Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Eight Flavors That Unite American Cuisine - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Wall Street Journal

Black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and Sriracha. Christopher Kimball reviews Sarah Lohman’s “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.”

The story soon becomes familiar. In the last few decades, the consumption of black pepper in America has grown 40% (“Would you like some ground pepper on your salad, sir?”) but we are using it in less adventurous ways, at least compared with the Middle Ages. The story of pepper, therefore, is a business story—discovery, mass marketing, adulteration and finally, a product that is now a bit culinary player, no longer holding down a leading role. Ms. Lohman opens with the story of black pepper. It was originally grown along the Malabar coast of India. Sumatra started growing it in the seventh century and, today, it is also grown in Malaysia. In Medieval Europe, pepper and other spices were used in profusion, both in savory and sweet applications. Since the British supplied all of colonial America’s pepper, we no longer had a source of supply after our revolution. Ms. Lohman tells the story of how the problem was solved in 1790, when a Salem, Mass. captain docked in Sumatra. In short order, a trader named John Crowninshield was making a vast fortune, buying pepper in Sumatra and selling it at a 500% markup in New England. (Pepper had other properties beyond culinary. One sailor of the time died during the voyage and his body was packed in a coffin filled with pepper; he arrived well preserved.) In the 19th century, Ms. Lohman notes, pepper was adulterated with floor sweepings as well as burnt toast crumbs and olive pits. 
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice to produce after saffron, and it has been produced in Central America for centuries. (The Mayas planted vanilla vines in cenotes, or sinkholes, since their microclimate was well-suited to the growth of the vines.) When botanists tried to grow vanilla outside of Mexico, Ms. Lohman relates, the fruit did not pollinate due to the absence of the necessary native insects. Along came Edmond Albius, a slave on the island of Bourbon. By smashing together, with thumb and forefinger, the male and female parts of the orchid, he was able to pollinate the flowers, and the vanilla industry as we know it was born. By the 1860s, the French colonies surpassed Mexico’s production. (Today Madagascar produces 60% of all vanilla consumed in America.)
The active ingredient in vanilla is vanillin, the discovery of which has led to the production of artificial vanilla, which is vastly less expensive than the real thing. Unlike other “fake” foods (scientists would disagree with the descriptor “fake,” since a chemical is a chemical, whether derived from plants or in a laboratory), artificial vanilla usually wins taste tests in baked goods, since it contains a much higher concentration of vanillin; natural vanilla tends to dissipate in the heat of the oven. Another success for industry: Vanilla is a ubiquitous flavoring, without special purpose. Indeed, “vanilla” is now synonymous with “lack of distinction.”
Soy sauce was being manufactured near Savannah, Ga., as early as 1767. Recipes for it were published in American cookbooks in the late 18th century, although soybeans, the key ingredient, weren't readily available and therefore soy sauce was made with mushrooms, walnuts or fish. (The term ketchup is derived from the Indonesian word for soy sauce, ketjap.) Soy sauce was the first step in introducing Chinese cooking to America, which too is a familiar story—small chow chows were opened in San Francisco by Chinese immigrants, and the food was soon tailored to what Americans wanted, leaving out dishes that were too gnarly, spicy, or unfamiliar. Then came the chop suey houses in early 20th century New York, a term based on the Cantonese expression, “za sui” which means “different pieces.”
By the 1950s, more than 300,000 gallons of soy sauce were being imported to this country, and Kikkoman opened a soy sauce factory in Wisconsin in 1972. The traditional monthslong process of making soy sauce was soon upended by the use of spent soybeans from the soy-oil industry, which were then broken down with hydrochloric acid. After a few days, the acid is neutralized, sweetened with corn syrup, and mixed with salt, water and caramel coloring. Three days, not three months.
Some ingredients covered by Ms. Lohman are culinary footnotes. Garlic was associated with lower-class Italian immigrants even though, in Italy, garlic is treated gently—rarely minced and almost always used in the form of whole, sometimes crushed, cloves. When Americans jumped on the garlic bandwagon, they felt: the more, the merrier. MSG, a salt which is a combination of sodium and glutamate, is made by boiling kombu (a type of kelp). This process was made cheaper and easier by using fermented sugars or grains. MSG was eventually accused of creating headaches (although those studies are now in doubt) and is relegated, for the most part, to an ingredient in prepared or restaurant foods.
Chili has a similar history of mass-market transformation. The first mention of chili con carne appeared in an anecdotal work by a surgeon in the army of Gen. Zachary Taylor, covering his time in the Mexican war in the late 1840s. The popular Chili Queens of San Antonio (women who sold chili con carne, tamales and enchiladas in the town square) eventually succumbed to sanitation red tape and to the financial demands by the town fathers, who required that the Queens purchase licenses. Finally, Ms. Lohman recounts, just before 1900, an entrepreneur named William Gebhardt used a combination of fresh chili peppers, black pepper, oregano, garlic and cumin to introduce Eagle Brand chili powder, and chili took off in homes across the country. A far cry from the Chili Queens of San Antonio.
Chili powder was a case in which new ingredients were subjected to low-cost manufacturing as the American marketplace matured. Curry powder, on the other hand, has a history more like that of garlic: an exotic additive whose use was simply changed to appeal to local tastes. Ms. Lohman tells how curry came to New York City in 1899, introduced by Ranji Smile, who cooked in Louis Sherry’s restaurant and offered an amalgam of true Indian cuisine, a nod to French cooking and, of course, foods American would consider familiar. But, for the most part, his enduring legacy was that curry powder, which was added virtually indiscriminately by cookbook authors such as Fannie Farmer, who proffered weird mashups including Curried Lobster, Curried Eggs and Crab Meat Indienne.
“Eight Flavors” offers the casual reader of culinary history interesting tidbits on some of our favorite ingredients or additives, but it is, for the most part, the same old story told again and again. And then the author introduces us to David Tran, the Sriracha king, who is currently responsible for producing 7,500 bottles per hour and $60 million in annual sales of the spicy Thai sauce. He gives one hope that there is still room for the culinary entrepreneur who fills a need before a major food company gets hold of it. The book ends with hints of new foods and flavors, including “pumpkin spice” (Starbucks turned this into a major hit), smoke, rose water, etc. Profits await!
The good news is that American tastes have grown more sophisticated and that a new food like Sriracha can be made with integrity and, at the same time, yield profits. In the 21st century, Americans are reaching out for an authentic taste of other worlds. That is the untold story.

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