Sunday, December 09, 2007

Still with the food.

I can't help it. It's that time of year.

Cooking is a lot like knitting, in terms of history; people have done it for years, and it runs the gamut from really expensive and fancy to survival-level work. Except with cooking, we've been doing it about, what, half a million years longer than knitting? So for the history geeks such as yours truly, it's REALLY interesting.

One if the big appeals to the Christmas cooking, for me, is the historic link. Not just with family - "These are the cookies grandma made for me when I was a kid." - but with overall history. I love making traditional things, like gingerbread and fruitcake, even though I don't eat it. Just to feel the link to all those ancestors who've made it for the last kajillion years. That right there is the root of my desire to make boiled pudding; it's a very old, traditional recipe.

Back in the day, peasants didn't have ovens. Heck, sometimes people STILL don't have ovens. Most food was cooked in the fireplace, which means boiling and roasting almost exclusively (this is where all those 'boiled dinner' recipes come from - a pound of everything in the produce department and a cheap cut of meat, possibly a bottle of beer, boiled until edible). Of course someone eventually found a way to make what is, essentially, a cake, by boiling it. Mostly I just want to see how the whole process works.

Then, of course, there are the other types of recipes. The ones where I speculate how they were developed in the first place. Potato salad? It's name should be 'what's left in the cellar at the end of winter'. That's exactly what it is; cook a little bit of everything left in the cellar and mix it together and viola. Potato salad.

Shortbread? I betcha that was developed by someone poor, who had a cow. (Okay, technically, if they had a cow, they were doing pretty good, but you get the idea.) All that's in it is butter, enough flour to hold it together, and a pinch of salt and sugar to sweeten it a bit. (For my toffee chip shortbread cookie recipe, click here. The toffee chips are my own inspiration, but I find it hard to believe I'm the first person in history to think of it.)

Then there's the fancy stuff. Gingerbread and fruitcake both use what would have been expensive and/or hard to get ingredients, mostly spices and in the case of the fruitcake, dried fruit. The gingerbread was developed as a form of conspicuous consumption - "Look, spice cake! I can afford spices! Be impressed!" Fruitcake is a takeoff on old travel food where fruits and meats were pounded together into a brick and noshed on as needed (in North America, some tribes called this pemmican). Pour some booze over it, and it will keep almost forever. (The oldest known fruitcake is about a hundred years old - scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

So anyway, there you have it. Maunderings on the history of food. Like you've never seen that around here before. Pass the cookies.


Amy Lane said...

OKay--so, when did people start deciding raw fish was a delicacy and not a survival tactic? I mean, now that you got me thinking!!!!

Anne said...

And I'd like to know about the people who discovered the yumminess of artichokes and lobster.

Louiz said...

Ah yes, but what was the person who discovered milk *up to* hey? That's what I want to know!

Alwen said...

One of the things I try to read every Christmas is "A Christmas Carol," and Scrooge asks the spirit of Christmas Present about closing the public ovens/bakeries on the seventh day and depriving the poor of their only hot meal. That's 1843.

Oh, yeah, and the Cratchits go and fetch their goose from the baker's, they don't cook it at home. The things they make at home are the boiled pudding and other things that can be boiled.

I remember reading that for a long time (was it in Tannahill's "Food in History"?) the milk animal of choice was either a goat or a sheep (yeah! sheep!), not a cow, because even a smallish cow will darn near drown you in milk, whereas goat/sheep quantities are more manageable.

historicstitcher said...

Love the post (and comments!)

And I was under the impression that fruitcake came from the lack of fresh fruit in the middle of winter, so they pulled out all the stops on the dried fruits and made something sweet for the holidays...

My favorite cookbok was published in 1907. I have an original. It has the most fabulous recipes, not gunked up by modern ingredients. For example: I could never make biscuits. My mother couldn't make them, my sister couldn't make them. None of us could follow the ubiquitous red-checked book's instructions. The I looked it up in my old, wonderful book, and lo! the Angel of God appeared...

Oops! Wrong story...

The vintage cookbook had "a large spoonful of" butter, flour, milk, baking powder, and a pinch of salt. The modern recipe: 10 ingredients. What were they for? I still don't know - but everybody loves my fluffy biscuits now!

Technology has a way of mucking up all kinds of things. Cooking, included. Don't tell me an electric oven makes as good-tasting bread as a wood-fired one! (It's just a little more reliable about cooking evenly...)