There’s so much more to the food of the American south than barbecue, cornbread and bourbon and this tart, topped with luscious persimmons which are one of the signature fruits of the region, deserves its time in the [autumnal] sun, and to be more widely eaten in the UK.
In the USA, persimmons are usually left to fall from the tree and if you travel around the south in the autumn, it’s not unusual to see mattresses and tarpaulins scattered around the base of each trunk , ready to catch these readily-bruised fruits. They split easily, spilling out soft flesh which attracts all kinds of critters so you have to be swift.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can give you a nasty, mouth-puckering shock if you eat it before the first frost because the fruits needs that cold snap to convert their tart soluble tannins into a sweet jelly-like mass. Because of this, there’s a Japanese variety of persimmon called ‘Fuyu’ whose fruits are sweet from the start which stores in Britain are starting to stock around now. It’s pretty hard to find American persimmons over here because they do not travel easily.
Fuyu doesn’t have much of a core and its skin is edible making it easy to prep and even easier to eat on the go. And the flavour? There’s some papaya notes, a lot of floral and a little tomato, a honeyed sweetness and something unique that defies description. It’s a fruit with flavour that deepens after cooking, becoming more than the sum of its parts and possessed of tender flesh easily incorporated into cakes, breads and puddings, made from recipes that are centuries old. Southerners still make a persimmon bread pudding with a burnt sugar syrup which is the descendant of a recipe learned from the Delaware and Cree tribes of Native Americans who showed the pioneers who crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley how to use the fruit.
For this tart, I’ve added a sliced layer of persimmon to a base I use often, made from a soft pressed-in dough, flavoured with spices. The persimmon cooks down into a soft and wobbly jelly, each slice collapsing as you spoon it up. It’s this quality that makes persimmon so useful as a filling because it creates its own juicy setting and all you need to do is add a little spice, some crunchy sweetness in the form of brown sugar and you’ll soon have autumn on your plate.
It’s vital to let the tart cool before slicing to allow the cooked persimmons to meld with the sugar and ginger syrup to produce that semi-set jelly (or jam to us Brits). So don’t worry if there seems to be a lot of liquid sloshing around the fruits as it cooks.
*Caveat* I usually test recipes at least six times. This one has only been made twice but it turned out well each time.
Spiced Persimmon Tart
8 oz plain flour (all-purpose in the USA)
2 tablespoons of soft brown sugar and a further 6 tablespoons of demerara sugar
3 oz cold butter, cut into little chunks
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
3 ripe small to medium Fuyu persimmons
tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar
Switch oven to 180C .
Make the pastry base using a processor or by hand: combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the mixed spice and the butter until fine crumbs form or pulse in a processor until you have that fine crumb. Add the egg yolk and whirl or stir by hand until the dough comes together in a soft ball. Press the dough over the bottom and the sides of a 4- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable base (or use a 9-inch round tart pan).
Combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, the lemon juice and brandy in a wide bowl.
Slice persimmons into slim rounds and check for seeds, removing if they are there. Slice the rounds in half and muddle them into the brandied sugar mixture, ensuring they are thoroughly coated then arrange fruit in 2 overlapping rows on top of the dough (or arrange in circles if using a round pan). Plaster any leftover sugar mixture from bowl over the fruit then ladle over the ginger syrup, ensuring it coats the slices.
Bake the tart until the crust is golden which will take around 25-30 minutes. Check the persimmon slices for doneness and if they are still a little hard, cover the tart loosely with foil and bake until they are tender when pierced. (Another 10- 15 minutes but this really does depend upon the ripeness of your persimmons.)
Remove tart from oven and allow to cool completely. Don’t worry if it seems to have some liquid sloshing around the persimmon slices. As it cools, this will set to a light jelly (jammy) consistency. When it has thickened and set, its time to slice the tart. Serve with creme fraiche, mascarpone or ice-cream if you like it even sweeter!
Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.
The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.
The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.
If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.
If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.
Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.
Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”
An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.
Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.
Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”
Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.
John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.
Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.
Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.
Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.
Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.
Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.
Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”
I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.
Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?
And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”
In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.
Alison Uttley’sThe Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.
“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.
The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.
Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.
Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.
Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’
When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.
The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.
I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.
“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.
“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, this once highly popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have rapidly risen in popularity. What has happened?
Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the ‘polyester of lettuces’ by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian. God love her, but Alice is wrong on this count.
The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.
So what if it contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale: just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Simply Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.
According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, once upon a time. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little, pressed glass and silver jugs.
Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.
Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.
It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.
Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.
T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”
Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.
With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and vinegars. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”
And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.
Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.
It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.
The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?
It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.
Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing
The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.
1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil
Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.
Long eaten across the American Deep South and very popular stewed long and slow, squirrel meat was even included in older editions of that famous American cooking tome The Joy of Cooking as a ‘tender alternative to chicken or rabbit’. It might not be long before people across East Anglia become accustomed to eating this lowest of food-miles meat and with over five million of the bright eyed and bushy tailed beasties hopping across our lawns, parks and forests, the questions has to be ‘what took us so long?’
Squirrel meat is on sale for the first time on the butchery counter at the Elveden Courtyard in Suffolk. Similar to rabbit in flavour, it is a light-coloured, finely textured meat that is low in fat and completely free-range. Its natural diet of berries and nuts contributes to a flavour I can only describe as nutty having eaten it some time ago, coated in a flavoured breadcrumb Southern style and deep fried. I also recommend a paella made with squirrel instead of rabbit or chicken and the great Brunswick Stew, an old Southern one pot meal beloved in North Carolina and Kentucky and which must be made with three specific ingredients to be genuine- okra, lima (butter) beans and squirrel.
One regular Elveden customer, Helen Sturgeon, has already created some lovely squirrel pasties using the meat and food shop manager Richard Howard explains the benefits, “Squirrel from Elveden is wild, nutritious and has virtually zero food miles, coming straight from the estate itself, making for a highly ethical meat.” If terroir is your thing, squirrel meat, like all wild game, is its perfect expression.
The move follows an increase in demand for game from the estate butchers, with venison, pheasant and wild rabbit highly sought after. Although rabbit can be shot all year round, a national decrease in population numbers has led the estate to restrict the numbers shot each month in order to ensure the animals flourish. It is generally advised to avoid eating town squirrels because of the risk of ingesting what they have eaten which may include poison put out to kill rats. Buying squirrel meat from a reputable supplier eliminates the risk.
“Rabbits are no longer breeding ‘like rabbits’,” explains James Holliday, Forestry and Conservation Manager at Elveden Estate. “Nationally, numbers have been in decline over the past few years and have now reached such low numbers we are limiting the number killed in order to maintain a sustainable population.”
The Elveden Estate is located in the Brecks region of Suffolk, an area renowned for rabbit warrening and a unique ecosystem that greatly depends upon controlled rabbit populations to maintain the open and friable structure of the soil, benefiting the huge variety of plants that are specialised to sandy healthland. So while we’re trying to build local rabbit populations up again, why not try its arboreal taste equivalent?
The Elveden Courtyard shops are open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 5pm and Sundays from 10am to 5pm.