Saturday, June 3, 2017

Eight Flavors of What?

For Christmas, a good friend gave me an autographed copy of an interesting book about historical food in America. The citation is as follows:
Lohman, Sarah.  Eight Flavors:  The Untold Story of American Cuisine. (Simon & Schuster 2016).  304 pages.
Pre-ground black pepper
(Wikimedia Commons)
Italian garlic (Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Lohman writes a food blog, Four Pounds Flour, in which she discusses attempts by her to recreate period recipes and other tasty morsels of information about historical food.  I have enjoyed her blog a lot, and was interested to see what she could do with her experimental approach to food history in the longer format permitted by a book.

Although there is a certain amount of personal anecdote in Eight Flavors--something that often annoys me in popular history books--there is also a large amount of interesting historical information and some fascinating period recipes.  I'm glad I was given a copy of the book and have read it, because I learned many interesting things I had not known before.  So I was surprised to find myself reacting to Ms. Lohman's presentation with puzzlement and annoyance.  I was surprised, because I couldn't pin down what was bothering me.

Eventually, I figured it out.  It's the subtitle:  "The Untold Story of American Cuisine", and the somewhat ambiguous relationship of that subtitle to what Ms. Lohman does in her book.

Had Ms. Lohman decided to name the book something like "Eight Flavors:  The Untold Stories of the Tastes America Enjoys", I would have had no problem at all, because the book makes a very good case for the proposition that these are the most popular American flavors today. And I'm more than willing to agree with Ms. Lohman that Americans annually consume substantial amounts of black pepper, vanilla, and so on.

But instead Ms. Lohman chose to use the word "cuisine".  That throws a different light on the matter. To explain why, let's look at a few definitions of "cuisine."

According to Wikipedia a "cuisine ... is a style of cooking characterized by distinctive ingredients, techniques and dishes, and usually associated with a specific culture or geographic region." Dictionary.com simply calls it "a style or quality of cooking; cookery." Merriam-Webster's definition is similar to Dictionary.com's: "manner of preparing food: style of cooking ...  also: the food prepared."

MSG (Wikimedia Commons)
Do you see the problem?  "Flavors" can simply be about what people, or the people of a country such as America, eat, whether that food is cooked by third parties in restaurants or shops or is cooked by the eaters themselves at home. But a cuisine is not simply about what people eat; it's about what people choose to cook for themselves, when they do cook for themselves.  And Ms. Lohman's claim that these eight flavors are all flavors of "American cuisine" is less persuasive for some of the eight flavors than others.  My annoyance came from my nagging suspicion that she had not made a good argument for showing that all eight of the flavors are truly "associated" with American cooking.

Ms. Lohman says, in her introduction:
But if I looked past these differences [in sorts of food made American cooks in different regions of the country], I wondered what united America's culinary culture?  I thought of rose water and vanilla:  rose water, at one time, was used all over the United States; and vanilla, regardless of a family's ethnicity, is consumed all over the country today.  I realized the key to defining American cuisine was to break it down to the basic flavors we all use, like vanilla.  (p. xv)
Vanilla pods
(Wikimedia Commons)
Ms. Lohman went on to reason, appropriately I think, that people learn to like particular flavors and that, once the preference is learned, it generally remains throughout life.  How to track what these preferences are, over time?  Ms. Lohman decided to do so by amassing a large collection of cookbooks published in America over the course of its history, examine the recipes for use of substances that provide particular flavors (based on how many times the words turn up in the books) and then graphing the results to determine which 8 "flavor" words are the most prevalent.  Thus Ms. Lohman arrived at her eight flavors: black pepper; vanilla; chili powder; curry powder; soy sauce; garlic; monosodium glutamate; and sriracha.

The problem with this method is that it assumes that cookbooks reflect what Americans actually cook, instead of, say, things that the cookbooks' authors want to encourage people to cook or to cook more often.  Early in America's history, when few cookbooks were published, it's a fairly reasonable to assume that recipes in cookbooks reflect, in a general way, the sorts of recipes made and the ingredients used.  As the number of cookbooks has increased, it's much harder to make that claim because a lot of American cookbooks over, say, the past few decades (I cannot speak to how early this trend began) are targeted to would-be cooks with particular interests:  owners of slow cookers; people looking for gluten-free or meatless recipes; or people seeking to emulate different non-American ethnic cuisines.

Soy sauce
(Wikimedia
Commons)
Put another way, the mere fact that a few cookbooks sold in America contain one or more recipes using a particular ingredient doesn't necessarily mean that a majority, or even a plurality, of Americans cook with it.  It's also a problem in that, once we reach the point in time at which cookbooks proliferate, one's attempts to divine characteristic American "flavors" will depend, directly, on how one selects cookbooks that are characteristic of American cooking.  And Ms. Lohman has not explained the basis on which she has chosen her cookbooks for Eight Flavors.

It may be easier for me to illustrate my view of the divergence between Ms. Lohman's recipe word analysis with some observations about use of each of her eight flavors in American cuisine. For two of the flavors, I agree with Ms. Lohman; they are definitely part of American cooking.  For two more, though there's more room for discussion, it's fair to say that they are probably part of American cooking.  Three more flavors have been intermittent, having gone in and out of fashion in American cooking, and the last one is only beginning to find a way into our cooking, even though it was invented here and is consumed in substantial amounts.  In writing this section, I have been influenced by my reading of cookbooks targeted at ordinary Americans, particularly mothers with busy schedules. The sorts of recipes featured by well-known blogger Stephanie O'Dea, are good examples of the sort of cooking I mean, even though she has an unusual interest in gluten-free cooking because she has children who cannot tolerate gluten for medical reasons.

DEFINITELY PART:  black pepper and vanilla.   I completely agree with Ms. Lohman that black pepper and vanilla are among the characteristic flavors of American cuisine.  Black pepper, though originally from Asia, had been part of European cuisine in England and elsewhere in northern Europe long before the Pilgrims sailed, and continued consistently to figure in recipes of all kinds while our young nation grew.  Today, there probably isn't a restaurant in America that doesn't have a shaker or grinder of black pepper on the table, and hardly a recipe in any cookbook published in this country that doesn't include the words "add salt and pepper to taste."
Curry powder, from Istanbul
(Wikimedia Commons)

Vanilla has a similar history.  It comes from a New World plant, but found its way to Europe in early modern times, and as Ms. Lohman tells us, European foods that use its unique flavor were imported back to America and became entrenched here.  Though vanilla does not turn up often in entrees and mealtime courses, it is very common in desserts of all kinds, particularly ice cream.

Huy Fong
sriracha
(Wikimedia
Commons)
PROBABLY PART:  curry powder and chili powder. There is a good case to be made for these spice blends as being characteristic of American cuisine, nowadays. Although Ms. Lohman acknowledges that Indian food, where the herbs typically included in curry powder originally came from, is not as popular as food from certain other lands, she has shown that spice combinations similar to modern curry powder have turned up in American cookbooks since the 18th century. More importantly, more recently curry powder has won itself a place in certain American dishes that have nothing in common with Indian cuisine other than the use of curry powder blends.  Mr. Lohman gives the example of country captain chicken, but in my opinion a more common, and thus for this purpose better, example is curried chicken salad, which turns up in a number of restaurants serving "American" style food and (undoubtedly) numerous recipe collections.  (The Wegmans supermarket chain sells a wonderful version of this dish that includes tofu at its food bars.)

Upon reflection, chili powder also qualifies.  After all, it was invented in the U.S. and made popular in Texas by the "chili queens" Ms. Lohman tells us so much about. Although chili powder mostly turns up in cookbooks as part of recipes for chili, a profusion of "chili" recipes has sprung up that is so varied as to practically count as a sub-cuisine in and of itself. Original chili con carne, consisting of chili-spiced beef.  Chile con carne, with beef and beans.  Chicken chilis and turkey chilis, with white beans.  Vegetarian chilis, with beans but no meat at all.  All of these contain chili powder.  Although I don't understand why Ms. Lohman did not generalize her claim to "red pepper" or cayenne, which appears in many various American recipes (and in Old Bay seasoning, which many Americans cook with), I'm disinclined to argue about the inclusion of chili powder in her "flavor" list.

INTERMITTENTLY PART:  garlic, MSG, and soy sauce.  In my opinion, garlic, MSG, and soy sauce all have a place in American cuisine, but it's a bit premature to think of any of the three as "characteristic" of American cooking, because they have not been consistently part of the broader American culinary scene.

Garlic is an interesting example.  Though a kitchen mainstay for thousands of years in some cuisines, such as those of China, Greece, and Rome, it did not find a place in early English cuisine, and thus a habit of using it did not come to the New World with the English in the way that the habit of using black pepper did.  Ms. Lohman chronicles how garlic was originally unpopular, in part because it was associated with lower-class immigrants and their cultures.   In our health-conscious culture of today, garlic is praised because of its health benefits, which probably accounts for much of its current popularity in American food.  As for recipes, onion is ubiquitous in American cookbooks (and on American tables), but garlic is much less so.  It is still held back from true ubiquity by its associations with certain immigrant cuisines, even now.
Homemade chili powder
(Wikimedia Commons)

Soy sauce certainly turns up a lot in American grocery carts, but it doesn't typically get used in "American" dishes such as chili or beef stew.  Instead, it is used on Asian, particularly Chinese and Japanese restaurant foods, and in home-cooked recipes based upon those cuisines.  You find it on the table as a condiment in American restaurants, but only those American restaurants that serve Chinese or Japanese food.

MSG, for the most part, is a good example of a flavor that's certainly present in American food (many Chinese restaurants in this country probably still use it), but it is not really a part of American cooking, undoubtedly due to the "controversy" about its harmfulness. Perhaps MSG sits on the table with the salt and pepper in Chinese American homes, but it doesn't have such a role in other American homes, despite the efforts of Wyler and others to sell it to American home cooks.  (For what it's worth, I have never suffered from "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" and to this day have no clear idea what MSG on its own tastes like, though I used to have a container of Accent in my house.)

NOT QUITE PART:  sriracha.   The presence of sriracha in a book supposedly about American cooking feels forced, as though Ms. Lohman wanted to have an eighth flavor in the book mostly for symmetry's sake.  Sriracha is certainly a popular flavor, both on restaurant dishes and snack foods, but the only examples of cookbooks that contain sriracha recipes are quite new and targeted at adventurous eaters.

I can understand why Ms. Lohman did not want to write about sugar or salt; she's right that they turn up everywhere, and that quite enough has been written about them already. But there are other American tastes--common tastes--that do not turn up on her list, and I do not understand why.  Tastes like tomato (a prominent flavor in the chili con carne she discusses in Chapter 3) and tomato ketchup (found in most restaurants and homes throughout America, and, like curry powder, also an inheritance from the British/Indian influences on our cooking) and onion (I'm hard pressed to think of any soup or stew recipe that doesn't have at least one onion in it, and it's an integral part of a lot of American regional dishes, such as the Philly cheese steak).  

Nor is it clear why sriracha, a relative newcomer to the American scene, appears in the book when Tabasco, a much older hot sauce that often turns up in recipes and on tables in American restaurants, does not.  It might have been better to have grouped the capsaicin-based sauces together as an American flavor and to cite sriracha as the newest, most currently popular example of the breed.

Overall, what bothers me about Ms. Lohman's book was its confusion of the idea of popular flavors with whether use of those flavors and the condiments that produce them have become entrenched in American cooking.  But that confusion, assuming readers agree with me about it, is not a reason not to read Eight Flavors.  Whether or not you agree with my arguments above, Ms. Lohman's book has a lot of interesting information to offer, and a few intriguing recipes.  I enjoyed the book, and I'd recommend it as a fun read for anyone interested in the history of food.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Taste Test: the Exo Bar

Exo bar, front of wrapper
Exo bar, ingredients information
Some time ago, I blogged about an entrepreneur in Europe who is marketing food bars made from cricket flour--cricket parts ground up into powder.   In the course of writing it, I learned about some similar American products, including the Exo Bar.  Recently, I learned that our local supermarket, Wegmans, sells Exo bars, so I decided to buy one and try it out.  I purchased their "Cocoa Nut" (i.e., chocolate with nuts) flavor.

The Exo bar is expensive--$2.99 for just one bar at my local Wegmans, compared to between 99 cents and $1.69 or so for most other brands of food-replacement bar.  According to the wrapper, one bar contains 300 calories--less than some of the food-replacement bars such as the Meal Square, but significantly more per individual bar than Luna or Balance bars or most of the other meal replacement bars that I've seen on sale here in the U.S.

Unwrapped, the bar looked like other brownie-type food bars I've seen.  It was the color of a dark chocolate brownie, contained bits of nuts, and had a shiny surface.

Exo bar, unwrapped
Eating the bar was an interesting experience.  It did not take a lot of effort to eat, but it felt substantial to chew, which was not unpleasant.  Unfortunately, the taste was nothing to write home about.  The Exo bar didn't taste excessively sweet, which is a plus.  But it didn't taste very brownie-like or chocolatey, either--a definite minus in a "cocoa" bar.  The strongest flavor note I picked up was a kind of winey undertaste, which I didn't find very appealing.   Never having eaten a cricket flour bar before, I'm not sure whether the winey taste was due to the use of cricket flour, or a side effect of some other element/s of the ingredient mix. I was reminded of one of the title character's taglines from the movie Crocodile Dundee:  "Tastes like sh*t, but you can live on it."

So I don't expect to be buying or eating a large number of Exo bars any time soon.  I haven't ruled out other cricket-based foods, however.  It's possible that other formulations will lead to better taste, and a food bar with 10g of protein from sustainable ingredients is hard to argue against.

NOTE:  You can click on each photograph to make it larger and clearer.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Which Came First?

Which came first, domestication of grain growing, or grain storage?  Whenever I bothered to think about this issue at all, I assumed that homo sapiens ceased to be nomadic and settled down after inventing agriculture, because to get the maximum benefit from that discovery it was necessary to store grain in big buildings, called granaries.

Recently, I found a Science Daily article about a study published in 2009 which concludes that the opposite is true; namely, that the first granaries were built and used before agriculture was discovered.  The study is based upon discovery of archaeological evidence in Jordan of the existence of buildings, with elevated floors to deter vermin, that date to the New Stone Age (about 11,000 B.C.E., before agriculture was discovered).  The researchers' thought is that discovering how to save wild grains for food led to reduced nomadism, and thus paved the way for the development of agriculture and a mostly sedentary society.   I couldn't find a copy of the study itself, but this newsletter gives contact information for the study's co-author, in case any of my readers want or need to follow up further.

This study is another sobering reminder that it's the things one thinks one "knows", but are false, that tend to cause problems.  On the other hand, it's an exciting reminder that archaeology, hand in hand with better tools for analysis of artifacts that are thousands of years old, is changing our understanding of ancient history.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dinosaur Chow

Several years ago, I stumbled upon the blog Cockpit Conversation.  Cockpit Conversation is written by a woman who refers to herself as Aviatrix.  Aviatrix is a commercial pilot, and usually she writes about oddities she happens upon in the course of her job.  However, sometimes she posts about things that are simply humorous, such as Dinosaur Chow.

It appears that Aviatrix's friend writes a web comic called Dinosaur Comics, and one of his comics involved a dinosaur who invents a recipe.  In a burst of whimsy, Aviatrix decides to make the recipe herself and describe both the process and the final result.  

This would justify a loud "meh", except that the dinosaur's idea of nouvelle cuisine was to combine ice cream and meat.  You read that correctly the first time:  ice cream and meat.  To quote the dinosaur in the comic:
First, get five pounds of ground beef.
Then, get five pounds of ice cream.
Fold the raw meat into the ice cream, and brown in a giant frying pan.

Throw some eggs into this!
Then add some salt to taste, and more eggs to taste too.
Serve in a bathtub, and garnish with fifty dollar bills.
In redacting this fictional dinosaur's recipe for a (live) human audience, Aviatrix began by making only a fifth of the quantity (i.e.,  using only a pound of meat and a pound of ice cream, and garnishing with 10-dollar bills).  Second, she chose to put the meat into the pan first, and fold in the ice cream, because (in her words) "The difference is that had I followed the instructions exactly, no part of the beef would have browned in the pan the way some did before the ice-cream was folded in."  In other words, as she carefully explains, "What I was essentially doing was slow-poaching ground beef in sweetened milk, in the presence of guar gum, cellulose gum, locust bean gum, polysorbate 80, mono- and diglycerides and carrageenan [i.e., the ice cream]."

To her surprise, the end result was fairly tasty, if you enjoy Really Sweet Foods:
"The dish was astonishingly edible, considering it was invented by a fictional dinosaur and deliberately concocted to be as ludicrous as possible. It's pretty sweet, and this is coming from someone who ate Nutella out of the jar with a spoon for lunch. I would recommend decreasing the ice cream-to-beef ratio to perhaps 1:2, add more chili powder and other spices at an earlier stage of cooking and, as I mentioned earlier, play with the ice cream flavour."
I suppose the moral of this is that it's hard to go wrong in combining eggs, sweets, and meat, but overall I'm not inclined to test the recipe myself.  It does make a splendid subject for a blog post on a day, such as today, dedicated to the ludicrous.

EDIT:  (5/9/2017)  It just occurred to me that a recipe like this would be a *perfect* use for garlic ice cream.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Who's on the Table?

Today's post is about prehistoric food.  (Yes, again.)  Specifically, it's about the diet of the Neanderthals, an early human species whose time partly overlapped that of homo sapiens sapiens, and may have been pushed to extinction, in part, by us.

A decade or two ago, it was fashionable to presume that homo neanderthalensis was a gentle, non-violent species.  Now, we have archaeological evidence that calls that claim into question.

In caves at Goyet, Belgium, archaeologists have found 40,000 year-old bones from five Neanderthals--an infant or young child, and four adults (or possibly adolescents) that had been cut and cracked in ways that one would employ in order to suck out and eat the marrow inside.

In short, it appears that at least some Neanderthals were cannibals.  The age of the bones places this cannibalism late in the Neanderthals' history, not too long before they became extinct.  A news article about the find may be found and read here.

Another article states that other European caves with Neanderthal remains have been found that contained Neanderthal bones with similar signs of butchery for food purposes.

These facts raise possibilities about the reason for the Neanderthals' dietary choice that may, or may not, be consistent with the view of them as a gentle people.  They may have chosen, for example, to ritually consume their dead as a way of retaining their good qualities, or of keeping their spirits with the tribe.  They may have eaten their dead out of desperation, because they were unable to obtain sufficient food otherwise.  This may be the likeliest possibility, as archaeological finds of Neanderthal teeth show signs of periods of starvation, which their owners might have been survived by eating other Neanderthals.

Or the Neanderthals may have killed and eaten other Neanderthals, of the same tribe or of different tribes, for food on a routine basis.  We just don't know.  

Perhaps discoveries will be made in other caves, of similarly broken homo neanderthalensis bones that will allow us to make inferences as to the circumstances in which the marrow was eaten.  For now, we can only conclude that eating parts of human bodies has a much earlier place in the long history of human food than was previously imagined.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ötzi's Last Meal

Reconstruction of Ötzi
Photo by Thilo Parg 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Remember Ötzi?  The Stone Age man whose well-preserved body and state-of-the-Stone-Age-art outdoor equipment was found some decades ago in the South Tyrol?  Believe it or not, further analysis of Otzi's remains has yielded information that bears upon the history of food.

A recent article from Phys.org reports that German researchers have used non-invasive techniques to examine the contents of Ötzi's stomach and have concluded that his last meal was "very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon" from a wild goat.  The article can be read here.  Judging from this description, it seems that what Ötzi had was more like bacon jerky, goat bacon cut and dried to preserve it.  Dried meat would make really useful, easy-to-carry food in the mountains where he was travelling.  

Think about that the next time you see bacon jerky in your local supermarket or on the Internet. Don't let modern ad copy fool you; some foods, especially dried foods, go way, way back.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Fast History of "Slow Food" and Other Diversions

A few years ago, my husband gave me a book from my Amazon wish list as a birthday present.  This was the book:
Gartenstein, Devra.  Cavemen, Monks, & Slow Food:  A History of Eating Well.  (Quirky Gourmet Productions 2011). 227 pages.
I had put this book on my wish list because I hoped the book would include some archaeological information, and educated speculation, about prehistoric food, as well as information tying in some of those speculations to what we know about food in the Middle Ages.

Sadly for me, that's not what this book really is about.  This book is simply a general history of the food of Western civilization, written clearly and elegantly, but with information taken almost entirely from secondary sources.  Moreover, the few sources that specifically relate to prehistoric food are books I already own and have read.  

I don't normally object to a book of popular history (of anything) for lacking footnotes, but the omission is annoying to me in this book because it makes it impossible for me to track down the sources for the few interesting facts cited by Ms. Gartenstein.

Curious about some of the odder characteristics of the book, I did a little bit of on line research about the author, and learned that Ms. Gartenstein is a chef and owner of a Seattle "food business" called the Patty Pan Grill, which, in her words "is a thoughtful, progressive food business committed to exploring creative approaches to eating well and living well. We're proud to be Seattle's oldest farmers' market concession, having provided hot, ready-to-eat food at outdoor events since 1997, when there were only two neighborhood markets in the city. Patty Pan sources most of our staples from the farmers who are our friends and neighbors at the markets."

In short, this is an interesting little book for someone with no background information about food history and no concern about whether the author cites information from strongly biased sources (which she does when discussing genetically modified foods and other modern food issues).  It is not, unfortunately, the sort of book I enjoy when I'm looking to expand my knowledge of food history.

Here's an example of the type of food history I do find worth reading. A little while ago, a friend and reader of this blog pointed me at a scholarly article called "Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines?  The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History," by Rachel Laudan. The article is available on the publisher's website, but except during special promotions, it may only be downloaded for a fee.  Well-heeled and curious readers may find the relevant page here.

Ms. Laudan's work does include a fair amount of information describing the personal experiences that led her to research the subject, but she still gives an interesting presentation of the different sets of foodways that shaped the foods enjoyed in Hawaii today:
I would divide [Hawaiian cuisine] into four periods: the sacrificial cuisine of the Hawaiian Chiefdoms; the aristocratic cuisine of the Hawaiian monarchy; the republican cuisine of the plantation oligarchy; and modern cuisine, Local Food, of an American state.
The full citation of the Hawaiian food article is:
Laudan, Rachel.  Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines? The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History, Food, Culture & Society:  An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 437-459 (2016).
Ms. Laudan's major point is that Hawaiian cuisine did not simply "evolve" on the basis of the foods available in the ancestral environment, but accreted partly based on locally available foodstuffs and partly on the basis of foods brought in and consumed by several different conquerors/ruling classes. It's a fascinating read, which I commend to my readers.