If you want to roast beaver tail, better have a really hot campfire.
So says Libby O’Connell, chief historian at the History Channel, who has written the story of our fair nation — from the kitchen. Food culture has risen from cottage industry to economic driver in America these days, from gourmet crafts (small-batch beer, anyone?) to artisanal dining. With food such a focus, and bringing bites of American history to the farmer’s market and beyond, O’Connell’s book looks at some of the dishes that got us to where we are today.
The American Plate: A History of the United States in 100 Bites won’t land on bookshelves until the fall, but OZY got an early peek. You might not be surprised to read about blueberries, bagels and baked Alaska, but what about paprikash and something called war cake?
- Beaver tail: That’s right, those industrious varmints were once a hearty campfire treat. Not exactly a delicacy — and nothing like the Canadian fried pastry known as beavertails —but O’Connell notes that feasting on real beaver tails meant trappers had snared some high-priced pelts. Prep tip: Scorch the skin over a hot fire before peeling off the pelt. Yum.
- Sassafras: You can still find this root used in teas and as a key spice in Cajun gumbo. Once one of the biggest exports from the New World to England, its popularity fell when the Europeans realized it didn’t pack quite the medicinal punch against syphilis as presumed.
- Syllabub: Cheers, darling. This popular British tipple, sometimes made as a dessert today, involved spirits, cream and flavorings — O’Connell likens it to a modern-day eggnog, except one that was savored year-round. It’s also a pop culture favorite, be it a staple of articles aimed at helping the modern ladies of the 1600s, or Tori Amos lyrics.
- Paprikash: Three kinds of paprika, writes O’Connell in her recipe, make this Hungarian dish stand out. A chicken stew of sorts, the relatively inexpensive ingredients that don’t stint on spice brought the taste of Eastern Europe to American as immigrant workers spread across the land. Immigrants may have viewed the dish as nothing special, but their children, and their children’s children, saw the catchall dish as comfort food harkening back to their roots in this new land.
- Red Cross War Cake: World War I gave rise to a new food order — driven by a need to keep soldiers mired in Europe’s trenches fed. For its part in the war effort, the Red Cross devised a cake recipe heavy with dried fruit — for a home-cooked treat that could last a very long time. O’Connell suggests soaking raisins in rum for a little extra zip.
Why you should care
Some recipes lost to history deserve to be forgotten, while others might be worth bringing back.