Articles in History

'Tis the season for pumpkins, Jack-o-Lanterns, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? — John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Celtic Halloween traditions with them to the United States, including that of carving jack-o’-lanterns. But the pumpkin they embraced for the practice is a true American.

Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico. One of the Three Sisters — along with climbing beans and corn — pumpkins formed a major part of the diet of early Americans.  By 1000 B.C., the pumpkin arrived in what is today the United States. And by the time the English settled in Jamestown, Va., in 1607, Native Americans had developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin.

A popular recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, similar in spirit to English puddings. Nowadays, pumpkins strut their stuff in pies, not unlike those baked by my English ancestors. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons. Ninety percent of pumpkins end up carved into jack‑o’‑lanterns, and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin-pie filling or puree. Every grocery store stocks pumpkins, piled in heaps at the entrance.

Seeing all those pumpkins whets my appetite. So, I just baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Canned pumpkin puree confession

Yes, I confess: I used to follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin puree. To show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I added a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla and heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as a big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes, I used cream instead of evaporated milk, an ingredient actually not out of line because many vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using cream or a mixture of cream and milk.

And, yes, I know that making your own puree is far more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. But I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food-mill method of creating puree from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Regardless of the method, some things don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. First of all, the aroma. It fills the house as the pie is baking, and that brings back all sorts of memories. School days, leaf forts, decorating the front porch for trick-or-treaters, choosing the candy to give out at Halloween.

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

And the smell of cinnamon. I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much into the custard mix. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pumps up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention that of cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my cultural past. Because of that, for me, autumn signifies the aroma of these spices.

Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia — one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some my own ancestors — and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Take a look at Mary Randolph’s “Pumpkin Pudding,” a very English and yet very American recipe, from her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife”:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste [crust] round the edges and the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake nicely.

Pumpkin pie  is not only for dessert any more, either. I find pumpkin pie a great breakfast food, just as many people did in the past.

I’ll probably make another pumpkin pie very soon. For some reason, I see only a small sliver left in the pie pan.  

Pumpkin Pie

 Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie  

Ingredients  

For the crust:

1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)

For the filling:

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger

¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 1½ cups heavy cream or whole milk

For the garnish

Whipped cream

Ingredients

For the partially baked crust:

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Arrange the dough in the pie pan, crimping the edges, pressing down slightly to anchor the dough to the edges of the pie pan.
3. Place two sheets of aluminum foil, slightly overlapping, over the dough in the pan. Press down gently and make sure that the foil touches all the surfaces. Pour in enough dry beans to come to the edge of the pie pan. This allows the pie crust to retain its shape.
4. Bake 15 minutes with the beans. Then slowly remove the foil and beans by grabbing the corners of the foil and pull up and out. Bake the crust 5 more minutes.
5. Let cool almost completely on a rack.

For the filling:  

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl, in the order given, whisking after each addition.
3. Pour into the partially baked pie shell.
4. Bake about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife inserted into center comes out clean. Check throughout the baking. If the edges of the crust get too dark, place a ring of foil over the exposed pie crust. At that point, the surface of the pie along the edges will have puffed up and cracked slightly.
5. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped cream garnish.

Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen  

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Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”

In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”

Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.

In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.

First written mention of clams in chowder

There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”

The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.

A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”

Cape Cod chowder is the best

This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.

Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.

A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.

A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.

Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.

Raw milk first used in clam chowder

The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.

Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.

Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.

One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.

Cape Cod Clam Chowder

Prep Time: 3 hours

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

  • 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
  • ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
  • 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
  • Salt, if necessary
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Common or oyster crackers for garnish

Directions

  1. Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
  2. Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
  3. Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
  4. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
  5. Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.

Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.

Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.

This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.

The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.

The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.

Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.

The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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