Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Kitchens of Skyrim: Venison Stew

With the remastered release of Skyrim last fall, I found myself lured back to one of my favorite series of all time. Daggerfall was my first Elder Scrolls game, back when I got my first computer in 1996(!). While Morrowind will always hold a special place in my heart as the star of the Elder Scrolls stories, the open world of Skyrim is fascinating not only for its branched questlines, but also for the mundane daily activities that can fill a character’s time. 

I bought the original edition in November 2011, but didn’t install it because I was starting my first NaNoWriMo project, trying to bring my third novel into good form. The statue of Alduin the World-Eater stood on a shelf over my desk to encourage me to exceed my daily word count goal so I could delve in and see what awaited me in Skyrim. When I finally got around to playing, a friend advised me to build up my blacksmithing skills ASAP—oh, and go mine your own ore. The second recommendation—cook your own food. It’s a nice break between quests to sit back in-game and strategize for the next quests.

In the years since Skyrim’s release, a number of bloggers have reproduced honey nuts treats and the infamous sweet rolls. (Anyone else ever use their thu’um to fus-ro-dah one of those snarky guards?)

Personally, I’m much more into cooking savory foods. There is a running list of recipes from the game I’ve always wanted to try, so I’m kicking off an occasional series about the meals of Skyrim. After procuring some venison from a local meat shop, I settled in on a snowy weekend and made stew with a loaf of potato bread (possible with the Hearthfire mod, or, if you go way back to Oblivion, as part of a visit to the Faregyl Inn in Cyrodiil).

The bread came out surprisingly fluffy and was a delight. Because venison wasn’t in season I settled for frozen, but would happily revisit this recipe again to get some fresh loin when it’s available.

Skyrim’s Venison Stew
¼ cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
2 pounds venison (loin)
4 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 medium or large leeks
2 medium-sized potatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 cups red wine
Approx. 4 cups stock (I prefer vegetable)
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
½ tablespoon Aleppo pepper
8 juniper berries, ground
1 bay leaf

Cur venison into 1 to 2-inch chunks and brown in a skillet, set aside. Melt butter in stock pot, add leeks and garlic and simmer until caramelized, approximately 25 minutes. Add flour and stir until it thickens. Add wine and simmer another ten minutes. Add meat to stock pot, add rest of ingredients and top off with stock, simmer on low for another hour before serving. Serve with fresh bread.

Potato Bread
1 large potato
1 egg (or egg substitute)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 ½ teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
Approx. 2 cups of water
1 packet of yeast
½ teaspoon saffron threads
Peel and boil the potato until soft. Mash and let cool. In large bowl, activate the yeast. Add flour, crumble saffron into the mixture, add salt. Melt butter, mix into dry ingredients with honey, mashed potato, and egg. Knead for ten minutes, adding flour or water as necessary. Cover bowl and let rise for 90 minutes. Punch down, let rise for another hour or until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Punch down dough again; shape it into a large round on a buttered pan. Just before placing in oven, score the top of the loaf with a knife. Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown and knocking on the top sounds hollow. (I typically keep a bamboo skewer on hand to inset into the loaf to ensure the inside is cooked enough. If it comes out wet and clumpy, keep in the oven for a bit more.) Serve with your favorite butter.

Special thanks to Jarl Balgruuf for use of the Dragonsreach kitchen in Whiterun. And now, for more sweet rolls.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Exploring the Cuisine of the Viking Age

Of all the books I’ve read about cooking, An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey remains a favorite of mine. A combination of history book, archaeological study, and treasure trove of interesting recipes, An Early Meal covers the cooking techniques of the Viking Age alongside evidence found in the ancient sagas and stories of the time. The first portion of the book is dedicated to exploring seasonal foods and regional styles, as well as customs and recommendations for replicating the recipes. Culinary history has always been a fascinating topic for me, but this book reaches the top of the list because of its meticulous detail. If you’re a writer and your thing is historical fiction, this would be the book to use.

Much of what has been learned has come from grave offerings. The types of cooking pots and types of bread have shown not only the social class of the person who had been buried, but they’ve also indicated the beloved traditions of this culture. We know what grew naturally in the area, and can help build the cookbook from there.

An Early Meal offers a range of interesting facts about everyday cooking. Salt was not widely available, so curing was common. (Astute Skyrim players will remember the fish racks on the seashores.) Vessels were typically made out of pottery, wood, or leather. Beer was flavored with meadowsweet, gale, rose hips, yarrow, or juniper. Sugar was sourced from fruit, honey, and malt. Hops came on the scene around the 14th century. In addition to curing, pickling was also common.

As the hearth was the heart of the home, the cauldron was the central feature. They were usually made of pottery or soapstone, and richer households used iron or copper. Pithouses (or firehouses in Iceland) were built next to longhouses, and were used for baking, smoking, and curing. Some things, like turnips, were cooked directly in the ash.

While the below feast is based on some of the recipes in the book, I took some liberties with them. Years of cooking and watching shows like Chef’s Table (Netflix) got me beyond following recipes to the letter, in favor of a bit of experimentation, depending on what’s seasonally available, and frankly, what simply inspires as I go along. What I made was sirloin tips with a drizzle of the berry sauce found on page 100, with my take on a combination of two other recipes—boar stew and frumenty—and making sautéed kale and leeks with farro, and a loaf of Danish rye berry bread. It didn’t take much for me to convince my Renn-fest-loving husband to play the part, complete with a drinking horn from Grimfrost.

The first step was to make the berry sauce. This turned out to be the most finicky aspect of the meal, but well worth the effort! Using a sturdy sauce pan that has been in the family for generations, I began by combining the fruit and heating it until it soften, then it was time to add the mead. The rest of the mead wound up in the drinking horn, as it should.

Berry Sauce for Red Meat
·         3 plums
·         A small container of raspberries
·         A small container of blackberries
·         ~1/3 cup mead
·         1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped fine

Add fruit to sauce pan and boil until soft. Press through strainer to extract juice. Return juice to sauce pan and add mead. Reheat, add mint at the end. Serve over grilled meat.

Kale and Leeks with Farro
·         One bunch kale
·         2 to 3 medium-sized leeks
·         1 cup farro
·         2 cups vegetable broth
·         Butter and seasoning to taste

In one pan, melt about ¼ cup butter. Add leeks and sauté until they start to brown. Tear kale and take out the larger stems. Add to leeks and sauté.

Rye Berry Bread
·         1 package yeast
·         Sprinkling of sugar
·         2 ½ cups rye flour
·         ¾ cup regular flour
·         ¾ cup rye berries
·         2 teaspoons salt
·         1 ½ cup buttermilk

·         ½ cup water (a good beer is also recommended as a substitute with more flavor!)
Put rye berries in a mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over them until covered (about and inch or two over the berries), and let sit for 45 minutes before draining thoroughly.

Combine yeast and sugar in large mixing bowl. Add both kinds of flour, salt, rye berries, and stir in buttermilk. Add water (or beer) slowly, until dough is sticky—you may need to adjust flour to liquid until the bread dough feels right. Knead for 10 minutes. Place dough ball into large bowl and cover—let rise for 2 hours. Punch down, let rise another two hours.

Preheat oven to 350. Grease bread pan with butter and shape dough into a loaf. Let rise in pan for another 30 minutes. Bake for approximately and hour and a half. Cover with foil after an hour to prevent burning. I use a bamboo skewer to poke into the loaf to check the density. If it comes out clean, it’s done. Remove from bread pan and let cool. Serve with your favorite butter.

Put all together, and it was definitely a hearty feast worthy of the tables around the mead hall. I look forward to trying out many more recipes—the fish stewed in ale and the hazel nuts treats being next on the list. Perhaps a follow-up post will be in order!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Perfect Meal in Solitude

MFK Fisher had a deep appreciation for solitude. Poring over An Alphabet for Gourmets, the idea of dining alone came up time and again, from her own experiences to bachelors she knew. Opening with “A is for Dining Alone,” Fisher talks about the sometimes wearying effects of other people’s expectations. Due to her popularity as a food writer, she faced a lot of self-deprecation when friends and acquaintances told her they were reluctant to cook for her because they assumed her standards were impossible to meet. As a result, MFK Fisher often sought simplicity on her own: “I drive home by way of the Thriftimart to pick up another box of Ry Krisp, which with a can of tomato soup and a glass of sherry will make a good nourishing meal for me as I sit on my tuffet in a circle of proofs and pocket detective stories.”

An Alphabet for Gourmets was published in 1949. While Rosie the Riveter had gained iconic status, real women out in the world on their own was still a scandal-inducing concept to some. With razor-sharp wryness, MFK Fisher offers up a series of incidents to illustrate the double standard between men and women in the public sphere. Dining alone as a woman at a restaurant hadn’t gained full acceptance yet, and as she recounts, “I resolved to establish myself as a well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants, where I could dine alone at a pleasant table…rather than be pushed into a corner…they knew I tipped well, they knew I wanted simple but excellent menus, and, above all, they knew I could order and drink, all by myself, an aperitif and a small bottle of wine without turning into a maudlin, potential pick-up for the Gentleman at the Bar.” That she brought books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer makes the image of her confronting old norms all the more brilliant. 

Her craving for simplicity follows in the recipes she provides throughout the book. Despite the short list of ingredients for each, the flavors promised by the recipes are alluring. Hamburgers are seasoned with red wine and oyster sauce. A tangy trout dish is made in honor of gourmand Brillat-Savarin. Sirloin steak marinates in soy, wine, and olive oil. A fan of “peasant caviar,” Fisher includes three variations of the eggplant-based dip. 

She describes several encounters with bachelors and the meals they served. A lonely widower invited her for dinner, and she prepared herself thusly: “I did something I seldom do when I am to be a guest: I drank a sturdy shot of dry vermouth and gin, which I figured from long experience would give me an appetite immune to almost any gastronomical shocks.” Though what comes next is what she calls ‘the ghastliest meal,” there’s a poignancy to the scene as the story of his deceased wife comes to light, and that MFK Fisher appreciated the fact that he cooked what he knew and was happy with, and it was done unabashedly and with gusto. 

Fisher also shared her favorite items from her collection: old cookbook recommendations, and a sampling of the menus she collected over the years from many, many restaurants. Her interests were far and wide, and fascinating enough for me to copy some of the names to hunt down on my own. 

At the end of the book, she offers up a game called The Perfect Dinner. Six being the perfect number to fill a table, she asks who the guests would be. For her, guests included French novelist Colette and the Prince of Wales. The ideal setting was a wide balcony on top of a house on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, with dinner served on ‘the cool end of a hot August day, while there was still light in the day for the first part, with candles to come later.” A lovely scene, but hours after reading that chapter, I was still wondering who I would invite to be my guests. My husband, of course, and if I wasn’t bound by time, I’d love to spend some time in the company of the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Abbie Hoffman. What they’d have to say about today’s world would be of keen interest to me. Oh, I know, Yvette Nicole Brown—I really want to get into an in-depth analysis of The Walking Dead. The insights from those notebooks she brings to the post-show discussion would be awesome to discuss. 

On the other hand, maybe I’d keep it more ordinary: family I wish I had more time to spend with, or relatives I never got to meet. Rather than some exotic, far-flung location, it would be on the Maine coast on a new spring day as the lupines just start blossoming. The combinations of guests and scenes are endless. 

Whimsical games about the idea dinner party aside, I can say that for me, nothing is better for restoring my energy than to have my own meals in solitude from time to time. Sometimes it’s an elaborate meal that takes hours to prepare. Other times, it’s as simple as her “Strengthening Prescription for Monastic Supper: a small crusty loaf of sourdough bread, a piece of Gorgonzola, a stick of butter, and a bottle of red wine.” 

Sounds like nirvana to me. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Feast for Cephrael’s Hand

I’ve always loved epic fantasy. The genre has been a staple of my reading lists ever since I can remember. The old favorites line the bookshelves, and the new discoveries fill space on the apps on my phone. There’s nothing better for a commute on Boston’s crumbling public transit system than a story that pulls you in so deeply you nearly forget your stop. In the era of indie publishing, my go-to authors for epic fantasy have been Terry Simpson and Melissa McPhail.

I first read McPhail’s work when Cephrael’s Hand was new. Through a post on a Facebook group, I volunteered to help with a blog tour, and aspired to do a review. My timing was off. My then-boyfriend-now-husband was just moving in, and digging into a 600+ page novel wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, the blog tour organizers had premade materials to post in lieu of a review. But for the 150 or so pages I read at the time, the story made an impression.

Fast forward to this year, when my commute became longer after a move, and I had been looking forward to delving into this series anew. What I love about the Pattern of Shadow & Light series is its complexity. Much like George R.R. Martin’s work, you’re introduced to dozens of characters, each with detailed motivations and quests. The worldbuilding is beautifully described, from its geography to the magic the characters wield. With the fourth novel just released, I look forward to continuing with the series.

Early on in Cephrael’s Hand, we meet Trell of the Tides, a man who lives as a guest in an adopted kingdom. His past is unknown to him, and he is encouraged to seek out the truth. In a long journey, he meets a group of sisters who beg to travel with him, and they come to a city called Sakkalah. They stay at the elegant Inn of the Four Faces, and are presented with the following meal: “Roast green peppers were stuffed with beef and pork mixed with spices, raisins, and almonds and smothered in walnut-pomegranate sauce; lamb with potatoes and carrots was served with golden tomatoes, and a baked dish of roasted eggplant with vegetables, dates, and digs amazed them with its rich complexity. They picked from a host of side dishes, and were offered a never-ending supply of warm, toasted flatbread and excellent wine.”

I highlighted the passage and made a note. This is exactly the kind of cooking that sends my imagination flying. One of the aspects of worldbuilding I take the most delight in when writing my own novels is figuring out if I can get the reader to feel as though they’re at the table with the characters. In this case, I was instantly drawn in and not only following the conversation with Trell and his companions, but enjoying the smells coming from the kitchen, and marveling at the platters placed on the table. The culture I was being introduced to was all the more relatable. A list of ingredients formed in my mind.

Taking a bit of creative license with the original passage, I came up with the following—hopefully it will inspire you to seek out the series and join Trell at the Inn of the Four Faces as well!

Stuffed Peppers and Roasted Eggplant with Date Syrup and Spiced Yogurt Topping

Stuffed Peppers
3 green peppers
1 lb. beef and pork mixture
1 red onion
1 15 oz. can kidney beans
1 15 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes
Penzey’s Turkish seasoning and Aleppo pepper to taste
3 tbl. olive oil
~1 cup broth (vegetarian or beef)
½ to 1 cup pomegranate seeds

Add olive oil and heat skillet. Dice onion and fry until it turns brown. Add beef and pork mixture, stir until brown. Add fire-roasted tomatoes, kidney beans, and seasoning. Meanwhile, cut green peppers in half, remove seeds, but leave steps so the peppers hold their shape in the oven.

Spread pepper halves in large casserole pan. Pour broth no more than half-inch deep into pan as a bath for the peppers. Spoon beef mixture into pepper halves, and cook at 350F for about 30 minutes, or until peppers have softened. When plating, top with fresh pomegranate seeds.

Roast Vegetables
1 large eggplant
1 head cauliflower (I used orange cauliflower for color)
1 large sweet potato
Olive oil to drizzle on vegetables
Salt and pepper to taste
Date syrup
Topping for vegetables
2 tbl. tahini
¼ boiling water
1 clove of garlic, or 1 tbl. crushed garlic scapes
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 tbl. pomegranate molasses
¼ cup olive oil
Pinch of Aleppo pepper

Mix tahini and water, add garlic (or scapes), yogurt, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

Cut eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let rest for about 20 minutes to remove bitterness, rinse and chop, place on roasting pan with chopped cauliflower and sweet potato. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and Aleppo pepper. Roast at 425F for about 30 minutes or until soft, turning over midway through or as needed.

When plating, top with a generous spoonful of yogurt dressing, and drizzle date syrup. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cinnamon and Gunpowder: A Pirate’s Feast

This is one of those novels that I knew would sweep me away into a beautifully described world when I saw it on the shelf. A kidnapped cook is taken aboard the Flying Rose, led by the fearsome-yet-captivating Captain Mabbot, and cooks wondrous meals for her one a week. What follows is a delightful tale—the language full of culinary references (“The pinnace dumped me out like a dumpling from a spoon”) and vivid characterizations (Mr. Apples might have been drawn by a particularly violent child. His torso is massive, but his head is tiny and covered by a woolen hat with earflaps.”).

The descriptions of the food served makes you wish you were taken by Captain Mabbot and her crew as well. On the night of the kidnapping, Owen is bringing out a platter of roast duck with cherry sauce to follow up an opening course of basil beef broth when the terrifying figures interrupt the feast. The dish stuck with me, and shortly after finishing the book, I traveled to Maine to stay with mom and stepdad. Finding duck breast and fresh Rainer cherries by happenstance, I improvised by own version of the dish, adding in my all-time favorite, Meyer lemon, and a generous splash of wine to the pan as the sauce reduced and formed a glaze on the duck breast. A side of leeks and broccoli rabe sautéed in butter rounded it all out. I wish I had written down the recipe after cooking it, but alas, some meals are like that. They’re all the more memorable for being a unique experience.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder remains one of my favorite books of the year. While the situation Chef Owen finds himself in doesn’t seem realistic in the sense that he has access to so many fresh and varied ingredients on their long journey to seek out Mabbot’s rival, the Brass Fox, I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of adventure and romance. The characterization and story were strong, and any artistic liberties taken with historical elements add a flair of fantasy that is right at home in this novel.

In the edition I have, there is a recipe for Vanilla-Rose Amaretti, a cookie of sorts that is both gluten-free and vegan. Consisting of coconut, almond flour, maple syrup, rose water, and sea salt, it was incredibly tasty, and I usually have poor experiences with gluten-free treats, as they tend to suck all the moisture out of my skull. This was a very pleasant surprise, though I believe something went a bit awry with the recipe. Rather than looking like amaretti—a nice round puff—what I wound up with was a lace cookie. Nothing to complain about, as I’ve always loved lace cookies, and I’m not even into sweets that much, but I do wonder where in the process things changed from what the recipe directed me to do. The world of baking has never been much of a thing for me. I’d much rather open a CSA box and marvel at a colorful array of garlic scapes, swiss chard, and beets.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a culinary novel—and as such, occupies a special shelf in my collection to draw inspiration from. If you’re looking for pirates, adventure, and a lush feast, this tale’s a fantastic voyage. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Culinary World of Tombstone, Arizona

Whiskey and Rue was an unusual novel for me to write for many reasons. I hadn’t been inspired by westerns previously, and most of the women in history I’ve written about have been difficult to research, because little is known about the ones I had grown most attached to. That changed in 2008, when I traveled to Tucson to explore the idea of moving there. One of my favorite places to visit was the Arizona Historical Society, and it was there a simple handwritten form captured my imagination. An affidavit described a woman, May Woodman, who shot her lover, and was sent to Yuma as the only female prisoner at the time. During her time in Yuma Prison, she helped run a contraband cigar operation. It was as though her ghost sensed I’d write about her story. I took a few notes about the affidavit and went on my way.

Back in Boston, the story lingered, and I contacted the historical society to ask if they had more information about May Woodman. Indeed they did. For a small fee, they offered to copy the entire transcript of the trial. A novel began to unfold. Doing research on Tombstone at the time of the shoot-out at OK Corral was easy compared to say…finding reliable details about Prince Vlad Dracula’sfirst wife, or consort, as it may be. Good books were easy to come by. I found a high resolution image of fire insurance map drawn in the 1880s online that gave me a meticulously detailed street map of the town. Several rounds of National Novel Writing Month and professional editing helped me round out the story, and I published it in 2014. The Arizona Historical Society gave me permission to use a copy of the note the foreman of the jury wrote to declare May Woodman guilty. It’s the front piece in the novel. It was one of my favorite aspects of designing the book. Whiskey and Rue seems the story that has caught on the best with readers, and it’s been wonderful to see it gain a following.

Of all the research I did, the book I enjoyed the most was A Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History, by Sherry Monihan. In this richly detailed history of the town too tough to die, there are menus from its most famous restaurants and really good recipes. I featured the ham with champagne sauce in a scene where May and her lover Billy Kinsman are trying to smooth over their rocky relationship. I served it with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a side of green beans. While it was an elegant moment of respite for the two main characters, the tension grew between them, aided by her infatuation with Johnny Ringo, and the burgeoning war between the Earps and Clanton–McLaury factions.

Of course, A Taste of Tombstone covers Tombstone’s most infamous incident, but I greatly appreciated all the things the book taught me. The thirty-second shoot-out that is still debated today plays only a minor role here. The food restaurants served was much more sophisticated than I imagined, with French cuisine being popular and the diversity of the population bringing German and Chinese cuisine to the table, among many other cultures that arrived in Tombstone’s heyday. There was more seafood available than I would have guessed, given the time it must have taken to be delivered, but ice production was also more advanced than one may assume. They even had an ice cream parlor! While it’s hard for me to imagine Wyatt Earp delighting in a scoop of ice cream (would you like sprinkles with that, sir?), it began to paint a very different picture of the West than the old simplistic Hollywood films had portrayed.

The population boomed in a short time, but frequent lay-offs due to overproduction at the mines made for a choppy economy. Two fires swept through Tombstone’s heart in a short span of only two years, but determined proprietors rebuilt their hotels and chop houses, and hungry miners sought them out night after night.

Monihan provides a charming portrait of the town, complete with photos and other interesting images that help bring the essence of that era alive. While the novel is out there, I still revisit this book, to recreate some of the dishes that May Woodman and Tombstone’s other residents enjoyed. I still think about May’s story, and am glad I had a chance to share it. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

MFK Fisher: The Art of Eating and Serve It Forth

As a kid, I was a tomboy. I wore scuffed dungarees and Converse sneakers, and was happier watching dirtbike races than playing with dolls. I spent little time in the kitchen. Passing though, usually, on the way to my next adventure. But there was a special collection of books on the shelf that caught my eye even then. Especially one in the series: How to Cook a Wolf. How intriguing! Just like the Dungeons and Dragons stories my brother and I created, it inspired imaginative worlds. Only when I was older did I realize it was about living frugally in times of war.

Over the years, I’ve read portions of M.F.K. Fisher’s books. It’s a fascinating body of work. As I re-read the series, it was clearly a perfect fit for the “How Do They Feast?” series I originally started to talk about how food is portrayed in historical fiction. The series has grown to take on a lot more, and I’m looking forward to exploring M.F.K. Fisher’s books as a subseries to “How Do They Feat?” Thanks to Mom for letting me take them off the shelf and “adopt” them for a time.

The Art of Eating is a compilation of her earlier work. Far from the glamorous celebrity chef culture, the introduction of The Art of Eating almost apologizes for its own existence. Our puritanical roots are suspected in the lack of indulgence in the literature of gastronomy on the part of Americans. European greats such as Brillat-Savarin are mentioned as the experts on writing about food. Many lived under Brillat-Savarin’s shadow for a long time. M.F.K. Fisher, like Julia Child, pioneered a new path for American foodies.

Alas, there were those who thought it wasn’t possible that Fisher’s books were really her own. It was believed a man wrote them for her. The essays were too well-crafted—so much history and culture—clearly a polymath of the Ivy League, they speculated. Well, the glass…errr…skillet was at least broken in that realm, and we celebrate many women who achieve great success as chefs and writers alike. It does make me wonder, though, what M.F.K. Fisher would have thought if she could see the abundance of cooking shows today. She strikes me as a lady who would appreciate the travels and observations of Anthony Bourdain, rather than the bluster and superficiality of Guy Fieri.

I begin the series where she began, with Serve It Forth. Published in 1937, the book delves into interesting historical bits, such as the curious-but-kind-of-gross garum of Roman times, a sauce made of fermented fish guts that was a delicacy. (Which has now leapt off the pages of history, and has evidently become a thing—I may muster the courage to give it a try soon!) From the eating habits of medieval royalty to French fads during colonial times and during the French Revolution, Fisher provides an amazing array of detail. If you’re an author looking to add some authenticity to the cuisine of your worlds, her books are a delightful resource.

Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it with mustard. (Take that, trendy bulletproof coffee!) When American colonists began consuming turkey, many a French social-seeker ruined their finances serving turkey with truffles—an exorbitant expense which practically depleted the truffle business. Even in modern times, historical associations have given certain types of food a social status. Turnips and cabbage have a particularly bad reputation for being “the food of the poor,” but leeks and artichokes also make the list. M.F.K. Fisher relates some striking quotes in an effort to dispel snobbery here, such as saying “Mrs. So-and-So is the type of person who serves artichokes!” as a means to slam someone’s social standing. It’s kind of funny, until you realize how real it is.

What I found particularly striking were Fisher’s concerns about the American diet. Even in the early 20th century, she noted about how much people ate, and observed a trend in weight gain among older adults. She worried about the future of this trend, which has sadly become a devastating reality, with half of Americans dealing with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, according to a newly published study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In her essay of the tendency to overeat, she says, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

M.F.K. Fisher introduces Serve it Forth by listing cookbooks as one of the three items that proves man’s ingenuity in transforming necessity into art. Indeed, her way of cataloging how we’ve viewed cuisine over the centuries shows this is the case. From the most extravagant to the most frugal, her work offers meticulous insight into our relationship with food.
A “meat and potatoes” style of cooking is mentioned with some frequency, so in honor of the mid-20th century way, I’m sharing a recipe that may have made it into the ‘50s-style kitchen. It combines happy hour and dinner, with steak tips marinated in a giant Old Fashioned. Toward the end of the book, Fisher tells us an endocrinologist told her that after a hearty meal of rare beef and wine, the earlobes turn red, and that’s the time to ask for favors or tell bad news. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to play on that. :)

Old Fashioned Marinated Sirloin Tips with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Sirloin Tips Marinated in an Old Fashioned
½ cup bourbon
½ cup orange juice
½ cup cherry juice
2 lbs. sirloin tips
1 onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut steak into 2-inch chunks. Marinate in bourbon, orange juice, and cherry juice for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Begin by pouring enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet. Add sirloin tips, reserving the marinade on the side, and cook in batches if necessary, until sear—keep it very rare at this stage! Remove beef and set aside. Add chopped onion and cook until browned. Return beef to the skillet and add the sauce. Cook down until sauce thickens and makes a nice glaze on the sirloin tips (you can add some flour or cornstarch to the sauce to speed up the thickening process.)

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
2 lbs. potatoes (about 6 medium)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives, chopped (optional)
Add potatoes to large pot. Fill with water and season with salt. Boil for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until very tender. Drain. Mash in pot with butter, buttermilk, and season with salt, pepper, and chives as desired.

Serve sirloin tips over potato. Make an old fashioned for after dinner!