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The Founding Farmers

February 23, 2012 | by

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is the transcription of a handwritten recipe collection that came to Martha Washington through her first husband, Daniel Custis. By the time she received it, in 1749, its value would have been mostly sentimental, not culinary; the old family recipes date from Jacobean and even Elizabethan England. This we learn from the book’s spirited annotator, Karen Hess, whose commentary, published with the transcription in 1981 by Columbia University Press, works like salt: without it, the old recipes, filled with antiquated spelling and vocabulary, would be hard to choke down. With it, the reader—this reader—can’t get enough. (“Lady comes from Old English words meaning kneader of loaves,” Hess writes. How was I muddling along in my floury apron without this fact?)

Karen Hess, who was given access to the manuscript by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was an instinctive cook, trained at her grandmother’s side between the two world wars in a Nebraska community where the competition to prepare the tastiest supper for the pastor was, by her own account, fierce. Her contempt for the use of flour—“demon flour”!—in sauces was the result of years of cooking and tasting. Her interest in food deepened in the sixties, when her husband, John, a reporter for The New York Times, took the family to Paris for a nine-year stint. France did its thing, and the housewife eventually transformed herself, despite her lack of formal training, into a pioneer of food scholarship. “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking,” she wrote. “I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the ageless depreciation of the work of women.” In her books she strove to re-create our domestic past accurately, without sentiment. After Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Hess published annotated editions of several more important early American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a social history of rice cultivation in South Carolina, with an emphasis on the role of knowledgeable slaves. In 1985, she became one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians of New York.

The book that launched her career, however, came out in 1977, and was cowritten with John. The Taste of America was a scathing indictment of American food culture in the twentieth century. Conventional wisdom held that early Americans were too busy surviving and fearing God to bother with their appetites, but the Hesses convincingly described a “colonial Eden” in a generous new land where one couldn’t help but eat well. (Though the New Englanders had to work a little harder than the Virginians.) Back then, “local and seasonal” was not a cliché or a trend but a fact. “The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence,” they write, giving us as examples not only Thomas Jefferson’s Frenchified tastes and habits—a surprising proportion of his correspondence concerned the purchase of wine—but also Benjamin Franklin’s ardent defense of the tastiness of corn (“one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world … a delicacy beyond expression”). By contrast, they cite a New York Times account of Gerald Ford’s habitual lunch: “a ball of cottage cheese, over which he pours a small pitcherful of A.1. Sauce, a sliced onion or a quartered tomato, and a small helping of butter-pecan ice cream.” Eating was, Ford said, “a waste of time.” Read More »

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Starve a Fever, Feed a Cold

January 30, 2012 | by

My husband and I got engaged on December 30, 2005, in a restaurant in Greenwich Village. We spent the next night at home, having planned a feast for two. About halfway through an afternoon of strenuous cooking, however, Andrew became quiet and glassy-eyed. He took to the couch, rousing himself only when I served the fish.

The sight of his laden plate made him flinch, but he bravely took a bite of potato-crusted salmon. “Mmm,” he said unconvincingly, “this is good.” Mine was overcooked. “I think I’m going to throw up,” he said. I thought that was a drastic overcorrection, but before I could say so, he was on his way to the bathroom, where he remained for many hours.

This gave me plenty of time to drain the champagne, eat up my gougeres and caramels, and contemplate the future to which I had recently committed myself. Is this a psychosomatic reaction to the idea of being with me forever? I wondered. I suppose this is what having children will be like, I thought, as I did my best to keep him clean and comfortable and get him into bed once his body had expelled everything.

Now I know that when your child is sick, you, too, are often sick, making motherly nursing even more challenging than I had imagined. I spend long stretches of every winter making cup after cup of peppermint or ginger tea to decloud my head. This past December, as I coped with my third annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s malaise, I thought to consult Mrs. Beeton, whose masterwork, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I remembered included a chapter on invalid cookery. Read More »

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Wassailing

December 22, 2011 | by

My school’s Wassail Party was held in the upper-school cafeteria, at night. For us lower-schoolers, it was thrilling. We were not usually welcome on the big kids’ campus, but after the annual candlelight service we were invited to eat miniature candy canes and Pepperidge Farm cookies in their vast, dim, low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored refectory. There was a big bowl of cold lime-sherbert punch, surrounded by elegant plumes of dry-ice smoke and a big bowl of warm, spiced apple juice—our wassail. When we were slightly older, we could join the choir that performed in the candlelight service. “Wassail, wassail, all over the town,” we sang, “Our bread it is white, and our ale it is brown!” It felt quietly subversive even to sing the word ale, since we were, in our red jumpers and green neck ribbons, as wholesome as the gingerbread and apple juice served after the concert.

Wassail means “be thou hale,” and it’s what English farmers traditionally consumed to drink to the health of their apple trees on Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night Eve. The rite itself was also called wassailing and generally called for a bowl of hard cider or apple-spiked ale to be paraded about the orchard. The spirits of the trees were toasted; scraps of booze-soaked toasted bread were tossed into the branches; roots were given a dram. Read More »

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Hale and Hearty

November 23, 2011 | by

Among the many things for which I will give thanks this Thursday, foremost is the fact that I am not in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. Instead I’ll be helping my mother in her kitchen, as she helped me in mine last year. It isn’t that I dislike cooking, or even that I feed a real crowd; I cook every day, usually with pleasure, and we don’t pull many extra chairs up to the table for the holiday. But sometime after the second pie has been baked and the turkey is in the oven and half the vegetables are ready but there is still so much to make, and the table not even set, I just want to sneak away without finishing up.

How great a disappointment I would have been to Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who led the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. When Hale was thirty-four and the year was 1822, her husband died, leaving her with five children. Did she allow despair to overcome her stout Yankee heart? Never! She supported her family with that reliable moneymaker, poesy, before publishing a best-selling novel, and eventually going on to become the editor of the most influential women’s magazine in America. Read More »

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