Recipes from the past: U-M’s cookbook collection inspires Ann Arbor chef
Dan Vernia doesn’t like to call himself a chef — he prefers cook. “Cook refers to the process, and the craft,” Vernia says. Vernia, who is well-know in the local culinary scene, having worked at the Raven’s Club and with Growing Hope, often takes cooking to its literary roots to gain inspiration and a deeper understanding of the craft. He takes the history and the old techniques and weaves them through every aspect of his cooking, all the way to matching 300-year-old recipes with heirloom varieties that would be consistent for the time period.
“I am really interested in this book Acetaria by Sir John Evelyn. He was a gardener from the 1670s, and he talks about agriculture as an art and a science, part of natural philosophy, if you will.”
But texts like Acetaria in their original form are hard to come by. The rarity of volumes like these led Vernia to the U-M Library’s Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive (JBLCA), where he researches cooking techniques that date back to the 1600s.
“I started looking at the Longone archive in 2008 – 2009 after seeing it in an article in the New York Times. At first I was really focused on the recipes because this was such an amazing source of information; since then I have become more interested in the stories that these methods and recipes tell,” he said.
These stories are vital today, Vernia says, for a variety of reasons. Having an historical context helps us understand our relationship to food and social context of the moment, but at a practical level, these books do a great deal to inform sustainable food practices that are becoming increasingly more relevant in today’s world.
Vernia says that as the farm-to-table movement increases in importance and popularity, people are becoming more interested in where food comes from, and by studying older techniques, where farm-to-table was the only option, he better understands how to incorporate that thinking into his cooking.
“One gentleman I’m interested in is John the Baptist La Quintinie, who was a gardener for Louis the 14th. He talks about soil improvement, things that are in the conversation now in terms of sustainable farming or farming in a sustainable method that, really, are things people have been talking about for a long time.”
Understanding the context of why the methods of a certain time period were used provide examples of what is possible in sustainable farm-to-table practice today.
Vernia points to an example from 1864, when a group at the Union League Club in New York City decided they were going to send Thanksgiving dinner to the Union Army. This was an incredible undertaking, he says.
“We’re talking about 100,000 diners, if you will.” A pamphlet published by the club on the occasion lists “everything from turkey to chicken to ham, kind of the same as now, but these things were prepared with the old methods. The brines were different because they had no refrigeration.” The recipes focus in particular on preserving the harvest. “At that time of year, that’s when all the stuff’s coming in before the frost. So they’re pickling, they’re canning, they’re brining, they’re smoking, all those kind of really traditional old methods of preserving food throughout the year.”
Bringing those ideas back to life, sharing the stories, and connecting the practices of today with the practices of the past are all part of Vernia’s mission.
And there is still another layer that Vernia digs into for his craft. Vernia regularly connects with local growers to source and sometimes specifically grow varieties that are the descendents of crops that would have been used in the old recipes.
The interest in heirloom varieties brings Vernia’s cooking back to the community, where he works with folks like Stefanie Stauffer, owner of Nightshade Farm Industries in Ann Arbor Township.
“Food sovereignty, or making sure that people have access to culturally relevant and healthy food is really important,” Stauffer said.
Stauffer, who specializes in heirlooms, says it’s great that chefs like Vernia are connecting history to cooking and sourcing local and appropriate produce to the recipes because it adds a richness to the entire community that gets to experience food in this way.
Since food is fundamental to both biological and cultural reproduction, it provides a touchstone for exploring any culture or time period in history; its physical necessity and symbolic importance is interwoven with nearly every aspect of human life, says Juli Mcloone, librarian and curator of the JBLCA.
“By preserving and providing access to historical cookbooks, menus, and ephemera, collections such as the JBLCA provide scholars and chefs with vital pieces of the documentary record of people’s relationships with their food,” she said.
The following ‘receipts’ are from selections in the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive, within the U-M’s Special Collections Library offering a quick snapshot of Western Cookery beginning in Rome around the end of the sixteenth century, moving to England and ending in New Orleans, three hundred years later.
A good soda cake
This recipe is from “The new household receipt-book” by Sarah Josepha Hale, published 1853 in New York City.
- Rub half a pound of good butter into a pound of fine dry flour, and work it very small
- Mix well with these half a pound of silted sugar, and pour to them first a quarter of a pint of boiling milk, and next three well- whisked eggs
- Add some grated nutmeg, or fresh lemon-rind, and eight ounces of currants;
- Beat the whole well and lightly together, and the instant before the cake is moulded and set in the finest powder.
- Bake it from an hour to an hour and a quarter, or divide it in two, and allow from half to three-quarters of an hour for each cake.
- Flour, one pound
- Butter, three ounces
- Sugar, eight ounces
- Milk, full quarter-pint
- Eggs, three
- Currants, half a pound
- Carbonate of soda, one tea-spoonful
- One hour to one and a half. Or, divided, a half to three-quarters of an hour — moderate oven.
Peach or apple compote, for dessert
This recipe is from “La Cuisine Creole” by Lafcadio Hearn, published 1885 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
- Dissolve a pound of loaf sugar in a pint of water;
- Skim it, pare six or eight apples, or a dozen peaches, throw them into the boiling syrup, and cook until tender and transparent.
- Lemon improves the apples, but peaches are better without it.