Research: The History of Eggnog

Thursday, January 12, 2017 0 comments
Hey, did you guys know that there was an event in American history called “The Eggnog Riot”? And that its alternate name is “The Grog Mutiny”? Really! It occurred in 1826 when a bunch of cadets sneaked whiskey into the U.S. Military Academy for a Christmas party, and wound up getting into a huge, drunken brawl. Twenty cadets were court-martialed, and one of the participants was future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. How come high school history classes never cover cool stuff like this?

Though eggnog is usually considered a holiday drink, a lot of people like to indulge in it throughout winter. As with a lot of drinks, there are ton of different ways to make it. When it first came about in England, it was made with wine. When it arrived in America, rum was favored. In the southern states, they prefer bourbon. In Puerto Rico, they add coconut juice/milk. Mexico intensified it with grain alcohol. And in Peru, they add a brandy called pisco.

Eggnog dates back to Europe in the Middle Ages, and probably evolved from a drink called posset, which is hot milk that has been curdled with wine or ale, with spices added. The concoction was often used as a remedy for colds and flu, and sometime during its rise in popularity, eggs began to show up in posset recipes. The “nog” part of the name is likely derived from noggin, a term for a small, carved wooden cup that was used to serve alcoholic drinks of all stripes.

In the 18th century, eggnog crossed the pond to the American colonies. Brandy and wine were heavily taxed, so America stuck out its collective tongue, and switched to Caribbean rum, which was far cheaper. In Britain, eggnog was a drink that was mainly consumed by aristocracy, but over here in America, its cost-effectiveness, plus easy access to cows (milk) and chickens (eggs) made it a popular drink for all classes. Rum became harder to obtain after the Revolutionary War, which is when domestic whiskey became the booze of choice to include. George Washington was a big fan of eggnog, and even devised his own extremely boozy recipe that utilized rye whiskey, rum, and sherry.

Weirdly, eggnog doesn’t seem to have any official historical affiliation with Christmas. It’s served warm, and it’s mostly served in social settings, so it makes sense that it would insinuate itself into the winter holidays. But no holiday is required to enjoy a cup of nog, and never has been. In Baltimore, there was a tradition in which young men would visit all of their friends on January 1. At each of the homes, the visitor would be offered some eggnog, and got progressively drunker throughout the day. How awesome is that?!? We tend to think of the past as stodgy and prudish, but once you start digging into the history of popular foods and drinks, it becomes clear that people have been cutting loose since the very beginning.
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Research: Food Terminology #2

Another upscale meal, another menu full of terminology that was either completely foreign to me, or that I'd heard of, but wanted to get a more precise understanding of. Let's tiptoe up to these advanced food concepts and enrich our culinary knowledge! First, let’s run through a few quick ones that may be unfamiliar to more timid eaters:

Brioche: A bread of French origin that is sometimes also referred to as a pastry, due to its high egg and butter content.

Aioli: An emulsion (like mayo), made of a base of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and egg yolks. An additional flavor is usually added (lemon aioli, basil aioli, etc.)

Mascarpone: A soft, easily-spreadable Italian cheese made from cream, coagulated by the addition of citric acid or acetic acid. When referring to mascarpone, please do not say "MAR-sca-pone".

Sweetbreads: The glands (usually thymus and/or pancreas) traditionally from a calf or lamb, though the term has expanded to cover more glands from more types of animals.

Tartare: A general term for dishes including raw meat or fish.

Now, let’s talk about some of the components of this particular meal that you probably don’t run across as often:

Arancini: Originating in Sicily, arancini are stuffed rice balls which are coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Generally, they are filled with meat sauce, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Peas are also a popular arancini stuffing. Naturally, there are countless variants. The one that inspired this entry was a squid ink arancini, which was wonderful.

Chouquette: Similar to a cream puff, chouquettes are a light, baked pastry, usually filled with a custard or mousse, and sprinkled with pearl sugar on top. The one we got for this meal was far bigger than a traditional chouquette, did away with the pearl sugar, and had a filling that utilized some pretty boozy eggnog.

Cardoon: Also called “artichoke thistle”. Native to the Mediterranean region, it belongs to a plant family that also includes globe artichokes. This meal included the buds, but the leaf stalks are also often eaten after being steamed or braised. Several popular soups and stews in Spain and Italy call for cardoon.

Sabayon: A light, airy custard that originated in Italy. As with a lot of foreign words, it has several spelling variants (zabaione, zabajone, zabaglione). It's made with egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine, and is usually served as dessert. This version was included in the main portion of the meal, incorporated pumpkin, and was served on pasta.

Tortelli: A square-shape filled pasta, similar to ravioli. It's tortellini's big brother, and there is actually a special type served in the Apuan region of Italy that once was only cooked on Shrove Tuesday. This one was a lot less restrictive, and was served di zucca (with pumpkin).
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Research: The History of Fondue

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 0 comments
Remember fondue? A lot of today's youths probably don't. Or at least, they never experienced the time that it was such a huge part of home entertainment. You couldn't escape it in the '80s. It's a dead food trend, but just because something is no longer a big part of popular food culture doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that it wasn’t worthy of its time in the sun. As you ease into the colder months, there’s actually a lot to be said for dipping hearty bread into bubbling hot cheese. So although fondue is about as hip as the Macarena right now, we should all still have a lot of affection for it. But how did it get its start?

Well, you’re going to have to go pretty damn far back for the answer to that. Like as far back as Homer’s Iliad, which mentions a dish made of melted goat cheese, wine, and flour. Unfortunately for Greece, they can’t claim credit for the idea of modern fondue, though. That honor goes to Switzerland. The practice of dipping bread in melted cheese cooked with wine first appeared in a Swiss cookbook in the late 17th century, though Swiss citizens were likely already preparing it during the colder months when bread and cheese were some of the few fresh ingredients they had access to. The word fondue is from the French for “to melt”, and was first referred to as such in 1735, making the jump to English in 1878. Took us long enough, didn’t it?

In the 1930s, the Swiss Cheese Union served as a cartel to retain control of cheese production. They very cleverly pushed for fondue to become a national dish of Switzerland. It worked, and after lobbying to restrict cheese production to a very few varieties, they were able to maintain a stranglehold on a massive amount of wealth. In fact, Swiss cheese makers pretty much ruled the country’s economy for about 80 years. And here you thought cheese was boring.

Cheese fondue isn’t the only kind, of course. In the Middle Ages, field workers in France would stick raw meat into a communal pot of boiling oil whenever they could catch a few minutes off. Chinese hot pot is basically fondue with broth as the cooking liquid. And Americans sweetened things up, as we are wont to do, by developing chocolate fondue in the mid-20th century. But if you want to honor the true origins of fondue, then go liquefy some Gruyere. You don’t need to be a trendsetter to eat well.
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Research: Soups vs. Stews

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 0 comments
“Versus” implies an adversarial relationship, but in all of the Versus posts to date, the information I tracked down was delivered with a mostly precise, academic tone of voice. After all, it’s entirely understandable why you might not know the differences between Cajun and Creole food, so there’s no need to get emotional about it. When it came to discerning the differences between soups and stews, however? People have opinions. Strong ones! That’s probably because the soup/stew label is more about personal style, rather than an accepted historical taxonomy. There doesn’t really seem to be a standard definition that can be applied to either soup or stew, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from trying.

If you asked most people to come up with the main difference between soup and stew, they’d say something about texture. Soups are thin and liquid; stews are thick and hearty. And honestly, this isn’t a terrible method of differentiating. After all, when you describe soups, you’re usually focusing on the broth. When you describe stews, you’re usually describing the solid ingredients that make up its bulk. Plus, stewing is a specific cooking method that involves slow cooking solids in moist heat, which would lend support to this argument. As one article put it, “When you make a beef stew, you are stewing the beef, which says nothing about what you’re stewing it in. On the other hand, when you make a chicken soup (or a chicken stock or broth which is the base of a chicken soup), then your objective is essentially to make chicken-flavored liquid – to extract the flavor of the solids into the liquid. If some flavorful solids remain, then that is incidental as opposed to intentional.”

The thick/thin dichotomy may be the main way of differentiating soup and stew, but it is not the only metric, though. There are plenty of soups that have as thick a consistency as any stew. So let’s take a brief look at some of the other ways people assign distinctions:

Serving Temperature: Soups can be eaten hot or cold. Some don’t even need to be cooked at all, and some are served for dessert. But while soups fall all over the spectrum, stews are always eaten hot.

Importance to the Meal: This was one of the stranger claims I found, but it makes a certain amount of sense. In short, stews are generally eaten as an entree, but soups are incidental. That is to say, if you’re eating a stew, it’s the centerpiece of your meal. Soup, on the other hand, is treated as an appetizer or a side dish. Some people even dug down into the size that the ingredients are chopped into. Big chunks of meat are important, and thus belong to a stew. Small ones are just there to flavor the broth, and are thus a soup.

Cooking Method: As mentioned above, when you “stew” a meat, you’re slowly cooking it in moist heat over a long period of time. So, if you’re making a stew, it’s more likely that you’re doing just that: Cooking the ingredients low and slow. Meanwhile, a great number of soups (though by no means all) can be made quickly and with a high, rolling boil. Plenty of soups can be knocked out in no time, but stews take patience.

Flavor Source: Are you relying on herbs and spices? Are you bringing out the flavors locked in bones or root veggies? You, sir or madam, have a soup on your hands. If, however, the main flavor of your dish is coming from meat (fish, vegetables, etc.), then it’s more likely to be thought of as a stew. This difference is a little too imprecise for me, but I did run across it, so I'm passing it along.

Cultural Background: Some sources noted that something that would be called a stew in one country would be considered a soup in another. The most fanciful thing I found suggested the following thought experiment: If someone you love isn’t feeling well, would you bring them this dish to make them feel better? If so, it’s a soup. If not, it’s a stew.

No matter what the differences between soups and stews, they're certainly always welcome, especially in the colder months, when we’ll all be spending a lot of time indoors. If you’re looking for something to do, why not whip up a big, hearty beef stew, settle in, and write a more definitive categorization for this food family? Both the culinary world and the linguistic world would appreciate it, thanks.
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Research: Mother Sauces

Monday, January 2, 2017 0 comments
I love the feeling of curiosity that sparks in my mind when I encounter an origin, trend, or mystery surrounding food. When my friend Kyle got an entree that was served with an accompanying agrodolce sauce, I was as excited about looking into what its components were as I was in tasting it. During that minor research avenue, it struck me that it linked up to a major one. There’s an entire class of sauces that are far more defined, yet never receive a lot of attention in popular food culture. I'm talking about Mother Sauces, which as the name suggests, provides the basis for countless offshoots. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard the term; it’s puzzling how little they’re discussed. Ready to get your taxonomy knowledge on? Let’s get saucy!

Before we get to the moms, though, here’s a brief description of that agrodolce sauce: For anyone who speaks Italian, it won’t come as a huge surprise that this is a sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s primarily used in Italian cuisine, and is made by reducing vinegar and sugar. Additional ingredients (in this case, it was ginger for use on a trout entree) are often added. If this method sounds familiar, give yourself a gold star for recognizing its almost identical cousin, gastrique. This is also a good place to point out that not all sauces trace back to one of the Mother Sauces: Gastrique, agrodolce, and many others are excluded from the family tree. And though those exceptions can be delicious, today is devoted to the sauce matriarchs.

Béchamel is also known as “white sauce”, and is often considered the simplest of the Mother Sauces, since you don’t have to make a stock. It utilizes milk as a base, which is thickened with a roux (flour and butter), and generally flavored with onion, shallots, and spices such as pepper, clove, or nutmeg. Béchamel is the mother of many cream and cheese sauces, and shows up in a lot of egg, vegetable, casserole, and baked pasta dishes, such as lasagna. Secondary sauces that owe allegiance to Béchamel include Mornay sauce, Soubise sauce, and the good ol’ Cheddar sauce that shows up in our mac & cheese.

Velouté is also a white sauce thickened with a roux, but this time, the “white” refers to the stock it uses as its base (chicken, fish, or veal). The stock replacing the milk is the main difference between Velouté and Béchamel, although sometimes, a Velouté will be thickened with a liason (egg yolk and cream) instead of a roux. Velouté also has three main secondary sauces, serving as mothers of various sauces themselves. Velouté made with chicken stock and fortified with cream becomes a Suprême sauce. Using fish stock (plus white wine and cream) yields a White Wine sauce. And veal stock thickened with a liason is known as Allemande sauce. These three daughters then go on to propagate tasty sauces such as herb sauces, curries, or Normandy sauce for light poultry and fish dishes.

Espagnole is also known as “brown sauce”, and is more complex than some of the others. At first glance, it seems like it’s just brown (beef) stock thickened with roux, but unlike Velouté, this sauce has additional steps involved. Tomato puree and mirepoix (carrots/celery/onion) are added to deepen the flavor, and let’s not forget that brown stock itself involves more work than a white one. The sauce is then refined into a demi-glace, which is used as a starting point for the secondary sauces. The demi-glace step isn’t strictly necessary, but since it adds so much flavor and body, it generally piggybacks in on the Espagnole’s back. The secondary sauces in this family are often used on roasted meat dishes like duck and lamb, and include Bordelaise sauce, Madeira sauce, and red wine/port reductions.

Hey, we’ve got places to be and things to do! How about a sauce that’s not so much work? Hollandaise to the rescue! In Hollandaise, all you need to do is slowly whisk clarified butter into warm egg yolks. Additional flavors can be added, of course, but that’s the basis. Hollandaise can be used on its own, but you shouldn’t ignore its secondary sauces, the most famous of which is Béarnaise sauce. Others include Mousseline sauce (Hollandaise with whipped cream folded in), and Mourtarde sauce (Hollandaise with Dijon mustard). Hollandaise sauces are terrific on eggs, but can also be used for vegetables and poultry.

Tomate (or “tomato” or “red”) sauce is probably the most familiar to American eaters, but can be prepared in a plethora of ways. Obviously, it has a tomato base, but there are tons of methods for thickening that base. As with the other Mother Sauces, you can use a roux. Or you can thicken it with additional purees. Or you can reduce it. Or, like a lot of chefs, you can decide that the tomatoes are thick enough themselves. Classic Tomate is flavored with rendered salt pork, mirepoix, or meat stock. Tomate is good on pretty much anything, but especially pasta. In addition to Puttanesca, Creole sauce and Provençale sauce fall under the Tomate umbrella.
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Research: Cajun vs. Creole

Thursday, December 29, 2016 0 comments
Bonjour! If you're a fan of charting food fads, you've no doubt noticed that menus featuring “Cajun” or “Creole” offerings are popping up all over the place, no matter what type of restaurant you’re eating at. It’s an interesting trend, but it brought to light a gap in my culinary knowledge: What on Earth is the difference between the two? Well, that seemed like a perfect opportunity for some research, so I started looking into it.

There are several cultural differences, of course, which lead to all sorts of distinctions, not only in the actual ingredients that go into each group’s food, but their entire approach to cooking. If you’re a fan of simplicity, you could follow the single bullet point that one article posits: Creole cooking uses tomatoes, and Cajun cooking does not. Full stop. The end. Good night, everyone!

Obviously, I wanted to dig a little deeper, but that’s some handy knowledge if you’re looking for a fast way to identify the origin of the dish you’re eating. There’s another single-line descriptor that offers a much different type of taxonomy: Creole cuisine is often described as “city” food, while Cajun is considered much more “country”. Why is this so?

It has to do with how the populace established themselves. French colonists that lived in Maine and various parts of Canada who got forcibly expelled by the British during the French and Indian War eventually migrated to Louisiana. That would be the Cajuns. Creole refers to the people who were born to the settlers that already lived in French colonial Louisiana, especially New Orleans. The two populations intermingled a lot, but as alluded to above, the Creoles were much more tied to city life. This, more than anything, is what led to the delineations that separate the two cuisines. After all, Creoles had a lot more access to things like markets and dairy products (not to mention servants that would do all the cooking), while Cajuns were more tied to “living off the land”, so to speak, eating only what they could grow or what they could catch.

The two styles are not totally dissimilar. Both are firmly rooted in French cuisine, with influences from Spain, America, and Africa. Both feature gumbo as a representative dish. Both cuisines feature dishes that are heavily seasoned, though this is often misconstrued as permission to make things unbearably spicy. Cajun food, however, is a lot simpler, basing a lot of their dishes on the “holy trinity”, also known as celery, onion, and bell pepper. They also use a lot of garlic, paprika, thyme, and scallions. One-pot cooking is extremely Cajun, and the roux they use as a base is made from oil and flour, rather than butter and flour roux used in Creole cooking. Cajun gumbo is a lot more stew-like than the soupy Creole gumbo, which has a tomato base. Creole food is more refined across the board, with dishes that are focused on cream and butter, and that incorporate a lot of labor-intensive and multi-ingredient dishes. If you’re looking at a remoulade or a bisque, it’s a safe bet that you’re eating Creole.

Both styles have a lot to recommend them. The simple pleasures of a spicy Cajun stew can be just as satisfying as a complicated Creole Trout a la Meunière. The two have become intertwined to the point that it’s difficult to separate them, but there’s something oddly cheering about that. We’re always hearing about the friction between rural and urban people, and here we have the perfect marriage of the two. Food really is the great unifier.
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Research: "As American as Apple Pie"

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 0 comments
We once did a podcast segment on Patriotic Foods, and brought up the phrase that goes through everyone’s heads when talking about food from the homeland: “As American as Apple Pie”. It brings such a warm, comfortable picture to mind, doesn’t it? Such a joyful representation of Americana: The image of a pie (with a lattice top, natch) cooling on the windowsill. But as with most idioms, this one’s origins are a bit murky. Why do we say it? And is it true?

Let’s tackle the second question first. In a word: No. Neither apples nor apple pie got their start in America. Dutch apple pies (the traditional version of pie with pastry on top) have been around for centuries. It is believed that the Romans introduced apples to the English, who then brought them over to America in the seventeenth century. They’ve been here right from the start; apples were among the most popular foods to be brought over by the Pilgrims. The spurs were easy to transport, and hard apple cider was often consumed for breakfast. Pies were also a big staple of the Pilgrim diet, but not in the sense we know them by today. These weren’t dessert treats, they were necessary for sustenance. Pies tended towards the savory, rather than the sweet, and were used as a cheap and effective way of stretching a limited amount of filling to fill hungry bellies. Once the European honeybee arrived, apple trees started to bear larger amounts of fruit, and the apple’s reputation soared even higher. While they may not be native to our shores, apples and apple pie have been a big part of our national identity since before America was even a country.

So yes, since America and apples grew up together, it makes a certain amount of sense to call something “As American as Apple Pie”. But how did the phrase catch on? There are a few ideas about that. One unsurprisingly involves the American legend John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman planted countless apple trees in the American frontier, but he wasn’t wandering around randomly. He would acquire land, plant apple orchards, then sell the improved land for a higher price. He was the original flipper! What could be more American than that? Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren grew up learning about Chapman, and his quintessential American-ness was inextricably linked with the apple, solidifying the reputation of both as national symbols.

Though it’s also been suggested that apple growers pushed the phrase as a marketing term, it’s more likely a combination of two other factors. In 1902, a New York Times article comparing pie to American prosperity declared that “no pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished“. Americans took that sentiment and ran with it. When soldiers heading off to World War II were asked about their motivations for fighting the good fight, “For Mom and apple pie” was a common response. The post-war period was a time of intense patriotism, and by the 1960s, “As American as Apple Pie” had become solidified as a statement of proud nationalism. Apples are certainly intrinsic to American history, and the phrase is a beautifully evocative one. But if you’re a stickler for accuracy, feel free to start saying “As American as Blueberry Pie”. Who knows? It may catch on.
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