Friday, 24 September 2010

A Goose for Michaelmas: Reviving Pre-Industrial Customs

















On a crisp, clear day marking the start of autumn - the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - I came across an article on The Guardian online about poultry producers in the UK receiving record orders for Michaelmas geese - a rather traditional repast. The article explains, "The goose fell out of fashion during the 1970s and 80s but in recent years has turned into a popular alternative to turkey at Christmas." Michaelmas does not make much of a mark in Canada. Ardent anglophile though I have been for many years, I was barely aware of it myself until reading about "Michaelmas term" at Oxbridge Colleges. A historical website explains Michaelmas thus: "Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is celebrated on the 29th of September every year. As it falls near the equinox, the day is associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days; in England, it is one of the “quarter days”."

Holidays such as Michaelmas were at one time intrinsically tied to the ebb and flow of spring and harvest, the natural calendar, and seasonal food. These categories of now-defunct holidays are, naturally, religious in origin. But they served as more than religious festivals, and marked seasonal changes and important yearly events in the life of local communities. As historian E.P. Thompson explored in his landmark book Customs in Common, pre-industrial English holidays consumed a great deal of the calendar and were considered sacrosanct. It is not surprising that the coming of industry and the work-time discipline of the factory were not entirely compatible with such a free-wheeling festival-minded populace. Many of these holidays slowly faded, until we are today left with scant few statutory holidays, bank holidays, and the like.

The revival of goose meat for Michaelmas and Christmas may just be, as some detractors might suggest, some sort of nostalgic bourgeois fantasy. But it certainly reminds us of a time less dominated by materialistic demands, when festival, relaxation, community and family ties could be indulged in at greater leisure and with less sense of guilt. Not in any way some mythical "golden era," but one with slightly different priorities. And we, whenever we give a whole day to the preparation and enjoyment of a meal with friends, for example, pay homage to the past.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What's so Awful about Offal?

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. ~James Joyce

On a routine trip to the supermarket this week, a mislabeled package seemed to epitomize our attitude towards, and dismal lack of knowledge about, organ meats. The styrofoam packet was printed "turkey heart," but in pen the word "heart" had been crossed out and corrected with the word "livers." It lay strangely alone, a freak entry into the more conventional neat lines of chicken breasts, boneless and skinless pieces, and trimmed steaks - all bearing only a hint of suspicion that they came from an actual animal. It was an oddity, bizarre, out-of-place. A product unsure even of its own identity. There was more than one object within, about 10-12 small pieces in fact and they appeared to be of that vaguely beetroot-coloured liver-ish tone that we may all recognize. I don't imagine it could have been a package of 10-12 turkey hearts, since for one thing would not turkey hearts, no matter how small, have some semblance of ventricles and the like? One was strangely forced to stand in the meat aisle and reason out the various plausible permutations of animal organs. The fact is that most of all have little or no familiarity with these classes of edible objects which were very well-known to previous generations. Would you have been able to hazard a guess, with any degree of certainty, as to what the slimy objects in that packet might have been?

I do not wish to pen some sort of blind and rather irrational nostalgia for ox tongue or regular helpings of liver and onions. There is nothing in itself virtuous about consuming these parts of the animal (no matter what your mother said in an effort to force you to eat whatever dish it was that you simply could not abide). It was rather done from necessity, and the fact that we have lost this necessity in the contemporary Western world somehow has made us even farther removed from the source of our food and less aware of the consequences of what eating an animal means. This is by no means a vegetarian call; I, as it should be clear, do eat meat. However, the fact that we turn up our noses at these food items tells us much about our tastes, affluence, and perspective on food. Offal is often too strong, too smelly, too earthy, too easy to get wrong and end up with the atrocity of taste described, rather explicitly, by James Joyce. One poor attempt at liver and onions is enough to turn many off the idea for life.

I myself have not really partaken of any offal, with any type of gusto, for many years. The closest is perhaps the odd piece of steak and kidney pie, or a pâté - but this would be organ meats in such a form that it should not truly count as eating offal. It is far too well disguised within the light mousse qualities of the dish. I certainly have never bought or prepared any livers, kidneys, or hearts myself. But, and this is likely what some readers have been waiting for, I am about to take the plunge within the next few weeks. I believe I have located a good source for a sound product, and have looked through some recipes, both modern and from an earlier, somewhat goutier, time. I will be, pun intended, entering into the belly of the beast.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Death of the Dessert, Or,"No, I would not like the dessert menu."


[Billed as the "World's Most Expensive Dessert," a garish, ghastly concoction of chocolate and gold leaf that hardly bears thinking about, or looking at, let alone eating. Named "Golden Opulence," a garish and ghastly name, it is offered at Serendipity 3 restaurant in New York. I'm not sure if there was ever a Serendipity 1 or 2 which expired from sheer awfulness.]

Yours truly, the Idle Historian, declared the restaurant dessert officially dead on 8 September 2010, at approximately 20:35 Pacific Standard Time, GMT -0800. Strangely enough, my restaurant companions did not quite understand the full gravity or magnitude of this proclamation. Think something akin to Julius Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon, declarations of war, the announcements of presidential election results, and the like.

As the piece of key lime pie lay in front of me, flaccid and pale-yellow-ish-whiteish, with the de rigueur crumble of graham cracker detritus, the squirt of whipped cream, a sad dusting of lime zest and icing sugar affecting what they would like to think of as "presentation," I knew that dessert was well and truly dead.

In truth, I was not quite ready to let go of the restaurant dessert tradition, tired and ailing though it has been for some time. It is now in a better place, which is to say, a rather long way away from my plate. The mere idea of "dessert" spins sugerplum connotations, full of lightheartedness, optimism and youth: "going out for dessert," the "let's just indulge" confidence between friends after an already substantial meal. I have, however, simply had too many derivative, tiresome, monotonous, ridiculous desserts in everything from trendy chain restaurants, to highly touted bourgeois sweet-tooth destinations, to award-winning restaurants in Vancouver, Whistler, London, and beyond. I can, in fact, create a typical restaurant dessert menu for a nondescript restaurant from thin air in about five minutes, based entirely on buzzwords and recycling of the same old thing - which is how, it would seem, the restaurants themselves do it. (This, I realize, is rather off the topic of Edwardian food, but then again a true Edwardian would not have allowed themselves to be in such a way restrained.)

There will of course be chocolate options, which must include words like "molten," "double chocolate," or, and this is when you know you are in real trouble, "black forest cake." Heaven help you should you decide on one of these. Within three mouthfuls you will feel overstuffed and sick and certain that there is little to live for other than finishing the thing so that you get your $5-15 worth (pick your price range of restaurant, it matters little). Then there will be a cheesecake. In the more downmarket options with a "glaze," in the pretentious ones some unexpected spice like cardamon, or something exotic sounding like "lavender almond essence," and invariably a "coulis." Always a "coulis" - which is a fancy way of saying two spoonfuls of fruit which will do little to mask the fact that your cheesecake will possibly be a re-worked pre-fabricated version (again, the price range of restaurant may not matter much). There will be a tarte or two, perhaps a lemon one, which is usually the best of the terrible options since it is light enough and more difficult to get wrong. But of course they won't have been able to leave well enough alone, and so there will be some swirl of spun sugar done elaborately, accompanied by a hard, floury biscotti piece that smells faintly of damp grandmother apartment. And always, always, a tiramisu or a creme brulee. Tiramisu because it is easy to douse ladyfinger biscuits with liquor and pile mascarpone cheese, eggs, and cocoa on top. This dessert staple has remained lazily on menus since circa 1972, and a five year old could make it. And creme brulee because sugar and cream and eggs are equally easy to prepare, and besides the chef acquired one of those handheld blowtorches in 2002 and it still makes him feel cool and manly to use it to caramelize the brown sugar.

You see how easy it is to make up a modern dessert menu? I could go on, but I won't. It isn't, I would emphasize, that I don't like sweets at all. I most certainly do, in their place. I have had some imaginative desserts done well, prime among which must be one in Knightsbridge that included basil ice cream (!) But for the most part, it would seem that the proper place of the dessert is probably in someone's home, made with love and care. There is a difference. Any of the desserts described above would be perfectly lovely in a friend's kitchen (except tiramisu, which is just dreadful, and the chocolate ones which I don't take to personally.) In an earlier post I described the pleasures of pudding and custard, and these always stand. Puddings and custards are, on this side of the pond, rare to find in true form on any standard dessert menu. The attempts at them are generally formulaic and sad. Pudding is, again, a kitchen-table food, not a restaurant one.

So it is goodbye to the stale (sometimes literally) unimaginative restaurant dessert menu for the Idle Historian. By all means ask me to go out for dinner, as you should, but don't proffer the dessert menu.

The restaurant dessert is officially dead. Don't send candied flowers.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Here's One I Made Earlier: Going Wobbly Over Aspics


"But I don't want to be molded. I'm not a jelly!" ~Bertie Wooster, in response to his Aunt Agatha suggesting that he must marry, since marriage would mold him.

Aspics are among the strangest of culinary creations. Like a fly trapped in amber, they are a sort of frozen representation of culinary trends at given points in time. Wealthy Edwardians loved them because they were time-consuming to make and impressive to behold, hence signalling the wealth and importance of the household. Aspics, of course, are nothing new to most of us. From the 1950s to the 1980s Jello and gelatins of all descriptions were staples of the Western plate. Often these concoctions contained an unholy alliance of ingredients: sweet Jello with carrots, for example, or ambrosia-type salads - an old standby of church hall dinners for the last 50 years.

The gelatin that holds the production together is in fact, to the shock of many, actually animal collagen - a product of the bones, tendons and ligaments of cows and pigs (don't serve gelatin to a vegetarian - although most will eat it unbeknownst to them as it is hidden in many foods). Early techniques involved boiling calves' feet for several hours, straining, skimming off fat and then doing something or the other with the remaining mixture. I'm not quite sure what exactly, and don't much care, since I have no plans to attempt the process myself. Commercial preparations have been available since at least the mid 1800s, with powdered versions such as Knox gelatin in production since the 1890s. Many households in the Edwardian period continued to produce gelatin in the traditional way, believing it to be more "healthy" than commercially produced mixtures.


[The result of the tomato aspic attempted by the Idle Historian]

I have in times past made several sweet puddings requiring gelatin. I recall one particularly - a delightful pineapple and lemon souffle. But I had never tried a savoury aspic, and so decided to ease into the aspic-making with an relatively easy tomato recipe. One friend pointed out that family Christmas dinners have always included tomato aspic, much to his chagrin. I cannot claim that this is a particularly Edwardian recipe - perhaps more like granny's recipes from the Fifties, but it certainly invokes the spirit of dinners past.

The aspic-making started all wrong, as preparing foods one has not tackled, or has not tackled for some time, can. I realized early on that I did not have a proper old-school bowl for molding the jelly. A rather boring glass bowl would have to do. There is boiling, mixing, dissolving the gelatin in cold water, integrating chopped celery when the mixture is half-set. And then, flipping it over onto the plate, loosening the sides just enough to allow it to slip out without damaging the "structural integrity" of the jelly (I unfortunately did). It is a whole approach to making a dish which seems quaint and out of step with the modern world. Uncertain of the taste, it was in fact surprisingly good for a mound of red goo mixed with celery therein. A tomato aspic can be served with shrimp, with mayo and toast, or any number of creative combinations.

It is but the first of my aspic adventures. Dig up an old recipe and attempt one. You will find that, like Bertie Wooster, they may at first resist molding. But unlike Wooster, in the end they do come round.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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