Monday, July 07, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly, Challenge 3: Today in History

For me, this challenge exemplifies the absolute rabbit hole that is historical research and some of the lessons I teach my students in my writing classes. I didn't really know which date to pick, but didn't want to do a patriotic or obvious date. I happened to glance at my blues calendar and noticed all the musician birthdays or death dates within this fortnight: Georgia Tom Dorsey, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Smiley Lewis, Louis Armstrong, and Casey Biill Weldon. Great, I thought, I'll look up some blues tunes to see if there are any that fit. I'm always up for some great double entendre blues.

I didn't find much until I hit Louis Armstrong, who was actually quite the foodie, even signing all his letters, "Red beans and ricely yours ..." I looked through his list of songs and saw references to cheesecake and bbq, but I ultimately opted to be inspired by "Cornet Chop Suey," which lacking lyrics, also lacks my beloved double entendres.

I initially misread the calender and thought Armstrong was born on July 4, something he himself believed his whole life. In fact, it wasn't until ten years after his death, that his true birth date was discovered: August 4. Lesson #1: Even people living their own history can be wrong about what is a historical truth. Armstrong definitely died, however, on July 6, 1971.

In search of a pre-1950 recipe, I poked around on Google Books and didn't come up with much: a US Navy cookbook, which didn't have an actual recipe, and a 1917 book by a Chinese author, which states "This dish is not known in China."

I'd been wanting to read Andrew Coe's Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States for some time. I love narrowly focused food books: Salt: A World History, The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell, etc.  Alas, Coe doesn't really get to chop suey for about 200 pages, and I was under a bit of time pinch. Lesson #2, kids: The index is your friend. You don't have to read the entire book.

Lesson #3: By using only the index, you lose a lot of context. I used a 1910 chop suey recipe Coe transcribes from the Alton Evening Telegraph. Alton is just up the river from St. Louis.

The ingredients don't look particularly Chinese, do they? I'm only on Chapter 3 where I'm still with American merchants in China about 1840, but this recipe appears in Chapter 6, at which point Chinese emigres have been in the United States for several decades. Chop suey restaurants had become popular and the term itself had apparently come to mean just a "hash."

The Telegraph recipe reads as follows:
  • "Place in a spider a lump of butter, size of a walnut; in this, when hot, brown one and one-half pounds of Hamburg steak; heat a can of tomatoes, fry four medium-sized onions, and boil two cups of macaroni or spaghetti; seasoning each article well; drain macaroni and add it, with the onions and tomatoes, to the meat, and simmer five minutes. No side dishes are needed if this is made for lunch, as it makes a palatable, substantial lunch for six or seven people."
Date/Year and Region: 1917; Alton, IL

How did you make it?: I followed the recipe but opted just to brown the ground beef in its own fat, and used the butter to fry up the onions. The recipe doesn't say what size of can to buy, but I bought a 28 oz. can, the largest at the store. Four onions is a heck of a lot of onions. As far as "seasoning each article well," I just went with salt and pepper. The dish also uses a lot of pots: one for the pasta, a skillet for the onions, a Dutch oven for the ground beef. I opted just to dump the tomatoes into the onions for 5 minutes as I couldn't bring myself to dirty a fourth pot. I'd say it would definitely make a "substantial lunch" as it absolutely filled my Dutch oven. We'll be eating this for several days, I'm sure.

Time to Complete: Probably about 20 minutes from start to finish, largely to chop and fry the onions.

Total Cost: Probably about $12.65. I used about half of a $1.29 box of pasta and half of a $3.00 bag of onions. The tomatoes were $1.50. The ground beef was the most expensive ingredient at about $5.40 a pound. Since I was cooking under a deadline, I couldn't wait for a sale like I normally do. I usually plan my proteins around whatever is on sale. Overall, the dish was more than I would normally spend per serving, but did make a ton.

How Successful Was It?: I thought it was pretty tasty if a little bland, like many early 20th-century dishes. My little helper was very interested in it and liked the bits that fell on the floor. My husband hasn't tasted it yet. I can see myself having to doctor up the leftovers after the third or fourth time, perhaps by broiling with a bit of cheese on top.

How Accurate Is It?: What is "truth" or "accuracy" really? I accurately followed a 1917 recipe for a dish with a Chinese name, a dish that even a Chinese author says "is not known in China."

Lesson #4: Not everything is on the internet! While I was waiting for the beef to brown and the onions to cook, I pulled some of my grandmother's cookbooks off the shelf. I use these cookbooks all the time as they have wonderful egg recipes and great techniques for hiding leftovers.  I looked in the index (Remember Lesson #2, kids!) and, sure enough, there were several chop suey recipes:

From the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, American style:

And two more "authentic" versions:

And from the 1940 American Woman's Cookbook, a recipe very similar to the Chinese author:

Finally, one more food reference from this fortnight, although there's no recipe because I somehow think Mississippi John Hurt isn't really talking about food:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If you want to doctor it up, add some sauteed diced green pepper, Campbell's tomato soup, put it in a casserole and top it with shredded cheddar cheese. Bake it at 350 until the casserole is hot and the cheese is bubbly. Now you have a depression dish my grandmother used to make called Trenton Goulash!