Friday, September 03, 2004

Meet Laura Schenone

Meet Laura Schenone author of the James Beard Foundation award winning book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove a history of American women told through food, recipes and remembrances. If you enjoy trying recipes with a past, visit Laura's web site and join Not to Be Forgotten and receive a recipe from history once every month.

How did you come up with the idea for the book?
My husband got a job that caused us to relocate to central NJ, a very boring place and we struck a deal that if I could have a garden I'd give it a try. So we rented a farmhouse from before the civil war with a vegetable garden and I began to look over the shoulder of the women who had come before me, I got connected to the land and I wondered what their life was like, and had the desire to tell my own life story and other's.

How long did it take you to do the research? What were your main sources of information?
A year to write the proposal and a sample chapter, then it was 4-5 years. I did have a baby too so that slowed the process down considerably.

There is no category for women and food. I'd read broad histories of food and then look for the women. I would read general histories and cookbooks and anthropology, archeology sometimes literature. Even mythologies. I got oral histories and cooked with some people too.

How is the history of women and food different from that of men and food?
It took so much of their time in history. The amount of time women have spent cooking is enormous.

Why have women spent so much time cooking?
You could turn to anthropology or religion or politics, but none of that is enough of an answer. Women have created a culture of cooking. They spent a great amount of time before the industrial age and ingenuity and even just happy accidents happened. Also the meanings are different for women--there is a social meaning, personal, social meaning to cooking and all of those are components to the book.

I struggled with romantic side to cooking because the tradition of women cooking has also included subjugation. It's very hard. There are lots of social issues. Who cooks our food and why? I made a conscious effort to chose to show some of the uglier side to women cooking, slavery, women working hard as field workers, etc.

Talk about the challenges of trying to recreate the recipes you discovered
Sometimes just finding the ingredients was a challenge. I didn't want to buy the lard in the supermarket that's filled with preservatives, I don't think that's the same as what they used. So I tried to order stuff from farms, old seeds. I talked with farmers about heirlooms. In terms of how things tasted there is always an unknown. This what food historians struggle with too. One thing I learned was that everything was much smaller then--eggs, so many things bred to be bigger now. When a recipe called for five eggs I'd sometimes substitute just two. I ordered things from special sites. I consulted food historians and subscribed to Food History News .

The book is filled with many wonderful recipes, did you come across any truly horrible recipes?
Yes. Some wartime recipes when there was no wheat around and they used corn.
In a brochure put out by the government I found a recipe for corn dodgers, instead of biscuits you mix corn and fat and water--it's awful! But then I cooked some recipes from Martha Washington, a mincemeat pie with lard and a fricassee with tons of butter. Those tasted good.

How did you learn to cook?
I'm self-taught. I have very little formal training, I grew up in a family where food was important. I don't cook the way they did but cooking and eating meant a lot to them and it does to me too.

What's your next project?
Something a little bit more personal--I'm interested in food as a storytelling device. The stories and meanings a lot is missing. This is the search for long lost recipe. I delve into family history and even travel to Italy. Family and loyalty.