Sunday, September 23, 2012

Artichoke ice cream and other surprises

In the 18th century, ice cream was a novelty. Not new -- even the Romans had frozen desserts, and the transition to ice cream was gradual. It's another thing Marco Polo might have seen in China (but he didn't seem to have mentioned it). Books about ice cream were definitely new in the 18th century, though, and they offered a variety of flavors that would shame modern chefs who think of themselves as so ingenious. "Almost from the beginning, confectioners have pushed the ice cream envelope," writes Jeri Quinzio in her book Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making. While her book includes many other subjects, I found her descriptions of ice cream flavors from the past to be the most fascinating part.

Artichoke ice cream -- neige d'artichaux in the original -- seems to me one of the most exotic. A French chef made it from "pistachios and candied orange, along with artichokes, and quite probably the finished product tasted less like artichokes than like pistachios and oranges," she says. (p. 39)

Another ice cream maker in France used truffles -- the fungus kind, not the chocolate kind. Vanilla at the time, however, was not yet a commonly used flavor -- favorites of the time included fruits, flowers, and spices like cinnamon, cloves, anise, saffron. Quinzio cites an author from that period who said no vegetable existed that couldn't be turned into ice cream. Slightly later flavors were pomegranate, jasmine, fennel with lemon, and nougat candy. Or a combination of cinnamon, lemon peel, and bay leaf. (p. 53, 142)

Parmesan cheese flavored ice cream is mentioned twice in Sugar and Snow. An author named Frederick Nutt mentioned it in a work called The Complete Confectioner in England in the late 18th or early 19th century. When talking of famous chefs of the late 20th century, Quinzio mentions miniature cornets filled with salmon tartare and crème fraîche but looking like ice cream cones -- part of a trend that includes desserts with new flavors that the chefs of the 18th century "would have recognized, such as Parmesan, artichoke, and truffle." (p. 207)

Even the creation of ice-cream-like savory dishes is not new. The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph in 1824 had many recipes for dessert ices, but among them was "frozen oyster cream" which was oyster soup, strained and frozen; Quinzio says that Randolph gives no serving suggestion or explanation of this recipe. Similarly, she cites Fanny Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book's recipe for Clam Frappé: the liquid from steamed clams frozen "to a mush." Quisno gives the entire recipe for a Cucumber Sorbet, which actually sounds pretty refreshing to me. She also mentions rye-bread and brown-bread flavored ice creams. (p. 59, 79, 143, 151)

I enjoyed the historic material, for example, about the invention of the ice cream cone, which  did not originate at the St.Louis World's Fair/Louisiana Exposition in 1904, but was the first place that made street food from what had been a fancy, table-served dish. I was amused to hear of one "bombe" made of ice cream that was really supposed to remind people of anarchists, and of Seabees creating an improvised ice cream maker from airplane parts and Japanese shell cases on a Pacific Island in World War II (p. 71 & 195). I was delighted to learn more about marshmallows -- how they were melted and used for frozen desserts in early home freezers (my mother did this -- her specialty was coffee mallow, which didn't work when she got a freezer that maintained a truly cold temperature). And how Rocky Road ice cream with marshmallows in it was supposedly invented by William Dreyer in Oakland, California, in 1929. But I most loved the lists of exotic flavors.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sunkist Oranges and Birds Eye Peas

Wednesday night I attended the regular meeting of the Culinary Book Club that I belong to. We read Birdseye by Mark Kurlansky, a biography of Clarence Birdseye. The subject of the bio developed processes for frozen food technology: how to freeze it quickly with a variety of huge devices, package it with new materials that survived freezing, and keep it frozen -- besides industrial freezing machines, he also developed less expensive refrigeration units for shipping and storing it in markets. Birdseye began with his own business, and then sold his idea to a company that could invest more in the project than he could raise. 

That company became General Foods, and Birdseye, whose name became synonymous with frozen food (especially peas) ran a food lab for them for a number of years. I found him interesting both for having changed American food, including ideas for distribution to grocers and inventing freezers where they could store the foods he froze, and for his amazingly adventurous attitude towards eating and trying exotic foods and small game animals that most of his peers would not have accepted.

Birdseye also invented a variety of other very practical things such as a reflector lightbulb. He traveled to a number of spots in the New World, like Labrador -- where he got the idea for frozen food, which in its time was a big improvement over canning. The discussion was fun; some of us talked about our memories of refrigerators, ice men, ice boxes, and home freezers. One woman described how she received an upright freezer for a wedding present when she had almost no money, but her family considered it essential. 

This week also, I read another book, Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden by Douglas Cazaux Sackman. It's a more academic study but very well-written. It details the history of the orange industry in California -- and it was really an industry, allied with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, orange-grove owners figured out  how to mass-produce uniform fruits, which became a commodity. The growers' association united the rich owners of large groves, who marketed collectively under the still-well-known name Sunkist.

The industry pioneered ways of advertising to create demand, including medical studies commissioned to show how important oranges were to health. Sound familiar? It was done again, perhaps more dishonestly, this decade by pomegranate producers in California, though the author doesn't mention that.

The book answers one question I had wondered about in the past: when did oranges become common rather than a special treat to be eaten only at Christmas. I loved the description of a Sunkist ad where a woman asks a small grocer for oranges, and he says he stocks them only at Christmas -- but the point of the ad is that the bigger supermarkets, which were cooperating with the orange growers and railroads, were beginning to stock them all year. I believe this was in the 1920s, by which time piles of perfect oranges were on display in markets throughout the land, and people were becoming convinced to drink OJ for breakfast daily and feed it to babies.

Further, the book documents how mass orange-growing was an industry with political implications for labor and unions, use of pesticides and other poisons, immigration, racism, exploitation of land and workers by rich growers, water rights, and a number of other issues that started 100 years ago and haven't been resolved in America. One radical critic of the terrible labor practices and union-busting efforts referred to the oranges as Gunkist! The conflicts involved a number of very famous Americans and famous books like Grapes of Wrath of course, as well as a fascinating governor's race in which the author Upton Sinclair almost won on a very radical platform. (The growers and railroads used a negative campaign to defeat him in the last 6 weeks: makes me shudder!)

Most of the California groves have now been replaced by housing developments and urbanization; for example, Disneyland replaced orange groves. Both books are very very American stories that reveal interesting developments in American foodways.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


On one of the delightful reruns of Julia Child shows, she and Jacques Pepin make a turkey dinner with all the traditional side dishes. As she heaps sweet potatoes into a serving dish, she says something like this to the audience, "These are plain mashed sweet potatoes, but you could make candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows. I love candied sweet potatoes."

Pepin says "I don't like marshmallows," and she answers, "Of course not, you're French."

I've been aware for ages that French people generally don't like marshmallows -- I've probably already mentioned somewhere in this blog how a French friend trying a toasted marshmallow said "It's like a jellyfish."

But here's the odd thing: the French invented marshmallows as we know them today, which in French are called guimauves. According to "It's a Marshmallow World," in Smithsonian: "The modern marshmallow confection is a mid-19th century French invention and was a cross between medicinal lozenge and bonbon."

Like the English word marshmallow, the French guimauve is the name of a marsh plant whose root produces a sticky substance. An extract of this substance was originally used to provide the unique texture of marshmallows -- sticky but firm, I guess you could say. Gelatine was soon substituted for the extract of plant roots, and for a long time, the classic marshmallow or guimauve was made by confectioners. I'm curious how its popularity grew in the US while obviously declining or maybe never taking off in France.

Use of the marshmallow plant (illustration at right from Wikipedia -- scientific name Althaea officinalis) has a long history. Smithsonian: "Greek physician Dioscorides advised that marshmallow extracts be used in treating wounds and inflammations. During the Renaissance, extracts from the plant’s roots and leaves were used for medicinal purposes, namely as an anti-inflamatory and soothing agent for sore throats." Wikipedia says that the Romans considered them a delicacy.

Today's New York Times Magazine article "Who Made that Marshmallow?" contains the most recent history of how marshmallows are made. The 1950s saw the development of industrial processes to "jet puff" the marshmallows (note the words "Jet Puffed" on the marshmallow bag in the top photo). An invention created a series of machines that forced a "marshmallow slurry through tubes, subjected it to blasts of gas at 200 pounds per square inch, extruded it into long tails and then cut it into bite-size chunks."

The traditional mixture of sugar, egg white, and gelatine required a long and labor-intensive treatment to produce marshmallows, though marshmallows appear to have been mass produced early in the 20th century, when products like Mallomars were introduced. A brief history of Smores says that camping was growing in popularity and the ingredients -- marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars -- were quite portable. I remember carefully packed boxes of Campfire marshmallows with two layers of around 10 marshmallows each, probably when they were not quite as speedily and cheaply produced.

So I wonder, what were the French doing in 1927 when the Girl Scout Handbook published the first recipe for S'Mores? In 1919 when "a booklet from the Barrett Company on Sweet Potato and Yams ... suggests adding marshmallows to candied yams"? (Referenced here) In 1913 when Nabisco made the first Mallomars? What about Whippets, moon pies, Peeps, and those jellyfish-like toasted marshmallows? I guess they were eating mousse au chocolate, grilling steaks, and maybe avoiding the yams as well as the candied part.

And the French still hand-make their marshmallows -- for a photo see this blog post.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Manifold Cooking

At today's Old Car Festival in Greenfield Village, I learned about a cookbox that was made, back in the day, to fit over the exhaust manifold of a Ford Model T. You can see the metal box just behind the headlamp here:

manifold-cooker 7

At the demo in front of the reviewing stand the beautifully dressed passenger in the car got out, lifted the side of the hood (the Model T had a sort of fold-up hood on either side of the engine), and spooned up some soup to show the crowd -- note the spoon in the Flapper's hand:

manifold-cooker 1

Cooking under the hood of a Model T involved understanding the very high heat that could result from the operation of the engine, and gauging how far to go and at what speed you should travel in order to get the best result from your recipe. The announcer noted that in fact, some recipes suggested going up hills to increase the temperature. Evidently this was a popular part of the entertaining new sport of driving around in a Model T around 100 years or so ago. The car in the photo is a 1927 model.

Here is a sample of a couple of modern recipes for this cooker, from a website I found (maybe it's even the website of the people in the photo):
Rhubarb Ice cream topping
Line the cooker with foil ..., slice fresh rhubarb into small pieces, add a handful or two of sugar, drive to an ice cream store at least 20 miles away, buy a dish of ice cream, put the topping on it and enjoy the best topping yet cooked on a Model T manifold.
Meat Loaf
(this is 
the most popular recipe we have made on the manifold)
Note this is also known as ‘Greasy Fan Belt Goulash’

Mix one pound of lean ground beef with one package of frozen Potatoes O’Brian, one package of frozen Mexicorn and a jar of Salsa (you choose mild, medium, hot, or acetylene torch-like).  I always dump all the ingredients in a big zip lock bag to mix them…..since my hands are always greasy.
Anyway, mix well and then dump it all into a big piece of wide Aluminum foil and wrap it into a loaf that will fit into the cooker.  Drive about 40 miles or so and it will be done. 
This recipe is so good that dogs and people will follow you.
Here is another view of the car at the reviewing stand and the Flapper, spoon still in hand:

manifold-cooker 2

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Food in Poetry

I often write about food in novels or other books I have read. I have just found a Poetry Magazine collection of poems that feature food. Other than the famous one about plums by William Carlos Williams ("This is just to say"), or the Ogden Nash short poems published in the book depicted at right like the one about the parsnip, I couldn't easily think of any food poems. I'm not that much of a poetry reader, as it  happens; however, several of these poems appealed to me.

Being a fan of Gertrude Stein, I enjoyed the poem titled "Christian Bérard." I already know quite a bit about what Gertrude Stein liked to eat, because of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Here are the first lines of the poem:

Christian Bérard


Eating is her subject.
While eating is her subject.
Where eating is her subject.
Withdraw whether it is eating which is her subject. Literally while she ate eating is her subject. Afterwards too and in between. This is an introduction to what she ate.
She ate a pigeon and a soufflé.
That was on one day.
She ate a thin ham and its sauce.
That was on another day.
She ate desserts.
That had been on one day.
She had fish grouse and little cakes that was before that day.
She had breaded veal and grapes that was on that day.
After that she ate every day.
Very little but very good.
She ate very well that day.
What is the difference between steaming and roasting, she ate it cold because of Saturday.
Remembering potatoes because of preparation for part of the day.
There is a difference in preparation of cray-fish which makes a change in their fish for instance.
What was it besides bread.
Why is eating her subject. There are reasons why eating is her subject.

Two other poems that I liked are by poets I was previously unfamiliar with: Paul Blackburn and Victor Hernandez Cruz. And there are so many more!

The beginnings of these poems:

The Café Filtre


Slowly and with persistence
he eats away at the big steak,
gobbles up the asparagus, its
butter & salt &  root taste,
drinks at a glass of red wine, and carefully
taking his time, mops up
the gravy with bread—
The top of the café filtre is
copper, passively shines back, & between
mouthfuls of steak, sips of wine,
he remembers
at intervals to
with the flat of his hand
the top removed,
at the apparatus,
create the suction that
the water will
fall through
more quickly
Across the tiles of the floor, the
cat comes to the table : again.
“I’ve already given you one piece of steak,
what do you want from me now? Love?”

Red Beans


Next to white rice
it looks like coral
sitting next to snow

Hills of starch
The burnt sienna
of irony

Azusenas being chased by
the terra cotta feathers
of a rooster

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Tarte au Citron

My project: to master a recipe for French-style Tarte au Citron. Above: my first effort. The crust and sugared lemons on top were based on this: How to cook perfect tarte au citron. I used a Julia Child recipe for the filling. The crust, especially, needs work, but the result was quite delicious.