Rachel Bennett

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Lost in the Field

In Food on December 28, 2011 at 12:32

So much for my Christmas cocktail line up. Two is not a line up. Truth be told I have no current interest in holiday cocktails, no matter how luscious and festive they are.  In an effort to conduct rigorous research, I was waylaid by my subject matter and thwarted in my attempts to translate field research into written findings. This is of course a common problem in anthropology. Beleaguered practitioners often complain about the challenge of synthesizing a broad, multidimensional experience. They have a fine time roaming around the field and then return to academia with the prospect of a dingy office and a Matterhorn of notes. In this case, I returned from the field with a headache, a penetrating need to lie down in a dark room, and a sincere desire not to face another glass of eggnog or elf’s grog for at least twelve months.

For those of you with greater fortitude than I, here is another holiday classic.

Mulled Wine

I made this for a party last week and it went down a treat. . . . To be honest, however, I’m not sure if this is a testament to the quality of my mulled wine or to the general atmosphere of festive debauchery.

1 bottle of cheap red wine
1 orange, finely sliced
1 long strand of orange peel
1 lemon, finely sliced
about 10 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
a few allspice berries
about 1 cup of brandy
sugar, to taste

1. Pour the wine into a heavy-based saucepan and place over a low heat.
2. Add the citrus, spices, and a couple spoonfuls of sugar and allow to mull gently for an hour.
3. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary.
4. Add brandy just before serving.


Hot Buttered Rebellion

In Food on December 21, 2011 at 13:24

Every spirit has an ethos shaped by its history. Scotch is clothed in an earthy mystique—heather, peat, and bog, hard old Scotsmen and the pale northern sky. Gin remains redolent of Britain in the 18th century, seeped in grim, poverty, and collective depression. And rum, ah rum. This ‘hot,  hellish and terrible liquor,’ as it was described in the 1650s, retains an aura of rebellion—pirates, navy men, and slaves, lawless seas and haunted islands. ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,’ Robert Louis Stevenson chants in the tale of Treasure Island. ‘Drink and the devil have done for the rest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.’  Over 100 years later little has changed in the mythology surrounding rum and we find Johnny Depp stumbling drunkenly across the deck of a ship, clutching a bottle in full piratical frenzy.

Although the myths that collect around any object are wildly imaginative, straying from historical fact, in the case of rum there is considerable truth to the stories. Rum was first produced as a byproduct of sugar refining, an industry that in turn was born out of  sweat, blood, and slavery. When European explorers discovered that sugar cane, recalcitrant in their northern homeland, thrived in the Caribbean, they began cultivating it on a large-scale. The challenge with sugar, however, is that it cannot simply be harvested and shipped to consumers. First it must be laboriously extracted from the cane, pressed, boiled, and crystalized before it is ready for export.  To make matters worse, there is only a brief period for this work to take place before the canes would over-ripen and become useless. How could these explorers cash in on the European sweet tooth without working themselves to death? Why of course the solution was to import thousands of African slaves to do the dirty, dangerous work.

The sugar refining process left these proto-industrial farmers with a prodigious amount of sweet, apparently useless brown sludge. When in doubt, distill. It was the European mantra and it worked a treat with molasses. The resulting liquor was not for the faint of heart—clear liquid fire that knocked a man sideways in no time. It was not for the connoisseur of spirits. But then there weren’t many connoisseurs in the 18th century Caribbean. Instead there was an abundance of disgruntled sailors sick to death of the warm, spoiled beer that had been their only salve against brutish life aboard a British navy ship. They took to rum like fishes. And so did the masses of slaves whose miserable exile and forced labor put them in yet greater need of an anesthetic.

This rough young rum was considered suitable only for these poor souls who had little choice in the matter of alcoholic preference. With its rise in popularity, however, distillers began storing reserves of rum in barrels where it absorbed the aromas of wood and the savorous remnants of previous contents. The resulting liquor was mellow and nuanced, a delightful improvement on raw young rum. The market boomed, especially in the young United States where its continued association with a lawless frontier cemented the liquor’s reputation as a rebel’s drink.

I am not sure when the custom of adding spices, hot water, and butter began, but most historians argue that it was an old world concoction. The Europeans had a predilection for adding dairy and spices to their spirits (like posset, eggnog, and some versions of wassail) and they gave rum a similar treatment. The resulting hot buttered beverage is still supped today; a testament to the eternal truth that everything really is better with butter.

So here’s a drink for all the rebels out there—heat, spice, and slosh of kill-devil beaten up all soft and silky with a good dab of butter.


Hot Buttered Rum
Serves 1

1 long strand of orange peel
a squeeze of lemon
a few whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 small spoonful of butter, or to taste
1 tablespoon brown sugar or honey
a good measure of rum, (size of the ‘measure’ depending on how rebellious you feel)
boiling water

1. Stud the orange peel with the cloves and place in a mug along with the cinnamon stick and sugar.
2. Add the rum and top off with hot water.
3. Add the butter, beat until silky, and serve.

Good Noggin

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2011 at 17:13

Christmas Cocktail Line-Up 

I like simple drinks. None of your elaborate rosemary-infused pear vodka pompom for me thank you very much. I have tried these ornate offerings and their kin too many times, only to wind up feeling disgruntled and ripped off. Most are pretentious, too sweet, and extortionate. If strong spirits are required give me scotch with a splash of water or a tequila on the rocks with a twist of lime; you can keep your fruit juice fripperies.

And then Christmas arrives. As December dawns I become a glutton for all the hot, fruity, mulled mugs that you can throw at me. Perhaps it’s the combination of heat, spice, booze, and fruit; the first sip is always medicinal (okay, I may be several hundred years behind modern medical science, but who cares) and the last sip is just as assuredly Dionysian, complete with the subsequent collapse into snoring contentment. So this year, in the spirit of Santa’s hard working elf, I am pleased to present my definitive Christmas Cocktail Line-Up.

First, a sustaining breakfast beverage to get you holidays off to a good start.


I first encountered eggnog while working as a barista. We served ‘eggnog lattes’ (a desecration of our sumptuous coffee) and the so-called nog came in cartons with an expiration date six months away. Isn’t this stuff made of milk, cream, and eggs? I wondered. Freaky. The liquid was slop heavy and puss yellow. As customer after customer crooned in delight over their noggy-drinks, however, curiosity overcame disgust and I took a sip. It clung to my tongue, it clawed at my throat, it wallowed in my stomach like Platonic melancholy. ‘Ah, but this isn’t real eggnog,’ a co-worker informed me. ‘It’s got to be homemade. And the key is brandy and rum; they cut the cream and make it a different drink entirely.’

So I gave it a whirl. The result was indeed worlds away from store-bought nog—lighter, fragrant with nutmeg, and a pleasant pale creamed hue. It was still rich and weighty, but the alcohol carved through the cream giving it lovely sharp counterbalance. A small cup of this nog is a luxurious festive indulgence. It can also be adapted for various recipes from eggnog french toast to fudge and cheesecake. For Christmas dessert I’m thinking of trying a recipe for eggnog flan with a cinnamon crust.

The true etymology of the term ‘eggnog’ is hard to distinguish from legend. Some say that ‘nog’ comes from the middle English ‘noggin’ meaning a small wooden cup for alcoholic drinks. Others say eggnog is a shortened version of ‘egg and grog,’ the latter being a term for the diluted alcohol, particularly rum, given to sailors (presumably in an attempt to keep them sufficiently tipsy and content but not so drunk that they toppled overboard). Whatever the case, the drink itself if thought to come from an English drink called posset. Dating back to the 14th century, posset was a medicinal beverage (here we go again with the booze-loving doctors) made with cream, eggs, spices, and a sherry-style wine called ‘sack.’

Both posset and eggnog were beverages of the aristocracy. The lower classes couldn’t afford luxuries such as cream, eggs, and spices. Instead these commoners would thicken their booze with bread (tipsily one-upping the Italians and their bread soup).  I find it a great tragedy that we have reduced this once noble tipple to a dispirited yellow goop filled with chemicals and colorings. The only resort is to make the stuff at home. Here is a good traditional recipe adapted from Historical Foods.

4 fresh healthy eggs*
100g (3oz) sugar
1/2 tsp fresh grated nutmeg – extra grated for garnish
1 whole cinnamon stick
100ml (3oz) brandy
100ml (3oz) dark rum
350ml (12oz) whole milk
250ml (8oz) heavy cream
Optional: bring this recipe up to date with the addition of vanilla

* Salmonella is a remote possibility. Life is risky. Buy fresh, good quality eggs.

1. In a large bowl beat the eggs until frothy. Then beat in the sugar. One by one slowly add the milk, followed by the cream, brandy, and finally rum, beating each in well before adding the next.
2. Grate in the nutmeg and add the whole cinnamon stick. (Although vanilla is not traditional, it complements the other flavors well. If desired, add the seeds scraped from 1/2 a vanilla pod.)
3. Refrigerate the mixture for a few hours, then remove the cinnamon stick, shake well, and serve.

Eggnog that is not preserved by ungodly means has a short shelf life. Keep refrigerated and drink within a few days.

Anthropology of Aprons

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2011 at 11:59

My mother had a navy blue smock apron made of a sturdy cotton and decorated, Pollock-like, with exuberant blobs and smatterings collected from countless domestic projects. She used it for heavy work——for weeding, tackling the basement, and repainting bedrooms. She also had a green bib apron with capacious front pockets and tattered strings that had been savaged by our dog Crackers. This apron carried more odiferous decoration: a splodge of tomato sauce here, a spot of gravy there, a trickle of molasses running down the bosom. There was also a blue and white striped apron reminiscent of butcher’s attire and a drawer full of folksy waist aprons lavishly embroidered and rarely used. My own apron at that time was a voluminous smock with strings that tied at the back of the neck. I used to love wearing this apron with my mum. I felt mature and important; I was part of her world. Unwittingly, when I wore that apron I also became part of a circuitous and weighty history, for upon closer scrutiny this simple article of clothing provides a rich tapestry for the story of changing social conceptions of cooking, women, and the home.

For much of its history, the apron was thoroughly utilitarian. Before the industrial revolution reshaped homes and work, aprons were vital for many daily chores. In 1800s America, for instance, at a time when most people were farmers, aprons served a multitude of purposes: they protected the wearer’s dress while she planted potatoes or performed the weekly clothes wash; they carried apples from the orchard or vegetables from the garden. Given this heavy use, aprons were plain and sturdy, often stitched from old sacking or patched together from scraps. Only rich women in cities, whose most strenuous work consisted of managing servants, could afford to wear decorative aprons. And wear them they enthusiastically did. Perhaps in an effort to distance themselves from common farmers or their female employees, these wealthy ladies began sewing elaborate, fanciful, and often decidedly impractical aprons.

During the 20th century, with rapid urbanization and technological changes that lessened the burden of housework, a growing middle class of women joined their wealthy counterparts and began stitching extravagant collections of aprons. It became a way for women to articulate housework. In the 1950s at the apex of this fashion craze women appeared to have an apron for every task—for sewing, cleaning, gardening, casual cooking, and entertaining. Many women kept their best apron clean and pressed in a drawer to be whipped out and donned when company unexpectedly arrived. God forbid the neighbors catch you cooking in a dirty apron!

Thus this humble workday garb morphed from function to fashion. In this process it became a symbol of that paragon of mid-20th century feminine virtue—the good housewife. Arrayed in a comely apron, she could serve dinner to the kids and then, at the sound of hubby’s footsteps, she could tug the strings and remove her apron to reveal something sexy underneath. An aproned angel in the kitchen and a spotless scarlet woman in the living room?

And then the 60s arrived. In the struggle for a woman’s right to develop her own career beyond the kitchen sink, the image on a be-aproned housewife lost her shine. A potent symbol of domesticity the apron was also dethroned as women labored at the monumental task of cleaving the words ‘house’ and ‘wife’ apart. In the 1960s women may have burned their bras but a decade later they were also burning aprons, metaphorically at least.

So how did the sneaky devils reappear? Why do I and many of my contemporaries—all strong, confident, self-determining women of substance—embrace this old symbol of domestic serfdom? Today, every kitchen shop boasts a stock of aprons in every style imaginable. Looking around, it is hard to avoid the impression that aprons have become a celebratory garment rather than a symbol of women’s subjugation. One reason may be that my generation did not fight the good fight in the 60s and 70s so we have the privilege of forgetting. None of us were admonished by popular imagery and tradition to wear aprons and they were never a object of rebellion.

Furthermore, following the cyclical tendency of fashion, my generation is going wild for old kitchen projects that were all but forgotten 20 years ago: from baking bread to brewing beer, many of us are obsessed with kitchen DIY. It is a trend has many roots (a mistrust of industrial food, a desire to work with the hands and gain rest-bite from a virtual world, a curiosity about these fading skills) but it is clearly visible in blogs, articles, the proliferation of community gardens and cookbooks on caning and cheese making. These DIY projects are often elaborate and messy endeavors. It is easy to forget, in all this talk of symbol and status, that aprons have always retained an element of functionality. As a profoundly clumsy cook, I find that donning an apron before entering the kitchen is simply good sense. It pays off in a lighter laundry basket.

My love of aprons has grown since that first smock and I now have a sizable collection: frilly and frivolous garments such as a flamenco-style apron—all ruffles and polkadots—that I bought at a tourist shop in Granada; simple everyday aprons; and sturdy working aprons built to withstand culinary mayhem, and often the literal strewing of blood and guts. I cherish them all.  Slipping on an apron is a ritual in itself, a moment of marking. Now, I am ready to cook. As the Spanish saying goes,  estoy en mi propia salsa. I am in my own sauce, and happily so.

Note: The history of mens aprons is simpler yet no less symbolic. Men have long worn aprons for a variety of occupations. Butchers, bakers, chefs, carpenters, blacksmiths—each had a distinctive style of apron. They were dignified and serious. In contrast to women’s aprons, they symbolized a real and respectable profession. In America of the 1950s it became popular for men to take on the manly side of cooking, spending summer weekends barbecuing in the back yard. Aprons for these hobby cooks became popular, but they were markedly different from the decorative outfits worn by their wives. Male aprons sported silly phrases which served to distance themselves from the drudgery of everyday food preparation. Today, these glib aprons still reflect certain social attitudes to man’s role in the kitchen. Here are a few interesting specimens I discovered:

Will grill for sex

I can light your fire

Caution, extremely hot

Real men don’t use recipes

In dog beers I’ve only had one

I like cougars . . . .medium rare

Who’s your daddy

I turn grills on