Saturday, October 7, 2017

How did the Indians "pop" corn?

One of the characteristic American foods is popcorn--a treat made by heating kernels of certain species of maize, which quickly release their stored water and turn into white, fluffy, and tasty inside-out morsels.  We're told that American Indians treated the early settlers from England to popcorn and showed them how to make it.

But how did they make it?  I didn't start to think about that until I saw the Townsend video to the left of this post.  

I thought about the different ways I've made popcorn.  

Most of the ways I've used to pop corn involved heating popcorn in oil inside a covered pot.  The very first popcorn I made was "Jiffy Pop"--sealed popcorn inside a tinfoil-covered pieplate with a wire handle attached.  One shook this tin plate periodically while heating it over a stove burner.  Today's Jiffy Pop uses partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and maybe the original did as well, for all I know. "TVTime" popcorn gave you a tube of solidified palm oil and (I think) coconut oil that could be dumped into one's own pot to heat.  Microwave popcorn works on the same principle, except the corn and solidified oils are placed inside the microwave inside a sealed paper bag.  Later I found, by experiment, that heating popcorn in just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot works well too, and gives a pleasant flavor to the finished product.  Electrical hot air poppers were invented in the 1970s, but did not become as widespread as one might expect, possibly due to the greater convenience of microwave popcorn.

But the American Indians didn't have electric hot air poppers.  They also didn't have soybean oil, coconut oil, palm oil, or olive oil--none of those plants originated in the New World.  I don't know whether they had butter, but even if they did, using too much melted butter on popcorn--let alone popping the corn in it--tends to make the final product soggy.

So what did they use?  Animal fat is a possibility, I suppose, though wild game--which is what the American Indians ate when they ate meat--isn't particularly rich in fat.

The Townsend video above suggests, and demonstrates, a plausible answer, which it credits to a pamphlet published by, of all people, Benjamin Franklin.

According to Ben, popcorn can be made by heating it in a dry kettle filled with sand or salt!  You heat the empty sand or salt first.  Only when the sand or salt is heated do you stir the popcorn into it, continuing until the corn is mostly covered.  When you judge the popping process to be done (judging in part by how many kernels pop through to the surface), you remove the pot from the heat, filter out the sand (or salt) with a fine-mesh metal sieve or, failing that, a wide-mouthed basket.

The advantage of this method is that you don't need a lid to confine the corn--the sand or salt works well for that.  And if you use salt, it's not a problem if some of it sticks to the finished product (unless you're watching your sodium intake).
I enjoyed this tiny exercise in attempting to deduce how the first Americans might have made popcorn.  It's a good illustration of how one has to consider technologies that would have been available to a culture for cooking in attempting to deduce how foods were made.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Killed the Greenland (Viking) Colony?

Anglo-Saxon reliquary cross with walrus
ivory figure.  10th c. CE.  Source:
 Wikipedia (Modifications made by Johnbod).
It's well-known that at least two Viking settlements were established in southern Greenland, sometime around the end of the Viking period. By about 1500 CE, however, archaeological evidence shows that the colony had died and its last colonists had either left or perished.  Why?

That's the question that archaeologists keep asking themselves.  It's true that the death of the colony comes during the so-called Little Ice Age, a time when the climate of Northern Europe in general and Greenland in particular became significantly colder.   But the Inuit, with whom  the Greenland colonists had dealings, easily survived colder weather further north.

I'm writing about this question because it appears to be based, critically, upon food and food sources, making it relevant to this blog.  My immediate inspiration is this article from Science Magazine, which cites research that contradicts the currently popular theory on this question.

The popular theory was that the Scandinavian colonists refused to learn from the Inuit practice of living on arctic and subarctic marine mammals and continued to try to feed themselves with cattle and other agricultural products even after the climate had become too cold for such food sources to provide enough food to sustain them.  However, newer archaeological analysis and evidence tends to show that the Greenland colonists did turn to the sea, like the Inuit, for sustenance and trade:
  • Excavations of the colonists' trash heaps shows that 60%-80% of the bones found were, not cattle or domesticated farm animals, but from seals.  That indicates that seals formed a large portion of the colonists' diet;
  • Finds of buttons made from walrus ivory;
  • Analysis of the bones of settlers, showing that, over the four centuries of the colonies' existence, the settlers ate increasing amounts of marine protein.
The article also notes that walrus ivory was highly prized in Europe and that there was great motive to hunt walrus for that reason, and the presence of walrus bone in the settlement trash heaps indicates that the rest of the walrus was not wasted.  Daniel Serra's book An Early Meal theorizes that the Vikings who did not leave Scandinavia probably ate more protein from the sea than had previously been assumed by scholars, especially during the lean time of the year (summer; after winter supplies of other foods had been exhausted but before the next harvest).  His research further supports the idea that the Norse in Greenland were not fatally averse to eating sea animals.  

Even more interestingly, other new evidence confirms that the settlers in Greenland did not practice wasteful agricultural techniques, as had previously been thought.  Newly gathered pollen and soil data shows that attention was paid to allowing fields and forests to recover after tilling and turf cutting, and that pastures were maintained with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.  

So what ended the colony?  The end probably was due to insufficient food, but that does not seem to have resulted from the colonists' intransigence and negligence as previously thought. Climate change made the once marginally viable possibility of agriculture in southern Greenland non-viable. Fishing may not have been sufficient for all the colony's needs (note that the evidence shows a steady increase in marine protein over time).  Economic changes may also have hastened the colony's end. According to the Science magazine article, some scholars now think that walrus ivory fell out of favor later in Europe during the late Middle Ages, when European visits to Africa brought increasing amounts of elephant ivory into European markets.   That suggests that walrus ivory was no longer sufficiently prized to make it possible to supplement the colonists' marine diet by trading walrus ivory for foodstuffs with the rest of Europe.

There is a lesson here, I think.  A neat, plausible, one-cause answer to a historical question is usually wrong--even if it comes from the experts!  Especially when it assumes that people from earlier times were willfully stupid about a survival matter such as food.   

Monday, August 7, 2017

18th Century American Cuisine

From Jas. Townsend & Son, a shop that sells clothing and other useful items to 18th century reenactors, comes a series of videos on 17th and 18th century American cuisine. 

Each video demonstrates how to make a particular item from a period cookbook. The embedded video here shows the viewer how to make fried chicken 18th century style, with a vinegar marinade. Both are recipes I wouldn't mind making sometime. Other videos in the series include, "1792 Apple Dumpling", "1796 Pound Cakes", "Pain Perdu--Historical French Toast", "Pemmican--The Ultimate Survival Food", "Orange Fool" (an 18th century custard), and "Switchel--18th Century Energy Drink." 

For people who find period cookbooks to be weirdly typeset or otherwise hard to follow, this series looks like an easier entry point into the mysteries of Colonial American cuisine. If you want an easy way to find more of Jas. Townsend's videos, this page collects approximately three years of them. Or you can check out the "Townsends" channel on YouTube. 

N.B.: Apologies to anyone who tried to view this post yesterday! I was having trouble with formatting this entry, and took it down planning to finish revising it. 

EDIT: (8/21/2017) I don't know why the video is not showing up on the post today--it shows for me in editing view, and I didn't change anything in the post until AFTER I noticed the problem. Perhaps it's a Blogger bug and will be fixed shortly. this page collects three years of them. Or you can check out the "Townsends" channel on YouTube.

EDIT: (8/24/2017)  The problem appears to be a bug in my html that I can't figure out how to fix. The post will have to look like this for now.

EDIT:  (8/25/2017)  Solved the problem by changing to a more modern theme for the blog. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Bronze Age Lunch Box

From the International Business Times comes this article about a recent analysis of a find, made in the Swiss Alps in 2012, of a wooden lunch box that dates to about 1500 BCE.  The box had previously been frozen in a glacier for thousands of years.

How do the scholars know it was a lunch box? you may ask.  They "know" it because the interior of the box contained molecular traces of "spelt, emmer, and barley," grains commonly eaten in ancient times. Since no actual grains were found in the box, perhaps the box was discarded when empty for some reason. 

Interesting details about the find include the following:
  • The box is not unique.  A very similar box had previously been found in the Schnidejoch pass (2756 m asl), located east of the Lötschenpass where the box that is the subject of the present analysis was found.
  • The box has a "round base made of Swiss pine, and the bent rim [is] made of willow, sewn together with splint twigs of European larch."  The photograph of the box that accompanies the article shows it to be slightly oval in shape.
  • It's fairly small; about 20 cm (7.8 inches), measured across its shorter dimension.
  • Several types of analysis were performed on the box's interior to identify the contents, including gas chromatography-mass spectrometry; lipid extraction; protein extraction; and microscopic analysis.  
  • All the proteins detected were plant proteins, of types consistent with the former presence of spelt, emmer, and barley.  Interestingly, no traces of millet were found.  This is interesting because millet is the one grain of which evidence has been found in Bronze Age pottery, and Bronze Age pottery, to date, shows no evidence of wheat or barley proteins.
For more detail about the find and the analysis that detected that the box had contained grains, go here.  

I find it fascinating to see how improvements in science permit archaeologists to derive more and more information from finds, allowing better deductions about the history of how ordinary people lived.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Gentlemen's Relish

Gentlemen's Relish (picture from Dabbler via Wikimedia Commons)
Ever heard of Gentlemen's Relish?  I had not, before stumbling across the term on the Internet, but that's probably because it's a British product that doesn't seem to have made its way over the pond.  

According to Wikipedia, it's a seasoned paste made from "anchovies (minimum 60%), butter, herbs and spices," and "[i]t has a strong, very salty and slightly fishy taste."  It is also called Patum Peperium. The recipe was invented in 1828 by an Englishman named John Osborn, and is presently made by one licensed manufacturer:  Elsenham Quality Foods in Elsenham, England.  EQF also makes two similar products:  Poacher's Relish (same idea using salmon as the base fish) and Angler's Relish (same idea, mackerel-based).  

Gentlemen's Relish (as likely is the case with its more recent derivatives) is typically eaten as a spread on toast, but may also be added to other foods, such as scrambled eggs, Scotch woodcock, mincemeat, or fish cakes.  No doubt other uses could be made of it as well.

Similar fish paste recipes were used in Roman times.  I will be posting about Roman fish sauces, including the famous garum, soon.

EDIT:  (7/16/2017)  For a bit more history of this concoction, go here. Although the recipe used by Elsenham is proprietary, reverse-engineered recipes pop up all over the Interest, the location of which is left as an exercise to the interested reader. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Eight Flavors of What?

For Christmas, a good friend gave me an autographed copy of an interesting book about historical food in America. The citation is as follows:
Lohman, Sarah.  Eight Flavors:  The Untold Story of American Cuisine. (Simon & Schuster 2016).  304 pages.
Pre-ground black pepper
(Wikimedia Commons)
Italian garlic (Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Lohman writes a food blog, Four Pounds Flour, in which she discusses attempts by her to recreate period recipes and other tasty morsels of information about historical food.  I have enjoyed her blog a lot, and was interested to see what she could do with her experimental approach to food history in the longer format permitted by a book.

Although there is a certain amount of personal anecdote in Eight Flavors--something that often annoys me in popular history books--there is also a large amount of interesting historical information and some fascinating period recipes.  I'm glad I was given a copy of the book and have read it, because I learned many interesting things I had not known before.  So I was surprised to find myself reacting to Ms. Lohman's presentation with puzzlement and annoyance.  I was surprised, because I couldn't pin down what was bothering me.

Eventually, I figured it out.  It's the subtitle:  "The Untold Story of American Cuisine", and the somewhat ambiguous relationship of that subtitle to what Ms. Lohman does in her book.

Had Ms. Lohman decided to name the book something like "Eight Flavors:  The Untold Stories of the Tastes America Enjoys", I would have had no problem at all, because the book makes a very good case for the proposition that these are the most popular American flavors today. And I'm more than willing to agree with Ms. Lohman that Americans annually consume substantial amounts of black pepper, vanilla, and so on.

But instead Ms. Lohman chose to use the word "cuisine".  That throws a different light on the matter. To explain why, let's look at a few definitions of "cuisine."

According to Wikipedia a "cuisine ... is a style of cooking characterized by distinctive ingredients, techniques and dishes, and usually associated with a specific culture or geographic region." simply calls it "a style or quality of cooking; cookery." Merriam-Webster's definition is similar to's: "manner of preparing food: style of cooking ...  also: the food prepared."

MSG (Wikimedia Commons)
Do you see the problem?  "Flavors" can simply be about what people, or the people of a country such as America, eat, whether that food is cooked by third parties in restaurants or shops or is cooked by the eaters themselves at home. But a cuisine is not simply, or even primarily, about what people eat; it's about what people choose to cook for themselves, when they do cook for themselves.  And Ms. Lohman's claim that these eight flavors are all flavors of "American cuisine" is less persuasive for some of the eight flavors than others. My annoyance came from my nagging suspicion that she had not made a good argument for showing that all eight of the flavors are truly "associated" with American cooking.

Ms. Lohman says, in her introduction:
But if I looked past these differences [in sorts of food made American cooks in different regions of the country], I wondered what united America's culinary culture?  I thought of rose water and vanilla:  rose water, at one time, was used all over the United States; and vanilla, regardless of a family's ethnicity, is consumed all over the country today.  I realized the key to defining American cuisine was to break it down to the basic flavors we all use, like vanilla.  (p. xv)
Vanilla pods
(Wikimedia Commons)
Ms. Lohman went on to reason, appropriately I think, that people learn to like particular flavors and that, once the preference is learned, it generally remains throughout life.  How to track what these preferences are, over time?  Ms. Lohman decided to do so by amassing a large collection of cookbooks published in America over the course of its history, examine the recipes for use of substances that provide particular flavors (based on how many times the words turn up in the books) and then graphing the results to determine which 8 "flavor" words are the most prevalent.  Thus Ms. Lohman arrived at her eight flavors: black pepper; vanilla; chili powder; curry powder; soy sauce; garlic; monosodium glutamate; and sriracha.

The problem with this method is that it assumes that cookbooks reflect what Americans actually cook, instead of, say, things that the cookbooks' authors want to encourage people to cook or to cook more often.  Early in America's history, when few cookbooks were published, it's a fairly reasonable to assume that recipes in cookbooks reflect, in a general way, the sorts of recipes made and the ingredients used.  As the number of cookbooks has increased, it's much harder to make that claim because a lot of American cookbooks over, say, the past few decades (I cannot speak to how early this trend began) are targeted to would-be cooks with particular interests:  owners of slow cookers; people looking for gluten-free or meatless recipes; or people seeking to emulate different non-American ethnic cuisines.

Soy sauce
Put another way, the mere fact that a few cookbooks sold in America contain one or more recipes using a particular ingredient doesn't necessarily mean that a majority, or even a plurality, of Americans cook with it.  It's also a problem in that, once we reach the point in time at which cookbooks proliferate, one's attempts to divine characteristic American "flavors" will depend, directly, on how one selects cookbooks that are characteristic of American cooking.  And Ms. Lohman has not explained the basis on which she has chosen her cookbooks for Eight Flavors.

It may be easier for me to illustrate my view of the divergence between Ms. Lohman's recipe word analysis with some observations about use of each of her eight flavors in American cuisine. For two of the flavors, I agree with Ms. Lohman; they are definitely part of American cooking.  For two more, though there's more room for discussion, it's fair to say that they are probably part of American cooking.  Three more flavors have been intermittent, having gone in and out of fashion in American cooking, and the last one is only beginning to find a way into our cooking, even though it was invented here and is consumed in substantial amounts.  In writing this section, I have been influenced by my reading of cookbooks targeted at ordinary Americans, particularly mothers with busy schedules. The sorts of recipes featured by well-known blogger Stephanie O'Dea, are good examples of the sort of cooking I mean, even though she has an unusual interest in gluten-free cooking because she has children who cannot tolerate gluten for medical reasons.

DEFINITELY PART:  black pepper and vanilla.   I completely agree with Ms. Lohman that black pepper and vanilla are among the characteristic flavors of American cuisine.  Black pepper, though originally from Asia, had been part of European cuisine in England and elsewhere in northern Europe long before the Pilgrims sailed, and continued consistently to figure in recipes of all kinds while our young nation grew.  Today, there probably isn't a restaurant in America that doesn't have a shaker or grinder of black pepper on the table, and hardly a recipe in any cookbook published in this country that doesn't include the words "add salt and pepper to taste."
Curry powder, from Istanbul
(Wikimedia Commons)

Vanilla has a similar history.  It comes from a New World plant, but found its way to Europe in early modern times, and as Ms. Lohman tells us, European foods that use its unique flavor were imported back to America and became entrenched here.  Though vanilla does not turn up often in entrees and mealtime courses, it is very common in desserts of all kinds, particularly ice cream.

Huy Fong
PROBABLY PART:  curry powder and chili powder. There is a good case to be made for these spice blends as being characteristic of American cuisine, nowadays. Although Ms. Lohman acknowledges that Indian food, where the herbs typically included in curry powder originally came from, is not as popular as food from certain other lands, she has shown that spice combinations similar to modern curry powder have turned up in American cookbooks since the 18th century. More importantly, more recently curry powder has won itself a place in certain American dishes that have nothing in common with Indian cuisine other than the use of curry powder blends.  Mr. Lohman gives the example of country captain chicken, but in my opinion a more common, and thus for this purpose better, example is curried chicken salad, which turns up in a number of restaurants serving "American" style food and (undoubtedly) numerous recipe collections.  (The Wegmans supermarket chain sells a wonderful version of this dish that includes tofu at its food bars.)

Upon reflection, chili powder also qualifies.  After all, it was invented in the U.S. and made popular in Texas by the "chili queens" Ms. Lohman tells us so much about. Although chili powder mostly turns up in cookbooks as part of recipes for chili, a profusion of "chili" recipes has sprung up that is so varied as to practically count as a sub-cuisine in and of itself. Original chili con carne, consisting of chili-spiced beef.  Chile con carne, with beef and beans.  Chicken chilis and turkey chilis, with white beans.  Vegetarian chilis, with beans but no meat at all.  All of these contain chili powder.  Although I don't understand why Ms. Lohman did not generalize her claim to "red pepper" or cayenne, which appears in many various American recipes (and in Old Bay seasoning, which many Americans cook with), I'm disinclined to argue about the inclusion of chili powder in her "flavor" list.

INTERMITTENTLY PART:  garlic, MSG, and soy sauce.  In my opinion, garlic, MSG, and soy sauce all have a place in American cuisine, but it's a bit premature to think of any of the three as "characteristic" of American cooking, because they have not been consistently part of the broader American culinary scene.

Garlic is an interesting example.  Though a kitchen mainstay for thousands of years in some cuisines, such as those of China, Greece, and Rome, it did not find a place in early English cuisine, and thus a habit of using it did not come to the New World with the English in the way that the habit of using black pepper did.  Ms. Lohman chronicles how garlic was originally unpopular, in part because it was associated with lower-class immigrants and their cultures.   In our health-conscious culture of today, garlic is praised because of its health benefits, which probably accounts for much of its current popularity in American food.  As for recipes, onion is ubiquitous in American cookbooks (and on American tables), but garlic is much less so.  It is still held back from true ubiquity by its associations with certain immigrant cuisines, even now.
Homemade chili powder
(Wikimedia Commons)

Soy sauce certainly turns up a lot in American grocery carts, but it doesn't typically get used in "American" dishes such as chili or beef stew.  Instead, it is used on Asian, particularly Chinese and Japanese restaurant foods, and in home-cooked recipes based upon those cuisines.  You find it on the table as a condiment in American restaurants, but only those American restaurants that serve Chinese or Japanese food.

MSG, for the most part, is a good example of a flavor that's certainly present in American food (many Chinese restaurants in this country probably still use it), but it is not really a part of American cooking, undoubtedly due to the "controversy" about its harmfulness. Perhaps MSG sits on the table with the salt and pepper in Chinese American homes, but it doesn't have such a role in other American homes, despite the efforts of Wyler and others to sell it to American home cooks.  (For what it's worth, I have never suffered from "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" and to this day have no clear idea what MSG on its own tastes like, though I used to have a container of Accent in my house.)

NOT QUITE PART:  sriracha.   The presence of sriracha in a book supposedly about American cooking feels forced, as though Ms. Lohman wanted to have an eighth flavor in the book mostly for symmetry's sake.  Sriracha is certainly a popular flavor, both on restaurant dishes and snack foods, but the only examples of cookbooks that contain sriracha recipes are quite new and targeted at adventurous eaters.

I can understand why Ms. Lohman did not want to write about sugar or salt; she's right that they turn up everywhere, and that quite enough has been written about them already. But there are other American tastes--common tastes--that do not turn up on her list, and I do not understand why.  Tastes like tomato (a prominent flavor in the chili con carne she discusses in Chapter 3) and tomato ketchup (found in most restaurants and homes throughout America, and, like curry powder, also an inheritance from the British/Indian influences on our cooking) and onion (I'm hard pressed to think of any soup or stew recipe that doesn't have at least one onion in it, and it's an integral part of a lot of American regional dishes, such as the Philly cheese steak).  

Nor is it clear why sriracha, a relative newcomer to the American scene, appears in the book when Tabasco, a much older hot sauce that often turns up in recipes and on tables in American restaurants, does not.  It might have been better to have grouped the capsaicin-based sauces together as an American flavor and to cite sriracha as the newest, most currently popular example of the breed.

Overall, what bothers me about Ms. Lohman's book was its confusion of the idea of popular flavors with whether use of those flavors and the condiments that produce them have become entrenched in American cooking.  But that confusion, assuming readers agree with me about it, is not a reason not to read Eight Flavors.  Whether or not you agree with my arguments above, Ms. Lohman's book has a lot of interesting information to offer, and a few intriguing recipes.  I enjoyed the book, and I'd recommend it as a fun read for anyone interested in the history of food.

EDIT: (9/11/2017)  Added the phrase "or even primarily" to the sentence "But a cuisine is not simply about what people eat; it's about what people choose to cook for themselves, when they do cook for themselves."  This states my thoughts a bit more accurately.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Taste Test: the Exo Bar

Exo bar, front of wrapper
Exo bar, ingredients information
Some time ago, I blogged about an entrepreneur in Europe who is marketing food bars made from cricket flour--cricket parts ground up into powder.   In the course of writing it, I learned about some similar American products, including the Exo Bar.  Recently, I learned that our local supermarket, Wegmans, sells Exo bars, so I decided to buy one and try it out.  I purchased their "Cocoa Nut" (i.e., chocolate with nuts) flavor.

The Exo bar is expensive--$2.99 for just one bar at my local Wegmans, compared to between 99 cents and $1.69 or so for most other brands of food-replacement bar.  According to the wrapper, one bar contains 300 calories--less than some of the food-replacement bars such as the Meal Square, but significantly more per individual bar than Luna or Balance bars or most of the other meal replacement bars that I've seen on sale here in the U.S.

Unwrapped, the bar looked like other brownie-type food bars I've seen.  It was the color of a dark chocolate brownie, contained bits of nuts, and had a shiny surface.

Exo bar, unwrapped
Eating the bar was an interesting experience.  It did not take a lot of effort to eat, but it felt substantial to chew, which was not unpleasant.  Unfortunately, the taste was nothing to write home about.  The Exo bar didn't taste excessively sweet, which is a plus.  But it didn't taste very brownie-like or chocolatey, either--a definite minus in a "cocoa" bar.  The strongest flavor note I picked up was a kind of winey undertaste, which I didn't find very appealing.   Never having eaten a cricket flour bar before, I'm not sure whether the winey taste was due to the use of cricket flour, or a side effect of some other element/s of the ingredient mix. I was reminded of one of the title character's taglines from the movie Crocodile Dundee:  "Tastes like sh*t, but you can live on it."

So I don't expect to be buying or eating a large number of Exo bars any time soon.  I haven't ruled out other cricket-based foods, however.  It's possible that other formulations will lead to better taste, and a food bar with 10g of protein from sustainable ingredients is hard to argue against.

NOTE:  You can click on each photograph to make it larger and clearer.