Thursday, March 23, 2023

News and Updates

1. Mr. Watts passed away earlier this month. He was an indelible part of my childhood and he will be missed. May his memory be a blessing.

2. His was not the only passing this month, unfortunately. More on that later.

3. In other news we’re all ready for Spring Break down at Home Campus, except for those of us who teach for more than one campus and therefore have had random spring breaks all month, which in practice means never quite having a spring break because no matter what campus is currently on break there’s always another one that isn’t. I don’t think this plan was very well thought out.

4. My job has had its ups and downs of late, which I suppose is how jobs go really. So far the ups are winning, at least.

5. I’ve read two different books since I completed the Bull Cook journey and I’m still not sure if my brain has recovered fully. Ol’ George packs quite the literary punch, he does.

6. If you’re not furious at the increasingly overt slide into Fascism that the American right wing is dragging the rest of the country along with them right now you’re not paying attention. This is a perilous time to be an American, and I don’t know where it will end up.

7. On the other hand Kyiv still stands, so not all of the lamps in the world have gone out.

8. Somehow I managed to turn my tongue into hamburger while eating lunch yesterday and you really don’t notice how much you use that particular organ in everyday life – even if everything you do is entirely G-rated – until that happens. Fortunately I’m not much of a drinking man, as I can’t imagine what a good whiskey would do to me right now.

9. I am making slow progress on getting my financial house in order, mostly by trying to find other people to do that for me. If all goes well I will soon be able to subcontract out that entire portion of my life and live off the interest of my vast wealth as a historian, which can be accomplished as long as I live in a shoebox down by the river and learn how to digest grass.

10. The Flyers continue to be an entertaining if not very successful team to watch, which is fine. It’s shared time with family.

11. Our brackets continue to be busted, but we’re hanging tough. Going into the second round Kim was winning on points with 45 to Oliver’s 41 and my 38, but Oliver had 10 teams still standing to Kim’s 7 and my 6. I’m pretty much guaranteed not to win this, but I’m going to have fun watching it all go down in flames.

12. I am hoping that this summer will have few if any demands on me, as I could use some down time. This is, of course, nonsense, as I will no doubt fill it with some assortment of the four large projects and several hoped-for activities that I have lined up, so really who am I fooling. There will be much busyness and it will be exhausting and memorable and that’s just how it is.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Watching the Bracket Unfold

We decided to try our hand at filling out brackets for March Madness this year, as we usually do.

Right now it’s me, Oliver, and Kim at home. None of us really follow college basketball. I know exactly one fact about this year’s college basketball season – that Alabama has a player who has been credibly accused of some fairly serious crimes but they’ve decided that they’re not going to suspend him because such things don’t matter when you’re dealing with star athletes, particularly in a televised tournament. This one fact puts me ahead of both Kim and Oliver, who didn’t have much time to pay attention to the sport this season and doesn’t follow it at all in any season, respectively.

So it’s going to be a pretty even match among us.

Kim made her picks pretty much at random. I generally choose mine by a number of criteria, which are in descending order of importance, 1) did I attend this university? 2) did someone I know attend this university? 3) is this university from the Philadelphia area? and, if all else fails, 4) would I rather visit this university’s town or their opponent’s? I usually pick the Ivy League team to win their first game but forgot to do that this year, so naturally they did win, which seems fair. Oliver, for his part, decided to look up every team’s mascot and made his picks on that basis. It is, all things considered, the most systematic method of the three of us.

We’re almost through Round 1 and so far it’s been ugly for our brackets.

Both Kim and I have half of our Final Four already eliminated, though I still have my national champion pick as an option. Oliver still has all four of his still viable, but the night is young. Kim has picked more winners than either Oliver or I so far, but as we progress in the later rounds she may be at a disadvantage as more of her later round picks are gone already.

Honestly, we could wrap this up by Sunday night.

At some point there will be Valuable Prizes awarded, as soon as we can be bothered to figure out what those might be. We live in Wisconsin. There may well be cheese involved.

We don’t watch the games. Kim enjoys basketball but finds it a bit stressful since she was one of the stats people for her high school teams and still has this feeling that she should be keeping track of things. Oliver has no interest in the sport but finds the tournament amusing. As a hockey and soccer fan I just get bewildered by a sport where teams routinely score a hundred points in increments of two. Something is missing here.

Also, beyond the “put the ball into the net” aspect of the game I just don’t understand basketball. A few years ago when Wisconsin made it to the championship game we found ourselves in a hotel in Ohio with nothing to do but watch them play one of their early round games. Lauren enjoys the game, so at least there was that. I watched, and there were three consecutive plays – one of which was called a foul on the defense, one on the offense, and one on neither, and I will swear to you now that you could superimpose the replays and there’d be no daylight between them.

So mostly I just check the scores and tally the wins and losses.

I’m enjoying the upsets. Princeton won, an Ivy League 15 seed beating the sports factory 2 seed Arizona. Fairleigh Dickenson won, a 16 beating the 1 seed Purdue, only the second time a 16 has beaten a 1. You have to celebrate these sorts of things before the chalk takes over and the favorites restore order. Nobody less than an 8 seed has ever won this thing, after all.

So we watch our brackets and see how it goes.

Rah, sportsball!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 5 and Last

I have reached the end of Bull Cook, and it has been every bit the adventure I thought it would be from the beginning.

When I first started this project my friend Eric – perhaps a bit bewildered by the sheer Gish Gallop of nonsense George Herter had produced for me to pass along, which is a not unreasonable position – suggested the possibility that this was all some kind of put on, a character that George was playing. There is, after all, a long tradition of such things in American culture. And to be fair, he doesn’t look like the sort of guy who would say a lot of the unhinged things he said and be serious about them. He looks almost reasonable, in fact, as you can see in this New York Times photograph.

Why he had a photo in the New York Times is an interesting question, but like most things George-related I’m just going to let it slide. There is no answer to that question that I would find comforting, so there is no point in asking.

But even at that early point in my project, I didn’t think that was the case.

Because while the United States does have a long tradition of people playing characters, it has an even longer tradition of cranks. Of people who are sincerely out there on their own little mental islands, shouting frantically at passersby while adamantly refusing any suggestion that they might be in need of assistance and who sound almost reasonable until you actually listen to them. This is after all the country that gave an appropriately royal sendoff to our one and only emperor, Norton I, who had his imperial throne in San Francisco from 1859 to 1880. The locals treated him well and accepted his currency and pronouncements, and when he died more than ten thousand of them came to the funeral to pay homage.

We like cranks in this country. The inordinately self-assured, the know-it-alls at the corner of the bar, the quixotic and the damned – we as a culture have a soft spot for such people.

It gets us into trouble at times, particularly when the cranks get taken more seriously than they should be. Charles Pierce’s book Idiot America spends a lot of time on this downside of the American tolerance for cranks when they get into positions of cultural or political power. “America has always been a great place to be crazy,” he observes. “It just used to be harder to make a living that way.”

Yet George Herter not only made a living at being a crank, he thrived at it. He took over his father’s dry goods store in 1937 and turned it into the precursor of Cabela’s, selling hunting and fishing gear by mail and, eventually, in brick and mortar stores. It went bankrupt in 1981, but that’s a pretty good run. Bull Cook went through fifteen editions in its first decade and is still readily available more than sixty years after it was first published.

So hat’s off to George, a crank in the grand American tradition and the author of quite possibly the most insane cookbook ever published. I don’t know if I will ever try any of the recipes in there, but it was a ride worth taking.

For this final installment I read through the sections on Desserts; How to Dress Game; Wine, Beer and Liquor; and Helpful Hints. It has to be said that he calmed down considerably after the sheer unbridled weirdity of the Sandwiches and Vegetables sections, but even so I learned a few things that I probably would not have learned anywhere else. There is even a chance that some of them are true.

You never know.

So here you go, one last ride through the Technicolor mind of George Herter.

1. George was absolutely convinced that there was a conspiracy of flour manufacturers to prevent ordinary home cooks from making anything worthwhile. Throughout the section on Desserts he complains that flour companies will only sell “all purpose flour” rather than the bread flour, pastry flour, cake flour, or high gluten flour that you really need to do anything worthwhile. He actually has an entire entry entitled “Why It Is Impossible for Modern Women to Bake Well,” laying all this out in detail – that baking was something designated as women’s work seems not to have occurred to him as at all controversial – and he comes back to it in about half the recipes in the Dessert section. Once George latched onto an idea he was not the sort to let it go.

2. Donuts – or “doughnuts,” in the spelling that was popular at the time – are a purely North American item. “Europeans have never learned to make doughnuts,” he complains.

3. Not for George the desserts that involve pouring brandy onto something and lighting it on fire. “All this does is to waste good brandy,” he says.

4. One of the desserts he offers is Bananas Alexander the Great, which he builds up with a full page introduction on both the history of the banana and a biography of Alexander (“When he was only twelve years old he pushed his teacher Nectanebus into a pit and killed him. Maybe present day teenagers are not so bad after all”). Alexander, he assures us, was a connoisseur of all things banana-related. In the end, the big reveal is that this grand dessert is just bananas mashed together with milk and honey. Great.

5. You may think that Dom Perignon is most justly celebrated for his invention of champagne, but George is here to tell you that it is instead for his invention of an hors-d’oeuvre consisting of crackers with butter, cheese, and celery salt on top. This is to go with the champagne, of course.

6. Say what you will about his misguided admiration for the Confederacy, George minces no words on the evils of slavery. I’m not entirely sure how he managed to reconcile those things, but there you go.

7. “In New Orleans a drink is served today called Cafe Brulot. It is of fairly recent origin and is simply a drink dreamed up to look fancy and clip the tourists for a fancy price. It is strictly a tourist trap drink and contains among other things orange, lemon, cloves, and, of course, flaming brandy. I suppose there are poorer drinks, but they would be difficult to find.”

8. George is adamant that lemon does not belong in tea. I suspect my mother would have had a few choice words with him on this subject.

9. The section How to Clean Game has a total of three entries – how to clean a snapping turtle, how to clean game birds, and how to sharpen a knife. I am not sure how these three made the cut and other things did not, but then I learned through this process not to examine George’s decision making too closely. There is no win there.

10. The section on Wine, Beer and Liquor is second only to the Meats section in length, which tells you a bit of George’s priorities. And it has to be said that the part devoted to Wine is easily the most sober and least psychotic part of the book, ironically enough. There are very few manic rants about historical figures, most of the unsubstantiated opinions are actually relevant to the subject at hand, and overall it reads more like an actual cookbook than any other part of Bull Cook. It is thus easy to overlook the baseline weirdness that comes from George’s firm belief that you can make wine out of pretty much anything. Grapes. Flowers. Dandelions. Fruits and berries. Rhubarb. Bananas. Tea. Potatoes. Parsnips. Mangolds (which I had to look up – they’re related to beets). Carrots. Oats. Maple Syrup. On and on. It all goes into the fermentation tanks and out comes wine.

11. Vermouth, he confidently asserts, is just poor quality white grape wine flavored with cinnamon. I am not sure what brand of vermouth he is buying, but I’m assuming it is no longer sold.

12. My favorite wine recipe was “Calamity Jane Wine,” which contains two pounds of “old potatoes,” two and a half pounds of carrots, one pound of rhubarb, three and a half pounds of sugar, five quarts of water, brewer’s yeast, and no mention whatsoever of how exactly this gets back to the Old West entertainer Calamity Jane beyond the general sense of misfortune that you get from thinking about it.

13. Although his recipe for mead – entitled “Viking Virgin Wine” – comes close in a close second.

14. It’s when he shifts to Beer that George reverts back to form. He starts with a brief and vaguely plausible history of beer in human history, noting that it has been independently invented in pretty much every human culture including the Americas. “Columbus,” he says, “while exploring Central America in 1502, was given corn beer by the Indians. They should have given him poison.” Go ahead, George, tell us what you really think.

15. He is not a great fan of the mass-produced American beers that were available to him in 1960 when this was published, as he finds them too weak. “The only thing strong about American-made beer, ales or malt liquors is the strong taste of the cheap chicken feed most of it is made from.”

16. Yet he likes Budweiser. Go figure.

17. Throughout this section – and particularly the parts devoted to various hard liquors – George is at great pains to introduce each recipe with the stern warning that it is (or was at the time) illegal under federal law to make any of this in your own home, but that he just wanted to include the precise, highly detailed steps needed to do it anyway purely for historical purposes. I’ll bet he wrote the copy for the Wine Bricks they used to sell during Prohibition, too.

18. There are apparently two ways to produce whiskey. You can use a pot still, in which case you get a pretty fine drink out of it. Or you can do what most whiskey distillers do and use a patent still, which is “fine for making paint solvents but poor for making whiskey.” Your call.

19. London Dry Gin is a lie.

20. At the end of this section George helpfully includes not only a number of recipes for specific drinks, but also an entry entitled, “How to Avoid Alcoholism and Still Drink,” in which he advises you to a) water down your drinks, b) never drink on an empty stomach, and c) drink as slowly as you can. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s going to help.

21. The martini, George says, is the most popular drink in the United States, and in 1960 he may well have been right about that. He attributes this to the fact that “Americans want an escape from reality and use Martinis as an anesthetic not actually a drink.” There is a simple reason for this – at least there is for the anesthetic part (the escape from reality part he leaves as an exercise for the reader). The reason why American martinis are better at numbing than actually tasting is that “the way Martini drinks are made in America they are about the poorest excuse for an alcoholic drink that you could possibly find, actually no better than drinking Sterno canned heat strained through bread, the national drink of the bum jungles.”

22. George is a big fan of Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans, home of the Hurricane – a drink that is perennially popular with college students as it is sickly sweet and provides a very good rate of Alcohol Per Dollar Spent. George recommend using Hawaiian Punch in yours. He also likes the atmosphere there. “In the group singing and drinking room, it is the only drinking room in the world where one minute everyone may be singing some ribald song so ribald that it would not even be tolerated in the whore houses of Hong Kong and the next minute Silent Night.” Sounds like New Orleans hasn’t changed much, really.

23. The final section, Helpful Hints, is a grab bag of things that didn’t really fit anywhere else even by George’s loose standards. The opening entry is "How to Make French Soap," and speaking as someone who ran a homemade soap business for seven years, all I can say after reading George’s recipe is No. Just, no.

24. Other entries include “Never Drink Coffee After Eating Peppered Fried Eggs or Soft Boiled Eggs,” “Red Pepper Good for Radiation and Upset Stomachs,” “Apples as a Tranquilizer,” “How to Prevent Toxic Action of Barbecued Foods” (a warning about the evils of charcoal), “How to Make Colorful Fireplace Flames” (this involves tossing in copper sulphate now and then, though keep it away from kids as it is poisonous), and the “Indian Method of Quitting Smoking.” Something for everyone, really.

25. The final entry, entitled “In Case of a Hydrogen Bomb Attack You Must Know the Ways of the Wilderness to Survive,” is your basic survivalist inventory of goods and skills that never once addresses the question of why, exactly, one might want to do that in a larger sense. I’ve taught a class on the atomic bomb since 1998 and if I have learned anything from that experience it is that the question of whether you would want to survive such an attack is not a simple one to answer. But George is nothing if not a straight-ahead damn-the-torpedoes full-frontal-assault kind of thinker, so good for him.

And now I take my leave of George Herter and Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, having faithfully reported many of the notions and assertions contained therein. I confess I’ve developed a certain fondness for the old crank, but I can’t say I’m sorry to be moving on to other things.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 4

I’ve made it through both the Sandwiches and the Vegetables sections now, and it has been an experience.

Of course, so is getting hit in the head by a line drive.

Admittedly reading Bull Cook is a lot more fun than being on the losing end of a well-hit baseball, but the side effects are not all that different – confusion, disorientation, and a general sense that something has happened but you’re not sure whether you should be glad about it or not. It depends on whether the first baseman caught the ball on the deflection, I suppose.

The Sandwich section is where this really goes off the rails, in part I suspect because there’s just not that much else to do there. Honestly, how many times can you say “Get a roll and put stuff in it” – occasionally varied by “and then fry it” – before you snap? And then you get to the Vegetable section and, well. Yeah.

Just to get a flavor of what a George Herter recipe is like, I want to reproduce one in its entirety here. This one is called Spinach Mother of Christ, and according to the one friend I have who actually knew about this book before I started this project (Hi Karen!) it makes a great dramatic reading at social gatherings. It has pretty much everything you could ask for in a George Herter recipe – unfounded confidence, random opinions, unwarranted familiarity with a historical figure, a story that isn’t even remotely plausible in either its general outlines or its remarkably specific details but has enough correct details that you can’t quite dismiss it out of hand, and a recipe that is simple enough that you kind of wonder what all the fuss is about. I am not sure if the Pope knows about this particular recipe or not, but just in to be sure, the next time I visit Italy I am going to drop a copy in the suggestion box at St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m sure there is one somewhere there. It’s probably right next to Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Aside from its theological implications, this is a pretty typical example of what you will find in Bull Cook.


Spinach Mother of Christ

The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach. This is as well a well known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of the time, and this also is a well known fact.

Her recipe for preparing spinach spread with Christianity throughout Europe. On the eve of Christ’s birth in the cave that was called a stable, Her only meal was spinach.

The early European immigrants from Germany, France, and Italy nearly all brought this recipe with them. This is a recipe for people who like a mild garlic flavor, it definitely is not for people who do not like some garlic.

This recipe cannot be made from canned spinach. Canned spinach in no way resembles fresh or frozen spinach and in my opinion is fit for neither man or beast.

Take six quarts of fresh spinach and carefully remove the heavy stems. If you use frozen spinach take two boxes. Boil the fresh spinach five minutes – no more. If you boil spinach too much it completely loses all of its original taste. If you use frozen spinach place it in boiling water. With a fork break up the frozen blocks as soon as possible. After the blocks are broken up and the spinach loose boil it for 1 or two minutes – no more or it is worthless. Take and put three heaping teaspoons of butter in a frying pan and melt it. Chop up four cloves of garlic and put them into the melted butter. Fry them with medium or low heat until slightly brown. Frying the garlic in butter entirely changes its odor and flavor making it quite mild. Take the drained spinach and mix in the butter and fried garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Originally the spinach was then pestled to make a puree. Today take your food mill and pass the spinach through it making it into a puree. Serve as a main dish with bread and butter or as a vegetable with a regular meal.

Today in Belgium and Germany a little nutmeg is sprinkled over the top of the puree. This however was not in the original recipe.


Don’t you feel better knowing this? I know I will never go to a Christmas Eve church service again without thinking of Popeye the Sailor Man.

Along with this, I have also learned the following:

1. “Cheese on bread should never be fried until melted.” Oh, no. No, no, no. Shots fired. Has this man never heard of a grilled cheese sandwich? This cannot stand.

2. Did you know that the name “New Orleans” was meant as a homophobic joke? Now you do. “Nouvelle Orleans was named for Louis Philippe duc d’Orleans the French regent at the time [of settlement]. The duke was well hated in France and the name Nouvelle was used as a pointed jab, the word Nouvelle in French is a feminine word and not used with a masculine name, made him out as a complete fairy.” Do you think George actually understood what goes on in New Orleans? Or France? It does raise some questions.

3. On the other hand he notes rather pointedly that Hernando Cortez and the other conquistadores were “murderers” whose behavior toward the Aztecs was unacceptable, so there is that.

4. George’s admiration for the Aztecs does take him to some strange places, though. “At this time the Aztecs were killing about 20,000 people a year as sacrifices to their gods. They were also eating the victims. Do not frown upon this, as the French, Hollanders, Danes, and Germans not too many centuries back were also cannibals all along their coastal areas. Meat was scarce and they ate each other to vary a tiresome menu of fish and mollusks.” I will admit that the “boredom” theory of cannibalism is new to me. Also, I’m now a bit more suspicious as to the provenance of some of the meat recipes from earlier in the book than I was before.

5. One of the first recipes in the Sandwich section is called Sandwich Dora Hand, named after an Old West singer. It takes George slightly more than three full pages of text to get to what is essentially a fried fish sandwich with pickles and onions, but it’s an entertaining ride. The opening sentence of the recipe says, in its entirety, “I do not wish the people who made and are making American so called ‘historical movies’ for television and theaters any bad luck but if they would all drop dead it would be better for everyone.” George is not a fan of Hollywood, as he has made clear on many occasions before this, so you the reader will glance over this sentence with familiarity and resignation before realizing that he’s only just warming up here. Once he climbs down from that particular tree you get a history of Dodge City, KS as both a cattle town and food mecca – it apparently had a number of the finest restaurants in the Old West, all of which served ice cold beer – and then half a page on the history of gunfighting in the 19th century interspersed with commentary on the exact ethnic heritage of the British Isles (“The Picts were the only true British people, like the Indians are the only true Americans”) and a few words of practical advice on the best way to win a gunfight should you find yourself in one (remember: accuracy, not speed). A half page on the life of Dora Hand herself comes next – her ancestry, biography, singing skills, and tragic love life – followed by her dastardly murder by one James W. (“Spike”) Kennedy, who was then hunted down and killed by pretty much everyone who mattered in the Old West all at the same time. Only then do you get the actual recipe for the sandwich, followed by a plea to remember poor Dora. “She was a fine woman.”

6. Never one to shy away from controversy, George enters the linguistic quagmire that is the origins of the quintessential American expression “OK,” with both arms swinging. He insists it comes from the French “Aux Quais,” which the good people of New Orleans used to signify anything arriving or departing properly from the docks. This is not the most far-fetched thing in this book, when you get down to it.

7. George was not a great fan of Disneyland, and after a paragraph complaining about it – for some reason included toward the end of a recipe for burritos – he rather quietly notes that “I am in favor of giving some land back to the Indians, they didn’t do such a bad job with it at all.” Take that, Walt.

8. Somewhere toward the end of a recipe for Sandwich Holy Night (chocolate and red currant jelly on bread) – a recipe which is devoted almost entirely to the history of the Christmas carol Silent Night and the sad treatment of the local priest who actually wrote it by his parishioners and the priests and bishops over him – George sneaks in the observation that “I have always said that Heaven will never be over crowded with Christians.” Looking around at the naked right-wing partisanship and performative cruelty of the people shouting loudest about their “Christian” faith here in the US these days, I can’t say I disagree.

9. When not questing for the Holy Grail, King Arthur was “one of the best pudding cooks of his time.” Maybe that’s what he needed the Grail for? To hold pudding? Who knows.

10. George provides a surprising number of recipes for toast.

11. Do not under any circumstances allow George Herter to serve you Caesar Salad, a recipe he is absolutely sure was invented by an Italian immigrant cook in Chicago IL in 1903 and certainly had nothing to do with anyone in Mexico. His version contains, among other things, croutons fried in beef fat, bacon, mustard, raw eggs, and Swiss (never Parmesan) cheese, and I was reading along thinking that this was strange but at least within hailing distance of acceptable boundaries until he got to the part about frying some of the lettuce. I have no idea what would possess an adult human to fry lettuce.

12. Along with his culinary expertise, George also considered himself an ethnographer and thus we come to the following in a recipe for boiled corn (a food that really doesn’t need a recipe and George therefore had to find something else to discuss to fill up the space allotted): “The Mohawk Indians are descended from the Celts and are cousins to the Irish, Scotch, Bretons, and Welsh. … The balance of Indians come from the Mongolians which makes them cousins to the Chinese.” I suspect this would come as a great surprise not only to the anthropological community but also to the Mohawks themselves.

13. Nobody in Europe likes popcorn.

14. While George was quite vocal about the evils of slavery – an ongoing problem in the world of 1960, he notes, and a general failing among the nations of the world (“There is not a nation in the world that is doing one thing to stop the ungodly slavery that is still going on”) – he nevertheless was a great fan of the Confederacy, in large part because Southerners were apparently very good at baking potatoes and that has to count for something. George has firm Opinions about potatoes. He is highly partial to red potatoes, the kind that were used by the Indians. “The white potatoes,” he says, “were promoted commercially by white men. They grow larger than the red skinned potatoes and hence are more profitable to grow. Some names for them are Russets, Idaho Bakers, etc. They have been promoted as a baking potato, mainly. Actually they are good for nothing. … Don’t let them fool you.” You have been warned.

15. Thomas Jefferson was a better cook than president.

16. Have you ever looked at a recipe and thought, “Oh, no. I am not going there.” This is why I am not going to be discussing the recipe for “Titty Sauce Yams” any further. You can look it up on page 204.

17. Despite being raised in Minnesota George is not a fan of the wild rice that is grown there. “It is a long grained dark brown rice that when cooked tastes exactly like cooked barley,” he complains. “Blind folded you cannot tell the difference between it and cooked barley. It is the poorest eating rice in existence. Actually to me it tastes like mud from a pond and barley mixed together. No one ever ate it. Not one settler or Indian ever bothered with it at all as they knew it was no good for eating.”

18. In a remarkable display of biological wishful thinking, George spends nearly a page explaining “how to make shallots from onions.” Basically this means planting and replanting the same onions for several years running in order to get a shallot in the end, which is a marvel of genetic engineering if you think about it.

19. If you ever get to San Francisco, don’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf on George’s account. Nobody fishes there and the boats don’t come in with fresh fish and the restaurants are all just “phony atmosphere.” In a caption under a photograph of a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, with a seagull perched scenically in front of it, George observes “The sea gull would be better eating than some of the food served on the wharf.” He does make an exception for the sourdough bread, though.

20. When he says “French fry” something, George means “deep fry.” Once you figure that out a lot of things make a lot more sense. There is only one oil suitable for deep frying, however. Soybean oil is not it – it is good for mixing paints and making linoleum. Cottonseed oil is for making plastics. Corn oil is also good for plastics and also baking. Olive oil is fine on salads. Lard is okay if you render it yourself but store bought is just foul. Margarine is shameful and should not be used for anything. No, if you want to fry anything you need beef fat.

21. French fries are best when sprinkled with powdered mustard. You heard it here first.

22. George also has very firm Opinions on potato chips, particularly when they should and should not be served. “People like potato chips with a cold snack or a hot dog,” he says, “but not usually with a hot meal unless they are losing their mind.” As he would know.

Next: Desserts

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 3

One of the things that really strikes you as you read through Bull Cook is that George Herter really had no particular plan in mind when he wrote it.

Oh, sure, he organized the book into sections – Meats, Fish, Eggs, Soups, Sandwiches, Civil Defense, and so on – and he’s not a bad writer in a structural sense so you can see how one idea kind of follows the next. But every time you read a recipe you get the very strong impression that he just kind of dove into it with a general topic and a devil-may-care attitude, confident that whenever he reached the end of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth he would have accomplished whatever it was he set out to do even if he had to define that goal retroactively.

Because some of these recipes are really a wild ride.

Consider, for example, the recipe for Fish Antony, which covers slightly more than a page of text.

George starts out with a four-paragraph biography of Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, who was born in the Dutch city of Delft in 1632, over three centuries before this book was published. After an introductory paragraph about Van Leeuwenhoek’s early life you get two paragraphs on what is generally considered by most historians to be his claim to fame – the invention of the microscope and the discovery of microscopic life forms in a drop of water, something that truly astonished Europeans of the day. And then George pivots to a fourth paragraph about how Van Leeuwenhoek was “a great fisherman and fish eater” and also “was one of the first to raise garden peas in Holland.”

This is followed by one rather long paragraph, almost as long as the four biographical ones combined, on the history of peas, from their origins in “Northwest India, Afghanistan, and the mountains and plateau of Ethiopia,” through the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe.

Returning to Van Leeuwenhoek, we get two paragraphs on his gardening skills and the invention of this recipe, which – after all that – turns out to be boiled fish with mushroom sauce and peas, spread on toast. George heartily recommends the use of Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup.

He then wraps things up with a paragraph that mostly discusses tuna and why it is just the foulest thing in the seas. George is nothing if not a man of Opinions, all of which he delivers with the confidence of an Old Testament prophet at a dance club.

Then he moves on to the next recipe.

The recipes in general are not all that complicated – really, most of them are at the “Cooking for College Students” level, the sort of thing a worried grandmother might offer to her wayward 18-year-old grandson in the hopes that he will neither starve nor burn down his dorm. Some are more involved, of course, but most of them are pretty straightforward.

And along the way you learn some things. I do not guarantee that those things are true. But they are certainly things, and generally interesting in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are, um, interesting.

So here are a few things that I learned in the Fish, Eggs, and Soups & Sauces sections, numbered for your convenience.

1. Caviar is not Russian but Mongolian, introduced to Europe by Genghis Khan himself, “the mightiest ruler the world has ever produced” and the man who also introduced buckwheat flour and pancakes to Europeans as well because when you’re slaughtering enough people to alter the global climate (which is true, by the way) you do work up a fearsome appetite.

2. Carp is toxic to mink, humans, and other fish.

3. St. James the Apostle invented a recipe for boiled clams and George is very happy to share that with you. Indeed, as I will cover in a later post, George does seem to have had an in with most of the important figures of the Old and New Testaments. It’s probably good that they had so many Fish recipes, and I’m sure I’ll get back to this point when we cover Loaves.

4. “The Scandinavian people both Norwegian and Swedish are great lovers of fish tongues, and consider them a great delicacy.” Let’s unpack that simple declarative sentence for a moment, shall we? First, we’ve limited Scandinavia to Norway and Sweden, which no doubt comes as a surprise to the Danes and Finns, let alone the Icelanders. Second, it does leave open the question of just how many fish tongues one needs to make a decent meal. The recipe that follows does not say – it just says to boil them or “French fry” them (do the Scandinavians fry things that way or is there a Swedish fry method?) and serve with catsup, mustard, and/or horseradish. How big are fish tongues anyway?

5. If you want pickled fish, however, you cannot just go to the store. “To get real pickled fish,” says George, “you must go to small towns along the coasts of such countries as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Here you must be invited into the home where the woman of the house makes her own pickled fish.” So good luck with that, gentle reader! Fortunately, George has managed to cadge the recipe that apparently all of these women use and he presents it here. It’s actually one of the more complicated recipes, with a pile of spices, several rounds of vinegar and salt, and for some reason a packet of gelatin (he recommends Knox).

6. The restaurants in Seattle suck. “Most of them sell atmosphere, not food, and at very high prices.”

7. George has very firm Opinions about the oysters you can get in Seattle and the sorts of people who buy them. “The smallest ones are from Olympia and are called Olympia oysters,” he says with a certain amount of justification. “These tiny oysters are only about as large as a quarter. They bring $5.75 a pint wholesale [which would be a bit more than $30 in 2023]. Because of their small size some people think that it is smart to eat them. Actually they are the poorest quality of oyster grown anyplace in the world and have practically no taste at all. If you order them it just shows your stupidity about oysters.” So there.

8. He is also not a fan of Antoine’s in New Orleans – the recipe for Oysters a la Rockefeller is basically a negative Yelp review of the place punctuated by pictures and followed by the recipe that George felt they should have used had they known better – but he does like Galatoire’s.

9. San Diego has no noticeable traffic problems but Phoenix is a mess. How this fits into a recipe for abalone is not clear.

10. Even after reading a couple dozen recipes that George claims were inspired by food in New Orleans – either in honor of it or in reaction against it, either way – I’m still not sure if he liked the place. This is not helped at all by the photograph of The 500 Club on Bourbon Street, which is captioned, in its entirety, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, is a blend of fine old lace iron work and nude women. You could go either way with a caption like that, I suppose.

11. The section on Eggs is all of three pages long and contains pretty much nothing of note except for the first mention in the book of anything relating to nutrition, where he declares that Eggs King Louis IX – eggs mixed with lemon juice and onion powder and then fried to a custard consistency – can be substituted in place of mayonnaise in salads because it “has practically no calories.” This appears on page 131.

12. George is not a fan of French cooking in general, however much he likes specific examples of it. “A great many of the words used to describe recipes in French cooking mean nothing at all,” he complains. “Many of the words are strictly phony conjured up to simply give a very ordinary recipe a fancy name to falsely try to impress people.” These are literally the first two sentences of his section on Soups & Sauces, so you know you’re in for a ride given the prevalence of sauces in French cooking.

13. Consomme Royale – a recipe that calls for both canned and frozen mixtures of peas and carrots, as well as bouillon cubes, Bovril, cinnamon, and macaroni – is a seriously manly soup in George’s eyes. “Nothing sissy about this soup,” he says. This is why men lead shorter lives, you know.

14. Also in that same recipe, we discover that “cinnamon is imported pine bark.” Really, I got nothin’.

15. Speaking as someone with Italian heritage, his recipe for spaghetti sauce is pure blasphemy and I am deeply shocked that the entire Roman pantheon did not rise up from wherever it has been banished to for the last couple of millennia and strike him down in his kitchen for it. It starts poorly, with lard, an ingredient that has no place here. It rights itself a bit with tomato paste (a 6-ounce can and “no more,” which is rather restrictive), oregano, garlic, onion, and perhaps bay leaf. And then it goes off the rails completely with nutmeg, horseradish mustard, and celery salt. He also recommends Swiss cheese on your pasta. There is no coming back from this.

16. Despite this, George retains the unshakable confidence of an Instagram influencer (and you know he would have both hated and been exceedingly good at that) and this becomes truly obvious in his discussion of Bechamel Sauce, which he and he alone knows how to make. “Almost invariably persons who write or talk about Bechamel actually have no idea at all what they are talking about,” he complains. “They copy the recipe from a cook book, the author of which, likewise did not know the true recipe either and just made bad guesses. Even the so-called finest cook books do not have the true Bechamel sauce recipes.” If you’re interested, it consists of butter, flour, and cold milk. Salt and pepper to taste. Now you know.

17. In what is probably the most quoted section of this book other than the introduction where he lays out his plans, George discusses homemade mayonnaise. Or, more accurately, he discusses the one and only way that his recipe for homemade mayonnaise could possibly fail, which is tied intimately to the nature of the preparer and not something that George personally had to worry about. “If you are a woman,” he cautions, “do not attempt to make mayonnaise during menstruating time as the mayonnaise will simply not blend together at all well. This is not a superstition but a well established fact well known to all women cooks. … There are countless facts in everyday living that will always remain a complete mystery.”

You know, it’s hard to think of where even to begin when confronted by a statement like that. Has he tested this hypothesis? Without getting his ass kicked? How? There’s your complete mystery right there, really. And the thing is, by the time you get to this paragraph you’re 149 pages into the book. You’ve been reading along with all of the various and mounting oddities in this book thinking, despite the cumulative psychological toll, that “Yep, I’ve got the hang of this now, I am fully Weird Certified and an Experienced George Reader at this point and nothing he says will shock me” and then – BAM! – he hits you with this gem and you sit there in your chair staring into the middle distance with a dazed expression like you just went two rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier in his prime and wondering if it is too early in the day to commence serious drinking to get past this or whether “too early” is a meaningful concept in light of what you just read with your own actual eyes. I think I’ll stick with Duke’s.

18. Anti-pasto was invented by a drunk cat. After the mayonnaise bit, this almost seems normal.

19. Roquefort – which is George’s term for blue cheese in general, though he does differentiate varieties from time to time – was invented by a “sorceress” named Jehenne Muret roughly a decade before the birth of Christ. She lived in a cave.

20. The finest mustard in the world was made by Lucrezia Borgia and it’s just a shame about the poisoning thing is all.

Next up: Sandwiches, in which things well and truly go off the rails.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

News and Updates

1. I’m still working my way through Bull Cook. I’ve made it through the sections on Fish and Eggs, and am now in the Soups and Sauces section. The quality commentary that I signed up for has not diminished. There will be further installments here, oh yes there will.

2. This week has been entirely devoted to Committee work down at Home Campus, with a short interval devoted to the care and feeding of undergraduates. On the whole I think I prefer the latter, but it has to be said that the former has had some rewards.

3. We’re currently in the “melt” phase of our winter, which has oscillated between snow/ice storms and spring-like temperatures. Yesterday it was so mild when I left work that I forgot my jacket in my office. This is not how March 1 in Wisconsin is supposed to work, folks. Meanwhile Los Angeles had a blizzard, there are tornadoes and hurricane-force winds in Texas, last year was again one of the hottest on record (something that gets said pretty much every year these days) and Yellowstone National Park is closed because there has been too much snow even for them. I suppose I should be glad that nothing is on fire like it was a couple of years ago. Good thing the climate isn’t changing, because otherwise I’d be worried.


4. I am one of those people who is still playing Wordle, because it is fun and makes the day that much better. My completion rate is now an almost perfect bell curve – usually 4 tries, then sloping off to 3 or 5, and occasionally 2 or 6. Statistics FTW!

5. The State of Florida has descended into overt Fascism and nobody seems to care. Il Doofus the Governor has openly declared he will use state power to force corporations such as Disney to say only what he approves of them saying. There is legislation in process to force historians to teach right-wing propaganda instead of actual history and which arbitrarily bans a whole category of study that right-wingers have declared to be offensive to their delicate snowflake sensibilities. And their persecution of a powerless outgroup is following the precedents set in 1930s Germany so closely that they might as well have taken notes. Welcome to the party of “freedom” and “small government,” right?

If Republicans want me to stop calling them Nazis they need to stop doing the things the Nazis did.

6. Meanwhile a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that there is a bill in the Texas legislature that would ban Shakespeare’s comedies. Oh they think it’s about banning drag shows but the way it’s worded it would also cover a great many other things including some of the finest plays in the English language. I’m not entirely sure why drag shows have suddenly become the popular thing for Fascists to complain about but there it is. Honestly, the most dangerous thing about a drag show is that a conservative white man with a gun might show up.

7. On a lighter note, I was watching a soccer game a couple of weeks ago and saw something I’d never seen before. One team had kicked the ball out of bounds so an injured player could be attended to, and when play resumed the other team put the ball into play and was about to kick the ball back to the first team – a sporting gesture that isn’t in the rule book but which is universally honored across the game, from what I can tell. Except that one asshole on the first team charged in, stole the ball, and scored. This caused friction between the teams, shall we say. His own coach chewed him out in front of the entire stadium. When play resumed after that, the first team simply stood by and watched the other team score to cancel out the offending goal and then the game resume for real. It was the right thing to do.

8. Oliver and I have been watching the Flyers a fair amount of late despite the fact that they are in free-fall toward the bottom of the NHL. They’re a desperately out-manned team working hard to keep up with more talented squads and they’re actually kind of fun to watch that way – they don’t lie down. At this point in my life all I ask of sports is to be entertained.

9. Here is an excerpt from English As She Is Spoke, chosen at random from the back where the short paragraphs for further study are listed, for Lucy:

A man one’s was presented at a magistrate which had a considerable library. “What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books,” he was answered. “But any of your books i did not seen its. – I believe it so, was answered the author; i make nothing for Paris. From a of my works is imprinted, i send the edition for America; i don’t compose what to colonies.

This is the quality content you come here for, admit it.

10. I spent one evening this week at a recruiting event for our campus at one of the local high schools, answering advising questions that my colleague was kind enough to translate for me and thinking, “yeah, I really do need to learn Spanish.” Someday. Not today – I’m barely keeping up with things as it is. But someday.

11. The new grocery store in town sells guanciale! There will be carbonara!

12. On that note, do you know how old I am? I’m “let’s check out the new grocery store!” years old.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 2

I have now made it through the Meat section and it has been quite a journey.

Really, the only book I can compare this to is English As She Is Spoke, written by Pedro Carolino. Carolino, it says in the introduction to the reprint edition I have, “sat down in 1855 to write an English phrasebook for Portuguese students. He had a serious problem: he didn’t know any English. Even worse, he didn’t own an English-to-Portuguese dictionary. What he did have was a Portuguese-to-French phrasebook and a French-to-English dictionary.” What came out of that was perhaps the funniest book published in the English language in the 19th century – “a linguistic train wreck” that Mark Twain once took the time to caution his readers about. “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book,” Twain wrote. “Nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to reproduce its fellow; it is perfect.”

Because when Can-Do Confidence meets Don’t-Do Cluelessness, the results can only be memorable.

And thus we come back to George Herter and Bull Cook.

As others have noted before me, there is a general pattern to the entries in Herter’s book.

More often than not, he will start with anywhere from a few sentences to several pages of biography and opinion about a historical figure. I’m not sure how he chooses these figures – his overt motivation is to declare that whatever recipe follows was created by that figure, but as a historian I confess I often have my doubts about that. Sometimes it checks out, though. I was somewhat surprised to find that he is not the only person who attributes the invention of sauerbraten to Charlemagne, for example, though it has also been attributed to Julius Caesar and St. Albertus Magnus so there is that. But Herter is never shy about expressing opinions ranging from admiring to confusing to downright dyspeptic about these people, and you never really know how much to credit him after slogging through all that.

Biographies over (or skipped), Herter then declares that the current version of whatever he is about to discuss is completely inferior, barely deserving of the name, with the original recipe lost in the depths of time. He often notes that things were better Then, though Then is a fairly elastic period.

At this point he will proudly declare that he and he alone has the original recipe (quite possibly in Charlemagne’s actual handwriting) and he will dispense that wisdom now.

“This is fine eating,” he will wrap up. “Everyone likes this, even people who don’t like this.”

Sometimes he will also state, with the absolute certainty of someone to whom doubt is a stranger, that you can also find a True and Good version of this recipe at a local restaurant in Minnesota, a center of fine dining and a gastronomic beacon to the rest of the benighted world. “Wire ahead to make sure they have the ingredients!” he helpfully advises.

As I have gone through this section I have made a few discoveries, to wit:

1. According to the recipe for Gethsemane Beef, the Last Supper was likely a form of mutton stew that George has greatly improved by substituting beef for mutton because mutton might have been good enough for the Savior but it is not good enough for George. The recipe had a surprising variety of spices for the day, including cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, garlic, bay leaves, and black pepper.

2. Jefferson Davis discovered the best way to cook chicken, a process which involved holding down a pot lid with two cast iron bars though you in the modern age can get the same results with a pressure cooker. George was a great fan of the South and always refers to the 1861-1865 conflict as the War Between the States, a phrasing designed to give the Confederacy a respectability it does not deserve. Along these lines, George insists that General Stonewall Jackson was an exceptional cook.

3. “Chicken can only be fried in butter.” Away with your inferior oils, fats, and substitutes.

4. The only place in the United States where you can get properly done Chicken Kiev (which should be called “Chicken Supreme,” says George, though what could you do in those degenerate times when Kyiv was spelled the Russian way?) is the Café Exceptionale in Minneapolis. Unfortunately the Café Exceptionale closed in 1982 so we will just have to take George’s word for it.

5. Catherine de Medici “invented women’s panties so that she could ride a horse with her skirts up high showing off her beautiful legs. Up until this time women wore no panties of any kind.” How George found this out he does not say nor am I all that sure I wish to know.

6. Mongolia and Tibet “were the first lands out of the sea when the earth was formed.” This bit of geographical information precedes several paragraphs on the history of Chinese food in general and in America (George is not a fan of chop suey, which he correctly identifies as an American dish which – credit where due – put him ahead of a great many Americans of his day) before segueing into Genghis Khan’s recipe for duck. Presumably whoever taught this recipe to the Great Khan was then murdered so it would not fall into the hands of others, though how George ended up with it is therefore something of a mystery.

7. Paris was once a “fabulous town” very much like New Orleans, but seems to have fallen on hard times. Given that George is writing in 1960, only a decade and a half after World War II, this could perhaps be excused as part of the general rebuilding.

8. Among other recipes in this section are fried robins (a recipe he claims to have adapted from Thomas Aquinas, of all people), Swedish muskrat, and prairie dogs as prepared by the Old West gunslinger Bat Masterson who rates an exceptionally long and sympathetic biography here. Also, the original chili con carne had beans, so chew on that, Texas.

9. Oddly enough George seems to hold Native Americans, the Spanish, and Asians in general in very high esteem. He is not a great fan of Philadelphia, however, and in particular does not like Old Original Bookbinders, a seafood restaurant that I once went to with Kim and found perfectly fine. This might be due to the oysters. “Here oysters are opened by laying them on a wooden bar. This is not the way to do it, you need a heavy strip of curved lead about four inches to hold an oyster while you open it. They should send someone down to New Orleans to learn how it is really done.”

10. “French and German foods make an ideal combination just like French and German marriages.” This bit of sociology is found smack in the middle of a recipe for sauerbraten.

11. Squirrels are good eating, particularly when prepared in the Belgian style and served with gravy. “Squirrel meat is far superior to venison or moose and you do not tire of it as easily as you do with such meats when you have it for a more or less steady diet.”

12. Butchers are a devious and untrustworthy lot. “It is sad but very true that most butchers, when they see a deer carcass with really fine meat, often give it to a special friend of theirs or keep it for themselves, and give you the meat of a deer which is not so good. Then again, if the butcher is not your friend he more than likely will take off several sirloin steaks and a rib roast or two from your deer carcass for himself figuring you will never know the difference. … The same butcher who would return your wallet if you lost it and he found it will think nothing of taking your best sirloins and rib roasts.”

And my personal favorite from this bit of reading:

13. “Johannes Kepler was a well-known German astrologer. He was born in 1571 and died in 1630. His work on astronomy has long since been forgotten but his creating liverwurst will never be forgotten.”

Leaving aside the fact that George seems to recognize no particular distinction between astrology and astronomy (although in George’s defense neither did Kepler), the sheer unwarranted confidence of this pronouncement is absolutely breathtaking.

Up next: Fish.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns

After I made my last post I decided to see if Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter, the cookbook that Bill Saunders gave to my grandfather on the day I was born, was actually valuable or not.

No, it turns out.

You can get original copies of it on eBay for about $30, and new reprints on Amazon for about half that. So I’m not going to retire on my rare book collection anytime soon.

Also, I discovered that this was actually volume one of what eventually became a three-volume set. I cannot imagine that anyone would actually write three volumes of this particular cookbook, let alone anyone else actually buying three volumes of this particular cookbook, but it turns out I was wrong about that too. It’s apparently a cult classic. Esquire Magazine described it as “the manliest cookbook ever written.” The New York Times, in a bid for simplicity, just called it “unhinged.”

Honestly, the fact that it’s still being reprinted should have tipped me off regarding its current value.

As I had just come to the end of a book I was reading (Debbie Harry’s fascinating memoir, Face It), I decided that perhaps it was time for me to read this book.

One the one hand, this is not as far-fetched as it seems. It’s not a standard cookbook. Everything is in paragraphs rather than lists, and most of the words in it are not really directed at the recipes per se. It’s the original recipe blog, where you have to work your way through pages of stories, opinions, random asides and general trivia before you actually get to any practical advice on how to prepare food, so the idea of reading it straight through is not in itself unreasonable.

On the other hand, well.

I am all of 23 pages into this book so far, and let me tell you it has been a wild ride.

By all accounts the text was written almost entirely by George, with his wife Berthe’s name on the cover primarily to maintain marital bliss – a difficult task for a man who subsequently published a book entitled How to Live With a Bitch, which then went into a second edition that contained the (very good and no doubt hard earned) advice, “Under no circumstance should you call your wife a bitch.” But this kind of experienced caution when it came to expressing his opinions did not occur to George until well after Bull Cook was published and sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but this is clearly the work of a guy whose confidence in his own views far outstripped any rational justification for it. The man was a walking Dunning-Kruger diagnosis who likely would have had a successful career in politics in the 21st century and we should all be grateful for simpler times when such people would vent their fury in cultural pursuits instead.

He lets you know this right from the start. On page 5, which is the first page of the book for some reason (he does not tell you what happened to the other four pages and it is probably not wise to ask), Herter lays out the plan for his book.

“For your convenience,” he helpfully begins, “I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Because when confronted by a list that includes both soups and civil defense, alphabetization is of course the key concern for all discerning readers. It should be noted that the extensive index in the back of the book is not, in fact, alphabetized but is instead simply a detailed table of contents with items listed in the order in which they appear in the text.

So far in the 23 pages I have read since that bombshell (HA! I kill me…) paragraph, I have learned the following things:

1. The corned beef you think of as corned beef is not actually corned beef at all but an inferior South American substitute that got switched in during the food shortages of World War I and given to American troops in Europe. The original has never reappeared, though George is here to teach you how to fix that.

2. One should never use charcoal in grilling meat. Charcoal absorbs toxic gases – that’s why they use it in gas masks – so instead you should use “hard coal.” I’m going to assume he means anthracite, but I suppose bituminous would also be harder than charcoal so perhaps it could be either. All the best restaurants in Minnesota grill their meats this way, apparently. George does not discuss HVAC systems, so one must take that as read.

3. Napoleon’s cook, a man identified only as “Signor Quallioti,” invented chow-chow mustard pickles. These, in combination with “Roquefort Stuffed Chopped Beef” (essentially a blue-cheese-stuffed hamburger invented by Napoleon's second wife, the Austrian princess Maria Luisa, which does raise the question of how precisely princesses were educated in the Hapsburg court) and fries, were Napoleon’s favorite meal. “When he was a prisoner on St. Helena Island he requested that he would be served this menu at least once a week. His request was never granted. I have always thought this was carrying punishment way too far,” George complained.

4. Palm Springs is a terrible place, mostly because it is full of Hollywood types. Fortunately, said George writing in 1960, “Hollywood, thank goodness, is dead. Television has at least done incalculable good in destroying this evil group.”

(Did I mention this was a cookbook? It is definitely labeled as a cookbook.)

5. The best hamburgers were invented by Francois Rene Viscount de Chateaubriand, who was born in 1768 and “grew up to be just a fair author but an excellent eater.” You make them with a pound each of ground beef and ground pork liver, though George – the original Karen – notes that “You may have trouble getting your butcher to grind the pork liver for you, as they do not like to run pork liver through their grinders. They have to wash out the grinder afterwards so other meat that they grind will not have a tinge of liver taste. If he refuses to do it for you, just tell him that you will take your business to someone who will, and you will have no difficulty with him.” The recipe also calls for two cups of rolled oats.

6. George is a great fan of tripe, though only when done to his specifications. “In some parts of the Southwest tripe is served with hominy,” he warns. “Hominy is certainly good food but should never be used in menudo. Eating hominy in menudo is like shaking hands with an empty glove.”

7. Henry VIII of England is, George feels, best remembered for his love of organ meats, which is not a euphemism for anything at all. “Henry VIII actually never amounted anything and would not have made a good ditch digger,” he says. “The only thing that he ever did do to his credit was to highly endorse the kidneys made by Elizabeth Grant, one of his many cooks.” So to all you Anglicans and Episcopalians out there, well, sucks to be you.

I’m not even going to go into his description of sex life of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, which for some reason is extensively described in the introduction to a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, other than to say that the phrase “praying mantis” kept running through my head while reading it.

Please note: I am less than 8% of the way through this book. He’s just warming up.

Buckle up, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

What Ya Got Cookin?

I’ve spent the last few days looking for a cookbook that I’d last seen in early January. I knew it had to be around here somewhere, but that covers a lot of hiding places when you get right down to it. It’s very easy for a book to get lost in my office, for example, there being a lot of such things there.

I found it last night. It was right where it should have been. I just didn’t see it the first three times I checked there. In my defense it’s kind of a dark corner for a book with a dark cover.

I’m not really sure why I was looking for it other than it has some sentimental value and I’d rather it not be lost.

The book’s full title is Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter of Herter’s, Waseca, Minnesota. It was first published in 1960 and it is a very strange book indeed.

For one thing, it reads like the original recipe blog. There are no lists or step by step instructions. Instead on every page there are headers with the name of a recipe, followed by full paragraphs of text covering the history of the recipe, some of which go back to the medieval period, the ingredients and how to obtain and prepare them (there's a section on how to clean and gut a turtle, among other things), and eventually how to put them all together into a dish. It also has a surprising number of halftone black and white photographs, some of which are there to help you see what you have to do and some of which are there mostly for scenery.

The recipe for Oysters a la Rockefeller, for example, takes four full pages of text, much of which describes the history of Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans (a place where Kim and I have actually eaten, and let me tell you the décor hasn't changed) as well as several photos of Antoine’s in particular and New Orleans in general and more than a few editorial comments about Antoine’s, oysters as a dish across the board, and John D. Rockefeller. I assume that if you follow the steps that are, eventually, outlined in the recipe you will end up with a tasty version of Oysters a la Rockefeller, but I will not do that because in my sad experience oysters are just salty snot bombs best left to others who prefer that sort of thing. More for you, dear oyster lover! More for you.

The book was was a gift to my grandfather from a guy named Bill Saunders, about whom I know absolutely nothing other than this fact. Bill inscribed it jovially to my grandfather and then listed the place where he gave him this book – Madison, Wisconsin – and the date, which is exactly the day I was born.

So I know where he was on that day. He was a long way from Philadelphia.

My grandfather was not a cook. He left that to my grandmother, and he took care of other things that needed doing. I have no idea whether any of these recipes ever made it into their kitchen.

I am very tempted to find one to try, though.

Today would have been my grandparents’ 84th anniversary. They’re long gone now, of course, as are so many other people who would have appreciated this story. But it is important to tell the old stories, because otherwise they get forgotten and that is when people are truly no longer with us.

Happy anniversary, Nana and Pop!

Thursday, February 16, 2023

News and Updates

1. It snowed all day today. It’s still snowing. Everything was canceled and I stayed home with my tea and Kim and Oliver and it was in fact a good day. There was too much grading, and if Webex ever functions correctly on the first try it will surprise me no end, but even so – a good day.

2. People who don’t understand clearing 6 inches (15cm) of snow before the storm is finished have never cleared 12 inches (30cm) of snow after the storm is finished.

3. This was a most welcome break in a week that felt like I was swimming through syrup for most of it. I’m not sure how value-added I was at work, but I did give it my best and that has to count for something.

4. If you want trivia, go to the source. On Saturday I joined my usual team for the Local Businessman High School trivia fundraiser event – the first one I’ve attended since 2020, just weeks before the world caught fire – and we won handily over 27 other teams. This is what happens when you have a crew that includes at least three teachers and two librarians on it, plus three others who do this sort of thing regularly.

5. We also went up to join Lauren and Maxim for their regular Monday night trivia game. They named the team “The Eagles Were Robbed,” which I appreciated. We had Kim, Oliver, Chase, Daniel, Isaac, Isaac’s dad, and Isaac’s coworker who told me her name and was a perfectly lovely person to talk with but that information is now lost along with so, so much else, and again we won handily, this time over 14 other teams. We are the greatest of the least! Rah, us!

6. I’m not sure why fans of teams who watched the Super Bowl from their living rooms are still getting after the Eagles for coming within two minutes and a questionable call of possibly winning the game, but you know. Folks. Whatever gets you through the long cold off season, I guess.

7. We have a pile of snack food left over from that game. I suppose we’re all just getting older and less interested in junk, which is good. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have a pile of snack food left over from that game. We’ll work on it, and eventually whatever we don’t get to will go to the chickens and get converted into eggs, and thus the circle of life is unbroken.

8. I keep thinking I’ll make some comment on the current headlines – any of them, all of them – but every time I do it just devolves into vitriol and snark and frankly I don’t need that right now. Just take it as read.

9. There is a lull in my Committee’s work right now so I’m trying to make appearances at events for the other similar Committees down at Home Campus, on the theory that a) they might do so for ours, and b) sometimes you just need people to paper the house. I have a warm body still drawing breath. I can do that.

10. We covered the 19th-century industrial working class yesterday in my remote course, and it always seems to come as a surprise to students what the actual conditions of life were for them. We take so much for granted these days, despite the feverish activity of those who would return us to that state.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Thoughts on the Super Bowl

It seems to be Philadelphia’s time to be in second place in the sports world.

The Phillies made it to the World Series last fall and didn’t win. They gave it a good shot against a heavily favored team that was probably not cheating this time, but it didn’t work out for them.

The Union lost the Major League Soccer championship game the same day that the Phillies lost the Series. On penalty shots, which is just the worst way to decide anything sports related. Play until someone scores, for crying out loud. Even the NHL, which has instituted penalty shot finales for regular season ties, knows to let them play to the end once the regular season is over.

And last night the Eagles lost in the Super Bowl.

We had a good crowd here to see it – me, Kim, and Oliver representing the people currently living here; Lauren, Maxim, Isaac, and Chase coming back from Main Campus University to join us. There was a pile of food that was moderately nonlethal in small amounts and tasty in any quantity. We’d signed up for a temporary account with the broadcaster so we could actually watch the game. We were set for a festive evening.

It was, it has to be said, a great game – pretty much exactly the game you would want in a meeting between the two best teams in the sport. There was a lot of offense. Surprisingly little defense. A few big plays, most of which went against the Birds, unfortunately. And with two minutes to go the score was tied.

That’s when the referees took over.

You can’t call a ticky-tack penalty – a borderline holding penalty on an uncatchable pass – to decide a championship after a game like that. You just can’t. It cheapened the whole thing and rendered the rest of the game irrelevant.

Without that penalty the Eagles get the ball back down three with a minute and a half to go and two time outs, and then we find out who really wins this game.

For all I know it still would have been the Chiefs. The Eagles owned the first half by a wide margin but the Chiefs owned the second half and by that point everyone was tired. It’s possible that Eagles might still have pulled it out. The odds were against them, but the odds have been against the Eagles from the moment they were founded and it’s not like the Kansas City defense had been all that stellar either. It was an offense-heavy game. It would have gone to the last play, no doubt.

I have no idea who would have won. But it would have been decided by the players and not the refs, and that has to count for something.

Bad calls are part of the game, though, and that’s just how it goes.

I will be glad that the Eagles made it that far, that they put up a hell of a fight, that they nearly won anyway, that they look like they’ll be good for a while and fun to watch.

It was a good year for them.

It’s been a good year to be a Philadelphia sports fan in general.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Joyous Photos

For the last week or so I ended up playing along with another one of those Facebook memes that still come down the pike now and then, and it was a good time. That’s why those memes were popular in the first place, before they became data mining exercises. At this point I figure my data has been mined, so I might as well have a bit of fun.

The meme asks people to post ten photographs that bring you joy, on the theory that we could all use a bit of joy these days. My friend Jenny tagged me for it, which was nice of her. You’re supposed to tag someone else each time you post a photo though I tend not to do that. I offered to tag people if they wanted me to do so instead, and one friend took me up on that. So I have done my bit to spread the meme.

You’re also not supposed to explain the photos – just post them and let people make of them what they will. I did that on Facebook, but the whole point of photos is that they tell stores so I figured I’d expand on that here. It’s my blog, after all.

I’d done a similar sort of challenge a few years ago, so the one limiting criteria I imposed on myself was that I wouldn’t choose any photo older than 2018. I’m not sure why I chose that particular date, but it seemed logical at the time and it cut down on the searching through old photos, the repetition of posting, and the generally overwhelming amount of options that I might have otherwise had. There is a certain freedom in limits that often gets overlooked by the “you can’t tell me what to do” crowd until they grow up a bit, after all.

There were certain themes that emerged from these photographs.

For one thing, they were of people. Every single one of them. For all that I enjoy material things when I have them, the fact is that what brings me joy are the people in my life. All of these pictures are family and friends. Even so, a lot of people whose presence in my life objectively brings me joy don’t appear here. What can I say? I’m a fortunate soul to have so many friends and family to choose from that I can’t fit them all into a meme.

For another, a surprising number of these photos involve those people sitting around a meal, even if that meal is not visible in the photo.

Joy is a matter of good food and good people, I suppose.

Many of these have already appeared in other posts here, but that’s just how things go. Here they are again, in the order in which they appeared in the meme.

This is quite possibly my favorite photograph from when Kim and I went to Italy last year. We were at the Vatican Museum – perhaps the most overwhelming collection of art and artifacts on earth – and I just love how the statue is peering over us. This was our much delayed 25th anniversary trip, a visit to one of the countries of my ancestry and a celebration of a life spent together, and we had a lovely time of it. Someday we’ll go back.

This one is of Oliver and my mom at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, a few months before my mom passed away. We wanted to get her out of the house a bit and she always liked Longwood Gardens. Kim discovered that they will lend you a wheelchair if you need one, so off we went. Oliver did a lot of the pushing, and it was nice to see them together like that. It’s a peaceful photo of a quiet moment.

This was Father’s Day last year. What can I say? I love my kids. And I’m always happy that they want to spend time with me.

I cheated a bit and posted two photos for this one, but they do have a theme. Both Lauren and Oliver graduated from their schools in the last couple of years – Lauren from Local Businessman High School in 2021 and Oliver from Small Liberal Arts College last year – and I am immensely proud of them, for this and for other reasons. They did well in those schools, they made friends, they learned more than just what was taught in their classes, and I got to share some of it with them along the way.

This is the most recent version of The Stair Picture, taken at my aunt and uncle’s house in 2019, just before the pandemic hit. It’s all of the first cousins (we’re not a big group) from youngest to oldest. We’ve been taking this picture since 1983, all of us lined up on one staircase or another in that order and more or less that pose. One of the things I have always been grateful for is that my family all gets along with each other and enjoys spending time together, and the continuity of that is found in this, the latest of a long series of Stair Pictures.

This was another slight bending of the rules, but again – my posts, so there you go. I never really thought I’d leave Philadelphia growing up, let alone have friends to visit in many different countries. In 2018 we went to Europe to see as many of them as we could. We couldn’t see them all, which is a high class problem to have, but there will be future visits. Our first stop was to see Fran – who lived with us as an exchange student and is now family – and her family in Belgium. These are her parents, Roeland and Veerle, and we’re at the B&B where we stayed, not far from their house. We’re still hoping to have them visit us, and perhaps now that the pandemic has become endemic we might make that happen. From there we went to our friends in Sweden. This is on Oja, a small island not that far from Stockholm, and we’re sharing a meal and a conversation. If you start at the bottom right and go clockwise there’s Lauren, Maria, Oliver, Kim, Sara, Helena, and Mats. We’ve been trading visits since before the kids were born – Kim met Mats when he was an exchange student at her high school back in the early 80s – and they were here last year. The last picture is in England – Cornwall, more accurately – not long after we made it out of an escape room there. Lauren is in front, and from left to right standing are Richard, Magnus, Ginny, Kim, Oliver, and me. Richard married Julia, one of my closest friends from high school, and we’ve been visiting ever since. Julia has passed away now, but we’re still here.

This is the Squad as they were in 2018. It’s Friendsgiving and they’ve all brought dishes to share. We made a turkey. I cannot tell you how much I love the fact that Lauren’s friends come over and hang out here with us. They’re lovely people and good to talk with, and most of them don’t bother knocking anymore because why would they? They know they’re welcome here.

This was this past summer, when my brother Keith and my niece Sara came out for a visit. Kim’s parents came down and we fired up the grill and had a grand time together. We enjoyed running around southern Wisconsin as well while they were here. There is a reason my brother was the best man at my wedding, after all. We are brothers in every sense of the word.

This was us over Christmas break. We decided that we’d just have brunch one day, and why not bring out the good china in the process? There’s no point in saving it – the special times are right here with the people you love. We had bacon and eggs and conversation and it was a good day, just the four of us.

There was also a meal in this picture even if you can’t see it. It was Thanksgiving last year and we were at Rory and Amy’s house, surrounded by relatives of many degrees and more good food than we could possibly eat. The glitter is courtesy of one of our nieces. It was a moment, and those you have to savor.

They were all moments like that when you get down to it, and one of the tricks in life is recognizing them when you’re still in the middle of them. Sometimes I succeed.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

News and Updates

1. Suddenly – BOOM! – winter. After a disturbingly mild January here in Baja Canada we now have eight inches (18cm or so) of snow on the ground, for long stretches the air temperature has not had a real square root even if you measure in Fahrenheit, and I have been forced to locate my boots. I am perfectly okay with this. You can always add clothing but the reverse is not necessarily true, particularly in the United States. I’ll take this over August any day.

2. I had my somewhat-longer-than-annual physical this week and was pleasantly surprised to discover that modern medicine has determined that The Glove is not terribly effective at maintaining the health of men my age. It was perhaps the least intrusive physical I have ever had, and I for one am all for it. I have a new doctor now since the old one retired, and at the end he asked if I wanted to tell him what he was going to tell me. “Sure,” I said. “Eat less. Move more. See you in a year.” And he just nodded.

3. Somehow I have ended up on a Committee down at Home Campus. I have studiously avoided such things in my time there, but eventually one’s ability to hide in plain sight comes to an end and suddenly there I am, exposed and nominated. I have no idea how one is supposed to accomplish the mission this Committee is tasked with completing, but I suppose I will find out. And then perhaps I will avoid further such entanglements for another 27 years, by which time I will be long past caring.

4. My remote US2 class has started up as well, but at least that’s fun. We went over the general course outline and I noted that we would be covering political issues, economic developments, cultural conflicts, social and demographic changes, and – because this is an actual history class and not an ideological exercise in coddling the comfortable – issues of race, because if you leave race out of American history what you get is propaganda, not history. This of course makes the class illegal in the state of Florida so I did feel obligated to ask my students not to log in if they go down there for spring break, as I don’t need that kind of aggravation.

5. No wonder Florida Man is the national punchline.

6. I try to pay attention to the news but it’s hard when half of Congress has been taken over by howler monkeys scratching their collective ass and shrieking at the moon. So far all they’ve done is launch conspiracy-addled investigations and set the stage for a global financial meltdown. Honestly, isn’t there anyone in the GOP – anyone at all – who understands what a debt ceiling is and why defaulting on the national debt is both unconstitutional and spectacularly stupid? Anyone? Hello? Is this thing on? Hello? I don’t think there’s anybody back there.

7. I cleared off my desk at home and found a wealth of pens. I don't know where they come from, but as an academic I’m used to these office supply manifestations. I think they breed back there, behind the computer. As long as they’re not scaring the horses, I suppose.

8. I am not sure why the Dallas Cowboys fan decided to come at me about my Eagles sweatshirt the other day but I asked how he thought they liked watching the most recent playoff game on their respective televisions and that seemed to suffice. Seriously, folks. I get that some people don’t like my team – lots of people don’t like the Eagles; we don’t care – but you can’t argue that your favorite team is better if mine is still playing and yours isn’t.

9. If all goes well, I there is a possibility that I may be teaching a class this fall that I haven’t taught in a while. It’s a class I’ve always enjoyed and I’d actually be in a classroom rather than online so I’m looking forward to it. There will be paperwork to get there, though.

10. Kyiv still stands, a thumb in the eye to Vladimir Putin and dictators everywhere. It’s been almost a year, and Kyiv still stands.