I recently read an article by Robert Moss on Seriouseats where he discussed the challenges with making a New Year American favourite – Hoppin’ John. I’ll confess that, as a Briton, I’ve never tasted it and had no idea what the ingredients were prior to reading it. The article informed me that Hoppin’ John is a mixture of rice and black eyed peas cooked in broth and traditionally served with collard greens. He makes a reasoned argument that something which on paper looks bland, and which in his experience tastes bland, has only become so in recent years.
There is an element of the futile about the debate. Sports fans will know it well. Football fans try to compare old legends of the game with modern stars. It is impossible to make the comparison because of the importance of the surrounding factors – style of play, quality of opponent, fitness levels, rules and refereeing standards. Robert Moss’s article did make me think about food in a different way though. In the piece he argues that the quality of food has declined but the cooking methods have also changed. Interpreting a recipe in a modern parlance puts modern assumptions on it which may often produce a different end result. It made me consider whether the British standard roast beef and Yorkshire puddings looks the same now as it did a hundred or even two hundred years ago. As a Yorkshireman I do know there is a debate about when the Yorkshire pudding is served – before, accompanying or after the meat. I also wonder whether the idea of beef served pink is a modern confection.
The old recipes for Hoppin’ John included a bacon broth and that introduces an easy ingredient for me to understand. As Moss outlines bacon used to be processed over a lengthy period of time. It was cured to preserve the meat and that process engenders and intensifies flavour throughout. Modern methods aim to produce an approximation of the flavour of bacon in a much shorter timeframe. It’s an approximation but it’s not the real deal and when you stack lots of approximations on top of each other you’ve got a different dish! We are guilty too in demanding products out of season. What are the producers to do in response? Either they grow in far more artificial conditions or import something with the inherent degradation in flavour. We are the ones to blame if we insist on eating salads and soft fruit in winter. We are also to blame if we demand an ever cheaper product in greater quantities because those who have the know-how to produce great tasting food either can’t compete financially or are rejected because the resulting ingredients don’t look the right colour or they aren’t always the right shape for the major retailers.
Moss also gave the example of how rice was cooked back in the day. We are so used to easy cook rice that we know our timings to produce a clearly separated grains. In the America when Hoppin’ John was in its prime the rice was boiled and then steamed over a much longer combined cooking time. The texture as well as the flavour would have been different.
Of course we have a part to play in this. Surely our palates are accustomed to a wider range of stronger flavours due to the choice in the retail outlets, advancements in preservation, cultural influences and a wider range of restaurants. As a result is it possible that we have changed in a way that makes old recipes too subtle? Do we demand something a little brasher with more seasoning? Maybe too it is a sign of economic well-being that, rather than just worrying everyday where the next meal is coming from, we are more concerned with what it tastes like. Perhaps if someone had gone back to the people producing those old Hoppin’ John recipes they would have looked askance at the questioner challenging the taste because there is a ritual and symbolism to eating it at New Year not an epicurean challenge. In the same way we put up with eating dry turkey and hateful Christmas pudding it has nothing to do with flavour but more about sharing an experience with our loved ones and an experience with millions of our countrymen.
So, bringing the debate back across the Atlantic, what has happened to Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings over the years? The Yorkshire pudding has certainly changed. First recorded in the mid-18th century our modern puddings are taller and fluffier than their ancestors. The old method cooked them in a pan over the fire with the dripping from the roast falling on to it to aid the cooking process. They were also served either on their own with gravy or before the meat. Mrs Beeton recommended making a large pan of it and then cutting it into squares. The roast beef has change too. Back in the day meat was hung (and the nasty result scraped off before cooking) for a longer time and then cooked on a spit over an open fire rather than in an oven. Suggested cooking times for a piece of beef are between four and six hours. I can’t find a reference to the resulting colour and texture but a comparison between roast pork and pig roast (which I have tried), and of rotisserie versus roast chicken suggests it would be different.
Food changes and we’ve changed too. It’s unlikely we can turn the clock back any time soon so we’ll just have to adapt and modify. We can still enjoy the ritual without expecting too much of it.