Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What did Balzac eat?

Balzac's Omelette is a delightful study of the food that nineteenth-century French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) described in his many novels and stories, as well as his own rather eccentric eating habits. Author Anka Muhlstein, a native of Paris, provides just the right amount of background, as well as additional information about food as depicted by later French authors such as Flaubert and Zola. I really enjoyed reading it, and I suspect that the quality of this book is also due to the translator, Adriana Hunter. I'm only writing a very brief review here.

The following passage about a dishonest landlady in one of Balzac's novels illustrates Muhlstein's approach:
"Sadly, Cousin Pons and his friend Schmucke lack this attention to detail and knowledge of current prices when they try to keep an eye on their conceirge, Madame Cibot, who cooks their meals and, in so doing, leads them to ruin. She boasts to her husband that she has amassed two thousand francs in eight years thanks to her cunning and talent. In fact, rather than going to a butcher, she rummages through the stalls at a regrattier, who buys leftovers from nearby restaurants. With a fiercely discerning eye, she choose the best-looking debris of chicken or game, fish fillets, or even boiled beef, which she dresses up with finely sliced onion. Using this technique, she cooks such strong-smelling sauces that her lodgers never complain, and she makes them pay three francs 'without wine' for these dinners, a sizable sum if we consider that, in a modest but acceptable restaurant, a meal with a small carafe of wine cost a maximum of two francs." (p. 111)
You can see how Muhlstein selects food details to show a great deal about the landlady/concierge who serves repurposed food as if it were fresh. The entire book is full of captivating retellings of just the foodie parts of Balzac's great novels, offering lots of insight into how he used food to make his characters vivid.

One thing about this passage is the wonderful word regrattier: a dealer in leftover food from restaurants or from receptions or dinner parties in wealthy or aristocratic homes. This is strictly a French word, but I think we need to borrow it in English. I'm including it for Wordy Wednesday because it's such a great word.

Unlike in 17th and 18th century Paris, today's redistribution of previously offered foods is usually the work of organizations for feeding the needy. For example, Ann Arbor's Food Gatherers began in 1988 when volunteers "borrowed a van and collected 50 pounds of vegetables, bread, milk, and eggs from half a dozen grocery stores and restaurants. The food was quickly re-distributed to hot meal programs in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti." (link) Today Food Gatherers still collects unused or nearly-out-of-date food, though it has many more sources including people's gardens and nationwide warehouses of food for this purpose.

Balzac's Omelette, which was published in 2011, includes some delightful illustrations. Here are two of them in color (though in the book the reproductions were in sepia tones).

Les Halles, 1893, by Leon Lhermitte.
Shopping in Paris markets, especially Les Halles, was a topic of quite a few of the authors mentioned in the book.
The Oyster Eaters, 1825, by Louis-Léopold Boilly.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

May Flowers

In the Nichols Arboretum, Ann Arbor.

The peony garden in the Arb has an exceptional collection of early 20th century peony types as well as masses of azaleas, rhododendrons, and flowering trees. In May the tree peonies bloom, as shown in the photo. The more usual types of peonies bloom in June -- you can see their buds in the foreground  here. Throughout the season, the garden is very popular with photographers such as this one.

Spring violets -- a favorite.
Many types of wild flowers bloom in the wooded area of the Arb.
At Matthaei Botanical Gardens Bonsai display: a flowering fruit tree in bloom.
Both the Arb and the Botanical Garden belong to the University of Michigan.
Flowering tree in my backyard.
Lilly of the Valley: another backyard favorite, though some think they are weeds.

Dandelions growing in the ponds at Howard Marsh Metropark near Toledo, Ohio. Everyone thinks they are weeds!
These photos have been taken throughout the month of May -- you couldn't get all these images simultaneously, as each flower and tree is in bloom only for a few days. Poets get all emotional about how spring blossoms are so ephemeral. But I accept that we must move on to the season when dandelions will be more or less the only spring flower that keeps on blooming.

It's hard to stop looking at flowers. Now the irises are just beginning to bloom, but I've used Van Gough's for variety.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Lingonberry Jam: Swedish Food Beyond Ikea

Do you think of lingonberry jam as the condiment on your Swedish meatball plate at the Ikea restaurant? Or do you think about the jar of "Ekologisk SYLT LINGON" in the food shop just after the Ikea checkout lines? That’s what lingonberry jam meant to me until I read a study of lingonberry consumption in Sweden. This study, “The Red Gold of the Forest: Lingon Berries,” appeared in the book Man, Food And Milieu: A Swedish Approach to Food Ethnology by Nils-Arvid Bringéus, published 2001.

The author explains the development of mass lingonberry cultivation and the economics of buying and selling lingonberries in Sweden a century ago. In particular, he writes, large-scale lingonberry gathering and money-making was not ages old:
“The extensive felling of the forests in southern Sweden around 1900 led to large clearings which, because of the plentiful light, were an excellent habitat for the berry-bearing shrub Vaccinium vitis-idaea, known in English (especially American English) as lingonberry.” (p. 183)
Much more interesting than early 20th century berry economics is the study of how Swedish people ate lingonberries, which had been gathered on a smaller scale for centuries. Bringéus questioned people who lived in small towns in the southern regions of Sweden about how they ate lingonberries. He also read accounts of food customs from the 18th and 19th centuries; for example, tenant farmers had to provide lingonberries to the owners of their land according to a document dated 1742. A recipe for lingonberry syrup appeared in a cookbook in 1837.

"As a traditional Swedish dish," Bringéus writes, "pride of place is undeniably occupied by meatballs. This has also given lingonberry jam a major role as an accompaniment .... Pickled gherkins are also used as an accompaniment here."  

There's much more! In south-west Sweden, lingonberry jam was "an accompaniment to fried herring." In some regions, it was eaten with any fish other than salmon. It's also "a frequent complement to cabbage pudding and stuffed cabbage rolls." Lingonberry jam is also used as a condiment with dried bacon or diced bacon pancakes, fried smoked bacon and fried potatoes, blood sausage or blood pudding, liver, and other roast or fried meats. "Before the arrival of ketchup, lingonberry jam was also eaten with macaroni, according to an informant from Siljansnäs." 

Bringéus quotes several individuals who described how their families ate lingonberries for dessert.  The author interviewed one man who remembered eating "lingonberry jam with milk and hard bread, known as beta bröd, when there was no dessert." It's great with pancakes, he says, especially for those who thing strawberry jam is too sweet. Lingonberry juice was and still is popular. One chef rather recently invented a lingonberry mousse. (Quotes are from Man, Food And Milieu, pp. 189-193)

I was equally interested in the many other essays about Swedish food and food customs in Man, Food And Milieu. Sources of information include wide-ranging ethological research that began in the 1960s, and informants often remembered experiences of themselves and their relatives going back to the late 19th century. Also, the author's personal memories enrich his writings. As I knew very little about Swedish cuisine, other than Ikea, I found this to be a remarkably informative book.

Once I started thinking about Swedish food beyond Ikea, I noticed some recent articles about the subject. For example, a recent article in the New Yorker, "How to eat candy like a Swede" by Hannah Goldfield, offered this interesting observation:
"Nordic countries, in general, are crazy for candy. On a trip to Iceland a few years ago, I was amazed by the wide selection of sweets sold by the pound at even the most average-looking gas stations. But if any one particular country knows from candy, it’s Sweden, whose residents, according to a study by the Swedish Board of Agriculture, eat more per year per capita—more than thirty pounds per person each—than the citizens of any other nation. In Sweden, every Saturday is effectively a national holiday, called lördagsgodis, which means “Saturday candy.” Every corner store has a wall of pick-and-mix bins. The history of how this tradition came to be is surprisingly dark: in the nineteen-forties, in conjunction with several candy corporations, the Swedish government performed tests on patients in a mental institution to explore the hazards of consuming sweets. When it was determined that too many would make your teeth rot, lördagsgodis was born—Swedish citizens were urged to have as much candy as they liked, as long as they limited their consumption to one day a week." (source)
Also, a current article in The Economist reviews Japanese and Asian-fusion restaurants in Stockholm:
"Stockholm has kept innovating and has increasingly fallen under the influence of another food culture – Japan. This makes sense. Scandinavian seafood is excellent and abundant, which makes it perfect for eating raw. And both the Japanese and the Swedes have a way with fermentation. ... There are excellent traditional Japanese restaurants in Stockholm, such as Sushi Sho and Shibumi, but the standout dining experiences are found in the places where Nordic meets Nippon." (source)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Onion soup made according to the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.
Browning the onions takes 45 minutes or more.
Julia Child's original recipe says to simmer the soup for another 30 minutes.
I prefer the cheese toasts to be added to the soup, rather than the alternative of covering the soup with
cheese and heating it under the broiler. The latter method always results in my burning my tongue!
Today's soup was inspired by Len's bread, perfect for toasting with cheese. Or with butter and jam.
Len's overnight whole wheat loaf. What a beautiful crust! And delicious.
I've linked this post to Deb in Hawaii's soup linkup for this week!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Early Spring Produce

Rhubarb is among the first produce to be harvested in Michigan. Though technically a vegetable, it features, of course,
in sweet dishes. Yesterday I bought rhubarb at Argus Farm Stop, sourced from Wolfe Orchards and Schwartz Family Farm.
In the photo -- rhubarb at Argus Farm Stop next to some wheat grass.
The rhubarb sauce that I made yesterday.
Rhubarb bubbling away in the pot. Sugary foam forms on the sauce.
Asparagus, another early vegetable, also just arrived at Argus from Kapnick Orchards. Most of these farms
are within 45 minutes drive. They deliver their produce to Argus as well as selling at the Ann Arbor Farmers' market.
Lunch: roasted asparagus, mushrooms, easy-over eggs, tomato.
I'm eagerly awaiting local tomatoes, but that will be a while!
Here's the very scenic route from Argus Farm Stop to Wolfe Orchards. I live half a mile from Argus, and usually walk there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Pythagoras Meets Tamales and Tuna-Noodle Casserole and Solves a Mystery

"Better to die happy than thin." (Quote from The Pot Thief Mysteries Volume One, Kindle Locations 644-645). 
"Tequila is now one of the most popular distilled spirits in the United States, but I wonder why people in Boston or Birmingham like it. Its prime appeal to me is that it tastes like the desert— saline, organic and slightly viscous like the juice of the cactus it’s distilled from." (Kindle Locations 388-389)
"I am awe-inspired by Pythagoras’ insight. You may find it confusing or even boring. Some people are awe-inspired by majestic mountains, some by poetry and others by abstruse mathematics. But whatever the source, we all need a little awe in our lives." (Kindle Locations 3068-3070).
J. Michael Orenduff in The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, has written a delightful crime novel set in Albuquerque, NM. It's full of variety, as illustrated by the above quotes. When the novel's narrator Hubert Schuze is not participating in a scheme to illicitly obtain a 1000 year old Indian artifact from a local museum he might be legitimately helping authorities solve a murder. Throughout the novel, he's reading "an anthology of articles about Pythagoras."

Further, Schuze loves Mexican food such as an "entire sack of breakfast burritos, a quantity so large it took half a bottle of New Mexico’s finest champagne to wash them down properly." (Kindle Location 530).

Schuze cooks great breakfasts of huevos rancheros verde:
"I set the oven on warm and placed a plate inside with two corn tortillas. I broke two eggs into the frying pan and cooked them over-medium with a pinch of cumin. I placed the eggs over the tortillas, poured on green chili sauce, sprinkled queso fresco on top and returned the plate to the oven. While the cheese melted, I extracted a bottle of Gruet Blanc de Noir champagne from the fridge and filled a flute." (Kindle Locations 1031-1034).
Here's how he describes his normal eating habits:
"I believe in starting the day with a hardy breakfast, meaning loaded with carbohydrates, animal fats and red or green chili. I may eat an avocado or a mango during the day, but I usually don’t have another meal until after the cocktail hour and often have both in the same chair. ... 
"I walked over to Dos Hermanas Tortillería at five .... As the name implies, it started out as a tortilla factory. In New Mexico, that means they sell mainly tamales and posole. And you probably thought they sold tortillas. Well, they sell a few, but the ones in the grocery stores are cheap and good, so most people no longer buy tortillas at a factory.  
"Tamales, on the other hand, are a pain in la cola to cook, so people buy them at their local tortilla factory. The ones at Dos Hermanas are to die for, and considering how much lard goes into the masa, that may be literally true. The masa in a Dos Hermanas tamale is like a Mexican Rolaids— it will absorb up to forty-seven times its weight in stomach acid. Or Drano for that matter." (Kindle Locations 633-641).
Well-crafted Margaritas are the cocktail he most likes to drink, though he mentions a few others -- he's usually quite a food lover. He quite thoroughly describes a meal of sage hen, a game bird, stuffed with morels. This dish he eats with a lawyer at the lawyer's country club. He hears about another meal of very trendy food that he disdains at "one of those places where the food is supposed to reflect a philosophy," but the philosophy in question is nihilism. (Kindle Locations 2129-2130).

The Plaza in Albuquerque, from one of our visits there.
Schuze's shop is located just off the plaza, which he often describes.
My own enjoyment of the novel also came from my familiarity with the locale.
Alternatively, Schuze makes terrible coffee for the customers in his not-very successful Indian ceramic shop.  And on a few occasions, he eats dubious casseroles made by Miss Gladys Claiborne, his elderly neighbor: a lovable stereotype. For example she gives him this wide-eyed run-down on her tuna casserole when he tells her she shouldn't have gone to all that trouble:
"'It was no trouble at all. You start with canned tuna. I always use solid albacore. Then you combine it with noodles, chopped green onions, a can of cream of mushroom soup and a package of grated cheddar and bake it in the oven.' Her pale blue eyes sparkled as she added, 'Since we moved out here, I sometimes put a can of green chili in it.' 
"I took a forkful of it. It wasn’t bad. But with every bite I kept thinking of all that mercury lodging in my brain." (Kindle Locations 618-621). 
On another occasion, he avoids Miss Claiborne's chicken tenders casserole ("a piece of the chicken I am not familiar with") but is forced to eat lime jello with crushed pineapple and miniature marshmallows. Much later, she brings another casserole to a potluck: "a steaming chafing dish full of Summer Squash Pie courtesy of Nuestra Señora de Los Casseroles" which contained frozen squash, crushed Ritz crackers, and more. (Kindle Locations 3047-3048).

Hubert Schuze is clearly an intriguing and likable character. He's anti-establishment, and he doesn't agree with the law against digging up ancient Indian pots on public land, but he's very much against digging on Indian land or most other types of crime. As a result, he cooperates with the authorities -- sort of. He's also a skilled potter himself, and can make a mean copy of a historic pot.

I'm avoiding retelling the quite suspenseful and entertaining story of the various museum pieces that appear and disappear during the course of the mystery, or of giving away the identities of the murder victims and perps because I don't like spoilers. But I'm thrilled to have learned about this delightful mystery series -- thanks to Evelyn!

Oh, yes, here's one more food description of a recipe from Schuze's old family friend Consuela that I couldn't resist. I might even try it:
"She made her corn and poblano soup. In one pan, she sautés chopped onions, poblano peppers, garlic and cumin. In a separate pan she uses a big knife to slice the kernels off ears of fresh corn into hot lard and then stirs like crazy until the corn softens. Then she combines the contents of the two pans in a large stockpot, adds chicken broth and lime juice and lets it simmer. When all the flavors have combined, she takes the pot off the heat, throws in fresh oregano and crema Mexicana and lets it sit two or three minutes before ladling it into bowls. She serves it with warm corn tortillas and cucumbers slices sprinkled with chili powder and pilon sugar.  
"Emilio and I both had four bowls of it and Consuela beamed with each refill." (Kindle Locations 1614-1620). 

Update: I have now read the second mystery in the "Pot Thief" series, and I do not recommend it at all. The author re-used all the jokes and the descriptions of the supporting characters, and did not do as good a job with plot and other details. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Disappointed in Mark Kurlansky's Latest Book

Just published last week: Milk: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky. As a big fan of Kurlansky's earlier books -- including Cod and Salt as mentioned on the cover of Milk -- I'm very sad to say that he hasn't maintained his earlier standards. Milk is a poorly organized, disjointed, and badly thought-out book, in my opinion.

Maybe the topic is just too wide for a single book. After all, cows, goats, sheep, camels, yaks, water buffalo, mares, and other domestic and even a few wild animals have provided milk to many societies over the last 10 millennia. In several places, Kurlansky compares human milk and the milk of other species in terms of fat content and other nutritional values. He describes a large number of societies that use milk products. The early chapters are in more-or-less chronological order -- but not entirely consistently. Eventually the organization becomes even worse. For example, there are two separate discussions of the Icelandic dairy product skyr in widely separated chapters.

Many millennia is a lot of time for people to argue about whether it's healthy to consume dairy products, whether it's ok to feed babies animal milk rather than breastfeeding them, and a lot of time for humans to evolve away from lactose intolerance. These issues are also presented at great length -- somewhat beyond my tolerance. The same issues keep coming up again and again, but the narrative seems to jump around in a disconcerting way.

Humans have consumed a lot of milk as well as a lot of cheese, butter, ghee, yogurt, creamy soups and sauces, milky alcoholic drinks, and baby formula! In 10,000 years we humans have had vast experience with contaminated dairy products. We've put in a lot of effort to learning how to make dairy products safer. Disasters have afflicted the dairy industry -- up to and including Strontium-90 in the mid-20th century. Kurlansky covers these and many ongoing issues: GMOs. antibiotics, organic farming, "mad cow" disease, what it costs to run a dairy in America now, and more. But it doesn't add up to a coherent story, at least not in this book.

Recipes appear throughout the earlier chapters. They are often quite amusing, for example:
"Sweeten a quart of Cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquour, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of Syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it." (pp. 109-110).
Some recipes, like this one, really illustrate the ways that milk has been used in the past, though few of them would be any use in a twenty-first century kitchen. Eventually, the large number of recipes and some of the other details and repetitions make quite a few of the chapters seem padded, as if the author didn't really have enough to say about a particular time, place, or issue.

In conclusion: I'm disappointed!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Warblers, Plovers, Birdwatchers, and a Sleepy Owl

Trying to wake up?
Golden Plovers and Caspian Terns at Howard Marsh Metropark, Toledo, Ohio
Numerous warblers migrate through Magee Marsh on Lake Erie in May.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Homemade or Industrial?

"In the first half of the nineteenth century, a revolution occurred in the preparation of breadstuffs. Once they escaped the limitations of yeast, American women were free to experiment, innovate, and create new kinds of food, removed from religion. This culinary revolution started with cake." (The Baking Powder Wars, p. 17)
"What [Michael] Pollan sees as a positive reversal of industrialism is a burden the nineteenth-century women were elated that baking powder, industrialization, and corporate America had lifted from them." (p. 184)
This spice cake, along with many similar cakes, originated in the 19th century. 
Served at afternoon tea or evening social events in the 19th century, sweet, soft layer cakes or molded cakes changed American tastes. These were made to rise with baking powder rather than yeast or beaten eggs, and were much easier and faster to make at home. The bundt pan, as shown in the photo, became popular in mid-20th century America, though tinsmiths made similar cake molds in the 19th C.

In the book Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking, author Linda Civitello shows how the popularity of such cakes was closely related to changes in household management, to expectations of how to be a good middle-class wife and mother, and to other social changes. Technology also enabled increasing availability and lower cost of high-quality wheat flour, which contributed to the ease of home-baking as well. Thus: an industrial revolution in the kitchen!

Peanut butter cookies date to the early 1920s. 
In 1796, Amelia Simmons first used the word "cookie" for round biscuits made with pearlash, a predecessor to baking powder. Throughout the 19th century, more and more types of cookies appeared in cookbooks and ladies' magazines as the effectiveness and ease-of-use of baking powder developed. You could say the peak of invention in cookies was the Toll-House Cookie, invented in 1931. Both modern baking powder, invented by chemists and industrial food manufacturers in the 19th century, and chocolate chips, also effectively an industrial product, made this recipe possible for easy baking.

Cobbler with biscuit-dough topping: first made in the 19th century.
Cornbread. One of the earliest baking powder dishes.
This and earlier photos are from my own kitchen.
"The Pancake Baker" by Adriaen Brouwer (WikiArt):
Pancakes were FLAT before baking powder!
Look at the pancake, another food that changed and became typically American. As illustrated in this seventeenth-century painting, and as reflected in events such as pancake-flipping races the day before Lent, pancakes are highly traditional in Europe and have been made for centuries. However, the expression "flat as a pancake," which Civitello quotes often, points to the change that happened when baking powder became available, and American pancakes began to be high and fluffy instead of flat.

Question: What do all these breadstuffs -- cookies, layer cakes, cobblers, biscuits, fluffy American pancakes, cake donuts, muffins, cornbread, and more -- have in common?

Answer: Baking powder is responsible for their unique texture, flavor, and ease of baking. It's the "indispensable, invisible ingredient." (p. 187) Further, they are all in fact American food innovations.

We think of these items as home made and traditional, but in fact their history is not as old as all that. Baking powder is a 19th century invention, and so are all the recipes made with it. Linda Civitello tells this story, beginning with descriptions of the hard labor needed to make bread from yeast or to enable cakes and biscuits to rise by other means -- but nowhere near as quick and labor-saving as baking powder. Yes, you could beat eggs for an hour to get a nice fluffy cake. Yes, you could make "beaten" biscuits, which required someone in the kitchen to beat the dough with a rolling pin for hours. (Hint: these were a popular Southern food. The person doing the beating was often a slave, or after the Civil War, a very poorly paid black servant. Civitello is always highly aware of the role that slavery and later racism played in the development of American cuisine.)

Baking powder is made from baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and another rising agent, which varied during the time when the product was being developed; at first the two elements had to be added at different times in the mixing process, and timing was critical. Several chemists worked in laboratories and then invented industrial processes to deliver an easily usable product to home bakers and commercial bakers.

Big business always was responsible for baking powder. Several corporations with very colorful owners and promoters were rivals in an effort to corner the market for this profitable product. In the course of their rivalry, they engaged in some amazing antics. For example, one baking powder manufacturer bribed virtually every member of the Missouri legislature in the late 19th century to enable passage of a law prohibiting the key ingredient used in the products of other baking powder manufacturers. The "baking powder wars" involved early food and drug regulation, bribery, both national and state-level politicians, and many other fascinating machinations, made most vivid by Civitello's narrative.

The Baking Powder Wars is full of wonderful nuggets of food history and cookbook history, as well as industrial history. In the twentieth century, more and more cookbooks and recipes called for baking powder, which was not a standardized product until remarkably late. Civitello traces the way that baking powder took over most baking recipes in popular sources, especially The Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931 and revised many times into the 21st century. She also illustrates how the use of baking powder changed baking methods in other cultures, such as Hispanic cuisine in California and baking of traditional German biscuits that were previously raised with non-chemical leavening methods. And she lists how fast food makers use baking powder biscuits and similar foods -- just think of the Egg McMuffin! 

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Local Food, Cooked Outdoors: Must be Spring At Last

It's finally spring and local products are coming in after a long cold April. Here's our dinner:
Pork chops raised on Ernst Farms, local bok choy, local lettuce. Tomatoes grown in midwestern greenhouse.
The grilled pork chops.
Bok choy, also cooked on the Weber Grill.

Preparing to BBQ.

Pork chops in marinade. Just a few chives from our own garden!
We used a recipe from Epicurious, with several variations:
 "Grilled Asian Pork Chops and Baby Bok Choy."
Chops and bok choy ready to cook.
Our source again was Argus Farm Stop, a store quite near our house
that sells consignments from local farmers and producers.


Instead of snow on the ground, we have fallen petals from a blooming tree.