Mental Floss: Why Early America was Obsessed with Nutmegs

I’ve got a post up on Mental Floss, unwrapping the mystery of the wooden nutmeg!

Although today we’re primarily familiar with nutmeg as a powder that comes in little plastic bottles, it’s actually the pit of the fruit of a tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Throughout the 18th century, the Dutch controlled the Banda Islands, keeping nutmeg scarce and prices high in international markets. In America, where nutmeg was a popular flavor in 18th and early 19th century cooking, the spice was extraordinarily expensive—so expensive, unscrupulous vendors allegedly tried to replicate nutmegs in wood.

Read the whole story here!

And below, a visual step-by-step of  making a wooden nutmeg.

IMG_4597.JPG

IMG_4596.JPG

IMG_4594.JPG

IMG_4593.JPG

IMG_4591.JPG

IMG_4590.JPG

IMG_4586.JPG

Photos and nutmeg by Douglas Strich.

Origin of a Dish: Steak au Poivre

Black pepper-crusted steaks. Photo by Alan Tran.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

When we cook a steak, we often cover it in a thick layer of cracked peppercorns and salt. A simple, but flavorful, preparation. This generous crusting of pepper is often credited to a trend born of the 1960s, with a dish called steak au poivre. But the roots of this classic steak preparation may go back much further.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is a manuscript collection of recipes, gifted to Martha on the occasion of her first marriage to Danial Custis. The recipe book– copied from recipes of her in-laws–includes recipes that date from the late medieval era to the early 18th century. One in particular caught my eye: a roast of venison crusted in black pepper.

To Season a Venison

Take out ye bones & turne ye fat syde downe upon a board. yn take ye pill of 2 leamons & break them in pieces as long as yr finger & thrust them into every hole of yr venison. then take 2 ounces of beaten pepper & thrice as much salt, mingle it, then wring out ye juice of lemon into ye pepper & salt & season it, first taking ye leamon pills haveing layn soe a night. then paste it with gross pepper layd on ye top & good store of butter or muton suet.

Here’s a rough translation of the recipe: De-bone a roast of venison. Take the peel of two lemons and cut it into finger length strips, stuffing them into any holes left from the bones. Let the meat sit overnight, and remove the lemon peels. Take two ounces ground pepper and six ounces salt, mixed with the juice of one lemon, and season the holes the lemon peels previously occupied. Crust it with cracked pepper and butter or fat.

Sounds like the great-great-granduncle of a modern steakhouse dish, doesn’t it? This pepper-heavy treatment of venison was recommended through the 19th century to offset the strong, gamey flavor of the meat. The salt and fat would also serve to keep moist what was a particularly lean, dry meat. By the end of the 19th century, this dish evolved to have a creamy, pepper sauce, or sauce poivrade, and became known as “Steak a la Diane,”named after the Roman goddess of the hunt. The renowned Auguste Escoffier gave us a recipe for pepper sauce intended for venison in Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903.

Sauce Diane

Lightly whip 2dl [about 2 cups] of cream and add it at the last moment to 5dl [4 1/2 cups] well seasoned and reduced Sauce Poivrade. Finish with 2 tbs each of small crescent shaped pieces of truffle and hard-boiled white of egg. This sauce is suitable for serving with cutlets, noisettes and other cuts of venison.

His sauce was comprised of three other sauces and stocks, each one slowly simmered from finely diced vegetables and joints of meat to add levels of deep flavor, and finished with slices of truffle. The entire dish, rich with pepper, would have taken an army of kitchen staff days of preparation before it finally landed in front of a restaurant patron.

French chefs simplified the dish after the turn of the century, calling it “steak au poivre” for the first time. Venison steak was replaced with crushed peppercorn-encrusted beef, which was pan seared and served with a brandy, butter, and (sometimes) cream-based sauce. The dish was often cooked table-side because when the brandy was added to the hot pan it resulted in an impressive tower of vaporized alcohol flames.

In the 1960s, American home cooks were introduced to the cuisine of France by Julia Child. Child’s longtime friend Jacques Pépin remembered her in the New York Times as “… almost a foot taller than I and her voice was unforgettable — shrill and warm at the same time.” They loved to disagree and debate proper cooking techniques and ingredients; “I like black pepper and she liked white pepper,” he recalled. According to Pépin, Child’s style of cooking meant “a simple meal made with great care and the best possible ingredients.” Her strong opinions on food come through in her recipe for steak au poivre. Child’s 1961 recipe for steak au povire in Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the first to be published in America, but she speaks to her readers as though the recipe was a familiar one, a nod to its pre-existing popularity in restaurants.

Julia Child.

Steak au poivre can be very good when it is not so buried in pepper and doused with flaming brandy that the flavor of the meat is utterly disguised,” Child writes. “In fact, we do not care at all for flaming brandy with this dish; it is too reminiscent of restaurant show-off cooking for tourists. And the alcohol taste, as it is not boiled off completely, remains in the brandy, spoiling the taste of the meat.” As a rule, she felt “there was too much flaming in table top cookery.” In Child’s recipe, after the steaks are seared a sauce is made with leeks and crispy cooked bits left in the bottom of the pan, as well as vegetable stock, cognac and a lot of butter.  The peppercorns crisp into a crust, and the dish is served with potatoes to soak up the rich sauce.

Through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, steak au poivre entered the American mainstream and set the precedent for how we prepare beef; a perfect example of Julia Child’s tremendous culinary influence. The dish is also key in shaping our modern identity of pepper. Steak au poivre treats pepper not as just another spice to be shaken into every dish, but as an ingredient with a bold flavor all its own. Steak au poivre today influences how most Americans cook their meat: crusted in salt and pepper, seared and served. The most basic cooking technique, and perhaps the most delicious.

Steak au poivre. Photo by mmmWolf.

Steak au Poivre
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 2011 reprint, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck

2 Tb of a mixture of several kinds of peppercorns, or white peppercorns
Place the peppercorns in a big mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.

2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak 3/4 to 1 inch thick
Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crush peppercorns into both sides of the meat with your fingers and the palms of your hands. Cover with waxed paper. let stand for at least half an hour; two or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.

A hot platter
Salt
Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter as described in the preceding master recipe. Remove to a hot platter, season with salt, and keep warm for a moment while completing the sauce.

1 Tb butter
2 Tb minced shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock or canned beef bouillon
1/3 cup cognac
3 to 4 Tb softened butter
Sauteed or fried potatoes
Fresh water cress

Pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots or green onions and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock or bouillon and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two more to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter and half-tablespoon at a time. Decorate the platter with the potatoes and water cress. Pour the sauce over the steak, and serve.

 

 

Lapham’s Quarterly: Mild, Medium or Hot?

Curry powder illustration by Peter Van Hyning

I’ve got a new piece up on the Lapham’s Quarterly blog, all about how Americans went from adventurous eaters to plain janes—and then back again.

Much of what we view as American identity is English: pilgrims and Plymouth, pumpkin pie and pot roast. It’s seasoned with at most a few herbs, perhaps a few imported spices. It’s from this English heritage that much of our stereotype of being lovers of bland food comes from. But by the early nineteenth century, American cookbooks had begun to move away from pure British cuisine, reflecting America’s multiculturalism with increasingly fiery food. One of America’s earliest cookbooks is also considered one of the most influential: The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, published in 1824. As food historian Karen Hess points out in her introduction to the 1984 reprint, Randolph’s recipe selection illustrated “an elemental change in palate” from somewhat tame English dishes to highly spiced regional cuisine. Randolph’s book contains half a dozen curry recipes and a homemade curry powder that uses a full ounce of cayenne pepper, as well as turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and mace. The recipes reflected not only her British forebears’ love of curry (which also bucks the bland-food stereotype) but also a common trait of American port cities: a love of spicy cuisine from the Far East. Indigenous American foods are reflected in the recipe “To Barbecue Shote”: the origin of barbecue is the native word and cooking technique barbacoa, and in this recipe a “fat, young hog” is dressed in a sauce that includes garlic, black pepper, and highly seasoned mushroom ketchup (a soy-sauce-like concoction made from salted fermented mushrooms and spices). Enslaved black cooks brought dishes and spicy seasonings from the Caribbean like pepper pot, a tripe soup that includes whole dried chilies in Randolph’s recipe. Based on The Virginia Housewife, it would be safe to say that America in the first half of the nineteenth century was a very spicy place.

Read the full article here!

A Peek into my Next Book–and a Chance to Help Fund it!

I’ve been hard at work on my next project! The working title is OHIO 1910, and the concept combines food history and true crime. I wanted to share with you how it’s going so far, and if you’re interested, you can help support my work by donating (and get yourself some perks in the process.) If you’re interested, there’s more info about what your donation funds here. (Donations will be open until April 19, 2017.)

I’ll be telling the story of a handwritten recipe journal created by a husband and wife from 1880-1910. The journal starts with recipes for the perfect lemon pie, homemade yeast, and chocolate cake. Then, there are chapters on medicine (like cholera cures and PMS aids), beer and wine (root beer, rhubarb wine, blackberry brandy), and finally mushroom foraging.  The recipes in the book abruptly stop being recorded in 1910, because the man writing it was brutally murdered by his son-in-law in a crime so scandalous, it made national news headlines.

As the author, I’ll take you along with me as I experiment with these recipes and use them to reveal how a loving, food-focused Midwestern family unraveled–and ended up the focus of a tragic crime.

Here are a few images from the original recipe book:


You can find the original New York Times article about the murder here.  In it, the murderer claims the victims “exercised a mysterious influence over him.”

I’ve already begun recipe testing the dozen of baking recipes recorded in the book, dating to the 1880s. Here’s a little video of my mom and I working together. We tested 18 recipes together over four days, and went through more than three dozen eggs, nearly 2 gallons of milk, and three jars of molasses!

So far we’ve made yeasted rolls and cakes: Sally Lunn rolls, eggy-sweet coffee puffets, hearty-health food Graham bread, a few fruit cakes. We also test three puddings (custards and a bread pudding) and three lemon meringue pies, as well as biscuits and quick breads. Every day, there was a “winner”–a recipe that clearly stood out as interesting, delicious, and easy enough for anyone to make.


This coffee puffet is very light and slightly sweet. Meringue is folded in at the end to give the fluffy texture.
These are Sally Lunn rolls, rising, a white flour dinner rolls. Mom and I were both pretty pleased at how well these turned out.
The many layers of “Delmonico Pudding,” coconut custard on the bottom, meringue on top.
Two lemon meringue pies! They both had their problems, tbh.
Baking through these recipes was a fun challenge, but more importantly, they told me a little something about the woman who wrote them down, and the family who consumed them. But more on that..soon! If you’re interested in the project, stay tuned here for more updates, and get involved by donating here.

 

Eight Flavors: James Beard’s Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

beard1Chicken. With 40 cloves of garlic.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

I’m trying to get a handle on James Beard. In my generation, he wasn’t a household name; but once your reach a certain level of foodie-ness, you’re indoctrinated. You’re taught he’s a deity of American food.

According to Provence, 1970, Beard was “six foot three, three hundred pounds, and bald.” He described himself in this PBS documentary as “large and scarcely beautiful,” hardly a candidate for international super success. He enjoyed a jaunty bow tie; or, an even jauntier unbuttoned dress shirt. He was gregarious, always bringing people together, always quick to help out a new food talent in which he saw potential–like Julia Child, early in her career. He also kept his phone number listed in the phone book, and fans could look him up and give him a ring–unimaginable of a celebrity today. He would often “end up talking at great length to some woman in Iowa about her macaroons.” His mantra was to use the best, seasonal ingredients in the simplest, most flavorful preparations, and he embraced the diversity of American cuisine

Beard starred in the first food television show in 1946, a 15 minute program on NBC called “I Love to Eat.” Sadly, no copies of the episodes exist. Both Beard and Child created an interest in food that met in the middle between the housewiferly-domestic guides and the men-only haute restaurants of an earlier generation.  In their DIY wake, cooks without formal culinary training began to open restaurants and head kitchens.

I was looking into Beard’s history during my writing process for Eight Flavors  because he is often credited with convincing Americans to like garlic. Beard often looked to French cuisine for inspiration, and loved the simple, flavorful cuisine of Provence, which he first encountered while being stationed there during WWII. Provencal cuisine is also very garlic heavy. In America, leading up to WWII, people weren’t eating much garlic. It was associated with Italian immigrants, who were thought so unappealing, the US effectively banned Italian immigration in 1924. It was Beard who, with a rustic recipe, really began to change American’s minds about garlic.

“Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic” was first published in 1974. The recipe title sounds ridiculous and intimidating, but 40 cloves is only 2-3 heads of garlic. Beard calmly instructed his readers to fill a casserole with chicken legs and thighs, cover them with olive oil and vermouth, and top them with tarragon, parsley, celery and garlic–so much garlic, it serves the purpose of the vegetable in the dish. After baking for 90 minutes, the chicken comes out tender and mild–as does the garlic. Beard comforted the fears of worried cooks, stressed about the pungent taste of garlic:  “Invite your guests to spread the softened garlic on the bread. They will find that the strong flavor has disappeared, leaving a wonderful, buttery paste perfumed with garlic.” It was the perfect recipe to convert the American masses because of the tame garlic flavor.

Beard championed a new form of American cooking; inspired by French cuisine, but not slavishly imitating it. He emphasized fresh, seasonal ingredients featured in ambitious, sophisticated dishes. “Buy the best produce you can buy and do the least to it, and you’ll have the best food,” Beard once said. And we have him to thank (in part) for garlic becoming a part of mainstream American cuisine.

beard2

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic
Recipe from the James Beard Foundation

  • 8 to 10 chicken legs
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • 40 cloves garlic, approximately 3 bulbs, peeled
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced thinly
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth

Rinse chicken legs in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Dip the chicken in olive oil to coat each piece and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Put chicken in a lidded 3-quart casserole along with the residue of oil. Add the garlic, sliced celery, parsley, tarragon, and vermouth. Seal the top of the casserole with a sheet of foil and cover tightly. Bake for 1 1/2 hours in a preheated 375ºF oven. Do not remove the lid during the baking period. Serve with hot toast or thin slices of pumpernickel and spread the softened garlic on the bread.

My Audio Book of Eight Flavors is out now!

Guess what? You can now LISTEN to Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine on audio CD or Audible–including whispersync, which allows you to switch back and forth between e-book and audio book without losing your place!

AND GUESS WHAT ELSE. I read the book! It’s 11-ish hours of my sweet, sylvan voice telling you tales about Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave who discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today; or Ranji Smile, a Muslim immigrant to American who became a celebrity chef; or so many more American stories!

Buy the audio book here!

Enjoy it! Then sign up for my mailing list and see if I’m going to do an event near you!

Thank you!

mental_floss: A Brief History of Sushi in the United States


A PLATE OF SUSHI IN THE 1970S, VIA GETTY IMAGES

I’ve got a new article up on mental_floss, and it digs up the history of sushi!

In the 1950s many Americans were somewhat resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because they had lived through World War II and still perceived Japan as “the enemy.” But by the 1960s, the tide had started to turn: Food journalist and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, writing for The New York Times dining section during that decade, was excited by international dining and kept tabs on the city’s numerous Japanese restaurants. He declared Japanese food a trend in New York after two establishments opened in 1963, noting that “New Yorkers seem to take to the raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and sukiyaki.” However, he admitted, “sushi may seem a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates”

Today, meeting friends for sushi is almost as American as going out for a beer and a pizza. It’s proof positive that when we leave our hearts—and plates—open to other cultures, good things often come of it. Find out how we became sushi lovers: I talk about America’s first sushi restaurants, the TV miniseries that made Americans obsessed with Japan, and how some “American-style” sushi rolls are making their way back across the ocean! Read more here.

Eight Flavors: My Book is on Sale NOW!

My first book, Eight Flavors:The Untold Story of American Cuisine, DROPS TODAY! You can get it direct from the publisher, on Amazon, Barnes and Nobleindie bookstores–or anywhere else books are sold! For a full list of retailers, click here.

“A unique and surprising view of American history… richly researched, intriguing, and elegantly written.”
The Atlantic

“A breezy American culinary history that you didn’t know you wanted.”
Bon Appetit

“Warning: This book may make you hungry.”
Bustle

“A compulsively readable, surprising and deeply researched culinary history…a wide ranging, open hearted investigation into the way that flavors simultaneously transmit and follow cultures around the globe”
Brooklyn BasedSmithsonian Magazine named it one of the best food books of 2016!

It’s the perfect gift for the foodie in your life!!
AUTOGRAPHED COPY!

If you live in New York City, I’ll be signing copies tomorrow night (Wednesday) at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum after my free Tenement Talk with Melissa Clark, from 6-8:30pm. Afterwards, I’ll be at the launch party at Lucky Jack’s until 10pm. Feel free to stop by!

Tuesday, December 13th I’ll be at The Brooklyn Historical Society leading a panel with Mario Carbone and Jonathan Wu on How Immigrant Cooks Shape American Food. Doors: 6:30 pm Event: 7 pm and I’ll be signing books afterwards.

In the early spring, I’ll be in Boston and Baltimore! More details coming soon.

Eight Flavors: Country Captain Chicken

chickenA chicken curry from the 1850s.

To create my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

One week after the 2016 presidential election, I attended a citizenship ceremony hosted by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Fifteen individuals, their birthplaces as wide ranging as Japan and Iraq, became Americans that day.

The most touching part of the ceremony was a speech delivered by Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, an immigrant herself from Ireland. During her speech, Power choked up while recounting the immigration stories of the families of her closest colleagues. “This is impossible,” she declared at one point, trying to get through the moving stories. She then went on to address the new citizens directly:

You are what America looks like…We are a nation of immigrants, but for as long as this nation has existed, Americans have been harkening back to a golden era, before families like yours or mine got here. It never seems to matter to those people that their parents or grandparents were on the receiving end of similar discrimination when they first arrived in this country. But even if we know deep down that such intolerance is as old as the nation itself, it doesn’t make it hurt any less when we experience it.

You may hear some people say that in order to become “real” Americans, you need to forget where you came from, or leave behind the history that brought you to this moment. Cover up your accent, change the way you dress…Please don’t list to those voices. Joining a new nation does not mean you have to leave behind the one you came from, or what it taught you.

You can watch Power’s speech in its entirety here.

I had attended this citizenship ceremony in the past, in 2013, to see my dear friend and colleague Raj become an American. Raj is an immigrant from New Zealand; his parents are from India. I talk about Raj in the Curry Powder chapter of my book; we went on a “curry crawl” together in Jackson Heights, Queens. In that chapter, I also focus on the stories of Indian immigrants in the early 20th century who were not allowed to receive their citizenship because of the color of their skin.

Often, when I list the flavors I’ve included in my book, I get a lot of push-back about curry powder. Many people don’t consider it an American ingredient. But Indian immigrants have been coming to America for more than 100 years; and we have been cooking with curry powder in this country for over 200 hundred. In fact, a dish called Country Captain Chicken, a traditional dish of the American South, arrived in this country in the 19th century through our Anglo-immigrant roots.

The History

The origin of Country Captain Chickens begins late in the 16th century, when the East India Company was granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth. The charter gave the East India Company a monopoly within Britain on trade with the Far East; the company would focus on India.

As the East Indian Company rapidly expanded in the 19th century, more and more employees moved to the “Country,” as India was known. They were posted to a new station in another part of India every three years, which exposed them to culinary traditions all over the subcontinent. When these British workers traveled around the subcontinent, they were carried in a litter by a team of men, the carriers traded out at roadside taverns like horses. The litter itself was misery, being shaped like a wooden coffin in which the traveler slowly baked in the Indian sun. When they stopped for food at a roadside eatery, called a “bungalow,” they were often served chicken. Beef and pork were not served in much of India because of Hindu and Muslim religious restrictions. And beyond that, chicken, no matter what the continent, was the convenience food of the 19th century. If you had sudden dinner guests, you could step out your back door and scoop up one of the chickens pecking around in the yard. A few hours of plucking and butchering later, you had a chicken dinner. It doesn’t sound convenient–but most other meat was seasonal. A chicken was available anytime.

Because British officials didn’t have the same cultural history and connection to each region as a native Indian, when eating at home, they would take the foods they loved willy-nilly from all regions and serve them together. A bowl of Anglo curry could be accompanied by garnishes from everywhere: Persian hard-boiled eggs, Punjabi pickled lemon, Madras-style sliced raw onions, fried papadum bread, as well as British-style crispy bacon. The transient English officials created a trans-continental cuisine, which became the food they imported when they returned to England. 

And that cuisine eventually traveled to America. Country Captain Chicken, a dish inspired by the bungalow dinners of the British, first showed up in America in Eliza Leslie’s 1857 cookbook Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. Although Leslie was born in Philadelphia, she lived in England from the ages of 5-11. It’s likely that as a girl she was exposed to the Anglo curries being served in British households, and transported her love of spicy, fried Country Captain Chicken back to the States.

curry_chix1Curry powder ingredients according to a 19th century American recipe.

The Recipe

Leslie’s recipe asks the home cook to rub chicken parts in curry powder before frying them up crisp in butter and onions. The chicken is lifted out of the butter with a slotted spoon, and set aside to drain. A sauce is made from the butter and onions, with the addition of a few spoonfuls of coconut. It’s all served over rice, and the crispy chicken skin makes a lovely textural contrast to the sauce.

Country Captain Chicken
Recipe adapted by Jill Paradiso from Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book1857.

Yield: serves 4

For the curry powder:

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric
1 teaspoon powdered coriander
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
1 teaspoon powdered mace
1 teaspoon powdered cayenne pepper

For the chicken:

Salt
1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings)
2 large onions, peeled
1 stick butter
1/2 cup curry powder
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut, shredded

  1. Make curry powder by combining the spices. Grind fresh from whole

spices for the best flavor.

  1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Once water has reached full

boil, add chicken breasts and onions and cook for 4 minutes. Then add

thighs, drumsticks, and wings, and continue cooking another 6 minutes.

  1. Remove the chicken from pot and drain well. Leave onion in boiling

water to continue cooking.

  1. Melt butter in large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss chicken in

curry powder until well coated.

  1. When butter begins to foam, add chicken to pan and cook about 3

to 4 minutes until well browned. Turn chicken pieces over and cook

another 3 to 4 minutes. Turn heat down to low and remove chicken

from pan. Season chicken with salt and set aside.

  1. Remove onions from water. Slice onions in half lengthwise and then

cut into half-moon strips. Add onions and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to pan

and cook in curry butter mixture over low heat about 8 minutes or until

onions are lightly browned, stirring occasionally.

  1. Garnish chicken with sautéed onions and coconut. Serve immediately

over any kind of rice you like.

 


Modern Country Captain Chicken. Photo by Dan Costin.

The Results

By the 1940s, Country Captain Chicken had spread from Philadelphia and appeared in the American South in church-fundraising cookbooks alongside Jello mold with marshmallows. It maintains a crazy level of popularity to this day, with several Southern cities laying claim to its invention. In the contemporary version, the chicken, after being fried, is stewed in the oven in a tomato sauce. And the few spoonfuls of coconut in Leslie’s recipe are replaced by a whole assortment of toppings served table side: slivered almonds, raisins, chutney, orange sections, pineapple and crispy bacon — much liked the varied condiments on the tables of the East India Company in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the South, these condiments are called “boys,” but according to one Savannah hostess, “Anything more than a five boy curry is considered pretentious north of Gaston Street.” Check out a modern recipe here.

 

Much of the background on The East India Company came from the fascinating book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham.

The Perils of Assimilation: How what we eat makes us American, for better or worse.

I’ve got a new post up on Notes from the TenementThe Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s blog, that gives more context to the Eating Like an Italian Immigrant Family experiment I did a few weeks ago. The piece takes a close look at the attitudes of American social workers and nutritionists at the turn-of-the-century regarding the diets of new Italian immigrants, and finds some striking parallels in the present day.

To greet this enormous wave of immigration, there were a growing number of American-born social workers occupying settlement houses, early social aid organizations that tackled the “settling” of new immigrants. The social workers offered a helping hand in Americanization. “The settlement ideal has included the preservation of the dignity and self-esteem of the immigrant,” Breckenridge wrote in her 1921 book, New Homes for Old, “while attempting to modify his habits when necessary… .” For Italian immigrants, it was their cooking habits that needed to be modified.

Although some of the nutritionist’s apprehension about Italian food may have come for prejudice or xenophobia, some of their fears may have been grounded in truth. Anecdotally, Wood saw higher rates of heart disease and diabetes amongst assimilated Italians. And we see a parallel in America today with modern immigrants. In 2013, the New York Times published an article called The Health Toll of Immigration:

“A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. … For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers — as big as dinner plates — when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago. “‘I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,’ she said. ‘Look at the size of the food!’”

Read my entire article here.