Eat Some History


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Drew Tyre.

Gathering and preparing food and drink has been inherent to all eras of human survival and civilization. So naturally, a history of culinary practice and achievement developed alongside the timeline of the human race.

The Culinary Historians of New York (CHNY) formed in 1985 to preserve and present the many facets of such heritage. They are a volunteer organization that is still active today, bringing to light anything from Ancient Egyptian Armagnac to Modern American Vegetarianism.

Cathy Kaufman, Chair of CHNY, tells BTR about some of the platforms they provide. To support the efforts of today’s active culinary historians, its members offer two annual scholar’s grants–one $1,500 and one $3,500–to candidates deemed to make the “most creative, most interesting, and most thought out” contributions to the field.

CHNY also offers the Amelia Award, which Kaufman describes as a “lifetime achievement” recognition for the trajectory of contestants’ overall careers. Members of CHNY consider applicants’ community efforts; one year’s winner donated a collection of about “4,000 works, all of Chinese food history, to Stony Brook Library.”

On a monthly basis, CHNY organizes live programming to profile all sorts of different people, places, and periods of food culture. This month’s event is “The History and Ritual of Brunch,” which will survey how this meal developed into a leisure practice as well as examine the types of kitchens where such dishes were prepared. Appropriately, attendants can nosh on brunch foods and sip on Bloody Marys or screwdrivers.

Back in December, contemporary “whiskey women” poured locally-made spirits to complement the CHNY event. The lecture focused on the female figures who developed the whiskey industry by building brands like Bushmills and Maker’s Mark and producing bootlegged liquor during Prohibition.

CHNY is gearing up to launch a new website and they plan to post information on recipes featured in their monthly programming online. They will also import historical recipes published on their current website, illustrating ways to stir up spiced wine in the fashion of Apicius’s conditum paradoxum, or craft mushroom ketchup 19th century style. Curious visitors can also take a look at Kaufman’s cultivation of Seventeenth Century English Salads, which instructs cooks to “Take the buds of all kind of good Hearbes and a hanfull of French Capers, seven or eight Dates cut in long slices,” in order to prepare a tasty “Grand Sallet.”

It’s common for historians to have a favorite period in history. BTR asks this culinary historian about her preferred food era. After a moment of careful consideration, Kaufman responds with Medieval Arabic cookery.

“The recipes often give you quantities, which you don’t see in most Western recipes until the 19th century,” she elaborates. “Instead of a recipe saying, take cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar,” Medieval Arabic recipes instruct cooks to measure one “ratl” (approximately 16 ounces or 2 cups) of one spice, add “half a ratl” of another, or put in “two dirhams” (approximately .15 ounces or 1 scant teaspoon) of other ingredients.

Kaufman is also a fan of the Medieval Arabic lamb dishes finished with rose. She continues how the bygone era’s cookbooks even discussed desirable traits of a chef’s personality, writing that he must be “intelligent, clean, and clever” in addition to his kitchen skills.

There’s also etiquette documented.

“Before any dish is served to the table, the cookbooks always remind you to wipe the edge with a cloth,” Kaufman adds.

What’s the story behind your dish?