Roasted Corn with the Bearded Lady of Coney Island

The loneliness of the bearded lady — who does it concern besides the lady herself? No one really, save perhaps a curious soul or two. Journalist Joseph Mitchell was one such soul. In his 1940 piece on Jane Barnell (aka Lady Olga), America’s most famous bearded lady,  he writes that she “occasionally considers herself an outcast and feels that there is something vaguely shameful about the way she makes a living.” Hirsute since infancy, Barnell was put on exhibition shortly after her fourth birthday, when her parents sold her to the Great Orient Family Circus. Her stint with the outfit marked the beginning of a long career, during which she appeared in at least twenty-five circuses and sideshows.

Continue reading

A New England Tomato Tour de Force

A dinner in which each dish features the humble tomato? Sounds excessive. But that’s exactly what one housewife hosted, according to an 1894 edition of The New England Kitchen Magazine. Known for her “delightful little dinners,” she was eager to prepare one her guests would not soon forget. Only five invitations were sent; her “home was small but dainty and cosey.”  Her guests she chose carefully: “Five friends that she knew to be very fond of tomatoes.”

Continue reading

Food of the Gods or Devil’s Dung?: The Enigmatic Asafoetida

Asafoetida is a touchy herb. Add too much and it ruins a meal; add too little and it fails to impart its unique flavor. Indeed, its many seemingly contradictory names attests to its enigmatic nature. Known variously as devil’s dung, food of the gods, stinking gum and giant fennel, the plant smells pungent when raw; but when cooked it delivers a pleasant flavor, reminiscent of leeks.

The 1919 book Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran reports that asafoetida is “a vegetable product consisting of resin, gum and essential oil in varying proportions, and that it is “generally used in India as a condiment, being especially eaten with pulses and rice.” The leaves are also consumed, and “the white under part of the stem” is considered delicacy, particularly when it is roasted and flavored with salt and butter.

Continue reading