Saturday, March 31, 2012

Egg Wash

How long has shampoo been around? A long time, right? Well, hang on — there was that large period of human history in which people didn’t wash, wasn’t there? The Middle Ages? The Dark Ages? Back when they thought ridding the body of its greasy filth was bad for you, right? The era that comes to mind once in a blue moon when you’re clipping your nails and wonder how folks gave themselves pedicures before the invention of nail clippers. Or scissors. Did they chew their toenails off? People were hairy in those days — after all, no safety razors. Before sharp knives, did they depilate with lava rock? Probably. And the teeth — it doesn’t bear thinking about. Compared to the whole teeth (and oh God, menstrual blood) situation, shampooing seems like rather an effete luxury.

Truth is, people didn’t bother with shampoo much before the 1970s — yes, the nineteen-seventies. Farrah Fawcett’s hair went a long blonde way towards convincing women that they needed to shampoo their hair regularly. Shampoo (from the Hindi word, champo) had been around since the turn of the century, mostly in the form of a soap and surfactant, and the Mughals used shampoo consisting of an alkali and essential oils for donkey’s years before that. Originally it meant to massage these oils into the scalp, rather than washing the hair, per se.

So what did ordinary people do before the seventies? They used eggs. The protein in eggs actually makes a wonderful shampoo, leaving the hair all glossy and strong. Egg shampoos are coming back in the expensive salons as an all-natural treatment, but you can always do it yourself at home for dead cheap.

Kentucky Receipt Book, Mary Harris Frazer, 1903

Friday, March 30, 2012

Booze Cake

— Ed, you know who that was at the nametag table?
— No, who?
— Mrs. Pollard.
— Who?
— Sue Pollard’s mum.
— Good Lord.
— She was a cracker, wasn’t she, Ed?
— She was that.
— I loved that woman. I wanted to marry her. I wanted her to be my mom too.
— That’s not how it works, Steve.
— You know what I mean, don’t tell me you don’t. How old were we?
— 12.
— Right. How old was she?
— Somewhere between 30 and 35 I should reckon.
— But she looked so much younger, didn’t she?
— She looked inebriated, most of the time.
— You’d go round to Sue Pollard’s house to play and she’d offer you a drink. And you’d say thanks, and instead of milk or juice she’d hand you a snifter.
— She didn’t want to drink alone.
— She was handy in the kitchen though — you couldn’t fault her. It wasn’t like she was falling down drunk. She always had something baking.
— She was a functional drunk.
— Like us?
— Like us.
— Remember that birthday party where she served that cake and all the kids fell asleep?
— The booze cake! Oh, man.
— Whatever happened to Sue Pollard?
— She got married, like the rest of us. That Wiecher guy.
— Which Wiecher guy?
— Him, over there. The one with the ridiculous suit.
— If he’s here, how come Sue isn’t?
— Divorced, probably. Like the rest of us.
— I hate these things. Why do we come?
— Don’t know. Maybe meet someone.
— Never gonna happen, my friend.
— I really want that recipe for that booze cake.
— Seriously?
— Absolutely.
— Go for it. Ask her.

The Golfer’s Cookbook, Rose Elder, 1977

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bloater Paste

The term “red herring” gets its name from the supposed use of kippers (pungent split and smoked herring) being used to train hunting dogs to follow a scent by misleading them.

While kippers are associated more with Scotland and the Isle of Man as a powerful emblem of a much-beloved but difficult food, England is home to the bloater (a cured whole herring), specifically in the form of bloater paste.

Eating a kipper requires a great deal of careful expertise in negotiating the lethal froth of needle-like bones, whereas bloater paste is simply smeared inside a sandwich. One would think the paste would have been most likely to survive the culinary softening of the twentieth-century palate, but it didn’t: it fell out of favor with the sandwich-eating public (despite the ubiquitous rise in popularity of the sandwich) and has been discontinued, whereas you can still pick up a pair of kippers for your breakfast at any fishmonger and play a kind of swallowing Russian Roulette.

Bloater paste’s demise was probably due in large part to its name; after all, no-one wants to be reminded what eating too many sandwiches (especially made on today’s yeast-puffed bread) will do to one’s stomach. Along with such antique staples as Mock Turtle Soup and Blancmange, it had its heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the usefulness of food that came in cans and bottles preceded that of frozen foods.

People needed pre-packaged foods that would not spoil in part because they travelled more than they ever had. Railways and ships allowed folks to visit distant places and they needed to eat along the way. Specifically, preserved foods were a boon to explorers whose exploits could not have been possible without them. Antarctica, for instance, cannot support life, so everything needed to keep a human going had to be brought in.

From Bowers' list of ship's stores, Terra Nova 1910

For an expedition such as Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, this meant packing for at least three years. The store lists set down by his right-hand man Birdie Bowers reveal massive quantities of foodstuffs that could be found in any Edwardian pantry — including 20 dozen quarts of Bloater Paste. (also: Mock Turtle Soup = 200 ½ lb tins and Blanc Mange Powder = six dozen pints.) For kipper they substituted penguin.

100 years ago today Scott and his party died of cold, but mostly of starvation — because a starving person cannot keep warm. Towards the end his party all dreamed obsessively of food — a subconscious trait the body uses to prod one into seeking it. The kinds of food they gorged themselves on while asleep were comfort foods, as one can imagine. Perhaps they dreamed of bloater paste sandwiches. Perhaps they dreamed of kippers, warm, running with melted butter and lemon juice. Perhaps they chewed their nails or their shoelaces. Perhaps all they saw were red herrings like flags hanging from bamboo poles above insufficient depots on the frozen sea. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Asparagus-Potato Mold

Some interesting facts about asparagus:

It used to be in the lily family, but now it’s in its own family. The berries of an asparagus plant are toxic to humans. Nevertheless, humans have been eating asparagus for at least 20,000 years. In the very first cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, Apicus advises drying the stalks before immersing in boiling water backwards. In England, it used to be known as “sparrow-grass.” Asparagus is extremely high in folic acid, which has been shown to retard Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also a diuretic, which makes you pee, and contains a lot of fiber, which makes you move your bowels. Washing your face with water in which asparagus has been boiled helps remove blemishes. Asparagus repels tomato nematodes, and tomato plants repel asparagus beetles. The German town of Schwetzingen crowns an “Asparagus Queen” during its annual festival. While most people produce odorous urine after eating asparagus, only 22% of people are genetically predisposed to be able to detect it. No-one on Earth likes Asparagus-Potato Mold, so don’t ever serve it.

Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1966

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Martha's Sweet and Sour Tongue

Beware what you write in your high school yearbook.

In 1937, the ditty accompanying a young Martha Beall’s picture went like this:

I love its gentle warble,
I love its gentle flow,
I love to wind my tongue up
And I love to let it go.

Let it go, she did. She earned the unenviable moniker “The Mouth of the South” due to her penchant for calling reporters to let her tongue run all over her husband John Mitchell’s role in the Watergate scandal. Didn’t she know that loose lips sink ships?

Cruel fate is bittersweet, however. After claiming she had been held hostage and sedated to keep that mouth shut, no-one believed her. Her name has since been used to describe the “Martha Mitchell Effect,” where a psychiatrist fails to believe extraordinary claims a patient makes which are nonetheless true.

At least her nickname wasn’t “Deep Throat.”

The Watergate Cookbook (Or, Who’s In The Soup?), N.Y. Alplaus, 1973

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Butcher of Dubrovnik

I should have married Nikola. My mother said “marry Nikola! He is going someplace! His father owns three cows!” But no — I had to go and marry Vlaho instead. What did Vlaho have to offer except the ability to drink a gallon of ale and a mangy old sheep? I am a fool. I could have had Nikola. He would have given me a kitchen! With running water and a stove! I was pretty once. Sometimes I think Vlaho loves the sheep more than me. And then we ate it. 

I’ll never forget seeing my new home for the first time. “Here,” Vlaho said, “you have your very own brick slab upon which to build fires from scrap wood! Here you can cook many meals in this iron pot and stoke ashes around slab bread. I have even provided you with your own saw for cutting the wood!” Rumor has it that Nikola moved to the city and bought shoes. Shoes! I could have had shoes!

The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, Time-Life Books, 1968

Also from this book: Rococo Cocoa

Friday, March 23, 2012

One Toke Over The Line

Quelle horreur!

While it has always been perfectly acceptable for non-food recipes to be included in traditional cookbooks — such as those for home remedies, many for home management pertaining to cleaning and preserving, personal care (including perfumes and cosmetics), and even for imbibing (alcohol production and tobacco products) — the line seems to been drawn at recipes for getting high.

Thus is was that a furor was created upon the publication of Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook in 1954, when it was discovered to contain this recipe for a dessert containing cannabis (which had been submitted by a friend). Toklas claimed she wasn’t aware it did. The upset seems to be not simply that such a naughty recipe was included in the book, but that it was expurgated from the American version.

Urban legend has it that Toklas got the last laugh (in absentia) by lending her name to the method, rather than the ingredient.

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Alice B. Toklas, 1954

Also from this book: Sloe Gin

Thursday, March 22, 2012


The pleasure center for both gourmands and word nerds is the mouth. One tastes flavors and textures; the other language. Often, the two are one and the same. For instance: the word canard.

A canard is both a French duck and a deliberate falsehood, a lie. How are they related?

Barrett's Mandrake Embrocation - total quackery

When a predator threatens a duck’s offspring, the duck will draw the predator’s attention away from them by appearing to be the bigger spoil, the easier target. It does this by quacking loudly and affecting a broken wing. Once the predator moves in, it discovers that the duck is feigning injury and can peck and jab very well indeed, driving it off. Thus are deceptions called canards, especially deceits promulgated knowingly to perpetuate a set of myths. The word made this leap in the middle ages, with the phrase “vendre des canards à moitié,” which means to cheat, to half-sell something.

To duck — to crouch to avoid a projectile — is also used to mean to avoid something, to duck a charge, say. Ducks physically duck their heads into the water when feeding. A quack is an imposter, someone who delivers false knowledge, such as a quack doctor. Quackery is the ancient term describing nonsense delivered as truth.

It is possible, then, for a person to duck from a canard from a quack practicing quackery.

Which is delicious.

 Cooks and Confectioner’s Dictionary, John Nott, 1723

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Catcher In The Cookies

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

Take my grandmother Caulfield and her obsession with baking cookies for example. Every time we visited her house she’d have baked hundreds upon hundreds of cookies. She must have gone through a hundredweight sack of flour. They always had some sort of nut pressed into the top of them, and I was allergic to nuts. Mother said it was something to do with having grown up in the Depression, but that’s a lousy excuse if you ask me.

Those visits were torture, really. Children shouldn’t have to be made to do it. You have to wear a shirt and tie and brush your hair and sit in the back of a car with a paper bag in case you get carsick. Then once you get there your whole head gets kissed and your cheeks get pinched. What’s with pinching a child’s cheeks? What are they trying to find out? They always say you’ve grown, which is pretty damn obvious. Then they ask you about school and there’s absolutely nothing new to add, as far as I’m concerned, to that particular story. Being questioned about school is worse than actually being in school.

And then there’s the milk. Grandma always puts out a pitcher of milk before we arrive and by the time you are expected to eat all those cookies it’s been sitting out for hours and has come to room temperature. If you don’t drink the milk they start thinking something’s wrong with you and you get to hear all about how they didn’t have milk during the Depression or a pot to piss in and blah blah blah as if that means I have to drink all the milk in the world now. And if you do drink it, you vomit on the rug.

The thing to do — and this is my best advice, so listen up if you want to learn anything from my lousy example — is just to stand there, holding a cookie in your hand as if you intend to eat it, and stare at the plate pensively, as if you appreciate all the hard work and sacrifice that went in to doing so much baking. You don’t have to be actually thinking that of course — I think about baseball stats or what phonies my parents are for going along with this charade and how famous I’m going to become one day by writing all about it — and by the time your thoughtfulness has been noticed, you can put the cookie back and go throw a football around in the yard.

Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery Vol 3., Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1966

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bee Stings

Once upon a time, our gardens were not only our source of beauty, but also our grocery stores and our pharmacies.

We weren’t the only ones using them, either. Into our gardens we welcomed a whole host of creatures we relied upon for food, too. Rabbits and poultry for eggs and protein (and fertilizer), bees for pollination and honey. Ladybirds and butterflies were our pesticides. The mice fed our cats, and dogs kept us safe. Fences were made from the barbed wires of briars. Brambles, hedgerows and woods gave us nuts and hops and the makings of wine, cider and beer.

No-one wants to get stung on the lips, yet all the girls want bee-stung lips. Honey is an antibiotic.

Monarda, or Bee Balm, is a plant native to the New World. Bee Balm is a strong natural antiseptic, and is the source of Thymol, found in today’s mouthwashes. Thymol, which also gave its name to the herb thyme, is also a fungicide.

You could spend a lifetime being stung by how little we know about bees.

Yes, there is opium latex in poppy leaves.

A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, Charles Elmé Francatelli, 1852

Also from this book: Mutton Chops, What Pluck!. Heads, Plucks, Shanks and Scrag-Ends, How (Not) To Make Coffee, Take A Deep Breath..., Stuffed UpHow To Make The Most Of Your Pig Before It Is KilledFaggots

Monday, March 19, 2012

Frankfurter Salad

The root of the word “salad” is sal, or salt and dates in this form from the 14th century, right around the time that the piquant seasoning of the southern Latinate languages had blended with the old native Northern European ones to form a pleasing effect on the tongue. Salads then were vegetables made tastier with brine, salty water.

Salads today encompass a wide variety of foods, with anything that consists of a mix of ingredients combined with a dressing of some sort. Salads no longer have to be green, though the word has become synonymous with leafy greens eaten raw, such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, watercress etc.

Shakespeare has Cleopatra musing to Caesar (that other salad) on her misbegotten youth by saying “…my salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…,” thereby introducing us to salad as metaphor, inexperience being, like young shoots (and salad leaves), green.

If you happen to suffer from chlorophobia, a fear of the color green, then a nice leafy salad is probably not for you (chloro being the same root as chlorophyll, the green in leaves). In which case, you may enjoy this Ham and Frankfurter Salad, and its array of pinks enlivened by the color red, which is about as far from a green salad as one can possibly get.

Grand Diplôme Cooking Course, Vol. 13, Danbury Press, 1971

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Case of the Missing Swine

If you're thinking this is an odd chapter to have in a Kosher cookbook, you're right.

When you turn the page you find yourself immediately upon the next chapter: Meat.

The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook, Ruth and Bob Grossman, 1963

Also from this book: Are We Done?How Very SchmaltzyCrazy Bananas

Friday, March 16, 2012

What A Load Of Bull

In August of 2011, an interstate ramp just outside Nashville was closed because a Greyhound bus had accidentally disgorged three canisters containing bull semen packed in liquid nitrogen onto the highway, where they lay gently smoldering, emitting a “foul odor.” The bus driver had no idea that some of his cargo had fallen by the wayside, which should increase your confidence in traveling by Greyhound.

The precious load, as it were, was worth at least $80,000, and would have made its journey from Columbus OH to Laredo TX unremarked had it not been for this unfortunate incident. Because the canisters cannot be flown, they have to travel on land, and apparently going by Greyhound is the most expedient way to send them.

While the canisters continued on their journey, newspaper editors enjoyed the most amusing headline meetings of their careers covering this story. Load Prematurely Ejaculated Off I-65 etc.

A sneak glimpse into the world of artificial insemination is illuminating not simply for the mechanics, but for the vocabulary of the trade. Bull semen is sold by the straw, and you can order them online as you would any other commodity, by selecting the sire by name. Oh, and what names!

Here’s a list of current Beefmaster bulls handled by Bovine Elite, LLC:

Black Desperado
Black Diamond
Bullet Proof
French Connection
Delta Force
El Dorado
L Bar
Levi’s Ladd
Top Gun

Here’s a picture of Bullet Proof. He’s probably not bullet proof, but he is a handsome hunk of steak. A straw of his semen (perhaps with which to make this lovely recipe for Bull Shot Soup) will set you back a cool $100.

And you thought truffle oil was expensive.

The Golfer’s Cookbook, Rose Elder, 1977

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happiness Is...

Forty-five years after the song “Happiness Is” was written, extolling the simple pleasures of childhood, how many of them still hold true?

If the answer is “all of them,” that’s probably a good thing.

Peanuts Cook Book, United Features Syndicate, Inc., 1969

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Appetite Special

Dear Jackie —

Was it you who told Mother that I wanted her to keep sending me these insulting letters? Thanks a million. I just got one this morning which suggested I was fat, spotty, pale and constipated.

Does she have any idea that winter in New York is ice cold and full of snow? Not exactly the perfect weather for salad. She included this lovely recipe for an appetizer mixing onion and pineapple with tomato and mayonnaise. Blech!

Please don’t encourage her. You know how she is. And what’s with her fixation with salads all of a sudden? Every single recipe she sends me seems to have Ivanhoe dressing on it too — has she become their spokesperson?

Your loving sister,
Maggie X

Salad Leaves, Harriet Meaker Osborne, Ivanhoe Foods Inc., 1930

 Also from this book: Return To Sender

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

All Trussed Up And Nowhere To Go

John and Louise are a young newlywed couple embarking on their first dinner party. Understandably, Louise is a bit nervous, as the guest list includes two couples from John’s office. She’s never met them before and wants to make a good impression. John is confident that all will go well; his wife is well-equipped with all the dishes, bowls and cooking implements a bride could wish for, and he has a well-stocked bar.

The chicken looks splendid, if a bit glossy — and if John can’t ever recall seeing evidence of the trussing marking lines upon the bird, then he chalks it up to Louise’s relative inexperience. He stands there at the head of his own table for the first time, holding the carving set in his sweaty hands, joking with the men.

But when he looks down to start the grisly business before him, he is struck with uncertainty. Where should he begin? Where are the breasts? He realizes he has never carved a chicken before — he’s never carved anything. He has no idea where to plunge the fork or where to attack with the knife. All his wife’s hard work could be for naught and he could look a fool. It all looks the same to him beneath that bumpy, greasy skin.

In order to reduce his hesitation and the insecurity he feels it will display, he starts in at one end, where the stuffing pokes out. A slice peels away quite easily — a slice of stuffing, that is — and he becomes engrossed in making fine, even cuts . This is going to be a piece of cake, he thinks.

But it is not a cake, it’s a chicken filled with obstacles — cartilage and bone — the sweet meat curves around. He does not notice that everyone has gone quiet, too polite to utter a word about the difficulties he will encounter not just any second now, but in his whole entire life.

Low-Cost Main Dishes, Family Circle, 1978

Monday, March 12, 2012

Are We Done?

It is often the case with recipes written for those new to cooking that directions need to be given for basic things like telling when something is done or not.

A cake is done when the Maillard reaction has taken place and the proteins surrounding air pockets created by leavening have solidified. Or, in other words, it looks edible and when pressed gently, bounces back.

A chicken is done when the skin looks crisp, the leg is wont to pull away from the body with ease, and if you’re really not sure, the fluids released from a skewer poked deep into the side run clear. Or if it’s been in there about an hour and a half, for a normal-size roasting bird.

Rice is done when it has absorbed all the water and fluffed up to three times its size.

Some things are more ephemeral or are determined by personal preference.

A steak, for example, might look well done on the outside but remain rare inside — only a flesh firmness test (an experience) will tell you for sure.

A boiled egg looks the same as an unboiled on the outside but behaves differently when rocked and dropped. A sure sign it is no longer raw: if it’s been in hot water for ten minutes. An egg that has boiled too long will let you know by exploding.

This recipe’s directions are charmingly casual yet helpfully specific: pouring the egg into a hole which reveals the pan’s surface will cook it in a way that simply adding it to the rice mixture won’t.

And “when it looks finished, it is.”

The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook, Ruth and Bob Grossman, 1963

Also from an expended version of this book: How Very Schmaltzy, Crazy BananasThe Case of the Missing Swine

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Putting The Special In Special K

At the turn of the last century, the difference between the rich and poor could be seen first thing in the morning when one considered what they broke their fast with: while the well-to-do dined on protein (eggs and bacon), the rest of the populace ate a bowl of grain slurry — porridge or grits or gruel. Will Kellogg, a vegetarian, was not a fan of meat protein (preferring nuts), and thought that the benefits of vigorous outdoor life (and frequent enemas) were the key to health. His development of flaked grains created a new way to consume what the poor had consumed all along — but in a far more convenient package. Thus was breakfast cereal born.

He and his brother John argued over the addition of sugar to their cereals, and clearly the sweetener — and its appeal to the consumer — won out.

Special K, whose whole identity condenses the Kellogg’s brand and ideal most visibly, with its giant red K and health claims, hit the shelves in 1956. It is primarily a rice and wheat cereal with numerous ingredients added to boost both nutritional punch and add flavor.

Today you can find the familiar and reassuring Kelloggs packets on any supermarket shelf pretty much everywhere you go — but what’s inside differs greatly. The Special K sold in the US is not the same as the Special K sold in Canada or Great Britain or the rest of the world. They all have different formulas guided by the rules and tastes of their various food governing bodies.

Canadian Special K, for example, is not the same as American Special K. Only American Special K has high fructose corn syrup; all the rest use sugar. Denmark outlawed the addition of vitamins to breakfast cereals in 2004 after determining that the additional levels of B6, calcium, folic acid and iron found in them could reach toxic levels when eaten daily.

Additionally it was found that the iron added to Special K was metallic iron (which occurs in metals), rather than ionic iron (which occurs in plants), which rather put people off with images of Special K potentially being a delivery system for “shredded bikes.” Though it is possible to eat metallic iron powder (in reasonable amounts) without harm, when it comes to PR, you’re only as good as public opinion will allow. In other words, Special K can only contain so much “special” and still sell itself as a health aid.

It is ironic that Kelloggs found themselves having to add iron (usually found in those protein-rich foods) to their vegetarian cereals in order to make their health claims. Since those early days other weight-loss fads have come and gone, turning the tides for and against fats and carbs respectively.

This ad is from the back of the National Geographic issue of December 1969 featuring Neil Armstrong on the cover celebrating the success of man’s moon landing. For breakfast on the morning of their launch they ate steak, eggs, toast, juice and coffee. When it comes to watching your weight, it seems, you need a different kind of morning fuel to become weightless. 

The breakfast of champions.

National Geographic, December 1969

Friday, March 9, 2012

Brown Betty

Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Take your apples Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Stew em up real good, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Stir em round Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Round and round Brown Betty, bam-a-lam

Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam

Take your crumbs Black Betty, bam-a-lam
And your butter Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Mix em up in a pan, bam-a-lam
Crumbs first Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Bake it good Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Bake it long Brown Betty, bam-a-lam

Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam

Serve it up Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
With some cream Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
Oh Brown Betty, bam-a-lam
I love you Brown Betty, bam-a-lam

Rumford Complete Cook Book, Rumford Chemical Works, 1908

Pin It