You can tell good writing when you read it. If you asked me to describe what it is, I can’t tell you. But listen to this show, and you will quickly learn why I am a big fan boy of Rachel Wharton and her writing.
“Once you actually start to look into the history of anything, it’s always way more complex, more layered, complicated, and interesting, and leads you down a path that you didn’t expect.”
On this show Rachel joins me to talk about her super cool book, American Food, A Not-So-Serious History. Its full of the backstories of foods you did not realize had a deep history.
An example being the deep dive into Ambrosia, which has devolved into a marshmallow thing, but when first created, it was a dish with African roots made by slaves in an American kitchen.
Learn more about Rachel on her website.
Eric: Hey, how are you? Thanks for downloading garden fork radio, the eclectic DIY show. I am your host, Eric. I have this podcast and a YouTube channel dealing with eclectic DIY. It can involve building raised beds, making a pizza oven out of a metal barrel. Or today we could be talking about American food with my friend, Rachel Wharton, who we have not seen each other in person in a while, but we follow each other on those social media things. And she’s always doing something really cool and interesting. Rachel is a James Beard award winning journalist writing about food and and a lot more than food too. There’s, there’s always an article in the New York times or in edible, Brooklyn or edible Manhattan. And I don’t even have to read the byline and I know it’s Rachel cause I can, I just know her voice in her writing.
Eric: And she came out with a book recently called American food and not so serious history, which is a collaboration with an illustrator Kimberly Ellen hall. And she’s been doing this a lot lately working with I guess you’d call it graphic news story telling it’s writing and imagery worked together, which I really like, but I’ve been in my own Erik way. Cause you know how organized I am trying to schedule some time with Rachel and it happened today and it was really a lot of fun to talk to her. So we’re just to kind of jump into the show. You can learn more about Rachel it’s, Rachel wharton.net and her book is called American food and not so serious history. I’ll link to that in the show notes here, but let’s just start talking to Rachel and here we go. First off, I always get excited when I find an article by you. I can tell you’re writing in the first sentence. I’m like, I’m like, Oh, Rachel wrote this. And then I look at, I I’m getting better at looking at by-lines, but you are first, not first, but a lot of your writing that I first read was an edible, the edible magazines,
Rachel: Which you had, they have a very, or they did, they had a very distinct style. Yeah. Which I was like working within.
Eric: And then you started doing other work and I, then I would find you in the New York times and I was so excited to see you in the New York times. And then you started pairing with an illustrator instead of a photographer, which I thought was really amazing. And then all of a sudden to me, it’s like, surprise, boom, here’s this book, but you probably were working on your book for years. Yes.
Rachel: Yes. And the book came out probably before I did the first collaboration with current shad me who’s the, you’re talking about
Eric: Who I mangled her mangled, their name. Sorry.
Rachel: It’s okay. I actually it’s cause it’s spelled like, like the emphasis is on the last syllable that you don’t know that he’s amazing. I’ve actually known him for a long time through a mutual friend. And I, he has a totally different style than my book coauthor, who is not a graphic novelist. She does illustrations and art and paintings in our, her actual real world life is she teaches, she teaches at Mica, which is a great school in Baltimore and she does wall like these amazing wallpapers and, and like patterns that companies buy to put on like pieces of furniture you may even have in your house, but Kerryn is a graphic novelists. So cause so I, I partnered with him for the times because he’s used to telling a complete story through illustrations where my book illustrator does different kinds of work.
Eric: So how did the book idea come about? Has it been in the back of your mind for a while or
Rachel: There’s a part a that’s boring and a part B that it’s maybe more interesting part a, is it myself and the illustrator? Kimberly Ellen hall. We have a mutual friend. Kim had done like all kinds of, she, she often makes a pattern and then turns it into a wallpaper or a lampshade design or curtains. And she, her own artistic art practice was, was drawing from the everyday. Like she got a grant to go take items out of out of like people have been evicted and their belongings got removed to a dumpsite. She got to like go through the belongings and draw the every day. So she had always shows me love food and wanting to work on a food book. And she had always wanted to illustrate a cookbook. She told her friends like, do you know any, do you know any people who are food writers who might want to collaborate with me?
Rachel: And this was a good friend of mine. She was like, Oh yeah, totally know if we’d read her, but I, I didn’t want to do a cookbook. Cause I didn’t really think I work on, I help chefs and food people work on cook cookbooks. And I just didn’t think that the world needs, I don’t think they like nobody needs a cookbook for me. They need like people who have much different. I mean, nobody needs another cookbook from a middle-aged white southerner. There’s lots of other people. So I was like, let’s do this, let’s do a food history book. So the part a was just that a mutual friend was like, Hey, Kim wants to do a food book. You’re a food writer. Do you want to work together? And I said, yes, but the B was that I figured, I just thought that everyone thinks of American food, which is not necessarily a cuisine like broader American food is more like just to like a loose gathering of food items that they have this perception probably rightly so being of crappy and mundane and flavorless and, and white in like every sense of the word and not very interesting and mass produced.
Rachel: And I was thinking that if you picked just from what I knew from being a food writer and reporter and learning about history is that once you actually start to look into the history of anything, it’s always way more complex, more layered, complicated, and interesting, and lead you down a path that you didn’t expect. And I was like, I think we can actually pick American foods at random and research them. And we would find stories that we know we didn’t know were there. So that’s what we decided to do and to pick them at random, we came up with the structure, like, how do you, how do you choose which American foods you’re going to write about? So we were like, let’s just give ourselves like a arbitrary structure. We’ll do a to Z. And we’ll just pick a food from a to Z, which is what we did.
Rachel: And we, we both made a short list of foods for the a to Z and we wanted to make sure we didn’t want them to be regional American foods. Like we know that, you know, shrimping to Faye in Louisiana has a con a beautiful, layered, interesting history. We really wanted it to be like yellow mustard, like a donut, like yeah. Like things that like things that you don’t even think about. Like, you don’t think they’re just so they’re a lot of them have been catching up. Like things have been exported to other countries. They like, there are a lot of them. I mean the, just food we wanted to pick foods that people didn’t even think about that much. And then, you know, you had to, I also wanted to make sure then, then we started to narrow it down because I wanted, I wanted to make sure we talked about almost every pressing issue in the world today via these foods, like climate change and agriculture and marketing and racism.
Rachel: So we kind of like did a teeny tiny bit of like we competing at to make sure we hit all those things. And then, then we just, then I just reported out all 26 food items and Kim, I would send Kim ideas or screen captures of when I was doing the research or, or like sometimes I would be eating hot wings and Buffalo, and I would like send her the pictures or I would send her. And that would save a lot of the research or take pictures of the research. So she could draw from most, both modern experience and past. And she would also do her own research in terms of like, like a lot, like in jello, she was jello has a really interesting history because a huge part of their marketing was to tap like really successful. Well-Known celebrated illustrators, like people who were true artists of their time and a lot of women and then use their artwork to sell jello, which just seems crazy.
Rachel: Now it seems almost unbelievable. So I actually went to the Jell-O museum, which is in between Rochester and Buffalo and they have pages and pages of some of the original art to sell jello. And it’s really beautiful stuff like Norman Rockwell and a bunch of artists that Kim knew off the top of her head that I had never heard of like famous people. And I can’t, it’s like, I’m trying to think. I mean, it’s probably like a, like your favorite, like indie musician contributing a song to an, to a huge mainstream advertisement. And that’s, that’s one example if I’m going like I’m digressing, but like that’s how the book came to be is that we were like trying to tell like the story of both modern American food and historical American food and modern meaning like all the issues we’re facing now by looking at seemingly MUN really mundane, maybe not even that flavorful foods.
Eric: Yeah. I actually, I, that was kind of in the forefront when I was reading the book is just the amount of food in America that it seems like what is considered kind of white guy food was actually created by African-Americans.
Rachel: Well, lots of it, particularly in the South. Yes. Yes. There’s, there’s a, like, I would say half the chapters and like, I didn’t even for some of them, I’d had no idea that I was going to, I definitely did not think I was going to go down that road with hot wings whose origin story is so solidly this Italian family in Buffalo. Like I had no idea, which is which is a really good example of what’s happening in the United States is that certain stories get told over and over and over again. And lots of them are told zero times in, in the mainstream world. So even though if you go back to talk to many Buffalo Buffalonians who were like, that’s the right way to say it, talk to people who are in their like sixties who were around when the first Buffalo ways, which were made by a, an African-American who had grown up in the South and the great migration, great migration came to Buffalo.
Rachel: He was really well-known in like the fifties and sixties. And maybe even early seventies, he had a restaurant to the eighties, I believe. And, but like, he’s just lost to history now because he was never written about in the mainstream newspaper. And every time the story is told about Buffalo wings for like 40 years, he’s not mentioned even though, even though there’s lots of people in Buffalo make a living so empowering. So it’s not like just that one family, Italian family owns like makes a living, selling Buffalo wings. Like lots of people sell Buffalo wings and people know about them in Buffalo. And this guy was like, his, his restaurants aren’t even there anymore. And what else? I was also, I totally did not expect to go down that path and in borough on Ambrosia, which is my very first chapter and I kind of started writing them in order.
Rachel: And I actually didn’t even, I didn’t actually expect, I didn’t expect my book to have so many kind of controversial is the right word, but like, so yeah, so, and like Ambrosia was like the V I really Ambrosia is kind of a Southern dish. So it’s really all over the United States. It’s just an older American dish. And as a Southern, I thought the big, the big deal about Ambrosia was that the original dish was purely grated coconut sugar at a time when sugar was a big deal and you’ve got it in a loaf and you had to scrape it. So it became this fluffy mass and oranges. Like I thought the big, like that was the original Ambrosia dish when those three things were really scarce and considered luxury items. And so also those three items when fresh and combined are delicious, but like now modern Dan Bertea is like, literally anything that you can throw at it.
Rachel: And like marshmallows. And I thought that was going to be the, I thought that the big deal of my chapter was going to be the original dish. And like, and then I cracked open the book, like the first known reference. And I, I actually spent a lot of time trying to find a previous reference and cross-referencing similar recipes in British cookbooks or looking in cookbooks in like friendships and like trying to find similar recipes. I didn’t really find any, so I, for me, it seems like the first known reference was a, was a book published in North Carolina of all places. It came out right after the civil war, but had written before it. And it turns out that the there’s a, there’s a, you can, the woman who wrote it, her husband was like pretty high up in the world in the, in the military.
Rachel: And actually he was like a well-known lawyer. Like they were kind of like well-to-do people in North Carolina and her family member, like many of his family members of her family members were members of the, of the, of the military in the South, the Confederacy. And so there was like, I could actually do research and find lots of about her family. And at the same time I was trying, she had, she had written, she had a very short introduction to the book and she said a couple of things that I didn’t quite understand. And so I had called up someone who had explicated her book as part of some early American cookbook research. She was a historian from the university and I was like, Hey, what does she mean by the sentence? And she was like, Oh yeah, she just, of course means that like I have to train, it’s so hard as a southerner because you have to train your slaves.
Rachel: And I was like, Oh my, Oh my God. Like, it just, I just, I totally realized that it wasn’t like now where this woman wrote a cookbook, like this woman didn’t cook at all. She never cooked her. Cause the, as the historian explained to me, it’s like something Southern women said, even though it wasn’t even true, like they would make it, they would racistly make it seem like they had a harder job because they had to train people where women in the North, you know, could hire trained labor. But like likely this woman barely even set foot in her kitchen, her entire life, even after the civil war, because very quickly she would have had servants again, paid very little or living at the house. And so it just hit me that Ambrosia was not probably not arrested. Of course it’s oranges, citrus, sugar, and coconut.
Rachel: And it just hit me that, of course this, like these are ingredients. I mean, these are ingredients from the slave trade through the Caribbean and Africa and back to the South. These ingredients are all well familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Caribbean and coconut in Africa. And I was like, it was just like totally obvious yet completely unsaid in anything ever written about Ambrosia and that, those chapters, that my first chapter. And then I was like, wow, this is actually even more revealing. Not just, and every single chapter was like, kind of, you know, not all chapters were other chapters. It was like, Oh, corporate corporate America is really like, it was like that kind of revelation or, but like every chapter surprised almost every chapter really surprised me.
Eric: I’m I mean, I got your book and I’m like, Oh, there’s these little chapters about each little food and it’s going to be a little thing about each of the food. And then I’m reading, I’m reading it. And I’m like, I’m like, Holy cow, there’s a S there’s like six citations on every page of some book you’ve read or a podcast listen to hundred interview or a book you found from the 18 hundreds. Is that all online? Are you going to libraries in person or,
Rachel: Oh yeah. When I did it, it wasn’t online. I mean, some of it is obviously, but I did go to libraries. You can’t even do that right now. It’s actually hard because I want to do something. I want to work on stuff and you can’t actually go to a library right now. And some things they can give you, but you can’t get to like microfiche as far as I know. Oh. So I went to libraries, I’m deliveries in New York city, but also in, I went to lots of libraries in the place. Like I’ve, I’ve tried to go to almost every single place. I went to South Carolina in Portland, Oregon, and, you know, I went almost every place. I would sometimes have peop librarians give me stuff. I got a subscription to newspapers.com, which is huge. I heard of that. Yeah. And that, that can, the super.com is also very useful because you could start to look at what every food section is saying at a certain period in history. And there’s a lot of, you can glean a lot of information and other sources that way I looked at a lot of books. I did a lot of reporting, like were, just, would talk to people who knew these subjects really well. And then, especially in terms of African-American history Michael [inaudible] book, I mean, there’s a couple of, there’s a couple of authors and they’re all I, I saved them all because they’ve done so much work recently. And, and they were invaluable, particularly in those times,
Eric: There’s four pages of bibliography at the end of your book. Yes.
Rachel: And actually, I didn’t even put all of them because I got tired. I just tried to put the big ones.
Eric: So is there a library somewhere in the country that is just cookbooks that you get to go to?
Rachel: I mean, there’s, I actually think that there’s people, Oh, I want to say cookbooks. Like the best thing to do is to go into used bookstores because to me it’s really, I actually have, to me, some of the most valuable things are the community cookbooks of the places, because you can really see trends. Like if you, like, when I went to Albuquerque to research Chili’s, I would go in every single use bookstore that I found and look in every single community cookbook or newspaper cookbook, and there’s a lot of them and they go back really far and you can kind of see when like certain things came in to like, Oh, that’s when people started adding sour cream. That’s like, and you also find a bunch of cookbooks that did not have wide distribution, whereas you can maybe see them on Amazon, but they’re $200, but you can find them for a quarter.
Rachel: And I saw, I did a lot of that, like was going and local bookstores. And a lot of times I would just open up the book, take a picture of the page. And sometimes I would buy books that had lots. And then I actually have a lot of cookbooks. I figured that if you, if you, I mean, some people have way more than me, but if you just like open up a random cook, like if you have, if I have like five cookbooks that kind of briefly touch on cakes and I look at every single one of them, then I start to you start to, they all have resources and ability geography, and that’s how you begin. And then, so it’s actually think regional, regional bookstores. One very cool thing now is that through Google books and Amazon, you can search a lot of books for keywords.
Rachel: So you might not be able to read the whole page, but you can tell before you buy a book or buy an ebook, if that book has the has information on your subject and not every book has searchable pages, but a lot of older books do like, like, especially in Google actually has ton of historic cookbooks for free. And then with results, there’s actually a fair number of, there are some libraries. I can’t think of it as top of my head. I could, if you’re, if you’re thinking your readers are interested, I can look up the, like, there’s a couple of college libraries that have a ton of historic cookbooks. Awesome. So digitalized. Oh, wow. And over and over. And also also because I can, you, I also used a lot of library search tools through my alumni memberships with my, where I went to college. Of course they let you do online searches. So, cause I looked at a lot of academic. I looked, I looked at everything. I did re like my typical reporting where you would talk to people and read what other articles have been written. I also read, I read cookbooks and I also looked at academic sources too.
Eric: I think everyone knows my now I’m a big proponent of shopping local. I’m a big fan of going to my local hardware store and buying everything I can. If you are trying to find an item that you can’t find in your local store and you’re considering going online and you’re considering using Amazon, this is a big ask. Isn’t it? Would you consider starting your shopping experience on the garden fork shopping page on Amazon? That was a really long sentence, wasn’t it? But basically if you could bookmark this link, amazon.com/shop/garden fork, amazon.com/shop/garden fork, start your experience there, your experience. Listen to me. I’ve actually on my shopping page, I list all the tools I use books. I like cookware and stuff. I like as well. So if you’re wondering I’m using something in one of the videos, more than likely it’s listed right there as well, again, buy local as much as you can. If you’re going to shop on Amazon, consider using our link, we get a little finder’s fee and that helps pay the bills. And I’d super appreciate that. All right. Thank you. Back to the show.
Eric: So can we talk about a couple of specific chapters? I was curious about shifts. Totally. my father, we, I grew up mainly in Wisconsin, even though my family is new Yorkers and my father would travel in the South for work and he would come back with a hunk of ham in a burlap sack, usually with some, you know, some name of some, a smokehouse on it and he’d be like, Oh, okay, we’re going to cook this and make red-eye gravy. And he, I remember he had a cast iron pan and he would over the ham and then he would pour coffee into the fry pan and he’d put it over the, the ham and it tasted horrible.
Rachel: You actually, can’t not over cook country hand. Like it’s kind of like that way. It’s impossible. Like that’s just the way it is really it’s going to seem over cooked.
Eric: And so is the red-eye gravy is supposed to taste bad or is it just my dad did it wrong?
Rachel: Well, did he add any sweet? You got to
Eric: Add squeeze. I don’t think he did.
Rachel: I would agree that it kind of tastes bad until you add some, like either, either add some sugar or sorghum on her glasses or if you’re using Coke or Pepsi that adds the sweetness right there. The sweetness makes all the difference in the world. Cause I kind of agree with you that it, it doesn’t, it’s like bitter coffee and extremely salty funky. Yes. There’s like a, there’s like a big undertone of ferment in a country ham. Like it’s got a Tang. And until I started, I couldn’t, we didn’t make it that much when I was growing up, I had like, I’d never made it. And I experimented with everything. I did a recipe with Manhattan special for edible Brooklyn a long time ago actually, which was perfect because it’s like the sweet, the sweet coffee soda, right. The Italian coffee soda. And I’ve made it since I added sugar. I actually enjoy it. So you just get, if you add sweet sweetener, sorghum, molasses, Coke, Pepsi sweetened coffee that,
Eric: Well, now I want to get a country ham. Of course. So, yeah,
Rachel: But that chapter was pretty interesting cause I, I don’t, I, I had 26 chapters. I sometimes had to stop before I had really satisfied my like I actually would like to call several country, hand makers and ask them all, if they know the origin of red-eye gravy, I think I was able to ask like one or two and nobody, really, everyone says that everyone says the myth, which was completely proven. Like it’s about the, how it was like Andrew Jackson’s Andrew Jackson telling his shift that is like to make him gravy as where’s your eyes, because the chef was, was a drunk or whatever, which is completely like, if you do even the slightest bit of research, you can see that it’s from a book where a guy just like made up a fake history and then it gets repeated over and over again, even though it was totally obviously made up, but the only, like I couldn’t find any and it, it isn’t read, like if you make it, it’s never written.
Rachel: So like that doesn’t even make any sense. And I can put, so I finally know. And so like anyone I asked, like I would ask chefs at Southern restaurants and like people who sold country ham and like, everyone kind of gives you the same things you always hear that you make it when you wake up with coffee and that’s like, no one used like the red I drink. That’s when the red eye flight, like that’s way after red eye gravy. So it didn’t make any sense. But so as I say in the book, I was just doing random Googling. And I came across like somebody from Europe, like someone from another country was blogging about their, their years spent in the deep South. And they had had country hand the traditional way, which is when you, when you cut it off, you like now they take a meat slicer, they cut a slice of country, ham.
Rachel: It has around, it still looks like an eye because there’s a little Brown little piece of bone in it, but she had a picture of how she went and got country here in the real way where you use, where you have to cut the bone out, which is interesting because I’ve actually seen that done with Italian country ham where like, they like it to Palos. They have to cut the bone out and it makes a raggedy hole in the middle. And it looks way more like an eye because the ham is oval and the hole is bigger and it looks like your actual eye, like, so that’s and I saw her picture and I was like, Oh, the ham is red. Like the hand was red. The ham is the red eye. So I have no other proof other than seeing what country hit myself, what country ham used to look like.
Rachel: So, but it happened very late. Like, like that was like, I think I’d already turned in the first draft. And I was like, Oh, Holy, Holy crap. That’s, that’s gotta be it. Like, it looks like the ham itself really looks like a red eye. And there was one other reference in the past where someone had referred to it as red eye ham. And so now I’m not. So like I got that happened so late. Like I didn’t, I didn’t have the chance to call up all these country ham experts and say like, Hey, do you think it might be this? So anyway, that’s what I would like to do next.
Eric: Wow. I was, I was kind of intrigued by something I never thought of before.
Rachel: Oh, also country at one big thing before we go into something else is that it’s obviously, it was obviously enslaved Africans and later African-Americans who are the country ham experts. And yet, as far as I know, I do not believe there is any, there are any black country, ham producers, maybe there are now, but I didn’t know of any, when I did the book
Eric: Said in the book that they were the ones who had their own kind of rub their own dry rub
Rachel: It’s chili, it has cayenne chili, which is, which is, I mean, like it’s very obvious when you look at the ingredients that there’s African influence in sorghum in like a hundred percent. And there’s also no question of who was doing the labor of the kitchen when these foods were first made the United States. Like there’s just no doubt where it comes from it’s what’s now is just needs to be rectified. Is that it’s you know, it’s like a bunch of old white families who own the country ham space and, you know, hope. I hope that that’s actually changed since I’ve did the book.
Eric: I think there’s a lot of change. I think there’s a big awareness.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s probably not cheap. I, you know, it’s like, it takes so long. It’s like one of those it’s like any Italian food, like you have to invest in the product and then it takes years before you can sell it or at least eight years. So it’s like, I think it’s, it probably requires a lot of expertise and probably money up front. So hopefully, maybe now it’s happening.
Eric: I kind of was surprised by the chapter on lunchboxes because I was like, wait, this isn’t a food, but then I was like, Oh, but I want to read it anyway. Well, lunchboxes were first just kind of like tin cookie, cookie tins or something. And then this company made the thermos decided to make a metal box that could carry the thermos.
Rachel: Yes. Oh my gosh. Oh, and I, I just keep went down this really cool. There was a guy whose father was a designer of lunchboxes and he had written my Kim I’ve actually found his story. He had written, he’s a, he teaches fiction at UW. I think UCLA teaches fiction at a university in Los Angeles. And one of his, one of his own works was like this half fictionalized, half autobiographical account of, of his father selling all of his lunch boxes, the metal versions that he cause he had, he had, he like would watch cartoons with the sun and whatever son laughed at this is part of the, his story. He would commission to have put on a lunch box and those would be the best selling. So he had all these lunch boxes in his garage and he sold them to help put a son through college. Some of that is fictionalized, but his father truly was a lunchbox designer and was around when it shifted to plastic.
Eric: I had tracked him down
Rachel: And checked on him down and like was like, which part of the story is true, but not actually can’t remember. Like
Eric: I just kind of relate to the lunchboxes because when I was a kid, I had a he ha lunchbox and I was even then, I didn’t know what I was experiencing, but to me, the lunchbox artistry was very surreal, but I didn’t know. That’s what I was like, why does this look weird to me? You know? Cause I was like, I, it just seemed to be a diff it’s not, it wasn’t really the reality of hee haw on the lunchbox and it kind of, it had this profound effect on me. And then Later I remember, I remember always thinking that whatever lunchbox I had was worth money, but E-bay, hadn’t come along yet. You know,
Rachel: I have a $6 million man one, but I don’t have the matching thermos.
Eric: Ooh. And I believe that the pair is the key.
Rachel: Yeah. Well, okay. Now I’m actually looking at the chapter. I, I did. Yeah, it was the collector. I guess what I was saying was it was the collectors who really interested me, which is totally true. And they’re actually worth less than I was like looking up how much mine was and it wasn’t that much.
Eric: It’s a big deal. I mean, it’s still, I mean, collecting is still a big deal for lunchboxes and I’ve actually I helped my grandfather in law sell some on eBay and it was one of them got quite a bit of money. The other ones were, were not as much, but it was kind of fun for me and my, my, my in-laws grandfather to do something together, you know? And cause he, he bought stuff at auctions all the time and he’d just have boxes of stuff, but I’ve always found lunchboxes fascinating. And for a while when I worked in Manhattan, it was kind of cool to instead of have like a backpack, you brought your lunch box to work for, with your food or with your stuff in it. Yeah. Yeah. The metal ones, I was very retro, but I was very displeased by the move to plastic with the lunchboxes.
Rachel: Yes. I mean, who wasn’t? Yeah, that was, Oh God, there were some, there were something things like I, there was like that whole thing where people thought, I don’t know if I even mentioned this in the story anymore where people thought that someone had been killed or hurt with a metal lunchbox. And that was like completely like fake news. Right. And, but I think what I was also saying is that they don’t fit in a backpack very well of lunchbox. You kind of want it to be squishier. And I didn’t realize that the backpack like the back, that was another thing. I was like, Oh, the backpack was actually not invented until like 1980. Like like until the eighties either. So like as, as they were becoming plastic, they were also having backpacks,
Eric: Right. The backpack, as we know, it now became very popular then and kind of pushed out the lunchbox as something that kids would bring, even if they even brought their lunch to school they would bring into their backpack instead of metal lunchbox. But now I’m thinking I want a row of lunchboxes on my shelf up here or something. So at the very end of the book is a recipe for vinegar pie, which I want to make a video about now, of course. And it reminds me a little bit of in Brooklyn, New York city here, we have a chain called milk bar and they have a pie called crack pie.
Rachel: Oh yeah. I think I say that in the book. I mean her pie is a hundred percent based on these recipes. Like a vinegar pie is like a scarcity pie where you make it, you make it with egg, only eggs, butter, cream, like those kinds of ingredients, basically a sugar, sugar pie. Yep. And she, even if you, I can’t remember how much I said in the chapter, but I know that she even refers to it when she grew up in that, in the part of the country where those were very common. And she even talks about how she was when she talks about there’s one, I think, mind of a chef, even where she talks about how did that pie was created and she was kind of trying to make a chess pie. Oh yeah. Which is which is basically a scarcity pie, which has vinegar pie is, I mean, there’s like a tablespoon of vinegar in it.
Rachel: Yeah. It’s just add a little acidity to the sugar. It’s a sugar pie and a chess pie has a little bit of cornmeal in it and that’s her, that’s what she was doing. And like a molecular gastronomy counterweight was a crackpot, which is, I just thought that was really fascinating because when I first tasted, my mom always made buttermilk pie, which was basically a vinegar pie made with buttermilk. It’s just, it’s, you’re just using these rich thing, rich ingredients that anyone who grew up on a farm would have access to when you wouldn’t have had access to fresh fruits, you would have had dairy, maybe sh something sweet. If it wasn’t sugar like honey or sorghum or whatever or flour and water, I think the scarcity pies make the sugar, flour and water. And we used a little buttermilk instead of vinegar. And I remember when the first time I tasted crack pie, I was like, this is just totally my mom’s buttermilk pot except 600 times. Sweet. And I just think that’s so fascinating that like the most like this, like this just like futuristic modern success is like this old scarcity pantry pie.
Eric: Did they call them scarcity? Pizer? Is that like kind of a modern
Rachel: I think people call them all different things like it, like there were Hoosier pies, pies and pantry pies and impossible pies. I’m saying scarcity and just cause that’s kind of what they were the, the, I always, I said this in the chapter, like the irony is that they’re actually Richard and fruit pies. Yes.
Eric: I mean, I have a phrase I’m all about use what you got when I’m doing something. And I think that’s kind of basically what kind of pie that’s a use, what you got pie to me.
Rachel: Yeah. They’re really good. Like I, I tested a bunch of vinegar pie recipes and this one was really good. You will only want like a little sliver and it definitely tastes better cold or like cold out of the fridge or room temperature. And it is really good in the Graham Cracker crust, but like the feeling starts to sink into the crust. So it doesn’t look as awesome. Cause it starts to like become one mass or even like go underneath the filling, but it tastes amazing. I have to figure out I’m sure like Christina Tosi figured out the molecular Chris, John, or any way to fix the filling, waking into the Graham Cracker crust. But those, the combination of the vinegar pie filling with like a Graham Cracker crust is really good.
Eric: You know, I, I need to remind you of publicly that I’m a bike ride away from your apartment if you need a tester.
Rachel: Oh yeah. I, well, I did a book signing at the grant the union square green market and I made a sheet pan size pie, vinegar pie, and I handed out like a hundred squares of it, like in November,
Eric: Sign me back when you could have that kind of thing. Yeah.
Rachel: Yeah. That’s true. Well, they might actually, I think you could probably safely handout pie slices now they would just, people just have to eat them away from you. Yeah.
Eric: So what’s before we end the end, the show what’s what’s on the horizon here for you. What’s what’s coming up next.
Rachel: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a good question. Well, I am surprised. Do you know who the league of kitchens is? So the league of kitchens is an incredible New York city organization, a woman named Lisa Gross started it. And she works with women who are refugees, who are known as like the cook, like the woman who, the people who just make the best food from wherever they’re from like the like, Oh, like the best Lebanese food, the best Japanese, Japanese, home cooking, the best Weger home cooking. And she, her organization trained them to, to teach and host classes in their homes for money and people would take these classes and they were, they were really well respected. They were all day long and they would, he would leave like all the recipes were tested. They were written up in advance. So it was like, like almost like a cross between like a homemade cooking class.
Rachel: And like when you go to take a class at a real culinary school where you leave with like super tested ingredients and like, and so it was a really, it was very, very successful and she was expanding it to other cities. And she wants to, we’re going to work on a cookbook together. I mean, essentially as I do with every cookbook project is I’m helping other people make the very best cookbook they can possibly do. So she would be working with all of her instructors to, to do a book about home cooking. And we were just getting started on it before the pandemic. And then they had had to completely reinvent their business to be online. So they’ve been busy doing that. So I think we’re now, now they’re very successful and that it actually has opened up their classes to everyone in the world, which I think a lot of people are finding is that it’s open doors that you didn’t know, you could have one closing, some other ones.
Rachel: And so hopefully we’re going to actually be able to, now that they figured out how to teach classes online, we could actually start working on the book again. Cause now, cause before I couldn’t go, we couldn’t go sit with the women while they were teaching. And now we figured out how we can do it. So that’s next, which is going to be cool because I will get to learn how to cook things from all over the world, which is always exciting from an incredible cooks from all over the world. And it’s a really good project. Everyone should look it up and try to take a class that they don’t know it already. So it’s very cool to be associated with them. So that’s one thing that’s next? Everything else, like a lot of people we’re trying to figure out what the world is going to be like.
Eric: Yeah. It’s interesting by you know, making videos online is actually my viewership has gone up quite a bit during the pandemic. Cause people are home, but they’re also wanting to learn how to do stuff that they can do in their homes. So,
Rachel: And are you, are you fine? And like you’re doing a lot of like, you’re doing a lot of hands-on gardening and intensive like yard projects, correct? Yeah. And I would imagine there’s a whole lot of people who are now in those yards and gardens all the time.
Eric: Yeah. For a long time you would go to the home improvement store and you couldn’t buy any lumber because people bought a lumber to build
Rachel: Or seedlings. I remember in like, Oh, it was so hard to tip, but I’m a member of a community garden in New York city. And typically it’s very easy to get seedlings because greet we’re connected to green thumb and like they bring seeds. Like there’s always someone who goes to pick them up and then we have tons and it was, it was so hard to get them. Plus they didn’t turn on the water and nobody was selling them. And then I don’t know what it’s like now.
Eric: It’s a little more back to normal. I actually was able to buy hand sanitizer in the store the other day, so,
Rachel: Oh yeah. That I’ve noticed as everywhere it’s hand sanitizer is very easy to get, but I definitely know that early on, I just had to go with whatever seeds I had. So like a lot of what we were doing was like everyone I knew who had, we all had like random leftover seeds and we would just grow as many as we could and then trade them. And then of course it was an incredibly cold spring, so everything was stunted. Like I never really got stunted. I mean, now I get it. I see what stunted means. Like for real, I don’t know if you, you probably have much more experience, but like I have a couple of plants that are still like an inch tall and it, because, and that’s like, they, like, I have an okra that I started inside and like, I don’t even know, like early March, it’s still like less than a tall and there’s like one Oprah flower,
Eric: You know? Fedco seeds up in Maine sells a variety of of that, that will grow in the North.
Rachel: Oh Oka. That’s true. Cause I did get my seeds. My seeds are collected from an okra pod in the South of how I need to give it like a couple more generations.
Eric: Yeah. They’re they have an okra that will grow in a short seat. Well, what’s considered a short season compared to the South, so yeah.
Rachel: Yeah. This was, I mean you remember right? Like if this was a really cold spring. Yeah,
Eric: Yeah. It has had a bit, my garden is not what it usually is that the garlic liked it, but nothing else did like my, my string beans are like half the half.
Rachel: Oh I’ve got my spring reserve wreck. Yeah. I have like one tomato. I’ve had one cucumber in one tomato plus our community garden gets like six hours of sun, which doesn’t help. Oh, this is a long way of saying that. Like I’ve actually, I have, even though I am, I I’ve been like always been growing and a gardener, like actually longer than I was food writer and I’ve never pitched a gardening story for the New York times food section because they don’t cover it very often. But I just feel like usually like home. Do you ever read the home live stuff? Like the S the, which section?
Eric: The home email that Sam system sells sends out?
Rachel: Well, there’s this, there’s some section that has a gardening columnist.
Eric: Well, Anne raver used to be the columnist for the New York times the garden. She was the garden writer. Yes. And I think she was let go or she retired
Rachel: Now there’s another person doing it.
Eric: Oh, I don’t know who they are.
Rachel: Me neither, but I, I just feel like that I’ve always, there’s always been like some growing stories that I’ve thought about, but now it seems like more than ever, that would be very useful information for, for cooks because so many people are growing this year and there’s, there’s so much you can do in the fall. And we missed the spring here. So
Eric: You can recede, you know, like I’m gonna plant my sugar snap peas again.
Rachel: Yeah. And I, I mean, I don’t know, but you, you probably grew up most stuff up upper upstate. Right. So it gets a little colder than the city. We didn’t even have a hard freeze in the city last year at all. Not at all. So like, we, like, we, like nothing died back. Like I had incredible, we had incredible collards and Swiss chard, all like all through the winter. Like you can harvest coloreds in February who know? Yeah. Well, I guess there was recently a like just in like two weeks ago, there was a story in the Metro section about how we’re now a subtropical, which sounds a lot crazier than it is because North Carolina is subtropical and it’s not like there’s bananas. So, but it means that you can, like, we probably will be able to harvest collards in February, in Brooklyn for the rest of our lives. Yes.
Eric: Well, cool. This has been great. This is I got you. I saw your book and I just got so excited about it. And then
Rachel: Oh man, I think you’ve heard, like, wanting to talk about it. Thank you so much.
Eric: I am, I am. I keep threatening to hire a virtual assistant to do scheduling in that. Cause I, as you know, I think I took three months to put this together. It’s my fault. I just forget to email back, you know?
Rachel: Well, I’d love talking to you and I actually feel like I would like to interview you next time around. Cause I want to learn more about what you do.
Eric: You could do that. I, we also, we have to do a shout out to Charlie Shaw, who was my first friend in New York city. When I moved back here from college and he introduced us.
GardenFork Radio is produced by GardenFork Media, LLC in Brooklyn, New York, executive producer, Jimmy Gootz. If you’d like to learn more about Jimmy and the custom hollow books, he makes you can visit hollowbooks.com. The music for our show is licensed from audio blocks.com and unique tracks.com.