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Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 1
In which questions, mostly real ones, are answered.
Hello, and Happy New Year! This issue contains questions and answers. Some are questions I’ve been asked by actual people about food (and history), and at least one is a brief snippets of things I want to say about food (and history), but find easier to write as answers. I leave it to you, faithful reader to determine which they are. Those who have sent me questions will, except in cases of poor memory, have an advantage.
[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]
How is the pandemic affecting your research?
The answer to this is basically “I don’t know anymore”. I’ve had one year of looking for work, and one year of self-employment as a freelance marketing consultant, and neither of them resembled anything in the previous twenty-some years. I’ve done little enough research, overall. In 2020, I had plans when I was laid off to go to the National Library, work through some of the manuscript recipe collections and so forth, and then the pandemic arrived. I did get a lot of cooking done, and some of it was even historical, but I can’t say I did much research. And then 2021 was largely absorbed by looking for work (somewhat) and working (rather more, usefully), and in adjusting to that. I’ve done a lot of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, but again, not a lot of research. That’s mostly not due to the pandemic, though, but just work.
I have vague plans to do more this year. But on the list of things that keep me sane, research is about 6th or 7th, so it’s not going to be a massive priority. Nobody needs a food historian in the vein of a mad scientist, even if the mad history kitchen isn’t a bad stage setting.
Do you really cook breakfast every morning? That would stress me right out.
Not every morning, and definitely not in the latter third or so of 2021, as work built up. Breakfast dropped away as far as cereal, toast and coffee for a lot of that. I am aware that that’s still more than many people eat, but my brain just does not function until I get some food. And I genuinely like breakfast foods, and breakfast as a concept, and so on. So I still cook something some mornings, and I’m intending to try to do more of that again as things settle down after the holidays. Bacon and eggs is usually my starting point, and there’s even some research to do there, as I’ve read that that’s an American invention of the early twentieth century. Or if not invention, then at least popularisation. Cooking doesn’t stress me, mind. I can cook for up to 20 people before I really have to spare a bit of organisational effort, so breakfast cookery is honestly more relaxing than otherwise.
I am also a fan of the Irish breakfast roll, of course. And there is nothing that beats having breakfast cooked for you.
Are you going to do the Lent thing again this year?
No. It was good to have done it, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it. Further, it took up a lot of mental space; every time I felt hungry - which was more often than I liked, even if not as often as I expected - I was reminded of the restrictions. I imagine that in the religious context, that’s as intended. But not this year.
What are you planting this year?
I am in no way sure yet. I am still learning how to grow things, really, so some of what I grow should be progress from last year, and some should be new.
I want to try planting actual seed potatoes from a reputable source, rather than the second generation of supermarket leftovers, which was last year’s crop. I think the planting in tubs worked pretty well; my current thinking is to plant around March (regardless of what the weather is actually doing) and provide some degree of frost protection when necessary, so as to give a good long growing season.
I tried salad leaves last year, and failed miserably, but I think not watering enough in the driest, warmest bits of the year was the issue there. Again, starting earlier is probably a good solution, and starting seeds off inside.
Thereafter, peas, beans and some more herbs are the main concerns. And I will undoubtedly spot half a dozen things in the seed catalogues over the next couple of months and have to restrain myself.
On the one hand, growing things for use this year is not in and of itself a high priority. On the list mentioned above, it’s well into areas where I haven’t thought of numbers. On the other, I remain pretty sure that it’s a skill I’m going to need in the future. So I’d better practice.
You made the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. How?
Well, thank you! There are better sandwiches to be had, mind - I recommend the Pig & Heifer sandwich shops in Dublin, of which I think there are still two, on Amiens St and Pearse St. And I learned (nearly) everything I know about sandwiches by carefully taking apart those made in Morton’s supermarket in Ranelagh. I don’t remember what was in the one I made you, but it was probably something like this.
There are two important aspects to a good sandwich, possibly two and a half. The first one is fresh bread. I really do prefer sliced pan for sandwich making, because a sandwich should be about the contents, and sliced pan is essentially invisible as bread goes. I favour the Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien Toastie. The second is that the contents should be varied. The fewer ingredients you have, the better quality they need to be. If you’re doing just ham, it needs to be a decently thick slice of baked glazed ham, for instance, with enough structure to stay in place, and not enough to prevent even the slightest issue in biting through it. But the best sandwiches have varied ingredients.
My favourite to make at the moment is something approaching a club sandwich, albeit not with the extra slice in the middle; chicken, ham, lettuce, tomato, a sliced boiled egg, and mayonnaise. Because I am Irish, I put butter on all my my sandwiches, and this is no exception. So, slice of white sliced pan, as fresh as possible. Apply a thin layer of soft butter. Then the chicken - you want sliced roast or grilled breast of chicken, cold. Then the lettuce, roughly torn. If you want a little more taste, this can be rocket instead. Much as I love spinach, this is not the place for it. Then mayonnaise, not a lot, but some. Then the tomato, thinly sliced. This is where it becomes clear that this is primarily a summer sandwich, because winter tomatoes don’t really taste of anything. If you are in somewhere where you can still get good tomatoes in winter, by all means go for it; as far as I am concerned you live in perpetual summer. Now the sliced boiled egg comes in, and then the ham on top. Cover with the second slice of buttered bread, slice diagonally, because cross-cut sandwiches are a sad attempt at irony, and eat. You may, if the ham is not what it might be, or the tomatoes are not great, add a slice of good cheddar on top of the ham.
One of the things I do intend to experiment with this year is the sandwich, both in the modern form and the medieval Arabic bazmāward, a rolled and sliced arrangement of bread, meat, vegetables and eggs. I’ve made those before for an SCA feast, and they were very popular. Expect more sandwich descriptions.
(Also, I am a radical sandwich anarchist.)
Is it a supply line thing that means Tesco hasn’t had Scotch Eggs in months?
I don’t know, but my guess is that it’s more Brexit-related than anything else. The UK branches of Tesco still have them, as far as I can make out, but they use ingredients from the EU and UK. They’re not even nearly the cheapest cold food, so I think the margins on them are such that import/export, etc, is currently not worthwhile. The Irish Tesco website still lists them, which usually indicates that they’ll be back in at some stage (possibly when they sort out an Irish supplier). They did have a notice on the shelf in Maynooth in April of 2021 that said that they were expected back in stock on May 5th, but nothing came of that. We’ll see.
I thought harvest festivals were solely an American thing! Why isn’t there an actual named celebration in this season like Easter and Christmas?
I know there are or were harvest festivals in Germany, too. What gets celebrated and what doesn’t is a really complex question, and it’s almost entirely out of my wheelhouse. However - and here we pass out of good historical practice, and into “Drew speculating” - I’d posit two things. First, there’s no theological element of Christianity that the concept of harvest hooks into neatly. Almost all Christian festivals (saints’ days aside) are to do with the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, and as far as can be seen from the Bible, he didn’t do a lot of harvesting. Indeed, the only references in the New Testament seem to be metaphorical, while the Old Testament is peppered with more direct accounts. Second, everyone was going to celebrate the harvest anyway; there was no point in inserting a Christian event into the calendar when “thank God there’s food” was a very easy event to organise. Please consult an actual historical theologian or horologist for better information!
Why even are olives?
Because delicious. More usefully, they’re a reliable source of oil that can be processed with fairly simple tools, and olive trees grow in places where many other things just shrivel up and die. Actual olives for eating were probably a later development; olives off the tree are incredibly bitter. You have to brine them for a few weeks to take out the bitterness, kind of like salting older varieties of aubergine.
Alright, I’m out of questions. For now. This issue has been brought to you by a continuing mild winter, a 2022 almanac, raspberry ginger beer, and the hope of some actual weather soon instead of this mild stuff. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.