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.

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy, The Soda of a Nation

8502124Masters of Social Gastronomy: Caffeine, Cocaine, and the Soda of a Nation
Tuesday, August 26
FREE FREE FREE, 21+ RSVP
Doors at 7:30pm, talks start at 8pm
Littlefield, 622 Degraw Street in Gowanus

Each month, our Masters of Social Gastronomy lectures bring you the history and science behind your favorite foods. Up this month: soda

We’ll dissect Coca-Cola’s namesakes, exploring the now-illicit ‘Coca’ and the Africa-sourced ‘Cola’. I’ll have samples of Kola nuts, Celery flavored soda, and I’ll tell you what happened when I tried coca for myself.

But don’t forget the runners-up – second-tier drinks, represent! Learn the strange journey of sarsaparilla, and how the drink of choice for archetypal Western cowboys found a second life halfway across the world. Discover the government plot to steal root beer away from Americans, and the corporate conspiracies that swirl around the failure of New Coke.

And this month, we have a special guest, Elizabeth Kiem, co-author of The Brooklyn Farmacy’s new book The Soda Fountain. She’ll be spinning a special yarn about Brooklyn soda history, as well as raffling off a copy of the book!

Extra bonus fun: This American Life released a podcast some years ago all about Coca Cola’s secret formula. It’s super fun and you should listen to it (below)!

I’m Looking for a Fall Intern!

I am looking for an intern for the fall! Read on!

The Basics: This is a partially paid internship: if you work an event with me where I get paid, you will also get paid. I’m also happy to fill out any paper work for you to get college credit for this internship (although you do not have to be in college to apply). Additionally, you get free admission to any Four Pounds Four events and classes. Our main goal will be to tailor this internship so you learn new skills specific to your career goals. I hope to cram your head with as much knowledge as possible. If it is of interest to you, we can complete a project over our time together keeping those goals in mind. However, a lot of of that is going to be on you: I’m here to help, teach and train, and to give you guidelines and assignments. But I also can’t force you to complete those goals: you’ll get out of it what you decide to put in.

 
Your Responsibilities: The time commitment would be no more than 8 hours a week, with one hour spent focusing on your questions and interests. I need someone who is available once a week on a weekday, but would be willing to occasionally help out on a weekend. Half the time would be spent either working from my home office or at an event, the other half doing research projects that can be done from anywhere. General responsibilities include:

-Small research projects and fact checking.

-Help out recipe testing by shopping, doing kitchen prep, and clean up.

-Assisting at Four Pounds Flour classes and events.

 
The Perks: You’ll get an inside look at what I do and how I’ve built my career. You’ll have regular exposure to primary source recipes and learn how to interpret them. You’ll learn how to research, and my process for writing. You’ll get free access to all my events, as well as a behind the scenes look at how they run. The application process should be a time when we decide how this internship could best serve your needs. For example, my last intern wanted to break into the field of recipe testing. I helped her launch her own recipe-based food blog, trained her how to use WordPress, gave her the basics of food photography and Photoshop, and walked her through how to use social media to promote her work. We also focused on having her help me recipe test for my book, and she’ll be credited for her work in the published book.

 
Testimonial: Here’s what Former Intern Jill had to say about her experience this past spring (although, she wrote it to me, so I suppose it could be all lies, but I don’t think so):

Working with/for Sarah Lohman has been unquestionably one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. Sarah is a delight. She clearly communicates expectations and sets very reasonable deadlines. Her energy, her passion and her enthusiasm are contagious. She is generous with her time and her knowledge. Her projects are challenging and stimulating. She is invested in the goals of her interns and works closely with them to create a path towards career advancement.

Interested? Email me ASAP! I’ll be setting up interviews before the end of August. sarah@fourpoundsflour.com

The History Dish: Ice Cream with Tomato, Artichoke, and Peas

veg_creamValentine Cream of Vegetables, a recipe by Agnes Marshall.

Jell-O Molds. As beautiful as they are horrifying, we often associated these epic jiggly affairs with the kitsch mid-20th century. But today’s recipe is from the 19th century: The Valentine Cream of Vegetables, a  Neapolitan-style frozen ice cream gelatin mold, uses savory vegetable purees to flavor each one of its colorful layers. It’s a “…a nice dish for a second course or luncheon, or as a vegetable entree, or for a ball supper,” according to Fancy Ices, where the original recipe can be found.

The History

fancyices1

Fancy Ices was penned in 1894 by the brilliant Agnes Marshall. I’ve written about her before; she arguable wrote about the first use of ice cream cones, and suggested the use “liquid air” to freeze ice cream table side. Her earlier ice cream book, The Book of Ices, is available online or for purchase as a reproduction, and offers recipes that range from almond (or orgeat) to souffles of curry a la ripon. Fancy Ices goes to the next level, showcasing recipes ranging from a coffee strawberry ice cream to a cucumber sorbet to complicated trompe d’oeil molds. It’s a masterpiece that’s thrilling to flip through. If you live in the New York area, Fancy Ices is available by off-site request at the New York Public Library’s main reading room at Bryan Park. It’s a special experience, unwrapping a book like this pulled from the archives, and physically flipping through pages and pages of recipes ranging from the inspired to the bizarre.

The Recipe

creamofFull recipe here.

I heard of this recipe in Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, and excellent book particularly if you’re looking for inspiration in the way of unique historical flavors. In this recipe, each of the layers is flavored with a different vegetable(s), stock and/or alcohols. You can read the lengthy and complicated original recipe here, but here are the basic ingredients by layer:

Green: Cucumbers, peas, white sauce (flour, butter, pepper), green food coloring, gelatin, chicken gravy, whipped cream.

Red: Tomatoes, shallots, red food coloring, stock, sherry, gelatin, whipped cream.

White: Canned artichoke hearts, chicken gravy, gelatin, white sauce, whipped cream.

The vegetables were boiled with gelatin until soft, and then run through a fine mesh strainer until all that remains is a smooth liquid, which is frozen in a rectangular mold a layer at a time.

veg_cream8Boiling the green vegetables.

 

veg_cream5Creating the puree.

The process was immensely labor intensive and I was fortunate enough to have my Mom in town to help me. When I enlisted her aid, she protested and asked why we couldn’t do the lovely strawberry-lemon ice on the proceeding page of Fancy Ices. But let’s be honest: that’s not what you people want to see. You want to schadenfreude of artichoke-chicken ice cream.

The Results

Lacking a proper Neapolitan mold, we used a loaf pan. We allowed our creation to freeze solid and then carefully submerged to pan in warm water and ran a sharp knife along the side to released the Valentine cream. After some vigorous shaking, it came out PERFECT. Compare ours with the illustration in Fancy Ices:

creamofvegIllustration of Valentine Cream of Vegetables from Fancy Ices.
veg_cream4My finished Valentine Cream of Vegetables.

Success. I feel like we recreated something that looks, smells, and tastes just like Mrs. Marshall intended. It is her vision made real.

But how did it taste?

My mom and I cut a slice and decked it out with the horseradish-mustard-mayonnaise Mrs. Marshall recommends. We ate it without complaint. The stocks, chicken gravies, and sherries made it taste like a cold, jellied soup. Not horrific, but not delicious.

This dish felt subtlety out of style, a particularly taste and texture combination that was just slightly unpalatable. Perhaps no one ever really loved the taste and the dish had always been more about status: time consuming and complicated, it required the full attention of two skilled cooks several hours to complete. Only someone wealthy enough to EMPLOY my mother and I would be serving this at their ball.

Although, Mrs. Marshall’s Valentine Cream of Vegetables isn’t so off trend in 2014. This summer, Haagen-Dazs Japan launched two vegetable flavored ice creams, Carrot-Orange and Tomato-Cherry; and new local ice creamy Odd Fellows has offered Edamame, Butternut Squash and Beet-Pistachio flavors.

What do you think? Have you had a vegetable-based ice cream and do you think they could have a place in the world of frozen treats?

 

Podcast: Cooking with Illicit Substances

One more in the podcast bonanza! Whilst Masters of Social Gastronomy is on our summer break (we’ll be back next month with the history & science of soda) I give you ILLICIT SUBSTANCES.

On this week’s Masters of Social Gastronomy podcast, we’ll look at the culinary world’s experiments with illicit substances.

Let’s get high with the Victorians! From patent medicines to absinthe, Coca-Cola to laughing gas, we’ll look at all the forms of socially acceptable substance abuse during the 19th century.

Later, we’ll fast-forward to modern-day America, and explore the little known true history of the pot brownie. We’ll survey the range of altered-state culinary concoctions and see what both science and chefs have to say about creating the most effective epicurean euphoria.

New Blog: The Savage and the Sage

Salt-rising bread: it’s made with botulism!

Since January, I’ve been working with an intern, Jill Paradiso. She has been helping me with my book (recipe testing and research, amongst other projects). I have been helping her launch a food blog–which is now live!

Welcome to The Savage and the Sage! Jill is a divine technical chef; join her as she explores recipes that are bizarre (monkfish liver), complex (puffed beef tendon), and simply delicious (super easy sour cherry jam). And, like me, Jill loves the historical; so be sure to check out her posts on candied angelica, a historic ingredient in European confections, and salt rising bread.

Jill is continuing to work with me even though her formal term as my intern is done. She’ll be getting a huge thank you in my book for all the grunt work she’s done so far, but she’s also going to be one of my official recipe testers moving forward.

If you’d be interested in an internship opportunity at Four Pounds Flour, I’m looking for a new assistant for the fall. They’ll be more details posted here soon, but you can also send me an email for details. 

Podcast: We are SWEET on You: Sugar, HFCS, & Artificial Sweetners

Hey, hey! Another podcast from MSG! While we’re taking a break from our live shows these summer months, we wanted to give you something to tide your over. This week’s podcast is all about sugar & sweeteners! And we spend a bit of time talking about artist Kara Walker’s piece at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Today is the last day to see it, as well as the factory itself, which is being bulldozed to make way for condos. Get there before it’s gone!

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This time on the Masters of Social Gastronomy podcast, we’re talking about **sugar and artificial sweeteners**

If you’ve ever crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, then you’ve surely noticed the towering structures of the defunct Domino’s Sugar factory. In this month’s MSG we’ll explore Brooklyn in an era when sugar was king, as well as take a behind-the-scenes peek at its modern day inheritor Sweet n’ Low.

But is giving in to our sweet tooth digging our own graves? Let’s break down the science behind the fear of sugar, from carcinogenic artificial sweeteners to the possible perils of that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup.

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Further Reading: Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York & Sweet and Low: A Family Story.

Podcast: Sriracha, Ghost Peppers, and The History of Heat

This month on the Masters of Social Gastronomy podcast, we break into the secret world of hot peppers to pull back the curtain on everyone’s favorite Rooster-branded hot sauce and the worldwide affection for spicy, spicy food.

Follow Sriracha from its humble baby-food-jar beginnings to its current status as a Tabasco-challenging juggernaut. We’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at its California factory and see how sriracha just might be as American as apple pie.

Once you escape the potatoes-and-cream tyranny of European cuisine, a culinary dedication to heat can be found everywhere. We’ll examine what makes Thai food tick and where Indian vindaloo gets its muscle. From mild jalapeños to record-holders like the Ghost Pepper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, find out what makes a veggie pack such a powerful punch!

Event: A Walking Tour of Little Tokyo!

octoballsFried octopus balls! Photo by Alpha.

Umami: A Yummy Walking Tour of Little Tokyo
East Village; Meet at Astor Place, New York
Saturday, June 14th 12pm or 2:30pm
$30, Buy tickets here!
This price of this tour includes four tastings

Learn to eat in the neighborhood where New York and Tokyo meet.

In the past decade, the East Village has transformed from a post-punk wasteland to an east-coast outpost of Japanese culture. From noodles to squid, bubble tea to curry, we’ll explore all the internationally influenced food Little Tokyo has to offer.

Which fast food chains have their only American outposts in Little Tokyo? What’s the difference between traditional and modern Japanese desserts? What are the three primary flavors of Japanese street food? The answers to these questions and more as you learn to eat in the neighborhood where New York and Tokyo meet.

This price of this tour includes four tastings! We meet in front of the Cube at Astor Place and the tour is 90 minutes long. Tickets!

The Soda Fountain: The Founding Father of Seltzer & A Brooklyn Egg Cream

seltzerMany flavored egg creams from the Brooklyn Farmacy. Recipe below.
Photograph (c) 2014 by Michael Harlan Turkell.

Today we have a guest post from Elizabeth Kiem, a writer who helped research The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More–Stories and Flavors of an American Original by Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain founders Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman. The book contains over 70 recipes for updated soda fountain classics like egg creams and milkshakes using seasonal ingredients. There’s also a hearty helping of  the history and the stories behind the drinks–like the nugget below!

downloadJoseph Priestley is the founding father you never heard of. A chemist, educator, linguist and philosopher, Priestly was a real poster child of 18th Enlightenment. But he was also the proud papa of 18th century Effervescence.

That’s right. Joseph Priestley, a dead white guy who’s right at home among the stocking-legged, powder-haired, long-nosed Constitution signers, is a true Founding Father … of the American soda fountain.

You’d have to call him an immigrant since he didn’t cross the pond until 1791, but when he did, it was in classic fashion: he was fleeing persecution back in England where his small-minded neighbors had ransacked and burned his home and laboratory.

His sins?

Well, Priestley criticized the church, fraternized with revolutionaries (Jefferson wrote regularly; Ben Franklin called him “an honest heretic”) and had been impregnating water for years. If that sounds mildly ludicrous today, in the 18th century it was wildly reckless. Priestley, after all, discovered “dephlogisticated air,” a.k.a oxygen. And that’s a dangerous thing to throw on the fire. But “impregnate” water with it and voila, you have carbonated water.

The attack on Priestley’s home! (source)

The first thirty souls to enjoy the fruits of Priestley’s impregnations was the crew of Captain James Cook. The self-taught scientist had hoped to join the famous explorer’s second voyage to the South Seas as the resident astronomer. That didn’t pan out, but Cook took barrels of Priestley’s impregnated water on the HMS Resolution when it sailed in 1773. Refreshing stuff – soda water in the South Seas –even if it doesn’t (as Priestley had boasted) prevent scurvy.

So here’s to the founding father you never knew. Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen and creator of soda water. We owe a great debt to his rational politics, his scientific reason, his theological dissent … and his bubbles.

Now let’s put that impregnated water to use.

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BROOKLYN EGG CREAM
From The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More–Stories and Flavors of an American Original

1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold whole milk
3⁄4 cup (6 ounces) plain cold seltzer
3 tablespoons (11⁄2 ounces) Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup

Pour the milk into an egg cream glass and add seltzer until froth comes up to the top of the glass. Pour the syrup into the center of the glass and then gently push the back of a spoon into the center of the drink. Rock the spoon back and forth, keeping most of the action at the bottom of the glass, to incorporate the syrup without wrecking the froth. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from The Soda Fountain by Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, Inc. copyright (c) 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

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For more history, read about the egg cream adventure Elizabeth, Gia and I went on last year. The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More–Stories and Flavors of an American Original goes on sale TODAY! To buy a copy, go here!