Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Easing one's way into entomophagy

I pity those born into cultures in which highly spiced foods prevail. Once one is accustomed to such foods, the rest of the world’s foods must seem boring indeed. But to someone raised on pabulum, the world has an immense horizon of potentially new tastes. And while it’s true that American food in the early twentieth century had already progressed beyond pabulum for at least important meals, menus of the time reveal that a lot of preparations based on starches softened in various liquids were apt to appear at meals throughout the day.

As a nation we’ve come a long way from the cooking practices which prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century. With certain exceptions, any reasonably sophisticated contemporary palate stands to be utterly unimpressed by the sort of foods our grandparents esteemed. Soft, gray, bland: this is not visually exciting food. But what it lacks in visual appeal it often more than makes up in flavor. Yet those flavors tend to be gentle flavors.

It was probably Italian food, and specifically pizza, which forever changed the American palate. In early twentieth century cookbooks there are recipes for various seemingly Italian preparations, but they read as chilly, dull attempts at imitating the real thing: no sunshine, no sparkle, no wit, no attitude - and no garlic! At first glance, French cooking seems better represented, and perhaps it was. But the translations must have been poor because the results have a distinctly American middle-of-the-road quality. Some of the Indian food we encounter here now is at the same stage: tamed beyond recognition but tamed to sell.

In reading Mrs. Fox, it struck me as odd that when she discussed basil, and went on to describe its culinary uses, there is no mention of pesto. And if the word pizza appears in her work , I have not found it. In other passages it is clear that her palate is very much one of the America of her time. In the discussion of rosemary, no culinary uses are discussed. This brought to mind Elizabeth David’s comment about the unpleasant effect produced when the spiky leaves appear in food. Yet Mrs. Fox goes on later to mention culinary uses of rue of all things: people eat rue? Evidently they do (or did). She even quotes Boulestin and Hill: “chopped leaves and brown bread make good sandwiches.”

Mrs. Fox mentions crême renversée, but either the meaning of that term has changed since her time or she was simply mistaken about its meaning, for of strawberries she writes “But best of all uses is to eat the berries with sugar and the thick, clotted cream of Devonshire, called crême renversée in France.” Here’s a link to a site which discusses crême renversée and shows its similarity to caramel flan:

Here’s another example of Mrs. Fox’s solidly American palate (and of her solidly early-twentieth century grasp of grammar) : in her discussion of coriander, she wrote frankly “the leaves taste horribly, and since they look very like those of anise, one should be careful not to pick them by mistake for the salads” and in her account of chervil “ when one goes to pick the leaves of the Umbelliferae for the salad, one is apt to mistake the coriander for the leaves of the cumin, or anise, a fatal dampening of ardor for the eating of herbs.”

I wonder what she would have thought of my comparison of the smell of cilantro (coriander leaves) to the smell of brown marmorated stink bugs. Actually, what I really wonder is what she would have made of the current cilantro craze which has swept American cuisine. Are we about to become a nation of bug eaters?

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