Fabian Garcia, capsicum enthusiast

Maybe you enjoy a little bit of salsa with your meal, or get a kick out of daring your friends to take a bite from the hottest chile you can find, but despite how much of a fan you think you are of chile peppers, I doubt you can out-fan Dr. Fabian Garcia.

You see, Dr. Garcia completely devoted his life to chile peppers.

The son of “humble” parents, Garcia was born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1871 and became an orphan at an early age. At 2 years old his grandmother brought him to New Mexico, where he spent most of his time. At the age of nine he claims to have narrowly escaped an Apache raid.

Garcia became a horticulturalist and took on the position of first director of New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station in 1914. He was only one of two people in the early 20th century to experiment with chile peppers. During this time he successfully produced the first reliable chile pod, from which came the hot Sandia pepper (pictured top right).

According to the university website, the first land purchase of 23.16 acres for what would become NMSU’s Fabian Garcia Research Center was made in 1906. Now spanning 41.10 acres, the Center in 1992 welcomed the addition of the Chile Pepper Institute, where Garcia’s work on chile peppers continues to this day.

Over the span of his career, which spanned more than 50 years, Dr. Garcia built the foundation for what is now New Mexico’s $400 chile pepper industry. He is known as the father of the U.S. Mexican food industry, and was inducted into the American Society for Horticultural Science Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Institute divides its work between preserving seeds of both cultivated and wild species of chile peppers, studying diseases that affect the plants, and furthering its position as a source for knowledge of chile peppers. This work led to the discovery of the hottest chile in the world, the Bhut Jolokia, and in 2006 the Institute received recognition from the Guinness Book of Records.

Interesting fact: In his 1846 survey of the cuisine of the people just north of Albuquerque, Chief Engineer of the Army’s Topographic Unit William Emory wrote, “Chile the Mexicans consider the chef-d’oeuvre of the cuisine, and seem really to revel in it; but the first mouthful brought the tears trickling down my cheeks, very much to the amusement of the spectators with their leather-lined throats. It was red pepper, stuffed with minced meat.” And according to an NMSU research report, it seems Garcia took note of this, stating that a milder chile would encourage the Anglo population to adopt the chile pepper in their cuisine.

Albuquerque’s Food History is All About Chiles.” Retrieved 30 July 2012.
Coon, Danise; Votava, Eric; Bosland, Paul W. The Chile Cultivars of New Mexico State University Released from 1913 to 2008. Research Report 763. pg. 1
Fabian Garcia.” Retrieved 30 July 2012.
Fabian Garcia Science Center. Accessed 30 July 2012.
Pioneering NMSU father of U.S.-Mexican food industry enshrined in national Horicultural Science Hall of Fame.” Retrieved 30 July 2012.
The Chile Pepper Institute. Accessed 30 July 2012.

The origins of custards and flan

Flan is one of my favorite desserts. It’s so creamy and fresh, sweet and vanilla-y; what more could you ask for on a sunny day? And in Los Angeles, it’s sunny 360 days of the year.

The name flan comes from the French “flaon,” which has been derived from “flado,” meaning flat cake in Latin.

The dessert I’ve grown to love is your basic Mexican dessert, where it’s considered “comida corrida” or “food on the run”. Essentially, it’s a sweet treat you can enjoy anytime of the day. Perfecto!

Flan first came to Mexico through the Spaniards. Not surprising. But did you know the custards that flan was created from stem all the way back to Roman times?

The Way of Custards

The first flado came about when domesticated chickens and the surplus of eggs they were producing prompted Romans to adopt a trick from the Greeks: mixing eggs with cream. These first custards were either savory or sweet, with the sweet recipes making great use of the region’s honey.

As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the footprint of custard dishes. The sweet versions remained a staple in European society well into the Middle Ages. The Moors began making dishes that included citrus and almond flavors, while the caramelized sugar was added by the Spanish. These custards are much more similar to what we now know as flan as far as ingredients and flavors are concerned.

In 1440 A Boke of Kokery (Book of Cookery) was published with 182 recipes, including one for a dish called “Custard Lumbarde.” Unlike the simple flan that I love, this British recipe is for a type of pie that includes pieces of fruit or meat in a sweet or spicy custard sauce. Look for the text and it’s translation in today’s English after the photos.

Original Text:
Custard lumbarde
Take good creme, and leuys of Percely, and yolkes and white of egges, and breke hem thereto, and streyne hem all þorg a straynour till hit be so thik that it woll bere him self. And take faire Mary and Dates, cutte in ij. or iij. and prunes, and put hem in faire coffyns of paast. And then put þe coffyn in an oven, And lete hem bake till thei be hard. And then drawe hem oute and putte the licoure into þe coffyns. And put hem into þe oven ayen. And lete hem bake til they be ynogh, but cast sugur and salt into þi licour whan ye putte hit into þe coffyns. And if hit be in lenton, take creme of Almondes and leve the egges. And the Mary.

In present day English:
Take good cream, and mix in leaves of parsley. Break the yolks and whites of eggs into the mixture. Strain through a strainer, till it is so stiff that it will bear (support) itself. Then take good marrow, and dates cut in 2 or 3 pieces, and prunes, and put them in nice coffins (pastry cases). Put the pies in the oven, and let them bake until they are hard. Then take them out and put the liquid into them, and put them back in the oven. Let them bake together until done, but add sugar and salt to the liquid when you put it into the coffins. And if it is in Lent, take cream of almonds and leave out the egg and the marrow.”

In 1475, an Italian cookery text elevated custards to the level of health food. I think we should go back to this way of thinking!

Custard at that time was believed to help those with liver, kidney and chest ailments, and was also thought to increase fertility. It was the eggs used in these dishes, praised for their benefits, that led to these associations.

In the late 19th century, American food companies seemed to adopt these ideas by marketing custards as health foods, particularly for invalids and children. Although their claims might have actually been born from marketing strategies rather than actual health concerns. Around this time cookbooks began carrying numerous recipes for quick custards, citing arrowroot and tapioca as the health ingredients.

By the 1930s these recipes became obsolete as companies made instant custard mixes available to Americans.

Flan, The Sweeter Cousin

According to Maquelonne Toussaint-Samat’s “History of Food,” Arabs are noted for inventing caramel. When they traveled and then settled in Spain, their caramel came with them.

Flan was born when caramel, one of the dishes most important ingredients in my opinion, was introduced to the custard dishes already being perfected in the region.

In France, flan is known as crème caramel.

And to complete this exploration into the history of flan and the custards that predate it, here’s an Interesting fact:

In 18th century Mexico City, monastery cook Friar Geronimo de San Pelayo wrote down a recipe that included caramelizing the sugar for the flan on a wooden paddle that was set on fire.

A History of the Elegant Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
FAQs: puddings, custards & creams.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Flavorful flan: Making Mexico’s classic dessert.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Jennings, Lisa. “Flan gone wild.” Nation’s Restaurant News; Feb 6, 2006; 40, 6; Alumni-Research Library. pg. 27.
Recipe for ‘custarde’.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.

The goddesses of rosemary

Rosemary is often linked to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who in some versions of the myth is cloaked in the herb at the time of her birth.

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, fertility, and love, was born from the foam of the sea after the Titan Cronos cut off his father Ouranos’ penis and threw it in the sea. She arrived ashore on a seashell, as Boticelli infamously painted in The Birth of Venus, her Roman goddess counterpart.

Rosemary is as strongly tied to the sea as Aphrodite; the herb grows along the coast of the Mediterranean and can survive simply on the moisture in the air that is brought from the sea by gusts of wind, hence its name Rosmarinus, which means “dew of the sea.”

The goddess of love and the mother of several children with various gods has also imparted attributes of an aphrodisiac and a fertility enhancer to rosemary.

The herb has also been thought to contain memory boosting powers, thus it has been associated with the Titaness Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the nine Muses.

Mnemosyne was thought to have given humans their capacity for memories, but at the time of their death, so as to ease their suffering in the underworld, would take all their memories by having them drink from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Because of this association Greek scholars would wear wreaths of rosemary while taking exams so as to enhance their memory and improve their performance. Even to this day, students keep a sprig nearby and brides and grooms keep the herb close so as to not forget their vows.


Bites of History: Remember Rosemary.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.
Goddess of the Pillar: The Mythology of Upright Rosemary.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.
Rosemary, an Honored Member of The Botanical Family Lamiaceae.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.


First American cookbook

1796 saw the publication of the first and second editions of the first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, which cost two shillings and threepence, or about $1.75 today.

It strayed from other cookbooks published in America by incorporating local ingredients, like cornmeal, molasses, pumpkin and pearl ash as a leavening agent (a precursor to baking powder), and adapting to American cooking habits. Included in the book were recipes for Indian Slapjack, Johny Cake, Squash Pudding, and Pompkin Pudding, or what we know as the traditional filling for a pumpkin pie.

All previously published cookbooks strictly followed English recipes made with traditional English ingredients.

This revolutionary cookbook created quite a stir, but for all the bad reasons.

Details in the first few pages of American Cookery have helped historians decipher a couple of theories for who Simmons was:

  • Some believe Simmons identified herself as an American orphan in the title page of the cookbook and then proceeded to describe the hardships affecting that sector of the population.
  • Others believe she was a single and illiterate woman that was working for a family as a cook.

Having insufficient education, Simmons entrusted someone to get her collection of recipes published, and this is where things got problematic.

The first version was riddled with errors that were not written by Simmons. Instead, it is believed that whoever she entrusted maliciously altered her cookbook to discredit her.

The first version included a lengthy section explaining how to pick produce, which, although it seems okay to include in today’s cookbooks, may have insulted readers in the late 1700s. Several recipes were also incorrectly printed.

In the second version Simmons included a disclaimer fixing the misprinted recipes and explaining the erroneous edits were not hers but those of the person she entrusted the publication to, and that she was made aware of them after the first version was published.

After American Cookery was published, Simmons disappeared again, leaving historians to wonder about the true identity of Simmons. And we’ll probably never know who she was, as her trail seems to begin and end with this cookbook.

Interesting fact: In American Cookery Simmons used certain Dutch words, which historians have used to locate her in New York’s Hudson River Valley, including slaw for salad and cookey for cookie, which the British used to call small cakes.

First American Cookbook. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
Simmons, Amelia.” Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. Retrieved 20 July 2012.

Lunch in the Big Apple, Part 2

While looking into the online exhibition for Lunch Hour NYC I came across an interesting individual that I was surprised to have never heard of: Juliet Corson.

Ms. Corson, originally from Massachusettes, had a tough time earning a living in New York as a young adult. She made $4 a week, equal to $68 in today’s figures, working at the Working Women’s Library, where she would sleep. She began volunteering with the Women’s Educational and Industrial Society of NY, a training center for women, in 1873. There she was asked to teach a course on cooking, a topic she was not much familiar with. After studying cookbooks from Germany and France, she began teaching, and her class sizes exploded, prompting her to open the New York Cooking School.

Corson, always conscious of the plight of the poor as her experiences had taught her, charged fees on a sliding scale for her school. Her lessons were focused on making wholesome meals at the lowest cost, and soon she would publish her first cookbook, The Cooking School Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery, and a pamphlet, Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Families of Six. In her obituary in the New York Times, Corson is credited for handing out 50,000 copies of her pamphlet for free at around the time when the great railroad strike hit in 1877.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on Corson’s work

I’ve volunteered and worked at a non-profit that serves the homeless in California, and while working there I learned all about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s work in NYC: during the Great Depression they opened up hospitality houses in abandoned buildings throughout the city to house the poor and homeless. My learning soon branched out to more current operations that taught the homeless culinary skills as a means for employment and self-sufficiency, and I am surprised that having dipped my toes into that realm, I had yet to hear about Juliet Corson, who seemed to have been doing something very similar to these establishments. I wonder if her work is as readily known as that of her contemporaries.


Finally, I wanted to include more photographs from the exhibition:

a lunch truck-painted entry way for the exhibition

display of luncheonette equipment & slang

an exhibition section in the form of a deli

menu from a Japanese restaurant

automat for serving up sandwiches and pies

oyster cart

pretzels on a stick in a basket


Corson, Juliet.” Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
Death of Juliet Corson.” New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2012.

Lunch in the Big Apple, Part 1

The New York Public Library has an exhibition right now that I would love to see. Lunch Hour NYC offers a glimpse at lunch in the city over the past 150 years. What an interesting idea.

During America’s colonial times, lunch was considered a snack that one might have at any time of the day, with dinner being the main meal at the middle of the day. With the onset of industrialization and in keeping up with the blossoming city, New Yorkers quickly adapted their meals at the behest of their employers to mimic what we now know as lunch.

Check out this video the NYPL put together on Lunch Hour NYC:

Pretty neat! And here is the original maker of those stainless steel hot dog stands that the Big Apple has all over its streets: Edward Beller:

“A hot dog comes out of boiling water, what can be so bad about it? It tastes so good.” Wise words from Mr. Beller? Perhaps, except maybe for our vegetarian and vegan friends.

how much deli food items cost, if priced fairly, in 1930

With so many immigrant communities throughout the city, is it any wonder that New York’s array of lunch items is so diverse? The following snip-its offer some insight into how several cultural foods have entered the smorgasbord that is NYC.

  • Virginia’s Thomas Downing became a wealthy man selling raw, fried and stewed oysters, as well as poached oyster-stuffed turkey. A free black born in 1791, Downing was so successful his oysters were shipped to Paris and London, and he once received a gold chronometer watch from Queen Victoria. In 1842 Downing catered Charles Dickens’ official welcome to NYC.
  • Originally sold from baskets or piled on sticks, pretzels were only a penny up until the 1920s. In 1923 pretzel sellers were looked down on and a reporter with the Times once wrote: “It was not fitting that a bank president should be seen munching a pretzel.”
  • Gennaro Lombardi opened the first New York pizzeria in 1905, and since then the city has been known for its thin crust, coal-fired oven-baked pizza. The pie became a lunch item when it was first sold by the slice in East Harlem’s Patsy’s, opened by Patsy Lancieri.
  • The birthplace of the pastrami you and I enjoy today is Little Romania in lower Manhattan. It evolved from a goose preserving technique that the local Jewish immigrants had brought with them, but was easily adapted for beef, which was less expensive.
  • Immigrants from Germany opened the city’s first delis in the mid-19th century, although the different groups of immigrants stocked their deli’s with foods that they were culturally accustomed to.
  • Not for the timid souls, hot dogs were generally avoided before the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, but they were readily consumed in New York.  By 1915, Coney Island’s hot dog spot Nathan’s Famous was opened.
  • Chinese takeout became an instant favorite for city dwellers; in a 1903 article, the New York Tribune reported, “Few Bohemian gatherings are complete without a pail of chop suey, brought, fresh and hot, from Chinatown.” New Yorkers had to wait until 1976 though, to have the popular cuisine delivered to their homes.
  • Although its first introduction to New York is uncertain, sushi became available city-wide by the 1960s, after first appearing on a menu in 1932. Only after the American-invented inside-out roll, which hides the seaweed in the rice, debuted in Los Angeles, did sushi in NYC move away from its traditional form.
  • The most recent addition to the Big Apple’s eclectic food offerings, the Jamaican beef patty finally arrived only after the Jamaican immigrant communities grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Dough-wrapped spicy beef, that is baked and is served inside a roll, the Jamaican beef patty, that have also been made with chicken and vegetarian fillings, were deemed “the best portable lunch in the world,” by Gourmet magazine.


Lunch Hour NYC.” New York Public Library. Retrieved 18 July 2012.

The origins of pasta

Most Americans tend to think of pasta as an Italian food. And that’s not surprising as it is a popular cuisine in the nation and varieties such as lasagne, spaghetti and fettucini have become regular features in our diets. Yet a couple of countries have been involved in a heated debate, both claiming that pasta originated on their soil.

According to various sources, there is evidence that the earliest pasta being made was between 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and its first producers were nowhere near the country we now know as Italy.

Instead these late Neolithic pasta-makers lived in and around what is now the small town of Qijiaping, China. Belonging to the Qijia culture, they lived along the Yellow River, and were agriculturally-based.

In 2000 scientists found and began excavating the archaeological site of Lajia, China, where a catastrophic earthquake followed by a subsequent flood left a Pompeii-like city eerily frozen in time.

According to a 2005 BBC report, those scientists found a ceramic bowl with 4,000-year-old noodles made of foxtail and broomcorn millet, or native domesticated grasses. The noodles highly resembled Lamian noodles, which are traditionally made in China by stretching the dough by hand.


4,000-year-old noodles

You would think that would settle the issue, but it didn’t.

Instead in 2008 Chinese and Italian officials fought valiantly in a North Carolina court for the right to claim that pasta was invented on their soil.

While the Italians claimed the ancient Etruscans, who lived in today’s Tuscany, were cooking pasta in the 11th century, Chinese officials were not convinced as the pasta was baked instead of boiled. Who knew this was the defining characteristic for pasta.

The Italians replied with a description of what might just be the lasagne we know today from the 3rd century CE Apicius cookbook De re coquina. The Apicius collection of recipes takes its name from three gourmet, or food connoisseurs, by the name of Apicius, although none of them worked on the manuscript. According to an article recounting the legal battle, Marco Polo was credited for bringing what you and I know as pasta to Venice from Sicily.

Because wheat-based pasta is more prevalent and popular in today’s society than its rice-based equivalent, the jurors granted Italy the right to the claim. According to Alfonzo Fiorelli, the first pasta and tomato sauce recipe was invented in 1839, over 350 varieties of the food were created since the 19th century, and about 60 lbs. of pasta per capita are consumed annually in Italy.

Errington, Jennifer. “Origins of pasta spark saucy debate.” The Davidsonian. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Maolin, Ye and Houyuan, Lu. “The earliest Chinese noodles from Lajia.” Chinese Archaeology. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Oldest noodles unearthed in China.” BBC. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Qijia culture“.  Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 17 July 2012