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Posts Tagged ‘cooking

“A Genuine ‘TV’ Brand Dinner”*…

In 1925, the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye invented a machine for freezing packaged fish that would revolutionize the storage and preparation of food. [see here.] Maxson Food Systems of Long Island used Birdseye’s technology, the double-belt freezer, to sell the first complete frozen dinners to airlines in 1945, but plans to offer those meals in supermarkets were canceled after the death of the company’s founder, William L. Maxson. Ultimately, it was the Swanson company that transformed how Americans ate dinner (and lunch)—and it all came about, the story goes, because of Thanksgiving turkey.

According to the most widely accepted account, a Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas conceived the company’s frozen dinners in late 1953 when he saw that the company had 260 tons of frozen turkey left over after Thanksgiving, sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. (The train’s refrigeration worked only when the cars were moving, so Swanson had the trains travel back and forth between its Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast “until panicked executives could figure out what to do,” according to Adweek.) Thomas had the idea to add other holiday staples such as cornbread stuffing and sweet potatoes, and to serve them alongside the bird in frozen, partitioned aluminum trays designed to be heated in the oven. Betty Cronin, Swanson’s bacteriologist, helped the meals succeed with her research into how to heat the meat and vegetables at the same time while killing food-borne germs.

Whereas Maxson had called its frozen airline meals “Strato-Plates,” Swanson introduced America to its “TV dinner” (Thomas claims to have invented the name) at a time when the concept was guaranteed to be lucrative: As millions of white women entered the workforce in the early 1950s, Mom was no longer always at home to cook elaborate meals—but now the question of what to eat for dinner had a prepared answer. Some men wrote angry letters to the Swanson company complaining about the loss of home-cooked meals. For many families, though, TV dinners were just the ticket. Pop them in the oven, and 25 minutes later, you could have a full supper while enjoying the new national pastime: television.

In 1950, only 9 percent of U.S. households had television sets—but by 1955, the number had risen to more than 64 percent, and by 1960, to more than 87 percent. Swanson took full advantage of this trend, with TV advertisements that depicted elegant, modern women serving these novel meals to their families, or enjoying one themselves. “The best fried chicken I know comes with a TV dinner,” Barbra Streisand told the New Yorker in 1962…

Thanks to the pandemic, Thanksgiving’s most unexpected legacy is heating up again: “A Brief History of the TV Dinner.”

* The Swanson “promise” on every package

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As we peel back the foil, we might send clearly-outlined birthday greetings to Irma S. Rombauer; she was born on this date in 1877. An author of cookbooks, she is best remembered for The Joy of Cooking, one of the most widely-published and used cookbooks in the U.S. Originally unable to find a publisher, she privately printed an edition in 1931. But in 1935 a commercial edition (the first of nine) was released by Bobbs-Merrill.

Written in a plain but witty style, including basic techniques and simple dishes, not just the complext recipes that were the staples of most cookbooks of the time, it found a broad and loyal audience among the American middle class. Indeed, Julia Child credits The Joy of Cooking with teaching her the basic techniques of the kitchen, and (along with Gourmet Magazine) teaching her to cook.

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“Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something”*…

 

rice cooker

 

Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s population, especially in Asia and Africa.  It is the third most widely-cultivated staple crop worldwide, after maize/corn and wheat… and it is notoriously difficult to prepare correctly on a stove…

Cooking rice on a stovetop can be fraught. Add too much water and you end up with porridge. Without a keen sense of timing, you end up with undercooked [pellet-like] grains…

The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button. These devices can seem all-knowing. So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…

How the biggest names in Japanese technology fought to make rice easy: “The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker.”

* Mitch Hedberg

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As we ponder the pursuit of perfection, we might recall that today is National Potato Day– a celebration of the fourth most-widely cultivated staple crop.

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Written by LW

August 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All food is comfort food. Maybe I just like to chew.”*…

 

mac and cheese

 

In January 2015, food sales at restaurants overtook those at grocery stores for the first time. Most thought this marked a permanent shift in the American meal.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that trend took a U-turn. Restaurant revenue cratered, while shoppers emptied grocery shelves stocking up on food to cook at home. And with sales of pantry items soaring, shoppers found themselves reaching for an old reliable.

In April, sales of Kraft macaroni and cheese were up 27% from the same time last year. General Mills, the maker of Annie’s mac and cheese, has seen a similar bump.

The cheap, boxed meal has long been a poster child for processed food. While it’s often dismissed as stuff for kids, a lot of grownups secretly savor it… It’s also played an important role in kitchen science, wars, and women’s liberation…

How boxed macaroni and cheese became a pantry principal– the story of a staple: “An ode to mac and cheese, the poster child for processed food.”

* Lewis Black

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As we say (processed) cheese, we might send tasty birthday greetings to Ruth Graves Wakefield; she was born on this date in 1903.  A dietitian, educator, business owner, and author, she is probably best remembered as the inventor of the Toll House cookie– the first chocolate chip cookie.

In 1930, she and her husband bought a tourist lodge (the Toll House Inn) in Whitman in Plymouth County. Massachusetts.  Located about halfway between Boston and New Bedford, it was a place where passengers had historically paid a toll, changed horses, and eaten home-cooked meals.  Ruth cooked and served all the food and soon gained local fame for her lobster dinners and desserts.  Around 1937, she first added added chopped up bits from a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar into a cookie: “We had been serving a thin butterscotch nut cookie with ice cream. Everybody seemed to love it, but I was trying to give them something different. So I came up with Toll House cookie.”  Wakefield wrote a best selling cookbook, Toll House Tried and True Recipes. that went through 39 printings starting in 1930; the 1938 edition was the first to include the recipe for a chocolate chip cookie, the “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie.”

220px-Ruth_Graves_Wakefield source

 

 

Written by LW

June 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What we need in this country is a general improvement in eating”*…

 

archival-chili

A Mexican official examines chili powder at an American factory, Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company

 

Gumbo. Chile con queso. California roll. Spaghetti and meatballs.

The names are as familiar as household brands. Yet how much do you know about these dishes? Based on the names alone, with their roots in other languages and other cultures, each dish sounds like an import. In some ways, they are. But each dish also morphed and adapted to its new environment, transforming into something uniquely American.

Some transformed through industrialization. Another required the ingenuity of chefs willing to break from tradition. One adapted, and continues to adapt, to the dizzying constellation of cultures that is New Orleans…

How four dishes with roots in other lands tell a story of immigration and transformation: “Made in America.”

* H.L. Mencken (who arguably got, per the article linked above, what he asked for)

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As we dig in, we might send tasty birthday greetings to Ettore “Hector” Boiardi; he was born on this date in 1897.  An Italian immigrant who became a successful chef (at The Plaza and the Greenbrier), he opened his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia (The Garden of Italy) in Cleveland in 1926.  The following year he met Maurice and Eva Weiner, patrons of his restaurant and owners of a local self-service grocery store chain; they helped him market his spaghetti sauce in jars… and the heat-and-eat Italian food empire that became known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee was born.  Boiardi became a wealthy man– and something of a celebrity via his appearances in television commercials for his products.

220px-Chefboyardeepic source

 

 

Written by LW

October 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else”*…

 

laffer-curve-napkin-470x426

 

President Trump [recently] announced that economist Arthur Laffer will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Laffer is most famous for his “Laffer curve,” a graph that suggested that lowering tax rates might increase tax revenue. This graph had major political consequences, but made him more notorious than celebrated in the field of economics…

Economists tend to roll their eyes when the Laffer curve is mentioned. A panel of elite academic economists across the political spectrum found in 2012 that none of its respondents agreed that the United States was on the wrong side of the curve. Even George Stigler, a leader of the Chicago School of Economics who disliked taxes at least as much as Laffer, described the Laffer curve as “more or less a tautology.”

Yet the idea has been influential for more than 40 years. The Laffer curve did not begin as a formal economic theory, but as a simple depiction of the relationship between tax rates and government revenue. Legendarily, perhaps apocryphally, it was scribbled onto a napkin after dinner. [A recreation of the legendary napkin, created by Laffer for Donald Rumsfeld, who was at the dinner (with Dick Cheney) where it was supposed first sketched.]

The concept is simple enough. As tax rates increase, people’s incentives to work and make investments decrease because they make less money from them. Above some rate, taxes become so onerous that total revenue goes down because people aren’t as economically active as they would be in a world with lower taxes. The big question is what that rate — the tipping point on the Laffer curve — actually is.

Laffer may have named the curve, but the idea was not original to him. As proponents in the late 1970s liked to point out, the general idea dates to the Arab social theorist Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the 14th century, “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.”

In less remote history, Andrew Mellon, Republican treasury secretary to three presidents, articulated a similar idea in 1924. And when Democrats advocated for the Revenue Act of 1964, which cut the top marginal rate from 91 to 70 percent, their bill made exactly the same arguments. Even Wilbur Mills, the fiscally conservative Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee, found himself claiming that the tax cut would “eventually lead to higher levels of economic activity and thereby increase, rather than decrease, revenue.”

Yet it was Laffer’s variant that caught the ear of Republicans in the late 1970s, just as they were shifting from a position as the party of balanced budgets to the party of tax cuts. Indeed, the Laffer curve was a way to say, “Why not both?” One influential ear Laffer caught was that of Wall Street Journal associate editor Jude Wanniski, who made the curve a centerpiece of his 1978 book, “The Way the World Works.”

wanniskicurve1978

Laffer and Wanniski had a champion in Congress as well, in former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp. In April 1977, Kemp introduced a bill to cut income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He started talking about the Laffer curve in October and over the next year mentioned it several more times in Congress.

But it was only with the June 1978 passage of California’s Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, that the Laffer curve argument exploded into the mainstream. In this new atmosphere of “tax revolt,” the Laffer curve came up 128 times in the Congressional Record in less than four months…

The man who gave (what Will Rogers first called) trickle-down economics its own “curve,” who gave supply-side economics its graphic icon: “Trump is giving Arthur Laffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Economists aren’t smiling.”

For more on the “tyranny of curves,” see “Phillips, Laffer and Gatsby: on economists obsessing about curves.” And for more on the out-sized political, economic, and social impact of Laffer’s ideas, see “Starving the Beast- Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution.”

* “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”          -John Maynard Keynes

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As we grapple with graphs, we might spare a thought for a different kind of economist (and one whose impact was much more indisputably positive), Elizabeth Josephine Craig; she died on this date in 1980.  A home economist and journalist, she published dozens of books, mostly cookbooks and volumes of home management advice.  Craig started to cook when she was 6 and began collecting recipes at 12; she began publishing cookbooks after World War I and continued to publish until her death.  Her contribution to English culinary literature comprises a very large collection of traditional British recipes, but also included a considerable number of dishes from other countries, which she gathered during visits abroad (often with her war correspondent husband).

220px-Craig,_E_Cakes_and_Candies_cover source

 

Written by LW

June 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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