Sunday, December 3, 2017


Americans are proud of their techniques for barbecuing meat.  Most regions of the American South have their variations, and restaurants in the North and elsewhere in the country try to emulate one version of American barbecue or other.  One man ate at as many of the various American barbecue restaurants as he could, and wrote a book about his experiences and conclusions.

Other countries have their own barbecue practices, such as, for example, Australia and South Africa. Wikipedia attempts to chronicle all the worldwide barbecue variations here, though they admit their article still needs more research.

Bear in mind that what some places in the world think of as "barbecue" is really just grilling meat outdoors.  The true American barbecue involves methods of cooking meat "low and slow", i.e., for a long time over low heat, making even cheap tough cuts tender and tasty.

At least one other country has a technique for cooking meat "low and slow"--Mongolia.  The Mongolian slow cooking technique for meat is called boodog (or bodog).  It is as elaborate as American barbecue, if not more so, but very different in detail.  It is usually practiced upon goats or marmots, and no one is sure how old it really is.

Boodog cooks the animal's meat inside the animal's own hide.  Here is a summary of how it is done.
  • Kill your goat by hitting it over the head, and then cutting its throat, to drain the blood from the body.
  • Carefully remove the head and the legs, and hang up the body to drain.   Cut off most of the fur.  Be careful not to nick or cut the skin elsewhere. 
  • Tie off the holes where the legs used to be with wire, and remove the meat and organs from the rest of the animal through the hole where the head used to be.  Cut the meat into stew-sized chunks, and season it as you like.  Add vegetables if you wish (probably a modern variation).
  • Heat a number of rocks (i.e., by putting them in a fire).
  • Layer the heated rocks and the meat into the animal skin in alternating layers until the skin can hold no more.
  • Close the head opening with more wire.
  • Use a blowtorch or similar fire source to singe the remaining fur off of the skin.  This act also contributes to the heating of the meat inside.
  • When the meat is done (and experts in the technique supposedly can tell when it's done by the sounds coming from the meat sack that used to be the goat), slice the skin open and serve.
It is Mongolian custom to hand around the heated, greasy, blackened rocks to the folk eating the meat; supposedly, it's good luck to pass them back and forth in your hands (gingerly, of course) and helps alleviate arthritis.

There are videos depicting the process; I have attached two of them to this post.  Please note:  VIEWING THE BOODOG PROCESS IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH!  But if you are curious, and not likely to be distressed by watching butchering and prolonged meat handling under less than kitchen-clean conditions, feel free to watch the videos above.  The top one is about a half-an-hour long.  The one underneath is the TL;DR version, about two-and-a-half minutes long.  Both are very graphic, but fascinating, and despite common elements, is very different from American barbecue rituals.

EDIT:  (12/4/2017)  The longer video shows a different barbecue technique than boodog; khorkhog, in which the animal's meat is placed with vegetables and hot rocks in a closed container other than the animal's hide to cook.  Usually large metal milk containers are used.   The process is less messy than boodog but the principle is the same; heat your meat gradually inside a closed container with hot rocks.  It is still a "low and slow" method of cooking.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Depression Era Cooking

This weekend, I found a series of YouTube cooking videos made by Clara, who was 91 when she started making them.  Clara shows her viewers how to cook the kind of food she had to cook during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when money was scarce.

The embedded video here shows Clara cooking "The Poorman's Meal"--fried potatoes with onions and hotdogs--for her teenage grandson and his friends.  I'm not sure what impresses me more--the fact that a 91-year-old woman is sharing knowledge on the Internet through YouTube, or the fact that the same simple recipes and cheap ingredients are a hit with kids today.

Other recipes Clara demonstrates are "Depression Breakfast" (sugar cookies eaten with coffee--a special treat, explains Clara, because bread was eaten with coffee for everyday!) and "The Poorman's Feast" (a three-course meal:  rice with lentils; very thin steaks, fried in olive oil and lemon juice; and an endive salad).

Sadly, whatever Clara videos there are on the Internet are all that will ever be available, as she died in 2013 at the age of 98.  But it's wonderful that she shared with the world the things people did to eat well for little money.  Her videos provide insight into what life was like during the Depression, as well as practical advice about cooking tasty food for little money.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Not The Scots' Fault!

Haggis, that infamous blend of meat and grain sewn into an animal stomach, has long been deemed to be a culinary joke played by the Scots on the rest of humanity.

Now, a Scottish butcher who has been researching the subject has announced that haggis was not invented in Scotland at all.  It was brought there... by the Vikings.  Seriously.

Apparently the word "haggis" itself appears to be of Scandinavian origin, arising from the Old Norse word haggw, which means to hack into pieces.  The earliest written recipe known in Scotland dates to about 1430 CE.  The butcher on whose research this claim is based, Joe Callaghan, also states that haggis, which is usually made from sheep, should actually be made from venison, since deer are indigenous to Scotland and sheep are not.  If you'd like to order some "staggis" from Mr. Callaghan's shop, go here.

There are news articles about this theory in the Telegraph and in Iceland Magazine for readers who want to know more, as well as a number of others that can be found with a Google search.  

Saturday, October 21, 2017

An Intriguing Answer to the Viking Flatbread Question

If you're like me, you have attempted to make a flatbread that the Vikings might have made.  I've read any number of suggested recipes, but the ones I've tried have led to breads that were too thick, doughy and unappetizing.

Tonight, I found the video to the right of this post, which was produced by a modern chef/blogger/YouTuber who goes by the name "Chef John".  In the video, Chef John wasn't talking about Viking flatbread, or any one ethnic version of flatbread.  He was focusing on technique, not ingredients in any real sense.  He blogs about his technique here

Here's what Chef John suggests you do to make flatbread:
  • Dump a quantity of flour (whatever kind of flour you choose to use), approximately sufficient to make as many flatbreads as you want, onto a smooth flat surface (such as a clean flat rock, a smooth board, a clean stone countertop).
  • Make a depression or "well" in the center of your mound of flour.
  • Slowly pour small amounts of water into your well.  Stir the water slowly into the flour.  As the water is incorporated into the flour, add a bit more and continue.  Stop adding water when you have a sticky dough that includes most of your flour.  Continue to mix the dough with your hand until it only sticks a little to your flat surface.
  • Let the dough sit, covered, for about an hour.
  • Remove a chunk of dough, and roll it into a thin disk-shaped piece of dough.  (Chef John points out that you can do this with a wooden dowel of a suitable thickness--you don't need a fancy "rolling pin".)
  • Put the rolled-out dough disk into a flat, UNGREASED pan.  (My guess is that this works best on cast-iron or a non-stick surface.)
  • Cook the dough until it forms bubbles.  Flip it over.  Do this until you have some char marks on both sides.
  • Remove the cooked bread from the heat.
The Vikings had portable griddles--a flatbread-sized iron disk attached to a long handle that it's believed were held over the fire to cook flatbreads.  However, Chef John's technique could have been used with those, too.  

I think this is worth trying out.  I don't think I'll have time to do that this weekend, but Chef John's technique sounds like a better way to make "Viking" flatbread than overly complex efforts to try to deduce the right mix of modern flours or other ingredients to use for a "Viking" flatbread.  One thing that convinces me that this technique might have been closer to what the Vikings did is the fact that it doesn't require measuring quantities or a long list of ingredients.  Best of all (from both my point of view and the way the Vikings likely cooked) is that you can make flatbreads in this way in any quantity from tiny to large, just by starting with more flour or less flour--you add the water bit by bit either way.  

I plan to try this recipe with barley flour first because it's clear that barley was used by the Vikings.  When I get to try this technique out, I'll blog my observations.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

How did the Indians "pop" corn?

One of the characteristic American foods is popcorn--a treat made by heating kernels of certain species of maize, which quickly release their stored water and turn into white, fluffy, and tasty inside-out morsels.  We're told that American Indians treated the early settlers from England to popcorn and showed them how to make it.

But how did they make it?  I didn't start to think about that until I saw the Townsend video to the left of this post.  

I thought about the different ways I've made popcorn.  

Most of the ways I've used to pop corn involved heating popcorn in oil inside a covered pot.  The very first popcorn I made was "Jiffy Pop"--sealed popcorn inside a tinfoil-covered pieplate with a wire handle attached.  One shook this tin plate periodically while heating it over a stove burner.  Today's Jiffy Pop uses partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and maybe the original did as well, for all I know. "TVTime" popcorn gave you a tube of solidified palm oil and (I think) coconut oil that could be dumped into one's own pot to heat.  Microwave popcorn works on the same principle, except the corn and solidified oils are placed inside the microwave inside a sealed paper bag.  Later I found, by experiment, that heating popcorn in just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot works well too, and gives a pleasant flavor to the finished product.  Electrical hot air poppers were invented in the 1970s, but did not become as widespread as one might expect, possibly due to the greater convenience of microwave popcorn.

But the American Indians didn't have electric hot air poppers.  They also didn't have soybean oil, coconut oil, palm oil, or olive oil--none of those plants originated in the New World.  I don't know whether they had butter, but even if they did, using too much melted butter on popcorn--let alone popping the corn in it--tends to make the final product soggy.

So what did they use?  Animal fat is a possibility, I suppose, though wild game--which is what the American Indians ate when they ate meat--isn't particularly rich in fat.

The Townsend video above suggests, and demonstrates, a plausible answer, which it credits to a pamphlet published by, of all people, Benjamin Franklin.

According to Ben, popcorn can be made by heating the corn in a dry kettle filled with clean sand or salt!  First you heat the kettle with the sand or salt in it.  When the sand or salt is hot enough, you stir the popcorn into it, continuing the stirring until the corn is mostly covered by the sand/salt.  Continue heating the filled kettle.  The heat in the sand or salt will transmit itself to the corn, popping it.  When you judge the popping process to be done (judging in part by how many kernels pop through to the surface), you remove the pot from the heat, filter out the sand (or salt) with a fine-mesh metal sieve or, failing that, a wide-mouthed basket.

The advantage of this method is that you don't need a lid to confine the corn--the sand or salt works well for that.  And if you use salt, it's not a problem if some of it sticks to the finished product (unless you're watching your sodium intake).
I enjoyed this tiny exercise in attempting to deduce how the first Americans might have made popcorn.  It's a good illustration of how one has to consider technologies that would have been available to a culture for cooking in attempting to deduce how foods were made.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Killed the Greenland (Viking) Colony?

Anglo-Saxon reliquary cross with walrus
ivory figure.  10th c. CE.  Source:
 Wikipedia (Modifications made by Johnbod).
It's well known that at least two Viking settlements were established in southern Greenland, sometime around the end of the Viking period. By about 1500 CE, however, archaeological evidence shows that the colony had died and its last colonists had either left or perished.  Why?

That's the question that archaeologists keep asking themselves.  It's true that the death of the colony comes during the so-called Little Ice Age, a time when the climate of Northern Europe in general and Greenland in particular became significantly colder.   But the Inuit, with whom the Greenland colonists had dealings, easily survived colder weather further north.

I'm writing about this question because it appears to be based, critically, upon food and food sources, making it relevant to this blog.  My immediate inspiration is this article from Science Magazine, which cites research that contradicts the currently popular theory on this question.

The popular theory was that the Scandinavian colonists refused to learn from the Inuit practice of living on arctic and subarctic marine mammals and continued to try to feed themselves with cattle and other agricultural products even after the climate had become too cold for such food sources to provide enough food to sustain them.  However, newer archaeological analysis and evidence tends to show that the Greenland colonists did turn to the sea, like the Inuit, for sustenance and trade:
  • Excavations of the colonists' trash heaps shows that 60%-80% of the bones found were, not cattle or domesticated farm animals, but from seals.  That indicates that seals formed a large portion of the colonists' diet;
  • Finds of buttons made from walrus ivory;
  • Analysis of the bones of settlers, showing that, over the four centuries of the colonies' existence, the settlers ate increasing amounts of marine protein.
The article also notes that walrus ivory was highly prized in Europe and that there was great motive to hunt walrus for that reason, and the presence of walrus bone in the settlement trash heaps indicates that the rest of the walrus was not wasted.  Daniel Serra's book An Early Meal theorizes that the Vikings who did not leave Scandinavia probably ate more protein from the sea than had previously been assumed by scholars, especially during the lean time of the year (summer; after winter supplies of other foods had been exhausted but before the next harvest).  His research further supports the idea that the Norse in Greenland were not fatally averse to eating sea animals.  

Even more interestingly, other new evidence confirms that the settlers in Greenland did not practice wasteful agricultural techniques, as had previously been thought.  Newly gathered pollen and soil data shows that attention was paid to allowing fields and forests to recover after tilling and turf cutting, and that pastures were maintained with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.  

So what ended the colony?  The end probably was due to insufficient food, but that does not seem to have resulted from the colonists' intransigence and negligence as previously thought. Climate change made the once marginally viable possibility of agriculture in southern Greenland non-viable. Fishing may not have been sufficient for all the colony's needs (note that the evidence shows a steady increase in marine protein over time).  Economic changes may also have hastened the colony's end. According to the Science magazine article, some scholars now think that walrus ivory fell out of favor later in Europe during the late Middle Ages, when European visits to Africa brought increasing amounts of elephant ivory into European markets.   That suggests that walrus ivory was no longer sufficiently prized to make it possible to supplement the colonists' marine diet by trading walrus ivory for foodstuffs with the rest of Europe.

There is a lesson here, I think.  A neat, plausible, one-cause answer to a historical question is usually wrong--even if it comes from the experts!  Especially when it assumes that people from earlier times were willfully stupid about a survival matter such as food.   

Monday, August 7, 2017

18th Century American Cuisine

From Jas. Townsend & Son, a shop that sells clothing and other useful items to 18th century reenactors, comes a series of videos on 17th and 18th century American cuisine. 

Each video demonstrates how to make a particular item from a period cookbook. The embedded video here shows the viewer how to make fried chicken 18th century style, with a vinegar marinade. Both are recipes I wouldn't mind making sometime. Other videos in the series include, "1792 Apple Dumpling", "1796 Pound Cakes", "Pain Perdu--Historical French Toast", "Pemmican--The Ultimate Survival Food", "Orange Fool" (an 18th century custard), and "Switchel--18th Century Energy Drink." 

For people who find period cookbooks to be weirdly typeset or otherwise hard to follow, this series looks like an easier entry point into the mysteries of Colonial American cuisine. If you want an easy way to find more of Jas. Townsend's videos, this page collects approximately three years of them. Or you can check out the "Townsends" channel on YouTube. 

N.B.: Apologies to anyone who tried to view this post yesterday! I was having trouble with formatting this entry, and took it down planning to finish revising it. 

EDIT: (8/21/2017) I don't know why the video is not showing up on the post today--it shows for me in editing view, and I didn't change anything in the post until AFTER I noticed the problem. Perhaps it's a Blogger bug and will be fixed shortly. this page collects three years of them. Or you can check out the "Townsends" channel on YouTube.

EDIT: (8/24/2017)  The problem appears to be a bug in my html that I can't figure out how to fix. The post will have to look like this for now.

EDIT:  (8/25/2017)  Solved the problem by changing to a more modern theme for the blog.