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From Hardtack to Home Fries

An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals

by Barbara Haber

From Hardtack to Home Fries


History buffs probably will come away intrigued, if not entirely full, from Barbara Haber's From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals. The uncommonness stems from the fact that this isn't a straightforward, chronological history told through food, but rather a perky potluck of some of Haber's pet topics.

There are just nine chapters that jump from subjects like Feeding the Great Hunger: The Irish Famine and America, to Home Cooking in the FDR White House (no other regime gets its own chapter), to Sachertorte in Harvard Square: Jewish Refugees Find Friends and Work.

Don't rush to your kitchen expecting a book filled with recipes. This is a read for your easychair. Recipes number just a few per chapter (Sachertorte is there, for instance) and are sometimes for reference purposes only. For example, the recipe for Stewed Terrapin in the chapter about the Irish famine that calls for live female terrapin would be difficult to reproduce.

While you may not end up stuffed with food, you undoubtedly will be stuffed with interesting tidbits about food.

That's because Haber knows her chops—and if she doesn't already have them, she knows where to track them down. She's the award-winning curator of books at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. A culinary historian, among other honors, she's won the prestigious M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

Therefore, you'll come away, for instance, with an inside view of the FDR White House. If you had truly been there, you quickly learn that would have probably meant a daily earful of housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt's sergeant-like orders. One of many such examples Haber chronicles:

"White House tensions over food even reached the New York Times in a 1940 story headlined, ‘Housekeeper Vetoes Roosevelt on Menu.' Describing a disagreement over the inaugural luncheon menu celebrating Roosevelt's election to a third term, the Times reported that although the President was ‘powerful enough to override the wishes of Congress on occasion, [he] had little influence with the White House housekeeper.' Mrs. Nesbitt had foiled the wishes of the Chief Executive, who had announced that chicken à la king would be served to the inaugural guests. Instead, they got chicken salad. Fearing that a hot dish for 2,000 expected guests could not be kept hot, Mrs. Nesbitt had made a unilateral decision to alter the menu, the rest of which included rolls without butter, coffee and unfrosted cake. Especially in matters of food, Mrs. Nesbitt's parsimony was legendary."

This is another chapter in which one of the two recipes is for illustrative purposes only. "Mrs. Nesbitt belonged to a school that classified salad making as a decorative art," writes Haber. "This distinctively American tradition comes down to us from Fannie Farmer and other early-twentieth-century cooking school teachers who applied the term 'salads' to sweet and colorful cold dishes they created by mixing fruits, vegetables and frequently gelatin. A particularly grotesque example of the art form is the recipe Mrs. Nesbitt gives for Ashville Salad, a concoction of canned soup, chopped vegetables, gelatin, cream cheese and mayonnaise."

You can count my vote among the readers who may have liked more recipes (especially good, rather than grotesque, ones) along the history trail. Here's one of the few: Mrs. Nesbitt's Honey Drops, adapted by Haber from Nesbitt's own tome, The Presidential Cookbook.

RECIPE: HONEY DROPS

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped candied orange peel
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Yields about 12 dozen cookies.

Cream butter and shortening. Add sugar and honey and beat until batter is smooth. Beat in egg. Add vanilla, walnuts and orange peel. Beat in flour that has been sifted with baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Dough should be slightly sticky but capable of being rolled into small balls using 1 teaspoon of dough. Bake in 325 F oven for approximately 18 minutes.

Here's a hearty loaf from the chapter They Dieted for Our Sins: America's Food Reformers.

RECIPE: GRAHAM BREAD

1 package yeast (not fast-acting)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup molasses
1 cup evaporated milk, scalded
1 cup boiling water
4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 to 2 cups all-purpose flour
Butter, for buttering pans and brushing bread
Yields 2 loaves.

In a small bowl, mix the yeast with the water. Add the brown sugar.
In a large bowl, carefully combine the salt, butter, molasses, milk and boiling water. Stir well. Let cool to room temperature and add the yeast mixture. Add the whole-wheat flour and just enough of the white flour so that dough is not sticky and can be kneaded. Knead for 7 minutes. Let rise until doubled (2 hours). Knead 1 minute.

Cut in half, shape into loaves and place in two buttered 9-inch pans. Let rise until doubled (1-1/2 hours). Bake at 400 F for 20 minutes. Lower oven to 350 F and bake 35 minutes longer. Brush surface with butter and turn out on a wire rack to cool.


(Updated: 11/25/08 SB)


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