Blondes, Taxis, and the West End

Beer Et Seq is always interested in period descriptions of beer flavour. It’s a rare window onto tastes of the past. Technical brewing descriptions help a lot too, but more by inference and deduction.

In 1944, a mordant piece by Hal Boyle appeared in the Free-Lance Star, a Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper still published. Boyle, a top wartime correspondent, examined the shortages in London for spirits and wine. He said beer was more easily obtained but had comments in its regard as well.

His vivid picture of shapely Jean the blonde bootlegger evokes an Avengers-type tableau, only it’s 20 years earlier and Diana Rigg was a blonde. The well-dressed woman-about-town emerging with a package from a black cab in deserted street… Maybe Honor Blackman is the better analogy, for those who remember.

The Americans in wartime London dominated the market for illicit Scotch and gin – because they had the scratch, the gelt. This caused no little resentment among their British hosts, as the article implies, probably with understatement in the interest of Allied cooperation.

But onto beer flavour: seeking to explain mild ale and bitter beer to Americans, Boyle said mild is like mixing your beer with rainwater and sugar. And bitter is like mixing it with rainwater and quinine. Today he might say the IPA that is the rage around the world is like mixing Bud with vodka and grapefruit juice.

Given that American lager in this period was still fairly bitter, it shows that English beer – pale or bitter ale – easily outstripped it. Since no unusual bitterness was detected in mild ale, one can assume its bitterness was about equal to mid-century American lager.

The weakness of British beer was remarked on, something I’ve discussed before as noticed by an Australian journalist. He stated the government must have pondered long and hard to get the stimulant/austerity balance exactly right. The American soldier’s reaction was typically popular and idiomatic: it’s like our beer if you drink it and get hit in the head with the bottle.

No doubt such GI metaphors had their real-life counterparts judging by the riots and disturbances that occurred in and around the various camps, any Allied country, in 1939-1945, but that’s another topic.

Anyhow, Jean Jeanie was catering to a mostly-Yankee trade and some British thirsts went unsatisfied. On the other hand, the profits went into British hands. It takes two to tango, eh? Or to jitterbug.


A Double Recipe: Pumpkin Pie and Squash Pie


Double Your Pleasure, Double the Mystery

In this recipe from the Eagle in Silver City, NM in 1894, recipes for both pumpkin and squash pies are offered. The pumpkin one uses sugar and the other does not. Also, the pumpkin one is more highly seasoned, relying on numerous spices; the squash pie uses simply nutmeg.

The pumpkin version may have been the pepo or field type with a fairly watery and loose flesh. The long cooking time suggests a watery flesh as it is stated after six hours of steaming only a little moisture is left, akin to a mashed potato.

The squash version may have used a moschata, but this is unclear and perhaps depended on area and custom. (Thanks to Alan Bishop whose comments in my previous post gave great pumpkin information including the basic classifications).

The area is New York City since the article is a reprint from the New York Tribune, yet it is printed away to the west in dry New Mexico. This may suggest readers in both parts of the country had the same understanding of what was squash and what was pumpkin proper.

This is just a guess, but I think the squash type in the article was the Long Island Cheese, a moschata well-known by the late 1800s as discussed in this informative Slow Food USA article (from which the image above is drawn).

According to quotations in the article, the LIC was commercialised in the early part of the 19th century, so relatively late: the first Puritans arrived about 200 years before that. The pumpkin they used was probably different, perhaps the pepo type although I don’t really know.

I suppose it’s possible though that the “pumpkin” in the Eagle was the LIC, and the squash something else, maybe butternut, although both are moschata-family. Pictured is the LIC and it certainly looks like the layman’s idea of a pumpkin, maybe a tad less orange but colour varies anyway in this, um, field.

For a long time, Americans pronounced and often spelled the pumpkin, “punkin”. That has a pleasing modern ring, it could be a hipster expression, à la kickin’.

I like pumpkin a lot in beer. The fashion for it seems to have subsided in the last couple of years, but hopefully there will always be some around. The right combination of pumpkin flesh, pumpkin pie spices, hops, and malt is a kickin’ flavour both in amber ale and porter.

Pumpkin for pie to be properly cooked must be slowly steamed. Peel it, remove the seeds, cut it in pieces and put it in a large iron pot, with about a quart of boiling water to one good sized pumpkin. Cover it close. Let it boil hard for about five or ten minutes, and then set it back where it will steam slowly for about six hours. At the end of this time nearly all the water will be absorbed, and the pumpkin will be sweet and tender. Press it piece by piece through a vegetable press. By this means the pumpkin should be well drained and thoroughly strained, hardly more moist than a well-mashed potato. Take four cups of this strained pumpkin, add four cups of rich milk, a teaspoonful of salt, two of ginger, one of nutmeg and one, of mace, a small cup of sugar and four or five eggs according to their size. Some housekeepers prefer to bring the milk to a boiling point before they use it, and this undoubtedly gives a richer pie. Turn the pumpkin thus prepared into deep pie plates that have been lined with pastry. A properly made pumpkin pie is at least an inch thick. See that at least half the plates are square tins, which give the delightful corner pieces oí old times. A squash pie is much more easily made and this may be the reason why it has taken the place of pumpkin in some localities. For among vegetables: the fittest does not survive, but that which is the easiest handled and gives least trouble. To make a squash pie use five cups of strained and cooked squash to one quart of boiling milk. Add a grated nutmeg, a heaping teaspoonful of salt, the juice of half a lemon, a tablespoonful of butter and five or six eggs, according to size. Bake the pie for from forty-five to fifty minutes in a rapid stove oven. In the old fashioned brick oven they were baked about one hour.  N. Y. Tribune.

An American (?) Classic – Pumpkin Pie

In the first decade of the 1900s, a number of articles appeared in the American press on pumpkin pie. As I explained yesterday, after some 250 years, a realization had coalesced that the pumpkin was an American original and most particularly in the form of pumpkin pie.

The pie had achieved cultural status, as the hot dog, still in gestation, would in a generation, and the hamburger in two.

Pumpkin pie was a thing, a symbol of nationhood. You could argue about its confection, its quality here and there, but to attack it even implicitly invited someone’s high dudgeon, usually a journalist’s. When the national fabric is threatened, right-thinking people react to defend it. This happened with pumpkin pie in the 1910s.

A number of news articles, seemingly quite innocuous, had appeared arguing for a pie made from yellow squash, the crook-neck type still common in the market. One stated that made properly, it could hardly be distinguished from pumpkin pie, and some thought it had a better taste.

On a slow press day no doubt, the Washington Herald mustered all its oratorical power in defense of the “distinct American institution”, pumpkin pie. It enlisted in aid no less a thunderer than William Jennings Bryan, whose Commoner was making a splash. Bryan needs no introduction, I’m sure, to most readers.

You can read all about it here. This is the first paragraph.

Rachel A. Snell is a food historian who has studied American and Anglo-Canadian middle class domestic cooking of the 1800s. In this 2014 article she reproduces two Victorian recipes for pumpkin pie, one American, one English. They are from Sarah J. Hale’s foundational The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery (1852).

It seems a supposed American institution had an English counterpart. Which came first?

The pumpkin originates in the new world, as most people know. But it was sent to England a long time ago, possibly around the time or even before the Pilgrims established in America. Maybe Pilgrim pumpkin pie is really English. So many other things in North American foodways, extending to its drink customs, are, as I have discussed time and again here. Of course the pie was different here, just as bourbon is different from malt whisky. But not that different…

Felice Boselli’s resonant painting shown above includes a pumpkin in a display of flowers and fruits. It was composed in 1700. Boselli was a noted still life painter of the Italian baroque era.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Wikipedia Commons here, and is believed in the public domain.The second image was extracted from the 1903 newspaper article linked in the text, available via the Chronicling America historical newspapers site. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.



Pumpkins on Parade

By the turn of the 19th century, New York-area newspapers were writing about food and albeit sometimes on tenterhooks, drink, in a way familiar to us today. The rudiments of the consumer society were in place, and soon enough its trappings: consumer associations, concerns about food safety, newspaper layouts covering trends and imparting advice. By the 1930s, food and wine clubs and food and wine writers, including columnists, completed a picture essentially the same today allowing for changes in media and the sheer numbers now interested.

New York City was the loadstone for all this. A good example was this article in 1909 in The Sun, an archaeology of pumpkin pie. The piece was written in a plain but forthright style. It disclosed no insecurity about America’s native food traditions, indeed took pride in their homespun, democratic nature but also their appetizing quality when well-executed.

The Sun article is a good contrast to the one I mentioned the other day from the New York Times. It sniffed at Anglo-American culinary arts albeit with a disarming humour. (“It is not safe to go more than three miles from Delmonico in any direction”).

The Sun looked at the history of pumpkin pie, explaining it was a Pilgrim dish and appreciated not least by those in the country for eight generations. Of course today its fame has spread beyond the Mayflower crowd. We all know and love it, and now it flavours latte, beer, pasta, and god knows what.

One of the best parts of the article is an unnamed researcher’s – maybe in fact the journalist’s – notes of a tourney in Manhattan to find the best pie. The search was long and arduous, with numerous disappointments. But finally the quester alighted on a magical pie. The notes are telegraphic but insightful, prefiguring the indispensable Zagat restaurant guides.

This way of looking at a comestible is part of a pattern you see with ale, lager beer, many other drinks and many foods. After a certain time passes, people start to think, how did we get here for something taken for granted for so long? And writers, often, or restaurateurs, start to look at it in a fundamentally different way than the general populace. A sense of distance emerges, today we might call it ironic distance, but it is necessary to the perspective in question. The object might be to illuminate social history, or simply commercial.

Sometimes people resent when something they take for granted becomes appropriated so to speak, not necessarily by a different socio-economic group, but even by their own crowd.  A well-known English writer once expressed this feeling when he said, when I am given a plate of food, I want a good meal, not a history lesson.

It’s a point of view, but not mine, obviously, or The Sun’s 108 years ago.

Note re images: the images above were extracted from The Sun’s 1909 article linked in the text, available via the Chronicling America historical newspapers site. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcome.




Tyskie of Poland

I’m tasting this today, a sample provided on behalf of the distributor.

It has a definite Polish lager profile, clean but quite dry, 5.3% abv. It is well-brewed – no green, “young beer” flavours, decent hopping, all-barley malt. A slight buttery quality is noticed, not dissimilar to Budweiser Budvar, say.

Why the dryness in the mainstream Polish lagers? I think simply because, as I once read many years ago, Polish food has a sweet and concentrated quality. So you don’t want a beer with equal richness. Some sweet strong porters are made, inheritance of an old English export trade, but their sale is very small in the total picture.

The taste is midway between Stella Artois or Molson Canadian, say, and Pilsner Urquell. Lots of potential growth in that zone.

Good with food, good as a regional example of flavour, e.g., Polish hops are used.

The brewery is a few hundred years old, founded in Upper Silesia. It switched to lager (bottom-fermentation) in the 1860s when a Polish duke invested in upgrades and new plant. Now part of AB InBev, Tyskie holds about 20% of the Polish market. My can was brewed in Poznań, home of the Lech affiliate, another noted Polish brand. The two breweries merged many years ago and were acquired about two decades ago by SAB Miller, predecessor to AB InBev.

The big groups control most brewing in Poland but even the mainstream brands have a national character.

It would be good to see Tyskie here on draft.

I would like to try (and maybe there are Tyskie extensions in this line) a 5% or 4.8% abv beer with the same mash bill. That is, a beer of richer character. I don’t know the current finishing gravity, maybe 1010 FG. More sweetness out of a commendably all-malt mashbill would kick it up a notch, for many.



Anglo-American Food: Really That bad?

In 1895 the New York Times published a lengthy article of no little sophistication and humour in which it claimed:

…to take a serious view of eating is commonly considered in all Anglo-Saxon communities as the mark of a frivolous, if not depraved, mind.

The article stated that refined eating is a foreign notion to such communities who hew more to quantity, heterogeneity regardless of harmony, and a public feasting element inherited from primitive times.

The article contrasted favourably the precise delineation of cuisines in France, e.g., bourgeois, peasant, haute, and the refinements evolved in dining in that country.

The American barbeque is cited as deriving from raucous English public entertainments. In and of itself, an acute observation, ditto the statement that Boston baked beans is a “cisAtlantic” variation of Albion’s “pork and pease pudding”.

But now, more than 120 years later, is the Times’ view still accurate?

Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Graham Kerr, and many more tried in their time to amend the cultural disposition noted. Did they succeed?

An apt subject for public debate, surely. The Oxford Union, or a similar body, should take it on. It could go like this:

“Proposition. In 1895 a New York Times article stated, ‘To take a serious view of eating is commonly considered in all Anglo-Saxon communities as the mark of a frivolous, if not depraved, mind’. The statement is no less true today”.

What say you?