Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Old Virginia batter cakes

Language is such a powerful tool. You can learn so much about the writer, about a different culture, or about a past time just through the words the writer chooses. As a history teacher, I end up thinking about this a lot, especially when we're looking at primary sources in class. Of course, it's hard to get my students to appreciate this; they spend most of their time wondering why Thomas Jefferson didn't capitalize his letters and what the word "scission" means.*  But all that unconventional spelling, those weird word choices, they help you imagine the time period in a way that other tools just can't.

One of my favorite historical novels, A Northern Light, tells the story of Mattie, a girl growing up in the Adirondacks in 1906. She wants to be a writer, but it's hard to stand up for what she wants when she's expected to look after her sisters. The author, Jennifer Donnelly, puts you immediately in Mattie's shoes with strong, vivid words:
"When Mamma was alive, she could make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa's trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering, and roll out a piecrust. All at the same time and without ever raising her voice. I'm lucky if I can keep the mush from burning and Lou and Beth from slaughtering each other."
Trousers. Mamma and Pa. Dinner pails. Clabbering. You don't just know it's 1906, you feel it with those words.

But really, what the heck is "clabbering," anyway?

"Clabbering" means curdling milk. Cooks would use "clabber," or curdled milk, the same way we use buttermilk today: to create a tender crumb in baking or to lend a tangy taste. Back in the day when people got their milk fresh from cows instead of fresh from the supermarket, raw milk would naturally curdle when left out. You can still do that today, of course, but most of us can only access pasteurized milk, which will only sour when left out.

So if you're, say, reading an old recipe for pancakes from colonial Williamsburg, and it happens to call for clabber, you're more than welcome to substitute some buttermilk. You'll still get the same light texture, and you won't have to worry about germs.

And that's what I mean about language: not only do the words themselves provide a window into a different time, but the meaning behind them also shows you the daily rituals of the past. Cooking techniques used for centuries by women who had to milk the cow if they wanted to bake for their families. Techniques that we've mostly forgotten about thanks to the magic of mass-produced meals, pasteurization, and industrially modified food.

The pancakes, by the way? Delicious. Tender, tangy, and just substantial enough thanks to the addition of cornmeal. Since there's no sweetener in the cakes themselves, they're more versatile than modern-day pancakes: equally excellent with a salad for dinner or with maple syrup for breakfast.

Old Virginia Batter Cakes
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour, plus more if needed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
butter for the pan

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until frothy. Add the buttermilk and water and whisk to combine; whisk in the cornmeal, flour, and salt. Let stand. Meanwhile, brush a griddle or frying pan with butter and set over medium heat. Just before you start cooking the pancakes, stir the baking soda into the batter. If the mixture is too thin, add flour by tablespoons until thick enough.

Working in batches, fry the pancakes in the heated pan, using about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. When the pancakes have set and bubbles have formed in the middle (about 1 1/2 minutes), flip and cook another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Serve with savory or sweets according to your fancy.

* True story: I had this conversation today with my 9th graders.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Turnip tops

What is it about being on vacation? You sleep better. You get to spend long hours reading or flipping through magazines. You go for long, chilly walks. You actually crave vegetables for lunch instead of pizza.

For me, the first three all lead to the last. Because I'm more mindful of my habits and what my body wants, because I sleep as long as I need to instead of as long as the time available, because I have the luxury of time to just be. I look less to food for immediate comfort, and so I start eating salads and soups, and in the end I feel even better.

Funny how it's all interrelated, isn't it?

This week, while I'm on February break, I've been focusing more on incorporating vegetables into every meal--it seems easier to do it while I have the time and energy to shift my eating habits. So a few days ago I tossed up a big salad with fennel and tomatoes and red onion, and boiled some turnip greens as a historical side dish.

That's the thing about colonial vegetables (or "Garden Stuff," as the Williamsburg author likes to put it). There's not a whole lot that women did to alter them from their natural state. Sure, they could boil the heck out of vegetables and serve them up with a nice butter sauce, or mash up the boiled veggies with butter and cream, but they tended not to do much else. It's a stark difference from more modern-day recipes, which ask you to saute blanched kale with chorizo and drizzle a nice honey vinaigrette over the finished product, or toss roasted cauliflower with a garlic-orange sauce. (Both are delicious, by the way.) So colonial vegetables are not that exciting, and they probably don't maintain the nutritional value of just-picked greens (thanks to all that boiling). Certainly this has a lot to do with the foods that were widely available at the time. Most women would cook what grew in their kitchen garden, and exotic spices were hard to come by and expensive.

Still, that doesn't mean that our boiled turnip greens have to be boring, right? It was a little tricky figuring out how to make them more palatable, but a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt improved them tremendously. Both additions seemed historically accurate. Apparently turnip greens "are still better boiled with Bacon in the Virginia Style," but I didn't have any bacon on hand, and besides, that seemed to defeat the point.

Turnip Tops
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

1 bunch turnip greens
1/2 lemon
a few pinches of salt, divided

Trim the stems off the turnip greens and cut into 3-inch slices. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and season with several pinches of salt. Boil the turnip greens for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain in a colander, and press down on the greens to squeeze out the remaining water. Squeeze the lemon over the greens and sprinkle with the remaining salt. Serve as a side dish with something more interesting.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Signed, sealed

Valentine's Day is a tough thing to write about because there's so much baggage attached to it. The single folks think you're cruel for reminding them of their single plight, or they take it in hand and have an anti-Valentine's Day. Meanwhile there are the folks in the blase corner who say they don't need Hallmark to help them out in matters of the heart. Having been in the first* two** camps at some point in my life, I'll keep this post short so as not to step on any toes. But I wanted to share a historically-appropriate craft with all of you to mark the occasion.

Giving cards as a token of affection didn't take off as a trend until around the 1840s, when advances in printing techniques made it easier to mass-produce greeting cards. The Victorians went wild with the possibilities, and they produced elaborate lace confections for their sweethearts. Cards unfolded to reveal secret messages, or love poems were written in tiny letters around ornate knots. There were even some super-depressing cards made by Civil War soldiers who thought they were never coming home, complete with drawings of broken hearts.

So while I don't have a colonial card to share with you, I did make one of the simpler, more clever Victorian cards for Josh (lucky man). It's called a puzzle purse, and you make intricate folds in a square piece of paper to enclose a message of your choosing. When folded correctly, the paper closes up into a sealed square. It's sort of like origami, and exactly the kind of intricate thing the Victorians loved.

It's the perfect size for tucking into your love's pocket as a secret surprise. (Or, you know, presenting with an awkward flourish. 'Cause I'm cool like that.)

* college: cupcakes in the dining hall, couples walking hand-in-hand around campus wearing their fanciest clothes. Hard to ignore.

** high school: a night of shopping, sushi, and required viewing of Cruel Intentions. Yeah.

P.S. If you'd like to make your own puzzle purse, instructions are here.