We should all be eating more salt cod. Here’s why:

Salt Cod with tomatoes, chickpeas and potatoes Salt cod: two words that sound pleasingly incongruous. ‘Salt’ is a noun turned into an adjective signifying the process of salting rather than saltiness. Through slowly drying out a food, salting transforms a highly perishable product — like fish, meat or cabbage — into a durable commodity. ‘Cod’ is simple: it’s white fish with relatively little flavour, gently chewy texture and, when cooked, easily flaked apart with a fork. Together ‘salt’ and ‘cod’ become so specific that the term’s meaning has mutated significantly. Salt cod is fish that’s been dried through contact with salt. This contact used to be natural — the fish was left to hang in the sun and the wind delicately blew salty sea water onto the fish — but nowadays it’s forced— the fillet hangs in a large room while fans and heaters throw salty air onto it. Once dried, the fish can last for years and must be soaked before cooking and eating. With its newfound durability, salt cod attains money-like value. The value this process gave to common fish allowed Bergen’s outpost of the Hanseatic League to use the fish as currency. The Hanseatic League was a complex trade organization that operated across Northern European from the thirteenth to seventeenth century. Members of Bergen’s Hanse dealt in salted fish. Nowadays, salt cod is better known as baccalà and gains an exotic aura through its association with Italian, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. Though salt cod was once common in the US (in New England it was commonly cooked into fish pie) its lengthy prep time discourages its frequent use. Hanseatic museum I first had salt cod at Pingvinen in Bergen. I’d just visited the Hanseatic museum and gawked at the stockfish (salt cod made from generic white fish) hanging from the ceiling. Out front, the harbor side market capitalised on the tourist’s new interest in preserved fish, selling miniature pieces for outsized prices. Thus, when presented with the choice between whale steak and salt cod, I chose the latter. My meal was served with traditional potatoes and butter as well as untraditional tomatoes and chickpeas. Combined the effect was familiar and exotic, intriguing both the contemporary and historic palate. While salt cod might be an easy taste to adopt, it’s not about to become an easy weeknight meal. The long process of de-salting salt cod intimidates the modern attitude toward ‘convenience’ foods. After all, ‘[de-salting] is done by soaking the fish in a pot of cold water for 2 days or so — changing the water 2 to 3 times per day.’ This changes the texture changes from thick and unyielding to dense and chewy. Every mouthful feels like a historical relic, requiring one to chomp slowly through. In the modern culinary lexicon, salt cod’s gnaw-able texture finds comparison only comparison in the form of stale gummy candy. While salt cod’s flavor is slightly brine-y, it tastes more like yester-year’s fish stick than today’s Maldon salt garnish. Salt cod is a challenge for the home chef not only because of its required soaking, but also because of its unfamiliar texture and outdated utility. Fish market Salt cod. The words are strange, the consistency is unique, the process is daunting. Although it may seem outdated as a preserved product, it’s worthy of being kept around as it illustrates food’s changing meaning. Chewing on, thinking about and cooking salt cod reminds us what convenience or processed foods once were. While spending two days prepping fish for cooking may now be a foodie’s weekend project, salt cod was once a handy way of ensuring food was available. Convenience didn’t mean ready at will but ready when needed. Processed meant conditioned through several steps before consumed, not machine generated in a factory. Salt cod. Two strange little words with centuries of meaning that are still relevant today.

Energy Bars from Civil War Soldiers to Contemporary Business Warriors

energy bar If energy bars are a polarising food, this is a consequence of their modern manifestation. Today’s bars provide an energy jolt, but this energy relies upon sugar and chemically formulated protein sources. Historically, energy-dense food provided nutrition but required hunger to be palatable. Regardless of their alienating nature, energy bars now own prime real estate in every drugstore, deli and vending machine; they’ve created a niche in the processed food market. This niche improved upon the foods people previously turned to for energy. Energy dense fuels have always existed, but the industrialised world altered how they’re used and who they’re used by. No longer do Union and Confederate soldiers dunk hardtack in their coffee to soften the cement-like cracker. Pemmican and Hudson Bay Bread are no longer boy-scout projects. Instead, on-the-go business people, teenagers and athletes chew on protein bars while running for the bus. Energy dense foods have transformed from second-rate fuel to an elite proclamation of a hectic schedule. Fittingly, the modern bar began in an epicentre of alternative America: Berkeley, California. Brian Maxwell, former marathoner, created the Powerbar to fuel the fitness and bicycle aficionados who raced around the city. The original customers’ reactions are irrelevant; Powerbar quickly gained popularity. Berkeley’s culinary tradition helped Maxwell’s product. The granola bar had gained popularity meaning that customers already understood how a packaged snack fit into their lives and diets. Pemmican, hardtack and the like provided context for enjoying a granola bar.

Civil War hardtack pieces and wrapper

Flickr via Minnesota Historical Society

Yet the class difference between fitness junkies with their Powerbars and the Civil War soldiers with their hardtack means that a cultural shift needed to occur for such foodstuffs to enter the modern culinary lexicon.  The process of eating energy bars, hardtack and similar products unifies the people who eat them. If food is a shared gastronomic language, then participating in a taste experience can bridge the gap between rich and poor, past and modern, serving and served.[1] There’s little difference between chewing on hardtack mush and chewing on a soy-sugar-vitamin paste. When eating either product, pleasure gives way to utility as the individual munches through a food with little textural contrast. Just as monks wanted to avoid thinking about food to liberate themselves from earthly thoughts and desire, these energy foodstuffs remove reflection and contemplation from our interaction with food.[2] They allow the individual to focus their mind on the duty facing them: battle. Hardtack ensured the nineteenth-century soldier stayed focused on war. Energy bars let their consumers concentrate on their battle with contemporary society. In a world that prizes a crazy schedule, a food product that allows us to remove our mind from distracting thoughts about food fits in seamlessly. Both the ultra-marathon runner and the CEO (and CEO wannabe) need a food that allows them to remain in perpetual motion, while keeping their running kit or white shirt nice for the tasks ahead of them. Society’s changing battles have turned the soldier into the business warrior and change hardtack into an expensive, high profile product.

A Land of Plenty

Flickr via brixton

Old manias have given way to modern ones, encouraging the continued consumption of energy-dense fuels. The current obsession for decoding the energy bar’s true health value can be seen as revising outdated survival instincts. Whereas people once ate pemmican and hardtack when fresh food was unavailable, energy bars help us endure the contemporary equivalent. The customer without time for proper food reaches for an energy bar to persevere until they find themselves at the table once again. Since consumers are constantly presented with high-sugar foods that are devoid of nutrients, the modern survival food must not only fill you up, it must also support good health, helping you survive in a world where fast-food is the opposing army. As the battles society faces changes, so does the position of the energy-rich food. The energy bar’s future success seems assured. As Powerbar, Balance Bar and those new ones keep on marketing themselves to time-pressed warriors, they’ll continue on in good health, developing products that help us survive contemporary society’s battles. But to what end? At some point there will be another shift in which the energy bar no longer reflects the concerns and desires of the contemporary soldier. Just as available ingredients have changed from flour and water to soy crispies and brown rice syrup, what we have at our disposal will change once again. There are already signs this is occurring. Recently protein bars boasting crickets, bison and chia have been released. Customers possess a growing awareness about the processed ingredients that go into these bars and are demonstrating desire for an alternative. Yet this new bar will not be able to gain a stronghold until it discovers its own warrior. Will the starving entrepreneur be the next target? Or will it be the people living in food deserts? Until companies uncover the next group fighting for survival, the energy bar will reign as the twenty-first century’s answer to hardtack. Only this time, you probably won’t break your teeth. — [1] Montanari, M., (2006). Food Is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. [2] Montanari, M., (2012). Let the Meatballs Rest and Other Stories about Food and Culture. Translated by Brombert, B.A. New York: Columbia University Press.

On Swedish pea soup and Thursday traditions

Soup for dinner in Copenhagen

Pea soup on Thursday is a Swedish tradition I support enthusiastically. During the past year, I’ve integrated the habit into my routine. Not precisely pea soup — nor the crepes and strawberry preserves that usually accompany it — but any soup is my go-to Thursday dinner. Although the Swedish (and Finnish) custom has religious roots dating to the middle ages — or so goes one version of the story — my routine has roots relating to lectures on 13th century Italian poetry. Just as the tradition has stuck around in for a few centuries in Sweden, it’s stuck around in my meal plan too.

There are various stories floating about regarding the roots of the Swedish/Finnish tradition, but most attribute it to all classes looking for a meal that would fill them up for Church-imposed fasting on Friday. Yet it doesn’t matter precisely why the habit formed or why it’s stuck around. The tradition takes the questions out: we eat pea soup on Thursday because we’ve always done so and why should we stop now. University cafeterias and school canteens serve it. Home cooks make it and restaurants serve it. It’s a common dish in the Swedish and Finnish military. Whether you choose to eat Chinese food and pizza every other night of the week, coming back to tradition of Thursday grounds a Swedish identity. While not everyone is going to eat the soup all the time, the knowledge that it’s there establishes a connection between individual, region and history.

In the future Swedes may favor a different Thursday meal and I may shun soup Thursdays. But the option will remain as a default, a choice that requires little thought while cooking up a big pot of comforting nostalgia. With pancakes if you like.

Here are 5 soup recipes (including one for the classic Swedish pea version) to get you started:

  1.  Ärtsoppa – Swedish pea soup is classic, warming and perfect for Thursdays. Just do yourself a favor and don’t buy it in a pre-packaged tube.
  2. Soup au pistou – This light soup comes from the south of France and is filled with vegetables cooked in an herb-rich broth. Pistou is the French version of pesto made without pine nuts and cheese.
  3. Tuscan bread soup – You could keep this for a winter meal, but you’d be missing out. Stale bread turns to delicious, chewy pieces smothered in tomato sauce with sage and cheese. It’s like pizza in a bowl, but way better. 
  4. Leek and potato soup – This soup keeps appearing on menus for a reason. Extremely simple and extremely satisfying, Clotilde’s version manages to be earthy, rich and light all in one bite.
  5. Broccoli soup – Broccoli soup may sound uninspiring, but this version from Orangette is anything but. Simmered with a rind of cheese, herbs and lemon this dish is simultaneously sophisticated and comforting. The ‘sour cream’ topping is nice, but unnecessary in my view. 

Paid Reservations and the Spectacle of the Restaurant

Mission Chinese Food is the new theatre. Look at people vying to get into the hot restaurants like the hot Broadway shows or concerts. Think about the rise of the chef’s table and the allure of the perfectly plated dish. The celebrity chef has become a cultural icon and advertisers have begun to use fetishisized food images like fashion photography to induce desire. Perhaps the most indicative sign of this phenomenon is the rise of reservation scalping, or apps that sell reservations to the restaurant of the moment. In light of Priceline’s recent acquisition of Open Table — and this article published in The New York Times on 13 June 2014 — the restaurant’s space in society can be perceived as in flux. Restaurants are no longer limited to being either an exclusive French dining experience or a cheap neighbourhood locale that welcomes everyone. They’ve become an amalgamation of the two: everyone can come, as long are you’re willing to sacrifice for entry. Until recently you relinquished several hours of your time to the phone or computer in the name of the dining Gods. Now, it’s knowing your way around the reservation black market. Some restaurants are understandably upset at these companies as they limit access. If you’re willing to pay even more than an already pricey meal, you can get in. If not, wait on the street or stay at home. The restaurant is no longer accessible; it’s reserved for those who want a rock-concert meal experience. As diners resort to inflated techniques for getting the perfect table we need to ask ourselves: why do we dine out? Are we going out for good food, to try something new, or to say we’ve been to the popular spot and tick off a box on society’s cool checklist? Frighteningly, the signs suggest the latter. A particular table and the vantage point it gives us shouldn’t impact our enjoyment of the restaurant, but apparently it does. Waiting for a hot reservation should be thought of as a shared experience and using our quickest fingers to dial the restaurant a rite of passage, but they’re not. Add to this our ever-increasing bond with indispensable iPhones and these new apps reveal how getting a reservation at an ‘in’ restaurant asserts your participation in foodie-aware, tech-savvy culture. While it’s understandable that people would give into the temptation to simplify the reservation process, the process is unfair to restaurants and other diners. The dream restaurant isn’t the one that Pete Wells wrote about glowingly last week. Nor is it the one with hipster cheap food. Instead the perfect restaurant is an abstract space where unique food, stimulating company and a pleasant atmosphere merge. Allowing apps and paid reservations to dictate where we dine threatens to destabilize this trinity, change the restaurant’s social meaning from meeting place to untouchable theatre. Some argue that these apps make getting a good table at an interesting restaurant more democratic. Anyone who has tried to dine at the now-closed Mission Chinese knows you’re out of luck, unless you go as soon as they open or for lunch. Goodness knows getting a seat at Blanca isn’t be easy. These reservation systems allow people who may not otherwise be able to get a table to finagle their way into the hottest restaurants, theoretically making the dining world a more democratic space. Unfortunately, the need to pay, download an app and hoodwink a restaurant negates the benefits. Rather than interacting with the restaurant and negotiating with potential fellow diners, pressing a few buttons on our phone further divorces diners from the restaurant’s participatory atmosphere. If we’re not willing to accept a wait or not getting in, why are we dining out at all? A hard-to-get reservation doesn’t indicate quality. It merely tells us that lots of people are interested in a place. As the restaurant becomes an increasingly theatrical space the food quality will suffer. Paying excess attention to the perfect reservation diverts our focus from the meal. Do we want to foster an environment where it’s more important to consume hype than to appreciate thoughtful food? Eating at a top restaurant at 8 pm —the prime seating according to Open Table  — says nothing about the meal. Restaurants shouldn’t be reduced to spectacle, but should be lauded as a participatory experience. When we’re eating at a new restaurant we’re in dialogue with the space, with the chef, with the individual cooks, with our fellow diners and with the people who grew the food on our plate. Streamlining the process through an app threatens to remove and reduce this dialogue to a one-sided, money-driven observation.

On the Domino’s smart slice

via TIME Business Blog

Although the recent New York Times article on Domino’s smart slice commendably highlights the perils of branding school lunches, the article fails to address a more pressing issue. The Domino’s smart slice is dangerous because it suggests that processed pizza is good nutrition. Since the slice looks identical to regular pizza, the likelihood that kids will associate regular Dominos with good nutrition outside of school increases. While the danger of introducing excess big brands into schools presents various problems, the real health threat isn’t the brand names but the new meaning they attain by participating in a healthy foods initiative.

Nutritionists, health experts, cooks and parents agree: whole foods are good foods. When regulations indicate that half the grains present in a school lunch must be whole-grains, this shouldn’t count flour — especially not modified ‘Snowmass’ flour — but the grain from which the flour was made. Though the article correctly mentions that ConAgra’s now-ubiquitous Ultragrain flour enables big-food to sell sub-par nutrition to kids, the underlying problem remains widespread cultural scepticism for whole-grains. Although whole-grains have changed from being a low-class to an upper-class food, they are still the undesirable alternative. Giving a kid whole-grain rice would be simultaneously too cheap and too snooty.

Moving toward a healthier diet for kids and adults, in schools and at home, shouldn’t involve making foods fit within our comfort zone, but discovering ways to broaden what we find acceptable. The reduced-fat cheese, pepperoni and reduced-sodium tomato sauce falls into the trap of following now-outdated healthy eating guidelines. Despite recent research showing benefits related to natural fats, this concept remains alien to the American public.  Using reduced-fat cheese and pepperoni puts a band-aid over America’s nutrition problem. Domino’s cannot risk shifting the meaning of their pizza by using less pepperoni or less cheese. The slice would look overtly ‘healthy’. Yet, it would also help children understand the building blocks of a better diet. Eat real food; eat less of it.

While the ingredients that go into the smart slice are a fascinating testament to modern food production, it’s the cultural meaning of these ingredients that poses the real threat to public health. It’s disturbing to know that there is a whole-wheat flour that mimics white flour, but assigning this white-looking dough the meaning healthy is the real danger facing school lunches. If the government wants to introduce healthy eating into the cafeteria, they need to be hyperaware of how healthy is defined. As they work to alter what good food means to the American public, the focus should be on both the ingredients and the cultural ramifications of a given foodstuff. Food doesn’t exist in a nutritional vacuum, but interacts with people and the geographic and temporal spaces that created it.

On the flapjack

Flapjack

Flickr via Steven Lilley

Granola bars can be fun and baked oatmeal may be a nutritious breakfast, but when it comes to baked-oat treats my alliances lie firmly with the flapjack. Don’t confuse these with American pancakes. Flapjacks are a British treat commonly eaten with tea. At its most simple, the flapjack is a bar cookie made with oats, golden syrup, butter and sugar. But who wants to stop there? You can find them topped with chocolate, with a yoghurt coating, with dried fruit thrown in, with a caramel drizzle and with coconut or chopped nuts. No matter what variation you choose, the end product evokes childhood memories, even if your mother never tucked one into your lunch box.

While a flapjack would be a winter or fall treat in America, England’s constant drizzly grey means the buttery oat bar is a welcome snack all year long. This dense, stick-to-your-bones, bar would feel out of place on a stifling August day in Arizona. But the flapjack’s utter British-ness isn’t limited to the weather. The tendency to fall apart would be incongruous in clean, minimalist New York cafes. It’s amusing to think of the humble, high-energy treat marching into the sweet Italian merenda or the delicate French goûter. Yet, when enjoyed with a cup of tea, a few hours after the cheddar and red onion sandwich you had for lunch, the flapjack feels completely appropriate.

Although every high street café offers a flapjack (or three), this abundance contradicts the essence of flapjack. The tray bake loses its endearing crumbly bits when pre-cut into machine perfect slices. Rather than exercising self-control as the tray cools and hardens once out of the oven — and the subsequent restraint when cutting them into suitably small squares — the café flapjack encourages indulgence. It misguides you into feeling healthy for not choosing the carrot cake with 3 cm of cream cheese frosting, but it’s frosted with chocolate ganache to prevent disappointment. Arriving in the café, the flapjack transforms itself and your interaction with it.

At home kitchen you make your flapjacks as you see fit. You decide if you want them chewy or crunchy. You can make them dense or loose. The same goes for dried fruits: do you add raisins, sultanas, apricots or shun the addition of extra-sweetness? Those looking for an ‘all-natural’ variation can use honey instead of golden syrup, while those baking their childhood can reminisce over Lyle’s classic tin. As opposed to similarly home-y treats — like a chocolate chip cookie, say, or a muffin — the home cook can easily adapt the flapjack without needing a different recipe. Making flapjacks requires following an intuitive formula rather than a prescriptive recipe, marking each variation with the person who made it, the time when it was made and the place where it was enjoyed.

I couldn’t tell you when I first ate a flapjack and I assume the same goes for most people. All the components are familiar enough that the combination of them inevitably evokes nostalgia. The oats are the porridge of your childhood. The butter is what you had on toast, the sweetener what you got drizzled on top of either. No matter what you top it with, the individual components make sure that the flapjack will never become a trendy treat. Toffee? That’s those toffee apples from childhood fairs. Chocolate? Every Brit’s favorite treat. Yoghurt? It’s an icing-like sweetness. Even plain the flapjack’s restraint is impossibly British.

While variations of these memories exist abroad, it seems that there are few countries in which they play as vivid a part in the national character as in Britain. Where else does the grocery store carry ten different types of porridge oats? Is there another country as devoted to milk chocolate, toffee and stiff icing? The flapjack is memory from its craggy edges and simple process to its comforting taste and thousands of variations.

So, when’s teatime?

On Entenmann’s closing their Long Island plant and the nostalgia of Devil’s Food Cake

IMG_0277

Most people who write about, research and prepare food show some interest in the connection between nostalgia and what we choose to eat. Look at the ubiquitous allusion to Proust and his Madeleine. Everyone has their own nostalgic food, whether or not they continue to eat it. While I may choose to not eat Pop-Tarts, I can still remember the flavor of cold blueberry ones from the vending machine in my Dad’s office. Nostalgia is the over looked sixth sense, as important to taste as smell.

Which is why Entenmann’s announcement that it will close its Long Island plant is so fascinating. Discussing the closure in light of the economic ramifications for the community only begins to analyse how the factory’s demise will impact the area. Shuttering the Long Island Entenmann’s plant removes a source of nostalgia and identity from the lives of Long Islanders and other groups who grew up with chewy cookies and squishy doughnuts. Although the company reassures its customers that freshness will remain a priority as the treats are produced further afield, without the mark of Long Island the nostalgia for the products will soon disappear. Why would someone buy a pack of Entenmann’s chocolate frosted doughnuts if they were no longer connected to their identity as a Long Islander? You don’t eat Entenmann’s because it’s supposedly fresh — it is a packaged factory product. As the cakes are produced elsewhere, their meaning will shift. When they’re no longer marked with Long Island pride and quality, it seems evident that the regional loyalty to the company will slowly fade away.

Entenmann’s mythology is rooted in North East culture. Think of the Seinfeld episode when Elaine replaces Peterman’s historic cake with Entenmann’s because they ‘have a display case at the end of the aisle’. My mother, from New Jersey, fondly remembers their Devil’s Food Cake. No elementary (or middle, or high) school bake sale was complete without Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies or doughnuts. While I welcome the removal of processed foods from our diets, the closing of Entenmann’s won’t reduce the consumption of packaged sweets. Rather, it will shift the marble loaf cake craving to a bland, national brand. A brand that likely favours more processing and preservatives.

What will happen to Entenmann’s? They’ll continue for a while, but without their Long Island base, they’ll soon fall out of favor in certain East Coast circles. Go enjoy some Devil’s Food Cake while you can.