Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Food Matters

There has been quite a bit written lately about the way we should eat. This continues the long line of American prescriptions about eating, going back to the nineteenth century concerns about "roughage" and regular bowel movements, the early twentieth century concern for bland food, and our current concerns about everything from cholesterol, sugar, carbs and whatever. We seem to want to force people to eat the way we want them to. It is very puritanical, as we Americans are.

Personally, I am unconcerned about the way we "should" eat. I eat to fuel my body and because it is a pleasure. But I am fascinated by how our puritanical roots inform the way we talk about something that gives us pleasure, that is food. Our language is punitive. There are lots of "doing what is good for you" type phrases. This is why food matters. It allows us to see ourselves today. And by looking at the past, it allows us to see attitudes and culture of the past.

Because everyone eats, food crosses class lines, as well as all of those other lines - gender, race, education, geography, politics, economics, etc. And we can imagine what our forebears went through in their eating, which gives us a tangible way to identify with them.

SoFAB will celebrate its first annivesary next week. We opened the first week in June, 2008. We can celebrate having survived for a year. But we can be secure in realizing that a food museum in not a frivolous enterprise (although it is a fun one), but one that will preserve for the future a special window on our culture.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dale DeGroff and The Essential Cocktail

I admit it. When I’m at home at night, I frequently watch MSNBC for the latest in news and political commentary. I’m a fan of Chris Matthews, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow.

I’m also a fan of mixologist Dale DeGroff who has been making regular appearances on the Rachel Maddow Show. Last week, he was demonstrating mint juleps so that people could make these surprisingly easy cocktails for their Kentucky Derby parties. It was a fun segment.

I don’t know Dale DeGroff personally though he is connected to the Museum of the American Cocktail (he serves as president) and he comes to New Orleans regularly to teach people about the art of making superb drinks.

DeGroff is known in the industry as the “King of Cocktails.” He provides consulting and bar training to beverage companies, hotels, and restaurants around the globe. He was described in a New York Times article as being “single-handedly responsible for what been called the cocktail renaissance.”

DeGroff has produced a book that I really like: The Essential Cocktail, The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks. It’s a beautiful book, and we sell quite a few of them here in the gift shop of The Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

The Essential Cocktail features drinks that stand out for their flavor, interesting formula, or distinctive technique – martinis, sours, highballs, tropicals, punches, sweets and classics. There are hundreds of recipes along with a compelling history that makes you want to make these drinks.

The book is a visual delight. It is beautifully designed and features fantastic photography.

The Essential Cocktail is one of those books you simply want to hold in your hands. It just has a great feel. Almost like holding a great cocktail.

See all the fun things you learn when you watch those cable news shows.

Whom Can We Trust?

I just finished reading Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land. It is terrific book in many ways. It confirms Kurlansky's place as an historian, it serves as a snapshot of a particular time in history, and it calls our attention to an earlier time that involved foodways. We are reminded that we did not just invent the table. In addition the panoramic sweep of the book shows us the entire country, which allows us to see regional trends as well as border influences.

But the book is important to me as I read old cookbooks and read books written by restaurant chefs, the book makes me wonder what can we believe from old cookbooks. Where is the line between story and history? I read a cookbook today with some skepticism - considering the author's agenda and mindful of what may be omitted. But old cookbooks are read as pieces of history. I think that this is probably not wise.

Recently there was a workshop at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that explored the pitfalls and benefits of relying on cookbooks for historical research. A recent analysis by Rien Fertel of Lafcadio Hearn's book, La Cuisine Creole, revealed plaigarism from other cookbooks and questioned its place in the pantheon of Creole cookbooks. So I am not alone in my questioning.

I know that even when I reveal my warts I want them to be seen in the best light. It is interesting that cookbooks - while appearing to be objective presentations of data - are as biased as a memoir. To me that means that the study of foodways and eating is a fruitful way to learn about the human condition. We wouldn't spin our food stories, if it weren't central to our lives.