Monthly Archive for August, 2013

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy do Chinese Takeout!

image courtesy Bunches and Bits {Karina}

Wednesday, August 28th
@ The Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave.
Doors at 6:30
$5 Tickets HERE

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

Chinatown is perhaps the only neighborhood in New York where $1 can get a full meal; a century ago, the same was true of Chinatown’s chop suey houses, whose entrees were considered exotic by droves of hungry New Yorkers. At this month’s MSG, Sarah will cover the history of Chinese take out, from dim sum to tea houses to the Jewish connection to Chinese food.

Soma will reveal the stories behind our modern American Chinese food experience, from the man behind General Tso’s to who put the magic in your fortune cookie. We’ll also take a step across the Pacific to see how American food adapts to the Chinese palate: what happens when Colonel Sanders meets General Tso?

And! We’ll be raffling off a copy or two of Diana Kuan’s The Chinese Takeout Cookbook.

(tickets here! Doors at 6:30pm, talks start around 7pm. This is a standing-room lecture; some limited seating will be available but get there early! $5 includes admission + a raffle ticket.)

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Tiki Time

maitai1A Mai Tai with a few Tiki touches.

In a last toast to summer, I explore Tiki and all its accompanying kitsch on the Etsy blog.

Tiki is a Frankenstein combination of influences from the Caribbean, Polynesia, Hawaii and China. During prohibition, alcohol-starved Americans traveled to the Caribbean, experiencing for the first time rum drinks like the Mojito at infamous bars like Sloppy Joe’s. Post-prohibition, the first Tiki bars were opened in California by some of these Caribbean travelers. After World War II, soldiers posted in the Pacific brought back a taste for the exotic, and bars and restaurants began to reflect a luau theme. But the food served in these establishments was often cooked by Chinese immigrants, who served their own Cantonese fare

The post includes a recipe for a classic Mai Tai, which I promise is just the thing for this coming Labor Day weekend. Read it all here!

Events: I’m Judging a Pie Contest!

Saturday, August 24th, 5-9PM
@ the Old Stone House
$12 for the Fare or $10 to enter the Contest. Get Tickets Here!

Sign up HERE for $100 grand prize, and a “Judge’s Pick” prize (for the best historic pie!) of a basket of historic goodies.

Additionally: Cider, Mutton, and Revolutionary goodness for all!

Honey and Hurricanes: The Lost Bees of New York

honey2Honey from all around New York City.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Last fall, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy, I attended a honey tasting in Brooklyn.  Signs of the hurricane were still everywhere, and it felt nice to be doing something normal.  If attending a honey tasting can be considered normal.

The tasting was hosted by Tim and Shelly, a beekeeping couple; like the honey they produce, their love is strong and sweet. They got married this month, with homemade mead in the wilds of Ohio.

When I arrived at their Brooklyn apartment, there were more beekeepers in the living room than I had met in my entire life. And the honey spread was unmatched by anything on earth.  Six continents were represented in honey samples (all except Antarctica), dozens of countries, and a jar of honey from almost every state in the union. But most incredible was the entire lazy susan devoted to honey exclusively from the five boroughs: Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

A change in legislature made beekeeping legal in the city a few years back, although many New Yorkers kept hives illegally for many years before. They dot the roofs of the city, nestle in the back yard,s and in some places, large apiaries have been established, like at The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“Since I started keeping bees, I feel more connected to my neighborhood,” Shelly told me. “Bees fly up to three miles from their hive searching for food. Now every sidewalk flower I see, I know it’s a part of my honey.”

“But bees are also really lazy,” she added.

Take the infamous Red Hook Red.  In Red Hook, Brooklyn, a mostly industrial (but rapidly changing) neighborhood, there’s a maraschino cherry factory.  It’s cobbled together from a couple mismatched structures like many small factories in the city: as the factory it expanded, it bought several unattached buildings on the same block. As batches of cherries were moved from one space to another, sometimes some of that candy apple-red sugary liquor was spilled and little puddles of cherry syrup were common.

honey3Red Hook Red, made from the blood of maraschino cherries.

A nearby beekeeper pulled out his honeycomb one day to discover hundreds of hexagonal pockets of deep red honey. He was horrified, and puzzled, until the mystery was solved: instead of seeking the nectar of flower blossoms, the bees had discovered a nearby and readily available source of sugar, the maraschino cherry factory.

I always thought Red Hook Red was urban legend.  But there it was, at the tasting, in all its rust-colored glory.  The flavor was not as bad as you would expect, but not like something you’d want to eat again.

“I’ve found pockets of blue, green, orange…” Shelly said about her honeycombs. “They just go to the trash can and sip Gatorade.” The hazards of urban beekeeping.

There were also three jars of honey that were truly special, because they could never be tasted again. They came from Red Hook, the Rockaways, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard: from three hives that were swept into the ocean by Hurricane Sandy.

honey4Honey produced at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shortly before the hive was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

When I sipped these honeys, I thought about how these bees had been connected to my city. This relatively small loss had the power to suddenly make me feel connected to all the much greater losses my city had suffered. And when I think of these sweet little honeys now, I wonder what this hurricane season will bring to the five boroughs.

The Air is Sweet: An Inside Peek at Sweet ‘n Low


This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

More than 70 years ago, on an unassuming street corner in Brooklyn, a cafeteria operated on the bottom floor of a red brick tenement.  Its location across from the Navy Yard made the diner a great success during the hustle and bustle of World War II, but business started waning as the Yard’s workers were laid off in post-war peace.  The owners, Ben and Betty Eisenstadt were losing money fast; until, as the story goes, Mrs. Eisenstadt got the idea of using a machine designed to fill bags of tea to fill packets of sugar.  No more messy, open bowls on the table; sugar could be sold in individual packets.


Betty was also a chronic dieter, and the combination of her brains and her waist begat Sweet ‘n Low, the first artificial sweetener marketed as a fat-reducing aid to the general public.  Much more about the fascinating history of Brooklyn’s own Sweet ‘n Low can be found in the book by the same name.  The company, now known as Cumberland Packing, still packs Sweet N’ Low into the bright pink packets on the same corner tenement in Brooklyn; but they’ve also expanded their operations into a massive warehouse on Navy Yard premises. When the Navy Yard was closed as a military base in the 1960s, the area was turned over to industrial development, and Cumberland packing is one of their oldest tenants. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the entire operation.

The very first thing I noticed when I entered the Sweet N’ Low packing facilities was that the AIR TASTED SWEET. You can eat the sweet taste right out of the air; you can lick it from your skin; and eventually, I imagine, you can rub it from your eyes and cough it up from your lungs. It is everywhere–and so is PINK, so much pink! Sweet pinkness everywhere you look.


The Sweet N’ Low packing plant was on an intimate scale, shorts hallways and narrow stairs winding between converted rooms in the old building; each space has less than a dozen machines each manned by an operator.  We saw a machine that had been working since the 1940s, a twisted mass of steam-punk pipes, levers, cranks and dials that was now used for custom jobs (the packets in the machine on that day were for a 50th wedding anniversary).


Across the way, inside the Navy Yard, Cumberland owns two more buildings were it processes its other products, including the Sugar in the Raw brand. The turbinado sugar is shipped in from all over the world: on the day I was there, enormous bags arrived from Maui and Columbia.  The sugars aren’t blended when they are packaged; every packet of Sugar in the Raw is “single origin sugar.” Each packet is a taste of Maui, or Columbia, or etc. 


I also saw immense machines that package their newest low calorie sweeteners, Stevia in the Raw and Monk Fruit in the Raw. Over 3,000 packets whizzed by, the enormous robots manned by a handful of individuals. I asked what the advantage the smaller, human powered machines had over the goliath automated packers–was it more economical for a smaller job?  The answer was no; these employees had been working for Cumberland for 30 or 40 years, and Cumberland refused to downsize their jobs.  They could replace most of their workforce with machines, but don’t out of a sense of responsibility to the community.

While anyone can appreciate Cumberland’s loyalty to its workers, it also made me feel a little funny.  I thought of the twisted mechanics of the 1940s packing machine I had seen, an antique in a factory where super robots process over 3,000 bags a minute. The people here were also antiques: held on to out of devotion and nostalgia rather than efficiency. What does it feel like to work a job where you know you’re not needed?

It made we wonder if there wasn’t a different solution: not to keep these out of date manufacturing jobs in place, but to use that same money to provide the people of the neighborhood with training and education that allows them access to jobs that better use their bodies, minds, and spirits.

But those are just my thoughts as an outside observer.  A huge part of Navy Yard’s goals for the future is to continue to provide employment for the people who live in the neighborhood now, in the face of a rapidly changing city.


Yelling for an Egg: Filipino Food in Brooklyn


The Manila Restaurant on 47 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY, 1938. This photo used to be available for licensing through, but I can no longer locate it. So here it is in all its watermarked glory.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I’ve always found that immigrated cuisines are best eaten at hole-in-the-wall type restaurants, for the most authentic experience.  But in my attempts to try authentic Filipino food, the hole-in-the-wall my husband and I found ourselves standing in front of was closed–permanently.  So a quick Google search for other restaurants in the area led us to not another Filipino restaurant, but a Filipino Gastropub.

It was fancier than I had wanted, but when my husband and I cozied up to the bar, I noticed that the menu included a dish that four people had insisted I try: balut.

“What is it?” I asked the bartender. After he explained it, I ashamedly admitted “I don’t have the strength.”

But that wasn’t true of the gentleman sitting next to me.  A Filipino immigrant, sitting with his wife and grown son, he ordered his balut and the staff let out a loud whoop! of celebration.

“All this yelling for an egg??” his wife asked in laughing disbelief.  Balut is a fertilized duck egg: you crack the egg to find a half-developed bird fetus, swimming in briny broth.

“It’s a special dish,” the bartender replied, smiling.  Then, to the husband: “Do you remember it from the Philippines?”

“Yes, I miss it!” he replied, in a way that nearly pained him, pressing his hand over his heart.  “I ate it all the time.  I sip the broth first, then eat the meat–such delicate bird meat!”

Food gives comfort when we long for home.  It’s all the good parts of where we come from and none of the reasons why we left.  This is as true today as it was in the 1930s, when a thriving Filipino population found their home just outside of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Phillipines fell under American occupation shortly after the Spanish-American war.  The result was an increased American military population on the islands, but also an increase in Filipino immigration to the United States.  Many young Filipino men joined the Navy, for economic opportunity as well as adventure, particularly as the nation geared up for World War II. Many of these recruits ended up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; by the 1940s, The Navy Yard had over 70,000 employees, and was a key military base and constructed such infamous ships as the USS Missouri.


Washington Street & Sands Street, 1930. Source.

With so many employees in the yard, the population of the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the Yard exploded.  At the end of a workday, or over a weekend of leave, A Filipino sailor could stroll out the Sands St. exit; he’d bypass the American lunchrooms and bars and head for the intersection of Sands and Washington Streets, where he could find Brooklyn’s Filipino community and a taste of home.

In 1939, WPA writers produced a guide book to every nook and cranny of New York City’s five boroughs; one intrepid writer recorded the area around the Navy Yard and its Filipino community:

Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.

A photo from 1938 lets us peak inside and glimpse a night filled with familiar food, music and friends. The Manila restaurant was probablly the first Filipino eatery in the city, having been established since at least 1927. It looks like a good place, the customers are relaxed, and you can just barely make out a menu hanging on the back wall.  An ad for the restaurant, uncovered by Purple Yam and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Assistant Professor of the History Dept at the San Francisco State University, says the restaurant serves “Philippine, American, Chinese, and Spanish dishes.”  A sign of creeping Americanization, or of the diversity of Filipino culture?

No mention of balut, though. I bet those in the know could ask for it.

Today, immigrants from the Philippines account for 4% of the foreign-born population in the United States; only Mexico, China, and India send more of their sons and daughters to make a new life in this country.  There are easily a dozen Filipino restaurant in the city now, and probably many more, tucked away in the right neighborhoods, offering a little bit of comfort to those far from home.

Events: Sriracha & Ice Cream

Image by kattebelletje

Sriracha: A History

Thursday, August 29th, 8:30-10PM
@ the Brooklyn Brainery
$17 Sign up here!

A pungent sauce, produced in California by a Korean immigrant of Chinese descent, intended for Thai consumers. A sauce that has somehow crossed over into the American mainstream, popular enough to merit its own potato chip flavor.

That is Rooster Sauce–as American as apple pie.

In the class, we’ll explore the fascinating history of Sriracha and you’ll learn how to make your own version of this spicy sauce. Then, we’ll go beyond Pho and explore the versatility of Sriracha by taste-testing some unexpected flavor combinations.

I’m also teaching Homemade Ice Cream Class at the Brooklyn Brainery on Thursday, August 15th, 8:30-10PM. Sign up here!



The History Dish: Ambergris Ice Cream

Image from, from a 2008 article that postulates ambergris might be the next big flavor.

Food historian Ivan Day has discovered what is believed to be the first recipe for ice cream, written in a manuscript by Lady Anne Fanshawe of England. Dating to c. 1665, she flavors her ice cream with mace, orangeflower water, or ambergris.

Ambergris is an “intestinal slurry,” believed to be a ball of muscus-covered, indigestible squid beaks. This mass is ejected into the oceans by sperm whales, much like a cat disgorging a hairball. A ball of ambergris floats in the sea until it washes ashore and is collected. Throughout the 18th century, it was a prized flavoring for sweets and today it is still valued today as a base for perfumes. Its smell and flavor can range from “earthy to musky to sweet.” At the current Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, you are encourage to sniff a large ball of very valuable whale puke.

I needed to known what ambergris ice cream tasted like.  Ambergris is very, very expensive: it will run you about $25 per gram. There are more affordable, essential oils made from it, but often they are labeled “not for consumption.” I searched far and wide and finally found Dewberry’s Herbal, an Etsy shop stocked with handmade essential oils that even let you choose which oil base you want. I picked the “True Ambergris” with grapeseed oil, the most neutral of oils!

I have been psyched for this experiment for weeks! …And the end of the story is the ambergris got lost in the mail. Or, stolen from the foyer of my apartment building. It is no where to be found–and I’m crushed.

To be continued…when I can work out the insurance claim, or scrape together money to by some more, Ambergris Ice Cream will happen!

The History Dish: Howqua’s Tea Ice Cream

 Coarse leaves of lapsang souchong tea. Photo by Selva.

You may have noticed the trend, in the fancy ice cream freezer at the grocery store, for bright green pints of “Green Tea Ice Cream.” The color, and flavor, comes from matcha, the green tea powder that is traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies.  Although the use of  matcha in confections is recent, the idea of tea-flavored ice cream is quite old.

Drinks, like tea, coffee, and “hot” chocolate, were some of the earliest ice cream flavors, first appearing in the 18th century. This recipe for Howqua’s-Tea Ice Cream, from The Ice Book, 1844, particularly captured my imagination.

Who’s this Howqua dude? Wu Ping-Chien, known as Howqua or Ho-Kwa in the West, was a Mandarin trader in the early 19th century. His family business worked heavily with England and the United States and by the time of the Opium War, Howqua was one of the richest men on the planet. Known for the fine quality of his products, his famous name was often appropriated to lend inferior brands of tea an air of luxury.
The name was often given to black tea blends, known to have a “delicious fragrant aroma” or a “peculiar flavor.”  Some brands seem to have gotten their unique taste from orange pekoe tea; while other relied on lapsang souchong. Lapsang souchong is made from course tea leaves plucked far away from the “bud” of the tea plant.  These leaves lack aromatic compounds and therefore flavor. To compensate, the leaves are dried over a smokey pine fire, resulting in a rich, black tea with a dark, smoked flavor.
I thought a smokey black tea might make for an interesting ice cream, so I tried it out. I used my standard custard ice cream recipe (below) and infused the milk and cream with 1/4 cup of loose leaf lapsang souchong tea.
The results? I swear to god it tasted just like bacon. It’s vegetarian bacon ice cream, with a flavor more subtle and complex than squirting liquid smoke into everything (the method often used to create “fake” bacon flavor).  Was it any good?  Debatable.  But it seems like the technique could be expanded upon and taken advantage of.  Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes.
Basic Custard Ice Cream
A Frankenstein combination of recipes from Thomas Jefferson, Martha Stewart, and Alton Brown.
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream

  • 1 cup whole milk

  • 1 vanilla bean (or, other flavoring of your choice)

  • 6 large egg yolks

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

  • Additional mix-ins

Add split and scraped vanilla bean to cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.  In the meantime, in a glass bowl whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt until blended. After cream mixture comes to a boil, pour slowly on the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats back of spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger).  Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl set over ice, or place in refrigerator, until chilled–overnight is preferable. Churn in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions, adding mix-ins like nuts or fruits in the last few minutes of freezing. Transfer ice cream to a resealable plastic container and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.

I learned about Howqua’s Ice Cream from Ivan Day’s Ice Cream: A History (Shire Library), a slim book packed with information and images about ice cream history.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Parmesan Ice Cream

icecream2A dish of parmesan ice cream.

In this month’s Etsy Kitchen History, I explore historic flavors of ice cream (musk!), ice cream molds (roast chicken!), and attempt a fascinating 18th century recipes for Parmesan ice cream.

In the 1780s, King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his wife arrived at the San Gregorio Convent to find “…a table covered, and every appearance of a most plentiful cold repast, consisting of several joints of meat, hams, fowl, fish and various other dishes.” The King and his entourage were bummed, however, because they had just eaten. But not wanting to seem impolite, they sat down, and Queen Maria Carolina “…choose a slice of cold turkey, which, on being cut up, turned out a large piece of lemon ice. All the other dishes were ices of various kinds, disguised under the forms of joints of meat, fish and fowl.” The King and the nuns alike had a hearty laugh at the joke.

Read more on Etsy here! And on Four Pounds Flour this week, I’ll be posting about two more unique historic flavors: ambergris and lapsang souchong.