The below feature appears in the current release of Gourmet Live and was written by Kelly Senyei. Download the free Gourmet Live app to get this story and more.
Olives transform into liquid spheres. Beef cheek becomes foam. Shrimp takes on the shape and texture of noodles. Welcome to food in the 21st century.
But at a time when Wylie Dufresne is busy cooking up creations with transglutaminase and Ferran Adrià will close shop to dream up whatever tops spherification, the rest of the world can be seen looking to the distant past as the key to the food of tomorrow.
While molecular gastronomy will always remain at the forefront of culinary discovery, the emergence of the organic, farm-to-table and locavore movements demonstrate a conscious shift to a simplistic past. It is a past without extensive machinery or processed foods. Even more specifically, it is a past without oven thermometers, standardized measuring or, as I recently discovered, recipes with ingredient lists.
The condition of the cookbook should have been my first clue. It is crumbling. The front cover, which reads White House Cook Book, is nearly detached. The pages are brittle and stained. If the physical shape were not evidence enough, perhaps the clues tucked loosely inside would allude to its age. A piece of blotter paper stained with the excess from a pen dipped in ink. An ad for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla. A newspaper clipping announcing the winners of a local baking contest with a First Place prize of $5.00.
“Oh, that’s a rather unusual edition,” says Bonnie Slotnik, as I unwrap the book from its temporary home inside a canvas bag and place it on her desk. As owner of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a New York City store that specializes in old and out of print cookbooks, Slotnick is the authority on all things antiquarian in the cookbook world.
“I think it’s a first edition. That would be from the Saalfield Press, and that right there,” she adds while pointing to a portrait inside the book’s cover, “is President Benjamin Harrison’s wife.” Page by page she begins decoding the cookbook’s age, a number that is less obvious given that it is missing its title page. Pulling out a small magnifying glass, she narrows in on a date in fine print below the portrait and reads aloud “Copyright 1889 by R.S. Peale.”The cookbook is 121 years old, a rare edition of the then famous White House Cook Book written by Fanny Lemira Gillette. It was handed down to me from my grandmother, JoAnn Wilkinson Carberry, who is able to date the purchase of the book back to my great great grandmother, Barbara Potts. The book has traveled from its origins in Iowa, then to Illinois, on to Indiana and finally now to New York.
Slotnick continues to study the pages, and like a detective she pieces together characteristics about the book’s size, layout and formatting to confirm its date of origin. She has become masterful at such tasks with thousands of out-of-print and antiquarian cookbooks lining the walls of her store. She has cookbooks dating back to the early 19th century, which she counts among her prized finds from used book stores, antique shops and “house calls” during which she hopes to find books to add to her store shelves.
The White House Cook Book is more than 500 pages long and is much like any other modern day cookbook with chapters designated to butchering, vegetables, baking and so on. But the most noticeable difference is in the formatting of the recipes. Recipes for everything from Chocolate Pudding and Scalloped Lobster to Baked Sweetbreads and Mushroom Catsup exist simply in paragraph form. There are no ingredient lists, and more noticeably, the directions are incredibly vague.
For the Scalloped Lobster, the recipe simply reads, “Butter a deep dish, and cover the bottom with fine bread-crumbs; put on this a layer of chopped lobster, with pepper and salt; so on alternately until the dish is filled, having crumbs on top. Put on bits of butter, moisten with milk, and bake about twenty minutes.” It appears more like a riddle than a recipe. What size dish? How hot should the oven be? How much milk? To the untrained person, this is more of a guideline than a recipe. But there are historic reasons for the recipes’ vagueness.
“The basic reason is very simple,” says Andrew Smith, a food historian and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. “People didn’t have any of those instruments to control those measurements. People today think ‘a half a pinch of this, a half a pinch of that,’ but most good cooks don’t cook that way. They cook by taste and by smell.”
In addition to lacking the basic tools for standardizing measurements and temperatures, home cooks in the late 19th century were just generally more adept at cooking.
“They were more skilled. They had to be,” Slotnick says. “And they had more experience because the children would be helping their mothers in the kitchen. They basically grew up in culinary school, watching fat being cut into flour and chickens being plucked and how to thicken sauces.” Guidelines certainly existed for such tasks as determining the temperature of an oven, which was commonly achieved by placing a piece of writing paper in the oven and then counting to see how long it took to turn light brown, dark brown or burst into flames.
Learning how to cook was a top priority of centuries past, as women spent an average of three to six hours a day cooking for their families. It is a far cry from the average 21st century home and the existence of modern day culinary crutches that include takeout available with the click of a button and restaurants lining every street corner.
As cooking became less of a priority and a necessity in society, recipes became more detailed to account for home cooks’ waning expertise. A shifting focus toward the sciences also led to a change in recipe formatting. “Because of all of the great progress in science and botany and physics, women said, ‘We’ve got to make a science out of cooking, too,’” says Smith. “So cooking shifts from an art to a formula with the ingredient lists, as most people don’t feel comfortable enough to just cook by taste and smell.”
Although modern day home cooks may rely on detailed ingredient lists and step-by-step recipes to cook, recent shifts toward organic and locavore preferences appear to be mimicking the trends of the 19th century culinary scene. It is a shift supported not only by younger generations tuning in to celebrity-driven food culture, but also by restaurateurs looking to history for inspiration.
“The smart ones are looking back at the past,” says Slotnick. “You really aren’t going to discover something new unless you’re Ferran Adrià and you’re freezing things in mid-air as they drip from a colander. But people are starting to look back, like how young bartenders are wanting to make their own bitters and soft drinks.”
The example is only one of many “old fashioned” trends re-emerging across the country. Hill Country Chicken in New York City serves homemade soda along with its’ grandmother’s recipe for basic fried chicken, biscuits and southern sides. Graham Elliot Bowles, chef and owner of Graham Elliot restaurant in Chicago and a contestant on Top Chef Masters, is set to open his Grahamwich sandwich shop in late November featuring homemade sodas with flavors like ginger-citrus, root beer and vanilla kola.
But a small shift in beverages isn’t the only trend reinforcing the fact that the past is becoming the key to the future of food. In recent years there has been a nearly nationwide shift toward organic and local foods. It is a shift not only popularized by the emergence of such farm-to-table restaurants as ABC Kitchen and Blue Hill, but also by society’s push, as Slotnick says, to “look to the old ways” when machinery and chemicals are no longer options for sustainable farming and food.
And in an attempt to personally revert to the “old as new” mentality, I am tackling the White House Cook Book one recipe at a time, beginning with the “Maccaroni and Cheese.” As I read through the recipe paragraph, which did not specify what size baking dish or what temperature oven, I decided to turn to a specialist for guidance. Alice Ross has been teaching old world culinary classes in her hearth studio kitchen in Smithtown, New York for 20 years, focusing on everything from Civil War foods to gardening in the 18th century.
Ross walked me step-by-step through the macaroni recipe, pointing out the important distinction that 19th century macaroni is “not what we refer to as modern day macaroni.” At her suggestion, I opted for dried tagliatelle, which I cooked for eight minutes rather than the recommended 20. It was the only change I had to make to the recipe. The vagueness of the instructions was liberating. I chose the type of cheese (a sharp yellow cheddar), milk instead of cream, and to stay true to historical American cooking, crushed Saltines as breadcrumbs. Missing ingredient list and all, the recipe was a success, even 121 years after it was written.Maccaroni and Cheese from 1889
Recipe adapted from White House Cook Book (Saalfield Press, 1889)
Break half a pound of maccaroni into pieces an inch or two long; cook it in boiling water enough to cover it well; put in a good teaspoonful of salt; let it boil about eight minutes. Drain It well, and then put a layer in the bottom or a well-buttered pudding-dish, upon this some grated cheese, and small pieces of butter, a bit of salt, then more maccaroni, and so on, filling the dish; sprinkle the top layer with a thick layer of cracker-crumbs. Pour over the whole a teacupful of cream or milk. Set it in the oven and bake half an hour. It should be nicely browned on top. Serve it the same dish in which it was baked, with a clean napkin pinned around it.