Posts in Category: Food

How drinking coffee substitutes makes for a happy marriage

Instant Postum ad c.1913

The vilification of food is something Americans do all too well. Many food items have swung back and forth between villain and savior (Harvey Levenstien wrote a great book about this: Fear of Food A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat). Caffeine has long been one of the most popular targets and perhaps no one did more to try to destroy the reputation of coffee than the man who brought us Grape Nuts: C.W. Post. If you’ve ever wondered why Grape Nuts has that strange, indiscernible but slightly gravely taste it’s because it originally wasn’t meant to be a cereal at all, but rather a coffee substitute–one of Posts’ many efforts to rip off Kellogg’s creations.

Riding on the wave of the success of Grape Nuts and new health concerns over coffee, which he called a “drug drink,” Post developed another coffee alternative made from roasted grains called Postum. In his book, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast argues that Posts’ ability to use bogus health jargon while appealing to people’s fears and snobbery paved the way for modern consumer advertising practices. Post himself was likely influenced by Coke’s ads in the 1880′s promoting the drink as a “brain tonic.” Post promised that drinking Postum would put consumers on the “road to Wellville,” and as this ad contends, would also rebuild one’s nervous system from the effects of “the old poison–caffeine,” and win over one’s husband to boot! In the end, commerce won out over caffeine ideology. C.W. Posts’ daughter took over the company following his death and bought Maxwell House in 1928.

 

 

 

 

 

New York’s largest beer garden was kid-friendly

The Atlantic Beer Garden

The Atlantic Garden postcard 1872; New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, Picture Collection Online

Beer gardens are experiencing a small, but notable renaissance in New York City these days. Sadly they don’t even touch the kinds of massive, throbbing beer gardens that used to be commonplace. Sure, you could grab a beer at any of these German-style beer halls that dotted 19th century New York, but they were so much more than watering holes. The largest and most famous of these was the Atlantic Garden, which was a cavernous multi-storied social space were patrons would spend the better part of the day drinking, playing pool and listening to live music and of course, drinking beer. The largest of these was the Atlantic Garden, opened in 1858 on the Bowery at number 50 extending to Elizabeth Street. At a time when male and female social spheres rarely overlapped, beer halls were frequented by both men and women. The Atlantic Garden was particularly popular with German families who came to enjoy some evening entertainment together. This included an array of diversions such as a shooting gallery, pool tables, bowling allies and live entertainment. Despite the flowing beer, the crowd was relatively tame. On the lower lefthand corner of the postcard you can see a young girl sitting patiently at the end of the table as her parents chat away and another couple walking hand in hand between the tables on the right side.

As the Bowery increasingly became home to some of the most desolate populations in the city, Atlantic Garden managed to maintain its clean reputation and remained popular with locals and tourists. That is, until the locals finally left for less seedy pastures. Atlantic Garden was closed in 1902 because its main clientele, Germans and Irish, had moved away from the Bowery. This particularly vivid passage from the New York Times article announcing the closure describes the ending of an era:

Dwellers of the Bowery paused and rubbed their eyes yesterday when they passed Atlantic Garden, for the front of the famous old resort, which had stood almost unchanged on its site just below Canal Street since before the Civil War, was plastered over with Billboard in Yiddish announcing a Yiddish variety programme.”

(Yes, we still clung to that extra “me” in 1902.)

The article goes on to describe how the hall had hosted vaudeville acts, a new form of entertainment when it first opened, and specialized in novelty acts such as “‘teams’ of negro performers,” and later a “ladies orchestra.”

This past fall, it was discovered that the basement of the tavern that had previously occupied 50 Bowery and which had supposedly been George Washington’s headquarters, was still intact.  Almost just as soon, it was demolished to make way for a 22-story, 160-room hotel. Hopefully plans will also include an enormous beer hall.

When drinking gin led to epilepsy and other teetotaling tales

Abstinence pledge card.  23 September 1842.  (GLC 2542.27.  The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

Abstinence pledge card. 23 September 1842. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

January 17, 1920: the day Americans were legally prohibited from consuming alcohol for the next 13 years—the day the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. But teetotalism had been popular in America for nearly a century before the government got involved.

Alcohol had long been the target of American reformers who aimed to restore order to society through publishing diatribes on the harmful effects of excessive drinking, such as this illuminating pamphlet by University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind (in its 8th edition by 1823).

A note to those considering imbibing tonight: Dr. Rush warns that while small amounts of alcohol “have a friendly influence upon health and life,” overindulgence in anything as innocent as punch leads to idleness, which leads to sickness and eventually to debt. Cordials lead to swindling, while the stronger stuff like gin and brandy will ultimately lead to murder and…the gallows. He suggests sticking to water which brings “health and wealth”—a radical concept at a time when the quality of most water was questionable.

An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind

An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, by Dr. Benjamin Rush (1823)

American Teetotalism actually has its origins in Ireland with the Catholic Temperance movement when priest Mathew Theobald established the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838. His followers each signed a pledge of total alcohol abstinence and met on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sundays after Mass. In just the first five months, Theobald had conscribed 130,000 members. He began taking his cause on the road and eventually came to the U.S. in 1849 where he enlisted another 500,000. Catherine Cauty was the  4,281,797th to sign the pledge, promising to “abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.” The above card illustrates the consequences of alcohol consumption: wife-beating, and the benefits of temperance: a happy family gathering in front of a hearth.

From oysters with love: for rich and poor

Oyster advertisement, American, early twentieth century. © The Bridgeman Art Library

Oyster advertisement, American, early twentieth century. © The Bridgeman Art Library

Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”

New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.

Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.

When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”

Oyster Bay Sea Food Restaurant, NYC

Museum of the City of New York

Oyster Stand NYC c.1900 Thomas Mcallister

Oyster Stand NYC c.1900 Thomas Mcallister, Museum of the City of New York

 

 

 

 

 

I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.

A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.

New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.

The rise and fall of orange juice as a health drink

The magical cure for everything from singlehood to the common cold

OJ ad 2

The very first thing I do each morning is not shower, not check my email, not even caffeinate. I open up the fridge, reach for a plastic bottle and pour myself a small glass of orange juice. The citrus and sweetness seem to go through my tastebuds and right to that “on” switch in my brain. You know how courteous hosts ask if there’s anything you’d like them to stock up on when you’re visiting, and this is meant as a gesture rather than an invitation? Well, I actually answer: orange juice.

So when I started researching how orange juice became a staple of the American breakfast, it did not surprise me that its reputation for restoring energy and vitality was a central marketing theme. What I didn’t expect was that its meteoric rise to breakfast classic also involved a scare over a rare blood condition, an obsession with vitamin C and nearly a decade of government research. Oh, and then there’s this: If you value your morning glass of orange juice with its happy bits of pulp and consider it to be as close to the real thing as can be readily available at your local supermarket, do not read on. If, however, you are prepared to be nauseated by your once innocent glass of store-bought orange juice, this one’s for you.

“Most commercial orange juice is so heavily processed that it would be undrinkable if not for the addition of something called flavor packs. This is the latest technological innovation in the industry’s perpetual quest to mimic the simplicity of fresh juice. Oils and essences are extracted from the oranges and then sold to a flavor manufacturer who concocts a carefully composed flavor pack customized to the company’s flavor specifications. The juice, which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year, is then pumped with these packs to restore its aroma and taste, which by this point have been thoroughly annihilated. You’re welcome.”

For more on flavor packs, juice processing and the entire orange juice industry, read Alissa Hamilton’s illuminating book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. I’m not sure what my mornings are going to look like from now on, but thanks to her I’ve drunk my last glass of year-old orange juice. For more on how we got here in the first place, read the rest of my piece on TheAtlantic.com: The Myth of Orange Juice as a Health Drink.

Here are some delightful orange juice commercials that didn’t make it into the piece:
1950′s canned Florida Citrus: “Because I like to get my vitamin C the way nature intended.”
1950′s Florida Citrus Fresh-Frozen: “Quench your thirst with health.”
1954 animated Bing Crosby for Minute Maid: “Healthier teeth, sturdier bones, better growth, rich red blood, and more vitality.”
1980 Florida Orange Growers: “It isn’t just for breakfast anymore.”
1993 Tropicana Pure Premium Grovestand: “The newest orange juice sensation…a taste so fresh, so pure, so real, every sip is like biting into an orange.”

 

Graham crackers for the depraved soul

smoreSylvester Graham says: white flour does not give the teeth or the stomach a proper workout and leads to a “lazy colon.”

Poor Reverend Sylvester Graham only wanted to save Americans from themselves and their harmful sexual urges, glutinous habits and materialism. His solution: crackers.

This most humble and innocent of American snacks has a strange and unlikely history that spans health and dress reforms, temperance movements, early vegetarianism, a mob of bakers, and the birth of the entire cereal industry. Read my full story on TheAtlantic.com and listen to me talk all about Grahamism on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth.

 

Let’s talk cold turkey

turkeyChickens may be cowards, but turkeys are dumb, straight-talkers, often failures and sometimes winners. At least, that’s what American turkey expressions tell us. Clearly, we have a complicated relationship with turkeys. Despite being America’s holiday bird of choice, the turkey is often maligned in our idioms but sometimes revered too.

Though it’s disputed that any such conversation ever actually happened, there’s an old joke that captures the origins of the phrase “talking turkey,” which Mark Forsyth retells in a New York Times article:

There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”

Another theory is that the turkey’s unique gobble gave rise to the expression. Either way, from “talk turkey” came the phrase “cold turkey” beginning in the 1920’s relating to quitting something, usually drugs, outright. One explanation is that cold turkey requires little preparation, like quitting right away. Yet another explanation is that the pale, goose-pimply skin of an addict in withdrawal resembles that of a plucked turkey.

Then there’s “Gobbledygook,” which is an attempt to put into one word the nonsensical sounds that a turkey makes, coined in 1944 by a congressman calling for an end to the use of bureaucratic jargon. So in two expressions turkey talk means both very clear and very garbled language.

The turkey also embodies two other opposing characters: the winner and the looser. A failed movie is a “turkey,” a “turkey shoot” is a term for an easy target, yet “bowling a turkey” happens when a player bowls three strikes in a row. This apparently came out of depression era bowling alley promotions that gave away turkeys to game winners.

We eat turkeys not in lunch meat form only once or twice a year. So it’s no surprise that over time we have come up with a slew of idioms relating to the myth of this celebratory foul. But, it’s certainly curious how many opposite qualities we imbue this bird with. But enough of this gobbledygook, time for some turkey.

 

Love letter to a Brazil nut

1-photo 1My Dearest Brazil Nut,

I write this letter to beg for your forgiveness. I, like so many others, have wronged you, my Brazil nut. You have been looked over, taken for granted, you have endured the apathy of millions and generally been treated as the Ringo of nuts. You, who always seem to find yourself at the bottom of the mixed nuts bag, passed over for pecans and macadamias – those garish nuts with the audacity of taste. You, who have all the subtly of a decent Munster cheese or a day-old wheat germ loaf. You are mediocrity incarnate! And it is time someone appreciated you for those unsung qualities.

Oh, Brazil nut. Has anyone ever told you that your pleasingly amorphous shape is like biting into an Anish Kapoor sculpture? When I hold your nubby form between my fingers and chew your oddly indiscernible texture, it puts me at ease. You ask so little of my taste buds unlike your second cousin, the almond, all crunch and flavor. Oh, but you are so coy! You hide your menacing ways well, but Wikipedia knows your secrets. Your blandness belies a darker side; a penchant for murder! Your solidly built pods are a hazard to the tops of people’s heads. But I like a bit of danger. And I don’t even mind that you masquerade as Brazilian even though you are usually Bolivian. You are mysteriously Latin with a dark past, and that is good enough for me. Though, I am glad that you have dropped your old nickname. That was pretty offensive. And you should know that I’m OK with the fact that you’re not economically viable because your yields are too low and world markets are not positively disposed towards an increase in your production. None of that matters to me. You cost $16.95 on Amazon and that’s not too shabby. You should feel pretty good about that, really.

Oh, Brazil nut. Do you know that I stopped eating almonds entirely after I discovered you? It’s true. Even though you are not as satisfying as they are and you are way heavier to carry around as a snack and I look like I’m eating easers. None of that matters! My love for you may be new, but it runs deep. I wish I could save you, Brazil nut, from yourself and for the world, and also for the Capuchin monkeys who apparently like to crack you open with stones. One day the world will take notice of your multitude of middling virtues. And when that day comes I will raise up a handfull of you proudly in the air, eat several of you in your honor, and immediately forget what you taste like.

Yours forever,
A Brazil nut convert

Where’s the boef?

norman conquest

I guess lamb wasn’t popular in medieval England otherwise we’d be eating rack of agneau. Let me explain. Ever wonder why we eat beef but raise cows? Why once sheep hit the stock pot, they become mutton? Well, like with most overcomplicated things, we have the French to thank.  The Norman conquest of England brought French habits and words to the English language, specifically, as one would expect, many food words. While the invading Normans enjoyed the luxuries and foods of their newly conquered land, the local Saxons were left on the farm. Thus, the French brought to court their food language: mouton (sheep), boef (cow), veau (calf), poulet (fowl), porc (pig), which eventually becomes mutton, beef, veal, poultry and pork. As with most things, the Supersizers do a much better job explaining this in costume, if you can get past Giles Coren’s deafening chewing noises.

Ugly Produce

ugly produce

The cult of beautiful food is possibly peaking at this very moment. With everyone instagramming their breakfast in all its Lo-Fi glory, we want our food to be beautiful and look perfect. Blemished means unhealthy and despite the rise of knobby heirloom tomatoes, we still value good looking food. Yet shape has little to do with the taste and freshness of a fruit or vegetable, and consumers’ desire for produce perfection leads to billions of dollars in food waste each year. A new report from the National Resources Defense Council cites that $165 billion in edible food is thrown out of fridges, from grocery stores and from farms each year. Much of that waste is due simply to expiration dates which are a loose indicator of freshness, at best. But it’s more than just the tyranny of the expiration date, it’s also the tyranny of food aesthetics that is leading to so much food loss when billions of people around the world still cannot afford three meals a day and the price of food climbs ever higher. The USDA stipulates that all commercially grown produce must be at least 90 percent blemish-free. Though the growth of farmer’s markets has provided some promise in terms of reeducating people to accept what normal fruits and vegetables actually look like, solutions for ugly food waste mostly seem to be coming from the nonprofit quarter. Organizations like New Jersey-based Farmers Against Hunger enable farmers to donate their extra produce to local food charities. But this is America, and if ugly produce is to have a chance, only a market-based solution will ensure their disfigured survival.

Strangely, the Europeans are beating us to it. Last fall after a turbulent growing season, the British were left with a bounty of aesthetically impaired produce. But instead of rejecting the deformed crops, Sainsbury’s, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, relaxed their standards and put the misshapen, discolored and undersized produce on their shelves and hoped for their customers’ understanding. Since then there has been a veritable outcry against the food waste and the estimated 30% of UK fruit and vegetables that are never harvested simply because of their imperfect appearance. But it seems that at least in the U.K., consumers are ready for a change. Last year the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a report that surveyed over 2000 people, 80% of whom said they would buy imperfect produce. A few European grocers are taking notice. German supermarket chain Edeka, just started a pilot program to sell unconventional looking produce and Suisse chain Coop launched their “unique” food line in a third of its stores in August. In the Netherlands where 10% of ugly produce is wasted, a Dutch company called Krom Kommer is “committed to crazy vegetables” linking growers, wholesalers, restaurant and consumers to take a chance on homely fruits and vegetables. You can also buy from them direct on their website where products made out of misshaped produce are sold (check out their Christmas gift basket featuring some nice looking cheese (from a deformed cow?), if you can read Dutch). Hopefully ugly produce won’t just stay big in Europe but will make the leap across the pond to end the tyranny of the beautiful and fill more bellies along the way.