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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Soft words butter no parsnips (or: it takes four squirrels to make pie)

  My mother grew up in Connecticut, and she remembers all sorts of regional specialties that she ate growing up that people just don't make now. She was thrilled to find a 1963 reprint of the 1939 regional Yankee Cookbook by Emmajean Wolcott.

Emmajean. Who is named Emmajean anymore? (Well, to study that, you'd want to look at the beautiful graph at Name Change, but that's a separate topic. It's a really lovely way to present that information though, isn't it? Nearly as nice as the Crayola color chart analysis in Color Me A Dinosaur. Pretty digressions are the best kind!)

Ahem. This cookbook is full of strange lore, and stranger recipes. It has recipes for cooking with coots (a TV series title waiting to happen!), which are birds with tough feathers that lived in the region, which were a challenge to prepare.

It offers tips such as:
At least four squirrels are needed to fill a two quart pie dish. Four squirrels serve six.
Because you were wondering.

There are many recipes involving cornmeal. As a fancy Californian, my mind automatically turns to polenta with sun dried tomatoes (mmmm, polenta) but soft or hard polenta-type dishes went by many names: bag pudding, johnnycake, hasty pudding, and gap and swallow. (<-I do not recommend searching for this term, as nowadays, it only leads to 'p0rn.') Soft, hot cornmeal was served with milk as a dessert; there were variations of "Indian pudding" with cornmeal, molasses, milk, sometimes salt, sometimes cinnamon. (It must have been tough to get cinnamon.) I'm trying to picture something like cornbread pancakes with syrup, but softer: it has some potential.

I may have liked the versions of pumpkin pie they had in the area: since sensible chickens don't lay eggs in winter, pumpkin pies were egg-free. Pumpkin, molasses, milk, ginger, cinnamon, and salt were the primary ingredients of the pie filling. Pumpkins ("pompions") that weren't baked and eaten fresh were sliced up for storage, and the strips were air-dried.

The cookbook includes some recipes from the native people who pre-dated the New England concept, mostly involving the complex preparations you need to make to prepare local fauna for roasting (how to remove glands you may not be aware of, for example). You're still thinking about squirrel pie, though, aren't you? I am, too, and I don't remember it having any other ingredients. Did I mention ick? Ick.

Aside from thinking about the potential to make sweet dessert polentas, I didn't come away with any inspiration. New Englanders ate simple foods, many of which were baked or roasted, with relatively few ingredients. The desserts appeal to me in their simplicity - apples, pumpkins, cinnamon, molasses - but not the entrees. It's the sort of cookbook that makes you understand why people glamorized spice traders: relative to a pie shell full of squirrels, a masala dosa with a side of sambar starts to sound like heaven many times over.

I realize I own more spices right now than most people in NE consumed in their entire lives. Lucky lucky lucky. Spoiled and lucky.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:04 PM

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Even more reasons to love turmeric...more

  It is a natural dye, an Ayurvedic medicine, and one of my favorite spices: turmeric. I love it passionately already, but now there are even more reasons to like it. BBC NEWS | Health | Curry spice 'kills cancer cells' (, 10/2/09):
An extract found in the bright yellow curry spice turmeric can kill off cancer cells, scientists have shown.
The article doesn't explain the methodology used, or what is required to make the extract, and it sounds a bit like they want something topical that you can rub into your cancer cells every night before bed. Doesn't it?

Another thing that goes unmentioned is that it's easiest to study just one compound in a natural substance at a time. A spice might have many compounds in it that are beneficial, but it is quite humiliating to neither be able to say which one/ones are acting on a condition, and which others are hanging out. It seemed to take a long time after the key dietary vitamins were all named for researchers to figure out what bioflavinoids do, even though bioflavinoids were in just about every food that scientists were studying for benefits: it sounds like there were just too many compounds to consider, and no one wanted to look foolish by announcing that whole oranges are really good for you. (Duh.)

So articles like this one will point out that one compound they can identify does one particular thing, and this is celebrated. Which is nice. I suppose.

The obvious ending is missing from the article: "And it tastes really good in yellow curry."

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:27 PM

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