Sicily, the Cookbook

sicily cover

Sicily, the Cookbook by Melissa Muller, Rizzoli 2017, hardcover $40.00, 336 pages

It is impossible to describe the degrees of yellow from the most candent cadmium to ochre, from discoloured ivory to lemon bronze. The air was full of wisps of straw and the heat beat upon us as if from some huge oven where the Gods had been baking bread.

Lawrence Durrell

Sicily is a mythical place–where Demeter and Persephone we’re split into our seasons, where the River Styx flows without mercy. The rocks along the shore were thrown there by a raging Polyphemus and the dangerous whirlpools are blamed on Charybdis.

Sicily is Magna Graecia, but at the table are also Moorish, Bourbon, Norman, and Roman influences–apricots, pistachios, and lemons in elegantly constructed pastries. Its dishes–pizza, frittata, caponata, and cannoli–are the signature of Italian-American food.

In this book, Melissa Muller traces her own family history, and pulls her dishes from “the reality of Sicily that is the hidden core of the island…”. Muller’s passion for Sicily is rooted in childhood summers spent in her grandmother’s village of Sant’Anna of Caltabellotta–an easily defended mountain cliff, with a fresh spring and fertile flatlands.

She pursued history and cooking with a focus on Sicily and now is part of the Feudo Montani Winery. The book‘s recipes have the imprint of her family, her expertise, and her island explorations.

Muller begins with the Foundational Elements and Preserved Foods that gives Sicilian dishes their particular savor. Olive oil, of course, but also wild fennel, saffron, and orange blossom, and a pantry built with onion marmalade, parsley-mint oil, and pistachio pesto.

And then she moves through a complete menu. Sicily was the granary of the Roman empire and breads like mafalda and muffuletta are shaped, stuffed, and flavored, becoming  savory symbols–a result of imagination, the island’s vast wheat fields, and its history.

The bright flavors of antipasti like Olive Salad, Eggplant Trifle, and Grilled Octopus with Chickpea Puree could be a meal in themselves.

Soups, Rice and Pasta range from homey minestras to elegant risottos (a Northern dish but in Sicily made creamy with olive oil rather than butter). Vegetables dishes are a cornucopia of fertility–eggplant, tomatoes, fave beans, squash flowers, peppers, and cauliflower.

Seafood dishes come from the island’s port towns–grilled, stewed, baked, stuffed shrimp, cuttlefish, sea urchins, monkfish, bream, mussels, skate and swordfish with the flavors of pistachio, mint, marsala, or just simple preparations that rely on absolute freshness.

The island’s goat, pork, lamb, beef, veal, and rabbit appear in grilled sausages,  braised braciola, roasted pigs and chicken, and flavored with pomegranate, chicory, peppers, and even a savory Sicilian Chocolate Sauce.

Just typing the words cannoli, cucidati, and cassata makes me feel at home–the pastries by which I measure all other sweets. The flavors of citrus, anise, almonds, and honey appear in baroque pastries, homey cookies, and delicate custards. Every time Muller went to do her research at a pasticerria, pad and pen in hand, she writes, “the sweet aromas rendered me a child again.” I know the feeling, ask me about Strufoli.

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Savor the South–Corn

corn cover

Corn by Tema Flanagan, UNC Press 2017, $20.00 cloth, 144 pages

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.

Anne Bronte

Corn has to be among the most American of foods. Corn is woven through Mayan mythology–marking calendar dates and shaping origin stories. English settlers called the flour Indian meal and used it instead of wheat in their traditional recipes–and in the process, developed new dishes like Indian Pudding.

From a homey staple, corn expands to become an industrial behemoth–transforming into fuel, oil, and corn syrup, the secret ingredient in almost everything on supermarket shelves.

But in this book, Tema Flanagan claims corn for the South–grits, pone, hominy–fresh off the cob, nixtamalized, distilled, or ground into meal.

The recipes show off corn’s range–in chapters on fresh corn, dried and ground corn, nixtamalized and popped corn, and finally mashed and fermented. Nixtamalized corn is an ancient way of processing corn by boiled with kernels with wood ash until the husks released, leaving a soft puffy hominy, which was easier to grind into meal. The process also makes niacin nutritionally available, which helps prevent pellagra.

It’s dishes like the slow saute of Macque Choux, Smoke Signal’s Bakery Mexican Chocolate Chess Pie, and Chicken and Green Chile Posole show off corn’s sweet and savory flavors. Some dishes, like Pimiento Cheese Cornbread and Muscadine Grape Cornmeal Cobbler, are firmly anchored in the South. Others range farther, like western favorite Frito Pie and Succotash, named by New England’s Narragansett Indians.

Even when they take a gourmet turn, like Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Raspberry-Basil Swirl, the recipes have a homey attitude. There’s just something friendly about corn, especially when concocted into mulled cider, milk punch or a mint julep.

And Flanagan solves the mystery of why northerners don’t eat grits. In the North, flint corn is a hard variety, tougher to grind, while Southern dent corn is easy to grind into meal–grits. Though the mystery continues–Italian polenta (grits for gourmets) is made from flint corn. One for the ages and the fork.

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Southern Food and Civil Rights, Feeding the Revolution

An army travels on its stomach, and a revolution needs to be sustained–with commitment and with food. In this book Opie recounts the tale of the Atlanta, Georgia caterer who fed the bus boycotters and their families, but he also shows how food service was the source of the civil rights battle for equal pay and equal opportunity. And that it’s a battle still being fought.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington DC, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month with a panel discussion and reception at the Navy Memorial Heritage Center. Check us out!

chowline review

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Between Meals, An Appetite for Paris

Liebling cover

Between Meals, An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling, North Point Press 1986, paper 185 pages

Nostalgia for Paris, for a particular Paris, is rich territory. Were you there pre-war or post-war, and which war. It was always better before you got there–Belle Epoque, the Lost Generation, GI Bill expats, and now, perhaps even I can indulge in a bit of nostalgia.

You should have been there in the 1970s, when a student could see the city for a few francs a day and there were no shoot-outs on the Champs Elysee.

My lodestar for Paris nostalgia will always be A.J. Liebling, the original trust fund kid who made good. He didn’t buy a fancy car and smash it up, he went to Paris, got a job as a journalist, and wrung out every drop of atmosphere he could. From a garret apartment to endless glasses of Tavel, Liebling was there.

Or perhaps I should say cities and food–my two favorite topics–are rich territory. Libeling approaches both. “Nineteen-fourteen was the year of transition to Francophile from mere Germanophobe.” With literal fever dreams of WW1 heroism, Liebling’s appetite was set. In 1926, his father offered him “just enough money,” for a year of study in Paris, under the impression that he was rescuing his son from an ill-advised love affair.

“Just enough money,” he claims is key to becoming a discerning eater. The budget directs you to the cheap wines, and when you can afford an upgrade, you see the difference. It nudges you toward beef heart and trout rather than contra-filet and sole, and your palate expands.

It also may drive you to appreciate intensity. Liebling decries diners who show an “apathy toward decided flavor,” preferring “processed cheese because it isn’t cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn’t vanillary.” Supermarket apples, dry beers, and light Scotch earn the same scorn.

To eat, as Liebling defines it, is a “selective activity” It requires pursuit  and an open mind. You’ve got to bite into things that you’ve never seen before. Maybe even overcome feelings about bugs or unexpected textures. I love cheetos as much as anyone, but I also love lentils, and a nice goaty cheese, and bitter greens, and peaches that jump with tangy sweetness. (I’m not better than you because I like greens. I’m just pursuing my hobby. Some people go skiing or have a boat, I go to farm markets.)

veg pic

It’s CSA season

Anyway, Liebling is a happy, if low-rent, boulevardier–becoming a regular at restaurants, perusing book stalls, admiring passing girls and the river. Liebling’s writing is lovely, reading it is like slipping down a bright stream, bouncing and quick, sparkled with sunlight, never quite knowing where you’ll come to shore.

Eventually, all this eating leads him to a sentence in a Swiss “slimming prison,” a two week resident who is one of the “fat, sensible people…who longed for something decent to eat.” He recovers from his health regime at friends’ who feed him guinea hen and brook trout, washed down with wine and marc.

The book, written in 1959, takes a few detours into his other passion, boxing, but finishes on a nostalgic note, when he decrees that by 1927, French cooking had already a “crepuscular quality.” Aah, but what a sunset.

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The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

cover image

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet by Adrian Miller, UNC Press 2017, $30.00 cloth, 296 pages

His cook is his chief merit. The world visits his dinners, not him.

Moliere

And I suppose, depending on your party or your president, you can say the same about the White House.

There are all kinds of anecdotes about presidential food–Nixon’s cottage cheese and ketchup, Bush the elder’s dislike of broccoli, and Jefferson’s scientific gourmandism.

But in this book, Miller goes behind the scenes to find out who was actually doing all the cooking–and often it was African Americans.

Because some of America’s first presidents were slaveholders, the first presidential cooks were enslaved people. George Washington “summoned Hercules from Mount Vernon and installed him as his presidential cook in Philadelphia.” Jefferson brought James Hemmings to be trained in France and then to cook at the White House.

But, as Miller points out, after Emancipation, “…the African American struggle to be fully integrated into American society had not ended with slavery’s demise. It merely changes the context of servitude.” So while James Madison’s cook, Augustus Jackson, perfected ice cream, Dolley got the credit. After his time at the White House, Jackson became wealthy selling the ice cream, but he had to do it in Philadelphia, “perhaps because of the increasingly restrictive black codes enacted in D.C. The clear message was that D.C. whites were hostile to black success.”

Miller places all these cooks and stewards–from George Washington to the Obama administration–in a firm and complete historical context, framed around four “ingredients,” the first being the presidential palate. The president’s wealth, food philosophy, schedule and prerogative all forced kitchen workers–cooks and stewards–to adapt to their employer. Washington enjoyed the meals delivered by his steward, Samuel Fraunces, but was frustrated with his profligate spending. Washington was conscious that he was setting a precedent and did not want to  appear in any way monarchical.

The second ingredient, is those who surround the president–his family, friends, and staff. Of course, first ladies, whether they liked it or not, needed to at least appear to care about the kitchen. Many kept their husbands on diets–Nancy Reagan vetoed the Bavarian cream apple pie on the Air Force One menu and while historically, the White House garden supplied the kitchen, under Michelle Obama, it became a fixture of food and politics.

The White House has its own culture–like any grand house or hotel–with a team of workers who have their own standards and expectations. As part of this third ingredient Miller examines the White House’s surprisingly cramped kitchen, its sometimes outdated equipment, and racial attitudes, particularly that “blacks were created for servitude,” an attitude exemplified in the Taft White House, where servants segregated themselves by race.

Miller calls the fourth ingredient Surprising Elements, which naturally include politics–Congressional control over the budget, the intangible but important power of public perception, climate, and even food gifts. The president used to eat the food sent by Americans, but now all food is sourced from Secret Service-approved purveyors.

The influence of these African-American cooks often reached beyond the kitchen. They would often be a conduit to the president on Civil Rights issues. Elizabeth McDuffie campaigned for FDR in Baltimore. “She went out to make one speech, did make three and could have made twenty-four more…”. But despite the skill and loyalty African-American cooks brought to the White House, they were rarely paid fairly and were often assistants to  more exalted chefs, as when Pearl Nelson had to step aside for Rene Verdon in the Kennedy administration.

With scholarship and  behind-the scenes anecdotes, Miller balances this particular set of kitchen scales.

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Springtime Food Traditions at the Sandy Spring Museum

bread table

Thank you bakers!

 

A fun time last night at the Sandy Spring Museum, talking about springtime food traditions.

A close look  at the seasonal cycles, the foods we eat, and the holidays we celebrate, reveals ancient fears of famine and death.

From Demeter and Persephone to Mardi Gras, we share rituals and define our communities.

And we celebrate with symbols of life and fertility–greens, eggs, rabbits, and even jelly beans.

Thank you to the museum for the opportunity and to the bakers for sharing their skills and creativity!

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Rio de Janeiro, A Food Biography

I love the idea of looking at a city through its food–revealing of people, geography, economy, and culture. And this books goes beyond what you think you know about Rio’s food culture, linking it to the city’s extraordinary setting and its native and immigrant populations.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C.

Be sure to check out Rowman & Littlefield‘s expanding and intriguing list of books on culinary history.

CHoWline review

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