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I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and my mother was a working woman who didn’t like to cook. Although she dutifully made dinner for us every night, these were perfunctory and repetitive meals: meatloaf made with Catalina salad dressing, spaghetti with tomato sauce and occasional meatballs (also made with Catalina salad dressing), roast chicken (overcooked), and instant chocolate pudding or Jello for dessert. I looked with envy at my friends whose stay-at-home moms prepared things like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi, baked alaska and pineapple upside-down cake.

At the time, convenience foods were sparse, limited mostly to canned foods. For many years, my idea of vegetables were greenish things floating in yellowish liquid that were dumped in a saucepan for 30 minutes so whatever taste and nutrition they contained had been boiled away. Another familiar adjunct to our meals was cream of mushroom soup — flavored lard to be added to casseroles, dips, or anything that needed a fat and sodium boost. Also, pork and beans: snippets of fat drowning in a salty mush and introduced alongside the occasional boiled hot dog (my mother saw hot dogs as low class but made an exception by serving them under the name of frankfurters). Finally, there was the much-loved macaroni and cheese — elbow macaroni and Velveeta — served to us when our parents went out for dinner. More… “Dinnertime and its Discontents”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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Did Montezuma II, the legendary king of the Aztecs, really imbibe 50 cups of a special thick chocolate-vanilla-honey potion every day? We will never know, but we know for sure that vanilla flavoring in any of its many forms is one of the substances that people just cannot get enough of. It can be found in more obvious places like ice cream, cakes, liqueurs, perfumes, tobaccos, and soaps. It is an open secret that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola buy the naturally produced substance in large amounts.

But vanilla flavoring is also where you may not expect it — such as in cough and cold preparations or pet food, where the cheaper, artificially produced substance helps to mask undesirable tastes. It makes most mouths water, which explains why it is also used as a supplement for fodder. Vanilla used to be extolled for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Curiously, Chandler Burr, one of the world’s most renowned cologne critics, sees vanilla eternally associated with the oldest profession. “Men love vanilla, which is why whores the world over smell like it,” he told me recently. He didn’t tell my why women love it, too, though. More… “Vanilla Mania”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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This piece was originally published in our newly relaunched partner publication, Table Matters: a journal of food, drink, and manners.

Long before Garrison Keillor debuted A Prairie Home Companion in 1974, there were prairie home companions on the radio every day.

Prairies are vast flat lands populated by shrubs, grasses, and wild herbs, with few trees and modest rainfall; the dry land cracks and is often dusty. Not very hospitable. North and South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska are prairie states. California’s central valley and considerable portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and most of Minnesota are also thought of as prairieland. This part of America is also called, by some, The Heartland. Rarely, however, do the densely populated coasts of the country regard this vast mid-section of America as vital as that name might imply.

For many that migrated there in the 19th and early 20th century, it was their land of dreams. From 1836 to 1914, over 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. In the 19th century, people were encouraged to move out West. “Go West young man” was the clarion call put out by an Indiana newspaperman in 1851, and the slogan was picked up by Horace Greeley, New York Tribune editor and politician. Go West; many did. Among them were Germans, Slavs, Poles, Swedes, and Norwegians — immigrants who knew how to wrest life from hard soil. Like all immigrant groups, they carried their culture, their values, and their foodways with them.
More… “The Radio Homemaker”

Edward Bottone is an assistant teaching professor in the Culinary Arts program at Drexel University. He teaches classes in Culture and Gastronomy, French Cuisine and American Regional Cuisine, Food Styling & Photography, Food and Film and Continental, Regional and Ethnic Cuisine. Bottone is also the editor of Table Matters.

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Imagine yourself as a child, frolicking through your parents’ back yard and digging up worms. Your mother calls you in from the kitchen for dinner and you bound in through the back door, smelling the roast she’s been tending to for the past few hours. At the table your father sits reading the newspaper, your sister fidgeting with a bow in her hair. Before you is the same familiar spread: off-white plates, clear glasses, spotless silverware, uniform serving utensils, and of course, the butter dish. You think nothing of the materials off of which you shovel food into your mouth, moving as quickly as possible to resume your outdoor activities. For hours your mother slaved over the stove to prepare your meal, but that won’t cross your mind until present day when, as an adult, you prepare meals for yourself and maybe even your own children. Now is a time… More…

For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.

That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:

entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real… More…

 

 

I can’t figure out where to get a lump of coal in September. In Los Angeles. In 2013. Not activated charcoal, which is sometimes used by present-day hospitals to help suck up ingested poison. But a plain ole’ lump of dirty coal, like you would use in the 1800s to fuel your stove and give your home that lovely soot smell. This is a problem, because according to a woman with too many names — Lady Mary Anne Boode Cust — in her 1853 title The Invalid’s Own Book, boiling a walnut-sized lump of coal in an pint of milk until it gets thick is “a very nutrative food, and easily obtained.”

Well, at least for me, that second part is a lie. And sweet jeebus — coal milk? As if it didn’t already suck to get… More…

 

I am from New England stock. (I’m tempted to call us “hearty New England stock,” but the truth is that my immediate family skews more to the side of thin, independent, and quiet weirdos. Which is its own New England archetype, I suppose.) But a childhood in New England means that certain things are in my bones: Foliage and crisp apples in the fall, cross-country skiing in the winter, fiddleheads and mud in the spring, and in summer, shell-cracking lobster dinners. To me, lobster isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime rarity or even a particularly high-class food. It’s a treat, certainly, but not the epic, caviar-level foodstuff some people make it out to be.

For people who live in America’s coastal areas, this is the way it has always been. Lobster is one of the few animals that demands being alive… More…

My father does not have an illustrious history with cooking. You wouldn’t know that looking at him in the kitchen now — when my grandmother’s health was failing, he studied with her so that he could make her classic desserts, like fluffy cream cake, spiraling jelly rolls, and not-too-sweet apple pies. But before that, I knew my father to have exactly one dish — Welsh rarebit.

In his own words, “It wasn’t much.” He melted Velveeta with a large can of tomatoes, and maybe an egg (Dad: “I don’t remember”). What he does remember is making the dish for his roommate and a friend when they were living in Pittsburgh, and right as they were about to pour the rarebit over crackers, realizing that everything — the table, the plates, and the crackers — was covered with tiny ants.

Something horrible happened. Horrible things happen all the time to everyone, but it’s still a shock how one phone call can obliterate your future and slam you into a dreadful present tense. I was taken in, I was cared for, and somehow I lost time — days. Vaguely I can recall moments where I wandered into my friend’s kitchen to make a cup of tea, only to find myself 20 minutes later in a puddle on her floor. Or I would wake up mid-panic attack, not quite sure where or when I was.

Life Is Meals by James and Kay Salter. 464 pages. Knopf. $22.50.

In those first few days, the only times I was grounded and sure of my surroundings were those moments when I had food as an anchor. Without it, I flew around… More…

Killing cats is illegal in Italy. And eating them was understood to be something only done during times of deprivation. Bigazzi said as much when he explained that this was the case during his childhood in the 1930s and ’40s. (Obviously Italy is not alone. During the siege of Paris in 1870, certain restaurateurs resorted to purchasing their meats from the zoo. Writes Kenneth James in his biography of Escoffier, “there was donkey, elephant, camel … and kangaroo, bear, wolf and roe deer,” and yes, “the humble cat delicately embellished with rats.”)

So was Bigazzi being merely nostalgic or was he actually suggesting Italians today eat cat? If you ask restaurateur Dean Gold, the answer is, in all probability, yes, it still happens — not out in the open by the Piazza del Popolo, mind you, but rather in secret gatherings akin to the supper club that feasted on Komodo… More…