Adventures in Food History


Come along for  a visit to the culinary past and consider whether you could whip up a meal with  foodstuffs  from another time and place.

Would the yum of yore  tickle your palate?


January 28, 2013



by MELorden


We are all familiar with the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Not only was he fascinated with drawing plants, he may have preferred eating them.

For its time, to be a vegetarian was somewhat uncommon as well as controversial. It was said that Da Vinci was such a lover of animals that he often strolled through the bird markets, purchased the caged creatures, and promptly set them free. Da Vinci’s vegetarianism may have been the result of his contact with travelers like Greek humanists and painters from the East who came to Renaissance Florence and Milan.

There are records of what he consumed in the courts of popes and patrons.  He ate greens, fruits, mushrooms, pasta and cereals, and all manner of vegetables.  In particular, a hot chickpea minestra was a favorite. This recipe is found in one of the first cookbooks of the Renaissance entitled Platina de honest volupatate (1475) written by the Venetian Bartolomeo di Sacci (Batali in Fedele, The Artist’sPalate). Among Da Vinci’s library books was a 1487 copy.  The authentic chickpea recipe follows:

La Minestra (Luis in Cecere Rubeo) from Platina    

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Wash a pound or more of chickpeas in hot water.  After being washed they should be put in a pot to simmer without water.  With your hands mix half an ounce of meal, a little oil and salt, and twenty grains of coarsely ground pepper and ground cinnamon, and then put this near the hearth with three measures of water, and add sage, rosemary, and chopped parsley roots. Let this boil so that it is reduced to eight saucers full.  When it is nearly cooked, drop in a little oil; but if it is juice for sick persons, only add a little oil and spices. (Platina in DeWitt, Da Vinci’s Kitchen)

Who is to know what amount was contained in Platina’s saucer, or in a measure of water?  And the meal required for mixing is unknown, though some scholars believe that Da Vinci was familiar with corn meal (maize) which had been introduced to Italy around 1494 by the brother of Ludivico Sforza, the great Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo Da Vinci.  Dave DeWitt, in his book Da Vinci’s Kitchen (2006) makes note of shopping lists Leonardo made (while working on The Last Supper) which include red and white maize– quite remarkable considering the recent return of Columbus from the New World. Some research suggests that corn was already being cultivated in Africa. Is there a connection here between Da Vinci and Lombardy’s polenta-centric diet?


While the great Leonardo invented a heat propelled spit for turning meat as well as a meat smoker and sausage grinder, he was a confirmed vegetarian, though he may not have been one in his early life. This rejection of meat in later life is referred to by a courtier in a letter to the Medici as somewhat heretical.  Da Vinci was recognized as odd in his desire to avoid hurting any living thing let alone feast on anything that had blood coursing through its veins (DeWitt).  In the true spirit of Renaissance humanism, his respect for life seems to have informed his diet–  though one wonders if he simply lost his taste for flesh after all those cadavers he dissected.

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 2.45.46 PMIn his notebooks, Leonardo delights in the vast and infinite variety of simple vegetarian foodstuffs and the endless manner in which they can be combined as shown in the recipes of Platina.  There are recipes in Da Vinci’s notes for a bright and herby salad dressing with spearmint, parsley, and thyme as an excellent dressing over a salad of fennel and bitter greens. He makes reference to anise cookies and light suppers of egg tarts.

For his students, Leonardo advocated a well-ordered life and a diet of moderation.  In a poem he summarizes his principles for culinary happiness:

If you be healthy, heed this advice,

Eat only when hungry, and let light fare suffice.

Chew all your food well, and this rule always follow.

Well-cooked and simple, be all that you swallow.

On leaving a table, a good posture keep,

And after you luncheon, do not yield to sleep.

Let little and often be your rule for wine,

But not between meals or when ready to dine.      –L. Da Vinci

Stand up straight, don’t be a glutton, and remember– you are what you eat.   Here, Da Vinci suggests all things in moderation, especially when it comes to food.  Sounds like reasonable advice for feeding body and soul from the world’s ultimate Renaissance dude.

(For more information about Da Vinci and the diet of the Renaissance:       What Did Leonardo Da Vinci Eat?)


January 21, 2012


What? The boss is coming home for dinner?  What’s a happy homemaker to do?

No problem.  With her ideal kitchen now a reality, the housewife of the era could automatically get a fine meal on the table. Any decent suburban kitchen of the 1950’s was stocked to the gills with canned goods, frozen vegetables, boxed magic meal helpers,  fabulous cakes mixes, and instant puddings. Post- war appliances were affordable and stylish, and  consumers were on the march.


Even with her hair still in curlers and the arrival of her husband and boss only a train ride away, the missus could not fail to whip up, on short notice, a quality home cooked meal. And to do so might contribute positively to the success of her husband’s future career.

Her kitchen was a masterpiece of  both modern efficiency and science as well as her haven and jewel. With the modern kitchen the center of her family life and femininity, the wife and homemaker of the 1950’s aspired to be the hostess with the most-est.


The classic 1950’s kitchen was a housewife’s dream.  If stocked appropriately with the correct inventory and equipment, it became her domestic laboratory.  Correct tools, abundant and available prepared foodstuffs, and a practical outline of directions and cooking procedures meant that all women could feed their family, and be adored for it.  “If you can read, you can cook,” was the saying. Cooking was first and foremost a practice, not a fine art. Add in a stylish apron, a string of pearls, a few copies of Good Housekeeping, and the Betty Crocker Cook Book, and the good wife and mother served up family happiness on a plate.

Anybody could make a perfect cake.  Take Betty Crocker’s word for it. She ( a totally fictional character and invention of the advertising world) guaranteed a perfect cake every time you baked.

There was a lot of magic that could come out of that well-supplied workspace.  With a simple wave of her wand, the food fairy of the fifties nourished and delighted her family.  This was her special territory in the household; it was the hearth and heart of the home in the most pleasurable of ways, and she ruled the roost.

In the top illustration, a  handsome husband steals his wife’s hot cinnamon buns as she catches him. Demurely bending over the oven door,  she assumes a submissive posture. The image is  rather subliminal and suggests a sexy secret is present between the couple over those soft, yeasty, and fragrant goodies that he desires. 

In the bottom illustration, the women and children in the family are all happily engaged in kitchen activities. They, and the tea kettle, whistle a happy tune while they work in the warm kitchen setting.  Look carefully to the upper left, and you will see father trying to sneak a peek.  Both illustrations suggest that husbands are guests in their wives’  kitchens. Here men are best kept at a distance from the place where all the magic happens and the secrets of good cooking are kept.

 If a woman wanted to please her husband, said the advertisers of the day, it was through his stomach. As the primary shopper for food in her stay-at-home role, the budget-wise homemaker took this notion to heart.  The role of  homemaker and the keeping of the kitchen were serious business in the 1950’s.  But, oh so much easier than it was for her poor grandmother.73503_10150290996625051_3348269_n

Canned and packaged and frozen goods took on a renewed enthusiasm after the war.  Peace and prosperity reigned and veiled the atomic threat, but the atomic age also created a strange sense of security for Americans in the 1950’s. In the spirit of “better living through chemistry” (a version of the DuPont corporation slogan), the food industry flourished.  The 50’s saw the arrival of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines cake mixes, frozen pot pies and TV dinners, and the important science of home economics. Homemakers were moms and wives, but they were savvy, too.  (For a hilarious look back at a strange and hellacious series of 1950’s food photographs, check out this site featuring typical food styling from the period. Prepare yourself for banana and fern green tinted images and cutlets topped with pineapple rings and red maraschino cherry adornment at the Gallery of Regrettable Food.)

No longer were the days of rationing sugar, eggs, and flour forcing Americans to sacrifice personal conveniences for the military.  Cars and appliances were in demand.  Other raw materials, metals and synthetics, were available for consumers to use.  Marriage and birth rates skyrocketed as did housing as a result.  The family unit in suburbia was the target of industry and advertising, and much of the market was the homemaker and her hungry family.



Silk stockings were no longer rationed and the 100% silk material called chiffon became all the rage.  The length of dresses fell, too.  Soon chiffon cakes and pies became very popular.  A chiffon cake was a fluffy cake that got its poof from stiffly beaten egg whites combined with vegetable oil, flour, baking powder, eggs, and sugar. A version of a one crust refrigerator pie , chiffon pies were made of beaten egg whites and gelatins.  Flavorings for chiffon cakes and pies were often fruits such as strawberry, lemon, or orange, and chocolate was a favorite, too.    For 1950’s confections, taste in fashion informed taste in food.

(See OTK Home Page article :  The Mother of All Mixers: The Sunbeam Mixmaster for Rheta’s Orange Chiffon Cake recipe)

Men, too, had a special role when it came to cooking in the form of the charcoal grill.   Without a fire pit of some sort, the suburban backyard seemed incomplete.  The man of the house could go primal over a smoking grill while discussing the latest anti-communist beliefs and enjoying a few beers.  Burgers, hot, dogs, corn on the cob, and kebabs were all the rage, thanks to the booming agra-business of the day.  Perhaps it was the post-war return from the Pacific islands where  the boys had enjoyed pig roasts and tropical fruits that inspired both the grilling mania and the cocktail party with Tiki drinks sporting little umbrellas. At any rate,  a man who could cook over a raging fire might just help his family survive an atomic apocalypse. The bar-b-que was one of  those 50’s fads that lasted and only got better over time. BBQ and the fine art of grilling has never been more popular in American society than today.

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Today we also celebrate another larger-than-life food style of the era in contemporary and nostalgic re-interpretations of the comfort food dishes found in the highway diner– burgers, fries, mile-high pies, chile, mac and cheese, and meatloaf with mashed spuds.  It was the growing automobile culture and imminent interstate highway system which spawned all manner of road food and drive-ins.  Rock and rollers in their souped up jalopies enjoyed sock hops under the lights of the local shake shacks. Most of these drive-in dishes remain distinctly American and have never waned in popularity.  But mom’s broiled Spam kebabs with pineapple, green peppers, sweet soy and honey sauce, and maraschino cherries have pretty much gone the way of the dining dinosaur, and all those casseroles made with cans of cream of this-and-that Campbell’s Soup may only occasionally surface at church suppers.

Convenience foods and deconstructed and reconstituted packaged meals are still,  unfortunately, de rigueur in areas of the modern diet.The 1950’s are hardly a faded memory when it comes to the major transformations that took place in the production and sale of food since the end of World War II. We are still feeling their effects in our health and diet.  What has changed  most significantly, however, are the expectations for the Happy Homemaker and her role in the kitchen.

In the life of the mid-century American housewife,  whenever the boss came home for dinner unexpectedly, the smart homemaker of the day was expected to design, plan, and execute an impressive dinner. Push a button here, turn a knob there,  or open a package and follow directions. She had only to then set the table, put on some lipstick, ice the glasses–  and remember to take the curlers out of her hair before the guest of honor arrived.        –MELorden


Janury 14, 2013



Ahh. Nothing like sitting around the campfire under a starry night. You lean up against your saddle, take out your mess kit, and pony up to the old chuck wagon on your tired, bowed legs. You give Cookie a smirk and receive your reward for a rough and tumble day of cow punching–  a rusty ladle of  beans.  Yessiree.

When your team of cattle drovers reaches the nearest town, the cook visits the general store to load up on big burlap bags of more beans, coffee, sugar, flour, and of course, whiskey– the staples of the cowboy diet.  Shades of Blazing Saddles, Rawhide, and John Ford westerns?  Since this image of cowboy fare  is both comical and romanticized, let’s take a look at what really constituted cowboy grub.


 Guarding the larder

Cowboy is a catch-all term for those nomadic workhands who herded cattle across the plains of the American west during the mid to late 19th century.  Cattle herding and driving, however, had its American roots among the Irish in Boston in the early 1700’s and then in the grazing culture of the South before it moved westward onto the Great Plains. Cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia certainly enjoyed their cuts of beef as drovers brought cattle to slaughter in the mid-Atlantic states (Weaver, America Eats).  Following  the US government’s mandate to exterminate both Indians and the buffalo after the Civil War, the practice of raising and breeding cattle blossomed along with the conquest of the western plains.  Cattle ranching and husbandry were considered a superior pursuit compared to the hunting and gathering life ways of the indigenous peoples. Infamous cowtowns like Abilene, Wichita, Omaha and Chisolm  through which Texas herders drove their Longhorns emerged. By the mid- 1880’s,  6 million head of cattle  were driven north by cowhands to the railroad hubs en route to Chicago’s  slaughterhouses  (Civetello, Cuisine and Culture).   As the desire for cheap beef grew, laborers on horseback were in great demand.

The cowboy diet was the fare of the working man.  No filet mignon for him.  For the hardscrabble cowboy, the number one concern was a full stomach for the 2 to 5 month drive.  Like most nomads, cowboys carried a lot of their foodstuffs with them in the form of dehydrated beef (jerky) and hardtack, or they were scavengers on the trail. In fact, beef was generally not the central focus since its value was in its sale, and when served, it was often in the form of a stew composed of the less pricey cuts and odd bits– or the “chuck”.

The name “Chuck” derived from 17th Century England…meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”.  By the 18th Century, the term “chuck” was communicated towards good hearty food. (Chuckwagon Cooking: History, web)

And it wasn’t until after the Civil War, in 1866, that a clever cattleman by the name of Charles Goodnight transformed an old surplus army wagon into a rolling pantry.  With the addition of a hinged door that flipped into a table, some drawers and shelves inside the wagon bed for canned goods (like tomatoes and peaches for vitamin C to fight scurvy), and a storage boot for pots and pans, the chuck wagon was born. The manufacturer was Studebaker, and the company went on to produce several more sophisticated models.  Who knew that the workhorse larder for the cowpoke was the ancestor of  the four-door sedans of  the mid-twentieth century American family? After the creation of the chuck wagon, cowboys ate measurably better.

Want to learn how to cook like a modern cowboy?  You can go to camp and learn how.  Check out the Kent Rollins’ Dutch Oven Cooking School:

What was the typical day for the chuck wagon master like?  He didn’t just cook.  He cut hair, nursed wounds, did mechanical repairs,and managed accounts along with preparing and rationing  foods: grinding coffee, making biscuits, tending the sourdough starter, and carving the salt pork. His tasks included setting up camp, tending the fire,  preparing meals using dutch ovens and skillets, and cleaning up..  He was paid well for it–  significantly more than the cowboys.

 Fresh eggs or vegetables sometimes would be available as the trail boss [would] authorize trading a steer with some farmer along the trail drive… the daily norm was dried pork, beans and bread with the choice of water or coffee to drink. (Chuckwagon Cooking: History, web)


Because the cowboy population was made up of many immigrant cultures, their food reflected the combined and often looked-down-upon culinary habits of the Irish, African, South American, Chinese, and Spanish cultures. Chile was the go-to spice for Cookie. Today when you encounter cookbooks that contain old-timey , genu-ine cowboy recipes, they often reflect the influences of these various cuisines.  You might find some great recipes for Rocky Mountain Oysters (bulls testicles), Sancocho de Cola de Res (Ox tail stew), and all manner of corn biscuits and tortilla-based fare, and the ubiquitous frijoles— yes, beans.

Beware cookbooks that hail authentic cowboy meals in the form of a cast iron skillet Chicken Cordon Bleau or Chicken & Cheese Chimichangas because the real cowboys were having none of that.  Funny now to see how these delicacies rustled up in an old cast iron dutch oven or skillet are considered authentic and iconic cuisine.

Maybe that miserable meal of beans and burnt coffee isn’t so far off the mark after all.  The chuck wagon master probably slept with his Remington by his side many a night after the last tin cup and spider were washed and stored.              –MELorden


Time to saddle-up and get out the old skillet and give these cowboy victuals a try.  They are sure to put hair on your chest.

For a selection of reinterpreted cowboy recipes, see:  

For a look at the more realistic and dismal side of cowboy fare, see:

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