The olden days creep closer and closer. When schools teach the history of the '60s, they mean the 1960s. As we focus on our own decades, we begin to assume that every idea is a new idea.
I got my comeuppance when I wrote about being in Indiana in the early '70s when salmon was considered exotic and oysters were unknown on local tables. A reader countered with his memories of buying oysters fresh in Ohio early in this century, and of a fish seller bringing fresh Lake Erie fish to his door every Friday, in a town of only 2,500 people.
Another cultural slap on the wrist came while I was browsing through some old food magazines. Today we think we discovered healthful eating. To cholesterol-watchers, oat bran is the nutrition news of the '80s. Yet The American Kitchen Magazine of December, 1899 touted a remarkable increase in consumption of oats "due to an increased familiarity with its value in the diet." The secretary of Agriculture at the time was quoted as saying, "We are becoming a nation of oat-eaters." Nearly a century later, we are again becoming a nation of oat-eaters.
And the '80s have ushered in the anti-sodium forces -- or so we think. A 1925 edition of American Cookery magazine (formerly The Boston Cooking School Magazine) suggested reduction in the use of salt: "If you get used to eating meat without salt you will like it better and enjoy its flavor more." The magazine didn't relate salt to hypertension, but did recommend limiting our consumption. Meat already contains salt, it argued, though vegetables, which lack sodium chloride, ought to have salt added "in moderation."
And what about our new taste trends? Today's new-style American cooking is experimenting with such original combinations as seafood with exotic fruit -- shrimp with mango or papaya. New? Guess again. That same 1925 magazine presented a Christmas dinner menu. The fish course was baked scallops with broiled banana strips and the meat course a meat-and-fruit whimsey, goose with gooseberry sauce.
Light eating had not, however, made much of a dent in holiday menus. That Christmas dinner of yore started with caviar, went on to chestnut soup with salted pecans and gherkins to nibble, and after the scallops came the goose with potato-celery stuffing, potato omelet, mushrooms, asparagus tips baked with cheese, hot cassava cakes, ginger-stuffed dates and sweet pickled okra pods. Next, of course, came salad and dessert.
The salad was stuffed sweet pimientos -- in other words, the very fashionable vegetable of today, the red bell pepper.
Peppers are the hottest flavor trend of the moment. We pure'e them into coulis to sauce everything from veal to lobster, saute' them to dress pastas, blend them into soups and arrange them like latticework on pizzas. But in that 62-year-old magazine I found a use for peppers I have not seen since. A pork roast was rubbed with such hot spices as mustard, pepper, paprika and Tabasco (does that begin to sound like blackened pork?) and thoroughly browned in a very hot oven.
But here's the trick: A sweet pepper (red or green) was chopped and boiled, then used as basting water for the pork. The boiling tames the pepper, and the result is an elusive flavor that permeates the pork. Basting with pepper water -- it's an old idea just waiting to be invented.
Tabletalk During the holidays we hear a lot about the frustrations of airline travel. But a survey by The Shopper Report finds supermarket check-out stress is even more widespread. Slow-moving lines -- particularly misuse of express lines -- are more common blood-pressure elevators, says the survey, than the more-publicized delays in airline take-offs.
And here's another survey to prove what we already know: Restaurateurs report that 75 percent of their patrons are ordering less red meat, 91 percent are ordering fewer dishes with heavy sauces, 96 percent are ordering more fish, 86 percent more chicken. That's the diet conscious side. On the other hand, 65 percent of the restaurateurs claim the richer the dessert, the better it sells. As Philadelphia restaurateur Steve Poses put it, "People tend to think if they save on the meal they can splurge on dessert." As for restaurateur behavior, 73 percent said they have adapted their menus to meet more healthful standards. Most of the chefs surveyed said they now substitute margarine and polyunsaturated oils for butter in their cooking (for health reasons, they claimed). They are frying less, saucing less and offering more vegetables, salads and pastas.
THERMIDOR OF PORK (4 servings)
Although this recipe sounds contemporary, it was featured in the Christmas issue of American Cookery for 1925. The only thing new about it is the plastic we used to wrap the roast for storing in the refrigerator.
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon or more hot pepper sauce
2-pound boned pork loin roast
1 bell pepper (red or green)
2 cups water
Mix mustard, salt, flour, black pepper and paprika together and moisten with hot pepper sauce. Make several deep incisions in the meat, and rub in the spice mixture. Let stand at least 20 minutes for the meat to absorb the seasonings or, better yet, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Roast the pork in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes until well browned. In the meantime, cut away the core and white membranes from the pepper and chop. Simmer the pepper in 2 cups of water in a covered pot while the pork browns. Strain out the pepper and discard, saving the water for the roast. After 30 minutes of roasting, pour the pepper water over pork roast and reduce heat to 350 degrees. Roast 40 to 50 minutes more until done, basting with the pepper water every 15 minutes.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group