I’m pushing thirty years old. I know that my favorite type of people are the salt of the Earth, my favorite character in Willy Wonka is Veruca Salt, my favorite hip-hop group is Salt-N-Pepa, my favorite ancient instrument is the psaltery, my favorite town is Basalt, Colorado, and both my favorite taffy and crocodile, are salt water; yet I haven’t the slightest idea what region my favorite salt hails from. One day at the UncommonGoods campus, I voiced this issue over fresh fruit and went back to my desk to find our Salts of the World Test Tube Set. Thanks to the support of my UncommonGoods’ Team, I’m determined to determine the whereabouts of a favorite salt.
Many of us in the west grew up believing that our sense of taste had four dimensions: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. You may recall a day in high school with a diagram of a tongue (probably on an overhead projector) showing a “map” of taste receptor regions (since debunked). Everything we ate was described by some combination of those four dimensions. Culinary case closed, right? Well, chew on this: there’s a fifth distinct taste, called umami in Japanese, long suspected by chefs but only recently confirmed by scientists. Best translated as “deliciousness” or the savory taste, it’s abundant in cured meats, cheeses, mushrooms, and certain vegetables like asparagus. Umami was identified in 1908 by Tokyo University chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the key chemical, glutamate, from the kelp used in Japanese cooking. Glutamate has since gotten a bad rap thanks to being part of the compound monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancer used in a lot of westernized Asian food. But as western cooks and foodies are embracing umami as the key to a culinary experience that’s more than the sum of its parts, the chemistry of glutamate is key. Glutamate is an amino acid that’s released in food through slow cooking or curing, and scientists think they know why we crave it: evolutionarily, such processes are desirable because they make potentially toxic food safer to eat. And not coincidentally, human milk has the highest concentration of glutamate in the animal kingdom, introducing many babies to the umami taste long before they can appreciate a well-aged Parmesan.
Molecular Gastronomy Kit – Cuisine | $49-65
Many of us will, thankfully, have multiple opportunities to stuff our faces during the holiday season. We thought you might also like to stuff your heads with a few fascinating facts about some traditional holiday foods.
The cranberry was a staple in Native American Indian diets at the time the Mayflower arrived. The Algonquin called them “sassamenesh;” the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape word was “ibimi,” which means “bitter/sour berries.” They were one of the foods that natives taught the Pilgrims to cultivate, enabling them to survive. To European eyes, the pink cranberry flowers that bloomed in spring resembled the head of a crane, so they called them craneberries. The slide from “crane” to “cran” has been lost to history.
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), British Columbia, Canada. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photographer: nigel from vancouver, Canada)
Cooks have probably been stuffing foods with other foods since cooking began. Recipes including stuffing appear in the first known Western cookbook, the Roman Apicius (c. 900 AD). The Latin “farcire” (gorge, stuff) became the French “farcir” and the English “farce.” The term “stuffing” first appeared in print in English in 1538.
Sometime during the Victorian era, it was decided by refined elements of society that the word “stuffing” was too suggestive. So, just as a leg of poultry became a “drumstick,” thighs became “dark meat,” and breasts became “white meat,” the euphemism “dressing” became preferred over the original term. We have been uncertain about which is which ever since, but they are one and the same.
Chestnuts are mostly thought of as seasonal treat today, but they have actually been a staple food for millennia in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in mountainous regions where it was difficult to grow grains. The earliest evidence of human cultivation dates to around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe to help fuel their empire-building. The chestnut was a major source of complex carbohydrates on the Continent until the introduction of the potato in the 16th century. Highland Italian peasants still survived on chestnuts for part or all of the year even in the 19th century.
Thought to be native to Central America, the sweet potato has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Ipomoea batatas, the species we make into “candied yams,” was commonly grown in the Caribbean and South America by 2500 BC. (It’s not actually a yam, but the misnomer, from the West African languages in which the verb “nyam” means “to eat,” has stuck.) African slaves in the Americas would roast them in the embers of a fire. When the natural caramelization of their sugars gave them a glassy crust, they were described as “candied.” We would probably all be better off if we had just left them that way, and the much later addition of the mass-produced factory marshmallow, perfected in the 1950s, had never happened.
Green Bean Casserole
The green bean casserole’s origins are not shrouded in the mists of time. It was invented 60 years ago, in 1955, by one Dorcas Reilly, a home economist then employed in the Campbell’s Soup Co. test kitchen in New Jersey, after an Associated Press reporter called asking for a vegetable side dish.
It wasn’t created in a single stroke of instantaneous genius, but went through iterative development. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup came out in 1934 and turned up so frequently in Midwestern casserole recipes–including Minnesota hotdish recipes–that it developed a nickname: “Lutheran binder.” Reilly tried versions of these casseroles with corn, peas, and lima beans, but in the end, the green bean’s supremacy was too obvious to ignore. The “Green Bean Bake” burst forth to a hungry, time-pressed world.
The aforementioned Associated Press reporter wrote it up, and the recipe appeared in an AP feature for Thanksgiving 1955. The casserole is now served as part of the Thanksgiving meal in 30 million homes.
Campbell’s now estimates that 40% of the Cream of Mushroom soup sold in the US is used in green bean casseroles. There are gluten-free and paleo versions now, of course.
In 2002, Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card can be found in its rightful place among inventions like Edison’s light bulb and phonograph and Enrico Fermi’s controlled nuclear reactor.
The People Feeder
Colorful feeders dot the landscape below as you soar above; you swoop down for a quick bite. A passing bird, you need just perch and eat, with gravity doing the work as you nibble to your heart’s content. The snacking freedom birds enjoy with bird feeders inspired us when we first considered Francine Zajac’s design, intended to facilitate a similar fly-by snacking with her glass and ceramic concept.
Francine is a potter of over 30 years, and had been producing her own feeder snacker with a ceramic base and repurposed mason jar. The design was simple but effective, employing gravity to direct candy down through the mason jar, the ceramic chimney, and out through the arched opening, filling the dish with just enough to enjoy a handful while ensuring an even flow after each sampling.
We sought to re-imagine Francine’s design by incorporating sleek and clean lines and components, and providing enough capacity for even the most ravenous snackers. In doing so we needed to identify the attributes important in making the original design functional and effective. As Production Manager, I was tasked with working as a liaison between our design team and our manufacturer of the item, to ensure that our design was both appealing and executable.
With such a unique item, both in form and function, much thought went into balancing the impact and function of the item with how it is made and the capabilities and limitations of ceramic, a medium that can be notoriously tricky to predict after it goes into a kiln.
We started the design process from the top down with the glass cylinder. Its selection was important, as we needed something lightweight that showcased the snack. The separate glass cylinder also allows for a simple and straightforward way to fill and clean the feeder. From there, we considered how the base would be shaped and how it would function in conjunction with the glass piece.
The base would employ a ceramic chimney similar to Francine’s but provide a deep shelf to adequately hold and maintain the clear cylinder. The base of our Feeder also took into consideration the need to manage the amount of snacks fed at any given point, so as not to drain the cylinder and flood the saucer. We originally conceived the bottom saucer as having a vertical, 90 degree angle lip to keep the snacks from flowing over the edge when entering the saucer. However in testing the sloped edge saucer, we found that it wasn’t necessary. The snacks did not flow over, yet were easier to grasp at then they would be with a vertical lip.
Our first prototype worked fairly well. We found the capacity ideal and the gravity fed the M&Ms we tested nicely, providing just enough of a handful at a time. But things were complicated when we tried other snacks. Peanut M&Ms, for example, were easily crowded at the exit point of the chimney, bottlenecking to the point that none were able to escape. A wider opening was the clear solution, but not too wide that a smaller candy would completely pour out.
Our revision worked very well, allowing for candies both large and small to successfully pass through while collecting in the dish. With a design successfully worked out, our final step was selecting the right color. We chose a warm, white glaze that would fit well in most decors, as well as a bold red, reminiscent of a similar, nostalgic dispenser of candies: the gumball machine.
Fill and enjoy!
The next Instagram Challenge theme is Comfort Food! Now that Daylight Savings has disappeared from our lives, it’s time to face it: winter is approaching. But we’re not giving in to the winter blahs just yet! We’ll admit that we’re excited to start queuing up Netflix, throwing on our cozy sweaters, and savoring the foods that make us feel most nostalgic. Whether it’s planning for your Thanksgiving menu, or just revisiting the classic soup that you missed all summer, we want to see what the hearty meals that give you a good ol’ comforting feeling. While sharing your delicious pick-me-ups, be sure to use the hashtag #UGInstafun for a chance to win a $50 gift card! Visit here to see all of the entries we’ve received so far and scroll down to view our favorite comfort food essentials from UncommonGoods. (Click on the images below to snag these for yourself!)
Our makers never fail to motivate us, encourage our creativity, and fill us with inspiration. So, when a new design enters our assortment, we’re always excited to learn more about the people behind the product.
What gets an artist going and keeps them creating is certainly worth sharing, and every great connection starts with a simple introduction. Meet Pauline Stevens, the artist behind our new Recipe Towels.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
When my head was with full with ideas and no place to put them.
What was the most exciting thing about becoming a professional artist?
Realizing that others besides my family and friends like my work, and were willing to pay for it!
What does your typical day in the studio look like?
Opening windows and blinds, making coffee, a little music, playing around with props and light, taking pictures, playing around some more, clicking my camera once again. Choosing images. A little lightroom, some Photoshop, and testing.
Is there a trinket, talisman, or other inspirational object you keep near? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
Not really. I love music, light, and color and feel really in spirit when I am outdoors.
Imagine you just showed your work to a kindergartener for the first time. What do you think he/she would say?
What quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
Let the world know you are here and do it with passion.
What are your most essential tools?
My camera, my love for light and admiration for food.
Casey Elsass in his Brooklyn kitchen, studio photos by Rachel Orlow
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Casey Elsass at his workspace in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Casey and his employees prepare and bottle Bees Knees Spicy Honey. The operation is located in a food preparation complex featuring local culinary favorites and well-known names like Roberta’s Pizza and McClure’s pickles, so it was clear that Casey’s popularly acclaimed (dare I say alternative?) condiment label – MixedMade – was in the right league. As Casey welcomed us to his facility, my eyes were immediately drawn to two things: 1) his awesome beard and 2) the tremendous stock of honey in the room, and the tremendously large vat that in the next few minutes that honey would accumulate in. It was a beautiful and captivating idea, a vessel of liquid gold large enough to bathe in. But I don’t think the FDA would consider that an OK thing to do.
When the time came for Casey to crack the seal on one of the massive, 60 lb buckets of honey, a sweet and mildly floral honey smell filled the air. I wondered how he holds back – what’s stopping him from sticking his face in that bucket Winnie the Pooh style? As he prepared to dump the bucket into the huge, silver tank where the contents would get infused with chili pepper goodness, he filled me in on his story: “I’ve always been a foodie – that’s why I started this – but I was actually making my own hot sauce way before we decided to do honey. MixedMade started as our experiment to see if we could launch a condiment in 30 days, but hot sauce is a really crowded market. We kept the hot, lost the sauce, and Spicy Honey was born.”
But – it was clear that Casey had acquired a new-found knowledge and appreciation of honey. He sources all of his honey from a family-owned and operated farm upstate a ways in the Hudson Valley, and he frequents the farm to help out with harvests and build hives. “We actually built 30 new beehives exclusive to the company on my last visit – we’re lucky to have such a close relationship with them.”
Read on to learn more about the process behind Spicy Honey – from the hive to your home – Casey’s worst honey-related accident of all time, and what’s next for MixedMade.
The next Instagram Challenge theme is BRUNCH. As the August heat creeps and the season winds down, the best way to spend a lazy Sunday is undoubtedly to sit outside in the shade at your favorite brunch spot over eggs benedict, coffee, and a mimosa — or tucked away in bed with a tray of delicious food to pass that ‘not quite breakfast, not quite lunch’ time. Whether it’s more on the breakfast end of things or late enough to be lunch, we want to see what you’re brunching on this summer. While sharing your best shots of the weekend’s best meal, be sure to use the hashtag #UGInstafun for a chance to win a $50 gift card. Visit here to see the entries we’ve received so far.