Catering Your Next Space-Themed Party…

When I present talks about space for various groups, I am frequently asked about what might be served to set the mood. Unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of choices – from the American program one might feature cups of  Tang, chunks of freeze-dried ice cream that most people will try one nibble of, and a fruitcake that was developed in 1968 and is actually pretty good. As far as I can tell, no recipes were ever released for foods developed for the Soviet or Russian programs. This is probably because the objective there was to give cosmonauts a diet as much like they ate at home as possible, so even if they were eating from a tube, what was inside was something they already liked.

This would seem to make it difficult to have a party where you recreate the experience of living in a Soviet space station, but a company called Biryulevsky Experimental Factory has come to your rescue. In February of this year they started selling these:SpacefoodTubesThose are tubes of borshcht, the Russian cabbage soup called shchi, kharcho beef and walnut stew, pickle soup (rassolnik), marinated mutton, pork with vegetables, and meat pate.  For dessert they offer cottage cheese with sea buckthorn, apricot, apple and black currant purees). Here’s a link to an article about them… Unfortunately as far as I can tell the tubes of space food are only sold in Moscow, but if I find out otherwise I’ll post here.

If you do host a space station themed party before these become available, you may just have to make your own Russian food; I suppose you could put it into squeeze bottles if you went, but it will taste better if you don’t. Remember to attach some of your furniture to the walls and ceiling to set the right mood…



How History Feels, Smells, and Tastes…

There’s a stereotype of a historian as someone who spends their lives in archives and libraries, prowling through stacks of tattered manuscripts for a previously unseen description of some famous event. That’s not a hundred percent wrong – if a researcher doesn’t feel a certain thrill when finding some obscure primary source, they’re probably in the wrong business. Archives are far from the only resource, though, and many historians write with personal experience of the subjects of their study.

This might mean that a scholar who focuses on the Napoleonic Wars has taken a long hike carrying a pack, cartridge bandolier, and rifle, so that they can appreciate the lives of French soldiers who marched for hundreds of miles through wilderness on their way to invade Russia. They don’t necessarily have to do it in subzero weather to get an idea of what it was like on the way back from Moscow, though I’m sure it would help make their writing on the subject more vivid.

More to the point of my own studies, I’d like to see that Napoleonic historian get together with a group of friends and try making a meal using pots and utensils that they had carried all day. To do it right they should incorporate ingredients that they had foraged, and do their cooking over a fire of green wood that they lit using flint and tinder. A military historian who recreates cooking while on campaign will understand what it meant when so many of the Grand Armee’s wagons were lost while crossing rivers. Not only were the rations lost, but the pots to cook them and the dry fuel. Veterans would have known instantly that food was going to be a problem, and soon.

This isn’t limited to military history, or to food. I have great respect for historians like Elizabeth Wayland Barber, who learned a variety of Neolithic skills so she could write “Women’s Work: The First 10,000 Years.” Her knowledge of spinning and weaving allowed her to identify tools that had puzzled male archaeologists. The shipwrights at Roskilde Fjord in Denmark who built and sailed ships exactly like the Viking knarrs they were excavating learned a lot more than just boatbuilding and sailing. They discovered the actual cargo capacity of those vessels, the speed of nautical trade in the era, and much more.

My own studies of history have been informed by the time spent in my garden and kitchen, and I have joined a forager to find food in a forest in which I would have starved. When cooking I usually allow myself the use of modern technology like a stove and refrigerator, but try to keep those advantages in mind when coming to conclusions. I have been known to grind my wheat for bread by hand, use a mortar and pestle instead of a spice mill, and hand-chop large quantities of vegetables just to learn how long it takes, all of which have given me a new appreciation of my food processor and stand mixer. I have a tripod and chains that hold a cookpot over the fire pit in the back yard, and on a larger scale have helped another historian pit roast whole sides of beef for a party of 120 people.

As for ingredients, at the moment I am growing tomatoes, onions, garlic chives, chard, beets, kale, sorrel, asparagus, eggplant, celery, asparagus, Jamaican tree spinach, radishes, melons, tea geranium, strawberries, oregano, rosemary, two types of basil, and mint. This is along with my apple, lemon, avocado, and orange trees and two types of grapevines, and I’m clearing space for more trees.

No, I do not expect the trombone to produce little trombone seedlings. Thanks for asking.

No, I do not expect the trombone to produce little trombone seedlings. Thanks for asking. This isn’t all of it, but it’s all I can get in one shot.

I have learned much from the growing and the eating, and have developed great respect for anyone who manages to live on what they grow. I know the anguish when an unexpected cold snap or sudden unseasonable rains destroy a whole area of seedlings. I can only imagine what it would be like if the sight of those lost plants meant I knew that I’d go hungry later, instead of having to spend a little more money at the store.

How long could I last eating just what I grow? Not long. My yard is small, my skills at gardening and harvesting those of an amateur. I am content that there is something from my yard in almost every meal I create, and that my guests can enjoy the flavors of the very freshest produce. I don’t expect to need most of the skills I have learned to survive, but learning them has made me just a bit better at what I do.

Pushing Back The Invention of Rum…

I finished my first post here by promising to explain how an old beverage was recently proved to be much older. The drink is rum, and the person who found the citation is the great drinks historian and general raconteur David Wondrich.

In my book I mentioned that the oldest confirmed reference to distillation of alcohol from sugar cane was in Brazil in 1552, but I suspected that the practice was much older. Wondrich found a reference that pushes that back over two hundred years, probably more. I can’t state it more succinctly than he did:

-the Indian historian Ziauddin Barani, in his 1357 Tarikh i Firoz Shahi, describes the pre-Moghul Sultan of Delhi ‘Ala ud-Din Khalji (who ruled from 1296 to 1316) prohibiting those who distill “wine” from granulated sugar (“qand,” hence our “candy”) from doing so or selling the product, an order which was later partially rescinded to allow production but not sale. So clearly in at least part of India rum-making of some kind was well established by around 1300, and I suspect very much earlier indeed.

Governments don’t prohibit something that nobody is doing, and they don’t move particularly fast, so the trade was probably well established before it was prohibited. That beverage wasn’t rum as we know it today. The stills were made of pottery and it was probably consumed unaged, so it was a raw, impure spirit. Still, I can easily imagine some alchemist making a cocktail with rose water or one of the other fragrant potions of the Indian subcontinent to delight his friends. Somewhere in some lost archive there may be a poem to the joys of strong wine, perhaps finishing with a complaint about feeling like an elephant had stepped on one’s head the next morning. If that poem has even one reference to distilled sugar, the literature of rum will be greatly enriched.

The Joys and Perils Of Looking Backward

The odds are that someone out there has an original Picasso and doesn’t know it. It’s a scribble or sketch in a notebook in a dusty attic, a momento from a grandfather who went to  school in Northern Spain alongside the great master. The drawing in a student copybook is probably very good for the work of a teenager who is still learning control and perspective. If that drawing was found then scholars would analyze every line, seeking proof that even then Picasso’s genius was apparent. They’d find it too, even if no such evidence was there, because if they didn’t they’d have nothing to write about in their next paper for an academic journal.

If Picasso himself had found that drawing while in the prime of his career, odds are that he wouldn’t have cherished or analyzed it. He would probably have thrown it away, though he might have given in to one of the temptations of all creative people. One might imagine him looking at the drawing for a moment, and then taking an eraser to one line, the one that added detail where form was the thing that was important. Once he did that, it would become obvious that the shading in another area was off, and so on. Odds are that after putting in a great deal of effort, he would have produced a piece of work that was mediocre, something more technically accomplished but without the strength and vitality of the original.

Almost anyone who creates has an archive of juvenilia, the class projects and hobby pieces that were kept by doting parents, the first attempts at commercial quality work from someone who didn’t really have the skills yet. Some artists deliberately destroy their early and less competent work, others cherish it because it’s a reflection of the person they were and the skills they had. A few artists make a mistake that may be partly from vanity – perhaps to show the seeds of greatness was always within them, they try to finish that novel they started in high school, the sculpture that was a summer obsession. Matching your own early style is actually quite difficult. If it isn’t you probably have a problem, because you haven’t grown artistically in the intervening period.

I had to rummage through my early newspaper articles recently because a reader asked a question about a long-defunct restaurant, and once I started going through my archives I was distracted by the experience of reading through a few months of articles. My attention was diverted to reviews of long-vanished restaurants, coverage of forgotten concerts and plays that I experienced again when I read about them. I also found some thoughtful articles that examined still-relevant ideas, and considered posting some of them on this website. They were still pretty good, especially if I just improved this intro, switched the order of those paragraphs, and hey, I could add in this research that I did for another piece a few years later…

That would have been a good time to stop, but I didn’t. I tinkered with it for over an hour, and then reverted to the original because it was better. Collaborating with my younger self was hard – he had a different sense of order than I do now, and isn’t around to explain what was going through his head. It’s better to just post the things he wrote as they stand, so that’s what I’ll do. The first one is up now, and more will come.

I’m trying to post here more regularly, even though my writing schedule is overloaded – this page is called Random Musings and both the schedule and topics are likely to be all over the map. For instance, in my previous post I promised another historical correction, and I really do intend to provide that soon…

History, Cultural Critiques, and the Firesign Theater…

I remember talking with someone who writes about pop culture who expressed a sentiment that was wrong in an interesting way.”Historians have it easy,” she opined. “Your target stays still.”

She viewed the past as static – whatever happened had already happened, so you didn’t have to predict anything. In fact historians have to reassess what they know when new primary sources are unearthed, and when that happens everything else needs to be rewritten. I have a few cases in point with relevance to my own writings, and since I can’t go back and rewrite the articles and books in question, I’ll address them here.

First, one I got wrong. In my article about the history of the burrito, I said that the first known written use of the name was a menu from El Charro Cafe in Tuscon, Arizona in 1922, not in Mexico, where the first documented burrito was served at Bol Corona restaurant in Tijuana in 1934. I also stated that there was no documented reference to burritos in California until 1958, when they were mentioned as a new oddity in an LA Times article. That was the same year they appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the combination of those two references gives the impression that what was previously an obscure item went mainstream at about that time.

It has been a decade since that article was published, but within the last week I found challenges to two points I had stated as fact. First, the earliest mention of the burrito I had found was in Arizona, but I found the following paragraph in this article about burrito history:

The Diccionario de Mexicanismos has an entry for the burrito as early as 1895… The entry states that a burrito is “A rolled tortilla with meat or other ingredients inside, called ‘coçito’ in Yucatán and ‘taco’ in the city of Cuernavaca and in Mexico City.” The term burrito was popular in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico. As the dictionary entry is the only hard and fast evidence we have to show where burritos came from, the idea that they originated in Guanajuato seems to be the most likely.

That description from 1895 does not mention a flour tortilla, which is one of the basic elements of a burrito as we know it. It is vague and could apply equally to what we now call a taco, taquito, flauta, or a burrito. The fact that an item by this name existed in Yucutan, where corn grows well but wheat very poorly, suggests that there may have been little or no difference between a taco and a burrito, at least in that region. The names of the two items may have been interchangeable then, but a distinction was eventually made between the two items. Interestingly, this is the only citation I have found anywhere referring to an item in Yucatecan cooking called a ‘coçito’ – there is no contemporary item in that cuisine by that name, and I haven’t found any other reference that isn’t directly quoting that dictionary. Given that the word “cosa” translates as “thing” and “-ito” is a diminutive, I could hazard a guess that someone once called a food item “that little thing” while a dictionary compiler was within hearing range. It’s impossible to prove, but it’s at least a plausible explanation for something that is otherwise inexplicable.

The other statement I made, regarding the first mention of burritos in California, has been proven wrong. Chef Anne Conness of Restaurant Sausal in El Segundo is a scholar of the food in early California, and she sent me this scan of a page from a book called “Early California Hospitality” by Anna Begue de Packman, published in 1938:

Burrito REF

Note that this refers to a burrito as “one corn or wheat flour tortilla (with) a large and generous spoonful of any of the various stews.” Corn tortillas are almost never made larger than taco size because they have no gluten and aren’t stretchy – they crumble or break much more easily. A generous spoonful of stew inside a corn tortilla would be a mess. The quote also refers to leftover beans, which suggests that this item didn’t appear on restaurant menus because it was something made at home to use up leftovers. I’ve heard this supposition from other historians regarding why burritos didn’t spread more rapidly – if they were primarily a way poor people repackaged leftovers, they would be a low-status item and less likely to sell in restaurants.

The combination of these two citations lets us know that something called a burrito existed 39 years before I said it did, but doesn’t specify what it was. Had this been a Star Trek episode, one character might have said to another, “It’s a burrito, Jim, but not a burrito as we know it.” It almost certainly wasn’t what we now think of as a burrito – it was a handheld snack, not a plate-filling, sauce-covered full meal. On the other hand, you may notice that I said “almost certainly” in that last sentence. The Firesign Theater comedy group proclaimed in the title of one of their albums, “Everything You Know is Wrong.” I hope that isn’t true, but like anyone who peers into the shrouded world that is the past, the more I discover, the less certain I am that I know the whole story…

Next: An old beverage is proved to be much older…

The Lost Rum of Louisiana

There was a long history of sugar and rum production in Louisiana, going back to the era when it was still part of the French dominion. Production continued until Prohibition shut down both the distilleries and most of the sugar plantations, since without a market for molasses the latter were unprofitable. The heyday of sugar production was shown in this 1851 illustration from Harper’s Magazine, which shows a tranquil day in the sugar house. The children are playing with a dog and a mouse, with the mouse getting the worst part of the deal: SugarLa1

The oddest thing about this article, which goes exhaustively into every detail of producing crystalline sugar and runs 1,494 words, is that the word rum does not appear even once. There is a note that the plantation managers are dismayed when a particular harvest produces much molasses and little sugar, and a note that the molasses was sold for much less than sugar, but there was no suggestion what the buyer might have done with it.

Liquor made from sugar cane products in Louisiana was often called tafia, but that name does not appear in this article either. The two terms may be interchangeable, but some documents refer to the manufacture of “tafia and rum” that suggest a distinction between a lower and higher quality product, or perhaps a difference in the distillation process. My surmise has been that the tafia might have been made from sugar cane juice in an agrichole style, while the rum was made from molasses, but I have never been able to confirm this. On the other hand, I have found examples of professionally bottled rum but not tafia, like this “Rhum Louisiane” dated 1865 – it was bottled in Havre, France, presumably from liquor shipped there before the Union blockade of the Confederacy.LouisianeLabelFor years I have been trying to find any contemporary description of tafia by anyone who had drunk rum elsewhere, but I have had no luck so far. I continue to search for contemporary comparisons, and if anyone can help untangle this I would be grateful. If you find any contemporary reports of any nineteenth century rum or tafia, please send me the text and citation – it would be wonderful to be able to sort this out.

Mystery of a Space-Age Dessert

In the early days of the space program there was a craze for associating all sorts of products with the space program. It was a way of celebrating mankind’s great dream of exploration, and incidentally make a buck. The craze made it into a children’s cookbook published in 1959, which published this recipe for a dessert called “Apollo Fluff.”ApolloFluff2ApolloFluff1959


There’s an obvious reference to the American space program in the title, and in the illustration to the right – it looks straight from the science fiction magazines of the period.

The odd thing about this is that the recipe was published in 1959, and the Apollo program’s name wasn’t announced until 1960. Did the author of a children’s cookbook know something before the rest of us, or did they adopt the name of the Greek sun god for a recipe shortly before someone else proposed it for America’s space program? It’s certainly an odd coincidence. As for how this tastes, I haven’t tried it, but if any of you like this kind of creamy-sweet dessert that was popular in the 1950’s, please make it and send a picture and review of it.


Sugar and Rum In Ancient India, Continued

In my book and also my first post on this site, I mentioned that India has a very long history with both sugar cane and distilling. For a look at the ancient symbolism of sugar, consider this picture of the Hindu goddess Kamakshi: CaneGoddessKamakshi is a goddess of love, motherhood, and settled homes, and is usually depicted holding sugar cane. She isn’t the only Hindu deity with a connection to sugar – the love god Kamadeva carries a bow made of sugar cane that has a string of honeybees. The fact that peaceful avatars of love and domesticity carry sugar cane suggests an association between sweetness and harmonious relationships, a connection the candy industry was quick to exploit.

Hindu alchemists had mastered distilling at least 1500 years ago, and in my book I mentioned that it was surprising that there was no evidence that rum was made in the subcontinent before Europeans arrived. The eminent food and drink historian David Wondrich found that evidence, pushing the history of distilled sugar cane juice back at least the year 1316. That was the year that a Sultan of Delhi died, and contemporary Indian Historian Ziauddin Barani wrote that among the other laws of his reign, the Sultan had prohibited the distillation of “wine” from sugar cane. Since we only know that this ruler outlawed it and that was the year he died, the law was probably enacted at some earlier date, and since lawmakers rarely outlaw something that nobody is doing we must assume that the technique had become known some time still earlier. There may be other records lurking in dusty archives, so the start date for rum history may be pushed back still further in years to come.

(Incidentally, David mentioned finding this information while I was researching the section on rum and sugar for the Oxford Companion to Sweets, which was published in April of 2015 by Oxford University Press. My article begins on page 583, and it was an honor to contribute to such a worthy project.)

Mystery Man, Mystery Slogan

A reader of this site sent a question that I’d like your assistance in answering – namely, any information at all about Alfred Lamb, the creator of Lamb’s Navy Rum. Representatives of the brand have remarkably little information: Alfred was a London merchant who reportedly came up with the blend of rums marketed under his name in 1849, when just 22 years old, and apparently did nothing else to attract any attention for the rest of his life. It’s not clear whether he ever actually went to the Caribbean – a reference to an Alfred Lamb in the West Indies may have been a different person who happened to have the same name. There are references to an Alfred Lamb, merchant of London, as a member of a charitable organization in 1866, but beyond that tenuous link he seemed to have no impact on society. For a man of wealth who put his own name on the bottle, he seems amazingly shy of publicity. The records of the company were destroyed during the London Blitz, and his descendants have put plaintive requests for help on ancestry and genealogy websites. Does anyone out there have any information, original documents, or pictures? It would be good to shed some light on the founder of a popular brand.

Another mystery seems destined to remain unsolved – a reader asked the reason for the number on this label: cachaca51-oldbottleThe brand wasn’t established in 1951, and there is no obvious connection between that number and anything in the history or production of the spirit. A question to the owners of the company yielded the following unhelpful answer:

“There are many stories circulated about the meaning of “51”. I can not confirm any of them, as the owners prefer to keep the true meaning a family secret.”

This is one of the most deliberately mysterious trademarks in the annals of marketing. I include their response so nobody else will waste time bothering them, since they obviously don’t seem inclined to discuss the matter…


More on Cooking Aboard Blimps

A few months ago I showed some pictures of food aboard blimps during World War II. George Diemer, a volunteer at the New England Air Museum, found a few more pictures, including this one showing the rather dangerous placement of the hot plate.

Courtesy New England Air Museum.

Courtesy New England Air Museum.

That’s a frying pan right by the flight engineer’s neck – he probably hopes they never cook bacon, because the grease spatters would be painful. In looking at this picture and another published in 1943, I note that one stylish item that was provided aboard some blimps wasn’t shown. Note the nifty little samovar in the picture below on the right:

Courtesy New England Air Museum

Courtesy New England Air Museum

The picture on the left of food being loaded shows that another tradition is still alive – loading food in wicker baskets. Humans used woven reeds to hold food for thousands of years, and it was still the best material for the job well into the 1940’s. Yes, they had aluminum by then, which was lighter and easier to clean, but during the war years reeds were readily available and metal was reserved for the war effort. I haven’t found any postwar pictures showing food handling using baskets, but I’m still looking…