A few posts ago, I pointed out a problem with blogging about books. Namely, I could be using this time to write an actual book. Such as the one I just contracted to write, and that's sitting neglected while I squander the first tranche of my book advance.
My point was theoretical, of course. Like most authors, I welcome any excuse to take a break from the coal-face of my computer screen, by which I mean the Word document icons on my desktop that look like miniature pages turned down at the corner and covered in actual text. Mine bear labels like "Book" and "Book Notes" and, most optimistically, "Book Chapters." Hackers alert: if you crack my PC, you can have those files. They're blank. Just please don't take the family photos or mess with my fantasy baseball team. I'm currently in second place.
Anyway, heeding the need in these troubled times to conserve our resources, I'll continue the mission of my last post, which was to recycle research from the book I've just published rather than expending energy on the next one.
First, in response to the comment by one of the five unique readers of Powells.com (joking!), I didn't invent the bit about Columbus saying of iguana, "tastes like chicken." It's documented, in his journal (written in Spanish, though Columbus was Italian-born. That's another story). Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a book billed as nonfiction should be true in every detail, as best the writer can determine.
While we're on the subject of food, I'll serve up a few more recipes from early America. Now that Bush is out and Carla Bruni is in, is it okay to like the French again? I hope so, because, unsurprisingly, they're the finest critics of New World cuisine. My favorite is Gabriel Sagard, a priest who lived among the Huron in the early 1600s and seems to have spent most of his time cataloguing the horrors of American cooking. In particular, he loathed a Huron staple called sagamite, a broth of raw cornmeal boiled in water, which, he wrote, "is the soup, meat and dessert of every day."
Prepared without salt or spice, sagamite, to Sagard, was intolerably bland, except when the Huron flavored the broth with meat or fish, which made it worse. The fish was thrown into the pot, un-scaled, "and when they had some portion of meat to cut up they used their feet to hold it in place and their hands to cut it." The Huron also thickened sagamite by chewing un-ripened corn and spitting it into the pot. And sometimes they added leindohy, "which is corn put to rot in mud or stagnant and marshy water for three or four months." After digging up this "stinking corn," Sagard writes, the Huron would lick their fingers, as if the ears were sugar-cane, "although the taste and smell are very strong, worse even than sewers."
Sagard tried to make sagamite bearable by adding wild chive, marjoram, and onion to the corn gruel, but if his hosts "perceived that these were in it, they would not even taste it, saying that it smelt bad." He also didn't share their passion for tobacco, which he believed the Huron smoked "to warm the stomach in default of wine and spices, so as to break up in some measure so much indigestible matter that comes from their bad food."
Lest one think Sagard an insufferable snob, he was otherwise an admirer of the Huron, describing them as hospitable, courageous, and handsome, with perfect teeth and lean physiques. He also liked their jolly greeting, "'Ho, ho, ho,' which is a salutation of joy," that could not be uttered without laughing. And, as a priest, Sagard approved of the Huron's sexual continence, at least compared to the promiscuous French. "This may be attributed," he wrote, "partly to the absence of spices and wine, and partly to their habitual use of tobacco, the smoke of which deadens the senses."
The English who visited North America in this period weren't so critical of native cooking, perhaps because theirs was so insipid. Also, unlike Sagard, they extolled tobacco. Thomas Hariot, who was sent by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s as a science officer to the New World, believed that Indians' habitual smoking was what kept them healthy. Hariot thought "drinking" tobacco, as Elizabethans called smoking, purged phlegm and "other gross humors, and openeth all the pores and passages of the body." Returning to England, Hariot conducted "many rare and wonderful experiments" demonstrating the weed's medicinal virtues. He later died of cancer.
The early Spanish, for their part, made a major and little-known contribution to this country's cuisine. No, not gazpacho, but a creature the conquistador Hernando de Soto brought with him as a reserve food supply for the army he landed in Florida in 1539. Trotting ashore with his soldiers were thirteen pigs, at that time a species unknown on this continent (as were horses, which another conquistador, Francisco Coronado, introduced to foot-bound Plains Indians a year later.)
As De Soto marched from Florida to the Mississippi, his pig herd swelled to several hundred and some ran off or were traded to Indians, seeding the vast swine population that roams the South to this day. De Soto's men also held America's first recorded pig feast, in Georgia, when all their other food ran out. The conquistador had a number of the pigs slaughtered and issued each soldier a pound of pork. "We ate it," a Spaniard wrote, "boiled in water without salt or anything else."
The French gastronome, Monsieur Sagard, would no doubt have been appalled.