I was worrying a bit more about things we eat and drink this week and, of course, once again turned to the Interwebs for answers. I was about as successful as I am with anything on that fickle ocean, but I did pick up a few vague answers to go with my vague questions. (The illustrations are merely food-related postcards that were sitting around, and have nothing to do with the text, a policy one or two readers have wished they had followed.)
The online experts divide easily into three groups when one asks why menus across the nation suddenly picked up Sweet Potato Fries. One group traces this fashion to some point in the early 1990s, but no one knows where it began or why. The second group goes all ethnic and points out the long tradition of frying sweet potatoes in Guinea, as if they don’t understand that once humans learned about frying, nothing weas safe, and of course, sweet potatoes were as likely to wind up in the hot fat as anything else. The third group just says “Ooooh, sweet potato fries! How healthy!”
And no, I am not going to be lured into any discussions of frying vs. pan-broiling, the merits of air-friers, or the question of deep-frying Twinkies, ice cream, Snickers bars, or anything else.
I had a colleague who, in becoming an expert on the question “How did Midwestern Cooking get so bad?” tried to get at the origin of Snickers Salad. She came out pretty much where she went in. The Midwest is not unique in its ability to mix ingredients in either mayonnaise or whipped cream (or a combination of the two) and calling it a salad, but we are renowned for it. She found out that the concoction known as Snickers Salad not only has no agreed-upon inventor, but also no agreed-upon recipe. Apparently any salad you chunk candy bars into can be called Snickers Salad, and the police will do nothing about this.
Cedar-Planked Salmon, however, can be traced to the Pacific Northwest, where cooking salmon on a cedar plank (well-soaked) is said to come from the traditions of the natives of that region, who found that this imparted certain flavors of the cedar to the salmon./ Those of you who would not consider this a blessing have apparently never tried it, though my father suggested to me one that anything which might keep salmon from tasting like salmon HAD to be a good idea.
Moving back to the Midwest, I know a person who grew up outside this tradition who was stunned on visiting her first large Midwestern potluck dinner not by the number and variety of casseroles, but by the even larger number of what she called Congealed Salads. Yes, I told her, putting things like orange sherbet and/or shredded carrots in Jell-O is a great American tradition. My colleague who researched Midwestern cuisine blamed this on this rise of Home Economics Departments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These, she said, were largely sponsored by food companies, which would pay the graduates of such courses to come up with dozens of ways to use Jell-O, Cream of Mushroom Soup, and/or canned vegetables in new and interesting ways.. This sort of thing has never died away, she said, but saw its crowning achievement in the hors d’oeuvres and party salads celebrated in cookbooks of the fifties and Sixties, where lime -flavored gelatin, cream of celery soup, and canned sausages were forced to do things in public that would have made our Pilgrim ancestors shudder. She also noted with a shudder what she called Ethnic Stereotype cooking, in which adding pimiento to any dish made it Italian, a quarter teaspoon of chili powder made it Mexican, and canned pineapple made it Polynesian.
I am out of space, and haven’t even begun to consider Roasted Beet Salad, Applewood Smoked Bacon, and sunny-side up eggs on pizza. But we can tantalize our appetites with those in some other blog someday. (Hey, did I tell you about the time I tried to track down my mother’s recipe for macaroni and cheese, and found out…okay, next time.)