Lunch Date is the post series where you get to hang out with the coolest people in the food scene–all from the comfort of your own computer. This week, Sarah Lohman from Four Pounds Flour dropped in to share how she went from cooking 19th-century food in a living museum to eating a moose’s face (in the name of historic gastronomy!)
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio–Cleveland was about a 30 minute drive north, and Amish country about a 30 minute drive south.
My mother is an award-winning baker, and as soon as I could stand, I was baking next to her. She never let me have an Easy Bake Oven because she said I could do it myself in the kitchen. So I’ve been baking on my own since maybe 8 or 9.
Cooking came a little later–I was probably 13 or 14. When my brother went to college, my mom went back to work, so it became my responsibility to start dinner, following detailed instructions she would leave me.
When I was 17, I went to work with her at a “living history” museum–we were in costume, and in character [as people from the 19th century]. It introduced me to the idea of social history, and I also got my first experience there with cooking on antiquated equipment from historical texts .
Someone from the 19th century has time-traveled into your office. How would you describe your work to them?
They would understand it pretty easily; there was a ton of nostalgia in the 19th century for the food and life of the 18th century and before. For example, Thanksgiving officially became a holiday during the Civil War, and it sprang from a place of wanting to unify the country–but also mostly out of adulation for America’s “founders,” the Pilgrims (in fact, the word “Pilgrims” was first used to referred to the Plymouth Puritans in the 19th century).
And at the 1864 Sanitary Fair, a fundraiser to send care packages to Union troops and provide sanitation in their camps, the most popular attraction was a sort of Revolutionary War-era dining hall. People in 18th-century costumes cooked and served 18th-century food from a giant open hearth, and did other romanticized things like spin and weave.
So they’ve also reinterpreted the past; and in a sense, that’s what I do.
You describe yourself as a “historic gastronomist.” How did you get into that line of work, and why that particular title?
After I moved to NYC in 2006, I started working at New York Magazine as their video producer. I worked a lot with Josh Ozersky, the first editor of Grub Street, and it gave me a peek into the New York food scene. I was in some of the best kitchens in the city and meeting some of the most famous chefs, like Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin.
I noticed that many chefs looked to the past for inspiration, and I realized I had a unique perspective on the history of food from my time working in a museum. So after I started freelancing (about 7 years ago) I launched my blog, Four Pounds Flour. It caught on quick, because nobody was quite looking at food the way I was: through this experimental, first-person, historical lens.
I chose the title “historic gastronomist” because I wanted to distinguish myself from a chef (who has formal training and/or has worked in a restaurant) and a culinary historian (who often operates only within academic circles).
I wanted to cook and connect with people, teach and make links to the present. The title encapsulated all those things for me.
What’s the best situation historic gastronomy has gotten you into? The worst situation? The weirdest situation?
I get a lot of really interesting promotional invites. I sat in the VIP section drinking sake at an Asian food festival in Times Square; I saw a turducken prepared in someone’s apartment.
But I think the best part about it is the community the blog has built around it, and the amazing people I get to interact with. On February 11th, I hosted a panel with cocktail historian David Wondrich and three mixologists I deeply respect–St. John Frizell, Tom Macy and Del Pedro. Getting to work with them was very exciting.
Are there any old-timey cooking tricks you use today, or that you recommend to your friends?
I think that working with food history has made me a much better cook all around. I’ve had to teach myself so many basic cooking techniques to be able to interpret the recipes of the past.
And it’s also taught me to relax in the kitchen. Recipes today are so EXACT–to a point where people feel intimidated by cooking because they think they’re going to ruin something. Historical recipes leave so much open to interpretation, so much room for personal taste.
It’s also changed my idea of when something is “done.” We set a timer and set a temperature, and when the timer goes off it’s “done.” For me, something is done when it looks right, feels right, smells right. I once asked my mom how to tell when a cake was done, and she said, “When it smells like cake.”
A practical tip: add a dash of cayenne pepper to gingerbread, and chili flakes to your pasta water if you’re making macaroni and cheese.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve got a book coming out!! I’m just wrapping up the final draft. It’s called Eight Flavors: The Secret History of American Food and it’s coming out December 6th with Simon & Schuster.
I’ve often felt Americans lacked pride in their own cuisine–fueled by the fact it’s difficult to define. But I think America has one of the most amazing cuisines on the planet. This book seeks to unite and define American food by looking at its eight most prominent flavors: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG [Editor’s note: Yes, it’s a flavor, and it’s not scary], and sriracha.
But more importantly, it looks at the stories behind the Americans who made these flavors popular in our food. It’s a portrait of our country and its people through food.
Who are some of your inspirations? (Culinary or otherwise.)
My inspirations are some of the people who have crossed my path and shaped my future. My mom, Karen Lohman, obviously. A college professor of Art History, Dr. Charles Bergengren, who guided me through an independent study in culinary history. Josh Ozersky, who introduced me to being a foodie and showed me it doesn’t have to be all seriousness.
Charlie and Josh both passed away while I was working on my book, and it’s heartbreaking that I can’t show them the results of how they’ve influenced me. But my time with them was very important to me.
What’s something you’ve learned in your line of work that you think could apply to everyone?
When you’re in the kitchen: relax. You’re not going to screw anything up. And even if you do, just bring it to work and feed it to your coworkers. They’ll be thrilled–even terrible food tastes great when it’s free and at work.