“What hath been done may be done again. Old Arts when they have been long lost, are sometimes recovered again and pass for new inventions.” Jared Eliot, Second Essay on Field Husbandry, 1748
I recently discovered an enlightening artifact of American culinary history, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, published in San Francisco in 1881. The first cookbook published by an African-American woman, it is a bonanza of southern treasures, wonderfully old school in its approach.
Mrs. Fisher, a freed slave who emigrated from Alabama, became an in-demand caterer and successful entrepreneur in San Francisco. Unable to read or write, she dictated her recipes for this book. Her personality vividly shines throughout the text, and her casual style reveals that she was a true master. It’s also obvious that her food must have been unbelievably delicious. Lucky for us, she wanted us all to learn her methods; she wrote the book “so that [even] a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”
Her all-day flavor development techniques are dazzling to read. Her recipe for Compound Tomato Sauce, included below, requires 24 hours of fermentation before the cooking begins. As for the cooking itself, “let it cook all day.” The richness of the aroma can’t be contained by the pages; reading the recipe, you can almost smell the sauce as it marches towards evening. Waiting for that first taste must have required a religious vow.
With Mrs. Fisher’s recipes, time is the chief ingredient. While egg-replacers and sugar substitutes and gluten-free alternatives and other analogs proliferate today, no true substitute for time has been developed. Rather than resist it, we should surrender: sugars and tissues break down with the application of heat, particularly with low heat over a long duration. An onion cooked for 30 minutes will taste richer—and have a more luxurious mouthfeel—than one cooked for 5 minutes. You can rush the onion if you want to, but you’ll have denied yourself a significant amount of pleasure at the table.
Studies[i] conducted in the UK and the US show drastic reductions in the time we spend cooking our meals, measured over the past 30 to 40 years. Not surprisingly, the time we spend enjoying meals has also plummeted. It makes sense: fast food leads to fast consumption. Rushed cooking leaves little to be savored.
It is complicated territory, once you consider factors such as income level, single-parenthood, number of jobs held simultaneously, and age. But there are also very simple scenarios.
I recently spent a weekend helping a friend at an animal sanctuary. While we were making dinner one evening, an intern passed through the kitchen. Her question was very to-the-point: “How do you cook mushrooms?” Her pace slowed, but she never actually stopped walking as I began my answer. She continued into the living room and opened her laptop.
Her age—early 20s—could be used against her, and we could indict the current generation for their inability to function in a physical, non-digital world. But the problem extends further back.
In Asheville, North Carolina—a foodie town if ever there were one—my next-door neighbor was a true gentle lady of the south. She absolutely loved food, especially the breads that I would share now and then. Upon learning more about my culinary background, she asked if I’d be willing to teach her one thing: how to make gravy. She was in her 70s.
Both of these examples point to something bigger: that the generation before them was missing something, too. And in fact, tracing the history of the American food from 1881—when Mrs. Fisher published her book—until now, it is easy to see us steadily relinquishing traditional foodways as convenience foods pervaded the grocery and markets. We traded our food heritage, rich with so many multicultural influences and an astonishing array of native foods, for extra time to do nothing. We have of course filled that nothing time with a lot of things, with watching television still being the number one time-taker.
The tradeoffs are many, and are well documented: declining health, loss of life skills, disconnection from food traditions and even family heritage. But it’s not the end of the world yet. For while our society was gorging on convenience, plant tissue was still behaving the same way it always had. And it still behaves in the same manner today.
We can reconnect. The cooking principles from 130 years ago are just as functional today, and Mrs. Fisher’s oeuvre stands as a cairn on a trail we can reclaim. The biggest investment asked of us is time, which coincidentally is as plentiful as it was 130 years ago if we unplug a bit.
The payoffs will be substantial, with the reversal of the symptoms mentioned above. But the most immediate return will be deeper enjoyment at the dinner table. This enjoyment is magnified by the experience of discovery, as we learn ancient secrets all over again and savor our burgeoning skills.
I’ll leave you with a recipe that is ancient in origin: Onion Soup. From its humble beginnings—poor people’s food in ancient Rome—to its 20th-century vogue, its goodness increases with the amount of time you take to prepare it. There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in these roots. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling. Perhaps this recipe can help you restore your relationship with food.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 splash balsamic vinegar or red wine
3 cups vegetable stock, unsalted
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage, or 4 leaves fresh sage
1 bay leaf
1. Warm a heavy-bottomed 2 quart soup pot over low heat.
2. Add the olive oil and the onions. Sprinkle in the salt and pepper.
3. Stir to distribute onions evenly across the bottom of the pot.
4. Leave the onions in the pot on low heat for 2 hours, uncovered. Stir every half hour or so and redistribute.
5. After 2 hours, add the splash of balsamic and stir.
6. Add the vegetable stock, rosemary, sage, and bay leaf.
7. Bring pot to a simmer. Simmer slowly, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
8. Add a little more salt if desired.
9. Ladle into soup cups and serve with a slice of crusty baguette or multigrain bread, toasted.
Yield: 2 servings
Note the absence of sugar or other flavor additives. Sugar is sometimes added to aid in the caramelization process-but as you will see, no help is necessary. And you certainly won’t miss the sweetness–the onions get so sweet on their own that you’ll be tempted to make this a dessert soup.
Also, I have omitted the modern sacrament of cheese au gratin. Apart from all the issues associated with the consumption of animal products, I find that the cheese simply gets in the way of a great soup.