On the Importance of Excavation
Over the past week I’ve started developing the habit of taking walks through the surrounding forest as a starting point for self-improvement. While on these walks, in addition to admiring the rising sun and accidentally startling families of deer, I’ve found copious time to simply think and reflect (something that is alarmingly difficult to do in front of a computer screen). Particularly, I’ve been meditating on why I believe the excavation of skills, techniques, and recipes of the ancients is a worthwhile pursuit, and I thought I’d share my conclusions with you. Before we begin, I must warn you: today’s discussion involves more human than culinary history, so if you’d like to simply jump down to this weekend’s recipes at the bottom of this post, certainly feel free. And, never fear, food history lovers, I’ll be posting the mucilaginous history of the marshmallow (and perhaps even a bonus recipe!) around this time tomorrow!
At our outset, humans, as far as we can tell, did not spend their free time in the way we typically do today (consuming entertainment for personal pleasure). Instead, our ancestors began their day by foraging (or farming, after the great agricultural switch around 10,000 BCE); and, only when enough food was gathered, would they engage in a host of other, beneficial activities. Storytelling (then writing), playing music, creating artwork and dyes, preparing and cooking food, making medicine, and engaging in active games and sports dominated the leisure time of these peoples. However, as civilizations and technology advanced, a new brand of “empty,” entertainment-fueled free time began creeping into the modern lifestyle. This emptiness, particularly for women, reached a fever pitch in the Victorian Age of England, where the goal of civilization became the expanse of pointless leisure. From the accounts written during this time, rampant boredom and “melancholy” took hold of these prosperous, yet idle individuals, causing great mental illness and unrest (for a devastatingly powerful, semi-autobiographical look into this topic, I cannot recommend Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” highly enough).
It would seem, then, that we are not wired to be idle creatures; but, instead, to feel the most satisfaction in life, we require creative, constructive actions to supplement our work. On my morning travels, I’ve returned to the conclusion that to recapture the purposeful living of the ancients, we need to reclaim some ancient activities and skills in order to make our free time more meaningful and fulfilling. And this is why I’ve chosen to showcase two recipes that most of us have probably never made ourselves (I know I hadn’t!), yet are complexly interwoven into our modern collective culinary consciousness in the form of the gooey and delicious fireside treat: the s’more. So, instead of buying a bag of marshmallows for your next bonfire, try making a batch yourself-it’s surprisingly easy to do!
100% Whole Wheat Graham Crackers
- 2 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour (all purpose flour works just as well)
- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup room-temperature unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- (Optional) Raw sugar for topping
- Whisk together flours, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
- In a medium sized bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the sugars and butter together until light and fluffy (around 3 minutes). Add half of the dry ingredients and a 1/4 cup of water and beat slowly for 30 seconds. Repeat, and then knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for several seconds until fully combined.
- Divide dough in half and wrap one half in plastic wrap.
- Roll the other half of the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until very thin and even (around 1/8″ thick). Repeat with the rest of the dough, and refrigerate both for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350 F / 175 C
- When the dough has finished chilling, cut into desired shapes and sizes and place on parchment-lined baking sheets (I only had a round cookie cutter on hand, hence my non-traditional looking crackers). Sprinkle with raw sugar.
- Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the edges are a dark golden brown. Let cool completely on wire racks before enjoying!
- 2 teaspoons agar-agar powder (or 2 packets/2 Tablespoons of traditional gelatin)
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- powdered sugar
- In a small bowl, soak agar-agar or gelatin in cold water and set aside.
- Combine granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat until fully dissolved (the syrup will no longer be gritty when fully dissolved)
- Stir in agar-agar or gelatin and bring mixture to a boil.
- Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl to cool.
- When mixture is partially cool, add salt and vanilla extract. Using your electric mixer, beat for 10-15 minutes, or until the mixture is fluffy and has doubled in volume.
- Pour fluffed mixture into a 9×9 pan that has been coated in powder sugar.
- Allow to cool for 2 – 3 hours, or until the marshmallow is no longer sticky to the touch.
- Cut into desired sizes and roll in powdered sugar.
- Enjoy a reclaimed bite of confectionary history!
Now, to finish off your s’more, you’ll need to employ a truly ancient form of cooking: the open flame! So, grab some friends, start a fire (responsibly), and roast a few marshmallows that you can proudly claim as your own! And, if you’re unable to have a fire outside, you can always huddle up around the oven to roast some indoor s’mores!
For a truly homemade s’more, we’ll have to dig up the ancient art of chocolateiring, but I think that’s a topic for another time!
As always, thanks for stopping by the dig! Be sure to check back tomorrow for some more food-focused history, as well as a spicy drink recipe that pairs perfectly with homemade marshmallows!