Monday, September 30, 2013


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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cuisine without Food: Addendum

Book of Tasty and Healthy Food by Anastas Mikoyan, translation pub. 2012
Anya Von Bremzen, in her memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (see my post from yesterday) described the Soviet cookbook for good communist homemakers, first published in 1939. Its attributed author, Anastas Mikoyan, was commissar of food of the USSR. Of course the book's directives about how much to eat, what foods were healthy, and how to serve the food (and beverages like vodka, wine, juice which belonged at every meal) were examples of the myth making and wishful thinking of Soviet officials. Von Bremzen also explains  how new editions constantly had to be produced in order to remove references to disgraced and disappeared leaders like Stalin.

I was amused to find that this book was translated into English recently -- see Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.

Soviet peas from Book of Tasty and Healthy Food

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cuisine without Food

I read the Kindle edition,
so I never actually
saw this dust jacket.
In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya Von Bremzen compresses the last 100 years of Russian history into a few representative meals. Tales of eating are punctuated by descriptions of several eras of scarcity and outright famines.

Unlike childhood memories in the majority of food memoirs, the most vivid memories of this book were not of tastes that the writer experienced, but rather of dishes from literature and news reports that she and her family only imagined. If their pizza was a miserable piece of bread “smothered in ketchup and gratings of Sovetsky cheese” they imagined the original from their contraband copy of Family Circle. (p. 134)

One huge irony of life for all the decades of Soviet history was how the communist leaders were eating incredible luxury food while the poor starved. The disasters of harvests ruined by foolish policies and the war years were the extremes, but there are many other examples. Soviet candy, for example, came in two identically packaged versions made by the Red October Chocolate Factory. Candy that you bought (sometimes, if you waited in line) in ordinary stores was vastly inferior to the same brands sold in stores for communist nomenklatura. (p. 172)

Even the title "Mastering the Art..." of something that wasn't much of an art, but mainly the act of a desperate person, is ironic, riffing on the Julia Child title.

Thinking of my own madeleines from
Costco: not Anya's poisoned madeleines,
not the cliche of  many other writers,
and also not quite like in France.
Cliches from food memoirs here take on new twists, made ironic by hunger and longing. Proust’s madeleine memory has been used so often that many writers' references to it hardly use the actual source. Von Bremzen doesn’t bother too much with the original – she calls her own preface “Poisoned Madeleines.” She uses this term to capture the “epic disjunction” and “unruly collision of collectivist myths and antimyths” of her Soviet childhood (from birth in 1963 to emigration in 1974) and the life of her mother who was born in 1934. Through irony the author consistently dodges any sort of self-pity or whining.

She also refers specifically to rather formula-driven Russian emigre memoirs: "My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle with toilet paper)." The author relates various amusing first-supermarket experiences of the Russians she knew, wrapping up. "Mom ... roamed Pathmark's acres with childlike glee. 'She-ree-ohs ... Ri-seh-rohnee ... Vel. Vee. Tah ... " She murmured these alien names as if they had been concocted by Proust, lovingly prodding and handling all the foodstuffs in their bright packaging, their promiscuous throwaway tara [i.e. packaging and receptacles, of which there had been a shortage in Russia]."(p. 199)

Her discussions of Soviet-era "Provansal" style mayonnaise and the jars (tara) that it came in are priceless: "If, as Dostoyevsky supposedly said, all Russian literature comes out of Gogol's story 'The Overcoat,' then what Gogol's garment was to nineteenth-century Russian culture, the Provansal mayonnaise jar was to the domestic practices of Mature Socialism." (p. 183)

Of course she also discusses that other cliche of Soviet mayonnaise memories: Salad Oliver, which can never be understood in America because it features not only mayo but also canned peas. "A precious heirloom of our non-idyllic socialist pasts, the Olivier recipe gets pulled out from the memory drawer to commemorate a particular moment in life." (p. 176)

A still life by Casimir Malevich: Von Bremzen names
him as one of the cultural contributors to Soviet Russian
life in the 1920s.
The author's cultural and social descriptions
add to the liveliness of the book.
Von Bremzen uses her own memories of food and events as well as her mother’s memories and political opinions along with impressive historical detail characterizing each decade of the past century starting in 1910. She uses the experiences of her relatives, such as her grandfather who was a spy during World War II and her father whose job for many years was as a member of a huge lab responsible for constantly restoring or re-embalming the corpse of Lenin.

Because her mother's family were Jewish and her father's family not, the book encompasses both Jewish and non-Jewish Russian experiences -- including some of course ironic (of course) remarks about gefilte fish. In this respect I can also relate the stories to those of several Russian emigre families I have known.

I learned an amazing amount of history from reading this book. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that this book made somewhat familiar history come alive for me, by linking to the many personal stories of Anya Von Bremzen's family, her conflicted feeling about Soviet heros like Stalin and Lenin, and her adventures in returning to the disintegrating Soviet Union and its successors several times in the 80s, 90s, and 00s.

Von Bremzen has had a long career writing cookbooks, magazine articles, and
published recipes, such as this one from Food and Wine. 
Her first cookbook, an enormous tome titled Please to the Table, appeared around 20 years ago.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Agriculture and cuisine: different subjects or the same?

Hendrick Danckerts: "Royal Gardener John Rose Presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II," 1675 (Wikimedia)
I've been reading about the introduction of European and Asian food plants and many domestic animal species to the Spanish colonies of the new world, and about the introduction of new world plants and a few animals to old world diners and farmers. I've read quite a bit on this subject in the past as well. In general, there are two approaches: either authors concentrate on agriculture, and with it sometimes on nutrition, or on cuisine.

Agriculturally focused histories treat the development and spread of agriculture in the new world and eventually beyond it. Some authors describe the initial process of domestication of certain plant species (like corn or vanilla). Some study the biochemistry of ancient species and compare them to archaeological finds or to wild native plants. Others focus on the current state of food production, use, and availability, viewing the origin and spread of plants or animals as at most background material. The timing of the spread of each food plant into new areas, its nutritional value to the population that consumed it, commodity or market issues, and the plant's adaptability to growing in new areas are critical factors.

What I've been reading
Books that cover the topics of agriculture and its effect on food ways include these: Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World, a collection of essays edited by Foster and Cordell; The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred Crosby; and Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and foods changed America by William Dunmire.

More of what I've been reading
In the epilogue to Chilies to Chocolate Gary Paul Nabhan acknowledge the division that I'm exploring here. He wrote: "Perhaps the complexity of crop evolution makes us lose sight of the concurrent cultural evolution of culinary traditions: changes in grinding, roasting brewing, baking,  and curing techniques, not to mention customs of spicing and serving prepared foods."

Nabhan cites a number of recipes and culinary techniques known to have characterized pre-Columbian cuisine. However, most books seem to focus on one area at a time -- how crops are grown, how foods are used in recipes, how they are adopted for nutritional value, how they spread from culture to culture, and how new flavors were added to familiar ones.

Nabhan has written many books on food, cuisine, agriculture, and ethnobotany of the American Southwest. His point of view is political as well as scientific -- he's very concerned about the loss of biodiversity among native American plants, about climate change, and about mistreatment of native peoples worldwide. An author with a complementary point of view is Sophie Coe, who wrote two books about the sources, uses, and transmission of new world foods: America's First Cuisines and The True History of Chocolate.

I reviewed this book here.
As do Coe and Nabhan, authors interested in cuisine trace influences on food preparations such as the use of spice blends in East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, Spanish, and later Mexican cooking (which I mentioned in an earlier post). They explore how taste and familiarity of species determined which plants or animals were readily integrated into regional concepts of food, such as the rapid acceptance of corn or the reluctant acceptance of tomatoes. 

An important element of several essays in Chilies to Chocolate is to show how diners and cooks at various points in history believed that foods should be cooked, presented, and eaten and thus what new foods could fit into their view. For example, new world chile peppers satisfied the original explorers' quest for spicy flavor, so they spread very readily as an addition to familiar cuisines in the old world. The nutritional value of the potato was obvious to some Europeans, but its unfamiliarity and ugly appearance made its spread difficult at first -- then of course it became too common in some places, notoriously in Ireland. Tomatoes and to some extent avocados now appear in virtually all produce markets worldwide, but required still longer to be accepted as part of European/American cuisine.

Van Gogh "The Potato Eaters"
Native American food that became a European staple
Staple new world foods, such as the potato and corn, rapidly made major changes in the diets of Europe, Africa, and Asia; by the sixteenth to eighteenth century these became standard in cuisines of Europe or the totally Europeanized American settlements. New world beans evidently spread readily but silently, joining the few bean species that existed in Europe so effectively that their origin had to be rediscovered in the 19th century.

Some exotic foods from the new world actually changed European tastes rather than moving into a niche in what was already being cooked. Vanilla, chocolate, and pineapple were like nothing in existing old world cuisine. The latter was very slowly accepted in Europe, first grown in royal hothouses as illustrated above; eventually becoming a curiosity and then a luxury food, but never a staple and never integrated the way that corn, chiles, or potatoes were.

Agriculturally oriented writers ask, how could new world species be cultivated in the old world? As with acceptance into European or Asian diets, adaptability of plants for old world agriculture varied. Potatoes, native to the high Andes, turned out to be extremely flexible; the potato, with its many varieties, adapted to many climates. Chiles and corn could adapt to a range of temperature, day-length, and rainfall and now grow in places as diverse as India and Michigan. Chocolate now grows in many tropical climates while vanilla is extremely picky about the latitude where it grows and needs special insect pollinators. Finding new places to cultivate vanilla was difficult, though most of the world's supply of vanilla today grows in the old world, not in Mexico. Early horticultural interest in the pineapple, which I perversely think of as Hawaiian, was to see who could get it to grow fruit in a greenhouse: not a sign that it would go native in England! (Chilies to Chocolate p. 35 and p. 4)

Early West-Indian sugar mill -- old-world crop, new world resources, African slave labor (Smithsonian, no artist named)
The same questions of cuisine and agriculture concern writers who look at the introduction of old world foods into Mexico and other parts of the Spanish new world. Dunmire's Gardens of New Spain provides detailed documentation of each conquest, exploration, or colonizing move, and the plants that were introduced. He includes complete lists and descriptions of the transported plants, and mentions imported livestock and how the Spaniards introduced them to New Spain.

Rather than representing an interest in the new or the exotic, plants and animals that were brought to the Americas often represented European colonists' effort to preserve their former food ways; for example, the introduction of pigs, fruit trees, or wheat. Some introductions were motivated by desire to produce exports for the European market, like sugarcane.

A few old world plants like bananas and watermelons were immediately popular with the native population. Their cultivation resembled already existing species (watermelons can be cultivated in the same way as new world squashes). So they spread seamlessly, eventually seeming to be native to the Americas, Dunmire points out. Other writers, Nabhan, especially, stress how the remarkable variety of plant species in the Americas, and biodiversity at all levels down to individual farms and fields, was negatively disrupted by the introduction of European plants and growing methods.

European colonists actually spread some of the foods of Mexico and South America into North America, Dunmire shows. For example, Spanish settlers (along with many Indian and mestizo family members or employees) pushed quickly into New Mexico, later to California and Texas. These colonists not only brought with them European animals and plants but also such Mexican foods as chiles. Potato cultivation on the east coast of North America was introduced by Europeans as well.

Diego Rivera, "The Maize Festival" (Wiki Paintings)
Books books books! An important work on the relationship of new and old world food is Crosby's The Columbian Exchange, first published in 1973, which I mentioned above. Many very specific books cover parts of the topic: just on the potato, for example, one can read The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe N. Salaman; Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent by John Reader;  Potato: A Global History by Andrew F Smith; and The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman. PLUS books about the Irish potato famine and other potato topics. Not to mention incidental information in huge numbers of cookbooks, many of which are dedicated to just potato recipes and lore. Similarly for chile peppers, chocolate, and tomatoes -- you can read about, say, the tomato's history in America or in Italy or else Barry Estabrook's political story of just our time, Tomatoland. I could go on and on.

Jean-√Čtienne Liotard, "The Chocolate Girl," 1745
One more artist's illustration of new-world food's success in Europe.
17th Century Herbal

Finally, an early group of interesting sources of information on food plants, which I often hear about in secondary sources, is Renaissance herbals, early cookbooks, and early books on medicinal plants. These were written before the current distinction between foods and drugs became firm, so the food and medicine could be handled as a single topic, but their combined interest in botany, agriculture, and cooking vastly predates the books I'm discussing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Following a Clove

Syzygium aromaticum, the clove plant
Cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, nutmeg -- spices from the east -- once sold for enormous prices; possession and use of spices was a status symbol for medieval men and women who could afford them. From ancient times Europeans imported Asian spice via land and water. Prior to the fifteenth century Europeans had little or no idea of where these spices grew or what kind of plants and climates produced them.

"Spices as a link to Paradise, and the vision of Paradise as a real place somewhere in the East ... fascinated the medieval imagination," wrote Wolfgang Schivelbusch in Tastes of Paradise. "The exorbitant price of spices ... further enhanced this fascination." (p. 6)

Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, Dutch Galleon, 1600-1630
During the fifteenth century, European voyagers took a more practical view of the spice trade. They sought new routes to the far east, hoping through conquest and discovery to control trade in spice and other goods, especially gold and silver. As the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch competed to monopolize the spice trade, there was a crossover point where spices were no longer the food of paradise, but became a mundane, though highly valuable, luxury commodity.

Columbus provided Spain with a vast new territory. Magellan showed a new way to get to the supplies of spice. Portuguese voyagers of that era, having found a route around Africa, explored Southeast Asia, discovering that cloves and pepper grew only in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Cinnamon trees grew more widely, including in Ceylon and the Philippines.

Magellan's Ship
By the mid-1500s, Spain had colonized the Caribbean, Mexico, and parts of South America. Vast quantities of silver from mines in Peru were being minted into pieces of eight -- the new money supply was already changing the economies of the Old World. They transported silver from the now-Spanish mines by ship to the isthmus of Panama, across to a Caribbean port, and then to Spain where they could, among other things, buy spices from the long-established spice trade.

Spain also wanted better access to the products of the far east, but the Dutch and Portuguese dominated trade routes for Southeast Asia, especially the Moluccas. Further, the Spanish settlements in the New World were full of newly-rich Spaniards who wanted the luxuries of East Asia.

Andrés de Urdaneta
In 1565 a navigator named Urdaneta achieved the goal of finding a reliable sailing route for trade from the far east to the colonies of Mexico. Westward winds had blown Magellan and others across the Pacific towards Asia. As hoped by the Spanish authorities who sent him, Urdaneta established a manageable eastward route. This crossing was long and difficult, as the winds from Asia to the Americas required ships to sail far to the north, arriving at the location of the current California town of Mendocino. Here, at the time, no Europeans had explored.

At Urdaneta's suggestion,  a regular shipping route was established between Manila, the Spanish colony in the far east, and Acapulco, which he considered the best port on Mexico's west coast. Large and very seaworthy Spanish galleons were  built to make the annual voyage. The Manila Galleon by William Lytle Schurz, first published 1939, documents the story of these galleons. They began their regular route across the Pacific shortly after Urdaneta's discovery and continued until early in the 19th century. In my story that follows, a small bag of cloves begins in the spice orchards of the Molucca islands, I have used details from Schurz's book, especially concentrating on the situation as it was in the early 1600s.

Imagine how, in the early 1600s, a clove tree in the Molucca Islands produced its crop of dried flower buds. Workers gathered these valuable spices -- which at that time grew nowhere but this obscure set of islands. Small sacks or bundles of cloves were packed in chests and put on small trading boats heading in several directions. Peppercorns and nutmeg along with the cloves probably gave an irresistible aroma to the inside of the sea chest, but it had to be shipped onwards; no treats for the workers!

Once the cloves were packed and laded, the boats delivered their cargo to Manila, then a trading port in the recently acquired Spanish colony of the Philippines, named for the Spanish King Philip. In the harbor also would have been junks from China and Formosa, as it was then called, bringing silks and Ming porcelains for the Spanish trade. Ming China made much use of the Spanish pieces of eight in their commerce, thanks to this trade. Other trading ships delivered cotton cloth from India and other goods from Ceylon, Siam, and Indo-China, as it was then called. Slaves, especially women, were another element of the cargo of the ship, as well as passengers with commercial or government business in the Spanish Empire.

Urdaneta's route had been established for an annual trade in order to consolidate the riches of the East and deliver them across the oceans. Spaniards posted to the new colony of Manila organized goods to be loaded on the scarce and much-desired space in the Galleons. Many individuals had the right to ship one or several chests of goods. The Chinese traders knew how to fill each chest so tightly that more silks could fit than anyone thought possible -- the chests were much heavier than those the Spaniards packed for themselves. And among these goods were the little packet of cloves that had been harvested in the Moluccas.

Spanish Galleon
The longest part of the voyage for the little packet of cloves was from Manila to Mexico. Though the ship's hold contained the most expensive of foodstuffs, spices, the sailors and passengers often came close to starvation -- scurvy affected them on almost every voyage. The authorities knew how much food was needed, but the merchants often arranged to replace the ship's supplies and backup equipment with more money-making cargo. Some ships were lost thanks to such behavior. English and Dutch pirates were also a threat to ships along the west coast of Mexico and Central America, though their interest was more focused on silver and other treasure than on spice.

Like Manila, Acapulco was a major transshipment port where the cargo from the galleons was redistributed and sent onward towards Panama, Mexico City, and eventually across the Caribbean to Spain. When the ship arrived, the first people to board were clandestine boatmen in the dead of night; they took the undeclared cargo that was forbidden or that was avoiding the customs agents. These agents were the next to board, and they checked each chest -- though they didn't look inside, and often the contents were more than declared.

After the officials did their work, they sent word to Mexico City: the ship could be unloaded, and trading was open. Merchants and traders quickly made their way to Acapulco for the huge fair that vastly increased the population of the otherwise rather dull and uneventful port. Traders from Peru offered silver, often outbidding the Mexican merchants.  Mixed-race local Acapulco residents did their best to participate in the buying and selling, then carrying their purchases onward to Puebla, Oxhaca, or mainly to Mexico City. Many of the dealers were purchasing goods to be sent onward to Spain. Mules carried the sea chests across Mexico to Vera Cruz and then onward across the Atlantic. Of course the ship had to return to Manila -- for the return voyage it was loaded with silver pieces of eight from the mines of Peru, chocolate from Mexico, and a small number of other commodities for the Eastern trade.

The Spaniards who ruled Mexico always wanted to buy their share of the rich cargo. Richer people wore the silks and jewels from China; poorer workers wore the plain cotton from India. Chinese dishes and vases decorated tables and homes of wealthy Spaniards. The little packet of cloves, along with many other spices, could have been purchased by one of the locals for consumption in Mexico. Spaniards in Mexico had quickly adopted the new flavors of the New World: allspice, chile peppers, chocolate, vanilla, and combinations of old and new emerged. The chocolate beverages of Aztec nobles tasted good with cinnamon. Medieval spice blends of pepper, cloves, and nutmeg went well with new world turkey. (For more on these influences, see Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla and "The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection" by Rachel Lauden.)

Spice blending traditions had come to Spain with the Arab conquest, as they had come to Europe with Crusaders who tasted Arab food in Jerusalem. Now the spices were coming across the Pacific directly to the New World rather than through the Arab world that had always handled them on the way to European tables.

The legend of the nuns of Puebla who "invented" Mole Poblano, reflects the old-world traditions and new-world luxury, using both chocolate and old-world spice. Thoughtful food writers, such as Maricel E. Presilla in Gran Cocina Latina, however, give no credibility to the idea that these nuns invented the dish because they had nothing else to cook for a visiting bishop. The town of Puebla was definitely a consumer of luxury foods including spices from the East and the best their local sources could supply. Perhaps the little packet of cloves from the Galleon ended up in a convent where the nuns created a spice blend that reflected the traditions of Islamic Spain and Aztec nobility.

A particular group of Spanish inhabitants of Mexico were the New Christians; that is, descendants of Jews who had chosen conversion in 1492 instead of the other alternatives: exile from Spain or death. Persecuted unmercifully by the Inquisition, many of these eventually chose another type of exile in the New World, living as less and less well-informed secret Jews, and still watched carefully by Mexican immigrant inquisitors who looked for signs of reversion to their ancestral religion.

The cuisine of secret Jews in Mexico and Spain attempted to reflect as much of Jewish tradition as they could remember -- and as much as they could include without immediate arrest. A Drizzle of Honey: the Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson transforms Inquisition testimony about the guilty food choices of accused secret Jews into recipes that can be followed in a modern kitchen. I looked into this book for some possible food preparations in which the cloves that traveled from the Moluccas to Manila and across the Pacific might have ended up.

Alfajores, a small almond cookie, "are inescapably one of the Andalucian Islamic contributions to Iberian cuisine," writes Gitlitz." Sixteenth century alfajores (which differ from the modern version) were a popular treat among new-Christians in Mexico in the early seventeenth century." A dough of almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, honey, bread crumbs and eggs was flavored with cinnamon and cloves; teaspon-sized balls of dough, optionally dusted with more cinnamon, were baked into chewy cookies. (p. 275-276)

Note: illustrations (except book cover) are from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gran Cocina Latina

Chicken and corn made according to recipes from Gran Cocina Latina
Using indirect heat over aluminum drip pan
Mainly because of its historical content, I have been reading Maricel E. Presilla's gigantic and ambitious cookbook titled Gran Cocina Latina. By gigantic, I mean that it weighs close to 4 pounds, and has 900 pages. By ambitious, I mean it covers every culture and country in South and Central America, including pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern food history and hundreds of recipes. There's lots of emphasis on the author's native Cuba, but plenty about all the other countries as well.

After a couple of days of reading, I also wanted to taste. So for dinner tonight, I chose "Grilled 'Leaping Frog' Chicken" from Argentina (p. 665), a simple recipe for using a spice rub after flattening a whole chicken -- sometimes called butterflied, but the author depicts the final shape as frog-like. Her description of grilling was a bit sketchy, but we used the indirect heat technique that's worked for us before when doing whole chickens. I also followed her suggestion to steam or boil corn on the cob and then briefly finish it over the fire (p. 237). I served the corn and chicken with some sliced tomatoes with cilantro, an herb that often flavors South American and Mexican dishes.

I'm reading a copy from the public library.
It has the dust jacket.
I'm not finding the organization of the book to be satisfyingly clear. The first chapter is fine: it includes a necessary and highly enlightening discussion of cooking utensils and appliances. There's a wonderful description of women who sit on the floor to prepare food and of how an old-fashioned cook can dice an onion one layer at a time. Presilla is completely convincing that the result of using a box grater or a mortar and pestle can be very different from using an electric appliance for similar prep. (Alas, today I smashed both my mortar and pestle while crushing the garlic for the spice rub -- this hasn't ever happened in the 30 years or so I've owned it. Guess I'll have to buy a new one.)

Next, several chapters deal with specific foods, such as "Table Condiments," "Tropical Roots and Starchy Vegetables," "Rice," and a couple of others. After these, several chapters deal with types of food like "Little Latin Dishes." There's an entire chapter on "Empanadas" followed by a series of chapters on other individual dishes or preparations like "Cebiches." After a while the book gets back to specific foodstuffs like salads, breads, fish, poultry, and meat. Finally there's "Dulce Latino."

Each chapter provides detailed descriptions of the varieties of each type of food: for example, a illustrated list of dozens of peppers, a description of many types of beans, or of various brands of rice (warning that if you change rice brands, you may need different amounts of water and different cooking times or methods). Very valuable historical, ethnic, agricultural, and social information about the foodstuffs and dishes are interspersed in these chapters. And of course, each chapter includes many traditional recipes, recipes from the author's friends or acquaintances, original recipes from her restaurant, and recipes from other sources. Reading through the book requires intense concentration to follow these many different trains of thought.

The information is so interesting and important, however, that I have found the patience to sit with this tome and carefully go through the narrative portions, as well as scanning through the recipes. (I'm about 2/3 done.) There's so much to think about in terms of the many cultures and historic influences. For example, there's a very traditional Cuban dish called "Moors and Christians;" that is, black beans and white rice. Consider this: the black beans in this dish are one of the key New World species -- we all know the trio of corn, beans and squash that natives of North and South America relied on. And the white rice...

In "Moors and Christians" the white rice represents the Christians, that is, Europeans, and it did definitely come from the Old World. Columbus brought rice and probably seeds for cultivating it on his second voyage. From at least 1515, Presilla writes, "rice was part of the Spanish settlement in the New World." Soon it grew on all the Spanish Caribbean islands, and the Spaniards viewed it as a very important staple food.

Rice wasn't really native to Spain, though: it had been introduced by the Arab conquerors known as "Moors." And as time went on, "rice became one of the most important foods in the diet of the African slaves. Gradually rice was embraced by everyone.... Even the potato-eating Indian farmers of the Andean regions succumbed to the lure of rice."

Some of the varieties of rice used in modern South American cuisine in fact later came from other parts of the Spanish Empire; for example, "via the galleon trade with the Philippines or ... from Dutch and Portuguese traders who had long-established contacts with the rice-growing regions of Asia and the Indian Ocean."  Latin-American cooks also valued and still value rice from the American South; for some dishes they prefer "Carolina" rice or even Uncle Ben's. (All quotes from p. 287).

"For seven centuries, Moors and Christians fought one another in Spain," the author writes, "but in the guise of black beans and rice they surrendered to each other's charms within the all-embracing New World pot. Like the hybrid culture that flourished in medieval Spain, the rice dish known as moros y cristianos is an exemplar of exchange between civilizations." (p. 310)

I find a key to Presilla's viewpoint about food at the beginning of the book. She says of her many travels collecting recipes and food histories: "Again and again, I was forced to remember that food is always deeply political." (p. 2)

Note: I heard of this book on the blog of food historian Rachel Lauden.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

"The Lunch Room" -- a Vegan Restaurant

Vegan hash and bagel with cashew spread
Today for lunch we tried The Lunch Room, a new vegan restaurant at Kerrytown near the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Very convenient as the market today was host to the Kerrytown bookfest where we started our morning. We were quite hungry and appreciated the quick service. Once we put in the order at the counter, our food arrived at the table without much of a wait.

I admit, my culinary expectations for The Lunch Room were pretty low. Vegan food has never seemed too appealing to me, unless we are talking about a vegan side-dish to go with meat or eggs. However, my choice of hash, mostly vegetables with seitan sausage, a spicy soy product, was in fact delicious. The non-meat texture of the seitan wasn't important as the morsels were quite small. The potatoes were crunchy from being perfectly fried and the other vegetables weren't overcooked, so they had a little crunch too.

Len enjoyed his bagel with cashew spread and tomato; he drank his coffee black, preferring not to try the almond milk they offered as a whitener. Bagels of course are always vegan, and cashew spread is its own thing.

My main problem with vegan food -- that it tries to masquerade as meat and cheese -- wasn't an issue here. Some of the other things on the menu look as if they have this problem. I wish the restaurant would offer more variety of traditionally vegan dishes made just as they always are without any pretense. I'd like to go back and try some of their sweet pastries with afternoon coffee -- I always drink black coffee so I won't even miss real milk or cream.

Our friend Pam's interesting sepia-toned photos of New Zealand decorate one of the walls of the restaurant, a very pleasant, newly decorated space. We ate at the restaurant's tables in the quiet courtyard between the various Kerrytown buildings.

Update: I checked the Lunch Room website -- Sundays they serve only breakfast, so there are a variety of sandwiches and main courses on the regular menu that I didn't know about. I would like to try some of them, like the Pad Thai and Thai slaw at some point.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

What's in your lunch box? An extended answer.

Elaine writes about lunches at home and at school:
I just wish someone would make me the Bon Appetit lunches--an awful lot of work even for a retired person. I usually eat at home, often one of the Yoplait yogurts that you decry for their lack of good nutrition, a piece of fruit and some bread and butter and jelly. (Or cookies or pie or cake if we have some). I think eating the yogurt in addition to a sandwich would be excessive, but instead of it's not so bad. I used to often pack the same lunch when I was working. 
Delmar-Harvard Elementary School where we ate those lunches
(though the cafeteria was in another building)
I mentioned earlier this year that I've gone back to peanut butter after many years hiatus, but now I sometimes use creamy style horseradish instead of jelly. I remember once as a kid that Mom put butter on my peanut butter sandwich instead of jelly. It was probably worse for me and tasted weird. I also remember the Halloween peanut butter open face sandwiches, cut round with jack-o-lantern faces. Those were served at home on Halloween, before we went back to the school parade. (Butterscotch pudding with jack-o-lantern face was I think for dinner dessert). I loved those! 
As a member of the local school parent council when the kids were small, I designed and administered a survey at the elementary school to see what the kids liked and didn't--most of the disliked stuff went into the trash, since there were no eating enforcers. The items they hated the most were green and gold salad (cheese and peas) and Reuben sandwiches. We shared our results with the cafeteria directors but am not sure we got much attention. The staff wanted to open the minds (palates) of the children, but the kids were pretty much completely closed to some of the ideas, and I doubt they actually tried some of the food.

What's in your lunch box? Another answer.

Evelyn wrote about what's in lunch boxes packed at her house:
I read your blog entry about packed lunches, and I think maybe I don't agree with some of it.
Pesto-Chicken Rolls from Bon Appetit
For example that Bon Appetit article -- maybe a little pretentious, but I am going to show it to Alice, because I bet she would get up early to make herself some of those lunch ideas. They actually sound very good for dinner with leftovers for the lunch. Maybe that's why it sounds pretentious -- I seriously doubt anyone really makes those only to pack in a lunch, whereas as a leftover that would be completely reasonable. Miriam even made sushi for dinner a few times for the purpose of taking it in her lunch the next day. 
I don't think that Miriam and Alice's lunches are too far off from the norm, or they would rebel, and yes they often have a piece of candy or a yogurt, but they don't seem all that much worse than what you described you bringing healthwise. For example, today Miriam had a PBJ sandwich, 5 ritz crackers, a bit of candy, a peach, and a chocolate milk (It's not really just her lunch -- she has been eating a little lunch at school and finishing it up the rest for afternoon snack). 
Alice had the same crackers and candy, but she had a tortilla wrap with melted swiss cheese for her sandwich, a fruitable for her drink (it is fruit juice with water added), and blueberries for her fruit. This seems to be well within the range. Yes, it has more sugar than you had, but not enormously more. 
My own lunch was leftovers from the salad last night for dinner -- quinoa, avocados, tomato, corn cut off the cob, garlic, onion, and the wonderful Cajun seasonings you brought me from Baltimore (which I have been adding to pretty much everything all summer). That is just as pretentious as any Bon Appetit lunch in that article! But this was an exceptional day -- on Tuesday I didn't have time to make a lunch at all and had a pain au chocolat from the coffee shop. And  I'm sure that kind of lunch is exactly what Michelle Obama is talking about.

What's in your lunch box? First answer.

Arny wrote on my FB page:
"This is my 60th consecutive year of going to school. When I'm not on sabbatical, I nearly always bring a lunch bag. Nowadays it's usually a small insulated bag that lasts a year or two. I still use a couple of baggies; I haven't made an effort to find the right containers for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the cup of carrots, but I do recycle the coke can, and the apple doesn't need packaging."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

What's in your lunch box?

Mona Lisa Lunch Tote from Cafepress
School started yesterday, so I've been thinking about what goes in all the lunch boxes and lunch bags all over the country. I remember from childhood the smell of a lunch in a brown paper bag. When I was in elementary school, I went home for lunch almost every day. But in Junior High, I remember the smelly brown bags with wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches, probably on white bread, and an apple every day. Maybe a carrot stick or a cookie. Inside the sandwiches: peanut butter (no jelly for me) or sliced cheese; cream cheese or some sort of meat; maybe tuna fish. My mother, who packed our lunches, didn't think it was a lunch without a sandwich. I almost always brought my lunch right through high school. I didn't like and rarely ate cafeteria food -- for one exception, see this.

Here's what I think is odd: the lunches my mother packed would mainly comply with the advice that parents are getting now to encourage healthier eating. If the food industry made small-sized bags of potato chips then, we never heard of them; Lunchables were distantly in the future. Yogurt wasn't a commonly sold or eaten food until some time after I was in school; it seems to have become a staple of lunches brought from home. Most yogurt -- especially the ones targeted to kids -- is a heavily sweetened and not particularly wonderful food masquerading as healthful.

The lunches we rejected from the cafeteria were probably no better in nutritional value than the ones that are under scrutiny now, and probably didn't taste any better than the nutritionally improved ones kids are rejecting, either. I suspect that politics is behind some of the big objections that kids (no doubt encouraged by their parents) are making to the changes in school cafeteria food when the objectors seem to all be from tea-party country and they mention Michelle Obama by name and hold her responsible. I have this funny feeling that only a satirist (like The Onion or Andy Borowitz) could do justice to the politicization of school lunch contents as well as to some of the other excessive trends.

Lunch boxes, for some reason, weren't cool when I was a lunch-taker; neither were thermoses. I think they were for littler kids. After lunch, we could throw away everything that came with lunch. That didn't usually include any food: we were all inducted into the Clean Plate Club though no one ever named it. A few years after I was in school, instead of waxed paper or waxed sandwich bags, plastic baggies became common. Much more recently, schools have been nudging both mothers and kids towards reusable containers instead of disposable wrappings.

Will this trend continue? Two years ago, an article in the New York Times reported "Sales of environmentally friendly back-to-school products are up just about everywhere." By that time at Miriam and Alice's Oak View Elementary school, kids had already done an experiment to compare the trash on a day when everyone brought lunch in disposable bags and on a day when everyone who could brought their food in reusable containers. The resulting trash quantities really impressed the whole school! Nobody wanted to be seen making piles of trash like that.

In the family, Miriam says she plans to take only a little bit for lunch because she'll be eating very early, so she got  a new small lunch box to start Junior High. Alice says she doesn't have a new lunch box yet. Last year in Minnesota, they did eat school lunches, which were designed to have healthy food and lots of vegetables in them and also were usually served on reusable plates. They also had a deal with a farm to send the edible leftovers and plate scrapings to the pigs.

Overall, in lunch boxes this school year, I suspect that there will be lots of interesting and exotic foods as mothers strive to meet more and more competitive demands for health and fanciness. A few mothers might follow the trend of making highly decorative Japanese lunches, as illustrated by a screen shot from google images. A few might make labor-intensive gourmet treats based on recipes like those in a pretentious article in Bon Appetit.

Most kids' lunches, according to the news, will be some combination of convenience lunch food like yogurt cups and mini-bags of chips or carrots and traditional choices like my mother made. I hope there's really a trend towards better health and environmental responsibility, but that might be wishful thinking.