Monthly Archive for June, 2010

A Revolutionary Menu: Historic Food for Your Fourth of July

Trying to decide what to serve your guests on the Fourth of July?  How about a traditional, historic New England meal of green turtle soup, poached salmon with egg sauce, and apple pandowdy?

Recently, I had an article published in Edible Queens magazine that focused on this menu.  Read on to find out what John and Abigail Adams have to do with the 1964 World’s Fair.  Tomorrow, we’ll focus on recipes, so you too can prepare a delicious, historic meal this Independence Day.

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A Revolutionary Menu
Historic Gastronomist Sarah Lohman recreates a centuries-old Independence Day feast.
Written By Sarah Lohman – Photographed by Everett Bogue and Sarah Lohman
Excerpt first published in Edible Queens Magazine, Summer 2010.

If you’ve ever driven down the Grand Central Parkway in Flushing, you’ve seen the rusted spires of alien architecture rising up on the horizon.  In 1964, this corner of Queens was home to the New York World’s Fair: a teeming village of international pavilions and expos of invention.  The Fair brought technology and modern living to the forefront,  debuting the Ford Mustang while animatronic children chanted “It’s a Small World.”  Nestled amongst this exuberant exploration of America’s future, there was an homage to its past.

The Festival/64 Restaurant was conceived by George Lang a decade before he took over his longtime role as owner of the Café des Artistes.   Designed as a tribute to historic American cuisine, Lang lovingly describes the Festival/64 Restaurant in his autobiography Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen:

“There was a need for an American restaurant that would combine the richness and breadth of our heritage…(and)  fuse it all into a contemporary American cuisine for contemporary American sensibilities.  The opening menu was a bold and convincing answer to the ubiquitous questions I received whenever I mentioned to European journalists that we were opening a restaurant featuring American food: ‘You mean hot dogs, hamburgers, steak, and apple pie?’

The restaurant featured dishes inspired by early American specialties, but guests could also order full historic menus including “Dining with Jefferson at Monticello.”  Lang’s interpretation featured a “…pan-fried young pheasant with cornmeal square and fresh peach chutney as its main course.”

I was inspired to recreate one of Lang’s menus; I thought that the Fourth of July, a holiday closely tied with American history, would be the perfect occasion.  The New York Times covered the Fair’s glorious Independence Day celebrations, including what was on the menu:  “At the Festival ’64 Restaurant in the Gas Pavilion, George Lang, the director of the restaurant, came up with a meal served by John and Abigail Adams at their home on July 4, 1776…The menu consisted of green turtle soup, New England poached salmon with egg sauce and apple pandowdy.”

Although this menu is attributed to the Adams, John and Abigail’s letters place them in different states on the first Independence Day, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts respectively.

For his restaurant, Lang seems to have relied heavily on one source for all his historic menus, The American Heritage Cookbook, which was published contemporaneously with the Fair.  This volume is the first time this Fourth of July menu appears in print.   The accompanying text explains that this meal was traditional New England fare, likely served by the neighbors of the Adams.

It seems there was a mistake in the menu’s provenance and to this day it is still attributed to the Adams.  However, this meal does reflect what early Americans were eating in the summer months.   In July, salmon would have been running on the shores and rivers of New England.  Poached fish would have been served alongside early peas and new potatoes would have been gently unearthed and boiled in their skins.

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Tomorrow, part two of the article, concerning my culinary adventures with turtle meat.

The Joys of Jell-O: Poke Cake

Raspberry Poke Cake.

My roommate had a day dream about this cake, one sunny afternoon whilst we watched Judge Judy.

“What if you, like, bake a cake and then poured Jell-O over top of it?  You know and like poked holes in the cake so it’s all like cake and Jell-O?  Is that a thing?  Wouldn’t that be delicious?”

“No, Jeff.  That sounds disgusting.”

I thought this was the rambling of a mad man, until I went through my Jell-O ephemera for this project and I came across this 1976 pamphlet:

And this recipe for “Poke Cake”:

Ok, Jeff.  You win. Let’s give it a whirl.

So I baked a cake, poked it, poured raspberry Jell-O over top and put it in the refrigerator to set.  I used Cool Whip instead of Dream Whip for the frosting.  Then I cut a slice and took a bite.

Poke the cake with a fork, like so, then pour the liquid Jell-O over top.  It’s a little like making a Tres Leches cake.

You know what? It tasted fake.  Fake cake; fake raspberry, fake whipped cream.  But the fake versions of all those foods…are really tasty.  I love box cakes.  I love Cool Whip.  This is the most delicious combination of fake flavors one can imagine.

Simple as hell to make, Poke Cake is trashy, tasty food.  Bring it to your next potluck.

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And this being my last Jell-O post, it’s time to ask What Have We Learned?  I learned that Jell-O can be turned in a shocking variety of foods — most of them bad.  Browse back through these posts: we went from ice cream to meat molds to cake.  It’s sincerely impressive.

What have you learned?

The Joys of Jell-O: Vegetable Trio

Described as a “Dazzling, delicious rainbow of fresh vegetables at you dinner table,” the Vegetable Trio come from The Joys of Jell-O Gelatin Dessert, published in 1962.  This little cookbook was in circulation at the height of Jell-O’s commercial success and it’s filled with all kinds of “dazzling” vegetable salads.

Yes, those are shrimps.

Apparently, when my mother was young, my grandmother made a lime Jell-O, carrot, and cabbage mold every Thanksgiving.  My grandma was the only one that ate it, so no one could figure out why she made it every single year.  I think my grandmother was under the same strange hypnotist’s spell that Jell-O somehow manged to cast over all mid-20th century housewives.

Today, we take my grandmother’s recipe up a notch with the Vegetable Trio: lemon Jell-o, carrots, cabbage, and spinach in three glorious layers.

There’s something very satisfying about layering Jell-O: you get to watch chemistry in action and get a very pretty result.  Lovely to look at–but how did the Trio taste?  About how you’d imagine raw vegetables in lemon Jell-O would taste.  In fact, we were all puzzled by the result of this recipe: “I don’t understand how they wanted this to taste?” “Was this the intent of the recipe?” “Raw vegetables in Jell-O is really unappealing.”

I don’t why I had this wild hope that dishes like the Trio would be a revelation; a long-lost exploration in mind-blowing flavor. I thought these Jell-O recipes were just waiting to be dusted off and reintroduced to a new, enthusiastic audience.  I always thought: “If they tasted so bad, why would they have been so popular?”  I really don’t get it.

Tomorrow, we end on a high note.

The Joys of Jell-O: Lime-Strawberry Surprise

This dessert is a ridiculous parody of how the illustration suggests it should look.

This recipe comes from a collection of papers that date from about 1930-1955.  The bulk of the materials are from the mid-1940s, which is when I suspect this recipe was clipped from a newspaper.

This dessert is a neapolitan mold of lime jell-o with pineapple; Kraft mayonnaise mixed with cream cheese and walnuts; and strawberry Jell-O.  It’s called Lime-Strawberry surprise, but I’m uncertain what the surprise is.  Surprise, there’s mayonnaise in your dessert?

What I love about this recipe is that someone saw it in a newspaper and thought “Oh boy, that looks good!” and took the time to clip it out and save it.  It answers some of the question of “were people actually making these recipes?”–the cook who clipped Lime-Strawberry Surprise certainly intended to make it.

This is the first mold I’ve featured that showcases the infamous Lime Jell-O.  According to Wikiepedia, “…by 1930, there appeared a vogue in American cuisine for congealed salads, and the company introduced lime-flavored Jell-O to complement the various add-ins that cooks across the U.S. were combining in these aspics and salads. By the 1950s, these salads would become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable and seasoned tomato. These savory flavors have since been discontinued.”

Lime Jell-O smells like what they cleaned the bathrooms with in highschool.  And tastes like it, too.  This recipe was sitting on my kitchen table when my roommate, Jeff, wandered in to see what I was up to.  He read the recipe and with an exasperated sigh declared: “What the fuck is wrong with you, Lohman?”

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Jeff.  The truth is, I kinda thought this recipe would be good.  I wanted it to be good.  But it was so shockingly salty!  It has a salty, mayonnaise seam right through the middle, and is topped-off with another healthy dollop of mayonnaise.  Kraft, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Tomorrow: a delightful trio of fresh vegetables.

The Joys of Jell-O: Jell-O Ices, A Grand New Idea

Jell-O sorbet?  Now there’s an idea worth thinking about.

In 1934, Jack Benny was hired as spokesman for Jell-O, and Jell-O in turn became a sponsor of his radio show The Jack Benny Program, with Mary Livingston, Don Wilson, and the Jell-O Orchestra.  This was also the same year the now famous J-E-L-L-O jingle was introduced; listen to an original version here.


One of the results of this union was Jack & Mary’s Jell-O Recipe Book, published in 1937, and the source of the following recipe for Jell-O Fruit Ice.  The pamphlet contains some typical Jell-O recipes of the era (prune whip, for one.  At what point did we stop loving prunes?), surrounded by some pretty unfunny and occasionally disturbing cartoons.

Awkward.

On one of the last pages, there are recipes for Jell-O Ices, described as “a grand new idea.”

Here’s my variation on the recipe: one package raspberry Jell-O dissolved in one cup boiling water; add one cup cold water, one cup pineapple juice, one tablespoon lemon juice and one cup fresh raspberries.  I did not add the extra sugar the recipe recommends.

My roommate doesn’t trust me after the Corned Beef Loaf incident.  He eye this mixture up and said “That doesn’t look *too* terrible…”

Freezing a fruit ice in 1937 involved a lot of directions concerning a “freezing tray of an automatic refrigerator” and “the cold bowl” and taking things out periodically and whipping them with a “rotary mixer.”  I decided the best modern approach would be to use my ice cream maker.  Done and done.

I poured the Jell-O mixture into the machine and turned it on; I let it spin for about twenty minutes.  When I stopped the machine, I was surprised to find that the Jell-O had become pale in color and had a light, fluffy texture.  I stashed the mixture in the freezer to harden.

Jell-O after a spin in the Ice Cream Maker.

A few hours later, I scooped myself some Jell-O ice.  It was pretty good; the texture is not really icey like a sorbet, it’s much more smooth.  Like a frozen mousse.  It was a cold and refreshing treat, and I ate my whole serving, but I still haven’t quite decided if I like it.  I’m going to serve it to some unsuspecting dinner guests tonight.  We’ll see what they say.

And don’t forget, tomorrow is the Jell-O Mold Competition at the Gowanus Studio Space in Brooklyn.  It’s free to attend (there’s a $5 suggested donation) and you’re going to see some amazing Jell-O creations.

The Joys of Jell-O: Corned Beef Loaf

It took me a long time to write this post today, because it took me a long time to steel myself up for what I had to eat.

Corned Beef Loaf.

This recipe comes from a 1931 pamphlet entitled Thrifty Jell-O Recipes to Brighten You Menus.  This booklet is largely characterized by illustrations of supremely elegant ladies dining upon Jell-O, including Jell-O entrees.  Take a moment to imagine what Jell-O entree entails.  According to this pamphlet, it could be “chicken mousse;” it could be “molded crab meat;” but today, it will be beef. Corned Beef.

Of course I was intrigued to try this recipe; something so bizarre and unthinkable in today’s culinary world begs to reexamined, brought to light for the wonder or horror it truly is.  So I bravely dissolved a packet of lemon Jell-O in hot water, beef stock, and Worcestershire sauce.  After chilling it for 30 minutes, I folded in Dijon mustard.  And then I un-canned the corned beef.

Although I have access to an incredibly diversity of products in my neighborhood, I’ve always had trouble tracking down fresh corned beef.  And since Jell-O is designed to be the ultimate convenience food, it didn’t make sense to me to make corned beef from scratch.  However, my grocery store does have an impressive selection of canned meats, and I selected one of several brands of tinned corned beef.

When it came time to fold the corned beef into the partially set jello, I cracked the can open.  To my horror, it smelled exactly like cat food.  I wasn’t sure if that made me sad about canned corned beef or envious of cats.

The canned meat was already ground, so I spooned it into the Jell-O, mixed it together, and poured it into a loaf pan.  It went into the fridge overnight to get good and hard.  And today came the fateful day when I had to eat the thing.

For various reasons, this has been an emotional week for me.  And all of my emotions came to a head as I decanted my Beef Loaf on the kitchen table, and shakily lifted a spoonful of wobbly beef and Jell-O entree to my lips.

I had a little freak out.  My eyes teared up.  “Eat it!” my roommate yelled at me, waggling his finger with conviction.  “You have to!”

“I don’t want to!”  I pleaded.  My mind was reeling–what had I done? Why was I doing this to myself?

I gently let the gelled meat touch my lips, and sucked in just the tiniest nibble nibble of beef loaf.  The first taste was vaguely reminiscent of miracle whip, or a ham salad sandwich.  I would like to say that after that first taste, the Corned Beef Loaf was a delightful surprised.  That it tasted much better than it looked or smelled.

I would like to say that, but I can’t.  I swooshed around the lemon Jell-O and ground meat in my mouth.  The texture and taste are difficult to describe, but imagine if you made lemon Jell-O AND THEN PUT GROUND MEAT IN IT.  I gagged.

It’s all over.

Tomorrow, what Jack Benny has to do with Jell-O.

The Joys of Jell-O: Glorified Rice

The recipe for Glorified Rice comes from the earliest Jell-O ephemera in my collection:  Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert, At Home Everywhere published in 1922.

Watch out! That bear is about to get all up in your Jell-o!

It’s the grand tour of Jell-O.  It’s kind of cute, because it’s playing off American’s increasing desire to explore their country.  With the growing popularity of the car and continental railroads criss-crossing the land, there was less and less of America that was inaccessible to the average citizen.  Additionally, Jell-O’s advertising bread and butter at this time were pastoral oil paintings, scenes of everyday life from across the nation, of a fine enough quality that they were displayed in galleries and museums everywhere (allegedly).

Jell-O’s version of America is romantic; but it is also a stereotype.

It’s a Chinese cook!  Cooking what else– but rice!! And I think that cowboy’s mad. “Rice again??” he says. And I think that other guy it going to steal the Jell-O! Crazy!  The caption: “In The Cattle Country: Jell-o is so easily made, and the package takes so little room, that it has been on the provision list of places like this for years.  It makes a dessert possible where ‘pie timber’ is both scared and costly.”


Left: “Under Northern Lights: Far-fetched? Not a bit of it, except in the sense that this box of Jell-O has been brought a long, long way.  For we do have customers who live under the Artic Circle, and who say cold, hard things of us if we do not arrange for shipping connections before the trails are closed with the winter’s snows.”

Right: I think Catholicism may represent diversity in this image.
“In the Mission Country: It is a many sided America.  Into the quiet of such places as this Jell-O has made its way.  It is in keeping with the strictest fast days, and in its fancy forms will measure up to the standard of a feast day.”

Left: “Wherever hot water is available, even in a ‘Gipsy’ auto camp, Jell-O may be enjoyed.  Yet in other circumstances it may be moulded as elaborately as this Neopolitan.”

Right: No trip around American is complete without romanticizing slavery.
“Jell-O costs so little that it may be found in the most unpretentious homes of the old plantation.  It is delicious enough to be accepted by those at the ‘Big House” who have cultivated good living as a fine art.”

When I paged through this pamphlet, I came across a Jell-O technique I was unfamiliar with: The Whip.  Essential, you whip Jell-o until it fluffs like whip cream.  That’s essentially the way you make marshmallows: whip gelatin to a foam and then let it set.  I was intrigued and decided to give it a whirl; I found this recipes for Glorified Rice, which seemed like it might be a little like rice pudding.

I did as the recipe told me, including “salt to taste” despite the fact I had no idea how much salt I liked in my Jell-O.  When I unmolded the dish and took a bite…the glories of rice pudding were the furthest from my mind.  I cannot tell you how unappealing rice is when it’s floating in Jell-O.  Not the creamy dream I had hoped for, the too sweet, too lemony Jell-o broke around dry, flavorless grains of rice.  The combination was NOT delicious.

However, I found another recipe in this pamphlet that sounded simple and satisfying: lemon Jell-o dissolved in 1/2 cup boiling water, then mixed with 1 1/2 cups ginger ale.  This was a delight.  It had a taste that reminded me of lemonheads, and felt like it was made of bubbles.  The original recipes added walnuts, and maybe celery.  I recommend keeping it simple.  My version was a refreshing summertime treat.

Tomorrow…things get worse.

The Joys of Jello: Philadelphia Ice Cream

We’re making Number 5.

There is a fourteen-page booklet, released in 1904, which is the very first Jell-O recipe book.  You can read the full pamphlet here; I could see myself spending a week just making molds just from this little book:   Moulded Tomatoes, Shredded Wheat Jell-O Apple Sandwich, Chrysanthemum Salad…But today, just one: Philadelphia Ice Cream.

I decided to start off the week with something appealing, and refreshing– I want to strike a balance between the horrors of Jell-O, and some ideas that might be innovative and delicious.

I didn’t have any one-pound baking powder cans handy (who does?) so I emptied out a cannister of Itallian-style bread crumbs.  I trotted out to the grocery store and picked up a gallon of vanilla ice cream; and since it’s one million degrees outside, by the time I got home the ice cream was soft and pliable.  I spooned it out and lined the bread crumb can, leaving a channel in the center.  I set it upright in the freezer to harden.

For the filling, I decided to use peach Jell-O; although it’s not one of the original Jell-O flavors available in 1904 (strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon) I thought I would add a modern twist.   I prepared it according to the package directions, let it thicken in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes, and then folded in one sliced banana.  I left out the extra 1/4 cup of sugar the recipe suggests; I didn’t think it necessary.

I took my ice cream mold out of the freezer, and poured the nanner/peach mixture down the center.  I topped it off with a few more scoops of ice cream, and put it all back in the freezer overnight.

The next morning, I dunked the mold in a pitcher of warm water to loosen its contents.  I used kitchen scissors to cut off the bread crumb can.  Here’s what came out:

And a cross section.  Pretty!:

And a slice to eat:

The taste was good, but there were logistical problems:  The ice cream melted faster than the Jell-O core, so you didn’t get to enjoy them together.  The outside came off in warm ice cream creamy goodness, but then the center would still be too hard to eat with a spoon.

Would I make this recipe again? Probably not.  Would I make ice cream tubes and fill it with other things? Probablly.  Frozen raspberries. Cake batter.  Other ice cream–what about a Neopolitan dessert, made from concentric circles of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry?

What would you put in the center of an ice cream tube?

Origin of a Dish: The Jell-O Mold

Thu Tran, the host of Food Party was a guest judge in 2009 at a Jell-O mold competition in Gowanus–she’s set to host this year’s competition.  In this video, Thu guides us through the wonderful, strange world of Jell-O jewelry, a Jell-O gyroscope, and even Jell-O boobs. Behold the wonders of Jell-O!

Summertime always makes me think of Jell-O.  Whether it’s the cubes of cold fruity flavors I remember from my youth, or the idea of 1950s housewives laboring over molded lime Jell-O salads.  And I’m not the only one; this Saturday, you can head down to the Gowanus Studio Space and experience one of the most unique art and design competitions you’ll ever see, visualized via Jell-O (learn more here).  You can see some of the entrants in last year’s competition in the video above.

In my life, I’ve only eaten Jell-o in the simplest of forms; perhaps that’s why I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of a Jell-O mold.  In the modern era, the idea of suspending any vegetable (or meat, for that matter) in gelatin strikes one as horrifying.  And yet, for a good fifty years of modern history, cookbooks churned out reams and reams of Jell-O recipes.  Were these recipes just as bad as they sound?  Or are they revolutionary culinary secrets, lost to time and history, just waiting to be uncovered?

This week, I intend to find out.

For the next five days, I’ll be digging through my Jell-O ephemera to bring you the best and the worst of what that jiggly gel has to offer.  But before we embark, let’s start with a brief history of gelatin.

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Gelatin dishes have been around for a long time: for centuries, sweet and savory jellies were crafted from Isinglass, which comes from the swim bladders of sturgeons, or by creating gelatin from boiling some combination of calve’s feet, bone marrow, ligaments and intestinal tissue.  It was a luxury food, time consuming and complicated to prepare, it required hours of cooking, molding, and then access to cool temperatures  to set.  It was a dish designed to show of the skill of one’s servants.

A revolution in gelatin occurred at the hands of Peter Cooper.  Cooper, founder of New York’s Cooper Union college, was a gifted inventor.  Cooper created a boxed, powdered gelatin in 1845.  Previously, commercially available gelatin could be bought only in sheet form, but the sheets “…had to be clarified by boiling with egg whites and shells and dripped through a jelly bag before they could be turned into shimmering molds. (Jell-O website)”  With Cooper’s new invention, one could just add hot water.  The boxed product soon became an ingredient in many household recipes.

The next step came in 1897: Pearle Wait and his wife May come up with the idea of adding fruit flavors and sugar to the boxed gelatin, created an instant dessert they dubbed Jell-O.  They had little commercial success, and sold the company to a friend with the incredible name of Orator Woodword.  Woodword, too, had little commercial success–until he had a major conceptual breakthrough: “At the time, basically all dishes were prepared from basic ingredients; homemakers did not know what to do with a food that was almost ready to serve and needed no recipes.  So Woodward gave them recipes. (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, 2004)” In 1904, Jell-O distributed its first recipes booklets, creating a dessert revolution.  And it is here that we will begin our Jell-O journey–at the beginning.  Be prepared to unearth some culinary treasures courtesy of “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”

The First Jell-O Recipe booklet, dated 1904.  This image is from Months of Edible Celebrations, who also provides the provenance for this booklet.

Silver & Ash: Look at All Those Wieners!

Silver & Ash, the interactive edible art piece I presented with singer/songwriter Clare Burson, went off without a hitch last week.  We were SOLD OUT, and I am pleased to say the food was very well received;  and in the coming months, I’m continuing to work on the dishes to make them even more delicious and interesting.  We’re bringing this event back to New York this September, and we *may* be bringing it to the West Coast (possibly with a 19th Century Pub Crawl in San Francisco as well!) Stay tuned, and in the meantime, here are a few images to wet your appetite.

Look at all those wieners! The second course of Silver & Ash is modeled after a favorite dish from Wiemar Germany. The dish features all-beer wieners from Schaller & Weber, a butcher's shop founded in 1937 in New York's German community of Yorkville. Braised in beer from the world's oldest brewery (the Weihenstephan brewery near Munich), these wieners were served alongside a hot potato salad.

The dining room of the Henry Street Settlement. The tables are set and ready for guests.

The kitchen, behind the scenes at Silver & Ash, the staff is hard at work preparing a delicious meal.

Sold-out seats packed with 30 guests. Clare takes the mic and begins to perform, weaving stories with music from her upcoming album, Silver & Ash.

Clare takes the stage to tell it like it is.

For the third course, we served a dish that Clare's mother closely associates with her childhood: frozen chicken pot pies. I decided to serve the pies in vintage packaging; in this photo, server Sarah Litvin presents a box o' pie to bemused Edible Brooklyn editor Rachel Wharton. As the guests begins to dig in to their pot pies, the room was filled with reminiscences: "I had these all the time when I was little!" "I remember when my parents went out, they would leave chicken pot pies for us for dinner." It was so funny to hear that so many people had a visceral memory associated with chicken pot pie--and that a few bites of warm, flaky pie crust could bring it all back.

The final course is laid out and ready to be served: it's comprised of thick slices of Helga's Homemade Almond Pound Cake. Helga is Clare's grandmother, and she prepares this not-too-dense, not-too-sweet poundcake for all of her grandchildren. Helga stashes the baked cakes in the freezer, where her family knows they can always find a frosted slice. I topped the poundcake wtih a port wine cherry compote, because Helga loved eating cherries when she was growing up--she and her friends would hang them from thier ears like earrings, and pretend to be grown up and sophistaced. After the show, Clare's family told me I had gotten the pound cake just right--and that was the best compliment of all.