Archive for the 'washington d.c.' Category

History Dish: Martha Washington’s Ale and Apple Fritters

fritter1One little fritter.

Fried. Apples. Beer. This recipe appealed to me for obvious reasons. But, interestingly, it also goes along with the medieval theme of my last dinner party. Read on for Mrs. Washington’s link to Queen Elizabeth.

The History

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, the source for this recipe, is not a collection of Martha’s own recipes: they were transcribed by an unknown person in the 17th century and were given to her during her first marriage to Daniel Custis in 1749, perhaps as a wedding present.  Widowed at 25, she was Martha Custis until she met George, and together they raised Martha’s two children from her previous marriage; and later, two orphaned grand-children. Interestingly, Martha gave birth to no more children during her marriage to George.

The cookbook was passed down to one of the Custis grandchildren and the recipes themselves had likely been a family heirloom for generations before. Food historian Karen Hess writes “Many of the recipes must have seemed old-fashioned to Martha…the cuisine of the manuscript is that of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.” That’s the 1550s-1620s, which means many of these recipes are considered to be part of a late-medieval mode of cooking.

Put yourself in Martha’s shoes and imagine trying to make dinner from a 200-year-old cookbook. So who can say if Mrs. Washington ever cooked any of the recipes in this manuscript, but some of them definitely seem a bit more modern than others.  Take, for example, the two recipes for apple fritters: one combines nutmeg, clove, ginger, mace, cinnamon, saffron and rosewater–a startling amount of spices much more reminiscent of the Forme of Cury than a modern recipe.  But the other fritter only calls for nutmeg, cloves, and mace–and a little cinnamon sugar strewn on top. Simpler, its likely a later addition to the recipe collection.

The more modern fritter recipe also contains ale, probably added to make the batter light with yeast and carbonation. A beer-battered, fried apple sounded pretty fucking good to me, so I decided to give this recipe a shot.

fritters2Cut yr apples about yay big.

The Recipe

To Make Fritters

Take a pint of very strong ale, put into it a little sack & warm it in a little scillet; then take 8 youlks of eggs & but 2 whites, beat them very well; yn put to them a little flowre & beat them together, yn put in yr warme ale; you must put noe more flowre to ye eggs after ye ale is in. Yr batter must be noe thicker then will just hang on ye apples. Season batter with ye powder of nutmegg, cloves, and mace; then cut your apple into little bits & put them into ye batter; yn set on ye fire a good quantity of tryed suet or hoggs lard, & when it is very hot drop in yr apples one by one with yr fingers as fast as you can. When they are fryde, lay ym on a cleane cloth put over a cullender, yn lay ym on trencher plates, & strow on ym sugar & cinnamon.

Ale & Apple Fritters
Adapted From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats

1 large egg + 2 yolks
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ale (I used Guinness, it’s what I had on hand)
1 tablespoon brandy
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp mace
1/8 tsp clove
4 med-large cooking apples
Oil for frying

In the microwave, warm beer one minute on high. With a fork, whisk together eggs, flour and salt. Add beer and brandy, and mix until blended. Add spices. Set aside in a warm place from 30-60 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and pair the apples, slicing them into one-inch chunks. Heat oil for frying: you can use lard in a cast iron pan, like the original recipe suggests, or vegetable oil in a FryDaddy, like I did.

Put apple pieces into the batter, mixing them to coat. Drop into hot oil using your fingers or a spoon. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Remove into a colander lined with paper towels, over a plate. Allow to cool slightly, then sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Toss fritters in the colander to coat, then serve.

fritters3Strown with cinnamon and sugar!

The Results

The results were unexceptional. Technically, the recipe came out well: the apples slices were cooked, the coating thin but crispy. But the fritter batter was almost flavorless, and there was no satisfying contrast between the apples and the coating.  There was nothing interesting going on with the taste or the texture. Perhaps I should have fried them in lard.

I’m disappointed since it seemed like this recipe had a lot of potential.  What do you all think? How can this fritter recipe be improved?

Taste History Today: America Eats Tavern

I was in Washington DC last weekend and toured the What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? exhibit on now through January at the National Archives.  It’s focus is on how the government has affected what we eat.  Overall, pretty interesting.  Here were a few of my favorite facts:

BRED-SPREAD: Despite the 1906 Pure Food Law, “…unscrupulous practices continued. A photo collection features products such as Bred-Spread, a mixture of pectin, coal tar and grass seed marketed during the Depression. (source)”  Bred-spread!

THE CIVIL WAR popularized mass-produced, canned food.  Among 1860s soldier’s meals were some brands still around today: Vancamp Pork & Beans; Underwood Deviled Ham; and Borden’s Condensed Milk.  Sounds like I need to have a “eat like a civil war soldier” week.

MARTIN VAN BUREN, a lover of French food, lost his reelection campaign to William Henry Harrison, who, according to his campaign, lived on a diet of “raw beef and salt.”

DIGESTION STUDY, a photo I was not allowed to take a photo of depicted three, well-dressed, Victorian gentleman sitting around a table, rubbing their tummies.  It was simply titled “Digestion Study.”

***

Afterwards, my beau and I headed over to the America Eats Tavern a ”pop-up” restaurant dedicated to the exhibit  ”…featuring traditional American classics, celebrating native ingredients and spotlighting long forgotten dishes…” It’s created by James Beard Award-winning chef  José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup.

Here’s what my beau got to eat:

Mmmmm.

“Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding, Philadelphia, 1802.  The grandfather of today’s mac ‘n’ cheese was first written down by Louis Fresnaye, a refugee from the French Revolution.  One of America’s first commercial pasta-makers, Fresnaye handed out this recipe with the coiled pasta he sold. (source)” View the original 1802 recipe here.

This dish did exactly what this restaurant is supposed to do: it presented a classic dish that we’re familiar with, and showed it in its original, yet unfamiliar form.  Then, Andrés elaborated on it, while still strongly referencing the original recipe.  It was bursting with flavor: onions, cheesy, mushroomy.  Really amazing, a real success.

Here’s what I got:

Hworf.

“Eggs a la Benedick. Charles Ranhofer, New York, 1894.  Chef Ranhofer is thought to have developed this classic at his legendary Delmonico’s restuarant for a patron, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who wanted something new for lunch.  Ranhofer included this dish in his book The Epicurean in 1894. (source)” View the original recipe here.

What’s that on top?  That’s fancy foam hollondaise.  I don’t like to condescend to modern cuisine, but my cat coughed up something similar when she drank too much milk.

This dish is a great example of where I think the restaurant is failing.

Ok, first off, why did I choose this dish?  Well, unfortunately for me, many of the dishes on the menu were seafood based; I don’t eat seafood, and that’s my fault.  But I do have to hand it to Andrés for including oysters prepared multiple ways, including the hangtown fry.  Very old-timey.

Second, the two dishes I really wanted to try weren’t avaialable the day I went: one was Mock Turtle Soup, from Amelia Simmon’s 1796 cookbook.  It would have been so cool to try the 1796 recipe and mock turtle soup is a popular historic dish I have never seen on a menu or tasted before.  But it was only available on Tuesdays & Wednesdays.  The other dish, Kentucky Burgoo, was some sort of stew made from wild meats like squirrel.  Also only avialable on Wednesdays.

So my choices were limited.  But I feel my Eggs a la Benedick is a prime example of the restaurant’s main focus: Andrés found a historic reference for the origin of a dish, wrote an interesting tidbit about it on the menu, then went ahead and created whatever version of the dish he wanted to.  My eggs did not resemble the original recipe, nor were they an interesting riff on the original.  They were just eggs how Andrés felt like making them.

The dessert menu illustrates my point:

Lackluster, unsurprising, familiar dishes with no unfamiliar twist.  Reading the menu is interesting, yes.  But I want to learn my history through flavor.

Andrés is clearly a skilled chef, but I wish he had used his talent to create a concept that was more precise: the restaurant, and its message, felt all over the place.  The dishes on his menu were designed to be a survey of regional, traditional American cooking; but the exhibit was specifically about  how the government has affected what we eat.  The America Eats Tavern failed to connect me to the exhibit, when it could have provided another layer of depth.   As one critic pointed out, “…just imagine what the guy who pioneered the dragon’s breath popcorn might do with the concept of the ‘vitamin donut‘.”  Or bred-spread, for that matter.

Travelogue: Mt. Vernon

The Whiskey Distillery at Mt Vernon.

On day two of my travels in our nation’s capitol, I piled in the car with my friends Bryan and Katie, and made the drive to George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon.
It was a spectacularly beautiful fall day, and there was no where I would have rather been that driving along the Potomac with the windows down. The three of us lunched at the Mt. Vernon Inn, which offers “…six intimate dining rooms, two with fireplaces, all with colonial charm, colonial servers, and delicious regional and colonial cuisine.”

I had the “Colonial Turkey Pye,” (the “y” makes it old timey) which was ok, but unimpressive. I think the vegetables were from a frozen bag mix, and it had a giant Ritz cracker hat. Bryan had a cup of peanut soup, which I had tried before at the cafeteria at Gettysburg. I had liked it at Gettysburg, but here it tasted like warm peanut butter. Gross.
The main disappointment was that the menu had foods that could have been eaten in the 18th century, like roasted chicken and corncakes, but the foods weren’t at all different from what we eat today. There wasn’t even an effort to use spices appropriate to the 18th century. It’s dull; I never understood why “historic” restaurants never make the effort to offer interesting, delicious historic food.
We spent a few hours touring the grounds, and took a fairly boring tour of the Mansion itself. The house sees a high volume of visitors each year, and the staff handles this by scooting a continuous line of tourists along a velvet-roped route through the interior of the building, while reciting the interpretation for each space on a continuous loop. You would enter the room at the beginning of the interp, and leave approximately when it would start repeating. It was weird. One fact did catch my attention: Washington died suddenly of an inflammation of the throat, that suffocated him in 36 hours. I got a little freaked out when I felt a cold coming on a few days later.
Next, we went to Mt. Vernon’s second site which features a reconstruction of Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery. I had been looking forward to visiting the recently opened distillery for awhile, and it really was a treat. A knowledgeable interpreter talking us through the distilling process while we toured a truly beautiful building. I learned that in the 18th century, whiskey was made from rye, with a little corn. It was not aged; the entire distilling process took only two weeks before it was casked and sold. The liquor was clear, and our guide described it as tasting surprisingly sweet. Mt. Vernon will begin selling its whiskey sometime in the next year, and I am excited to try it when they do.
The gristmill was also neat, as gristmills are. Every time I stand before a spinning water wheel, and all those gears and grindstones, I’m impressed by human ingenuity. Who thinks of these things??

Looking down from the second floor of the gristmill, to the stream below.
I picked up a little souvenir treat for myself: a 5-ounce block of American Heritage Chocolate, a product of the Historic Division of Mars, that is made from an authentic Colonial recipe. I’m going to use it to make “Chocolet Puffs,” a receipt from a 18th century manuscript that is one of the earliest instances of chocolate being used in another manner than for drinking. If the recipe turns out well, they will be sold at The City Reliquary’s 1st Annual Haveymeyer Sugar Sweets Festival on Saturday. But more on that tomorrow.
See more images from my trip below.

On a Personal Note: Reality TV, 1940′s Style.

I’ve been watching 1940s House, the 2001 BBC series in which a family recreates the living conditions during war time Britain. It’s a really excellent show; I find the British versions of the “House” shows to be much more fascinating. They cast people with a sincere interest in history, and I think it makes for a better show than the American version, which leans more towards reality tv and drama drama drama.

The shows also features several appearances by Marguerite Patten, and a focus on rationing and food prep in the ’40s. The show is well worth adding to your Netflix que.
On Wednesday, I baked three more loaves of sourdough bread. I still don’t quite have my technique mastered, but I’m getting close. It let it rise longer, and I baked two loaves at 450 with the lid on for 20 minutes, and the lid off for 30 minutes. I also tried using a loaf pan, instead of the Pyrex casserole I have been using. It was still dense–I think I’m going to have problems getting the bread to rise until my steam heat gets turned in. My apartment is chilly is the fall. Additionally, the bread tasted more like a classic sourdough than the cheesy bread I made last week. It’s from the same starter, so I don’t get. I guess when you’re cooking and eating living animals, their always going to be some variation.
The prettiest loaf of them all will be traveling with me to our nation’s capital, where I’m visiting my friend Bryan this weekend. We’re going on a historic food adventure which includes a trip to the cafe at the Museum of the American Indian and a visit to George Washington’s distillery. More on that next week.