Food Facts & Lore, Monday Magazine

This Week in Food History – 12/25/2017

Here in America, Christmas Dinner is as traditional as the 4th of July picnic. In truth, there is as much diversity in the ways of feasting on the 25th as there are people of foreign origin. This becomes interesting as we mingle and share traditions from our respective heritage. There is no doubt that it enriches relationships and inspires creativity. Then, there is marketing. You can imagine what a significant role it plays in Holiday food traditions. This is true around the world. One campaign of notice took place in Japan. In the 1970’s, KFC appealed to the less than 1% Christmas-celebrating Japanese population with the notion that the Colonel and Christmas go hand-in-hand as a matter of fact. People lined up by the hundreds to secure their festively decorated bucket of chicken for the December 25 meal.

Meanwhile, here are this week’s food & beverage highlights… 

December 25 is National Pumpkin Pie Day – Not to disappoint anyone, but according to historians the pilgrims probably did not consume pumpkin pie, nor were they immediately smitten with the fruit. It would take at least a year or two for them to settle and learn how to harvest the land. Indeed, most historians agree that while native tribes introduced European settlers to pumpkin and squash early on, it is not until the immigrants endured their first harsh winter that they took an interest in the late fall and winter fare. They also did not arrive here with the proper implements to produce a traditional pie. The first traditional pumpkin pie was probably made and enjoyed about 50 years after early Plymouth settlers shared their 1621 Holiday meal. Pumpkin Pie is celebrated on October 12th and December 25th, proof that second servings are irresistible.

December 26 is National Candy Cane Day – Various food history sources highlight the creative genius of a 1670 German choir master whose solution to fidgety church choir children was to offer them a candy stick, later twisted into a shepherd’s hook. This is sweet and romantic, and probably a myth. One of the first reliable reference to candy cane appears in 1847 America, where a German immigrant residing in Wooster, Ohio, caught the attention of his neighbor and the local newsprint when he decked is home with hundreds of candy canes for the Holidays. This, as you might imagine, may also be a myth, or at least somewhat exaggerated. But we like the spirit of it. The National Confectioners Association reports that of the 1 billion plus candy canes manufactured each year, 90% are sold between Thanksgiving to Christmas. What of the remaining 10%?

December 27 is National Fruitcake Day – “Fruitcake makes an excellent door stop,” says a friend who clearly does not care for it much. Turns out he is not far off, as it has the average fruitcake same density as mahogany. Even president George Washington did not care much for the average fruitcake. A New York Times article (1983) highlighted one Russell Baker, proud owner of fruitcake a personal ancestor baked for the president in 1794. The gift was rejected and may still exist to this day. The ancestor of the fruitcake itself dates back millennia. The Egyptians and Romans has their own versions. However, two American towns, Corsicana, Texas and Claxton, Georgia, claim the sweet title of “Fruitcake Capital of The World.

December 28 is National Chocolate Candy Day – Red wine contains 200 different flavor compounds; chocolate has 600. This, right there, is enough said. And yet, there is more. Chocolate provides a measurably more profound mental high than kissing and, speaking of romance, a study revealed that romance novel sales increased by more than 40% in a bookstore when patrons were exposed to the scent of chocolate. And speaking of kisses, the famous Hershey Kiss was so named because of the sound made by the machine when it drops each chocolate unto the conveyor belt. Incidentally, enough Kisses are produced annually (70 million) to form a 300-thousand-mile-long line if placed side-by-side. Last but not least, according to another study (who comes up with these study ideas anyway?), 70% of people claim they would reveal their passwords willingly if offered a good chocolate bar for the deed.

December 29 is Pepper Pot Day – December 1777 was an especially harsh winter at Valley Forge, Philadelphia, as a famous hand penned the following: “Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, this Army must inevitably… disperse, in order to obtain subsistence…” These words are attributed to George Washington. Pepper Pot was the subsistence that saved the day. Baker general Ludwick gathered ingredients at hand, vegetable scraps, tripe and peppercorn into a hearty stew. Or so the story goes. Pepper Pot is not a single recipe, but rather a variety of stews or hearty soups rich in spices; peppercorn being chief among them. And while it is true that it was common fare for our first President’s men, hence the modern-day name, “Philadelphia Stew,” it was originally introduced to the New World via West African slaves.

December 30 is National Baking Soda Day – Bread making is one of the oldest food transformations in the world. In fact, the basic methods did not change much for over 3000 years, that is, until British chemist Alfred J. Bird came up with the original version of Bicarbonate of sodium in 1843. His wife’s allergy to yeast provided the inspiration for the simple white leavening powder we take for granted today. The Arm & Hammer brand was created in 1846. The yellow box is among the most iconic packages in the United States. Ancient Egyptians used a natural deposit composed of sodium hydrogen carbonate for oral hygiene and wound dressing. The medicinal character of “Baking Soda” is recognized to this day. The World Health Organization lists bicarbonate of sodium as one among several recognized natural essential medicines.

December 31 is National Champagne Day – First, the region. Champagne, France. It is at the crossroads of trading routes and invasion routes. Vineyards were established long before the bubbly wine became legend, and they were marched upon and devastated every time human conflict arose. But local leaders encouraged commerce and fairs, and in so doing allowed the wine making industry to prosper. Benedictine Monk and wine cellar manager Dom Pérignon (1638 – 1715) was in fact attempting to prevent the bubbles that were a natural by-product of a short growing season and cold climate. He researched and developed a method for blending the juices of grapes grown in different vineyards to obtain the high-quality wine that would satisfy the elite. His sparkling wine represented only about 10% of the regions’ production, but it was soon adopted as a favorite by the French and English aristocracy.

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