Lisa Kingsley quotes the French gastronome Jean Antheime Brillat-Savarin who famously wrote “Just tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” in the introduction to her new book, Smithsonian American Table: The Foods, People, and Innovations That Feed Us that culls the vast archives of the Smithsonian Institute where just the word “food” yields tens of thousands of results. The Smithsonian, which opened over 175 years ago, is the nation’s museum, and it’s not a stretch to say that food is the nation’s passion. What Kingsley, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, has accomplished is to provide snapshots of how our environment, availability of foods, and migration have played an important part in what our ancestors ate and what we eat now.
Trying a variety of foods is often called grazing, and Kingsley, who has been writing about food for more than three decades and is currently the editorial director of Waterbury Publications, a company in Des Moines, Iowa that produces and packages books for publishers, authors, personalities, and corporate brands, has created the literary equivalency in presenting a history of foods for our reading pleasure.
“The long history of hot sauce began about 7000 years ago in Bolivia, where chile peppers grew wild,” writes Kingsley in her chapter, “Food Fads & Trends,” which also includes the history of not only our addiction to fiery sauces but also explores snacking, fermentation, the craft beer movement, fad diets, the backyard cookout, and, among others, community cookbooks and sushi. The latter had a much shorter trajectory to fame and availability than one would ever expect of a dish consisting of raw fish and rice often accompanied by wasabi paste and fresh ginger.
“Propelled by an economic boom in Japan and bolstered by American hipster culture, what started as a street snack almost 200 years ago is now as likely to get as a hamburger or hot dog,” writes Kingsley who describes sushi spreading from California where it appeared in a restaurant right next to a Century 21st Century Fox studio to everywhere. That includes your local grocery store.
Trends are fascinating, but so are the other subjects in this book that are highlighted in such chapters as “Innovators & Creators.” That list would have to include Irving Naxon who applied for a patent on a slow cooker he invented in 1936. Now, out of almost 123 million households in the U.S., approximately 100 million have a slow cooker tucked away in a cabinet or pantry or even on the counter. On the opposite side of slow cooking was Percy Spencer whose application of microwave technology to cooking led to the Radarange, the first microwave oven, which was both the size of a conventional oven and sold at a costly $1295 in 1955.
In Chapter Five, we meet the “Tastemakers,” such as early cookbook authors Fannie Farmer, Lizzie Kander, and Irma S. Rombauer as well as chefs who would be the early innovators for the boom in the cult of television chef celebrities of today. Lena Richard, the host of the Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book show that aired in 1948, was the author of the New Orleans Cook Book said to be the first Creole cookbook by a person of color. She would be followed by now better-known names of those early cooking shows like James Beard and Julia Child.
Each of the chapters is illustrated not only with historic and current photos of people, foods, and products but also full color photos of the 40 plus iconic recipes included in the book such as Beard’s Cocktail Canapes and Child’s Smoked Salmon & Dill Souffle. Of special interest are the sidebars such as “The Black Brewmaster of Monticello,” a reference to Peter Hemings, the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson.
Kingsley’s preparation, research, and organization of this book is a wonderful account of the foodways of America and how they came about, and it can easily be read from front to back or delved into according to the reader’s interest. Either way, it’s our history and after reading this you can now look at a chunk of artisan cheese, a photo of the Harvey Girls, or a plate of Korean Fried Chicken and know how they—and so many others—became part of our national food conversation.
The following are from Smithsonian American Table.
Southeast Michigan is home to the country’s largest Arab American population. The first influx of immigrants began in the early 1900s, when — according to local legend — there was a chance encounter between a Yemeni sailor and Henry Ford, who told the sailor that his automobile factory was paying $5 a day. The sailor took word back to Yemen, where it spread. For decades, as people fled conflicts in the Middle East, many sought economic opportunities near Dearborn, bringing their food traditions with them. This recipe comes from Patty Darwish of Dearborn, whose great-grandfather immigrated from Lebanon in the late 1800s. Note: You want the texture to be somewhere between couscous and a paste. If you don’t grind the chickpeas enough, the falafel won’t hold together, but if you overgrind, you will wind up with hummus. This recipe must be made in advance.
From “Smithsonian American Table,” by Lisa Kingsley in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution (Harvest, 2023).
For the falafel:
- 2 c. dried chickpeas
- 1 c. coarsely chopped fresh parsley
- 1 c. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 of a green bell pepper
- 1 serrano chile, seeded and coarsely chopped, optional
- 1 tbsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. garam masala
- 1/2 tsp. chili powder
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- Vegetable oil
For the tahini sauce:
- 6 tbsp. tahini
- 1 clove minced garlic
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
- Pita bread, warmed
- Tahini sauce
- Optional toppings: pickle spears, pickled turnips, sliced green peppers, diced tomatoes, chopped fresh parsley, thinly sliced onions
Soak the chickpeas in 3 cups of water at least 12 hours or overnight. (Be sure chickpeas are always covered with water. If necessary, add more.) Drain and rinse.
In a blender or food processor, grind beans in batches until almost smooth (see Note). Transfer to a large bowl. Add parsley, cilantro, onion, green pepper and chile (if using) to the blender. Blend until almost smooth. Add to bowl with chickpeas and stir until well combined. Add the cumin, garam masala, chili powder and salt and black pepper to taste. Stir until well combined.
No more than 15 minutes before you cook the falafel, add the baking powder and stir well to combine. Form into patties, using about 2 tablespoons of the mixture per falafel.
In a large deep skillet, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Cook falafel 5 or 6 at a time until golden brown on both sides. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
Meanwhile, prepare the tahini sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, water and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more water if necessary to achieve desired consistency.
To serve, place falafel in the middle of a pita bread. Add desired toppings and drizzle with tahini sauce. Fold and serve.
Lena Richard’s Crab a la King
- 6 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 1 c. light cream or half-and-half
- 1 c. whole milk
- 8 oz. lump crabmeat
- 1/2 c. sliced mushrooms
- 3 tbsp. finely chopped green pepper
- 3 tbsp. chopped pimiento
- 1 tsp. Coleman’s dry mustard
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large egg yolks, beaten
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. dry sherry (optional)
- 4 puff pastry shells, baked according to package directions
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk until combined. Slowly whisk in cream and milk. Add crabmeat, mushrooms, green pepper, and pimiento. Add dry mustard and salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low.
Add eggs and lemon juice. Turn heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in sherry, if desired.
Serve in puff pastry shells.
Radaranger photo courtesy of radarange.com
This story originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books.