Monday, November 10, 2008

America's First Ethnic Food

Isn’t it interesting how the current economic crisis has fueled more than a little interest in the great Depression? A topic that one is most certain to discuss when pondering the hardships of that time is how and what people ate. In the early 1930’s the average American family, unless they were immigrants, usually subsisted on a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, legumes and dry good groceries, nearly all of it unprocessed because processed foods, especially canned vegetables, were too expensive for many. Today, in stark comparison, those who are struggling financially subsist on a diet composed primarily of processed foods as the cost of fresh produce has skyrocketed.

One foodstuff that became a staple during those tough times was America’s first mass consumed ethnic food, spaghetti. During prohibition many of the boarding houses in the Italian section of New York City, who had recently had their supply of boarders cut off by immigrant restrictions, morphed into informal restaurants in order to make ends meet. These Italian immigrants, mainly from the southern part of Italy, where pasta and tomatoes were the backbone of their diet, finding the prohibition laws ludicrous, and contrary to their culture, served homemade wine and beer and moonshine grappa to their fellow Italian clientele. It was not long before Americans, seeking drink, started frequenting these establishments. By the 1930’s there were over 600 Italian restaurants in New York City.

Many other ethnic eateries opened their doors and flourished before the spaghetti houses in Greenwich Village attracted their first American customers. In 1828 the Delmonico brothers opened up a European confectionary shop and, 2 years later, added hot food, prepared in the French manner to their menu. French cuisine was so normal to the American cook that it wasn’t even looked upon as foreign but instead viewed merely as high class. The Chinese that arrived in San Francisco during the gold rush opened eateries, and with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, moved East and set up restaurants in New York’s Chinatown before the turn of the 20th century. Jewish, German, Russian and Armenian immigrants all opened restaurants before or around the same time as the Italians.

Despite all the different cuisines made available to the public, Spaghetti was the county’s first true ethnic food because it was the first one that the average housewife accepted, cooked at home and fed to her family. The depression was made to order for the popularization of spaghetti. In the early1930’s The Macaroni Manufacturers Association spent over 1 million dollars on a campaign promoting the nutritional and economic benefits of pasta. The food editors from newspapers and women’s magazines touted spaghetti as the ideal food and, when combined with tomato sauce and grated cheese, the most nutritiously balanced meal for it’s cost.

Unfortunately, when reading recipes from the cookbooks of that time, one comes away with the feeling that most of them would be an affront to today’s palate. Al dente was not a term familiar to Americans for some time yet. It was advised that spaghetti be cooked until soft and tender. These cookbook versions bore no resemblance to the Italian version, except the tomatoes and, in some instances, even that was bastardized. A typical sauce recipe would be tomatoes cooked with salt and sugar, however, it was not unusual to see a recipe calling for canned tomato soup seasoned with Worcestershire or a recommendation in an army cookbook of that time to substitute ketchup for tomato pulp. Thomas Jefferson had the first pasta machine in America in 1789 but it took the Great Depression to turn what was once an ethnic oddity into what is one of today’s most popular dishes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

From the Can to the Pan: part 1

The canning process dates back to the late 18th century in France when the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, concerned about keeping his armies fed, offered a cash prize of 12000 Francs to whomever could develop a reliable method of food preservation. Nicholas Appert conceived the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimentation, he realized that if food is sufficiently heated and sealed in an airtight container, it will not spoil. An Englishman, Peter Durand, took the process one step farther and developed a method of sealing food into unbreakable tin containers, which was perfected by Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, who set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813. As more and more of the world was explored, and as provisioning armies took on greater importance, the demand for canned foods grew. Thomas Kensett, who emigrated to the United States, established the first U.S. canning facility for oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables in New York in 1812. More than 50 years later, Louis Pasteur provided the explanation for canning's effectiveness when he was able to demonstrate that the growth of microorganisms is the cause of food spoilage.

Last night I opened a gift that I received, a can of Cassoulet au Canard (a duck, bean and sausage stew) from France. It actually tasted homemade. Upon looking at the ingredient list the reason was quite evident.

Lingot beans 35%
Grilled pork sausage 33%
Containing: pork, pork liver, water, salt, pepper.
Duck 20%
Containing: water, tomato, duck fat, garlic, salt, pepper

Pretty basic, right? Why then are the majority of canned foods that we get here loaded with products that, up until 25 years ago, did not exist.? Why are preservatives used in a process that doesn’t require any? My parents used to talk about cooking during the depression and substituting oats for half of the meat when making chipped beef. Today the food processors, thanks to the corn and soy based farm industry, have cut costs by incorporating fillers that serve no nutritional or flavor purpose. I thought that it would be interesting if I could find a domestic equivalent. Or, maybe it’s best to can my own main course meals. Canning isn’t just for jams, relishes and vegetables. Part 2 of this article will be a report chronicling my search and part 3 will have the details and recipes of my own entrĂ©e canning project.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Alinea the Book

With the release of Grant Achatz's new Alinea cookbook, and the companion website Mosaic, a great service has been done for those wishing to gain an understanding of Postmodernist cuisine.

Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, self published and by doing so, have achieved a level of control and freedom that is unprecedented in the annals of book publishing. And it is that freedom and control that is allowing them to utilize the internet as they see fit to create an online Alinea community. Also by publishing in this manner, they have been able to keep the price at $50.00 or under, no small feat when contemporary chef/restaurant books of this quality and scope sell in the $200.00 plus range.

To quote Kokonas, "What we are trying to do here is much more than publishing a book, because with the website, we're going to be adding to the book continuously after the publication date. What we're most excited about is the chance to build an Alinea community. We've already started to do that with the restaurant, and now with the book and the website, we can take that community to a whole new level."

For many the book will serve primarily as a portal into a genre of cuisine practiced by Achatz and other chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne and Homero Cantu, not to mention Feran Adria, whose El Bulli books are mind blowing in there owm right.
The New York Times writer Julia Moskin recently pointed out in an article titled "Some Heavy Reading, Recipes Included." covering several new cookbooks, that attempting to prepare many of the recipes from this book is a daunting task. Some recipes have over 20 sub recipes that require completion before assembling the final product. But there are also quite a few simpler recipes with easy to follow instructions, and on the Mosaic website, video tutorials. I hope that even if one does not attempt many of the recipes, a better understanding of creativity and craftsmanship and an inspiration to explore will be obtained.