Stuff I Learned from Myself While Updating My Own Entries for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America
By a strange stroke of luck (not to downplay my dazzling talent), back in 2003, I was offered the remarkable opportunity to write some entries—14, to be exact—for the 1st edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America, chief-edited by none other than the illustrious Andrew F. Smith.
Seven years later, in the process of revising them for the 2nd edition, I’m thoroughly engrossed by my own findings on Beans, Brandy, Cafeterias, Corned Beef, Crullers, Dressings & Stuffings, Eating Disorders, Ginger Ale, Hot Toddies, Old-Fashioneds, Roadhouses, Sarsaparilla, Sweet Pickles & Toast, many of which I’d only half-remembered.
Thought I’d share a few choice tidbits with you.
Brandy. Did you know that “one much disputed but no less beloved bit of folklore finds Manhattan being baptized in brandy, as the beverage with which the English explorer Henry Hudson plied the Delaware Indians he met there in 1609; in honor of the hilarity that ensued, Hudson’s new associates named the spot Manahachtanienk, which translates roughly as ‘the place where we got drunk.’ Thus did the Big Apple spring from grapes”? Now you do.
Ginger Ale. “Though the precise circumstances of its invention remain unknown…there may have been a few American antecedents…[including] a Native American concoction containing ginger boiled with cinnamon…& switchell, a curious-sounding colonial American beverage made by combining ginger with molasses & vinegar.” Which I would totally drink. With bourbon.
Sweet Pickles. “American Indians themselves produced a maple-sap vinegar to preserve game in preparation for the winter.” Another brilliant experiment of the sort that contemporary American chefs are only replicating now that charcuterie & other forms of preservation are hot, in part to the lasting trend toward sustainable living.
Hot Toddies. “To many Americans, who know the toddy only as a steaming après-ski pick-me-up, the term ‘hot toddy’ may seem redundant. Yet it makes a legitimate distinction, for the cool toddy does exist. Both of these drinks reflect the climate of their birthplace; indeed, toddies may even be defined by their usefulness in countering the effects of extreme temperature.
The cool version has its origins in the tapped &fermented sap of certain tropical palms, for which British colonialists in India developed a taste & a name, toddy, derived from the Hindi word tari. The word traveled from the outposts of the British Empire to sultry plantation-era America, where Dixie gentlemen adopted it for their own combination of rum, sugar or molasses, & nutmeg, which was mixed with hot water & then cooled. It was also known as bombo, or, on occasion, bimbo. The hot toddy hails from eighteenth-century Scotland…The hot toddy’s popularity must have spread fast, if the lore that would-be American revolutionaries took courage from rounds of toddies (which were often heated by pokers straight from the tavern hearth) holds any truth…In colonial New England, however, rum or brandy often replaced the whiskey—and the punch bowl itself often precluded glassware, since drinking from a common vessel was considered properly sociable among tavern patrons.” Those guys knew how to party, & not just with tea.
Cafeteria. “It provided a solution to various logistical problems arising in the transition between a primarily agrarian and an essentially urban-industrial society: as fewer and fewer people worked on either their own land or their own time, & scheduled lunch breaks made midday commutes home impractical, the need for eateries that were conveniently located within commercial districts & streamlined for speed—as well as thrift—increased. This need was first met in the 1880s with the opening of the Exchange Buffet in New York City (met, that is, for men, to whom the place catered exclusively). It gained credence across the country in the next decade, boosted by an exhibition at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair—where the term ‘conscience joint’ was coined in a nod to the honor system by which patrons settled the check—and by the efforts of such entrepreneurs as the brothers Samuel and William Childs, who are credited with introducing the system of lines and trays that defines the modern cafeteria.” Does this glimpse into our prandial past fascinate any other culinary history buffs besides me?
Dressing & Stuffing. “Important as it is to America’s festive culinary traditions, ‘dressing’ is a term that wants some pinning down. Above all, whether it is interchangeable with ‘stuffing’ is a matter of continual debate. On the one hand, insofar as ‘dressing’ came into use in the nineteenth century as a prim euphemism for the latter term, we can assume it is equivalent. On the other hand, the verbs ‘to dress’ & ‘to stuff’ have historically connoted distinct culinary procedures—the one having to do with the cleaning &preparing of the carcasses of fish or fowl & the other with the making of fillings of all sorts. In this light, dressing might be viewed as a subtype in the more general category of stuffing, namely, one related directly to meat cookery—whereby filling the animal cavity with various ingredients would simply constitute a later step in the dressing process. This verb-based distinction accords to some extent with the popular notion that, technically, stuffing is the mixture actually inserted into the animal to be consumed, while dressing is the same mixture cooked separately, ‘on the outside.’ At any rate, ‘stuffing’ is the dominant term, while ‘dressing’ inheres in regional vocabularies, particularly in the South & Southeast.”
That solves that.
For more, you’ll have to buy the 2-volume set.