Taste History Today: Pulque

pulqueA flight of pulque. Clockwise from the top: oatmeal, guava, lime, celery, mango, and plain in the center.

We were way too old to be in this place. We were definitely the creepy old couple.  Looking around the bar, most of the people drinking around us looked to be in their early twenties, and perhaps younger: the drinking age in Mexico is 18, after all.  And more than that, there was a youthful rebelliousness in this crowd seldom seen Mexico City: in general mild temperatures and Catholicism resulted in conservative dress. But in the pulqueria, facial piercings were the norm, women bared their shoulders, and one crusty punkette asked if we would like to buy a pot brownie (brownie de cannabis).

My husband and I were recently married (late in life, by some standards, at the ages of 30 and 31) and honeymooning in Mexico City, when curiosity led us to a Pulqueria.  Pulque is an ancient drink made from the fermented sap of the agave; it is thought to have been developed at least 2,000 years ago.  Distill that juice, and you get tequila (or mezcal); ferment it like beer, and you get pulque, thick and milky white.  A staple of Aztec life, for many years it survived as a drink of the working class; but recently, pulque has been receiving press for its growing popularity amongst Mexico City’s youth.

A 1,000 year old mural depicted people drinking pulque. (source)

The Pulqueria La Risa, where we sat, has been pouring the thick beverage for over a century. In the modern incarnation of this drink, fruit juices, or nuts and grains along with sugar are added. On the day we visited, the sabores de dia included Guava, Mango, Celery, Blackberry, Oatmeal, and Pine Nut.  In its pure state, I found pulque to taste like stomach acid, so the addition of sweet fruit juice is a huge improvement.  The result is something like a wine cooler: sweet in flavor, but with an ABV on level with a beer.

IMG_0258Inside Pulqueria La Risa.

I think it’s wine cooler-like qualities are responsible for its resurgence amongst the young.  The drink is even beginning to make its way to New York City; Pulqueria, in lower Manhattan, offers ginger-peach and tomatillo pulques alongside a full Mexcian menu. A glass of pulque costs $14, about ten times the going price in Mexico city.

Do I think pulque will be a huge hit north of the border? Not likely. After carving out a small corner in the densely packed bar, my husband and I ordered a pitcher of oatmeal pulque.  Sweetened and topped with cinnamon, its the breakfast that gets you drunk.  We had planned to order several pitchers, and perhaps a discrete, foam, to-go cup, and get slowly drunk on a hot afternoon.  But after the first pitcher, our stomachs were full and grossly distended. Pulque is often known as a meal in a glass, packed full of calories and vitamins, and is incredibly filling. We left, sober and gassy, and fairly confident that that was the first, and last time, we’d try to get drunk on pulque.

Taste History Today: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Dim Sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

In the midst of Hurricane Sandy, it’s been hard to have anything else on my mind. I was stranded in Cleveland for the storm itself and only made it back to Queens for the aftermath. My neighborhood and my apartment are fine, but many people I love and neighborhoods I know are not. Friends had water in their building lobbies up to their waists; others sat in the dark apartments while they could hear Ground Zero filling up with water. Buildings shook, tress came down, subways became underground oceans–it could have all been much worse, but we were hit hard.

Particularly the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that’s like my second home. In addition to the flooding and downed trees, residents of Lower Manhattan have been without power for nearly a week. After going out in the midst of the hurricane Monday night, the streets were dark until just last night, when the lights finally came back on.

Life has been on hold for a week, and it’s finally starting back up again. In celebration, I’ve decided to write about one of my favorite restaurants on the Lower East Side: The Nom Wah Tea Parlour.

Now Wah is the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, founded in 1920 It’s on Doyers street, on Chinatown’s south border, bumped up next to New York’s courthouse and government district, and a stones throw away from the old Five Points neighborhood. Walking up to the mouth of the street, it doesn’t look at place in the City. It’s not a part of the neat and orderly grid laid out in 1811; it predates it. It’s a single lane, that climbs a small hill; a short street, only a block, that bends at a wonky curve in the middle. That bend used to be called the “Bloody Angle;” this area wasn’t such a nice place in the early 20th century.

The entire effect is not unlike an Escher painting. It’s so old New York, that an inside source told me the sewer system isn’t even part of the city sewers–they’ve got their own, pre-government, antiquated sewage system.

Right at the crook in the street is Nom Wah; it’s only had three owners in its long history. The most recent owner, Wilson Tang, is young and hip; he took it over from his uncle and is dedicated himself to keeping tradition alive, as well as helping the business grow. The interior has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, and the cash register counter has been there since the beginning.

The restaurant is a Cantonese tea parlor that serves dim sum,–or, various small plates of food meant to be shared. It’s a way of eating that has become more popular in America with immigrants that came from Hong Kong in the 1980s. It’s traditionally thought of as a brunch food, but Nom Wah is open until 10pm, for a new generation that “doesn’t want to get up early.”

The menu offers more than 50 different types of dim sum. I visited with my mother and an old friend from high school, and they put me in charge of ordering. I did well in terms of the types food I choose, but poor in terms of quantity. The menu in unclear how many of each item comes in one “order,” so by ordering three servings of everything, I ordered enough food for a small army. Oops. Be sure to ask your server for help in this regard.

The original egg roll.

In terms of what to eat, get the pork bun. It was our favorite–a sweet, yeasty steamed bun filled with savory, saucy pork. A close second was the egg roll, which Nom Wah claims to have invented, and is the delicious grandfather to a modern fast food roll. An egg crepe is stuffed with chicken and vegetables, and then rolled and fried, resulting in a particularly crisp, richly satisfying egg roll.

If you live in New York, the businesses here will need you. In areas that have been without power, they have lost a week’s worth of income, and their employees a week’s worth of work. Post power outage, Nom Wah has opened its doors again. So grab a group of friends, and get some dim sum. It’s cheap, it’s warm, it’s comforting–and it’s the perfect back drop to share our stories, and our bitching, about the last week.

Taste History Today: America Eats Tavern

I was in Washington DC last weekend and toured the What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? exhibit on now through January at the National Archives.  It’s focus is on how the government has affected what we eat.  Overall, pretty interesting.  Here were a few of my favorite facts:

BRED-SPREAD: Despite the 1906 Pure Food Law, “…unscrupulous practices continued. A photo collection features products such as Bred-Spread, a mixture of pectin, coal tar and grass seed marketed during the Depression. (source)”  Bred-spread!

THE CIVIL WAR popularized mass-produced, canned food.  Among 1860s soldier’s meals were some brands still around today: Vancamp Pork & Beans; Underwood Deviled Ham; and Borden’s Condensed Milk.  Sounds like I need to have a “eat like a civil war soldier” week.

MARTIN VAN BUREN, a lover of French food, lost his reelection campaign to William Henry Harrison, who, according to his campaign, lived on a diet of “raw beef and salt.”

DIGESTION STUDY, a photo I was not allowed to take a photo of depicted three, well-dressed, Victorian gentleman sitting around a table, rubbing their tummies.  It was simply titled “Digestion Study.”


Afterwards, my beau and I headed over to the America Eats Tavern a “pop-up” restaurant dedicated to the exhibit  “…featuring traditional American classics, celebrating native ingredients and spotlighting long forgotten dishes…” It’s created by James Beard Award-winning chef  José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup.

Here’s what my beau got to eat:


“Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding, Philadelphia, 1802.  The grandfather of today’s mac ‘n’ cheese was first written down by Louis Fresnaye, a refugee from the French Revolution.  One of America’s first commercial pasta-makers, Fresnaye handed out this recipe with the coiled pasta he sold. (source)” View the original 1802 recipe here.

This dish did exactly what this restaurant is supposed to do: it presented a classic dish that we’re familiar with, and showed it in its original, yet unfamiliar form.  Then, Andrés elaborated on it, while still strongly referencing the original recipe.  It was bursting with flavor: onions, cheesy, mushroomy.  Really amazing, a real success.

Here’s what I got:


“Eggs a la Benedick. Charles Ranhofer, New York, 1894.  Chef Ranhofer is thought to have developed this classic at his legendary Delmonico’s restuarant for a patron, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who wanted something new for lunch.  Ranhofer included this dish in his book The Epicurean in 1894. (source)” View the original recipe here.

What’s that on top?  That’s fancy foam hollondaise.  I don’t like to condescend to modern cuisine, but my cat coughed up something similar when she drank too much milk.

This dish is a great example of where I think the restaurant is failing.

Ok, first off, why did I choose this dish?  Well, unfortunately for me, many of the dishes on the menu were seafood based; I don’t eat seafood, and that’s my fault.  But I do have to hand it to Andrés for including oysters prepared multiple ways, including the hangtown fry.  Very old-timey.

Second, the two dishes I really wanted to try weren’t avaialable the day I went: one was Mock Turtle Soup, from Amelia Simmon’s 1796 cookbook.  It would have been so cool to try the 1796 recipe and mock turtle soup is a popular historic dish I have never seen on a menu or tasted before.  But it was only available on Tuesdays & Wednesdays.  The other dish, Kentucky Burgoo, was some sort of stew made from wild meats like squirrel.  Also only avialable on Wednesdays.

So my choices were limited.  But I feel my Eggs a la Benedick is a prime example of the restaurant’s main focus: Andrés found a historic reference for the origin of a dish, wrote an interesting tidbit about it on the menu, then went ahead and created whatever version of the dish he wanted to.  My eggs did not resemble the original recipe, nor were they an interesting riff on the original.  They were just eggs how Andrés felt like making them.

The dessert menu illustrates my point:

Lackluster, unsurprising, familiar dishes with no unfamiliar twist.  Reading the menu is interesting, yes.  But I want to learn my history through flavor.

Andrés is clearly a skilled chef, but I wish he had used his talent to create a concept that was more precise: the restaurant, and its message, felt all over the place.  The dishes on his menu were designed to be a survey of regional, traditional American cooking; but the exhibit was specifically about  how the government has affected what we eat.  The America Eats Tavern failed to connect me to the exhibit, when it could have provided another layer of depth.   As one critic pointed out, “…just imagine what the guy who pioneered the dragon’s breath popcorn might do with the concept of the ‘vitamin donut‘.”  Or bred-spread, for that matter.

Taste History Today: Heritage Pork Belly

You know your meat’s fresh when it still looks like an animal.  This belly’s got nipples.

Last month, I was a presenter in a very special tour of Central Park: a walk-through of the lives of the residents of Seneca Village.  Seneca Village was a rural suburb of New York until 1858, when the property owners were forced off their land in the city’s first use of Eminent Domain.  The property, which was owned largely by Irish and German immigrants and free African-Americans, was seized to build Central Park, and the town disappeared from New York City’s landscape and our collective memory. Only recently has scholarship surfaced exploring the lives of the residents of Seneca Village, and Imagining Seneca Village presented some of what we know.

The residents of Seneca Village had a huge advantage over their southern Manhattan neighbors: they could self-produce food.  Although many immigrants were coming from rural areas, once they arrived to the tenements of the Lower East Side, there was little room to grow a garden.  But according to the New York Tribune, “(Seneca Village contained homes)…of varying degrees of excellence…a number of these have fine kitchen gardens, and some of the side-hill slopes are adorned with cabbage, and melon-patches, with hills of corn and cucumbers, and beds of beets, parsnips and other garden delicacies. (1857)”

Not only gardens, but livestock as well: geese, chickens, goats and swine.  The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists seven American pig breeds as critically endangered; these are pigs that have been bred in the States for a hundred years or more, and are often close descendants of 17th and 18th century pig breeds.  They’re breeds that are known for their foraging skills and their mothering skills.  A mother and her brood can be released into the fields to fend for themselves with very little care.  For residents of Seneca Village, pigs represented and immense amount of food that came at very little cost: a pig’s foraging diet would have been supplemented with kitchen scraps and food waste; by fall, they would be plump enough for slaughter.  These foraging breeds also acted like early garbage disposals on the crowded city streets of New York, before public sanitation and garbage pick-up existed.  Dickens, on his 1842 trip to America, mentions the handsome pigs rooting around the streets for discarded cabbage leaves and offal.

But after WWII, pig breed preferences turned toward those who did well for mass production.  These foraging breeds did not have a high survival rate in a pen and people stopped breeding them.  But thanks to a return to all things delicious, small farms have focused on preserving these breeds; and, by creating a demand for their pork, we’re helping them survive as well.

So, at Imagining Seneca Village, I prepared a pork belly I obtained from Flying Pigs Farms, a ranch outside of New York that breeds Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Tamworth pigs.  When I served it, everyone demanded the recipe.  I admit, it was crispy, salty, meaty, and just awesome.  But I can’t give credit to my cooking skills — I owe it all to the meat itself.  Covered with a thick layer of fat that kept it moist while roasting, the belly’s meat was rich with the flavors of a well-exercised pig who had grown fat on fall acorns.

To make your own pork belly, start with a slab of heritage pork.  If you’re in New York, Flying Pigs is at the Union Square Greenmarket Fridays & Saturdays.  They also sell online, as do several other heritage pork purveyors around the country, like Caw Caw Creek in South Carolina.  Then, I followed Jamie Oliver’s simple recipe available here.  I didn’t even bother with the gravy, and it came out divine.

Taste History Today: Chipotle’s Corn Tortillas

On Thursday, after doing some research at the New York Public Library, I headed over to the Chipotle on 42nd st for dinner.  While standing in line, I noticed a sign tacked up near the tortilla press that said “We are trying a ‘new’ soft corn tortilla based on a 3,500-year-old recipe.  Give them a spin with your favorite combination and let us know what you think.”  3,500 year old tortillas? Sold!

The verdict?  The tortillas were moist and delicate, with a rich corn flavor.  But they tended to tear from the weight of the goodies inside.  Chipotle’s soft tacos are usually made with flour tortillas, which are generally more durable.

I was curious just how much tortilla recipes have changed over the past 3,500 years;  Edible Queens obliged my curiosity by publishing an article in their spring issue about Tortilleria Nixtamal, a taco joint that’s revolutionizing food by making their tortillas the old fashioned way (read the article here).  Pick up a copy of the magazine to learn more about different types of tortillas, how much they have changed over the years, and why tortillas in mexico taste the best.  And keep an eye out for new corn tortillas in your local Chipotle.

Taste History Today: Jefferson’s Favorite Apple

Photo by Brandon Miller

The premiere issue of Edible Queens has a feature on the Newtown Pippin apple, a heritage breed with it’s origin in the New York area. From the U.S. Apple Association:

“Also known as Albemarle Pippin, a favorite variety of Thomas Jefferson. Discovered on Long Island in 1759, this apple is one of the oldest original U.S. varieties, helping to launch the U.S. fruit export industry. Newtown Pippin is a distinctive green, often with yellow highlights. Its aromatic, tangy flesh makes the Newtown great for use in pies and applesauce. Primarilly a processing variety, most U.S. supplies are used commercially. Newtown Pippin is typically available from September through December.”

Jefferson dubbed the Newtown “The Prince of Apples” and grew them on his Monticello estate. The Newtown is making a comeback in the New York area thanks to Erik Baard, a Long Island City–based environmentalist.

“Since 2006, Baard has spearheaded a local movement to plant Newtown Pippin saplings across the city and state. “I’m trying to remind New Yorkers of our agricultural heritage one tree at a time,” explains Baard, the borough’s own Johnny Appleseed.

The Newtown Pippin—a pippin is an apple grown spontaneously from seed—first took root in the Newtown section of Queens, now Elmhurst, in the 1700s, and was almost universally lauded as one of the best-tasting apples ever grown. (Edible Queens)”

You can get your hands on Newtown Pippins in New York at the Red Jacket Orchard stand at the Union Square Greenmarket on Mondays. They sell other heirloom breeds including Baldwin, Staymen Winesap, 20 oz pippin and Northern Spy.

I’m going to be featuring the Newtown Pippin at the Old Stone House event this Sunday: stop by to see the apples for yourself and for a taste of apple-rosewater tart.

Taste History Today: Ossabaw Pork

From the ossabaw tasting dinner at Boqueria

New York chefs have been going ga-ga about a new type of upscale pork, that is actually from a very old breed: The Ossabaw.

The Ossabaw breed is descended from some of the 700 animals left along the Southeast coast by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto in 1539. The idea was that the hogs would give future colonists a ready supply of meat.

The swine left behind were Ibericos, which Spaniards let graze on acorns and then cured into their famous Jámon Iberico, a flavorful pink ham with droplets of fat that makes pork lovers swoon…Although many of the Ibericos in America eventually died out or assimilated with dominant barnyard breeds over the years, some Ibericos remained genetically pure. These are the Ossabaws, whose name comes from the remote Georgia barrier island where the breed thrived in the wild for centuries. (The News and Observer: High on this Hog)”

There has been a recent movement to save the pig, by breeding it and marketing it’s meat to upscale restaurants, mostly in New York. “It’s oxymoronic to think that eating a rare breed is actually saving it, but it’s true,” said Chuck Bassett of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy of Pittsboro. I’ve never tasted it, but the meat is supposed to be exquisite.

Only a few Mennonite farmers agreed to industry-defying lunacy: raising these pigs in the open, and finishing them on acorns, beech and hickory nuts. The six-week autumn feast lays on an incredible layer of burnished yellow, nutty-tasting fat. At 250 to 300 pounds each, 40 Ossabaws are slaughtered each autumn, and the parts sent off to people ready to accord them due reverence.

The back fat was doled out to a who’s who of four-star and locally focused enclaves. Everyone from Craft and Craftsteak, Aureole, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern,Café Boulud, and Four Seasons, to Savoy, A Voce, Tao, Tabla, Morandi and Commerce got their slab. Salumeria Biellese takes the bellies for pancetta, the front legs for coppa(thanks, shoulders) and the trim for cured salami including sopressata and cacciatorini. (Time Our New York: Ossabaw Pig Legs Ready for the Eatin)

The meat is also occasionally available at Murray’s Cheese. You can see the pigs in the flesh at Mt. Vernon, in Washington DC, where they are bred every spring. Ossibaw is also being championed because it is raised organically on wild forage, and it’s fat has healthy properties similar to olive oil. I’ve heard, however, that they can be extremely aggresive, particularly the males.

For more on this heritage breed, read this great article at Rural Intelligence.