Hungry for History
At the local culinary society CHoW, members indulge a taste for the past
Today, there are no whatzits. So the meeting moves on to the speaker: David Strauss, professor emeritus of history at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, who is giving a lecture intriguingly titled, “Beating the Nazis with Truffles and Tripe.”
Despite its title, the talk isn’t about brave American commandos flogging Germans with fungi and offal. Instead, Strauss discusses the rise of Gourmet magazine. From its debut in January 1941—a holiday issue starring a boar’s head on a bed of holly sprigs with an apple stuffed in its mouth—the magazine championed the philosophy that Americans should explore and celebrate their diverse food culture.
Strauss explains that this patriotism was evident throughout Gourmet’s pages. During World War II, a July 4 edition featured a birthday cake, a small flag and an ad for war bonds on the cover, with editors promoting the burgeoning stateside wine industry inside.
“There was this prevailing sense at the magazine that they couldn’t let the Germans get us down. We had to carry on,” Strauss says.
Afterward, members ask Strauss about his recent book, Setting the Table for Julia Child: Gourmet Dining in America, 1934-1961 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011); the demise of Gourmet; and his views on contemporary continental cuisine.
“They were very animated, with lots of great questions,” he says later.
Strauss is still glowing from his dinner the night before at José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. The restaurant’s wide-ranging menu, which highlights dishes from throughout American history, was inspired by a food history exhibit that ran at the National Archives until early this year called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” The menu’s diversity speaks to one of the issues that CHoW frequently addresses: America’s ever-evolving culinary identity.
“In our house in the late 1940s, we knew what a good meal was: steak, potatoes and apple pie,” Strauss says. “Now there’s a fracturing, with no unified understanding or agreement.”
It’s a topic the club’s foodie-storians are more than happy to explore. “I love CHoW because it’s so varied,” Hayes says. “It’s not stuck on one period of history, one ethnicity or one place—it’s very open-ended.”
Since its inception, the group has hosted an impressive array of speakers. Culinary historian Andrew Smith (Hamburger: A Global History, Reaktion Books, 2008) has appeared several times, and other speakers have included Andrew Coe (Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Oxford University Press, 2009) and local cookbook author Joan Nathan (Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Knopf, 2010).
Whatever the topic, “it’s never boring,” Hayes says.
The club hosts annual themed dinners celebrating culinary traditions from across the ages and around the globe. They’ve featured dishes from the trade routes of the Silk Road, recipes from wartime and the Depression and food from the Chesapeake Bay region.
These feasts—like CHoW itself—remind club members of how food can unite people.
“We all come together around the table,” Kousoulas says. “We get there in different ways, but it’s the same thing once we get there.”
As the December meeting breaks up, members collect their crumb-dusted platters and plates from the counter. The room slowly clears, until only the lingering scent of the gingerbread remains.
Nevin Martell frequently writes about food and culture. He lives in Washington, D.C.