Food Books Galore!

In September, we will have lived in Richmond, V.A. for three years. I continue my quest to get to know not only my new city: Richmond, but also my new state: Virginia.

My February trip to Mt. Vernon inspired me to read some of the treasures I discovered in their bookstore and my local library.

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It’s taken me several months, but I have finally finished these five great reads: Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, Southern Food and Civil Rights by Frederick Douglas Opie, Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee’ by Thomas J. Craughwell, The Best of Virginia Farms by Ci Ci Williamson and Julia Reed’s South- Spirited Entertaining and High Style Fun All Year Long.

Eight Flavors

At first, I thought Lohman’s Eight Flavors was going to be a dry history of American cooking, but Lohman’s anecdotes brought depth to the history because at it’s core, history is about personal stories: people.

Eight Flavors reminded me that we bring our personal fears, bias, and racism to food, yet in spite of ourselves, we love the food of those we fear. Food builds bridges, brings acceptance of a new culture, even if that culture is misunderstood or muddled in interpretation. I.e.: chow mien, chop suey, spaghetti and meatballs….

Southern Food and Civil Rights

Frederick Douglas Opie is a history professor at Babson, College and a regular contributor to Splendid Table. Southern Food and Civil Rights, is just one of his food history books. Opie’s premise is Napoleon’s observation that “an army marches on its stomach”. Throughout the book, Opie demonstrates that feeding protestors was central to all successful civil rights movements. As a child born in the 60’s, my understanding of American civil rights movements was more limited than I realized, so I appreciated learning that as early as the 1930’s, Black communities began protesting and using boycotts to force white store owners to hire people from the neighborhoods where they had businesses and from the communities that shopped in their stores. Once one campaign was successful, word spread throughout the country. One grocery store was even put out of business because it refused to comply. I think that is called “cutting your nose off to spite your face”.

Professor Opie graciously answered my questions about eliminating food deserts in our inner city neighborhoods and offering “great tasting healthier options”. He also directed me to a helpful webcast by Dr. Alvenia Fulton of Chicago.

https://soundcloud.com/thedinnertablewithfredopie/dr-alvenia-moody-fulton-queen-of-nutrition

Thomas Jefferson's Cre'me Brule'e

I knew that Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests and talents, but I had no idea that he was America’s first foodie.   Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee’ by Thomas J. Craughwell chronicles Jefferson’s enthusiasm for European foods and their introduction into American culture. Jefferson even went to far as to bring his slave, James Hemmings over to Paris so that James could be trained as a French chef. Because slavery was illegal in France, James was officially a free man, so Jefferson had to pay him regular wages and allow him to roam freely on his time off. James even learned to speak French better than his owner. Jefferson promised to give James his freedom once they returned to Virginia, if James would first return to the Virginia and train another slave at Monticello. Jefferson went back on his word, delaying James freedom for several years…because he could. Nonetheless, we have our third President to thank for introducing many varieties of fruits and vegetables, as well as popular dishes like macaroni and cheese and ice cream to the U.S.A.

The best of VA Farms image

The Best of Virginia Farms by Ci Ci Williamson inspired me to make my own list of maple sugar farms, bed and breakfasts, gardens, arboretums, and national parks that I want to visit now that I live in Virginia.

Julia Reed's South

I finished up with Julia Reed’s South Spirited Entertaining and High Style Fun All Year Long by Julia Reed. Julia has inspired me to try to re-create her menus for dinner parties and holiday celebrations. Southern hospitality is real and Ms. Reed brings it alive in her gorgeously photographed book. The photographer, Paul Costello chooses idyllic settings to showcase Ms. Reed’s beautiful food and table settings.

 

 

Celebrating George

This year, I decided to celebrate the father of our country at his own home: Mount Vernon. Despite the lack luster presentation, the peanut and chestnut soup and the hoecake made for a delightful and tasty lunch.  The soup was warm, liquid peanut butter with a fun crunch added by the chestnuts.  I was surprised that the hoecakes were not swimming in honey, the way Washington preferred them.  However, the crab, shaved ham and hollandaise sauce made a far superior accompaniment than the honey would have.

Mt. Vernon is an amazing living museum worthy of an entire day’s visit.  I thoroughly enjoyed touring the mansion, walking the beautiful grounds, observing signs of an early Spring and remnants of Winter harvests. The greenhouse and slave quarters has been rebuilt and restored to its former grandeur.  Meticulous attention has been given to authentically restoring the gardens to their original designs, witnessed in the Fleur -de -lis boxwood garden, fruit tree lined vegetable gardens and flower beds.

The farm animals also reflect the original livestock of oxen, sheep and pigs.

I enjoyed watching the colonial costumed characters roam the grounds, answer questions and carry out common chores.

mt-vernon-blacksmith-shop

I even witnessed a naturalization ceremony for newly minted American citizens.  Mt. Vernon hosts the ceremony three times a year.

naturalization-ceremony

The education center houses a fabulous museum of Washington’s personal belongings or replicas, slave accounts, simulated escape as a runaway slave, diary entries, painting, clothing and weapons.  The gift shop offers plenty of gorgeous replicas of the Washingtons’ various china plate settings, costumes, food and fine whiskey and brandy from Mt. Vernon or nearby farms, witty T-shirts, the usual Christmas ornaments and small souvenirs and of course a bounty of  my favorite: books.

marthas-wisdom

Finally, I ended the day on a sweet and spicy note with a historic chocolate stick covered with powdered cinnamon.

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Bootlegger’s in Church Hill?

I was on one of my neighborhood walks when I had the pleasure of meeting a former resident who was on a nostalgic pilgrimage, recalling her childhood.  We both stopped to look down the ravine at the site of Bloody Run.  Richmond has a long history as far as American history goes, and I was contemplating the beginnings of Richmond’s long and infamous history of unjust shenanigans beginning with Native Americans.

The elderly pilgrim told me the story of her childhood romps up and down the steep staircase and her father’s warnings to stay out of the bootleggers’ woods.  I asked her if there was ever a raid on their stills.  She could not remember any and remarked that everyone knew that they were there, but no one bothered them and they bothered no one. Nothing like the famed Virginia bootleggers depicted in Lawless.

Prohibition was one of America’s more interesting failed experiments.  When lawmen tried and failed to convict Al Capone for violating Prohibition, they turned to tax evasion to finally put an end to his criminal activities.  Hmm…tax evasion as a way to put a criminal out of commission.

I remember my own grandparents telling me stories of how they thought they were a daring young couple, frequenting Chicago speakeasies and drinking Slow Gin Fizzes.  Of course gin could be made in bath tubs throughout the city, but I think Virginians preferred Moonshine.  Curiously enough, “Moonshine” is becoming legitimized and can be found in liquor stores across the country.  Ah the curious evolution of food, drink and culture.

 

Ben Franklin liked Tofu???

“No way”, you say.  Way.

I just finished reading The American Plate, a culinary history in 100 bites by Libby H. O’Connell.  All told, including the 3 extra bites, Libby gives readers 103 easily digested intriguing essays about the history of American food as well as some original recipes. She groups the essays into American eras beginning with pre-Columbus fare through American food as of 2014.

I learned all sorts of fun facts; like the fact that Ben Franklin actually did like tofu.  Apparently, Franklin discovered it in France and he sent soybeans back to a botanist friend explaining that the beans were used to make a “special cheese”.  O’Connell tells us that she discovered this story while eating at the City Tavern in Philadelphia where they served a dish inspired by Franklin (p. 297).

Oh, and did you know that none of the ingredients in apple pie are actually native to America?  Or how about why peanut butter became so popular?  What about Coca-Cola’s first purpose:  helping Civil War vets to overcome opiate addiction?  Donuts, waffles and cookies are gifts from our Dutch immigrants.  Potatoes are actually native to Peru.  Our love affair with coffee goes back to the Revolutionary War since we weren’t about to pay those nasty tea taxes.  Do you know what George Washington’s favorite breakfast food is?

I’m heading to Mt. Vernon on dear old George’s birthday to give his favorite breakfast food a try.  Thanks for the tip, Libby!

I wrote Libby to thank her for the great read and she made a generous offer to anyone who reads this blog and then buys her book.  Just write Libby O’Connell at libby@libbyoconnell.com and let her know how you found out about this marvelous read.

“If anyone then buys a copy of The American Plate, I will send a signed book plate they can stick on the title page.”

Happy reading!