‘The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites’



Historian and History Channel producer Libby O’Connell brought in crowd of about 60 food-loving historians to the Book Revue in Huntington recently, where she discussed her newly published book, The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites. 

A Huntington resident for 30 years, O’Connell has written an encyclopedia-type book, jam packed with historical food facts dating back to the founding of the United States.

“We learn about foods from all kinds of countries,” says O’Connell. “The past is another country to be studied.”

One can learn about the flavors and tastes from the past, which are not what we’re used to today, says O’Connell, when exploring the type of food people ate. Such as a side dish of grilled beaver tail washed down with about twice as much alcohol as we drink today.

“Mainly beer and hard cider,” says O’Connell, “but eventually they discovered molasses which was used for making rum. The harbors around Long Island’s north shore were popular places to smuggle in molasses from the West Indies.”

“The oldest food around, believe it or not, is popcorn. Popcorn basically tastes exactly the same way it did when it was discovered 6,000 years ago in Peru, where they cooked it on hot griddles,” she says. “The only thing different is the technology on how the popcorn is cooked. We now have microwave popcorn.”

The American Plate, which also contains recipes and photos, is a fascinating culinary journey into everything you ever wanted to know about the history of food in America. O’Connell has written an abundance of information on American food traditions from the Native Americans to the early presidents, to the evolution of food through technology, economics and social movements and even to the origins of national brands. “The Coca-Cola script you see on a can of Coke today is the original script, in 1880’s style, that was used before the soda was even marketed.”

Recipe: 18th Century Stuffed Eggplant
This recipe can be completed before baking and kept, covered, in the fridge for a day or two. Bring it to room temperature before baking.  It is good hot or cold. The addition of the currants, cinnamon, and the nuts in a “made dish” hearken back to early colonial cooking.

5 tablespoons dried currants
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Two medium eggplants, sliced in half
Cooking spray
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, plus 1 extra tablespoon if needed. Butter is more authentic thank cooking oil.
1 medium onion, minced
1 pound minced lamb
½ cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dried mint, crumbled
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup toasted sliced almonds, or toasted chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste
4-6 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced in half. You will have 8-12 short strips.

In a small bowl, soak currants in the red wine and vinegar for at least one hour. Par-boil the eggplants in water for about 5 minutes in a large pot. Oddly, this will turn their skin brown but don’t let that bother you.  Cook book writers believed that this would reduce their bitterness. Remove from water and pat dry. (Optional: If you have an outdoor grill, preheat on high until it reaches 500. Spray eggplant cut surfaces with cooking spray. Place eggplants cut side down on the grill and sear well – about 3 minutes. Turn eggplants over and sear the skin side. Remove from grill. This will add a nice smoky taste but it’s not necessary.) Let cool.

Place eggplants cut side down on the grill and sear well – about 3 minutes. Turn eggplants over and sear the skin side. Remove from grill. This will add a nice smoky taste but it’s not necessary.) Let cool.

Put oil or butter in large frying pan. Add minced onions and let soften over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Add ground lamb, breaking up the clumps so that it cooks evenly, about 3 more minutes. Do not overcook or the lamb will dry out. Remove meat and onions from the pan and reserve in a medium bowl. Scoop the insides out of the parboiled eggplants, being careful not to break the skin. You want to have whole shells of eggplant skin. Place these shells in a baking pan. They can be very close together.

Chopped the eggplant pieces you have removed from inside of the eggplant. If there are parts that look particularly heavily seeded, discard these. Place eggplant pieces in the frying pan and brown quickly over medium, about 5 minutes, adding extra butter if needed. Add chicken stock. Bring to a boil and cover. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

Pour the lamb, onions, and the red wine and currants into the eggplant mixture and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the herbs and other seasonings. Stir in the toasted nuts and mix well. Remove from heat.

Now stuff the eggplant shells with the lamb mixture. Lay one or two slices of raw bacon across the top of each stuffed eggplant. The bacon will add extra flavor in the oven.

Bake at 425 for 30 minutes.