A Brief History of the Western Sandwich

When I was sixteen years old I got my first “big” job working at a place called the Simsbury Pharmacy in Simsbury, Connecticut. It was one of those old fashioned drug stores with a lunch counter and a soda fountain. I was hired to be their new waitress and short-order cook. Under the tutelage of a scary woman named Betty and her side-kick Dottie, I was trained to fry hamburgers, make sandwiches, pour coffee without spilling a drop, and make a real root beer float. Since I was hired as the “closing girl”, I spent most of my evening shift mopping the floors, cleaning the grease trap and scouring the grill. But we had a few evening customers who required food and coffee, so I was able to hone my cooking skills, practice my pancake-flipping and create monstrous ice cream sundaes in the privacy of my own little soda fountain world.

My favorite menu item at the Simsbury Pharmacy was their Western sandwich. A Western, or called a Denver by some who say it originated in Denver, Colorado, is simply a scrambled egg, with green peppers, onions, and chopped ham. All the ingredients are tossed into a bowl, scrambled with a fork, and then poured onto a lightly greased griddle. While you are cooking the egg mixture, you must scrape it as best you can into a square shape the size of your bread. While the Western is on the griddle, toast 2-pieces of white bread, and butter them well. I like to place a piece of Swiss cheese on the egg mixture right before taking it off the griddle, although this is not traditional and is frowned upon by Western Sandwich purists. When the eggs are done, place them between the two slices of buttered toast, cut in half, and there is your perfect Western sandwich. To complete the meal, serve with hot coffee, and maybe a slice of apple pie for dessert.

According to The American Century Cookbook, pioneers invented the Western sandwich. The book notes that it was common for eggs to begin to spoil after a long haul over hot trails. In order to salvage them and mask their bad flavor, the book says pioneer women mixed eggs with onions and any other seasonings on hand and thus was the beginning of the Western sandwich. You can find versions of the Western sandwich at diners around the country, but because people are into more glamorous and complex dishes, they are usually served as giant omelets with toast on the side. But a real Western sandwich is not a gastronomic explosion; it’s a small portion, a satisfying treat, great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

I visited the Simsbury Pharmacy last summer and found it hadn’t changed as much as I thought, although naturally the soda fountain and lunch counter were gone, replaced by an enormous reach-in beverage refrigerator. But the business still had that old fashioned, small town charm. I chatted with the present owner, who shared some of his memories of the old time lunch counter. Little did I know when I took that job back in 1973 that I would someday open my own lunch establishment and catering business, based on many of the skills I learned from my first, real job.

These days, when I’m hankering for some comfort food, reminiscent of simpler times, I cook up a Western sandwich just for me, served with a piping hot cup of coffee. And it still tastes just as good as I remembered it, so many years ago.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

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A Brief History of Chicken Soup

My former husband Byard and I have disagreed about a multitude of things over the past thirty something years we have known each other, but none so vehemently as the proper way to prepare chicken soup. My mother’s recipe required simmering the chicken and vegetables in seasoned water to make a stock, then removing everything from the pot, skimming off the fat, clarifying the broth, and then cooking thin egg noodles in a separate pot. She would then place some noodles, vegetables and meat in each bowl, and pour the broth over all. In this manner, she would not compromise the integrity of the broth, which should be as clear as you can possibly make it. I use a technique where I put some lightly beaten egg whites and crumbled egg shells into the broth after I’ve strained out the other ingredients. I bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat, for about 10 minutes, and then strain it again through cheesecloth. The eggs and egg shells will be left behind, along with any impurities, and you will have the most crystal clear broth.

As a child, this was a delightful way to enjoy chicken soup. I could help myself to as many noodles as I wanted, then a couple of carrots, a bit of meat, then pour the simmering broth over all. But while I was growing up on clear chicken stock, my husband was diving into a big bowl of thick and creamy chicken, corn and noodle soup, prepared by his own mother, Rose, and yes, this was how her own mother, Gran Thomas, showed her how to make chicken soup.

Rose altered the original chicken, corn and noodle soup recipe, however, by using store bought egg noodles instead of the homemade “rivells” that her mother added to the soup. Rivells are a Pennsylvania Dutch invention, and they’re kind of like tiny dumplings. Gran Thomas would mix eggs with flour, and then rub the mixture between her hands so little pieces of dough would drop into the soup. Rose exclaimed that she grew to hate those rivells, though, so she added extra wide egg noodles instead, and her chicken, corn and noodle soup became their family tradition.

Chicken soup has acquired the reputation of a being folk remedy for colds and other ailments, and in many countries is considered a comfort food, just like here in the United States. In fact, chicken soup has been around so long that it’s impossible to even document who made the first chicken soup. But you can find versions of this beloved dish in nearly every country, continent, and cookbook.

Both my mother’s chicken soup and Rose’s chicken soup are actually quite good, but I refused to make my husband’s family soup for years, based on some stupid principle that I would be disloyal to my own family traditions. Plus, I really liked my mother’s chicken soup – that clear, salty broth and yummy, skinny noodles. Hogwash, I realize now, as I love Rose’s soup just as well. So, on a recent rainy day, I decided to make a pot of chicken, corn and noodle soup, just as Rose prepares it, for a special luncheon I was hosting. In just a few minutes my guests ate every bite, even going into my kitchen to scrape up the dregs from the pot. Obviously everyone loved it, and I can now put the chicken soup wars to rest, at last.

I do love my mother’s chicken soup, though, as it has cured numerous aches, pains, colds, flus, and even a couple a broken hearts throughout the years. But as I sat down to a bowl of Rose’s chicken, corn and noodle soup, I found it warmed my heart, and brought me comfort on a chilly winter afternoon.

 

Music credit: “Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version)” by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo credit: “chicken soup” by stu_spivack is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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A Brief History of Chocolate

The first time I received chocolates for Valentine’s Day was when I was 7 years old. A boy in my class presented me with a tiny, heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates, bought from the local drug store. I was instantly smitten, and would go on to judge all my future boyfriends by the chocolates they gave me. Some women require jewelry and romantic candlelight dinners, but give me a box of chocolate truffles and I will be yours for life.

Chocolate has been used for medicine, ritual, and for pleasure for over 4000 years – it’s no wonder we all have a special place in our hearts for this heavenly foodstuff. But where does chocolate actually come from? Well, the cocoa beans that form the basis of chocolate are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, which grows near the Equator. The seeds grow inside a pod-like fruit and are covered with white pulp. To make chocolate, cocoa farmers crack open the pods, scoop out the seeds, ferment and dry them, then ship the beans elsewhere, where they are roasted, ground, and mixed with sugar and various ingredients to make chocolate.

I’ve never figured precisely why chocolates and Valentine’s Day go hand-in-hand, until a pastry chef explained that it has to do with decadence, and some sort of chemical that makes our brain happy when we eat chocolate. Combine a box of chocolates with a bottle of champagne and a plate of raw oysters (not necessarily in that order) and sparks are sure to fly.

When I was attending college in Connecticut, I once took a train all the way into New York City, just to buy a box of Godiva chocolates. Godivas were considered the ultimate extravagance back in those days, and since I didn’t have a boyfriend then, at least I had good chocolates to eat on Valentine’s Day. But nowadays you can find a gourmet chocolatier in nearly every town, offering unique fillings and flavors.

So what’s my favorite chocolate recipe? Hands down it’s gotta be Maida Haetter’s Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies. Maida Haetter was the quintessential pastry chef of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and her chocolate dessert recipes are still the very best today. Her brownies are absolutely decadent, and take a ridiculous two and a half hours to prepare and bake, but worth every minute. The recipe calls for making a rich brownie batter, AND a chocolate cheesecake batter, and then layering them both in a pan before baking. The recipe makes 16 pretty good size brownies, and I assure you, that you will not want to share them.

The making of chocolate has evolved into an industry so large that 40 to 50 million people depend on cocoa for their livelihoods – and chocolate farmers produce 3.8 million tons of cocoa beans per year. That means every time you eat chocolate, you are helping small family farmers in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America make a good living for themselves and provide a better future for their children. That means I can eat all the chocolate I want, guiltless and carefree, this Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love about that?

 

(A portion of this essay appeared in Jacksonville Magazine in 2015)

Music credit: “Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version)” by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo credit: “Box of Chocolate” by Susanne Nilsson is used under CC BY-SA 2.0

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A Brief History of Joe Frogger Cookies

The first time I ate a Joe Frogger cookie it was a dream come true. Picture this: An eight year old girl handed a molasses cookie the size of a dinner plate, and a giant glass of milk to go with it. I bought this monstrous cookie on a school field trip to a living colonial museum, where pilgrim girls churned butter and blacksmiths shoed horses. I don’t remember much more about the trip because I was engaged in some major cookie eating.

I had never had a cookie like that before – it was super crunchy on the outside, a bit soft inside, and heavy as an iron skillet, perfect for milk-dipping. It would be years before I found out that it was called a Joe Frogger, and even more years before I found an authentic recipe for Joe Froggers on the Internet. The legend goes that this cookie, which was originally made with molasses and rum, came from a man named Joe Brown from Marblehead, Massachusetts. He was a free African American who owned a tavern in town with his wife, Lucretia. It’s said that Joe would use the cookies to trade for rum from sailors who came to town. A bit of rum was added to the cookies, and I’m certain that even more rum ended up in Joe Brown’s belly. Because the tavern was located next to a frog pond, locals named Brown Joe Frogger, hence the name of the famous cookie.

There is an alternative story to the Joe Frogger cookie however, where his wife Lucretia was the one who actually invented, and spent most of her life, making the cookies. She supposedly poured the batter into a cast iron skillet and the odd shapes that the cookies took on looked like frogs’ legs. I’m not sure how the rum played a part in that story, but something tells me that Joe Brown probably stood on the sidelines, sipping rum, watching his wife make cookies. Nevertheless, Joe and Lucretia Brown ran a successful business in Marblehead, and their cookies have won their place in the heart of colonial America, and beyond.

Joe Froggers are not the easiest cookie to make. I suggest you use a standing mixture with a paddle attachment, because the dough is extremely stiff and very hard to stir by hand. The other thing about the dough is that it’s quite sticky and needs to be refrigerated overnight. You may have to use quite a bit of flour for rolling and only roll a few cookies at a time because when the dough comes to room temperature it can be a mess to work with. A coffee can makes a good cookie cutter, or you can use a salad plate as a guide and cut around the edge with a sharp knife. But you can make them smaller, too.

For best results, bake your Joe Froggers on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and be sure to keep an eye on them as they bake. They should be just barely browned on the edges and still soft in the middle. You don’t want to over bake them because they become harder as they cool. But most people I know eat them dipped in milk or coffee anyway, so go ahead and bake them to your liking.

Joe Froggers will last forever in a cookie jar – they never get stale. And they’re a great surprise for a cookie-loving child – and I’m sure you must know at least one of those!

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

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A Brief History of Pizza

During the latter half of the 20th century, pizza in the United States became the divine dish of all Americans, and it still is today. Since the beginning of time, humans have cooked flatbreads on open fires, and then, bored with their lackluster flavor, added seasonings and toppings to make them more interesting. But the Italians claim that they created the first pizza, and who am I to argue with that, because look at all the other divine creations you’ll find in that country – the statue of David, the Sistine Chapel, and of course, The Pope. And you know that he must eat pizza, too. The question I want to ask the Pope, though is — does he eat cold pizza? Does he awake after a big night, and grab a slice from the fridge on the way to say mass at St. Peter’s Basilica? I’m certain he does.

Although we don’t know exactly where the first pizza came from, we do know that Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba in Naples, Italy is widely regarded as the world’s first pizzeria. Peasants had been adding tomatoes to their flatbreads for many years, and that is what was sold in open air markets. But in Campania, Italy, in 1889, Raffaele Esposito created what we know as pizza today, in his restaurant Pizzeria di Pietro, for the arriving Italian king and queen, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita. The two varieties he invented were the Marinara and the Margherita, considered to be the pizzas of purists, and the ONLY ones that most Italians will eat. Marinara is made with tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and olive oil. Margherita is topped with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes, the colors of the Italian flag.

ShanePizza
My nephew, Shane, eating his favorite White Clam Pizza from Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut.

We Americans, with our shameless and arrogant ways, added other toppings to pizza, and messed around with the original crust recipes. After all, why should we eat a pizza with tomatoes and cheese when we can have it our way, with sausage and peppers, mushrooms and pepperoni? Just for fun, I decided to ask members of my social network what kind of pizza they prefer, trying to get an idea of what is the most popular pizza in America. And out of a hundred responses, no two were the same.

Do you know what that means?? Like a mathematician who is certain to prove his postulate, I was left dumbfounded to discover that when it comes to pizza, there is no certainty. It’s as if, since we are all created as individuals, we are genetically and inherently wired to like different pizzas. That means that we could actually be identified by our own pizzas, like our individual, one-of-a-kind fingerprints. For instance, people could identify me as a white pizza, thin crust, extra crispy, with artichoke hearts and garlic. I could recognize my friend Arturo by his pineapple, ham, and jalapeño pizza, and my friend Ginger, by her Thai-inspired pizza, sporting a tangy peanut sauce, green onions, chicken, and slivered carrots. And even as our differences in pizza will set us apart, we are all drawn together for the love of pizza.

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ABC Pizza in Granby, Connecticut, hasn’t changed at all since it opened in the 1970s. A favorite local hangout.

There are many foods out there that all Americans enjoy – burgers, fries, mac and cheese, and spaghetti. But none that gets us through the good times and the tough times, like pizza does – late nights in the dorm, heartbreaking team defeats, the challenge of feeding a family of four on a tight budget. Pizza is always there for us, helping us define who we are.

This story originally appeared in Jacksonville Magazine in 2014.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

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A Brief History of Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff was the epicurean dish of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, I think it might have been the first gourmet dish my mother learned to make when she was first married. This dish was always the one that my siblings and I requested for our birthdays, and the meal that my mother served at her dinner parties. So how did this simple stew of beef and mushrooms become so popular?

Well, during World War II, beef was highly rationed, and folks living in that era would consider a rich, succulent all-beef stew to be an extravagance! So that’s why it became a dish that was only served for very special occasions, even long after the war had ended.

The original recipe for Beef Stroganoff dates back to Russia in the late 1800s, created by a chef who cooked this dish for his employer, Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov. The Count was considered a celebrity and a true connoisseur of food. But legend has it that the poor Count didn’t have any teeth and so his chef created this special dish so that his master would be able to eat it without any effort. The original dish contained beef, mushrooms, and sour cream, just like today’s, but many Russians argue that mushrooms were not traditional, and that our present Beef Stroganoff is really an Americanized version of the original. No matter, Beef Stroganoff was found on the menu of the famous Russian Tea Room in New York City in the 1930s, and in hundreds of other famous restaurants throughout the years.

Nowadays, Beef Stroganoff seems pretty pedestrian – I mean – it’s just a beef and mushroom stew served over wide egg noodles, right? But when you put all these simple ingredients together the correct way, it’s a luscious meal, perfect for any occasion. Here are a few suggestions to make your Beef Stroganoff come out perfect every time. First off, I suggest using boneless top sirloin steak for this dish, even though I’ve read a lot of recipes that call for beef tenderloin. I think the steak has much more flavor, and it’s certainly more economical than beef tenderloin. The steak should be cut thinly on the bias, into 2 inch strips – that way your guests should only need a fork to eat it. Although most recipes suggest cooking the beef and mushrooms together until the beef is tender, I like to cook the mushrooms separately by sautéing them in butter until they are golden brown. Then I add the mushrooms to the stew the last 15 minutes of cooking. The buttery mushrooms add a unique richness to the dish. The other key to success is to add the sour cream right before serving, stirring it in gently. Do not let the Stroganoff come to boil after you add the sour cream or the sauce will break, and it won’t look very pretty.

Because Beef Stroganoff is kind of a “vintage” food, I like to serve side dishes that reflect the era of the 1960s. That means maybe an iceberg lettuce salad with Good Seasons Salad Dressing (yes they still make that today!) and a side dish of Green Beans Almondine, flavored with butter, lemon juice, and toasted almonds. In the 1960s, tiny yeast rolls were also popular, and if you really want to go all the way, you could serve lime gelatin with Cool Whip for dessert. But personally, I’d prefer a piece of chocolate cake.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

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A Brief History of Brunswick Stew

There’s a war waging in the Southeastern United States, and I’m not talking about the war between the Republicans and the Democrats. I’m talking about the great Brunswick Stew War, which has been going on for over 100 years or more. See, Brunswick, Georgia claims to be the birthplace of the very first Brunswick Stew. And Brunswick County, Virginia, makes the same claim. But if you look at the dates, Brunswick, Georgia made its first stew in 1898, and Brunswick County’s stew was created in 1828, 70 years earlier. The story goes that Dr. Creed Haskins, a member of the Virginia state legislature, wanted a special dish for a political rally. Jimmy Matthews, an African American hunting camp cook, and the original creator of the Brunswick Stew which was then made with squirrel, provided the recipe for the rally, and the stew went on to become one of the most beloved dishes of all of Virginia’s political events.

Cast iron stew pot located in Brunswick, Georgia

If you happen to stop by the Brunswick/St. Simon’s Island Visitor Center in Georgia, you will see a 25 gallon iron pot sitting atop a monument, declaring it to be the vessel in which this favorite Southern food was first cooked in 1898.

If you ask anyone from Brunswick, Georgia, naturally they will tell you theirs was the first and best Brunswick Stew, and actually it is quite good, but so is the Virginia Brunswick Stew! Here are the differences I have noticed: The Georgia stew has a vinegar-based barbecue sauce in their concoction, along with chicken, tomatoes, and other vegetables. It seems thicker and chunkier than the Virginia stew. The Virginia version is meatier, though, flavored mostly with peppers and salt. They’re both quite different, and no matter where you go in the Southeast, no two Brunswick Stews are ever quite the same

I have a friend who has been eating the same Brunswick Stew for nine years, and this is one of those times where I would say “don’t try this at home.” He makes his Brunswick Stew the way his parents made it, using lots of vinegar to help preserve it. He told me that his family would cook up a pot of the stew and keep it on the stove for days, even weeks, a great testament to the use vinegar as a preservative. When my friend gets tired of eating his Brunswick Stew, he puts it in the freezer for a few months, and then when he’s hankering for Brunswick Stew again, he takes it out, thaws it in a pot, and adds more ingredients and vinegar. I generally discourage eating any food that’s over a week old, but my curiosity has gotten the best of me, and I secretly hope he will still be eating his Brunswick Stew 20 years from now.

The Proclamation Stew Crew at the Virginia Folklife Festival, September 2013, at UVA Charlottesville
John Clary, Proclamation Stew Master, checking on the stew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting back to our stew wars, in 1987, Brunswick, Georgia and Brunswick County, Virginia started the wars to use as an economic development tool. The Virginia General Assembly agreed with Brunswick County, Virginia that it was the original home of the stew and so proclaimed it on February 22, 1988. A man named John Drew Clary is the head of a group of Virginia Brunswick Stew chefs, who today call themselves the Proclamation Stew Crew. They are the go-to guys of the Virginia Brunswick Stew, and own a rig that allows them to cook 2000 pounds of Brunswick Stew for special events. John was kind enough to share his secret recipe with us here at A Brief History of Food.

But let us not forget the Georgia Brunswick Stew, the one made with barbecue sauce? Yes, we have a recipe for that one too, provided by a Brunswick, Georgia native, who would prefer to remain anonymous, and stay out of the stew wars. I think the best way to resolve this Southern conflict is to grab a fork, and maybe a spoon, and dig in!

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.

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