These are the questions that keep us up at night, over here in the forest.
My daughter was doing her history lesson the other day, and she was learning about George Washington Carver. I told her, in a very short and broad summary, that George Washington Carver was the man who invented peanut butter.
Now, the thing is, the longer story of George Washington Carver is amazingly fascinating. The reason why he focused on peanut crops, among other crops like sweet potatoes and soybeans, was because they helped to heal the nitrogen depleted soil that was almost useless after too many cotton harvests.
After graduating with a degree in agriculture, Carver began working at the University of Iowa, but it was a letter from Booker T. Washington that changed his course:
“In April 1896, Carver received a letter from Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute, one of the first African American colleges in the United States. “I cannot offer you money, position or fame,” read this letter. “The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work – hard work, the task of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head.”
“Carver was determined to use his knowledge to help poor farmers of the rural South. He began by introducing the idea of crop rotation. In the Tuskegee experimental fields, Carver settled on peanuts because it was a simple crop to grow and had excellent nitrogen fixating properties to improve soil depleted by growing cotton.”
It wasn’t an interest in peanuts that drove Carver, but it was filling a need in the South and helping farmers sustain their farms that motivated him in his career in agriculture….which is amazing stuff. He was an amazing man who helped rebuild the nation (and I’m kind of a sucker for good history).
But, back to our history lesson:
After I summarized Carver’s works, she looked puzzled and asked, “If George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, then who invented jelly?”
I…have no idea. I kind of figured it was just a recipe that has been around forever to preserve fruits.
But there should be some answer out there…to Google!
Naturally, this is creating a few rabbit trails.
On one hand, there is a really boring story. There is the general idea that jelly was acquired through the road of trades and commerce in the Far East: “Although, the exact date is unknown, the making of jam and jelly probably began centuries ago in the Middle Eastern countries, where sugar cane grew naturally. It is believed that the returning Crusaders first introduced jam and jelly to Europe. By the late Middle Ages, jams, jellies and fruit conserves were popular there. The use of sugar cane to make jam and jelly can be traced back to the 16th century when the Spanish came to the West Indies where they preserved fruit. ” (link)
That is probably true. But there is no good story in there, so I kept looking for any other theories on the origins of jelly. Lo and behold, I found one!
There is an epic tale of an esteemed Roman man who was stuffed with incredible self-discipline, curiosity, culinary intrigue, and loads and loads of money.
Which is helpful when you go around being a writer for a living…
In the first century there was a man named Marcus Gavius Apicius who published a recipe book, and this book included a recipe for fruit preserves:
“The world’s first known book of recipes, written by the famous 1st century AD Roman epicure, Marcus Gavius Apicius, includes a recipe for quince jam.”
Simple enough story. Straightforward. Easy. But….
Who was this Marcus Gavius Apicius, though?
“Marcus Gavius Apicius is believed to have been a Roman gourmet and lover of luxury, who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius. The Roman cookbook Apicius is often attributed to him, though its impossible to prove the connection.”
“Evidence for the life of M. Gavius Apicius derives partly from contemporary or almost-contemporary sources but is partly filtered through the above-named work by Apion, whose purpose was presumably to explain the names and origins of luxury foods, especially those anecdotally linked to Apicius. From these sources the following anecdotes about M. Gavius Apicius (hereafter called Apicius) survive: to what extent they form a real biography is doubtful.”
Nevertheless, Apicius was an interesting dude.
– Apicius dined with Maecenas (70 – 8 BC), Augustus‘s adviser: Martial, Epigrams 10.73. It is possible that Martial drew this idea from a facile comparison made bySeneca between Maecenas, cultural adviser, and Apicius, gastronomic adviser.
– Apicius was “born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived”. He advised that red mullet were at their best if, before cooking, they had been drowned in a bath of fish sauce made from red mullet…
– Apicius advised that flamingo’s tongue was of superb flavour…
– Based on existing methods of producing goose liver (foie gras), Apicius devised a similar method of producing pork liver. He fed his pigs with dried figs and slaughtered them with an overdose of mulsum (honeyed wine)…
– Having spent a fortune of 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, spent all the gifts he had received from the Imperial court, and thus swallowed up his income in lavish hospitality, Apicius found that he had only 10 million sestertii left. Afraid of dying in relative poverty, he poisoned himself…
It is, indeed, the Roman way.
What was most interesting about my little trip down the gastronomical legend of Marcus Gavius Apicius, was not the report of the lavishes of flamingo tongues; it was his perfect 5 course Roman meal plan:
- Appetizer: Olive Caviar
- Starter: Sweet Ham
- Main Course: Imperial Chicken
- Cheese: Herbed Cheese
- Dessert: Honeyed Dates
Not much has changed in +2000 years…!
And so, without further ado…Apicius’ Quince Jelly Recipe:
“The quince has played part in humankind’s orchard for centuries at least. The quince was Paris’s offering to Aphrodite, and Apicius’s ancient Roman cookbook contains recipes for stewing quince with honey.”
– Wash, remove stems and chop into 1/4-inch pieces:
3 1/2 pounds quinces
– Place in a large heavy saucepan with:
7 cups water
– Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, mashing and stirring frequently, until the fruit is thoroughly soft, about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a jelly bag or a clean, doubled kitchen towel (I used a flour sack towel folded over on itself). Reserve the pulp to make membrillo, below.
– For each 1 cup of clear juice, add:
1 cup sugar
– Stir in:
2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
– Boil rapidly, stirring frequently, to the jelling point*. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam. Pour the hot jelly into hot sterilized 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process in a water bath for 5 minutes.
* Generally, the easiest way to tell you’ve reached the jelling point is when the liquid reaches 220˚F, but for quince, which contains a lot of pectin, you may want to remove it from the heat at about 218˚F. You can also use the quick-chill test. Put a plate in the freezer before you start making the jelly. As the liquid cooks and thickens, occasionally drop a small amount of the liquid onto the cold plate. Put the plate back in the freezer for a couple minutes. If, the liquid wrinkles when you run your finger through it, the liquid has reached the jelling point.