Listening to Gary Allen on the history of food is akin to listening to Shelby Foote ruminating on the Civil War, Roger Angell discoursing on baseball, or Neil de Grasse Tyson holding forth on the past, present and future of the cosmos. His encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, coupled with an ever-peckish curiosity, an insatiable sense of enthusiasm, and a wit as dry as a bagel chip, can engage the listener long past the dinner hour. As my sainted mother might put it, “It’s a meal in itself!”
During the course of a recent visit with Allen, a resident of Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood who has authored, co-authored or contributed to nearly 40 books, I was casually informed that Thomas Coryat, in the early 17th century, introduced the Italian practice of using a table fork to English diners, who initially considered the tined implements as the “height of foolishness”; that artichokes were depicted on ancient Roman mosaics but were not considered edible until about 1400; that one reason so many urban Jews had no guilt about frequenting Chinese restaurants in the 1950s was that the tidbits of shrimp, pork, scallops and lobster were cut into such tiny pieces and smothered in murky, gray-green sauce that they were beyond identification as treyf; and that the preservation of food by drying, smoking, salting and other means has been going on since the time of Eannatum of Lagash in southern Mesopotamia.
That last item—extending the lifespan of comestibles—is the subject of Allen’s latest book, Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Food, his third book for Reaktion, a British publisher. Sumptuously illustrated (the cover depicts an American housewife, ca. 1940s, clutching three sealed mason jars, in the classic style of those war-era “Rosie the Riveter” posters), the book, far from simply being an instructive manual on how to prolong the lives of strawberries and apricots in jams, jellies and marmalades, explores how various techniques and practices of food preservation have “transformed the diets of people around the world” and contributed to the diversity of global cuisines, which is also to say the diversity of global cultures. On Friday, October 7, Allen will read from the book and sign copies at Inquiring Minds Bookstore, 6 Church Street, New Paltz, at 7 p.m. A second reading will take place the following Friday, October 14, at the shop’s sister bookstore in Saugerties, also at 7 p.m.
As for Allen’s many other writings, we here present a few delectable excerpts—a tasting menu, if you will—from various sources. Caveat comestor: As opposed to his entries for reference books, Allen’s personal essays do not really lend themselves to the extraction of an isolated paragraph or two; for the full narrative flavor of them, one really has to devour them whole. If your appetite is piqued by any of the following snippets, check out the books or websites whence they came.
From “The History of Chicken Fingers,” LeitesCulinaria.com
Americans love to eat casually. Just about anything we can eat with our hands, we do. When someone saw that chicken tenders sort of looked like fingers, and could be eaten with fingers, a stroke of marketing genius happened. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mad Men, you may be able to visualize the kind of brain-storming session that could lead to the creation of an anatomical feature that nature never intended.
From “Caesar’s Last Salad: The Foods of Ancient Rome,” LeitesCulinaria.com
But what about that last salad of Julius Caesar? Apicius doesn’t provide many recipes for dishes we would recognize as salads, either because wealthy Romans didn’t eat them or because they were too mundane to merit inclusion in his book. One thing is certain: No Roman Caesar ever ate a Caesar salad. That is an entirely modern invention created in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico. The name comes from its creator, chef Caesar Cardini.
Nonetheless, the combination of olive oil, garlic, lemon, and salty anchovies would probably have appealed to the great general. One can almost imagine him congratulating the chef with a play on the last words of the gladiator: “We, who are about to dine, salute you!”
From Sausage: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2015)
Sausage cookery—like many of the world’s great cuisines—may have begun as peasant food, but it has risen to the heights of gastronomic bliss. That is not to say, however, that we have forgotten its humble beginnings. Many sausage jokes play on the taint of residual crudeness—of class and/or ingredients. Bismarck’s alleged famous comparison between the sleaziness of legislation and the metamorphosis of mystery meat comes to mind. The French prime minister Edouard Marie Herriot, in the years before the Second World War, said much the same thing, but with Gallic flair: “Politics is like an andouillette—it should smell a little like shit, but not too much.” Another politician, Mitt Romney, while on the campaign trail for the American presidency, quipped: “A waitress once told me that scrapple is what doesn’t make it into the sausage. And I was like, there’s stuff that doesn’t qualify for the sausage?”
From “My Cynara,” justserved.onthetable.us
I wasn’t exactly sure what an artichoke was, but would have tried anything she might offer. She placed a steaming, grayish-olive, spiny-looking thing before me, and slyly slipped a bowl of melted butter across the table.
Sensing my utter cluelessness, she peeled off a leaf by its thorned tip, swirled it in the butter, her fingers describing lazy figure-eights in the golden fluid, then raised it to her lips. She hesitated for a second, then looked me in the eye as the tip of her tongue caught a dangling drop of butter. Still holding the tip, she laid the base of the leaf on her tongue. Biting, ever so gently, down on the leaf, her lips slightly parted, she slowly pulled it across her teeth, removing every trace of the tender pulp.
The eating scene that followed, involving hands and faces covered with slippery butter, accompanied by ecstatic moans of gustatory pleasure, was worthy of Tom Jones.
From “Insects,” written for The Oxford Companion to Sugars and Sweets (2015)
Insects, or at least traces of them, show up in just about every edible substance—even in something as innocent as candy. However, insects are sometimes intentionally made into candies in order to “gross out” the squeamish, or to demonstrate the eater’s machismo. In the United States such candies have typically been little more than novelty items, such as the chocolate-covered ants introduced by Reese Finer Foods in the 1950s. Thanks to Groucho Marx, who quipped to Reese executive Morris H. Kushner that “I can’t eat your chocolate-covered ants . . . the chocolate upsets my stomach,” these treats became as much a punchline as an actual snack.
From “The Green Fairy Flies High,” LeitesCulinaria.com
Although absinthe was pretty tame by comparison to modern mind-altering drugs such as LSD and mescaline, it was nonetheless the 19th century’s boldest leap into altered states. In 1872, a French newspaper quoted a doctor who had subjected himself to absinthe—purely for purposes of research, of course. “The most curious thing about this transformation,” he explained, “is that all sensations are perceived by all the senses at once. My own impression is that I am breathing sounds and hearing colors, that scents produce a sensation of lightness or of weight, roughness or smoothness, as if I were touching them with my fingers.” He prescribed small doses.
Currently, Allen is working on a book (he is always working on a book, or on several books simultaneously) about sauces. When people ask him how he manages to sustain such prolificity, he replies that writing simply entails “sitting in one place alone for a long time.” He is also fueled by his working sustenance of choice: peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, preferably on nutty, whole grain bread, preferably with one of his homemade jams. Over 34 years of marriage, he has done all of the cooking in his household; his wife, Karen, has cooked exactly three meals: two when Allen was laid up after surgery, and a one-time birthday surprise of beef Stroganoff.
Finally, we would be remiss not to mention one area—or should we say, one dark alley—of gastronomy to which Allen has staked out a singular claim: the ingestion of Homo sapiens by Homo sapiens. He coedited (with Ken Albala) Human Cuisine (self-published, 2008), and followed that up with the more comprehensive How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, and the Nature of Eating (the Kindle edition can be downloaded from Amazon). To address the question, dear reader, that is most likely bubbling on your lips, and which Allen has been asked a thousand times, the answer is “No.” He has masticated some very strange meat in his day, but prime cut of John Q. Public has eluded his culinary experience (so far). This fact, he avers, does not derive from any moral or ethical considerations. It is simply based on the conclusion, after much study and investigation of case histories, that “human flesh is not very healthy stuff.”