cold” as a breakfast staple in the North American colonies; it comes recommended by Roger Williams! If it’s good enough for the founder of Rhode Island, it’s good enough for you.
  6. The first time I tried to type out “other” in Item #3 there, I came up with “udder”. Apparently I cannot resist a pun.

Plus, the cookies were incredible.

In which I throw down a gauntlet.

30 Aug

rickeySo I found something deeply troubling today while wandering through Wikipedia, as one does (wander through Wikipedia, I mean, not necessarily find something deeply troubling while doing it, although sometimes that happens too). From the entry on the lime rickey, second only to the gin and tonic as my favorite mixed drink:

The drink is rumored to be named for a Colonel Rickey, an English officer once based in Washington, D.C.. More popularly, the seaside resort community of Wildwood, New Jersey is cited as its origin.

Now, first of all, I should caution any Serious Historians in the making that, for some mysterious reason, citing Wikipedia as a source will generally get you laughed out of the discussion. I am also telling myself that as a source of comfort.

(Sarcasm in “some mysterious reason” aside, I do find that Wikipedia is pretty decent as a jumping-off point, or to give you an overview of a situation, as long as you take everything with a grain of salt. It’s totally okay for your research to begin with Wiki, IMO, it’s just that if your research is supposed to be in any kind of depth, it shouldn’t end there.)

I normally don’t have a beef with Jersey — they gave me Bruce Springsteen, for one thing, a couple of dear friends, for another, and for a third, the town I grew up in tended to get talked about by other DC metro area residents the way people from the rest of the country seem to talk about Jersey, so I feel a certain sympathy for them. There’s also the possibility that this is a situation where two people came up with the same thing (let’s face it, gin goes really well with lime, so adding the two together and throwing in some vodka isn’t that hard to come up with), and leaving aside the “named for a British naval officer” explanation, “rickey” was a pretty common name given to lime-based drinks, alcoholic and non.

But so help me, Garden State, I will fucking fight you over this.

Actually, having done a bit of poking around, it turns out that there’s also rumors that it came from Brooklyn, but let’s face it, “so help me, Garden State…” makes such a great last line that I don’t want to spoil it.

Further, I feel like trying to track down the ~real~ source would make an excellent book, or at least an essay. POTENTIAL AGENTS AND/OR PUBLISHERS, PLEASE TAKE A NUMBER.