March 11: 18th-century hearth cooking at Gunston Hall with Bob Magee and Brigitte Martin.
April 12: CHoW cooperative dinner. Please give suggestions for a theme to Francine Berkowitz or Sophie Frederickson.
May 20: Warren Belasco will bring us "Food in Popular Music."
Bryna Freyer's "whatzits" were a puzzle to everyone until she revealed them to be mango forks, a Victorian creative solution for dealing with a messily recalcitrant but delicious fruit.
As an introduction to the subject for the meeting, some of the offerings on the refreshment table wer foods designed to use up leftovers or surplus food supplies: bread pudding, banana muffins, banana bread, and haggis. Susan Strasser's discussion about "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash," prompted many comments and questions.
Rodris Roth, a curator in the Division of Domestic life at the National Museum of American Life and a charter member of CHoW, who died in September, has generously left a large number of her culinary history books to the Eckles Library Culinary Collection.
Hopkins is a rock and roll journalist, author of a biography of Jim Morrison, and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. His approach to food, as you might expect, is iconoclastic. As he writes, "What is repulsive in one part of the world, in another is simply lunch," and he enters into this cultural exploration with enthusiasm, an open mind, and good humor. Reading this book is a bit like driving past a car accident; you don't want to look but you can't turn away.
The book is made all the more riveting by Michael Freeman's humorous photographs. His pictures present scorpion and asparagus canapes and seahorse wolfberry soup with the panache of a Vogue fashion spread. If you are at all squeamish, these pictures are so direct that you'll find yourself imagining creatures crawling on your skin. The pictures are so vivid that you may find yourself covering them up as you read. Freeman notes that "Keeping and consuming props is considered one of the perks of photography" and that "With very few exceptions" he ate what he photographed. That statement, in fine print, snuggled next to the Library of Congress information, makes these photographs fairly vibrate as you look at them.
You'll pick up this book because its design and photos are compelling, but you'll stick with it because Hopkins' straightforward approach makes no cultural judgements and is leavened with humor. You'll read it through for the same reason people read about shipwrecks or mountain climbing disasters, because you can have the experience vicariously. Hopkins has nibbled grilled iguanas so you don't have to.
People eat this "weird" food because it enables them to survive, because they have ascribed to it value and power, and because it tastes good - to them. Without philosophizing, Hopkins' reportage opens a can of worms (yes, literally and figuratively; see page 110: earthwormpatties). Food has flavor and is fuel for our bodies, but it is also fraught with cultural meaning. It is odd but not surprising that men in many cultures eat animal genitalia to bolster their own flesh and spirit. More odd, but understandable in an abstract sense, is the Chinese daughter during the Tang Dynasty who would offer a broth of her own flesh to her ailing father.
These cultural norms make for fascinating reading and also throw our own cultural biases into relief. Hopkins points out, for example, that while snakes are reviled in Western culture, beginning with the Garden of Eden, in Asia and South America, they take on magical and mythological forms, with medicinal and regenerative powers that can be internalized by worshiping and eating them. Cultural meanings may be more diffuse in media-driven Western cultures, but certainly a seared, bloody steak and a big cigar have the bright, hot character of traditional Chinese yang food, a masculine dish. And when Hopkins gives recipes for raw fish or excargot equal billing with insect canapes, one has to think that yes, a lot of our food preferences are definitely a cultural overlay.
Hopkins also makes a good point about endangered species. Oftentimes, people who think they are buying ground rino horn or freeze-dried tiger genitalia are getting a much more easily attainable substitute. After all, would you be able to tell the real thing? As for animals that can be farmed, creating a market demand for them is a sure way to keep them alive and reproducing.
Hopkins divides the book into sections including mammals, reptiles and water creatures, birds, insects, spiders and scorpions, plants, and leftovers. The leftovers section is among the most intriguing, with chapters on dirt; gold, silver, and pearls; and fake food, by which he means soy and gluten substitutes for meat and cheese, chemically created sugar, and the very commonplace margarine, the original chemically created food. When Hopkins moves on to non-dairy creamer and plastic chewing gum, the cultural lens snaps into focus. Don't you wonder how American cheese snacks can be so impossibly orange? At least bugs are real. Sidebars include recipes, fun facts (did you know that alligator meat is low in cholesterol?), and for the truly adventurous, sources for some of the ingredients.
As for the recipes, most of them sound like school-yard gross outs (this book would be a great gift for an iron-stomached, thirteen-year-old boy). We didn't try any of them and you can hardly blame us. Gutting sardines is one thing; brewing cobra wine is quite another.