Condiments, Their Use and Abuse
FRANCE IS THE LAND OF THE FLAVOR and the sauce. Few articles of food are there regarded as sufficient unto themselves.
Writers in other lands, jealous, doubtless, of the well-deserved reputation of the French for toothsome cookery, have slyly suggested that this is because the foodstuffs of that land, flavorless in themselves, require outside aid.
However this may be, it is interesting to find that a French physician. Dr. Raoul Blondel, writing in L'Echo de Paris, is careful to discriminate among his country's flavors, and especially condemns the use of the "hot" ones, such as pepper and mustard. We need the outside flavors, he admits; but he bids us be careful with them—one may become the slave of mustard, he says, as truly as of alcohol. He writes:
"Our appetites would soon flag if we should eat only unseasoned food. Salt and sugar are still our simplest flavors and our commonest. They are also the only ones that play a legitimate physiological part. All others are only artificial ingredients, intended to excite the appetite by stimulating the mucous coating of the stomach and by pleasing the taste. They may become dangerous by abuse, which habit makes too easy. In any case, when the stomach membrane or the liver do not work properly, the first thing that the physician has to do is to cut out condiments pitilessly.
"The list of these is a long one, but they may be studied in groups. First are the acids, represented by vinegar and lemons. Vinegar owes its properties to acetic acid, but it also has a flavor that varies with its source. Good wine vinegar is the best. Besides 6 per cent. of pure acetic acid, it contains also cream of tartar, and keeps something of the vinous flavor. Vinegar from cider or beer is of the second class. Vinegar used in the industries, made directly from alcohol, has a brutal acidity without flavor. There are also, unhappily, falsifications made with sulfuric and other acids.
"The acid taste is not unnatural in our food; nature itself supplies it in certain fruits and vegetables. It favors the secretion of saliva by reflex action, which is useful in the mouth-digestion of starches; it also stimulates the flow of gastric juice. It thus aids in provoking the appetite, and it also increases the contractions of the stomach. It accompanies ordinarily certain vegetables that are eaten raw, whose cellulose is digested with some difficulty, as in salad.
"But this artificial irritation of the gastric mucous is not without inconvenience, especially if it is great and occurs daily, altho a good salad is seasoned also with salt and pepper, and with oil—a valuable corrective, still, dyspeptics would do well to avoid it.
"Lemon juice may advantageously replace vinegar here, as citric acid is tolerated better than any other organic acid. Lemonade never did any one any harm.
"Pickles and the like have all the inconveniences of vinegar. They should be used in moderation. It is better not to give them to children, who get the taste for them too easily, and thus injure their stomachs.
"Next come the irritant condiments—pepper, mustard, etc. Even more than vinegar they have a revulsive action on the mucous surfaces—mouth, throat, stomach, and intestines. Mustard has the same effect on the stomach as a mustard-plaster does on the skin. Its action is rather injurious than otherwise. We should recognize the fact that condiments of this class are perfectly useless, at least in our climate. In the tropics they are used—and abused—under the pretext of stimulating the appetite, which generally fails in a hot, moist climate. The result is a supplementary cause of irritation to the intestinal passages, bringing on dysentery, and to the liver, already often weakened by malaria."
It is the essential oils, Dr. Blondel reminds us, that give to all these products their caustic power; added to these, as with pepper, are certain stimulant alkaloids. These essences, like all bodies of this class, exert a certain antiseptic action. He does not deny this advantage, but argues that it may be obtained by less dangerous means. These substances, he says, are like alcohol, which is incontestably a food, from the purely thermochemical view-point—but the organism pays a heavy price for it. He proceeds:
"Use of this sort of condiments must, therefore, be very moderate. Those who get the habit of using them quickly become its slaves, and find all foods tasteless that have not been drenched with pepper and mustard. They are laying the ground, for dyspepsia, which will compel them to give up such injurious practises—perhaps even for some ulcer of the stomach or duodenum, whose consequences can not be foreseen. In any case, they bring on premature fatigue of the liver, leading to the hepatic complaints now so common and so difficult to cure.
"Besides—another serious result—these people pervert their sense of taste. How can the flavor of food be appreciated when it is masked by that of such violent condiments?
"There remain the aromatics, properly so called, the herbs of cuisine, owing their properties to essential oils—thyme, estragon, laurel, pimpernel, and saffron. Their strong flavors, especially in oily sauces, prevent us from using them in great quantity. They have a rather favorable effect on the stomach.
"We must add vanilla, a good nerve tonic, used to flavor puddings and cakes. The natural vanilla is preferable to synthetic vanillin, often used instead of it. Let us add also, if you wish, truffles, which are a little hard to digest, but are regarded as a nerve stimulant.
"Finally, a word about the onion family. Onion is a valuable diuretic, used for this purpose too seldom. It should not be fried too long; if so, it is hard to digest, and loses its diuretic properties, being then almost entirely transformed into caramel.
"And garlic, to which has been assigned antiseptic virtues for chronic lung trouble—also value as a vermifuge. The stomach does not tolerate it easily in too great quantities, and in its most celebrated dishes it is the most indigestible food in the world. Let us not speak of its odor, which might get us into trouble with our neighbors, both north and south! Really, the only garlic that is objectionable is that eaten by other people! With a good supply of egotism and in an environment where everybody eats it, it becomes quite supportable."
Source: The Literary Digest - August 23, 1930
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