Starting Tuesday night, I’m teaching a three-part course on Historic Gastronomy at the Brookyln Brainery. It’s going to involve a lot of history, a lot of nerdery, and a lot of eating. You can read the full course description and sign up here (new spots were recently opened for students due to high demand; at the time of the writing, there were three spots left. Sign up here.)
My first class is called A Timeline of Taste; we’re going to explore the history of American food through flavor: we’ll travel from 1796-1950, making a pit stop every 50 years to explore the tastes of a particular time. Participants will smell and sample the spices, fruits, extracts, and other ingredients that defined the flavors of different time periods. We’ll discuss why each of these flavors were popular and how they were used in day to day cooking.
Many ingredients have a flash point that sends them soaring in popularity, pushing other tastes out of vogue: an increase in production, a decrease in cost, a popular recipe, etc. As I was researching the histories of American ingredients, like rosewater, vanilla, curry and ketchup, I realized the results would be a really cool data visualization project. I wanted to see a timeline of when ingredients were the most popular.
A quick and dirty way to do this is through Google Ngram Viewer, one of the coolest toys on the web. Google says: “When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books.”
I plugged in search terms, I was astounded by the visualization of the results. You could often see the exact historical moment an ingredient became popular.
For example, from about 1750-1840, rose water was the primary flavoring for cakes and other confections in the United State. While today we associate it with Middle Eastern cuisine, for English colonists it was used as a cheap alternative to vanilla. Vanilla was only grown in Mexico because its pollination was very closely linked to a certain species of Mexican bee. In 1841, a twelve year old slave discovers how to hand pollinate vanilla flowers. Vanilla cultivation is moved outside of Mexico and the product became much cheaper.
Look at the chart above: rose water is more or as popular as vanilla until 1841. Then vanilla takes off while rosewater flat lines.
A few more fun charts are below. We’ll be talking about these ingredients, and so much more, at the Brooklyn Brainery Tuesday night.