Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fondues and Don'ts.

Originally published Gazette Newspapers, October 2003. Updated October, 2013.

Most things from the seventies are forgettable. Disco, platform shoes, pet rocks, waterbeds, Kiss, ELO, and shag carpet come to mind but some things like the Atari 2600, Saturday mornings with Sid and Marty Croft, punk rock, and fondue parties have a fond place in my heart. Yes, the fondue party, molten cheese, open flames, and slightly inebriated guests with sharp forks, sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it’s actually a formula for fun.

In recent years, fondue, like bellbottoms and platform shoes, has made a comeback. In fact, fondue pots have been one of Williams and Sonoma’s and Amazon's best sellers during the holiday season. Fondue parties are becoming all the rage and many top chefs in New York and Los Angeles have added fondue to their menus. And why not? How can you go wrong with melted cheese and bread, or melted chocolate and pound cake?

While many of us associate fondue with '70s gourmands like Graham Kerr and Julia Childs it actually has more humble beginnings. Fondue probably originated during the middle ages in Switzerland  (although some Asian cultures and the Greeks also claim to have invented it) as a way for peasants to use up hardening cheese and stale bread. During long Swiss winters peasants had to rely on the food they produced during the prior fall. By the end of winter the cheese and bread was stale and unusable. Industrious and probably starving, these peasants found a way to use these seemingly useless ingredients.
Traditionally fondue was made with a mixture of Emmenthaler (Swiss Cheese) and Gruyere cheeses, cooked in pot called a caquelon (a heavy earthenware dish) with wine and sometimes a splash of kirsch or cherry brandy.  The ingredients and amounts of each cheese differed by region. Each canton in Switzerland had their own style of fondue, each using local cheeses and wines and other liquours. The people from the canton of Fribourg, for instance, use gruyere and vacherin and use plum schnapps instead of wine, while cooks in Eastern Switzerland use appenzeller and vacherin cheeses combined with dry cider.
The French and Italians both borrowed fondue from the Swiss and introduced it into their cuisines in the 18th and 19th centuries. The famous French gastronome Billat-Savarin first wrote about fondue in the mid nineteenth century. But, fondue found its place in U.S. cuisine in 1956, when Swiss chef Konrad Egli introduced fondue to his Chalet Swiss restaurant customers.
Since Egli’s introduction of fondue to Americans, cooks here have been even more creative than those hungry Swiss peasants, using all of the traditional Swiss recipes as well as inventing fondues of their own. A search through fondue recipe books yielded traditional cheese and wine fondues and hot oil or broth fondues for dipping thinly sliced raw beef.  More off-beat recipes include deep-fried dill pickle fondue balls, hot crab fondue, Mexican black bean fondue, and for those with a sweet tooth, toffee fondue, chocolate fondue, peanut butter fondue and even a hot crème en glace and Gran Marnier fondue.
The most intriguing and also most frightening recipe I came across was one titled “American Fondue.” In this recipe the wonderful Swiss cheeses are replaced with the industrially processed cheese that as kids we used as fish bait, Velveeta. Into the melted Velveeta cheese, add 2 cups of milk and 1/4 cup of flour. Then add a 1/2 a package of Lipton’s Dry Onion Soup mix and a jar of pimentos. When melted and hot, transfer to a fondue pot to keep warm. If this isn’t bad enough the recipe's author suggest dipping hot dogs or polska keilbasa into this foul concoction.

If this version of "American fondue" doesn’t sound all that appetizing, the traditional one is quite easy to make and very tasty. Toss together three cups of shredded Gruyere with 2 cups shredded Emmenthaler cheese, and three tablespoons of flour or cornstarch. Heat 1 1/2 cups of dry white wine in a heavy sauce pan over a medium heat until just before boil. Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese and flour mixture a little at a time until it is all incorporated. Continue to stir until mixture is smooth and bubbling. Stir in 1/4 cup of milk or cream and 2 tablespoons of kirsch. Add 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg and white pepper and transfer this mixture to your fondue pot and keep warm with fondue burner. Bring the fondue pot to the table and start dipping.
While crusty bread is the traditional dipping medium, be creative. At the fondue party I attended recently we dipped bread, vegetables, and gourmet sausages. Remember everything is good with melted cheese. But before you let your guests dip their first piece of bread, remind them of the all important fondue fon’don’ts. In other words, teach your guest proper fondue etiquette.
Given fondue’s communal nature there are a few rules one should follow so as not to gross out your guests. To eat fondue spear a piece of bread or other dipping medium with you fondue fork (each guest should have their own fork), twirl the cube gently to coat it and allow a few seconds for the excess to drip. You don’t want to drip molten cheese on yourself or your hostess’ table. When you put the piece in your mouth do not touch the fork with your lips or tongue (this is just bad form and it might freak out other guests). Alternatively, you can slide the dipped piece off your dipping fork and onto a small serving plate were you can then pick it up with a proper fork. For me this is an unnecessary step, but for a close friend of mine this step is a must and any other way of eating fondue is just plain disgusting.
If you want to experiment with other fondues and I suggest you do, epicurious.com has some fantastic recipes all of which are sure to please even your most finicky guests. While the fondue is important to the fondue party’s success, it’s also important to remember that the true joy of the fondue party is the fact that the host isn’t stuck in the kitchen all night cooking and can share in the conversation, laughter and joy of the nights festivities.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Not worth a "Fart-hing"

Originally published in Sept. 2004 Gazette Newspapers. Updated Sept. 2013

In 1781, Dr. Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Ben Franklin) drafted an enquiry to the Royal Academy of Brussels hoping to embarrass the committee, who he thought had grown pompous and irrelevant, asking them to “… approve, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age” his modest proposal. Having sufficiently buttered up his audience with high praise and eloquence he turned to his proposal:

“It is universally well known, that in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human creatures, a great Quantity of Wind. That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive to the company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind. That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases…Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.” His enquiry then was for the great minds of Europe “To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, [sic] to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable [sic] as Perfumes.”

Dr. Franklin, thus belittled the European scientific community with a fart joke. Yet, he wasn't the only one concerned with the often-cacophonous discharge that accompanies a good meal. Aristophanes and Hippocrates wrote about them, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and Milton, insulted people with them, Freud tried to explain our embarrassment of them and a host of modern remedies have been invented to keep them from occurring. Thus for centuries we (humans) have been shamed, proud of, and entertained by our flatulence.

According to gastroenterologists there are several reasons humans fart. Most, as Franklin observed, are related to our diet. Some foods just produce more gas. Vegetables, especially cruciferous ones, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, peas, onions and turnips, according to the Harvard Medical School’s Consumer Health Information site, contain varying degrees of complex sugars or carbohydrates such as raffinose, which for many are difficult to digest. This undigested food then passes from the small intestine into the large intestine, where harmless and normal bacteria break down the food, producing hydrogen, carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds (the stink) and, in about one-third of all people, methane (so only a third of the population can light their farts on fire). Much of this gas is reabsorbed by the body, but what can’t be absorb eventually exits the body through the rectum as flatulence.

Other foods such as fruits containing concentrated amounts of fructose, such as grapes (and raisins), plums (and prunes), melons, bananas, and raw apples, and foods high insoluble fiber and starch like whole grain breads, corn, potatoes, and pastas also contribute to flatulence production. In fact, pumpernickel, means "goblin that breaks wind" in Old German. For those that are lactose (another simple sugar) intolerant any dairy product can create explosive results.

Yet, any schoolchild or fan of Mel Brooks will tell you that the single most potent gas-producing food is the humble bean, especially baked beans. “Beans, Beans the musical fruit,” are made up entirely of simple carbohydrates for which the human body lacks sufficient enzymes in the stomach to break down. Once passed half digested to the intestines, the sludge that was once the beans is consumed by bacteria, and ferments in our bodies producing potent gases that have nowhere to go but down and out. And while some people are able to absorb and tolerate the gas they produce better than others, farting is quite natural, most humans doing it on average 15 – 21 times a day (so, guys, no matter how much she blames the dog your girlfriend/wife farts).

Other dietary habits can also play a role in natural gas production. Outside of eating, swallowing air is the second major causes of flatulence. Although much of this swallowed air is expelled upwards as burps or belches a small amount passes into the intestines and out through the rectum. People swallow air in many different ways, most while ingesting other food. For example, Drinking through a straw can lead to swallowing excessive air which, has to come out some way, often through your butt. Eating too fast, or talking while eating also may induce the diner to take in unnecessary air, thereby increasing the chances of post meal music. So your, mom was right you should always, “close your mouth and chew your food slowly.” Those of you who Chew gum on a regular basis should know that, when you chew gum, you swallow air, and that means more of the above.

Some also claim that lack of exercise and drinking carbonated beverages can also contribute to gaseous excretion. This may explain why so many find Sunday afternoons in front of the football game with the guys so offensive. Think about it, this is potentially the most gaseous occasion ever, corn chips, bean dip, beer (both carbohydrate rich and carbonated), and no one even contemplating exercise. If we could harness the natural gas from these gatherings we wouldn’t have to debate fracking for natural gas production.

So what can we do about such an explosive situation? One gastroenterologist suggests we “increase tolerance for flatus.” In other words, we come to embrace the fart for the normal human function that it is. But come on, really, I consider myself to be somewhat mature, responsible adult, but I admit (a bit reluctantly perhaps) that the sound of someone farting makes me laugh like a giddy school child. There’s got to be a better way.

Scientists believe they have the answer in products like “Beano” an over the counter enzyme that is supposed to hasten digestion of fart producing foods or activated charcoal pills, which are supposed to absorb intestinal gas before its released on an innocent public. Rather than stopping flatulence at the source some have opted for a more novel approach. The inventor of “under-ease anti-flatulence underwear,” (www.under-tec.com) claims his underwear stop foul smelling gas before it escapes. Under-ease are air-tight underwear with a removable filter strategically placed that eliminates odors from the fart as the gas passes through the filter pad.

While the above remedies may work for some, most would agree that the easiest way to control flatulence is dietary modifications. The key here is to keep track of those foods that are associated with the passing of gas. One health website suggests keeping a food log and “over a week or two you can determine your flatulogenic food profile." “Once the offending” foods are identified,” the continue, “they can be avoided to the degree necessary.’ It seems that the Atkins people might be right in one regard; a diet with fewer carbs today, will lead to a quieter tomorrow.

But remember most doctors, including Hippocrates and Ben Franklin agree holding one in for extended periods of time is not healthful. In fact, some even believe that there may be dangerous side effects (including dizziness and headaches). Your colon could become bloated, and theoretically, the methane and other lethal gases could add enough toxins to your blood to poison you.

Until next we meet, “I fart in your general direction.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Consumable Identity: Culture, Cuisine and National Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century

This is a piece that I wrote and presented to the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, on a panel titled "Eating America."

It's an unpublished draft that I set aside and never returned to after the conference. Despite having set it aside,  I'm proud of this piece and thought I'd share it here. Please do not cite,  or reproduce this article without my permission.

To explore the dietary habits, food and cookbooks of any society at any point in time is to uncover a store of information about that society. Cooking methods and preservation techniques imply local variety and the availability of native and imported foodstuffs. The ingredients used in creating a meal can hint at staples of the domestic economy, and dietary habits can indicate socio-economic standing. Additionally, cookbooks become a compendium of local attitudes, markers of culinary tastes and even expressions of political ideology. And yet until the recent past, food and eating habits have been the domain of sociologists, anthropologists and archeologists, and both amateur and professional food writers. Historians are just starting to recognize the importance of food as a tool to understanding our past. As Warren Balassco writes in Food Nations, “…Overall it is safe to say that food has until quite recently been largely invisible in academic history.” It seems as if social historians who look to the everyday to explain our past have ignored the fruits, vegetables, game and domestic beasts that made life possible. This study, along with those of my colleagues, is attempting to bring foodways research out of the cupboard and onto the table of mainstream of historical analysis.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cookbooks, food preparation, and eating were all, whether consciously or not, politically motivated and often 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 and part and parcel of the formation of a unique American identity. By exploring the first American cookbook, celebrations of various American foodstuffs, and the dietary habits of early Americans one can sense this emerging national identity.

 A natural place to start a study such as this would be an examination of cookbooks sold or published in the newly formed United States. Prior to 1796 the most often referenced cookbooks in America were imprints of British favorites. Eliza Smith’s “Compleat Housewife,” Susannah Carter’s “The Frugal Housewife, or complete woman cook,” and Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” could all be found on the kitchen shelves of literate Americans. Although these books sold well in America, they did not completely meet the needs of American cooks. In fact, the first few editions of these books completely ignored the local ingredients available to American cooks. In Smith’s “Compleat Housewife” for example there is no mention of corn, molasses, pumpkin, beans or any other staple of the American diet. What Americans needed was a cookbook that reflected their own cuisine.

Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” answered that need. Simmons book, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook published in America and the first written by an American. 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. The popularity of Simmons’ book surprised even her. “Demand” she writes, “has been so great and the sale so rapid that I find myself under a necessity of publishing a second edition.” Beyond being a simple recipe book, “American Cookery” was a record of an emerging American culture. 

The title page of this first American cookbook immediately hints that cooking in the New Republic was a statement of nationhood. The full title of the cookbook is  “American Cookery,/or the art of Dressing/ Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making/ Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings,/ Custards and Preserves,/ and all Kinds of/ Cakes,/ From the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake/ Adapted to this country,/ and all Grades of Life./ By Amelia Simmons,/ An American Orphan.” Several sections of this seemingly normal 18th century subtitle beg further analysis. 

One of the more curious statements made in the subtitle is Simmons’ assertion that the recipes in this book were “Adapted to this country,/ and all Grades of Life.” As other authors and intellectuals turned to the construction of narratives of nationhood through history, biography, images, and myths, Amelia Simmons was defining a national cuisine for all to consume. This statement of republican values and independence is an obvious attempt by Simmons to illustrate America’s unique character. Further evidence of Simmons political commentary is her statement that her book offers recipes for “all kinds of cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to the Plain Cake.” Although the referent of “imperial” and “plain” are cakes, one can assume that these are political distinctions rather than culinary ones and hint both at social mobility and equality within the new republic. 

Beyond the republican assertions in the title, Amelia Simmons’ declaration on the title page of her parentless status is also telling. This presentation of the author as an orphan, while perhaps a true reflection of the author’s past, is also in a late eighteenth-century context, the stuff of sentimental literature. But, more important is the broader political context of Simmons’ title page. By representing herself as an orphan, Simmons was also tapping into one of the more recognizable anti-British metaphors. From the first sparks of discontent, which emerged in the decade prior to the revolution, loyalists and many in the English parliament viewed the Americans as a spoiled and disobedient child. Colonial satirists accepted this designation and turned it on its head, asserting that they had become a fully matured and responsible child whose relationship with its parent had soured to the point where they were effectively an orphan, or would be better off being so. One of the more famous uses of this trope and one that nearly all Americans were familiar with is found in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine, in rationalizing America’s break from Great Britain, writes, “I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect.” To explain why this statement is not necessarily so Paine continues, "[n]othing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had any thing to do with her."  “American Cookery’s” title page thus places Simmons’ book within this same tradition and denotes an America that is an orphan or even better yet a country that is sui generis, one that developed its own unique identity and now knows the “best way” of doing things. 

“American Cookery” illuminates the development of national identity in other ways. 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. As Trudy Eden writes in her dissertation “Makes Like, Makes Unlike: Food, Health, and Identity in the Early Chesapeake,” "Although the colonists planted maize very early in the settlement experience, sources from the early years show that they believed it to be unhealthy. Furthermore, until the middle of the eighteenth century, its daily use by all social classes is doubtful. Wide scale use of maize in the Chesapeake occurred only when the Angloamerican inhabitants sought to mark their ethnic identity as separate from the British."

If one combines this analysis of the early Chesapeake residents using food as a marker of cultural difference, with the assertions of Benjamin Franklin, in the London Gazeteer, in 1766, who said “Pray let me, an American inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world and the johny cake or hoe cake, hot from the fire is better than a Yorkshire muffin,” it becomes clear that a distinct American

identity was forming through its cuisine. Although an individual’s fondness or distain of a particular dish or ingredient is, of course, not in itself significant, it becomes so when it is repeated by writers of one nation toward a staple of the diet of another, then these gustatory insults become national insults or identity one-upmanship.

Simmons and Franklin were not the only Americans singing the praises of Indian Corn. Joel Barlow’s 1793, long form poem “The Hasty Pudding,” celebrates the unique strength that corn pudding offers the American character. He notes that in Paris, “that corrupted town” and London, “lost in smoke and steeped in tea,” one cannot utter the name Indian pudding, but it is, Barlow insists the meal that “I praise myself in thee/May father lov’d thee thro’ his length of days;/ For thee his fields were shaded o’er with maize;/from thee what health, what vigor he possest, ten sturdy freemen sprung from him attest;/Thy constellation rul’d my natal morn,/And all my bones were made of Indian corn.” In this couplet, Barlow eulogizes that meal that has made “Freeman” strong. Later in the poem he reflects on the “purest food of all,” which can “rear the child and sustains a man,” “Shield[s] morals while it mends the size,” and gives health to those that “partake in this short repast.” Clearly, Barlow sees the American republic growing physically strong, moral and independent from its native cuisine. 

“The Hasty Pudding,” also highlights the virtue of a nation that is the product of a simple diet and American ingredients. Barlow argues that the American who prefers an Indian corn pudding and simple diet is one who can set an example for a virtuous nation. He writes, “There are very few persons but what would always prefer a plain dish for themselves, and would prefer it likewise for their guests, if there were no risk of reputation in the case. This difficulty can only removed by example; and the example should proceed from those whose situation enables them to take the lead in forming the manners of a nation.”  Like Simmons, Barlow presents Indian pudding as an attractive option, not a dish forced upon Americans by necessity and the fact that the British and other Europeans despise it while Americans celebrate it makes both Simmons’ book and Barlow’s work proud statements of nationhood.

Looking again at the Imperial Cake and the plain cakes highlighted on Simmons’ title page one sees further that simplicity in diet is a recognition of a new American identity. Imperial Cake and later Election, Celebration, Independence and Federal Pan cakes (all featured in the 2nd edition published later in 1796) were all made from a host of rich, expensive ingredients: quarts of cream, up to four dozen eggs, five pounds of butter and in most instances at least a two pounds or as much as fifteen pounds of sugar. All of these cakes were intended for use in celebrations, whether for new state and local holidays, the Fourth of July or Election Day. The use of rich ingredients and the enormity of these cakes hint that cooks, especially women who were responsible for these cakes, were sacrificing a great deal for their community. Here then the ideas of republican self-sacrifice are played out in largely female world giving women an opportunity for civic participation through their limited private roles. 

At home however, the rich and luxurious celebration cakes were replaced with plain cakes, whose ingredients are much more judicious and which were made for everyday use. As formal distinctions between the gentry and others were being minimized in areas like fashion, where powdered wigs gave way to ponytails and knee breeches and silk stockings gave way to pantaloons for men of all classes, so too was food being simplified and democratized. These cakes feature fewer eggs, usually numbering less than five, sugar in no more than a quarter pound and very little cream and only a pound of butter. Cakes for home consumption then were, as their title implies, plain, affordable and easily produced by all. Once again the choice of food Americans, especially housewives and other women, were producing in their homes represent the current political trends and gave women an outlet to express republican identity. 

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”. 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 imprints 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.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


“Please pass the catsup.” A simple request for sure and yet it was a request that sparked an evening of controversy. There we were enjoying a fine evening of food, drink and conversation at our favorite watering hole when our very good friend, a friend we often call Webster because of her extensive vocabulary and nearly flawless command of the English language, asks for catsup (putting the emphasis squarely on the cats). Immediately, everyone at the table corrected her with a resounding, “it’s Ketchup!”  A debate older than time itself ensued. What is the proper name and pronunciation of the spicy tomato condiment sometimes spelled ketchup, catsup, catchup or cetchup?

Normally in this situation Webster (as I’ll call her in this article) would have run straight to the bookshelves grabbed the OED and within a few minutes we would have been regaled with the origin, definition and derivation of the word ketchup.

Subsequent to our dinner, I did look up the word in no less than three dictionaries. Apparently, the word ketchup is derived from the Chinese ke-tsiap, a pickled fish sauce, more like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce than the tomato based condiment we know so well. This fish sauce eventually made its way to Malaysia and Indonesia where it became kechap and ketjap respectively. By 1690 the word “catchup”appeared in print in reference to this sauce, and in 1711 “ketchup” appeared. Today, catsup (pronounced according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “catch up”) and catchup are acceptable spellings used interchangeably with ketchup, but ketchup is the way you will find it listed in the majority of cookbooks and on most commercially available bottles.

So, what? Who cares, you ask? While all the variations are widely accepted and tend to be regionally specific, ketchup producers in the 1980s found out just how important the name “ketchup” is. In 1981, the Reagan administration decided to count “ketchup” as a vegetable on school lunch menus. All commercial bottlers who labeled the condiment “catsup” found themselves producing a simple condiment rather than a tasty and governmentally sanctioned vegetable. While public outcry eventually forced a reversal of this policy most ketchup producers had already changed their labeling and today it’s very difficult to find a bottle from any manufacturer labeled anything other than “ketchup.” 

Regardless o the spelling or pronunciation, ketchup has a long and storied past that surprisingly until very recently did not include tomatoes.  In the 1600s Dutch and British seamen traveling to China, Malaysia and Indonesia developed a taste for the pickled fish sauces from this area. Many of these sailors stowed small crocks of the salty condiment in their personal effects and imported it into their home countries. In an attempt to recreate the Asian condiment, cooks throughout Europe began to develop their own recipes.  Many regional variations emerged from these experiments. The British, who were particularly fond of the condiment, created their own ketchups that featured brined and vinegared mushrooms (the favorite), anchovies, oysters, cucumbers and walnuts.

The first printed ketchup recipes appeared first in British cookbooks and then in their North American counterparts. Elizabeth Smith's, 1771 “The Compleat Housewife”, featured a “catchep” recipe that called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and lemon peel. A post-Revolution version of the first American cookbook featured the same recipe, but called for cider vinegar rather than plain. Eighty-five years later the first tomato ketchup recipe was published in Nova Scotia by American ex-pat James Mease. Mease’s recipe, which he called “love apple” ketchup was said by him to have come from France, a fact that would have lent more respect to the recipe, but there is no proof of it.

Inventive cooks continued to experiment with ketchup recipes throughout the late 18th and early 19th century when they became commercially available. Commercial ketchups in Britain continued to feature mushrooms, but consumers in the U.S. preferred tomatoes. Ketchup was sold nationwide in the US by 1837 thanks to the hard work of Jonas Yerkes, who sold the product in quart and pint bottles. He used the refuse of tomato canning-skins, cores, green tomatoes, and lots of sugar and vinegar. Lots of other small companies followed suit-by 1900 there were 100 manufacturers of ketchup. The big success came in 1872 when HJ Heinz added ketchup to his line of pickled products and introduced it at the Philadelphia fair. The Heinz formula has not changed since, and has become the standard by which other ketchups are rated.

In 1848 some unscrupulous ketchup manufacturers were reported  for their unsanitary practices-coal tar and pigs blood were frequently used in the manufacturing process to heighten the red color. Others made the condiment from concentrated tomato pulp in the off-season, which, according to reports, they stored in very questionable circumstances. This debate continued until the 1900s, when the Pure Food Act put strict limits on food manufacturers. Today, the FDA has very strict guidelines that define ketchup, specifying the spices that must be used, as well as the thickness of the end product.

Today ketchup is one of the most popular condiments in America. According to the Ketchup Advisory Board, 98% of the American population has at least one bottle in their refrigerator, former President Nixon liked it on cottage cheese (A sure sign that something was not quite right with him), Baskin Robins has experimented with ketchup flavored ice cream and most recently Heinz has introduced ketchup in four custom colors including “Funky Purple, Passion Pink, Awesome Orange and Totally Teal.” While kids might be attracted to green or purple ketchup I find these special ketchups an insult to both nature and the tomato. 

The most lasting tribute to this great condiment is not actually ketchup it is the “World Largest Catsup Bottle,” which fills the skyline of Collinsville, Illinois (www.catsupbottle.com). In 1949 the town’s watertower was recreated in the shape of a 170 foot catsup bottle. Since then millions have flocked to the town to see it.

But if you really want to pay tribute to this tasty condiment you’ll make it yourself. In fact, its quite simple to make your own ketchup:
28 oz can of tomatoes or two pounds fresh
1 cup of onion diced 
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon each of dried mustard, ginger, cayenne pepper, celery seed, cinnamon, allspice, and ground cloves.

Run the tomatoes through a food mill or food processor into a large non-reactive pot, add the other ingredients as well as salt and pepper to taste and cook until thickened (about an hour). 

Or you can be as creative as you like. Try replacing the tomatoes with mangoes, mushrooms or cucumbers. Hey I’ve even seen banana ketchup recipes. Most of all have fun it is just ketchup after all. 

Equally tasty is tomato jam a slightly fancier and sweeter version of ketchup that’s great with cream cheese and bagels or as a condiment on grilled sausage sandwiches or your favorite burger. Here’s a version I made recently with the abundance of cherry tomatoes from our garden. 
3 pounds cherry tomatoes 
1.5 cups sugar 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
2 teaspoon lemon zest, finely chopped 
2 cups white wine vinegar 
2 tablespoons shallots, finely diced 
½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes or more to taste 
1 teaspoon salt 
Lemon juice to taste 
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

 Combine all ingredients (except lemon juice) into a heavy sauce pan bring to a slow boil, reduce to simmer and simmer for about 2.5 hours or until liquid is nearly all evaporated and mixture has jam consistency. I put mine into 8oz wide mouth jars and boiling water processed the jars for long term storage 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Plain as Vanilla?

(Originally published “Grunion Gazette,” Sept. 2001 updated August 2013)

Plain as vanilla? Who ever it was who coined this phrase was obviously ignorant of vanilla’s wonders. Just the smell is intoxicating, and for me brings back memories of summer days and ice cream, wonderfully smooth crème brulè, and fanciful candied treats.  In fact, when you think about it, there is nothing at all plain about vanilla.

Vanilla was discovered in Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors. There Cortez and his men witnessed the Aztec people flavoring their King’s royal beverage, xocolatl, with vanilla. cocoa beans, and honey. Cortez, impressed both with the unusual fragrance and flavor of vanilla, brought it back to Europe in the sixteenth century, where it quickly became the rage of European royalty. Throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries vanilla remained a rare and wonderful treat.  In fact, vanilla was so beloved it was used to pay tribute to the nobility and royals of Europe.

Vanilla AdIt wasn’t until the mid nineteenth-century and early industrialization that saw both the invention of vanilla extract, and the commercial ice cream factory, both of which would propell vanilla to popularity. In 1847, Joseph Burnett a Boston chemist/pharmacist responding to a request from a wealthy female patron created the first vanilla extract so his patroness could replicate the sweet creams and sauces she enjoyed while living in Paris. Burnett, maintained absolute secrecy over his extraction process and claimed that those who followed, used both inferior products (coal tar, clove stems and vanillin) and dangerous processing that resulted in an inferior product. His vanilla, he argued, was “first class,” “pure and natural.” Home cooks and commercial accounts took Burnett at his word and his business increased dramatically through the late 19th century, making Burnett’s Extracts one of the nations most popular companies and making him one of the more wealthy men in Boston. 

As vanilla extract became more widely available, other entrepreneurs leveraged its popularity into new products and ventures. Jacob Fussel a Maryland milk dealer saw an opportunity to turn his surplus product into cool cash. As a dairyman, Fussel had seen many years pass when he was stuck with cream that went bad. Rather than see his profits sour, he began producing large batches of vanilla ice cream and sold it for much less than local soda fountains. At twenty-five cents a quart, Fussel’s ice cream was even cheaper than homemade and Baltimoreans scooped it up.  By the 1860s Fussel had built an empire with commercial ice cream manufacturing plants in Baltimore, New York, and Washington D.C. Soon, other would replicate his success and provide a further vehicle for vanilla’s popularity. Yet, despite vanilla’s growing popularity, the tremendously tedious process involved in producing vanilla helped it remain one of the most expensive spices in the culinary arsenal.

Vanilla is the bean pod fruit of an orchid, and although there are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids, only one, Vanilla planifolia, produces the fruit which gives us 99 percent of the commercial vanilla produced world-wide. Vanilla orchids are grown in tropical climates, and are found primarily in their native Mexico, and in Spanish and French colonial Madagascar, French Rèunion, Mauritius, Comoro, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tongo. Despite its initial discoveries in Mexico, and its later distribution through the colonial new world, three-fourths of the world's commercial vanilla supply now comes from Madagascar.In 1841, Edmond Albius, a former slave, on the French Island of Réunion, perfected a method to artificially fertilize the short-lived vanilla flower. Using a thin bamboo skewer he lifted the membrane and then used his thumb to smear the pollen. This method was hugely successful and is still being used today. Once pollinated the pods take about nine months to mature and are harvested when the tips begin to turn from green to yellow.

The cultivation of vanilla is incredibly laborious. In their native Mexico, vanilla orchids are pollinated by a certain species of Mexican bees and hummingbirds. These animals are the only ones capable of penetrating a tough membrane that separates the plant’s pistol and stamen. As European colonizers transplanted vanilla to other tropical locations they became frustrated when they realized they couldn’t get the vanilla orchids to produce pods. It wasn’t until 1836 that a botanist from Belgium, Charles Morren, recognized that the flowers were not being pollinated and required some human assistance. Armed with this information, Europeans began experimenting with various ways to artificially pollinate the plants.

The curing process is also long and complicated. Once harvested, the green beans go through a treatment process lasting another six months. During this process the beans are soaked in hot water, rolled in blankets to "sweat," dried on flats in the sun, and then stored in a ventilated room to slowly ferment. This process produces their unique aroma and flavor.  The resulting dark brown vanilla bean is usually 7-9 inches long, weighs about 5 grams (.17 ounces) and yields about 1/2 teaspoon of seeds (enough to flavor a recipe for 4-5 people). The quality and aroma of the vanilla flavor varies by producer and geographical region.

For example, the genus  Vanilla tahitensis, grown only in Tahiti, produces a fruit that has a more floral aroma, and more exciting and subtle flavor than those grown in Mexico or Madagascar. In his “Blue Ginger” cookbook, Ming Tsai describes Tahitian vanilla as, “the most plump, fragrant and tasty vanilla in the world.” In 2001, I had the pleasure of witnessing vanilla production at a plantation on Tahiti’s island of Moorea. There, only small-scale artisanal production exists, which creates a wonderfully, full and aromatic bean. These beans produce a slightly less pungent and a subtle vanilla flavor. The Tahitians use this vanilla in both sweet and savory dishes. The sweet dishes crème caramel and ice cream are reminiscent of those found anywhere else in the world, but the Tahitian’s use of vanilla in savory dishes is incredibly unique. In these dishes a lightly sweet vanilla sauce accompanies local fish, shrimp and sometimes even poultry. While strange to the American palate the subtle sweetness and floral flavor of vanilla added a wonderful counter balance to these seafood dishes.

Given the intense work involved in the production of vanilla beans, it’s no wonder that they are expensive. In the market whole bean vanilla retails on average from $2 - $4 per bean (but the price can be substantially higher getting as much as $10.00 per bean).

When selecting vanilla beans, choose plump beans with a thin skin to get the most seeds possible. To test, gently squeeze the pod between your fingers. Pods should be dark brown, almost black in color, and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. If the beans harden, you can soften them by dropping into the liquid of your recipe until softened. If you discover what looks like sugar crystals inside the pod at it tip, enjoy your find of pure vanillin crystals. After scraping the beans for your recipe don't discard the pod save it for a later use in sauces or in a container of sugar. Beans should be kept in a tightly-closed container in a refrigerated area where they should last up to six months.

A cheaper, but still relatively expensive, option to whole bean vanilla are extracts or powders. The price of pure vanilla extract varies due to the quality of the beans used.  Pure vanilla extract should have no sugar added, and will last forever, aging like fine liquor. Beware of cheap "pure" vanilla extract. If the bargain seems to be too good to be true, it is probably an adulterated extract. Vanilla powder is also available, which should also be kept tightly-sealed, in a cool, dry place away from sun and heat.

Most of the adulterated extract comes by way of Mexico, where extracts from the tonka bean are added. Tonka beans, a member of the pea family, have a high concentration of coumarin, which has a stronger vanillin-type aroma, but virtually no flavor. This makes it difficult for the average consumer to spot the fakes. Coumarin was banned as a food ingredient by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1954 after tests showed liver toxicity in test animals. Some studies also indicate coumarin derivatives are an anticoagulant or blood thinner. Yet, this adulterated vanilla extract still makes its way into the US, since there is no testing done by customs inspectors and the addition of coumarin is not illegal in Mexico. Look for a high alcohol content in unadulterated pure vanilla extract, since synthetics usually have little or no alcohol. In order to meet FDA standards, vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol.

Avoid imitation vanilla, which is made from artificial flavorings, mostly from wood byproducts often containing unnecessary chemicals. Discerning palates find the imitation vanilla products to have a harsh quality with a bitter aftertaste. While pure extract is more expensive, home cooks have to use twice as much imitation vanilla to match the strength of pure vanilla extract making them cost about the same.

As mentioned above vanilla can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Try adding a vanilla bean to a jar of sugar for a uniquely-flavored sweetener. For a change of pace, add vanilla seeds to cottage cheese or flavored/plain yogurts and let stand overnight for an added boost of flavor. Or try your hand at a Vanilla Seafood Sauce. My favorite is uses both chamagne and vanilla. 

1/4 cup chopped shallot
3/4 cup Champagne
1 Vanilla Bean halved
1 cup Whipping or Heavy Cream
3 Tbs. Butter
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
Champagne or Rice Vinegar (a splash at the end to brighten the sauce)

Sweat the shallots in 1 Tbs. butter then add champagne and vanilla bean (scraping the seeds from the bean before adding it all to the saucepan). Bring mixture to a slow boil and reduce by about 3/4 10 or so minutes. Add the cream bring back to a boil and simmer until cream thickens (Dip your spoon into the sauce and when you run your finger along the spoon the impression should remain).Whisk in the remaining butter until emulsified, strain the solids and season to taste with salt, pepper and vinegar. Serve immediately over fish or shellfish. 

To make your own vanilla extract, chop 3 or 4 vanilla beans into small pieces, being careful to retain all the seeds and crystals. Put into a clean jar and cover with about a half cup of Brandy liquor. Let steep for 1-6 months. Strain and use with or without the pieces as your recipe defines. The mixture keeps indefinitely, and you can continuously add to it. If you find the brandy flavor too strong and have more time, use one split bean steeped in 3/4 cup of vodka (or better yet Everclear if you can get it), letting it stand at least six months.