And what's up with Proust and that madeleine...?( "My Food History" is an offshoot of The FOOD Museum.)
My Potato History: Jack Hill’s Potato Patch
“Keep the ball out of my potato patch,” Jack Hill yelled, as I went to retrieve the soccer ball I had been kicking around with his preteen sons one memorable afternoon in the early 70’s in Brussels, Belgium. That small incident was one huge moment in my life. ”Potato plants….what?” Right there, I, an experienced potato-eater practically from birth, observed for the first time what the plant looked like that had supplied me all those mashed, fried, baked and other eating experiences over the years. That experience of seeing something so basic and yet unfamiliar had a lasting impression on me. And so it would be that on hearing the news of the passing of my friend Jack Hill, I would recall that first encounter with him and the potato.
A few years later, still in Belgium, I would start a collection with my students at the International School of Brussels that became The Potato Museum, and led to all the food history ventures that followed.
So among Jack’s many missions accomplished in this world (actor, radio host, businessman, European bluejeans industry pioneer, raconteur, sailor (who never learned to swim,) world traveler, and larger than life friend to thousands….add potato gardener, and the person who first pointed out to me, no matter how threateningly, the magnificent potato plant.
Epiphany Food Memories: Galette des Rois
“The first Sunday of January, most French people eat something known as the “galette des rois” – king cake. It’s a cake that people eat to celebrate the visit to the new born Jesus by the three wise men (the biblical three kings). In the Catholic tradition, the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem took 12 days (the 12 days of Christmas) and that they arrived to honor the Christ Child on Epiphany. In other countries, king cake is eaten for Mardi Gras or Carnival, but in France, we do it at Christmastime. So, what exactly is a galette des rois? Well, it’s either a brioche with sugar on top (more common in the south of France) or a pastry with almond cream inside (common in Northern France). Today I ate the second type-not that Lyon is in the north, but whatever. Our galette des rois was a large cake made up of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of almond filling called “frangipane.” The thing is that there’s a little charm hidden in it and if you find it you’re allowed to be the king (or queen) and to wear a crown! Traditionally, to make sure that there is a truly “random” distribution of the slices of cake, the youngest person is supposed to hide under the table and name the recipient of the slice that is about to be given out. I was the youngest, but since I’m American, our host spared me the “honor.” I was not the lucky person to have found the charm, but nonetheless, my friend who did find it was gracious enough to allow each of us to wear the crown.”
Homesick Texan Seeks Black Eyed Peas for First NYC New Year’s
“My first New Year’s Day in New York City, I was panic struck: where was I going to find my annual dose of black-eyed peas? Not having any of the ingredients on hand and with all the stores closed, I was afraid I’d spend 1996 poor and unfortunate. Call me superstitious, but I reckon I need all the help I can get. So after much wandering around the Upper West Side, with only slice joints and the occasional Chinese take-out open for business, a friend suggested we go to Harlem. But of course! Being new to the city, I hadn’t visited Harlem yet because it still had a bad reputation (that would, fortunately, soon be reversed). But if I didn’t have my black-eyed peas for wealth and luck, I was certain to be doomed. So we decided to take a chance and go to Sylvia’s.
Well, the first two taxis refused to take us there (because Harlem was considered dangerous—sheesh!) but once we finally arrived, all was well: Harlem wasn’t scary, Sylvia’s was warm and welcoming, and we all had our fill of slow-cooked black-eyed peas dripping with peppers and bacon. And I became a frequent visitor to Harlem’s excellent soul food restaurants—everything from church kitchens to the all-you-can-eat buffets with the diners and fine dining establishments thrown in for good measure. But I’m not here to talk about Harlem, I’m here to talk about black-eyed peas.
This southern staple has nourished me my whole life. My grandparents grow them on their farm and nary a dinner is complete without a heaping bowl of the legumes. Of course, I’m a bit biased when I say the black-eyed-peas from Chambersville, TX are the best, but there is something about terroir—it’s just as important for peas as it is for grapes.” (Read the full report here.)
Spanish New Year’s Grapes
The way of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Spain is almost the same throughout the country and the Spanish tradition of Nochevieja (literally “Old Night”) says that when the clock strikes 12 at midnight, twelve grapes are eaten symbolizing happiness, hope, and good wishes for the coming year.
This grape-eating tradition was introduced into Spanish society in the early 20th century. In 1909, Alicante’s wine makers created this unique end-of-the-year Spanish custom as a solution to their post-harvest grape surplus. Today, the tradition is followed by every Spaniard, and the twelve “lucky grapes” have become synonymous with the Spanish New Year.
The 12 grapes coincide with the first 12 chimes (12 seconds) of the clock on New Year - Año Nuevo. The Spanish believe each grape represents each month of the New Year and eating it brings good luck. The actual countdown is followed by millions of Spaniards gathered on Puerta Del Sol in Madrid in an event televised nationwide; just as each town and city also hold their own countdowns. When the clock finishes striking twelve and all the grapes have been eaten, people greet each other with a hug and a kiss and the toasting begins with sparkling Spanish “cava” (a champagne from Catalunya), or alternatively with cider.
After the countdown celebrations, many young people attend New Year parties that range from small, personal celebrations at local bars and discos to huge parties with guests numbering the thousands at hotel convention rooms and rental venues. These parties are called cotillónes and usually last until the next morning.
To prepare for the Nochevieja occasion, many supermarkets and local shops sell a variety of “New Years’ grapes”: it consists of a small tin can that contains 12 seedless (and sometimes peeled) grapes, for easier consumption. Traditionalists still prefer the “old way” of eating the grapes: buying them whole, still attached to their wreath, and peel them as they wait for the countdown. (source)
Russians Celebrate New Year’s with Herring Wearing Fur Coats
“In Russia, New Year is possibly the biggest public holiday of them all. The country literally shuts down from December 31st until Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. Modes of welcoming in the New Year differ across the country – in the capital, it’s tradition to drink a glass of champagne in Red Square.
But one unifying element, which appears on party tables everywhere, is the much loved salad, “Selyodka Pod Shuboy”. To the bemusement of foreigners, this literally translates as “Herring under a fur coat”. Be assured, while this traditional salad does indeed contain herring, traces of fur are still to be found! However the name does successfully evoke the heavy layering of vegetables that cover the herring. An alternative name is simply “dressed herring salad”. (source)
Burnt Roast Potatoes Christmas Memory
” Some foods we don’t only love because they taste delicious but because that experience reminds of us a special moment in life. Burnt roast potatoes, oh, I’m sorry, well done roast potatoes reminds me of a Christmas when I was small and my sister was smaller. She was very passionate about potatoes and when a few weeks before the big day she got a potato with a burnt bottom she told our Nanna in no uncertain terms that such sloppiness would not be tolerated on the big day.
We have a photo taken around the table groaning with Christmas food and each of us wearing daft paper hats but with one strange addition. My sister grasping a fork in her hand proudly displaying the evidence. One roast potato with a burnt bottom.”
Tupelo Honey Memories
“On the way to the beach, we would always stop and visit the Laniers in Wewahitchka…so I know a thing or two about this tupelo honey and sing its praises whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.
The Lanier family has been harvesting tupelo honey from hives in the Apalachicola River swamps since 1898. The late Mr. L.L. Lanier Jr and his wife Martha were good friends of our family (my maiden name is Willis, in case I have any relatives reading this needing a shout out). My cousins operate a nearly 150-year-old general store in Greenwood (Pender’s Store), and the shelves have always been stocked with the handiwork of the Laniers. My Dad took me out to the swamp road to visit the home of Mr. Lanier Jr in 2007, just a year shy of his passing. I remember the river/swamp cabin to be remarkably interesting, with taxidermy, homespun flowery linens, and just about the warmest hospitality I have ever come by. I also remember the honey…slow, sweet, on tea biscuits.
Now, Ben Lanier & his wife Glynnis run the business. They are a bit closer in age to my folks and have been known to crash parties at the house…and then there was my sister’s wedding… The generation is a bit younger, but the purchase process is still the same: leave cash by the honey stand on the back deck of the house and take what you pay for, honest.” (source)
British Florida Food History: Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna Colony
“The New Smyrna settlement was the product of British attempts to populate Florida with colonists who would benefit the Crown. Britain had obtained Florida and the Mediterranean island of Minorca from Spain in 1763, following a global war involving several European powers.
Britain’s desire to colonize Florida was spurred by the need to offset her costly dependence on imported commodities such as indigo, silk, cotton, rice, cochineal, wine, and oil. To encourage agricultural development, land grants were offered to prospective plantation owners at easy terms, and financial rewards were bestowed if planters grew cash crops for export to England. Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish-born physician and wealthy member of London society, was one who accepted the challenge.
For workers he turned to the island of Minorca, where a three-year crop failure had left many farmers destitute. He was able to recruit about 1,100 Minorcans as indentured servants and added 200 more laborers from Greece and about 100 from Italy, France, Corsica, and Turkey. The colony experienced a cycle of bad and good years during its short history.
The end of the New Smyrna colony came in 1777 when the plantation was virtually abandoned by most of the surviving colonists who fled to the safety and security of St. Augustine.
Turnbull raised cattle and grew rice, corn, sugar, hemp, cochineal (a native parasite of the prickly pear cactus that was used to manufacture a red dye), and cotton.” (Continue more here.)