Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Mesquite Atole – Kúi Wihog

By Jacqueline Soule

Atole is a drink popular throughout Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. Atole is a usually a warm drink, generally based on corn, frequently sweetened somehow, and often prepared with cinnamon as well. Atole has countless various recipes for preparation, and every family has their own. Most people who grow up drinking atole consider it a breakfast drink, and/or a comfort food, and in some cases, a holiday treat. You could compare it to cocoa in the USA.  Atole is not always made from corn. It can also be made from rice, wheat, oatmeal, or mesquite pods.

Atole is a thick, carbohydrate-rich drink popular in much of Mexico.

Mesquite in the Southwest

For over 4,000 years, the peoples of the Southwest used the pods of the mesquite tree.  Mesquite is one of roughly 40 species of Prosopis, a desert legume tree. The pods are of various edibility and palatability, but all are considered “mesquite” a word that comes to us from the Náhuatl mizquitl.

Since they are legumes, and make their own fertilizer, mesquite trees can thrive in otherwise poor soil.

Most species of mesquite have sweet pods that can be eaten right off the tree, much in the manner of carob or tamarind. Mesquite pods contain seeds, but they are tiny. If eating fresh pods, the seeds can be spit out, much like watermelon seeds. 

Mesquite pods ripen in July, and thus the pods are a valuable source of food during the summer months. For farmers or hunter-gathering peoples, summer can be a lean time, before the corn is harvested, before many fruits are ripe for plucking, and long before it is time to harvest wild nuts.

The color of the pods varies from tree to tree within each species.  The redder ones are said to be sweeter.

Harvest & Preparation

Pods are plucked ripe from the tree. In the past they were laid in the sun to fully dry before grinding or storage. Modern cooks toast the pods in the oven. 

Traditional use was to enjoy the bounty of the season in the season when it occurred. Some pods were stored for fall celebrations. This was in part due to bruchid seed beetle larvae that often inhabit the seeds.

Mesquite flowers are popular with pollinators, with a mild honey-like fragrance.

Mesquite Nutrition

The pods of mesquite contain many complex carbohydrates, including soluble gums and fibers, making them a “slow release” carbohydrate source. These pods can taste quite sweet but have a very low glycemic index, making them an ideal food to help control blood sugar, and a food often possible for diabetic to safely enjoy.

Native peoples avoided eating an excess of fresh pods all at once. If overindulged in, these gums and fibers might lead to what can be politely termed “gastric distress.” Pods are also “a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc,” according to information compiled by anonymous (s.d.) in Healthy Traditions.[1]

New research shows that, for best health, pods should not be gathered off the ground. More at SavortheSW.com

Mesquite Use

The entire mesquite plant was, and still is, used in many ways, and I recall the first time I ever tasted one. My mother was a student of Edward and Rosamond Spicer, noted anthropologists. Thus in my childhood, we visited the Tohono O’odham many times and participated in an array of festivals. There were joyous processions, dancing, singing, laughing conversation. Older women clustered around small smoking fires with pots and kettles of tasty foods cooking and simmering away. The children ran and played kid games until called to order by the adults. I knew no words of O’odham, but kids don’t need words to play tag, jump rope, or take part in a popular hoop rolling game.

Every so often, one child would be called over by a grandmother, and the rest of us kids were invited too. Some tasty treat was passed around on a plate with a spoon or maybe a single tin cup for all to sip from. Lip smacking, gentle smiles, soft words, warm glances. I learned to say “kúi wihog,” the O’odham word for mesquite.

Mesquite pods are difficult to grind into meal, traditionally they were boiled to soften them.

Mesquite Atole

Basically, all you need to make mesquite atole are some mesquite pods and water. If you are wealthy, and want to honor the reason for the festival (such as a saint’s day or a memorial service), then you can add brown sugar and cinnamon. 

Whole mesquite pods are broken into small pieces and tossed in a pot of water to soak overnight. The next day, right in that same pot, heat up the water and pods. Mush the boiled pods well with a broad spoon against the side of the pot to release the sweet pod fibers to swirl in the water. Drink when pods are all mushy and have released their flavor. Some mesquite smoke from the campfire adds to the overall uniqueness of the experience.

Mesquite atole was consumed warm in the cooler months of winter. In summer, it was allowed to cool overnight and drunk as a nutritious morning breakfast drink. To this day, I make some for myself every so often.  I “cheat” and use ground mesquite meal, roughly 2 tablespoons per cup of boiling water.

Buena Salud!


Selected Bibliography

Anonymous  (s.d.).  Healthy Traditions: A Cookbook for Native Americans.  Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ.

Dahl, K. A.  1995.  Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert.  Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Publications, Tucson, AZ.

Ebling, W.  1986.  Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America.  University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hodgson, W. C.  2001.  Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.   University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Nagel, C.  (s. d.).  Mesquite Recipes.  Friends of Pronatura, Tucson, AZ.

Soule, J. A. (2011) Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.  Tierra del Sol Institute Press, Tucson AZ.

Tohono O’odham Nation  (s.d.).  When Everything Was Real: An Introduction to Papago Desert Foods.  Tohono O’odham Nation, Sells, AZ.

On Paratext, Cookbooks, and No Useless Mouth

By Rachel Herrmann

Before I entered the final stages of revising my first book, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution, I had tried for reasons of sanity to compartmentalize the fun food stuff from the work food stuff. And then I came up against my final, self-imposed deadline and decided to blur the line between them. In this post, I want to explain why. During the editing process, I began to think about paratext. Although I don’t discuss the term “paratext” in my book, I think about it a lot when reading cookbooks and food writing. Paratext refers to the pieces of a book that are not part of its main body and can include epigraphs, chapter titles, and prefaces, as well as covers and blurbs. It can also refer to the index, even though Gerard Genette, who I cite here, did not include this in his definition of paratext; I would, especially now during a time when many of us compile our own to save money. This focus on paratext was not just about my manuscript, and linked to when I first started working on food and thinking about how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookbook authors told readers how to feel about food from the moment they encountered a cookbook’s cover. I read cookbook prefaces to learn about intended audiences and errors in previous editions, and thought about the intentionality of an author’s recipe titles. I wanted a way to use paratext to do something similar for readers of No Useless Mouth.

Fig. 1. Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth, courtesy of Cornell University Press
Fig. 1. Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth, courtesy of Cornell University Press

A good cookbook teaches you a technique, uses it to make something delicious that works on the first attempt, and then uses that technique recipe as a base ingredient for other recipes in the book. A cookbook with excellent paratext tells you how to read the author’s recipes. Its preface tells the reader where to find specialty ingredients, instructs her to read the recipe once through before beginning to prep and cook, and explains how the author has indicated components that can be made ahead of time. For example, my most recent revelation is Andrea Nguyen’s caramel sauce in Vietnamese Food Any Day. This sauce becomes an ingredient that gets added by the teaspoon to subsequent recipes, like her (delicious) Coconut-Kissed Chicken and Chile. Let me just say: the caramel sauce recipe is a scary recipe on the first read. You’re instructed to cook caramel until it’s almost burned. As any amateur pastry or baking enthusiast will tell you, burnt caramel is nearly never the explicit goal of a recipe. But Nguyen makes you feel confident by showing you pictures of the beginning, middle, and end stages of the process. She also includes a genius hack to slow down the cooking process faster than I’ve ever been able to do: she has you fill your sink with an inch or two of ice water. And then when you start to panic that the caramel really is going to burn, you gently plonk the bottom of your saucepan in the sink! GENIUS! Nguyen writes recipes this way because she wants to teach you as you cook.

I wanted No Useless Mouth’s paratext to do similar work: to show readers how I undertook my research, to explain how they could replicate it, to provide signposts about navigating my ideas, and to suggest how some of the ideas I developed in the book could be used for other work on food history. I used the acknowledgements section of the book to tell readers a little bit about me as a cook and an eater. Sometimes when I meet people, they express reservations about going out to eat with me because they worry that I will dislike the food where we have gone. In my acknowledgments, I tried to make clear that although the food I eat with people at conferences and during non-work get-togethers matters to me, the company often matters more. I recall how conversations shaped my ideas and how the meal made me feel about them more than I remember the taste of what we ate.

Later in the process, when I was finishing the last round of edits on No Useless Mouth, my editor, Michael McGandy, asked me to write a bibliographic note—I suspect because I’d wanted a full bibliography and he wanted to keep the cost low by saving pages. I used the note to tell readers where I had traveled to do research, what travel current researchers could avoid, given the outpouring of digital databases with relevant primary source material, and what researchers should eat near the archives I visited if I thought travelling to them remained imperative. I suppose that the implicit argument in this part of my paratext is that research can be isolating, lonely, and all-consuming, but that using food to break up the monotony keeps it from being so.

The last piece of paratext I worked on was my index. This was the second index I’d compiled, and I took the advice of Sara Georgini, who has had lots of experience working on indexes for the Adams Papers: she described an index as an “on ramp to readers.” A good index allows you to enter a book slowly, get a sense of the subjects that inform and surround it, choose where you want to visit inside of it and then decide where to go next. The number of subheadings for a subject might suggest that these moments in the book are moments to get “stuck in.”[1] “See” informs readers that there’s a different term they should be using to search the index, and reveals the author’s opinions on navigating the subject. Cross-references (“See also”) provide another way to slow down and explore the backroads. This approach extends to cookbooks; Andrea Nguyen’s index is a great example of paratext that is informed by her overarching goal to teach. She seems to know intuitively that readers may remember a key ingredient in one of her recipes, but not necessarily the name of the recipe itself. Thus her Coconut-Kissed Chicken and Chile is indexed under “Chicken,” “Chile,” and “Coconut Water.”

More than anything, I wanted my index to teach readers that food and hunger are giant categories that require specificity. My food-related terms consequently include words like “animals” (which include edible animals like cattle and fish, but also crop-destroying animals like the Hessian fly). My entry for “food” includes verbs and nouns like butchering, gifts, marketing, markets, meals, preservation, rationing, spoilage, storage, and transportation, but readers will find “food diplomacy,” “food laws,” “food riots,” “food sovereignty,” and “foodstuffs” indexed, too. Among the foodstuffs you can read about you’ll find bacon (of course!), boiled bones, buttermilk, corn, mussels, purslane, spikenard root (said to prevent huger), and wild rice. My hunger-related terms include “appetite,” “eating,” “environmental problems” (including drought and crop failure), and “famine,” among others.

I have come to think of my paratext as adding an additional double layer of rigor and fun to the book. If you want to know how I became interested in food history, you can read my acknowledgments. If you’re wondering where I think there’s room for the field to grow, I’ve written about this in my conclusion. If you’re a student who wants to write an essay about food but is struggling to break “food” into more manageable themes, my index will help you to do so. If you’re a food studies scholar who, like me, is trying to pin down the distinction and overlap between food studies and food history, well, I can’t promise that my paratext will provide a single answer to this question, but I hope it will help to continue that conversation.

 

No Useless Mouth is available from Cornell University Press in November, 2019.

[1] I mean this phrase to include here both the British and the American possibilities. To get “stuck in” to something in Britain is to slow down, savor, and spend time.” To get “stuck in traffic” in American English is a less pleasant experience, but nevertheless encapsulates the possibility that readers will need to work slowly to wrap their heads around this subject.

Lobster Newburg: Margaret Chase Smith’s Promotion of a Maine Ingredient

Nicole Ritchey

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.

This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime. 

Maine Lobster postcard c. 1920. Courtesy of the Jesup Memorial Library.

Lobster history is not new news to most Mainers or many New Englanders. Most people know about its “cockroach of the sea” to riches story. Once known as poor man’s food, this crustacean has risen from cockroach of the sea to a hot commodity. A lot of this “take off” is centered in Maine and occurred during Margaret Chase Smith’s lifetime, consequently influencing her recipe collection.

Lobsters were once so abundant along the coastline of northern New England that eating lobster was a sign of poverty. In the 1600s, it is rumored that lobsters washed up in two-foot piles after storms (History 2018). Native Americans used lobster to bait their hooks because of their availability (Willett 2013). Collected from the shoreline or speared in shallow water, lobster was eaten dead at this time. By the 1820s, Smackmen collected live lobsters using special wells in their boats that circulated sea water. Burnham & Morrill founded the first lobster cannery in 1836, the cans sold for one-fifth of the price of their Boston Baked Beans (DeBenedictis 2015). The growth of the railroad helped lobster find an audience outside of coastal areas (Willet 2013). By the 1850s canned lobster was being served as a side in salad bars. Around the same time, fishers switched to using lobster traps because lobster was becoming less plentiful in shallow waters.

Lobsterman with his (giant) catch. Swan’s Island c. 1930. Courtesy of the Swan Island Educational Society.

People would travel to the coast to enjoy fresh lobster, baffling many native New Englanders. For the coastal state residents, lobster still epitomized cheap, lower class food. Chefs discovered in 1876 that cooking live lobster “unlocked” many flavors. Live cooking became an instant hit and almost immediately led the creation of the first Lobster Pound in Vinalhaven, Maine. This was a place for local fishers to drop off their lobsters which would all be shipped live together in large batches. This centralized shipping and increased time fishers could be out. 

According to rumors, Lobster Newburg was invented in 1876. The popular theory begins in Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City. Ben Wenberg created the idea for and gave his name to the dish. Allegedly, an argument with the restaurant owner led to changing the dish’s name to Newburg (What’s Cooking 2017). The sauce used in Lobster Newburg is Terrapin sauce, used frequently in recipes before 1876 (Whitaker 2010). The first published recipe for Lobster Newburg is in Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, by the principal of the School of Cookery in New York, copyrighted in 1887. This recipe calls for a four-pound lobster and two types of alcohol (Parola 1887).

This image shows two Mainers, Sen. Smith and Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster, enjoying lobster at the Maine State Society’s annual Lobster Dinner on February 22, 1946 held in the U.S. Interior Department’s cafeteria. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. 

Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, Maine (about seventy-five miles from the coast) in 1897, just a decade after the publication of Miss Parola’s recipe. Maine has a two-sided history with lobster. George H. Lewis shows the role of class in the acceptance of lobster with the differences between “summer people” and permeant residents in Maine. In his article, “The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class,” Lewis argues the symbolism of lobster largely depends on socioeconomic factors. The summer people are often upper-class visitors who cultivated the idea that Maine lobster was an icon of the state. They helped drive up demand and prices and brought about a tourism boom. Year-round residents in some parts of the state often have a very negative view of lobster still. Lobster was trash food in the beginning for them, and now that prices have risen, they can barely afford what used to be the cheapest protein (Lewis 1989). 

Sen. Smith hosted President Dwight Eisenhower for a traditional lobster bake on the lawn of her home in Skowhegan in 1955. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

It is unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster due to Skowhegan’s distance from the coast. However, there are several recipes for lobster (as well as other seafood) in her collection, including a recipe for Lobster Newburg on her Senate stationery that she kept to respond to recipe requests. Smith regularly received requests specifically for lobster recipes, likely because of the association between Maine and lobster. In 1968, the editor of the forthcoming Republican Cookbookcontacted Smith requesting her “favorite way of doing lobster.” Smith responded with her recipes for Lobster Rarebit and Lobster Casserole which the editor responded were precisely the “regional specialties” they desired to feature (Margaret Chase Smith Library). 

Recipe for Lobster Newberg [sic] from Smith’s recipe collection. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.
Recipe for a quick lobster newburg from Smith’s collection. This recipe utilitizes canned lobster. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Smith frequently promoted Maine lobster. In addition to her recipes, she showcased the crustacean at social events. In 1946, she attended the Maine State Society’s annual Lobster Dinner, a continuing tradition since 1945. In 1955, during a vacation in the state, Smith hosted President Eisenhower for a steak and lobster bake at her Skowhegan home. It is likely Smith served lobster to guests in Washington, D.C., possibly because her visitors would have the connotation of lobster meaning Maine. Recipes in her collection using both canned and fresh lobster would allow her to select a recipe based on her location or her schedule – one recipe for lobster newburg using canned lobster was annotated by Smith “quick.” As a busy senator, she likely valued these recipes that were timesavers and accessible. While it’s unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster, she embraced the ingredient as increasingly emblematic of the nation’s perception of Maine food and promoted lobster consumption to help the industry grow. 

Nicole Ritchey is a fourth-year Marine Science major with a minor in computer science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine. 


DeBenedictis, E. (2015). Lobster’s Delicious History is completely Insane. Munchies, Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xy7vzw/lobsters-delicious-history-is-completely-insane

(2018). A Taste of Lobster History. History,Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/a-taste-of-lobster-history

Lewis, G. H. (1989). The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class. Food & Foodways, 3(4) 303-316.

Parola, M. (1887). Lobster Newburg. Miss Parola’s Kitchen Companion, Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=X34EAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA225&dq=lobster+newburg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hwTpT7SqEqzs2AXOkJz5DQ&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=lobster%20newburg&f=false

Smith, Margaret Chase. (1940-1973). Recipe correspondence. Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library, Skowhegan, Maine. 

What’s Cooking America. (2017). Lobster Newberg History and Recipe. What’s Cooking America, Retrieved from https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/LobsterNewbergHistory.htm

Whitaker, J. (2010). Who Invented…Lobster Newberg? Restaurant-ing through history, Retrieved from https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2010/04/19/who-invented-lobster-newberg/

Willett, M. (2013). The Remarkable Story of How Lobster went from being used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy. Business Insider, Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-history-of-gourmet-lobster-2013-8