The Historian’s Appetite

Hello, world.

I am slowly becoming accustomed to the feeling of having defended my dissertation, and reacquainting myself with the idea that it’s okay to take a day off here and there. Earlier this week I prepped and served pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that takes two days to prepare.

I spent time earlier this month exploring a new cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman, of Smitten Kitchen blogosphere fame.

I came to the field of food history in part because I love food—cooking it, eating it, and sharing it with others—a love which has, at times, demanded that I stretch my knife skills, my ability to multitask, and my willingness to fail.

I arrived in Austin, where I started my graduate program in history, not only because I loved history, but also because I loved the challenge of reading, researching, and writing it. As in my cooking adventures, my historical interests have forced me to juggle many projects, and to write embarrassing first drafts that failed to do what I wanted them to do. For most of grad school, I managed to balance my love of history with my love of food.

Something happened during my last couple months of dissertation-editing, though. Oddly enough, I didn’t start hating my dissertation, though some people had warned me that this would happen. But I did become significantly less willing to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s not that I didn’t want to cook; it’s that I felt guilty devoting time to anything but the dissertation during its last few days on my stove mind.

I asked my mother for the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for Christmas, but deliberately left it with her in New York until I’d submitted the dissertation to my committee. After finally acquiring the book, I started to read it on the way back from New York City to New Haven (where I’m living for the year).

It’s wonderful. I suppose I am fond of it because Smitten Kitchen started as a blog and became a book; ideally, many of the Juntoists here would at some point like to experience that same transformative process. But the cookbook is important for more than that.

For one thing, the book is full of recipes that graduate students can find cheaply at most markets. In her own words, Deb Perelman tends “to be a little stingy with my kitchen purchases…on most items, I’m using very basic grocery store ingredients—store brand butter, everyday eggs—and want you to feel that you can use whatever you have around and still have the same results.”[1] Perelman was a vegetarian in a former life, so she is able to offer substantive, inexpensive vegetarian dishes that feel much more hearty than cold salads.

She also cooks in a tiny New York kitchen (trust me when I say I know; I grew up in one). For this reason, she is adamantly against acquiring most fancy kitchenware. If she calls for a special, time-consuming technique, or one-use kitchen gadget, she provides a convincing argument for doing so. For the most part, though, her recipes are pretty simple. The cookbook provided an easy transition back into the world of cooking and eating.

I dog-eared the page of approximately every other recipe in the book, and although I’ve only been back on the cooking wagon for a couple of weeks, I will say that everything I’ve made from the book has had me coming back for seconds. The week after I returned from New Orleans I made the Vinegar Slaw with Cucumbers and Dill, and persistently found myself standing at the fridge with a fork in my hand. It was good as a dinner side, and on turkey sandwiches, and especially good after a day or two of letting the dill and white wine vinegar flavors marinate. Her Almond Pesto was so tasty that I was eating it with a spoon before even trying to pour it over zucchini, as she suggests, or adding it to pasta with slow-roasted tomatoes. Her Mushroom Bourguignon has more flavor than my favorite red wine beef stew recipe, and the hard-to-find pearl onions were in the freezer section, right where she’d suggested they might be.

I’ve tried her lemon bars, which are different but delicious—calling for a whole lemon, pith and all, rather than the standalone juice and zest that most recipes require. I haven’t tried any of the cookies, but that’s going to change soon once I start carrying out my plan of preparing thank-you cookie packages to send to my committee members (because if I’ve learned one thing about food and baking in graduate school, it’s that I can’t be allowed to live in an apartment with full batches of cookies).

On a less practical level, the photography in the book is beautiful, but most importantly, Deb Perelman’s prose reminded me why it is that I write about food—and maybe, why I write about history.

During my last stretch of dissertating I lost sight of the fact that I do history for the joys of research and the satisfaction I get from wrangling those sources into cogent prose. By the end of the dissertation I hadn’t gotten to do that for months. Now that I’m done, I am looking forward to getting back into the archives, reading sources, and telling stories.

And maybe whipping up a snack for a lunchtime break.


[1] Deb Perelman, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), XIV.

3 comments on “The Historian’s Appetite

  1. Benjamin Park says:

    Wait, you’re telling me there’s more than subway sandwiches?

    Great post.

  2. vanbraman says:

    Food History is definitely an intriguing subject. Food production or acquisition was a much more important part of life in early America. I sometimes find it hard to imagine not being able to simply drive to the grocery store and find everything I need for whatever type of cuisine I want to have. Whether the products are in season or not.

    • raherrmann says:

      Thanks for this comment. I think it’s important to remember that for large swathes of the United States, this inability to access whatever we want at the grocery store still holds true. When I was living in Austin, for example, all sorts of hot peppers were ubiquitous; here in the Northeast, they can be much harder to find, especially if you’re looking for a specific pepper.

      Just an example, but I make it to suggest that perhaps the divide between the past and the present is less wide than we might expect.

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