Zadock Steele, starving, eats too much bread.

Zadock Steele  was captured by Mohawk Indians allied with the British in a raid in Vermont in 1780. It was called the Royalton raid. Zadock was transferred to British custody and eventually escapes. Starving, he and a companion are taken in by a “poor widow”.  In this short scene he  describes over eating what she calls  “wheat bread”and that we can understand as a good-quality white bread.  One of the forms of control the British exercised over their captives was under feeding  so he and his companion approach this bread with avarice. Despite the text’s stiff language one can feel the loss of control, the impulse to gorge. Continue reading “Zadock Steele, starving, eats too much bread.”

The History of the Garden Dandelion

dandelion taprootFirstly, I love dandelion. It is one of the most delicious vegetables. Why dandelion is not a standard on the grocery shelf along with other tiller weeds, like lettuce, chicory, and cabbage is difficult for me to understand. But, there it is. A delicious wild green that remains largely wild.

The history of the dandelion that follows as written by E. Lewis Sturtevant, a man who was well known in the latter decades of the nineteenth-century but is now largely unknown. Among other things Sturtevant was a farmer, an agronomist, a book collector, and an historian. His library of 1,000 Pre-Linnaean volumes are at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The Missouri Botanical Gardens is a leader in the digitization of rare books so many of Sturtevants books referenced in this article can be found online and can be downloaded. Continue reading “The History of the Garden Dandelion”

Flour Mills on the Seine, Paris

Image of a flour mill floating on the Seine circa late 18th century
A boat water mill floating on the Seine in the 18th century towards the back of Notre Dame Cathedral

This is an eighteenth-century print of a flour mill floating on the Seine with Notre Dame in the background. Until well into the nineteenth century mills were attached  bridges that crossed the Seine and smaller mills, like the one in this print, were actually small boats, or barges, attached to shore or anchored in the river. The infrastructure for producing bread was everywhere.

Paris, in 1800 had a population of 540,000 compared to today’s 2,300,000. This refers to the city itself, not environs If you estimate per capita bread consumption in 1800 at 900g per person and use today’s figure of 130g per person it would seem that approximately 40% more bread was consumed in Paris some two-hundred years ago —490 230 000 grams versus 299 000 000 grams today. Just accepting these as rough figures it suggests the huge number of vehicles — on land and water — that must have been needed to move the grain, the flour, and the breads.

Paris did not produce all of its own bread. Demand from Paris fostered a plethora of bakeries in villages circling Paris, with Gonesse, now a suburb of Paris more or less between the two airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, being the most famous of the supplier villages. It is known for the quality of its white bread. Even English-language atlases tie Gonesse to its bread.

Here is a text sent to me by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, founder of the extraordinary Facebook Group, Universalbread, and editor of the Dictionnaire universal du pain (2010) from his dictionary. This was written by Jean-Pierre Blazy, the current mayor of Gonesse.

“Le pain de marché, qui était en grande partie le pain des forains, assurait les deux tiers des ventes de pain consommé à Paris en 1727, un peu moins six ans plus tard, selon les registres Delalande conservés à la bibliothèque de l’Institut. Les boutiques progressent sans menacer la prépondérance des marchés. Les estimations concernant le nombre des boulangers forains dits de deuxième classe, ceux qui transformaient les blés qui n’étaient pas entrés à Paris avant d’être convertis en pain, demeurent incertaines. En recoupant les différentes sources (Traité de la Police de Nicolas Delamare et registres Delalande), Steven L. Kaplan estime qu’il y avait au total une majorité de boulangers de marchés sur les 2 000 boulangers qui s’activaient dans la capitale, mais les chiffres très variables du seul corps des forains (900, 850, 650…) lui paraissent excessifs. En 1727, sur les 927 boulangers fournissant les
douze marchés (et non plus quinze), il y avait 369 forains, soit près de 40 % ; et sur 747 enregistrés en 1733, on relève 298 forains, soit toujours près de 40 %. La boulangerie foraine s’inscrivait dans une couronne d’approvisionnement s’étendant de Saint-Germain-en-Laye et de Versailles à l’ouest, de Sceaux et de Villejuif au sud, de Créteil et de Vincennes à l’est jusqu’à Goussainville et Roissy-en-France au nord. Les boulangers du Pays de France, ceux de Gonesse et du village voisin de Bonneuil-en-France étaient alors les plus nombreux et les plus actifs en quantités de pain vendu.”

From Dictionnaire universel du pain, Bouquins Laffont 2010

Jean-Pierre Blazy is also the author of “Gonsesse, la terre et les homes: Des origines a la Revolution” (1982)

Cooking a Road-kill Raccoon

Skinning a Raccoon
Skinning a road kill raccoon by flashlight.

This is the first time I have skinned and butchered road kill. Yes, I was apprehensive. But the raccoon was young, small by raccoon standards, had no visible injuries from having been hit and was clearly  healthy. I looked up skinning online but ended up being helped y a friend who had grown up skinning raccoons and other small animals in Arkansas. Certainly, doing this for the first time with someone who has experience is helpful though in many ways the biggest help was simply having the confidence to open the raccoon up and work the knife to separate the skin from the body.

Skinning the raccoon is easier than boning a chicken. There is nothing about skinning a raccoon that is as challenging as separating the skin of a chicken from the back without tearing. My primary advice if you haven’t done it before is just to be sure your knife is very sharp and wear thick rubber gloves to protect yourself from accidental cuts. Past that, it is really the first cut up the belly (you will cut straight up to the head) that presents a challenge — and it is purely psychological. There is a layer of fat between the raccoon’s flesh and the skin which makes it obvious to see where you are cutting.

The hind and fore-legs have lots of meat. For this small raccoon that is all we saved to eat. I wilted some onion in olive oil in a Dutch oven in the fireplace. When the onion was wilted, added the raccoon, a couple bay leaves, salt, and then wine to just cover. I cooked it at a very low simmer for hours. Utterly delicious.

 

Yeasted Bread and Good Health

Warner's Safe Yesat Advertisement
A yeast advertisement that focuses on very old ideas associating poor digestion and ill health with dense bread.

A wonderful massively interesting trade card for Warner’s Safe Yeast circa 1885-1890. To this day, companies sell products by creating fear and then offering a solution. This ad falls squarely in the fear mongering tradition. It would not have seemed so absurd to people in its own time.

For hundreds of  years dense bread was thought to be indigestible. Its indigestibility had been  mentioned in health manuals going back to the 1500s. The poor  were often afflicted with gastrointestinal illnesses and for various reasons, their breads were also often dense. In the 1880s the germ theory of disease was still reasonably recent and so the bad water and unsanitary conditions that were in fact responsible for the gastrointestinal ill health of the poor was not yet fully appreciated by popular culture. Thus, in folk culture, dense bread made you sick. That is the back story. Commercial yeast reliably yields a lighter bread, one with a more open crumb, than breads leavened with homemade yeasts or sourdough cultures. Given an unscientific understanding of stomach cramps well made yeasted bread could be imagined to prevent them.

But there was a rub. Commercial yeast cost money; many American cookbooks included recipes for home yeast cultures, and had since the early decades of the century. Homemade yeast was a well established part of American home baking, which was itself at this point in our culinary history an established part of the home economy. Waste not want not. Why buy yeast if you could make your own? A simple answer to that would be that yeast is quasi-medicinal in its effects. Who would turn their backs on the health of their family? Affluent households had long been buying commercial yeast by the 1880s. This ad is not addressed to them.

Lest you think I exaggerate the nineteenth-century fear of heavy bread. Here is Catherine Beecher on heavy bread published in her 1848 cookbook, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book.

Perhaps it may be thought that all this is a great drudgery, but it is worse drudgery to have sickly children, and a peevish husband, made so by having all the nerves of their stomachs rasped with sour, or heavy bread.

Similar sentiments were expressed into the early twentieth century, if with less animus toward the put upon baker.

Flatbread with Olive Oil

Flatbread baking in a wood fired oven.
Flatbread baking in a wood fired oven.

I was at an event the other night at the California Academy of Sciences. Cocktail party talk. In that context I was asked what I am so often asked, “What is your favorite bread.” It sounds flip, but it is true. My favorite bread is the most recent one I’ve made.

In the case of the bread you see baking here it was, in fact, delicious, not just theoretically so because it was the most recent bread. It is a yeasted white dough on the salty side brushed with olive oil. My standard recipe for pizza and flat breads is 100% flour, 60% water, 1% to 1.5% salt, and if I am in a hurry, as I was the night I made this bread, 1.4% standard dried yeast. Always, when in a hurry, I use warm water so that the dough moves along. This doesn’t make the most complex dough, but it does make a dough that is light and sweet and lets the taste of something as simple as a brushing with olive oil rise to the top.

Early Modern Kitchen Garden References

This post provides references to three works mentioned in my talk to the Farm to Table  New Orleans International Symposium, August 204, 2013. If you attended my talk I do encourage you to write to me with questions and comments.

The French Gardiner by Nicolas de Bonnefons, translated by John Evelyn, 1654.  This is the edition of the French Gardiner at  Google Books. If you are not familiar with 17th century printing, there is a “long s.” This letter looks a lot like an “f”. You quickly get used to it. I have prepared annotated edition of the work. If you’d like a PDF of the manuscript please write to me: william@williamrubel.com.

Aceteria, John Evelyn’s work on salad is available from Project Gutenberg. This is the HTML version, but you will find other versions at the Gutenberg website.

Every Man His Own Gardener by John Ambercrombie was first published in the 1770s. It remained in print in many editions long after he died — far into the 19th century. This is the 1809 edition, but you can go to Google Books and find editions that are both earlier and later. This is much less romantic a writer than Bonnefons or Evelyn. But I think it is a good book and shows you the work-a-day kitchen garden at the turn of the 19th century.