A Very Brief History of Viking Victuals

Though not always a smorgasbord, meals enjoyed by Norsemen sometimes offered a little taste of Valhalla
Though not always a smorgasbord, meals enjoyed by Norsemen sometimes offered a little taste of Valhalla It always surprised me that, though she hailed from a small island (little more than a rock, really) tucked away somewhere along Norway's bleak coastline, my grandmother didn't like Norwegian food. She had no truck with boiled cod. Nor did she like boiled carrots, boiled potatoes, or even boiled swedes. Reindeer meat was alien to her, elk meat revolting; and never once did I see her eating those wonderful pork and veal meatballs Scandinavians usually seem to relish. Only on Christmas Eve would she revert to type and prepare a great steaming pot of rice pudding doused in lingonberry syrup. This she ate with gusto. Otherwise her favorite meal consisted of a generous slice of Entenmann's cake, a cup of coffee and a Virginia… Read More...

Licensed to Ill

In America of yesteryear, you often had to be sick to eat well
In America of yesteryear, you often had to be sick to eat well You have to feed a flu and starve a cold, the saying goes. I've never been one to insist on such distinctions. When I get sick, I feed. Nothing makes my appetite go viral like a cold or flu. This otherwise unpleasant condition becomes for me a sort of camphor-scented Carnaval, a brief time when forbidden foods are not only permitted but altogether transfigured, acquiring healing powers unknown to me when well. Fever calls for a chocolate bar taken every two hours, a sore throat for a banana shake sipped as needed. The staunchest resistance mounted by stuffed sinuses melts when met with a buttery toddy. Apricot conserve eases the worst miseries of congestion. The medicinal properties of milk are well known, but they require vodka and… Read More...

Upper Crustacean

On how to claw your way to greater distinction
"A man of taste is seen at once in the array of his breakfast-table. Chocolate, coffee, tea, cream, eggs, ham, tongue, cold fowl, -- all these are good, and bespeak good knowledge in him who sets them forth: but the touchstone is fish; anchovy is the first step, prawns and shrimp the second; and I laud him who reaches even to these: potted chard and lampreys are the third, and a fine stretch of progression; but lobster is, indeed, matter for a May morning, and demands a rare combination of knowledge and virtue in him who sets it forth." --Thomas Love Peacock, Crotchet Castle (1823) Read More...

Preservation Society

Early Americans brought a "can do" attitude to the problem of food storage
Early Americans brought a "can do" attitude to the problem of food storage Once I've settled in a town, I make a point of visiting the local farmer's market. Only there may I get a sense of what's in season, as well as a sense of place -- no mean feat in a country littered with strip malls housing Trader Joe's, where kale and apples spring eternal. (more…) Read More...

Feeding Animosity

Hell is eating with other people
"To dine in company with more than two is a Gaulish and a German thing. I can hardly bring myself to believe that I have eaten in concert with twenty; so barbarous and herdlike a practice does it now appear to me: such an incentive to drink much and talk loosely; not to add, such a necessity to speak loud, which is clownish and odious in the extreme." --Walter Savage Landor, "Lucellus and Caesar" (1829) Read More...

The Inn Crowd

Bad food and lousy beds didn't keep early American taverns from turning a tidy profit
Bad food and lousy beds didn't keep early American taverns from turning a tidy profit Verminous hotels, lackluster eateries, dubious rest stops: the open road has its perils. I remember a night I spent in Clovis, New Mexico. I took a room in a thirty-dollar motel during a cross-country drive. From the freeway its sign, a bright green clover superimposed on a royal flush, had beckoned me. The tiny room smelled the same as the town -- like cow flop. White-line hypnosis blinded me to the stains on its carpet, the holes in its walls. On a creaky twin bed I fell into black sleep. Not long after I awoke to tremendous itching. I flung back the covers. Fleas were biting me all over my body. I'd have no rest that night. After twenty minutes of fruitless pleading for a… Read More...

The Bread of Idleness

Since antiquity, it has paid to work for the government
"Tillers of the soil have few idle months; In the fifth month their toil is double-fold. A south-wind visits the fields at night: Suddenly the hill is covered with yellow corn. Wives and daughters shoulder baskets of rice; Youths and boys carry the flasks of wine. Following after they bring a wage of meat To the strong reapers toiling on the southern hill, Whose feet are burned by the hot earth they tread, Whose backs are scorched by flames of the shining sky. Tired they toil, caring nothing for the heat, Grudging the shortness of the long summer day. A poor woman follows at the reapers' side With an infant child carried close at her breast. With her right hand she gleans the fallen grain; On her left arm a broken basket hangs. And I to-day … by virtue of… Read More...

Simplicity, Voluntary or Otherwise

In colonial America, something as simple as a bed or spoon divided the haves from the have-nots
In colonial America, something as simple as a bed or spoon divided the haves from the have-nots I will soon pick up stakes for a new home some 2,000 miles away. In preparing for what will be my third cross-country move in eight years, I've spent the last few weeks sifting through my effects, playing "eeny meeny miny moe" with everything from rhetoric guides to Römertopfs. The losers I haul off to Goodwill, the place where in many cases I found them. It's a lot of work, this constant getting and giving away. I find myself dreaming of nonattachment, of living like a Zen monk, with nothing to my name but a bowl and a grass mat. (more…) Read More...

Quiet in the Kitchen

Illustration from A Book About Travelling, Past and Present (1877) I’m in the midst of preparing for a cross-country move that I have to make…
I'm in the midst of preparing for a cross-country move that I have to make soon, so The Austerity Kitchen will be a little quiet. I'll continue to post tidbits and vignettes when I have the chance. Once I get settled, it will be back to business as usual. Read More...

An Embarrassment of Citrus

"A great liquid bite ... covers the lower part of his face with pip and drip"
"Enter an unreflecting young gentleman who has bought an orange and must eat it immediately. He accordingly begins by peeling it, and is first made aware of the delicacy of his position by the gigglement of the two young ladies, and his doubt where he shall throw the peel. 'He is in for it,' however, and must proceed; so being unable to divide the orange into its segments, he ventures upon a great liquid bite, which ... covers the lower part of his face with pip and drip. The young lady with the ringlets is right before him. The two other young ladies stuff their handkerchiefs into their mouths, and he into his own mouth the rest of the fruit, 'sloshy' and too big, with desperation in his heart, and the tears in his eyes." --Leigh Hunt, "The Inside of… Read More...

The Benevolence of the Butcher

Dressing meat and stuffing sausage meant being a cut above the rest
Dressing meat and stuffing sausage meant being a cut above the rest A schoolmaster's kindness spared Henry Mayhew from a night spent under the stars. The 19th-century British journalist had been traveling through Germany in search of "principal Lutheran localities," as he put it, and found himself in the Thuringian town of Möhra, ancestral home of that confession's founder. Road-weary and famished, Mayhew arrived at the town's lone inn only to learn that traveling bookbinders and visiting land surveyors had claimed all beds. His search for lodgings led him to the schoolmaster, who might have a room to let. (more…) Read More...

Fair Prices and Fowl

Quœ virtus et quant, boni, sit vivere parvo
"The stomach's angry roar with bread and salt. Whence can this rise, you ask, from whence the fault? In you consists the pleasure of the treat, Not in the price, or flavour of the meat. Let exercise give relish to the dish, Since not the various luxuries of fish. Nor foreign wild fowl can delight the pale, Surfeit-swoln guest; yet I shall ne'er prevail To make our men of taste a pullet choose. And the gay peacock with its train refuse; For the rare bird at mighty price is sold; And, lo! what wonders from its tail unfold! But can these whims a higher gusto raise. Unless you eat the plumage that you praise?" --Horace, Satires Read More...

Bleak House

Bringing the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people meant bringing greater misery to the already wretched
Bringing the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people meant bringing greater misery to the already wretched The indignities suffered by Joseph Merrick, who would later become known as the Elephant Man, were great and many, thanks to a rare affliction that left him bent, hobbled and covered with tumors and bony growths. Unfit for most work, the small jobs he did find came so seldom and paid so little that he could not support himself. His father nevertheless drove him from the family home into the streets of Leicester, where he wandered until he found the workhouse, the city's sole refuge. Behind its tall gray walls he lived for five years, his fellow residents the elderly, orphaned, destitute and infirm. (more…) Read More...

Peccaminous Peckishness

Sailing from the Tropic of Cancer to the Delta of Venus shouldn't be done on an empty stomach
"A full spirit creates an appetite throughout all parts and members of the body.... I would have relished anything at that moment which was rich, succulent and savory. Sinful food, that was what I craved. Sinful food and wines that were aphrodisiac." --Henry Miller, Plexus (1953) Read More...

Diner Forty Niner

There may have been gold in "them thar hills," but there wasn't much to eat
There may have been gold in "them thar hills," but there wasn't much to eat Lewis Manly wanted nothing more than to be back at the dinner table in his father's Michigan home, a heaping plate of beans and bread before him. It was the winter of 1849. For weeks he had been traveling through the Great Basin Desert, "the most wonderful picture of grand desolation one could ever see," as he later described it. He had run out of food and water, and was lost besides. He could see nothing but salt-encrusted flats and low, black mountain ranges for miles around. Alkali dust filled the air. "Here was I," he lamented, "away out in the center of the Great American Desert, with an empty stomach and a dry and parched throat, and clothes fast wearing out... It was a… Read More...