Taco Innovation: Two Early Tortilla Frying Patents

Detail of illustration page from US Patent US2570374

Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr I recently finished reading Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, an interesting combo platter of history, personal stories, and food culture. In his detailed overview of the history and evolution of Mexican food in the U.S.A., Arellano recounts many fascinating stories, like how the first English-language taco recipe got into print, the invention of the frozen margarita machine, and inventions for frying tortillas for tacos.  In this post, I’m looking at that last topic, tortilla frying inventions.

In the late 1940s, tacos became a popular food in some parts of the United States.  Most tacos back then were hard-shelled, so each day restaurants needed to fry lots of corn tortillas into the taco shape before filling and serving. It was a tedious and sometimes dangerous ordeal for kitchen staff, as Arellano writes in Taco USA:

But preparing the tacos was an arduous task. In the days before fast food, restaurateurs fried each taco shell to order, throwing them into hot oil in a U-shaped form held together by a toothpick. To properly fry them, cooks had to poke around the cooking oil with their fingers or clumsily use utensils to ensure that each side achieved an ideal crispiness, then take out the finished product without scalding themselves.

Naturally, restaurateurs, cooks and inventors tried to find a better way. And some even went through the lengthy process of filing for a patent on their invention.

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Two Distinctive Fruit Crate Labels

Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

In this post, a look at two distinctive fruit crate labels.

“Don’t Worry” Apples Fruit Crate Label

Don't worry apples fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

I doubt that “Don’t Worry” brand apples would be a successful brand today.  It’s easy for me to come up with a bushel of worrisome questions when choosing your food.  Organic? Local? What pesticides? Imported? In season? By buying the trendy Honeycrisp, am I dooming heirloom varieties?  Do they still use alar? Or how about the use of arsenic and lead as pesticides (in the distant past)?

The Omnivore’s Guilt Trip at New York Magazine takes a good look at some of the troubles one can face.

Without today’s angst about food, perhaps a modern version is the time-worn Don’t Worry pear label on the Flickr account of user firebrat.

Berkeley Apricots Fruit Crate Label

Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

As a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, I find this label exciting.  Sure, the proportions of Sather Tower aren’t quite right, and the artist removed tower’s surroundings to put it in a pasture, but it’s advertising, not a documentary.  Reading the label, however, brings slightly different feelings: “Below U.S. Standard…Not High Grade.”  Perhaps whoever decided that Berkeley apricots would be “not high grade” was a Stanford graduate?  (As far as I know, Berkeley never had commercial apricot orchards, or any other large scale agricultural endeavors. There were famous apricot orchards at the southern end of San Francisco Bay in Santa Clara County.)

Image credits
Don’t Worry brand fruit crate label and Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from the California Historical Society’s Flickr Commons Collection, no known copyright restrictions.  The California Historical Society’s collection “comprises thousands of crate, can, and bottle labels, the bulk of which were designed and created between the 1920s and 1940s by San Francisco and Los Angeles lithography companies”

Study Finds Significant Sushi Mislabeling, Part 2

Hiroshige woodblock print - Katsuo Fish with Cherry Buds, from the series Uozukushi DP123578
Hiroshige woodblock print - Hirame and Mebaru Fish with Cherry Blossoms, from the series Uozukushi DP123589
Hiroshige woodblock print – Hirame (halibut) and Mebaru (black rockfish) with Cherry Blossoms

This is part 2 of my posts on sushi mislabeling (see part 1 on sushi mislabeling).

“Buyer beware” should be watchwords for anyone who eats fish in a restaurant. For various reasons — including fraud, ignorance, and sloppy supply chains — there’s a good chance that some of the fish served don’t match what the menu says.

In a recently released study, a team of researchers — with help from undergraduate students — collected and DNA-analyzed 364 fish samples from 26 sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that had good ratings on two on-line rating services. The team focused on nine popular fish: albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, bluefin tuna, red snapper, yellowtail, halibut, mackerel, and salmon. In addition, when the menu listed “tuna,” they sometimes ordered it.   (The full reference and a list with Latin names for each fish is below.)

Forty-seven percent of the items were mislabeled, with some of the fish mislabeled 100% of the time.

A Focus on Three Fish

Let’s look at three of the fish in more detail: one which was mislabeled 100% of the time, and two which appear to have good labeling results (but a complex backstory).

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More Sketches by W.M. Thackeray

Thackerayana has too many enchanting sketches to be limited to a single post of Thackeray sketches, so I’m highlighting ten more sketches (this time as a “slider,” instead of a tiled gallery).  In the gallery you’ll find struggles with umbrellas, fencing vegetables, dancers, and more.

Big hair, drawing by W.M. Thackeray from Thackerayana (1875) - page 325
Big hair, drawing by W.M. Thackeray from Thackerayana (1875) – page 325

I want to highlight one of the sketches, which I call “big hair.”  To accompany the drawing, Thackerayana has a long quote from a publication called the ‘World’ on May 3, 1753, which I assume held the big hair sketch in its margins.  It’s a conversation between a father, mother and daughter about hair styling:

“But how do you like my pompon, papa?” continued my daughter; “Is it not a charming one? I think it is prettier than mamma’s.”

“It may, child, for anything that I know; because I do not know what part of all this frippery thy pompon is.” [said papa]

“It is this, papa,” replied the girl, putting up her hand to her head, and showing me in the middle of her hair a complication of shreds and rags of velvets, feathers, and ribands, stuck with false stones of a thousand colours, and placed awry.

“But what hast thou done to thy hair, child, and why is it blue? Is that painted, too, by the same eminent hand that coloured thy cheeks?”

“Indeed, papa,” answered the girl, “as I told you before, there is no painting in the case; but what gives my hair that bluish cast is the grey powder, which has always that effect on dark-coloured hair, and sets off the complexion wonderfully.”

“Grey powder, child!” said I, with some surprise; “grey hairs I knew were venerable; but till this moment I never knew they were genteel.”

“Extremely so, with some complexions,” said my wife; “but it does not suit with mine, and I never use it.”


Thackerayana: Notes and Anecdotes, illustrated by nearly six hundred sketches by William Makepeace Thackeray, depicting humorous incidents in his school life, and favourite scenes and characters in the books of his every-day reading, by Joseph Grego, published by Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly (London), 1875. Full text at Archive.org. No known copyright restrictions.

Study Finds Significant Sushi Mislabeling, Part 1

Trout, by Hiroshige, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art via CC Search

You’ve just arrived at your favorite sushi restaurant, Edo, and the greeter takes you to your table and gives you the menu and a sheet with the nightly specials. The specials menu looks different. Instead of what you’re used to — a list of fish that are featured that night — there are also little red and green symbols that look like pie charts. When your server stops by, you ask “What are these symbols?”

“Those are our confidence ratings for each fish,” she replies, “The more green in the symbol, the more likely that the fish we serve matches what’s on the menu.”

Of course, you’ll never see a menu like this. No sushi restaurant wants to admit that their menu isn’t truthful — and in many cases, they may not be aware of any issue, as they might have been misled by their distributor (who might have been misled by their importer, who might have been misled by the fishing company).

A recently released research study collected fish samples from sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, then ran them through DNA analysis to find their true identity. They found that 47% of the samples were mislabeled, with some of the fish mislabeled 100% of the time.  My mock menu above shows results for 8 of the fish, with the green/red split indicating the probability of correct or incorrect labeling.

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Vintage Book Covers from the British Library

"Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor, or The Secret of Sitting Bull", book cover from the British Library "The Skipper of the Seagull", book cover from the British Library "Lance and Lasso! or Adventures on the Pampas!", book cover from the British Library "Buffalo Bill - The Buckskin King, or the Amazon of the West", book cover from the British Library "Tiger Dick the Faro King, or The Cashier's Crime" from the British Library on Flickr Commons "Her Bitter Awakening", book cover from the British Library

"Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor, or The Secret of Sitting Bull", book cover from the British LibraryOn my journeys through the amazing Flickr Commons, one of the more exciting finds is a collection of late 19th century book covers from the British Library. The nearly 900 covers are primarily what we today call “pulp novels” written for the mass market, but there are also travel books, text books, and other miscellany.  In the image gallery in this post, I’ve included some of my favorites, covers with interesting art or a lurid title — “Her Bitter Awakening” is a special favorite right now.  (Click any one of the images to expand the image and navigate through the collection.)

I’d love to read “Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor, or the Secret of Sitting Bull” — how often do you see an adventure story about a surveyor, an important but not glamorous job? I suspect that the story is about a surveyor working in the western territories who gets mixed up in conflicts between settlers and Native Americans.  Unfortunately, the book is available as a PDF download and the text quality is rather poor, as the screenshot of two pages from the digitization below show.  It would not be easy to read this book on a computer or mobile device.  (But here’s something worth trying: use Acrobat Pro to extract the Seth Slocum part of the PDF as images, then use an image editor to sharpen the text.)

Pages from Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor, digitized by the British Library
Pages from Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor


Image Credits
All book covers from the British Library’s Flickr Commons collection, in the Book Covers found by the community from the Mechanical Curator Collection. No known copyright restrictions.

Her Bitter Awakening
Buffalo Bill – The Buckskin King, or the Amazon of the West
Lance and Lasso! or Adventures on the Pampas!
Seth Slocum, Railroad Surveyor, or The Secret of Sitting Bull
The Skipper of the Seagull
Tiger Dick the Faro King, or The Cashier’s Crime

Fig Bars Inspired by a Sicilian Cookie

Fig bars with Sicilian Flavors

Fig bars with Sicilian FlavorsAt the 2016 International Food Blogger Conference, a sample from the California Fig Advisory Board reminded me of an X File. Not the famous X-Files TV show, but something far less mysterious and far more delicious.

The X file that I remembered is about an X-shaped cookie for which I have a file on my computer. It’s a file about a rich dough with plenty of butter and eggs, and a paste of figs, dark rum, chocolate, and cinnamon.

Quite a few years ago, I used the X file to make these cookies for Prune Blogging Thursday (a brainstorm of David Lebovitz), replacing the figs with prunes, ending up with my contribution of Giving Prunes Some X Appeal.

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The First Taco Recipe in English

Cover of California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger, 1914

I’m reading Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, a deluxe combo platter of history, personal stories, and culture. Something from the taco chapter that jumped out at me was a mention of the first taco recipe in English.  Arellano claims that it was in the California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, a 1914 book by Bertha Haffner-Ginger.

Haffner-Ginger grew up in the Midwest, and somehow made her way to Los Angeles. There she became a teacher in the Los Angeles Times School of Domestic Science. On one of her walks to a nearby area with Mexican restaurants and food factories (“Sonoratown”), she decided that it would be fun to teach some classes on this cuisine.  The classes eventually turned into a cookbook.  At the end of the tortilla section, she includes that first-ever taco recipe and photo:

Taco recipe from California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger, 1914

The sketch of a recipe — “TACO – Made by putting chopped cooked beef and chile sauce in tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it” — is not what you’d get if you order tacos in most Mexican restaurants. I’m not sure what they would call the above creation.

Cover of California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger, 1914


Image credits
Cover of book and taco recipe from the California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger , 1914.  All from at Hathi Trust.

Touring Sites of Car Commercials in Los Angeles

Postcard of 7th Street in Los Angeles from nypl digital collections

Postcard of 7th Street in Los Angeles from nypl digital collectionsLos Angeles has all kinds of tours and guide maps:  movie stars’ houses, filming locations, locations in Raymond Chandler novels, architecture, city history, staircases, and food.

But if you’re a true fan of advertising or cars, here’s a tour that might appeal to you:  Los Angeles car commercial filming locations.  Because of the good weather, the variety of locations, and the collection of film-making talent, Los Angeles is the location for many commercials.  As I watch the car commercials, I notice major and minor L.A. landmarks in the background, such as the downtown skyline, the tunnels in the northern downtown area (e.g., 2nd St between Figueroa and Hope), City Hall, Disney Hall, the bridges over the Los Angeles River, and others.

I have collected a few screen captures from YouTube over the years, and identified most of the locations (this has been a long-term, and mostly pointless, obsession for me). I even made a map:

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A Curry Powder Recipe from 1818

The Universal Receipt Book - 1818 - curry powder recipe - splice of pages 153 and 154

On one of the rare occasions when the Bloglovin’ web interface works with my complicated browser set-up, I ran across a fascinating piece of data visualization. It was a Data Visualization of Eight Flavors from the Four Pounds Flour blog in which the author used the Google Ngram Viewer to highlight the eight flavors in her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.  One of the flavors is curry powder, and here’s an Ngram for curry powder:

I was initially surprised by the 1800-1820 blip, but after a little thought it makes sense:  the spice trade between India and Europe has been active since antiquity; British business interests in India began in the 17th century, and one of the outcomes of Britain’s colonialism was the creation of a new thing called “curry powder” that was exported to Britain, Europe and the United States.  So it follows the some books from long ago would mention curry powder.

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