Thursday, 31 May 2012

How to Inhale Vodka

Patricia Herlihy, author of Vodka: A Global History

In addition to the powered version of vodka invented by a St Petersburg professor I mention in my book, a Harvard professor has invented a vodka mist or spray, called Wahh:

About $26 will buy you a Wahh canister, which contains around 25 'puffs' of vaporized alcohol. Hold the lipstick-sized tube up to your mouth, breathe in, and a burst of vodka-flavored mist delivers a dizzying sensation. The feeling fades within seconds, leaving you sober enough to pass a breathalyzer test.

The science behind the vaporizer is pretty simple. Each puff of vapor contains only .075 milliliters of alcohol – the equivalent of about 1/1000th of a shot of liquor. Edwards explains that by vaporizing a single drop of alcohol, Wahh 'increases its surface area by approximately 1,000 times'. In other words, the vapor tricks your brain into thinking that you’re inhaling a thousand droplets of alcohol, rather than one.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Rum Shrub

Richard Foss, author of Rum: A Global History

It is always a delight to find seventeenth-century recipes that are easy to follow, and a rarity to find one that has been annotated by a contemporary who actually used it. One of the prized examples is from the Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, by a plantation owner who made copious notes about her kitchen experiments in South Carolina in 1770. One of her recipes is for rum shrub, a popular hot-weather refresher. She starts by transcribing a neighbor’s recipe:

‘To every Gallon of Rum put one Quart of Juice and two pounds of the best double refined Sugar. Shake the Shrub every day for two Months, and let it settle once more, then draw it off for use. The Vessel should be kept close cork'd during the whole process, and to every hundred of Oranges put twenty-five Lemons. To make your Shrub fine all the Materials should be the best.’

In the margin of this recipe, Harriott wrote, ‘I think the following receipt better. To one Gallon old rum add 5 pints Juice and 3 1/2 pounds Sugar.’

A modern version of this recipe might use a higher proportion of lemons, since the strains of oranges available in 1770 were probably less sweet than modern oranges, but it is a tasty drink exactly as described. You can make shrub using tart berry juices like raspberry, or even strawberry juice, but need to reduce the sugar content to have the right balance between tart and sweet. Start now and those of you in the Northern Hemisphere will have something delightful to serve your guests in the summer heat.

Richard Foss is the author of Rum: A Global History, recently released by Reaktion Books and available here (in North and South America) and here (in the UK and rest of the world). His website can be viewed at

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Sage Advice

Gary Allen, author of Herbs: A Global History

If you’ve had an herb garden for a while, you’ve probably found that some perennial herbs need to be cut back from time to time. That nice little sage plant you once planted is turning into a largish shrub that threatens to crowd out some of the less vigorous species in your little kitchen garden. You can obviously hang the trimmings in bundles to dry, then rub them to a more compact powder – but, frankly, how much dried sage are you ever going to use? You can give jars of it away to all your friends who cook – but eventually they’ll start treating you like one of those pariahs who surreptitiously abandon giant zucchinis on one’s doorstep in dead of night.
     Here’s a solution that is ridiculously easy to prepare, will amaze your dinner guests, and might even have your neighbors begging for your pruning waste.

Ravioli with Fried Sage

Serves four to six as a main course

1 30-oz bag frozen cheese ravioli (or five dozen home-made ravioli)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup unsalted butter
1–2 large branches of sage
1 cup pecans, roughly chopped or broken
1 cup gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Pick a few dozen of the nicest sage leaves from the branches and set aside.
     In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the ravioli. Frozen ones will take about fifteen minutes, fresh maybe five. You’ll know when they’re done when they all float and look like puffed-up pillows.
     Meanwhile, melt the oil and butter in wide skillet. Add the pecans and cook until fragrant (don’t let them burn!). Remove them to a paper towel to drain, but do not discard the cooking fat.
     Add the reserved sage leaves to the hot fat and fry until crisp. Remove the leaves to another paper towel, again saving the cooking fat. Take the skillet off the heat until the ravioli are cooked.
     Add the drained, cooked pasta to the skillet and toss to coat with the savory fat. Season to taste, then pour onto a wide serving platter. Sprinkle the toasted pecans, sage leaves, and crumbled gorgonzola all over the top, and serve.

Note: This sounds like too much sage, but do not be tempted to reduce the amount called for. When fried, sage leaves become much more subtle in taste – and take on a crisp succulence that is totally unexpected.

For more herb-related facts and recipes, Gary Allen's Herbs has just been released worldwide and is available in all good bookshops or online here (UK) or here (USA).

Monday, 14 May 2012

A Mini Food Tour of Clerkenwell

Martha Jay

The books in the Edible series cover the history of foods and drinks all over the world. But Reaktion’s own home, Clerkenwell, has a few foodie stories of its own . . .

Our tour begins just off the Clerkenwell Road, the thoroughfare that connects Clerkenwell with New Oxford Street to the west and Old Street to the east. The streets Saffron Hill, Vine Hill and Herbal Hill are named for the gardens that grew there in the sixteenth century, before Clerkenwell was part of London proper. It is unclear who owned and tended these gardens, but one possibility is that it was the gardener, herbalist and writer John Gerard, who published one of the first and best-known British herbals in 1597.
            Carry on along Clerkenwell Road towards Clerkenwell Green, and you will pass St Peter’s, the Italian church in London. Next to it is Terroni’s, the oldest Italian deli in England, first established in 1878 (though it recently reopened after a four-year hiatus). Clerkenwell was traditionally the destination for Italian immigrants to London in the late nineteenth century and thousands of them settled here. As we learn from Laura B. Weiss’s Ice Cream, many became ice cream or ‘hokey pokey’ vendors, selling ice cream, wrapped in newspaper, for a penny a ‘lick’.
            Turn right down Farringdon Road and then left along West Smithfield to reach Smithfield Market, London’s most famous meat market, which is still in use today. In Oliver Twist Dickens describes the market, with its ‘countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade . . . mingled together in a mass’ and ‘the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides’. Many of the streets and pubs in the area bear names related to the meat industry, from Cowcross Street to Poultry Avenue. Walking back north towards St John Street, you will see Fergus Henderson’s famous offal restaurant, St John.
            Now go west along Charterhouse Street, turning into Goswell Road. This was a great centre for gin-distilling in the nineteenth century. The gin manufacturer Gordon & Co., now part of global giant Diageo, moved here less than twenty years after starting operations in Southwark; according to Lesley Jacobs Solmonson in Gin, they found the water from the Clerk’s Well, the well from which Clerkenwell takes its name, purer and more suitable for use in distilling. Tanqueray & Co. was also to be found on Goswell Road after it was established in 1830.
Turn left along Great Sutton Street and end the mini tour with a visit to Reaktion’s own local, The Slaughtered Lamb.

Friday, 11 May 2012

A Drinkable Conversation: Vodka and Rum

Talk at the Roger Smith Hotel, New York City, 25 June, 6–9 pm

For the past four centuries, spirits have played crucial roles in American and world history. Patricia Herlihy, Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University and author of Vodka: A Global History, and Richard Foss, who teaches Culinary History at Osher Institute/UCLA Extension and is the author of Rum: A Global History, will give a talk on the history of these beverages.

A ticket to the talk, including a 4-course tasting menu inspired by the books and beverages and copies of their books, costs $60 per person plus a $4.29 booking fee

For reservations please go to

Spirits of America

Talk at The New School, New York, 26 June, 6 pm

Three authors of recently published books will tell the tales of how rum and vodka have changed history and will discuss the importance of these beverages today. The speakers are Patricia Herlihy, Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University and author of Vodka: A Global History; Richard Foss, who teaches Culinary History at Osher Institute/UCLA Extension and is the author of Rum: A Global History; and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, food writer and author of Gin: A Global History. Moderated by Andrew F. Smith.