Archive for the ‘culinary history’ category

Cooking your way to a man’s heart…

August 20, 2008

I’ve long been interested in looking more closely at the genre of cookbooks, recipes, and other literature in its various different forms which forefronts this notion of cooking as a means through which women can work their way into a man’s heart. It seems such an “old fashioned” idea, yet we all know that food is one of those things that brings us together and that food and sex are two of the most primal needs or desires that we have. So surely, if you can cook well, then you have a tool through which you can attract good people into your life and certainly hope to keep them around, or at least that’s the theory. I will agree that the woman as the sole provider of nourishment is too out-dated and that we have certainly moved into a food culture in which many of the culinary responsibilities are shared or somehow divided amongst other household chores. I hope that this means that we will soon be seeing a return to this type of literature that seems to have been so popular in the first few decades of the 20th century, for example The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart by Kander and Schoenfeld (1903), but in a new form, with the focus shifted to shared building of relationships through food. Not only can women treat their men well by feeding them wonderfully prepared meals, but men can do the same for their women, and they can both enjoy preparing food together for themselves, their friends, and families. Read through the poem below and just think about the embedded messages and how they might be incorporated into your food philosophy today.

How to Cook a Husband
In a lecture room, before a cooking school,
For cooking a husband was given this rule:
First, in selecting, to market don’t go;
The best you’ll find there, most surely no.
For although there are many, yes, galore,
The prime will always be brought to your door.
Don’t think for a moment, to bake or broil,
Much better tie in the kettle to boil.
Use a silken cord called comfort – ‘twon’t break,
But one called duty is apt to be weak.
To make him secure it is well, no doubt,
Yes! for aught we know, he’d be falling out.
And then, too surely if your back were turned,
He’d become, alas! both crusty and burned.
In cooking a husband you’ll plainly see,
Like lobsters and crabs, alive they must be.
Should he sputter and fuss, help there is none;
Some husbands do it until they are done.
Some sugar add, in the form of kisses;
You’ll find to absorb, he rarely misses.
Vinegar and pepper, use none at all;
But of spice you may add a sprinkling small.
Stir some, lest to the kettle he adhere,
Thus making him useless, I greatly fear.
Please not in his side some instrument stick,
For when he is done you will know it quick.
With proper treatment and excellent care
You’ll find him, indeed, delicious and rare.

Goderich, Lake Huron, Canad
from Famous Old Recipes Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and South Contributed by Descendants ( 1908 )


Baking in the middle of the night

April 22, 2008

In delving more into historic recipes over the last couple of months, and by delving, I mean actually making, I have been struck by the fact that many of the older recipes require a lot more time in the kitchen, or at least are not nearly as instantaneously ready as most of those that we are used to today. This is in part because of the central focus of food in the lives of people in times when it was not readily available in restaurants, take-out joints, all-nite mini marts, and basically around every corner. When you have to plan ahead, and sometimes months ahead for your meals, then the fact that preparation of a particular dish might take you several hours or days, seems like small beans, as long as you have food on the table at the end of the day.

The first time this fact became obvious to me was when I recently made a plum pudding using a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). The recipe had been translated by a group of culinary historians (the Past Masters) into modern-day measurements and directions, though still meant to be prepared in a pot of boiling water that was placed over the fire in a large fireplace. The batter is placed in a “pudding cloth” (a piece of linen, which I didn’t have, so used a cloth napkin that I didn’t feel much attachment to) and is simmered in the boiling water for 5 hours.

Being someone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time in my apartment, what with school and extra curriculars and spending time with friends, etc., I don’t often have 5+ hours in which I’m home at a stretch, except, of course, when I’m sleeping. Thus began a growing trend where I start multiple-step or time-consuming recipes that require getting up in the middle of the night to do the next step or monitor the progress in one way or another. I can’t say that this is the best way to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, but it can be fairly entertaining to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and pull a cake out of your oven.

My latest adventure in this vein was the making of a baba au rhum or rum cake. For whatever reason, in this day and age where you can so easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recipes that fit your criteria once you decide what you plan to make, I find myself making decisions about which recipe I’m going to use without even having read through the entire set of directions. That’s how I ended up setting my alarm multiple times last night to get up and do various different steps in this cake recipe. I made the mistake of trusting that it would take roughly the amount of time that the recipe claimed it would, which we all know is total bollocks, I usually multiply it by 1.5 to get actual estimates. But the recipe promised a finished product in 2 hours and I started at 10pm, so I figured I’d be done a little after midnight at the worst. HA! That’s where I got the 2:30am cake comment earlier in this post, cause that’s when I pulled the baby out of the oven, and it wasn’t even done then, ‘cause you have to wait for it to cool and then pour rum syrup into it, which takes another 20 minutes. So you can see how accurate of an estimate that turned out to be. I suppose I should have been suspicious from the get go because of the fact that there was yeast in the recipe, hence rising time (this being one of the main reasons that I hardly ever make recipes which involve yeast), but, like I said, I made a snap decision on the recipe because it was recommended and I had the ingredients and it sounded good.

So at the time I wrote the above I couldn’t actually comment on how said rum cake turned out since I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to taste the fruits of my night of interrupted sleep’s labor, but I will do so now… There are definitely no complaints on the eating end about the amount of rum in this cake! It is soaked to the brim and then some, leaving excess pooling on the plate at the bottom. This recipe is definitely different than what you might think of for your typical rum cake because of the yeast bread, which I actually really liked. I have to say that the top part was a little bit more cooked than I would have liked ideally, but I was asleep and I’d set the timer for 10 minutes shy of what the recipe said, because I was using a different pan (a loaf pan), but next time I’ll know it needs even a little less time. I am a big sucker for anything gooey or mushy and this recipe absolutely has some of those qualities because of the added liquor in the bread. Above all it’s just a fun / funny experience to be baking and sleeping simultaneously. Not that I’m suggesting this as another area of our lives where we should start to multitask, well maybe every once in a while.

Choosing your dinner guests wisely…

April 9, 2008

In this day and age we, as people who like to entertain and serve good food to our friends, may feel that it is a daunting task to cater to all of the varying dietary requirements and preferences of our dinner guests. It can be difficult to ensure that everyone is satisfied by the end of the meal, but also that you do not feel stifled as the cook. I don’t entertain nearly as much as I would like to, but this is a conundrum that I know plagues a lot of families and dinner parties (particularly when there’s a mix of vegetarians and omnivores). Vegetarianism is certainly a lifestyle that we think of as relatively modern, but you might be surprised to learn that it has been around for a very long time indeed, that even Benjamin Franklin himself took a stab at going meat free for several years of his life. So you can see that these sorts of personal preferences likely have always played an important role at the dining table, whether it boils down to meat or no meat or other issues like a preference for the taste of garlic or not.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share a passage from a book I’m reading published in 1867 by Thomas De Voe, a butcher by trade in New York City, called The Market Assistant. He clearly shows that these considerations have been frustrating hosts and guests alike for years!

“An amusing article on diet, written above one hundred years ago, is found in a London paper called St. James’ Chronicle, dated November 6, 1762, and thus reads: – ‘There is no affectation more ridiculous than the antipathies which many whimsical people entertain with respect to diet. One will swoon at a Breast of Veal; another can’t bear the sight of a Suckling-pig; and another owes as great a grudge to a Shoulder of Mutton as Petruchio, in the farce. How often does it happen in company that we are debarred of a necessary ingredient in a salad because somebody, forsooth, cannot touch oil! And what a rout is made, whisking away the cheese off the table, without our being suffered to have a morsel of this grand digester, if any one should happen to declare his dislike of it! There are others of an equally fantastic disposition, who, as we may say, choose to quarrel with their bread and butter. These are eternally suspicious that their food is not sweet. They bring their plates up to their noses, or their noses down to their plates, at every thing that is put upon them. Their stomachs are so delicately nice that they descry a fault in all they eat. The fish is stale, the mutton is rank, or the suet in the pudding is musty.’”

America Eats! – Part I

April 4, 2008

This is going to be a two-part post because I want to just get a few thoughts out there for the moment and then, in the later post, provide you all with useful links and more factual information. I have been intrigued and excited by the America Eats! project ever since I first read about it probably four years ago when I first started getting into food research and culinary history. America Eats! was a WPA sponsored project organized by Katharine Kellock just prior to the second world war. The goal was to send writers around the country to record group meals and food-related public events in “images of a resilient people working to common and joyful purpose in the teeth of the Great Depression.” Most of the writing generated by this project was never published because it was not compiled and edited before the start of WWII, it got lost in the ensuing shuffle, as it were. A few culinary historians and other researchers have used bits and pieces of the writings from the project for research since that time, but it is not even known where all the materials are because many are still housed in local community libraries and archives, though there is also a good deal in the Library of Congress. Over the last several years interested scholars have banded together to try to encourage a return to this work, to try to relocate all of the writing and to utilize this unbelievable resource as a window into the American culinary past. I can tell you that I would love, love, love to be able to do just that.


(An image from the original America Eats! project archives – removing the barbecue beef from the pits at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Barbecue.)

What I wanted to react to in this post was an article that appeared in a culinary history newsletter that I get called Food History News written by Patricia Willard, a woman who has gone back and looked at a great deal of the America Eats! papers and then followed up by revisiting the sites that these writers recorded their community events at in the 1930s to see whether these sorts of traditions continue today. She has some extremely insightful comments about American food which I hope to be able to explore in more detail in the later post as well, but I want to latch on to one particular point that she made in this short introduction. She writes “Somewhere in my travels, though, I came to realize how accurately Kellock had gauged our cooking. By talking about our food within the context of social engagements, the Federal Writers were able to uncover something very important about our cuisine: it’s not actually the taste of our food, but the use of it that’s been important in our cooking’s development. Even at the most food-centric gatherings, emphasis was less on the dishes than in how they supported the reason for people to meet.”

This statement reminded me of something I know all to well, and I’m sure you do too, that a meal is not special unless it has meaning, and it often gains meaning because of the people that we eat that meal with. Now that doesn’t suggest that every meal will be special if it is consumed with others (afterall America Eats! focused on community-wide social events, not an everyday occurrence, though certainly more frequent in the 1930s than today), but that perhaps we need to think a little bit less about the food itself, to take a step back from analyzing in minute detail the flavors and textures and visual appeal of the foods which are placed in front of us, and to just appreciate the event for what it is, an opportunity to form or reassert relationships with people. Certainly the analysis of food for food’s sake has its place and I do a lot of it myself, it can be a communal activity that draws people together in and of itself, but at its heart I think we should keep in mind that food is mearly the vehicle or the excuse for a gathering, that is the shared experience which is what we all benefit most from in the end, which will last us longer than the last bite of dessert or the last sip of coffee. Even as you embrace your foodie side, focusing more on the ingredients and becoming increasingly interested in new and varied cuisines, presentations, etc., never forget that there is a whole lot more going on beyond the edges of your plate, that though the flavors may take you to distant lands and far away places, the people sitting right next to and across from you are the ones with whom you are sharing the experience of that meal and that is, I would argue, more important than what you’re putting in your mouth.

An 18th Century Meal

February 23, 2008

I don’t know about the rest of you, perhaps my imagination isn’t as good as it could be, but I learn best by doing, through experience. For this reason, I have recently decided that it is imperative that I actually prepare some of the recipes that I read all the time in the cookbooks that I use in my research. A perfect opportunity to do just that presented itself this past weekend when my sister came to visit for the first time since I moved to Philly almost five years ago. What better way to welcome her to city and to introduce her to my friends, than to throw a party with an 18th century theme to the menu? I was a bit hesitant to suggest it to her since she is not known for being the most adventurous of eaters, but when I did she said full steam ahead, and I jumped into party-planning mode. I was definitely pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends were ready and willing to attend a meal that they knew so little about, but then they’re all pretty adventurous and certainly very tolerant, after all they put up with me.

Planning a menu was certainly a bit of a stretch for me, first because there were so many dishes that I wanted to make I didn’t know where to start, second because we had a few vegetarians in the group, so I had to make sure that they were sufficiently fed (despite the main course, which I’ll get to in a second), and third because I’d never entertained for such a large crowd before and I absolutely didn’t want people to leave hungry. To address the first problem I turned to a couple of my favorite historical sources for the recipes that I ended up making. All of the recipes I chose would have been made in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states in the past. Not all were specifically regional foods, but they would have appeared on the tables of people who lived in this region, whether or not they also appeared elsewhere in the country. The first cookbook I is one published by the Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts entitled The Pennsylvania Housewife: English Household Receipts of the Middle Colonies. This book was written by a group of individuals who actually cook these historic recipes in period kitchens using period kitchen implements or reproductions. Knowing several members of the group, I can comment that they are a reliable source for tips on the best ways to prepare these foods, for they are the ones who have made them the most recently and accurately and have given the receipts (recipes) the most scrutiny. In the cookbook each recipe starts with the original as copied from the 18th century cookbook and then is followed by more modern instructions, including measurements of ingredients (which didn’t become popular until the 19th century) and step-by-step instructions as to how to prepare the dish. Because members of Past Masters typically prepare these recipes on the hearth, they do not include oven temperatures or exact cooking times, but any relatively well-informed or logical cook can figure these out. Two other cookbooks I utilized in preparing the menu for this meal were both compiled by William Woys Weaver, a well-known culinary historian of the Pennsylvania Dutch and author of a number of books on their cuisine and history in this area. They included Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (1993) and Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways (2002).

The main course was a big question because not only was it necessary to feed a large number of people, but it was also an opportunity to potentially add to the collections in the zooarchaeology lab, something I’m always trying to work into my meals. In the end my advisor and I decided that a suckling pig was the way to go. I have archaeological examples of suckling pig and therefore wanted some comparative materials to know what size and age range I’m dealing with, besides the fact that it’s also an extremely impressive meal to present on the table. A meal that would have been a community-wide celebration during the 18th century, something that was highly appreciated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and something that many people in the modern world do not have much exposure to. You’ve seen me comment before on this blog about the ever-expanding distance between modern consumers and our meat sources, how the animals that our protein is derived from are becoming less and less recognizable in the cuts they purchase in the supermarkets as more and more become boneless, skinless cuts. Having a whole roasted suckling pig at this party would bring people to the absolute other side of the spectrum and force them to literally come face to face with their meal, to own up to the fact that they were eating part of an animal, and even a cute young one at that. These are all lessons we should consider and, I think, test ourselves on if we are to continue to eat meat and to support modern animal agribusiness which focuses on meat production above all else. If we cannot face the prospect of eating meat when we can see exactly where it comes from, then can we really justify eating it? On top of this fact, the 18th century fully embraced the display of heads and other very recognizable body parts on the table. Not everything was served up in smaller cuts cleansed of their animalistic qualities. People in the 18th century took pride in their ability to serve an entire animal on the table, it demonstrated wealth and prosperity, generosity and bounty. Yes, to serve a truly 18th century meal, I did feel that a whole pig was, in fact, the perfect main-course to serve.

As far as the vegetarians at the meal were concerned, this was not a problem per se, but it did take some careful consideration. If you look at printed menus in cookbooks from the 18th century, you’ll see that meat was always the star of the meal, it appeared in almost all of the dishes on the table, and vegetables were served as sides to or garnish on these more prominent dishes. In order to prepare a meal to appeal to the modern sensibilities where vegetables are the healthier and more desirable aspects of the meal for many, I needed to switch around the focus of the meal from the meat dishes to the sides. This is not to suggest that the number of sides prepared for the meal was more than typical during the 18th century, simply that they played a larger role in the overall proportion of the meal than did the meat dishes. If I had been preparing a strictly 18th century meal, there would likely have been several meat dishes on the table in addition to the suckling pig, and on top of the sides.

The final menu for the meal was as follows:

Pretzel Soup with Peanut Roux
Johny Cakes – the middling sort
Winter Squash Pudding
Spinach with Eggs
Whole Suckling Pig
Dried Cherry Pie

Recipes for most of the dishes will appear on the side bar. The asparagus recipe has been omitted because we simply steamed them and added kosher salt and cracked black pepper. The Whole suckling pig we did not end up cooking ourselves because the animal was too large to fit into my oven, a smaller than standard little affair measuring only 16” wide and deep and 14” tall. With the pig being 18 pounds and longer than 16” even when folded in half (we measured it at the butcher’s), I thought it best all around to allow the butcher to roast it for me, he offered after all. So the pig was roasted in the oven at the butcher’s shop with sage, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper on a spit in the oven for about 4 hours, basting it with butter. Apparently, for those who are interested, this animal was likely between 12 and 15 weeks (3-4 months) old. Animals of this age do not have a whole lot of fat in their bodies yet, so though he saved the pan juices for us, the butcher also included a couple of tubs of pork (as in full grown animal) drippings, to make gravy from. We purchased the pig from the Hollywood Meat Market (1039 S. 9th St.) and actually carried it back to my apartment tied down to a big piece of plywood and covered over in aluminum foil, though apparently this didn’t fool too many people as we got a lot of looks and comments on the street, as well as a couple of car honks. The Hollywood Meat Market specializes in roast pig, so if you’re looking for something similar for an event you’d like to host, I can recommend them as very helpful and accommodating. Ask for Pete if you want something pig-related, he’s the go-to man there.

As for the other dishes, I think the biggest favorites were the pretzel soup and the dried cherry pie. The soup is more like an apple cider soup, thickened with pretzels and served with peanut butter, the flavor combination is unbeatable and it’s amazingly and surprisingly filling (also super easy to make). The dried cherry pie was also delicious and the filling was quite unique, starting with dried fruit rather than canned cherries or fresh. It gave the interior of the pie a very chewy and sweet consistency that was different than any other I’ve tasted, but really fantastic, more like a chewy candy bar than a pie filling (you can play around with the degree of stickiness by altering how much you cook down the filling). I was also very intrigued by the winter squash pudding which had only a few tablespoons of rose water in it, but the flavor became infused throughout the dish and provided a different set of taste sensations than you typically get, especially with squash. I hope you’ll try out a few of these recipes on your own and see if you can incorporate some historic food into your modern life. Until the next food adventure, happy eating!

Oh, and check out some photos from the meal in the slideshow below.

Heads Will Roll – Historic Cookery

January 16, 2008

So I’ve been trying to think for a while now about how best to present this post, what angle to take, etc. and I don’t think I’ve really settled on one, but I wanted to put this up because it is not only important to me (thinking through ideas and experiences), but also for some others out there to maybe think about how far removed we are from some of the culinary practices of yore.

So here’s the scenario… My advisor, a former student of hers, and I all gathered at her house last week with some deer parts to do some zooarchaeological experimentation. The “former student,” who had been responsible for procuring the deer material in the first place, was interested in looking at skull fracture patterns. She’s a biological anthropologist and so is attempting to trace how different skull fractures occurred (as in with what types of objects, at what speeds, and from what angles) in a warfare situation because she is studying a population of skulls that were warfare casualties (that’s all the details I know).

My interest in the deer was, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to discover, much more culinarily-minded. I wanted to use the skulls to replicate (to a certain degree) some colonial period recipes. So I’m sure you’ve heard the term before “armchair academic” or something along those lines, meaning that the scholar just sits in their office and reads books about whatever topic they’re studying and never goes out into the field and actually does any hands on work. Well, I personally know that I learn better by doing, by being active, rather than passive in my learning, so I decided that I really needed to try to start actually making at least a few of the colonial recipes that I have spent so many hours reading.
Given that we were working mainly with skulls, I decided to use the deer skulls as a proxy for calf’s skulls (yes I know it’s not the same, but it’s as good as I’ve got) in several recipes from The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook by Mary Randolph first published in 1824. Since I have a, some would say, rather unhealthy obsession with turtle soup and am overly excited about reintroducing it into the Philadelphia food repertoire, I thought I should certainly make a “Mock Turtle Soup” and would also make a baked head with the other of the two skulls.

Now both of the recipes (to follow) instruct the housewife or cook that they will need to cut the head in half as a first step, this is in part to be able to remove the brain and also to be able to gain easier access to all the meat on the interior of the skull once the head has been cooked. This task is absolutely not for the faint of heart or stomach! It basically entailed taking an axe and chopping, with small and somewhat precise strokes down through the center of each of the two skulls. The only real disgusting part is when you’re hacking through the brain case and some of the brains ooze out at you, just try not to let them splatter your shoes or glasses. Honestly, I was surprised at how little this operation bothered me. “Good!” I thought to myself, “Perhaps I could have cut it, on some level, as a housewife in the eighteenth century.”

The Mock Turtle Soup is basically like making a soup stock with the skull, sans brain, eyes and tongue. The finishing touches can be quite different depending on the recipe you follow, but the basic first steps simply involve boiling the head for a couple of hours. As it turns out, this is really only as far as we took this recipe, except for making one of the accoutrements to the soup, which I’ll get to in a second. I was, I will admit, highly amused to open the stockpot lid and look down to see teeth sticking up at me. The fact of the matter is we just would never ever expect this in our country today. As I said before, we are so far removed from the animals we eat these days that to even consider making a dish where the origins of the meat are so clearly and literally staring you in the face, it’s just too much to even think about.
So the other dish that we made for the Mock Turtle Soup were brain cakes. I describe these like crab cakes but with brain instead of crab. Just breadcrumbs, egg, brains, salt, pepper and any other spices you might like. Form them into little balls and then fry them in fat in a frying pan until brown on both sides.



Onto the baked head. This recipe was also interesting because it used the brains in an entirely different manner, for the crust on the outside of the dish. First you brush the head with egg yolk, then sprinkle with breadcrumbs and seasoning, and finally sprinkle the top with the brains. Now before you put this dish in the oven, it does not at all look appetizing, but let me tell you, after about an hour and a half in a 350º F oven, it looks great (light golden brown crust), and smells even better!
A couple of other notes… Notice how in the recipes the measurements aren’t exact; this was the norm of the time, exact measuring, including oven temperatures and length of cooking time, didn’t come into fashion until the end of the nineteenth century. Also, we didn’t actually consume any of these foods, not because they turned out badly but in part because I wasn’t sure that the meat was entirely safe and I didn’t want to risk it, and also, it turns out that my advisor is a vegetarian, who knew?

So perhaps you’re wondering why on earth people went to the trouble of use the heads of animals in their cooking repertoires in the past. Well, first of all, they tended to try to use as much of the animal as was possible; there was virtually no waste. But we also know that head dishes were a high status dish. The reason for this is the amount of time and effort it took to prepare them. It is no small feat to split the head and to complete all the other delicate tasks which are involved when cooking with this part of the body. This would, consequently, be reserved for households where the servants could devote the additional time to the preparation and presentation of these dishes. I know of friends who have traveled to other countries and been served head dishes. If this should ever happen to you, rather than being affronted and disgusted, hold back the gag reflex, and think about the extra amount of effort that dish represents, a tribute to your importance.

I’m hoping that this is just the first of a number of historic culinary adventures. I cannot even express how wonderful it was to be following the recipes printed in 1824!

Mock Turtle of Calf’s Head.

Have the head nicely cleaned, divide the chop from the skull, take out the brains and tongue, and boil the other parts till tender, take them out of the water and put into a knuckle of veal or four pounds of lean beef, three onions chopped, thyme, parsley, a teaspoonful of pounded cloves, the same of mace, salt, and cayenne pepper to your taste–boil these things together till reduced to a pint, strain it, and add two gills of red wine, one of mushroom and one of walnut catsup, thicken it with butter and brown flour; the head must be cut in small pieces and stewed a few minutes in the gravy; put a paste round the edge of a deep dish, three folds, one on the other, but none on the bottom; pour in the meat and gravy, and bake it till the paste is done; pick all strings from the brains, pound them, and add grated bread, pepper and salt, make them in little cakes with the yelks of an egg, fry them a nice brown, boil six eggs hard, leave one whole and divide the others exactly in two, have some bits of paste nicely baked; when the head is taken from the oven, lay the whole egg in the middle, and dispose the others, with the brain cakes and bits of paste tastily around it. If it be wanted as soup, do not reduce the gravy so much, and after stewing the head, serve it in a tureen with the brain cakes and forcemeat balls fried, in place of the eggs and paste. The tongue should be salted and put in brine; they are very delicate, and four of them boiled and pealed, and served with four small chickens boiled, make a handsome dish, either cold or hot, with parsley and butter poured over them.

To Bake a Calf’s Head.

Divide the calf’s head, wash it clean, and having the yelks of two eggs well beaten, wash the outside of the head all over with them, and on that strew raspings of bread sifted, pepper, salt, nutmeg and mace powdered; also, the brains cut in pieces and dipped in thick butter, then cover the head with bits of butter, pour into the pan some white wine and water, with as much gravy, and cover it close. Let it be baked in a quick oven, and when it is served up, pour on some strong gravy, and garnish with slices of lemon, red beet root pickled, fried oysters and fried bread.

Consider the bones!

January 10, 2008

I wanted to take some time here to explain a perspective on the world of food that perhaps you might not have sat down to think about recently, if at all. This is all related to my Ph.D. research, where I’m working on a dissertation that seeks to illuminate the eating habits and cuisine of Philadelphians during the period 1750-1850. There are two ways in which I’m approaching the question of what people ate at that time, one is through documentary research, looking at cookbooks, journals, letters, account books, newspapers, inventories and the like, probably more of what you might expect for this kind of research. But here’s the kicker, I’m an archaeologist, so rather than simply employing historical research techniques, I get to incorporate a whole other class of “evidence”, namely, material culture, better known as people’s long forgotten trash. For my purposes, as an individual principally interested in historic food in this context, that means that I’m mainly relying on zooarchaeological techniques to answer my larger questions, I’m analyzing the animal bones from people’s trash (typically recovered from pits, either cisterns [used for water] or privies [a.k.a. outhouses]) that were living at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What can these bones tell us? Well they’re the remains of meals, they are some of the most direct evidence we have for what people actually served on their tables in the past. Sure the cookbooks can suggest possible recipes that may have been prepared, and this is part of what I’m going to be looking at in my research, but the bones tell us exactly what cuts of meat a particular household purchased. From analyzing these bones it is possible to see what kinds of animals were being eaten, how important each of these animals was in the diet, what the favored cuts of meat were for a particular household (and whether that reveals something about their social or economic status, or their ethnicity). It can also tell us something about the circumstances in which the animals were being raised, whether they were being raised on farms that were oriented towards meat production (i.e. their main concern was to produce animals for slaughter in the marketplace), or whether they were the excess animals from say a milk or wool production-oriented strategy.

There is a whole lot more which can be said about these topics, and assuredly I will return to them, but the main point I wanted to emphasize today is that this research has caused me to become very aware of the bones of animals and specifically of the bones in the pieces of meat, fish, and fowl that we eat. Although we no longer deposit our trash in pits in our backyards, so our own eating habits will not be traceable in the same ways by future archaeologists, it is still important to consider the messages that you might be leaving behind by the bones in your food. And if you’re a vegetarian, well the ethnobotanists of the archaeological community can help you to feel more secure in your lasting impression on the world, there are ways in which plant remains are preserved as well.

Consider this, the cuts of meat that we eat from cows, pigs, and sheep (the three main domesticated mammals that we rely upon for food), have been becoming increasingly less recognizable as parts of actual animals, and have been moving in this direction for some time now. This means a number of different things, not the least of which is a sense of disengagement for the modern grocery-shopping consumer who doesn’t have to really think too hard about where their food is coming from (though there is more and more pressure for people to really think seriously about their food and its origins as we push both local and organic foods in the 21st century). For my purposes here though, this means that there are fewer and fewer cuts of meat with any actual bone in them. And as a zooarchaeologist, thinking about the messages that are conveyed through (food) consumption practices and how these can be interpreted after the fact, that’s a pretty depressing fact. Not only will we not be able to look at the individual eating habits of particular people and households in the future because of central trash collection and landfills, but the trash that is headed there in the first place does not contain the same information about the eating habits of its originators as the trash from say the period that I’m looking at. Just something to think about…

The main point I wanted to come to in this post is that I have, through my research, become extremely and intensely focused on the boney aspects of animal species around me. This may be in terms of trying to identify unknown bones in my samples or collecting new materials for the comparative collection we have in our lab. Now a comparative collection is of utmost importance in a zooarchaeological lab because you are really only as good at your identifications of the bones in your samples as your comparative collection. There are books with drawings available, but this is no substitute for bones from real animals. Because our lab is relatively new and I’m one of the few people doing serious research in there at the moment, this has meant that I’ve had to track down my own comparative materials and sometimes skeletonize animals for myself. At the moment, this has mainly been confined to a few pigs’ feet (which I bought in the Italian market) and a catfish. I wanted to give you a little taste of the catfish here.

I’d never baked a whole fish before so this was definitely a new experience for me. After a few minutes of frustration in Chinatown dealing with language barrier problems I did eventually manage to procure a catfish, which I brought home to prepare in the oven. I did some research and decided I would simply put it in a aluminum foil pouch with some olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and let it go at about 400º F for 25 minutes or so. Simple recipe and simple but good results. I was impressed with how easy this really was. Just bake it until the flesh can be flaked with a fork.

Here’s the main thing that I really wanted to bring to your attention though, think about all the bones that were produced from this one simple meal. Think about where they’ll go (mine will go to the lab). But the next time you’re buying anything with bones in it, just stop to consider the kinds of information that is embedded in that food once you throw it in the trash for future archaeologists to come along and try to decipher. Was it an expensive cut of meat? Did you just but a fish head to make fish head soup because it’s a favorite old family recipe? Perhaps just to remember that your meal lasts a whole lot longer than you might have considered it did.