Friday, July 20, 2007

Beer Styles.... (Originally published August, 2004)

“You foam within our glasses, you lusty golden brew, whoever imbibes takes fire from you. The young and the old sing your praises; here's to beer, here's to cheer, here's to beer.” – from Bedrich Smetana's 1866 opera “The Bartered Bride.”

While I whole heatedly agree with this quote, wading through the many beers available in markets, liquor stores and brewpubs today can overwhelm even the most avid beer drinker. For me, choosing a beer begins with understanding beer types. There are hundreds of beers brewed around the world, but most fall into two categories: ales or lagers.

Many people believe color distinguishes these two types of beer, a lager being pale golden, and ale, darker, rich and stout. However, the real difference lies in the yeast used to ferment the beer. Ale is produced by yeast that floats to the top during fermentation and can handle higher temperatures. The yeast in lager ferments at the bottom of the vessel in colder temperatures. Higher-temperature and top-fermenting yeast produce more fruity and complex floral flavors, while the cooler-temperature and bottom-fermenting yeast yield a much more mild beer in which the ale characteristics are subdued.

The hundreds of variations on flavor and taste in these types of beer come largely from beer’s other two main ingredients, malt and hops. The malt produces the beer’s sweetness and body (thick or thin mouth feel), and depending on the type of malt may add chocolate, caramel, coffee or spicy flavors. The hops are important for their herbal bitterness and floral aroma. For a beer to be a truly great, all these ingredients must be balanced.

Stylistically, ales encompass a wide range of flavors and colors. The darkest of the ales are the porters, stouts and barley wines. Porters are a dry, dark-brown to black, opaque ale. They have a sharp, bitter taste and tend to be lightly hopped. Stouts are the darker, heavier cousins of porter. The traditional stout made famous by Guinness is known as dry or Irish stout. The dry, roasted flavor and dark black color are classic stout traits. Russian Imperial stout is stronger than dry stout and has a bitter-burnt overtone. A sweeter, less bitter version is oatmeal stout, which uses oats in addition to barley malt. Barley wine — which is not wine at all — is simply ale with a high alcohol content (10-12%). It is also one of the few beers that benefits from "cellaring." This heavy, powerful ale has an alcoholic finish that warms the throat, making it a popular winter brew.

Lighter ales are also plentiful and include amber ales, IPAs, pale ales and brown ales. Pale ales, and amber ales are distinguished by their fruity and hoppy flavor. The varying reddish, amber and golden shades come from the use of different types of malt (using darker malts result in darker beer). India pale ale, or IPA , is hoppier in both flavor and aroma and also slightly higher in alcohol. IPAs were developed in England to withstand the long sea journey to India and the other colonies of the British Empire. Brown Ale is a slightly darker version of the pale ales. Because of their nutty flavors, brown ales are often called nut browns. These beers are slightly sweet, with a fruity, pleasant aroma. These and all ales should be served at what the Brits call cellar temperatures, around 50° F.

Lagers also vary in color and flavor. In general, lagers tend to have a cleaner, drier taste than ales. The most common lager is the pilsner. It offers flowery hop aromas and bitter flavors in a light bodied pale gold brew. Bocks are stronger but smooth all-malt lagers that compete only with their stronger cousin the doppelbock, or double bock, a darker and more chocolatey lager. In the fall, Oktoberfest (also known as marzen) is released. This is an amber, copper-colored lager similar to a bock, but with less chocolate and toasty flavors. Unlike ales, most lagers should be served at cooler temperatures, about 38° F.

Whether you choose ales or lagers remember, beer is as complex a beverage as wine and should be chosen as such. Try pairing pale ale with roast beef or a thick steak, or maybe Guinness Stout with chocolate layer cake. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a crisp lager; try pairing that with pears, apples and cheddar cheese, maybe a strong barley-wine with hot gorgonzola cheese fries.

However you drink it and whichever you choose to drink, beer is above all a beverage with great humanity and by far the most democratic of beverages. It’s been written that, “the poorest man cannot afford the finest wines but the finest beers are affordable to all.”

Beer (Originally published August, 2004)

Even Though he had the reputation of being an interminable drunk, Edgar Allen Poe hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today.”

Whether ale or lager, steam or lambic, traditional beer is one of the most diverse, complex, tasty and ancient forms of drink (some actually classify it as a food) known to man.

For at least 100 centuries beer has been a critical component in the human diet. A valuable source of vitamins and protein, a kind of liquid bread, beer may well predate wine and bread. Early written references to beer date from 4,000 B.C., and many anthropologists believe that the development of brewing led directly to the first human settlements. Recent findings in Amazonia indicate the brewing of beer was underway some 10,000 years ago in what is now the Brazilian rain forest where the farming of manioc and corn, two of the most basic ingredients in primitive beers, was a regular occurrence during the Pleistocene Age.

In all of these ancient societies, the brewing of beer was the exclusive domain of women. The creation of this important form of sustenance helped raise women to positions of respect amongst their people. From the Egyptian beer called "Hekt" to the "Aul" of the Vikings; from the "Chung" and "Chang" of Tibet and Mongolia, beer was celebrated in yearly festivals that focused on both the female brewer and the goddesses who gifted these cultures their beer.

The tradition of female brewing extended into the modern cultures of Europe and eventually the Americas. In Europe the involvement of the medieval church with commercial brewing and tavern keeping became so pervasive that by the 17th century few female brewers remained in the beer trade. However, household brewing survived and was transported with the colonists to the New World.

The log of the Mayflower gives evidence of the importance of beer to the survival of the pilgrims. According to Andrew Bar, author of “Drink: A Social history of America,” pilgrims chose to land at Plymouth rather than continue on to their original destination, Virginia, because they had run short of supplies, especially beer.

In the colonies brewing remained the domain of women. These resourceful brewers brewed with whatever materials were at hand. Records from the early 1700s tell of beers made from corn, bran, persimmons, potatoes, squash and Jerusalem artichokes.

The first commercial brewery in America was built in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York City) on what is now Wall Street. Rural household brewing did persist into the 1800s despite the more than 2,000 commercial breweries in the U.S. by that time.

Brewing hit its low point in America in the 1920s with the passage of prohibition and came to a head in the 1960s when fewer than 34 breweries remained (largely a result of postwar corporatization). Of the more than 100 basic beer styles once being brewed in the U.S., only the lager (Budweiser, Coors etc…), introduced from Germany in the 1860s, remained in the marketplace by the late ’60s.

Thankfully, beginning in 1978 (when the Carter administration legalized home brewing nationwide) and continuing throughout the early 1990s a large number of craft breweries and brew pubs sprang up throughout the United States and Canada as part of a consumer revolt against bland, watered-down beers. The happy result of this revolution has been that dozens of nearly forgotten beer styles came back into production.

Although the furor of craft brewing has died down some, there are now thousands of really good traditional beers available to American consumers. When these domestic beers are combined with the growing number of imported European specialty beers, the United States has become a beer drinkers’ mecca.

Summer Beer (Originally published August, 2004)

A warm summer breeze lilts lazily over the patio as I sit semi-reclined in a comfortable chair sipping at a tall glass of cold beer. This is my ideal summer evening. Throw in some good food, friends and conversation and the scene would be complete. This dream however could easily turn into a nightmare if the beer turned out to be Bud-light, Coors light or that blue and white-labeled swill from south of the border. You see, I’m a beer snob, and this summer fantasy needs a real beer not some large brewery “lawnmower” beer.

In the past I’ve written about the benefits of eating seasonally, summer fruits in summer, asparagus in spring, hearty dishes of root vegetables and roasted meats in the fall and winter months, and the sipping of beer is no different. For centuries European beer makers have released seasonal specialties. In winter months they release high alcohol warmers like, imperial stouts, scotch ales, and barley wines, whose alcohol content can bring warmth even on the coldest, dreary night. In fall and spring seasonally appropriate festbeirs, bocks, marzens oktoberfests, dunkels appear. Not to be outdone, American craft brewers have for the past decade or so, warmed to the idea of seasonal brews and produced a slew of some very good beers to whittle away lazy summer days and evenings.

Summer beers should be refreshing and a bit lighter than the highly alcoholic winter and fall warmers. When I say lighter, I don’t mean “light beer.” Sorry you low carb fanatics, there really isn’t any excuse for consuming anything with “light” or “lite” on the label. Unless of course you’re19 and drinking at a dorm or frat party, where most of the beer ends up on the floor and everybody is too drunk to care about what they’re drinking. Then and only then is tasteless and less filling fine. Lighter in this case means lighter in body and alcohol content, not flavor and color.

For the uninitiated both large and small craft brewers offer specialty summer ales and lagers (ales and lagers differ in brewing temperature and type of yeast used in the fermentation process. Ales are generally darker, richer and feature a more complex flavor, than the pale, lighter and clean tasting lagers.). Many of these summer beers are spiked with hints of lemon, other fruit and spice. Boston Brewing, makers of Sam Adams, one of the better large commercial brewers, offers Sam Adams Summer Ale, a wheat beer that they claim is a “reinterpretation” of a Belgian white beer. White beers originated near Brussels, a wheat growing region, during the 14th century. These crisp wheat-based ales were often brewed with coriander, juniper berries, and orange peel. The style was called "white" because of its light color and cloudiness -- the result of suspended wheat proteins in the beer. If you prefer a smaller craft brewed summer ale, try Pyramid Ales and Lagers Curve Ball Kolche, or Saxaer’s Lemon Lager, both offer great crisp and clean German lager flavor with just a hint of lemon.

For many, myself included, the idea of adding fruit, spice or any other adjuncts to my beer (brewer speak for anything that goes into beer that’s not water, malt, yeast and hops) just doesn’t seem right. While the above beers have garnered rave reviews and the adoration of lots of fans I prefer my beer to be just that, real beer. During the summer I reach for a refreshing wheat beer (hold the lemon), or a traditional pale ale. Both of which are excellent summer choices and pair well with the food of the season.

Wheat beer, a beer that contains up to 60% wheat-malt along with more traditional barley malts, with their low hoppiness (less bitter because of the type of hops or in some cases a lack of hops), soft malt and spice and fruit flavors (brought on by the yeast) are ideal grilled fish and shell fish. In general, most American wheat beers are intended to be light summer thirst quenchers, imbued with the unique, refreshing flavor of wheat malt. They taste a bit like German wheat beers, but without the spicy/phenolic yeast character of true weizenbier/weissbier. The best American wheat beers are Pryamid Hefeweizen, Ramstein Blonde, Ramstein Krystall or, Rouge Brewery’s Half-a-Weizen.

To truly understand the complexity of a wheat beer you should try one of the many German or Belgian style wheats. These beers have all of the complex characteristics offered by the style. The best, at least to me, are,] Edelweiss Dunkel Weizenbier, Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier, Celis White, and Berliner Kindl Weisse these beers are truly indescribable and the flavors, yeast, bananas, orange peel, clove, and some say, band-aid and latex, can overwhelm the beer drinking novice. For those of you who find those strong flavors a bit too much, a squeeze of lemon into the glass tames the flavors and creates a very refreshing summer drink.

Nothing goes better with summer cookouts, picnics or just about any summer activity than a traditional pale ale. Pale ale is an English beer style, that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century, but because of prohibition and the popularity of lagers in the U.S. it nearly disappeared. If not for America's microbrewery movement, this classic style might have become extinct. American micro-brewers embraced the old style, and rather than re-creating English versions of it, they instead adapted the recipes to include distinctive North American ingredients (hops and yeasts) to create a new, distinctly American variant of the style. Compared to its old world relative, American pale ale has a more straight-forward hop flavor and aroma, a malty body and an almost fruity or citrus-like finish. To many Americans this is the dreaded “bitter beer,” but to those of us who love beer this style is Manna in a bottle.

Aside from its flavor the best thing about pale ale is the tremendous variety of the style. All bars, pubs and stores will offer some form of American pale ale. My favorites include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Firestone Pale Ale, Flying Dog Doggie Style Pale Ale, Left Hand Jackman's Pale Ale, Redhook ESB, Full Sail Pale Ale, Pyramid Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Mendocino Blue Heron Pale Ale, Harpoon Ale, Stone Pale Ale, and many, many more, the choices here really are endless.

Seasonal eating, seasonal drinking. It's time to celebrate the diversity of a great pint. Whether you're in a beer garden or preparing a midsummer's night feast, the pleasures and possibilities of summer ales and lagers are as long as a summer's day. Crack open a new beer tonight and hoist it high in a toast to summer.

Monday, July 09, 2007

My Favorite Column, "To Pea Or not to Pea" (originally published December, 2005)

To pea or not to pea, that was the question that nearly drove my family to blows. Well, not blows exactly. I’m sure they wanted to hit me, but decorum and the fact that we were in a public place precluded any real violence. Nonetheless the argument was heated and nearly ruined a perfectly good trip to Spain. It was one of those arguments that only families can have. There I stood, in the middle of a super mercado in Spain, stubbornly resolute that I was going to create an authentic paella, not just some American version of Spain’s national dish. Already exasperated by a long day (which included driving several hours only to get lost in Spanish wine country), the rest of my family stared at me incredulously as they realized that they were going to have to deal with my, sometimes unbearable, stubbornness.

“Do you have a recipe?,” they asked.

“No, but I’m sure this place has cookbooks.” It didn’t, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

“Have you ever made an authentic paella,” they continued hopefully?

“No.” Was my only reply, thinking that if I could find a prepackaged version or a picture of the dish I could piece one together.

And so continued the debate for another fifteen minutes or so, they asking totally reasonable questions, my answering with obtuse and irrational replies all the while becoming more and more morose. It was at this point that my Step-Dad decided to take matters into his own hands and began collecting ingredients for his version of paella. A paella that I will now admit to enjoying every time he’s made it, but we were in Spain damn it, living in a house in Pyrenees and this improvised version wasn’t going to cut it. So what did I do? I pouted of course and eventually gave in to my parent’s demands, like the child was being.

When we got back to our home in the mountains the argument continued silently. I had agreed to work with my Step-Dad on the paella, but once in the kitchen I took over. Out of frustration he left me alone and I continued to improvise my way to an “authentic” paella. Near the end of the cooking process, I made a mistake that would haunt me for the rest of the trip; I added a handful of spring peas to the dish. When I unveiled my creation at the table, the sparks and frustration that had been building burst forth.

“You call this an authentic paella?” My parents asked. “It’s got peas in it, no real paella has peas.” They continued to mock my dish, “We’ve eaten paella throughout Spain and we’ve never had peas in it. This isn’t real paella.”

They were as insistent in their belief that paella was pealess as I was unyielding in my conviction that real paellas included peas. For the rest of the trip I made sure to note the number of paellas either real or in pictures that included peas. Not to be out done, my parents pointed out all paellas that were pealess. While this game eventually became a running joke for the rest of the trip, the root of the debate was never solved.

So, who was right? Well actually both of us. According to Spanish cookbook author and authority on Spanish cooking Alex Elger, the emblematic dish of Spain was born in the wetlands of Valencia during the 8th century Muslim occupation of the region. There the moors imported and began growing their staple crop, rice. As the years continued, rice became an important cash crop and farmers throughout Valencia opened more and more land to rice cultivation. According to local lore, it was these rice farmers who invented Spain’s national dish.

The original Valencian dish included, the now familiar, rice flavored with saffron and a variety of seasonal vegetables and game cooked over wood fires in open fields. That’s right, game not seafood, which most Americans and tourists to Spain usually associate with the dish. According to Penelope Casas’ “Paella! Spectacular Rice dishes from Spain,” these rice farmers, “traditionally lived by hunting, fishing, and foraging…The original paella was a dish cooked by the rice reapers, who made their midday meal from the foods that were hunted, fished, foraged and grown—, eels, wild duck, wild rabbit, snails and frog legs” featured prominently in the original dish. In the spring, she continues, “seasonal vegetables would include peas.” Yes, vindication is mine! Peas were featured in the original paellas along with green beans, white beans, a variety of bell peppers, onions and other fresh vegetables.

However, like other dishes that define a nation each region adapted the original to the foodstuffs unique to their specific area of the country. Thus as many food writers have noted paella has become a dish that is different from region to region and Spaniard to Spaniard. Admittedly, included in these many variations are several that are pealess.

Over time, the recipes became considerably more elaborate, the most recognizable paella de marisc ("seafood paella"), emerged in the coastal cities throughout the country. These paellas, which feature shrimp, muscles, clams, fish, shellfish and other mollusks, became a favorite of both Spaniard and tourists alike. Today the dish is served throughout Spain, but most critics agree that best seafood paellas are still found on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

Throughout Spain and even in the United States one can now find paellas with chorizo, duck, green beans, garlic, langoustines, lobster, mussels, onions, peas, red bell peppers, shrimp, squid and a variety of other creative ingredients. Some recipes even mix traditional meats and game with seafood, so its not uncommon, even in Spain, to be served a paella that features rabbit, chorizo, mussels, shrimp and peas, all together. Be careful of prepackaged paellas and recipes that eschew saffron for less expensive artificial colorings. While food purists and snobs like me may not accept these ingredients and combinations as authentic, they (with the exceptions of those that don’t use saffron) can be quite tasty.

A good Paella whether a simple, rustic dish cooked in open air and eaten straight from the pan, or an elaborate preparation, created in a high-end restaurant served with peas or without is a culinary treat that shouldn’t be missed.

The Kitchen Garden (updated from a column originally published July, 2004)

The kitchen garden is an essential part of American food culture. As the editors of Harvest of Freedom: The History of Kitchen Gardening in America point out, our nation was settled in many areas by colonists who came to the new world in search of arable land, a commodity difficult for many to attain. For these newcomers the kitchen garden became a symbolic and real means of achieving household security and economic independence.

By the early republic, Horticultural specialists like Thomas Jefferson (yes that Thomas Jefferson) Bernard M’Mahon, author of The American Gardener’s Calendar (1804), and many others extolled the value of simple agrarian life and inspired early Americans to seize upon the opportunities offered by the vast new country and promote the bounty of foodstuffs available to Americans with a kind of nationalistic pride. As M’Mahon wrote, Americans are blessed with that “which might naturally be expected from an intelligent, happy, independent people, possessed so universally of landed property, unoppressed by taxation or tithes, and blest with consequent comfort and affluence.” This attitude about American food culture and the pride early gardeners had for their produce lasted until well into the late 19th century.

By that time, Kitchen gardens had lost their primary function as the U.S. moved from an agrarian republic to an industrialized one. Many abandoned the practice of kitchen gardening out of the necessity of their situation (i.e. living within the growing urban areas), or for the convenience of pre-processed and canned food. For the city dweller or those taxed with working long hours in the booming factories gardening was a time consuming ordeal, easily supplanted by the market. Yet, small garden plots remained an important element of American culture.

During the first and second world wars they re-emerged, as the center of a grass-roots movement for “victory gardens.” In the post-war years these gardens became manifestations of the good life for American suburbanites. In recent years, under the tutelage of luminary chefs like Alice Waters kitchen gardens have become symbols of a productive work ethic and healthy eating for Urban school children. With the SLOW food movement gaining in popularity many have found kitchen gardens a perfect solution for protecting of heirloom vegetables against the loss and way to support local specialty products. Beyond these reasons growing your own food is simply fun and offers an economically smart alternative to buying very expensive fresh herbs from the grocery store.

while you might be thinking that a kitchen garden is out of your reach, you’d be wrong. The mild coastal Southern California summer offers the perfect conditions for establishing a kitchen garden that with little effort will overflow with fresh herbs and vegetables. These gardens can be small simple affairs such as a few small pots of fresh herbs on a kitchen window sill or a patio garden decorated with containers of planted herbs and a few of your favorite vegetables. Or they can be grand affairs, a large plot in your backyard filled with raised beds that offer up an unimaginable cornucopia of the summer’s bounty. Ultimately kitchen gardens are very personal and should reflect both your personality and your (pardon the pun) tastes.

While traditionally kitchen gardens were situated just outside one’s kitchen door many have found that mixing edible plants and vegetables into traditional garden plots offers a unique and often beautiful alternative to a purely decorative gardens. A very good friend of mine has herbs and vegetables (grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, basil, mint, asparagus and a whole host of others) tucked in and amongst the plants in both her front and back gardens. My own herb garden is comparatively small (2’ x 6’ plot), but within that small space I grow rosemary, two types of thyme, oregano, tarragon and sage and I’m about to plant basil and some pear tomatoes for late summer harvest.

In plotting your own kitchen garden, the first thing you should consider is the amount of time you have to work in your kitchen garden. Most experts suggest that you start small and expand later if you find you have more time and energy to put into your garden. The next consideration is location, if you’re planning on growing herbs and vegetables it’s important to place them in a location that gets 6 – 8 hours of good sunlight throughout the day. The University of Missouri agriculture department suggests, “Most herbs need a sunny location, and only a few, including angelica, woodruff and sweet cicely, are better grown in partial shade. The oils, which account for the herbs’ flavor, are produced in the greatest quantity when plants receive a good amount of sunlight each day. If you don’t have a good, sunny location, many herbs will tolerate light shade, but their growth and quality will not be as good.”

Now the fun part begins, choosing the herbs and vegetables you want to grow. And while this is the most personal aspect of gardening, I would suggest growing herbs and vegetables your familiar with along with a few heirlooms and herbs and vegetables you’ve never cooked with. You’ll also need to decide whether you’re going to start your garden from seed (if you’re starting now cool season vegetables would be a good choice, its too late to start most summer crops from seed) or from already established “nursery pots” (the easiest and quickest way to begin an herb and vegetable garden).

I’m not a gardening expert and most of the plants in my garden prove that, but I’ve been pretty successful with herbs and the few vegetables I’ve grown. The bulk of my knowledge comes from Sunset Magazine’s Western Garden Book, Arabella Boxer and Philippa Back’s The Herb Book, and the fantastic advice from the employees of Armstrong Gardens nursery. All of whom suggest, before transplanting herbs out of their "nursery" pots into the ground, water the pots well because a dry rootball is difficult to wet thoroughly once it is in the ground. Because "nursery" pots are small, herbs tend to become root bound. To encourage new root growth gently loosen the root ball before planting in the ground. Pinch out the tips of shrubby herbs, like thyme, to encourage bushy growth. Add some bone meal or fishmeal at the bottom of each planting hole. After planting firm the soil gently around the plant and water thoroughly to settle the soil and give the herb a good start.

According to Boxer and Back, newly planted herbs need regular watering, but once they are established, they are naturally drought resistant. They say successful gardeners give “herbs too little rather than too much water.” After a good soaking, allow the water to drain away and the soil to dry off. Water again when the top 2 or 3 cm of soil is dry to the touch. If your planting in containers, check them daily. The small surface area of potted plants tends to dry out much more quickly than those planted in garden plots.

Sunsets’ editors write, that fertilizing is very important, especially if you intend to use your herbs on a regular basis. During the growing season (April through October, although our mild winters will allow for nearly year round production) fertilize at least once a month. During the winter months one or two doses will be sufficient. And while, they suggest using balanced common fertilizer at half strength, I think using organic compost is a much better alternative to commercial fertilizers. To fertilize with compost either make a compost tea, or add a layer of organic compost to the planting beds or pots once a month.

Pruning is essential to encourage healthy, bushy growth. Remove dead leaves and flowers on a regular basis. Should you frequently use your herbs, pruning may not be necessary as you would be pruning automatically.

Herbs are not very prone to pests but vegetables are and if you do have an infestation (aphids, red spider, white fly) either cut back the herbs, use an organic pesticide, or as my friend does keep a large supply of lady bugs in your garage or refrigerator (they are available at most nurseries and garden centers) and sprinkle them on the effect plants when needed.

When its time to harvest your bounty, collect only what you need for a day or two and handle them as little as possible. Do not cut herbs at random. Take the opportunity to pinch out or prune the plant at the same time, removing unwanted shoots and encouraging bushiness. Use a sharp knife or scissors, do not break, bend or tear off the branches. Always harvest from clean, healthy plants in peak condition

Remember this is supposed to be fun and relaxing work. As my gardening friend says, “There’s nothing better than the taste of fresh produce that you’ve grown yourself.”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Food and Patriotism (Originally Published July, 2003)

This week America will be celebrating another Independence day and while politicians and other pundits will focus on war, providence and democracy as the markers of our national identity, I want to remind you that food has also had an important impact on our culture.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans embarked on a voyage to create their own identity. While politicians, scientists, authors and others were setting the course of American culture, home cooks, restaurant owners, tavern and boardinghouse keepers, American families and farmers were busy creating and consuming a new national Identity. Often overlooked, the food we consumed has played an abundantly important role in the formation of our national character. Thus the cookbooks they wrote, and the food they prepared and ate were all, whether consciously known or not, politically motivated and can be seen as markers of new cultural identity. Food became a celebration of nationhood, and the consumption and the choice of foods one prepared became a political act.

Prior to 1796 the most often used cookbooks in America were imprints of British favorites. Eliza Smith’s “Compleat Housewife,” and Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” could both be found on the kitchen shelves of literate Americans. Although these books sold well in America, even after the Revolution, they did not meet the needs of American cooks. In fact, the first few editions of these books completely ignored the new local ingredients, which were widely available to American cooks. There is, for example, no mention of corn, molasses, pumpkin, beans or any other staple of the American diet in these cookbooks. What Americans needed was a cookbook that reflected their own unique cuisine.

Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” answered that need. Simmons book, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook published in America written by an American author. From its first printing it became the most popular cookbook in the United States. In fact, Simmons’ book saw three editions, several plagiarized editions and at least twelve distinct imprints, which were produced through 1822. Beyond being a simple recipe book, “American Cookery” was a record of an emerging American culture.

This cookbook differs from the earlier British cookbooks in that it celebrates for the first time native ingredients, especially corn, pumpkin, and squash. Both pumpkin and other squash are highlighted in Simmons’ book. The recipes include a “crookneck or Winter Squash Pudding,” and two recipes for “Pomkin pudding.” Both of these recipes, along with using native squash, include suggestions for seasoning with molasses or maple syrup if refined sugar was not available. In Choosing molasses or even maple sugar as a substitute for refined sugar (an expensive and lucrative item in the British trade) and pumpkin and squash rather than European goods, Simmons was in effect supporting a domestic market and products, which were readily available to most cooks in the United States. Here then she shows a pride in using Native goods over those from imperial Europe. Thus the use of these goods is both practical and politically expedient. More important than her use of pumpkin and squash were her recipes for corn-based dishes.

Prior to Simmons’ book none of the cookbooks imported into the colonies or newly formed United States included corn-based recipes. Obviously all colonists and Americans would have been consuming corn and corn-based food products, but Simmons’ book was the first to collect these recipes in print. “American Cookery,” contains five recipes requiring the use of corn meal, three Indian pudding recipes, one for Johnny or Hoe cakes and one for Indian Slapjacks. Here Simmons is celebrating American dishes that the English saw as necessary evils when living in the crude colonies or America, but which they rejected at home.

Even the language used in Amelia Simmons’ text represents a unique American statement of identity. While Webster was busy arguing for a reformed national language, Amelia Simmons was adding new words to the American vocabulary. Throughout her cookbook Simmons uses a variety of new words and words that were distinctly American. Her recipes for gingerbread call for molasses, voicing a preference for the American word rather than “treacle” used by English cookbook authors like Eliza Smith and Hannah Glasse. Mary Wilson in her introduction to a 1958 reprint of Simmons’ work, points also to Simmons’ use of new American words such as “emptins” rather than emptyings, the proper word for the dregs of wine, beer or cider that were used in fermentation. Simmons’ use of this word predates its acceptance in the “Dictionary of American English,” by more than forty-three years. She also employs the words “slapjack” for a griddlecake, “Hannah Hill” for sea bass, shortening in place of butter or lard, and cookie instead of the English “little cakes” or “biscuits.” All of these words would become common in the American vernacular throughout the 19th century. In 1828, shortening, Hannah Hill and slapjack all make their first appearance in Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language.”

By 1805 the editors of British cookbooks were recognizing the unique identity that Americans had when it came to food. The British cookbooks slated for sale in America adapted their recipes to American ingredients, tastes and American language. The1805 edition of Glasses’ “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” featured “a new edition, with modern improvements.” These improvements included recipes for pumpkin pie, molasses gingerbread, “injun and rye” a cornmeal and rye mush, and American Citron or pickled watermelon rind. These recipes are all missing from the English publication of the same title and dates. Thus in a literal fashion, American tastes had achieved independence from English cuisine.

While food has and always will play an important role in the formation of our national identity I’d also remind you that our country was born from a tradition of public dissent. Whether we were boycotting British foodstuffs, speaking against a leader we believed to be tyrannical and despotic or rioting in the streets in defiance of Parliament’s various acts and taxes, Americans have fought dearly to be able to stand up to a government that restricts our civil liberties. On the eve of this Fourth of July I’d like to quote Thomas Jefferson from the “Declaration of Independence,” “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.” Always remember that dissent is patriotic.

Red, White and Watermelon (Originally Published July 1, 2001)

The Fourth of July: parades, picnics, patriotism, fireworks and of course watermelon. Yep, watermelon. The cool, juicy, treat of summer has, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, become the most consumed fruit at Fourth of July celebrations. But patriotic revelers aren’t the only ones who enjoy the sweet red melon.

People throughout the world have loved watermelon for centuries. Egyptians grew watermelons more than 5,000 years ago, decorating wall paintings with watermelon and depositing the seeds and leaves in the tombs of pharaohs. From Egypt watermelon's popularity grew as traders began selling seeds along Mediterranean trade routes. By the 10th century watermelon made its way into China, and by the 13th century the Moors introduced watermelon into southern Europe. European colonists and African slaves are credited with bringing watermelon to North America.

Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic grower of watermelons at his Monticello estate. Henry David Thoreau proudly grew large and juicy watermelons in Concord, Mass., and Mark Twain wrote in “Puddn’head Wilson,” “The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”

In fact watermelons have become a part of American culture. Ellen Ficklen in her book “Watermelon” documents the important role of watermelons in American popular culture. She reveals the numerous ways, including folk art, literature, advertising, merchandising, and the large number of annual summer watermelon festivals throughout the country, in which the watermelon is celebrated.

Because African slaves played an integral role in the dispersal of watermelon seeds throughout the south, the fruit has also became part of a stereotype often associated with rural African-Americans. Watermelons have thus figured as key symbols in the iconography of racism in the United States. Despite these negative connotations, watermelons continue to be important culinary gifts.

Modern varieties of the watermelon are derived from the native African vine Citrullus lanatus. Cultivated for thousands of years in the Nile Valley, this species still grows wild in the arid interior and supplies native people with water during drought seasons.

From this wild variety more than 500 hybrids have been developed and are grown worldwide. Each of these types are different, giving the consumer a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colors to choose from. Watermelons are generally divided into two categories, either the icebox or picnic varieties. The icebox melons are so called because their size, ranging from five to 15 pounds, allows them to fit more easily into the refrigerator. Picnic melons are larger, weighing anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds for the commercially available types. Yet, home gardeners have grown picnic melons in excess of 200 pounds. In 1991 Bill Rogerson of North Carolina won a place in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for his gigantic 279-pound watermelon, a record that still stands today.

Most Americans are familiar with the vivid reddish-pink flesh dotted with black seeds, but there are also white-, pink-, yellow- and orange-fleshed varieties, with or without seeds. Color, size and shape have little bearing on the flavor of the flesh between differing varieties. Seedless varieties are not truly seedless, but actually do contain tiny, white, edible immature seeds in lesser amounts than traditional watermelons.

The oddest variety though came to market two weeks ago in Japan. For the past 20 years several Japanese farmers have been working on a way to produce square watermelons. To produce this odd-shaped fruit, farmers incase immature fruit in glass cubes. As the fruit matures it’s confined in the container and when fully ripened the melon is a perfect cube. The Japanese believe this stackable fruit will be popular among confined urban dwellers of Tokyo and Osaka. At $83 (U.S. dollars) apiece I’m not so sure.

Whether round or square, red, white or yellow this year make watermelon a part of your Fourth of July celebrations.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Something Fishy (Originally Published March, 2002)

Spring is here, daylight savings time has begun and the nights will soon be warmer. For me, and for many others, these changes ring in the beginning of barbecue season. Neighborhoods will soon be filled with the smells of meat cooking on the grill. For some their barbecues will be filled with tasty slabs of beef and pork ribs, for others it means a big juicy steak, or beer can chicken (see my next column), but for a growing number of home cooks it means a nice light flaky and moist fish. But before you slap that Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, shark or swordfish on the grill consider the manner in which it was caught.

The above fish are among a growing list of fish and shellfish that are being overfished from the world’s oceans. Since the 1950s, governments worldwide have pumped billions of dollars into the fishing industry in order to encourage more people to become fishermen and to make the industry more efficient. Fifty years ago, the fish supply seemed endless and plentiful, and with more fishermen and better technology available, governments could stimulate the fishing industry and turn handsome profits. By 1994, ocean fishermen worldwide were catching 4 times more fish than they were in 1950.

The reproductive capacity of fish like Chilean sea bass, shark and swordfish can not compete with this improved technology or with the increasing numbers of fishermen. The Chilean sea bass for instance matures slowly--it spawns after 10 years--and is often caught before it has a chance to reproduce. Beyond its slow reproductive system the fish dwells in remote areas where regulation is haphazard, making it virtually impossible to control the way the fish is caught and sold. According to the New York times 16,000 tons of sea bass were harvested legally in 2000, but nearly twice that amount was taken illegally. That means that 80 percent of the Chilean sea bass on the world market is illegally obtained.

Swordfish suffer the same fate as Chilean sea bass. According to an 1998 article in Time magazine, it was in the 1950s that swordfish populations first threatened by overfishing. Until then, swordfish were generally harpooned, and only the largest, usually weighing more than 200 lbs. and sometimes as much as 1,200 lbs., ended up on dinner plates. This fishing technique left the smaller swordfish to grow. In the 1960s, fishermen adopted a more devastating technique called long-lining, which makes catching swordfish cheaper and quicker. Hundreds of hooks are attached to a line that stretches for miles at a depth where swordfish congregate. Anything that bites gets hooked and often suffocates--mainly swordfish but also sharks, sea turtles and other marine species. Most worrisome is that much of the catch consists of small swordfish, averaging 90 lbs. or less At this size, females have not reached reproductive maturity. According to the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Game web site in 2000 an estimated 68% of the Atlantic swordfish catch was of immature fish.

The North Atlantic swordfish, Chilean sea bass and orange roughy have become so scarce that many of this country’s top rated restaurants have stopped serving them in order to protest the near depletion of these species. Chefs like Charlie Trotter, in Chicago, Paul Prudhomme in Louisiana and over 200 top rated restaurants in the Mid West and on the Atlantic, Gulf and West Coasts have pledged not to serve swordfish, orange roughy or Chilean sea bass. Some of these restaurateurs have even printed information about the campaign on menus. In this way diners will learn that fish populations are under pressure everywhere and severely depleted in the Atlantic.

The most depleted fish species today is the bluefin tuna. The number of bluefin tuna in the Western Atlantic Ocean has dropped 90 percent since 1970, making them much harder to fish and buy in supermarkets. A single bluefin tuna can bring a fisherman as much as $20,000 at U.S. docks. This high price increases the chances that the fish will be poached (no pun intended) or caught illegally.

There have been various efforts to reverse the damage that overfishing has caused. In recent years, the U.S. government has imposed stricter regulations on fishermen, setting limits on the number of fish caught and restricting the use of environmentally-destructive equipment. These remedies along with fish farms, setting aside preserves and regulating the number of boats a country can use to fish have had a positive impact on the number of fish available to consumers world wide. But these solutions present environmental problems of there own.

Ultimately, you the consumer will decide the fish's fate. Restoring world wide fish populations to healthy levels could take up to 20 years--a long time to forgo a favorite treat. But if swordfish and other popular fish become too scarce to catch, future generations may never taste it at all.