Although some contemporary chefs like to think that culinary creativity is new, food culture has always been diverse. Throughout the ages, people have eaten just about everything they could from the land, sea, and air.
Fish Bladder Jelly
The Victorians gave the world many things: piano covers, huge advances in plumbing, and PBS dramas about people getting engaged and disinherited. But they were not known for their culinary advances. They used the bladder of the sturgeon fish to make a sweet jelly dessert.The process involved isolating a substance called isinglass from the bladder. It was originally an ingredient in glue but gained popularity in England as a foodstuff in the late 18th century. It is still used to make some beers and wines, including Guinness beer.Isinglass acts like gelatin or pectin to congeal liquid and make it thick. To make sugary jellies, Victorians boiled down filtered isinglass with water, sugar, lemon juice, and fruit. The time-consuming process took a lot of labor, but people have been known to do a lot more to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Nobody knows exactly who first made a vinegar-flavored pie, or where, but it dates back to at least the mid-1800s and probably originated in the Deep South. People think that thrifty cooks first started to use apple cider vinegar as a flavoring because it was cheaper than fruit or lemon juice. Vinegar pie is nicknamed “the poor man’s lemon pie.” It is closely related to chess pie, which uses cornmeal as an ingredient.American cooking features a huge variety of both sweet and savory pie. During the Great Depression, people combined crackers and lemon juice in their pies to make a filling that tasted like apple. In recent years, vinegar pie has experienced a comeback, and some restaurants serve upscale versions with flavored balsamic vinegars.
The ’50s craze for packaged convenience foods led to the popular gelatin salad, often served in an attractive mold. Although people have been encasing foods in gelatin or aspic since at least the 1600s, in the 1950s and 1960s, a Jell-O craze took this to new heights. Magazines published recipes for “congealed salads” with ingredients like shrimp, rutabaga, meats, and vegetables.Packaged, powdered, and canned foods were making important technological advances. For the first time, people had mixes for foods that they had always made from scratch. The Jell-O salad was seen as a new and exciting way for families to eat their vegetables. One serving suggestion depicts a healthy (and horrifying) topping of mayonnaise.At one point, the Jell-O company released tomato- and cucumber-flavored mixes, which didn’t last long on the market.
One of the first cookbooks published in English was written around 1390 and was called The Forme of Cury. “Cury” was an old English word for cooking. It has a lot of variety in its 196 recipes, some for familiar things like white cake and chicken, and also for seals, porpoises, whales, cranes and . . . herons.Nobody knows for sure who wrote the cookbook, but given the wide variety of rare, rich ingredients, people think it was the royal retinue of cooks. A little like reality show contestants, they worked with whatever fish or fowl was brought to them, trying to make food as good as possible for the king’s table. The cookbook is notable for being the first English cookbook to incorporate techniques from other cultures, essentially inventing fusion cooking.An adult heron only weighs about 2 kilograms (5 lb), so you would need quite a few to make a whole royal feast. The Forme of Cury cookbook advises you to pluck and roast the heron whole, wrapped in bacon and ginger.