Author Sarah Lohman identifies herself as a historic gastronomist: that is, she explores the way that cooks worked in the past, and re-creates old recipes. The eight flavors in the title of her book provide a route into American cooking from Colonial times (when black pepper dominated both sweet and savory recipes) to the present, when we retain the earlier flavors but continue to add new ones. Specifically, Lohman describes how Sriracha, a hot sauce of southeast Asian origin and California manufacture, has spread throughout our kitchens.
In every chapter of this book, I learned new things about the flavor featured there. As illustrated in my photo, I use every one of these flavors in my own cooking -- some more than others. Especially interesting was the idea that wartime exposure to the foods of a region often results in flavors being brought back to the soldiers' home country. Is Sriracha partly due to experience in the Vietnam war? Well, maybe!
A few things I found especially interesting:
- Although careful well-executed studies have repeatedly found no ill effects from MSG, people still fear it and loath it! I think this is why Maggi seasoning doesn't explicitly name it on the label. The history of the discovery of the "fifth taste" -- umami is a fascinating one, and Lohman provides lots of insight into how adding MSG to food was at first a positive step, but became a problem because of a pervasive but mistaken view of the danger of this substance (which occurs naturally in many foods including human milk).
- Vanilla, I learned, was rare and expensive until some time in the nineteenth century. Before it became widely available, the flavor that was most used in sweets like cake or cookies was rose water!
- Curry powder became popular long before Indian cuisine was well-known or served in restaurants. One chicken dish stands out -- "Country Captain Chicken is a common American curry dish that first showed up in Eliza Leslie’s 1857 cookbook Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. It was a popular dish in port cities of the South, where Americans who had sailed to India would have lived and traded." (p. 92).
- Garlic as a culinary flavor (rather than a medical remedy for many ills) became popular only in the twentieth century, as Italian-American food became mainstream and as French cuisine became well-known. "A clove of garlic, the part of the plant we cook with most often, is actually a leaf: a storage vessel that packs away energy for the next growing season. The energy stored in the cloves is in the form of sugar— specifically fructose— which is why a clove tastes sweet when it is cooked slowly and caramelizes when roasted." (p. 150).
My kitchen is pretty quiet these days, as I recently returned from a long trip and I haven't started cooking very actively to date. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to present a feature of my kitchen for the blogging event titled "In My Kitchen This Month," hosted by blogger Sherry. Quite a few very interesting posts have already been added to the April list!
Update, June 20, 2018. My culinary book club read this as our June selection. Everyone seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Favorite sections included the one on vanilla, on black pepper, and on Sriracha.