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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Food Firsts

December 2, 2014

Popcorn is 4,000 years old. That amazes me. If someone ever asked me when I thought popcorn was invented, I would probably answer, “In the mid to late 1800s.” That seems about right. I would have imagined that there was probably some Midwestern farmer out on the new frontier who left a few ears of corn too near his campfire and the kernels heated up and began to pop off of the ear.

According to an article I recently read in “Mental Floss,” popcorn has been found in ancient Cochise Indian caves. Aztecs used popcorn to decorate necklaces much the same way we strung it with a needle and string in kindergarten. In the days before dental floss I wonder what the Cochise Indians used to pick the small kernel husks out of their teeth?

A few years ago when I was in Italy studying the food culture there, I was surprised to learn that tomatoes weren’t originally a European fruit. That thing that I had most associated with Italian cuisine (well, just behind pasta) was not an Italian thing at all. The tomato wasn’t born and raised in the volcanic ash-rich soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius in the San Marzano region, not by a long shot. Tomatoes are indigenous to South America and were brought to Europe by the Spaniards in the 1500s. From there they migrated to the boot and other corners of the European continent before eventually making their way to North America— not by way of South America— on British ships sailing to the American South.

Potatoes originated in South America, too. They are even older than popcorn, 3,000 years older. According to that same article in “Mental Floss,” “…in 1536 Spanish explorers took (the potato) to the (European) continent, believing it was a kind of truffle (big letdown there). British spies considered the potato a superfood and may have snuck it to England, but locals were skeptical. (It grew underground and was therefore “Satanic.”) So they shipped it to Ireland. Meanwhile down south, the French loved the starch so much that Marie Antoinette put potato blossoms in her hair!”

The Irish are always getting the short end of the stick from the Brits, though this time, even though the intent might not have been pure, they wound up with the 7,000-year old tuber, and one that would flourish in their region until the potato famine in the 1840s.

Ultimately, the Spanish are kind of responsible for turning the world on to two of the staples of the fast food world— French fries and ketchup.

Speaking of ketchup, I learned that, “Originally, ketchup didn’t contain tomatoes at all! The earliest iteration was made of pickled fish brine from China’s Fujian province. A reliable preservative, the sauce became a favorite among Dutch and British sailors, who brought it home. By the 1740s, ketchup was a typical part of British cuisine, but it was a muddy goop made from mushrooms or oysters with spices like mustard, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Tomatoes entered the picture when a Philadelphia doctor named James Mease published the first tomato ketchup recipe in 1812. After the Civil War, its popularity exploded.”

How far we have come? My kids aren’t big ketchup eaters, but I’ve been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, and have probably purchased an oil tanker’s cargo hold of ketchup over the years, and I don’t think I could ever convince even one child to eat chicken tenders or the French fried version of the aforementioned “satanic” tuber with pickled fish brine. Though I have eaten some British cuisine that might have been made better with the addition of a muddy goop from mushrooms and oysters.

It was Jonathan Swift who once stated, “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” Robert St. John once stated, “It was a braver man who first ate an egg. Much braver than the first man who ate popcorn.”

Potato Soup 

1 /2 lb                  Bacon, diced

1 Tbl.                   Butter

1 cup                   Onion, small dice

1 /2 cup              Celery, small dice

1 /2 cup              Carrot, small dice

2 tsp                    Garlic, minced

2 tsp                    Salt

1 tsp                   Black pepper, fresh ground

, peeled and cut into 1 /2-inch cubes

1 1 /2 quarts      Chicken broth

1 /2 cup             Butter

3 /4 cup             Flour

3 cups                 Heavy whipping cream

1 cup                   Sour cream

1 cup                  Monterey jack cheese, shredded

1 tsp                   Hot Sauce

1 /2 cup             Green onion, freshly chopped

Place bacon and butter in a six-quart stockpot over medium heat and cook bacon until golden brown. Drain fat and add vegetables, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook for four to five minutes. Add potatoes and chicken broth and bring to a slow simmer.  Cook until potatoes become tender, about 15 minutes. In a separate skillet, melt butter and stir in flour to make a roux. Cook until the roux is light blond and gently whisk roux into soup mixture. Try to be careful not to break up the potatoes. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer once more. Remove from heat and serve.

Yield: one gallon


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