Cornbread is, and has been important in America since the beginning. Native Americans were using corn in a million ways when colonists came here, and the inception of a European-style bread came quickly thereafter. Corn was plentiful, cheaper than wheat, and a good way to fill up bellies. Corn!
As time went on, regional differences emerged. There were people who said that cornbread was a little bit sweet, and people who said that cornbread was not sweet at all. I always heard that this was a Northern/Southern thing. But it is way more complex than that.
With the advent of industrial milling, sweeter white corn was passed over in favor of cheaper, less tasty yellow corn. So families that couldn’t afford the more expensive, but naturally sweet white cornmeal, tended to add sweetener to their cornbread recipes. This brings us to Jiffy mix. Which was invented in the 1930s to help poor families put delicious baked goods on the table. The brand was made to be cheap. And easy. That was the whole point. And, you guessed it, the mix had an awful lot of sugar in it.
This is the part where I say that nothing about food and class is simple. That we absorb our tastes from our families. And that means that your comfort foods lag behind your financial position by at least a generation.
PS: If you want to read an interesting piece about the cornbread divide and race, Kathleen Purvis wrote a great one for the Charlotte Observer a few years back. A lot of these facts were learned from her.
PPS: If you want to get a 12-pack of Jiffy baking mixes for $6!!! go to jiffymix.com (Not a paid endorsement, because I’m not really anybody. I just like Jiffy.)
Here’s a lucky food for New Year’s Day. Italians have a tradition of eating lentils at the stroke of midnight to usher in wealth for the coming year. Because lentils look like coins. There are only two problems with this: Lentils don’t really look like coins, and no one gets rich because they have a lot of coins. But lentils are are worth discussing anyway…
Lentils are super old. They’ve been found in human settlements from 11,000BC. They are nutritionally spectacular, packing as much protein per ounce as steak and a ton of fiber, too. And they are pretty much our eco-friendliest crop. So, you know, if you want to keep living here on Earth, tuck into good-luck-lentils a little more often.
You can prepare lentils in about 5,000 ways. Here is an incomplete list of ideas: Lentil soup, red lentil dal, lentil burgers, lentil salad, misir wat, lentil fritters, marinated lentils, lentil hummus. Basically, if you type “lentil” before any food a google search, you will find a recipe for it. And some of those recipes might even be good. Use your own judgement, please.
Finally, if you’re like me, you cannot think of lentils without thinking of The Young Ones. Which is a British comedy series from the 80s that you should watch if you like lentils. I think it brings good luck for the New Year.
A “moist cabbage side dish” for a modern lifestyle…
It’s New Year’s Eve. And we need to talk about Sauerkraut. Because apparently it’s good luck to eat it today. Cabbage is green and that means money. (You will be rich!) The long strands mean your life will be long. (You will be old!) It is a perfect New Year’s Eve food. A note: Kimchi brings this luck, too! But that post is coming soon, so…
Sauerkraut is a German word, but rumor has it that China was making suan cai a LONG time before Europe was making sauerkraut. The idea was that if you took cabbage and layered it with salt and let it ferment, you could have nutrients when you had no fresh food on hand. (Bye, scurvy!) During WWII, American Sauerkraut makers renamed their product “Liberty Cabbage,” to avoid any associations with Germany. (Take a seat, “Freedom Fries.” Americans are old-school uncool.)
These days, sauerkraut is known as a popular “moist cabbage side dish” worldwide. You can find it atop pastrami sandwiches and hotdogs, inside pierogi, or dunked in soups. It’s even served with Thanksgiving turkey. What people used to eat out of necessity, they are now consuming on purpose. Brilliant.
The only real downside to sauerkraut is flatulence, and even that will not offset the good luck you’ve accumulated by eating it. So Happy New Year, friends. I wish the best for you.
Eggs were not always a year-round food. It used to be that you had eggs when your chickens were laying. Which was generally when the weather was warm or mild. When you had eggs, you probably had a LOT of eggs. And when you didn’t, you might have wished you did. Pickling was the solution to all of that. (That was a pickling pun, albeit a weak one.)
As far as history, some people say that there were pickled eggs on the Mayflower. Some say that they originated in Germany in the 1700’s. They were certainly around England by the 1830’s. But everyone agrees that pickled eggs were a great idea and a useful snack in saloons and taverns. And that makes sense, because eggs contain an essential amino acid that promotes liver function. Which you’ll need if you’ve been drinking enough to think that fishing an egg out of that giant jar is a good idea.
In the late 1920’s loose meat sandwiches came on the scene. First in Montana, and shorty thereafter, Iowa. As you might suspect from the name, these were hamburger buns piled with ground beef crumbles. You might have ordered a “Maid-rite” or a “Nu-Way” or a “Tavern Sandwich” but you were always asking for the same thing: a loose meat sandwich.
Loose meat sandies were, and are, so good because there is way more surface area of the beef to brown. And season. Condiments can mix right through the pile of beef instead of just sitting up on top. And then there is the challenge of keeping your pile of crumbles on your bun as you bite it. We just love challenging foods.
The next evolution, the “Sloppy Joe” began popping up in the 1940’s. Remember how we talked about loose meat sandwiches being awesome because the condiments could mix in with the meat? Well, some folks took it even further, binding the loose crumbles with a thick tomato-based sauce. Amazing.
And then in 1969, Hunt’s introduced “Manwich,” a sandwich made of men. No! I’m kidding you! It was really a can of tomato sauce to mix with your waiting skillet of beef for a fast-and-easy at-home Sloppy Joe. This seems like a manufactured want, but it caught on, and we are still eating Manwiches 51 years later.
If you haven’t eaten a can of bread, you haven’t lived. You just open both ends and push out a loaf. It feels awfully novel for a 100-year-old idea.
But this brown bread itself (sans can) came about much earlier. Remember those British colonists we talked about in our last article? The ones who made all those beans? Well, they also needed bread. So they tried to grow their grain of choice, which was wheat. But the poor soil in New England made that difficult. In the end, they fell back on the tradition of mixed-grain loaves, which had been made by the lower classes in Europe for ages. They used a mixture of wheat, rye, and a new-to-them grain: cornmeal. Then they added molasses, because they were already becoming American, and Americans like sweet foods.
The bread was originally baked, but some folks liked to prepare it as a steamed pudding. Which lead to a steamed loaf. Which lead to the steamed-in-a-can bread emerging in the 1920s. And the tradition of a Saturday evening supper of brown bread, baked beans, and hotdogs.
All history aside. It’s a can of bread! If you haven’t had one, it’s worth a try.
It’s Boxing Day, so I’ll talk about a British fav: Beans.
Native Americans were baked bean experts: baking them underground with bear meat and maple syrup. The result was predictably delicious. Then British colonists said, cool, we’ll make these, too. Let’s use pig meat and brown sugar, instead. And maybe we can cook them over a fire for a while before we bake them. That was also tasty. But due to British taxes on sugar, the colonists changed the recipe again to use locally produced molasses as a sweetener.
In 1895, H.J. Heinz Co. started producing canned baked beans, which were not baked at all, but rather blanched and steamed in the can. Those beans were the first convenience beans to be sold overseas. To the United Kingdom, of course. (See how this story keeps looping back on itself?) Anyway, British folks were like, why are these beans so sweet, you weirdos? So the recipe was altered again. Now the British beans had a firmer texture and were nestled in a tomato sauce. They were no longer sweet.
Today, baked beans are available in a ton of varieties. You can see ‘em with BBQ or at a picnic or in your Full English. And you can even buy that British version of Heinz baked beans. In the international section of your grocery store.
This is a long story, but a pretty good reminder that all food is political. It’s never just a can of beans.
Today’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It used to be that on the eve of a feast day like Christmas, people were supposed to fast. Then Roman Catholics were like: Ok, you don’t have to fast, but def don’t eat red meat. But then southern Italians were all: Let’s make it another feast day, but it’s all fish, so it’s still alright. They literally rewrote the rules to add more eating. Which is incredible.
“Seven” Fishes is an American thing. And it’s not even necessarily 7. Sometimes it’s 9. Or 13. But it all makes sense, because it’s all eating with friends and family. You all get together and prepare 7 or more fish dishes and holler and hug and tell each other stories, and I’m depressing myself, because 2020 is nothing like that.
I hope you are all leaning into tradition in whatever way this year allows. Whether or not there is any fish.
If you say, “Oats are a boring thing to draw!” you should read on…
The man in quaker garb was chosen to denote quality. This was especially important at a time (late 1800’s) when there was no federal regulation on food purity. With adulteration de rigueur, few products were what they claimed to be. Quaker Oats were, like, oats. And they still are. Oats.
For a time, Quaker Oates used the slogan: “It’s the right thing to do.” Which seems more like a commandment than a breakfast option. Also, Quaker hired Wilford Brimley. The ultimate oat-pusher. A million memes were born.
The empty canister is, and always has been, for storing treasures.
Potatoes are a celebration food, and they became popular, in part, because they take so long to go bad. But during WWII, the government was greedy, and they decided to push for an even longer shelf life by dehydrating potatoes into granules. Which were then made into extraordinarily gummy and awful mashed potatoes for the soldiers. Like many wartime innovations, there was in interest in making these reconstituted mashed potatoes into a consumer product. They just had to be a little less terrible.
A major turning point was the realization that “flakes” beat “granules” as far as mashed potato texture went. A government facility in Wyndmore, PA developed a process called “The Philadelphia Cook” This involved precooking potatoes, cooling them, cooking them again, and then drying them. Into flakes. Obviously. These new instant mashed potatoes were less terrible than before and saved the hassle of peeling potatoes forever and boiling a towering cauldron of water. A big win!
I hope you are celebrating this season with special foods. And if Christmas is your kind of holiday, I hope it’s a jolly one.
Dinty Moore Beef Stew was invented by a lumberjack named Dinty Moore. For a while, he put his thumbprint on every can, but his thumb got tired and he quit. We can take some consolation in the fact that the label is still plaid.
There is also a “recipe” for a roast beef sandwich on the internet which is just a can of Dinty Moore poured onto a submarine roll. I don’t feel super great about that. (This blurb has some truth and some fiction, but that bad recipe is true.)