Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Eastern European Cookbooks

Eastern European Cookbooks
Today for Cookbook Wednesday, I decided to feature some ethnic cookbooks from Eastern Europe, not including my many Jewish cookbooks. Most of these are strictly cookbooks, that is, collections of recipes without a lot of narrative or historic material. I've tried at least one recipe from each of them. I have not researched whether there are better books on this topic. Any suggestions?

On my shelf I found:
  • A Taste of Russia by Darra Goldstein.
  • The Cuisine of Hungary by George Lang, who also wrote an interesting autobiography called Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen, covering his early life in flight from the Nazis and his later glamorous life as a restauranteur in New York.
  • Gundel's Hungarian Cookbook by Karoly Gundel of the famous Gundel's restaurant, which was in business pre-Communist times, and was resurrected by George Lang after the fall of Communism. I received this as a gift.
  • The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Brizova.
  • The Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. A kind gift from friends from Poland.
  • The Eastern European Cookbook by Kay Shaw Nelson.
  • Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg. This is not a cookbook, but includes memoirs of eating at Gundel's and in other Eastern European restaurants in the middle of the 20th century.
Wanted but I don't have it yet: Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook by Anya von Bremzen, author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which I very much like. The latter isn't in my photo because I read the Kindle edition.

Cookbook Wednesday is a great idea. Its inventor is Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations, where I get many ideas. Next week I'll feature another selection of ethnic or regional cookbooks from my collection. Maybe I'll even try some recipes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Food Fraud

I have just read Bee Wilson's book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Food adulteration with poisons (like lead-based or cancer-causing dyes), with unreasonable additives (like alum in bread), or with cheaper substances (like adding water to milk or injecting chickens with dilute broth) has been a problem for centuries, as documented throughout the book. Outright cheating by false labeling, false weighing, or overcharging customers is another fraud that's far from new.

"The rich can eat unadulterated food without much bother, whereas for most of the poor, it is a constant effort." (p. 101) Poor people have suffered more than those with the resources to purchase better quality foods and the time and energy to pay attention to what is happening. But money is far from an adequate protection against food frauds. "The motive to swindle -- greed -- is a constant in human history," Wilson writes. (p. 322)

Swindled is closely related to several other books I've read, but has an interesting approach to the topic of food safety and food regulation. Wilson profiles a number of crusading chemists, medical doctors, journalists, and others who have attempted to inform the public about major problems in the food supply. Their efforts were sometimes successful, sometimes not, but she uses their discoveries to illustrate exactly what frauds were common at several times in the past. Wilson also adds a number of other historic and ongoing frauds into her narrative, up through recent baby-milk scandals in China. Swindled was published in 2008: I wish it continued right up until the present.

Here are some of the most interesting people I learned about:
  • Frederick Accum (1769-1838) wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in 1820. Wilson says: "It would be an exaggeration to say that this book changed everything; after it was published, the swindlers carried on swindling, and more often than not they still got away with it; no food laws were changed on account of Accum... . But his treatise finally opened people’s eyes to the fact that almost everything sold as food and drink in modern industrial cities was not what it seemed; and by being not what it seemed, it could kill them." (p. 1)
  • Arthur Hill Hassall (1817-1894) discovered how to use a microscope to detect adulteration of food. He documented the widespread use of alum in falsifying white bread, adulteration of coffee, artificial substances in mustard, impure drinking water, and many other frauds.
    "Hassall analysed more than 2,500 samples of food embracing 'all the principle articles of consumption, both solids and liquids' and found that purity was the exception, adulteration the rule. Earlier writers might say vaguely that cinnamon was 'often' or 'sometimes' adulterated (with cassia, wheat, mustard husks, and colouring), whereas Hassall could state with absolute certainty that out of nineteen samples of ground cinnamon, only six were genuine; that three consisted of nothing but cassia; that ten were mixed up with bulking agents such as sago, flour, or arrowroot; and that these faked cinnamons were not always cheaper than the real thing, meaning that the public was being consistently cheated in the purchase of cinnamon.Unlike the scaremongers, Hassall was not afraid to say when a food was not adulterated." (p.127)  
  • Thomas Wakley (1795-1862) was founder and editor of The Lancet, dedicated to enlightening the public about medical affairs. The power of the free market was a given at the time in English politics -- and the idea was especially applied to food, for which there was no regulation.  "Wakley argued for public health in the widest sense—and this necessarily entailed a frontal assault on the evils of adulterated food." (p. 126) In disseminating the facts about food fraud in his day, Wakley particularly publicized the work of Arthur Hassall. Under their influence the first pure food act was passed in 1860, though it was weak.
  • Harvey Wiley (1844-1930) was a strong advocate for regulating food during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Eventually he was the author of the first food and drug laws in the US. His role in developing the FDA has come up in other books I've read. (See my recent post titled Food Safety and its History).
  • Caroline Walker (1950-1988) was an advocate for better food regulation in England in the 1980s. She wrote The Food Scandal with Geoffrey Cannon. 
  • Mark Woolfe at the time Wilson wrote was head of the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) and more recently has been a member of the RSC's Analytical Methods Committee. Woolfe's role in developing DNA tests to identify falsely labeled Basmati rice, as described in Swindled, is an interesting study in modern technology that just barely manages to stay ahead of the fraudsters!
Swindled is an enjoyable book despite the depressing subject matter, because it's engagingly written. I enjoyed the many anecdotes and factual discussions of food frauds in the past, including examples of recipes for "mock" dishes that playfully imitated real foods without including the "real" ingredients. The book also offers lots of amusing illustrations like this one (p. 98):

Friday, October 17, 2014

Smokers in Art

I hate smoking. I dislike the smell, the activity, and the risks involved with smoking. I'm very happy that it's no longer allowed in most public interior spaces, and it's becoming less and less common in outdoor public spaces. It's been years since anyone even gave a single thought to smoking inside my house, or inside most homes.

That said, smoking was once a common activity, shared and enjoyed by a large part of the population (though some paid dearly for having done so). Some have viewed smoking as a kind of consumption, analog to eating. In several recent museum experiences, especially last summer in Amsterdam and in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia a few days ago, I was fascinated by the large number of paintings that portray smokers enjoying pipes or cigarettes. Here are a few of them.

First, during the Dutch Golden Age many painters of homey scenes included smokers. Around 150 years after America -- source of tobacco -- began supplying novel products for the European market, smoking seems to have been very well-established:

Gerrit Dou: Self-Portrait, c. 1640.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 
Man Smoking a Pipe: Gerard Dou, c. 1650.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Van Ostade: The Smoker, c. 1647.
Adriaen Van Ostade: Smoker at a Window,
c. 1667. Detroit Institute of Arts
Dirck Hals: Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon, c. 1687
Vincent van Gogh painted several smokers:

An early Picasso in the Barnes collection surprised me with the cigarette in her hand:

Picasso: Woman with Cigarette, 1903
Cezanne painted a few smokers as well. Two pipe smokers are included in his famous card players, and his 1897 portrait of Henry Gasquet includes a cigarette:

Finally, also at the Barnes, this wonderful picture -- I believe the man in the lower left is smoking as he waits for his child to finish his music lesson. I couldn't stop looking at this painting.

Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Along the Susquehanna

Two herons in the Susquehanna River.
Lunch at Accomac Inn: it was such a warm day that we ate outside
on the screened porch overlooking the Susquehanna.
An inn first stood on this site in Colonial times, when a ferry crossed the river at this point. The current inn, which has been in business for around a century, serves vegetables from its own garden.

The last tomatoes growing in the chef's garden.
Len and Arny leaving Accomac Inn
Not far from the Inn is a farm stand with these beautiful onions...
huge cabbages...
and lots of gourds and pumpkins.
Railroad tracks near the river, with a couple of windmills in the distance.
Lancaster County farmland.
Notice the symbols on the silos.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Day at the Barnes Foundation

Our beautifully artistic lunch at the Barnes Foundation:
crab cakes with colorful vegetables, Cuban sandwich.
For years I have hoped to see the collections of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and at last, today, we did so. The numerous works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Soutine, Picasso, Utrillo, Modigliani, a few by Degas, Monet, Manet, and many other late-19th and early-20th century artists are overwhelming. Collections of African masks, American Indian pots and jewelry, early-American furniture, Renaissance works (mostly by less-well-known artists), and fascinating functional metal objects were also exciting. Even the works from other times and cultures seemed to me to express sensibilities from early-twentieth century art movements. The fact that this is a collection of enormous size and remarkable quality that belonged to just one man amazes me.

Photography is forbidden, but I sinned for this
 image of Arny and Tracy in front of the art.
I loved Matisse's "Music Lesson," especially
the figure who appears to be a father
waiting for his child at the lesson.
Mona Lisa was waiting in the gift shop.
On the way back from Philadelphia to Lancaster we made a random and very lucky stop for Thai food. The Royal Thai Orchid in Malvern, Pennsylvania, turned out to have great duck with fruit, soft-shell crab, and crabcakes.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lancaster Central Market

Lancaster, Pennsylvania: The towers of the Lancaster Central Market
are visible from the top floor of the convention center
Fountain nearby
Inside the market this morning we saw crowds of people buying snacks to eat right away while walking around, or lunch to eat while sitting at tables in various parts of the building. If you want food to take home, stalls offer produce, meat, and dairy products from many local farms; bakery goods, candy, ethnic foods including Amish, German, Mexican, Cuban, Greek, and Asian; and lots of other delicious-looking specialties.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

And what's for breakfast?

Turkish breakfast from NYT article
 The New York Times Magazine's food issue is publishing one fabulous article after another! Today: "Rise and Shine: What kids all over the world eat for breakfast." Japan, France, Turkey, Malawi, Iceland, Holland, and Brazil are all represented by stunning photos of children eating breakfast and of the selection of foods they eat.

"Our native sweet tooth helps explain the global popularity of sugary cereals and chocolate spreads like Nutella: Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture, one that resists the candy-coated breakfast buffet," says the article. Photos of food items from breakfast around the world show a wide variety of strong-flavored items like Turkish kahvaltilik biber salcasi, a paste made of grilled red peppers; Japanese natto made from fermented soybeans; Malawian deep-fried fritters made of cornmeal, onions, garlic and chiles; and various fresh or pickled vegetables, strong cheeses, and olives.

Breakfast in Brazil from NYT article
Of course there are also many photos of bread and butter with fruit jams, Nutella, or sugary sprinkles; of egg dishes, of cups of cocoa or juice, and of hot or cold cereals or mush dishes that would taste more familiar to an American breakfast eater. The faces of the children, photographed as they ate their breakfast was the most wonderful part of the article.

I also enjoyed another article from this food issue: "What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?" by Virginia Heffernan, despite its being very extreme. The Times likes to balance its coverage. Lately their food section under its new leader Mark Bittman has been on a tear about how important, wonderful, rewarding, and healthful home cooking is. Heffernan doesn't just take a contrarian view, but her article goes over the top with fear and loathing of any cooking activity. The premise: "By the time my son arrived, I vainly believed that I should be able to not just defrost food but conjure it — by means of the web or a 3-D printer or at least a game male, close at hand, whose ego had been serendipitously formed by Emeril or 'Top Chef.' But instead, to my horror, home cooking had made a hideous comeback. Noble food philosophers preached the retro virtues of slow, real food instead of the quickie, frozen stuff that had once spelled liberation to me."

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Pizza for lunch?

School lunch spending from the New York Times article
What's for lunch? Pizza. What's on the pizza? Tomato sauce that the government counts as a whole lot of vegetables. School-lunch pizza these days is low in salt with maybe a whole wheat crust -- not as good as salty pizza with regular crust. But do you like it better than broccoli, which you'll be told to eat tomorrow? Well duh.

"How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground" in the New York Times Magazine describes in detail the struggle to improve school lunch programs. It illustrates the dizzying and constant back-and-forth about the nutritional value of pizza and potatoes. It documents the machinations of the food industry. It highlights the startling political involvement of the "lunch ladies" and their lobbyists in opposition to the new rules. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was "an ambitious bill that would impose strict new nutrition standards on all food sold in public schools." Well-meaning, but fraught!
"As the government began turning the broad guidelines into specific rules — specific rules with specific consequences for specific players — life became more difficult. What began as a war on obesity turned into war among onetime allies. Republicans now attack the new rules as a nanny-state intrusion by the finger-wagging first lady. Food companies, arguing that the new standards are too severe, have spent millions of dollars lobbying to slow or change them. Some students have voted with their forks, refusing to eat meals they say taste terrible."
Children who refuse vegetables for school lunch are a double whammy -- the lunches they eat don't count towards federal reimbursements AND the kids come away hungrier because their hamburger or pizza has been downsized since they are supposed to get some calories from their vegetables. We put all the kids on a diet to solve obesity -- what about the thin, active, hungry ones? And "schools of all sizes and income levels were struggling with higher costs, lower participation and what they call plate waste — kids throwing away perfectly good food." It's so complicated when one set of guidelines apply to all. The net result of all the politics is a complicated program full of bad incentives and bad faith, and any compromise is likely at best to remain that way.

This mess is all about money, as you would imagine. Varying interest groups earn big money from the enormous federal school lunch program -- that's no surprise. From the first efforts at the beginning of the Obama administration, they have lobbied and otherwise influenced Congress and affected the USDA in its rule-making. The loudest voices are the most financially engaged voices.
"Next September, when the entire Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will be up for reauthorization, the soccer moms of America may not get a vote. Just a few years ago, President Obama’s school-lunch reform seemed like a kind of armistice in Washington’s eternal culture of influence and partisanship. Today Obama’s lunch reform, much like Obama’s presidency, feels mired in an endless insurgency — against a stealthy, well-financed and infinitely patient foe."

Monday, October 06, 2014

Late Fall Vegetables and Fruits

On the way to watch birds at Watkins Lake yesterday (see this post) we stopped at a wonderful farm stand on Sharon Hollow Road. The season for most summer produce is ending, and I was surprised to find quite a few exquisite fruits and vegetables. At dinner last night we ate the eggplant that I bought. I regretted not buying more of everything!

Amazed to find just a few peaches, which came from Grand Rapids as our side of the state was peachless this year.

Honey Crisp apples were only $1.29 a pound.
Very late tomatoes.
Small sweet peppers -- the ones I broiled were just delicious with the eggplant last night.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

Graphic design of the menus and posters
for Chez Panisse had a distinctive style,
illustrated here by the dust jackets of her
1982 cookbook and McNamee's book.
In Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee provides many direct quotations from Alice Waters and the many talented people who have worked at her famous restaurant. He quotes direct memories of the food they made, the menus they served, the recipes they invented, the financial challenges, the rivalries and sometimes quarrels or jealousies (usually with solutions), and the food philosophy they shared. These bring the biography to life, as vividly as if it were a novel. I don't know why it took me several years to get around to reading it.

McNamee's sources were a number of interviews he did around 2004 or 2005, long after the fact, as well as contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, a few autobiographies and cookbooks by the participants, and archives of menus. I loved the way he put it all together.

Alice Waters and her restaurant have been famous almost since she founded it, which was in 1971. She's recognized as an innovator in several food movements: the adaptation of French food to American/California taste, creating an open kitchen space, finding boutique farms to provide exquisite seasonal produce, commitment to humane animal raising and slaughter, introduction of the "Edible Schoolyard" and nutrition education at many levels, participation in the Slow Food movement, and overall leadership in other food issues.

Since I read lots of culinary news, I was aware of most of her accomplishments, but I enjoyed the book and learned quite a lot from reading it. I enjoyed the way her many friends, employees, lovers, financial backers, family members, and chefs characterized her energy, dedication, and charismatic personality. Most of these people, in fact, are in several of these categories at the same time: Her friends became business partners or employees. Her lovers were almost always involved in the restaurant. Her employees may not have been trained but she turned them into chefs, several of whom became independently famous. She found people with all sorts of backgrounds to become "foragers" who looked for just the right farmers, or who helped them plant just the right crops.

With a few exceptions, all seemed incredibly loyal and admiring, permanently. Alice's creation was an incredibly non-hierarchal environment where each chef or cook made one dish at a time -- no grunts to peel the vegetables, even the head chef would do his own. So little resentment is documented, you might wonder if there are other involved people who weren't interviewed, though McNamee implies that this was not the case.

Above all, McNamee emphasizes Alice's dedication to bringing up her daughter, and how this led her to become interested in educational projects. What I learned from the book was that before Chez Panisse, Alice was a Montessori teacher and that Montessori ideas are fundamental to the hands-on basis of the Edible Schoolyard and how it was developed.

In response to the book, I've been looking through my copy of the first Chez Panisse cookbook, which I purchased the one time that I ate at the restaurant in the mid-1980s. I don't think I've ever tried any of the recipes -- they are very challenging because they demand extraordinary ingredients, in keeping with her philosophy. It's a cookbook for reading, not for cooking, I fear. Too bad -- McNamee's book almost made me taste the vast number of dishes as he described their invention, creation, and consumption in the beautiful atmosphere of the restaurant that Alice conceived.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Imagining a Banquet

Did you ever try to imagine what it would be like at a medieval banquet? Do you enjoy reading reviews of famous but unattainable restaurants like El Bulli in Spain or the trendiest spots in New York? Do you read recipes just to imagine what the food might taste like? Do you like to watch extreme cooking shows, things no one does at home, on food TV? Maybe you have heard of the art works made of meat, that rot in art galleries -- or Lady Gaga's meat dress.  

Centuries ago in Japan, people loved books that created imaginary situations like these modern ones. The fascinating book Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan by Eric C. Rath documents a variety of this popular literature, as well as describing various private manuscripts that were written by early chefs and food workers in noble houses.

Shown on the cover (left) is a special knife artist in early Japan, performing a ritual of slicing up a crane with a special knife and long metal chopsticks. High nobles watched -- but the final display of raw meat or in many cases fish was for looking only, never for eating. Rath documents this knife-ceremony in the second chapter of his book, "Of Knives and Men." (Rath, p. 38-51)

Early banquets were highly ritualized, with prescribed numbers of dishes on prescribed numbers of food trays set before a noble diner such as a visiting feudal overlord. In many such events, the foods on the ritual dishes in their ritual locations weren't even really edible: for example they would serve dried abalone strings that needed hours of reconstituting before actually eating them. The polite way to react -- pretending to eat a bit and then hiding it in one's sleeve -- was documented in the books that were not only cookbooks but also etiquette books. Rath repeated one rather funny piece of advice: to pretend to eat and then hide the bit of food in a nose-wiping paper, in other words, wad up this inedible thing in a piece of kleenex!

A bit after the meat-carving rituals were popular, many culinary books, illustrated by wood-block prints, were best sellers, although the menus and recipes (or partial recipes) within them were only possible for nobles to eat. Laws prevented even fairly wealthy people from purchasing many of the luxury foods required -- ordinary readers of the books couldn't have afforded a staff of over 200 cooks, servers, and helpers as suggested in the instructions for such banquets. A few of the ideas may have been usable for upper class weddings or other special events, but mostly the hundreds of thousands of book buyers just wanted the fantasy.

Early Japanese cookbooks, Rath points out, sometimes explored a single food, beginning in 1782 with One Hundred Tricks with Tofu. The two-volume Secret Digest of Exceptional Radish Dishes throughout the Land, for example, was written by Kidodo, author of several such works. Secret Digest explores daikon radishes from many perspectives, including religious uses and radish lore, ways to cook or prepare the food, ways to make decorative flower-like arrangements of the radishes, and history of the dishes. (Rath, p. 177)

Food and Fantasy is illustrated with wonderful prints
from the early cookbooks. This shows "Noh actors crowned
with food headdresses" from Text for Banquets, 18th century.
(Fig. 7 p. 122)
Other books were obviously satiric, describing impossible foods, like a book called Fish Trap of Recipes which claimed not to be about cooking but "just a manual for someone seeking to create fanciful menus." (Rath, p. 161). One book created a fusion of foods and Noh drama, somehow lining up the dishes with the traditional characters and events of the opera-like plays. The author of Delicacies from the Mountains and Seas invented recipes using mythical creatures like "the nine-tail fox, the Zhu bird, an owl with human hands, and the Tuan-fish -- a carp that oinks like a pig." (Rath, p. 169) Also, actual foods were given fanciful names to distract people from the repetitiveness of every-day dining. Rice, miso soup, and pickles were served at almost every meal, with little variety within each category, and an occasional dish of vegetables, tofu, or grilled fish. (Rath, p. 118)

This wonderful book makes me think about the famous anthropologist Levi-Strauss, who said about the totems of primitive tribes that food could not only be good to eat, but also could be good to think. (There's a lot of discussion over just what he meant and how to translate his words, but that's not important now.)