The Mother of French Cooking in America

I grew up like most other kids, waking up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons, but unlike most kids, after cartoons I would watch my cooking shows.

So it was inevitable that I would learn about Julia Child, in all her splendor, at such an early age.

I mean she was a rock star in my eyes. She wasn’t afraid to use butter (but didn’t take it to a gross Paula Deen level), she would nonchalantly whack any piece of meat with her cleaver, but, most importantly, she was such a goofball, and I was hooked!

And I wasn’t the only one. Today we celebrate what would have been Julia’s 100th birthday.

I think we all know a bit about Julia, the woman who brought French Cooking to American homes with her co-authored cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television cooking shows, but here are a few things you might not have known about the woman I call the Mother of French Cooking in America.

Julia_Child-2012-hp

Did you know that Julia Child…

1. Worked with The Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor to the CIA. Some say she worked as a spy, and maybe cataloging highly-classified documents would fall under that position.

2. Was an inventor. During WWII she worked on developing shark repellant for underwater explosives, which were crucial in our fight against the German submarines.

3.  At 6’2, was the tallest student in her class at San Francisco’s Katherine Branson School for Girls, and was described by a friend at the time as being “really, really wild.”

4. Intended to become a famous woman novelist while attending Smith College, which claims Sylvia Plath, Nancy Reagan and Gloria Steinem as alumnae.

5. Was fired from home furnishing company W&J Sloane’s Los Angeles branch for “gross insubordination.”

Quotes from Julia:

  • “I can’t stand those over-sanitary people.” In response to letters from viewers criticizing her for not washing her hands.
  • “I would rather eat one tablespoon of chocolate russe cake than three bowls of Jell-O,” Julia advised after hearing concerns about the high levels of fat in French cooking.
  • “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
  • “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”

 

And finally, here is a great piece from Los Angeles-based illustrator Ann Shen, complete with fun facts about Julia:

 

References:
Cookbook Author Julia Child of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”-Biography.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child: America’s French Chef.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child Biography.” Accessed 14 August 2012.

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.

References:
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.

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.

References:
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

 

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