History in the Making

I FOUND OUT how far I had to go to qualify for membership in the foodworld elite when I read my first copy of Petits Propos Culinaires, a small-format magazine that has been published in England three times a year since 1979. A knowledge of French isn’t required— PPC is in English—but Latin, Middle English, and a modern Arabic language or two would be a help. The articles, many of which are accompanied by recipes and illustrations, cover such topics as the influence of alchemy on eating habits, the banning of pasta by the Futurists, and non-alcoholic beverages in nineteenth-century Russia. I can’t finish (or even start) all of them, but in every issue at least one reminds me of how much there is to understanding food besides learning recipes.

Very little of this kind of research was being done, let alone circulated, until Alan Davidson began PPC. Davidson is a famously eccentric former British ambassador to Laos who went from writing pamphlets on Southeast Asian fish for embassy wives to writing most of The Oxford Companion to Food, which is already half a million words in draft and nowhere near publication. Me has inspired both amateurs and academics to take up the cause of food history. I recently tried a bit of food scholarship myself, not entirely by choice, for a group that included Davidson and some of his most learned colleagues. I’m glad I did it, and will never willingly do it again.

A year ago I joined the Culinary Historians of Boston, a group that is to food scholarship in America roughly what Davidson and the PPC writers he has cultivated are to it in England. Most of the hundred members are theoretically no more eligible to join than I am, since there are only a handful of practicing food historians in and around Boston. The two most active of them, Barbara Wheaton and Joyce Toomre, began the CHB in 1980, with a brown-bag lunch on the green outside the Schlesinger Library, at Radcliffe College, which has a notable collection of food books and manuscripts. Wheaton is the author of Savoring the Past, a history of French food from 1300 to 1789, and Toomre is translating and annotating a huge nineteenth-century Russian cookbook. The brown bags were a typically Cambridge beginning for what soon became a typically Cambridge group. Although the trendiest people in food must at least pretend devotion to food history, the CHB is far from style-conscious. It would go against the CHB spirit to dress up for a meeting. Members, many of whom come from fields related to food, such as nutrition and catering, and many of whom don’t, earnestly take notes at lectures whose subjects in the past two years have included English twelfthcakes, food in the life of a rural community east of Bombay, American domesticity in the nineteenth century, and the problems of working with sixteenth-century French manuscripts.

Some of the meetings are diverting and some aren’t, but they all sound like great times in the CHB newsletter, which Barbara Wheaton writes. Wheaton makes a wonderful guide to CHB activities and to current technical and popular literature on food. Like Davidson, she is both greatly erudite and slightly dotty. She will refer to the “ill-organized, Noah’s Ark-like kitchens” in restored houses, or include a translation of what the French said Americans and Englishmen ate for breakfast at the turn of the century, or describe a visit to Plimoth Plantation, a historical museum where it is always 1627: “To my intense delight, one of the women cooking dinner told me that she was putting pepper and ginger in her husband’s dinner because he was phlegmatic—a perfect instance of School of Salerno dietary theory!” Her accounts of the CHB’s annual banquets can be more entertaining than the events themselves. Describing the 1984 dinner, honoring the bicentennial of the birth of Antonin Carême, the great French chef, she wrote of an elaborate ring mold of rice: “There was no way it could have tasted good, but it was certainly authentic.” Wheaton’s newsletter explains the large number of people who pay CHB dues even though they live far from Boston. (For information write the CHB at 3 Evergreen Lane, Hingham, Mass. 02043. To subscribe to PPC, write Jennifer Davidson, 5311 42nd St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20015.)

This year the grand finale was to be much more ambitious than a period dinner. The CHB hoped to sponsor with the Schlesinger the first food-history conference in America, loosely modeled on the Oxford Symposia, which Davidson and Theodore Zeldin, a historian at Oxford University, began in 1980. The first morning there would be formal papers. That afternoon there would be workshops. The next morning there would be a historical cooking demonstration, to be given by Sheryl Julian, a charter CHB member and a well-known cooking teacher who spent almost a year testing historical European and American dishes for Anne Willan’s book Great Cooks and Their Recipes.

One day last summer Julian called me to say that the conference was on— funding had come through, from General Foods, Ocean Spray, and the Women’s Culinary Guild of New England, a professional group—and that she was drafting me to be the researcher and narrator for her demonstration. We had premises, a modest budget, a guarantee that star scholars would be in the audience, and no subject.

“LET’S DO BEURRE blanc,” Julian kept saying, on the grounds that it was a sauce with an ancient history which has recently come into vogue. I didn’t think I was up to ancient history, and I wanted to do something American, preferably something that had influenced Europe. Then Ann Robert, a restaurateur, who had introduced Wheaton to Toomre, suggested cornmeal as a food that we could take from the New World to the Old and bring back again. I liked the idea, because I thought the research would be easy and because I would learn more about polenta, or boiled cornmeal, which Italians use frequently as a side dish or as a replacement for pasta. Julian liked the idea too: “I have the best cornmuffin recipe, from an inn near Boston. We’ll end with it.”

I soon found out how right scholars are when they deride the brief historical notes in most modern cookbooks and the entries in many dictionaries of food. Authors repeat folklore without thinking to question it. I wondered why so many brief histories of corn sounded virtually identical until I read the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Even the better cookbook authors frequently don’t list sources. There are only two standard books on the history of food in America—one published in 1940 and the other in 1976. Neither is comprehensive, and neither goes into corn in great detail. In my research I did manage to learn a fair amount about corn, however: why stone-ground cornmeal tastes better (the germ, which is high in fat and has a good many nutrients, is left in); how blue cornmeal gets its color (some strains of corn have blue kernels); what hominy is (kernels of non-sweet corn, the kind used for cornmeal, soaked for a long time and hulled); what grits are (coarsely ground cornmeal with the finest grains sifted out); what corn flakes are (grits cooked with sugar, salt, and chemical additives, which are dried in clumps, pressed into flakes between steel rollers, and baked); what makes cornbread so dense (it is low in gluten, which in wheat bread forms a structure that traps air); the difference between flint corn, which is preferred for stoneground cornmeal, and dent corn, which is used in industry and by big cornmeal manufacturers (it wouldn’t interest you). But I did not learn much about how settlers used corn, or what they thought of it, or whether they had quaint customs for cooking it.

I applied to others for help, with some trepidation. Cookbook authors are not famously generous. Competition is great, sources jealously guarded, and plagiarism frequent. Food historians, however, are more than willing to share. So much research remains to be done that any interested party is welcome. William Woys Weaver, one of the few full-time food historians in the country, who is writing a two-volume history of food in Philadelphia, told me that in that city almost anything with cornmeal was a family dish and that guests got wheat. I had already learned that the Pilgrims ate corn grudgingly, because it was unfamiliar to them, but that by the 1700s southern planters, who fed cornmeal to their slaves, preferred it to wheat, even though wheat was high-class. Weaver said that two hundred years later cornmeal was still thought to be downtown but that everyone ate it—even if not in society. “It was not genteel to serve cornmeal at a coming-out party,”he said.

For help on polenta I turned to Barbara Kafka, the food columnist and consultant, who has many rare books. I looked in Italian books. Kafka looked in French books. The French, it turned out, had little interest in corn. (A short entry in an 1836 French dictionary of food said that cornbread is “very heavy and meant for strong stomachs.”) In her basement Kafka discovered a 1959 book on food from the Friuli, the first Italian region where corn was grown and made into polenta. It gave a good history of corn in Italy, which had been drawn from a 1927 agricultural text. Neither book is in the Schlesinger, and no bibliographies on corn exist—evidence of how frustrating and haphazard finding sources can be.

A week before the demonstration I stood in Julian’s kitchen making polenta with Brigitte Cazalis, a French cooking teacher. Julian fretted that it wouldn’t be delicious—the thing that mattered most to her. I insisted on adhering to strict tradition, even if I didn’t have the requisite unlined copper pot over a fire and threefoot wooden stick. Although the standard modern proportion is four parts water to one part cornmeal, we started with the classic one-to-one ratio, which assumes that you have a kettle nearby from which you will add a drop or two more of boiling water every so often as needed. I added the cornmeal (from The Great Valley Mills, in Telford, Pennsylvania, one of the few mills that make coarse-grained meal, which is ideal for polenta) in a thin stream to a pot of boiling salted water, stirring in one direction nonstop, in order to avoid lumps. Cazalis held the pot: the mixture was so stiff that I needed both hands to move the spoon. Adding the cornmeal should take about fifteen minutes, and purists call for a full hour more of stirring; most books now call for only about thirty-five minutes more. It took us an hour just to add the cornmeal, and we ended up using not one part but three and a half parts water. I kept stirring for another hour. “It looks done to me,” Cazalis said every ten minutes. Finally she said, “There is a line between dedication and masochism. You have crossed it.”

I did not stop stirring until my watch said it was time. Then I left the polenta on the burner for three minutes, until an air bubble heaved to the surface, signifying that the polenta would come out of the pot clean. I held the pot upsidedown over a board, and to my relief it came out. It didn’t taste like much. Plain polenta doesn’t. It is usually enriched with butter, cheese, or meat sauce; the most common way to serve it is to let it cool and set and then cut it into slices to be fried or grilled. We spread it out onto baking pans and froze it.

We had one early American recipe that we knew would work: a cornmeal pound cake from A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook, an 1851 text annotated by Weaver. “It’s the most sublime use of cornmeal I’ve come across,” Weaver assured me. Julian found that by substituting vanilla for rosewater (“I can’t gag it down”) and adding another egg and enough butter to transform the scanty original into a classic pound cake, she ended up with an excellent cake— moist, with a fine crumb and a nutty flavor. She used stone-ground white cornmeal, the kind that refined southern cooks preferred in the nineteenth century. (Julian had found an excellent source in Gray’s Grist Mill, in Adamsville, Rhode Island.) She also used baking powder, although the recipe didn’t call for it, giving me a chance to include in my narration several of the mid-nineteenth-century exhortations against chemical leavening which I had found. It was considered a poison that, one S. D. Farrar wrote in 1872, “does more than any other thing to destroy human beauty, unless dress be excepted.”We decided to serve both versions.

We needed one more old American recipe, preferably a recipe that didn’t involve chemical leavening. I thought of spoon bread but didn’t know how to track down its earliest appearance in print, especially in the short time that remained before the demonstration. I knew that Karen Hess could find out in minutes if she didn’t know already. I was a bit nervous about approaching Hess, who is widely regarded as the leading historian of American food and even more widely feared, because of her nearviolent attack on the food establishment in The Taste of America (1977), a book that she wrote with her husband, John. “Just my kind of problem,” she said when I telephoned, and started looking. (Cornmeal, as it happened, had been on her mind too—for part of a lecture she was planning to give at the conference.) Spoon bread, Hess said, turned up first in 1847, as Owendaw corn bread. “Always look at the structure of a recipe, not the name,” she said. “Spoon bread is a cooked mush lightened with beaten eggs and milk, and baked.” Of the several explanations of the name Hess said she preferred the simplest: the bread is soft enough to be eaten with a spoon. She said that the 1847 recipe had been reprinted for forty years under various names, including spoon bread. But she could not find when the soufflé technique (the folding in at the last minute of beaten egg whites), which is called for in every modern recipe for spoon bread, began to be used. “It’s very late,” she said. “From the turn of the century at least.”

At the Schlesinger I confirmed what Hess had told me, and photocopied all the nineteenth-century material on cornmeal that I could find. Very late that night I discovered a cornmeal recipe from a privately printed cookbook dated 1855. Although not labeled spoon bread, it clearly specified folding in stiffly beaten egg whites at the end, taking care not to deflate them. I stood up and clapped my hands. The soufflé technique, fifty years before a top historian could find it! I thought, My reputation in culinary history is made. Then I thought, I must be going crazy.

The next evening I explained the importance of my find to Julian as we sampled slices of polenta that she had fried in a thin layer of very hot olive oil so that they were crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, like non-greasy fritters. They were delicious. Julian was impassive during my delivery. I concluded, “So there’s no question—we have to make spoon bread.”

She spoke. “And serve them that slop?”

NO ONE WANTED to sit down and let Alan Davidson give the opening speech of the CHB conference. Everyone was too busy staring at him from across the room and looking at one another’s name tags. “His hair is so much shorter than I expected,” one woman said of Davidson, whose best-known peculiarities of appearance are his long gray hair (he had cut it), his Laotian costumes (he was wearing a plaid jacket and a tie, and the strings tied around his wrists, which Buddhists wear to bring health and productivity (there were two on each wrist). Just being able to meet longtime correspondents was a thrill for many participants. A number of people looked as if they had not been in public for quite a while. “You do have to be a bit off-center to be here,” Barbara Wheaton said as she looked around the room.

One particularly odd aspect of the gathering was that it was mostly of academics and at an academic institution but concerned a subject that has no academic standing or even standards. In his address Davidson said that he thought food history’s maverick status was good in that it encouraged people from many disciplines to enter the held, but bad in that it made for a lack of established centers and financial support. No one gets paid to do food history. Davidson held up a new and to his mind invaluable book of annotated early English manuscripts and explained that its editors, Canadian professors of English and history, had been able to finish the book only by working during vacations and on weekends.

The most important task in opening the field is to make available and codify the texts, and both Davidson and Wheaton are devoting much of their time to this. Davidson has started a publishing company, Prospect Books, to reprint historical texts on food. The list so far includes seventeen titles. He keeps photocopies of these and many more, so that he can spill coffee on them and compare them side by side—impossible with rare-book collections or when reading microfilm. For now the biggest research centers are Davidson’s basement and the Schlesinger. Davidson is trying to collect every pre-1700 English text on cooking—a more modest goal than Wheaton’s, which is to assemble an analytic index of all the important Western European texts from the Middle Ages to 1800. Wheaton’s index not only will list the existing manuscripts and books and say where they are but will enable scholars to trace ingredients, recipes, techniques, and equipment across Europe. Wheaton, with the help of Patricia Kelly, another CHB member, has already assembled a bibliography of most of the important culinary texts in Harvard collections, a copy of which she distributed to everyone at the conference.

After Davidson’s speech, papers were presented simultaneously in three rooms, which had participants racing from one to another—from, say, Darra Goldstein, a teacher of Russian at Williams College, talking about Eastern influences on Russian cuisine, to James Baker, the head of research at Plimoth Plantation, talking about re-creating seventeenth-century cuisine. (The conference had opened informally the day before with a visit to Plimoth and a banquet that people exclaimed over all morning. It can come as a surprise even to some food historians that reproducing old recipes, without making concessions to the present, can result in subtle, fresh, and very tasty dishes.) Nearly everyone wanted to hear Rudolf Grewe, a mathematician and former professor of philosophy who has one of the best culinary libraries in America. His speech, on an early thirteenth-century northern European cookbook, described the difficulties of working with very old manuscripts. Grewe went into the technical detail that makes many PPC articles (he is a contributor) formidable, and he showed how much skill and dedication food researchers need. Karen Hess spoke on the history of cornmeal in America but only as it applies to jonnycakes—pancakes made from just cornmeal and water—which luckily Julian had ruled out making (“They’re inedible”).

Joyce Toomre likes to call culinary history a discipline in the process of becoming, and participants helped that process along at the afternoon workshops. A discussion of gastronomy and urbanization, led by Josef Konvitz, a professor of history at Michigan State University, started with remarks on eating patterns in cities (for example, how dinner time for the fashionable has gotten later and later over the past two centuries) and on the economics of restaurants. Participants talked about sanitation laws, the foods that Jews in Near Eastern cities have adopted, and the shift away from simple, traditional dishes as the distance between consumers and producers has increased. A discussion of the ethnic roots of American regional foods, led by Yvonne Lockwood, who teaches folklore at Michigan State University, and her husband, William, who teaches anthropology at the University of Michigan, concentrated on the bastardization of cuisines as immigrants try to assimilate—and what they hold on to and why. (The big Michigan delegation was from the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, a group started by Jan Longone, who sells rare books on gastronomy and who has written a bibliography of American food books.) Many of the people in the audience who commented during these workshops had written books or articles that supported their arguments.

Throughout the day I quizzed strangers on cornmeal, and I came to feel fairly content that I had consulted the chief sources and knew a little about almost every aspect of the subject. Then someone said, “Of course you’ve read the long chapter on corn in Braudel.” Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Material Life is one of the histories that food scholars have practically memorized. “So helpful,” I said, and raced to find Barbara Haber, the curator of books at the Schlesinger. Seeing an incipient historian in distress, she unlocked the reading room and found me a copy of the British edition. False alarm. The word corn in most European countries refers to whatever happens to be the most important grain. The famous English Corn Laws were about wheat, and so was the chapter on corn in Braudel.

I UNDERLINED MY underlines in the hours preceding the demonstration the next morning. The notes I had so painstakingly assembled, a pastiche of transcriptions and photocopies, suddenly made no sense. When I arrived at the room where the demonstration was to take place, I found an uncharacteristically rattled Julian. “The polenta is a wash,” she announced. Her assistant, Lisa Wagner, was trying for the results that Julian had achieved the first time she fried it, but this time the slices were falling apart in the oil. “I kept defrosting it, thinking I’d have time to fry it in advance, and kept putting it back in the freezer,” Julian said. “I guess you can’t freeze polenta more than once.” The ingredients to make the three kinds of polenta—a soft white cheese mixed with butter and cinnamon, for the oldest kind of sweet polenta; sausage and fontina cheese, for a typical rustic polenta; and sea scallops with parsley, garlic, and bread crumbs, for an adaptation of Venetian polenta with seafood—had been set out and tasted good, so people would eat the toppings even if the polenta itself was a disaster. Julian had reconciled herself to making the earliest spoon bread that Hess had found, once she’d discovered that the recipe produced a dense but delicate custard. And she had already made one pound cake by hand, using the original recipe, and two with a mixer, using the updated recipe. The corn muffins were in a big basket tied with a ribbon.

As I expected, the assembled historians and enthusiasts had a lot to say. I confidently explained that the Italians named corn Turkish grain not because they thought that it came from Turkey (two members of Columbus’s crew discovered corn in 1492; it didn’t exist in the Old World until Columbus brought it back) but because anything exotic was called Turkish. “That is not the reason,” someone said. “I know the reason. The merchants were from Turkey.” Another legend in the making, I said to myself as I said aloud that perhaps he was right. I had no idea how much misinformation I was presenting as established fact, especially since even I could tell that many of the dictionaries and books I had consulted were passing on tall tales. It came as no surprise that people in the room frequently stopped me and asked me to give sources. There were reminiscences as well as corrections. After I gave examples of how cornmeal was either rejected outright, as in England and Ireland, where people starving during the potato famine refused to eat it, or considered low-class, as in France and Spain, a man told of the Rumanian mamaliga of his childhood, which was served in the noblest homes (as its cousin, polenta, was in Italy). One woman described “samp,” as cornmeal mush was known in New England. She had eaten it for breakfast when she was growing up on Long Island, which was settled by New Englanders.

Julian managed to work in enough cooking tips to make the audience feel that they had learned something useful, and for good measure she threw in a brief history of the chef’s uniform. Following her rule that you tell guests nothing and students everything, she explained while she prepared the three toppings why the polenta hadn’t worked. I didn’t see any leftover polenta on plates after the demonstration. The platter with both versions of the pound cake came back clean. Even the spoon bread, which Julian made with and without the soufflé technique, disappeared. Apparently, the historians were interested only in the historical. They left most of the muffins. □