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Tasting Vertically

Saturday, September 18, 2010
A salumeria in Siena, where cinghiale (wild boar) is a local specialty.

Wine tastings can be informal gatherings or they can be highly structured events designed to teach us to recognize the subtle differences between closely related wines. Typical examples of the latter might consist of comparisons between several wines of one region or varietal, such as the latest vintage of wines from Bordeaux, or Pinot Noirs from the Pacific Northwest. These are called "horizontal tastings." Tastings can also be arranged vertically, perhaps comparing all the vintages of Chateau Haut Brion for the last fifty years. The two methods reflect different kinds of learning and differing degrees of sophistication.

Everyone knows that, over the last forty years or so, there has been a rapid and worldwide rise in interest in cooking and eating. This has led to an incredible expansion of choices of foods, cookbooks, restaurants, cooking equipment and ingredients, representing an ever-growing list of ethnicities and cultures. In a sense, we have all been involved in the broadest of possible horizontal tastings.

It sometimes seems that no corner of the world, no matter how remote or obscure, has already been explored for (or looted of) its culinary treasures. In our insatiable quest for new tastes, and textures, and aromas, we rush from one ethnic market (or continent) to another, always imagining that somewhere, in a place no other foodie has yet traveled, there is a magical dish that will transform our lives forever.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that, in our haste, we don't experience the depth of connection that indigenous peoples have with their own foods. Our broad, but shallow, tasting experiences, by their very nature, deprive us of the fulfillment we seek.

Perhaps that is why we're beginning to see a different approach to the search for culinary meaning, one that promises to provide the depth of understanding, the depth of flavor we've been craving. Having gone as far as we can, horizontally, in all directions, we have but one choice: taste vertically.

We do this by acquiring a taste for history. When we know where our food comes from, not just in the fashionable sense of eating locally-grown foods, but in understanding how it got to be the way it is: when a dish was created, under what technological, ethnic, geographical, political and religious circumstances, we begin to develop that "depth of connection" we missed during our earlier "horizontal" explorations.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in vertical tasting. It can be seen in several forms: culinary historical societies, websites devoted to food history, libraries devoted to historic culinary collections, historical cookbooks, and countless articles in food magazines like this one.

Serious foodies, in almost every major city in the US, have formed culinary historical societies. Important ones include the Chicago Culinary Historians, the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, the Culinary Historians of Boston, the Culinary Historians of New York, the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC, the Culinary Historians of Atlanta, the Historic Foodways Society of Delaware Valley, and the Houston Culinary Historians. Similar groups, like Oldways and Slow Food, study and try to preserve ancient food practices, ingredients and dishes before they are lost to commercially-motivated "progress."

The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is not specifically about food, but when its members re-enact medieval events, they are particularly careful to produce all their meals as authentically as possible, and they have been responsible for a number of translations of early cookbooks (both in printed form and, incongruously enough, as web-based recipe databases). Similar groups re-enact Revolutionary War battles (such as the annual Burning of Kingston) and Civil War events. These groups meticulously reproduce the dishes and preparations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively.

There are, literally, hundreds of websites devoted to food history. Here are a selected few:

A few that are specific to my own area (New York's Hudson Valley) include:

Libraries with significant historic culinary collections include:

In our own area, New York Academy of Medicine Library has an excellent collection of very old and rare cookbooks, as does the New York Public Library and the Bobst Library (New York University). The Conrad Hilton Library at The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, has one of the biggest and finest collections in the country.

A few periodicals are dedicated to food history (such as the newsletters of the various culinary historians' groups mentioned earlier) but mainstream magazines, like Saveur, routinely carry articles on food history.

So many historical cookbooks have been published in recent years that it would be impossible to list them all. A few that can tell us something about how we got to eat the way we do here, in the Hudson Valley, are worthy of mention.

Peter Rose, together with Donna Barnes, curated an exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art. It was called Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life. The exhibit has closed, but the beautiful and informative catalog (that contains a small recipe book) is still available. Regular readers of The Valley Table know that Ms. Rose specializes in the study of Dutch foodways and their influence in the Hudson Valley.

Ian Kelly, an actor and food historian, has written Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef. French cuisine may, at first, seem unrelated to the way we eat today, but virtually all serious restaurants (and restaurateurs) draw on the organization and techniques of the classic French kitchen. Further, no matter how we may feel about the situation, it is almost impossible to imagine a world without celebrity chefs, and Careme was the prototype for all of them.

Historian Sandra Sherman (formerly at the University of Arkansas), has given us Fresh from the Past: Recipes and Revelations from Moll Flander's Kitchen -- a detailed look at the foods and lifestyles of eighteenth-century England, a time when cookbook-publishing was booming. In fact, the first cookbook published in America (1742) was a reprint of Eliza Smith’s 1727 book, The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion; the first truly American cookbook wasn't published until 1796: Amelia Simmons' American Cookery; or The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to this Country, and All Grades of Life. Sherman's book gives us a very good idea of what our Founding Fathers would have expected to see on their tables.

A few years back, Francine Segan published Shakespeare's Kitchen. She looked at the kind of dishes prepared in England four hundred years ago (the dishes our earliest colonials would have known well) and updated them for modern tastes. Later, she did the same with even older ancestors of our cooking in The Philosopher's Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook. In both books, she includes the original recipes, so we can compare -- in a perfect example of the vertical tasting.

Of course, if you really want to go back as far as possible in your search for the roots of our cuisine, you might want to read Jean Bottero's The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Carefully examining and analyzing the inscriptions on three five-thousand-year-old clay tablets in the Beinecke Library at Yale, Dr. Bottero was not able to recreate actual recipes, but many of the ingredients and methods are oddly, and reassuringly, familiar.


This (somewhat altered) article was first published in the March/May 2005 issue of The Valley Table, and appears here by permission of the publishers.


Blogger Deb Duchon said...

Culinary Historians of Atlanta is pretty important, too! Add us to your list
Deb Duchon, President

September 18, 2010 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Cynthia Bertelsen said...

Terrific post, Gary.

September 18, 2010 at 4:33 PM  
Blogger Gary Allen said...

Done, Deb! Can you send me more contact info (beyond your excellent blog)?

Thanks, Cynthia -- glad you enjoyed it!

September 19, 2010 at 12:07 AM  

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