I am from New England stock. (I’m tempted to call us “hearty New England stock,” but the truth is that my immediate family skews more to the side of thin, independent, and quiet weirdos. Which is its own New England archetype, I suppose.) But a childhood in New England means that certain things are in my bones: Foliage and crisp apples in the fall, cross-country skiing in the winter, fiddleheads and mud in the spring, and in summer, shell-cracking lobster dinners. To me, lobster isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime rarity or even a particularly high-class food. It’s a treat, certainly, but not the epic, caviar-level foodstuff some people make it out to be.
There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: weeche Waffle sin Dudelarwet ferlore, which means “soft waffles are love’s labor lost.” In the Pennsylvania Dutch universe, there is probably nothing worse than a soft waffle, a bedroom euphemism for male dysfunction. So ingrained are waffles in our culture that less-than-perfect specimens are ready objects of contempt.
My father does not have an illustrious history with cooking. You wouldn’t know that looking at him in the kitchen now – when my grandmother’s health was failing, he studied with her so that he could make her classic desserts, like fluffy cream cake, spiraling jelly rolls, and not-too-sweet apple pies. But before that, I knew my father to have exactly one dish – Welsh rarebit.
America was booming in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War when robber barons hammered out vast empires and enormous fortunes were made overnight in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the same time out West, American chefs were refining their own contribution to international culture: Fast food.
When I studied abroad in Rome a few years ago, my travel packet included a primer for ordering espresso from the little museum café around the corner from our classrooms. To begin with, we were warned, don’t order espresso, a term which refers to a technique and not a beverage. Instead order caffè — short for caffè espresso, there’s no other kind — and embellish the word with lyrical phrases to indicate how long to let water seep through pressed grounds and how much milk to add and when.
If the Marx brothers had ever taken to food writing, they might have produced something very like F.T. Marinetti’s marvelously slapstick work, The Futurist Cookbook. The provocative (and regrettably Mussolini-approved) Italian artist Marinetti was infatuated by all things sleek, sharp, electronic, and shiny, but he was also an avowed enemy of pasta, which he denounced as a pathetic Italian addiction to nostalgia and tradition. Instead, he preferred his Futurist meals to combine the radical use of color, shape, music, lighting, and ideas, leaving taste and nutrition off the list entirely. In fact, the modern vitamin supplement industry should make Marinetti a patron saint: He argued that all sustenance should come from pills, freeing up food to be the raw material of art, preferably to be consumed while listening to the soothing hum of an airplane engine.
Whereas fresh bagels are coveted and home-baked bread approaches a spiritual experience for many, it’s rare in America to come across a fresh-from-scratch English muffin. In fact, I’d venture that there isn’t another bread product we’re as willing to buy pre-packaged (except for maybe the pocket pita). We simply don’t have respect for the English muffin. Take the breakfast sandwich, for example. A staple everywhere from the McDonald’s drive-thru to high-end restaurants, the breakfast sandwich puts the focus on the egg, cheese, and meat that’s tucked in the middle on the sandwich, forcing the English muffin that holds it all together to play second-fiddle (or is it griddle?). Of course, a breakfast sandwich doesn’t have to be made with an English muffin. But let’s not lie to ourselves: A bagel or bread couldn’t handle the breakfast sandwich the way an English muffin does. The bagel has too much dough, and bread falls apart. Only the English muffin has the right size and sheer tenacity to properly rein in the wily breakfast sandwich. Yet we rarely give it the attention
More than creatures of habit, we are creatures of fatuous trends. Nowhere is this more plainly obvious than in drinking. Periodically, we see seismic shifts in the drinking fashions when a new movie or television show features a classic cocktail and the throngs of followers now have their golden fleece to pursue – whether it’s James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” martini or Don Draper’s old-fashioned. Of course, the trend is replete with era-specific costumes, and thus even more sad, because I’d like to think social mores march to progress over time, rather than falling back on era-specific rationales about when “men were men” and other such obsolete banalities.
When I was young, I didn’t find too many vegetables palatable. I liked carrots, peas, and lima beans — all boiled and buttered — but would otherwise only eat produce to fill the quota to be excused from the table. When I started college, however, I was prepared to add more roots and leaves to my diet. To my mind, salads belonged to the world of adults; I was determined to belong to that world, so for lunch and dinner I dutifully filled a small bowl of raw vegetables to eat alongside my Southern college refectory’s chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
Pierre Bourdieu, a 20th century French sociologist, would argue that my transition into a dedicated eater of plants was not just a metamorphosis into maturity, but also a shifting of social position. MORE
It’s like a movie: One day you wake up and discover that ketchup — the condiment you’ve loved for as long as you can remember, with whom you’ve shared countless juicy burgers and hot french fries — has a past it never shared. You thought ketchup always came in a familiar bottle or, at its wildest, those little single-serving pouches. You thought that ketchup’s parents were Heinz, who doted on the condiment and even spoiled it by moving it from that clunky glass bottle to an easy-to-use plastic squeezer. You thought that ketchup was your rock — even if you hopped from brand to brand, you thought ketchup wouldn’t change much. It would never do that to you.
You were wrong. For goodness sake,
when ketchup was born, it wasn’t even made
In the 16th and 17th century, when the renowned painters of other European countries largely painted religious scenes and royal portraiture, the Netherlands developed genres of painting that reflected the mercantilist, increasingly secular culture that produced them. Wealthy merchants and other upper-class landowners had buying power to rival the Catholic church, and their patronage encouraged guilds to practice highly technical, sumptuous paintings of things: seashells and flowers, musical instruments, fine silver, and of course food — all improbably arranged onto an overflowing table and rendered in luminous layers of oil. MORE
I’m not sure how it came about, but one day my co-workers and I literally stood around the water cooler and casually discussed the pocket-sized items that we, or someone we knew, had smuggled out of restaurants and hotels.
The first impenitent confessor was a coworker whose family takes a cruise every winter. Every year when they were small, she and her younger sister would pocket a fork from one of their dinners on board. Many years later, my colleague created a mobile of the “souvenir” forks and gifted it to her younger sister. It’s a sweet story, but I was initially astonished that the coworker, to all appearances a steady and law-abiding character, shrugged off this youthful indiscretion as a fit of childhood caprice, a sweet and whimsical memory.
Vegetarians have grown to relish—or at least tolerate—fake chicken, mock turkey, soy hot dogs, and flame-grilled tofu burgers. But the noble tradition of fake foods dates back to antiquity. Roman cooks loved to disguise the flavors of their dishes. The ancients relished food games at their banquets, and cooks took great pride in concealing flavors so that one type of meat might taste like another—or like nothing at all. One of the more peculiar recipes that survives from the first extant cookbook, dating to the fourth century A.D., is called, bluntly enough, Anchovy Casserole Without the Anchovies. The author, Apicius, proudly boasted, “No one at the table will know what he is eating.” Artists were employed at banquets to make realistic sculptures of lions out of chicken meat, bulls of fish flesh, camels of venison—anything to tickle the jaded diners. MORE
There’s nothing romantic about February. In most of the northern hemisphere, the shortest month is also the dreariest: a gray, wet, slog through yet another winter month, with spring a little too far away to offer much hope. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most madcap celebrations take place in the February gloom: Mardi Gras and other pre-Lenten bacchanals tend to fall in this month, and the young men of ancient Rome celebrated Lupercalia mid-February by running naked through the streets and slapping young women with strips of leather.
Between the middle ages and the industrial era, St. Valentine’s feast day had something of this carnivalesque character in England, though more restrained. February 14th was one of several feast days that offered a brief reprieve from the grind of work and prayer, and the celebrations were playful, giddy, perhaps even a little irreverent. Unmarried village men and women played fortune-telling games to divine their future mates; one such game involved dropping names into a box and drawing out the name of your “valentine,” or the person Fate was disposed to match with you. Songs were sung, small gifts were exchanged.
I once heard that more avocados are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year. This is wrong: Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t touch the 14 million pounds of avocado consumed on Cinco de Mayo. Still, about 8 million pounds of avocado have reportedly been mashed into guacamole in honor of the big game in recent years—about 5% of total sales, nothing to scoff at so long after the crop’s seasonal peak.
Most of the avocados we buy to make a summer dip in the dead of winter are Hass avocados, grown in coastal California or, since 2007, in Mexico. (The avocado tree originated in Mexico and Central America, but those zones were closed off to U.S. importers until recently due to an apparently unfounded fear of fruit flies.) Avocados are technically in-season almost year round. The fruits don’t ripen while on the tree, so they don’t have the limited harvest window that other temperate-zone tree fruits have, and avocado fruits can mature all year in the hot, humid climates they prefer. But mature fruits are more sparse in midwinter than they are in the summer months, which is usually reflected in the grocery store price. MORE