Aye, Leeks IS Good!: Cooking Up History

When you go to Ohio, and you go to Ohio in the summer and you drive through Amish country, you will find a plethora of veggie stands dotting the state and county roads. So, it follows, that you stop and peruse, drawn by the sure knowledge that you will find an assortment of ripe and affordable vegetable abundance. And you are not disappointed.

So, in your haste and joy at finding fresh veggies you come upon a bin of leeks, 4 for 1 dollar. You become ecstatic because, for anyone who has ever been to an American grocery store, you will remember that leeks are not a standard veggie and come with a hefty price tag, considerably more than 4 for 1 dollar. So you buy 4 leeks.

Then you realize. What do I do with…4 leeks?

In the ensuing traversing of your memory you recall a book you once read, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, had a recipe involving leeks and soup. That sounds good! But that recipe was a very healthy one and involved nothing but leeks and water. So back to your collection of cookbooks. Leek and chicken soup (no convenient chicken carcass so that is out), leek and barley soup (no barley), and so on. Leek and potato soup rings a bell from the Joy of Cooking and then something about leeks and quiche with bacon from an Alice Waters cookbook. That and the word pistou reverberating in your head from various other French themed cookbooks. Soup au pistou is a hearty bean and veggie soup from the Provence region of France.

What comes from this fertile mix…leek and potato soup au pistou flavored with turkey ham.

LEEK AND POTATO SOUP AU PISTOU WITH TURKEY HAM

(Note: this is a free-form recipe developed during a free-form culinary adventure, so feel free to adapt)

INGREDIENTS: 4 Leeks – 2 T olive oil – 1 T butter – pinch of dried Thyme to taste – water – 3 medium-large Yukon Gold potatoes – black pepper to taste (freshly ground) – 1/2 regular can of northern beans or pinto beans (rinsed and drained) – 1-2 T of turkey ham diced into tiny squares – powdered chicken soup base

DIRECTIONS: Wash leeks, peel outer skin, cut off about 2 inches above the white part and use only the white part and the slightly green part, discard the rest above. Cut the root end off. Slice carefully in half the long way, then again the long way, then in thirds. I call these leek noodles.

Place leeks in a large soup pot with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 generous pat of butter. Sprinkle with dried thyme (a little) and a dash of black pepper. Saute gently until transparent and soft.

Cut up potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes (with skins on if using Yukon Gold or Red varieties, otherwise skin them). Place into pot with leeks, cover with enough water to just cover potatoes and let them float (the ingredient should be able to swim around a little). Bring to boil. Add 1/2 can of rinsed beans, diced turkey ham, and the powdered chicken soup base (usually 3-4 teaspoons). When the soup reaches a boil, reduce heat to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and just starting to fall apart. Add additional thyme and black pepper to taste just before removing from heat. Also add salt to taste.

Serve!

History…You knew it was coming, right?

And while you are serving, consider the historical connection. Being partly Welsh myself, I find it interesting that the leek is one of the national symbols of Wales. Scotland has the thistle, Ireland the clover, England the rose, and American states usually have a flower as their emblem, so why the leek?

The quote in the title “Aye, leeks is good!” is taken from Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. So clearly, by the late 16th century, leeks and the Welsh lands were deeply connected.

According to Historic-UK.com the leek was referenced even earlier than Shakespeare’s time. It was the emblem of Wales worn on St. David’s Day. In the fourteenth century the colors of the leek, green and white, were adopted by Welsh archers at the battle of Crecy. And before that, historians surmise, that the medicinal qualities of the leek (because, aye, indeed, leeks is good for you!) coupled with the druidic religion of the Britons led to an affinity for the leek. And before that? Who knows, the druids were a religious class that passed on the wisdom of the “ancients” – which ancients? Good question!

Regardless, leeks are a healthy-for-people relative in the onion family. Try leek soup and see if you develop a taste for them and then you, too, will be able to say, “Aye, leeks is good!”

Keep thinking and cooking history!

– Amanda Stiver

 

 

 

 

 

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Garden Like It’s 1943

Among my many books (I collect them, so when I say “many” I mean…more than a hundred, much more) is a gardening tome called the Victory Garden Manual by James H. Burdett. It was produced in 1943, right during the Second World War years. The purpose was to instruct city dwellers in the process and possibilities of developing their urban space into what were called “Victory Gardens.”

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

The victory garden movement was meant to encourage civilians to develop their urban and rural spaces into large scale kitchen gardens. The kind that would keep an average family of four in potatoes, carrots, and turnips all winter long. The idea was to reduce the burden on the domestic vegetable and fruit producers so that their industrial sized haul of produce would be primarily shunted to foodstuffs for the U.S. troops. It was also meant to reduce the oil, coal and gas used to fuel transit of produce from one end of the country to the other.

This effort was so successful that average Americans produced 1/3rd of the annual vegetable crop for consumption during the war years. More importantly, a whole generation of young people grew up knowing how to garden and how to eat locally, keeping their ear to the ground as it were. Knowing how to produce food is invaluable. Even if you only have a small garden, the simple experience of watching a plant grow to maturity and seeing the fruit form gives you insight into the quality of the vegetables and fruits you will be buying at the store or the roadside stand (I recommend the latter, these folks benefit from your business and the product is usually much tastier than the grocery-store variety).

I haven’t had the means or space for a full scale garden in several years, but I still love to cast my mind back to the garden my grandparents grew. They were children of the Great Depression and their grandparents pioneers into the west before them, so “growing your own” wasn’t a leap of logic, but a standard operating procedure. My grandparents used half of their roughly one acre yard to create a substantial and highly productive victory garden. I spent many memorable moments helping dig up potatoes (they come from the ground, by the way, not trees, just thought I would clarify…you never know), picking raspberries, and other produce.

I learned what good soil smelled like, that veggies were supposed to have dirt on them, and that with plants…you have to have patience.

victory garden book for historygal

Image: Amanda Stiver

So, back to The Victory Garden Manual, this lovely little book is a project of it’s era, a red-white-and-blue cover with a big “V” for victory. It has just a few color photographs that look like they might be lithographed, but they are beautifully composed and show off the abundant produce of the test garden. Truly inspiring.

However, I have another favorite gardening book, this one, a reproduction titled, How to Grow Vegetables & Fruits by the Organic Method that was first printed by Rodale Books in 1961. The reproduction print run from 1999 is still widely available and they sport a bright yellow jacket with vintage 1960’s photos of various gardeners and their surplus.

What makes this such a great book is the comprehensive nature of the material. It covers everything from planting to harvest to saving seed and, of course, how to grow a garden with basic knowledge of soil health and structure and without toxic chemicals and pesticides. Great stuff.

I hope this post will be an insightful little nudge to go out and grow something. Anything, from a giant backyard kitchen garden to as small as a few pots here and there (my garden this year). There is an education in growing things. I think we find ourselves more balanced after time in the natural world as we seek to understand the creation and the Creator than we do in the digital creations that seek to obscure reality.

Gardening demands patience, curiosity, and the capacity to deal with loss. These are all vital qualities that help us, when translated into human interaction, to relate to others and to seek to understand them.

So dig in, don’t be afraid to grow! Because you will when you tackle vegetable gardening!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Exploring Gateways to History: The Used Bookshop

Stepping into a previously unexplored used bookstore for the first time is akin to stumbling on that long lost tomb of King Whoever with the certain knowledge that inside are more artifacts of priceless historical value than you can shake a stick at. It is a place ripe with undiscovered adventures, knowledge, and surprises. It’s also addictive, so explore at your own risk, you may never find your way out!

Maybe the Indiana Jones-esque archeological connection is a bit much, but not far off. As a gateway into history (which you can read about in a previous post) used bookstores are an unmined field waiting to be excavated. Any bookstore can do the job, but used bookstores offer the advantage of old books, books out of print, and rare volumes along with the mundane. All of these are really, the fodder of history as they shed light upon a viewpoint that encapsulates the outlook and perspective of its time.

Old books are a slice of history, just as archeologists sometimes create a shaft in order to see what pieces of history are beneath their feet at a dig site, so too, is the experience of flipping through a book from fifty, sixty, or a hundred years ago. We see what people fed on, their thoughts, their concerns, their solutions for their time. These all inform the present, by the way, since those problems and solutions have become our own.

A gateway to history is something that intrigues us into wanting to know more about the past, to take a little time to study and appreciate all that came before us and to seek to learn from those successes and mistakes, problems, and stories. For some a gateway is a good biography or autobiography of an historical personage (a favorite approach of mine) since you get a compelling human story along with all kinds of fascinating historical tidbits about their time and place. Others enjoy a good historical film, with the caveat that you know the history in the film will most often be “adapted”, which means, changed, to make a spiffy or more exciting film. Sometimes a fun documentary will draw you in and make you want to know more. Maps of different eras bring up questions that need answers. Photographs of famous events or people strike up a curiosity for some.

There are many gateways into history, and as I crept carefully down the dimly lit, rather tight quarters of the little local bookshop the other day, I was struck again at the excitement and breathless sense of exploration that can emerge when you find a gateway and get set to explore. I found books that I was looking for, some that I already had, many that I had never heard of, and a few that I will have to go back again and read. I may not be able to buy them all, but knowing that little place is there to explore will rescue many a rainy day in the future!

Keep thinking history! Keep exploring!

– Amanda Stiver

EXPERIENCE HISTORY: If you are in the Massillon, Ohio area be sure to stop by the local used bookstore…

The Village Bookshelf  — 746 Amherst NE, Massillon, OH 44646