The Digest

Herbs in the City & Other News

26th May 2017

Words: James Hansen

Illustrated herbs

Joining urban herbs in this week’s food writing digest: the sociology of mac ‘n’ cheese, culinary phobias and the origin of cloud eggs

Beginning with food for the ears, Sheila Dillon dives in to the history of mac ‘n’ cheese for The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4. Describing the experience of eating over the airwaves is always mildly unsettling, but Dillon’s – at first reluctant – enthusiasm for the enamel dish of creamy macaroni served by Emma Mickerton of the Foodie Explorers is palpable. Focused on its meteoric rise from Glaswegian childhood staple to street food du jour, Dillon treats us to interviews with Marina O’Loughlin of The Guardian and Polly Russell, food historian at The British Library, reconciling the pasta’s trendy status with its origins.

At The LA Review of BooksGeoff Nicholson asks “Does the world need a more or less 800-page book on food phobias?” The book in question is Einstein’s Beets: An Examination of Food Phobias from Alexander Theroux. Nicholson praises Theroux – and so doing, renders his own question moot: “Theroux’s scholarship is wide ranging and digressive, drawing on a quirky, specialized knowledge of history, literature, the higher gossip, as well as pop culture”. The personal, squidgy feeling of a food that turns the stomach dovetails with the aversions of the famous: as you might expect, “The index of Einstein’s Beets is in itself a thing of wonder”.

Meanwhile in Spitalfields, London, The Gentle Author provides a local taxonomy of herbs and flowers at Spitalfields Life. This particular botanical survey is dedicated to Renaissance herbalist Nicholas Culpeper; it annotates contemporary photos of plants growing wild in the streets with Culpeper’s nearly 400-year-old captions. There’s a sense of dislocation that might cultivate a mourning of wildness; simultaneously, the beauty of herbs found among concrete pushes back. For more on this, and the false dichotomy of wild versus cultivated, read Thom Eagle for The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery.

Over at NPR, we find Maria Godoy cracking the cloud egg Instagram fad. We’re frequently reminded that today’s culinary directions – fastidious localism, fermentation, and their counterparts – owe their newness not to invention but to the reclaiming of culinary history. In the case of cloud eggs, we’re going back to France in 1652, where les oeufs were cooked in a skillet over hot sticks, whites whisked to resemble the cloud and yolks laid on top. The nub of Godoy’s piece is that “Like today’s cloud eggs … the 17th century recipe was likely a novelty dish meant to impress. It’s just one of those things rich people did for amusement … kind of like today.” We have food historian Paula Marcoux to thank for the bracing frankness. Instagram away.

We finish at UPROXX. Steve Bramucci, Delenda Joseph, Vince Mancini and Zach Johnston investigate the backlash levelled at Kook’s Burrito, a Portland, Oregon, food truck widely accused of culinary appropriation. Eschewing a single response for a round table discussion, the foursome provide a discursive, clear-eyed look at the politics at play. Focusing on “takers vs exchangers”, the issue is refracted through personal experience as much as the cultural responsibility of food media at large. Pair with this transcript from the SCAA Coffee Expo in Seattle: “Building Influence and Changing Power Structures”: a panel on intersectionality in coffee led by Michelle Johnson and Tracy Ging.

Image: Out of Thyme by James Fisher


Posted 26th May 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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