Archive | December, 2011

More Food Porn: A Danish Danish

I have an answer to the age old question “What do they call a Danish in Denmark?”.

The answer? A Danish.

I know. I was as surprised as you.

Actually, most places call it wienerbrød, especially at bakeries, but the coffee shop where I went had a sign in front calling it a “danish”.

Supermarket Finds: Starbucks Seattle Latte

I realize that I should not be surprised when I come across items such as this. After all, Seattle is known for its coffee passion, and Starbucks is from Seattle.

Still, there’s something a little jarring to be thousands of miles away in Copenhagen, Denmark, and come across this sort of product. It’s as if the head honchos in Starbuck’s marketing department are trying to convince the Danes that Seattle is an exotic land of coffee weirdness, and that they (and by extension, those of us who actually live in the city) have insight into the bean that very few others in the world do.

In fact, the label (written in English so as to sell in several other European countries without incurring further printing costs), tries to make that exact point.

For those of you who can’t read the graphic, it states:

Savoured all across Seattle, where Starbucks opened its first store in 1971, Starbucks Caffe Latte inspired this beverage, a delicious blend of our signature Fairtrade certified Espresso Roast and milk.

I think what’s throwing me is the phrase “Savoured all across Seattle”, which implies that the citizenry of the Emerald City are having little culinary orgasms when consuming a latte, an idea which is as laughable as it is disturbing.

It also implies that Starbucks is the only choice for the coffee aficionado in Seattle, an idea which is simply preposterous to those of us who make a daily choice between Starbucks and six other non-Starbucks coffee-shops within walking distance from our homes. And I say all of this as someone who has a Starbucks card. That I have cards for five other coffee shops is my point. Most of us Seattle-ites don’t pine after Starbucks, we pine after coffee.

The East India Companies Modus Operandi in a Nutshell

Or, more specifically, how England and the Dutch approached their excursions into Asia.

The Dutch invested heavily in the Dutch East India Company and used the profits to help pay for their Navy (well, Navies, really, but that’s a long story to explain here).

The English invested heavily in their Navy through taxes and whatnot, and used this infrastructure to help support their merchant investments, up to and including the English East India Company.

Granted, this is a little simplistic, but the core difference here is what is important.

How does one go about explaining the nuances of this difference, as well as the results? Let’s just say that this is why we Americans speak English today instead of Dutch or Spanish. I’m only slightly embellishing here.

Note: Sorry for the lack of posts of late, as I am both far away from home and also recovering from a fairly nasty cold.

Francis Drake was a Bad-Ass

Queen Elizabeth I was having problems. For all sakes and appearances, it seemed as if she was only Protestant Monarch left in Europe by 1577. The Spanish had essentially cut the Dutch off at the knees by making William the Silent a rebel. The French Catholics had forced the Protestants underground after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. From the Queen’s perspective, England was isolated, and her allies were either dead or on the run.

She also did not have the financial resources available to her that the Spaniards did, what with Spain pulling gold out of Mexico and Silver out of Peru. Direct confrontation with Spain would be suicide.

She did, however, have a group of sea dogs who were both itching to take their ships to the new world, and, if the opportunity arose, provoke the Spaniards in a game of nautical piracy. As it often took upwards of two years for communication to reach King Phillip II from the new world, such acts could be politically explained away with public admonitions from the Queen (while in private, laud her privateers).

Francis Drake was one such Sea-Dog. And in 1577, the Queen sent him to the new world to explore, but with the implied understanding that he would be engaging in various forms of piracy.

The thing was, his crew was under the impression that he would be going to the Caribbean to do this work, and it was only after a while at sea that he told that the real plan was to head around the Strait of Magellan, and create havoc on the west coast of the Americas.

Oh, and havoc he did raise (after having a few setbacks of his own). He raided towns and colonies all along the west coast, and took ships when the opportunity arose. By the time he found himself at, what is today the San Francisco area of California, Drake knew three things.

1) He was sitting on an awful lot of money, including 37,000 ducets in gold (roughly 7 million dollars in today’s money) from one ship, and 26 tons of silver from another, as well as various amounts of gold, silver, and jewels from the rest of his hell raising.

2) This money needed to get back to England.

3) The Spanish were actively looking for him, and would have loved to see him dead.

What this meant was that if he returned the way he came, he would likely have to engage in warfare, and due to sickness, mutiny, and the wear and tear of the sea, his crew and his fleet were less than able to put up a strong fight.

So he did the one thing he thought no one would suspect. He continued west.

Think about that for a moment. He was a half a world away from home, looked at his situation, and decided that his best choice was to accomplish a task that had only been accomplished once before in the history of the world – circumnavigate the globe!

“This is all great,” a few of you are likely thinking. “But what has this have to do with food?”

Well, after completing what must have been a treacherous trip across the pacific Ocean (keep in mind that the maps used here would have been either very primitive if not outright non-existent), Drake found himself at the Maluku Islands, known better as the Spice Islands, where he packs down his already laden ships with what he can, and continues on his journey back home. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

He reaches Plymouth, England in September of 1580, where the extent of his haul is found to be greater than the annual English budget. For all intents and purposes, Drake is a hero. He was also a bit of a jackass, but I’ll let you discover that aspect of him for yourself.

From a food perspective, his landing in the Moluccas was important. He was by no means the first Englishman at the Spice Islands (the Portuguese used any sailor they could find, and an Englishman or two very likely had already been there on Portuguese ships). However, Drake demonstrated that, not only could the English make it to the Spice Islands, but the amount of money one could make if they established a colony there. The creation of the East India company twenty years later can be directly traced to what Drake accomplished.

Without Drake, the British pantry would have looked much different, as would have America’s spice rack. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The Other Portuguese Innovation

It wasn’t just the caravel that allowed the Portuguese to take their ships around the Cape of Good Hope. When it comes to traveling, it’s not enough to have an appropriate means of transportation. You have to either know, or have the ability to figure out where you are at, and how you plan on getting to where you wish to be,

Navigators of the world, specifically nautical ones, relied upon an item called the mariner’s astrolabe. This item could and can help measure the distance of objects off of the horizon, things such as Polaris, the moon, and other celestial items in the sky, Based off of the planispheric astrolabe, its purpose was to, through the use of charts, tables, and triangulations, determine where one was at in relation to a map of some sort.

Getting an astrolabe to be effective on a ship, what with its rolling decks and unstable bases, was a bit of a trick. This is the first area where the Portuguese come into the picture, for it was an unknown mariner who determined that if you held the astrolabe from the top, and pointed it out to the horizon, it wasn’t necessary to place it upon firm ground. From there, they could then swivel a connected plane (called an alidade) at the celestial item and then determine the degrees from which it existed from the horizon.

But this wasn’t the only things that the Portuguese did. As odd as it sounds, they were the first to make an astrolabe out of metal. This was rather important, because this did two things.

One, it gave more precise measurements. Wood, which was the material used before metal, has a propensity to do three things – expand, contract, and…well, I’ll hold on to the third thing for a moment. Materials that expand and contract give inexact measurements. Metals, (which expand and contract at a much lesser degree than wood) could be relied upon to give better measurements, and thus give the mariner a much better idea upon where they were.

The third thing that wood does is rot. And for mariners who were to measure the length of their journeys, not in weeks or months, but in years, it was important to have tools that could last. Being stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no means of determining where you were in it, was almost certainly a death sentence.

These two items – the mariner’s astrolabe, and the making them out of metal, were both Portuguese innovations that occurred sometime during the life span of Vasco da Gama. The Portuguese, by roughly 1500, had the better ships, and the better means of navigation. It’s no surprise that they, at least until Spain started rolling in the gold and silver from Mexico and Peru, were the ones who first established and controlled the Nautical spice routes to India and Indonesia.

(Note: Pictures of the Mariner’s Astrolabe are rare, as most have been lost to the ages. The picture above comes from the Adler Planetarium.)

For the Want of a Cheeseburger

Some of you may already have seen this essay by Waldo Jacquith, entitled On the impracticality of a cheeseburger. It’s basic premise is thus:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

His proof? First hand experience, which he explains earlier in the essay:

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter.

I don’t wish to poo-poo Mr. Jacquith’s revelation, because, depending upon your definition of cheeseburger, or even what defines a “highly developed, post-agrarian society”, his premise is likely true.

Yeah, I hedged my bets there with that “likely” adverb.

However, this is really a dog-bites-man story. From a cultural perspective, cuisines are dynamic. They change, oftentimes in a span of a generation, altering and evolving based off of a multitude of variables as diverse as financial, access to agrarian resources, and even fads of the wealthy. The distribution of food stuffs to meet the demands of the cultural cuisines shifts is based off of the resources available. The wealthier the nation/region, the more likely they would chase impractical food stuffs. For an example, one need to go no further than to look at the history pepper, a spice that has no nutritional benefit to mankind other than it alters the taste of food, even when you look at it from the Galen perspective of humorism. There was far more emphasis on sugar in the apothecaries trade than there was on pepper, yet pepper helped create empires, and sugar was just another commodity to be traded.

But Mr. Jacquith wasn’t talking about spices, he was talking about cheeseburgers, and how its impracticability makes it able to be a commodity only in today’s Western society. Which is kinda true, but not necessarily agrarian reasons.

Let me define what was available in England and Holland at around the year 1700: Bread, cheese, cattle, and greens. There were several varieties of greens, which were available at different times of the year. Grinding beef was not unheard of, although the technique was likely used more often in the production of sausages, as you wanted the meat to have a longer shelf life. Cheese was a staple in many households, rich and poor, although in the poorer households, you had cheese of lesser quality. The ingredients for a rudimentary cheeseburger were already there.

In fact, meat on bread was a known commodity already by this time. Trenchers were huge chunks of stale bread with meat served atop, sort of a precursor to open faced sandwiches. There are accounts of meats, both sliced and ground, being served on top of buttered bread in taverns in Holland during this period. Adding cheese and greens would not have been a big step to take. So why didn’t it happen?

Well, it might have, specifically in England and Holland, where Tavern beef was quite popular. The problem was that the places who sold these dishes didn’t have written menus, so what they did sell is lost to the ages. The only record we have is from travelers and journalists who would document what they saw in these locations, and typically commonly-had experiences weren’t unique enough to write about regularly. We know beef was served on bread at these locations, we know that some served cheese. What we don’t know is if someone decided to grind beef, melt some cheese on top of it, and then serve it with greens and another slice of bread. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that it could have happened, especially after the idea of “sandwiches” took off in the mid 1700′s. It’s simply that there’s little documented evidence.

But I’m getting beyond my point here. The reason the English and Dutch societies could not/did not produce a good cheeseburger is simply this – there was no money in it. The wealthy had no desire to implement an infrastructure that could produce the food of the lower-to-middle classes on a consistent basis. They could (and did) create an infrastructure that pulled cloves, cinnamon, and pepper from islands 12,500 miles away and spent loads of money to do so, but they had little incentive to ensure that ground beef, bread, and cheese (foods of the lower classes) could be made available to their citizenry on a every day basis.

So Mr. Jacquith’s thesis is true, but for far more complex reasons than the cycles of the growing season.

What Foods Define Your City?

For the sake of discussion, let’s say that someone approached you with a simple question. “What foods do you think best represent the city where you live, and can you give a good recommendation on where to find such food?”

Such a question was asked of me recently, under the guise of an iPhone app writen by the great people over at Rama. The app is written for tourists and travelers, and allows them to find places that allow them to feel as if they’ve gotten to know the city where they are visiting.

My first instinct was to simply send them a list of my favorite restaurants – there. Job done. But I quickly came to realize that the good restaurants tend to have this level of similarity about them. The trait they share is that they tend to be more about the restaurant, chef, and owner, than they are about the city where they reside. I could write about the restaurants that have gotten great press in Food and Wine, or have been made mentioned by the likes of Jeffry Steingarten, but would a person truly have gotten a feel of Seattle?

To address this, I sat down, and try to find a dozen or so places that serve food that represent Seattle, the neighborhoods that make this city great, and the underlying ethos one can find in the way food is approached here.

Then I realized that this is the underlying quest that I have when I travel. I don’t (necessarily) want what I can get back home. I want something that provides a special experience, either unique (if possible) to that location only, or at least known for its take on a well known type of dish. As cliched and touristy as it sounds, there’s something fun about having haggis in Scotland, toasted ravioli in St. Louis, or deep dish pizza in Chicago.

In a country that’s somewhat being defined by a generic “sameness” foisted upon us by the likes of franchises and supermarkets that provide that same food in Seattle as they do in Miami, it’s worth it to ourselves to find the foods that set us apart from one another, and allow us to be different. Then we need to celebrate them in some manner or another.

So, what foods define where you live? For the record, here in Seattle, I chose coffee, microbrewed beer, oysters and mussels, chicken teriyaki, and some other items that you’ll have to read on the app.