Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 5

day5_1I went on a pilgrimage of sorts this weekend.

Breakfast

On Saturday, I woke up at a Bed & Breakfast near Rochester. I was speaking at a conference that afternoon, and part of the deal was my room and board. So when I wandered downstairs to the quaint dining room, I didn’t stick to my diet. I ate what they gave me. I had a cup of black tea, which I had really missed this week, as well as a homemade jelly donut, a slice of apple cake, yogurt, and a ham and cheese souffle.

Before I went to the conference, I wanted to make a special stop: I was close to Mt. Hope Cemetery, the final resting place of Susan B. Anthony. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, but her grave site was recently in the news because hundreds of women stopped by to stick their “I Voted” stickers on her grave. The cemetery decided to stay open late on Tuesday to give women the chance to do so. Check out this PBS article to see incredible photos of her gravestone covered in stickers, and the long line of women waiting to add their badge.

I had preserved my “I Voted” sticker, because I felt I wanted some physical reminder of what had happened Tuesday. When I realized I would be near her grave site this weekend, I knew this was a pilgrimage I had to make. After driving to the cemetery, the trees in high-fall colors, I walked up to silent grave and dutifully stuck my sticker to the grave. The other stickers had been cleared away; mine was the lone reminder.

Before too long, a young woman walked up, probably from the nearby University of Rochester, wearing a camera around her neck and a shirt that said “Women Belong in the House and the Senate”.  She commented she was sad the stickers were gone; I told her I had traveled from NYC to add mine.

“Frederick Douglass is here too, do you know that? His grave-site is amazing.”

“Yes, I passed him on the way here. I noticed he has a big plaque. But I’ve been wondering where Susan’s plaque is.” The sight of Douglass’ grave had made my heart sing, but feel a little confused when I approached Anthony’s. Other than a few signs to direct visitors to her grave, there was no other information or fanfare.

“Yeah. It shows even now how we treat men and women differently, even though they fought for the same things,” she answered, then added hesitantly: “…I’m sorry, I’m a feminist.”

“Anyone standing at this grave site at 9am on a Saturday is a feminist.” I responded.

Before I left, a mother and her grown daughter joined us in front of the grave. We all stood there silently, looking at the head stone. Then I walked back to my car and sobbed in the front seat.

If I could write Susan B Anthony’s plaque, here’s what it would say: “I think she would be proud of how far we’ve come, but perhaps she would be sad at how far we have left to go.”

I also visited the grave site of Lillian Wald. Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurses service, a group of young, college educated women that were the first organization to provide affordable health care, in this case to new immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Wald was also a lesbian. Settlement Houses and social work were considered a socially acceptable job for women with a college education who wanted to delay, or defer, marriage. If you weren’t taking care of your own husband and children, then it was seen as honorable to “sacrifice” those goals to help the children of the world. But Settlement Houses also became a place for any women who wanted to escape traditional gender roles and sexual expectations. It was a safe place for women who wanted to be with women, whether as colleagues or lovers.

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In her 1915 book, The House on Henry StreetWald described her awakening to the cause of social justice; sentences in bold are my own added emphasis:

I had spent two years in a New York training school for nurses; strenuous years for an undisciplined, untrained girl, but a wonderful human experience… I had little more than an inspiration to be of use in some way or somehow, and going to the hospital [on the Lower East Side] seemed the readiest means of realizing my desire…The Lower East Side then reflected the popular indifference—it almost seemed contempt—for the living conditions of a huge population. And the possibility of improvement seemed, when my inexperience was startled into thought, the more remote because of the dumb acceptance of these conditions by the East Side itself. Like the rest of the world I had known little of it, when friends of a philanthropic institution asked me to do something for that quarter…

From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed making, [ed note–a lesson in nursing for local families on the LES] a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed making lesson and carried it with me.

The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretense at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarder— who were literally boarders since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on,— and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean, bed soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings judged by any measure of moral values…Indeed my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life and for society of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.

That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire.

I hope this election is our country’s baptism of fire. It has been an awakening to me that I need to do more, everyday, to fight for the disenfranchised. I hope, as a country, these feelings don’t fade after a few weeks. I hope they build steam over the next few years.

Luncheon

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Saturday afternoon, I spoke at the Domestic Skills Symposium at Genesee County Village on the topic of the history of funeral food traditions. I started my talk by saying I felt this topic was fitting, because I had been grieving since Tuesday. And that I had watched my fellow mourner’s Instagram feeds fill up with photos of carby comfort food.

Have you turned to a particular food to nourish and comfort this week?

After my talk, there was a luncheon of mourning foods from the past and present, including funeral cakes flavored with caraway seed, sweet and lemony pan de muerte, stewed prunes–served in the Middle Ages, mostly for their dark color; there were Jell-o molds and Mormon funeral potatoes, and fried chicken. I stuffed myself.

Dinner

Lima beans with celery, onions and tomatoes.
Stuffed artichokes.
Bread. Coffee. Fruit.

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By the evening, I was back on the road to drive to NYC. And I was back on my Italian diet. I made the mix of lima beans, celery onions and tomatoes in advance, gently sauteing them all together. I was bummed I didn’t have time make the recipe for stuffed artichokes, but here is a recipe from Gentile’s Italian cookbook:

STEWED ARTICHOKES
(Carciofi in stufato)

Wash the artichokes and cut the hard part of the leaves (the top). Widen the leaves and insert a hash composed of bread crumbs, parsely, salt, pepper and oil. Place the artichokes in the saucepan standing on their stalk, one touching the other. Cover them with water and let them cook for two hours or more. When the leaves are easily detached they are cooked.

I had a sweet roll and a plum with my dinner.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 4

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Breakfast came from a local coffee shop; they didn’t have any Italian cookies or pastries, so I went with the pumpkin loaf. Forgive me for this deviation.

I ate at a morning meeting at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The meeting was essentially group therapy; I cried. Again. I’ve been working at this museum for over seven years, and institution that believes immigration is a good things, and uses the stories of people of the past to remind us that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. If we know about the xenophobia of the past, perhaps we can stop it today.

Working at this museum has meant I’ve never felt like I’m in a “New York bubble” of liberalism. Daily, I interact with people who come from all parts of this country, let alone the world. I speak to people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. There is a part of me that believes I have at my job–maybe if I had tried harder, worked harder, people would have been more sympathetic to the disenfranchised, and this election would have turned out differently.

On the other hand, tickets to tours at the museum are beyond sold out all weekend. I don’t know why folks are coming, but maybe it’s for solace.

I’ve become grateful for the chance to document this historic week on my blog. And I am grateful to all of you who have commented–please, continue to do so, and share what you would like to share, and what you need to share.

 

Luncheon

Egg omelet. Chocolate.
Bread. Stewed fruit.

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Southern Italians ate a lot of eggs, but not for breakfast–as we’ve seen this week. And especially on Friday, a fast day, they were the main course at meal times instead of meat. If you know more about the history and significance of the Friday fast, or have your own personal experiences with it, I’d love to hear more in the comments.

To determine if there was a particular Italian style of making omelets, I searched Gentile’s Italian cookbook for omelet. I came up from look at multiple recipes that often included meat, but it’s FRIDAY, so we’re not eating meat today. I looked at a few of Gentile’s omelette and came up with a simple recipe. I added salt, pepper and dried parsley to slighty scrambled eggs, sautéed some slivers of onion in olive oil, and poured to eggs on top. I used a larger pan that I normally use for omelettes, because Gentile describes the omelets as thin. Last I added, at her recommendation, some shavings of parmesan cheese (which, by the way, is from DiPalo’s Fine Foods, founded in NYC by Italian immigrants in 1925).

I know I haven’t been sharing recipes for most of this dishes, but for example I looked up “stewed fruit” in cookbooks from the time and came up with nada. There’s aren’t really recipes as ways to cook food, using what you have. I actually really like cooking this way. Stewed fruit feels very settlement house cooking class–mushy and vaguely healthy. I cut up an apple and a pear, and added then to a saucepan with a little water, a spoonful of brown sugar, and a little cinnamon. Americans werent cooking with/supportive of a lot of spice in food, but they were down with a little cinnamon (pretty much that and black pepper were ok).

Every meal I’ve made has taken about 20 minutes of active cooking time, and maybe another 20 minutes inactive. I find these meals really efficient, easy, not a lot of cleanup. But man there is a lot of sugar. It’s more sugar and carbs than I usually eat in a day.

Dinner

Fried fish.
Fresh tomatoes. Cucumbers.
Bread. Fruit.

image1I took this photo in the front seat of my car. I’m on the road!

This menu is pulled from the summer menus that Sohpinisba gives; I liked its simplicity, and I thought it would be easy for my traveling day. I was on the road Friday night, on my way to Rochester to a public speaking gig. When it was dinner time, I was in very, very rural upstate NY, so I stopped at the only restaurant that I knew had a fish sandwich: Burger King. I ate a “Big Fish” sandwich in my car, and it was actually pretty gross. I had big fish burps all night.

 

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 3

day3_1The coffee available at Starbuck’s is another result of the massive Italian immigration to the U.S. All the lattes and espressos are thanks to Italians!

This morning, for the first time in my life, I finished a full cup of coffee. On coffee, Sophinisba said: “The coffee is made strong but is served with hot milk the cup half or two thirds filled with milk before coffee is poured in. Very often nothing is eaten with the coffee.” Based on her description, I ordered a cafe latte at Starbucks. I had a biscotti, too, since  Sophnisba said Italian cookies were also often a part of breakfast.

My first sip of coffee was shockingly bitter; but it reminded me of my grandfather. He’s the only person in my family that drank coffee, and I remember how to smell filled the house when I stayed over with him and grandma when I was a kid. It also felt like I was taking my medicine–caffienating after two nights of restless sleep.

I ate and drank my cafe latte on the subway; I had camped out at a close friend’s the night before. I was feeling too heartbroken to be alone.

 

Luncheon

Egg tamale (egg, cheese and bacon).
Baked potatoes. Bread. Fruit.

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The egg tamale is a dish that really had both Jill and I stumped as to what it could be. I thought perhaps this was some American recipe, but searched cookbooks from the time to no avail. Tamales were a very popular street food in the early 20th century, so I got to thinking, maybe Sophinisba is seeing a food she doesn’t recognize, and is using a term she does know to describe it. So tamales are corn…maybe this was a polenta dish? Polenta is a Northern Italain staple, as opposed to Southern. But in America’s Little Italies people from all over Italy were meeting, and their foodways were combining. Plus, it’s got good ol’ American bacon on it. So I made what is my best guess for this dish: polenta, topped with grated Parmesan cheese, a fried egg and bacon. I also baked a few potatoes, and had a banana. Bananas were super common and considered super american. But I skipped the bread. It was enough food as is.

 

Dinner

Soup with macaroni.
Meat with vegetables (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions etc.)
Bread. Fruit.

day3_3It looks more like a random collection of food than a meal, but I promise it tasted very good.

I had left over lentil soup and macaroni from Tuesday, so I combined them with an extra ladleful of tomato sauce to make Soup with macaroni. I roasted a mess of veggies–exactly what she listed–with salt and olive oil. And I had a special guest for dinner: Jeffrey Marsh, LGBTQ activist and fellow author. And vegan! He wanted to get together and I had a sudden realization that he could eat everything I was preparing for dinner. The meals, you may have noticed, are really light on dairy. Southern Italians used used olive oil, not butter, and just a smattering of cheese here and there. I served myself the last of my roast chicken, and Jeffrey supplied the bread, as well as the apple and pear we split for dessert.

We talked about the election and how to move forward. I don’t know if I have any revelations to share with you, other than a promise to be a good person, and try to do good things for the world. I’m gathering money to donate to causes I believe in, investigating what organizations to join to become more politically active, and taking steps to try to amplify my voice as an advocate for an inclusive America.

I feel it’s so important to be proactive, because as a historian, I know that history can repeat itself. America did NOT welcome Italian immigrants with open arms. Take a moment to read this article about the history of racism and violence against Italians in America, and about the Immigration Act of 1924 that virtually banned Italian immigration to this country, a “legislative expression of the xenophobia.” Just 5 years after Sophnisba Breckenridge observed this Sicilian family’s dining habits, Italian immigration to America came to a standstill.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 2

day2_1My sad ass ate my sad-ass breakfast.

I woke up Wednesday morning feeling devastated. And I’ll tell you why: it’s a part of my life that I have not talked about publicly. In fact, on this blog–although I put myself through experiments like this one–I seldom talk about my personal life.

A little less than two years ago, I left an emotionally abusive marriage. I also experienced a sexual assault during this marriage; but, being a woman, it was not my first and it is unlikely to be my last. One of the reasons I am sad is because my country has elected a man who has been accused of dozens of alleged assaults; I feel by electing him, we continue normalize this behavior, and his presidency will create a permissive environment for what I went through to continue to happen to myself and other women. I woke up today feeling like I did in the darkest part of my marriage–unsafe, unloved, and trapped. That is how I feel in my country today.

So I ate my breakfast, and I was sad.

After breakfast, I went to Brooklyn to see my obgyn. I purchased my healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, because I am self-employed and therefore I am in charge of my own healthcare. Additionally, this past year I have been on Medicaid. Leaving my husband and dissolving my marriage was extremely financially difficult; the financial burden lifted by my free healthcare has been key to getting myself back on my feet. I worry about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and I worry about the rolling back of social services that have helped me get on my feet, but that so many other people still need.

I didn’t eat much the rest of the day, but around five I went to my part time job at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an institution devoted to telling stories about the history of immigration in order to make connections to the present. They asked the employees if they wanted to stop in for a chat and some pizza. So I ate some pizza.

day2_2It was from Williamsburg Pizza on Broom Street and it was delicious.

I realized that the food I ate yesterday, and the meals I’ll have later this week, aren’t really what we consider Italian-American food–like pizza. I was eating Italin food with some American influence; not the Italian-American cuisine that evolved in this country.

If you were a Southern Italian at the end of the 19th century, life was rough back home. A 1901 study that came out of England estimated the yearly income of a Southern Italian to be about $45 a year. But the average American laborer in 1901 could hope to make $750 a year. And although grains like wheat (in the South) and corn (in the North) were the staple diet, but the average Italian consumed about a third of the poundage per person compared to England, and half the poundage of meat of an “English workhouse pauper.” What they had was what they could grow in their vegetable gardens, what could be foraged from the forests and what they could get from their animals that they didn’t have to sell: eggs and milk made up a big part of the daily diet, as chickens and goats cost very little money to keep.

In America, Italian immigrants held on to their food traditions, but because they were making more money, they became incredible consumers of Italian imported food products: expensive olive oils, cheese, cured meats and semolina pastas. Meat, especially, was a sign of success; even immigrants who returned to Italy were often marked by their acquired American taste for beer and steak.

Those who stayed in America developed an Italian-American cuisine centered on abundance. The dishes invented here combined as many expensive ingredients on one plate as possible. American pizza is a perfect example: in Italy, these rounds of dough used were used to test the temperature of baking ovens; they were topped with cheap ingredients, like anchovies or pig fat (I would eat a pig fat pizza). The pizza places in America were set up by former farmers and laborers; they were not tied to the traditions of baking in their home country. They created a new pizza for America: a firmer crust laden with cheese and meat, meat,  meat.

Pizza is now as American as hamburgers and hotdogs, and the type of pizza we make here is an uniquely American dish. We often talk about how immigrants who come to this country should change their ways, but I think it’s more important to remember the positive ways immigrants have shaped American culture and cuisine. For what would America be without pizza?

At my meeting at the Tenement Museum, we toasted Hillary. We talked about our fears. We talked about he importance of doubling down on advocacy and action. Sometimes we just sat in silence. My colleagues–men, women, people of color, immigrants–all felt like lesser people today. Less heard, less looked after, less powerful. Today it feels like a long road to change that.

On my way home, I swung by the drug store to buy some Pepto Bismol, because my stomach had been aching all day. Hilariously, there was a huge crowd of people around the antacids, comparing and discussing their various merits.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 1

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Here’s what Sophhisba had to say about an Italian family’s breakfast:

Breakfast

Coffee or chocolate.
Bread, toast, or Italian cookies.

For children bread and milk or oatmeal and milk. The coffee is made strong but is served with hot milk–the cup half or two thirds filled with milk before coffee is poured in. Very often nothing is eaten with the coffee.

I’m not a coffee drinker, so I opted for chocolate this morning. Although who knows, maybe this week will change me and I’ll take up the vice of coffee. I used to think my aversion to bitter flavors, like coffee, was just a me not trying hard enough to like it–but after I listened to a recent episode of the podcast Gastropod, I realized I might have a genetic aversion to bitter tastes.

I had the chocolate in my house anyways. The hot cocoa for breakfast thing is something the Americans would have pushed; in the 19th century, hot chocolate was seen as a nutritious healthy drink, especially for children. I think it’s a remnant of an older idea from when chocolate was expensive and rare; it was thought something that expensive and rare must have healthful, medicinal properties. Additionally, nutritionists were also really pushing milk in the early 19th century.

Here’s an ad from the 1880s advertising cocoa specifically for breakfast:

And a 1924 school lunch menu that also pushes cocoa:

I had my cocoa with a toasted roll, which, yes, is actually a Pan de Muerte–a sweet bread eaten for the Day of the Dead in Mexico (and Mexican neighborhoods in America). I had it in the apartment, I hadn’t gone shopping for this project yet, and it was a little old and dried out. So toasted ,it worked as an fine substitute for an Italian roll. Waste not want not. Breakfast wasn’t really great tho–all those carbs, I felt both full and hungry, which was a barfy feeling–and starving an hour later.

 

After breakfast, I went to vote. My polling place is on Hester Street, which runs east-west through Manhattan, through neighborhoods that were formerly Jewish and Italian, a century ago. Today, I heard English, Spanish and Mandarin spoken in my polling place. I wept with joy when I cast my vote for the first woman president.

 

Luncheon

Stew of spinach, lentils and onions.
Baked apples. Bread. Coffee.

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Lunch was special because long time friend of Four Pounds Flour, Jill, was coming for a visit and bringing her new baby with her! I invited Jill because she is my go-to when it comes to Italian cuisine. An Italian/Jewish New Yorker herself, she is fluent in Italian and has been back to the motherland pretty much every year since we’ve met. I sat her down to help my decipher some of the menu items for this week, but there are some entries that still had us both baffled. I

We had an awesome meal that took me an hour to prepare start to finish, which really made me happy. Efficient and delicious. The lentil soup recipe came from Maria Gentile’s 1919 Italian Cookbook. I even made my own stock–I keep a zip bag of vegetable odd and ends in my freezer. When the gallon bag is full, I put it in a pot, cover it in water, bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for 20 minutes. Done.

After I strained the stock, I pulled out two carrots I had thrown in there, now cooked, and sliced them and added them to a large saucepan along with 1/4 of a white onion, 4 garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and dried parsley. I meant to throw some kale in there–instead of spinach, because I had it on hand–but Jill showed up, and I got distracted by the baby and I forgot. So when the veggies browned, I put the homemade stock over top, added a cup of lentils, and simmered about 20 minutes until the lentils were tender. We enjoyed it with hunks of fresh bread and a funky salami that Jill had brought from Eataly, and Italian specialty superstore in NYC.

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For dessert, I had sliced up two Fuji apples and put them in ramekins with a little water, a tablespoon of brown sugar, a pat of butter, and a sprinkle of a “pie spice” blend. 30 minutes in the over at 375 degrees, and that was it.

I was much happier with lunch than breakfast! I was warm, satisfied–and these simple, quick foods were totally delicious.

Dinner

Macaroni with tomato sauce.
Meat (left over from Sunday).
Bread. Coffee or wine.

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I made a big pot of this 1919 recipe for tomato sauce to last me the week. I used more onion and garlic than the recipe recommended, plus celery, bay leaves, and dried parsley. I browned the vegetables with oil, salt and fresh cracked pepper, then dumped an enormous can of San Marzano tomatoes and a couple scoops of tomato paste, too. I love that the recipe tells Americans “Catsup and concentrated tomato soup do not make satisfactory subsitutes as they are too sweet in flavor.” You got that right. Gross. The sauce turned out ok, not as flavorful as I would have liked, so I’ll search for ways to adjust it this week.

For tonight’s “macaroni,” I decided to use actual macaroni, dried and boxed. And I actually did have meat left over from Sunday, parts of a roast chicken, that I added to my meal. Dinner, again, was really quick and easy to prepare, and it tasted good and made me feel good. Way to go Italians!

I forgot to pick up a bottle of wine to drink with dinner, so I bought it on my way out to watch the election results with friends in Brooklyn.

I hoped for a historic day, and for our future as an inclusive country. I did not get that day.

As an entrepreneur, I am afraid my business will collapse, along with the economy. As a sufferer of a chronic health issue, I am afraid I will lose my healthcare, which I purchased under the affordable care act. As a woman and an abuse survivor, I am afraid I will be sexually assaulted, because a man will empowered to do so in this permissive climate. As an advocate for immigrants and religious freedom and those that are disenfranchised, I am afraid for my friends who are black, Hispanic, and Muslim. As a human, I am afraid for my friends who are LGBTQ. I am afraid we won’t be able to protect each other.

I do not know if I will be continuing this experiment this week.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy. This photo was taken very close to where I live, which is part of my motivation for wanting to learn more about the lives and daily meals of Italian immigrants a century ago.

 

Over the next week, I plan to eat like a family living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919. While researching the garlic chapter in my forthcoming book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (out December 6th! pre-sale here!), I delved deep into period resources discussing the dining habits of America’s first prodigious garlic eaters, Italian immigrants. I stumbled open the wonderful book New Homes for Old by Sophinisba Breckenridge, a turn of the century social worker, progressive, and reformer with a fantastic name. Sophinisba’s book was written to help Settlement House workers: American-born, college educated men and women that choose to live in new immigrant neighborhoods to help recent arrivals get “settled.” The Settlement Houses provided education and entertainment for new immigrants, and the workers spent a lot their days debating what aspects of new arrivals could be kept in their adapted country, and which must be thrown away in order to become Americans. That’s what Sophnisba was researching while writing her book.

One of the appendixes Sophinisba offers is a weekly menu of the diets of many immigrant groups, including Italians. Of her menu for an Italian family, Sophinisba has this to say:

ITALIAN (Sicilian)

The following menus represent the diet of a Sicilian family from Palermo. They have been in America over twenty years, but their diet has changed little. There are ten persons in the family–the mother and two unmarried daughters, a married daughter, her husband and four children…Food for the children is prepared separately. For breakfast they have cereal, milk, bread and stewed fruit; for lunch rice or potato, bread, milk and the green vegetables cooked for the family if not cooked with tomato sauce. For supper, the children have bread and milk. It is not common in Italian families to make so much difference in the diet for children; they are usually fed on the highly seasoned dishes the family eat, but in this family the mother prepared special food for her children, and her daughter is doing the same and planning their diet even more carefully.

Notice the subtle prejudice in this paragraph–particularity in the way Sophinisba describes Italian food as “highly seasoned,” which is clearly considered a deficit. Nutritional science had just been invented/discovered, and domestic scientists put nutrition above all else. However, in the early years of this science, there was a lot of baloney. The way the children are being fed in this Italian family is the way the Settlement House workers, nutritionists, and public schools encouraged them to eat. It was thought to be nutritious, scientific, and AMERICAN. But when I looked at this menu–like everything their eating is white and mush.  I’m shocked these kids weren’t malnourished (maybe they were). And to think of them, while their parents are enjoying soup with beans and handmade pastas drowned in tomato sauce. It’s tragic!

But the diet of these children would have been seen as a great success to Sophinisba. In fact, the daily menu even reveals that even the parents were cooking under American influence. More on that as we cook through the daily menus.

What follows Sophinisba’s introductory paragraph are two menus, for seven days each, one dated August 1919 from the week Sophinisba spent observing this family; the other, a more general menu for the winter. You can view both menus in the original document here. I’ll be pulling from both to create my meals over the next week. The tricky part of this menu is that it’s Italian food documented through the lens of an American social worker. It’s sometimes hard to determine exactly what they’re eating; Sophinisba pretty much just refers to everything as “macaroni.”

So here’s my plan: I’ve dug up two other primary sources to help me interpret this menu: The Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, published in 1919 by author Maria Gentile; and nutritionist Bertha Wood’s 1922 book Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to HealthThe former genuinely praised Italian cuisine as been tasty, healthy, and cheap; while the latter took more of a “know your enemy approach.” Wood outlines Italian recipes and encouraged Settlement house workers to use ingredients familiar to Italians to encourage them to cook “healthier” food. Both of these books are written by American women; so these recipes are their interpretations of this foreign cuisine. But that’s partly what I’m curious about–how Italian-American food was understood by Americans at the time. Additionally, I’m going to see if I can decipher dishes Sohpinisba mentioned, like “Macaroni with Peas,” to see if I can find authentic, Southern-Italian equivalents.

Wish me luck and follow along as I attack Italian-American food from 1919 all this week!

Update: If you would like more context about what the Settlement House Workers thought of the Italian diet, check out this post I wrote for the Tenement Museum’s blog.

 

Eight Flavors: Black Pepper and White Wine Snow Drops

snowdrop1An 18th century candy made with white pepper, brandy and sugar.

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.

In the 21st century, black pepper sits firmly on the savory shelf of our kitchen. We add a twist from our peppers grinders to finish a salad, or crust the exterior of a thick steak with cracked peppercorns. But as I was researching  Eight Flavors I discovered pepper was used to complement sugar, just as often as it was used with salt.

Last week, I got the chance to do some of my first public speaking engagements in California, including a visit to the Dallidet Adobe in San Luis Obispo, California. As part of my talk, I made “pepper-cakes” from the 18th century, a simple candy made of pepper, alcohol and sugar. Easy enough to make, with an intense, but pleasant flavor.

 

The History

An early American reference to pepper used in sweets is found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747 in England. This book was an extremely popular import to America, and also went through several domestic printings, with an added chapter on the use of American ingredients. In the first American edition in 1805, Glasse uses pepper in her pickles, fish recipes, and in many, but not all, of her meat recipes, often in combination with nutmeg, mace, cloves, parsley, savory, and thyme.

But tucked in next to recipes for cookies and gingerbread is this recipe:

To make pepper cakes.

Take half a gill of sack, half a quarter of an ounce of whole white-pepper, put it in, and boil it together a quarter of an hour; then take the pepper out, and put in as much double refined sugar as will make it like a paste; then drop it in what shape you please on plates, and let it dry itself.

The recipe is more of a candy than a cake: brandy is infused with pepper, mixed with sugar and left to dry. Sack is an old word for brandy, and a gill is a measurement of four ounces. So this recipes calls for 1/8 ounce white pepper, boiled for 15 minutes in 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of brandy. I suspect Glasse choose white pepper so as not to discolor the brandy; white pepper was prized historically because it kept white sauces (or in this case, white candy) looking clean and white. I decided to give this unusual recipe a try.

 

The Recipe

My tiniest saucepan is actually a two-cup measuring cup, perfect for my quarter cup of brandy and smattering of white peppercorns. I set it on my gas burner, and turned the flame up to high to bring the liquid to a hard boil. But after about two minutes of heating–it ignited!! A jet of flames leapt an impressive three feet into the air, flickering blue and gold, almost igniting my eyebrows in the process. Oops. I wonder why Hannah Glasse didn’t warn me about that?

Rather than smothering the flames, I turned off the burner and let it do its thing. The flames would burn off the alcohol, as well as infuse the aromatic oils from the pepper. It burned itself out in a couple minutes, and I strained the brandy into a glass bowl.

At this point, the smell of the white pepper infused brandy was very strong: musty, like old attic books. I added 1 ½ cups white sugar and mixed it into a paste. Glasse says  “drop it in what shape you please on plates,” so I used a mini ice cream scoop that I normally employ for doling out cookie dough. I shoveled tiny mounds of pale, cognac-colored sugar onto parchment-lined baking sheets, and set them aside to dry.

 

The Results

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The next morning, the little sugar balls were crusty and shockingly beautiful. Since the sugar is not cooked, the candy isn’t hard and smooth; instead, it’s crisp, crumbly, and sparkly! It looked like the top layer of snow: slightly melted, glistening in the sunshine. These simple treats were breathtakingly beautiful.

But tasted terrible.

I popped one in my mouth. Imagine the taste of musk. Something musky. White pepper is awful. It’s awful.

I hated the taste but loved the concept of this candy. So a couple quick substitutions, and I had made a vast improvement: instead of brandy, I used a sweet white wine. To replace the white pepper, classic Tellicherry black peppercorns offered a complex and surprisingly pleasant flavor.

Give this candy a try for a unique treat and what will seem like a  totally innovative way to use pepper– that’s actually over 200 years old.

 

White Wine and Black Pepper Snow Drops
Adapted from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, 1805 edition.

¼ cup sweet white wine
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 ½ cups white sugar

Yield: makes 40-60 candies

  1. Combine wine and pepper in a small saucepan; place on a stove top burner on high. Cover. Boil for five minutes.
  1. Add sugar, stir to combine. Drop into ½ teaspoon sized balls onto a parchment lined cookie sheet.
  1. Allow to dry completely. This part of the process can be complicated on a humid day, resulting is a sticky, never-quite-dry candy. If you can, make this candy in the winter, or used a well-airconditioned room.

 

Cocktail Hour: Spruce Beer

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Colonial Spruce Beer

If you’re into home-brewing, I’ve got a  recipe for you: Spruce Beer! This is a uniquely flavorful beer has been made in American since the 17th century; it would have been brewed at home with hops, spruce limbs, sugar, and no grain. I go in to its history more in depth in this Liqour.com article on drinking like a Pilgrim.

The Recipe

Spruce limbs.

The recipe for this beer would have already been old be the time it appear in the first American cookbook, American Cookery, published in 1796:

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“Essence of spruce,” or spruce essence, was a commercial product made by boiling spruce boughs, or spruce tips (the new green growths in the spring time) and reducing the resulting liquid into a condensed, highly flavored extract. You can still get it in brew shops today. I’ve made spruce beer from this recipe before, using both spruce essence and molasses, and I found the flavor of both ingredients to be completely overwhelming. So I wanted to making the beer this time around with real spruce limbs and maple syrup, ingredients more readily available around the time of the Puritans first settling Plymouth.

The maple syrup was no problem for me to source–my parents make their own. The spruce was a little more difficult. I first had to learn what a spruce tree looked like–I now know way too much about the difference between pines, firs, and spruce–and then I had to find a red spruce, the native species that would have been readily available to the Puritans in Massachusetts bay. Luckily, a friend was working in upstate New York, and Fed-Exed me a box of branches.

I tweaked my recipe with the help of an 1840 cookbook from author Eliza Leslie. She has a helpful recipe using real spruce limbs and another for a small quantity beer.

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You’re going to need some basic home-brewing knowledge to take this beer on. If you’re just getting started, I’d recommend purchasing a 1 gallon home brew kit, which it what this recipe is designed for.

***

Spruce Beer
Based on a recipe from
 Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches. by Eliza Leslie, 1840

1 gallon water
1 gallon plastic bag full of spruce limbs (the tips and newer growth)
1 cup dark maple syrup
1/4 oz hops (I used Willamette and Centennial, because I thought their citrus qualities would pair nicely with the spruce. I also had difficulty finding out what types of hops would have been used historically. If you know, I’d love your input in the comments)
1 packet brewer’s yeast (a champagne yeast or an ale yeast)
6 raisins
5 cracked allspice and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger (optional)

1. Boil water, hops, and spices in a large pot for 20 minutes. Add the spruce limbs and boil 10 minutes more. If you’ve got a mesh brew bag, it helps; if not, strain the liquid. Let it stand until it is warm.

2. Sanitize a gallon glass jug–known as a fermenter. You can do this with a no rinse sanitizer, found at brewing stores. Pour the warm spruce liquid into the jug.

3. Add the yeast and the sugar. Cork the jug with a rubber stopper and an airlock. Allow it to ferment for 2-4 days, or until it stops bubbling.

4. Sanitize your bottles–I like to use 250 ml clip top stopper bottles, but you can bottle in traditional small beer bottles. I sanitize by boiling them for 30 minutes, and then letting them cool upside-down. Put three raisins in the bottom of each. Fill each bottle. Leslie says the raisins are to stop the fermentation process, but she’s mistaken; they’re to give the yeast one last meal which carbonates the beverage once it’s bottled.

5. Allow to sit another two days. Enjoy!

The Results

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When you’re done, you’ve got a nicely fizzy, milky, yellow-green beverage.

I assembled a group of historians and beer enthusiasts (and historic beer enthusiasts) to taste my early-American brew. The beer had an extremely fruity nose, some said like grapefruit. It was beautifully carbonated, like seltzer water, and had a lightness to it because of the lack of grain. With my first sip, I thought it tasted bitter. But the more I drank it, the more I realized it was quite sweet compared to most beers. I think the texture of it made me expect it to be sweet, like a soda.  It reminded some tasters of a saison or an IPA, but was not as bitter as a really hoppy IPA could be. The pine flavor definitely came through, but was not at all unpleasant. Because it’s not so heavy, you feel like you could drink it all day. But it is alcoholic–I suspect between 1%-3%, the longer it sat in the bottle.

I drank it all day, as it was intended, with a variety of 17th century puritan foods: Samp, a cooked corn porridge topped with maple sugar for breakfast; venison for lunch; and more corn and squash for dinner. It was great with all of it. I felt fine–although I did take a surprise nap in the afternoon and woke up with a headache. Over the course of a week, and it tasted progressively more tart. The colonial homebrews weren’t built to last long after the bottle was opened. They quickly soured.

I don’t know if you want to make this specific recipe; I don’t think it’s good enough for a revival. But let me put it this way: spruce trees aren’t poisonous. They are, in fact, delicious. If you’re making some winter homebrews this year, skip the spruce essence and snip a few limbs from a local tree. It’s a fun nod to America’s brewing past.

The History Dish: Pumpernickel Ice Cream and Cinnamon Lemon Bay Leaf Ice Cream

icecream1Left: pumpernickel. Right: Cinnamon/bay leaf/lemon.

Here in New York City it has been HOT. But here’s my solution: I made two fascinating flavors of historic ice cream. Brown Bread ice cream, infused with actual pumpernickel bread, and a cinnamon-bay leaf-lemon ice cream made with fresh bay leaves.

The History

The spark of inspiration to make both these recipes came from my favorite book on ice cream history, Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making.  The author, Jeri Quinzio, explained the rye bread ice cream appeared in the first book completely dedicated to ice cream making, written by a “Monsieur Emy” in France in 1768.  Rye bread crumbs are infused in the cream, but are strained out before freezing. A popular 19th century flavor, later recipes added toasted rye bread crumbs just before freezing for a bit of crunch, but Emy’s was a smooth ice cream.

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My bay leaf plant on my fire escape.

The second recipe I tried was called “Cinnamon Ice Cream (Creme de Cannelle),” from Agnes Marshall’s Book of Ices, published in 1885. Marshal was an ice cream genius, and I’ve written about her before. She was the first person to suggest using liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream. Her recipes are genius, to the point of madness–like her savory Neapolitan made with tomatoes, artichokes, and peas.

Her cinnamon ice cream featured a stick of ceylon cinnamon, the zest of half a lemon, and a bay leaf. I had purchased a fresh bay leaf plant for just this recipe. A fresh bay leaf is dramatically different from dried: vegetal and aromatic, I wanted its special flavor for my crazy ice cream.

The Recipe

icecream2It’s pumpernickely!

For both of these recipes, I started with a basic custard ice cream:

Custard Ice Cream

  • 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.

For Pumpernickel Ice Cream: Toast 2 cups of pumpernickel bread until deep brown on the edges. Add to milk and cream and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and allow to infuse for two minutes. Proceed as recipe directs.

For Cinnamon Ice Cream: To milk and cream, add “a finger-length” of Ceylon cinnamn (about 4 inches), 1 bay leaf, and the peel of half a lemon. Cut the peel off the lemon with a pairing knife, taking care to avoid the white pith. Bring milk, cream, and spice to a boil; remove from heat and allow to infuse 2 minutes. Proceed with recipes as directed.

I also made this fun little video of all the steps to make these ice creams; enjoy and I hope it’s helpful!

The Results

icecream3Cinnamon ice cream perfection.

The pumpernickel ice cream was genuinely repulsive. It has a mucus-like texture I noticed even before I froze it, some strange gooey quality infused from the bread. The flavor of the pumpernickel  gave the ice cream an assertive savory-sweet taste, as though I had made ice cream from an entire McDonald’s hamburger, ketchup, pickles and all.

But the cinnamon ice cream–oh! Interestingly, cinnamon is not the flavor I would have assigned to it. The flavor, delicate and complex, would be unidentifiable if you weren’t informed. There’s a greeness from the bay leaf, a gentle citus from the lemon zest, and a soft floral quality from the ceylon cinnamon. The combination goes perfectly with the texture of the custard. It’s a real winner, and the ice cream you should make to cool you down in the dog days of summer.

Pre-Order My Book: Eight Flavors!

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My very first book is in presale, ready to wing its way to your hands on December 6th, 2016!

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine looks at the eight most popular flavors in American cooking as a way to define American food–and the American people. Moving chronologically through our history,  I explore black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. But this book is really about people, the folks who have shaped American food over time; and these are people that don’t normally get a page in our history books: blacks, women, immigrants. There’s Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave, who discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today. And David Tran, the Vietnamese refugee who created Sriracha to support his family.

This book has got it all! There’s gorgeous illustrations (by Peter Van Hyning):

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Fun facts:

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And tempting recipes:

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Let’s face it: I’ve just made your Holiday shopping a snap. You can buy the book here.

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Thank you in advance for reading, and thank you for being fans, followers and readers–it’s because of you that this project has come to fruition!