Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Hard-core paleoids will ask with a sneer, why do so many low-carbers insist on making substitutes for modern foods?  Why doesn't everyone just eat food the way it's found in nature?  Why not eat an egg and a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit instead of compounding "paleo pancakes"?  Why do you think you need tortillas and cookies and BREAD?

There are easy answers, actually.  For one thing, when people first stop eating "conventionally" they don't know WHAT they should be consuming on a meal to meal basis.  They eat bacon and eggs with delight on weekends, but on working days...?  How do you go from toast-and-coffee or a cereal breakfast to paleo, when you are trying to get a household out of the door in good time?  And those damn lunch boxes to fill....  Families with children which, for one reason or another can't have a stay-at-home parent, sometimes have trouble switching kids (especially older ones) to a more healthful regimen -- and sometimes it's another stuck-in-the-mud adult who whines "just because YOU have to be on a diet [you repulsive slug], does that mean that *I* have to suffer?"  [sob]

Paleo/LC convenience foods to the rescue!  ...Illusions.  Nut-flour breads taste good and give the impression one is just eating a healthy version of the SAD.  Meal bars and "shakes" have been a part of the American scene for a long time, and seem pretty normal to people who dislike standing out.  Alternatives run from the half-assed to some pretty damn good substitutions.  They may be a crutch, but if you "can't walk" and haven't the time to crawl, crutches can be extremely valuable.

Arguably, convenience foods are what put us into this mess in the first place.  Easy-to-make versions of more time-consuming traditional foods fill our grocery stores:  instant oatmeal has largely taken the place of the porridge that used to cook all night over a banked-up fire, and canned soup replaces -- poorly -- the stock-pot that used to hang unceasingly over the hearth, being added-to and extracted-from constantly.  A cake used to be a VERY rare special-occasion treat for ordinary people, because not only were the ingredients expensive and sometimes unprocurable, but because the methods involved USED to be labor-intensive and time-consuming.  But now there's no more fire to build and wait for till the embers are just right -- electric and gas ovens took care of that problem.  The mechanical, rotary hand beater took the place of the whisk and spoon, then the cake-mix came along, then the electric mixer, until the just-add-water-pour-into-included-disposable-pan-throw-it-in-the-microwave turned what used to be something you had to plan ahead for into an everyday impulse confection.  Or if that's too much trouble, go to the corner store where you can get a shelf-stable product you just have to tear open.

Though it has become epidemic recently, for millennia people have been making foods in advance for those occasions when it's not possible to hunker down, build a fire and create a meal in a civilized fashion.  From historical record, we know that Aztec warriors would go on campaign with their own version of MREs -- chia seeds.  Same for pemmican, which is much more nutritious.  The drying techniques that allowed northern "Plains Indians" to save their hunted and gathered foodstuffs for winter also provided instant food for days when cooking up a stew would be impractical.  Prehistoric convenience food.

The earliest replica cookbook i own, Amelia Simmons' 1796 "American Cookery" already suggests adding ketchup to gravies to round out their flavor, though she doesn't include a recipe for any of the versions she would have been familiar with.  Of course in this era they were made most usually out of mushrooms or walnuts, though oyster ketchup was well-known and they'd already begun making the condiment out of tomatoes as well.  It was the MSG of its age, adding what we would call "umami" nowadays.  I once made mushroom ketchup, which kept indefinitely and was an excellent addition to gravies and soups whose flavors were a little flat.  Mary Randolph, in her "Virginia Housewife" of 1824, tells how to make a number of home-made condiments including "fish sauce to keep a year." Cuts down one of the steps needed to prepare the meal.  More convenience food!

Napoleon is famous for (among many other things) offering prizes for great new ideas to feed armies on-the-march.  This was the beginning of canned foods, though used champagne bottles were the first vessels to be tried, because of the sturdiness of their construction.  "Desiccated vegetables" -- or as the troops called them, "desecrated" ones -- and soup stocks boiled down to a powder so that all you had to do was add water, had appeared by the time of the American Civil War.  Tins of oysters were a prized commodity on the frontier; the soldier's hardtack and sailor's biscuit much less preferred though their value was appreciated.

Old-time writers of books describing the day-to-day lives of ordinary people -- beloved by reenactors like me, who want to demonstrate the experiences of our ancestors to those of our contemporaries who are fascinated by history -- sprinkle in hints of more grab-and-go meals.  Cold fowl, hard-boiled and pickled eggs, cheese, meat pies, johnny-cake (the etymology for which has never been determined beyond doubt -- it might have once been journey-cake), all have their modern equivalents at the drive-thru window.  Sherlock Holmes was once observed to cut a hunk of cold meat off the joint on the sideboard, slice some bread, sandwich them together and stick them in his pocket for later.  T. E. Lawrence wrote of a fat-and-flour mixture the desert tribesmen carried in a saddlebag.  The earliest tamales were a corn-husk-wrapped "lunchbox" food, and all around the world different leaves have been used to protect foods tucked away inside -- sometimes you eat the leaves and sometimes you don't.  (Relatedly, trenchers were originally thick slices of bread that luxury dishes were served on; when the quality folks had eaten what they wanted, the juice-soaked "plate" was given to servants and the poor for their dinner.)

Convenience foods have been around for a LONG time, though like so many other things, modern society has taken the concept to extremes, to fit in with our on-the-go activities.  I suspect that every culture throughout history has had some sort of equivalent.  Eating is essential, and sometimes you have to carry things along for a later meal.  It should be something that is compact and hardily portable, won't spoil very soon, will soak up loose juices, which won't require special equipment for consumption and ideally won't make your hands a mess in the process of eating them.

THAT is why recipes for various bread-like products are all over low-carb and paleo websites, why so many nut-flour cookbooks exist.  There are few more simply-convenient containers for food than the various styles of bread that can be found all around the world.  Tortillas, pita pockets, "coffins" and crusts, or basic absorbent slices are just so equal to the job.


  1. I think, there is no way back in a human society to cooking everything from a scratch.
    Could you, please, post a recipe for that mushroom ketchup! I could guess many variations of mushroom sauces, but the one which will not get spoiled too quickly? Did you put a lot of salt and vinegar there? There are also fermented mushrooms, but you will have to watch for mold with thous.

    1. This is the recipe i used, from the 1850s classic "Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management." :-) It's a sauce in the sense that Worcestershire and soy are:


      472. INGREDIENTS.—To each peck of mushrooms 1/2 lb. of salt; to each quart of mushroom-liquor 1/4 oz. of cayenne, 1/2 oz. of allspice, 1/2 oz. of ginger, 2 blades of pounded mace.

      Mode.—Choose full-grown mushroom-flaps, and take care they are perfectly fresh-gathered when the weather is tolerably dry; for, if they are picked during very heavy rain, the ketchup from which they are made is liable to get musty, and will not keep long. Put a layer of them in a deep pan, sprinkle salt over them, and then another layer of mushrooms, and so on alternately. Let them remain for a few hours, when break them up with the hand; put them in a nice cool place for 3 days, occasionally stirring and mashing them well, to extract from them as much juice as possible. Now measure the quantity of liquor without straining, and to each quart allow the above proportion of spices, &c. Put all into a stone jar, cover it up very closely, put it in a saucepan of boiling water, set it over the fire, and let it boil for 3 hours. Have ready a nice clean stewpan; turn into it the contents of the jar, and let the whole simmer very gently for 1/2 hour; pour it into a jug, where it should stand in a cool place till the next day; then pour it off into another jug, and strain it into very dry clean bottles, and do not squeeze the mushrooms. To each pint of ketchup add a few drops of brandy. Be careful not to shake the contents, but leave all the sediment behind in the jug; cork well, and either seal or rosin the cork, so as perfectly to exclude the air. When a very clear bright ketchup is wanted, the liquor must be strained through a very fine hair-sieve, or flannel bag, after it has been very gently poured off; if the operation is not successful, it must be repeated until you have quite a clear liquor. It should be examined occasionally, and if it is spoiling, should be reboiled with a few peppercorns.

      Seasonable from the beginning of September to the middle of October, when this ketchup should be made.

      Note.—This flavouring ingredient, if genuine and well prepared, is one of the most useful store sauces to the experienced cook, and no trouble should be spared in its preparation. Double ketchup is made by reducing the liquor to half the quantity; for example, 1 quart must be boiled down to 1 pint. This goes farther than ordinary ketchup, as so little is required to flavour a good quantity of gravy. The sediment may also be bottled for immediate use, and will be found to answer for flavouring thick soups or gravies.”

      She goes on to describe how to tell mushrooms from toadstools.... The whole big book is available free from the Project Gutenberg site. Mrs Beeton's cookbook is remarkable for its day, having all the ingredients carefully measured, even though the standards she used aren't the same as ours. :-) When she says wine-glass-ful of something, for instance, it needs to be something like three ounces, not to-the-brim of one of our huge modern glasses.... A tea-spoonful is the amount you'd fit in a spoon with which you'd stir your tea.

  2. Really interesting post and comments Tess, and I love the Historical facts....

    I can remember my mum having a Mrs Beeton book, I never realised that she went back as far as the 1850's. I don't know when my mums version was printed/updated as it's long since gone, which is a shame.

    All the best Jan

    1. :-) i have the printed replica version of Mrs. B as well as the electronic copy, AND one of the updated editions from the mid-20th century. i first discovered her in my college library, and i WANTED my own replica SO badly.... well, that was when the internet was young, and my searches were in vain till i was in England in 1998 and i found one in BATH -- i was so excited! i bought and carried that huge book in my limited luggage space all the way home. ah, good times! :-D

      when i discovered Project Gutenberg, i joined their volunteer army to do proofreading -- what they do is physically scan books in the public domain one page at a time, then run them through software that "translates" the picture into text, a process that often turns out nonsense so human readers run over the text and fix spelling and punctuation according to their set of rules. then more senior proofreaders approve what the junior ones have done.... in those days, at least, one was able to choose from a list of in-process books, and i was AGAIN excited to see Mrs B among the choices. i'm proud to say, i got to help make that wonderful book available free to the world. where the picture of the text was actually illegible, i was able to consult my print copy and put in the correct words. :-) :-) :-)

  3. I really enjoyed this tess. I get peeved about the overzealous food purists out there.

    1. thanks, Wooo! "religiosity" is ALWAYS annoying, carrying with it the "i'm better than you" tone it has.... i guess some people need to compliment themselves 'cuz other people don't. ;-)