Masters of Social Gastronomy: The Mysteries of ICE CREAM

We couldn’t wait for summer, so we’re bringing summer to us!

Tuesday, April 29
FREE FREE FREE, 21+ RSVP
Doors at 7:30pm, talks start at 8pm
Littlefield, 622 Degraw Street in Gowanus

Every month, our MSG lectures take on the history and science behind some of your favorite foods. Up this month: ICE CREAM.

Hear the tale of vanilla ice cream, a commonplace flavor with a rare and exotic past. We’ll take a hard look at the science that makes ice cream tick and see if we can harness the DIY spirit to craft up astronaut ice cream in your very own kitchen.

The wide range of curious flavors will be on full display, with 19th-century artichoke-and-tomato ice cream and other adventuresome (and masochistic) creations.

The History Dish: Maple Syrup Brittle

maplebrittleA glass-like maple brittle.

The warming weather means the end of maple sugaring season. It’s not a sad thing, it just means it’s time to enjoy the spoils!

I’m experimenting with a recipe for Maple Sugar Brittle for an upcoming family event at the New-York Historical Society. Now through August 2014 they have an exhibit up called Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. The primary focus is on 19th century quilts, but it looks at larger material culture with items like a pattern for a homemade mitten–with the index finger separated for a trigger finger.

Trigger finger mittens.

Free labor dress: noble, if a little dowdy.

One item I found particularly interesting is the “Free Labor Dress,” a dress made from cloth not produced by slave labor. Before and during the Civil War, advocates in the North were choosing clothing made from wool, silk, linen in an effort to not support slavery. Cotton was only used when it was certified from a free labor source.

There’s a parallel to this idea in food: many people encouraged the use of maple sugar instead of cane sugar. Cane sugar was also produced on plantations using slave labor, while maple sugar was made in the North by “…only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. Yep, it only took underage farm children hours of collecting sap and boiling it down to make maple syrup.

With this idea in mind, I uncovered a recipe for Molasses Candy by Catherine Beecher. Catherine, a famous cookbook writer in the 19th century, was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was also an fervent abolitionist. And although not as outspoken on abolition as her siblings, Catherine does suggest the use of maple syrup instead of cane molasses in her candy recipe.

Molasses Candy, from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-book, 1871.

I’m working on a fussier interpretation of this recipe, but in the meantime, I stumbled upon a process that’s quite simple and exceedingly delicious.

To make my maple sugar candy, I boiled maple syrup on high heat until it began to darken. While the sugar was boiling, I greased a rimmed baking sheet with spray Mazola oil, and spread roasted, salted nuts in an even layer. Catherine suggests roasted corn–we know it better as “corn nuts“–which I think would make an awesome brittle.

I poured the maple sugar over top of the nuts and then used a fork to press and then gently pull the sugar and nuts into a thin layer. The sugar is very stretchy after just a moment of cooling and gives you plenty of flexibility before it gets too brittle.

After the sugar was cool to the touch, I broke it into pieces with my hands. Done. Super simple, super beautiful, and incredibly delicious.

From the Piggly Wiggly to King Kullen: How We Got to Grocery Shop

Interior of a grocery store, 1936. Source: The New York Public Library.

We’ve got one more guest post this week from Carly Robins, an actress, writer, producer, and voice over artist. She is also a lover of food and creator of  Grocery Tales (coming soon to a TV near you).

I love grocery shopping! There. I said it! What most people think of as a chore, I relish. Even when I travel, I love to stop at the local grocery store because I find it is the only way to truly feel and understand the local culture.

Dutch Grocery on Broad St., 1859. NYPL.

Many years ago when my husband and I were in Laos we had the most amazing crème brulee with this sugared topping that I had never tasted before. I couldn’t stop dreaming about it all night and the following day, through lots of hand gestures and pointing to the menu, the waiter came back with a package, written in Thai, and gave us directions to the local grocery store. I discovered it was coconut palm sugar, and I was mesmerized by it. This experience confirmed not only my obsession with grocery stores, but where our food comes from, what foods we are exposed to, and how the grocery store experience has evolved.

In 1859, George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman founded The Great American Tea Company, which later became Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company or A&P. It was a storefront on Vesey Street in New York City that also had a mail order business. In the beginning, they sold mostly coffee, tea, spices and other dry goods. However, by the 1880s, they were operating a hundred stores across the USA,becoming the first grocery store chain. They stocked their shelves with the help of their own invention, the first refrigerated rail cars.

A&P, 1936. Source: New York Public Library.

The next big advancement came when Clarence Saunders invented the first ever “self-service” grocery store in 1916, and called it The Piggly Wiggly.  Saunders noticed how much time and money was wasted by having clerks wait on each customer individually, fill orders, and often deliver groceries to the customer’s home. The Piggly Wiggly allowed customers to self-select the items they would like to purchase and then, in what was also a new innovation, have a cashier ring them up. These items were individually price-marked and displayed into categories, birthing the need for branding and packaging to grab the attention of the shopper.

These stores were hugely successful and franchises were sold nationwide to hundreds of grocery retailers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, an explosion of family chain stores like Ralph’s, Safeway, and Kroger opened, mimicking the Piggly Wiggly model. There were all kinds of buying and selling and merging of stores, along with anti-trust problems and other legal battles, that made for a little bit of chaos, but there were also opportunities for great wealth. Within this explosion, stores started including different sections such as dairy, meat, and produce, offering their patrons the convenience of going to one store for all their shopping needs. A juicy little tidbit: Saunders, the Piggly Wiggly founder, eventually ran into some financial trouble trying to manipulate stock prices and lost control of his company. Is that an American story or what?

The next innovation came from a former employee of a Kroger Grocery Store: Michael Cullen opened his first King Kullen Grocery in Queens, August of 1930. His business model focused on high volume at low profit margins. It was a smashing success; specialty groceries couldn’t compete with massive stores, large volume, and low low pricing. And according to the Smithsonian Institute, King Kullen is considered America’s first ‘supermarket’.

Living in New York City affords me the luxury of many grocery stores, whether specialty or otherwise. Just like on that trip to Laos, my eyes are now open to the global possibilities that ingredients provide and how we can incorporate those ingredients into our daily lives. It’s all about the ingredients and where to find them! Speaking of, I have a fantastic Gluten Free Banana Bread that is moist and delicious. I am able to buy most of the ingredients at one of my favorite specialty stores, Sahadi’s Importing Company. It’s a Middle Eastern grocery store founded in 1898 in Manhattan until it got displaced because of construction for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Sahadi’s is now located on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights and is known for their bulk section options, including various alternative flours.

Gluten Free Banana Bread

½ Cup Dark Chocolate Chips
2 Eggs
2 ripe Bananas, mashed
1/2 cup Coconut Nectar
1/2 Stick or Less of Butter
1 tsp. Real Vanilla Extract
3/4 cup Brown Rice Flour
1/4 cup Coconut Flour
1/4 cup Almond Flour
1 tsp. Baking Soda
1/3 cup Melted Coconut Oil

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a bread loaf pan with parchment paper over sides to easily lift and add the chocolate chips to the bottom of the pan. (You can always incorporate the chocolate chips into the batter after all ingredients have been combined BUT…chocolate chips that have been melted and baked at the bottom of the pan are a delight to behold. I learned this trick because apparently my mother in-law, who had a lot of tasty cooking accidents, did this in error while cooking a bundt cake and my husband swears it was the best thing he has ever eaten. It also allows you to use less chocolate if you want since it is concentrated in one area only. You can use this method on any sweet bread.)
  2. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs lightly. Add mashed bananas, butter, nectar and vanilla and mix thoroughly.
  3. Add melted coconut oil, then add Rice flour, Coconut flour, Almond Flour, baking soda. Mix until all ingredients are moist.
  4. Pour batter into loaf pan. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes or until bread is no longer wet in the middle.

Event: Masters of Social Gastronomy and the Rise of Chocolate

Chocolate by Windell Oskay

MSG PRESENTS The Rise of Chocolate: The Heated History of the World’s #1 Candy

Tuesday, March 25th
FREE
Doors @ 7:30
Littlefield, Gowanus, Brooklyn
RSVP PLZ
This month MSG tackles the world’s most popular candy: chocolate!
We’ll track the history of chocolate from its roots as an ancient Mesoamerican beverage to its current world-championship status. You’ll learn how a yellow, football-shaped tropical fruit transforms into something Whole Foods can charge you $10 for, and what “Mexican Hot Chocolate” actually has in common with what Montezuma drank.
Peek at Europe’s decades-long war about British chocolate and uncover why the whole continent seems to have it out for its American counterpart. Burning questions of modern confectionery will be answered: What’s better, milk or dark? Why does Hershey’s have its own theme park? Do M&M’s actually melt in your hand?
And of course, it wouldn’t be spring without a discussion of Easter candy, including everyone’s favorite, the Cadbury Mini Egg. In fact, I may have just purchased $50 in mini eggs to share at the event…RSVP HERE!

An Interview with Russian Cookbook Author Anya von Bremzen

Anya von Bremzen, a James Beard Award winning food writer and author of the best-selling Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing and Sarah Lohman, a historic gastronomist and author of Four Pounds Flour, both recreate historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past. They took some time to talk turkey (okay, more like chebureki) in honor of Anya’s Tenement Talk on Wednesday March 19th at 6:30. Tickets to the event are free! 

Sarah Lohman: Out of curiosity, do you still live in Queens? In the book, you mention your mother does. I’ve lived in Queens as long as I’ve lived in New York, and what I love the most about it is he incredible ethnic diversity of food. How has your Queens connection influenced your coking and interest in food? Any restaurant recommendations?

Anya von Bremzen: Yes, I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, two blocks from my mom. Jackson Heights is said to be the most multicultural community in the US, and when we moved here over two decades ago, it suddenly felt fine and empowering to be an immigrant, it became positive part of our identity. My previous books are about global cuisines: Latin American, Asian, Spanish, etc., and it was great top be able to find any ingredients I wanted right on my doorstep. I like La Portena Argentinean restaurant, and Chao Thai in Elmhurst.

Continue reading the interview on Notes from the Tenement Museum, here.

Four Pounds Flour Featured on Serious Eats

Recipe testing Warm vanilla cakes, photo by Jaya Saxena.

There’s a lovely article about me on Serious Eats! Reporter Jaya Saxena shadowed me on a day of recipe testing (for the book…everything for the book…) and I’m charmed by her write-up. We had a lot of fun.

Excerpt below, read it all here!

“Historic Gastronomist” is a title Lohman came up with to describe her mission of discovering American history through food, and using those findings to illuminate our current eating habits. “Molecular gastronomists, or modernists, use modern technology to advance cuisine and our knowledge of food,” she explains. “I use history.”

The History Dish: Washington’s Birthday

washingtoncakeWashington Cake: Dense, moist, and chock full of raisins.

Today we have a guest post from my intern, J.C. Paradiso! She’s a trained chef with her masters in Food Studies from NYU, and this “semester”, we’re working towards launching her own blog under the handle The Savage and the Sage. Look for it soon!

Presidents’ Day has never really resonated for me. If you are like me, a holiday just isn’t a holiday unless there is some kind of food involved. No food memories, no holiday.

I did some digging and realized that there is no holiday called Presidents’ Day. The holiday we celebrate is officially called Washington’s Birthday. 

At the time of his death in 1799, George Washington was largely considered the most important figure in American History. He was eulogized by Congressman and Revolutionary War General, Henry Lee, with the beautiful sentiment: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen…”  Washington was a towering figure in the relatively newly minted American psyche; he was Pater Patriae, the Father of our Country. In the wake of his death, his birthday became an important celebration, including speechifying, fireworks, and “…taverns across the country filled with revelers celebrating the birth of the nation’s hero…” (source)

Washington’s birthday became an official holiday in 1879. In 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” The official celebration was moved to the third Monday in February, nestled between Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation.”

While there may not be food associated with Presidents’ Day today, historically there are food traditions associated with celebrating George Washington.  Perhaps the most well known story about George Washington is that of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, which is now regarded as having been fabricated by his biographer, Parson Weems. That being said, according to The Presidents’ Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present, George Washington apparently loved cherries, and all things cherry continue to have an association with Washington, like marzipan cherries and a chopped-cherry Washington salad.

By the early 19th century, there are recipes in cookbooks and memoirs of various versions of “Washington Cake.”  The origin of this patriotic baked good may have been an American imitation of a British practice to celebrate a nobleman’s birthday with a special cake.  According to The Market Book by Thomas F. De Voe, in the early 1800s, a woman named Mary Simpson, who claimed to have been a former slave of Washington’s, took in laundry “for several bachelor gentlemen” in a basement storefront on the corner of Cliff and John Streets in Manhattan. She would also sell homemade baked goods, eggs and dairy.  According to De Voe, “She never forgot her old master’s birthday…and she kept it most faithfully by preparing a very large cake which she called “Washington Cake,” (once a favorite of Washington,) a large quantity of punch, then a fashionable drink, and hot coffee…” She arranged these treats under a portrait of her old master, and was called upon by prominent members of the community who would “..praise her old master’s portrait and his many noble and heroic deeds…She said she ‘was fearful that if she did not keep up the day by her display, Washington would be soon forgotten.” (ED Note: JC and I both agreed this story dealt with some uncomfortable, yet fascinating, stuff. It’s an interesting perspective on slavery, written by a man living in a free state in the midst of the Civil War. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.)

So, what exactly is Washington Cake? While there are a few variations, the first published recipe for Washington Cake that I could find appeared in 1831 in The Cook Not Mad or Rational Cookery, A Frontier Cookbook. It called for “One pound of sugar, one of flour, half pound butter, four eggs, one pound raisins, one of currants, one gill of brandy, tea cup of cream, spice to your taste.” As was typical of the time, it contained no chemical leavening.

And you know what? The Cook Not Mad recipe for Washington Cake is pretty delicious–how could it not be with all that fat and all that sugar? The one caveat is that you really do have to like raisins, because this cake is FULL of them. 

***

Washington Cake
Adapted from The Cook Not Mad, 1831.

2 cups sugar
2 cups flour, sifted
2 sticks butter, plus 1 TBSP for greasing
4 eggs
3 cups raisins (or 1 1/2 cup raisins and 1 1/2 cups currants)
¼ cup brandy
½  cup cream
¼ tsp each: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (all finely ground)

1.Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.

2.Cream together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy and the color is light yellow, about 3 minutes on medium high speed.

3.Continue to beat mixture on medium high speed, adding in eggs 1 at a time. Add in remaining wet ingredients (brandy and cream).

4.Fold flour, by hand, into cake batter in three batches.  Add in spices. Add in raisins and mix well to fully incorporate all ingredients.

5.Transfer batter to loaf pan and cook for about 80 minutes, or until a cake tester (or knife) inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

6. Let cake sit for 15 minutes before removing it from pan.

Event: Burnin’ Down The Mouth: Sriracha, Ghost Peppers, and History of Heat

Masters of Social Gastronomy and the History of Heat!

Tuesday, February 25th
Doors at 7:30, talks at 8:00pm
@Littlefield (622 Degraw Street, in Gowanus)
RSVP here!

This month, the Masters of Social Gastronomy break into the secret world of hot peppers to pull back the curtain on everyone’s favorite Rooster-branded hot sauce and the worldwide affection for spicy, spicy food.

Follow sriracha from its humble baby-food-jar beginnings to its current status as a Tabasco-challenging juggernaut. We’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at its California factory and see how sriracha just might be as American as apple pie.

Once you escape the potatoes-and-cream tyranny of European cuisine, a culinary dedication to heat can be found everywhere. We’ll examine what makes Thai food tick and where Indian vindaloo gets its muscle. From mild jalapeños to record-holders like the Ghost Pepper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, find out what makes a veggie pack such a powerful punch! RSVP here!

About MSG:

Food + history + science = this is a great thing.

Each month, Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour and Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery take on a curious food topic and break down the history, science, and stories behind it.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Ancient Hot Chocolate

chocolate3Hot chocolate, frothed with a molnillo.

In my latest post for Etsy, I experiment with making hot chocolate–Ancient Mesoamerican style:

In both Maya and Aztec art there are depictions of elegant women pouring liquid chocolate between two vessels: one on the ground and one held at chest height. Pouring the chocolate back and forth aerates and froths the drink as it falls through space, like the waterfall in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. A thick head of froth was seen as the sign of a fine cup of chocolate. The method seemed simple enough, so I placed one bowl on the kitchen tile, held one in the air, and gently poured. Chocolate spattered all over my floor.

Despite my best efforts, my chocolate wouldn’t froth. I found the answer to my problem in Mary Roach’s new book  Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, all about the science of eating (it’s great!). In a footnote about spit bubbles, she explains froth is caused by proteins, which hold air into a liquid when beaten, like whipping cream or making meringue. Cacao has a little bit of protein, but apparently not enough to create a foamy head. The Mexican Cook Book Devoted to the American Homes,  written in 1947  by a Mexican woman, suggests adding eggs into the cacao mixture–for the express purpose of frothing:

Almonds are usually added to the home-made chocolate, as they give it a very good taste, and also boiled egg yolks, these with the primary purpose of having the chocolate froth up upon being boiled.

I didn’t try hard boiled eggs as she suggested, but I did add a raw egg white, and the concoction foamed easily. The 1947 book is a blend of pre- and post- Colombian chocolate making techniques; and while eggs were available to the Maya and Aztec (from wild birds (updated: or turkeys or Muscovy ducks)) I can’t say if they would have been used in chocolate making.

cacao2A cacao bean with the nibs inside.

The entire recipe is below, and it gives an interesting look into the process of making chocolate. You can read more about my chocolate making experiences on Etsy!

***

Old Fashioned Chocolate a la Mexicana
From Mexican Cook Book Devoted to the American Homes, 1947
By Josefina Valazquez de Leon

1 1/2 pounds of Tabasco cocoa (a regional Mexican cacao)
10 ounces Maracaibo cocoa (Venezuelan cacao)
2 pounds of sugar.
4 ounces of almonds.
1/2 ounce cinnamon.
2 boiled egg yolks

Have the cocoa roasted in a frying pan as much at to suit your taste (some persons like it dark and others light). Once roasted let it cool down take the shell off to better it so there be no shell left on it. (This shell is saved to make refreshments, gruel and “champurrado“). In special metate for grinding the cocoa, the sugar is first ground together with the almonds (these latter slightly roasted and ground shell and all), adding also the egg yolks. After all this has been well ground is placed aside and fire put under the metate grinding the cocoa next, once roasted, of course. When it is well reground the sugar and the other ingredients are added and is again ground over until all of it is well mixed and formed into a paste which does not stick to the metate. Then one proceed to mould it…The paste is then poured on the moulds and pressed and rubbed with the hand so as to make it adquire (sic) a shining surface and immediately is marked with a knife in order to divide each mould contents into sixteen equal parts each of these parts being in turn equal to one ounce.

OK…So Where Have I Gone?

Hi all–

As some of you know, I’m in the process of writing a book. My first book ever.

My deadline is LOOMING: about three and a half months away. So the book is currently consuming all of my time, in the best possible way. But the fallout out is I don’t have much time to write blog content–which you may have noticed, since I haven’t posted in a month.

I do have some blog projects in the works and I’m also working on bringing you a few guest authored posts. You can also always find me on Tumblr and Twitter, where I’m linking to some interesting stuff I’ve come across while researching.

So stick with me, and in the meantime, just know that I’m working on something big and hopefully awesome for all the world.

Love,

Sarah