Monthly Archive for April, 2013

Big Big News! I’m Writing a Book!

It is official: I’m writing my first book. And Simon & Schuster will be my publisher.

SIMON & SCHUSTER. Holy moly.

The manuscript is a long way from done, so you have some waiting to do before you can read it. What’s it about?  I’m breaking down contemporary American cuisine to its basic elements: eight flavors that define our food regardless of ethnicity or regionality  These eight flavors–including ingredients as varied as curry powder and MSG— each became a part of our culinary repertoire chronologically, and through no idle fit of fancy.  They arrived on the scene with a BOOM–a significant event and a cast of characters that turned each of these flavors into an American staple.

I’m going to lead you through the story of the flavor of American food: we’ll travel and cook and eat and perform ill-fated experiments.  And in the end, we’ll all have a better handle on what foods Americans eat and WHY.

Care to guess which eight flavors I’m going to feature?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Kitchen Histories: The Velveeta Grilled Cheese

My latest Kitchen History post on Etsy is in celebration of April, which is National Grille Cheese Month.  I explore the secret–the and history–of the perfect grilled cheese.  Read it here, and you can read the archive of all my Etsy Kitchen History posts here.

When I was in elementary school, my mom would drive me to the neighboring township for sleepovers at my friend Kelly’s. One of my clearest memories from these visits was the lunch Kelly’s mom would prepare for us: grilled cheese. The cheese was creamier than any I’d ever had before, with a tanginess I couldn’t identify. Her method was a mystery, until one day I ambled through the kitchen while she got her ingredients ready…

This post deals largely with the history of Velveeta cheese, inspired by a vintage Velveeta slicer I found on Etsy.  Yesterday, I got a mysterious package in the mail, shipped overnight from Oregon.  Inside:


Yes, that’s a yellow wax seal stamped “Velveeta.”  There was a handwritten card that said “We noticed your love of vintage Velveeta cheese cutters and couldn’t resist diving into the vault to send you this little vintage gem.” It was signed “The Velveeta Team.”



In the box, there was a c. 1980’s “cheese cuber” and two pounds of Velveeta cheese. I couldn’t be happier.  It was such a sweet thing to do. And I’m simultaneously amazed that throughout history, man has created so many tools for slicing a semi-gelatinous foodstuff that is probably one of the easiest things in the world to cut.

But hell yeah I’m going to make some queso dip with this thing.

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy is SWEET on You


Masters of Social Gastronomy
Tuesday, April 30th, doors at 7pm
Public Assembly (70 North 6th Street)
Free, but RSVP recommended  So we can bring enough samples!

Come on down to Public Assembly in Williamsburg on Tuesday, April 30, for our monthly Masters of Social Gastronomy lecture. This month we’re talking about **sugar and artificial sweeteners**.

If you’ve ever crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, then you’ve surely noticed the towering structures of the defunct Domino’s Sugar factory.  In this month’s MSG we’ll explore Brooklyn in an era when sugar was king, as well as take a behind-the-scenes peek at its modern day inheritor Sweet n’ Low.

But is giving in to our sweet tooth digging our own graves? Let’s break down the science behind the fear of sugar, from carcinogenic artificial sweeteners to the possible perils of that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup.

MSG is free! Doors at 7, talks shortly thereafter, bring an ID with you. Please RSVP HERE so we know how many sweet samples to bring!

Gallery: Supermother’s Cooking with Grass Cookbook (1971)


I first spied this little beauty in the very reputable Antique Trader Collectible Cookbooks Price Guide. What grabbed my attention — other than the fact that it’s a cookbook for “grass” – is that it doesn’t just contain your run-of-the-mill pot brownie recipes.  This book contains savory comestibles that will get you high.








And in case there’s anything else you need:


You can buy your own copy on Amazon: Supermother’s Cooking With Grass

Events: From Pushcarts to Pizza Knishes

image courtesy joseph a

Saturday, April 13, 10am-11:30am$28 – includes 4 tastings (2 vegetarian, 2 meat)- buy tickets here!

Hearty knishes, delicate fishes, and piles of meat: these are the feature foods of some of the city’s oldest businesses that dot Houston street. We’ll spend 90 minutes exploring the neighborhood once known as Little Romania, a sub-culture of the Jewish Lower East Side, and learn the history of regional Jewish cuisine. We’ll taste our way through classic LES dishes, as well as some of the innovative new products that have kept these traditional food purveyors alive.This tour meets at 10 am in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, 137 E. Houston Street. From there, we’ll proceed to Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Delicatessen. Each stop features a tasting which is included in the price of the tour. Please dress appropriately for the weather! 


Masters of Social Gastronomy love Sandwiches!

The history of sandwiches is laced with vice, ingenuity, and industry.

Sarah will relate this sordid tale via the PB&J, perhaps the sandwich Americans feel the most passionate about. But jelly wasn’t always thought to be peanut butter’s natural companion and at MSG you’ll get to experience long-forgotten peanut butter sandwiches of the past.

Later, Soma will take us on a tour of America’s best sandwiches, from national standbys like the BLT to regional treasures like the Po’ Boy. He’ll go to bat for the grilled cheese as the greatest sandwich of all time, and use the power of experimentation to uncover the Perfect Grilled Cheese.

Events: Bitters, Infusions and Simple Syrups: A Custom Cocktail Workshop

Wednesday, April 10, 6pm-8:30pm
The New York Horticultural Society
Tickets $50; Register Here!
Doors open at 6:00pm;
Workshop starts at 6:30pm
Hort Members $30; non-members $50

Join us as Sarah Lohman teaches us how to recreate those ever-so-delicious cocktails that you thought only a trained “mixologist” could create. Learn how to infuse liquors with herbs and spices using historic recipes as inspiration, and concoct herbal cocktails with flavored simple syrups and fresh ingredients. She’ll also discuss how to use cocktail bitters—as well as their fascinating history—and you’ll make your own bitters from scratch. You’ll learn how to make your own botanically inspired cocktails with a hands-on demo. We’ll enjoy a cocktail in class and you’ll get to take home a sample of your own cocktail bitters.

Origin of a Dish: The Toga Party

fdrFDR presiding over one of the first known “toga parties.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

After my experiment with a Greek Symposium (where we did at one point shout “Toga! Toga! Toga!”), I got curious about the origins of the modern, pseudo-Greek, fraternal Toga Parties.  And I found the photo above.

Yes. In the middle, that is indeed President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In a toga.

FDR’s critics often compared him to a dictator, going as far as to refer to him as “Caesar”.  To poke fun at the name, his wife Eleanor threw him a “Dear Caesar” themed birthday on January 30th, 1934, his 52nd year of life.  The costume pictured on the left is from the FDR Library & Museum and was worn by a friend of the Roosevelts to the ball.  According to Henrietta Nesbitt, head of the White House housekeeping and cooking staff, the birthday cake was a fruitcake, made with dates, raisins, almonds, citron and orange peel (source).

Did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt throw the first toga party on record?  Perhaps.

I have found one earlier reference in the novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930 (although it takes place in 1914).  The book is an account of the Bright Young Things, a group of Londoners in the early 20th century perceived as “the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure. (source)”

In Vile Bodies, the protagonist Adam complains ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ and the narrator elaborates:

 …Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies …

Were Greek-themed toga parties actually a thing in pre-war London?  I’m uncertain.

Although the idea of a college fraternity stemmed from the Greeks, togas are Roman.  So how did one become associated with the other? It’s believed to have been invented in the 1950s, but the only source is a self-referencing reference about a party at Pamona Collge in 1953. I apparently need to start doing oral histories with Pamona College alumnus (know any?).  But this lineage may be entirely made-up.  The toga party simple may have been a creation of popular culture.

The 1978 film Animal House had a famous Toga Party scene which over the next year, created a fervor for toga parties on college campuses.  Both the Washington Post and Newsweek reported on the new phenomenon and allegedly the movie’s promoters were going campus to campus throwing toga parties.  The best article I’ve found on all this comes from the Princeton Weekly newsletter, written in in the midst of the toga frenzy in 1978.  A few select quotes:

Toga is wild and crazy…Toga is an excuse to let loose.  Toga is bed-sheet chic and drapery decadence.

‘What do you think all this toga business means?” I asked.

“Nothing really. For a lot of people, it’s key to have a crazy time is all.”

My favorite part is when he describes a campus-sheet shortage due to over-zealous partiers and wary linen franchises.  Read the whole article here.

The Official Preppy Handbook, a parody published in 1980, gives this advice: “Toga party- Girls wear designer sheets, men wear the kind from the linen service.  If accompanied by a Roman-style dinner, these sheets may go home stained with red wine, though serious drinkers might switch to a grain alcohol punch around 10 o’clock. Since dancing in a toga is impossible, getting drunk is the primary activity.”  In just two years, toga parties went from the height of college fashion to passé enough to be parodied.

There are a lot of gaping holes in the story of the toga party.  The frustrating part about researching the history of alcohol is that apparently people were too drunk to remember.

Party Time Reenactor: How to Drink Like an Ancient Greek

greek5A slave helps a drinker to vomit. (National Museum of Cophenaghen)

The Ancient Greeks loved to drink.  They called wine “The mirror of the mind” and believed the way you behaved when you drank was revealing of your innermost nature.  As a result, the Ancient Greeks invented a celebration of wine: a male drinking party called a Symposium.

I first read about Syposia in Tom Standage’s book A History of the World in 6 Glasses; classically, the event was written about by Plato.  In Standage’s chapter on wine, he describes the symposium: an evening of food and wine that included games, philosophical debate, and tended to end in a riot or an orgy.  Sounds like a party worthy of reenactment.

The Invitation

An ideal symposium was thought to have between 12-24 drinkers; 16 being ideal.  Originally all the drinkers would be men, with women only present as entertainers:  musicians, dancers, and high-end prostitutes.  Since sticking to this rule would exclude my own presence, I decided to open up the party to men and women alike.  The Facebook invitation went out with great fanfare.

You know I love a good theme party. So Brian and I are hosting a Symposium: An Ancient Greek Drinking party! The evening will include:- drinking wine (everyone please bring a bottle, red or white)
– ancient Greek snacks
– a “symposiarch”, chosen at random, who is responsible for deciding how drunk the party will get.
– games!
– “entertainments”
– serious discussion of philosophy or not.That’s all I got. Just come over, drink, and indulge my nerdiness

The Food

greek1Two types of bread were served: flatbread for scooping up food and small, yeasty rolls. There was also olive oil for dipping and olives for snacking.

We known a lot more about Ancient Roman cooking than we do about the Ancient Greeks.  Much of what we do know comes from Archestratus’ The Life of Luxury, a poem written sometime in the mid-4th century BC.  In essence, it’s a guide book on where to find, and prepare, the best food in Greece.  You can read it here, and read a great article about it here.

The symposium was preceded by a meal, full of foods that laid down a good base for a night of drinking.  From various sources, I assembled this menu:

First Course: Fish and Lentils – The Ancient Greeks ate very little meat; their diet was based largely on fish, legumes and grains   Lentils were a staple of everyone’s diet–I slow-cooked mine with salt, vinegar and coriander.  For the fish, I prepared salmon–not a fish that I know would have been available to the Greeks, but my friends in Alaska had sent me a package of beautiful, fresh caught, wild salmon fillets.  So I had good fish, so I was gonna cook it.  I prepared it the way Archestratus suggests, with a little olive oil and a dusting of salt and cumin.  I broiled it for a few minutes and it came out flaky, flavorful, and perfect.  The cumin matched the fish wonderfully.  It was the best fish I’ve ever cooked.

Each course was served with bread: the Ancient Greeks ate primarily two types, a soft and fluffy roll and flatbread for scooping up food.  They did not use silverware–only bread and their hands. I also set olives on the table, for snacking.

greek2Later in the evening, I lost my ability to take decent photos. I should delegate.  But you get the idea. Clockwise from top: pistachios, a bowl of lentils, olives, grapes, a pitcher of water (the traditional accompaniment to dinner), broiled salmon with cumin, figs, dates, almonds drizzled with honey, bread, feta drizzled with honey.

Second Course: Cheese, Fruits, and Nuts – I served feta, the most commonly available Greek cheese in the States, and very similar to the sheeps’ milk cheese the Ancient Greeks would have consumed. Almonds, pistachios and grapes were grown in Ancient Greece, and dried dates and figs were imported from the Middle East.  The entire platter was drizzled with Greek honey.

greek3Olive oil cake with grapes baked into the top.

Third Course: Olive Oil Cake – Although the Ancient Greeks did not cultivate sugar, they were fond of sweets, and made many types of honey cakes.  Although I found many mentions of cakes made of barley or wheat ending a meal, I could not find any historic recipes.  So I used this modern recipe, and used only ingredients the Greeks would have had available to them: wheat, yogurt, olive oil, and honey.

The Drinking

greek4The Symposiarch.

In a traditional symposium, the guests don’t start drinking until after the meal.  But as people started to trickle in, I realized there was no way to convince anyone to stick to that rule.  Additionally, the Greeks always drank their wine mixed with water–they saw drinking it straight as both barbaric, and only fit for the gods.  Only Dionysus, god of wine, was strong enough to drink wine unmixed.  Mere mortal man could go mad.

Wine and water would be mixed at varying proportions in a special bowl called a krater.  When one krater of wine was finished, it was the Symposiarch who decided when another would be mixed.  The Symposiarch was the leader of the party–elected either by votes or by chance–who decided the topics that should be debated as well as the level of drunkenness the party would attain.  The ideal was to keep people tipsy and loose lipped without having the party descend into drunken chaos. One symposiarch said that three kraters of wine was just enough–and after the third one is drained “…wise men go home.”  Drinking after that point leads to fights, breaking of the furniture, depression, and ultimately madness.

Our symposiarch was unanimously elected: old Roommate Jeff, who has been a part of this blog from the beginning.  He donned a toga and took to his duty, doling out wine (“When this bottle comes back to me, it better be empty!”) and suggesting topics of discussion (“What happens after you die? Discuss.”)

The Party

More togas were donned, wine was imbibed, food was consumed, and our true personalities began to shine through.  Traditionally, drinking games like kottabos could be played: the dregs of your wine were hurled at a target. I wisely didn’t tell my guests the Ancient Greeks hurled wine around their homes, thus saving the carpet.

There was talking, belly aching laughter, and a few card games as well.  We celebrated a birthday. We toasted the symposiarch, the Ancient Greeks, wine itself. Sometime in the night– 3am? 4? – -the drinkers trickled out, praising the symposiarch for his good judgement, and ending the night in whichever Ancient Greek themed way they saw fit. In Plato’s symposium, Alcibiades showed up drunk and mostly naked.

The Results

I have never participated in a classier excuse to binge drink.  Like a grown-up toga party, the Symposium combined an appreciation for the effects of alcohol with an easily enjoyable theme.  We all celebrated, learned, and ended the night happy.

But this party got me thinking: when did the college-style Toga Party originate? That’s the subject of my next post.