What do you get when you combine American history, food and an engaging writing style? Eight Flavors. I knew this book would appeal to both my husband and me when I heard the author on a podcast last December, and I was not disappointed. Sarah Lohman developed her thesis that in order to define American cuisine, it had to be broken down into the basic flavors that we all use. Her research focused on the frequency that flavors appeared in our cooking over time. She then narrowed the common flavors down to eight of the most cited using some Google algorithm. Those eight are pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. The delight in reading this book was the surprising things I learned about American eating habits. For example, I had assumed that curry was a relatively modern addition to the American palate, based on Asian Indian immigration to the US, when in fact, the colonial English brought with them a taste for curry, as curry dishes were served in English households. An English cookbook printed in 1747 called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy contained basic recipes for Anglo-Indian curry dishes. Later in the US, Mary Randolph’s 1824 book, The Virginia Housewife, contained 6 Anglo-curry recipes. Curry grew out of favor here due to racist and anti-Hindu political sentiment and policy that was rampant prior to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, making it easier for Asians to gain entry. Unfortunately, American history once again revealed its dark side in another chapter of “what minority shall we blame for the ills of our society?”
Some random fun facts about flavors in America. We owe a debt of gratitude to the state of Texas where the entrepreneurial women called the Chili Queens made inexpensive chii con carne available from the precursor to food trucks, and a German immigrant invented chili powder looking for a shortcut in the preparation of the dish. The first soy sauce in the western hemisphere was produced in Thunderbolt, Georgia in 1767. Another ingredient to suffer from prejudice was garlic because if its association with Italian immigrants. Garlic only began to be respectable in America after World War II when returning GI’s who had been stationed in Provence wanted to experience at home the flavors they had enjoyed there. A misconception led Americans to eschew Chinese food because of the presence of MSG in those dishes that they believed caused headaches. It has been scientifically proven that MSG does not cause migraines. Again, mistrust of Asians, in this case, Chinese, perpetuated that myth. If you check the ingredients on packages of processed food, you will find MSG used as a flavor enhancer. People who believed that their headaches came from the MSG in Chinese food were at the same time consuming MSG in processed food unknowingly, yet not reporting experiencing headaches from those foods.
Thomas Jefferson started a trend for ice cream that increased demand for vanilla beans during his presidency, when it was served at White House state dinners. As a result, the demand for vanilla beans increased. Because cultivating vanilla is an intricate and laborious process, it is the second-most expensive spice in the world. One of the reasons for the failure of vanilla cultivation outside of Mexico, where the Spanish had a monopoly on trade, was discovered by a Belgian botanist who detemined that the natural pollinators of the plants don’t live in other parts of the world. Enter Edmond Albius, a 12 year-old slave who had learned the principles of botany from his master. Through experimentation, the young man discovered that the plants, vanilla orchids, could be pollinated by hand. He used a thin stick like a toothpick to split the tubelike side of the flower, exposing the anther sac and the stigma. Then he lifted the membrane separating the anther and stigma which caused the anther to touch the stigma. Just to be sure they connected, he pushed the two together with his thumb and forefinger. His method is still used today. Pictured below are the vanilla orchid blossom and a worker hand pollinating the flower. What makes this process even more incredible is that the flowers open for only day, starting early in the morning and closing by early afternoon. So the window of opportunity is well-defined, but narrow.
The chapter on MSG identifies its flavor as savory, or “umami,” identified by Dr. Ikunae Ikeda, an organic chemist. While studying in Germany, he sampled new foods, including tomtoes, cheese and asparagus, noting a commonality of taste in them. When he got back to Japan, he recognized the same taste in Japanese foods like bonito, dried mushrooms, miso and soy sauce. He noted it especially in a dish called yudofu, tofu simmered in a broth called kombu dashi. Kombu dashi is a broth made from kelp (kombu in Japanese) or seaweed. He began to experiment with kombu dashi to find the chemical source of its taste. He boiled down the kombu dashi until nothing was left but its solids, a white powder. Its taste was savory, particularly in combination with the natural sea salt attached to the kombu. He had discovered MSG. He needed to find a word to capture the qualities of the taste of this savory stuff. Combining the Japanese words umai (delicious) and mi (essence, taste or flavor), he came up with umami. We now refer to umami as the fifth taste: savory. Lohman includes a recipe for homemade MSG, included here.
Umami Finishing Salt
Makes about ½ cup
2 oz. kombu (kelp)
½ C table salt
Gently wipe the combo with a damp paper towel. Place in a pot with 4 cups of water. Allow the kombu to soak for 3 hours.Add salt and simmer over gentle heat for about 30 minutes, then discard the kombu.
Raise the heat to medium-high and reduce dash until about 90 percent of the liquid has evaporated, about 60 minutes, scraping down the salty residue from time to time. You should have about 3½ ounces (a scant ½ cup) of sediment with a bit of liquid.
Pour the sediment and liquid into a shallow glass baking dish and place in a 250º oven. The finishing salt is done when the salts crystallize and all the liquid has evaporated. The size of the baking dish will determine how laong evaporation and crystallization take. The larger the dish, the greater the surface area, and the quicker the evaporation. An 8 X 8 bkinf dish took about 90 minutes.
I got the kelp at Whole Foods. Prepared the (broth). The final product on the right took about 2 hours in my oven. I made MSG!