Monthly Archive for September, 2014

Fall Events: Rationing, Candy History & Funeral Foods!

I’ve got an event in Long Island this Sunday and a Halloween food double header at the Brooklyn Brainery at the end of October!

ration_book4_insideSorry, No Sugar Today
Sunday, September 28th, 2pm
The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A  Stony Brook, NY 11790
Free with museum admission.

Have you ever wondered what rationing during WWII was really like? Promoted as the ultimate patriotic duty for those on the home front, it also represented one of the real drudgeries of the War. Food historian Sarah Lohman explores the challenges that Americans faced throughout WWII as a result of wartime rationing and recreates some favorite wartime recipes to demonstrate necessary ingredient substitutions. She’ll use real ration books from the time, as well as period newspaper articles to explore the ins and outs of the ration system and explain the reasoning behind it. You’ll get to try two types of cakes, a decadent recipe that would have used several months of ration books, and another, frugal recipe that made many substitutions and used few ration points. You can decide which one is best at this fun, hands-on talk.

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candy_corn_blog_bioCandy: From Early History to Halloween
Wednesday, October 29th,  6:30-8pm
Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
$16 Tickets Available Here!

Isn’t it weird that one day a year it’s appropriate to threaten people into giving you candy? Where did the Halloween tradition come from? And actually, how did we come up with candy in the first place?

In this class, we’ll cover a brief world history of candy, from the botanic roots of sugarcane, to the first processed confections from the Middle East, to the magical candy medicines of medieval Europe. Then, we’ll sort out the origins of Halloween, along with modern myths like the “razor blade in the apple.”

And, what would a talk on candy be without lots and lots of CANDY: historic candy samples will abound to help you learn.

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Food of the Dead: A Culinary History of Funeral Food
Wednesday, October 29th,  8:30-10:00pm
Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
$16 Tickets Available Here!

At the end of an early American funeral, participants were often given a cookie: spiced with caraway, and stamped with a special design, they were often kept for years as a memento of the departed.

Although mourning traditions have changed over time, and vary from place to place, what they often have in common is food and drink. From the home parlour to the funeral parlor; from Irish wakes to sitting Shiva, consumption offers comfort in a time of grief.

In this talk we’ll look at the culinary traditions surrounding funerals throughout American history, and we’ll taste beer from Midas’s tomb, funeral cakes, and Mormon funeral potatoes

 

The Surprisingly Modern Advice to Women (And Opinions on Men) of Two 19th Century Writers

Smoochies.

I lived a past life in the year 1848. My love of history began as a “costumed interpreter” in a large, outdoor living history museum in Ohio. We were in character five days a week, eight hours a day, hosting paying visitors in a large house. I had a group of people cast as my family–who are still some of my closest friends–and my experiences working there in my teens changed my life and set me on my career path.

The most surreal part of the experience was that the role of my mother was played by my actual mother.

My mother is an incredible woman. A force of nature. But working with one’s mother at the age of 16 is rough, to say the least. We managed.

One of her “bits” for the visitors was to pull out her copy of The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child; published in 1833, it was one of the most popular recipe and advice books of the early 19th century.

“Open it!” my mother would dramatically command of our guests, “And you will see that my copy falls open to the page on the ‘Education of Daughters.”

Mrs. Child. Also an abolitionist. Awesome lady.

Mom’s copy is now in my possession, and it has in fact been opened so many times that the spine is broken at this section. Whenever Mother would say her line I would roll my eyes, both in character and out. But the other day, I pulled Mrs. Child off the shelf because I had actually never read what she had to say on the education of daughters. One of her first pieces of advice really surprised me:

“The greatest and most universal error is, teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen…That a mother should wish to see her daughters happily married, is natural and proper; that a lady should be pleased with polite attentions is likewise natural and innocent; but this undue anxiety, this foolish excitement about showing off the attentions of somebody, no matter whom, is attended with consequences seriously injurious. It promotes envy and rivalship; it leads out young girls to spend their time between the public streets, the ball rooms, and the toilet; and worst of all, it leads them to contract engagements, without any knowledge of their own hearts, merely for the sake of being married as soon as their companions.”

I was astounded at how modern this idea was, put down on paper over 180 years ago. It reminded me of the 2013 TEDtalk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, famously sampled on Beyonce’s album. Adichie says “Because I am a female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Marriage can be… a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”

Another women writer and contemporary of Mrs. Child tackles courtship and marriage more subversively. Lola Montez is one of my favorite women ever. Born in Ireland with a different name, she became a dancer and toured Europe. I suspect she wasn’t a great technical dancer, but a captivating one. She slept with a lot of hot guys, was involved in a revolution in Bavaria, came to America then toured, lectured, and wrote to support herself. She was smart, sexy and independent in a time when that was very much out of the mainstream.  She’s buried in Green-Wood cemetery, in Brooklyn, and I stop by to say hi sometimes.

Lola Montez, photographed in New York. Also, the first known image of a woman smoking a cigarette. I thought that was so bad-ass when I was 16.

While living in New York in 1858, Montez published The Arts and Secrets of Beauty, a book that’s a bit like a wittier Cosmo magazine. In one passage, she quotes a “classical synopsis” of the ideal female beauty: a well rounded head, white skin, fine fingers, wide hips and many more rigid guidelines. She then adds, with mirth, “It is very fortunate, however, for the human race that all men do not have exactly a correct taste in the matter of female beauty.”

The back of the book is the best part, however: “Hints to Gentleman on the Art of Fascinating.” She introduces this section as a guide to men on how to win the hearts of women. But it’s done with a wink, because what follows is a description of men on their worst behavior. Anyone who has ever been on a date can relate and commiserate, even 160 years later. A few of her “rules,” below:

RULE THE SECOND You will make an immense hit with the ladies by pretending to be no admirer of any particular woman, but a professed adorer and slave of the whole sex; a thing which you can easily show by staring insultingly at every pretty woman you meet.

RULE THE SIXTH Women like men of courage, therefore you should entertain the lady you would win with a narration of the number of men you have knocked down, at balls and bar-rooms, who had the temerity to cross your path. Be sure that you always make yourself the hero of some scrape.

RULE THE SEVENTH Let your compliments be so marked a character that there can be no mistaking them. For instance, you may ask her if she is always particular to shut her eyes on retiring to bed? She will ask why? And you will answer, Because if you do not, I fear the the brightness of your eyes will burn holes in the blankets, or set the house afire!

Pick up lines. In 1858. That’s fucking hilarious. They only get funnier, and I wish I could reproduce everything single one here. But the whole book is online here. Get on over and read all 50 rules, you won’t regret it.

Ok, one more here:

RULE THE FIFTEENTH  One of the most direct and sure ways to fascinate a lady, is to excite in her heart a spirit of rivalry, through jealousy. A common way of doing this is to get the daguerreotypes of your father’s cook and chambermaid and take them to your lady-love, and tell her that they are the likeness of two very rich and highly respectable ladies who have for a long time persecuted you with their affections, and at last have the indelicacy to send you their pictures, without any solicitations on your part whatsoever…It will  certainly convince any lady that you are a prize worth having, especially if she foresees that she would have the pleasure of having her home filled with a cabinet of strange women’s faces, which she could exhibit as the proud savage does the scalps her husband has taken from the heads of his enemies.

Living History: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Welsh RarebitWelsh rarebit: cheese sauce on toast; all ready for my bedtime snack.

What do you get when you combine a Victorian preoccupation with bad digestion and one illustrator’s imaginative fantasy landscapes? Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1904-1912. McCay would later go on to create the better known strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, but his earlier, more grown-up strip was just as fantastic. In every strip, a cheese-on-toast dish known as “welsh rarebit” was consumed before bedtime, and then faulted for a night of  alarming dreams. The illustrated dreamscapes the McCay created would go on to inspire scenes in King KongDumboMary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Read the comic here.

After reading a book of McCay’s work, I wanted to know: would the dreaded rarebit give me bad dreams, too?

The History

In the final panel, the dreamer always awakens and curses the cheese.

In the early 20th century and before, we were preoccupied with bad digestion. Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times was blamed for a range of maladies, including troubled dreams. From The Psychology of Dreams, 1920:

“As is well known, dreams may be influenced by physical discomforts. Many individuals can, almost with certainty, bring on distressing dreams by eating at supper or near bedtime, certain combinations of food, as peas and salmon, Welsh rarebit, ice cream and oysters.”

That shit is well known. The general medical consensus was that those prone to bad digestion were prone to nightmares, and heavy foods like a rarebit made you prone to bad digestion. Case closed.

The Recipe


A silent film inspired by McCay’s comics. I enjoy the first few minute of this film; he is really chowing down on a welsh rarebit. Really shoving it in there.

So what is this wicked rarebit? A welsh rarebit is perfect comfort food, which is why nobody wanted to give the damn things up, despite the advice of their doctors. Invented sometime in the 18th century, it can be as simple as a few slices of melted cheese on toast, the preference being for cheddar or Gloucestershire cheese.  By the early 20th century, it was more common to make a sauce of American cheese, milk or cream, egg yolks, butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of red pepper–the recipes varied, and could be more simple or more complicated depending on what you had on hand. You can read a full history of this dish, along with theories about the origin of its name, on the incomparable Food Timeline here.

I made my rarebit with grated cheddar cheese, cream, good mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne. I melted it slowly on my stove top before pouring it over a slice of whole wheat toast. It was nice and spicy and I immediately wanted another. Then I climbed into bed and got ready for dreamland.

The Results

Although I felt sleepy immediately after eating the rarebit, it took me a lot longer to fall asleep than normal. It was a light sleep, shifting in between consciousness and dreaming. I didn’t have any long, lucid dreams. I had watched the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode about Israel/Palestine before going to bed, so mostly I was dreaming about eating delicious Palestinian food, particularly this one interesting-looking roast watermelon salad. At another point I was at a BBQ pouring hot sauce all over roasted meat. These are the scenarios my brain is pondering constantly, and in my agitated sleep state, I was just dipping in and out of them. If you were wondering what it’s like to peer into my psyche, there you go.

But I don’t think the rarebit was to blame for my dreams. Feeding a rarebit to my husband before bed was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. He came home from school late and hungry, so I offered him one; he said he didn’t like it because it tasted “unhealthy.” He spent the night thrashing around in bed, kicking and punching me in his sleep. He actually woke up several times to exclaim “It was the cheese!” Finally, he started crying because he dreamed his undead grandfather shot his brother.

According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, eating too close to bedtime can lead to “heightened metabolism and temperature,” which in turn “…can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.” Which means more dreams. It is inadvisable to eat “heavy or spicy foods” two to three hours before bedtime.

However, cheese also contains tryptophan, an amino acid “used by the human body to make serotonin.” It can actually relax us and help us sleep, which may be why it is often served as the last course of meals. Additionally, fat and carbs can make us sleepy, according to Scientific American. So it may be safe to say that everyone reacts differently to a welsh rarebit.

As for Brian’s undead grandpa: unlike Nemo‘s freeing fantasy landscapes, Fiend often dealt with the repressed anxietys of daily adulthood.