Friday, July 29, 2011

What did Leonardo da Vinci Like to Eat?

How Leonardo da Vinci used rudimentary pigments in 1503 to create such subtle shadows and light on the Mona Lisa has long baffled art historians. Now French researchers are using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to isolate and study each ultra-thin layer of paint and glaze da Vinci used to create the effect he was seeking, according to recent new stories.

By beaming x-rays on the Mona Lisa without removing it from the wall on which it is mounted in Paris' Louvre Museum, scientists found that da Vinci used a Renaissance painting technique known as sfumato, intricately mixing thin layers of pigment, glaze and oil to create the appearance of lifelike shadows and light. Scientists now believe that da Vinci used up to 30 layers of paint on his works.

While this research may solve one mystery about the Mona Lisa, others remain, like: who is this enigmatic woman and why does she hold her subtle half-smile? To these questions we can add another: what did this mysterious woman and da Vinci eat?

According to one researcher who studied the culinary habits of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy, some Renaissance favorites were Risi e Bisi, Saffron Risotto with Duck and Mushrooms, and Spinach Soup with Hazelnuts. Although those recipes would be impossible to duplicate today, this one for Saffron Risotto with Mushrooms from the New York Times might give you a sense of how and what Leonardo da Vinci ate.

4 cups beef or chicken stock
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely minced scallions
1/4 cup finely minced onions
1 pound fresh wild mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned and sliced (see note)
1 1/2 cups Italian Arborio rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Place stock in a saucepan and over medium heat bring to a simmer. Add saffron, stir, and simmer slightly. Meanwhile, in a larger saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter in olive oil. When foam subsides, add scallions and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and yellow but not browned. Add mushrooms and saute, stirring occasionally until liquid has evaporated.

Add rice to mushrooms, and cook, stirring to coat well, with butter and oil. Add approximately 3/4 cup of simmering stock to rice and mushrooms. Stir well and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until rice has absorbed most of stock. Continue adding stock to rice by half-cupful adding only after rice has absorbed previous addition.

As cooking continues, stir more frequently. After 25 minutes, all the stock should be absorbed, and rice should be tender but still chewy. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in remaining butter and 1/4 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately, passing the rest of the cheese.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Assassination of James Garfield and a Fresh Supply of Milk

The opulent Gilded Age banquets that characterized the Grant White House were but a distant memory when James Garfield, a farmer’s son, moved into the White House in 1881. But his days there were limited.

On the morning of July 2, he reportedly wrestled in bed with his two older sons and then “lingered over a long breakfast” in the family dining room. A few hours later, he was escorted to Union Station, where Charles Gutieau, a crazed office seeker fired a bullet into the president’s chest and cried, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President now!”

For two months, Garfield suffered in the sweltering heat of Washington D.C. unable to consume anything more than soup and milk, and when he died on September 19th, the nation went into a state of mourning that reportedly surpassed that accorded to Lincoln.

Although Garfield wasn't president for a long enough period of time to leave any lasting culinary stamp on the White House, historians say that he preferred healthy nutritious food over the rich European dishes typically served by White House cooks. It has also been said that Garfield was particularly fond of squirrel soup and that his favorite drink was milk, so much so that, as he was dying, "the Adams Express Company in Baltimore sent a cow to the White House to ensure a fresh supply of milk."

FAST FACT: Garfield's death resulted in three presidents assuming office in one year (Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield, and Chester Arthur). This has happened one only one other occasion in our nation's history. In 1841, William Henry Harrison succeeded Martin Van Buren but died one month later and John Tyler became president.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

George Bush, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

Published in 2011, George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points has been described by the New York Times as "an autobiography focused around 'the most consequential decisions' of his presidency and his personal life from his decision to give up drinking in 1986 to his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to his decisions regarding the financial crisis of 2008."

According to the Product Description of the book:

President Bush brings readers inside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on the night of the hotly contested 2000 election; aboard Air Force One on 9/11, in the hours after America’s most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor; at the head of the table in the Situation Room in the moments before launching the war in Iraq; and behind the Oval Office desk for his historic and controversial decisions on the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues that have shaped the first decade of the 21st century...

With so many momentous political issues to review, it's not surprising that Mr. Bush didn't spend much time discussing his favorite foods, an interview with Oprah Winfrey during the 2000 presidential campaign, he did say that his favorite sandwich is peanut butter and jelly on white bread.

Eight years later, during the 2008 presidential campaign, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once again made national headlines. Responding to charges "that his economic policies were socialistic in nature," Barack Obama ridiculed his opponent John McCain for constantly resorting to trivialities and distractions. Here is a video of Obama's remarks:

Now, because he knows that his economic theories don't work, he's been spending these last few days calling me every name in the book. Lately he's called me a socialist for wanting to roll-back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can finally give tax relief to the middle class. I don't know what's next. By the end of the week he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Although neither Bush nor Obama mentioned how they prefer their PB&Js to be made, we do know that John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal pioneer, was the first person to receive a patent for the process of making peanut butter butter in 1895. According to Andrew Smith's Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, early peanut butters had several problems:

The first was that peanut oil has a melting point below room temperature. Gravity separated the oil, which then oxidized and turned rancid. Likewise, salt added to the peanut butter separated and crystallized. Grocers received peanut butter in tubs or pails and were advised to use a wooden paddle to stir it frequently...

During the early years of the twentieth century, William Norman, an English chemist, invented a method of saturating unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, thus preventing them from turning rancid. In 1922, Joseph L. Rosefield...applied these principles to peanut butter [and] developed a process to prevent oil separation and spoilage in peanut butter...The result was a semisolid peanut butter [that]...was thick and creamy and did not stick to the roof of the mouth as much as previous products.

Selecting the name "Skippy" for his product, Rosefield introduced creamy and chunky-style peanut butter in 1932. Three years later, the company inaugurated its first wide-mouth peanut-butter jar, which quickly became the industry standard. And in less than twenty five years, peanut butter had "evolved from a hand ground delicacy to a mass-produced commercial commodity sold in almost every grocery store in America."

FOOD FACT: Florence Cowles' 1928 cookbook Seven Hundred Sandwiches includes dozens of creative recipes for peanut butter sandwiches, including: Peanut Butter and Egg Sandwich, Peanut Butter and Cabbage Sandwich, Peanut Butter and Marshmallow Sandwich, Peanut Butter and Prune Sandwich, Peanut Butter and Cherry Sandwich, Peanut Butter and Cheese Sandwich, and Peanut Butter and Olive Sandwich made with Mayonnaise on Rye. Oh my!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Abraham Lincoln Chicken Fricassee

Despite the exigencies of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took his entertaining duties at the White House seriously, and if the only extant culinary records of his administration were the menus of his gala state banquets and balls, one could justifiably conclude , according to food historian Poppy Cannon, that he was "a gourmet to end gourmets, a connoisseur of exquisite sensitivity [and] a bon vivant supreme."

But nothing could be further from the truth. Not prone to eating breakfast every day, it has been said that he had an egg and biscuit only occasionally. Lunch was often only an apple with a glass of milk, and dinner could be entirely forgotten unless a tray of food was forced on him. “Abe can sit and think longer without food than any other person I have ever met,” Lincoln’s former law partner in Chicago wrote. And, shortly after his death, Lincoln’s sister-in-law recalled, “He loved nothing and ate mechanically. I have seen him sit down at the table and never unless recalled to his senses, would he think of food.”

But when Lincoln did turn his attention to food, he ate heartily and never lost a boyhood taste for Kentucky Corn Cakes, Gooseberry Cobbler, Rail Splitters, Gingerbread Cookies, and Corn Dodgers. And it has been said that one of the few entrees that would tempt Lincoln was Chicken Fricassee. According to A Treasury of White House Cooking by Francois Rysavy, Lincoln "liked the chicken cut up in small pieces, fried with seasonings of nutmeg and mace and served with a gravy made of the chicken drippings."

Although Abe's favorite recipe for Chicken Fricassee has surely been lost to posterity, you can try this more recent one for Tarragon Chicken Fricassee from Gourmet Magazine:

3 1/2 to 4 pounds chicken pieces with skin and bone
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pat chicken dry and sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chicken in 2 batches, skin side down first, turning over once, until browned, 10 to 12 minutes total per batch. Transfer to a plate.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons oil from skillet, then cook shallots, garlic, and bay leaf over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened, about 2 minutes. Add wine and bring to a boil. Stir in cream, broth, and 1 tablespoon tarragon, then add chicken, skin side up, and simmer, covered, until just cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer chicken with tongs to a platter and keep warm, loosely covered. If necessary, boil sauce until thickened slightly. Stir in lemon juice, remaining 1/2 tablespoon tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste. Discard bay leaf; pour sauce over chicken.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dickens Meets Tyler at the White House

One of the most famous guests to dine at the White House during John Tyler’s presidency was the great English writer, Charles Dickens. Upon his arrival in the United States, Dickens was honored at a lavish ball in New York City, where he was greeted by such famous American writers as Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edgar Allan Poe.

A few days later, Dickens met Tyler in the White House and later penned this about the president:

He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody - but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.

Although Dickens seemed to like Tyler, he strongly disliked slavery. Describing a particular meal in Baltimore, Dickens wrote:

We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and…were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold…is not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it IS slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.

After returning to England, Dickens wrote his first travel book entitled American Notes. In it, he criticized Americans for their poor table manners and disgusting habit of chewing and spitting tobacco. He also devoted an entire chapter to slavery in the United States.

FAST FACT: Oliver Twist is perhaps Dickens’ most famous novel. Set in England, the main character is a nine-year old orphan in a London workhouse where the boys are given only three meals of thin gruel a day. When Oliver asks for more (“Please, sir, I want some more”) he is dubbed a troublemaker and treated even more cruelly. Oliver Twist called attention to the problem of poor and starving children in England and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

For the announcement of my new children's book, please click here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Richard Nixon, U.S.-China Relations, and the 40th Anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy

During Richard Nixon's administration, one of the first public signs of improved U.S.-China relations came on April 6, 1971, when the American Ping-Pong team, in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, received "a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues for an all-expense paid visit to the People's Republic of China." Four days later, on April 10, 1971, "nine players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland," thus becoming the first group of Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949 and ushering in an era of what has been dubbed "Ping-Pong Diplomacy."

According to PBS:

Ten journalists, including five Americans, were also invited to cover the team’s visit, ending the information blockade from the People's Republic in place since 1949. From April 11th to 17th, a delighted American public followed the daily progress of the visit in newspapers and on television, as the Americans played - and lost - exhibition matches with their hosts, toured the Great Wall and Summer Palace, chatted with Chinese students and factory workers, and attended the Canton Ballet.

Premier Chou En-lai worked the public relations opportunity beautifully, receiving the Americans at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People on April 14. "You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people," he told the unlikely diplomats. "I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples." He also extended an invitation for more American journalists to visit China, provided they do not "all come at one time." That same day, the U.S. announced plans to remove a 20-year embargo on trade with China.

Despite the public rapproachment between the two states, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "decided to keep their back-channel negotiations with China to themselves [and] it was not until July 15, after Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing, that Nixon announced that he, too, would make the journey the following year, as the first American president to visit China."

This week, The Richard Nixon Foundation will commemorate the 40th anniversary of this extraordinary series of 1971 and 1972 Chinese-American matches in "The 40th Anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Rematch," to be held July 8, 2011 in the White House East Room at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, featuring members of the original '71 and '72 teams.

According to the official press release, "an impressive lineup of American and Chinese Olympic and World champions, including original players, will go head-to-head in free exhibitions on July 8 beginning at 9 a.m. The competition will showcase exciting youth, elite and collegiate rounds, with a spectacular finale of rematches of the original games. Huiaiying Zheng and Liang Geliang will again represent the Chinese and Judy Hoarfrost and George Braithwaite, the first Americans to visit China since 1949 at the time, will represent the U.S."

The Foundation will also host an All-American Welcome BBQ in the Library's East Room on Thursday, July 7 at 5 p.m. The program will feature remarks by President Nixon's brother Edward, Ping Pong Diplomacy veteran Tim Boggan, U.S. and Chinese officials, and table tennis matches between celebrities and world champions. If you happen to be in Southern California this week and would like to get in on the action, please click here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Meat Rationing at the Roosevelt White House

When she toured the White House kitchen in 1933, Henrietta Nesbitt, Eleanor Roosevelt's housekeeper, reportedly found cockroaches crawling about. In her book White House Diary Nesbitt described her first inspection of the premises: “I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary...The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.”

“There is only one solution,” she told Mrs. Roosevelt. “We must have a new kitchen.”

And so it was that Public Works Project No. 634 was instituted, with demolition and construction on the kitchen beginning in the summer of 1935. But because the jobless rate was so high during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt insisted that "relief workers be employed for the reconstruction whenever possible." According to historian Mary Barrett:

The renovation, planned by the White House staff and engineers from General Electric and Westinghouse corporations, reconfigured the working space, replaced rusted pipes, put in a whole new electrical system with all-new electric appliances, and installed more efficient dumbwaiters to transport the food to the State Floor dining rooms above.

New equipment included six roasting ovens, a sixteen-foot-long stove, eight refrigerators, five dishwashers, a soup kettle, a meat grinder, waffle irons, multiple mixers, a thirty-gallon ice-cream storage freezer, and a deep fryer that held five gallons of fat. Stainless steel storage and counter tops were installed throughout.

The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were delighted, but Mrs. Nesbitt reported that the staff was overwhelmed by the latest technological innovations. They continued to do things the way they had been done in the past: washing dishes, as well as chopping and slicing food—by hand. And unfortunately for President Roosevelt, a new kitchen did not improve the quality or variety of Mrs. Nesbitt’s menus.

Mrs. Nesbitt believed in economical, simple, American fare: cheap cuts of meat including brains, sweetbreads, and beef tongues; mashed potatoes; flavorless canned vegetables; molded gelatin salads dotted with marshmallows; and insipid desserts. Franklin Roosevelt once joked that the only reason he sought a fourth term of office was so that he could return to the White House to fire Mrs. Nesbitt!

Of course, Roosevelt did win a fourth election, but Mrs. Nesbitt "and her bland menus remained." In her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Cook conjectured that Eleanor's "curious disregard for her husband’s tastes suggests an explanation for her persistent defense of Henrietta Nesbitt: The housekeeper was one expression of her passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.”

But culinary historian Barbara Haber offers a different take on the relationship between Eleanor, Nesbitt, and the meals that appeared on the Roosevelt's table. In an essay titled, “Home Cooking in the FDR White House,” Haber explains that Eleanor cared little about what she ate. Her goal for White House menus was to "keep them strictly within the bounds of culinary propriety for a nation that was suffering first from economic hardship, and later from the restrictions of rationing." It was her social conscience, Haber claims, not her marital frustrations, that ruled the table.

Whatever the case may be, Nesbitt herself confirmed that when meat was rationed during World War II, the White House had to stretch its meat allotment, too, which led to some rather bland meals at the Roosevelt White House. Some of Nesbitt's usual “meat-stretcher foods” included stuffed peppers, stew, ham scallops, noodles and mushrooms with chicken scraps, spaghetti with meat-cakes “cut down to the size of mere marbles,” curries and omelets with meat tidbits, croquettes for “a sustaining meal in themselves,” minestrone soup, fish chowder, gumbo z’herbes, stuffed eggs with meat bits for stuffing, baked beans, deviled meats, and casseroles.

And at an old-fashioned, American-style picnic held in the summer of 1939 in honor of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of England, menu items included Virginia Ham, Smoked Turkey, and Hot Dogs! The next day, news of the picnic made the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “KING TRIES HOT DOG AND ASKS FOR MORE.” While the King reportedly “ate his hot dog by hand like an American,” the Queen daintily cut hers with a knife and fork.

Although that particlar recipe may have been lost to posterity, you can try this recipe for Hot Dogs with Homemade Pickle Relish from Bobby Flay for your next old-fashioned, All-American style barbecue:

8 link hot dogs
quality hot dog buns
Homemade Pickle Relish, recipe follows

Directions: Heat grill to high. Grill the hot dogs until golden brown on all sides. Place in buns and top with your favorite mustard and the homemade pickle relish.

For the Pickle Relish:
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
8 large dill pickles (sour, not half-sour), finely diced
1 small red pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small yellow pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Bring vinegar, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds to a boil in a medium saucepan on the grates of the grill; cook until reduced by half and slightly syrupy. Remove from the heat, add remaining ingredients, and gently toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

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