Wall of Shame: Eric Asimov and Rajat Parr traduce the palate of the Raj.
1. We demand the finest wines available to humanity.
Pushing the sale of wines, it would seem, is all the rage at Indian restaurants, especially in the City of New York. According to Eric Asimov at The New York Times, any number of places are trying to piggyback “the success of restaurants like Junoon near Madison Square Park, Gymkhana in London and Rasika in Washington, which have demonstrated how well fine wine can enhance an Indian meal.” These wine lists are “intended both to flatter the food and to create unexpectedly delicious synergies.” (Asimov)
Asimov concedes that pairing wine and Indian food, “with its intricate spicing; rich, integrated sauces, and occasional chili heat, has often posed a difficult riddle” and that “the process of integrating Indian food is not easy, nor is it intuitive.” (Asimov) Others find any such process impossible. Victor Gordon imposes a ban on the drinking of wine with Indian food. “The curry-eater,” he explains,
“has too much on his palate (and in his nostrils) to cope with another equally complex, taste experience. It is possible to read Proust while listening to Ravi Shankar but impossible to give both the attention they deserve at the same time--nor can wine and curry be appreciated simultaneously.” (English Cookbook 175-76)
Gordon, however, was English and therefore not competent, according to the logic of Asimov and Rajat Parr, to assess matters of spice and even of taste more generally. “When the British arrived in India, it didn’t have an alcohol tradition, so they brought scotch and beer,” claims Parr. “Beer wipes out spices and destroys the flavors. To the British, that was great.” (Asimov)
2. Spice is nice.
The argument is anachronistic, unfounded, stupefying. The putative British aversion to spice either in the archipelago itself or across the seas is a hackneyed misperception.
Following a defeat of Portuguese warships, the English obtained their first commercial concession and constructed their first Indian ‘factory,’ or trading station, at Surat in 1612.
The fledgling nabobs liked the cultures they encountered on the Subcontinent, even if they misunderstood much about them, and happily ‘went native,’ not only taking Indian wives as well as lovers, but also dressing in hybrid Anglo-Indian style, smoking cannabis and not least delighting in the dishes they were served.
The foodways they found fascinated these early English settlers because they were at once familiar and exotic. “It should by no means be assumed,” explains Burton,
“that the first British settlers had considered the highly spiced cuisine of India so very outlandish or strange. In 1612, English cooking itself had barely emerged from the Middle Ages, and was still heavy with cumin, caraway, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Indeed, spices had for the first time become affordable to all but the poor in England, due to the breaking of the Arab monopoly of the spice trade by the Portuguese a century earlier.” (Burton 3; see Sen 2)
As a result of this coincidence, “when the gentlemen of the Surat factory were fêted by their Muslim friends, they were probably not being polite when they pronounced the pilaus and biriyanis delicious.” (Burton 4)
Other cultural coincidences accelerated the English acceptance of Indian foodways. During the early seventeenth century, the English still considered forks suspiciously foreign and effeminate (they originated in Italy; the horror!), and like Indian people at the time scooped their food using fragments of bread.
Banquets might be elaborate in either country, and frequently lasted for hours. Following a long lunch or dinner, both cultures circulated an array of spices on fancy trays or in special boxes. These offerings were considered digestives by the English and Indians alike. Cultural divergence does, however, appear in this picture through language. The somewhat lyrical Indian term for the practice was pan; the rather inelegant but typically descriptive English one, the voidee. (see Burton 4)
David Burton comments on the anomaly of Raj attitudes: “Considering the ethnocentric attitude of the British towards food generally, one can only marvel at the adventurousness the Anglo-Indians displayed.” (Burton 125)
3. Authentic inauthenticity built on bundles of spice.
It is a truism that curry powder is inauthentic. It also is not quite true. Nobody should argue that the use of curry powder, or curry paste, can create an authentic Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani dish. The British after all invented curry powder, and during the eighteenth century commercial brands of endless variety proliferated for use both in Britain and the Raj. Curry blends ranged from emoliently mild to fiery hot, and British as well as Indian cooks created distinctive dishes by using the spice.
A small sample of Raj creations includes country captain, kedgeree, mulligatawny, the famous curries served on P&O liners and curious Victorian ‘quormas,’ including silken versions featuring such unexpected items as cucumbers mixed with meat or fowl. The fondness for curry was by no means limited to the elites. Curry was a constant item at the lunches of military messes across the Subcontinent and on ships flying the red ensign of the British merchant marine.
In this context the obvious question arises. Why take the trouble and bear the expense of using lavish amounts of spice, or create so many vehicles for them, if the ulterior aim all along has been to render spice invisible and eliminate flavor more generally?
That the British did not do. Instead imaginative adherents of Anglo-Indian hybrids, including the great Arthur Kenney-Herbert, created a distinctive Raj style based on Subcontinental spice.
4. A devilish dish.
By the early eighteenth century, cayenne had become the fiery flagbearer of empire in the kitchens of the Raj as well as kitchens “back home.” The British created devils and deviling to showcase spice. These compounds consist of heaters including cayenne, chilis, garlic, mustard, anchovy essence and paste, Tabasco, vinegar, and Worcestershire in various combinations. Anything savory could be deviled, and the treatment has been applied to just about everything.
Devils are undeniably pungent and the British traditionally ate them with wine. As Gordon recounts, they “produce clean and simple tastes, however hot and mustardy.” For that reason, he continues, “the devil-eater can fully appreciate good wine, whereas the curry-eater cannot.” Gordon finds it “no coincidence that devils were invented by--and for--a claret besotted (sic) age.” (English Cooking 175, 176) The British knew that the flavors of wine and spice might enhance one another: There was no desire to ‘wipe out spice’ or ‘destroy flavor’ and anyway beer does no such thing.
5. A world of drink including a lot of wine and many, many beers.
The British in India drank a lot of things in addition to beer and Scotch. Ironically enough, the first thing they drank was wine, and they drank it with food. They also drank a lot of it. “From the very earliest time of the English factory,” or trading station, the one at Surat in 1612, the factory president set “the individual ration” per meal in the communal dining hall at a quart of wine per person. (Burton 203)
Later in the seventeenth century,
“it was not uncommon for a man to lay in a full stock of wine and invite his friends to dinner, and in the process of their giving their judgment on its quality, finish off the whole chest at one sitting.” (Burton 204)
During the beginning of the nineteenth century, one memsahib reported that wine remained “the heaviest family article, for whether it is taken fashionably or medicinally, everybody, even to your humble servant, drinks at least a bottle per diem, and the gentlemen four times that quantity.” (quoted at Burton 204)
The Raj imported wines from France, Italy and Germany; “‘English’ was good French claret to which some brandy had been added in England to enable it to withstand the Indian climate.” (Burton 207)
The British in India also drank other fortified wines, led by Madeira, in considerable quantity. “So popular was Madeira” during the eighteenth century “that 150 to 200 pipes were sent annually to Madras alone” for the East India Company. A pipe was a barrel that held 105 gallons. Company accounts allocated 4,200 bottles to the governor and 130 for each other employee “including the lowliest Company clerk” and “even these were supplemented by a good deal more which came in privately.” (Burton 208, 207)
The records of one Madras nabob indicate that during a single month in 1774 he and his guests drank 99 bottles of Bordeaux and 75 of Madeira along with considerably smaller quantities of porter, rum and brandy. The books do not mention Scotch, which did not become “the favourite drink of the Raj” until after 1870. (Burton 208)
Even during its heyday whisky would not become a palate killer; “in India whisky was well-diluted.” (Burton 210) In Japan, whisky is considered the ideal drink for sushi, a dish of subtlety, and if it does not overwhelm raw fish it would not destroy the flavor of Indian food either.
Nor did the advent of whisky signal the demise of wine. At Government House in the Simla hill station during 1877, for example, fourteen guests sat down to tiffin and thirteen to dinner. The guests put away six bottles of Champagne, eight of Bordeaux, two of Sherry, a modest pair of beers, and two of whisky, while the servants accounted for four more bottles of Bordeaux, seven of beer and six glasses of brandy. (Brennan 217) The quantities of wine may appear lavish but are rather demure by the contemporary yardstick of stocking a bottle per diner for a typical dinner party or holiday feast.
Consumption of wine was all the more remarkable because only robust varieties, accounting in part for the prevalence of fortified wines and the practice of lacing Bordeaux with brandy, could survive the unrefrigerated voyage out from British ports and the oscillations of the Indian climate.
The tastes of diners and drinkers at Government House of course were grander than most, and after about 1820 “beer began to displace wine as the favoured drink.” Before then it had been considered too expensive for everyday drinking and anyway too “liverish,” or strong, for India.
The ascent of beer only began when an English brewer developed a light ale specifically for India, not an alcohol bomb or hop devil capable of obliterating the flavor of food. It was not until the 1870s, however, that breweries became successful on the Subcontinent itself. (Burton 209)
So all that is old is new again, and restaurants pushing wine with Indian dishes are returning to the roots of the Raj whether or not they know it.
Asimov is a wine writer and Parr a sommelier. For straying from their fields into the unfamiliar terrain of culinary history to make things up, they have jointly earned their Fenway.
Eric Asimov, “The Best Pairing for Indian Food? It’s Not Beer,” The New York Times (13 September 2016)
Jennifer Brennan, Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj (New York 1990)
David Burton, The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India (London 1993)
Victor Gordon, The English Cookbook: New Ways with Traditional British Foods (London 1985)
Coleen Taylor Sen, Curry: A Global History (London 2009)
Wall of Shame: Heinz ‘malt’ vinegar as foisted off on the American market.
The Oxford English Dictionary , defines ‘malt’ standing alone as “barley or other grain that has been steeped, germinated, and dried, used especially for brewing or distilling and vinegar-making.” Others are not so liberal. In the Food of the Western World (London 1976), the redoubtable Theodora FritzGibbon defines malt as “barley in which the starch content has been converted to sugar by fermentation.” She allows for no other grain.
According to one industrial giant, however, one of those others implied by the OED is corn. Corn is an industrial curse and artisanal glory in the United States. For the bad news first, federal subsidies render corn the dirtiest cheap and mutilate its production to create any number of zombie products. Ethanol in gasoline for marine use promotes the growth of fungus that fouls engines; high fructose corn syrup tastes bad and, hidden as cheap filler and addictive sweetener in products that are only the worse for it, promotes obesity.
For the good news, unsubsidized smallholders in New England produce the best corn in memory and they do it in a sustainable way. As in the American south, some of their corn is milled into superb meal; Kenyon’s gristmill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island, has ground its famous white meal forever.
As good as something made from corn, how many readers would accept the OED definition applied to single malt Scotch? Can Scotch consist of ‘other grain,’ of oats, or rye, or sorghum or corn? Other whiskys may but malt scotch cannot. No whisky made with anything other than barley describes itself as ‘malt,’ but seizing on the technicality that is the OED dodge, that is how Heinz describes the inauthentic and debased vinegar it dumps on the unsuspecting American market. Would anybody buy corn vinegar? No company, however indifferent to quality, even tries to sell it, but ‘corn malt’ is a constituent of the ‘malt’ vinegar Heinz flogs in the United States.
Not really malt vinegar.
That is deceptive. “Malt vinegar,” according to food.com, “is made by malting barley…. Any English recipe calling for vinegar typically refers to malt unless otherwise noted.” Can it be coincidental by the way that barley costs considerably more than corn?
At recipetips.com, the entry on malt vinegar explains that it “is produced from barley cereal grains that are malted,” not form corn or anything else. It is of course possible to malt corn; malting is a process. As a name, however, it refers only to barley. Even so, Heinz has not even bothered to dilute its deception by reference to ‘malted corn;’ the company calls the ingredient it chose for polluting its vinegar ‘corn malt.’
An injunction should issue prohibiting Heinz from the use of ‘malt vinegar’ to describe the product. None of the literature to address malt vinegar even considers corn, and traditional malt vinegar was made from beer in the manner that wine vinegars are made from… wine. As Alan Davidson defines it in the indispensible Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999), “ Malt vinegar used to be called alegar which is a more appropriate name as it is [or was; Editor’s note] made from an unhopped type of beer.”
Malt vinegar is of course associated with Britain and nowhere else, where malt is barley and corn is maize, and traditional British beers never have contained corn. Malt vinegar should not contain it either.
In the United States, Heinz has ignored the meaning of ‘malt’ as commonly understood by adding an adjunct to its ‘traditional’ vinegar. Such is not so in the United Kingdom, at least as for as long as the union lasts. Heinz does not adulterate malt vinegar there; neither does Sarson’s, once a charming family firm (they published lovely promotional cookbooks offering lots of decent recipes incorporating their product), now also under the arm of a multinational behemoth. Unlike the Heinz imposter roaming the United States, its product remains good.
The current Fenway goes to Heinz and the FDA is under investigation by the Wall for negligence in allowing Heinz to engage in consumer deception.
It has required no little reluctance to award this Number’s pair of Fenways. The recipients have made the task so easy we suspected a setup.
Fenway the first.
Our first Fenway goes to InBev, brewer of the beer formerly known as Budweiser.
In this political season of scoundrels cloaking themselves in a problematic patriotism to burnish credentials notwithstanding their unfitness for office, the Belgian owner of Budweiser has decided to rename its beer ‘America’ for the summer.
The change will, according to Ricardo Marques, formerly a Budweiser vice president and now the apparently enigmatic vice president of America, create “probably the most American summer of our generation,” whatever that means. To help ensure this Most American Season Ever, America will print the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner on each of its cans. That should go a long way toward imprinting each drinker of America with an appropriately nationalist fervor.
The multinational brewer of exclusively bad beer has demonstrated a certain courage in proceeding with the change despite its unsuccessful test marketing of Stella Artois as ‘Belgium.’ It seems that not even the cognoscenti who know what it looks like want to wrap themselves in the Belgian flag.
Sources speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of true patriots reveal that the owner of America has failed in its effort to obtain trademark protection for the name. The brewer will threaten rightful ‘infringers’ with litigation anyway, but that should not defer deep pocketed competitors rushing to obtain a free ride on the brainstorm. Perhaps we should expect a multitude of Americas along with ‘God Save America’ beer in evangelical enclaves with a nonalcoholic version for Utah, ‘Not My President’ in Texas and ‘Build the Wall’ in Arizona.
Speaking of multitudes, not to mention the huddled masses drinkers of America clamor to deport, the Belgians have undertaken a less unwelcome initiative. With a knowing nod to the history of the United States, they also have changed their slogan for America from the monarchical to the republican. And at least the new one, ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ is less deceptive and more descriptive than the temporarily outgoing ‘King of Beers,’ although on the other hand it is most unlikely that the drinkers of America, as opposed to drinkers of other American beers, will have any idea what the Latin means. Still, in terms of taste the King never much resembled royalty, and the new slogan does reflect the fact that the beer is loaded with adjuncts, stabilizers and gas in addition to the fewer ingredients found in better beer.
With his firm grip on reality and with his exquisite taste, Donald Trump has taken credit for the ploy, an unequivocal affirmation of its idiocy.
Make America Bud Again.
Fenway the second.
The second Fenway goes to the similarly egregious practitioner of terrible taste and manufacturer of terrible food, McDonalds.
This one requires no elaboration.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation via The New York Times back on 5 February 2016, “McDonald’s has found a way to make a kale salad that contains more calories than a Big Mac.”
Stay tuned as the Wall of Shame hits keep on coming.
Our inaugural 2016 Wall of Shame award goes to Saveur.
Even when Saveur gets something about British food right, the magazine gets it wrong. In fairness, Saveur is the least objectionable of the glossy food magazines, and a furtive pleasure, at least at times, of the Editor and a number of her friends.
At the outset of each year the magazine publishes “The Saveur 100,” descriptions of things involving foodways. The compilation casts a wide net. The magazine itself describes them as “Recipes. Chef’s Secrets. Where To Eat Right Now,” but entries may cover ingredients, tools, the restaurants, categories of restaurants (this year’s includes a list of places offering pho in Anchorage, Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh and a guide to five Koreatowns across the United States), cookbooks, techniques and recipes.
The business plan of the magazine is much of the moment; its publisher knows about all those studies that chronicle the shrinking attention span of the average American, so each entry is short and illustrated with outsize photographs of food porn. Some of the choices seem a little obvious or a little stale, fads that have lingered too long; Meyer lemons, sea urchin, a beefburger of all things. Others, however, are astute.
Number 79 this year is Maggi, which essentially is salted and liquefied MSG. It is not as revolting as it sounds, and Saveur even managed to entreat Sean Brock of all people to endorse it, at least to a guarded extent. “It’s my secret weapon” (well, not anymore), admits Brock, but are diners at Husk actually ingesting MSG? Brock is ambiguous: “It’s definitely cheating, but if you’re not charging people, I think you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do at home.”
In the Editor’s home Maggi does not enjoy much purchase. The cheating there entails Kitchen Bouquet, a potion preferred by the cooks of New Orleans. It boasts a few attributes that are superior to Maggi’s. Even though Kitchen Bouquet is produced by a subsidiary of Clorox (!), unlike Maggi Kitchen Bouquet is not a chemical concoction. Instead it is a mixture of caramelized vegetables; carrots, celery, cabbage, onion, parsley, turnip and parsnips. The sludge itself is black, so in addition to imparting a rich depth to gumbo, stews, savory puddings and pie, gravies and more, it darkens and thickens without flour.
Unlike Maggi, Kitchen Bouquet will not induce any headaches. And unlike Maggi, the dose of Kitchen Bouquet need not be but a drip, because it is not so salty as we might surmise. Unlike Maggi, Kitchen Bouquet is not salty at all. A serving contains “0%” sodium according to the USDA mandated “Nutrition Facts” list on the label.
Maggi may not be our preference, but the additive is handy enough, and nobody at bfia chooses to quibble with Brock. One of the best entries in the Saveur 100, number 20, is his recipe for barbecue sauce, but the magazine unaccountably and without disclosure substitutes chicken stock for the more authentic pork.
We also can quibble with Saveur about other elements of its 100. As always the underrepresentation of British foodways is lamentable.
It is exemplary of the magazine to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary republication of a classic Treasury of Great Recipes. Vincent Price wrote it with his wife Mary, who was English. It is no celebrity potboiler but rather a careful compilation of recipes from around the world that work. Unusual, perhaps even radical in its time, the Treasury included a chapter on English food that neither mocked nor apologized for it. Price liked English cooking (“there are some English delicacies which can’t be beat in any country”), which goes unmentioned in Saveur. (Price 149)
Horseradish (number 24) and watercress (number 63) are good ingredients that have not been burdened with overexposure or overpraise. They also represent bedrocks of British cooking, but nobody would know that from reading Saveur. It therefore is more than ironic that the entry for watercress follows “The Eternal Charm of the English Meat Pie” at 62.
Duck & Waffle, London
It is the only entry to embrace a British food as such, and is a recipe from the redhot Duck & Waffle in London. It is good enough, if hardly extraordinary, and the pastry embedding Stilton is more gimmick than breakthrough, but otherwise the recipe hews to tradition and its inclusion is welcome. Unwelcome; the “frumpy” characterization of English meat pies that require “little nips and tucks to bring them up to date,” even if Saveur does find them “old school cool.”
They do not require cosmetic surgery to remain attractive. In “The Tradition of the Savoury Pie,” Elisabeth Ayrton explains, by
“1615, it was inconceivable that the table at any feast, or any grand occasion, should be without its pies and pasties.
The meat pie attained its full perfection only in England and held its pride of place from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.”
These creations were anything but ‘frumpy.’ “Most, if not all, early pies were raised,” or freestanding, made initially by hand but later by using special fluted molds. (Ayrton 85) The pies that emerged from them were, and are, elegant in appearance and bursting with flavors intensified by rich jellied stock. Price understood. In the introduction to his recipe for Melton Mowbray pie, he describes it as “impressive” in appearance and adds that it “is a masterpiece of jellied meat enclosed in a flaky pastry crust. Beautiful, too, for a cold buffet.” (Price 176)
All these raised pies are eaten cold, but by the eighteenth century, complex hot pies also proliferated, filled with luxurious ingredients--game both feathered and furred, artichokes, morels, oysters, truffles and more--in a parade of savory variations.
Saveur traduces the tradition. Even though the magazine treads lightly, even light-heartedly, British food has been the butt of more than enough misplaced and timeworn ridicule, while pandering to popular misperception never produces a benign result. The first Fenway of 2016 therefore goes to Saveur , our first repeat recipient.
-Sean Brock’s barbecue sauce is a Thing We Like. It includes his recipe.
-britishfoodinamerica got to A Treasury of Great Recipes long before Saveur. An essay on Vincent Price, his life and his cookbooks (there is another) appeared, appropriately enough, in our First All Hallows Number during October 2010.
Anon, Saveur , “The Saveur 100,” Special Issue (2016)
Elisabeth Ayrton, The Cookery of England (London 1977)
Mary & Vincent Price, A Treasury of Great Recipes (New York 1966)
Bring back Heinz London Grill: Please bring it back; and be not tempted by French cans of cassoulet, and as long as we are mourning the passage of a minor icon we should demand the return of a major one while protesting against the proliferation of pathetic websites. And so the Fenways fly.
The Editor just has endured eating the crappy contents of a can of ‘Le Cassoulet Mitonné’ from the French producer William Saurin, which was purchased at a reputable shop in Paris and dragged home across the sea in a fit of foul judgment. The sausages, a wide disc and small cylinder, tasted the same, like nearly nothing, and the texture of them both was slime The experience triggered some reminiscing with no little uncharacteristic nostalgia about Heinz London Grill.
Was London Grill an epicurean delight? No it was not. Was it a guilty pleasure on an arrival home in the middle of the night after a brutal workday or troubled flight? Oh yes it was. The sausage was admittedly soft and laden with filler but by throwing a hot dog from the freezer into the pot the London Grill became more than passably good. And even without the addition of the dog some noticeable nuggets of bacon and kidney more than compensated for the quality of the indigenous sausage, while the edge of acid from some tomato added a snap of fake spice.
At some point back in the day, in a clipping long since misplaced by the Editor, an article in the London Evening Standard described London Grill as the poor man’s cassoulet. Its author was right, not least in comparison to the canned, bland and flabby French alternatives, like William Saurin’s, to the real thing.
Which would you choose?
Heinz London Grill, neither identifiably a product of London nor a product that ever encountered a grill, once was not only cheap but also ubiquitous throughout the south of England. If the use of the past tense hints that any of this sounds too good to be true it is, as often becomes the case, not true, not any longer. Heinz no longer makes its London Grill despite the entreaties of customers. Its obduracy earns Heinz a first ballot Fenway.
That loss in turn triggered renewed thoughts about Crown Pilot Crackers, which Kraft stopped selling in 2008. The loss of the pilot cracker is particularly poignant. Pilots were the oldest product of Nabisco, itself no publicly minded paradigm but now the vassal of Kraft, a company in many respects even worse.
A descendant of hardtack, the pilot was the first distinctively American cracker, although it was not yet called that. Under the name either of biscuit or ship’s bread, it was one of the country’s earliest commercial products, first baked by John Pearson for use onboard ships in 1792. (Oliver)
British commercial biscuit producers--Carr’s, Bath Olivers, Jacob’s--may now be the best in the world but they had no jump on their American avatar. In this as in many maritime things the Americans not only had anticipated the practice of their putative masters but also had surpassed them early on.
As Andrew Smith explains in The Oxford Companion to American Food ,
“the making of crackers was among the first food industries in America. During the eighteenth century, cheap, hard crackers called ‘ship’s bread,’ ship’s biscuit,’ and later, ‘hardtack’ were widely manufactured for use on ships and for those migrating westward. These large, sturdy crackers made only of flour and water--no shortening--kept for a very long time. (Andrews 173)
What, precisely, is a cracker? According to www.bakerpedia.com, it is
“…. A savory and crunchy product made by layering sheets of strong dough and baking until the texture is crunchy…. Crackers by definition are 60% flour, which is higher than most other baked products. The low moisture content of crackers leads to longer shelf life then other baked goods.” (bakerpedia)
Other characteristics of crackers that people tend not to notice, or note in passing without wondering why, are the patterned pinpricks they all display. The holes are there, as most mostly unnoticed things are, because they serve an essential function. “Crackers also always have small holes called docking holes cut into them in order to prevent large pockets of air from forming in the product.” (bakerpedia)
Old School crackers are austere for good reason. The long shelf life was bought by eschewing fripperies like sugar or shortening. “Historically, crackers were made with extremely low fat content in order to prevent rancidity in the product.” (bakerpedia)
All of this sounds convincing before bakerpedia derails in a vasty way. Its credibility craters when the site asserts that during “1801, another baker, from Texas, Josiah Bent, accidentally burned a batch of biscuits. He noticed that when they broke they made distinct cracking noises, which lead [sic] him to call his new product ‘crackers.’” (bakerpedia) These assertions are idiotic.
Texas? Americans in Texas in 1801? Ship’s biscuit in Texas at that time, when no ships put into port there? When Texas was part of Mexico and not a market for anything American? None of this is possible let alone likely, so the bakerpedia site sounds about as credible in the broader sense of things as the unhinged governor of Texas, who has activated the state military to prevent the federal government from enlisting the assistance of Walmart to tunnel under the state in plot to impose martial law. We suppose Texas taxpayers enjoy squandering their earnings.
In fact Texas had nearly no Anglophone settlers until after Mexican independence in 1821, when the new nation encouraged the immigration of Americans to help populate the sparsely settled province. Nor does the immolation of a batch of biscuits account for their new name.
It was indeed Josiah Bent who coined the term cracker, and he did coin it in 1801, when he engaged in one of the first commercial branding exercises in America. Also from The Oxford Companion : “One of the earliest brand-name foods was Bent’s water crackers, which were initially manufactured by Josiah bent, a ship’s bread baker in Milton, Massachusetts.” (Andrews 173)
As his biscuits cooled, Bent noticed they made a cracking sound so he began to call them crackers to distinguish them from the biscuits of his competitors. The Bent bakery still exists in Milton, if no longer operated by Bents, and still bakes four kinds of heritage crackers. Their hardtack and cold water, or ‘warming’ crackers still contain only flour and water but their common crackers and pilots use a yeasted dough along with salt and brown sugar (Chaparro)
In terms of pilots, Bent is a nanobaker. Production is small and distribution narrow. Two bigger companies, Diamond Bakery out of Hawaii and Interbake Foods based in Richmond, Virginia, each make species of pilot crackers but only for regional distribution but not to New England.
Diamond calls its product the “Original Hawaiian Soda Cracker;” it is available online but is not quite a pilot. Interbake makes “Sailor Boy Pilot Bread,” a name that harks back to the original description of ship’s cracker and is in fact one. According to a subsidiary Interbake website Sailor Boys have a something of a cult following in Alaska, which accounts for some 98% of the product’s sales. It does feel fitting that a virtually imperishable product lives on at the ends of the earth, or at least at the extremities of America.
New England took such a grievous blow when Nabisco first dumped Crown Pilots in 1996 that an effective protest ensued. It originated in Maine, spread throughout the region and created conditions that forced Nabisco to resume baking Crown Pilots the following year.
The battle had been won. Fighting the power, however, always seems fraught and the war was lost on unconditional terms in 2008. (Cox & Walker 104) Kraft considered inadequate its sales of ‘only’ some 120,000 pounds--sixty tons--a year of crackers revered within the vibrant chowder culture of New England. This was not just a matter of denying people something to crumble into their soup, although Crown Pilots served that purpose in spades. No bowl of its legendary chowder at the Black Pearl in Newport, for instance, ever crossed the bar or slid onto a table unescorted by Crown Pilots.
The loss was worse in terms of preserving historical foodways. Chowder is “a sea-borne dish that made its way ashore.” (Cox & Walker 35) The earliest renditions originated on fishing boats plying the Grand Banks in the seventeenth century, perhaps even earlier, when cooks chose ship’s bread to thicken soups made from the immediate catch at sea, finfish rather than clams and most often cod or haddock.
Early recipes ashore also used biscuit to lend chowder heft, in much the same way the English thickened sauces with breadcrumbs rather than flour. The first printed recipe appears in the Boston Evening Post of 23 September 1751. It resembles a traditional English hotpot, but made with fish rather than meat, but still stands as a recognizable ancestor of the chowders we know. True to its time, the recipe was rendered in whimsical rhyme:
“First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chauder there can be no turning;
Then lay some pork in slices very thin,
This you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some fish oer crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt and spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder high as Babel;
For by repeating o’er the same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men. (Cox & Walker 17-18)
The shipborne origin of this dish is obvious. If it adds herbs unavailable on a long voyage, the salt pork, biscuit instead of potato and fish is a combination that was available to any eighteenth century cook on a seagoing fisherman.
Seven years on, Hannah Glasse included “Chauder, a Sea-Dish” in the sixth edition of her Art of cookery Made Plain and Easy . Other than the addition of allspice and a pastry lid, her base recipe does not differ from the one in the Post . It does, however, offer the reader scope for improvisation. The options Mrs. Glasse offers include “a Glass of hot Madeira Wine, and a very little India pepper,” otherwise considered cayenne, and if “you have Oysters or Truffles, and Morels, it is still better; thicken it with Butter.” (Cox & Walker 35)
These recommendations have not survived the centuries and likely were improvised by Mrs. Glasse herself rather than derived from some old galley salt. That, however, does not render her suggestions either inauthentic or unattractive. Their addition makes good chowder too.
Returning to the putative subject to hand, the common thread of biscuit is our immediate interest. The authors of an eccentric and rather slight history of chowder contend, each “bowl of chowder contains the soup of colonial desire and the scent of painful past.” (Cox & Walker 49)
They do not refer to the loss of the Crown Pilot but might well have done. The painful scent or crunch of a painful past was not inevitable: The people of Maine petitioned Kraft to license the baking of the crackers to an independent bakery, even for a limited term. Kraft refused, and earned one of the more avoidable Fenways in the history of the award.
Anon., “Cracker,” www.bakerpedia.com/cracker-z (accessed 12 May 2015)
Camila Chaparro, “Milton’s G. H. Bent Co. presses on with hardtack, broken cookies, and specialty sandwiches,” Boston Globe (3 July 2014)
Robert Cox & Jacob Walker, A History of Chowder: Four Centuries of a New England Meal (Charleston SC 2011)
Sandy Oliver, “The Crown Pilot Cracker Escapade: 11 Years Later,” www.working waterfrontarchives.org/2008/03/27/the-crown-pilot-cracker-escapade (accessed 14 May 2015)
Andrew F. Smith, The Oxford Companion to American Food (Oxford 2007)
Price gouging in Charleston.
Charleston, South Carolina, despite its current spot at the top of the American tourism heap, is not all sweetness and light. Some unscrupulous shops have not shied from taking advantage of the city’s overheated culinary scene and ‘goat. sheep. cow.,’ despite the laudatory reviews it has garnered, is one of them.
Ordinarily we wish entrepreneurs well, and have nothing against the proprietors (although the demeanor of staff in the shop tends toward icy), but at some point a level of price gouging requires an attempt at correction.
Estimable Creminelli sausage, cured with either Barolo or whiskey, will set you back $45 a pound plus tax at the Charleston shop when you can get it straight from the source online for $28. Some markup on a product imported from the wilds of Utah is to be expected but not that much.
britishfoodinamerica does not ordinarily address modes of travel, and even though American Airlines has scaled our Wall of Shame in part on the basis of food, this essay admittedly is an outlier. It is, however, an outlier that requires posting. Sometimes a service is so bad that it becomes imperative to expose the perpetrator.
The Editor has endured the recent misfortune of three long flights on American Airlines. Domestic service in the United States tends in general to the abysmal, but international flights on United States carriers normally involve less discomfort. They need to compete with the services that unAmerican airlines offer their passengers, like (marginally) better food, free booze and decent inflight entertainment systems.
Nothing, however, is normal at American Airlines these days. They appear to have given up any attempt to provide even minimal amenities for their customers, even on international flights.
The Editor traveled recently on American between New York, San Francisco and London. All three flights had three things in common; tired aircraft, tired crew and bad conditions.
The aircraft that carried the Editor from New York to San Francisco, a Boeing 767, normally provides one of the more comfortable ways to fly in economy class. The seating configuration is good, two-four-two, so that nobody is squeezed into a Siberia three seats from the aisle. A walk about the cabin to stretch legs and prevent circulatory problems is possible, not the case on the atrocious narrow-bodied 757.
The American airframe, however, must have rolled off the assembly line circa 1982. The upholstery was shabby and soiled from too many flights and too little maintenance. The plane was worse than stale: It smelled unclean.
The inflight entertainment consisted of tiny bulbous televisions hanging along intervals down the center aisle; some seats cannot see them. They must have been original equipment and belong in a museum. Perhaps American could profitably sell them at an antique auction. They may not have as much wear and tear as the seats; the airline showed a single film during the entire flight. The erstwhile audio system was defunct; no music or talk channels, no channels at all.
The entire cabin had required a refit many, many winters ago. Its condition got the Editor, normally a sanguine flyer, thinking about safety.
Cost-cutting appears out of control; the airline managed a profit during the last quarter, its first since emerging from bankruptcy, but the price to its passengers is high. The captain said something over the sound system in terms the Editor previously had not heard, “we have a headwind and can’t go too fast.” He sounded resigned, even defeated, and the reason may not have involved the wind. We were flying nose up (things rolling down aisles toward the tail), often a telltale sign that fuel conservation rather than external conditions dictated our speed.
The older cabin crew looked weary for good reason. A lack of onboard supplies made their work unnecessarily arduous. American no longer provides complimentary food on domestic flights. Instead, passengers choose what to purchase from a short menu of items like sandwiches and salads designed by Marcus Samuelsson, celebrity chef, television personality, internet impresario, socialite and general entrepreneur.
Samuelsson has undeniable talent--his cooking at Aquavit presaged the Scandinavian craze--and a compelling background. Orphaned in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden by adoptive parents, émigré to America and runaway success story, Samuelsson now refers unselfconsciously to his stature as a brand. He has evolved from a chef to the operator of a sophisticated and wealth-generating public relations machine, not necessarily a bad thing but not a transformation likely to endear him to the self-appointed purist. In part that explains why he has encountered a slew of criticism lately from Eddie Huang and also reasonable people.
Some of the problem stems from resentment and some is just politically correct. Among other things, Huang decries the prices at Red Rooster as too high for Harlem, considers the purportedly African-American food there inauthentic and labels the venture itself patronizing. None of that sounds particularly fair, let alone pertinent.
Based on the airline menu, however, the conglomeration of the brand threatens to dilute if not impair or even undermine it. According to American, Samuelsson “brings a unique blend of culture and artistic excellence to customers with his New American Table cuisine” but the food on the Editor’s flight was nothing of the kind. It is hard to defend the claim that the cobb salad or cheese and turkey sandwich the airline offers at a high price is either unique or excellent.
The worse problem for Samuelsson is the linkage of his image, or brand if we must, with American’s. Money is nice but so is reputation and the airline’s cannot be good. It is as if he is goading his critics, daring them to find another reason to decry his integrity. In general the carrier itself remains tarnished, although its merger with USAir, hardly a beloved institution either, may help. Sometimes hope does triumph over experience but in this case the union looks more like a race to the bottom.
The problem also lies in the particulars. Even if the food were distinctive, you would not know because, on the Editor’s flight at least, most of it was unavailable. Each flight attendant continually had to inform passengers that much on the menu was not onboard. This task was harder than it sounds because the aircraft carried only a handful of them. An attendant had to give each passenger a quick glance before retrieving the card and moving on.
In aesthetic terms, what there was, was bad; menus were worn, stained, even torn. The association with such a thing cannot be the kind of branding wizardry that any business would invite.
Menus were not the only item in short supply. Apparently American considers tea too extravagant to stock in adequate amounts. When the Editor visited the galley to ask for a cup she was told, not without regret, she could not have one. The aircraft carried only two teabags and, fair enough, the attendant wanted to share them with as many people as possible later in the flight by brewing a pot. But even then things went awry. Either the tea was too poor or the pot was too big to produce much beyond brackish brown water.
It is impossible to fathom how the flight crews at American tolerate their predicament but then the job market stinks. Serial unforced errors on the part of the airline tax their patience and stamina: Sharing the menus means service is slow; nonexistent choices and insufficient supplies turn customers ornery.
Not, however, the cabin crew on the Editor’s otherwise dismal flight to San Francisco. They were courteous and as accommodating as the circumstances allowed; in a word, wonderful.
That word, however, is not synonymous with the attitude of their counterparts on the London flight, a debacle deeper than the one the Editor experienced over the United States. They apparently believed that their charges were a collective nuisance to be tolerated if not despised. This may be the traditional view that exalted beings like professors at the University of Chicago Law School take of their students but it is not much of a credo in a service industry. Self-defeating too, because demand for cabin attendants on cargo flights is not robust.
On British Airways the crew invites passengers to help themselves to snacks and drinks in the galleys. On the American jaunt across the Atlantic, attendants angrily ejected the Editor from theirs and one of them sternly instructed passengers not to stand outside the toilets. It apparently is not airline policy either to sell beer except during a designated cabin run or to allow passengers to relieve themselves of it.
The aircraft itself, a 747, shared multiple characteristics with the San Francisco 767. It was shabby and dirty, dirtier than the 767. Seatback pouches contained empty wrappers, dirty napkins and scraps of food. Even the inflight magazines (forget about requesting a newspaper or noncompany periodical) were grubby, sporting torn and missing pages.
Unlike the domestic flight, this one did carry an entertainment system with a screen for each seat. Unfortunately a number of them, including the Editor’s, did not work. The aircraft carried neither equipment for repairs nor spares; either that or the cabin crew declined to make an effort to remedy the fault.
No menus on this flight and no mention of Samuelsson’s cultural or artistic genius either. The airline does not extract payment to dine on international routes and therefore dispenses with such fripperies. The beer selection was bad and the food itself worse, but that is a tired trope of weary travelers and need not trouble us now.
A Fenway for American Airlines, not so long ago a star of the airline industry but now reduced to the stature of decrepit wallflower.
A note on the “Adelaide” sandwiches and Scotch Woodcock chronicled by Lady Clark of Tillypronie, featuring some sleuthing and a good natured lament.
This comprehensive cookbook containing literally thousands of Edwardian recipes, many of them intriguing, was assembled from the Lady’s notes after her death. There were a lot of them, enough to fill sixteen notebooks compiled during a period of fifty six years. Her effort is all the more impressive, even unlikely, because Lady Clark herself did not cook.
Lord Clark commissioned one Catherine Frere to construct the cookbook and she was a terrible choice. It took her twelve years to complete an assignment that she executed with incompetence. Many recipes lack stated quantities or proportions for some or all ingredients; others are not in fact recipes at all. The layout of the book defies comprehension.
There is no table of contents. Judging from the arrangement of the recipes and index she must have been a sadistic obscurantist.
Sauces get split among chapters arbitrarily, if alphabetically enough, from fish through meat, poultry and vegetables, but then follow ‘Melted Butters and Butter Sauces’ at the tail, which makes these most ubiquitous sauces of the time the most difficult to find.
Despite the presence in the chatelaine’s Cookery Book of any number of sandwiches, you will find no index entry for them. This evil whimsy continues in the text itself. Once you stumble upon “Chicken ‘Adelaide’ Sandwiches” in the chapter on Poultry you will encounter a footnote explaining that a “different recipe” (for anchovy), also called “Adelaide Sandwiches,” is under “Fish.”
That sounds fair enough, but when you flip the pages back to Fish you notice first, in the proverbial fine print, that the chapter excludes fish puddings, pies, sauces and soups but, apparently, not sandwiches. Nor, apparently, fish sauces after all, at least not all of them, for on the second page of the chapter sits a recipe for “Cod and Oyster Sauce.”
After the welcome if unheralded and inaccurate warning you will find with some relief that “Adelaide Sandwiches” does indeed appear, and first. Your hopes, however, immediately are placed on hold: The only text reads “ See Anchovy Sandwiches, No. 2.”
Off you go and there, at No. 2, resides the subtitle “Adelaide Sandwiches,” and there you will find a culinary construct more Baroque than Edwardian. You need to ‘wipe, bone, and pound’ anchovies with “½ spoonful” of “half-glaze,” which will have entailed a lot of work for a very little liquid, grate tongue and Parmesan, resort to a pastry cutter, fry tiny rounds of bread and wrestle with a hand-held salamander. Not a Lady’s work but then the staff at Tillypronie was a big one and boasted several cooks.
The two Adelaides have not a thing in common except for tongue, and it is only a second choice instead of ham for the chicken. That variation originates with a Mrs. Hulse from Orchard Leigh, not Adelaide, while the fishy version has no pedigree. The term cannot refer to technique, because the two recipes do not share one either.
Your eye necessarily wanders in search of less arduous enterprise than the Adelaides, down the page perhaps to “Anchovy Toast, or ‘ Scotch Woodcock ,’” one of the most classic of the British savories and a dish that deserves revival. This one looks a lot more feasible, at least at first glance. Here it is:
“Make some good buttered toast thick and soft, having carefully cut off all crust. Clean and bone and pound the anchovies, and spread them over the toast. Pile the toast, cut into squares, 3 layers, on a dish, and pour over it warm custard made of 3 eggs and a little heated cream and seasoning…. Of course this quantity is for a small dinner.”
Small indeed; other than the eggs, Frere provides no quantities of anything.
The previous entry follows suit. “ Caviar is good on rounds of toast for breakfast.” Perhaps so, but only if you are not among the ninety-nine.
These are no cherry pickings. The recipes for caviar and for cod and oyster sauce are bracketed by the following revelations, forward:
‘ Bass’, for Bass Pie, see Cornish Fish Pie under Fish Pies and Puddings.
‘ Bombay Ducks,’ see Curries; also Note, end of Fish Recipes.”
‘ Cod Kedgeree’. See Kedgerees.
‘Cod Rechauffe. See Fish Re – dressed.” (typefaces, boldface and spacing as they appear in the original)
If we wander over to the Curries, all we find under ‘Bombay duck’ is the instruction to buy “the prepared kind sold at Army and Navy Stores. Westminster,” unhelpful as that may be to, say, a resident of Aberdeen. ‘Kedgerees,’ however, appears neither in Curries nor as an alphabetical index entry, but rather back in ‘Fish’ even though its origin is India and primary constituent rice.
Despite or because of all this perversity, Clarissa Dickson Wright, an unpleasant recipient of her own Fenway, claims that this was “Elizabeth David’s favourite cookery book.” David herself identified Hilda Leyel’s Gentle Art of Cookery instead, but we should have no doubt that David would have approved the impracticality and lack of regard for her readers that Frere displays.
This is doubly dispiriting because Lady Clark’s own voice sings. For a recipe requiring superheated water it is necessary to “have the kettle not simply boiling, but rattling its lid.” (emphasis in original) This kind of imagery is both endearing and didactic. Her use of italics itself is deft; the instruction to start a sauce by mixing the flour “with very little cold water, lest it should be lumpy,” could not be bettered.
If you get to ‘melted butter,’ that great misnomer, you will get six. “ No. 2. English” may be best and offers a timely hint. The opening gambit of boiled water and flour should be executed “as thick as gruel” before adding the butter to melt in proportion of one pint ‘gruel’ to 6 ounces of butter; another salutary imagist instruction, this one for a sauce otherwise prone to oiling.
On balance, there is much to like that is tough to find and much to loathe in Frere’s presentation of Lady Clark’s notations. For that the compiler has earned a posthumous Fenway.
Bon Appétit climbs our Wall of Shame and publishes some good recipes in the process.
1. The English assimilate; we grind an axe.
According to the Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cook Book (2d ed. New York 1976), the English have been called America’s ‘invisible immigrants’ “because they came here speaking English (although not ‘American’), have many similar traditions, and usually have had little difficulty making the transition from British subject to American citizen.” ( Heritage 222)
Whether or not that is the case, British cuisine has become America’s invisible food. After dominating American foodways for over two centuries, the British culinary tradition now is unknown and unremarked by most Americans. In its April 2012 issue, Bon Appétit does its best to perpetuate the condition. The issue includes an article on “Easter Sunday” that features recipes from Canal House, a catering operation in the wealthy enclave of Lambertville, New Jersey, run by two former food stylists.
Canal House has reaped a considerable amount of favorable publicity, demonstrating the copycat nature of many journalists more than their analytical skills. Less charitable commentators might also note that all this coverage of industry stylists takes the contemporary obsession with appearance and connections over substance and skill to new heights. While it is fair to note that the partners at Canal House have published some workmanlike if mostly workaday recipes in, it must be said, a stylish if standard format, all the fawning does seem a little undeserved.
2. The stylists in the closet…
What are the media darlings doing, at least according to Bon Appétit , for Easter? They are entertaining guests. One of them, “Jeremy Lee, the chef at London’s Quo Vadis, has taken the red-eye flight just to be here for lunch.” We are not told why, or what we should make of the reference to the restaurant, a celebrity haunt that has struggled in recent years to find an identity.
This lack of focus is both irritating and typical of the article, which might have been written for the stylists by their publicist. It has lots of photographs and two pages of recipes but little text, and what does could be indicted for adjective abuse. We do get a remarkable slew of tired bromides given the limited word count: “Serve good food and good drink to good company;” “wine and food turn strangers into minglers;” and other driveling clichés too embarrassing to reproduce. All of them of course come presented as epochal insight. And no, skeptical reader, the piece is not intended as parody.
The reference to London does hint at the nature of the recipes, although Bon Appétit fails to pick up the thread. Canal House strives for fashion despite its insistence on simplicity, so an otherwise exemplary potted crab gets an unnecessary dose of Meyer lemon, one of those former flavors of the month, and some intrusive harissa, another veteran centerfold. They serve watercress soup, ham encased in toasty breadcrumbs and sauced with Madeira, greens in a horseradish dressing. There are two cakes, a ginger one for baking in a pudding bowl, the other made with marmalade and orange peel.
3… cooking English food.
Neither Bon Appétit nor Canal House itself identifies the provenance of any dish; all of them are recognizably English notwithstanding the random fripperies. Nobody, for example, other than British people cook with a pudding basin. Why not give some credit where it ought to go? Do the purveyors of fantasy perfection at both ventures fear becoming figures of fun for featuring English food?
It is past time to come out of the closet.
Wall of Shame special bonus item: Ruth Reichl resorts to unfortunate phrasing in Saveur.
We previously have remarked that American writers tend to bungle their forays into British foodways. Ruth Reichl provides an example hot from the press.
Saveur calls its April 2012 offering the “Las Vegas Issue.” That is unfortunate enough in itself, but a number of curious propositions unrelated to the artificial city also lurk within the issue. One of them appears in the profile by Reichl of Amber Unicorn Books, a Las Vegas store that includes a selection of cookbooks. The profile itself covers two pages but after subtracting the photograph and blank space, the actual copy describing the shop covers just an eighth of that; not much literary bang for the buck.
We’re here for the books.
Despite the scanty substance, Reichl has managed to blow her coverage from the outset. She opens the profile by confiding that
“The last thing I expected to find in Las Vegas was a phrase of apples. Well, actually, the last thing I expected to find in Las Vegas was a store that had a book that had a recipe for a phrase of apples, a medieval English dessert that resembles a fruit pancake.”
Reichl does not identify the book, which may be just as well from her point of view if not her readers’, because it is most unlikely that she found any recipe for ‘phrase’ in it.
The dish itself may be described as a sort of hybrid omelet cake or perhaps a fried batter pudding. Whatever terms we use to describe the thing, it is no ‘phrase.’ The preparation has been spelled variously through the ages--it does predate the advent of standardized English--but never like that. It appears most often as fraize, fraze or froise, and sometimes as frasye or frausy.
Despite Reichl’s description, the fraize is not limited to sweet renditions; despite her implication, it is not limited to apples either. Fraizes can be savory as well as sweet; bacon appears as an ingredient more frequently than anything else in the random recipes the Editor has found. That may be a representative sample; in Alan Davidson’s glossary to the Prospect Books facsimile edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, he defines ‘fraze’ as “[a] word spelled in many ways by various authors, e. g. fraize and froise. It means a kind of pancake or omelette, often containing slices of bacon.”
The fraize probably does date to the middle ages, as Reichl asserts, but enjoyed a longer run than she implies. In the entry for the term, spelt ‘froise,’ from The Food of the Western World (London 1976) , Theodora FitzGibbon includes reference to one from 1575 “quoted as being a pancake with bacon on it.”
Lizzie Boyd goes back much further. She considers the technique a relative of Yorkshire Pudding and Toad in the Hole. All three dishes may originally have been cooked in the dripping pan kept under roasting meat, which originally served double duty “for frying small pieces of food.” She surmises in British Food (Woodstock, NY 1979) that
“[a]t some point it must have been discovered that the result was greatly improved if the food was coated in batter before frying to give a crisp finish. This method of cooking, mentioned in fifteenth century manuscripts, was sometimes described as a ‘froise’ or ‘fraise’ from which we get Bacon Froise.” (Boyd 34)
The practice may explain the origin of the term. According to FitzGibbon, “[i]t is thought to be onomatopoeic, and to represent the sound the food makes when dropped into deep fat.”
Both Richard Bradley, in 1736, and Mrs. Glasse in 1747, printed recipes for fraises. She equates them with fritters. Her Art of Cookery includes two recipes, using either almonds or apples, and gave Davidson his spelling of ‘frazes.’
At the tavern: We’ll take the fraize.
The London Art of Cookery was ostensibly written in 1783 by John Farley, proprietor of the celebrated London Tavern. Farley’s tavern was so famous that tourists travelled from the continent to London for the principal purpose of dining there. In fact the book was ghosted to trade on that fame, just like the cookbooks marketed under the authorship of celebrity chefs today. The marketing strategy for the book succeeded; it became a bestseller and ran through multiple printings for decades. The 1807 edition includes an ‘almond fraze.’
Maria Eliza Rundell published the first edition of A New System of Domestic Cookery during 1806; expanded editions remained in print as late as 1880 and include her original recipe for a bacon fraize. It is decidedly savory:
“Cut streaked bacon in thin slices an inch long, make a batter of a pint of milk, three eggs, and a large spoonful of flour, add salt and pepper; put a piece of fresh dripping in the pan, and when hot pour half the batter, and on it strew the bacon, then the remainder of the batter, let it do gently; and be careful in the turning, that the bacon do not come to the pan [sic].”
This is a good recipe, as serviceable today as it was in the early nineteenth century.
Thanks for the fraize.
The entry for “fraize” in Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999) states unequivocally that “[f]raises survived into the 20 th century.” Boyd’s use of the present tense might imply that the dish survived far into the century, but probably not. During 1973 Michael Smith had written in Fine English Cookery (London):
“The fraze has completely disappeared from our repertoire, for what reason I cannot imagine, as this omelet-cum-pancake is a very tasty first course or a main course for lunch or high tea.” (Smith 94)
His recipe from Fine English Cookery expands on the traditional savory ingredients by combining asparagus and tomato with the customary bacon. We admire Smith’s work but found Mrs. Rundell’s recipe superior.
None of the sources cited refer to Reichl’s usage. So a fraize is a fraze but not a phrase, was not merely medieval and need not be dessert. How did Reichl stumble? Perhaps she never really saw the book that she does not identify; somebody might have told her about it. Maybe she takes bad notes, or dictated her Saveur profile of the Amber Unicorn over the telephone to a functionary at the magazine. Spellcheck might have intervened. Whatever the explanation, her phrasing is unfortunate and deserves a Fenway Award.
Reichl indicates to their credit that the owners of the Amber Unicorn recommend the purchase of Vincent and Mary Price’s Treasury of Great Recipes from 1965. It was unusual for an American cookbook of its time to take a respectful stance on British food, and the Prices devote a chapter to the subject, as we explain in the Appreciation of Vincent Price from the October 2010 and 2011 Numbers of britishfoodinamerica. Then again the Amber Unicorn recommends the irritating abridged translation of Dumas on Food. It omits many of the Editor’s favorite passages.
OSCAR season Wall of Fame award: And the Fenway goes to… Slow Food Dublin.
While surfing the net for the lore of Dublin coddle, the Editor found a site with the promising tag of “Slow Food Dublin.” Slow food is a good thing, Dublin is a good city and it now offers diners much choice of good food. All good, we ought to think, but we would be mistaken.
If the treatment of coddle in “Dishes named for Dublin” is representative, it would appear that the agenda of ‘Slow Food’ tilts to the political rather than culinary. This slant is all the more surprising because the article dates from 2010, a post-Troubles time, but then resentment knows no reason, as the reflexive hatred of an African-American president within certain benighted circles sadly shows.
Listeners need not have the aural capacity for hearing a dog whistle to discern the drumbeat of Slow Food Dublin in its disparate treatment of Theodora FitzGibbon and Monica Sheridan.
FitzGibbon is introduced as a “Thrice-wed” woman “who cooked with” a “hedonist,” not the first criteria that come to mind on the subject of food unless you are a Medieval cleric, but no matter. She also, according to Slow Food, “snootily dismisses” Dublin coddle with “class-conscious disapproval” in “a single paragraph.” The proffer of evidence on this indictment is brief. It is the entry on Dublin coddle from FitzGibbon’s Food of the Western World :
“A traditional Irish dish which used to be eaten on Saturday night in Dublin after the pubs closed. It consists of sliced onions, sliced potatoes, thick rashers of bacon and sausages put in a saucepan in layers. It is well seasoned and water to a depth of water of the saucepan is added; it is covered and cooked slowly for 1-2 hours.”
The Editor makes no claim to genius but cannot find a trace of anything but description; no patronizing, no snobbery, no ‘dismissal.’ She does, however find some rather egregious typographical errors in the Slow Food citation. In fact FitzGibbon wrote that “water to the depth of ¼ of the saucepan is added,” not the inane “water to a depth of water of the saucepan,” and cooks her coddle for 1½ to 2 hours.
Furthermore, The Food of the Western World is, as Slow Food would know if it consulted the subtitle of the book, an encyclopedia, not a collection of essays or recipes, and neither the length nor the factual content of the entry for coddle is atypical. Here, for example, is the one defining “douglas:”
“French beef consommé garnished with slices of cooked sweetbreads, artichoke bottoms, and asparagus tips.”
If The Food of the Western World indicates that FitzGibbon disdained coddle then she must have felt genocidal about douglas; its entry runs to fourteen words compared with sixty-three for the Irish dish.
Slow Food discusses a Douglas too, in this case Norman; he is identified as “the hedonist” who “cooked with” FitzGibbon “on the Isle of Capri.” That was in 1948 and makes for an interesting footnote because Elizabeth David had spent time on Capri with Norman Douglas before the war. He and David were lifelong friends despite their considerable difference in age, and she never really got over his death.
On the subject of relationships, FitzGibbon married twice, not three times, first during the Second World War to Constantine FitzGibbon, an American army officer, and then later in life to the filmmaker George Morrison. (“Women of history”) But hey, divorce is divorce, right?
Coddle, however, is not coddle the way that Sheridan would have us cook it. Her recipe specifies a miserly pound of sausage and even omits the essential potato. Undeterred, Slow Food Dublin proclaims that coddle is “dealt with briskly and comprehensively (and with none of the class-conscious disapproval of Theodora) by Monica Sheridan in her 1965 Irish Cookbook.”
Sheridan on coddle, as quoted with the usual errors by Slow Food:
“This is a dish that is eaten by families who have lived for generations in Dublin and who look upon the city as their local village. Sean O’Casey ate Dublin Coddle. Dean Swift ate it in the deasnery [sic] of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 18 th century. I must say that I could live without Dublin Coddle, but if I thought it could make me write like Swift I would be quite prepared to lump it and like it. It is eaten especially on Saturday night when the men come home from the pubs.”
So Sheridan, putative champion of the Dublin workingman, derides his favorite dish. And aside from her speculation about O’Casey and Swift and ‘villagers’ (DeValera dinosaurs consider anything rural, however symbolic, superior to the city within the Pale), the background facts presented here are no different from the ones in The Food of the Western World.
The writing style is another matter; maybe a dose of coddle might have helped. As it is, the introduction to the dish combined with her rump of a recipe demonstrates that Sheridan is neither brisk nor comprehensive but rather awkward and incomplete.
FitzGibbon visited coddle at least three different times in print, apparently unbeknownst to Slow Food Dublin. In contrast to Sheridan, she provides a good authentic recipe, in Irish Traditional Food , and has nothing bad to say about it: “Combining two of the earliest Irish foods, this has been a favourite dish since the eighteenth century.” ( Irish Traditional Food 118)
In the introduction to her recipe from A Taste of Ireland , FitzGibbon further explains that bacon and sausage are “two foods known since the earliest Irish literature…. Leeks and oatmeal were no doubt used in the earliest form of Coddle, but, since the eighteenth century, potatoes and onion have supplanted them.” She also recommends serving the dish with soda bread and stout, something she would not bother to do if she considered it a nonstarter. ( Taste of Ireland 21)
Slow Food Dublin adds that coddle “is rarely encountered, even in the poorest Dublin homes, many will contend because it provides an all-too-vivid reminder of the bleak past when times were hard and diets meager.” This feeble stab at the politics of resentment and self-pity misses the point that coddle is good food. It also appears to be wrong.
When Darina Allen went in search of Dublin coddle for The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking , she had no trouble finding it throughout the city, not least wherever taxis ply their trade:
“Every time I went to Dublin I would sound out a taxi driver about coddle. Most of them grew instantly nostalgic. Some talked of sneaking home to ‘the Mammy’s’ for a feed of coddle, but, interestingly, just as many talked about ‘the wife’ or ‘herself’ making it regularly. So there’s no question that coddle is alive and well and still being made on a regular basis in Dublin.” (Allen 120)
Anecdotal evidence from the United States reinforces Allen’s conclusion. The Editor knows a number of Dubliners abroad who relish coddle including Gerry Farrelly, a proprietor of the Fig Tree in Hoboken, New Jersey. He recalls that his mother always thickened her coddle with cornstarch; other innovators throw some white pudding into the pot to similar effect. Either way coddle keeps apace with other dishes, not least in the Editor’s kitchen, where it ranks among the most requested dinners that she cooks.
As an added bonus, the author of Slow Food Dublin has told readers a cautionary tale in printing an excellent example of the run-on sentence. This was not intended to be ironic:
“When Arthur Guinness brewed his first pints of porter at St. James’s Gate in 1759 and Saturday night revelers sought gastronomic comfort in a nutritious and substantial repast after a bellyful of the other at their local tavern, the coddle their patient wives might have concocted would not have been filled with flaccid grey sausages made from mechanically recovered remnants of fat and gristle mixed with a gansy-load of cereal to bulk it out and absorb all that fat but with meat and little else but meat; and the bacon in their coddle would more likely have been a nubbly dry-cured shoulder than a handful of slimy, paper-thin, tasteless slices that had been pumped full of water and chemicals.”
Perhaps, if we discount the serial speculation, this would be good to know except that once again the facts interfere with the presentation at Slow Food Dublin. While a brewery did open at St. James’s Gate in 1759, Guinness did not begin brewing porter there until 1778. Before then Guinness brewed English style bitter ales, but the introduction of “extra stout porter,” as it initially was called, proved so popular that by 1799 the brewer had abandoned ale altogether. (“Guinness 250”)
So cook some coddle, kick back, raise a glass of stout to Theodora FitzGibbon and have a laugh at the expense of Slow Food Dublin.
Hannah Acton, “How bad is Guinness 250?” the critical , www.britishfoodinamerica.com (October 2009)
Darina Allen, The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking (New York 1996)
Anon., “Women of History,” entry for “Fitzgibbon, Theodora” at www.abitofhistory.net
Theodora FitzGibbon, The Food of the Western World (London 1976)
Irish Traditional Food (New York 1983)
A Taste of Ireland (London 1968)
The Diner’s Dictionary climbs our Wall of Shame, and the Editor discusses the distinction between ale and beer along with musings on gumbo, rumbledethumps and other favorite foods.
1. Ale may sometimes be beer but beer is not ale.
During the course of research on a Canadian subject, the Editor consulted The Diner’s Dictionary by John Ayto. (Oxford 1993) As is all too often the case, she became distracted from the task at hand and began browsing through the Dictionary. Inevitably the page turned to ‘ale’ and its definition was perplexing. Actually its definition is idiotic.
The reference book states that “this term gradually died out” after the fifteenth century; ‘ale’ became the poor etymological relation to ‘beer’ and survives only “as a sort of folksy-cum-nostalgic synonym for beer .” There follows some tortured discussion of roasted or unroasted malt, and the archaic observation that beer once had hops while ale did not. (Ayto 3; emphasis in original)
‘Ale’ never is a synonym for ‘beer,’ although in Britain, but not the United States, beer may be a synonym for ale. The British usage of beer is all-encompassing, a general catchall for the full range of fermented malts from lagers and Pilseners through mild, pale and bitter ales, India pale ales, porters and stouts. A glance at any number of labels in any number of nations would have confirmed for Mr. Ayto that ‘ale’ remains a term in broad and current circulation.
There is nothing in the least nostalgic or elegiac about it. Nobody anywhere, for example, ever refers to ‘India pale beer .’ Nor is Porter, whose history Ayto recounts with competence, a beer in strictest terms. It too is ale.
In a more fundamental way, nothing that Ayto writes has anything to do with the difference between ale and beer. In fact the distinction, lost to the clueless editor of The Diner’s Dictionary , turns on yeast. You cannot brew either ale or beer without it: Yeast facilitates fermentation. The strains used to make ale are top fermenting, that is, they float to the surface to do their work, with sometimes unintended consequences.
Top fermenting yeasts will breed with naturally occurring airborne colleagues to add complex notes to the ale. It is its great strength for the drinker (beguiling brisk flavor) and a problem for the brewer (the unpredictability of wild yeast makes consistency a bugbear). Unlike beer or kegged and most bottled ales, ale in cask continues to condition, requires careful keeping and spoils quickly once it has matured.
Ales predate beers by some centuries. It was not until someone in central Europe, either in Bohemia or one of the states that would later unite to become Germany, identified bottom fermenting strains of yeast that beer in the American usage was born.
Bottom fermenting yeasts do what their description implies, they sink. That isolates them from wild yeasts, making it easier to produce consistent batches, but they take a lot longer to work and impart not only a predictable, but also a less interesting tone to the… beer.
2. The mystery of sago solved.
Once burnt, twice wary, so the Editor succumbed to further distraction and started to test other definitions. Some of them, she must in fairness note, sound sound. Ayto understands haggis and its roots athwart the border; it once was as English as it now is Scots, and he gets it.
‘Sago,’ which features in oodles of late nineteenth and then twentieth century British, but not American, cookbooks, has mystified the Editor for ages. What is it? Ayto answers that sago “is a powdered starch obtained from the pith of a palm tree ( genus Metroxylon ) which [sic] grows in India and Southeast Asia.”
It would seem that Americans ignorant of sago have been a lucky lot because, according to Ayto, in the west “its main culinary use has been in the making of insipid and glutinous milk puddings whose sufferers must often have wished that more of the annual production of sago were put to its other use, as a textile stiffener.” (Ayto 302) Apparently the English have been eating what an American calls ‘sizing,’ a dreadful enough commodity in its intended alternative use that is guaranteed to cause scratches, hives and heartache unless new clothing gets a preliminary wash to wipe it away. Ayto also makes relevant reference to Drake and Hakluyt at sea, and to Glasse and Raffald in the kitchen, along with an aside that the word itself arises direct from the Malay sagu . It would be churlish not to admire narrative of this caliber.
3. Pone poorly placed, gumbo bungled and additional infelicities.
Other definitions, however, inspire less confidence. Corn pone provides an example. Ayto declares that it is “cooked by either baking or frying,” although it should be fried. He also asserts that ‘pone’ “comes from a Native American term for ‘bread’; it also is related to Delaware apan , ‘baked’.”
Sometime between 1647 and 1650, however, Richard Ligon had encountered both the term for the food and learnt the means of its preparation on Barbados. It would be difficult to believe that many, if not any, Bajans had reached mainland North America at that point, or that they had had eaten corn pone there, and it is equally if not more implausible that any of them had much knowledge of the Delaware language at that point.
In Barbados before 1650, a pone was the iron griddle used to make “something akin to a pancake from cassava over an open flame.” ( see, e.g., No Peace 47n20) So a pone need not involve corn; true pones are fried, not baked; the term most likely is of Arawak derivation; and so has nothing to do with a Delaware word for ‘baked.’ We could suspend a certain amount of disbelief on Ayto’s discussion of ‘corn pone,’ and give him the benefit of doubt, even if that would require a bit of a leap.
Unfortunately for the prospects of that leap of faith, another entry--this one within the scope of the Editor’s knowledge--provides an example of unmistakable trouble; gumbo. The Diner’s Dictionary starts its definition of gumbo by stating that it “is a thick soup--or thin stew, depending on your point of view--of the southern states of the USA;” so far, so proverbially good, or perhaps not. (Ayto 156) While some gumbos are thickened with either file or okra, but by tradition never both, many are not. Paul Prudhomme, who should know, explains that different roux will produce differences in the texture of a gumbo and it is not always thick.
Roux rather than okra is the foundation of any gumbo. Ayto, however, does not appear to know that. His entry for ‘roux’ defines it as “simply a blend of equal amounts of flour and butter” of “essentially two sorts;” white and the relatively uncommon light brown. While roux will affect the texture of a soup or stew, it will not necessarily thicken it.
In Louisiana, roux are primarily flavoring rather than thickening agents, and run a spectrum from the little used white roux all the way to nearly black. The primary roux of gumbo are dark red-brown and black; as Prudhomme notes, “the darkest roux result in the thinnest, best-tasting gumbos of all.” (Prudhomme 27)
The darker the roux, the more flavor it imparts to foods and the less capacity it has to thicken liquids; as flour caramelizes, its molecular structure changes so that it no longer absorbs liquid. Also unbeknownst to Ayto, Louisiana roux are not made primarily or even typically with butter. Fats with the higher temperatures necessary to withstand high heat for darkening the roux without scorching and destroying it are considerably more useful; fats like canola or corn oil, lard or bacon rendering.
Ayto is no better with ‘jambalaya,’ which does not descend ‘from Provencal’ usage or practice, and he ignores altogether the pungent pink remoulade of Louisiana that bears scant resemblance to the white French sauce that he does describe.
Readers might forgive The Diner’s Dictionary for its ignorance of one cuisine, but its treatment of Louisiana is not anomalous. Brownies do not always include nuts and Ayto’s chowder bowl is less than half full, for while he does mention the French leg of its origin myth (‘chaudiere’) he overlooks both the Old English (‘jowter’) and geographical rather than nation theories, which is too bad. As John Thorne explains in Serious Pig , place provides the likeliest source: “Chowder is the natural child begotten in the great convergence of fishermen off the North American coast,” an “inevitable outcome of a sea cook’s confrontation with salt pork, ship’s biscuit, and a freshly caught cod.” (Thorne 158, 159)
A Mulligan is indeed an American term for “stew composed of any spare vegetables and pieces of meat that happen to be to hand” but then a recipe he mentions “calls for canned Willie” and what is that? Ayto does not say but according to the Oxford Dictionary of American Slang it was an army term for corned beef or hash from before the First World War.
Perhaps Ayto is merely Eurocentric and ought not to have ventured across the sea. Perhaps not; the Scottish term for a dish of buttered mashed potato, onion and cabbage topped with molten cheese, ‘rumbledethumps’ is indeed onomatopoeic, but probably not because of “the effect of the dish on the digestion.” Instead, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, the term is a union of ‘rumble’ and ‘thump.’ ‘Rumble’ is archaic Scots usage for mashing or scrambling a food and thump is self-explanatory.
All of this started with Canada, where it unfortunately cannot end. Ayto does not care about its cuisine so The Diner’s Dictionary includes no entry for chaud or tchaud, cipaille, fricot, poutine or tourtiere, let alone The Lumby. You will need to consult britishfoodinamerica for any of that. In more general terms, save your money for the Oxford Companion to Food , Theodora FitzGibbon’s’s excellent Food of the Western World or Alexander the Great’s Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine.
John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary (Oxford 1993)
Paul Prudhomme, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (New York 1984)
John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne, Serious Pig (New York 1996)
January bonus feature:
special Wall of Shame ‘honorable mention’ awards.
An unwelcome surprise, or , a desired recipe goes missing.
Don’t buy this book
At a date undisclosed on the book itself, a company called Cuisinarts has published an attractive facsimile of Apicius Redidivus, or, The Cook’s Oracle by Dr. William Kitchiner . The cookbook first was published in London during 1817; the facsimile, which does not indicate when it appeared, is of the 1831 edition. It, or at least the original version, is a superb book that features a lot of good, beautifully written recipes that reflect a subversive sense of humor. Both book and author deserve lengthier explication from britishfoodinamerica, and will get it, but meanwhile we should warn readers not to buy the Culinarts edition. Without purpose or warning, the obscure publishers have abridged the original, as the Editor would have known had she cracked its spine prior to purchase. Granted the error arose out of the Editor’s foolish contributory negligence, but this publishing sleight of hand is more than enough to earn Cuisinarts an ‘honorable mention’ inscription hard by the imaginary location of our Wall of Shame.
Rowley Leigh mails it in.
It has not been possible to avoid observing from time to time the infelicities that mar some of the recipes that Rowley Leigh publishes in the Financial Times . It is not that he is a bad chef or person; in fact he is a great chef and winning prose stylist. It is just that his FT recipes do not always work and we cannot shake the suspicion that he sometimes lacks the time or enthusiasm that he should devote to his column.
One of his best concepts is a cabbage cake that appeared under the headline “Pleasures of eking out” in his Weekend FT column of 8-9 November 2009. Readers may question the decision of britishfoodinamerica to exhume the subject from our Archive if not the crypt, but patience is necessary in many things.
The style of the recipe in question embodied a certain flamboyance verging on excess, but was more amusing and diverting than discomfiting. The cake in question consists of cabbage, sausage, porcini mushrooms and not much more. With those concurrent lodestones the cake ought to be good, and is even better than that, one of our favorite cold weather comfort foods, so we were pleased to find ‘another’ recipe for cabbage cake featured a year later in Mr. Leigh’s column of 13-14 November 2010, “Savoy but Ritzy” (granted, pretty clever). It is for ‘cabbage cake with mozzarella and chestnuts.’ It also is the same, in large part verbatim, recipe as last year’s with the substitution of the mozzarella, chestnuts and some canned tomatoes for the sausage and porcini.
This may not be the worst sin against originality; Darina Allen, no slouch in the kitchen either, has published the nearly identical book under some two dozen titles, but it is noteworthy in the least to purchasers of a book or lulled by the promise of timeliness into thinking that we get something new.
In the case of Mr. Leigh’s cabbage cakes they do not. The preamble and first three (of six) paragraphs in the two recipes are identical down to the florid phrase “Overlapping bountifully,” which of course was the giveaway. The remaining paragraphs differ only in the names of ingredients. Coincidentally enough, at some point last week the Editor decided to consult Mr. Leigh’s cookbook from 2000, No Place Like Home (London: Also reprinted in paperback 2006) about an unrelated matter. It is organized seasonally and the cold weather passages beckoned. The reader will know what was found. It was the bounteous cabbage cake, described in identical terms right down to the ‘bounteous,’ but with mozzarella and ceps rather than chestnuts, a most minor adjustment that brings us back to the 2009 iteration. As Ian Fleming was wont to observe, once is happenstance, twice coincidence and three times is enemy action. Honorable mention therefore goes to Rowley Leigh during this season of light.
Rowley Leigh continues his assault on practicality.
In an earlier Pizza Delivery, britishfoodinamerica has noted Mr. Leigh’s propensity for publishing recipes that are uncongenial to the home cook. We do not mean to pile on here, and if at this writing he is suffering with an illness that requires hospitalization, as a member of his staff at the estimable Café Anglaise has confided to us, then everyone at bfia fervently wishes him the speediest recovery.
Nonetheless we do read the Weekend FT and Mr. Leigh writes a weekly column there, and back on 2-3 October it was headlined “An ideal mix of surf and earth.” Ideal it is, in terms of one definition of the word, that, ‘unattainable,’ at least for most of us. The recipe is for “Scallops and ceps” and its title is accurate; not much more goes into the dish. The combination of scallops and mushrooms is deservedly iconic across most cuisines, but unfortunately this also is typical of Leigh’s work for the FT. We do not learn much from a simple sauté and ought easily to come up with the concept ourselves, so the column holds little interest. The three big sea scallops specified per person will not come cheap, and the pound of porcini to transform them will set you back anywhere from $37 to $60 this season.
It would be cheaper to go out, almost anywhere (to Leigh’s restaurant off Queensway in London, among many more), although to his credit Leigh does note that “[o]ther wild mushrooms--chanterelles, for example--would do almost as well.” Then again we have not noticed bargains in the world of chanterelle lately.
Paula Deen, never liable to be accused of intellectual rigor, takes the Politically Correct path with a glib pronouncement.
Many legitimate grounds exist for decrying the celebrity of the braying and bombastic Paula Deen, but one of her typically confident recent pronouncements requires a special commendation. That, however, is to get ahead of ourselves in a manner that would crush the intended narrative if allowed to continue.
According to The Oxford Companion to Food , “[i]n medieval Europe bacon and ham were always smoked as part of the preservation process needed to make them last through the winter.” ( Companion 729) The Companion goes on to explain that “[b]acon, in the modern sense, is peculiarly a product of the British Isles, or is produced abroad to British methods…. ” ( Companion 47)
European references to curing meat with salt brines and dry rubs appear even earlier than descriptions of preserving them with smoke, and go back as far as the proverbial printed word itself.
Enter Paula Deen in an advertisement for the Smithfield ham people that is broadcast on the American ‘FoodTV’ channel during the holiday season. Deen proclaims that “Smithfield is the birthplace of bacon” because “it was here” that Native Americans taught “the colonists” how to “smoke and cure their own meats.” Presumably these unskilled husbandmen previously had subsisted during the winter on either tree bark or Chinese takeout. It is not possible to overlook Deen’s imbecilic confidence in her own glib anachronism, which of course has earned her a considerable folksy fortune. Perhaps she and Sarah Palin could form a neo-Know Nothing presidential ticket.
Back in the world of letters, however, the Oxford Companion makes not a hint of reference to Native Americans in tracing the origin and development of smoked bacon or cured meat because no authority hints at the connection.
Alan Davidson (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999)
Televised travesty, an ongoing trial of the times (as further demonstrated by the previous notation on Paula Deen).
During one of its theatrical cooking competitions broadcast on 21 November, “Iron Chef America” referred to a quintessentially British fruit. Alton Brown, the ‘host’ of the FoodTV cable channel program, saw some berries in one of the competitor’s mixing bowls and identified them as gooseberries. They were not.
Gooseberries are green and fuzzy; they have a stemmed top and tough tail that require removal to make them edible. The berries that Brown saw were a waxy mustard gold in texture and color, and sported neither top nor tail. They were the substance marketed in the United States variously as Cape gooseberries and cloudberries. The imposters are both easier to use and less versatile than the genuine article, because they do not require topping or tailing and are sweeter. We like Cape gooseberries and think they make a fine fool, whether you stew them with a drip of booze for combination with barely whipped cream and sugar to taste in the classic way or call them something else.
Vogue climbs our Wall of Shame, or the degradation of Jeffrey Steingarten. 11/10
Back in August Vogue magazine ran a cover story by Jeffrey Steingarten and accompanying photographic spread featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. Steingarten met with Paltrow at the London house that, he eagerly tells us, she and her husband Chris Martin bought from Kate Winslet. The resulting article ostensibly concerns an analysis of her cooking skills but in fact veers immediately into a certain amount of digression. Readers of britishfoodinamerica may justifiably wonder why we should either address celebrity (not our strength) or wait for three months to do so. The answer is plain: The Editor found the article astonishing the more she considered it and after considerable hesitation decided to discuss it with our readers.
Steingarten, Vogue’s principal food writer, is a respected curmudgeon who has demonstrated both a formidable interest in food and an acid wit. He has published two acclaimed volumes of essays and, of more impact on the celebrity circuit in this increasingly illiterate age, appears as a ‘judge’ on the “Iron Chef America” television program. Ordinarily he will not suffer fools, or anyone else for that matter, and for all these reasons would seem to be a good selection to document what passes these days for a serious culinary discussion with Mrs. Martin.
Paltrow is no stranger to the cover of Vogue and in fact is among the clutch of celebrities whose image the magazine breathlessly recycles. But food? This is a woman prone to the worst kind of soulless ‘health’ regimes and sufficiently free of self-awareness to post revolting recipes on her “Goop” website, the woman who infamously traveled around Spain in the tow of several food celebrities to eat nothing but vegetables while her colleagues gorged on pork. Steingarten himself professes to love pig; on one of his “Iron Chef” appearances he declared that the best part of pork except for the skin is the shoulder, and nobody ought to dispute him, at least on this. Perhaps, in the parlance of our times, he would take Paltrow down. He has sneered down the affectations of celebrity before, notably on “Iron Chef” where he regularly has ripped into fellow judges whose culinary qualifications he, sometimes properly, finds lacking. A particularly excruciating episode featured a stream of recombinant insults spat with what looked like genuine anger (Steingarten feigns it a lot) at “Today” show factotum Natalie Morales, a looker like Paltrow if not quite in her league. Steingarten has been nothing if not reliable in this respect and, we expected, would slap Paltrow with the same treatment.
We got something different, although the Editor differs with a number of colleagues about what, precisely, we got. As an enduring aside, self-parody is a difficult medium. The celebrity autoparadist in particular must not only let the ego relinquish the wheel, but also must take reckless and relentless shots at his own persona to succeed in the enterprise. After reading, rereading and returning to Steingarten on Paltrow for reading again (despite the limited shelf life of assays in the genre) the Editor cannot divine his intent.
The intent of Vogue itself was, however, reasonably transparent. The article represents interview as fashion shoot and product promotion; Paltrow, it turns out, is writing a cookbook (‘She likes pizza! She deep fries!’). The spread covers eight pages, and the vacuous fashion photos favored en Vogue take five of them. Glamorous Gwyneth improbably gowned in her kitchen; saucy Gwyneth bottomless in her pyjama top amidst a sea of books (‘research’ for the cookbook, sexy gravitas or so they think); simpering Gwyneth looking ‘sexily’ dim in Prada: This is vintage Vogue, and even though it all sounds like a bit of farce, the magazine is nothing if not serious about itself in its devoutly shallow way.
Enter Steingarten, coathanger in mouth, bearing gifts (including of course an emu egg) and gawking. She is beautiful and ripped! Her jeans are torn; Steingarten finds them “pierced with more slits and slashes than any I’d ever seen…. I reasoned that the slits and slashes must have been administered intentionally and by artifice, perhaps by lasers and at a great price” and she is luminous, even prettier in person than on screen. Further fueling Steingarten, the laserjeans have slipped a few inches to bare more skin and reveal that Paltrow has “an enviably flat stomach”! And she’s thirty seven! Steingarten loses his mind. He cannot stand it, Gwyneth (for they are first name familiar and, he hopes, friends so soon) dazzles him speechless.
Hygiene is another plus; Paltrow is “a neat freak;” her kitchen is “beautiful and clean… all white and filled with enviable appliances” to the point where a cynic like the Editor might be forgiven for suspecting that its mistress does not cook there much, but that would sour the mood and anyway neither did Mrs. Beeton let alone that other culinary sex kitten Elizabeth David, in her case at least not much.
In a new iteration of food pornography, Steingarten marvels at Paltrow’s “laser sharp knives” and “how skillfully she uses them” before confiding that “[s]he is extremely adept at kneading.” At one point they share a “remarkable hour of perfection.” No telling where this would have gone but for the ‘unscripted’ arrival of her perfect little children.
Paltrow “seems to be in control of her time, scheduling every hour closely, with precise awareness of how long things take, including cooking [!],” so Steingarten “was surprised that she was willing to devote so much time to my little project,” presumably but not certainly the food part anyway. The Editor, however, lacks the charity to marvel at a celebrity’s consent to the publication of a panegyric that includes lots of free publicity for a profitmaking book project. Maybe Conde Nast itself will publish the Paltrow cookbook.
Based on a survey of the Editor’s colleagues and internet reactions to the article, Steingarten was, astonishing as this will sound, unselfconscious not to say unironic. People in the main gushed along; Gawker alone found the ‘story’ fatuous but took it at face value like everyone else. The Editor alone suspected some stab at comedy, a view repudiated by friends and colleagues as well as the broader public.
Steingarten’s foray into the hybrid zone of food/fashion only peripherally concerns itself with cooking or cuisine to focus instead on unctuous celebrity worship and, if any of it was intended to dabble in parody, the effort fails. Steingarten has too much regard for himself and for the celebrity culture that has enriched him to engage in self mockery, let alone demonstrate any self awareness, with any conviction. As a result, this self appointed avatar of good taste and serious cooking, a man who cultivates the persona of ruthless, even cruel exaction in matters culinary, has given his readers an exercise in misplaced social climbing and shameless celebrity promotion.
None of this may be uniquely English but it reflects badly on everyone trying to improve the quality of culinary writing. britishfoodinamerica therefore adds Jeffrey Steingarten to our Wall of Shame without hesitation.
The Second Fenway Award: Adam Platt and New York magazine join our Wall of Shame.
A number of publications and websites including britishfoodinamerica, in our February number, recently have reviewed Highlands , a new Scottish restaurant and bar in the West Village of Manhattan. The latest is Adam Platt, the restaurant critic at New York , whose review appears in the 19 April issue of the magazine.
Platt gives Highlands a miserly single star while implying that its prices are expensive--he cites a “prodigious (and prodigiously priced)” Scotch whisky selection (misspelled with an ‘ey’)--but taste is taste, and we note only that we disagree, rather than criticizing him on both these counts.
The review, however, includes more than enough attributes to earn New York its Fenway independent of Platt’s judgment about Highland’s food or cost. As so often is the case with British food, preconception trumps experience.
Platt assumes that Scottish, and for that matter all of British cuisine is contemptible, and his assumption imposes an intellectual barrier that he cannot breach. Thus, the chef at Highlands “does a decent job” with “the threadbare Anglo-Scottish culinary repertoire,” so “the food is better than it should be.” This compliment is backhanded indeed, as the discussion by Platt of particular dishes demonstrates.
His arch discussion of the Celtic word skink is both patronizing and irritating. Haggis is “famously gnarly;” kedgeree a “concoction;” the term faggot is sophomorically wrapped in quotation marks; cockles in shallots and Pinot Gris is “not in especially Scottish style,” presumably only because it is good, unless Platt does not know his history.
As we hope is apparent by now from the pages of britishfoodinamerica, the British culinary tradition is hardly ‘threadbare.’ During each of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more (and more varied) titles about British food appeared in print than about any other cuisine, and until the twentieth century American cooks looked predominantly to British models. Furthermore, Platt is mistaken to conflate Scottish and English food. Scotland itself has a varied and distinctive cuisine that is particularly strong in seafood, curries and savory pies. In The Oxford Companion to Food , Alan Davidson says that, “to venture an understatement,” Scotland “is not at all difficult to distinguish from England; the differences leap to the eye in many different aspects of the two cultures, including notably food and cookery. In these and other respects the people of Scotland have closer links with Scandinavia and France... than do the English.” (Davidson 705)
Page for page, Scotland may have the finest literary canon of any cuisine, and not just because the nation has produced fewer publications than its bigger neighbors within the archipelago and on the continent. As Davidson also notes,
“the same genius which resulted in a quite disproportionate number of Scots being responsible for British achievements in medicine, engineering, philosophy, and the construction and administration of the British Empire flowered in a different way to produce some of the finest... writing on food.” (Davidson 705)
It is not the case that this writing covers anything other than Scottish food, for Davidson cites as his examples the cookbook authors ‘Meg Dods,’ whose nineteenth century recipes and their notations cover more than five hundred pages, Marian McNeill and other keepers of the Scottish culinary flame. He also should mention the delightful and instructive ‘Maw Broon’ cookbooks from the 1930s, which purport to be scrapbooks of handwritten notations interspersed with stained and yellowed recipe clippings, and prefigure the postmodern fascination with the graphic novel. As ought to be obvious, writing that is good must produce food that is good as well.
Haggis is delicately seasoned with allspice and other things rather than ‘gnarly,’ and it is ancient tradition rather than ‘gourmet’ innovation to serve it with mashed turnip and potato. It is a butt of jokes, but anyone who tries the dish likes it, and Platt should have better things to do than recycle cliché. Kedgeree too can be a delicate dish, and resembles nothing more than a pilaf of smoked haddock and rice bound in light curried cream. The marriage of wine and shallots with seafood is prototypically Scottish; as Davidson notes, the French have influenced Scotland’s unique cuisine for centuries, and its ancient trade with France has made wine a prevalent Scottish drink and kitchen staple at least since the seventeenth century.
Platt’s contempt for British food colors his perception of the rooms at Highland. We found them elegantly spare; he describes the restaurant as a cartoonish theme park. The wry postmodern wallpaper is parodied as something from “the bridal suite of a not very grand Scottish bed-and-breakfast;” a carefully sited stag’s head is “nailed to the barroom wall;” the small staff wears tartan ties! Do not take us at our word, however: Visit Highlands and see for yourself.
Platt has achieved no mean feat in cramming so many clichés and distorting so much history into a review that runs to barely half a page. Our second Fenway goes to New York magazine.
Hannah Acton, “A Visit to a New British Block of New York,” the critical , britishfoodinamerica.com No. 4 (February 2010)
Maw Broon’s Cookbook: The Nation’s Favourites (New Lanark, Scotland 2007)
Maw Broon’s But an’ Ben Cookbook (Dundee 2008)
Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion To Food (New York 1999)
‘Mistress Margaret Dods,’ Cook and Housewife’s Manual (Edinburgh 1829)
F. Marian McNeill, The Scots Kitchen (Edinburgh 1929)
Saveur number 123, October 2009 ( www.saveur.com )
britishfoodinamerica honors Saveur number 123, its issue for October 2009, as the first member of our Wall of Shame. Saveur could use less filler in the form of open layout and big photographs, and more content instead, but those relatively minor flaws would not qualify the magazine for posting on The Wall. We like Saveur and probably consider it the best of the glossy food magazines (no default judgment; Gourmet never was in the running). At five bucks a copy it also is gratifyingly cheap in a field of overpriced competitors. This, however, is not a question of hurting the one you love or under-appreciating the accessible. We are not snobs at bfia.
The dual crimes against British food in Saveur 123 unfortunately leapt upon us. First, the issue has done what American publications usually do and marginalized (or vaporized) the subject. Possibly worse, the magazine simultaneously has shrouded British food in the usual sackcloth of cliché. Second, Saveur has chosen to ask a good writer to recycle a journalistic evergreen instead of mining one of her more interesting storylines.
The cover story, “WHY LAMB RULES,” is billed by the magazine editors as “the ultimate guide to the other red meat” in which “we unlock the secrets and illuminate the subtleties of this fascinating ingredient, sharing the experiences of cooks around the globe and presenting recipes--from a classic spice-infused Greek moussaka to an aromatic Middle Eastern stew--that showcase lamb’s incomparable beauty.” Not to get all technical, but the recipe exemplars selected would appear to span a region rather than the globe and the subject is taste, not beauty; we are discussing food, not sweaters or suits. That, however, does not qualify Saveur for The Wall either. If all food writers were held to the standards of elite authorship, there would not be much food writing.
WHY LAMB RULES includes a series of recipes and techniques for the preparation of lamb. None of them is British. Possibly worse, “Part One” of the article, “Lamb Around the World,” intones authoritatively that “[i]n Great Britain, the meat--most often a big cut, like a whole leg--tends to be cooked simply: roasted, say…. ” It seems that all the British can manage is the cremation of crude slabs of flesh. The author, Anissa Helou, whose Fifth Quarter (Bath 2004) is a good if challenging book about cooking offal, ought to know better: She makes a glancing reference to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book (reviewed in the practical ) in noting that sheep usually are not confined to feedlots. In common with a number of American book reviews, however, Helou does not mention any of his recipes; is there an embargo on them? Meat includes over two dozen recipes for lamb, many are British and Fearnley-Whittingstall could have included more.
Helou makes no reference to London lamb and barley with mushrooms; hotchpot of beef, lamb and veal; the multiple variations on Irish stew; simmered lamb with caper sauce; clubland rib chops stuffed with foie gras (or its homelier cousin, chicken liver) and their tomato bacon sauce; shoulder chops sauced with creamy onions; leg roasted with anchovies or stuffed with oyster forcemeat; nor any British curries (the Scots have a particularly robust inventory). There are no pies, not lamb and apricot, shepherd’s nor Scottish mince; and no scotch broth either. There is nothing from the salt marshes of Wales. The offal expert omits devilled lamb’s kidneys, Lancashire hotpot and kidney-stuffed onions baked in rum. Sorpitol, though not British, would have been a nice Goan addition. In the event, we get only the usual suspects from France and the Mediterranean rim.
As an aside, our Rural Correspondent cannot fail to note that autumn (the British refuse to use ‘fall’ for unfathomable reasons) is not the optimal time to run a feature on something so associated with spring in this era of seasonality (visit the lyrical on this point). That, however, is an issue between him and Saveur that does not qualify the magazine for The Wall.
The editors of Saveur chose Lizzie Collingham to write its regular “Classic” column for Issue 123. The column gives Saveur bonus points toward its award. Collingham is the author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (New York 2006), called Curry: A Biography in the original 2005 British edition. Although a trickle of political correctness seeps into the bilge (you cannot leave imperial historiography without it), Curry is good work and we recommend it. Why, however, has Saveur decided to revisit chicken tikka masala? The subject has been done to death, and in fact the “Classic” column is essentially a thumbnail of the first chapter in Collingham’s book. Even the recipe printed by the magazine is a rerun, with minor modification and a less convenient format, of the one published in Curry . Other print, as well as internet, versions of the dish abound.
Back in 2001, the late Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary in the Blair government, famously declared that chicken tikka masala was a British national dish; since then, pundits lacking imagination have reiterated the shibboleth that it is the British national dish. The assertion is a tired chestnut reiterated by mainstream media and recycled all over the blogosphere on a regular basis. Saveur should have commissioned the formidable Collingham to tell us something new. After all, we do pay money, if not an unreasonable amount, for the magazine.
We should not, however, become distracted: WHY LAMB RULES is the primary basis for Saveur’s posting on The Wall. One of these fortnights bfia will retaliate by posting our own Lamb Number without committing seasonism. We will not overlook Charles Lamb either. For now, however, we are content to confer our first Fenway on Saveur.