Strawberry season begins this month, the mark of the beginning of summer, that moment when you can get burst-in-your-mouth fresh strawberries by the bucketful, then wonder briefly what you’ll do with them all (spoiler: no matter how many you buy, you’ll always find a way to use them all, it’s the First Rule of Strawberries).
Interestingly, the modern strawberry didn’t always exist. The Romans had them–poets Virgil and Ovid both mentioned the berry–but they were hard and bitter, and only used as decoration. Wild strawberries, like the French fraises des bois have always been eaten; however, the strawberry we know today, the lush, big-bodied, bright-red berry comes from the Americas. It was a cross between the Chile strawberry as cultivated in France (larger, but more delicate to grow) and the Virginia strawberry, popular in England (more sturdy). This intersection of exploration and botany produced the large, sweet, relatively easy to grow strawberry that all modern strawberries are related to. However, we should really be thanking Charles Hovey, a nurseryman from Cambridge, MA who in 1851 created a new variety that was even easier to grow. It was only then, just 164 years ago, that it became possible to mass produce the fruit. The strawberry, it seems, is the product of careful human intervention. We wanted it to exist, so we worked over hundreds of years to make it happen. It was worth it.
Deep dive: The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology (PDF), a beautifully written guide from 1957 by Dr. George M. Darrow, a small fruit expert and Vermonter who put together the strawberry’s history for the USDA (he was also responsible for several varieties that further improved on the fruit). The first few chapters are especially lovely.
Feasts & Celebrations
May 5: Cinco de Mayo
May 8-10: The Fish Festival of Saint Fortunato
May 25: Pastelitos del 25 de Mayo
Our Cookbook Restoration Project:
Every month we take a few out-of-print cookbooks and restore them digitally, trying to stay as true as possible to the original style and format. This month we have a book on early Italian dishes for Americans, the perfect cocktail guide as told by one of the best bartenders of his era, and a Civil War community cookbook that is a collection of some of the most popular New England dishes of that time.
In 1864, mid-Civil War, Maria J. Moss created one of the first community cookbooks, The Poetical Cookbook , with the intent to raise money for injured Union soldiers. The Civil War ended in 1865, but the success of this cookbook spawned over 3,000 more like it in the next 50 years. The recipes are unlike anything you might find written in modern cookbooks; there are no precise measurements, beyond a “glass of wine” or “a little “flour.” Each recipe includes an accompanying line or two of poetry. At 100 pages in length, it’s a snapshot of Civil War era cooking in America, especially in the Northeast.
Here are some of our favorites:
Your rabbits fricaseed and chicken,
With curious choice of dainty picking,
Each night got ready at the Crown,
With port and punch to wash ’em down.
Take two fine white rabbits, and cut them in pieces; blanch them in boiling water, and skim them for one minute; stir a few trimmings of mushrooms in a stewpan over the fire, with a bit of butter, till it begins to fry, then stir in a spoonful of flour; mix into the flour, a little at a time, nearly a quart of good consommé, which set on the fire, and when it boils put the rabbits in, and let them boil gently till done; then put them in another stewpan, and reduce the sauce till nearly as thick as paste; mix in about half a pint of good boiling cream, and when it becomes the thickness of bechamelle sauce in general, squeeze it through the tammy to the rabbits; make it very hot, put in a few mushrooms, the yolk of an egg, a little cream, and then serve it to table.
Is there, then, that o’er his French ragout,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornful view,
On sic a dinner?
Take a rump of beef, cut the meat from the bone, flour and fry it, pour over it a little boiling water, about a pint of small-beer, add a carrot or two, an onion stuck with cloves, some whole pepper, salt, a piece of lemon-peel, a bunch of sweet herbs; let it stew an hour, then add some good gravy; when the meat is tender take it out and strain the sauce; thicken it with a little flour; add a little celery ready boiled, a little ketchup, put in the meat; just simmer it up.
Where so ready all nature its cookery yields,
Macaroni au Parmesan grows in the fields.
Lay fried bread pretty closely round a dish; boil your macaroni in the usual way, and pour it into the dish; smooth it all over, and strew breadcrumbs on it, then a pretty thick layer of grated Parmesan cheese; drop a little melted butter on it, and put it in the oven to brown.
In 1917, Tom Bullock was the first African American bartender to publish a cocktail guide. He had served Mint Juleps to President Theodore Roosevelt and other notables during his long tenure at the St. Louis Country Club in the pre-Prohibition era. Beyond the Mint Julep, his manual includes recipes for cocktails that include everything from absinthe and brandy to Champagne.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Juice of ½ of a Lime.
1 pony Cusenier Grenadine.
1 jigger Sir Robert Burnette’s Old Tom Gin.
Serve in a Mug with Lump Ice; fill with Seltzer.
Stir well and decorate with the skin of the Lime and fresh Mint and serve with Straws.
FREE LOVE COCKTAIL—-Club Style
½ of the white of 1 Egg.
3 dashes Anisette.
1 jigger Old Tom Gin.
1 pony fresh Cream.
Shake well, serve in Cocktail glass.
Fill large Bar glass ⅔ full Shaved Ice.
3 dashes Gum Syrup.
4 dashes Lemon Juice.
1 dash Lime Juice.
1 teaspoonful Abricontine or green Chartreuse.
½ jigger Tokay or Sweet Catawba Wine.
½ jigger Brandy.
Stir well and strain into a fancy Sour glass; dress with Fruits; dash with Apollinaris or Seltzer; top off with a little Claret and serve.
War year cookbooks are always fascinating, but they are even more so when they are a reflection of the author’s effort to understand, appreciate, and share another culture–usually that of an ally nation. Such is the case with this cookbook, which encourages American home cooks to try simple, classic Italian dishes. Written in simple, direct prose, these recipes’ brevity encourage experimentation. What is particularly interesting about this book is that “every penny” from the sale of the book was sent to Italians, who, the author noted, “will use it for food and clothing for the families of Italian soldiers.”
Here is one of our favorites:
SPAGHETTI ALLA NAPOLITANA
> 1/2 lb. round steak
> 1/4 lb. salt pork or bacon
> 1 small onion
> 1 tablespoon butter or substitute
> A few dried mushrooms, if desired
> A clove of garlic
> Several sprigs parsley
> Fresh or canned tomatoes
Grind the salt pork and try it out in a saucepan. While it is frying put the onion through the grinder. As soon as the pork begins to brown add the onion, the parsley chopped, the garlic shredded fine, and the mushrooms which have been softened by soaking in warm water. When the vegetables are very brown (great care must be taken not to burn the onion, which scorches very easily) add the meat ground coarsely or cut up in little cubes. When the meat is a good brown color, add about one pint of tomatoes and simmer slowly until all has cooked down to a thick creamy sauce. It will probably take 3/4 hour. The sauce may be bound together with a little flour if it shows a tendency to separate.
This sauce is used to dress all kinds of macaroni and spaghetti, also for boiled rice. Spaghetti should be left unbroken when it is cooked. If it is too long to fit in the kettle immerse one end in the boiling salted water and in a very few minutes the ends of the spaghetti under the water will become softened so that the rest can be pushed down into the kettle. Be careful not to overcook it and it will not be pasty, but firm and tender. Drain it carefully and put in a hot soup tureen. Sprinkle a handful of grated cheese over it and pour on the sauce. Lift with two forks until thoroughly mixed.
About Christine Gilbert
Christine Gilbert is the co-founder of Cultures & Cuisines. She's also a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Barcelona, Spain. In 2014, she was recognized by National Geographic as Traveler of the Year for her work on the documentary, "The Wireless Generation". Her work has been published in Esquire, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, British Airways magazine, Mothering, Brain, Child magazine and others. She has a forthcoming book with Penguin Random House in 2016. She can be found on Twitter as @cb_gilbert