Friday, August 16, 2019

New Book--Eat Like A Viking

Earlier this week, I learned that there is a new book available about Viking era food:
Brooks, Craig. Eat like a Viking! A guide to Anglo-Saxon & Viking age food & drink.  (May 24, 2019).
Independently published by a British reenactor, this book is available on Amazon.com and possibly elsewhere also.  However, Amazon's page on the book includes enough text to suggest that it might be a useful edition to a Viking age food library. Mr. Brooks notes in his introduction that he wrote this text as a quick reference guide "of available food types" and to give ideas for recipes that could be cooked at reenactment events.  To my knowledge, the information in his Introduction is correct, and his attitude is appropriate.  He observes, in the close to his Introduction:
What follows is open to discussion, as these recipes are my take on what may or may not have been eaten by the Saxons and Vikings in the UK.  It's been an interesting journey, experimenting with raw vegetables, and new cooking methods, some of which have made it into our daily cooking routines, which I hope will give you some inspiration too.
Amazon is charging USD $19.12 for this slender (109 pages) paperback.  I would like to buy and read it, but at that price, I will not pay additional shipping for it; I'll wait until I can put together an order big enough to qualify for free shipping.  In the meantime, if any of my readers have had a chance to peruse this book, please let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Food Travels with Emmy

June managed to get away from me without giving me the chance to post a single entry in this blog!  Part of that was the fact that my husband had ankle surgery in June, and for a few weeks it was hard to concentrate on anything other than his care.

So welcome to July!  Today's post is about an unusual YouTube food channel that is interesting, off-the-beaten-track, and quite modern, but also contains a surprising amount of food history: emmymadeinjapan.

On her channel, Emmy makes and tastes all kinds of interesting food.  Pre-fab food, such as MREs from a multitude of different countries' armies.  Ethnic food, such as a Cameroonian Spaghetti Omelette sandwich and Cajun fried alligator.  Retro food, such as a Coca-Cola Jell-O salad.  Novelty food, such as clear eggs, edible Japanese water balloons, and popsicles made out of canned soup.

But Emmy also makes historical foods.  As part of a series on foods from hard times, she has made Clara's Depression era Poorman's Meal and Civil War era dandelion coffee and hardtack.

In each video, Emmy prepares her food step-by-step before the camera.  After the dish is completed she tastes it, describing her perceptions for the video audience in clear, neutral language.  (Though sometimes the look on her face is priceless.)  The most surprising thing about her videos is that a lot of even the strangest dishes served turn out to be quite tasty.  

The embedded video shows Emmy making and eating a Victorian dish called drowned baby.  No babies were harmed in the making of this dish.  Drowned baby is a kind of boiled pudding, so called because after it is wrapped in cloth for cooking, the pudding looks a bit like a baby.  

I love Emmy's work because it's a constant reminder that humans will eat nearly anything in their respective quests for calories and novel tastes, and that's an important driver of the history of food.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Ketchup Adventure--Part II

This past weekend, I heated my 20 ounces of mushrooms in the slow cooker pot, after salting them.  I started the pot on low heat, and after about an hour changed over to the "keep warm" setting.

About three hours later, there seemed to be a considerable puddle of liquid in the pot.  I dumped that liquid into a saucepan, put the mushroom onto a cloth which I placed inside a large bowl, and squeezed the mushroom through the cloth till I was only getting drops.  Like Hvitr, I ended up with about 220 ml or one cup (8 ounces) of mushroom liquid.  Then I added spices as per the recipe Hvitr used.  I tried to keep the pan on a "simmer" but even when I turned it down, it bubbled.  After 15 minutes, I strained the liquid into a bowl to cool, wetted a clean spoon in it, and tasted it. 

It tasted mostly of salt, rather the way soy sauce does, but without the sour note that I've never liked in soy sauce.  I didn't detect any of the spices, but that may be due to the amount of salt I used (I didn't really measure), and the fact that the liquid hadn't yet cooled when I tasted it.  I also failed to remove the stalks from the mushrooms; it's not yet clear what effect, if any, that might have had.  

The slow cooker worked well to heat the mushrooms for purposes of extracting the liquor, but I may want to experiment with other spice combinations.  There are a fair number of mushroom ketchup recipes on the Internet, including modern ones, and every recipe I've read so far is different.  The spices in the 18th century recipe Hvitr used are common, but others occur too, including garlic, cayenne,  nutmeg, allspice, and mustard seeds.  I have not found all of those spices in any one recipe, though some modern recipes have a very long list of ingredients (such as this one).

What all of this says to me is that there's no common factor among mushroom ketchup recipes other than the fact that your mushrooms need to be salted somewhat and given time, or heat, or both, in order for their juices to leach out before you proceed further.  To a modern cook, I'd simply say to read a bunch of mushroom ketchup recipes and pick the procedure, and the spices, that suit your needs and resources best.  As an amateur food historian, I throw up my hands and say probably every cook had a different recipe, and only a fraction of those variations made it into the cookbooks. But I suspect that the recipe Hvitr used is pretty typical for the 18th century except for the absence of nutmeg (nutmeg was a very popular spice during that period).

After I've had a chance to use my ketchup, I'll comment further.  In the meantime, I encourage my readers to experiment, and have fun.

(EDIT:  5/22/2019)  My ketchup turned out way too salty; I can't taste any other flavors.  But there's a good umami quality with the saltiness, and as a flavoring for stew it would be useful.  I should use less salt next time.

(EDIT:  5/26/2019)  On the other hand, I sauteed the squeezed mushrooms along with some fresh ones and some leeks, and the result tasted quite good!  So I'm not afraid to try this one again, sometime.  Probably I'll use less salt, and more spices.  

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Sweden's Earliest Onion

The onion looked almost like a nut.
 Photo: Jens Heimdahl/Swedish History Museum
(found in Archaeology Magazine's website) 
A relatively recent archaeological find of an Iron Age ringfort at Sandby Borg on the island of Öland in Sweden documents a massacre that happened in the 5th century CE. The excavations at the fort show that people were killed but never buried; their remains are preserved where they fell. Because of that fact, the find also shows us a lot about everyday life in 5th century Sweden, including what may be one of the first onions found in that country.  The next oldest archaeological find of an onion in Sweden is dated to approximately 650 CE.

The onion in question was found near a fireplace in one of the structures within the bounds of the fort. It was originally thought to be some kind of nut, but laboratory analysis confirmed that it was an onion that had been burnt.  

Archaeology magazine features a short article with a photograph of the historical onion, but other articles give more context here, here, and here.  It is currently believed that the onion was imported to Sweden by the Romans, who already used onions regularly in their diet.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Ketchup Adventure--Part I

My friend Hvitr recently blogged about making an 18th century recipe for mushroom ketchup. Her blog post about it may be found here.

It happens that I have been curious about how one makes mushroom ketchup for a while, but had not gotten around to tracking down a recipe and trying it.  Apparently the process is simple; you sprinkle salt on raw mushrooms, heat them gently, squeeze all the liquid out of them with your hands, add spices to the liquid, simmer the liquid for 15 minutes or so, and then bottle it.  

I have a slow cooker, which seems ideal for the gentle heating part.  Moreover, mushrooms are cheap and easy to find in supermarkets here, since Kennett Square, often called, with only a bit of exaggeration, the "Mushroom Capital of the World," is only about 10 miles from here.  My husband and I both love mushrooms; we may well find that this ketchup is just the thing to use for flavoring our stews and soups.

This weekend originally looked like a good time to perform such an experiment.  Until my car's alternator died on Monday, during the very last leg of our trip home from Michigan, where we had been spending a few days at a science-fiction convention.  And until the car developed an engine problem (still undiagnosed, because the mechanics won't be able to look at it until Monday at the earliest).  And until my husband discovered, while trying to install his shiny, brand-new super-computer, that his beloved desk, which he's had from childhood, is missing a leg and may be unrepairable.  Which will require a desk-shopping expedition, after his medical appointment.  On Monday, of course.

So I may not be able to get mushrooms, let alone have time to experiment with them, until sometime next week.  When I do, I'll blog about what I find.

EDIT: (5/16/2019) Got the car back yesterday and bought a bit over a pound of mushrooms for this project.  Possible ketchup making this weekend: stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Boston Brown Bread

Boston brown bread, served with cream cheese.
Found on Wikimedia Commons, Author (?) jeffreyw
Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by recipes.  As a young child, I enjoyed reading cookbooks to get more of them.  Sometimes, I still do.  It's a great way to enjoy more food than you can eat without actually overeating.

Anyway, I was looking on the Internet for baked bean recipes to cook (not just because they make interesting reading) when I spotted a reference to something called "Boston brown bread."  Since I'd never heard of it, I went to Wikipedia to track down some basic information about this tasty-looking item. 

According to Wikipedia, Boston brown bread is a sodium bicarbonate quick bread--like Irish soda bread.  Unlike Irish soda bread, Boston brown bread is made with both whole wheat flour and rye flour, and sweetened with molasses--hence its brown color.  It is considered the traditional accompaniment to baked beans, which is why it was referred to in the baked bean recipe I was reading.  

The Food Timeline has some interesting information about this bread.  It cites Boston brown bread as an explicit example of the phenomenon I referred to in my soda bread post.  First, a simple home-cooked food item is simply food for the poor.  As time goes on, that food acquires an aura of healthiness, because it is so basic.  Eventually, it becomes an item made and sought out by "foodies" for its culinary values other than nutrition (e.g., healthiness, flavor).

Boston brown bread often included corn meal--like rye and whole wheat, another cheap flour that could be exploited by the poor to make their meals more interesting. In fact, the same bread, minus the raisins, was called "Rye and Indian" or "Rye and Injun" bread because rye flour and cornmeal were its main ingredients.  Another variant, "thirded bread", was made with equal parts of rye flour, whole wheat flour, and cornmeal.  All of these were thought of as "make do" breads by the folk who lived on them, and were quickly abandoned by most once white bread became cheap.

Unlike soda bread, which was either baked or pan fried, Boston brown bread was often steamed in a container, such as a coffee can.  The Food Timeline claims that this is because early New England houses didn't have ovens.  Instead, they used a fireplace for cooking, and "[s]teaming was an effective way to make bread without an oven."  It also results in a food that looks a lot like what the British still call a "pudding"--a steamed bread, often with raisins or other sweet additions.

Because it's steamed, Boston brown bread is ideal for the slow cooker--all you need is a suitable container to steam the batter in.  I hope to experiment with some recipes for it later this year.

Monday, April 1, 2019

What the Well-Dressed Barbie Doll is Wearing

Today is April Fool's Day, but this post isn't really an April Fool's joke, because what it shows is really happening--a strange crossover of clothing and food.

At a Cantonese hot-pot restaurant in Queens,  New York City, Barbie and Ken dolls are wearing meat!  Slices of prime rib, to be precise.  The video with this post shows both the dressing process and the eating process, which can be summarized as follows.  A Barbie doll with plastic wrap over her lower body is stood in a bowl of ice and has thin slices of meat methodically draped over her.  Diners use chopsticks to peel off the meat and dip it in a bowl of boiling water to cook it before eating it.

It only goes to show that truth can be much, much stranger than fiction.  Happy April Fool's Day!