March 13th, 2010

_Pie_, Janet Clarkson

Subtitled: A Global History

Also on the cover: The Edible Series

Published by Reaktion Books, a small independent publisher in London that started out doing, among other things, design books. It is a beautiful little book, a hardcover a little taller than a mass market paperback, thin, with a dust jacket, clay coat pages, a variety of illustrations that are helpful to understanding the text, mostly in color except when the source material was not. I believe that as ebooks take over more and more of the market for books which are predominantly text, the smart move for publishers who want to continue making paper books would be to make giftable books with wide appeal that have characteristics difficult to reproduce in electronic form: children's books, books you cut or otherwise take things out of (paper dolls), books you write in, and, at least until the color good-display-in-sunlight problems is solved, good color pictures.

That's point one, largely irrelevant to the textual content of the book. Point two, slightly related to the textual content of the book: in a recent discussion in this blog, H. posted a link to an article that claimed meat pies could last up to a year, quoting Janet Clarkson, and her book. I did not believe the assertion for a second, altho after some thought, I was willing to allow as how maybe if the meat were smoked or jerked ahead of time. The book was available to buy for not a large amount of money, and the preview on Amazon suggested that Dr. Clarkson (an M.D.) had actually done some research and had a pleasant authorial tone, so I ordered a copy.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the book, Clarkson did not supply enough additional information for me to successfully look at the recipe in question, even tho I now know the source (William Salmon's _Family-Dictionary_). I started trying to triangulate around the source, and found a couple books on Questia which led me to conclude that the pie preservation technique was a form of potting (storing stuff in containers, completely covered with oil/fat to prevent access by aerobic bacteria) in which the container was a paste crust rather than earthenware. Based on that, and some close-to-contemporary quotes indicating that meat preserved in this way tended to go off by midsummer, I initially concluded that, yeah, William Salmon was full of it. However, I am willing to allow the possibility that if the estate cold room was cold enough (i.e. full of ice), it might work. But then, the "without refrigeration" part of Clarkson's assertion is no longer valid.

The rest of the book is problematic as well. Her definition of pie requires a flaky pastry thus, in her words, fat (because you can't make a flaky pastry with oil, according to her) and wheat (because nothing else has enough gluten). Yet her extensive discussion of pies-as-preservation/storage/vessels involves rye crust that clearly was _not_ flaky -- and didn't involve wheat. The index does not reference phyllo or filo and she only includes a single paragraph about it. She doesn't seem aware that phyllo or filo with its flaky, oil crust would put the lie to her definition of pie.

The subtitle, "A Global History", would more correctly be, "As Known in English-Speaking Countries", as her focus is tightly on England, Australia (where she is from) and the US. While she thinks pie originated in northern Italy (absolutely no reason to accept that, once you figure out the phyllo thing you can trace it back to Egypt and a whole lot longer ago) and the transmission route to England included France, she asserts without much support that France does not have a pie tradition like England etc.

Her theory about why Australia developed a meat pie tradition vs. the sweet pie tradition in the US has at least surface plausibility, and I know nothing in particular to contradict it (altho I don't understand why she persists in saying mincemeat doesn't include meat anymore, because all the recipes my immediate cooking-connections use involve meat, and the commercial varieties I've seen in the last couple decades all had meat in them, too); however, due to the above mentioned problems in the book, I wouldn't hesitate to accept an alternative plausible theory if one were presented to me.

While the book serves a useful purpose in expanding the intended audience's understanding of pie and its history (viz. convince Americans it isn't an American thing and Australians it isn't an Australian thing -- you can see why it was easy to convince a London firm to publish this), in doing so it also reifies a bunch of dippy pie myths (can't make a flaky crust without oil, for example) and adds at least one new one (pies have magic that can preserve meat for a year without refrigeration!). On the good side, she does list a few sources in a "Select Bibliography" and some of those sources are plausible. A person interested in food history who started hear might continue on a beneficial path.

And it is a pretty book.

For a book bought to track down an annoying error I believed to have been committed in the book, it was a good experience.


Having had a variety of conversations with R. lately about our respective high school history class experiences, I have concluded that I can't assume that anyone learned any particular thing in history class, even assuming they learned a whole lot and are quite well rounded.

That said, in the course of slowly reading _Food in Early Modern Europe_ online through questia, I ran across a description of the exploration process that led to Columbus tripping over the Americas and dramatically changing the way everyone ate in the whole world altho not right away. Sure, I knew about astrolabes and quadrants and I knew about Henry the Navigator. What I did not know about were portolan charts. Actually, I sort of did, but I sure didn't know that's what they were called, and I actually really only knew about the periplus component, not the T and O map that went with it, and I was largely familiar with how they were used. Not really a new idea, after all -- just an expansion of the way people had been navigating the Mediterranean for, oh, millenia.

I mention portolan with great excitement because portolans with a different meaning were a crucial element of Melissa Scott's trilogy, The Roads of Heaven. And there's a lot more overlap than just the name between the two.

Also, I had not realized that some of the agricultural innovation in the same time frame was the result of people reading really old Roman manuscripts and rediscovering old crop rotation technique. *sigh*

diffusion theory rears its unattractive head again

I had to ditch Spivey because she had such screwy ideas. I'm a little concerned about Albala; in a summary of what Europeans were eating during the 1500-1800 time frame, he asserts that the pumpkin "may have arrived from Asia in classical times, or it may have come from the Americas." He also says that "the very fact that they could also be found as far away as China within a few years has led some scholars to suggest that they may have reached Asia even before they did Europe", regarding capsicum. And, "Perhaps more difficult to explain is the fact that corn was also grown as far as China by the early sixteenth century. This suggests that corn may have reached Asia from the Americas even before Columbus' encounter."


If he included any sources for any of these, it would be trivial to decide what to think of this. As it is, I'm just going to call bullshit and say, hey, pumpkins did _not_ arrive from Asia in classical times, and while Asians may have cultivated peppers and corn more quickly than Europeans, they did not lay hands on them any sooner than Columbus' first arrival in the New World. I don't have any trouble at all believing that Columbus might land a few times, and within the decade, China would be growing everything their spies could collects seeds. That sounds about right to me, anyway.

and he thinks green ginger must have been candied or crystallized

Rather than meaning what it clearly means, because _he_ can't figure out how it got to Europe doesn't mean it couldn't be done. R. and I are currently arguing about possible routes. He seems worried about freezing on a water route south of the Cape of Good Hope and wonders what would happen if you took it across a desert. Me, I'm not so concerned; those people were clever, and there was a lot of money riding on it.

ETA: According to this source:

People were sprouting it by the end of the 16th century.

BUT this is a 1542 recipe for making candied ginger called green ginger:

Who the f* knows. Probably context dependent.

ETAYA: By 1845, definitively after our period, green ginger is the first ingredient in making candied ginger:

preservation summary

Wow. This is _annoying_. From his description of salt:

"Without refrigeration or canning, it [salt] was the only way to store most foods, other than drying."

Or smoking. Or potting.

ETA: unrelated to subject line, but from the same book. His description of beef and veal is just odd, in that he uses the word steer to mean an immature male. The book was published in the US, which makes this usage, if not wrong, at least terminally confusing. Worse, however, is this: "Because of the great cost of raising a male steer to maturity [which makes _no_ sense with his definition of steer, but might make sense under the US definition of steer, as castrated male], in most of Europe veal was the preferred meat." Well, actually, the real reason veal was consumed was because the cows were the valuable ones -- they produced more cows and milk and all its wondrous (albeit, sickening for me, personally) products. Male calves are, to quote Karen Hess, "supernumerary". Also known as, hey, we can eat that, and it's the only meat we're going to see for the next several months. "because veal cannot be easily preserved, it was almost always consumed fresh." Well, there was that whole, you've probably already eaten most of what you killed last fall and, again, you won't be seeing any more meat for a while. Further, the difficulty of preserving veal isn't about preserving veal at all -- it's about the sheer difficulty of keeping anything preserved through midsummer.

These things shouldn't be that complicated to understand and communicate.