Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Welcome to the New World

[I'm a bit busy this week - big surprise - so my regular posting schedule is on hold. The painting of the week and all will be back next week.]

Once again, Thanksgiving draws near - at least for those of us in the United States. It is the one dinner where I intentionally focus on foods that are native to the Americas. My planned menu isn't very different from last year, but I thought I might make a few comments on some of the dishes (historical and otherwise).

Turkey - The turkey has an odd quirk in its history. While it was native to the Americas, it was domesticated in England. Wild turkeys were brought back to England in the early 16th century, where they were carefully bread for meat production and such. There they quickly supplanted the bustard as the common large bird at the dining table. The domestic turkey was then imported back to the Americas (re-imported? back-ported?).

Gravy - Technically, gravy is one of the four "mother sauces" of French cuisine (i.e. velouté), and while there is at least one medieval sauce recipe that is thickened with flour, the technique didn't really become common until the 19th century.

Stuffing - I suppose this could be considered "old world" and medieval, seeing as there are medieval recipes for a farsure (Middle English for "stuffing") made of bread to stuff into meat, but serving stuffing is a strong tradition in my family, and I'm not going to risk a holiday revolt. I do add dried cranberries to the mix, along with sage, and I usually use a mix of white bread and pumpernickel.

Mashed Potatoes - The potato is thought to have originated in South America. It was introduced to Europe in the early 16th century, and quickly became well established there.

Green Beans - There is some confusion over the history of these beans, mostly due to the use of the word "haricots". From what I understand, that name was used in reference to other varieties of beans before Columbus' voyages, and all members of the genus Phaseolus are new-world plants. This year I'm going to try serving freshly steamed green beans with Mornay sauce and home made pumpernickel croutons.

Cranberry Sauce - Cranberries are related to blueberries and the like, but are very different from their European cousins. I like to make cranberry chutney each year (which includes a little capsicum pepper - also a new world food). It's one of my favorite recipes, and is well liked by the family. I also make a homemade jellied cranberry sauce for my step-father. One of these years I'm going to use a can to mold the jellied stuff so it has the "cutting lines".

Corn Relish - This is something new I'm trying this year. It felt strange to cook a dinner featuring new-world foods that didn't include corn and tomatoes. These are two of the most successful plants in the culinary world. So I'm going to make up a small dish using baby corn and sun-dried tomatoes. If it turns out well then I'll post the recipe.

Pumpkin Pie - Pumpkins, like the other species of squash, originated in North America, though the word "pumpkin" itself appears to have come from France (by way of England). Pumpkins were apparently accepted into European cuisine fairly quickly.

Apple Pie - Ok, I admit that this one is not at all "new world". There are plenty of recipes for apple pies dating back to before the 14th century. Add to that the fact that apples weren't native to North America, and suddenly the phrase "As American as apple pie" is more than a bit ironic. This is another one of those cases where tradition outweighs geekiness though. If I didn't serve apple pie at Thanksgiving, I'd be cast out from the family.

This is what American food is really all about. It's not all cheeseburgers and french fries. It's a mix of traditional European dishes made with new world foods. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

The Egg Dance
Pieter Aertsen, 1552

The Egg Dance
(from the Web Gallery of Art)

I briefly talked about this painting in my post about medieval eggs, but there's a lot more here worth perusing.

One of the more obvious things is all the leeks and mussel shells scattered over the floor. I read somewhere (and can no longer find the source) that these - along with the leeks in the vase on the wall in the background - indicate that the place depicted in the painting is a house of ill repute. I don't know enough about that aspect of medieval history to be sure, but that sounds reasonable to me. Aside from the mess on the floor there are a couple of interesting kettles hanging over the fire and, at the very top of the painting near the center, some odd things which I think are sausages.

The really big draw though (for me at least) is the stuff on the table. The small loaves of bread are easy to figure out, and the little metal thing is probably a salt cellar, but what are those flat, diamond-shaped things? Waffles? They don't quite look like the waffles in other paintings. They're too thick to be playing cards. Trenchers maybe? The one to the left is curving up slightly at the edges in the same way the trenchers I made did after they started to dry out a bit.

And what in blazes are those things in the center of the table? I've seen these things before (in Aertsen's painting Butcher's Stall) and I couldn't figure then out there either (though in that painting they were accompanied by two similar things with a disturbingly red-brown colored filling). Schmaltz tarts? Marrow? Soft cheese with a rind? If so, the "rind" looks kind of wrong. Whatever they are, they come from the butcher ready-to-eat. I'm stumped on this one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

Christ and the Adulteress
Pieter Aertsen, 1559

Christ and the Adulteress
(from the Web Gallery of Art)

Yet another "inside-out" painting (sense a trend here?), this one from Amsterdam. So what do we have here? Front and center is an assortment of fruit and vegetables: carrots (maybe in two different colors, but it might just be shadow), onions, cucumbers (that look slightly fat like that cucumber-like thing last week), strawberries (in front) and peaches (just behind them), and a couple different kinds of cabbage. I think there's something that looks like an acorn squash in with the cabbage, but it's hard to tell.

Note the basket of very modern looking eggs in the front. Enough said on that.

Just behind the veggies is a basket of round things. They could be bread, but they seem just a bit too uniform in color. Cheeses maybe? That would make sense in connection with the pots of milk just behind them. This brings me to the oddly shaped things in the lower right corner, partly covered, in the bowl sitting on top of the bird cage. I haven't the foggiest idea just what they are. As a guess I'd say butter - something about the way they're kept in a bowl and (presumably) kept covered. I've seen these in other pictures, and they may (or may not) be related to the Mysterious Football-Shaped Things® discussed elsewhere.

Oh, and while they're not food, I love the pile of cookpots in the lower left. I need to buy a few of those.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Items of Note

News Article - A sport of kings, knights, and nomads
The Boston Globe

A short article by Jane Roy Brown on the history of falconry.

Mae's Food Blog has a review of Michael Symons' book, A History of Cooks and Cooking.

Music - Vince Conaway
Louisiana Renaissance Festival, Hammond, Louisiana
November 15 & 16, 2008

"Vince is an interactive performer, believing that the audience should not be separated from the show but instead be a part of it. One of few dulcimer players to converse while performing, he also brings a bit of cultural and historical perspective to every performance. Whether performing Living History, at a bookstore, or busking on the street he holds to his guiding principles of musicianship, showmanship, and professionalism."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Vincenzo Campi, ca. 1580

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
(from the Web Gallery of Art)

Another "inside-out" painting, this time from Italy. Lots of fun things in this one. In the upper left hanging next to the duck and a skewered chicken is a little wild pig - almost too cute to eat. It's a good reminder that they were eating a lot of game animals. Similarly, there's a lot of fish here too, and a beautiful salmon steak. With the church forbidding meat on three days out of the week, fish was very important.

In the middle of all those fish though, in the lower left corner of the painting, is a lobster. At one point I'd been told that medieval Europeans weren't eating north Atlantic lobster, but instead ate Mediterranean ones - which look different and don't have the big claws. However almost all of the lobsters I've seen depicted in paintings like this one are clearly north Atlantic. This shows that the trade of fresh seafood was quite impressive. Huge amounts of fish were carted for hundreds of miles inland. Where possible, it was kept alive in barrels. These were not "simpler times".

In the center we have some songbirds - larks? - some small loaves of bread, and an artichoke. Among the things in the seller's basket are a couple of different colors of carrots and a lumpy green thing. It could be a melon of some kind, or maybe a fat cucumber. I'll have to spend some time trying to figure that one out. Oh, and in the upper right are those big, round heads of very modern looking cabbage.

In the lower right, if you look underneath those birds, are some folded white tablecloths. The draping of the table was very important, and medieval stewards wrote detailed instructions on how to do it correctly in books like The Boke of Keruynge (Peter Brears, ed.). It required three tablecloths per section of table, with special folds and sections to delineate where the lord of the manor sat. I don't think that storing tablecloths underneath ducks and geese was the recommended way of keeping them clean though.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Items of Note

Music - Collegium Musicum Concert
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
November 6, 2008, 7:30 PM

Recreating Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical performances

Collegium Musicum is dedicated to the historically informed performance of Western and Non-Western European music from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras.

This fall’s concert includes music students and faculty performing a delightfully varied program directed by Janet Pollack. The concert is on Thursday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Organ Recital Hall, University Center for the Arts, 1400 Remington Street

Music - Vince Conaway
Louisiana Renaissance Festival, Hammond, Louisiana
November 8 & 9, 2008

"Vince is an interactive performer, believing that the audience should not be separated from the show but instead be a part of it. One of few dulcimer players to converse while performing, he also brings a bit of cultural and historical perspective to every performance. Whether performing Living History, at a bookstore, or busking on the street he holds to his guiding principles of musicianship, showmanship, and professionalism."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Kalendarium Hortense - November

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of November.

Carry Compost out of your Melon ground, or turn and mingle it with the Earth, and lay it in Ridges ready for the Spring: Also trench and fit ground for Artichoaks, &c.

Continue your Setting and Transplanting of Trees; lose no time, hard Frosts come on apace: Yet you may lay bare old Roots.

Plant young Trees, Standards, or Mural2.

Furnish your Nursery with Stocks to graff on the following year.

Sow and set early Beans and Pease till Shrove-tide; and now lay up in your Cellars for spending, and for seed, to be transplanted at Spring, Carrots, Parsneps, Turneps, Cabbafes, Caulkly-flowers, &c.

Cut off the tops of Asparagus, and cover it with long dung, or make Beds to plant in Spring, &c.

Now, in a dry day, gather your last Orchard fruits.

Take up your Potatoes for Winter spending, there will enough remain for Stock, though never so exactly gathered.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - Mural trees: trees trained against a wall.

3 - Shrovetide: the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.