Friday, May 20, 2005

Crisco through the ages

I was suprised at the depth of feeling evidenced in the recent Crisco cookie wars (if you are unaware of what I'm referring to, see here). I hope we have reached the point where we can now call a truce by stating that the real difference between the two sides appears to be one of dunkers vs. non-dunkers. Simply put, those who dunk cookies prefer them to be made with Crisco; those who don't, don't.

But the whole cookie discussion started me thinking about Crisco itself. This is unusual; Crisco, like Spam, is something I don't ordinarily think about. We didn't use either one all that much in our house when I was growing up, even though it was the Fifties--except, of course, for the obligatory piecrust (made with Crisco, that is, not Spam). And meditating on Crisco made me think of a very odd but strangely fascinating book I once read.

The book is called Perfection Salad. Written by Laura Shapiro, it's a history of the "Scientific Cooking" movement, in which a group of women of the late 1800's and early 1900's tried to revolutionize American cooking, introducing the idea of order and form as paramount considerations. Sounds rather dull, but I found the book surprisingly riveting.

It turns out that these ladies were trying to tame food and civilize it. The goal was to make it an esthetic and refined experience, as far from its "animal" roots as possible, and devoid of any "low" and ethnic influences--such as, for example, that tiny detail known to us as taste (if you are of a certain age, like me, and you wonder why the food of your youth was so uniformly bland, these ladies share some of the blame). Color was elevated to a matter of extreme importance, and white was the very best color of all.

It's hard to imagine exactly what this entailed in practice, so to get an idea to what lengths the advocates were willing to go, here's an excerpt from the book:

Color-coordinated meals enjoyed a surge of popularity...Mrs. Lincoln once shared with her readers the description of a green-and-white luncheon created by a subscriber. Grapefruit, lightly covered with white frosting and pistachio nuts, opened the meal; cream of pea soup with whipped cream followed; and the main course was boiled chicken with banana sauce, accompanied by macaroni, creamed spinach, potato balls, and parsley. Green-and-white ices and cakes completed the picture...Mrs. Rorer had a special fondness for the all-white meal, which she didn't mind going to some lengths to achieve. Cream soups, cream sauces, boiled poultry, and white fish dominated her dinners, with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and angel cake for dessert.

I don't know about you, but this is my idea of revolting. And where does Crisco come in? In 1911, to be exact--as the makers of Crisco inform us, having thoughtfully provided us with a timeline on the Crisco website. Crisco was the quintessential white, pure food, the dream come true of the scientific cooking movement. Leached of taste, smell, and the ability to spoil, it was lauded and embraced by these women.

Here is Perfection Salad on the subject of the introduction of Crisco:

Crisco had been tested extensively in the laboratory ever since its discovery...Now it was ready for the public: "Dip out a spoonful and look at it. You will like its very appearance, for it is a pure cream white, with a fresh, pleasant aroma....Crisco never varies...[it] is put up in immaculate packages, perfectly protected from dust and store odors. No hands ever touch it..."

Some early Crisco recipes:

Caramel Sweet Potatoes could be glazed with brown sugar and Crisco; stuffed onions could be filled with bread crumbs and Crisco; sandwiches could be spread with Crisco mixed with an egg yolk and seasoned rather highly with Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar; and finally, a pure and tasteless white sauce could be prepared by melting two tablespoons of Crisco, adding two tablespoons of flour, and stirring in a cup of milk.

I do believe I have finally found the source for the recipes used by the chefs (I use the word advisedly) in the dining hall at my college dorm.


At 3:50 PM, May 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I occasionaly like good brown German cooking: saurkraut and pork and hot dogs, mashed potatoes.

And once on a New Years Day, for a strange multiethnic touch, we had plum pudding and hard sauce for dessert. What can I tell you, my wife is Scottish.

-N. O'Brain

At 8:42 PM, May 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boiled poultry?
A sauce whose objective is to be tasteless?


It's the culinary equivalent of the Godawful honky folk music of the 60's.

At 10:47 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger Joan said...

a pure and tasteless white sauce


That's Just. Not. Right.

Thanks for this -- I had no idea this culture existed. Although I should've, since I've perused Lilek's Gallery of Regrettable Food... this should be required reading for anyone who wishes to prepare food for others, or even themselves. These (nearly) unspeakable horrors should never be repeated.

At 11:46 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

The mere mention of Crisco© sends my cardiologist into a near catatonic state.

At 12:48 AM, May 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crisco, when used in certain ways, can be very tasty. They now have a version with no transfat that, while not really healthy, isn't too bad either (especially compared to many other thing we regularly consume with no thought whatsoever).

Add some to green beans cooking, use as grease for fried items (especially chicken), pie crusts, and a few other things and it is great.

It is similar to salt, if used correctly it makes many things taste more (not different exactly, just less bland). And it also gives a silky mouthfeel to things like the green beans.

I can't imagine eating it in the way described and, being from the rural deep south (mountains of East Tennessee) I can assure you that health and fat concerns had nothing to do with why I know of noone that used it as you described. Nor would you normally call the items I associate our use of it as bland. (Ahh, silly northerners :) - and make sure you notice the smiley there)

At 9:22 AM, May 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's what I love about the blogosphere - pick a topic, and you'll find an expert, no matter how obscure.

Here's a link to his 2004 speech to the International Association of Culinary Professionals: Is Globalization Changing The Way The World Eats? (.pdf)


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