Olives were on my mind after visits to an olive grove and olive oil processing facility. Not surprisingly, the search tools led me to a handful of advertisements and ephemera, but the real gems were Vincent Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings from 1889. Join me below to learn more about this series of paintings.
One of my favorite genres of art is the 19th century Japanese landscape print, especially the works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is best known as the creator of several series that showed famous scenes from Japan, like “53 Stations of the Tokaido” and “Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces.” The subjects of the prints in the series vary between the long and medium view — for example, a rainbow over a the sea, or travelers passing over a bridge. So when I saw a series of Hiroshige fish prints appear in a Creative Commons CCSearch result, my curiosity was piqued. What was the story behind the series?
It turns out that prints of animals, fish and plants were relatively rare in Hiroshige’s catalog: in his 40-year art career, he designed over 10,000 single sheet prints and several hundred book illustrations, with only around 500 having an animal or plant as the subject [the statistics are from Birds and Flowers, a book in the reference list below].
After reviewing a few books about Hiroshige at the local libraries, I found the answer to my question, and it turned out to be straightforward: a poetry guild called Kyokashi hired him to make ten fish illustrations to accompany their poems. During the design and printing process the poets gave their poems to the woodblock carvers, who added the lettering to a block so it would appear on the final print.
When you’re looking for something hearty and warming as days become shorter and colder, consider the Japanese dishes called nabemono. These “simmered dishes” are often cooked in one pot (called a “nabe”), sometimes in the middle of the dining table over a portable burner. In the West, the most famous nabemono is probably sukiyaki — beef and vegetables cooked in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and other flavorings. All over Japan, you’re likely to see steaming pots of another famous nabemono called oden in convenience stores during the colder months (and, of course, oden makes plenty of appearances in standard restaurants and at home, and on some phones you’ll find an oden emoji).
A nabemono that I like to cook at home is a stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and squash in a flavorful broth enriched by umami-packed miso and kelp-mushroom stock. One might call it a “supercharged miso soup,” as it’s much thicker than that generic cup at the Japanese restaurant and packed with vegetables.
Let’s start this post with a bit of fiction:
It’s 1944, you’re a bomber pilot in the United States Navy, flying missions over Southeast Asia. It’s a dangerous job, but you’ve got a great crew: there’s Knute, a.k.a., “Swede”, the navigator, a quiet, big-hearted 18-year old blonde kid from northern Minnesota; Tony, the bombardier, a tough-talking street hustler from Brooklyn who’s really a Mama’s boy; Larry, the tail gunner, a farm boy from Kansas; Bobby, the co-pilot, a laid-back kid from California; Leonard, a.k.a. “Glasses,” the radio operator, a nerdy college student from Vermont, who operates the radio. Everyone picks on Leonard because he’d rather read books about Southeast Asia during off-duty hours than hit the bars.
On one mission, you hear an awful sound to your left: the sputter, sputter, sputter of an engine going out. Your plane starts losing altitude, and when it’s clear you won’t make it back to the carrier, it’s bail out time, and soon you’re parachuting onto unknown territory. You have a general idea of where you are and where you need to go to reach safety, but your emergency rations aren’t enough to feed you on your long journey to safety.
That nerd Glasses might be your life line. One of his interests is botany — he’s always looking at plants on the base — and so his flying kit includes a book called Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific. And so now the crew knows which plants are food — and which are poisonous — as they make their way across the jungle to a safe haven.
The little fictional lead-in above sets up one of my recent finds in the Internet Archive (via Flickr Commons). While looking in the Flickr Commons, Google Books and Hathi Trust for images of the Moringa oleifera plant, I ran across an ink drawing of the moringa plant in a book from the U.S. War Department that was published in 1943 (I also found the beautiful 19th-century painting that I used in my post about Moringa Leaves). Reading the introduction, I learned that the book was written for members of the U.S. military to help them survive on their own (“live off the land”) if they were separated from their unit or escaped from a prisoner of war camp.
The book provides a guide to edible plants in the Pacific Theater (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Indo-China, Thailand, Burma and eastern India). Chapters focus on classes of plants: ferns, grasses, palms, tubers, seeds, greens and fruit. There are also sections on poisonous plants and “plants used to stupefy fish.”
This post was inspired by Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano (2012, Scribner), an ambitious and entertaining book that reviews the history of America’s love of Mexican food using profiles of business people, restaurateurs, cooks, and more (my 2017 review of Taco USA).
Chain restaurants played a critical role in expanding Mexican food’s popularity across the USA 1. And so Arellano spends many pages discussing their rise (and fall, in some cases).
As I read those sections, the restaurant counts caught my attention — a chance to make charts! So I wrote down what I saw in the book, and later went to the library and internet to find more data. Annual reports were on-line for Taco Bell and Chipotle, and often had restaurant counts. For the smaller or departed chains of Chi-Chi’s and El Torito, my internet searches brought me to the company profiles at Funding Universe and an article in Louisville Business First.
Although the dataset is incomplete, I thought it worthwhile to post what I have — perhaps a commenter will fill in the blanks or suggest other chains that should be charted. (For an autosized view of the chart, visit the my chart of Mexican restaurants at Tableau Public.)
Taco Bell’s major growth was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, reaching a peak near 7,000 locations in 1999. Chipotle’s year after year growth continues and they plan on opening new stores (although the company’s food safety issues hurt their revenues, its effect didn’t have much impact on the location count). Both Chi-Chi’s and El Torito hit their peaks around 19902.
One other factoid from the annual reports is a breakdown of where people buy Mexican food. The 2002 Annual Report from Taco Bell’s parent company (Yum! Brands) claims that market share for Mexican quick service restaurants was 72% for Taco Bell, 18% for independents, and 10% for 4 other chains3.
- Photo of 11 cents change from Robert Couse-Baker’s Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License
One of the many interesting ingredients in the Japanese pantry is konnyaku — a versatile, low calorie food with a highly distinctive texture. It’s rubbery and springier than even finger jello1.
Also called “devil’s tongue jelly,” konnyaku is more or less flavorless until it is simmered in broth, and so it is almost always part of a dish that has a flavorful broth or dressing. Besides soaking up the flavors of the broth, it provides an interesting textural element to stews and soups — for example, in the vegetable stew recipe below, you get soft vegetable, soft vegetable, soft vegetable, some fairly soft tofu, and then springy, resilient konnyaku.
The calorie label is a bit hard to believe: a 9 ounce (255 gram) package has only 30 calories, just 0.12 calories per gram, compared with a carbohydrate’s 4 calories per gram or a fat’s 9 calories per gram. The reason for this is fiber: the magic of konnyaku is that it form a resilient mass of fiber with nearly no starch, fat or protein.
Konnyaku is made from the root of the Amorphophallus konjac plant, which is peeled, boiled, and mashed, before a coagulant is added to cause the paste to set into a gel. Sometimes hijiki (a sea vegetable) is added for flavor, nutrition (calcium), and color. (The konnyaku in the photo above contains hijiki — the konnyaku noodles in the photo below do not.)
At the 2017 International Food Blogging Conference in Sacramento, one of the sponsors was Avocados from Chile1, the avocado promotion agency from that nation. The logic behind their promotional efforts in California is sound:
- United States avocado growers can’t meet growing U.S. demand
- The California avocado harvest is typically between April and September
- Chile is in the southern hemisphere, so the harvest is shifted by six months and runs from September to March2
Which Country Grows the Most Avocados?
Avocados from Chile’s presence at the conference got me thinking: Who grows avocados? Where does Chile fit in? Is production from Chile on the upswing?
Soon after I started blogging 10+ years ago, I learned about Creative Commons licenses, which some creators apply to their own work so it can be shared with certain restrictions (note that this blog is currently licensed with a CC BY-NC-SA 2.5, and my Flickr collection also has a CC license). After figuring out the mechanics, I started using CC-licensed items to add visual elements to my blog posts (the first CC image I used was a lovely black and white photo of a crow in flight from Mark Lorch’s collection for my random musings about a Los Angeles street). I continued to use Creative Commons art, mostly from Flickr, when I wanted a picture of a carrot, or a wheel of cheese, or something similarly relevant to my post.
As time went on, new collections of images appeared and I learned about existing collections, and started to use them as sources of the art for my blog. Eventually, however, my tastes changed slightly and I started being attracted to the ‘vintage’ material in the archives. I liked adding quirky or unusual images to my posts — instead of a picture of a finished dish that I was writing about, I’d include something from an old seed catalog or a fairy tale (as in my post about turnip pickles and turnip greens).
In the spirit of the Creative Commons, I’ll share a few of my favorite sources and list some of their good and bad characteristics: Flickr Commons, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CCSearch, Wellcome Collection image library, and Google Books/Hathi Trust.
As I’ve discussed before, in the olden days, catsup/ketchup was about much more than tomatoes. Cookbooks from the 18th and 19th century are ripe with recipes for catsup/ketchup that contain ingredients that are decidedly non-ketchup ingredients, like walnuts, anchovies, and oysters.
What is sold for mushroom catsup, is generally an injudicious composition of so many different tastes, that the flavour of the mushroom is overpowered by a farrago of garlic, anchovy, mustard, shallot, beer, wine, spices, &c.
Ready made catsup is little better than a decoction of spice and water, with the grosser parts of the mushrooms all beaten up to a pulp.
After posts on 19th century complaints about plagiarism and the evolution of recipe writing style, we finally get to the recipe that originally attracted me to William Kitchiner’s 1818 book, The Cook’s Oracle: Mock Tomata Sauce [sic].
When I first saw Mock Tomata Sauce on my screen, I had a few thoughts. First: ????. Next: I need to try this. And then: this reminds me of the delicious mostarda spread / sauce in the Gjelina cookbook (a concoction of lightly fried apples, coarse mustard, rosemary, etc.), so I can see it working.
Here’s Kitchiner’s recipe (mid-sentence capitalizations and “tomata” in original):
Mock Tomata Sauce. — (No. 293.)
Reduce sharp tasted apples to a pulp as in making apple sauce; pound them in a mortar with as much turmeric as will give them colour, and as much Chili vinegar as will give the same degree of acid flavour that the tomata has; add to each pint a quarter of an ounce of shallots shred fine; put all into a well-tinned saucepan and mix them well together, and give them a gentle boil; when cold, take out the shallot1 and put the sauce into small stone bottles; your sauce should be of the consistence of a thick syrup 2; this may be regulated by the Chili vinegar.
Obs. — The only difference3, between this, and genuine Love-apple Sauce, is the substituting the pulp of Apple for that of Tomata, and colouring it with turmeric.