By Ana Kinkaid, editor of the culinary magazine CONNECT
Foods strange and unusual have always moved in and out of culinary acceptance. Yet some of a modern chef’s most utilized ingredients have followed an amazing path from popular rejection to the professional kitchen pantry.
Today potatoes appear in most cuisines around the world. Yet if you were French during the 1600s, you might have actively avoided potatoes. Recently imported from the New World and so strange looking to the Europeans, the clergy and scientists of the day declared the potato’s twisted shape an indicator of leprosy. For those brave souls who did not die by eating the potato, it was predicted that they would certainly develop rampant, unchecked sexual urges.
Potatoes were culturally banned until the French agricultural pioneer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began promoting the potato in the late 1700s. Parmentier started a publicity campaign to generate a more positive image for the potato by hosting a series of elaborate feasts where potato dishes were served to famous, supportive celebrities like Benjamin Franklin.
To further increase the potato’s desirability, he hired armed guards to protect his own potato patch during the day but withdrew the soldiers at night, enabling the now re-educated local farmers to steal and later plant the potatoes. It worked – soon everyone was eating potatoes.
Tomatoes were equally thought by many during the 18th and 19th centuries to be poisonous. This was believed because at several political dinners where tomatoes were served, rival political candidates died. And while the lowly tomato was blamed, more likely it was the popular pewter dinner plates, high in lead content, that were the fatal culprit.
The fate of the tomato was turned around by, among other events, America’s love affair with pizza. When poor immigrants from southern Italy arrived in America, they brought with them their traditional flat bread topped with a tomato sauce, cheese, vegetables and small amount of precious meat. Lacking the poisonous pewter plates preferred by the wealthy, they had never considered the tomato deadly. As a result, once in America they opened many small pizzerias and made their favorite dish part of American cuisine, thanks in part to endless generations of hungry college students.
Tuna is today the most widely eaten fish in America, but it took some innovative publicity to get the tasty, healthy saltwater fish to the grocery shelves. In the early 1900s, yellowfin and skipjack tuna varieties were avoided by fishermen. Chefs avoided them as “junk fish” because most American diners at that time preferred a fish with a lighter, whiter meat like sole or cod.
But with the food scarcity created by World War I and later by the Great Depression of the 1930s, former forms of protein became unavailable. The “problem” was solved by simply labeling once-rejected tuna as the “Chicken of the Sea.” The new name enabled Americans to shift their seafood preference. Today the tuna fish sandwich is a classic lunch favorite that nearly every American child and adult have savored.
Considered today a luxury dish, lobsters were once considered inappropriate for any restaurant’s menu. For centuries, lobsters were seen as suitable only for prisoners and the poor. Indeed, until the 19th Century, lobsters were considered such a pest, they were caught and ground up as a fertilizer for New England’s rocky fields!
Chefs can thank the Western expansion of the American railroad for elevating the lowly lobster to its present culinary height. For nearly a century, from the late 1800s to the early 1950s, American trains offered an elegant mode of travel. Any food on the train’s menu, including the humble lobster, was instantly elevated to elite culinary status by association. Indeed lobster was so often ordered, it was one of the few luxury foods not rationed during World War II to the delight of many a weary G.I. No longer plentiful due to over-harvesting and global warming, the lobster’s scarcity now contributes to its high price and luxury status.
Peanuts were once considered a food suitable only for black slaves in the South. A food indigenous to their African homeland, peanuts were initially linked to extreme poverty. When Southern crops failed during the Civil War, white Confederate soldiers abandoned their culinary prejudice and fought off starvation by eating the protein-rich peanuts.
As the nation healed from the wounds of war, many communities learned to laugh again while attending the touring P.T. Barnum Circus where “Hot Roasted Peanuts” took on a more joyful meaning of fun and fellowship. The tradition of eating peanuts in public would continue as it spread to baseball stadiums and movie theaters.
The peanut’s growing social appreciation came full circle when the African-American botanist George Washington Carver created over 100 unique recipes utilizing the peanut, including the omnipresent American childhood favorite: peanut butter.
American chefs are always incorporating new ingredients into their dishes and, if the past can be a guideline, they have nothing to fear in the new, the different and the unique. What today is seen as strange will often become tomorrow’s popular “must have” ingredient — because nothing is more enduring than change.