Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Just Dandy

Everyone eats.

Which makes food a very good subject in the living history setting; it provides a great ice breaker for interacting with the public.

At a recent event, we made food a focus - each of us researched and prepared receipts accurate to the mid-19th century, making sure each item was typical, not exotic and in season.

We enjoyed pork pie, ham, a variety of pickles, applesauce, chess pie, grape catchup, tomato jam, canned peaches and dandelion salad.

Tradition has it that the first foods to appear in spring are tonics – medicinal plants that cleanse the body of a winter’s worth of toxins accrued from eating fatty foods and few, if any, fresh fruits and vegetables. Certainly the early greens of spring are packed with nutrition, perhaps none more so than dandelions, which are loaded with vitamins A, K and C and E, as well as calcium, iron and heart-healthy omega acids.

The idea of spring tonic runs deep in the folk wisdom of many cold weather cultures, reputed to get the blood coursing, like sap in trees, to clear out winter’s stodge.

Dandelions are thought to have evolved about thirty million years ago in Eurasia. They have been used by humans for food and as a herb for much of recorded history. They were introduced to North America by early European immigrants. Dandelions are found on all continents and have been gathered since prehistory.

What these early edibles have in common is an acidic, sour flavor that awakens us from winter’s slumber.

I used a recipe from The National Cookbook published in 1856, the author a "Lady of Philadelphia".

"Pick and wash your dandelion and cut off the roots. Drain it and make a dressing of an egg, well beaten, a half a gill of vinegar, a tea spoonful of butter, and salt to the taste. Mix the egg, vinegar, butter and salt together, put the mixture over the fire, and as soon as it is thick, take it off, and stand it away to get cold. Drain your dandelion, pour the dressing over it and send it to the table."

The dressing definitely mellows when cooled - it was quite tart when first off the heat. The group really enjoyed the salad and it provided the start for many conversations with the visiting public.

I wish I could share a photo of the salad, but I wasn't able to discretely shoot one without the public noticing, and digital cameras did not exist in the mid-19th century.

Some hints if you'd like to try dandelion greens:

1.) Pick the leaves before the flowers form; the leaves become quite bitter after blooming.

2.) Be mindful of where you pick your greens, keep possible chemical application or pet usage in mind.

3.) Wash them well, and then wash again - they seem to pick up a lot of grit.

4.) A gill equals approximately four fluid ounces or half a cup.

We will be repeating this experience at future events, as summer continues we will be able to add a great many additional dishes. By fall, we hope to assemble a cookbook of all the "winning" recipes, but we'll actually be the winners - this is a project that will deepen our knowledge and appreciation of life in past.

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