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Archive for the ‘Food as Anthropology’ Category

Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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A Whirling Dervish / Photo by Flickr user flydime

It must have seemed like magic, a substance that not only granted boundless energy, but curbed hunger as well. It wasn’t the first drug of course, we’ve had opium, alcohol, and psychedelic mushrooms for a lot longer. But coffee was different. As Balzac wrote:

Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

The Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia are thought to be among the first humans to consume coffee. However, they did so in a very different way than we do now. In nature, the coffee tree produces a reddish-purple fruit called a coffee cherry or berry. At its center is found a seed. Modern processing strips away the fruit and then ferments and roasts the remaining seed, which becomes the coffee beans you buy at your local shop.

The Oromo people simply ground the ripe cherries along with their seeds in a stone mortar and then combined the resulting paste with animal fat — perhaps butter as they were nomadic pastoralists — which they then rolled into balls for convenient transport. Fresh coffee cherries are full of caffeine, sugar, and fat, and are about 15% protein. Combined with animal fat, they really make the perfect portable energy food. This form of coffee consumption was observed as late as the 18th Century by British explorers who described billiard ball-sized morsels which were stored in leather bags and eaten for extra energy by warriors on raids. Study of the oral history of the Oromo people shows that this use of coffee is likely quite ancient. There is also evidence of other usage of coffee by the peoples of Northeastern Africa. Some cooked the ripe berries into a porridge, others made wine from the fruit and skin.

The earliest documented evidence of the use of coffee as a beverage is in 15th Century Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Africa. Practitioners of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, would grind up the fresh coffee cherries and boil them in water, drinking the brew to stay awake during their night dhikr or extended prayerful meditation. Sufi mystic, Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr, said that coffee combined with prayer could lead practitioners to “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.”

The Shadhiliyya order of Sufis was instrumental in spreading coffee throughout the Islamic world during the 13th through 15th Centuries. Their dervishes (whose whirling I imagine was fueled all the better by coffee) were lay people and and once they were introduced to this magical brew in a religious setting, they brought it into the secular community.

Once coffee was brought to the Arabian peninsula from Africa, two distinct beverages were made from it. The first, known as quishir was actually a tea made by steeping dried coffee cherries and their husks in boiling water. Coffee is still drunk this way in Northeastern Africa and Yemen today. The second preparation was called bounya which comes from the word bunn, Ethiopian for the “seed” or “bean” of the coffee tree. Bounya was a thick drink made from raw, crushed beans, the residue of which was consumed also, leaving nothing in the bottom of the cup.

There is an argument as to whether the roasting of beans began in Persia or Saudi Arabia; where ever it happened, it was the next step towards coffee as we know it today. In the 16th Century, Islamic coffee fanatics invented the ibrik, a small coffee pot in which they boiled their favorite brew. Finally, in the 18th Century, people began to infuse the roasted, ground beans the way we do today. However, in some parts of the world, like Turkey and Greece, boiling is still the preferred method of preparation.

Coffee Being Poured from an Ibrik / Photo by Flickr user hettie gm

Unless you know someone with a coffee tree, it is very difficult to get fresh, ripe coffee cherries in the US. If I ever get my hands on some, I’m going to try making coffee power bars by grinding them up and mixing them with butter. Happily, I did succeed in finding dried coffee cherries and their husks which can be made into quishir. The folks at Counter Culture Coffee sell a product called Cascara which is the dried fruit and husks of the coffee tree and is meant to be drunk as a tea. The word “cascara” is Spanish for “husk,” so named because the coffee that goes into it is grown in El Salvador where they don’t have a tradition of making tea out of dried coffee fruit.

Cascara or Dried Coffee Berries and Their Husks

The result is an interesting hybrid. It smells somewhat like coffee, but fruitier. It has the slight bitterness of coffee, but the body is more like tea, not as thick in the mouth as coffee. The initial flavor is similar to coffee but then there is a bloom of fruits: currents, raisins and surprisingly, a touch of lemon and orange, perhaps this is the coffee’s natural acidity? It is almost like a black tea that has been flavored with a fruit essence, the way Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot. However, the quishir is smoother with none of black tea’s harsh tannins. It definitely has more caffeine that black tea, I felt quite perky after drinking it, perhaps even able to last through an all-night prayer session.

To Make Ancient Coffee or Quishir

5 grams (about 1½ tablespoons) dried coffee cherries and husks
8 oz (½ cup) water at 190-200F

The coffee fruit and husks are more delicate than beans, so it is important that you not use fully boiling water. Allow the water to cool to 190-200F before pouring it over the coffee.

If you don’t mind lumpy bits in the bottom of your cup as you drink you can just put the quishir/cascara in your mug and then pour the hot water over it. Or if you prefer, put it in a measuring cup and when it’s done steeping, strain it into a mug. Steep for 5-7 minutes and serve. Try it alone first and then if you like, add some sugar to bring out the fruity flavors.

Sources:

Meehan, Peter. Pop Some Coffee Cherries. New York Times, November 11, 2009

Seidel, Kathleen. Serving The Guest: Food For Remembrance.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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The other day one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman, began musing on Twitter about why he cooks. He then wrote a blog post about it and encouraged others to follow suit. Here are my thoughts.

Cooking is a magical window onto other cultures. In particular, for me it is a window onto the past. As L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Cooking is a way of traveling through time and space without leaving the confines of my kitchen.

I remember a foggy morning in France, when a friend and I were standing, tickets in hand, waiting for the gates of a chateau to open. There was a vendor selling fresh, hot croissants so we bought some and had just started eating them when the guard came along with his big set of jangly keys. As he collected our tickets and waved us through into the gardens, he didn’t say bonjour or merci, instead he said, “bon appetit!” It was at that instant I truly understood the place of food in the French heart. I haven’t made croissants myself (yet!), but when I do, I’ll be brought right back to that moment.

Cooking is a time machine. Cooking and eating historic dishes is way to get inside the heads of people who lived well before I was born. What better way to imagine what it was like living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century than by cooking up a pot of Baked Beans? Until I researched and cooked that recipe, I didn’t know the dish was crafted so a Puritan housewife could put it in the ashes of the fire on Saturday night, eliminating the need for cooking on the Sabbath. That’s one of the reasons the recipe contains molasses, it’s an acid which prevents the beans from becoming mushy over the course of their long slow bake.

In October, 2009 a friend generously gave me some some pig offal left over from her meat CSA. I went straight to Madeleine Kamman and her recipe for Grosse Cochonnailles or Coarse Country Pâté. Before World War II, at that same exact time of year, French villagers in Brittany would slaughter their pigs and make a myriad of dishes using every bit. I didn’t have a whole pig but, I got a chance to peep into that world by making the pâté and cooking Fergus Henderson’s Pot-Roast Half Pig’s Head.

Until those geniuses at MIT and Stanford figure out how to make a real time machine, I’ll be here cooking my way through history. I read recently, that we have some 4,000 year old cuneiform tablets with recipes on them from Mesopotamia, how cool is that? Ancient land of Ur, here I come.

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I like to poke around in the forgotten corners of food history learning what people ate, and how they cooked differently than we do now. Some, like anthropologist Richard Wrangham, say it is cooking that made us human. What better way to learn about people from different places and time periods than by cooking and eating their food? Here I’ll be writing about kitchen experiments with old recipes, preservation and waste prevention techniques of the past, and unfamiliar ingredients. I’ll also include travel pieces exploring the food history of my destinations, and some beginner attempts at food photography.

It’s important that information about traditional foodways not be lost. It can be useful to us today, making our food choices more environmentally friendly, healthier for our bodies and easier on the wallet. Renewed interest in knowing where our food comes from and the resurgence of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture is making it easier than ever to incorporate these ideas into our daily routines.

I’ve read that in Greece when γιαγιά (that’s grandma in Greek) makes yogurt at home, she doesn’t use a thermometer to tell if it has cooled to the right temperature. Instead she dips her finger in the hot milk and if she can only keep it there for 20 seconds then it’s time to add the starter. These are the kinds of tidbits I hope to unearth and share with my readers.

Thanks for visiting and I hope to see you again soon.

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