Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Stew: From the Corners of the Earth to Your Bowl

(This was my February article for the magazine Two Lane Livin'. It's surprising to realize I've been writing a monthly column for them for almost five years. Check out their website.)

What is so homely and comforting on a winter’s day as a bowl of hearty stew? Its tasty blend of meat, vegetables and seasonings bring back memories of summer’s gardens. If you are a hunter, the autumn hunt for venison provides the meat, and if a farmer, the annual fall butchering and freezer-filling comes to mind as you fill your bowl with rich broth and tender chunks.  As the poet Robert Burns observed,

"Some hae meat and cannot eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit."

While we may know the source of the meat in our stew, what about the other ingredients? Where did they originate? The storyteller in me is always interested in the story behind traditions, superstitions and the everyday things we take for granted, so I decided to find out just where my stew came from. 

Surprisingly, none of the things I use in my recipe  are native to North America. Potatoes, for example, were originally from South America, discovered first by Pizarro  and later brought to England by Sir Walter Raleigh in the early 1600’s. For some time many people refused to eat potatoes, believing they caused leprosy, among other things. Ireland quickly adopted the potato and it became the mainstay of the Irish diet. This had terrible consequences when a blight struck the Irish potato crop in the mid 1800’s, causing widespread starvation and death—and a huge migration to the United States and other countries.

Carrots came to us from Afghanistan. The Greeks believed it made people more ardent, so used it as a love potion. The carrot made its way to Europe in the Middle Ages, and it was in Holland that the variously colored carrots were hybridized to become the orange carrot we know today. Carrots were grown in England by the 16th century, as this early  gardening manual tells: "Sowe Carrets in your Gardens, and humbly praise God for them, as for a singular and great blessing"  --Richard Gardiner (1599 gardening book)

The shores of the Mediterranean Sea are the homeplace of celery, known to the Romans as sedano. The celery seed often used in pickles and other recipes comes from the small native plant called smallage that is still grown just for the strongly flavored seeds, while the stalks we generally think of as celery were first recorded as being grown in France in the 1600’s.

Celery, raw,
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more easily chewed.

--Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Stew isn’t stew without onions. Onions came from the regions of Israel and India and have been grown in gardens since before the time of Christ. In the fifth century BC, slaves building a pyramid for Herodotus held a sit-down strike until they got their onions. Folklore has it that Columbus planted onions during his visit to the Caribbean islands, and the first settlers in the US also brought onion seed with them and Grant refused to move his troops during the Civil War unless he got onions to feed them.

Stew must have its seasonings. Salt has been used as a preservative since early civilizations, bay originated in the Mediterranean and has been used both medicinally and as a culinary flavoring since before recorded history.  Black peppercorns are native to India, while the red, green, hot, mild and other peppers grown for their flesh instead of their seed derive from the southern Americas. 
So there we have it: our humble beef or venison stew is truly a cosmopolitan dish, coming to our stewpot from all the corners of the world.

For more history of the foods we eat, check out these websites:

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


JJM said...

There are few people who could turn a stew into a story ... Thank you.

Just one note: problem with slightly overhasty editing -- slaves building a pyramid for ^Khufu, as recorded by^ Herodotus. (Whose history makes fascinating reading, btw -- he's more a storyteller than historian, and some even in his own day called him an outright liar. The Father of Lies, some call him. As opposed to Thucidydes, the Father of History.) It's generally held doubtful, I believe, that the pyramids were built by slaves; current thinking is that the workers were farmers idled by the annual flooding of the Nile.--Mario R.

Danielle said...

So interesting. I didn't realize the history of so many of our now "common" vegetables. Really enjoyed reading this! x

Linda Miller said...

I love all the information. Great Post.
Reuzeit Emporium Blog
Reuzeit Emporium

Michelle said...

Well written and thank you for the magazine link.

Granny Sue said...

This was a fun article to write, and I enjoyed seeking out the history as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Granny Sue said...

Whoops! Thanks, Mario! Indeed, that was a typo.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Thanks for the neat blog - I loved learning where all of the food came from.

Country Whispers said...

Now I will forever think of you & your research each time I eat a bowl of stew. ( and of course, pass the learned info around to all who sit with me.) :0)

Angela said...

I had never gave it any thought whatsoever as to where our vegetables originated from. Very interesting! Your stew looks so good!

storytellermary said...

Thanks for a delicious post! Hugs!

annie said...

this was a great article, I enjoyed the history of it!

Sue said...

I LOVE a good stew. And yours looks yummy!


Lisa said...

Wow! Not only is it a delicious looking stew, but there is such a story behind it, as well. I love all of the history. :-) Thanks for linking up with "Try a New Recipe Tuesday." I hope you will be able to join us again this week.

Lisa said...

I'm not sure if my first comment went through. Thanks so much for linking up with "Try a New Recipe Tuesday!" I love a good stew and a good story and you have given us both. :-) I hope you will be able to join us again this week.

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