From Minced Meat to McDonalds — The History of the Hamburger

The Fourth of July is upon us – and even though the day is almost over where I am, the barbecues, fireworks, beach trips, and summer fun is still abuzz because Independence Day is on a Friday this year and people are taking advantage of it by extending it to cover the entire weekend. Not that I mind. Celebrating a holiday or a birthday from Friday to Sunday is a lot more fun than celebrating it during the weekday – especially if you have obligations during the week (work, school, or family).

Last year, my Independence Day blog post was about the history of the barbecue and how America has four types of barbecues: Carolina (North and South), Memphis (Tennessee), Kansas City (Missouri), and Texas. This year, I thought I might touch on hamburgers: their origins, how America popularized them, and whether or not the burger is still relevant in a world where people are watching their waistlines and opting for healthier alternatives.

What can be said about the hamburger that hasn’t been said in other food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and fast food advertisement? It’s been touted as the perfect food: ground beef (or turkey, or chicken, or chickpeas and black beans, if you want to go vegetarian), seasoned to your liking, mixed with egg, formed into a patty, fried on a griddle or put on a grill (ideally, a propane one, if you’re like Hank Hill), but will settle for being pan-fried or put on a charcoal grill, and either served as is or topped anything from ketchup, cheese, mustard, pickles, relish, bacon, and/or onions (raw or fried) to grilled fruits (usually pineapple), fried eggs, or any kind of fruit-flavored chutney.

But the hamburger is more than just a sandwich; it’s an American culinary icon, much like fried chicken (yes, fried chicken. The old stereotype of African Americans loving it confuses me as white people love fried chicken just as much) and apple pie. In fact, the hamburger is a lot like American history/society: filled with conflicting stories on its origins, can be very cheesy and disgusting to non-American sensibilities (yet most people do want a taste of it just to see if it’s everything they dreamed it would be), known and praised/disparaged all over the world, and associated with wanting everything done fast rather than done right.

Origins

In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols, led by Genghis Khan  (1167–1227), carried food made up of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel) shaped into patties during their journeys. This was to not only extend their supply of meat, but also as a quick way to eat as they were laying waste to and conquering what is now Central Asia (Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, specifically). In the height of the Mongol Empire, it was common to see Mongol warriors following herds or flocks of horses, sheep, or oxen and killing them for food. The explorer Marco Polo recorded these sightings, even pointing out that a single pony could feed 100 Mongol invaders.

Now there’s an idea for the final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This recipe for the minced meat patty was passed on the Muscovites when Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded Russia after the Mongol Empire fell in the 1240s. In Moscow, the patty was known as steak tartare (yet the recipe for it was never recorded and, to this day, no one knows when the recipe was first recorded for restaurant use). In the city-states that would later be known as Germany, this ground meat product was refined by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and was sold on the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is the part where the ground meat patty gets called a hamburger because it was created in what would later be the German city of Hamburg.”

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t called the “hamburger” right away. It was called the Hamburgh (that’s how the city name was spelled at the time) Sausage. Besides, the sandwich (and the use of bread slices between a meat filling) wouldn’t be known until the 18th century, thanks to English aristocrat John Montagu (better known as The Earl of Sandwich), who came up with a new way to eat so his fingers wouldn’t get dirty while playing card games. There was an episode of the early 2000s Cartoon Network show, Time Squad, that parodied how The Earl of Sandwich came up with this culinary sensation. I uploaded the episode and the storyboards for it for anyone who wants to see it.

Fast forward to the 19th century, which sees Hamburg, Germany as the largest trans-Atlantic hub for freight and shipping. The Hamburg steak, an early ancestor of the hamburger and known at that time as either “Hamburg-style American fillet” or “beefsteak à Hambourgeoise,” is being served to attract German sailors. It was brought back to New York City and became popular on the menus of many restaurants in this U.S. port. This kind of fillet was beef minced by hand, lightly salted and often smoked, and usually served raw in a dish along with onions and bread crumbs.

Now this isn’t the hamburger as we know it yet. It’s actually Salisbury steak, named after American physician and food faddist, Dr. James Salisbury (1823-1905), served with brown gravy, and is a common sight in many an unappetizing frozen TV dinner or mediocre school cafeteria menu. However, it does go great with buttered noodles and your choice of green bean casserole or vegetable medley.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of conflicting stories about how the hamburger came to be. Did the Hamburg America Line in Germany send it over to America? Was it a spontaneous invention by an American? If so, who invented it/made it popular first? Fletcher Davis? The Menches Brothers? Charlie Nagreen? Oscar Bilby? Or Louis Lassen? No one knows for sure, but these facts are certain:

1) The hamburg steak/Salisbury steak’s popularity in America is what led to the popularity of the hamburger,

2) The hamburger is very much a late 19th century-into-the 20th century invention, so the hamburger (and all the other types of burgers derived from it) is fairly new

3) all claims made by the potential inventors of the hamburger occurred between 1885 and 1904, focusing all attention of its creation onto these two decades.

The Hamburger Restaurant

Contemporary American society at the dawn of the 20th century witnessed the creation of new fast food originating from traditional foods from various ethnic groups, such as China’s chop suey (and other take-out favorites that originally were supposed to be for other Chinese immigrants who moved to America, but became popular among those who weren’t Chinese, but were American), pizza from Italy (though that would not gain popularity until after World War II), and hot dogs (invented by German immigrant Charles Feltman, who sold frankfurters on sliced bread at Coney Island).

The dawn of the 20th century also witnessed the need to provide food for people living in highly productive urban centers with high population densities. Food also had to be economically affordable for the working class so they can maintain their labor and industrial production. The hamburger and its derivatives were born in a time when people didn’t have the time or energy to make anything to eat and would rather eat “fast” and “cheap,” a decision that has stuck with the American way of life to this day.

Though there have been plenty of arguments and claims to the contrary, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut has been credited by The Library of Congress as the very first burger joint. Lassen may have made the hamburger popular in 1895, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 when the hamburger patty (actually, a Salisbury steak patty, thanks to anti-German sentiment during and after World War I) would be served on a bun. For that, you can thank Walter Anderson, who, five years after he invented the burger bun, co-founded one of the earliest hamburger restaurants in America: White Castle. You can also thank White Castle for selling their hamburgers in grocery stores and vending machines, creating the industrial-strength spatula, mass-producing the humiliating paper hat associated with the embarrassing task of working fast-food service, and for birthing the concept of a “greasy spoon restaurant,” in which hygiene suffered in exchange for more inexpensive food (though that’s more the fault of wanting things done fast instead of right).

Like anything remotely successful, White Castle bred a lot of imitators and attempts at capturing the restaurant’s success, with little to no success. One of the most obvious was White Tower Hamburgers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose owners got into many a legal battle with White Castle over copyright infringement.

1937 saw Patrick McDonald and his two sons Richard and Maurice inaugurating a restaurant called “Airdrome” on Route 66 near the airport in Monrovia, California. Three years later in San Bernardino, Papa McDonald and his sons would go on to create the insanely popular restaurant people in America and the world over: McDonalds. The menu initially featured 25 different dishes, the majority of which were barbecued, but 80% of the restaurant’s revenue was made from selling hamburgers. It wouldn’t be until after World War II (due to beef shortages, though that didn’t slow down White Castle) that McDonalds’ popularity would soar, introducing the concept of fast food to the West Coast, working to improve on all of the things White Castle and other restaurants were doing to ensure the fastest service possible, and inventing the concept of “drive thru” ordering. By the 1950s, the concept of drive-in style service had become firmly established and hamburgers and cars had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans, particularly among the teenagers at that time, if pop culture and pointless nostalgia of the era has taught me anything.

As private outdoor social events, often held in backyards and featuring a barbecue, became more widespread during the mid-1950s, the hamburger gained a new culinary and social relevance in America. It became that national symbol that separated the United States from those godless Reds who waited with baited breath to invade the country. It seems silly, but for anyone who still has relatives who lived during that era, it was a reality. You know the hamburger was a popular American symbol during the Cold War when one of the battles in the Vietnam War is named The Battle of Hamburger Hill, because of how the Viet Cong and American soldiers alike were reduced to bloody meat. War is hell, kids.

There was also another war being waged during The Cold War (mostly during the 1960s and 1970s), and that was “The Burger War,” in which McDonalds fought with Burger King and Wendy’s over who had the better hamburger. No lives were lost nor soldiers injured (unless you count the many who have had heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes from all that burger-noshing), but it did cause the prices of their burgers increased, and the days when a hamburger could be bought for just a few cents (a nickel at most) were a thing of the past.

Where Are We Now?

Now, we’re in the era of everyone watching their waistlines and cutting down on the junk so they can live longer to complain about how life isn’t what it used to be. The hamburger, while still being celebrated with haute cuisine makeovers and being positively to neutrally portrayed on such TV shows and movies as Good Burger, SpongeBob SquarePants (with the titular character working at The Krabby Patty), American Eats, Man vs. Food, Bob’s Burgers, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has also come under fire for lack of nutritional value and being one of a myriad of causes in the obesity epidemic. There are also environmentalists and animal rights activists protesting on how the big-chain restaurants are killing people with mediocre meat and slashing rainforests for more cattle-raising room.

“All this for a meat patty between two pieces of bread?” you ask. “All of this protesting and change and competition. It’s silly.” To that I say, “Yeah, it’s silly, but when you really think about it, it’s American.”

Thanks, and happy eating.

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Accidental Foods

I have heard of how the sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream cones, potato chips, and popsicles (ice lollies, if you’re UK-born) are a mistake, but the nachos one is a new one. I also have heard that the naming for “chimichangas” was a mistake, as it was from a Mexican mom who was trying to cover up her cursing in front of her child. Another culinary mistake that became popular was the chocolate lava cake. According to food legend, a pastry cook took out a batch of mini chocolate cakes too soon, but since he was in a hurry, he just told the customers that they’re a new dessert made by the kitchen.

Creating accidental foods is how I got through some of my culinary classes, like that tomato-flavored cream cheese that I tried to pass for dip (goes great on bagel sandwiches, especially ones with lox or smoked salmon. Not so much the greasy breakfast sandwiches where sausage, ham, a sunny side-up egg, or bacon is your protein). Or that Mexican cheese and chicken dish I did in Chef Wagner’s Bistro class that I made after I successfully made sopas (pictures below).

Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter

This is the sopa platter, decorated with fried plantains, some salsa (homemade, natch), and lime pieces (with kosher salt on them for that bold, sassy virgin margarita flavor).

This below is the chicken and cheese dish I made for fun:

P04-12-12_11.35

Now, if memory serves me correctly, this was made with roasted red peppers, queso fresco, roasted chicken, and refried beans. You can eat it like a cheap casserole or use it in filling for tacos, quesadillas, or homemade Hot Pockets or mini-pizzas.

Thank you, and happy eating!

Rantings of an Amateur Chef

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I think accidents are the father.

When you think along the pantheon of food, there have been more than a few accidental inventions:

  • Sandwich – The Earl of Sandwich was at a gambling table and didn’t want to get up. I’ve been there and know that feeling. He ordered his dinner of meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies – A baker at the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House) was making chocolate cookies one day and ran out of chocolate powder.  Taking a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, she broke it into chunks and put it into the batter, thinking that the chocolate would melt evenly. It didn’t and thank God for that!
  • Ice Cream Cone – At the 1904 World’s Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes. Lucky for him…

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Operation Thanksgiving 4: Side Dish Follies

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving.” We’re in our fourth day (or blog post) on how to make Thanksgiving a little less hectic on the kitchen front (if you need help on the family and relatives front, I’m not qualified for that). I laid out my plan on day one. Day two outlined the history of Thanksgiving and why a turkey was chosen as the main course. Day three focused on the turkey and the easy ways to make it juicy and moist (along with debunking every moisture retaining technique you learned from family and the media). Today, we make like a bad Operation player and touch the sides.

Stuffing

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing in or served alongside the turkey? For some people, better.

I used to be one of those people who thought stuffing was disgusting – without even tasting it, which is a cardinal sin in culinary. You have to taste everything at least once before you can pass judgment. You may be missing out on something great. That’s how I found out that gluten-free brownies are just as good as ordinary brownies. I didn’t discover how good stuffing could be until November 2011, when my culinary class was assigned to cook Thanksgiving lunch and dinner for everyone at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center (which averages in at about 400 students, not counting students who leave because they finished the program, got thrown out, or decided not to stay, plus the regular staff members) and the kitchen staff taught us how to make it by hand. It was just a typical bread and celery stuffing, meant to be served alongside the turkey during the lunch and dinner rushes.

Initially I refused, citing that I didn’t like it. My teacher insisted, and I figured, “I’m not going to stick to most of my ways. I came out here to Kentucky to try new things.” It…wasn’t too bad. It could have stood to be seasoned a little more, but it wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be.

Now, why would I think stuffing is disgusting? I mean, look at it.

Great Grandma's Bread Stuffing Recipe

Its name is appropos to what it looks like: stuffing, from an old couch that a stoner must have thought would taste better in the oven. Also, it seems that the stuffing and the turkey are competing for being the dryest thing at the table since that time your theatrical son chose to read Oscar Wilde’s memoirs instead of saying grace at the dinner table (hey, it’s more educational and less embarrassing than the time Uncle Gerald gave that stirring reading from Penthouse Forum. Sitting at the adult table can be vastly overrated, sometimes)*.

“So, Canais [or “Philly Foodie,” if you can’t make heads or tails of the pronounciation of my name],” you ask, “How can I make my stuffing moist?”

Now, assuming that’s not more food-based sexual innuendo, I’d answer, “It’s very simple…”

Or maybe not.

Because while you might dream of having moist stuffing inside a roasted bird, reality in the form of borrowed time, better resources (more pans, more oven room), and/or guest request may call for the stuffing to be cooked separately. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which method you use (stuffed in the bird vs. cooked separately), as long as you follow these steps to better, more moist stuffing:

Use bread: You can use grains or eschew stuffing all together if you have guests who don’t like/can’t eat gluten, but the truth of the matter is: You need bread for your stuffing. Now what kind of bread depends on what kind of stuffing you’re aiming for – and it has to be fresh bread. Don’t try to cheat with prepackaged croutons. It’ll taste like crap and everyone will know it. If you want to stick to tradition, use Pullman bread (the typical, square loaf bread, often sold as “white bread”). Whole grain bread adds a sweeter, fuller taste. Italian loaves cut into cubes is what I used when my class made stuffing from scratch. They’re great for sopping up the juices and, if you happen to have an Italian loaf flavored with olive oil or an Italian herb (basil or oregano), all the better, as it imparts a very homey taste. Good, old San Francisco sourdough gets you chewy, tangy stuffing (which is equal parts good and bad). Whatever you use, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person when figuring out how much you will need, or, failing that, err on the side of too much rather than too little. This is good advice, because the next blog post will be about what to do with all those leftovers.

Dry your bread: Nobody likes mushy stuffing, except those so hungry and desperate that they will eat anything, and even then, it’s a crapshoot. As I mentioned before, you can’t use prepackaged croutons, but you can make your own with fresh bread. Cut whatever bread you’re using (if you’re using cornbread or buttermilk biscuits as your base, all you have to do is bake your cornbread or biscuits and crumble them when they cool off) into cubes and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown) at 275°F.

Aromatic vegetables are your friends: As I mentioned in the turkey section, a mix of diced or roughly cut (but small enough to be inconspicuous) aromatic vegetables (mirepoix) is essential, whether you’re making sauce or roasting poultry, and here, it’s no exception. The only difference is, instead of carrots, use garlic, along with your celery and onions, as you sauté them in a pan slicked up with a full stick of butter (you can cut it in half if the mere mention of a stick of butter makes your heart seize up in a pre-emptive attack).

Fresh herbs are also your friends: I already touched on this in the turkey post, so I’m not going to belabor the point. In the case of stuffing, you can’t cheat and use powdered herbs. You can, if you don’t have any fresh herbs, but if you want the stuffing to taste like something, then I advise you to use fresh and dried herbs. Sage, thyme, and parsley are the herbs associated with stuffing, but you can improvise and either add on or substitute any of those three for ground cloves, allspice, mace, and/or nutmeg. Rosemary — an herb my mother hates with a passion (I myself love it) — can be used as well, but it will impart a pine tree-like flavor to your stuffing if you use too much — unless you want to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas in one meal, then by all means, go nuts. In seriousness, though, a pinch of the herbs and spices is all you need to give the stuffing a pop without making it overbearing.

Pack the stuffing loosely: The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. On top of that, you run the risk of causing food-bourne illness if you do pack it tightly. If your hand can’t fit inside the cavity after you stuffed the bird, it’s too much. The excess stuffing can be cooked off in a casserole pan or put in a freezer bag for later use.

A little liquid goes a long way: This will make or break your stuffing, as the liquid is what keeps the stuffing together. However, too much can make it soggy. You’re going to need one to two cups of stock (not broth, stock) of any kind (chicken is the gold standard, but you can use vegetable or mushroom if you don’t want to make your vegetarian eaters mad), but if you want to mix it up, create a liquid mixture made of milk, white wine, and the stock of your choice. The key here is to have something that will not only hold the bread crumbs together, but also give it a great flavor.

Next up, Cranberry Sauce

Like stuffing, I was never a fan of this Thanksgiving staple. Not because no one knew how to make it right, but I was under the impression that no one made it at all, and that the only form it existed in was the can, jellied monstrosity by Ocean Spray. My “Damn you, Ocean Spray” from the previous post was half-funny and half-serious. I just really hate that Ocean Spray came up with the canned cranberry sauce (their cranberry juices are okay in my book). It wouldn’t be until college that I realize that cranberry sauce need not be this way. One of the student orientation heads brought some homemade cranberry and orange sauce. One taste and all my preconceptions about cranberry sauce vanished.

It wouldn’t be until I went to Job Corps for culinary arts that I went searching online for homemade cranberry sauce recipes I could put in my Thanksgiving repertoire. This one I picked (and just did) because it’s more of a relish than a sauce and it’s very versatile. It can be equally enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table or on a shrimp salad pita sandwich during your lunch break at work.

Pomegranate Apple Cranberry Relish (credit to A Spicy Perspective)

Ingredients:

2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 medium crisp apple, peeled, cored, diced (I used a Granny Smith apple because I wanted it to taste tart, but you can use the mild apples, like Gala or Red Delicious)
1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds) [See my blog post about POM and pomegranates for how to break and de-seed one of these suckers. It’s not as messy as handling cranberries]
1 teaspoons orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or parsley)*

*I substituted for ground cinnamon for two reasons: 1) it gives it a bolder flavor that’s more suited for autumn, and 2) my mother couldn’t find any mint, and I didn’t go shopping with her to look for it myself. I also forgot to put salt in it, but I think I made up for it with the cinnamon.

Directions:

1) Simmer the pomegranate juice and sugar until it reduces to less than half, and a thin syrupy consistency is reached—about 15 minutes (longer if you feel it could be a little sweeter).

2) Meanwhile, using a blender or a food processor, coarsely chop the cranberries.

3) Pour them into a medium bowl and add the pomegranate syrup. If the syrup is still warm, don’t worry about it. You can make up for it by chilling it in the refrigerator.

4) Add the diced apple, pomegranate arils, orange zest salt and mint. Mix well.

5) Serve right away or chill for up to a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes seems like a no-brainer recipe. Boil some spuds until soft and yielding, mash as you pour in milk or cream, season to taste, the end. Which is why I don’t understand why people would resort to instant. Yes, if time really isn’t on your side, you can whip this up in 15 to 30 minutes flat, but I’m the kind of person who at least wants to put some effort into something, whether or not it’s stupid easy. If that means I’m an ovethinker, then, well, that’s what I am.

And just like anything that seems easy to make, it’s also easy to screw it up. Case in point: I had to make mashed potatoes for wonton filling in my garde manger (pantry) class. The potatoes were only half soft when I had to mash them. Also, it would have been best if I peeled them before cubing them. My point is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As long as you use Russets (Idaho) or Yukon Golds (they’re starchier and result in a creamier mash, mash it by hand instead of machine (immersion blender and food processors), don’t overdo it on the mashing, don’t add too much liquid (and if you do, then you can turn it into potato soup), respect the “2:1 potato-to-butter ratio” (for every pound of potatoes, use a half-pound of butter), and don’t make them too far in advance (to avoid drying them out), then you’re golden.

I will, however, add that I swear by stock and cream cheese for really good mashed potatoes that don’t also double as stucco.

Vegetable, Grain, and Legume Dishes

Normally, green bean casserole (the one with the fried onion sticks in them) is the go-to veggie dish for the Thanksgiving table, but let’s be honest. It’s time to retire it. It had a good run and it should have gone out on top before 1979 ended (kind of like how The Simpsons should have ended after the season nine episode where Homer becomes the sanitation commissioner for Springfield and then buried the entire town in trash, which would be around 1998-1999).

At my table, the vegetable dishes are usually collard greens (or some kind of braised greens dish. Mustard greens and kale have been served before), a rice and veggie dish (usually broccoli, and usually with that bright yellow cheese sauce), asparagus spears, or baked potatoes. Vegetables don’t really get much attention at my family’s table, which is a shame, because that’s an essential part of a balanced diet. If I had my way, I’d prepare ratatouille (not that Pixar movie; it’s an actual vegetable dish of North African and Mediterrenean roots), creamed spinach, and brussel sprouts (yeah, it’s not everyone’s favorite vegetable, but, if cooked right, it will be. Brussel sprouts really benefit from some time in a slow cooker).

My family doesn’t do beans at the table, since not everyone likes them (myself included). I have taken a liking to quinoa, thanks to my internship at Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/health food store in Berkeley, California. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. You can use it as a substitute for rice if you’re making a pilaf recipe, but I enjoy quinoa more in a salad recipe (like this recipe below):

Greek Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced if desired
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:

1)      In a medium-large saucepan, cook the quinoa in vegetable broth for 15-20 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool.

2)      In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.

3)      Gently toss the quinoa together with the remaining ingredients, except the feta.

4)      Pour the olive oil mixture over the quinoa.

Add more salt and pepper to taste and gently stir in the feta cheese

Breads (Biscuits, Cornbread, and Croissants)

If you don’t know how to make bread by hand, you can take a shortcut and get your breads either from a bakery or just use Pillsbury or Jiffy brand. But, if you have the know-how and the time to make biscuits, cornbread, and/or croissants by hand, then read on:

I’m a fan of knock-off recipes. A knock-off recipe (also called a “copycat recipe”) is a recipe written to imitate a certain food or meal from a popular chain restaurant or fast food joint. You see them all the time online, from imitations of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion to imitations of your favorite candies, like Almond Joy and Reese’s Cups. The knock-off recipe appeals to my “I can do better than these guys” sensibilities, because why go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard when you can just throw some ice cream (either store-bought or homemade) in a blender and mix in some candy, fruit, nuts, or cookie dough pieces until it’s so thick that it can’t slide out of the cup? And why go to Red Lobster for the Chedday Bay biscuits when you can make them yourself at home? I think you see where this is going.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Method

-Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

-Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter pieces into it with a pastry cutter or two knives.

-Add the buttermilk, stirring just until a sticky dough forms.

-Turn it out onto floured surface, pat it into a square, and fold it in on itself a couple of times, like a letter.

-Pat it out again to about 1/2 to 1 inch thickness, depending on how you like them. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits out.

-Arrange them on a baking sheet, as close to each other as possible without touching. Make a small indentation in the center of each biscuit with your thumb (I’ve heard this helps them rise straight, but I’ve never not done it, so I have no idea.)

-Mix butter or margarine and garlic powder. Brush mixture over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is hard to find. In my younger, more naive days, I thought Jiffy brand Cornbread Mix was the quickest way to good cornbread. Then, one day, I tried a piece of Jiffy cornbread after years of not having it and was shocked to find that it wasn’t the little slice of buttery heaven it was before. I learned a horrible truth about my beloved cornbread: real cornbread (as in, “From the Deep South of these United States. The kind of places where answering ‘No’ to the question, ‘You ain’t from around here, are ya?’ will get you strung up faster than a piñata at a little kid’s backyard birthday party”) is grittier than packaged or bakery versions. Why? Because wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients, dominate commercial mixes. From then on, I’ve been on a journey to find a cornbread recipe (from scratch) that would make me love cornbread again.

And I made it when I was at Whitney M. Young Job Corps Center:

Juffy Cornbread Mix (Not very creative, but it’s still mine)

Dry Mix:

2/3 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 Egg

1/3 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

Method:

1)      Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

2)      Whisk in vegetable oil and mix until dry mixture is smooth and lumps are gone.

3)      Combine mix with egg and milk, mixing well.

4)      Fill muffin pan 1/2 full,

5)      Bake for 15-20 minutes or until toothpick poked in center of one of the cornbread muffins comes out clean.

A note for cooks: Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning that its batter or dough should be made quickly. Working on it too long or mixing it too much can and will result in a less than savory crumb.

Croissants

As I said before, you’re better off just getting ready-made crescent rolls from either a very good bakery or the grocer’s freezer in one of those tubes that go “POP!” when you press on it with a back of a spoon, as croissant dough is very labor intensive to work with.

I’d like to thank Fine Cooking.com and my Baking Class instructor, Master Baker Chef Egon Grundmann from Treasure Island Job Corps Center for teaching me how to work with this dough and for the recipe:

Ingredients:

For the dough

  • 1 lb. 2 oz. (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (add more for rolling, so the dough doesn’t stick)
  • 5 oz. (1/2cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold water
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold whole milk
  • 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) soft unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbs. plus scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2-1/4 tsp. table salt

For the butter layer

  • 10 oz. (1-1/4 cups) cold unsalted butter

For the egg wash

1 large egg

Method:

Make the dough

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl once if necessary. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured 10-inch pie pan or a dinner plate. Lightly flour the top of the dough and wrap well with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Refrigerate overnight.

Make the butter layer

The next day, cut the cold butter lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces on a piece of parchment or waxed paper to form a 5- to 6-inch square, cutting the butter crosswise as necessary to fit. Top with another piece of parchment or waxed paper. With a rolling pin, pound the butter with light, even strokes. As the pieces begin to adhere, use more force. Pound the butter until it’s about 7-1/2 inches square and then trim the edges of the butter. Put the trimmings on top of the square and pound them in lightly with the rolling pin. Refrigerate while you roll out the dough.

Laminate the dough

Unwrap and lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 10-1/2-inch square. Brush excess flour off the dough. Remove the butter from the refrigerator—it should be pliable but cold. If not, refrigerate a bit longer. Unwrap and place the butter on the dough so that the points of the butter square are centered along the sides of the dough. Fold one flap of dough over the butter toward you, stretching it slightly so that the point just reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the other flaps, then press the edges together to completely seal the butter inside the dough. A complete seal ensures the butter center won’t come out over the edges.

Lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, firmly press the dough to elongate it slightly and then begin rolling instead of pressing, focusing on lengthening rather than widening the dough and keeping the edges straight. Roll the dough until it’s 8 by 24 inches. If the ends lose their square shape, gently reshape the corners with your hands. Brush any flour off the dough. Pick up one short end of the dough and fold it back over the dough, leaving one-third of the other end of dough exposed. Brush the flour off and then fold the exposed dough over the folded side. Put the dough on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for 20 minutes to relax and chill the dough.

Repeat the rolling and folding, this time rolling in the direction of the two open ends. Fold the dough in thirds again, brushing off excess flour and turning under any rounded edges or short ends with exposed or smeared layers. Cover and freeze for another 20 minutes.

Give the dough a third rolling and folding. Put the dough on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, tucking the plastic under all four sides. Refrigerate overnight.

Divide the dough

The next day, unwrap and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, “wake the dough up” by pressing firmly along its length—you don’t want to widen the dough but simply begin to lengthen it with these first strokes. Roll the dough into a long and narrow strip. If the dough sticks as you roll, sprinkle with flour. Once the dough is about half to two-thirds of its final length, it may start to resist rolling and even shrink back. If this happens, fold the dough in thirds, cover, and refrigerate for about 10 minutes; then unfold the dough and finish rolling. Lift the dough an inch or so off the table and allow it to shrink from both sides—this helps prevent the dough from shrinking when it’s cut. Check that there’s enough excess dough on either end to allow you to trim the ends so they’re straight. Trim the dough.

With a knife and a ruler, mark the top of the dough at 5-inch intervals along the length. There should be 7 marks in all. Make a mark 2-1/2 inches in from the end of the dough. Make marks at 5-inch intervals from this point all along the bottom of the dough. You’ll have 8 marks that fall halfway between the marks at the top.

Make diagonal cuts by positioning the yardstick at the top corner and the first bottom mark. With a knife or pastry wheel (better known as a pizza cutter), cut the dough along the marked lines. Repeat until you have cut the dough diagonally at the same angle along its entire length. Change the angle of the yardstick to connect the other top corner and bottom mark and cut the dough along this line to make triangles. Repeat along the entire length of dough. You’ll end up with 15 triangles and a small scrap of dough at each end. Toss the scraps out if they aren’t triangular enough to be made into croissants.

Using a paring knife or a bench knife, make a 1/2- to 3/4-inch-long notch in the center of the short side of each triangle. The notch helps the rolled croissant curl into a crescent. Hold a dough triangle so that the short notched side is on top and gently elongate to about 10 inches without squeezing or compressing the dough. Lay the croissant on your work surface with the notched side closest to you. With one hand on each side of the notch, begin to roll the dough away from you, towards the pointed end.

Flare your hands outward as you roll so that the “legs” (the thin ends) become longer. Press down on the dough with enough force to make the layers stick together, but avoid excess compression, which could smear the layers. Roll the dough all the way down its length until the pointed end of the triangle is directly underneath the croissant. Now bend the two legs towards you to form a tight crescent shape and gently press the tips of the legs together. Don’t worry if they come off during the proofing phase. That’s normal.

Shape the remaining croissants in the same manner, arranging them on two large parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets (8 on one pan and 7 on the other). Keep as much space as possible between them, as they will rise during the final proofing and again when baked.

Proof the croissants

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl until very smooth. Lightly brush it on each croissant.

Refrigerate the remaining egg wash and put the croissants in a draft-free spot at 75° to 80°F. Wherever you proof them, be sure the temperature is not so warm that the butter melts out of the dough. They will take 90 minutes to 2 hours to fully proof (perfect time to watch a movie). The croissants are ready if you can see the layers of dough when the croissants are viewed from the side, and if you shake the sheets, the croissants will wiggle. Finally, the croissants will be distinctly larger (though not doubled) than they were when first shaped.

Bake the croissants (Finally!)

Shortly before the croissants are fully proofed, position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven and heat it to 400°F convection, or 425°F conventional. Brush the croissants with egg wash a second time. Put the sheets in the oven. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets and swap their positions. Continue baking until the bottoms are an even brown, the tops richly browned, and the edges show signs of coloring, another 8 to 10 minutes. If they appear to be darkening too quickly during baking, lower the oven temperature by 10°F. Let cool on baking sheets on racks.

Well, we reached the end of this battle in “Operation: Thanksgiving,” but the war isn’t over yet. Once I’ve and you’ve recovered from our respective food comas, I’ll be blogging about what you can do with all those leftovers.

Goodbye, happy eating, and Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Hanukkah, since that happens to fall around the same time as American Thanksgiving this year. I’ve never seen this happen and I’m glad to be alive to see it. Mazel tov!).

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*NOTE: Those two events never happened to me personally. I’m just painting a hypothetical picture of how dry the stuffing and turkey can get. All recipes and excerpts are property of their respective books and websites unless otherwise noted. All commentary is copyright of Canais “Philly Foodie” Young.

Operation Thanksgiving 3: More Turkey Troubles (or Me Against The Kitchen)

Welcome to part three of “Operation: Thanksgiving,” your guide and my spin on that holiday that will pack your digestive tract tighter than the overhead luggage on an over-booked flight home. Last time around, I got into some cultural history about the holiday and how the goofy-looking turkey went from being domesticated by ancient peoples to carved by modern man (or woman) for an autumn holiday sandwiched between the garish, sugar rush of Halloween and the cold, yet heartwarming lull of Christmas (or Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish, Ramadan, if you’re Muslim, or no holiday if you’re Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or you’ve long given up on holiday cheer and want everyone else to know it).

Today, we’re going after the popular dishes of Thanksgiving, specifically, some subsitutes, new spins, and the right way to cook dishes you can’t do without…which means, “Yes, we will discuss how to make that turkey come out a little less dry so your critical relatives can get off your damn back,” which is the subject of today’s post.

Now, cooking for large crowds (what’s known in the foodservice biz as “high-volume service,” whether you’re serving the cream of the social crop at a fine-dining restaurant or serving the unfortunate souls who have to make due with soup from a homeless shelter. I’ve done both) isn’t for the weak or slow. You have to be on your game and make sure everything is prepared in time. You have to know how to do your stuff and do it well under pressure (again, a lesson learned from my Job Corps days). It also helps that you have others around you who can work as a team and also know what they’re doing. If you feel you can’t handle this, then don’t read and wait until the next entry. If, however, you are a seasoned Thanksgiving kitchen veteran or feel that you can handle it, then read on.

I’d like to thank the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, the writers of all those recipe books I poured through, and my Basic and Advanced Culinary Arts instructors who taught me well, as all my tips will be from these sources and it’s only fair to give them credit.

First up, the turkey:

This isn’t like the roast chicken you can make for Sunday dinner and use the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches and feeding the outside cats (and the indoor ones) who won’t leave you alone, despite that you’re out of dry and wet cat food. A lot of care goes into making a turkey the best anyone’s ever tasted, regardless of whether you’re serving to a large family or just you (or you and someone you love).

If you know me at all, then you’ll know that one of my major pet peeves is a dry turkey. Everything else on the Thanksgiving menu can be five-star, but if the turkey is dry, then that’s a major flaw to me. Part of the reason is because I have that need for everything to be right. Then there’s the fact that I want to show others that the two years of learning culinary arts at Job Corps weren’t a waste, even if I never get a job in that field (I can show my support for farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture, local growers, fair trade, and talented people who want to go to school to be five-star chefs, but don’t have the money or don’t know what to do to reach that goal, though), and the fact that I always get the hiccups whenever I eat dry turkey.

So, if this is your first time roasting turkey and you’ve been racking your brain on how to make that turkey moist, stop racking and start taking notes.

Let’s start off with why your turkey would end up dry. The most common reasons are either: (a) you overcooked the bird, or (b) you made a mistake in how it was prepared or while it was roasting in the oven.

You may have heard from cooking shows or dear old ma (or grandma) that a pat of butter under the skin or rinsing it is the key to juicy turkey. Well, you can tell dear old ma (or grandma) not to bother with her technique (no matter how many generations it’s been passed down), because you have some new tricks up your sleeve:

First, you need the right equipment:

a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.

This one has been with my family for years. We don’t have an inside-the-pan rack for it, but the turkey still comes out okay. The ones with the rack inside like this one…
…are good if you’re planning on turning the pan drippings into homemade gravy (which is simply your pan drippings, plus a flour/oil mix called a roux and some whipping cream if you want it smoother or have to stretch it).
Which leads me to my next secret to juicy turkey: your mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah,” named for a French field marshal and Louis XV’s ambassador, Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix). “Mirepoix” is just a fancy name for the aromatic vegetables cooks chop up to flavor soups, stews, sauces, and roasted meats. It goes by various names, such as “sofrito” in Spanish, “refogado” in Portuguese, “Suppengrün” in German, “the holy trinity” in Creole and Cajun cooking, or “włoszczyzna” in Polish. A common mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onions for every one part of celery and one part of carrots (though you can also add or substitute for other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, parsnips, celeriac, bell peppers, garlic, or tomatoes). What you want to do is chop your aromatic veggies into medium to large chunks (depending on how big the turkey is) and spread the chunks out on the bottom of the pan, creating a flat surface.
But the mirepoix can’t make the turkey juicy alone. You need to season the bird all over — including the inside cavity. Salt and pepper are your go-to guys, but you can use any seasoning you want. Most of the time, I’m a kitchen-sink seasoner when it comes to roasting poultry  (meaning, “I use everything but the kitchen sink”), but you (and I) have a special blend when it comes to turkey. A nice dry rub I like to use for poultry is salt, pepper, a whisper of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, some garlic (whether fresh and crushed or dry and powdered), some white pepper, and either basil or Italian seasoning.The spice rack (or spice section of your pantry) is your oyster; use it to your advantage. Do taste tests if you must to come up with a winning combination
It also helps if you stick an apple (Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are good. Save your Red Delicious for apple juice, apple sauce, or good, old-fashioned, out of hand eating) in the neck cavity. It keeps it juicy and imparts a fresh, fall flavor to it when combined with the cinnamon inside the bird. Or, you could do what I did four years ago and fill the cavity with dried cherries and fresh orange slices. It surprisingly came out good, but it imparted a very sweet taste to it that even I couldn’t handle.

Stuffing the bird also keeps it moist, but only if it’s a moist stuffing (read: it has broth/stock in it).
And last, but not least, some “dos” and “don’ts” for roasting your turkey:
  • Don’t truss the turkey. Trussing is when you tie the legs and wings of poultry together to keep its shape and cook evenly without drying out any of the extremities. You might be asking, “But Philly Foodie, how can you tell me not to do this if the goal is to have a turkey that’s not dry?” Well, in this case, trussing is a bad thing. The legs and wings are dark meat (which is from the active muscles of a bird) and dark meat doesn’t dry out quickly like white meat does. The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done. And if any of this sounds like sexual innuendo, I do NOT apologize, because it’s your mind that’s face-down in the gutter.
  • As much as TV, magazines, and your fellow home cooks make it seem glamorous and will pressure you into doing it, just say “No” to basting as your turkey roasts in the oven. The meat is covered by the skin and won’t absorb the juices, so why bother? Also, you will lose valuable heat by opening and closing the oven door a lot. Here’s how you combat this: For the first 20 minutes, roast the bird at a really high heat (450 degrees).  This will allow the skin to brown on the outside and lock in the juices. After 20 minutes, reset the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and turn the turkey upside down so the breast is on the bottom. Add ¼ cup of low sodium chicken stock seasoned with black pepper. This will act as a basting mechanism for the turkey. Since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it breast side down exposes it to less direct heat.
  • The phrase “Stick a fork [or knife] in it. It’s done” actually does more harm than good for Tom Turkey, so don’t do it. Why? You lose valuable turkey juice that way.  Some folks like to use the pop up meat thermometers which are fine when they work while others use the leg check technique (read: if the leg when you wiggle it is very easy to move and the skin breaks the bird is done).  You can also use the “20 minutes per pound” rule for a no stuffing bird or the “25 minutes per pound” rule for a stuffed one, but if you’re not good with math, then stick with the other two methods.
  • Do remember is that once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit whether or not it’s stuffed), remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to sit 20 minutes to keep the meat moist. If you carve the meat immediately, all the juices will run out and your goal to make a moist turkey will have been a fool’s errand.

In the next post, we’ll go through the side dishes, sauces, and biscuits. See you then, and happy eating!

Operation Thanksgiving 2: Gobbled Up in the Festivities (or Turkey Troubles)

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving,” where I highlight notable moments in food history and dispense tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal. And what better way to continue than to tackle the star of the Thanksgiving table: the turkey.

Male_north_american_turkey_supersaturated

The turkey (pictured above) we have come to know, love, and welcome to our tables (except if the entire family is vegetarian or vegan or just plain doesn’t like turkey) is a descendant of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a North American native with Mesoamerican (Mexican and Central American) roots (the turkey was domesticated in an area now identified as southern Mexico). Its actual name was a mistake, though there isn’t any clear evidence of whether or not it was true. Wikipedia states that it was from British ships importing the birds to their country and believing that they were from the actual country called Turkey (situated between Europe and Asia; capital city is Ankara while its most important city is Istanbul).

The turkey is part of a taxonomic order of birds known as Galliformes, heavy-body, ground-feeding birds that don’t migrate, are found in essentially every part of the world’s continents (except for Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic regions, and any place that’s mostly desert) and are often raised for food. Other birds in this order include chicken, pheasant, partridge, guinea fowl, and quail. There are different breeds of turkey, same with any other animal, from the common-as-muck Broad Brested White to the ones that aren’t raised to be eaten, like the Bourbon Red. The Broad Breasted White is the one bred for Thanksgiving dinner, and the one “pardoned” by the President, as per White House tradition, which had its origins when Abraham Lincoln was President, but didn’t become a tradition until George H.W. Bush [the one who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president and only lasted one term, which, as of 2013, is the most recent time a U.S. President only served one term. Bill Clinton, H.W.’s son, George W., and Barack Obama are all two-termers] sent the turkey he was meant to eat back to Herndon, Virginia’s — and I’m not making this up — county of Frying Pan Park on November 14, 1989.

Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys, using its meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing its feathers extensively for decoration. The Aztecs associated the turkey with their trickster god Tezcatlipoca. Why? I don’t know. The turkey is funny-looking and its throaty cluck/gobble sound is comical to some, but I don’t know what’s so funny about the turkey…well, except for the darkly humorous times when a turkey dies because some idiot thinks turkeys can fly like most common birds (WKRP in Cincinnati and Married…With Children has had at least one Thanksgiving episode featuring such a scene).

Like most things in North, Central, and South America back when it was home to indigenous peoples, the turkey was brought back to Europe as proof that the explorers had been to the Americas and to see if the florae or faunae from the native lands can survive somewhere else. A 16th-century English navigator named William Strickland is generally credited with introducing the turkey into England. His family coat of arms — showing a turkey in his family crest — is among the earliest known European depictions of a turkey. The turkey was also originally considered to be the bird associated with the United States rather than the eagle. Hm, majestic and endangered or goofy-looking and grounded? So hard to choose. If you ask me, both birds represent the best and worst of America’s culture, philosophy, and history. It’d be like picking Pepsi over Coke (and despite my being a fan of Saturday Night Live [so long as it’s not anything from 1980 to 1982] and seeing the Olympia Cafe sketch on an E! special about the show’s 101 greatest moments, I prefer Coke over Pepsi).

Speaking of turkeys throughout history, we’ve come to the point where I get to tell you how the turkey came to be associated with Thanksgiving. Hurrah!

Intensive farming of turkeys in the late 1940s dramatically cut the price, making it more affordable for the working classes. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later advances in disease control increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants has made fresh turkey inexpensive as well as readily available. However, there was a time when turkey was considered a luxury (somewhere before the 19th century). If you wanted a good holiday meal, but didn’t have the cash for it, you settled for goose or beef. It’s the reason why Ebenezer Scrooge surprised Bob Cratchitt with turkey when he changed his ways at the end of A Christmas Carol (which most of you would know if you read the actual story instead of watching the parodies, adaptations, and clones that always come on TV or are released in movie theaters).

Oh, and forget all that crap you learned about the first Thanksgiving in school. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down and eating together had the same tension as a Thanksgiving meal with a relative fresh out of prison/rehab, a grandmother or grandfather who embodies all the old, shameful prejudices this modern, politically correct society is trying to whitewash out of history, a college-aged older sibling who either came out of the closet, became a drug addict, is dating someone the family doesn’t like (and yes, that includes someone of a different ethnic background, sociopolitical status, and/or someone of the same sex), dropped out of school,  joined the military, or joined up with a fringe political party or religious group that conflicts with the family’s core values and morals, several aunts and uncles you haven’t seen in years and used to think were so cool, enough loud, bratty younger siblings/relatives to cast five kiddie sitcoms on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, a patriarch trying to keep in touch with his fantasy football bets, and an overly-cheery matriarch trying to keep everything together with the power of her smiling like a Stepford wife on amphetamines and whatever antidepressant is popular on the market today. As this picture below shows, the Indians were forced to sit at what we modern people call “the children’s table.” They probably had a racist name for it, but that’s lost to time (hopefully). I’m saying this as a partial Native American (Cherokee, not Wampanoag), and someone who’s trying to see American history past the B.S. taught to younger generations:

We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Oh, and the menu that day in 1621 was wildfowl, corn, and venison (deer meat. I, personally, never had it, but it is on my culinary bucket list). No turkey, no biscuits, no green bean casserole, no collard greens, no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no sweet potato pie — nothing. So, how did we go from wildfowl, corn, and venison to turkey with all the trimmings and sides associated with it?

Because records from the 1600s were spotty (at best), it is unclear when and how the turkey first claimed its place as the Thanksgiving bird. Maybe it was after the turkey was passed up as America’s bird, but that’s just speculation. It’s generally acknowledged that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (he’s on the $10 bill in American currency) declared, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” By 1916, writers had begun referring to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, but turkeys didn’t become a staple of the dinner until Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1941 during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration despite that Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States since 1863 (two years before the Civil War ended).

Pumpkins, like the turkey, are native to the North America continent. However, pumpkin probably was not baked into a pie at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Pilgrims did not even have access to ovens. While pumpkin and squash are part of the traditional New England harvest, the Pilgrims likely only ate boiled pumpkin, not the now-traditional pumpkin pie. Approximately fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie gained popularity in New England. Recipes for pumpkin pie then appeared in English cookbooks beginning in 1670. The first American cookbook that included a recipe for pumpkin pie was not published until 1796. Pumpkin pie today is a popular way to conclude a delicious Thanksgiving feast with a sweet dessert, but, for my money, I’m going for something chocolate (preferably chocolate with hazelnut or pepperment) or too lethargic and full from eating to even care about dessert.

Stuffing has a longer history than turkey. Stuffing itself dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Recipes for stuffing appear in the Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria and the practice of stuffing large birds, not just turkeys, was common then and in the time of the Pilgrims. Does that mean stuffing was present at The First Thanksgiving? No, because the Pilgrims didn’t have access to flour or ovens when they sailed to Plymouth Rock.

Cranberries are native to North America, and eaten by the Native Americans before The First Thanksgiving was even a thing. Once the white settlers began consuming cranberries in the mid-1600s, cranberries became a crucial part of the New England harvest. It wasn’t until 50 years after Thanksgiving that referencs to traditional cranberry sauce appeared in the written historical record. Cranberries sealed their role as a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal. Cranberry sauce as you know it (the canned, gelatinous mass that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot fork and knife) wasn’t popular until 1912, when Ocean Spray canned and released it to the unsuspecting masses. Damn you, Ocean Spray.

Potatoes (Sweet and Regular White): At the time of the first Thanksgiving, neither white potatoes nor sweet potatoes had arrived in North America. White potatoes were native to South America, and sweet potatoes were native to the Carribean. Once sweet potatoes were brought to the United States from Europe, they quickly became popular in the South, where humid growing conditions suited the tuber. Southerners even used sweet potatoes as a substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. The earliest recipe for candied sweet potatoes appeared around 1889, and sweet potato casseroles didn’t have marshmallows in them until a 1917 cookbook was published that popularized marshmallows as an everyday cooking ingredient. If you want to see weirder cookbook ideas and premises, visit my favorite site (and one of my inspirations for writing and humor), The Gallery of Regrettable Food, part of James Lileks’ “Institute of Official Cheer.”

Tune in for part three, where I finally get to that “dispensing tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal.” Thanks, and happy eating.

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All credit (verbal and visual) goes to Wikipedia, whitehouse.gov’s blog, and Neon Tommy

Operation Thanksgiving

Dear Reader,

In less than two weeks, I’ll be drafted. Not to fight for my country, but to help my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I come from a family where, despite being on the lower-middle class rung on the American social ladder, we always put out a decent spread — not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While searching for steady work outside the home, I became a kitchen guru for my mother (who, if she was in a culinary education institute, would be commended for her hands-on work instead of her classroom knowledge. For me, it would be the other way around, though my hands-on work is pretty good…just, not good enough for a professional kitchen. That’s why I want to either teach others about cooking — whether it’s being some cooking teacher’s assistant or having my own video series online), informing her of the tips and tricks I learned in Kentucky and California (mostly California), introducing her to new foods (particularly fruits she would never eat, like figs, star fruits, lychees, and passion fruit), and answering (to the best of my ability) any and all queries about cooking time, flavor combinations, and how to make the most out of meals without going over budget. Now, last year, I wasn’t as instrumental to the Thanksgiving planning as I could have been (why? I forget. I can assume it was because my mom didn’t need my help), but this year, it’s different.

From now until Thanksgiving Day, I will be chronicling my thoughts on Thanksgiving (both historically and through the eyes of a food blogger), the typical dishes served, and what’s changed throughout the years.

Sincerely,

PhillyFoodie85 (Canais Young)

Friday Video: Cooking With The Fraternity Chef

This week on Take Back the Kitchen’s Friday Video (don’t worry; tomorrow I’ll have an article ready), Daniel “Dano” Pettinato shows you (and other starving college students) how to make macaroni and cheese. Personally, I don’t care much for it, but, to my sister, it means everything. I’m trying to wean her off the boxed and pre-made stuff in favor of “homemade”-style. I don’t think she can tell the difference. Food is food to her.

“Dano” Pettinato is originally from East Hartford, Conneticut. He is currently the chef for Psi Upsilon (Psi U) at Trinity College (also in Hartford, Connecticut). He has an online video series he created with ChefsInTheKitchen.tv (which is the same place I’m applying for to pitch a cooking show series — or do some kind of production work for them).

Avenue BBQ, part one: Food History 101

This is a special two-part blog about the barbecue season, including its history, regional differences, international differences, and, of course, the requisite recipes, tips, tricks, and advice on how to prepare the food and put out a gorgeous outdoor spread.

All credit for research and visual aids go to about.com, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus,  and all the Job Corps instructors I worked with about the art and subject of grilling and barbecue.

Ah, the first week of July. It’s the height of barbecue/grilling season (which started on Memorial Day Weekend back in May and won’t end until Labor Day in early September). While it would be easy for me to list recipes of barbecue season favorites right away, I’m not going to do that — at least not until tomorrow. So, today, in the words of every teacher ever, take out your notebooks (both paper and electronic) and make sure you take extensive notes in case I feel like giving a quiz later.

Now, let’s start with the word “barbecue.” Where does it come from? Well, the concept of a barbecue (roasting the carcass of a dead animal over a pit of fire) has been around since the Stone Age (maybe earlier than that, but let’s assume it was from the time of early man). Back then, roasting the meat was more than just a way to eat it; it was also a means to perserve it, since refrigeration and proper perserving techniques wouldn’t come until much later.

However, if you want to get technical about the etymology (word origin) of “barbecue” (even though, in the words of Nelson Muntz, “…records from that era are spotty, at best “), the Taíno people of the Caribbean and northeast South America are said to be the ones who came up with the name “barbacoa,” which means, “sacred fire pit.” Their idea of a barbecue back then was to dig a hole in the ground, burn some kindling, and roast a whole goat over a pot. Between the pot and the goat was a criss-crossed wooden platform (the “grill”) that acted as a net in case the goat meat fell off the bone, which it usually did (I never had goat meat, so I can’t really tell you what it tastes like or what to expect. I have, however, had goat cheese, and, by extension, goat milk. Both have a sharper, more pleasing taste than anything you get from a cow. In terms of price, however, it does cost a bit more — especially at the farmer’s market I frequented in San Francisco on most Saturday afternoons).

From there, “barbecoa” and its cooking methodology found its way from the Caribbean to other countries, mostly ones in Europe, since European explorers always found their way to the Caribbean (hey, it happened to Christopher Columbus) and brought back what the natives had (cooking techniques, treasures fit for royalty, a new disease [sexually transmitted or otherwise], maybe a few slaves). The word “barbecoa” found its way to the Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English languages.

The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and their African slaves in the Southern United States. Barbecue traditions on the East Coast are believed to have originated when Caribbean slaves (some of which may or may not have been my ancestors) were brought to the Carolinas in the 17th century. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the New World (America) and became the primary meat source for the colonies. Pork was the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care, which is why pork is popular in Carolina and Memphis barbecue (not so much Texas and Kansas City, as I will discuss in this next paragraph).

Moving forward from the brief history of where barbecue came from, let’s look at the regional and international variations. America has eight regional differences of what barbecue is, but four of them are said to be the most important:

North and South Carolina: As mentioned before, pork is the meat of choice in a lot of Southern barbecue, and the Carolina twins are one of the states where pig meat reigns supreme on the grill (unless you’re vegetarian, vegan, Jewish, or Muslim). It’s served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced, rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking, and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid while it’s being smoked.

If you’re from Eastern North Carolina, then you get to use everything but the squeal as you’re barbecuing Mr. Porky. While that seems like Homer Simpson’s wet dream to eat an entire barbecued pig, I personally can’t warm up to the idea of eating charcoal-roasted chitlins (or chitterlings. In all my years on Earth, I have never pronounced “chitterlings” as “chit-ter-lings.” It’s “chitlins” and no amount of My Fair Lady-style elocution lessons is going to change me otherwise). It was bad enough I had to put up with the smell when I lived with my grandmother. Then again, I don’t mind pig intestines when the linings are being used for sausages. That’s pretty much the only way I can eat it, but I digress. Eastern North Carolina also uses a thin, vinegar-and-cayenne pepper-based barbecue sauce that’s more hot sauce than barbecue sauce (at least for those who associate barbecue sauce with the spicy, yet sweet, tomato-based sauce from Kansas City, Missouri). In Eastern North Carolina barbecue, the philosophy is to let the smoke give the meat flavor rather than rely on sauce or too much spice. It’s a very open, honest approach to barbecue.

Western North Carolina only uses pork shoulder (better known as a Boston butt), as shown on the barbecue grill in this picture:

I could live until I’m 100, and I still wouldn’t know why a “pork shoulder” is called a “Boston butt.” A pig’s butt is fleshier than that, and it doesn’t have that curly tail at the end of it. Here’s what Mr. Porky looks like before he goes to market to get slaughtered by Jocko the Butcher:

The actual butt of a pig is what we call the “ham” (which you can have at a barbecue, but only if it’s one of those Hawaiian ones). Maybe it’s called a Boston butt is because some leering butcher made a rude comparison between that cut of meat and his female customer’s posterior. Who knows?* All I know is that pork shoulder is the cut of meat that is used if you want to make pulled pork (whether it’s on the grill or with a slow cooker). Pork shoulder lends itself to barbecue and braising.
Anyway, N.C. barbecue on the west side also uses a vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but it balances its spiciness with some tomato (not as much as K.C. barbecue, but pretty close). Western N.C. barbecue is also known as Lexington Barbecue, as Lexington, North Carolina is the epicenter of this cooking technique, as evidenced by its many barbecue restaurant and a one-day festival in October called (creatively enough), “The Lexington Barbecue Festival.” Their philosophy is similar to the east side, but also adds, “A little sweetness never hurt anybody,” which I think everyone but diabetics and those who can’t taste sugar can agree with.
Memphis, Tennessee: Memphis barbecue is a hard subject to nail down, but I’ll do my best. Memphis-style barbecue is pork-based like the Carolinas, but their meat of choice is (my personal favorite) ribs in a paprika-hinted dry rub and slow-smoked over a low hickory fire  before finishing on the grill. It’s preferred “dry,” meaning without sauce (becasue the rub adds all the flavor you could ever want on the ribs, so a sauce would be redundant), but if you want it “wet” (with sauce), you won’t get beaten up or chased out of town because of it. Memphis’ barbecue sauce takes the vinegar-and-tomato based flavor of the West side N.C. barbecue sauce and adds a hint of mustard to it. Because the dry rub and smoking provides all of the flavor, a Memphis-style barbecue sauce has to straddle the line between sweet and spicy. It can’t be one or the other. My first cooking assignment at Job Corps in Kentucky was to make barbecue sauce that started out as Memphis-style, but I added some extra ingredients to make it more the way I like it. Here’s the recipe to cut, copy, paste, edit, write down, and pass down to your next of kin:
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Ingredients:1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon mild chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional)Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.
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I omitted the butter, didn’t add any oregano or thyme, used cayenne pepper (but sometimes, I’ll go for hot sauce), and added hickory-flavored liquid smoke. I’m also thinking of substituting ketchup for tomato paste or just making ketchup by hand and using that. I also add honey if I want it sweet and use both cayenne and hot sauce if I’m feeling particularly masochistic and want my digestive tract to burn. If you want the barbecue sauce to taste like something you’d get in a Memphis BBQ shack, then prepare it as is. If you want to change it to your taste, then do that too. One thing I learned in life is that recipes don’t have to be followed to the letter (unless you’re baking, then you have to follow recipes [called “formulas” in the bakeshop] to the letter).
Much like Lexington, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee prides itself in being Barbecue Central, moreso than Lexington (but don’t tell them that). Memphis is home to one of the largest concentrations of barbecue restaurants in the world and also has a city-wide event celebrating it: The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition.
Texas: Now, we’re out of pork territory and into what a lot of people associate with barbecue: beef, and lots of it. Texas is so synonymous with barbecue that even Pennsylvania (a state that’s more based on griddle and oven cooking more than grilling, as seen with our Philly cheesesteaks, our Italian and Greek cuisine, or our pretzels from Amish country) has Texas-style BBQ restaurants (Bubba’s Texas BBQ, on West Girard Avenue). Texas barbecue is all about beef — at least in Central Texas, where cattle is plentiful and people take beef seriously. East Texas’s barbecue is more like Carolina barbecue: more pork-based (pork shoulder and pork ribs slow-smoked over hickory wood are common dishes) and heavily influenced from the days of black slavery, West Texas barbecue uses a more direct heat method (as in “roasting over a spit”-style), is influenced from the Wild West and cowboys, uses mesquite wood as kindling, and also barbecues goat and mutton (sheep meat) as well as beef, and Southern Texas barbecue is more influenced by Mexican tastes.
Brisket is the meat cut of choice in Central Texas:
Central Texas barbecue became established in the 19th century in central Texas towns such as Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor, which were home to European immigrants (mostly from Germany and Czechoslovakia [now The Czech Republic]) who worked as butchers. From those butcher shops came restaurants, as the butchers often preserved their meat by smoking it over wood chips from oak and pecan trees. The European settlers did not think of this meat as “barbecue,”  but the farm workers who bought it started calling it such, and the name stuck. When Texas-style barbecue first started, it catered to the upper class, who could choose among the highest quality cuts of meat. Because of this, they did not have an interest in the sauces. To this day, Eastern, Western, and Central Texas doesn’t emphasize sauces (Southern Texas, however, is the odd man out).
Kansas City, Missouri: K.C. Mo’s barbecue, out of all the barbecue styles discussed, has the widest variety of meats on the grill and is about as close to traditional barbecue (the “low-slow smoking” style. Grilling, in contrast to barbecue, is like sautéing and frying — high heat and quick cooking) as you can get. Besides the usual pork and beef seen in the Carolinas, Memphis, and Texas, chicken, mutton, turkey, and fish are also on the menu. Dishes cooked by other methods, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants in Kansas City (and St Louis). Just about every type of barbecued meat served in America’s other barbecue capitals, from North and South  Carolina’s pulled pork to Texas’s brisket, is served here, though the burnt ends of a brisket of beef or pork  are distinctive to the city. Like Texas, Kansas City barbecue also has plenty of side dishes, most of which are common in “soul food” (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, coleslaw, baked beans, and French fries), as seen here:
File:Kansas City-Style Barbecue (cropped).jpg
However, unlike Carolina, Memphis, and most of Texas barbecue, Kansas City barbecue is renowned for its barbecue sauce: tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. It’s a lot like what you would find in South Carolina or Memphis, but the tomato taste is more pronounced and more emphasis is put on how sweet it is rather than how spicy it is. Ever hear of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce at your local grocery store? Well, that’s where it’s from:
Well, it’s past 3:30 pm. We did a good job today, class.
Class Dismissed!
*Pork shoulder actually called a Boston butt because, in pre-revolutionary New England and into the American Revolutionary War, some pork cuts that weren’t considered “high on the hog,” like loin and ham were packed into casks or barrels, known as “butts,” for storage and shipment, but my explanation is funnier.