Everything You Didn’t Know About Ginger And Gingerbread

I’m a believer in eating foods in season, especially when the foods are festive, nostalgic and not very good for you.  During the holiday season, the opportunities for gluttony are plentiful, and with so many parties and potlucks, finding a delicious and fun seasonal dish to bring is crucial.  While many food trends come and go, some seasonal foods endure year after year, becoming so enshrined that the holidays just don’t seem complete without them.  These classic holiday foods often have an interesting back story that can be overlooked, and I enjoying finding out how these special foods became traditional, and how people continue to play with them, making them new again.

Which brings us to gingerbread.  At first glance, the combination of ginger and spices to baked goods seems rather obvious and unambiguous.  One would be forgiven for thinking this recipe was too cliché, boring or sentimental to be worthy of scholarly interest. But how many pastries inspire the type of grandiose displays as World’s Largest Gingerbread House, built in Bryan, Texas in 2013? Measuring 60 feet by 42 feet and standing up to 20 feet tall and clocking in at 35,823,400 calories, this colossal confection construction merits giving gingerbread a few moments consideration.

World's Largest Gingerbread House, built in Bryan, Texas in 2013

World’s Largest Gingerbread House, built in Bryan, Texas in 2013

And let’s not forget the World’s Largest Gingerbread Man, built in 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin.

World’s Largest Gingerbreadman, built in 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin.

World’s Largest Gingerbread man, built in 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin.

And the Largest Gingerbread Village created by Chef Jon Lovitch in 2013 in New York City.

And the Largest Gingerbread Village created by Chef Jon Lovitch in 2013 in New York City.

Largest Gingerbread Village created by Chef Jon Lovitch in 2013 in New York City.

Still not convinced?  What about the world’s largest gingerbread pirate ship, in Amelia Island, Florida?

World’s Largest Gingerbread Pirate Ship, in Amelia Island, Florida

World’s Largest Gingerbread Pirate Ship, in Amelia Island, Florida

And if you want to get away from “the world’s largest”, gingerbread as a creative medium knows no bounds.  We’ve got spaceships,

Spaceship Serenity from Firefly

Spaceship Serenity from Firefly

castles,

Gingerbread castle

Gingerbread castle

Deathstars,

Gingerbread Deathstar

Gingerbread Deathstar

Transformers,

Optimus Prime Gingerbread Man

and much else.  Let’s see cinnamon raisin bread do that!

All of which is to say, gingerbread, at least to some people, is a big fucking deal.  So where did it come from?

The History:

To begin, ginger root is native to either India [1] or southeastern Asia [2], depending on whom you ask.

According to the authoritative Cambridge World History of Food, by Kiple and Ornelas [3] “ginger is the underground rhizome of a tropical flowering plant Zingiber officiale. The word zingiber means “horn shaped” in Sanskrit and was applied to ginger because of the shape of the rhizomes. Ginger was used in China and India 7,000 years ago and was an important item in the spice trade that stretched overland and by sea from India to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and to Egypt via the Red Sea.”

“Ginger” by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen

The story of ginger’s origin is rather obscure, but there are some clues, as Andrew Dalby [4], author of Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, explains. “By the fourth millennium BC–six thousand years ago–the Austronesians’ were beginning to spread southwards across the Malay Archipelago, starting from the coast of south-eastern China and from mountainous Taiwan. Eventually they reached as far as Madagascar on the western edge of the Indian Ocean and even distant Easter Island in the eastern Pacific. No written history, and no surviving oral tradition, tells of this epic series of migrations. We know of the migration by linguistic detective work.

Among the typical flora of southern China and Indochina are the wild gingers and their relatives–showy plants with typically large white or yellow flowers, spicy, aromatic, and very important in traditional medicine. We concentrate on ginger itself, because there are two good clues that ginger is a very ancient spice, perhaps the most ancient of all. The botanical clue is that, unlike its relatives, ginger is propagated only by splitting the root, never from seed–as sign that it has grown for so long under human control that it has lost one of the essential characteristics of the wild plant from which it derives.

The linguistic clue is that a name for ginger can be traced back from its modern forms in many of the Austronesian languages to the early Austronesian speech of the Philippines. This means that in all their long migrations from the Philippines onwards the speakers of Austronesian languages never lost their familiarity with ginger. In the boats that humans built in those ancient times there was no room for luxuries. Ginger, then, must have been recognized as a necessity of life. Finding that it did not already grow where they planned to settle, the Austronesian-speaking migrants planted ginger in their gardens on each new island. Thus is spread from southern China to the Philippines and the Spice Islands–and, from that crossroads, onwards both east and west.” This suggest the cultivation and use of ginger is an ancient practice, and one with deep cultural roots.

Out Of Taiwan Theory Map by A. Hōkūlani Kina’u Baltran [5]

 Ginger, having its origin in Asia, is ubiquitous in Asian food. In Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, Frederick Simoons [6], argues that “ginger has had a long, illustrious role in Chinese cuisine. Its importance throughout history is revealed by repeated reference to it in food in Chinese culture, more numerous than for vinegar, sugar, garlic, soy sauce, or any other spice or flavoring.”

Simoons [7] also informs us that ginger was much desired and fueled the ancient spice trade. “The plant was carried west from India to Africa by the Arabs, and at least by the tenth century A.D. Zanzibar was a supplier of the ginger trade. The rhizome reached Europe by the first century A.D., with its Greek and Latin names, like its Arabic and Persian ones, deriving ultimately from India. China, along with India, was an important early supplier of the ginger trade, and Chinese ginger was carried far across the Old World to market, much of it for pharmaceutical purposes.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans were enchanted with ginger and enjoyed both its flavor and its medicinal virtues, though they were a little foggy on the facts of the plant. In Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby [8] observes, “We first hear of ginger, zingiberi, in a Greek-speaking context when the Roman medical writer Celsus lists ginger as one of the ingredients in King Mithridates’ famous poison antidote. This would date the knowledge of ginger–at least among royal pharmacists in Pontus–to the early first century BC. In the following century the Greek pharmacist Dioscorides of Anasarba who says something of a ginger trade, hints that the Imperial provinces may not have been rich enough to share the expensive luxuries that were shipped to Rome. As for the geographical origin of ginger, Greek pharmacological authors had traditionally described it as Indian: this was misleading, though it is possible that some supplies of ginger came to the Mediterranean by way of south India. Pliny and Dioscordes of Anazarba were aware that some ginger was grown around the southern Red Sea. None was aware that its original habitat was far to the east of India, the ‘Spice Islands’ of modern Indonesia.”

Patrick Faas [9], author of Around the Roman Table, claims that “the Romans did not know where ginger came from. Some thought it was the root of the pepper plant; others said it was nothing of the sort. It was popular and is mentioned among the ingredients of about thirteen of Apicious’ recipes. He ate ginger on lamb, meatballs, lettuce, garden beans, peas, bread, in chicken and in stuffed suckling pigs, but not, as in eastern countries, with fish.”

Pliny the Elder [10] wrote in AD 77–79 in his Natural History, “the root of the pepper-tree is not, as some people have thought, the same as the substance called ginger, or by others zinpiberi, although it has a similar flavor. Ginger is grown on farms in Arabia and Cave-dwellers’ Country; it is a small plant with a white root. The plant is liable to decay very quickly, in spite of its extreme pungency. Its price is six denarii a pound. Both pepper and ginger grown wild in their own countries, and nevertheless they are bought by weight like gold or silver.”

There isn’t total agreement among the sources how much ginger Roman ate. In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [11] contends that “the ginger plant has been cultivated since ancient times, and was among the most highly prized of the eastern imports to the Roman Empire. However, Romans used it relatively little in cookery, prizing it rather for medicinal purposes.”

On the other hand, in their comprehensive work Ginger: The Genus Zingiber, Ravindran, and Babu [12] recount that “the legend is that around 2400 B.C. a baker on the Isle of Rhodes near Greece prepared the first gingerbread. Shortly thereafter the recipe found its way to Egypt, where the Egyptians savored its excellent flavor and served it on ceremonial occasions. The Romans distributed gingerbread to all parts of the empire.” If the Romans had distributed gingerbread all over, they probably ate a fair bit of it.

There’s also some disagreement about whether ginger was available after the fall of the Roman Empire. Davidson [13] confidently declares that “the fall of the Roman Empire did not stop the trade of ginger to Europe” noting that “it was in use in England in Anglo-Saxon times.” In case you’re curios, ‘Anglo-Saxon times’ covers the 5th to 11th centuries. The Royal Botanic Gardens [14], seems to agree with Davidson, noting that “Gingerbread, one of the most popular uses for ginger in Britain, dates to Anglo-Saxon times when preserved ginger (produced by boiling the rhizome in sugar syrup) was used, often medicinally.”

This view is not shared by John Mariani [15] author of Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, who declares, with equal confidence, that “ginger was well known to the ancient Romans, but it nearly disappeared in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.”

In any case, without wide access to exotic spices like ginger, Europe must have seemed a very bland place. But this was to change, thanks to Marco Polo.  Kenneth Farrell [16], author of Spices, Condiments and Seasonings, states that, “Marco Polo was the first European to write of actually finding ginger in China.” In Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery, Elizabeth Hayes [17] agrees that “Marco Polo saw the growing plant during his travels of China and noted this fact in his journal in the year A.D. 1280.” Most importantly, according to Mariani [18] “Marco Polo brought ginger back from the Orient, and afterwards the European appetite for spices made it once again a treasured and expensive condiment.”

Marco Polo wearing a Tatar outfit, by Grevembrock (Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d’Arvor.)

While Marco Polo may get credit for providing Europe with a supply of ginger, Dawn Marie Schrandt [20] author of Just Me Cookin in Germany suggests that the crusades played a role in creating the demand. “The manufacture of gingerbread appears to have spread throughout Western Europe at the end of the eleventh century, possibly introduced by crusaders returning from wars in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

With the spice trade reestablished, ginger was a big hit. In Food in Early Modern Europe, Ken Albala [21] asserts that “ginger was one of the most important spices in the medieval kitchen. It was used principally dried and ground, though there are references to ‘green ginger’ which was presumably candied or crystallized because fresh ginger would never have lasted on the lengthy voyage from Asia. Ginger was used in practically every conceivable context and with nearly every kind of food, as well as in more familiar preparations like gingerbread. Through the early modern period its use was increasingly restricted to sweets, especially in classical French cuisine.”

While there is an often told story that gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis who taught gingerbread baking to French Christians, I could find no scholarly source which mentioned such a man. The closest reference I could find was in the Oxford Companion to Food, in which Davidson [22] notes that “it is also commonly held, and correctly, that culinary influences passed from the Arab world to Europe, rather than in the other direction. However Maxime Rodinson (1949) drew attention to a recipe in the 13th-century Arabic cookbook The Link to the Beloved for ‘a bread which the Franks and Armenians make, which is called aflāghūn,’ and remarked that despite its Armenian name it resembled pain d’épices or gingerbread.”

Tony Grumley-Grennan [23] author of The Fat Man’s Food & Drink Compendium, explains “in Europe ginger is generally used to flavor sweet foods such as cakes, biscuits and gingerbread, although the name gingerbread may be somewhat imprecise as, in medieval England, gingerbread meant simply preserved ginger and was a corruption of the old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name for the spice zingebar. It wasn’t until the late 1400s that the name came to be applied to a kind of cake made with treacle and flour flavored with ginger. Powdered dry ginger was found to have preservative properties when added to cakes and bread” which could in part explain why it was added in baked goods across so many cultures.

Ginger was certainly a prized commodity, as Elizabeth Hayes [24] informs us that “in the Middle Ages ginger was second only to pepper in value, and even as late as the seventeenth century the price of a pound of ginger was the same as the price of a sheep.” And Ravindran and Babu [25] assert that “in the Middle Ages ginger was considered to be so important a spice that the street in Basle where Swiss traders sold spices was named Imbergasse, meaning “Ginger Alley”. It was during that time that “gingerbread” became popular, and it became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and her court.”

The original recipe for gingerbread did not yield the same crisp cookie or moist cake that we might recognize today, as Susan Williams [26] argues in Food in the United States, 1820s-1890. “Gingerbread, originally made from a mixture of breadcrumbs and honey, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, and pepper, gained its deep brown color from the addition of saffron or “sanders” – powdered sandalwood. English and Scottish bakers rolled out the mixture into thin sheets that could be cut into individual cakes and baked at a low temperature until crisp. Sometimes the gingerbread was pressed into wooden molds to create a relief-decorated surface. Other bakers formed the batch into a square cake, which was then embellished with box leaves pinned down with gilded clovers.

During the Middle Ages, at least in England, gingerbread seems to be a favorite on festive occasions. Schrandt [27] observes that “from its very beginning gingerbread has been a fairground delicacy. Many fairs became known as “gingerbread fairs” and gingerbread items took on the alternative name in England of “fairings” which had the generic meaning of a gift given at, or brought from, a fair. Certain shapes were associated with different seasons: buttons and flowers were found at Easter fairs, and animals and birds were a feature in autumn. There is also more than one village tradition in England requiring unmarried women to eat gingerbread “husbands” at the fair if they are to stand a good chance of meeting a real husband.”

Davidson [28] adds that “gingerbread was also ornamented by impressing designs within wooden molds. The molds were sometimes very large and elaborate and beautifully carved. The habit of shaping gingerbread figures of men and pigs, especially for Bonfire Night (5 November) survives in Britain.”

The love of decorative gingerbread even touched the royal personages. In Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey–The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World, Holley Bishop [29] writes that “England’s Queen Elizabeth I commissioned likenesses of herself and all of her courtiers in elaborately decorated gingerbread.”

Front and back views of a fine and unusually large English carved oak double-sided gingerbread mold of the late 17th century, depicting King William III and Queen Mary, together with impressions taken from it. The mold was originally in the kitchens of Denston Hall, Newmarket. It measures 66cm in height. Photo by Michael Finlay [30]

Front and back views of a fine and unusually large English carved oak double-sided gingerbread mold of the late 17th century, depicting King William III and Queen Mary, together with impressions taken from it. The mold was originally in the kitchens of Denston Hall, Newmarket. It measures 66cm in height. Photo by Michael Finlay [30]

In Gingerbread, Jennifer Lindner McGlinn [31] notes that the shape of the molded gingerbread could come in many varieties, even risqué ones. “Communities used these dense cakes to commemorate holidays and celebrations, and the images varied widely depending on the occasion. Flowers and religious symbols, in fact, seem to have been as popular as royal figures and even quite bawdy, scantily clad lovers.”

The love of gingerbread was not limited to England, according Schrandt [32]. “Of all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the longest and strongest tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads. At every autumn fair in Germany, and in the surrounding lands where the Germanic influence is strong, there are rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts, decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons. If you lived in Nuremberg in 1614, your family would have gone to the Christkindlmarkt in December. You would have bought carved Christmas decorations, special sausages, and the famous Nuremberg Lebkuchen flavored with ginger. Nuremberg gingerbread was not baked in the home, but was the preserve of an exclusive Guild of master bakers, the Lebkuchler.

“Lebküchner” from an illustrated manuscript in the Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, ca. 1520 [33]

“Nuremberg became known as the “gingerbread capital” of the world and as with any major trading center, many fine craftsmen were attracted to the town. Sculptors, painters, woodcarvers and goldsmiths all contributed to the most beautiful gingerbread cakes in Europe. Gifted craftsmen carved intricate wooden molds, artists assisted with decoration in frosting or gold paint. Incredibly fancy hearts, angels, wreaths and other festive shapes were sold at fairs, carnivals and markets. Lebkuchen are made throughout Germany and large pieces of lebkuchen are used to build Hexenhaeusle (“witches’ houses,” from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, also called Lebkuchenhaeusel and Knusperhaeuschen—”houses for nibbling at”). Nuremberg merchants, in fact, were so well known for their spices that they had the nickname “pepper sacks.” From early on, Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen packed into one recipe all the variety of flavorings available to its bakers—cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger.

During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was both modernized and romanticized. When the Grimm brothers collected volumes of German fairy tales they found one about Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century the German composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.”

Stall with various sweets on a Christmas market in Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg (Germany)[34].

Schrandt [35] continues, “The traditions in France were closer to the German than the English ones, with noteworthy recipes for pain d’epices coming from Dijon, Reims and Paris. In 1571, French bakers of pain d’epices even won the right to their own guild, or professional organization, separate from the other pastry cooks and bakers. In Paris a gingerbread fair was held from the eleventh century until the nineteenth century at an abbey on the site of the present St. Antoine Hospital, where monks sold gingerbread cut into the shape of pigs.”

In the age of European colonization, ginger again had a role to play. According to Hayes [36] ginger was the first oriental spice to be grown in the new world, brought by the English to their colony in Jamaica. And “in 1585, it was the first oriental spice grown in the New World to be imported back to Europe.”

In America, gingerbread enjoyed a deep and abiding love. In Food, author Waverly Root [37] argues that “the English carried their taste for ginger to America, which was avid for ginger from the very beginning of its history. Ginger cookies were among the goodies passed out to the incorruptible voters of Virginia to induce them to choose the correct candidates for the House of Burgesses. Ginger was included in the standard rations of American soldiers during the Revolution, and after it the consumption of this and other seanoners was hardly discouraged by the fact that the number one spice port of the world during the first half of the nineteenth century was Salem, Massachusetts, because of the speed of the Yankee Clippers.” Mariani [38] adds that “Virginian William Byrd remarked in 1711 that he ‘ate gingerbread all day long.’”

During the seventeenth century gingerbread recipes changed and proliferated, when, according to Williams [39] “flour replaced the breadcrumbs and the gingerbread achieved the cake-like form that is familiar today. The sweetener also changed, from honey to sugar or treacle/molasses, or both, and some recipes called for the addition of dried fruits. By the nineteenth century, gingerbread persisted in a variety of forms-some traditional, some adapted to modern tastes. A perusal of nineteenth century cookery sources reveals many different gingerbread recipes.”

For examples, Mariani [40] notes “Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) gives a recipe for molasses gingerbread. Eliza Leslie’s 1828 volume Seventy-five Receipts, listed both a common gingerbread and an enriched Lafayette gingerbread with lemon juice and brown sugar.”

Mary Kettilby [41], Ginger-Bread Recipes, from A Collection Of Above Three Hundred Receipts In Cookery, Physick, And Surgery: For The Use Of All Good Wives, Tender Mothers, And Careful Nurses (1734).

Mary Kettilby [41], Ginger-Bread Recipes, from A Collection Of Above Three Hundred Receipts In Cookery, Physick, And Surgery: For The Use Of All Good Wives, Tender Mothers, And Careful Nurses (1734).

According to Williams [42], “the woman organizers of the New England Log House and Kitchen exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 identified gingerbread as one of the three basic elements of a recreated New England menu.”

Schrandt [43] agrees, writing that “gingerbread making in North America has its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades.

American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses was used. Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time. The German practice of making lebkuchen houses never caught on in Britain in the same way as it did in North America, and it is here still that the most extraordinary creations are found. Elaborate Victorian houses, heavy with candies and sugar icicles, vie in competition with the Hansel and Gretel houses, more richly decorated and ornamented than most children could imagine in their wildest dreams.

The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in the Midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding “coffee kolaches” (coffee mornings) at which European ginger cakes still reign. Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread recipes than in America —there are so many variations in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses and centerpieces ever.”

There is one more gingerbread story we mustn’t omit. In Why Do We Shape Gingerbread Cookies Like People? L.V. Anderson [44] relates the tale’s origin. “The famous story of the runaway gingerbread man was first published in 1875 “when a children’s publication called St. Nicholas Magazine published “The Ginger-bread Boy,” about a living gingerbread man who runs away from various pursuers—a little old woman, a little old man, a cow, etc.—before he is eaten by a fox. This was not an original story: Folk tales with the same narrative structure but starring other baked good, such as pancakes, had been told orally in Europe for centuries. (Such stories are known among folklore scholars as “Fleeing Pancake” stories.) It’s not clear exactly when the gingerbread man took over the starring role in the folk tale, but the author of the St. Nicholas piece explained how he had originally heard it: ‘A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it, and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood.’”

So there you have it; everything you didn’t know about ginger and gingerbread. After all of this, gingerbread doesn’t look so humble anymore.  It’s part of an ongoing, evolving tradition that goes back at least 2,000 years, if you believe the legends.  And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking that a big piece of gingerbread sounds pretty damn tasty right now.  So here is the recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook that I’ve used for years and it never fails to impress.  If you’re not a fan of lemon glaze, dust your cake with powdered sugar. Enjoy!

Silver Palate Gingerbread with Lemon Glaze

Silver Palate Gingerbread with Warm Lemon Sauce. Image from jancooks.blogspot.com

1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsps baking soda
1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1)Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a 9-inch square baking pan.
2)Sift dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl. Add egg, sugar, and molasses. Mix well.
3)Pour boiling water and the oil over mixture. Stir thoroughly until smooth.
4)Pour batter into the prepared pan. Set on the middle rack of oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until top springs back when touched and the edges have pulled away slightly from the sides of the pan.
Lemon Glaze
2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar, and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Mix together (don’t cook) and pour over warm cake.
References:
1 http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/zingiber-officinale-ginger
2 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233889/ginger
3 Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2001 (p. 1778)( https://books.google.com/books?id=CswwnQEACAAJ&dq=Cambridge+World+History&hl=en&sa=X&ei=pvuRVLv2Bo-XyASb0YCAAw&ved=0CD0Q6AEwBA
4 Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, Andrew Dalby [University of California Press:Berkeley] 2000 (p. 21-22) (http://books.google.com/books?id=7IHcZ21dyjwC&lpg=PA22&vq=ginger&pg=PA21#v=snippet&q=Ginger,%20then&f=false)
5 Out Of Taiwan Theory Map by A. Hōkūlani Kina’u Baltran from http://austronesianconnections.blogspot.com/p/origins.html
6 Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, Frederick J. Simoons [CRC Press:Boca Raton] 1991 (p. 370-2) (http://books.google.com/books?id=Fo087ZxohA4C&lpg=PA370&vq=ginger&pg=PA370#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false)
7 Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, Frederick J. Simoons [CRC Press:Boca Raton] 1991 (p. 370-2) (http://books.google.com/books?id=Fo087ZxohA4C&lpg=PA370&vq=ginger&pg=PA370#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false)
8 Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby [Routledge:London] 1996 (p. 138) (http://books.google.com/books/about/Siren_Feasts.html?id=wtLgAAAAMAAJ
9 Around the Roman Table Patrick Faas [Palgrave MacMillan:New York] 1994, 2003 (p. 164-165) https://books.google.com/books?id=YXGlAr17oekC&lpg=PP1&dq=Around%20the%20Roman%20Table%20Patrick%20Faas&pg=PA165#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false
10 Pliny: Natural History, Book XII. xiv. 27-29, with an English translation by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library [Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA] 2005 (p. 21) (http://archive.org/stream/naturalhistory04plinuoft/naturalhistory04plinuoft_djvu.txt
11 Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 338) (https://books.google.com/books?id=pZ-1AQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Oxford+Companion+to+Food&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-7OQVIOyIdeeyATB64HADA&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false
12 P. N. Ravindran, K. Nirmal Babu, Ginger: The Genus Zingiber CRC Press, 2004 https://books.google.com/books?id=7N_LBQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA427&dq=ginger%20preservative%20in%20bread&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q&f=false
13 Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 338) (https://books.google.com/books?id=pZ-1AQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Oxford+Companion+to+Food&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-7OQVIOyIdeeyATB64HADA&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false
14 The Royal Botanic Gardens http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/zingiber-officinale-ginger
15 Mariani, John F., Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, Feb 4, 2014 https://books.google.com/books?id=K5taAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT490&ots=9pFcHtFKX3&dq=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&pg=PT490#v=onepage&q=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&f=false
16 Farrell, Kenneth T., Spices, Condiments and Seasonings, Springer Science & Business Media, 1998 (104)https://books.google.com/books?id=ehAFUhWV4QMC&lpg=PA104&ots=R3WgAo16Xd&dq=Marco%20Polo%20first%20european%20to%20see%20ginger&pg=PA104#v=onepage&q=Marco%20Polo%20first%20european%20to%20see%20ginger&f=false
17 Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery by Elizabeth S. Hayes Courier Corporation, Feb 6, 2013 (p.40) https://books.google.com/books?id=KeO7AQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA40&ots=ZbLo_6pADq&dq=The%20first%20oriental%20spice%20to%20be%20grown%20in%20the%20new%20world&pg=PA40#v=onepage&q&f=false
18 Mariani, John F., Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, Feb 4, 2014 https://books.google.com/books?id=K5taAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT490&ots=9pFcHtFKX3&dq=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&pg=PT490#v=onepage&q=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&f=false
19 Marco Polo wearing a Tatar outfit, by Grevembrock (Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d’Arvor.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marco_Polo#mediaviewer/File:Marco_Polo_-_costume_tartare.jpg
20 Just Me Cookin in Germany by Dawn Marie Schrandt, iUniverse, 2001, (p. 271) https://books.google.com/books?id=0oZ8h-BfIuAC&lpg=PA270&ots=THVYKPS0Wa&dq=The%20manufacture%20of%20gingerbread%20appears%20to%20have%20spread%20throughout%20Western%20Europe%20at%20the%20end%20of%20the%20eleventh%20century%2C%20possibly%20introduced%20by%20crusaders%20returning%20from%20wars%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Mediterranean&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q=gingerbread&f=false
21 Food in Early Modern Europe, Ken Albala [Greenwood Press:Westport CT] 2003 (p. 46-47) https://books.google.com/books?id=4f-l3-KG0LcC&lpg=PP1&dq=Food%20in%20Early%20Modern%20Europe%2C%20Ken%20Albala&pg=PA46#v=onepage&q=ginger&f=false
22 Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (https://books.google.com/books?id=pZ-1AQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=Oxford%20Companion%20to%20Food&pg=PT1967#v=onepage&q&f=false)
23 The Fat Man’s Food & Drink Compendium by Tony Grumley-Grennan https://books.google.com/books?id=FRT9AgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA61&dq=ginger%20preservative%20in%20bread&pg=PA61#v=onepage&q=ginger%20preservative&f=false
24 Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery by Elizabeth S. Hayes https://books.google.com/books?id=KeO7AQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA40&ots=ZbLo_6pADq&dq=The%20first%20oriental%20spice%20to%20be%20grown%20in%20the%20new%20world&pg=PA40#v=onepage&q&f=false
25 P. N. Ravindran, K. Nirmal Babu, Ginger: The Genus Zingiber CRC Press, 2004 https://books.google.com/books?id=7N_LBQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA427&dq=ginger%20preservative%20in%20bread&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q&f=false
26 Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 by Susan Williams Greenwood Publishing Group, Jan 1, 2006 (https://books.google.com/books?id=wtdDZsHXSLgC&lpg=PA48&ots=hnk9OuURDV&dq=Food%2C%20Waverly%20Root&pg=PA112#v=onepage&q&f=false)
27 Just Me Cookin in Germany by Dawn Marie Schrandt, iUniverse, 2001, (p. 271) https://books.google.com/books?id=0oZ8h-BfIuAC&lpg=PA270&ots=THVYKPS0Wa&dq=The%20manufacture%20of%20gingerbread%20appears%20to%20have%20spread%20throughout%20Western%20Europe%20at%20the%20end%20of%20the%20eleventh%20century%2C%20possibly%20introduced%20by%20crusaders%20returning%20from%20wars%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Mediterranean&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q=gingerbread&f=false
28 Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 338) (https://books.google.com/books?id=pZ-1AQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=Oxford%20Companion%20to%20Food&pg=PT1057#v=onepage&q&f=false
29 Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey–The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World by Holley Bishop Simon and Schuster, Nov 1, 2007 (p.187) https://books.google.com/books?id=DqOLeqowZ-MC&lpg=PA186&dq=Emperor%20Frederick%20III%20gingerbread%20cookies&pg=PA187#v=onepage&q=Emperor%20Frederick%20III%20gingerbread%20cookies&f=false
30 Stuart Gingerbread Molds, Photo by Michael Finlay http://www.michaelfinlay.com/MF_WEBSITE_TRIAL/___MOULDS,_TREEN_1.html
31 Gingerbread, Jennifer Lindner McGlinn, Chronicle Books, 2009 http://books.google.com/books/about/Gingerbread.html?id=0IRpPgAACAAJ
32 Just Me Cookin in Germany by Dawn Marie Schrandt iUniverse, 2001, (p. 271) https://books.google.com/books?id=0oZ8h-BfIuAC&lpg=PA270&ots=THVYKPS0Wa&dq=The%20manufacture%20of%20gingerbread%20appears%20to%20have%20spread%20throughout%20Western%20Europe%20at%20the%20end%20of%20the%20eleventh%20century%2C%20possibly%20introduced%20by%20crusaders%20returning%20from%20wars%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Mediterranean&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q=gingerbread&f=false
33 “Lebküchner” from an illustrated manuscript in the Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, ca. 1520 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebkuchen#mediaviewer/File:Lebkuechner_Landauer.jpg
34 Stall with various sweets on a Christmas market in Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg (Germany). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verkaufsstand_mit_S%C3%BC%C3%9Figkeiten.JPG
35 Just Me Cookin in Germany by Dawn Marie Schrandt iUniverse, 2001, (p. 271) https://books.google.com/books?id=0oZ8h-BfIuAC&lpg=PA270&ots=THVYKPS0Wa&dq=The%20manufacture%20of%20gingerbread%20appears%20to%20have%20spread%20throughout%20Western%20Europe%20at%20the%20end%20of%20the%20eleventh%20century%2C%20possibly%20introduced%20by%20crusaders%20returning%20from%20wars%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Mediterranean&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q=gingerbread&f=false
36 Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery by Elizabeth S. Hayes https://books.google.com/books?id=KeO7AQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA40&ots=ZbLo_6pADq&dq=The%20first%20oriental%20spice%20to%20be%20grown%20in%20the%20new%20world&pg=PA40#v=onepage&q&f=false
37 Food by Waverly Root, Smithmark, 1996 (https://books.google.com/books?id=1yUsAAAACAAJ&dq=Food,+Waverly+Root&hl=en&sa=X&ei=S7yQVJujOIucyQSW74CQCw&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAQ
38 Mariani, John F., Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, Feb 4, 2014 https://books.google.com/books?id=K5taAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT490&ots=9pFcHtFKX3&dq=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&pg=PT490#v=onepage&q=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&f=false
39 Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 by Susan Williams Greenwood Publishing Group, Jan 1, 2006 (https://books.google.com/books?id=wtdDZsHXSLgC&lpg=PA48&ots=hnk9OuURDV&dq=Food%2C%20Waverly%20Root&pg=PA112#v=onepage&q&f=false)
40 Mariani, John F., Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, Feb 4, 2014 https://books.google.com/books?id=K5taAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT490&ots=9pFcHtFKX3&dq=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&pg=PT490#v=onepage&q=ginger%20nearly%20disappeared%20in%20Europe%20after%20the%20fall%20of%20the%20Roman%20Empire&f=false
41 Mary Kettilby, A Collection Of Above Three Hundred Receipts In Cookery, Physick, And Surgery: For The Use Of All Good Wives, Tender Mothers, And Careful Nurses (1734) https://archive.org/details/acollectionabov00kettgoog
42 Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 by Susan Williams Greenwood Publishing Group, Jan 1, 2006 (https://books.google.com/books?id=wtdDZsHXSLgC&lpg=PA48&ots=hnk9OuURDV&dq=Food%2C%20Waverly%20Root&pg=PA112#v=onepage&q&f=false)
43 Just Me Cookin in Germany by Dawn Marie Schrandt iUniverse, 2001, (p. 271) https://books.google.com/books?id=0oZ8h-BfIuAC&lpg=PA270&ots=THVYKPS0Wa&dq=The%20manufacture%20of%20gingerbread%20appears%20to%20have%20spread%20throughout%20Western%20Europe%20at%20the%20end%20of%20the%20eleventh%20century%2C%20possibly%20introduced%20by%20crusaders%20returning%20from%20wars%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Mediterranean&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q=gingerbread&f=false
44 Why Do We Shape Gingerbread Cookies Like People? by L.V. Anderson, Slate, Dec. 24, 2013 http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/12/24/gingerbread_man_history_from_frederick_iii_to_elizabeth_i_to_l_frank_baum.html
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Stained Glass Jam

My husband and I have been making jam for a couple of years, and this holiday season we decided to get creative with our jam making.  So we created “stained glass” jam and they turned out so lovely that I wanted to share.

Our finished “stained glass” jam

We used Fruit Roll Ups and some home made cookie cutters (courtesy of my husband’s 3D plastic printer) to stamp out festive shapes, like Christmas trees.

We tried several types, and found that while Fruit By the Foot was easiest to cut out into shapes, its narrow width limited us to small shapes, like hearts and fish (we aren’t especially religious, but several of our family members would appreciate the symbolism).  The all natural “fruit leather” products were much too thick to stamp shapes from, and refused to stick to the inside of the jars.  Fruit Roll Ups were both thin enough to stamp, and wide enough to make a basic tree shape.  The Gushers were determined to be delicious.

Once the shapes were cut, we stuck them inside our very clean half pint mason jars and began making our Peach Pineapple Mango jam.  We chose this flavor because it was a big hit with our friends last time, and because it allowed the colors of the shapes to shine through.

This is our basic jam recipe, with details listed for the Peach Pineapple Mango flavor, but you could use any fruit, or combination or fruits, that you enjoy.

To make jam you’ll need:

  • 2 lbs of fruit, give or take (we used 1 cored fresh pineapple, two ripe mangoes and a 1 lb bag of frozen peaches thawed).
  • 4 to 5 cups of sugar
  • 1 box of pectin=7 or so tbsp.
  • Cooking pot (around 1 gallon).
  • Stirring implement.
  • 4 very clean pint jars or 8 or 9 half pint jars with very clean or new lids (its good to boil the lids too).
  • Blending device.

Directions:

  • Put a small plate in the freezer.
  • Put fruit and 2-3 cups of sugar into a blending device (we used a Cuisinart). Blend it as much as you want.

  • Put 2 cups of sugar and a box of pectin in a big cooking pot. Dump in about half of the mixture you just made.
  • Turn on the burner somewhere in the “heat things quickly” range. Stir this mixture constantly.
  • Give it a rolling boil for 60 seconds. It’s cool to go over by a few seconds, but try not to go under. The point here is that the pectin needs this temperature for at least 60 seconds to undergo its chemical reaction.
  • Add the rest of the sugar. Stir it in and wait for the mixture to bubble a little bit…

  • Dump in the rest of the smoothie. Stir constantly.
  • Boil again for 60-70 seconds while stirring. Watch out for foam and splashes (an oven mitt on your stirring hand is a good idea) If the foam threatens to boil out of the pot, you’re doing it right. Then shut off the heat and remove the pot from the burner.
  • Dip a little bit of this sugary lava onto that plate you stuck in the freezer (just let it run off your stir stick). If it sort-of hardens up in 30 seconds (may still be a little runny) then you’re good to go. If not, keep the jelly on low heat for another minute or two. Lick jelly off plate.
  • Let the pot sit on low heat for a couple of minutes. Then scrape off the foam with a slotted spoon. You don’t want it in the jelly, but it still tastes awesome.
  • Dump sugar lava into canning jars (used jelly jars will work too). Warm canning jars are ideal. If you don’t have a canning funnel, use a ladle so you don’t spill all over the place. Leave about 1/2″ of space at the top. Leave the caps off for a couple of minutes. Wipe away any jammy globs from the lip of the jars. this is a good time to start heating the water to boil or pressure can them.

  • Put the caps on and can them. (submerge them in boiling water for 15 minutes or stick them in a pressure cooker with an inch or two of water in it on a medium setting for 5 minutes. Start the timer when the water is boiling or the steam is venting) Note: make sure the water is pretty warm before you put the jars in it, or they may crack. I prefer the pressure cooker method. It’s overkill, but it guarantees that anything alive in the jars is well cooked.
  • *NOTE: Boiling them for too long will melt your fruit roll up shapes into bluish blobs. I boiled them for 5 minutes… enough to get the lids to seal, I suppose, but they should be gifted, opened and eaten in the next couple months.

  • Set them on a towel to cool. Pulling them out of the water is tricky without a jar lifter. Check the tightness of the lids, as they tend to loosen up a little bit in the canning process.
  • Note: Doing as many steps as you can at the same time will speed up the process. Also, if you’re dealing with really sweet fruits, such as kiwis or over-ripe strawberries and peaches, add a splash of lemon juice to the mixture. This helps the pectin do its thing.
  • Note 2: If, after a day or two, your jelly is still syrup, you can dump them back in the pot and reprocess them with more pectin and a little bit more sugar and fruit. Add a splash of lemon juice, too. Or you can have syrup. Either way, you win.

What do you think?  Do you have a favorite jam recipe that you like to make for your loved ones?

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Peaches and Cobblers: a Sweet History

I apologize for my prolonged absence from updating but I have been finishing my Master’s Thesis and updating the artifact blog that showcases the fruits of those labors (http://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/).

But a visit to the local farmers market yesterday reminded me of what I had been missing.  The soft, sunset colored, fuzzy southern Illinois peaches they had brought me back to the basics of food, and pulled my attention away from the cerebral study of historical foodways.  Biting into a ripe, juicy peach, with its velvety soft skin and its intense sticky sweet flavor is one of the most visceral, and sensual food experiences.

Peaches were originally cultivated in China, and archaeological evidence suggests they were cultivated as far back as the Neolithic era.

According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, although its botanical name, Prunus persica, suggests the peach is native to Persia, it was in fact the Persians who brought the peach from China to Europe along the ancient Silk Road.

According to Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, “Alexander the Great introduced the fruit into Europe after he conquered the Persians.”

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs also mentions that the Romans called peaches “persicum malum, meaning Persian apple.  In Middle English, it melded into peche, much closer to what we call it today.”

According to the History of Food, a sixth century Italian poet, Venantius Fortunatus, wrote “first I was given those sweet fruits the common people call peaches; they never tired of serving them to me, and I never tired of eating them; soon my stomach was distended like that of a woman giving birth.”  In modern vernacular, that condition would be described as a food baby.

Inspiration for what to do with my peachy treasure came from NPR’s recent Pie Week special series.  During one of the interviews, Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist, mentioned that cobblers were uniquely American.  She said in the interview, “There are variations on pies that are very American, like the Apple Betty and cobblers … Those are all variations on pies that were developed by pioneers who didn’t have the equipment that they needed – the right kind of pan, the right kind of oven. So those are all American-style variations.”

Cobblers are defined as “an American deep-dish fruit dessert or pie with a thick crust (usually a biscuit crust) and a fruit filling (such as peaches, apples, berries). Some versions are enclosed in the crust, while others have a drop-biscuit or crumb topping.”

According to cookbook author Nancy Baggett “Despite the old saying, ‘more American than apple pie,’ Americans can’t really claim credit for pie; English settlers brought recipes for it with them. However, we can take full credit for the old-fashioned fruit dessert called cobbler. It was created here in the late 18th or early 19th century, around the time that baking soda became available and cooks began using it to puff up their doughs. One of the first mentions of “cobler” was in Mrs. Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife.  In a recipe called Peach Pot Pie, she commented: ‘Peach pot pie, or cobler as it is often termed, should be made of clingstone peaches, that are very ripe, and then pared and sliced from the stones.’ At the end of the recipe, she added: ‘Eat it warm or cold. Although it is not a fashionable pie for company, it is very excellent for family use… While cobbler is indeed a fine dish for families, all the company I’ve served it to has also been thrilled with this succulent, richly flavored homespun treat!'”

As for the source of the name cobbler, Rob Gusche notes “The earliest meaning of the word “cobbler” refers to one who makes (or “cobbles”) shoes. Sometime later, “to cobble” came to mean “to put together clumsily or roughly” (American Heritage Dictionary). This second meaning is most likely the origin of the name of fruit-based dessert known as “cobbler,” in which the ingredients are thrown together with little of the precision required to make a classic fruit pie.”  Food historian Lynne Olver also suggests that the name cobbler could be attributed to the lumpy cobblestone appearance of the freshly baked confection.

The recipe I used was a variation of the Easy Peach Cobbler but it might as well be called Magical Peach Cobbler, because the pastry batter for the crust is poured into the bottom of the pan, but while baking, the dough rises up to the top and makes a golden crust with a sugar crisp crunch.

Makes 4 generous servings.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar, divided in half

1/2 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teapsoon salt

1/2 cup milk

4 cups fresh peach slices

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Ground cinnamon

Preparation:

Melt butter in a baking dish.

Combine flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt; add milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter over butter (do not stir).

Bring remaining 1/2 cup sugar, peach slices, and lemon juice to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly; pour over batter (do not stir). Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Bake at 375° for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve cobbler warm or cool.

 

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My Sister’s Springtime Baby Shower

One of my favorite things to do relating to food is to cook for other people.  Since we are a family of foodies, my sister Amanda’s baby shower provided an excellent opportunity for cooking fancy foods.  And because the gathering was small, it allowed my mother, my sister’s friend Melissa, and myself, to do the cooking ourselves and use our fancy china and glassware. So if you’ll permit me the indulgence, here is a photo post of the foods we made and served at the baby shower.

Image

We set the table with my mother’s china, and set plenty of daffodils on the table in small bud vases.  We used bronzed and ceramic baby shoes as decoration.  Image

ImageMy mother filled her antique wicker baby carriage with daffodils too.  The quilt on the wall was made by my mother’s friend when Amanda was a baby.  The yellow duck was an Easter toy my mother found at a discount store.

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For the party favors, my husband and I made this peach pineapple mango jam at home.  I made the labels in Photoshop.

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My sister’s friend Melissa made this lovely and delicious cake.  It was a yellow lemon cake with almond flavored filling.  She even made the little baby shoes on top.

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Our main luncheon included 3 varieties of quiche, from left to right: 1) broccoli cheddar, 2) ham and Swiss, and 3) spinach and tomato with mozzarella and goat cheese.  We also served Italian style pasta salad, and spinach salad with apples, pecans and blue cheese, as well as a loaf of french bread.Image

We made as much of the food ourselves as possible.  My sister was very pleased with the event, and all our guests appeared to have a good time.  And I’d like to think that an event celebrating a new life should also be an event that also celebrates good food shared with friends and family.

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Casserole: the eternal crowd pleaser

When the first crisp day of fall arrives, I immediately start day dreaming about hot meals, in a way that would have seemed like madness in the intensely hot days of summer just a few weeks before. Yesterday was just such a day, when I reached for my coat before walking outside, and noticed a few leaves at the tops of the trees that were eager to put on their fall colors. At the end of the day, coming home cold and wind blown, I knew what I was craving was a homemade, hot and crisp from the oven casserole.

It doesn't get any better than this

This craving for casserole made me wonder about the history of this dish, when and where it originated, how it became such an iconic American staple, and why it eventually fell into culinary abandonment. While the casserole has not been forgotten at the average American table, it certainly seems to be passé to the trend setting foodie elite, where recognition of its glory is relegated to Thanksgiving.

In one such holiday issue of Saveur magazine, in a feature about green bean casserole, Todd Coleman  suggests a starting place for our historical investigation. “Like most American casseroles, this one can trace its roots to the Depression era, which gave rise to a number of one-dish meals that made the best of readily available and inexpensive ingredients” (The Queen’s Beans, Coleman 2007). The Great Depression as the origin of the casserole is surely a common and logical conception, but evidence suggests that it is much older.

“Casserole cookery has been around since prehistoric times, when it was discovered that cooking food slowly in a tightly covered clay vessel softened fibrous meats and blended succulent juices” (The Oxford companion to American food and drink, Smith 2007: 97).

The name for the food comes from the container in which it is cooked. The historical time line of the ceramic (or now glass) cooking vessel that we commonly know as the casserole dish is telling one. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, “The word [casserole] has a complicated history, starting with a classical Greek term for a cup (kuathos), progressing to a Latin word (cattia), which could mean both ladle and pan, then becoming an Old French word (casse), which then became casserole. Historically, casserole cookery has been especially popular in rural homes, where a fire is in any case burning all day and every day” (Davidson 1999: 143).

In An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto writes, “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of its history is the complete and sudden change in the dish it refers to that has taken place within the past hundred years. When English took it over from French at the beginning of the eighteenth century it meant a dish of cooked rice molded into the shape of a casserole cooking pot and then filled with a savory mixture, say of chicken or sweetbreads. It was also applied by extension to a border of rice, or even of mashed potato, round some such dish as fricasee or curry. Then some time around the 1870s this sense of casserole seems to have slipped imperceptibly but swiftly into a dish of meat, vegetable, and stock or other liquid, cooked slowly in the oven in a closed pot”(Ayto 2002: 60-1).

“With the addition or subtractions of leftovers or inexpensive cuts of meat, the casserole is flexible and economical in terms of both ingredients and effort. Fannie Meritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) had one casserole recipe, for Casserole of Rice and Meat, to be steamed for forty-five minutes and served with tomato sauce. During the depression of the 1890s, the economic casserole provided a welcome way to stretch meat, fish, and poultry. In the twentieth century, casseroles took on a distinctive American identity” (Smith 2007: 97).

“Although the casserole has a long history in America, it did not begin to attract major attention until condensed, canned soups came on the market” (The Casserole Makes A Comeback With New Tricks And New Tastes, American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist with the Campbell Soup Company, invented condensed soup in 1897. The Campbell Soup Company aggressively marketed these products, “through regular offerings of cookery pamphlets and cookbooks emphasizing how soups could be enhanced or used as ingredients to make other dishes. Campbell’s published its first advertising cookbooklet in 1910 and has subsequently put out dozens of such items” (Smith 2007: 97).

Steven Gdula, author of The Warmest Room In The House, notes that the casserole was embraced during World War 1 for its ability to conserve both food and fuel. “The saving of fuel during wartime was just as important as the saving of food, and both noble efforts were combined in casserole cooking. There were few ways to cook that were more economical that tossing vegetables and meats into a pot with some broth and allowing them to stew for hours over low heat. In fact the casserole was really nothing more than an update of that old standby, the one-pot meal, which had been present in the America Kitchen for centuries” (Gdula 2008: 26).

Gdula cites an article from Good Housekeeping from March of 1917, titled the Law and Lure of Casseroles, quoting “The primitive woman herself was the inventor of casserole cooking, and in her pottery dishes she boiled and stewed meats, vegetables, and fruits, everything which she did not cook in the ashes or on a hardwood stick over the fire.”

Campbell’s efforts to market its soup for recipes increased, and “when the Depression hit in the 1930s, the company’s advertising budget shot up to $3.5 million. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup was an absolute boon for housewives when it was introduced in 1934” (Smith 2007: 97).

The casserole “became an American staple in the Depression, when cheap but filling meals were essential, and rose in popularity during World War II as women began to enter the workplace in large numbers. It reached its heyday in the fifties” (American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

“The idea of casserole cooking as a one-dish meal became popular in America in the twentieth century, especially in the 1950s when new forms of lightweight metal and glassware appeared on the market. The virtues of easy-to-prepare meals were increasingly promoted in the women’s magazines of the era, thereby supposedly freeing the housewife from the lengthy drudgery of the kitchen” (Mariani 1999: 59).

The casserole was not free of controversy during this time, however, as it was suggested in a 1954 newspaper editorial that “the next war between the sexes will be fought over the delicate issue of casseroles… A woman is never more coy than when she has cooked a coy casserole. All casseroles, I submit are, coy. They reflect the basic tease in women, the urge to attract by the mysterious, the tendency to persuade us that there is more to a dish female or culinary than meets the eye. Casseroles symbolize woman’s reluctance to face the fact that yesterday’s roast beef or chicken is still yesterday’s roast beef or chicken, now defrocked, sliced up and hidden like a poor relative under a melange of whipped potatoes, noodles or rice.” (Casseroles May Cause Next War Between Sexes, Saul Pett, The Tuscaloosa News, Jun 7, 1954)

While the casserole enjoyed tremendous popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, its popularity began to decline. “By the 1970s casserole cookery took on a less-than sophisticated image” (The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, Mariani 1999: 59).

“Part of the decline in the casserole’s popularity was due to an over-reliance on leftovers, canned foods and “instant” sauces.” (American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

Whatever the reason for the decline of the casserole in the past, there has hardly been a more suitable time than now for us to give the casserole a second life.  The life history of the casserole shows peaks of interest when times are tough.  As we are facing tough economic times, with wages stagnant and food costs rising, as well as temperatures dropping, the advantages of the casserole can again make it relevant for foodies and eaters alike. With its hot, filling and creamy character, there has never been a better time to break out that old casserole dish and make something fantastic.

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Bacon: a delicious investment

I always hear it first, the distinctive sizzling sound of bacon, cooking in the kitchen on a weekend morning.  A few minutes later, the signature smell wanders in, and I am enticed out of bed and filled with anticipation and desire.  On weekends, my fiancé likes to make breakfast, and while he is vegetarian by choice, he is also a bacon enthusiast.  According to NPR, he’s not the only vegetarian making this sizzling exception.  There is just something so irresistible about bacon, and it got me thinking about how a simple breakfast food has been elevated to a place of reverence for cooks and eaters alike.

The Bacon Wallet from ThinkGeek.com

While it might seem like a straightforward topic, the story of bacon, pork and the pig is complicated, and much too long for a single blog post.  The prehistoric relationship between humans and the humble pig is complex and dynamic, as domestication of the pig occurred independently in at least seven places across the globe. (Larson 2005)

Yet pork was not universally embraced through history, as some groups, including Jews and Muslims, were forbidden from eating it.  I wondered what health or social advantages a pork-free diet offered to ancient peoples, that they sought to eliminate it from their lives, with threats of eternal damnation.

I wondered why pork is favored at breakfast over other meats.  Bacon, ham and pork sausage are breakfast favorites, at least in the US, while beef and chicken (except for eggs) are rarely found in the a.m. and mostly relegated to lunch and dinner menus.  What historic or cultural conditions lead to this special treatment?  Does pork lend itself more easily to preservation methods than other meats, ensuring it would be both ready and safe to eat first thing in the morning?

I may cover all these topics in time, but for this post, my interest is in the present.  Bacon is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, a renewed popularity in recent years, after it was exiled during the 1990s in the low fat diet days.  Bacon got a reluctant invitation back to the breakfast table when the low carb diet was big, only to be pushed aside again when swine flu was the big fear.  Yet when comfort food came on the trendy food scene, bacon became its poster child.  Since then it has been upwardly mobile and fueled by the internet and foodie culture, as the bacon fascination today is at a fever pitch.  Wikipedia calls it a bacon mania and traces its origins back even further.

Bacon has tremendous appeal as a flavor enhancer, recipe improver, and novelty act, which brought it into the spotlight, and hurled it into food superstardom.  There is a new cookbook made up exclusively of bacon recipes, called I Love Bacon!  The best recipe I’ve tried so far from the book is the chocolate bacon cupcakes.

For many of us, bacon is widely regarded to be so fantastically delicious that it seems to create a charismatic cult following, and can be a type of enhancement drug.  Check the internet for bacon and you will be amazed at the love and dedication that people express for this magical food.  One can find it manifesting itself proudly in fantastical piles of bacon, atop mighty burgers, daintily reclining over lettuce and tomato, wrapped around scallops, steaks and hot dogs, or even woven into a meaty textile covering a chicken, turkey or ultimately, the turducken.  Bacon bits can be found in salads and chocolate, and bacon flavor in ice cream, soda, gum, vodka, beer, popcorn, and salt, among thousands more. There are also several non-food bacon flavored items including toothpicks, dental floss, scented candles, lip balm, envelopes and lubricant.  Stephen Colbert recently featured two new bacony products, Denny’s maple bacon sundae and a bacon scented cologne.

With bacon becoming such a hot commodity, what should a bacon lover do?  If you are the gambling type, now is a great time to invest in your favorite anytime food.  Consider a recent blog post from the Idaho Farm Bureau “Pork belly prices are on pace to set records this summer as demand for bacon skyrockets. The big jump in bacon use is coming mostly from fast-food restaurants and casual dining establishments that are adding bacon to everything from salads to ice cream sundaes. About 44 percent of U.S. consumers will eat bacon within a two-week period, which is a record high, according to consumer research conducted by the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. Much of the growth comes from cooks using bacon as an ingredient to enhance the taste of a dish, according to the NPD study.”

The historical and economic origins of this tasty breakfast staple are only slightly less interesting than they are delicious. “Cured pork belly (also known as bacon) evolved as a way to preserve the meat after slaughter. Pork belly is the result of harvesting both bellies from a pig, salting or smoking them, and refrigerating them. The pork industry’s growth was fueled by the demand for pork bellies as the rail system in the U.S. improved. At the same time, the country’s population and economy shifted from rural to urban, bringing a taste for pork belly to the cities. Considered a longer lasting and easier way to transport pork with little to no perishing, pork bellies became a staple in the American diet. With the increased production and distribution of pork bellies, the first pork belly commodities contract was created in 1961 by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Pork bellies are easy to transport, can be preserved nearly indefinitely with proper refrigeration, and are a byproduct of the most popular meat in the world. Needless to say, pork bellies are commodities that will always have a supply and demand chain.” (Noble Drakoln www.investopedia.com)

The widespread love of bacony goodness is also reflected in the increasing global demand.  “China’s continued urbanization presents an opportunity for explosive growth in pork product demand, much like the migration from rural to urban life in the U.S. spurred the domestic popularity of pork bellies. The pork industry has seen tremendous growth worldwide – more exports are heading to China and Japan than ever before. Pork has long been considered the leading consumed meat in the world, and the pork industry saw 105 million pigs go to slaughter in 2006, plus a doubling in export demand in 2007. With much of the pork heading overseas to fulfill growing demand, the industry’s continued growth appears healthy.”  (Noble Drakoln www.investopedia.com)

And this graph from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Daily Livestock Report, shows how demand for bacon increased over the last decade, with prices nearly doubling in that time.  You can see clearly how the 2009 swine flu had a downward effect on prices, and how ferociously demand returned in 2010.

According to the Daily Livestock Report, “This surge in bellies prices has been driven by a confluence of factors. Bacon featuring this spring was quite aggressive by many manufacturers and retailers with many brands being promoted in “2 for $5” ads where the 2 refers to 2 one-pound packages. The resulting draw-down in frozen pork bellies inventories pushed those stocks to their lowest level since October 2007 — in August. That is important since bellies stocks normally continue to decline through October due to lower summertime hog slaughter runs and late-summer BLT sandwich usage. When these lower stocks met lower-than-expected hog supplies since July 1, the bellies supply situation became critical and prices began to rise rapidly.”

The next question now is, are we in the midst of a delicious, bacony bubble? It certainly could be, but judging by current trends it should last a while longer, and even then it might be the most appetizing bubble to burst in economic history.

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Poisoned by tableware: Historic parallels of plastic and lead

In recent years, the evidence that some plastic products are leaching harmful chemicals into our food supply has become irrefutable. Legal bans on some plastics have been enacted, and awareness campaigns have been undertaken by concerned citizens, to make the public aware of these problems, and to advocate for safer alternatives. Safer plastics are being developed and marketed to the public, with many consumers eager to pay a little more for a better product. Other people avoid plastics altogether, fearing that there may not be a “safer” plastic. For more details visit my previous post on the subject.

"Vanitas" by Willem Claesz Heda. Dated 1628, a typical vanitas painting, a calvinist form of 'memento mori'.

There is a historical precedent for this social, environmental and health problem, with a link to food related items. Lead, and lead containing metal alloys such as pewter, were used widely in the manufacture, storage and service of food and beverages, going back as far as the Bronze Age, despite the fact that they carried tremendous health risks from their production and use. According to Milton A. Lesser, of the Department of Physiology at Ohio State University, lead and cast copper artifacts made during the “Bronze Age indicated that ancient man had discovered the smelting process and was rendering and purifying metals to make useful and decorative objects” (Lesser, 1988).

Even as these metals came into wider use, their health risks were known. Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), the ancient Greek physician, “described the symptoms of lead poisoning as appetite loss, colic, pallor, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and nervous spasms. Among the earliest records, there are notes that lead miners and individuals who worked with lead developed ailments that resulted in their early demise. This was first well documented by the Egyptians who used slaves in their mines and later by the Pre-Greeks, Greeks, and Romans” (Lesser, 1988).

Harry Arthur Waldron wrote, “the Romans’ lead technology was impressive. They manufactured sheet lead and had ingenious methods of rolling and jointing pipes, which were the basis of their water-carrying systems. The amount of lead consumed by the Romans was extraordinary. In building the great aqueduct at Lyons it had been estimated that 12,000 tons of lead were used on just one of the siphon units” (Waldron 1973).

Lead was used in the manufacturing of many items, including utensils, cups and plates, in ceramic glazes, as well as in vessels used to manufacture wine and cider. Sapa was made by boiling acidic wine in lead-lined vessels. “This yields a sweet syrup due to the formation of lead acetate. Most early Greek and Roman wines contained sapa, which also was used to sweeten food because these civilizations had no readily available source of sugar. Recent analyses of ancient Greek and Roman wine vessels indicated that wine stored in them had a considerable lead content” (Lesser, 1988).

Waldron wrote that the practice of adding sapa was “so universal that Pliny remarked indignantly that ‘genuine, unadulterated wine is not to be had now, not even by the nobility.’ And he was right to complain for, he comments, ‘From the excessive use of such wines arise dangling . . . paralytic hands, echoing Dioscorides, who wrote that corrected wine was ‘most hurtful to the nerves’” (Waldron 1973). As the Roman Empire expanded, the mining and manufacturing of lead increased across Europe. And while several notable historians have suggested that lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, this theory is still rather contentious.

Lesser indicates that during the Middle Ages, “the writings of medieval physicians indicated an awareness of both the sources and symptoms of lead poisoning. U. Ellenberg in 1473 published “On the Poisonous and Noxious Vapors and Fumes of Metals” and later G. Agricola (1556) published “De Re Metallica.”” Even with this awareness, “the Middle Ages saw a marked increase in the use of lead and lead-containing products” (Lesser, 1988).

According to Neil Beagrie, “in the Medieval period there were essentially two main grades of pewter used for vessels. A hard high-quality alloy of tin with perhaps 1-3% copper used for plates and dishes and a softer cheaper alloy of tin with 10 to 20% lead used for hollow-ware such as pots or flagons [pitcher]. Analysis has shown that sepulchral chalices [footed cups] and patens [plates] of the late medieval period could contain much higher levels of lead, in some cases as much as 75%” (Beagrie 1989).

Lesser adds that, during the Colonial period, “there was extensive manufacture and use of glazed earthenware, pewter, lead pipe, lead shot, and lead type for printing. Red and white lead was used as pigments for paints and lead acetate and lead oxide were used to sweeten and whiten bread. Lead intoxication was rampant during the Colonial Period in America and may have been involved in accusations of witchcraft because individuals with lead poisoning neuropathy often show weird behavior” (Lesser, 1988).

With the well known effects of lead poisoning, it can be hard to believe that it took thousands of years for the use of lead to be discontinued, at least at the consumer level. However, it was concern for occupational and environmental health that eventually tipped the scale against lead. Lesser wrote, “it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that occupational health was recognized as an important governmental public health issue. The United States and several European countries (Britain, France, Germany) passed legislation designed to protect workers from dangerous toxic environments. Congress passed the Occupational Health Act in 1970, which created the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Limits for the acceptable levels of lead in air, water, and food were set by NIOSH. These levels have been revised downward as new evidence became available on the vulnerability of infants and developing children to relatively low levels of lead in the environment” (Lesser, 1988).

Luckily for us, the story of lead has a happy ending, at least in countries where such legislation has been enacted and enforced. “The reduction of lead in gasoline, controlling the use of lead pigments in paints and printing inks, and banning of lead-based glazes on pottery and ceramic ware have resulted in a reduction of both industrial and population exposure to lead. There is no way that an important metal like lead can be removed from the environment, but with increased vigilance and control we can markedly reduce the exposure of animals and humans to lead” (Lesser, 1988).

Will we be so lucky with plastics? Only time will tell.

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