Prison Food in America

This review appeared in the May 2018 issue of CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC. It made me realized that an often overlooked aspect of freedom is being able to choose what we eat, options that exist on a sliding scale depending on your income and location. At the risk of being glib, I think the closest I’ve ever come to food restrictions is visiting Disneyworld–there was no real food, not an apple in site–just ice cream shaped like Mickey and pancakes shaped like Mickey, and candy shaped like Mickey.

CHoW is off for the summer, but join us in September for a whole new line-up of speakers and events.

 

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Persephone Books

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Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, Persephone Books 2009, paper, 263 pages

Lamb’s Conduit Street in London runs its quiet route a few blocks west of Russell Square, if the jigsaw streets and gardens can really be called blocks, and there, between a hipster barber shop and a traditional pub, you’ll find Persephone Books.

Where they sell the most elegant reprints of overlooked 20th century fiction and non-fiction written by women.

The non-fiction list includes cookery books, and the cookery books list includes Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, who’s been described as an “artist-hostess.”

All Persephone books are jacketed in elegant gray, that opens to reveal carefully chosen end papers that are reproductions of vintage fabrics. For me, as heart-stopping and sigh-inducing as a perfectly tailored sober wool coat with a fuchsia satin lining.

my breath is caught

This is a collection of essays that Jekyll wrote in the 1920s for The Times and they cover such charming topics as Children’s Bread, In the Cook’s Absence, Tea Time and Some Cakes. They recall a long-gone lifestyle of breakfasting in one’s room, nursery food, and travels following the seasons. One can hear the dowager countess tutting in the background.

And they record long-gone ingredients like a “cup of hot Benger” (a powdered drink mix of the 1890s meant to aid digestion), something frightening called sal volatile, and perhaps most amazingly, “silver airplane cloth” once used to cover fuselage, repurposed here to wrap flatware for a hunting luncheon.

It’s worth noting that style may change–Jekyll offers many dishes propped up on aspic, from turkey fillets to camembert–but things come around. In her essay, “On the Serving of Food,” Jekyll boldly recommends serving hot from the earthenware pot, rather than transferring the food to “the glacial tureen.” And she suggests eternally appealing Italian dishes like Gnocchi con Formaggio and Risotto.

Brew a pot of tea, assemble a few digestive biscuits, and waft away to the aspirational past.

 

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Historical Notes on Montgomery County Foodways

I’ve been working on a cookbook titled Bread & Beauty, A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve. Along with interviewing farmers and agricultural advocates, attending events, and developing recipes based on Ag Reserve produce, I’ve had the great pleasure of researching in the Library of Congress. I’ve found some interesting bits of Montgomery’s food history, some of which is not appropriate for the book, but are too good to leave in the stacks.

From American Vintage by Paul Lukacs, 2005

Searching for an American grape suitable for winemaking, in the early 1800s, Major John Adlum developed a variety of vines, one from “cuttings secured from a widow living in Montgomery County.” No one knew their source, and they looked like those used to make Hungarian Tokay, but they were later found not to be a European strain. Adlum called them what the widow had: Catawba. The Catawba grape was eventually developed into a white wine and a pinkish sparkling wine by a Cincinnati winemaker who developed a German-style wine that had broad appeal and came to be called Cincinnati Hock.

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Edna Lewis, At the Table with an American Original

Edna Lewis is an inspiration–or should be more of one. She pursued her talents and beliefs, from dressmaking to politics, whether they fit expectations or not. She valued and drew on her rural, self-sufficient childhood in a community of free Black people. And she recorded it in recipes and recollections that read like poetry. You can learn about her in this new collection of essays that tells her life by those she inspired.

This review appeared in the April edition of CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC. Check us out!

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Lemons are a Girl’s Best Friend

Lemons are a Girl’s Best Friend by Janet Hayward, Potter 2018, $12.99 hardback, 127 pages

“I’m always so excited when I find new ways to use lemons.”

not Marilyn Monroe

Lemons are a girl’s best friend, but so are mangoes, cherries, sweet potatoes, olives, seaweed, and more.

Everyone of them is healthy–deep colors equal lots of vitamins–but also delicious.

Hayward raids the produce section, finding flavor and beauty tips in common items like peaches, tomatoes, and cucumbers. You hardly need to be told how delicious a tomato and cucumber salad can be–ditto for a ripe peach.

Hayward suggests Tomato and Basil Bruschetta and on the facing page, a Tomato Face Mask made with honey. As for the cucumbers, Hayward touts high their water and fiber composition that support healthy digestion. In a Cucumber and Mint Raita, she claims they contribute to glowing skin and shiny hair. Concocted into a Cooling Face and Body Mist made with rosewater, they provide exterior hydration.

Well, we all know that you can smear pretty much any fruit or vegetable on your hair and face and it will cleanse, moisturize and soothe, but how about a Cherry Lip Tint, a Cinnamon Spot Treatment, or Fennel Seed Eye Comfort?

This book is charming, it’s recipes are simple, and you’ll never look at a blueberry the same way again.

 

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Historical Notes on Montgomery County Foodways

I’ve been working on a cookbook titled Bread & Beauty, A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve. Along with interviewing farmers and agricultural advocates, attending events, and developing recipes based on Ag Reserve produce, I’ve had the great pleasure of researching in the Library of Congress. I’ve found some interesting bits of Montgomery’s food history, some of which is not appropriate for the book, but are too good to leave in the stacks.

From A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook, William Woys Weaver, 1982

Weaver notes that Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s circa 1850 cookbook captures the cultural diversification of the mid-Atlantic. From the American Indians, there are ingredients like green corn, squash, and terrapin with home remedies from sassafras, lily root, and spicewood berries. From Africans, okra, gumbo soup, and Creole foods spread by the Mississippi River trade and railroads. Germans contributed apple butter, bacon dumplings, bologna sausage, scrapple, and gingerbread. And because Quakers were teetotallers, entertainments focused on evening tea parties with spreads of tea cakes, loaf cakes, currant breads, cookies, tea biscuits, lemon butter, cream cheese and ice cream.

 

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Vegetariano

cover vegetarian

Vegetarian, 400 Regional Italian Recipes by Slow Food Editor, Rizzoli 2018, hardback $39.95, 448 pages

What was paradise, but a garden full of vegetables and herbs and pleasure? Nothing there but delights.

William Lawson

The Slow Food editors who compiled this book agree in their very first sentence, “Italy is an earthly paradise for vegetarians.”

And then they go on to make their case. Distinct regions developed a multitude of flavors. An agricultural population had excellent seasonal produce. And, both seasonal abundance and poverty developed the cook’s creativity.

This collection of home cooking and restaurant recipes begins by listing “Slow Food Presidia” vegetarian products by region–a particular wheat that grows in Abruzzo, Vesuvian Apricots from Campania, or the High Mountain Honeys from Lombardia and Valle d’Aosta. Every region has one or more distinct cheeses, some have wines and breads. Others have unique items like Trapani Sea Salt from Sicily and Rose Syrup from Liguria. Some of these (really very few) you may be able to hunt up on line or in an import store, but they should inspire you to find your own local produce. You may not be able to find a Sicilian Peach in a Bag, but your local orchard might have its own unique cultivar.

The book lists recipes by menu items starting with soups, salads, and crostini and pasta. Any competent cook can make a pasta sauce out of almost anything, but these recipes might spark surprise, like ‘O sicchio d’a munnezza, a Campanian sauce of nuts and dried fruits. Or a pasta itself made with cocoa powder, as in the historic Umbrian dish, finished with lemon, sugar, and cinnamon. Otherwise do some foraging and farm marketing to find cardoons, bryony, squash leaves, wild thistle and oyster mushrooms for your sauce. The recipes continues with rice, polenta, beans, eggs and custards, fritters, pizzas, casseroles, and sauces to finish with desserts.

The index divides the recipes by region, but not by ingredient, which makes it hard when the CSA sweet potatoes are piling up on the kitchen counter. But, it will also force you to really go through the book page by page, and you’ll likely discover something new from humble braised chard stems to an Easter Pie with Greens and Herbs that can command the table.

With this book, you’ll never again think of a vegetarian diet as limited, but instead as a celebration of the garden’s generous bounty.

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