As with clothing, hair styles, and offsprings’ first names, foods are subject to fads. Throughout history, our national menu adds and loses items as tastes change. Availability, health concerns, public acclaim, marketing, and even politics can elevate a little-known food or beverage, and just as quickly drive it into obscurity.
My exploration into our nation’s culinary history has been largely through experiential archaeology: I learn by doing! This course has introduced me to many now-obscure foods that were once nearly staples. Four in particular—quinces, fish peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, and ramps — used to be fairly regular ingredients in various Mid-Atlantic dishes, but fell out of popularity.
Quinces are native to Iran and Turkey, and were once commonly grown in home fruit gardens. Astringent when raw, the pear-like fruits are very aromatic and, when cooked, make excellent preserves. Quinces can be used to add flavor and spiciness to stewed or baked apples, and are a good source of dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and copper.
Despite their intense aroma and flavor, most varieties of quince are too hard and tart to be eaten raw. However, with their strong perfume, they can be added in small quantities to apple pies and jam to enhance the flavor. I buy my quinces from Asian supermarkets such as H-Mart and have added diced quince to apple sauce to spark the taste with the relatively firm, tart quince. High in pectin, I use them to help “set up” jams and jellies, and add a pink color when cooked.
Reviving a Heritage Pepper
Pungency and vibrant foliage mark the fish pepper, a cultivar of Capsicum annuum. Originally from the Caribbean, the fish pepper came to the U.S. in the 19th Century, and gained popularity in the African-American communities and the many crab and seafood houses in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Fish peppers gradually declined in popularity in the early 20th century, but are experiencing new interest as some Baltimore restaurants have begun using them in sauces and seafood dishes. Their heat can range from 5,000 to 30,000 on the Scoville scale, and their multicolored foliage changes as the plants mature, making them popular as ornamentals. The plants are relatively easy to grow, and several catalogs carry the seeds.
It’s Neither Nor
Jerusalem artichokes are not from the Middle East, nor are they artichokes. Helianthus tuberosus has lovely blooms like smaller sunflowers and are attractive in large floral displays. The plants grow about eight feet tall and spread aggressively if protected from deer.
Native Americans cultivated the tubers as a food source. With origins in central North America, it expanded eastward and westward. Early European colonists sent tubers back to Europe, where it became popular. Despite attempts to market it commercially, eventually it fell into obscurity in North America.
While volunteering for the Foodways Program at Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum, I received a bagful of straggly looking wild tubers, culled from an overgrown patch. Experiential archaeology — and curiosity — led me to peel the thin skin from a half-dozen thumb-sized roots, boil them until soft, and munch them down. The flavor was pleasantly potato-like and vaguely sweet.
However, that sweetness comes from inulin, a soluble fiber that creates a lot of gas as it breaks down in the human digestive system. Inulin from those six small tubers caused an almost immediate disruption in my gut, relieved only after some private rumination.
A Tonic and Tradition
Ramps, or wild leeks, can also display some antisocial qualities, as their pungent flavor can be off-putting. Throughout the Allegheny Mountains, ramps are one of the earliest wild edible greens to push up through the forest’s winter-bare ground. Elongate 6-inch leaves emerge atop a stem and bulb growing below the ground.
Traditionally a source of Vitamin C — a much-needed tonic after a winter diet heavy on preserved foods — eating ramps became the focus of numerous smalltown celebrations. Also keeping with West Virginia’s mountaineer tradition, these “ramp feeds” serve as reunions and a chance for neighbors to catch up with each other after a long winter’s isolation.
The greens range from South Carolina to Canada, and are considered a spring delicacy. Used in soups, salads or eaten as a side dish, the garlic odor is particularly strong, and even ramp lovers advise caution and recognize that a big meal of ramps may lead to other people maintaining a noticeable distance. I can buy ramps during the spring from specialty produce dealers, and particularly enjoy them pickled.
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon red peppercorns
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 pounds ramps, cleaned and trimmed
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
6 allspice berries
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Combine everything except the ramps. Bring to a low boil; let chill back down to at least 100 degrees F. Add ramps and let sit for a week.