Sunday, July 27, 2008
My Year of Cooking Historically
This is it. The final recipe of the Project. And it ends with the beginning: the earliest recipe in Molly O'Neill's American Food Writing and the first recipe for ice cream in the United States, taken from a 1780s holograph (hand-written) manuscript by Thomas Jefferson, the founding foodie.
But before we get to the ice cream, indulge me a look back on this year of cooking historically. The single most amazing thing this blog has brought is the attention of Ms. O'Neill herself -- and a job. Working with her, I learned to approach food writing as an anthropologist might, digging into people's stories -- not just their cupboards -- to find out why they eat what they eat, and rolling up my sleeves to cook beside them any chance I get.
Just as I look at myself differently -- I'm so much more confident in my ambitions as a writer -- I look at my country differently. Taking on dozens of recipes from the past 230 years has give me insight into the evolution of the American diet and taste. The things I love most about this country are right there in the kitchen and on the plate: we build communities around the cultivated earth, sharing crops, labor, and meals; we struggle, collectively, to strike a balance between the indulgent and the puritanical; we celebrate the humble, the refined, and the kitsch; and, best of all, there's always room in the pot for more: Indian heat, Moroccan spices, hell, even Chinese tacos. This culinary and cultural education has spurred me to take risks, tossing traditions together like a chopped salad and approaching the act of cooking and eating with a pioneer spirit. Why not turn a basic risotto into an innovative and decadent chocolate dessert?
Today, I identify with a line of cooks and eaters and writers that stretches back generations. Women, in particular, have expressed their identities through food and food writing. Remember the Hayes and Tilden cakes of 1877? Miss Flora Ziegler of Columbus and Mrs. T. B. of Chicago couldn't vote, but they could bake and publish recipes in support of their candidates. In effect, they voted with their wooden spoons. How remarkable that, 131 years later, a young woman in Brooklyn would be reinventing their cakes for two Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination -- a woman and a black man!
I made the Obama and Clinton cakes for a tea party thrown by an effervescent young man named Nick whom I met through blogging; Nick brought another remarkable guy, Mark (pictured below), to my Good Friday gumbo party, we bonded over soul music and soul food; in April, I cooked at Mark's Williamsburg loft for the private supper club he runs with his roommates, and last Friday, I joined him and a few other friends, food and Internet enthusiasts all, to make a wholly unconventional version of Jefferson's ice cream.
And that is the final piece that I have gained through this blog: a network of dedicated, active foodies -- bloggers as well as people who open their homes to strangers to serve them some of the best food in Brooklyn. I've cooked by their side and witnessed their singular approach -- steeped in creative, unusual technique and fueled by boundless curiosity. They push me to push the envelope.
Which is my very long-winded explanation of how I came to make tobacco-flavored ice cream. My thinking was as simple as this: Jefferson grew the crop at Monticello, my friends are game, and -- why not?
Cathy, the lovely and curious food writer behind Not Eating Out In New York coached me on the custard-making (I've never made ice cream before), while taking the photos you see on this post. Mark, being Mark, goaded me into tossing in twice as much American Spirit tobacco as I first, rather timidly, added. We let the half-cup of tobacco and fresh vanilla bean infuse the custard for ten minutes or so, strained it, and tasted.
"Mmm. It's goo--," I started to say. And then the tobacco hit the back of my throat -- at once both spicy and, somehow, numbing -- and I had to take a step back.
"Woah. You've gotta taste that." Cathy and Mark dug right in.
The result was simply fascinating: it drew you in just as it pushed you away. Mark served it at our friend Michael's home as a "meal-ending trio of frozen weirdness." Reviews were good, but then again, the diners were comparing it to a Serrano & Raisin Granita that Mark likened to a "pork snow-cone." (See why I love cooking with these guys?)
And so. That's it for this project -- but it's not over. I'm too engrossed in cooking historically to give it up. Thanks to my unholy addiction, I have a vast collection of vintage cookbooks. From time to time, I'll post my adventures with dusted-off recipes, and I'll keep you updated on everything else I'm up to. And please keep in touch. Email me at nora(at)shermanhome(dot)com.
Tobacco-Flavored Ice Cream
Made with just heavy cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and tobacco, this is so thick it's closer to a frozen custard. But Thomas Jefferson called it ice cream, so I do, too. A half-cup of tobacco will make a very kicky, almost spicy ice cream. For a more subtle flavor, opt for less, about one-quarter cup, or as little as a tablespoon.
2 pints of heavy cream
6 yolks of eggs
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1/4 to 1/2 cup high-quality tobacco (I used American Spririt)
1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the yolks and sugar until thick. In a saucepan, warm the cream over medium-low heat. Slice the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds into the cream. Add the bean and the tobacco, stir well, and let cook, without boiling, for about 15 minutes. Strain. Remove from heat and slowly add the yolks and sugar to the cream mixture while strring. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and slowly warm the custard, stirring gently, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool completely. When it's cold, transfer to the bowl of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Makes 4-6 servings.