Video: Visiting a Vanilla Plantation

Vanilla from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

While I was honeymooning in Mexico this summer, I dragged my new husband to a remote part of Mexico to visit a vanilla plantation. To be honest, he kinda relished the dangerous drive through the mountains, including the switchbacks and hairpin turns by sheer cliffs.  We went way out of the way because I wanted to see vanilla grown at its point of origin, the state of Veracruz.

For a very long time, Vanilla was transplanted outside of Mexico in vain. The orchid owed its pollination to a small bee native to Veracruz, so transplanted plants blossomed, but never fruited. In 1842, a method for artificially pollinating vanilla was discovered and the industry was born. Ironically, the bee is no where to be found ion Mexican Vanilla plantations today; plantation owner Norma Gaya believes years of pesticide-laced vanilla crops are to blame.  The Gaya plantation, the largest in Mexico, is spreading organic growing practices in hopes this natural pollinator will return

We spent a day at the Gaya plantation, and got a hands on look at how vanilla is grown.  Check out the video to follow along on my adventure!

Oh, and if you’re wondering if my whole honeymoon was trekking through the jungle, fret not. The homeland of vanilla just happens to be closest to one of the most beautiful, undeveloped stretches of beach in Mexico, the Costa Esmerelda. Everybody’s a winner.

IMG_0892Beach time at the Costa Esmerelda.

By the way, the plantation tour was facilitated by Tia Stephanie Tours, who is designing a tour of the State of Veracruz. It’s off the beaten path and well worth it.

Origin of a Dish: The Toga Party

fdrFDR presiding over one of the first known “toga parties.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

After my experiment with a Greek Symposium (where we did at one point shout “Toga! Toga! Toga!”), I got curious about the origins of the modern, pseudo-Greek, fraternal Toga Parties.  And I found the photo above.

Yes. In the middle, that is indeed President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In a toga.

FDR’s critics often compared him to a dictator, going as far as to refer to him as “Caesar”.  To poke fun at the name, his wife Eleanor threw him a “Dear Caesar” themed birthday on January 30th, 1934, his 52nd year of life.  The costume pictured on the left is from the FDR Library & Museum and was worn by a friend of the Roosevelts to the ball.  According to Henrietta Nesbitt, head of the White House housekeeping and cooking staff, the birthday cake was a fruitcake, made with dates, raisins, almonds, citron and orange peel (source).

Did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt throw the first toga party on record?  Perhaps.

I have found one earlier reference in the novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930 (although it takes place in 1914).  The book is an account of the Bright Young Things, a group of Londoners in the early 20th century perceived as “the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure. (source)”

In Vile Bodies, the protagonist Adam complains ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ and the narrator elaborates:

 …Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies …

Were Greek-themed toga parties actually a thing in pre-war London?  I’m uncertain.

Although the idea of a college fraternity stemmed from the Greeks, togas are Roman.  So how did one become associated with the other? It’s believed to have been invented in the 1950s, but the only source is a self-referencing reference about a party at Pamona Collge in 1953. I apparently need to start doing oral histories with Pamona College alumnus (know any?).  But this lineage may be entirely made-up.  The toga party simple may have been a creation of popular culture.

The 1978 film Animal House had a famous Toga Party scene which over the next year, created a fervor for toga parties on college campuses.  Both the Washington Post and Newsweek reported on the new phenomenon and allegedly the movie’s promoters were going campus to campus throwing toga parties.  The best article I’ve found on all this comes from the Princeton Weekly newsletter, written in in the midst of the toga frenzy in 1978.  A few select quotes:

Toga is wild and crazy…Toga is an excuse to let loose.  Toga is bed-sheet chic and drapery decadence.

‘What do you think all this toga business means?” I asked.

“Nothing really. For a lot of people, it’s key to have a crazy time is all.”

My favorite part is when he describes a campus-sheet shortage due to over-zealous partiers and wary linen franchises.  Read the whole article here.

The Official Preppy Handbook, a parody published in 1980, gives this advice: “Toga party- Girls wear designer sheets, men wear the kind from the linen service.  If accompanied by a Roman-style dinner, these sheets may go home stained with red wine, though serious drinkers might switch to a grain alcohol punch around 10 o’clock. Since dancing in a toga is impossible, getting drunk is the primary activity.”  In just two years, toga parties went from the height of college fashion to passé enough to be parodied.

There are a lot of gaping holes in the story of the toga party.  The frustrating part about researching the history of alcohol is that apparently people were too drunk to remember.

Origin of a Dish: What Was So Great About Sliced Bread Anyway?

We’ve got a guest blogger on FPF this week: Aaron Bobrow-Strain the author of the new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.  Below, Aaron gives us a little teaser history of sliced bread and the reactions it garnered when it was first released.


When Frank Bench, the owner of a nearly bankrupt bakery, and his friend Otto Rohwedder, an equally down-at-the-heels inventor, successfully ran the world’s first automatic bread slicer in Chillicothe, Missouri, they accomplished something nearly every member of the American baking establishment thought impossible—and utterly stupid.

By July 1928, when Bench and Rohwedder’s surprising product debuted, retail bakers had used machines to slice loaves at the point of sale for years, but few in the industry believed that bread should be automatically sliced as it came off the assembly line. Bread was too unruly. What would hold the sliced loaves together? How would slicing affect the chemistry of taste? What would prevent sliced bread from rapidly molding or staling?

Rohwedder’s designs for the automatic slicer dated back to 1917, but he found no takers for the idea and had almost given up hope. For Bench, installing the machine was a favor to his friend and a last shot in the dark. What did he have to lose?

The results astounded all observers. Sales of sliced bread soared 2000 percent within weeks, and a beaming Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune reporter described housewives’ “thrill of pleasure” upon “first see[ing] a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows…indefinitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand.” News spread rapidly. Sliced bread took off first in Missouri,Iowa, and Illinois, then spread throughout the Midwest by late summer 1928. By fall 1928, mechanical slicing had hit New York, New Jersey, and the West Coast. By 1930, 90 percent of all store-bought bread in the country was automatically sliced.

Some bakers dismissed sliced bread as a fad, comparing it to other Roaring Twenties crazes like barnstorming and jazz dancing. Nevertheless, as bakers wrote in frantic trade magazine articles, anyone who resisted the new technology would be crushed by the competition.

An automatic bread slicer. source:

While awaiting deliveries of mechanical slicers from hopelessly backordered manufacturers, bakers asked themselves a logical question: What’s so great about sliced bread? “Why does anyone want sliced bread anyway?” one baker wrote. “The housewife is saved one operation in the preparation of a meal. Yet, try as one will,the reasons do not seem valid enough to make demand for the new product.”

He had a point. How much extra work is it really to slice your own bread? And what about housewives’ “thrill of pleasure”? A little saved labor couldn’t explain a reaction like that. Why did so many people care so much about perfectly neat slices? What had sliced bread come to symbolize?


Aaron tracks down the answers to these questions in his new book, and the answers will surprise you.  He says “…It may get you thinking twice about our own confident visions of what counts as ‘good food.'”  Ok, my interest is piqued.

But I want to throw this question out to you, readers: What do you think was/is so great about sliced bread?


Origin of a Dish: The Jell-O Shot

“Punch Jelly,” from 1862.

My friend (and medieval textiles expert) Miranda brought this “cocktail” to my attention, by chattily asking me if I had ever tried the original Jell-O shot from Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book How To Mix Drinks.  The answer was no, but I was astounded and delighted by the idea.

There are records of gelatinous wines and champagnes being concocted as early as 1800, but Thomas’ recipe for “Punch Jelly” is made with spirits.  Essentially, it’s a basic rum punch (which includes cognac and lemonade) with a gelling agent added: historically, this would have been calves’ foot jelly or isinglass.  The former would have a hint of meaty flavor, while the latter, extracted from the swim-bladders of sturgeons, tasted remarkably of the sea.  I had neither lying around my kitchen the night I decided to make Punch Jelly; I used flavorless Knox gelatine instead.

I’ve made this recipe two ways: by following Miranda’s proportions for the intricate lemonade that Thomas describes in his recipe; and by simply replacing this lemonade with Newman’s Own Lemonade, which is delicious.  Either way, the punch jelly tasted about the same: strong.  My tasters and I agreed it was a little much…but by the end of the evening, 24 punch jellies had somehow made their way into the tummies of my guests.

Make these as a treat for your New Year’s party; they aren’t tasty enough to stand on their own, but your guests will be delighted to know that these are the “original”: the great-great grandfathers of the carnival-colored, fruit-flavored, jiggly Jell-O shots of today.  There is a historic precedent.

And if you had any illusions that the people of the past were somehow better (classier? more morally upright?) than us, check out what Thomas has to say about Punch Jellies:

This preparation is a very agreeable refreshment on a cold night, but should be used in moderation; the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.

Ain’t that the truth.

Punch Jelly
From How to Mix Drinks, By Jerry Thomas, 1862.
Originally adapted by Miranda, with some further variations on my part.

The juice of 3 lemons
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water

1 cup cognac
1 cup dark Jamaican rum
2 packets unflavored gelatine

Make the lemonade by combining the lemon juice, sugar and water (or replace this with 2 cups store-bought lemonade).  Heat lemonade in a saucepan until it comes to a boil.  Remove from heat and add the gelatine, one packet at a time, by sprinkling it over the surface of the liquid and stirring until completely dissolved.  Allow to cool slightly, then add alcohols.  Pour into individual molds or shot glasses.  Makes approximately 16 shots.


There’s a new book: The Jell-O Shot Test Kitchen: Jell-ing Classic Cocktails–One Drink at a Time.  I’m unashamed of my affection for Jell-O shots.  Ima gonna get this book.

Origin of a Dish: The Jell-O Mold

Thu Tran, the host of Food Party was a guest judge in 2009 at a Jell-O mold competition in Gowanus–she’s set to host this year’s competition.  In this video, Thu guides us through the wonderful, strange world of Jell-O jewelry, a Jell-O gyroscope, and even Jell-O boobs. Behold the wonders of Jell-O!

Summertime always makes me think of Jell-O.  Whether it’s the cubes of cold fruity flavors I remember from my youth, or the idea of 1950s housewives laboring over molded lime Jell-O salads.  And I’m not the only one; this Saturday, you can head down to the Gowanus Studio Space and experience one of the most unique art and design competitions you’ll ever see, visualized via Jell-O (learn more here).  You can see some of the entrants in last year’s competition in the video above.

In my life, I’ve only eaten Jell-o in the simplest of forms; perhaps that’s why I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of a Jell-O mold.  In the modern era, the idea of suspending any vegetable (or meat, for that matter) in gelatin strikes one as horrifying.  And yet, for a good fifty years of modern history, cookbooks churned out reams and reams of Jell-O recipes.  Were these recipes just as bad as they sound?  Or are they revolutionary culinary secrets, lost to time and history, just waiting to be uncovered?

This week, I intend to find out.

For the next five days, I’ll be digging through my Jell-O ephemera to bring you the best and the worst of what that jiggly gel has to offer.  But before we embark, let’s start with a brief history of gelatin.


Gelatin dishes have been around for a long time: for centuries, sweet and savory jellies were crafted from Isinglass, which comes from the swim bladders of sturgeons, or by creating gelatin from boiling some combination of calve’s feet, bone marrow, ligaments and intestinal tissue.  It was a luxury food, time consuming and complicated to prepare, it required hours of cooking, molding, and then access to cool temperatures  to set.  It was a dish designed to show of the skill of one’s servants.

A revolution in gelatin occurred at the hands of Peter Cooper.  Cooper, founder of New York’s Cooper Union college, was a gifted inventor.  Cooper created a boxed, powdered gelatin in 1845.  Previously, commercially available gelatin could be bought only in sheet form, but the sheets “…had to be clarified by boiling with egg whites and shells and dripped through a jelly bag before they could be turned into shimmering molds. (Jell-O website)”  With Cooper’s new invention, one could just add hot water.  The boxed product soon became an ingredient in many household recipes.

The next step came in 1897: Pearle Wait and his wife May come up with the idea of adding fruit flavors and sugar to the boxed gelatin, created an instant dessert they dubbed Jell-O.  They had little commercial success, and sold the company to a friend with the incredible name of Orator Woodword.  Woodword, too, had little commercial success–until he had a major conceptual breakthrough: “At the time, basically all dishes were prepared from basic ingredients; homemakers did not know what to do with a food that was almost ready to serve and needed no recipes.  So Woodward gave them recipes. (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, 2004)” In 1904, Jell-O distributed its first recipes booklets, creating a dessert revolution.  And it is here that we will begin our Jell-O journey–at the beginning.  Be prepared to unearth some culinary treasures courtesy of “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”

The First Jell-O Recipe booklet, dated 1904.  This image is from Months of Edible Celebrations, who also provides the provenance for this booklet.

Origin of a Dish: Macaroni and Cheese

An American classic.

Macaroni and Cheese is largely thought of as a modern dish, thanks to the “Kraft Dinner,” introduced in 1937 and used as rations during WWII.  But good ‘ol Mac n’ Cheese  has a much longer history.  In fact, I’ve already cooked up two different versions of this classic dish on this blog: a simple, 19th century version I ate during the Tenement Diet, and a more decadent recipe using neufchatel cheese during the Kellogg Diet.
Macaroni was possibly invented by the Romans, and was served with cheese sometime in the Medieval era (source).  The first documented occasion on which Macaroni and Cheese was served in America was at the White House in 1802, during Jefferson’s presidency. A guest at one of Jefferson’s dinner parties recounts his first experience with the dish (source):
“…A pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with onions or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not very agreeable. Mr. Lewis told me there was none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions were made of flour and butter, with particularly strong liquor mixed in them.”
The earliest known American recipe for macaroni and cheese appears in The Virginia Housewife, first published in 1824.  This is the recipe that we shall attempt today.
It seemed decadent to boil the macaroni in milk, but I gave it a whirl to stay true to the recipe.  While the pasta was cooking, it smelled sweet like a rice pudding; however, upon tasting it, I could discern no noticeable difference.  I think that this step could be left out, if you desire.
I used a Queso Blanco, an un-anged, simply made Mexican cheese.  I choose it for it’s similarity to farmer’s cheese, and other fresh cheeses used in the 19th c.

Macaroni and Cheese
from The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook By Mary Randolph, 1838 ed.
1/2 lb macaroni
1 quart whole milk
12 oz sliced farmer’s cheese, queso blanco, or queso fresco
1 stick unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Bring one quart milk and an equal amount of water to a rolling boil.  Add macaroni and cook, uncovered, until al dente, about 6 1/2 minutes.
2. Drain in a colander. While still in the colander, sprinkle pasta with about a 1/2 tsp salt, shake to combine, then sprinkle with about 1/2 tsp more (or to taste).
3. Our about 1/3 of the pasta into a casserole or baking dish.  Cover with 1/3 of the cheese and butter.  Repeat, ending with a layer of cheese and butter on top.
4.  Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly.
My roommate and I took two bites and then made frowny faces at each other.  I don’t think this is the best incarnation of Mac and Cheese.  It tasted like buttery noodles.  And then…something was OFF with the cheese I bought.  It had an odd bitter/fishy taste. I don’t know if was the brand of cheese, or if the cheese was bad.  But I would take Kraft over this any day.

Origin of a Dish: Green Bean Casserole

I want to stick my face in it.

The most recent issue of Martha Stewart’s Food magazine contains an abomination: a recipe for Green Bean Casserole in which all of the components are made from scratch. Shallots are hand-breaded and pan-fried. Mushrooms are seasoned and sauteed in cream. Ridiculous!

My mom and I got into a heated debate over the legitimacy of this recipe. Mom thought it might be good; I conceded that it might. However, this recipe takes a dish that was designed to be extraordinarily simple and makes it incredibly complicated!

I say don’t fix what ain’t broke. Green Bean Casserole was created in the 1950’s during an era of canned convenience food. It has survived as a traditional Thanksgiving side dish not only because of its simplicity, but because it happens to be delicious.

From the Campbell’s Kitchen webpage:

“Deemed the ‘mother of comfort food,’Dorcas Reilly led the team that created the Green Bean Casserole in 1955, while working as a staff member in the Home Economics department of the Campbell Soup Company.

…She says the inspiration for the Green Bean Casserole was to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Like all great recipes, the casserole requires minimal number of ingredients (just five), doesn’t take much time, and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes.

In 2002, Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card takes its place alongside Enrico Fermi’s invention of the first controlled nuclear reactor and Thomas Alva Edison’s two greatest hits: the light bulb and the phonograph.”

Dorcas Reilly scooping out casserole at the Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

This Thanksgiving, reenact a tiny bit of American history, and make the classic Campbell’s Green Bean Casserole.

Classic Green Bean Casserole
from Campbell’s Kitchen

1 can (10 3/4 ounces) Campbell’s® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup (Regular 98% Fat Free)
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Dash ground black pepper
4 cups cooked cut green beans
1 1/3 cups French’s® French Fried Onions

1. Stir the soup, milk, soy sauce, black pepper, beans and 2/3 cup onions in a 1 1/2-quart casserole.
2. Bake at 350°F. for 25 minutes or until the bean mixture is hot and bubbling. Stir the bean mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining onions.
3. Bake for 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown.


Update 12-18-2013: a few updates! Dorcas Reilly’s Alma Mater has created a scholarship in her name. Campbells Soup sells approximately $20 million dollars worth of Cream of Mushroom soup during the holidays. Reilly “… always keeps the ingredients for the casserole on hand in her Haddonfield home just in case someone asks her to whip one up. This Thanksgiving, her family will get a new version — with carrots.” (source)