Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Anybody got an absinthe spoon?

Monday, April 15th, 2013

On a cold night a hundred years ago, government inspectors raided the saloons of a small town west of Baltimore. This was six years before the passage of Prohibition, so the inspectors weren’t looking to confiscate all the booze, just one particular substance that they considered especially dangerous.

Kate Dolan writes about absinthe

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Olivia (1901)

The Catonsville Herald Argus newspaper reported that inspectors confiscated about ten bottles of absinthe during the raids. Saloon owners were not arrested or charged with any offense, but all the bottles were emptied—and presumably not into the glasses of any patrons. Why did the Pure Food and Drug Department consider absinthe so much more dangerous than whiskey or gin or other spirits available in the saloons? Why was it outlawed when other spirits and even marijuana and cocaine were not?

And if it was such an evil drink, why can you find it lots of places today?

Absinthe is a distilled spirit made from aniseed, fennel and the leaves of Artemisia absinthium or wormwood. In the distilled form, it is not sweet and so it’s not a liqueur, although it is usually served with sugar to make it taste sweet. It’s strong – traditional absinthe has about 50% more alcohol than whiskey—but is typically diluted heavily with ice water. Despite its reputation as a hallucinogen, absinthe affects the drinker exactly the same way as whiskey or any other distilled spirit – drink too much and you’ll get drunk. Doesn’t sound too radical, even if it is often green from the herbs. So why the ban? It started with that reputation.

Absinthe was developed in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t well known until about 100 years later, when it became a popular drink among artists and writers in Paris. Public figures like Ernest Hemingway, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, none known for their conservatism or restraint, were all quite fond of absinthe, and helped give the drink it’s reputation for causing crazy reactions. Some say it was absinthe induced madness that caused van Gogh to hack off his ear. Up to this day, the drink has a reputation as having hallucenogenic properties, based partly on experiments done with wormwood oil in the late 19th Century and partly on word of artists and writers who described wild sensations after taking the drink. According to the Wormwood Society, the reputation continues even today because “modern marketers…exaggerate these myths, combine them with modern falsehoods, and use them as marketing gimmicks to lure the credulous thrill-seeker.*”

However, extensive study in the 1980s proved that although wormwood does contain the poisonous substance thujone, the amount that is tranferred into absinthe is so minute as to not pose a danger to consumers. If there were any hallucenations caused by the drink, they were most likely due to the poisonous copper salts added to give a green color to cheaply made absinthe.

After studies proved the spirit was no more dangerous than similar alcoholic beverages, the United States eventually lifted the ban on absinthe in 2007. However, regulations specifically prohibit marketers from using labels that “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects.”

So, nearly 100 years after that hometown raid, absinthe was finally legal in the United States. But much of what is commonly sold as absinthe these days is merely an inferior liqueur, according to the Wormwood Society and other afficianados. There are two methods of making absinthe, by distillation and the “cold method.” The distilled spirit requires a double distillation process that includes steeping the herbs which give the drink its traditional flavor and color. The resulting spirit is strong and not at all sweet. By contrast, the cold method or “mixed” absinthes are produced by taking a grain alchohol base and adding flavorings coloring and usually, a considerable quantity of sugar. Often these drinks are labeled as a “liqueur.”

Although absinthe has been legal for six years, it is still not very common in the U.S. For example, I don’t remember seeing any available at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. But last fall, the Blue Talon restaurant in Williamsburg offered five different types of absinthe. My husband was horrified when I ordered some made from a “150-year-old recipe.” In researching this article, I went to the restaurant’s online menu to see what it was I’d actually ordered. It was “Grande Absente, a French liqueur that the Wormwood Society rated at about two stars (on a scale of five). The reviewer described it as “not completely terrible.” It was served in the traditional fashion with a slotted absinthe “spoon” (that looks more like a cheese spreader to me), a sugar cube and a carafe of ice water. The waitress recommended placing the sugar on the spoon and pouring water over it to dilute and sweeten the drink. I of course had to try it straight first. It tasted a lot like licorice with a bitter twist. I guess that was the wormwood. It was fun to try and probably great for those times when you just want something a little different, but I don’t see myself taking absinthe on a regular basis, so don’t expect to see me hovering over an absinthe dispenser in a Paris café anytime soon.

However, when I visited my dad a couple of weeks ago, he showed me a bottle of absinthe he’d just bought. I’m not sure he has any absinthe spoons and he didn’t even have any sugar cubes. So maybe for Father’s Day I’ll get out some cheese spreaders, bang a few holes in them, and present dad with his own absinthe drinking set. Maybe the bottle he bought is the real thing! I’ll let you know how that goes…


* that would be me – the credulous thrill seeker. Sigh

image:Viktor Oliva [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Exploding bottles: the history of Champagne

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Champagne, I had always heard, was invented by monks who made a mistake and “ruined” a batch of wine. But this year as I prepared to drink my way into the New Year, I decided to find out if that was actually how my favorite drink came into being.

It turns out the monks didn’t really invent it – it sort of invented itself and they, in fact, were trying to prevent it from doing so.

But let’s take a few steps back to get the full story.Kate Dolan explores the history of Champagne

Most of the fizzy wine referred to as “champagne” is not actually Champagne because to be official, it has to be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. Wine grapes were cultivated in the area at least by A.D. 72, but twenty years later, the Romans outlawed winemaking in the region in order to reduce competition for the wines they produced closer to the capital. The French love wine as much as they hate being told what to do, so they continued to produce wine in secret until the ban was lifted. For hundreds of years the traditional Champagne wine was amber or pink, and it was not fizzy, at least not intentionally.

As the climate cooled during the Middle Ages, challenges mounted for the wine makers in the Champagne region. The growing season became too short for the grapes to fully ripen and develop the rich flavor of grapes produced in neighboring Burgundy. To make matters worse, the onset of winter often stopped the fermentation process too early. When the weather warmed in the spring, the yeast would awaken and begin to ferment again, producing carbon dioxide that put enormous pressure on the bottles, often making them explode. The bottles that didn’t explode were frequently found to be full of bubbles, which was considered a tremendous fault. (more…)

Really Bad Table Manners

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

My new story “Change of Address” features some terrible table manners and that inspired me to research the whole concept of manners and how they change. So for the rest of the month, Living History will feature articles on bad manners, starting with the medieval banquet.Kate Dolan's dog shows interest in the bones at the table

Just how realistic is the classic depiction of a medieval banquet where burly men sit at the table belching, scratching themselves in rude places and throwing bones to the dogs on the floor? Probably pretty accurate if you subscribe to the theory that society doesn’t come up with a prohibition until someone’s already done the thing being prohibited —and gotten away with it. A wildly popular etiquette manual published in 1530 admonishes those sitting at a banquet to “not throw bones or similar left-overs under the table to litter the floor, or toss them onto the table cloth, or replace them in the serving dish.” If you have to tell people not to do it, someone was doing it. (more…)

Gambling for Tupperware

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Tupperware® is an icon of American suburbia and the Tupperware Party as classic as Jello® salad. But I had never been to a Tupperware party. So when a friend handed me an invitation, I eagerly accepted, even though I don’t generally like the “come to my house and buy stuff” type of gatherings.

This was a chance to take my rightful place among American housewives. I may live in a housing development, hold regular cookouts in the yard, drive a beat-up minivan and live off prepackaged convenience foods, but I could not call myself a real housewife until I had been to a Tupperware party.Kate Dolan's Hanging Cheesekeeper/Dogfeeder

Whether I wanted to call myself a real housewife never quite entered my mind. Because this was not an ordinary party, this was an “auction party” and there was all kinds of ways to win (fake Tupperware) cash and (Tupperware) prizes. My head was swimming with plastic possibilities. (more…)

Ice Cream is Older Than You’d Think

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Summer is almost over and that means so is my series on the history of classic summer cookout foods. I’m finishing with our favorite summer dessert – the ice cream cone.

The fact that frozen desserts were invented thousands of years before the freezer means that for a long time, iced anything was a treat reserved only for the very wealthy. (See my earlier post on ice houses here)Kate Dolan scooped (and ate) her own ice cream before writing about the history of it

Most sources credit the ancient Persians with the first iced desserts involving fruit juice and snow with flavorings like saffron and rose water, and these are traced back before 400 BC. There’s some debate over which culture first added dairy products to the mix— the Chinese made a frozen rice and milk dish and Arabs created concoctions of milk, cream, yogurt sweetened with sugar rather than fruit juice. Like the Persian desserts, these recipes date back as much as 2000 years or more. Legend credits Marco Polo with bringing recipes for ice cream to Europe at the end of the 13th Century. (more…)

How historical are hot dogs?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

My series on the history of summer food favorites continues with the history of hot dogs. When I was getting ready to try our first weekend of “living history” camping at an 18th Century historical event, I tried to figure out if I could cheat a little to make things more fun for my kids, who were pretty young at the time. Camping involves roasting hot dogs and making s’mores, right? I didn’t figure Hershey had packaged his chocolate bars before the Revolutionary War, but I did wonder if I could get away with hot dogs. They were Frankfurters. Surely the Germans had been making sausages in Frankfurt for a long time and I hoped maybe they resembled modern hot dogs enough that I could cook them for my family at an 18th Century encampment without looking too ridiculous.

Kate Dolan's blog asks if this is the home of the hot dog

Is Frankfurt the home of the hot dog? Of have Americans changed it so much that its birthplace is impossible to determine?

As it turns out, ridiculous doesn’t always matter at these events,* but for the record, no, I could not get away with roasting a package of Ballpark Franks and calling them 18th Century German sausages. Not by a long shot. (more…)

The red stuff explained

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Where would a hamburger be without ketchup? If not wearing the popular red sauce or another condiment, the beloved American sandwich would be naked and not at all suitable for family 4th of July parties. I discussed the history of the hamburger in my last post, so now I’ll talk a little about ketchup.

Since the tomato was considered poisonous (or at least really bad tasting) by most of the English-speaking world up until the late 1700s, ketchup would seem to be a recent invention. Not so. In the 1600s, British sailors brought the sauce back from the trips to the Orient, where it was already very popular. Why didn’t they consider it poisonous? Because it wasn’t made with tomatoes. It was the brine from pickled shellfish. (Try that on a burger sometime!)

Kate Dolan says oysters used to be principal ingredient in ketchup

Will you be putting pickled oyster sauce on your burger this 4th of July?


Europeans soon began developing their own versions of ketchup made from pickled oysters, walnuts and mushrooms. The sauce was thin, sour, and highly seasoned with spices such as ginger, mace (the outer hull of nutmeg) and cloves. In other words, it was not anything like what we think of as ketchup. (more…)

Did hamburgers come from Hamburg?

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Summer has just started, but most of us have already been to a number of the standard hot dog/hamburger cookouts, ice cream socials and picnics with assorted ants, bees, biting flies, etc.  So while we’re in the season, I thought I’d take a look at the origin of some of these summer holiday classics, starting with the hamburger.

Kate Dolan writes about the origin of the hamburger

Did cavemen eat rock burgers like these?


The name comes from the Hamburg, Germany, of course, but the concept of eating ground meat patties predates the city of Hamburg and even the country of Germany.  “What’s Cooking America” reports that ancient Egyptians ate ground meat and the fast-moving armies of Genghis Khan prepared their patties by placing minced meat under their saddles so that the meat could be tenderized by hours of rough riding and eaten with one hand without having to dismount. These were eaten rare, as in entirely uncooked rare, and I think we can assume there was no ketchup or sesame seed bun.  The Mogul armies eventually brought the concept to Russia where they added chopped onions and took away the saddle and called it “Steak Tartare.” (more…)

Were accommodations worse in the jail or tavern?

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

On Tuesday I wrote about the museum at the 18th Century town of Halifax, North Carolina, urging everyone on the dreadfully dull I-95 corridor to stop and take advantage of the site (but not to let their children use the dugout canoe as a skateboard ramp for stuffed animals). Today, as the town celebrates the 236th anniversary of the Halifax Resolution, I wanted to share some information from the outbuildings at the site, namely, the jail and the Eagle Tavern.

Kate Dolan toured the Halifax jail with her kids

This is the third jail built in Halifax - the first two were set on fire by inmates to facilitate their escape. Finally the town fathers learned their lesson and used brick

The jail was still in the process of restoration when we toured it years ago, so the displays were limited and my kids found the most interesting feature to be the trap door in the floor. Since it wasn’t set on hinges, they couldn’t get it closed properly after they opened it, and I think they were desperately afraid the history site police would swoop in on them and lock them up in a 21st Century jail. Lest readers be kept in suspense unnecessarily, I will hasten to add that the children did accompany me the rest of the way home on I-95 and are not moldering away in a rural prison dedicated to the incarceration of those who tamper with historical exhibits.

But I did learn some interesting facts about incarceration in the 18th Century, at least. Inmates had to supply not only their own clothes, but also their own linens and bedclothes. That doesn’t sound too bad, but if they were placed in irons, they had to pay for the metal, they had to pay for the blacksmith’s labor to make the manacles, and they had to pay for his labor each time the irons were put on and removed. If a prisoner was hanged, he paid for the rope, coffin and the effort to dig a hole for it. Prisoners’ goods would be sold to meet these expenses, and if that didn’t raise enough money, only then would the state step in to pick up the tab. As a rule, long-term incarceration was not a common penalty in the 18th Century. Instead of spending years in jail, a horse thief might have his ears nails to a pillory and cut off, have both his cheeks branded, and then his back whipped with 39 lashes. It all sounded a little medieval to me, but the museum curators assured me that these penalties were on the books in the late 18th or early 19th Centuries.

Te food and drink for prisoners often came from the local tavern keeper. Taverns were much more multifunctional than they are today. A tavern was not simply a place to sample the local ale. Patrons could pick up mail, spend the night, care for their horses, buy jewelry or visit the doctor. Merchants and professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers frequently set up shop in the corner of a tavern. But despite all this activity, taverns typically looked just like a residential house. A 1767 law required tavern keepers to erect a sizeable sign so that passers by could distinguish between public establishments and private houses. It also enabled the government to more readily spot taverns selling liquor without a license.

In some counties, up to 20% of the tavern licenses were held by women, so it was not uncommon for your host to in fact be a hostess. About half of the license holders were widows who kept the license after their husbands passed away, and many of these women only held the licenses for a few years. But the extent of the practice shows that tavern keeping was not a disreputable trade for a woman.

The Eagle Tavern in Halifax is a confusing restoration. As near as I could tell, the building that is now restored and filled with interesting and informative (and air-conditioned) displays was a late 18th Century addition to a tavern that stood on another site down the street. Local tradition holds that George Washington dined in the tavern when he visited the town in 1791, but I’m not sure whether he dined in this addition or the earlier building or one of the eleven other tavern sites in town, all of which seemed to change names every few years. While Washington left no specific comments on the quality of the food to be found at the Halifax tavern(s), the site quotes some other patrons, who are hopefully talking about different taverns. “[A] worse meal we thought impossible to find,” writes Capt. Basil Hall “till dinner time came around and showed us the extent of our miscalculations.” Another traveler complained of provisions so bad that “even the horse would have been a fool to eat.”

So if they didn’t come for the food, or the deluxe accommodations (we’ve all heard the stories about tavern patrons forced to share a bed with four strangers and countless lice), why did they come? Well, some taverns advertised “a show of cocks.” But it was not the colonial red light district. These were gamecocks, because “sports of the pit” were quite popular. In addition to betting on fighting poultry, patrons bet on dice games such as hazard, billiards, draughts (checkers), backgammon, chess and skittles (I don’t know what these are, but presumably they are not fruit-flavored little candies). Playing cards of the time look much like they do today, except that there were no little numbers printed at the corners and the cards were printed o a thinner paper than the laminated stock used now. The Eagle Tavern had a card press on display, used to flatten cards after use. I thought that was pretty neat, and it looked portable and yet heavy enough to be considered a possible murder weapon in a game of Clue.

Can you tell what my daughter’s favorite game has been this summer? (I guess Captain Hall, in the billiard room, with the card press. And the victim? Well I guess it would have most likely been the chef.)


Most of the above information was first published on my website in 2006, but after we made a brief stop at Halifax last weekend, I decided to re-run the article because the site deserves more attention than it’s getting. Even if you stop by after the museum has closed for the day, you can still pick up a detailed map at the Visitors Center and stroll around the grounds reading about life in the old town. It’s a quick detour from the interstate, yet untold miles away in atmosphere. We strolled through fields of wildflowers where the only sounds were the hum of crickets and the chirp of birds.

And we played “Clue” on this last trip, too. Halifax isn’t the only place where things haven’t changed much in the last six years. Happy Halifax Day!

Here’s some information on the day’s events at Halifax:

Mark the 236th Anniversary of the Halifax Resolves, the first official call for independence from England by any American colony.  Tours of the site’s historic buildings will be held from 10 am-4 pm.  A formal program will be held at the Visitors Center at 2 pm.  The guest speaker will be Dr. Carole Troxler, who will present “What was the ‘Enfield Riot’ in 1758, and how did it relate to the Regulator Movement?”  The Annual Halifax Resolves Awards will be presented during the porgram.  The Halifax Resolves Awards are presented to individuals, groups, or businesses recognizing excellence in the field of historic preservation or restoration.  A reception will be held in the Tap Room following the program.  A permanent wayside exhibit will be featured at the Tap Room.  Visitors may also learn about the area’s history through a self-guided museum tour and a 13-minute audiovisual presentation in the Historic Halifax Visitor Center.
To learn more about the site, visit

Enigmatic Eggnog

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

As I was celebrating Christmas Eve-Eve with a glass of eggnog I wondered how long people have been drinking this stuff to celebrate the holidays.

I started my research with a book on “Colonial Christmas Cooking,” partly because it’s relevant to the season and mostly because it’s one the rabbit pulled off the shelf so I had to pick it up anyway before she ate it. Eggnog certainly seems like it could have been consumed in the 18th Century, when milky drinks like syllabub and posset enjoyed great popularity. Syllabub is a mixture of wine, sugar, spices and milk that was sometimes squirted directly from the cow to give a bubbly effect. In fact, my Christmas cookbook says the strange name of the drink derives from the town in France from which the wine was imported (Sillery) and “bub” which is an Elizabethan word for bubbly drink. Posset is a similar drink served warm.

in the colonial Gunshop at Jerusalem Mill

"What is this? Posset? Syllabub? Eggnog?"

My colonial Christmas book discusses syllabub, posset and eggnog, but the footnote for the recipe for eggnog refers to a book written in 1958. So we’ve got a lapse of a couple centuries and I need to dig a little more if I want to find early references to eggnog. (more…)