October 26, 2009

Bread in few pots

I've been trying the 'no-knead' bread, with variants towards the poolish or the sponge pattern or whatever. Eh, it's okay; I'm not sure it's easier than making kneaded bread with a stand mixer, but it is a different way of timing the effort.

I don't like forming it up and turning it, risen, into a hot iron pan; in the first place, that's one more thing dirty, and in the second, when I tried it there was a lot of smoke. So today I gave the risen sticky dough a few folds, and lightly greased the iron pan, and put the lump of dough into the cold pan to rise. The whole thing was in the oven to stay out of the way and take advantage of the pilot light, and after half an hour or less I became hungry and turned the oven on.

Pretty glossy crust:

Ting! steaming the crust makes it shiny

and not too burned on the bottom:

slightly scorched loaf

and a smallish crumb, which *I* like because it keeps the jelly on the bread.

Big loaf, small crumb

No harder on the pan than this usually seems to be:

Slightly scorched enameled iron pan

So wrote clew.

February 27, 2009

Build your own Earth Oven, Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, Alan Scott

Subtitle: A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven, simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves.

It's a nice combination of making it an experimental, hands-on, try-and-fail-and improve task for non-bookish people, and providing pointers to more specialized knowledge useful for planning complicated better ovens. I approve of the soil texturing and settling experiments.

I'm also really impressed that they seriously discuss efficiency, and the Jeavons 'efficiency trap', and why alternative oven designs might be a better use of fuel if you can't do an enormous, carefully sequenced amount of baking with each firing. (Which means your bread has to keep, if you're baking for only a few people which probably means adjusting the recipe; one extreme being, I should think, Swedish rye crackers, which have the hole in the middle so they can be stored on a pole to keep dry between their infrequent bakings.)

Find in a Library: Build your Own Earth Oven

So wrote clew.

January 17, 2009

Touchstone cabbage

The New York Times is currently running good cheap winter recipes (not calling for saffron or a charming little Beaujolais, for instance). My favorite so far has been the cabbage and lentil stew; the only issue I have with it is that it's not much food as written. The smallest cabbage I found was more than twice as much as is called for, and you don't want to cook extra cabbage, because it earns its terrible reputation when overcooked or reheated. However, the lentil part of the recipe is easy to double, and the second half of the cabbage will keep in the fridge for a day or two.

I'm always happy to get a new good cabbage recipe; it's wildly nutritious and cheap, and very good when it isn't awful. A while ago I belonged to a Seattle CSA that sent home a page of recipes for each week's produce, and they had a great cabbage stir-fry recipe that I've lost. "Quick!" was the crux, I think.

There are lots of terrible cabbage recipes in the world, usually boiling it and then trying to amend matters with sour cream or meat. I had hopes of The Rustic Table, Constance Snow; the whole point is simple cheap nutritious food. There is one cabbage recipe, "Red Cabbage with Apples, Onions, and Caraway"; and it's a very quick stir-fry, so I'm happy enough.

Other than that, The Rustic Table is pretty good with a quirk of our time. The recipes look good and easy to adapt, and they are almost all laid out without requiring a turned page, which I appreciate. The chatty interludes are set in separate boxes, so it's easy to either scan for them or ignore them. The only thing that bothers me is Snow's attitude towards fat and sugar. Some of these recipes have plenty -- perhaps they were feast-recipes for the original peasants, which would be a useful thing to remind us of. Instead there's regular reference to how terrible fattening food is and also to how deadening it is to think about calories all the time. The combination of these two annoys me; I think a food conversation should avoid high-calorie foods, or accept them, but never indulge and kvetch at once.

Looking up cabbage recipes, I also pulled out Elisabeth Luard's The Old World Kitchen, and my goodness, it's a great cookbook. It would be -- she learned peasant cooking by moving to surviving peasant regions and learning to cook what was there, with the considerable assistance of her baffled neighbors (at the end of a hog-butchering day: "Please forgive me, but did your mother teach you nothing at all?") Even the redoubtable Luard only has a few cabbage recipes -- five or six, perhaps -- but one of them calls for fifty pounds of cabbage at once.

In the introduction, she remarks "Sometimes I have included or rejected a dish on grounds of taste -- my children in particular found that they were testers for more than enough northern cabbage recipes, and pleaded for a week or two on the sweet vegetables of Provence." This is a bit guarded; did Luard herself disdain the cabbage? Or only her tender children?

Saurkraut tomorrow, I think. And I have to admit that I think the Times' cabbage recipe is even better with a thread of saffron and a dash of red wine.

Find in a library: The Rustic Table

Find in a library: The Old-World Kitchen

P.S. -- I am an American. It is a credo of my cuisine that anything good can be put on pizza. And yet... I can imagine a crisp rye crust, and roasted apples, and one of the sweeter saurkrauts; it might be good, it could fit the physical parameters of pizza, but it would clearly be not a pizza but an unzipped pierogi.

So wrote clew.

April 29, 2006

1001 Cookies, Gregg R. Gillespie

I had meant to get Rose's Christmas Cookies, because Rose Levy Berenbaum's tomes on bread and cake are thorough and useful. Her cookie book is ruined by "These unsurpassable cookies were first served me by lovely Friend Cabot on her grandmother's gracious Sèvres", etc., a species of cookbook-filler I reprehend, especially when it causes page breaks in the actual recipes. On suspicious re-examination, the bread and cake tomes do have more personal-history fluff than I approve of, but the ratio of fluff to recipes is tolerable.

"Gracious" is as self-destructive an adjective as "classy".

One of the Christmas Cookies is a beautiful gingerbread model of Notre Dame Cathedral, with a remarkably detailed rose-window made of melted sugar candies.

Anyhow, so, Gillespie's cookbook is extremely dense: no single cookie recipe takes more than a quarter of a page, there are useful tables of adaptations and weights and measures, and the cookies are ordered by name and then indexed both by type (bar, drop, refrigerator) and by ingredients. Excellent principles.

Most of the cookies aren't very good, though. I thought perhaps it was because they called for margarine rather than butter, but changing that didn't help; I've fiddled with the protein-content of my flour, in case "all-purpose" varies coast to coast; but no, they're always too sweet and too gummy. We might just have fundamentally different tastes in cookies. (One of these recipes has artificial bacon bits in it, for instance. Genius or madness? It's even better than that: they are Breakfast Cookies and the other flavorings are orange juice concentrate and Grape-Nuts. Next: Sartre's cookbook.)

Find in a Library: Rose's Christmas Cookies

Find in a Library: 1001 Cookies

So wrote clew.

September 08, 2004

Peaches and peas

I've made the peach custard pie from Laura Schenone's Ten Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, and found it simple, tasty, and not too rich. The custard is more of the floury-eggy than the creamy kind, so the total pie was a lot like a clafouti in a crust.

Tangentially tangentially, I think it was in a review of Schenone's book in The Women's Review of Books that I ran across a reference to Sunset Magazine being an early proponent of snow peas, which Grow Your Own Chinese Vegetables was unexpectedly surprised by. If Sunset was an early proponent of such things, establishing them among West Coast epicureans before they became familiar to the rest of the country, then that explains both why Grow... seems behindhand to me, and why Sunset still trades on an image of almost-bohemian inventive consumption.

September 01, 2004

Flatbreads & Flavors, Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid

All the recipes I've tried from this so far have worked. I don't know how to keep burnt flour off an un-oiled griddle, though.

The flatbreads are traditional from around the world; yeasted or not, based on wheat, corn, rye; some with inclusions, some extremely plain. The "flavors" are the food that the authors were offered with the breads. It's mostly simple, nourishing, one-pot, everyday family food. (Useful! And classic: remember, if only from Courtesans and Fishcakes, the ancient division of food into sitos and opson.)

The book's layout doesn't live up to the practicality of the recipes. Cross-references are often given without page numbers, so that comparing similar recipes requires more thumbs than I have, or a litter of bookmarks. Worse, the bread recipes usually cross a page-turn. This is especially annoying when my hands are sticky with bread-dough, which will glue the pages together if it doesn't surrender them to insects. It isn't logically necessary, because most of the recipes will fit on a two-page spread and the long ones often have logical breaks ("set to rise overnight"). It probably isn't even necessary to preserve the book's length, because there's a lot of travelogue material among the recipes, and no reason for that material not to jump pages where needed.

Cookbooks, especially pretty ones with wide margins and sidebars and autobiographical material, have this counterproductive pretty-printing far too often. I suspect there's a graphic-design rule, perhaps calcified in some otherwise-useful software, encouraging layouts to always put a heading on the right-hand page. It might look better with lorem ipsum dolor but it divorces the form of this text from its function. Fie.

The autobiographical-anthropological stuff in this particular book is okay; it's maybe surprising in hindsight that everywhere was lovely and unique and full of friendly home cooks, but I'm happy to believe that the world is like that for good travelers.

One of the anecdotes might even be useful to historians; while discussing the many flatbreads of the Middle East, they pass on a archaeologist's tale of having failed to describe a tasty, fluffy bread to the camp cook in a region that mostly ate tough bread made of the same ingredients. A decade after he left, the archaeologist got to go back to the region, and found that practically everyone was eating a novel and fluffy bread. When he asked where it came from, his old cook looked at him oddly and explained that it was the bread he had asked for a decade ago. This was a salutary warning for the archaologist, who was professionally inclined to assume that foodways don't change that quickly, and certainly not on mere rumor. (p. 192)

I was in a cafeteria surrounded by day-camp kids earlier this summer, trying to ignore the furor, when it slowly became apparent that the table-pounding had rhythm and purpose. I even knew the tune; it was a simplified version of a song, or game, or something like, that I was lucky enough to learn from Artis the Spoonman and a friend years ago in the Allegro café. I asked whether there was a circle version, and where the kids had learned it. There is a circle version, usually played with increasing speed as I remember (but you need a larger table than a cafeteria had). None of the kids knew where it came from, but all of them, and their deafened adult minders all the more, agreed that every children's camp in the state - maybe the country - maybe the world - has been playing it obsessively all summer. The adults didn't remember it from any previous summer.

Now, Artis the Spoonman is such a nexus that this could have happened a lot of ways. I don't even remember if he composed it or found it. He's been around the world with rhythm and string and has performed with someone famous from about every category of music. And who knows where the fad will go? although after playing it all summer for a year, I doubt any of those kids will forget the rhythm, it's a powerful earworm.

I wonder where the words will come from.

ISBN: 0668114113

August 22, 2004

Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro

Subtitle: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

There are plenty of books on the collision of advertising, technology, and mass production with changing labor arrangements and feminism and changing taste. The two strengths of this particular one are, first, its attention to how advertising led the shift to modernized, not-from-scratch cooking habits; second, some entertaining and relevant biographical details about popular cooks of the 20th century.

The strength of the biographies comes from the paradox of being a 'great chef' in the Mass Age. James Beard, for instance, comes off much worse than I would have thought, for decrying popular taste and mass production while working for the producers. Some less-lasting cooks ruined their food but saved their intellectual honor by trying to find decent food in the redoubling pile of goo.

The story starts right after WWII, because the new technology needed a use to pay off:

What the industry had to do was persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.

This wasn't easy, because most of the food tasted awful and wasn't all that much cheaper than fresh; as Peter Wimsey learns in Murder Must Advertise, you don't have to advertise butter; you only have to advertise margarine. It can't have helped the advertisers of the day that food labs were producing dehydrated sherry and breaded lima-bean-sticks; Pompayne is a far more natural sell.

The history of processed food is thus a little like the history of The Zipper, which neither worked well when invented nor met a need. The zipper was sold on its modernism while it was still being developed; only much later were zippers so much better than rows of buttons that new garment design could happen. Frozen food needed lots of things to happen. Non-farm families needed to get freezers. The food needed to taste better and get cheaper. Women needed to be persuaded that they were just as good and loving if they served defrosted food; since the postwar period was also rife with expostulation that women needed to leave paid work because a woman's touch was vital to the home, and at the same time it took most of a decade for even the US economy to really get going and support consumerism, this was a bit of a rough start.

There's a lot of argument that the consumerist habits of modern America are supported by feminism, more specifically by women's increased earnings and decreased time for thrift; but the ad frenzy is older than The Female Eunuch. I can't remember how much I've read arguing that consumerism accidentally pushed women out of the traditional directly productive rôle in the house and into middleman-heavy paid employment, to support consumption.

I've veered from Shapiro's actual book. The next section to catch my imagination was on the fashion for "glorifying" goshawful, canned-soup-casserole type recipes in the '50s. This seems to have done well partly because advertisers pushed it, partly because it was the least effort that felt like "home-making", and maybe because the 1950s are more responsible for the death of skill than I had previously thought.

The oddest figure is Poppy Cannon, who was a gourmand and acquaintance of James Beard, but a much more openhearted ally of the food industry. Shapiro defends her:

At the center of Beard's culinary life was a glorious heap of fresh ingredients—the meats, fish, vegetables, and herbs that needed only his talented hands to release their goodness. At the center of Poppy Cannon's culinary life was an American housewife, and she just got home from work.

Both half right, I think.

Cannon's prose was awful, and her food sounds worse; her most popular book was The Can-Opener Cookbook. She was ambitious and successful overall, though; she expected and achieved a home and a career and romance. The last was her long, long attachment and moderately-illegal-then marriage to Walter White, a famous civil rights activist.

Cannon knew Alice B. Toklas, and Gertrude Stein's rapture over a Mixmaster. Toklas in turn was the avant-garde for Julia Child. Child wouldn't have written her astounding book if she hadn't been shut out of the male ranks of Parisian cookery; without her systematic and gentle ordering of techniques, characteristic of people who learn cooking late or painfully (Isabella Beeton; Irma Rombauer), the American backlash against bland processed food would have happened differently, and later.

ISBN: 0670871540

May 03, 2004

Grow Your Own Chinese Vegetables, Geri Harrington

Evidently the mainstream US didn't know about snow peas in 1978. This from a Northeast gardening book, so maybe they'd made it into common diet on the West Coast already; but good gracious, what persistence of ignorance over gusto.

Harrington gives gardening advice, simple recipes, and amusing factods for a couple score Chinese vegetables (some could equally be counted as Japanese or Middle Eastern or African, but she seems to have fallen in love in a Chinese cooking class). Many of the vegetables are now easy to find in any Seattle grocery, and the gardening advice is slightly wrong for our climate, but it's a good minor document for that shift in American eating which I think of as Escape from the Iceberg Lettuce.

I was actually looking for Asian collard greens. I didn't find one here, but that faithful and ancient Brassica could have travelled that far.

ISBN: 0882663690

Eat My Words, Janet Theophano

I like the idea of collecting receipt books, manuscript or published, and deducing what one can from them about the last four or five hundred years of social history. I wish this particular attempt had had either more direct quotations from the sources, or a more sweeping theory. I expect it's a useful academic book, but the refrain of being neither able to prove nor to disprove a pattern as suggested in the work of [lastname], [date] wasn't any too gripping. (For instance, that an upper-class woman who wrote down a servant's recipe might have been respecting the servant, by treating her work like that of a friend; or might have been arrogating the cook's intellectual property.)

Some of the excerpted work was fascinating, usually by contrasting expectations of Femininity with a vivid experience of it. Elizabeth Raffald left service in the 18th. century, married a market gardener, became a commercial success running something very like a deli (meats, portable soup, sweets) and published The Experienced English Housekeeper, which was not the last of her successful enterprises. We don't seem to know as much about Mrs. Abby Fisher, who survived slavery and became a caterer and cookbook author.

There were also notes left in family or personal collections of recipes, suggesting sometimes how much the author enjoyed cooking and recipe-keeping, or sometimes how unsuitable and onerous it was.

ISBN: 0312233787

April 20, 2004

Made from Scratch, Jean Zimmerman

Subtitle: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth

I was ill-disposed to believe in Zimmerman's good intent, or clarity of thought, can't tell, after page 3:

A woman named Elrina lived with her husband in a small wooden shack in the corner of the back lot behind the house, and she helped out in the kitchen. Mostly, though, my grandmother herself dished up the stewed tomatoes, chicken-fried steak...

If you're claiming to honor the work of taking care of a family, it's insufficiently generous to extend honor only to your grandmother, giving her the credit for dishing out the food (that Elrina had cooked?). If it's honorable work, Elrina gets her share of the honor. The lady of the house doesn't get moral credit for work done by someone else.

I think Zimmerman wasn't actually playing that game, although it's so familiar from nineteenth-century social engineering that I also don't think she should go that close. I think Zimmerman's problem is that she hasn't really decided how she wants to live (she's guilt-stricken by SAHMs, gourmet neighbors, etc.), she doesn't have Laura Schenone's capacity to live imaginatively in two contradictory understandings, and she didn't digest her source reading well enough.

I found it difficult to credit her scholarship after p. 58, when she claimed that Homer was the scribe of the Odyssey as the Brothers Grimm were scribes of folktales. Less clunking error: it's all very well to go swimmy about Hestia's honor as the ancient goddess of the hearth, but do remember that she was knocked out of the Top Twelve to make room for Bacchus. Nor am I convinced by the interpretations Zimmerman puts on plausible facts; she seems to take 19th. c. discussions of the woman's sphere at face value. E.g., p, 84, by 1916 there were 17,778 home economics college students, most wanting to teach home economics, compared with 213 in 1905. This is not great evidence that seventeen thousand women wanted to practice, or preach, the home arts. It's great evidence that they wanted to be paid. And if the time she cites as rich in the home traditions wasn't good enough to justify them for themselves, it's not good justification for them in ours.

I quit reading somewhere in her introduction of first-stage feminism. I'd rather reread her sources. The rest of this is really not a fair review, since I just flipped through the last two-thirds of the book.

It seems to me that she wants to justify taking the time to make her family surroundings pleasant by imbuing them with all the grandeur and importance of goddesses and cultural transmission. But Etheldred of The Daisy Chain could explain why that doesn't work; if you're devoted to taking care of other people, you can't send in a bill explaining how you want them to reward you for it. (You can if you're doing it professionally, of which more later.)

I also don't recognize her narrative of what monobloc feminism wanted women to do. She seems personally to have swung from wannabe groovy hippie teen-hood to 1980s careerism to her current state of doubt. I know more feminists who combined interesting work with whole-grain bread-baking from the start, and don't have to have a midlife crisis about it. Besides, Schenone again was more interesting about generational attitudes towards traditional women's work.

There's the ghost of a book on how to arrange the very survival of non-market activity in here. Zimmerman says, repeatedly, that everyone needs to do some of the housework, that we have to value the work of caring and maintenance and cleaning up, because (my summary) not doing so will lead to environmental, health and labor-market disasters. Works for me, but previous go-rounds have indicated that no degree of sententious belief in the sanctity of the home was sufficient to defend the homes of the poor from the garbage of the rich.

I was totally unconvinced by her assumption that buying professionally made food doesn't involve caring, even if it's just as good as you would have made yourself. For one thing, remember Elrina. Think of the good wife in Proverbs, or any cheesemaking farmwife. They fed many people; they cooked or oversaw cooking for the spinning maids, the hired hands. Cooking is a skilled art as well as drudgework, so there's always good reason to let the best cook cook for everyone; and the best cook cooks with care and attention even if she's selling the result. Maybe we should be thinking about how to recognize love and care whether they're paid or not.

I'm sorry I didn't get to Zimmerman's chapter on sewing and needlework, because I have been cynically wondering whether the current fashion for knitting is a feeble attempt at self-sufficiency before the Depression hits, or preparation for the anti-women's-rights backlash. When I'm not cynical, I find it adequately explained by the starvation of the senses that indoor life and cars and mass production have given us. Making anything is better immersion in several senses at once than shopping can be.

ISBN: 0-684-86959-4

April 03, 2004

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone

Subtitle: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances

Schenone can hold two contradictory ideas at once, which is vital to her project. She writes about the most common and emotional and conflicted food, how everyday cooking was forced to change in the huge waves of migration and innovation that have shaped the US. The three common elements are cheapness, and class-consciousness, and the ties to traditional life through traditional food. This is not a history of the luxurious and thought-out local cuisines of our nation. Still, Schenone can find something good to say about almost everyone and almost every food. (Plantation mistresses don't get a sympathetic word, but JELL-O brand gelatin does.)

The main story is nothing I haven't read elsewhere, but it is a brisk connected introduction to its subjects. To summarize the historical arc: Immigrant women were, first, desperate to find anything to feed their poor families with; second, obliged to cook the old dishes as a duty to keep the old ways alive. Less-recent immigrants got sniffy about the uncouth, smelly food eaten by the new (or native) people; food became an element of indoctrination, more or less benign (e.g. Settlement Houses, more, vs. Indian schools, less). Women's sphere of work got much smaller as manufacture moved out of the house. Women finally moved out of the house, leaving no-one to do thoughtful cooking. How that void will be filled is still not clear—is Alice Waters the anomaly, or are Lunchables?

The best thing in her writing is a willingness to describe the good and the bad that women found in each condition, and a gusto to imagine what it was like and to look at what happened next.

She starts with samp, considers how English and African food traditions had to adapt to the different grains in the New World. (Boston brown bread is an English steamed pudding with New World corn and rye and triangle-trade molasses.) Considers the energy and self-respect of women who went out on week-long gathering trips, as many Native Americans did, or controlled the dairy, as Englishwomen did. She has more sympathetic imagination about what this was like long ago than is pukka scholarly, but her imaginative descriptions are clearly set off with "Perhaps..." or similar. She also found an authentic log-wide hearth to study cooking at, and relished the athleticism of heaving the hot logs and huge pots, kicking the embers, testing heat with a twig or her hand.

A recurring feature of her half-nostalgia is that immigrants were often too poor in the Old Country to eat its cuisine. In the States, they weren't preserving 'the way it was' as much as 'the way it should have been'. It would be interesting to work out how much culinary practice went back from the US to the various old countries, once they'd caught up and the whole world had enough to eat. I need to properly read and cook from A Mediterranean Feast, which goes into alarming detail about the poverty around the Med.

Schenone clearly likes to eat and cook, without pretending that it isn't work. This keeps the last section, on modern food, from coming to a clear conclusion, but it also keeps her from being preachy. She isn't happy about the current US diet or the lack of time that drives it, but after writing the whole dairying-to-war-work history she doesn't assume it's going to stay the way it is forever, as long as we remember that we have to do something about it sometime.

ISBN: 0-393-01671-4

March 01, 2004

The Good Stuff Cookbook, Helen Witty

None of these are very difficult recipes, and they're all extra-tasty; one would find the results in fancy wrapping near the checkout stand of a thorough, perhaps a swank, grocery or deli. I think Witty must live somewhere with good gardening and terrible delis. Her Fancy Pantry was even better for a gardener; it has a seasonal index reminding you what to make of what's ripe together.

From Good Stuff, I have been making lots of the Grissini (breadsticks) and baked corn chips, because one recipe calls for an egg-white and the other for an egg-yolk and besides, the oven is already hot. They're all so crunchy! it's so easy to experiment with additions! And I eat them so quickly!

Witty even has a comment on the Early English origins of beaten biscuit, that effortful alternative to the use of saleratus. From p. 111; "flead biscuits" ... were made with flead (a fatty membrane from the innards of a porker) ... the dough was then thumped to a fare-thee-well.

Flead Cakes still current in Kent; check out the Biddenden Cakes in memory of twelfth-century conjoined twins. Flead crust is mentioned in Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, too; item 1218.

ISBN: 0-7611-0287-6

February 29, 2004

Love Elixirs, Titania Hardie

Subtitle: Titania's Book of Romantic Potions

As I don't have Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, and violets are blooming in my backyard, and the first recipe in ...Elixirs was for sweet violet wine; why not? Especially as one doesn't have to ferment the wine, only make a syrup to add to wine; pretty close to an online recipe from a Sephardic grandmother.

Four cups of fresh violets is a copse's worth; I got one cup, about half an ounce, and reduced the recipe accordingly. (Hardie calls for 4.5 oz. fresh or 1 tsp. dried, which oughtn't be equivalent. I think 1 oz. dried is likelier.)

The syrup is fragrant enough, and is an eerie slate-blue, which I approve of in a natural comestible. I had some left over after filling a bottle, so I boiled it harder to see if I could make candied violet blossoms. (Perhaps this experimentation was inspired by all the Viola odorata I'd tasted already. They're delicious fresh off the plant.)

Could I? yes and no; I'd have done better had I looked up basic hard-candy instructions (in Joy of Cooking) before I'd used half the remaining syrup.

The first problem with candying violets is that sugar hot enough to turn into hard candy will shrivel the violet, although they're still purple and recognizable. At the jelly stage, the flowers are more attractive, but I didn't have enough to fill a jelly-jar so I don't know how it would keep. (Would it need a boiling-water bath, or would the sugar content and temperature of the violet jelly sterilize the fresh violets well enough?)

My experiments were truncated because I forgot how rapidly candy goes from 'hot enough' to 'far too hot', especially when you only have a quarter-cup of syrup. The two tablespoons of recognizable candy drops I got right are violet-scented, and shade through a range of violet and purple; when it all foamed up and crystallized it turned pale brown, and the caramel flavor overrode the violet.

The violets sieved out of the original tisane were quite tasty, too, and there's a medieval recipe using them to make a pudding. Personally, I wouldn't use the saffron, however authentic. (I bet not having any was authentic, too.)

What I might do when violets bloom in the spring... common crocuses, purple with yellow-orange stamens, are also in bloom. I might check whether common crocus stamens are toxic, and use them to garnish a violet pudding, without mixing them in.

Saffron crocuses bloom in the autumn. Autumn crocuses also bloom in the autumn, and aren't crocuses, they're Colchicum spp., named after the island Medea came from - they're poisonous in every part. Careful.

ISBN: 0-7683-2497-1

February 28, 2004


Sodium or potassium bicarbonate. Baking soda, or sometimes what puts the fizz in soda pop.

I've run across references to 'health ruined by salaratus', though alas I've lost my original quote - Yonge, maybe, writing of persons so unfortunate as to be forced to live in US boardinghouses? Or, for instance, in Godey's Lady's' Book and Magazine, "Saleratus Destroys the Teeth". More seriously, Ellen G. White (1860s and later) warned against it, recommending fruit and varied whole grains in the diet instead.

So; really dangerous? It would be an easy sell as a nervous superstition; it was a new invention, with a bright halo of Progress and a trailing umbra of Risk. It was the easy way to make bread, the poor household's way, the way used by an unfeminine woman who did something other than tend the proofing yeast or beat biscuits with a mallet. Very suspicious. And of course it might have been badly manufactured, or promoted for reckless uses.

The use of soda ash for bread is said to be a New World invention, indeed a pre-Columbian one. And, as far as bread goes, the most famous use currently is probably Irish soda bread. Well set to fret nineteenth-century nerves, that combination of Native American and Hibernian history.

November 25, 2003

The Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton

Distributed Proofreading and Project Gutenberg have provided a plain-text version of this classic of mid-Victorian domestic competence and social uneasiness. As its title-page now says,


Comprising Information for the





She argues that domestic comfort has commercial competition¹, and therefore a housewife needs to be even more competent than in the past. The details of what a good under house maid should do were probably pored over by the women who couldn't afford a housemaid at all.

Possibly because Mrs. Beeton wasn't brought up a housewife, she researched and wrote a compendium that isn't just full of detail and instruction but is usefully laid out, sort of like an O'Reilly Nutshell handbook - it starts with an Analytical Index, with pointers given not by page-number but by section-number. I suspect this made it easier to collate and update. (It was certainly easier to adapt to the plain-text version, which is just as well - the layout was complex; sidebars, inline illos., different type sizes and faces².)

This is a wonderfully informative book if you read nineteenth-century literature. It has, for instance, a table of the usual yearly wages for two dozen servant's jobs, with or without particular benefits and expectations[21]; the legal standing of the I.O.U., and which feints to disavow one would or wouldn't stand in court[2723]; a summary of the fiscal responsibility of a woman in and out of marriage[2725]; details of what outer garments a lady sheds during what kinds of courtesy calls[27]; recipes for cleaning cloth[2267], mending china[2331], preserving food[822]; and historical side-notes and jokes, so that Bay-leaves have one culinary entry warning about use and overuse[180], but another that begins with a recipe for a fish sauce[512] and ends with a poetic essay:

THE BAY.--We have already described (see No. 180) the difference between the cherry-laurel (_Prunus Laurus cerasus_) and the classic laurel (_Laurus nobilis_), the former only being used for culinary purposes. The latter beautiful evergreen was consecrated by the ancients to priests and heroes, and used in their sacrifices. "A crown of bay" was the earnestly-desired reward for great enterprises, and for the display of uncommon genius in oratory or writing. It was more particularly sacred to Apollo, because, according to the fable, the nymph Daphne was changed into a laurel-tree. The ancients believed, too, that the laurel had the power of communicating the gift of prophecy, as well as poetic genius; and, when they wished to procure pleasant dreams, would place a sprig under the pillow of their bed. It was the symbol, too, of victory, and it was thought that the laurel could never be struck by lightning. From this word comes that of "laureate;" Alfred Tennyson being the present poet laureate, crowned with laurel as the first of living bards.

That's a typical leap; one is toddling along in the cookie-recipes and gets a archaeological reconstruction of the spread of cereal grains after the Deluge, or the provision of water to the metropolises of the ancient world. Miss Nightingale's opinion of strengthening digestible food might turn up in the baking section or next to the Invalid's Cutlet[1865].

I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they look well-thought-out. Most of them have heading for ingredients, mode (instructions), time, average cost, volume or servings produced, and when the recipe is seasonable. In honor of Patrick O'Brien and the wholly decent movie, I might try Aunt Nelly's Pudding[1224], which seems to be as much treacle as suet. There's even a recipe for portable soup[180], if I want to spend more than twenty hours cooking.

URL: http://www.gutenberg.net/1/0/1/3/10136/. Versions ending "-8" are in ISO-8859-1, the others are in US-ASCII.

¹ From fancy saloons, for instance, or men's clubs, as discussed in Consumer Society in American History: A Reader.

²Yes, I did a little of the gruntwork. Love me now, avoid the rush. I am really impressed by whoever did the post-processing to smooth everybody's attempts at the gruntwork into one usable text; the credits given are for Jonathan Ingram & Sandra Brown.)

October 24, 2003

Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker

...at least one young cook... called a home economist at the local utility company and complained that her grocer was unable to supply her with potato jackets!

(From the recipe for "Baked Potatoes".)

"Newlywed Cooking" used to be a standard joke genre. I never have heard why the sweet bride hadn't learned these things before she left home, esp. as cooking required many hands before chopping machines. But what really puzzles me about this quote is - why was the home economist employed by the utility company?

The extension services still do useful New Deal things, e.g. check whether your pressure-cooker is likely to blow up, and I could see a home economist being employed there, possibly covering a toxics hotline as well. Were public utilities conflated with extension services? Did the newfangled electric utilities hire home economists to provide user support for baffling new appliances? Susan Strasser might say; or Mechanization Takes Control.

ISBN: 0-672-51831-7

June 18, 2003

Romance of Food, Barbara Cartland

I looked up author-celebrity-cookbooks a while ago, in awe of Terry Pratchett. Cartland published several, sucessfully in her time; you too may run across one in a used bookstore or junk shop. If you find The Romance of Food, I recommend to you the photograph of noisette of lamb w/baby veg (p44). And then note, with (if you would) Judeo-Christian wonder, the romatic tie-in:
"what woman does not long to be carried like a lamb in the arms of the man she loves."

A shepherdess, for one. Better to be certain that one is an old ewe too tough for mutton.

ISBN: 0-385-19269-x