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Archive for May 19th, 2011

An Eccentric Lifestyle Popular in the Early 19th Century Has Left Us the Simple Graham Cracker and More!

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

An Eccentric Lifestyle Popular in the Early 19th Century Has Left Us the Simple Graham Cracker and More! 

The Presbyterian Reverend Sylvester Graham, an early 19th century proponent of an extreme, aesthetic lifestyle, is largely forgotten today. During his life, however, he was amazingly popular and many of the theories he espoused are actually popular to this day, though he is rarely credited with their acceptance. He was also widely reviled and a controversial figure of derision. 

Rev. Graham promoted a strict form of vegetarianism at a time when meat was a staple and considered essential to a healthy lifestyle. He held a number of extremely controversial diet and wellness ideas which he championed and was militant in defending. His followers were so dedicated that they became known as Grahamites. 

Speaking before adoring crowds, Rev. Graham spoke boldly and powerfully against women wearing corsets, any type of gratuitous sexual activity and nihilism. His encouragement of a Spartan lifestyle was widely reported in the media. 

In an age when bathing was rare and oral care primitive Grahamites practiced both; daily and religiously. Temperance was strictly enforced among Grahamites. Excitement was discouraged. They also did not use spices to enrich the taste of food, as these additives were considered to excite the senses and encourage sexual activity. Consuming meat, butter and white bread were forbidden. Especially white bread! 

The elimination of white flour from their diet became central to the lifestyle and philosophy of Grahamites. Rev. Graham preached about the evils of white flour which was considered crucial by bakers in producing whiter loaves and more commercially appealing bread. He despised any food that contained additives and chemicals. Darker types of bread were considered a foodstuff for the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution. Graham set out to change this perception. 

He created the recipe for Graham bread. It was made from un-sifted flour and contained no alum or chlorine, both present in the white bread of that time. He believed that bread should be coarse not fluffy and uniform like the loaves then being mass produced in industrial bakeries. A variant of the recipe for Graham bread lead to the creation of Graham crackers, popular to this day. Grahamites consumed massive quantities of Graham crackers to supplement their exceedingly bland diet. 

Grahamism died out soon after Rev. Sylvester Graham’s death in 1857. His death in Northampton, Massachusetts, where a restaurant named Sylvester’s stands on the site of his home, marked the zenith of his movement. His influence, however, had touched such important Americans as Horace Greeley, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother William Kellogg. Their creation of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and founding of the Battle Creek Institute, was heavily linked to their belief in Grahamism.

It has been over 150 years since the death of Rev. Sylvester Graham. It is generally forgotten that he is responsible for the creation of ubiquitous Graham Crackers, still found in most home larders. And yet, many of the principle ideas which he pioneered and were forgotten after he was deceased are again au courant today. 

Modern nutritionists strongly endorse limiting the consumption of meat and refined, processed foods in the diet. Dark, multi-grain breads are promoted as key elements of a healthy diet. A vegetarian or vegan type of diet is increasingly popular. Daily bathing and proper oral care are cornerstones of hygiene and personal care. All of these ideas were key, if controversial planks in the philosophy that was central the Grahamist lifestyle. Today we accept them as   factual truths, supported by science and research data.

How a Long Forgotten Shipping Magnate Removed His Name from Restaurant Menus around the World

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

How a Long Forgotten Shipping Magnate Removed His Name from Restaurant Menus around the World 

Ever enjoyed a meal of Lobster Wenberg? You will not find the dish on any fine restaurants or diner’s menu today. In fact, the dish existed as Lobster Wenberg for less than a month at Delmonico’s in the 1890’s. This epicurean delight has thrived ever since, but the name has changed, and the man who was responsible for popularizing the treat has been forgotten. 

Benjamin J. Wenberg was a late 19th century shipping magnate. He travelled widely managing his far flung enterprise. While on a trip to South America he enjoyed a lobster dish such as he had never tasted before. It was rapture at first bite. He immediately began to assemble the recipe and carried it back to New York. 

On a visit to the famous Delmonico’s restaurant Wenberg described the dish to the owner, Lorenzo Delmonico. He raved about the sauce made from sherry, thick cream and egg yolks, and how the shelled lobster taste was so enriched by the creamy concoction.  Mr. Delmonico was intrigued and began to have his chef’s work on the recipe. When it was perfected he added it to the menu as Lobster Wenberg, in honor of the discoverer. 

The dish was an immediate hit with Delmonico’s wealthy patrons. Word of mouth, the best form of marketing spread like wild fire. The restaurants sales increased dramatically. Then, providentially for Benjamin Wenberg, and the dish he had discovered and initially helped popularize, fate visited a cruel turn. 

While on one of his regular visits to Delmonico’s, Wenberg imbibed a bit too much grog, got into a fight with another customer in the main dining room and was permanently evicted from the eatery. Lorenzo Delmonico was furious, and he now had a problem. His hottest gastronomical offering was named for a cad who had torn up his dining room and could no longer visit and partake of the meal he had uncovered. 

Lorenzo Delmonico was nothing if not a great restaurateur. He was not going to take the dish off his menu; it was too popular and profitable. However, he was furious with Mr. Wenberg and decided to remove his name from the dish. He chose the name Lobster Newburg, Newburg being the name of a small city on the Hudson River. Newberg is also an amalgam of the letters in the last name of one Benjamin J. Wenberg. Mr. Delmonico never announced definitively which applied. 

Today Lobster Newberg is ubiquitous on fine dining establishment menus everywhere. Benjamin J. Wenberg is but a footnote to culinary history and largely unknown, except for his being a footnote in restaurant lore.  His name had adorned the dish he was instrumental in launching for less than a month. 

History is replete with examples such as this of people who are forgotten, but their discovery, invention or product lives on after being driven to commercial heights by others. But for a night of debauchery, Lobster Wenberg would still be the ultimate indulgence to enjoy after a promotion, the birth of a child, or any of life’s other successes are celebrated.

Two Centuries Ago “The King of Chefs, the Chef of Kings” Created the Modern Gourmet Cooking We Know Today

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

Two Centuries Ago “The King of Chefs, the Chef of Kings” Created the Modern Gourmet Cooking We Know Today 

We live in an age of plenty, when food is consumed and pursued as much for entertainment as for sustenance. Haute cuisine foodie magazines abound. There are television food channels that are devoted to every aspect of gastronomy. Celebrity chefs are as ubiquitous and as famous as actors and politicians. Gourmet food stores have sprouted in every town of any size in the United States. Chains such as Kroger and Safeway have in-store gourmet shops solely devoted to enhancing the preparation and presentation of meals. 

As recently as two centuries ago this adoration of food and cooking was unthinkable. For the vast majority of people the only interest they had in food was securing enough nutrition to stay alive. Taste, presentation and assortments of foodstuffs were of no importance and beyond their reality. This changed in the first decade of the 19th century in Paris. 

In 1792 Marie-Antoine Careme was born to destitute parents at the height of the violent French Revolution. The parents abandoned the boy and he was apprenticed at the age of eight to the famous patissier Sylvain Bailly. The young boy was ambitious, hard working and smart and Bailly encouraged him to open his own bakery after he had complete his apprenticeship. 

Careme opened the Patisserie de la Rue de la Paix in 1813. The shop quickly gained fame and a loyal following. The windows were famous for “pieces montees”, elaborate constructions famous for their scale used as table centerpieces. Many were designed to look like ruins and famous buildings from around the world. They were as much sculpture as edible food. 

As a baker Careme was always experimenting, seeking to push the envelope of presentation, subtle taste enhancements and inventing new forms of cooking. He is credited with creating gros nougats, grosses maringues, croquantes and solilemmes. The famous French politician Charles Talleyrand and Napoleon became fans of his work and he was often commissioned to cook for diplomatic functions. 

Eventually Talleyrand hired Careme to work exclusively for him at his country estate. Talleyrand famously presented Careme with a test. He had to devise a menu for a complete year of meals, with no repetition of dishes and using only local, seasonal foodstuffs. When Careme passed the test Talleyrand vigorously promoted his young chef who had turned his attention from solely baking to formal cooking. 

After the fall of Napoleon Careme went to London and served as chef de cuisine for King George IV. Later he travelled to St. Petersburg to work for Czar

Alexander I. Finally, returning to Paris and the employee of James Mayer Rothschild, he died at the age of 48. It is believed that Careme died at a young age because he spent his life cooking near open charcoal flames.

It was as chef for Talleyrand that Careme spread the greatest influence. He cooked for the large diplomatic councils that Talleyrand convened. As diplomats returned to their distant countries they carried stories about the wonderful delicacies that Careme had concocted. The upper classes of Europe quickly became enamored and haute cuisine, stylized French cooking became the rage. 

Careme is the most influential chef of all time. Many of his techniques and improvements are in use to this day. He invented the famous toque (chef’s hat). His creation and classification of the universally utilized four Mother Sauces changed cooking. He pioneered the “service a la Russe”, serving dishes one at a time as they appeared on the menu. Numerous recipes and cooking techniques are attributed to this culinary genius. 

His five part book “L’ Arte de la Cuisine Francais” is still considered a classic. It details numerous recipes, plans for menus and tables settings, organizing kitchens and the history of French cookery.

In most major cities around the world, the French restaurant is considered the apex of taste, refinement and luxurious dining. When visiting Paris, especially for first time travelers, the experience of viewing patisserie windows is street theatre. The colors, styles and shapes of the treats are so visually stunning. The pace and style of French restaurants have a cadence all their own. Food is art and life to the French.  Marie-Antoine Careme, “The King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings” deserves much of the credit for this grand legacy.