Food & Drink

Braising a parrot: Tidbits of cooking history

Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmand from the first century BC and writer of one of the first known cookbooks, had a recipe for flamingo. You parboil it with salt, dill and a little vinegar and then finish cooking it with leeks and coriander. Add cumin, more coriander, fennel root, pepper, mint and a roux, and serve it in its own sauce.

The same recipe, Apicius said, is also a good way to cook parrot.

These facts are reported in the book “A Curious History of Food and Drink” by Ian Crofton, a copy of which was thrust into my hands by Post-Dispatch theater critic Judith Newmark, who told me I would be fascinated by it. I was. And the upshot is that I get to share many of its delightfully bizarre tidbits with you.

Such as this one: Although the story that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back to Italy from China is well known, it does not happen to be true. Pasta was known in Italy at least a century or two before the great explorer was born. Still, the 1938 movie “The Adventures of Marco Polo” includes a scene in which Gary Cooper, as Polo, visits a Chinese philosopher and is served what the philosopher calls “spa get.”

We all remember the ill-fated attempt to call french fries “Freedom Fries,” when the United States was upset with France for not supporting the second Iraq war. And many people know that sauerkraut was called “liberty cabbage” during World War I. But I, at least, was surprised to learn that slices of bread cooked in milk and egg – French toast – was originally known as German toast. That name was also changed during the First World War. (Note: Some online sources dispute this fact. Some online sources are spoilsports.)

During the Great Fire of London in 1666, diarist Samuel Pepys thought so highly of Parmesan cheese that he buried it along with his wine and other valuables, to protect them from the flames. And in 1674, a pamphlet in England called the Women’s Petition Against Coffee called coffee “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous puddle of water” and said it caused people to “trifle away their time.”

The great French eater and writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin used to tell the story of a wine lover who was served grapes for dessert. The man was reported to have said, “Thank you so much, but I am not accustomed to take my wine in the form of pills.”

The book itself acknowledges that this next one might not be true: In 1847, a 15-year-old baker’s apprentice named Hansen Gregory was aboard a U.S. merchant ship when he removed the soggy middle from the doughnut he had just fried, thus inventing the ring doughnut. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a model of a proposed 300-foot statue to him was displayed but the actual statue was, sadly, never built.

After a horse rider had soaked his red tights in a bucket of water in 1847, a man named Pete Conklin used the water to create a novelty drink: pink lemonade.

Refried beans are not fried twice. The Spanish name frijoles refritos actually means “well-fried beans,” but English speakers have been mistaking the term for more than 100 years.