Food Historians Look to the Past for a Taste of the Future

 

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Sizzle Magazine. Click here to read more Sizzle stories.

By Suzanne Hall

Few professions are as immersed in history as the culinary profession. Each ingredient, recipe and technique has a story fueled by a chef’s passion and vision.

For Therese Nelson, the passion to know the history of her culture’s food and cooking brought her largely to a dead end. For that reason, Nelson moved out of New York’s hotel kitchens and into founding Black Culinary History, an organization with the purpose of uniting chefs of color to preserve black heritage throughout the African culinary diaspora, to promote and share the work of her colleagues, and to preserve the legacy being constructed by black chefs for the next generation.

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A graduate of Johnson & Wales University with degrees in hospitality management and culinary arts, Nelson loved her career but couldn’t find a place for her own identity. “I was working with my head down to other people’s vision,” she says. “I didn’t have a vision of where I fit. If you don’t have that vision, you won’t have a very long career.”

Acknowledging that culinary schools probably don’t have the time to really teach food history, Nelson suggests that students learn it on their own as she did. “You have to be aggressive about your education,” she says. Books, chefs, even family members all provide information that can help chefs cook authentically, whether it’s handwritten recipes or an oral history. “You can’t cook the food if you don’t know the vocabulary, and that comes from knowing the history,” she says.

Nelson hasn’t given up cooking with her venture of preserving black culinary heritage. She is now a private chef with regular clients in Manhattan. Her passion to learn more about the history of food combined with her culinary education has expanded her career beyond the kitchen. She is a lecturer and hopes to share her culture knowledge by becoming a writer. Eventually, she notes, she’d like to earn a master’s degree in food history.

Feed your Curiosity

According to food historian Ana Kinkaid, “To share a dish’s history with diners is to create an image in their minds and extend the dining experience.” A healthy dose of curiosity and a lifetime learner in both cooking and history led Kinkaid to create Your Culinary World, a website in which she writes about food and travel.

The daughter of an American diplomat, Kinkaid first learned about cooking in the kitchens of her parents’ homes in South America and Spain and from the cooks at the boarding school she attended. She believes culinarians can seek out the new and the innovative while still honoring the traditions of the past. “It is absolutely important for chefs to know the back story of the menu and the region,” she says.

Kinkaid believes students can learn culinary history on their own and a good resource for her own studies has been to ask vendors and companies to share the history of their products. Contacting the Smithsonian and even the National Restaurant Association, both of which have a lot of information that they are willing to share, is another resource. But the best resource is often right under culinary students’ noses: “Culinary students should ask questions in class about the history of the dishes they are preparing,” says Kinkaid. She feels that food historians are an integral part of the culinary world. According to Kinkaid, “An industry without history will not survive.”

A Dash of the Past

Walter Staib & "Ben Franklin" in garden
Chef Walter Staib and “Ben Franklin” in the garden of City Tavern

Chef Walter Staib is in a class of his own when it comes to keeping American 18th-century cooking and dining alive. Since 1994, his company Concepts by Staib Ltd. has operated City Tavern on the grounds of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Staib is chef at the tavern, which first opened for business in 1773; the original building was destroyed by fire in 1834. An accurate reproduction opened in 1976 in time for the U.S. bicentennial. Today, costumed servers in 10 dining rooms decorated in the Colonial fashion present Staib’s Colonial-style menu.

Trained throughout Europe, the German-born Staib is well acquainted with the traditions of international cuisine. He admits that he wasn’t at all interested in 18th century culinary history until he took over the tavern and started to peruse the historical documents that came with it. Among these were issues of Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. The social pages were a rich source of the societal traditions of the era. Delving deeper into the period, Staib took Thomas Jefferson as his mentor to create updated versions of Colonial dishes.

His relationship with City Tavern turned Staib into an avid food historian. His interest and research are reflected not only in the food he produces at City Tavern, but in the historical cookbooks he writes. Additionally, Staib hosts an award-winning PBS television show, “A Taste of History,” which introduces viewers not only to Colonial cooking in America but in the Caribbean as well.

Staib wishes that culinary schools would devote some time to food history, but like Kinkaid, he believes that students should take the initiative to learn on their own. “Old cookbooks and librarians who can point students to other publications can be your best friends,” says Staib. “Reading old cookbooks isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s one of the best ways to learn about the food you are cooking.”

A History Steeped in Tradition

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Boston’s Union Oyster House in 1826

Further north in Boston, executive chef Americo DiFronzo, CEC, CCA, AAC, preserves the history of the menu at Union Oyster House. It first opened as Atwood and Bacon on Union Street in Boston in 1826 and by 1916 it became the Union Oyster House, the name it bears today. It is the oldest restaurant in Boston and the longest continuously operating restaurant in the U.S. Housed in a building that is over 350 years old, it serves the same traditional fare that Bostonians have enjoyed for centuries.

With the original 1826 menu hanging on the wall as a reminder of the restaurant’s history, DiFronzo and his staff serve 2,000 meals a day during the summer tourist season. More than 40 percent of the items on the 1826 menu are on the current menu. Those that are not, like lobster stew — a favorite of President John F. Kennedy — are prepared on request.

The original menu is not the only touch of history in the restaurant. The original curved oyster bar still is in use and historical photographs, notes and memorabilia fill the walls of several of its dining rooms.

DiFronzo was not totally new to culinary history when he took over the kitchen at Union Oyster House. A longtime collector of food and cooking memorabilia, he walked by the famous oyster house every day before he was hired as a chef.

“Now I am the caretaker of the history and the cuisine,” he says. Young chefs should note that it takes a special kind of person to be a caretaker. “Chefs who want to experiment with a lot of new dishes don’t belong in restaurants like this one,” says DiFronzo. “I can tweak things by using new techniques and new ingredients if they are better than the old ones, but I don’t really change anything.”

The restaurant’s crab cakes are an example. DiFronzo decided the crab cakes would be better pan-fried rather than deep-fried. “My staff thought I was crazy because we’re so busy and it would take too long.” DiFronzo worked with the staff to build up their efficiency and increased sales from 30 to 60 crab cakes a day. He notes that the crab cakes are one of Union Oyster House’s 10 best sellers.

Oysters, along with the restaurant’s history, are the biggest draws at the restaurant. Daniel Webster, one of dozens of famous diners, went to the restaurant daily for plates of oysters, which came six per plate, along with brandy and water. Like other Colonial diners, Webster was not averse to drinking during lunch.

While beverages get less attention by culinary historians, they are nevertheless important, especially in today’s small-batch world where customers’ have a demanding interest in where things originate. Nicolas Palazzi does not consider himself a historian; however, the history of Cognacs, a very specific type of brandy from France, is very important to him. Palazzi sources and imports Cognacs and other spirits to distribute through his company PM Spirits LL in Brooklyn, New York.

Palazzi was raised in France in a winemaking family with loose ties to Cognac makers. “I learned about Cognac just by being there,” he says. As he grew older, he was curious to learn more about French brandies. Today, he searches out small, family-run producers and imports their products. He passes on the history of these Cognac makers to his customers, who in turn pass the information to consumers.

“Many of the younger drinkers today want to know about the product they are drinking. They want to know its history and its roots,” he says.  Although he did no formal study of Cognac, he notes, “If you are curious and passionate, you will learn.”


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