Category: history

How the Sabbath gave us the Crock-Pot

vegan cholent

Photo by Flickr user mollyjade, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the weekend, NPR ran a story from Deena Prichep on one of the original slow-cooked meals. As she describes,

Cholent is rooted in the Jewish Sabbath, which traditionally prohibits work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Under some interpretations, this includes prohibitions on even turning on the oven or stove. So for those who want to have a hot meal (and many feel a religious imperative to do so), the solution is to set up a stewed dish cooking low and slow on Friday, long before the sunset. Over a day of slow cooking, flavors infuse, beans soften, and tough cuts of meat become tender. By the time synagogue services are complete on Saturday afternoon, the rich, flavorful stew is ready to ladle out.

For the full audio and text versions of the report, including the details of how cholent inspired Irving Naxon to create what would become the Crock-Pot, head here.

Best of 2013: Food books

In our final retrospective (and my last post) of the year, I thought I’d offer a roundup of some “best of” lists that focus on food books. Whether you need a little reading material for yourself or a gift for a loved one, check out suggestions from

One book that I’ve been eying but just haven’t gotten around to yet is Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure by Samira Kawash. As Bridget Thoreson writes in her review for Booklist, “In this lively, engaging, and deliciously descriptive work, Kawash fills the gap left by culinary histories that don’t consider candy a food, revealing how the American mass production of candy in the twentieth century paved the way for the highly processed—and nutritionally problematic—foods we eat today. For a small, seemingly innocuous treat, candy has a turbulent history and much-maligned reputation.”

For more gift ideas, check out yesterday’s post for cookbook recommendations.

And if you just can’t wait another moment for some fresh reading material, check out Saveur’s 2013 Best Food Blog Awards, which includes worthy finalists and triumphant winners. This particular list is from April, so it’s not an end-of-the-year recap, but who cares? Good content is good content, and all the nominated bloggers would love to have you as a reader!

Happy holidays to you and yours. See you in 2014!

A brief history of MSG


Photo by Flickr user Jason Burrows [PunkJr], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I discovered a recent blog post at Smithsonian by Natasha Geiling on the food enhancer monosodium glutamate. She takes us back to the discovery/invention of MSG and considers how its use and our views of it have shifted over the last century here in the US. I especially appreciated her connecting MSG to contemporary foodies’ love of umami. As she writes,

Few letters have the power to stop conversation in its tracks more than MSG, one of the most infamous additives in the food industry. The three little letters carry so much negative weight that they’re often whispered sheepishly or, more often, decidedly preceded by the modifier “NO” that seems to make everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief when they go out to eat. Nobody wants MSG in their food—the protest goes—it causes headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and general malaise. It’s unhealthy and, maybe even worse, unsexy, used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavor, not an enhancement.

On the other side of the spectrum lies umami: few foodie buzzwords pop off the lips with such entertaining ease. Enterprising young chefs like David Chang (of Momofuku fame) and Adam Fleischman, of the LA-based chain Umami Burger, have built their culinary careers on the basis of the fifth taste, revitalizing an interest in the meaty-depth of umami. It’s difficult to watch the Food Network or Travel Channel or any food-based program without hearing mention of the taste wunderkind, a host or chef cooing over the deep umami flavors of a Portobello mushroom. Where MSG is scary, umami is exciting.

What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.

The full post is worth a read; check it out here.

The invention of the American meal

Thanks to Nicola Twilley of the Edible Geography blog, I learned of an interesting book that was recently published. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal—which Kirkus Reviews calls “a dense but enjoyable history of American food culture”—examines how breakfast, lunch, and dinner as we know them came to be. As an overview of the book describes,

In “Three Squares,” food historian Abigail Carroll upends the popular understanding of our most cherished mealtime traditions, revealing that our eating habits have never been stable–far from it, in fact. The eating patterns and ideals we’ve inherited are relatively recent inventions, the products of complex social and economic forces, as well as the efforts of ambitious inventors, scientists and health gurus.

Twilley concludes that

the book’s lasting value, at least for me, lies in its reminder that the three-meal structure is “only a cultural heirloom, not an ordinance of nature” — and thus open to intentional reinvention, as well as reactive evolution.

For a teaser of the book, listen to Carroll’s interview with Virginia Prescott on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. Then check out a chunky excerpt of Chapter 5 on the history of lunch at The Conference Board Review.

The birth of the children’s menu

1947 Union Pacific Railroad Menu

Photo of 1947 children’s menu from Flickr user John Atherton, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last month Slate ran a fascinating article by Michele Humes that was subtitled “A brief history of the children’s menu.” A she describes,

When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861… he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.

Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.

Humes identifies pediatrician Emmett Holt as the the early 20th century’s chief designer of children’s nutrition guidelines, a “hodgepodge of medicine and morality” that dictated to “mothers, nurses, and, apparently, chefs that young children were not to be given fresh fruits, nuts, or raisins in their rice pudding. Pies, tarts, and indeed ‘pastry of every description’ were ‘especially forbidden,’ and on no account were such items as ham, bacon, corn, cod, tomato soup, or lemonade to pass a child’s lips before his 10th birthday.”

The full article is well worth a read, especially since it encourages a questioning of the current state and continued existence of the children’s menu. Check it out here.

19th century food traditions on display at Old World Wisconsin

Old World Wisconsin

Photo by Flickr user, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edible Milwaukee recently ran a lovely feature by Martin Hintz on Old World Wisconsin. As Hintz writes,

The living museum features more than 60 buildings gathered from around Wisconsin to form a crossroads village and a series of ethnic farms. The complex makes up one of the world’s largest facilities dedicated to the history of rural life, opening in 1976. Each building was painstakingly dismantled, shipped to [Old World Wisconsin] and then rebuilt and opened for exploring. All this is only about a hour’s drive west of Milwaukee, tucked into the flower-bedecked Kettle Moraine countryside.

There are all sorts of historical tidbits waiting to be discovered. For example, at the Schulz farm representing the 1860s, “you won’t find tomatoes in the garden here; folks back then were still getting used to the notion that they weren’t poisonous.”

Check out Hintz’s full piece here, which includes wonderful photos from Joe Laedtke and Rob Gustafson, as well as details about fall happenings at Old World Wisconsin.

How cooking made us human

Listening to the Radiolab episode on “Guts,” I was reminded of Richard Wrangham’s great book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (Both discuss William Beaumont’s research into human digestion with his patient Alexis St. Martin in the early 19th century.)

As described by Dwight Garner in his review of the book for The New York Times, Wrangham’s thesis is simple, novel, and compelling:

Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food…. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

The book isn’t without it’s flaws, but it’s well worth a read. If you want to get a flavor of it, check out Garner’s review, Christine Kenneally’s review at Slate, and especially Wrangham’s appearance on NPR’s Science Friday.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on June 18, 2012.

Photo by BlakJakDavy via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A social history of white bread

Fading Into History

Photo by arbyreed (R. B. Reed) via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

One of the great food books that I read in the last year was White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Written by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College, it’s a fascinating look at the history of industrialized bread in the US and the shifting sociological and cultural factors that influenced its production, marketing, and consumption from the 19th century to today. It’s well-researched and well-written, and much of the analysis — of concerns about purity and contamination, for example — is highly relevant to today’s food debates.

For overviews, check out this piece from NPR’s Weekend Edition and this engaging interview with Veronia Rueckert on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Portions of the book have also been adapted and/or excerpted in a number of pieces online, and all provide nice slices (pun intended) of the book.

  • This essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “What Would Great-Grandma Eat?”, takes a piece of Michael Pollan’s advice a bit too literally but poses a useful question: “… as I dug into the history of battles over bread, I realized that this whole nostalgic perspective had a bigger problem: What if Great-Grandmother was just as conflicted about food as we are?”
  • This excerpt in The Believer looks at “Atomic Bread Baking at Home: A Yucatan-Based American Tries to Re-create the ’50s-Era Market-Tested USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1, and In Doing So Reveals How Today’s Miracle Food Can Become Tomorrow’s Catastrophe.”
  • This excerpt at Salon focuses on “The rise and fall of white bread: [how] we learned to hate the processed loaves not just because of health — but because of class, status and race.”
  • Finally, this piece at Huff Post Books taps similar themes about “How White Bread Became White Trash (And What This Tells Us About Food Justice and the American Economy).”


The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on May 26, 2012.

Mid-year reading list: Food books for summer, 2013

I usually like to highlight food books in December when publications put out their end-of-the-year “best of” lists.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that folks put out summer reading lists as well, so I thought we’d consider some mid-year recommendations.

If you’ve still got room in your beach bag, check out a range of reading ideas from Russ Parsons for The Splendid Table, Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson of Food Tank for The Christian Science Monitor, and the staff at Bon Appétit.

And if all of those choices don’t sate you, check out my posts on the best of 2012 and the best of 2011.


Michael Twitty’s open letter to Paula Deen

Paula Deen holds court

Photo by Bristol Motor Speedway via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve been aware of the latest brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, but I didn’t work to follow it closely. I don’t pay much (any?) attention to cable-TV cooking personalities in the first place, and I wasn’t interested in spending time and energy on Deen in particular. But a friend (thanks, R!) recently shared a piece from HuffPost, an open letter to Deen from cultural historian Michael W. Twitty. In part, Twitty writes to Deen that

I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse, not your past epithets, are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people — or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo… a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying “nigger,” in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy.

Regardless of whether or not you are interested in the current media feeding frenzy surrounding Deen, Twitty’s full post is really worth a read; check it out here.