Art of the Ancients

I was 13 years old the first time I cooked for a dozen people. The menu was lasagna and salad, and it was on a Boy Scout camping trip. The lasagna was baked in a Dutch Oven, piled up with coals from a fire I had built and lit myself. The ingredients were nothing to write home about, of course- you don’t run out to the best butcher in town to get ground meat for a lasagna for 12-year-olds.

All the same, I remember being insanely proud of that lasagna- of feeding my friends, using a cast-iron dutch oven and open flame. There was a primal feeling about it- not just the food and the cooking method, but the action. The act of feeding all my friends after a long day, and having them enjoy the results of my labor.

I remember that moment as being the first time I thought- “Yeah, I want to feed people. I want this to be my job.”

That truly is the crux of everything we as professionals do- acts of caring and hospitality manifested in food. “Welcome, sit down, you get to relax now. We’ve got this- we’ll take care of you.” It’s a mission and a message as old as humanity- and we get to stand on a lot of people’s shoulders to figure out how to do it well.

I have been a professional baker for five years now- longer if you count the years when I would wake up early to work at a hospital, attend culinary school at night, and then bake cake and cookie orders in my home kitchen before bed- and one of the best things I can say I’ve learned so far is that everything new and crazy begins with a deep love and respect for the old.

After my grandmother died, she left me one of her old cookbooks from the 1950s, and deck after deck of her recipes on index cards. Flipping through the old recipes and cookbook (Kasdan’s “Love and Knishes”, by the way,) I remember being fascinated by the listed ingredients and instructions. Cake yeast. Ammonium nitrate. A “slow” oven. Hundreds of recipes from the Ashkenazi Jews- those whose roots were in Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, and parts of the Middle East.

A bizarre cuisine comprised of thousands of years of travel, exile, and trying to fit in with the locals while keeping kosher. The history of a country, a people, a culture- all written in their food, and how they fed each other, and all mine.

It wasn’t long before I began iterating on the recipes I’d received- changing and perfecting methods and ingredients to suite my needs and tastes, but always bearing in mind “This recipe has a history- one that I get to be part of now.”

A few years later, I got an interesting challenge- catering desserts for a 150-person wedding single-handedly.
A 150-person wedding for Revolutionary War re-enactors. They wanted a period wedding. With period-appropriate food.

It led to some interesting discussions as I dug into the research:

“Ooh, Matt! I want a Rich Cake to be the wedding cake! This is what they used for special occasions, and it sounds so good!”

“… You’re aware this is essentially a Christmas fruitcake, right? It was for special occasions because getting things like citrus and spices was insanely expensive. When they happened to have all the ingredients necessary, they’d make one and keep it underground, splashing brandy on it to keep it from going moldy. They’d just… hold it until a special occasion happened.”
“…Oh… well, throwing brandy on desserts, yes. Fruit cake, no thanks.”

Other recipes, though, were far more promising- a 200-year old recipe for Gingerbread Cookies that is still my go-to every holiday season. The original concept of pumpkin pie. Old-world recipes and flavors brought to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch, then modified to make do with whatever they had on hand.

In recent years, the kitchen has been home and incubator for lunatics, misfits, obsessives, and rebels- people that can’t leave well enough alone, and need to shake things up. They are the ones who pioneer new techniques, come up with new equipment, and constantly try to improve upon what- by all accounts- would be a simple concept: “Feed the people.”

Looking back in history, however, it can be seen that so much of the culinary world we know was begun, based on, and inspired by individuals who simply said, “How can I feed myself and others with what I have, and make it enjoyable?” They looked around at the equipment they had (or could make,) the ingredients they could get, and did the best they could.

What they lacked in high technology, they made up for in ingenuity, resourcefulness, thriftiness, and a will to feed others.

Today, we all benefit from their work- today the rich eat by choice what peasants used to eat by necessity.

I’m not about to launch a tirade against squeeze bottle, sous vide, or foam guns- the culinary field is a living, evolving thing. It needs to be- humans are living and evolving. What I might suggest, however, is taking the occasional moment to look back and draw on the wisdom that came before to help figure out what will come next.

Or at the very least, try making lasagna in a dutch oven over a fire. It’ll be delicious, and you’ll never complain about your oven’s hot spots ever again.


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