Monthly Archive for December, 2016

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.

Eight Flavors: Data Visualization

all

All the eight flavors. Click for a larger image.

My first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine will be released December 6th, but is available for pre-sale right now. To create the book, 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.

The premise of my new book, Eight Flavors, is that American cuisine can be illustrated by its most commonly used flavors. One of the most freqeunt questions I get about the book is how I picked my eight flavors to focus on.

When I began my research, I made a timeline of recipes from my respectable collection of cookbooks, dating from Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, the first cookbook published in this country in 1796, all the way through modern American standards like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. I flipped through these cookbooks from different eras: the 1800s, 1850s, 1900s, and 1950s, selecting the most influential tomes from those periods, like Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife; Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook; and James Beard’s The Fireside Cook Book. I looked for ingredients that significantly affected the flavor of the recipe. After I made a list of commonly used flavors, I plotted them on a graph with the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer, which visualizes the frequency of words in all the books Google has digitized. I set the sample size to American books from 1800 to 2000. When I built the graph of American flavors, it revealed which ones were used the most frequently (and for all practical purposes, were the most popular), when flavors entered our lexicon, and how some grew in popularity while others disappeared. After all was said and done, the results revealed eight winners—flavors that were the most popular, and had never significantly waned in their popularity.

The graph at the top of the page shows them all, and gives a really clear sense of how these flavors entered into our kitchens chronologically. I love in that top graph how clear garlic’s popularity is over the other flavors I talk about.

I write in the book that vanilla replaced rosewater in American kitchens, and you can see that below.

vanilla

Vanilla v. Rosewater

And look at how long curry powder has been used in the U.S.!

curry

Curry Powder

And look at how our use of MSG has declined in the last 30 years. I unpack the perception that MSG is “bad” for you in my book, but you can also listen to some great podcasts on the topic here.

MSG

These graphs gave me a quick and dirty way to identify trends over time, and a wonderful way to visualize how our larger culture was affecting consumption of these ingredients, and vice verse.