Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library's culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called "First Monday," where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara's books include "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals" and "From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food," which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including "Home Cooking in the White House" published in "White House History." She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called "Cooking in Captivity."

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who's Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television's "The Today Show," "Martha Stewart Living" and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in Food and Beverages" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escofier.

Articles by Author

The Joys And Red Flags Of Extreme Recipe Collecting Image

I will go to any length to obtain a recipe that interests me, and this leads to an embarrassing admission. While waiting in my eye doctor’s office recently, I was thumbing through a tattered old magazine and came across a recipe for quick pecan rolls that was unusual in that the dough included not just yeast, but also baking powder and a bit of baking soda. This combination was new to me, and I had to find out if it was any good. Since the recipe went on and on, listing ingredients and directions for the topping, the filling and the glaze as well as the dough, I expedited matters by tearing out the page and slipping it into my purse.

Before doing this, I looked around because I remembered a scene in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano rips an article from a magazine in his psychiatrist’s office and gets caught and reprimanded by his doctor. I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I knew that I would obsess about the recipe if I didn’t have it, couldn’t wait to try it, and did so within a couple of days.

Culinary karma?

The dish required no rising, went right into the oven and came out looking beautiful. The rolls were puffed up and browned and turned out of the pan easily, showing off their topping of glistening caramelized pecans. When the rolls had cooled, I broke off a piece and could only conclude that the roll reminded me of Bisquick, and I instantly decided I would never make this recipe again. Maybe I was being punished for my crime.

A more honorable quest occurred when a cousin by marriage, who prides herself on her cooking, served me a beautiful puréed mushroom soup she said was made without cream, a happy fact to me because the dish was rich enough and full of flavor. When I requested the recipe, I was surprised and bitterly disappointed when told recipes from that household were never given out; in my book, withholding recipes is equivalent to withholding love.

But my determination to track down the dish was inflamed. I should add that this took place in an era before the Internet, so the challenge of finding the recipe was difficult. I had to operate on hunches, and my first deduction was that this cousin hadn’t invented the recipe but got it from a source more sophisticated than a folksy newspaper column or women’s magazine. Since I knew she was an avid reader of cookbooks, I went to the public library where I looked through book after book only to find puréed mushroom soup recipes loaded with cream. Undaunted, I searched until I came across Danny Meyer’s “Union Café Cookbook,” where I found a recipe billed as “Creamless Mushroom Soup.” Quivering with anticipation, I tried the dish and immediately recognized it as the recipe that would quench my intrepid search.

What Nigel Slater missed

I was reminded of this incident when reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, “Toast,” in which he describes his prickly relationship with his stepmother and convincingly illustrates her greatest fault by telling us that she refused to give him her recipes. Instead of using cooking as a bonding technique, she veered in the opposite direction. Denying him her lemon pie recipe upset Slater most. One day when her pie was underway, the young Nigel passed nonchalantly through the kitchen, back and forth, all the while gauging what went into the pie, and jotting down the recipe when out of sight.

Recipe collecting to the rescue

Frantic people come to me for recipes, sometimes. While preparing dinner one evening, I was interrupted by a telephone call — an intrusion I hate — but it was a good friend on the line, apologetically explaining that her husband had just called to say he was bringing home a colleague for dinner. She happened to have some new red potatoes on hand, had remembered that I once served a great roasted potato dish, and could I please tell her how to make it. “What could be more important?” I answered, and happily passed on the recipe.

‘Elevator Lady Spice Cookies’

Good recipes can sometimes be found at strange times and places. I have in my files a recipe called “Elevator Lady Spice Cookies,” which I make now and then because they are moist and delicious. I tried to remember where the recipe came from without success until I reread Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” a classic that is full of laughs and some surprisingly good recipes. In it, she recounts the time she gave a cookie to the woman running her office elevator only to be told, “I can sure make a better spice cookie than that.” She brought the recipe to Bracken who agreed it was better, proving to all of us that our time in elevators can be well-spent.

People not particularly interested in cooking may think the single-minded pursuit of recipes trivial or even madness, but I know better. On those days when a troubled world is too much with me, I can find a little solace in preparing a stupendous recipe I took the trouble to find.

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed well but not peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven at 375 F.

2. Cut larger potatoes in half and leave small ones whole.

3. Using rimmed half sheet baking tin, put oil into pan and add potatoes, rotating them in oil on all sides.

4. Sprinkle chopped garlic over all of the potatoes.

5. Drizzle soy sauce over all of the potatoes.

6. Sprinkle pepper over everything.

7. Bake until potatoes are completely tender.

Main photo: Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Protect Your Tomato Garden, And Take Care Of Yourself Image

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Sad Cake … Which Foods Sink Your Spirits? Image

A British friend recently told me about a cake she grew up with called Sad Cake. That title struck me as pretty funny because when we think about cake we are conditioned to connect it to happiness — birthdays, anniversaries, all sorts of joyous celebrations. It turns out, though, that this British cake found in Lancashire got its name because it’s made from leftover pastry and has no filling such as the layer of candied peel, lots of currants and spices found in Eccles cake, a British favorite. Instead, sad cake is studded with just a few currants, and comes out of the oven looking flat and a little dejected.

Deflating dishes

Discovering sad cake got me thinking about the sorts of foods that sink my spirits, and I will be quick to say that what brings on melancholy in me may give others joy. For instance, when I order a restaurant main course described as including green vegetables only to wind up with a large hunk of meat, a pile of potatoes and two lonely string beans artfully placed, I feel a little sad because I wanted more of the beans. No doubt, this same plate of food would be completely satisfying to someone else.

I remember a time when I ordered tarte tatin, fully expecting to receive the classic upside-down caramelized apple pie, thick and toothsome. What was placed before me was a deconstructed version of the dish, a circle of pastry on one side of the plate, a pile of stewed apples across from it, and in the middle a little puddle of caramel sauce. The pastry chef no doubt had fun taking apart this wonderful dish, but I was left feeling bereft, longing for a thick slice of this beloved pie in which the flavors commingle.

Another sort of food that lowers my mood is the sight of blue or pink frosting on cakes. For me, only chocolate or caramel frosting will do, a prejudice I suspect comes down from my mother who used to say rude things about artificially dyed foods. This brings me to an important distinction I must make between foods that make me sad and those that are revolting. Sad foods leave me feeling forlorn and disappointed. Revolting foods are downright stomach-turning.

What usually turns off people are foods outside of their culture and experience. If you didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or even rabbits, the thought of them can send chills. The mere idea of eating other small wild animals is repulsive to people who are not used to dining on squirrels or raccoons. What I find disagreeable these days is how bacon turns up in unexpected places. I was served a sugar cookie recently, and instead of coming across chocolate chips or raisins, I bit into little chunks of greasy bacon. Disgusted by this innovation, I discreetly spat a mouthful into a napkin and ditched the rest of the cookie. So, it is the unpleasant combination of ingredients and flavors that also are candidates for my revolting foods category. I don’t like Fluff with peanut butter, or bananas with anything, but unlike many people, I just love Miracle Whip, especially on cold chicken sandwiches. Again, I find that tastes vary considerably, not only from one country to another but from one family to the next.

One person’s anger is another’s …

The last related category in my compendium is foods that make you angry. When the medium-rare hamburger I ask for in a decent restaurant comes back well-done and gray, my passions rise. Sometimes entire meals can be vexing. I once attended a tasting dinner at a high-end restaurant, and of the six people around our table, only my husband was new to the game. Each course had different dishes that were set before us, and the idea was to take a taste and then pass the plate on to the person seated at our right. That way we all had a taste of everything without getting stuffed, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have gone on forever, for we foodies, or “foodists” as some would prefer, were feeling happy about having our appetites and curiosity appeased. However, when I later asked my husband if he had enjoyed the meal, he told me that it made him mad because every time he really liked something, the plate was snatched away and he was handed something not nearly as good. Go figure.

The moral of all of this is that food creates mood, a well-known observation that is played out in literature and life. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” a young girl, thwarted in love, projects her grief onto the food she prepares, causing all who eat it to cry and sob. A more recent novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” uses a similar magical device to give a young girl the ability to identify the cook’s genuine emotions in what she eats. In tasting her mother’s lemon cake, for instance, the girl discovers that her seemingly cheerful mother is a lonely and unhappy woman. These books, though full of high drama and literary license, are just another way of telling us that food affects our emotions.

I would only add that we each experience this truth in our own way.

Main photo: Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
How Personal Cookbooks Can Say Something More Image

I am planning to compile a personal cookbook — not for publication, but rather as a private collection of favorite recipes to give to family and friends. The idea has been brewing ever since I got a phone call from a son at college who wanted to know how to make “skinny fries,” a potato recipe he’d grown up with. At other times I get requests from friends for how to make a particular dish they had at my house. Although some of the recipes I will be compiling are for family dishes that were passed down to me, many come from cookbooks or magazines, recipes I probably tweaked before deciding they were perfect. What makes my cookbook personal, of course, is that it will reflect my particular tastes in food, leaving out ingredients I do not like, and going heavy on the types of dishes I love.

We all know that the world has become flooded with recipes so that selecting the best of them is challenging and time consuming. I have spent years accumulating thick files of favorites I culled after having tried so many other recipes that were similar but not as good. So I see my collection as a worthwhile service to loved ones by offering them what I consider to be the best of the best. It took years, for instance, to find the perfect chocolate cake, a dessert I now bring to potluck gatherings where I am always besieged for the recipe. I also have a biscotti recipe that experienced biscotti eaters tell me is the best they have tasted. I have recipes that were handed down by the women in my family, and passing these along gives me a sense of continuity and order. These include recipes for a winter soup made with beans and meat, and a meatloaf made light and fluffy because of its secret ingredient — a grated raw potato.

I routinely hear tales from friends who regret not getting their grandmother’s recipe for a dish they continually think about, but don’t know how to make because no one in the family thought to jot it down. It would have required trailing after grandma in her kitchen, and managing to measure and write down what she instinctively threw into a pot. I have even heard stories about grandmothers who will not give out their recipes, or if they do, will deliberately leave out key ingredients. Their motivation seems to be the hope that family members will continue to visit and eat what they cook. My expectation for myself is to have it both ways — to continue to please my visiting family members with the dishes they love and then to hand them all copies of the recipes.

It’s ‘CSI: The Kitchen’

I have seen compilations of family recipes assembled by other people, and they tell me a lot about the person who put the collection together. They add up to what I think of as a food profile. Just as FBI profilers can speculate about perpetrators of crimes by analyzing clues left behind, I feel I can gain insights into a person by examining the foods they choose to eat. But the work of a food profiler is far more pleasant — investigating noodle puddings and fruit pies rather than bullet holes and blood spatters. I have noticed, for instance, that books filled with dishes for grilled meats strike me as man pleasers or may even have been created by men. Ethnic backgrounds are also easy to spot — loads of pasta recipes with tomato sauce suggest Southern Italy, while yeast breads and coffeecakes using cardamom say Scandinavia.

Regional recipes are striking when, for instance, books recommending sweet tea and directions for such desserts as triple-layer coconut cake and sweet potato pie announce old-time Southern cooking. Recipes using such stylish grains as farro and quinoa and a wide variety of herbs and spices suggest an adventurous eater, while those relying mainly on salt and pepper for seasoning strongly hint that the eater has conservative tastes. And there are subtle clues. If many of the recipes yield eight or more servings, I deduce that the person either has a large family or entertained frequently, and the reverse is true. Recipes serving just two indicate a more private lifestyle.

My personal food profile

If I were to be food-profiled, the absence of cilantro, the herb people seem to either love or hate, would herald my aversion to the thing. Also noticeable would be my preference for cooking with olive oil rather than butter, and that an indifference to butter and cream carries over to desserts that omit whipped cream. Recipes for candy and cookies will lord it over puddings and tarts. My book will contain anecdotes, tributes to my sources for recipes, and nostalgic comments about the people whose recipes I am reproducing. I would hope to be seen as someone with a generous spirit, but most of all I would like to be seen as someone with a respect for history. I long ago learned that history is not just about the actions of presidents and kings but about the aspirations of regular people, and personal cookbooks can be a key to understanding how these people really lived.

Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti

(Adapted from “Cooking With Les Dames D’Escoffier” cookbook)

Prep time: 30 minutes (this includes the slicing before the second baking)
Chilling time for dough: 3 hours
First baking: 45 minutes
Resting time between bakings: 1 hour
Second baking: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 hours 40 minutes

Yield: 48 biscotti

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk
1½ cups miniature chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until blended. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and milk, then the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. With lightly floured hands, form each portion into an 8-inch long log and flatten it to 2½ inches wide; place each log on a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the dough. Wrap in the plastic and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
  3. Position oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs of dough, leaving them sitting on the plastic. Beat the remaining egg well to make a glaze. Brush the tops of the logs with the glaze and place them on the parchment-lined sheet. Space them 2 to 3 inches apart since they will spread. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and just firm to the touch. Let logs cool completely for at least an hour.
  4. For the second baking, heat oven to 300 F. Line one or two sheets with parchment paper. With a long serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into ½ to ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti on the sheets, putting the ends cut side down. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool and store.

Notes

Variation for cranberry-pecan biscotti: Omit chocolate chips, vanilla and milk. Add 1½ cups dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1½ tablespoons lemon zest. The rest of the directions are the same.

Main photo: Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Where A Pursuit Of Food Obsessions Can Lead Image

When I hear about a tantalizing version of a food I love, nothing will stop me from going to the ends of the earth to find it, and I mean this literally. I am way too fond of confections and have been known to track down the best almond candy in Seville, the most delicious licorice in Helsinki or Amsterdam, and, when in Italy, the tastiest hazelnut chocolates. I go off in crazed pursuit of an obsession, tasting along the way to ensure I find the best. These hunts in foreign countries are no easy task since I have no sense of direction, so I try to take along a willing friend on these missions.

Of course I do not have to be abroad to find favorite candies. American cities often have unique treats worth seeking. When in California, I always visit a See’s candy shop. Although See’s boxed assortments are available east of the Mississippi, the shops are located mainly west of the river and only there can I buy whole boxes of my favorite piece, the delectable peanut crunch. In New Orleans I seek out the best pralines, and in Nashville Goo Goo Clusters, and I have recently discovered in Milwaukee the resurrection of the Giant Bar, a milk chocolate bar studded with peanuts, a grade-school favorite I thought was extinct.

But sweets are not the only foods I seek to satisfy a yen. I also have a weakness for bakeries that produce excellent bread, and for years have been in pursuit of the perfect bagel. What I was finding in most stores was far removed from the bagels I remember from my childhood. Handmade by bagel professionals, those objects of my desire were small with a hard and shiny crust, a chewy interior. These days, bagels are being churned out by machine and have become bloated and doughy, and even have pretension of being muffins in that some are made with blueberries, a hideous travesty.

But those days of responding sullenly to present-day bagels came to an end when I discovered flat bagels or “flagels” as they are lovingly called. I was at a brunch in New York when the hostess put out a basket brimming with a kind of bagel I had never seen before. They were large and flat, mostly crust with very little interior so there was no gummy stuff to contend with, and they were studded with poppy seeds or sesame, my favorite. And so I went on a hunt for the best flagels in NYC and found them at David’s bagel bakery on 1st Avenue. I bring back a bagful when I am in the city, and now think of this bagel as being the most important and satisfying resolution to any of my food odysseys.

Making someone else happy

Food pursuits can be about appeasing someone else’s desires rather than your own. I have a dear friend who spent great chunks of her life trying to please her 90-year-old, very particular mother. We all know how favorite items can disappear from grocery shelves, and this woman had lived long enough to endure many such disappointments, or, as her daughter put it, “my mother had only to like a product for it to go belly up.”

To buy up a remaining supply of a discontinued breath mint her mother claimed helped her digestion, my friend spent hours running around from one Greater Chicago gas station to another, scooping up all she could find to deliver to Mother. Another disappointment had to do with the demise of freeze-dried instant Sanka coffee, much beloved by her mother who adamantly rejected the powdered kind. This product was wiped out when Folger’s took over the market and crushed its competitor. In a relentless search for any remaining Sanka, my friend scoured large and small grocery stores, going farther and farther from her neighborhood with only an occasional payoff — a dusty jar at the back of a high shelf. Soon, those sources, too, were depleted.

The Cronut food obsession

I love to hear about other people’s food obsessions, and am happy and relieved to say that I seldom get caught up in them, since I have enough of my own. Most notably, we are seeing the stampede for Cronuts, that clever alliance between a doughnut and a croissant invented a little over a year ago by a New York pastry chef. His shop opens at 8 a.m., and people start lining up hours before for the privilege of buying two Cronuts, a rationing system that was put in place in response to demand. I would add that the lines and the rationing also keep up the hype. Each Cronut costs $5 and is filled with cream and topped with a flavored glaze. The fervor to get them has led to scalpers standing in those lines and profiting by reselling the pastries to well-heeled stayabeds.

Although the name “Cronuts” has been trademarked, the idea is available to all bakeries that want to bake and sell impostors. Imitations with such names as “doissants,” “crodoughs” and “kronuts” have shown up, and even the quite literally-named “doughnut croissant.” I have buzzed around and tasted a couple of these knockoffs and shrugged, although I would concede that the original is probably better, and someday I may get to try one.  But, all in all, I’d rather be eating a flagel.

Main photo: Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
It’s Time To Show Honey Some Love Image

It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.

We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.

This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.

Adventures in beekeeping

The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.

The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.

The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.

Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.

Colony Collapse Disorder

These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.

This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.

Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)

This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks

Salt

2 eggs

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish

All-purpose flour for dusting

Olive oil for frying

Directions

1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.

2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.

3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.

4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.

5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.

Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More