Ladies and gentlemen, the results are in! Eighteen ingredients, nine hours, three loaf pans and one historic recipe later – we have a winner – in Election Cake. Yesterday, when I wrote about the history of this patriotic confection, there was uncertainty and speculation about what exactly it was (cake or bread?) and if it was going to be a palatable sweet treat that transitioned well across three centuries. Today, we discovered what this celebratory concoction was all about. Let’s look…
The recipe began yesterday, simple enough, with yeast and water and flour, and a dash of sugar and oil…
It was left to rise six hours on its own, which it did, like a good little cake…
Next, went in a handful of ingredients…
After they were all mixed together, the batter was ready to be parceled out into three loaf pans…
and were left to rise again, for another hour, which they really didn’t do at all. It would be generous to say that after the hour was up, each loaf was half an inch taller, but that would be an exaggeration. Maybe, indeed the batter did rise a little, but if so it was barely noticeable. I hesitated here at this stage, thinking maybe I should let them sit longer so that each loaf could get bigger. But then I remembered that the author of this recipe, Fannie Farmer, was a stickler for precision and instruction, so into the oven the three loaves went, without any extra rise time. Just follow the recipe. That’s what Fannie would have said.
Exactly at the one hour mark, no less and no more, the loaves came out sky high and golden brown…
Fannie didn’t fail us after all! The tops even cracked open themselves, and looked like little lips about to say yum. A good sign of things to come. After a short cooling off period, the loaves were ready to cut and serve and taste…
And that is when I discovered that this very old Election Cake is in fact, very delicious. I understand how people could get confused about whether to call it a cake or a bread because really it is similar to both. It has a texture and consistency like banana bread or zucchini bread but also it has a light and fluffy body like cake. The combination of the whiskey, yeast and nutmeg gives it a subtle hint of almost root beer-like tang that is lovely and warm. And although it already has a cup of butter in it, this little darling of a delectable is calling out to be sliced and toasted with an extra slather of butter.
While no one ingredient is powerfully overwhelming, all of them work well together to create a balanced flavor that hints at citrus and at spice, which leads me to understand how so many varieties of Election Cake came about between the 1700’s and now. It’s wonderful just as it is, but it’s also one of those recipes that might spark your creativity. After you have made it once or twice, it will make you feel brave – enough to confidently add your own little twist. Not an improvement, just a twist. Maybe you’ll want to add some nuts or orange peel or cinnamon or cranberries. Or maybe you’ll get creative on the serving side and want to pair it along with thinly sliced pieces of ham or brie or cream cheese for a savory little snack. I love recipes like this – ones that feed your brain as well as your belly.
Either way you decide to approach this recipe, you’ll be most successful with it if you use good quality ingredients like local eggs, fresh nutmeg, European butter, etc. They might be a little more expensive to buy, but the more fresh and natural your ingredients, the more flavorful this cake, in particular, will be. And because it makes three loaves at once, you can freeze two for later, preferably when its cold and snowy, as this would be especially nice for winter breakfast alongside a cup of coffee, for lunch or tea-time or even afternoon hors d’oeuvres. Sweet in a satisfying, robust way (not in an empty calorie way), it will give you renewed energy to carry on with your day, which was exactly the original intention way back on voting days in the 1700’s.
Fannie Farmer’s Election Cake
(Makes 3 loaves. Recipe written exactly as it appeared in the 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)
Put in a bowl… 1 cup warm water (not hot)
Sprinkle over it… 1 package yeast
Add… 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon salad oil (I used olive oil), 2 1/2 cups flour
Beat thoroughly , cover, and let rise overnight or at least 6 hours.
Butter three loaf tins. Cream 1 cup butter. Cream in 2 cups dark brown sugar.
Add 4 eggs, well beaten.
Stir in 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
Sift together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon mace (if you can’t find this spice, substitute it for an additional 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg), 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Add to the the butter mixture. Add 2 cups seeded raisins, 1 cup whiskey.
Stir into the yeast batter and beat to blend well. Divide the dough in the tins. cover and let rise 1 hour. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.
Interested in learning more about Fannie Farmer and her historic recipes? Find the 1965 edition of her original 1898 cookbook in the shop here.
And just a little reminder… there are just two days left to save 20% off all vintage and antique platters in the shop! Find your favorite here.
Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.
Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially). It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.
Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings, it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority. I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way, but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.
The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.
For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.
A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen? Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…
Long before Irma Rombauer became a household name, she was an everywoman of the early 1900’s living in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two children. As the wife of an attorney who had political aspirations, Irma was actively involved in the social scene of St. Louis, a well-connected member of various clubs and organizations and a fun hostess of house parties and local events.
When the stock market crashed and her husband tragically committed suicide as a result, the rosy colors of Irma’s St. Louis lifestyle suddenly took on a whole new shade. Without much money in savings, Irma, now in her early 50’s, had to quickly figure out what to do. Most importantly, she had to figure out how to survive on her own and care for her family, as a single woman, after thirty years of marriage.
While the Great Depression was a very hard time financially for families around the country, it was also a very creative period in home cooking. As everyone struggled to survive and to feed their families, barriers started breaking down as far as people’s pre-conceived notions of kitchen work and culinary skills. The wealthy could no longer afford kitchen staff and therefore had to start cooking for themselves. The middle class no longer had the same budget for groceries and had to learn how to cook more frugally. And the lower class had to stretch their meager food supplies even further. That meant a whole wave of new cooks were beginning to emerge. Cooks who needed answers on how to do new things whether it was learning basic skills, innovative recipes or new techniques.
Irma saw an opportunity here in this great depression of both her own and the country’s. Americans needed a practical, instructive cookbook that offered good nutritional food for all budgets and all skill levels. Assume nothing, teach everything and most importantly find the joy, those were the thoughts ruminating in Irma’s mind. This cookbook idea seemed especially relevant after a fellow St Louisan published a cookbook in 1929 featuring all sorts of expensive ingredients and decadent dishes – a notion that seemed totally inappropriate to Irma for both the time and the town.
The funny thing about Irma though at this point in her life, was that she wasn’t exactly known for her cooking. Her parties with her husband in the past had been memorable – not for the food but for the atmosphere. While Irma herself was a dynamic hostess and an interesting, intelligent conversationalist, what she served was overshadowed by her charming personality. People didn’t come away from Irma’s kitchen raving about her food but instead raving about Irma. So the very idea that Irma would embark, could embark, on writing a cookbook, as just a sort-of-okay meal maker, was a great surprise to everyone who knew her. But none of that mattered. Irma had a plan in mind that was going to turn her kitchen from dull to delicious.
Because she was so well connected and knew a lot of people in her community, Irma started collecting recipes from her friends and their families. Recipes that were proven hand-me-downs, time-honored and beloved. Once gathered, she went home and tested each recipe herself… adapting, tweaking, altering and omitting along the way if needed. When a satisfactory bundle of approved recipes emerged that suited her taste, she organized them into book form, named it The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat and had 3,000 copies printed up by a local print shop. Tah-dah, the Joy of Cooking was born.
Irma mailed out copies of the cookbook from home and handled publicity and sales campaigns herself, enthusiastically spreading the joy of Joy. The rest is cooking history. Bobbs-Merrill picked up professional publishing of the book in 1936 with the debut of the second edition. Irma became a trusted authority known for her reliable recipes and engaging writing style. And the book went on to sell 18 million copies across eight updated editions. Covering everything from how to skin a squirrel to how to make a souffle, Joy of Cooking raised a nation of home cooks (18 million of them!) by assuming nothing, teaching everything and finding the joy.
That is a wonderful contribution to the American food scene. At a time when women could have felt marginalized by their roles as domestic cooks, Irma made cooking exciting and delicious and easily attainable. Her cookbooks turned into confidence and that confidence radiated into all other aspects of life. Rumor has it that a new addition is scheduled for publication in 2019, edited and updated by the Rombauer family, who have faithfully handled the cookbook and its revisions since Irma’s death in 1962. Thanks to Irma’s children and her grandchildren, they have made the Joy of Cooking a record holder as the oldest cookbook in history that is still maintained by one family. A legacy that hopefully will keep Irma in our kitchens for another 80 years.
Cheers to the Rombauer family and to Irma, in particular, who would have celebrated her 141st birthday today, and cheers to always finding the joy in both good times and bad.
Looking for your own vintage edition of Joy Of Cooking? Find two ediions currently available in the shop – one from 1967 here and one from 1975 here. And if you missed the previous blog post, catch up with a recipe for Irma’s Plum Cake Cockaigne here.
Over on Instagram the other day, I posted this photo above of the first Fall-themed dessert to come out of the Vintage Kitchen oven. It’s called Plum Cake Cockaigne and is from the 1964 edition of one of the most popular cookbooks in American history – Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.
Also over on Instagram, I learned something new recently about cooking blogs and recipe finders. It seems not everyone wants to scroll through a whole entire story in order to get a recipe, so I’m trying something new with this post – recipe at the top, story at the bottom. You guys let me know how you prefer this new layout. Time always seems to be so short during these last few months of the year, so if this makes your life (and your cooking experience!) easier please let me know by comment or message and I’ll adjust as you prefer.
In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour. Add the baking powder, salt, and sugar to the flour and re-sift.
Add the butter (Note: The juicer your plums, the less butter you need to add. My plums weren’t excessively juicy so I used the full 3 tablespoons of butter), mashing it up in the flour mixture with a fork, until the entire mixture looks crumb-like.
In a measuring cup, add the egg, vanilla, and enough milk to equal a 1/2 cup of liquid (this was about 1/4 cup milk in my case). Whisk together until these three ingredients are combined.
Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until a stiff dough forms. Spread the dough mixture evenly on the bottom of your pan or baking dish and then set aside. (Note: Irma recommended a 9×9 x 2 1/2 inch pan but I used a round 10″ inch x 2″ inch baking dish and that worked great as well).
Next, thinly slice your plums so that you will have enough to overlap each one in your pan – tart style and then arrange them on top of the dough. This is the fun, creative part! You can make many different types of designs with your plums if you like.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon and melted butter and then sprinkle the mixture on top of the plums.
Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until the top is bubbly and brown.
Our plum cake was so bubbly I couldn’t help but take a little video of it as it was coming out of the oven!
I recommend letting the whole thing cool before slicing and serving it if you prefer to plate it in wedge-shaped slices. Since the top layer carmelizes it is easier to slice when it is in a cooler, more solidified state. If you’d rather eat it warm, right out of the oven, simply scoop it into a bowl and enjoy. Serve it on its own, with a dollop of whip cream or a bit of vanilla ice cream and taste the season unfold in all its cinnamon sugar splendor.
What is really fun about this dessert is that it is like two sweet treats combined into one – half tart and half cake. Because there is only one cup of flour and one egg, the cake part is very thin and the fruit arrangement on top is very much like a tart, so this turns out to be a light and less filling alternative to two traditional desserts yet retains all the lovely flavor of both. Plums don’t get as much attention in the Fall as apples and pumpkins in the baking department, but they are still in season until the end of October, so they make a lovely unexpected seasonal dessert.
Plum Cake Cockaigne (pronounced caw-cane) was a favorite recipe in the Rombauer household. The word cockaigne was a term of endearment in the cookbook and was tacked onto various recipes throughout the Joy of Cooking as a way to signify the absolute personal favorite recipes of the Rombauer clan. Derived from old French, cockaigne literally refers to a mythical land of plentiful luxury, comfort, and peace. Such a dreamy notion of an ideal paradise was so charming to the Rombauers it was also the name they chose for their country estate. How fun!
The 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking came out two years after Irma died, the first edition to be edited, revised and enhanced by Irma’s daughter, Marion and Marion’s husband, John. Not without its own dramas, this edition needed all the cockaigne it could get. The first printing of the 1964 edition was published without Marion’s final approval, which meant that various inconsistencies and typos were present. This drove Marion crazy, as she wanted to really honor her mother’s work and keep up with the trusted reputation that the Joy brand had accumulated over 30 years since its debut in 1931. So the 1964 edition went through several reprints in order to right all the wrongs that Marion doggedly corrected herself. You get a sense of the enormous responsibility and weight of the legacy that Marion felt surrounding the whole Joy endeavor from her dedication at the beginning of the book…
The edition that is available in the shop is the 1967 printing of the 1964 edition, the one that Marion was finally satisfied with. All of this devising and revising is a real testament to the dedication of the Rombauer family. One that started with Irma way back in the 1930’s and still continues through present family generations today.
Irma’s launch into cooking stardom is a fabulous story, one that we’ll discuss later on in the month as we celebrate her birthday on October 30th. For a woman who wasn’t known for cooking skills when she first started writing a cookbook, she certainly has proven her abilities time and again over the past 80 years. Stay tuned on that front.
In the meantime, there are a couple of weeks left to enjoy plum season. Hope you “fall” in love with this recipe as much we did!
Find the cookbook in the shop here and a link to our Instagram account here if you’d like to keep up with daily doses from the Vintage Kitchen.
Can a painting inspire dinner? Absolutely! That’s exactly what happened when I found this tropical painting while out curating items for the shop. It’s a petite folk art landscape scene from Haiti with a handmade wooden frame and stretched cotton cloth instead of canvas. The colors are so vibrant…
and the brush strokes so full of energy. The whole scene sings with the colorful island vibes that the Caribbean is known for. Immediately it made me think of the 1960’s cookbook in the shop – The Art of Caribbean Cookery – another midcentury treasure that also sings songs of colorful island life.
The painting hails from Haiti, just one of the 28 islands that make up the Caribbean, but the cookbook, written by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, includes all the cultural influences of all the islands… Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, etc. Carmen is Puerto Rican herself and grew up in a traditional island household of the 1920’s, a world where servants cooked and children were not encouraged to help.
As Carmen explains in the introduction of her cookbook, it was deemed improper for well-brought-up young ladies to perform menial household chores, cooking included. “Only occasionally was I ever allowed to enter the vast room where food was actually prepared, and how I regretted that.”
But things changed once she met her husband, Luis, in the late 1930’s. Luis was an unashamed food zealot – an eater, a cooker, and a recipe collector. He had a day job in engineering but on nights and weekends, he and Carmen crafted their time together around the glorious subject of food. Bolstered by one another’s support and enthusiasm, the two indulged their culinary interests in a fun and curious way, which turned out to be the only encouragement Carmen needed to realize her life-long passion for cooking. What used to be forbidden was now a freedom.
Carmen took on this new interest with gusto. She and Luis dined their way through the islands, exploring offerings at family tables, fancy restaurants and everything in between. They traipsed around sugar plantations and farms and fruit groves. They listened and questioned and learned from everyone they encountered about cooking methods and techniques, about family stories and recipes passed down through generations. After each escapade, they’d return home to their own kitchen in Puerto Rico ready to dissect what they had discovered. As Carmen learned first hand, cooking in the Caribbean was a vast wonderland of food, flavor, and influence from other countries far from the tropics.
Floating between the Gulf Of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, with the United States, Mexico and South America acting as surrounding neighbors, the Caribbean is made up of an incredibly diverse population – an exotic tribe of people from Europe, Africa, Mexico, the Mediterranean coast, the United States and the U.K.
Originally there were the first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, but then came the British, French, Dutch, Danish, and Spanish settlers along with slaves from Africa who worked the sugar plantations and ex-pats from America looking for escapism. All these cultural influences grew diversity on the islands and greatly layered the cuisine of the Caribbean, making it not just one type of food, but a blend of many nationalities.
In the painting, there is no sign of food, but its very essence pulls your imagination towards sandy beaches, tropical drinks, coconuts, rum, pineapple, papayas. Carmen is quick to explain that cooking in the Caribbean is not all “roast pig and ritual,” that food varies from island to island, built upon six centuries of history and the cohabitation of many cultures. It was with that in mind that I chose, a recipe from Carmen’s cookbook that is an authentic Carribean dish marinated in generations of foreign influence. For today’s post, we are making a recipe that combines elements of Spain with two Caribbean staples – olives and capers. The dish is called Pescado Dorado or Golden Fish and it is a lovely meal to wrap up the end of summer with since it shines best with garden tomatoes fresh off the vine.
Carmen’s recipe recommended using a whole fish but I used cod filets instead since I couldn’t find a whole tropical-looking fish at our neighborhood market. The recipe serves 8 but if you don’t want to make a big dinner out of it, simply cut all the ingredient measurements in half and you’ll wind up with a smaller serving for four.
PESCADO DORADO – GOLDEN FISH
1 fish weighing 4 lbs, cleaned (or 4lbs of fish filets – I used cod)
2 large limes
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
12 green olives
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon liquid from jar of capers
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
1 1/4 pounds tomatoes
2 canned pimientos
If using a whole fish, wash it inside and out. Ignore this step if using fish filets. Cut 2 slight gashes on both sides of the fish or filets. Place the fish in a baking dish. Squeeze the juice of the limes over the fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Arrange the rest of the ingredients from the onions to the tomatoes on top and around the sides of the fish.
Preheat oven temperature to 550 degrees.* Bake fish for 15 minutes. Lower temperature to 425 degrees and bake for 25 minutes longer, basting fish occasionally.
Heat pimientos and serve as a garnish on top of fish.
*A note on cooking time and temp – In 1963, Carmen’s oven reached 550 degrees. In 2018, the hottest my oven gets is 525 degrees. I cooked the fish at 525 degrees for the first 15 minutes and then reduced it to 425 degrees and cooked it for the remaining time with no problems.
What emerged from the oven, after it was done baking, was a flaky cloud of codfish that was swimming in a salty citrus sea. To say that this dish was anything but delicious would be an understatement. Sometimes fish dishes are very light and leave you still feeling hungry, but this one is robust in flavor and is filling enough on its own. I paired this fish dish with a handful of sauteed spinach and garlic but rice would also work or a side salad. Dessert was kept equally simple with a fresh fruit board that included pineapple, mango, papaya and fresh coconut.
We also had a little musical accompaniment during dinner from Harry Belafonte, one of the most iconic singers of Caribbean folk songs in the world. About a month ago, I heard the song Cocoanut Woman for the first time…
and instantly loved it. Further discovery led to his Calypso album, a bestseller full of Caribbean folk songs that was released in 1956. In its first year, this album sold a million copies landing Harry on top music charts and making him an international superstar. If you are unfamiliar with his work, the link below is the full album of his 1976 record The King of Calypso, which packs all of his most famous hits in one album including the Jamician folk song Day-O about dock workers loading banana boats and the island love song, Jamaica Farewell.
Between the three – painting, music, and food – this dinner felt like a mini island vacation all in itself. If you find that your summer has come and gone and left you without the chance to relax as much as you wished, try spending the evening with Carmen and Harry and Emmanuel (the painter) and see if your spirit can’t be soothed by a little slice of creative paradise. A glass of rum helps spread the cheer too.
Incidentally, I tried to find out more about my muse for this post, the artist named Emmanuel who painted the Haitian landscape that started all this to begin with. But he was elusive. As it turns out, there are LOTS of painters named Emmanuel in the Caribbean. That’s okay, though, it doesn’t matter that he can’t be tracked down further. Muses aren’t exactly known for their easy accessibility. Bob Dylan believed that the highest purpose of art was to inspire. In that case, Emmanuel certainly fulfilled his role, at least during dinner time in the Vintage Kitchen. As for Carmen, she went on to become an expert, the expert, of Caribbean cuisine, publishing several cookbooks throughout her life. Even though she died in 2005, she is still regarded as the classic authority on Caribbean island cuisine.
So as you can see, a painting can indeed inspire dinner and also a little more. Hope this post inspires you just as much. Cheers to soaking up the essence of the islands without ever leaving home.
Find the cookbook and the painting in the shop here and here. Find Harry Belafonte’s music on our Vintage Caribbean Vibes Spotify playlist here.
They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa. Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson. Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.
But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead, today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato. With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers. But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world – a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.
It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.
On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…
Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding. Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.
The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes. But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think. Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated. It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.
But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different. Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with. Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.
He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story. Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.
Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country. Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.
Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.
Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture. In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting! This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.
By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.
The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity. In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.
But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…
…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.
Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake, which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.
Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)
1 large russet potato (scrubbed)
1/8 cup olive oil
A generous sprinkling of sea salt
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long 1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.
Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes. They should look something like this when they are ready…
Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.
Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy, using his version over any other!
Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…
And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…
So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches, he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.
Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.
Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here. Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here.
If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!
Happy 4th of July! It has been super quiet around here on the blog since mid-May and I must say, I have missed you all terribly. There was a family tragedy and a family illness that took me unexpectedly far away from the Vintage Kitchen for most of June. But I’m happy to write that I’m back and ready to dive into a plethora of new kitchen stories starting this week.
Exciting things coming up in July include an interview with a creative artist who will make you look at your refrigerator in an absolutely new and enchanting way; we will travel back in time to a hotel in 20th century Minnesota and share a few recipes that made them famous around the world; we’ll learn about a guy who invented one of the most addictive foods ever known to eaters; we’ll celebrate three national food recognition days and we’ll host a giveaway that is guaranteed to add a little sparkle to your life. So stay tuned on that front. July is full of fun!
In the meantime, since it’s a holiday today and you are out and about celebrating with friends and family, we’ll keep this post short – a litle dollap of history pertaining to patriotism and how Americans ate their way through Independence Day in 1902.
In that year, this guy was president…
And patriotic family gatherings looked something like this…
Decorations were simple…bunting, flags, flowers and the natural settings of the great outdoors. There were parades and town concerts and special events planned throughout the day.
Conversations were full of pride, in the general achievements of the country. Unlike today, where the political terrain is quite rocky and American morale is at an all-time low, in 1902, patriotism was a bit more revered. President Roosevelt prepared a speech saying nothing but thank you to the American military for continuing to extend and uphold the open arm ideals of the United States and pledged to continue to promote peace and tolerance throughout the world.
In American households during the early 20th century, the 4th of July was the one day where political affiliations were set aside. What was celebrated in conversation was not that someone was a Democrat or a Republican but instead an American. And topics led more towards incredible examples of what had been achieved in the past as a unified country as opposed to criticisms about the work that still needed to be accomplished individually.
Eating occurred on a large all-day scale with a full breakfast, lunch and dinner… each incorporating the colors of the American flag. Here’s a suggested menu from Woman’s Favorite Cook Book published in 1902…
You’ll notice, even back then, the holiday has always been about cooking and spending time together. The kitchen would have been a hotbed of activity (just like it still is today) preparing all the staples we still enjoy eating on the Fourth – ice cream, salads, garden vegetables, fresh berries, cake. Our national pride might be much more diluted now than it was 116 years ago but our bellies are traditionally still enjoying the same types of food. That is a comfort at least.
Theodore Roosevelt once said…“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
Teddy would have appreciated all the new voices coming forth this year (no pun intended!) in our fights for democracy and fairness and freedom for every person in America. He would have admired all the political bravery that exists today and marveled at all that we have accomplished so far. Americans of the early 20th century would have lauded our collective efforts too, noting how far we have come on the food scene as far as innovations and improvements and equipment while still managing to keep the culinary traditions of our ancestors alive.
So it is with that in mind that we say cheers to the holiday, to the progress we have made, and to the traditions we still hold dear. However you choose to celebrate the 4th of July – whether you are partying it up at a fish fry, a barbeque, a picnic, a seafood boil or a campfire roast – I hope your holiday is filled with fun, family, and friends. May it be peaceful and light. And may all those fireworks be bright. Cheers to a happy holiday! We’ll see you back in the Kitchen shortly.