Chrysocolla [Flaxseed Candy] (Greek, at least 7th century BCE)

“Bread sprinkled with poppy-seed is mentioned by Alcman in Book V as follows: ‘Couches seven, and as many tables laden with poppy-bread, and bread with flax and sesame-seed; and in cups…chrysocolla.’ This is a confection made of honey and flaxseeds.”
~ Athenaeus quoting Alcman, Deipnosophistae Book 3 (early 3rd century CE)

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Athenaeus of Naucratis is perhaps the greatest Ancient Greek food writer, though he lived and wrote in Rome at the height of its Empire. His masterwork Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dinner Party, among other possible translations) is an overview of Greek food culture that attempts to document just about every literary reference to food in Greek. In order to accomplish this ambitious objective, Athenaeus draws on a vast array of sources, not only food critics and chefs but poets and historians. He is nothing if not comprehensive: writing in the third century, Athenaeus recorded a reference to a sweet called chrysocólla (χρυσοκόλλα) in the work of Alcman, a poet who lived about a thousand years earlier, in the 7th century BCE.

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A papyrus fragment from Greek Egypt, now in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, with one of Alcman’s poems. Alcman’s Greek combines features from different dialects, possibly further evidence that he was not a native speaker. Public domain (2011).

Lighthearted and celebratory, Alcman writes often of the joys of food and his own great appetite, even calling himself in one poem ho panphágos Alkmán, “the all-devouring Alcman.” Yet we know that he lived in Sparta, that most austere of Greek cities, whose other poets are far more serious and grim. An ancient tradition maintains that there was good reason for Alcman’s un-Spartan ways: he wasn’t Spartan, or even Greek, by birth, but came from Lydia in modern Turkey. The poet himself seems to support this claim with a remark that he learned poetry from the chukar partridge, a Near Eastern bird that is not native to Greece. According to Aristotle, Alcman arrived in Sparta enslaved, but his master freed him because of his remarkable poetic ability. He would go on to be listed with literary rockstars like Sappho and Pindar among the Nine Lyric Poets, those deemed most worthy of study by later Greek scholars. Evidently, it pays to listen to partridges.

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Alcman called the chukar kakkabi, after its three-note call. It would probably enjoy this recipe (at least the flaxseeds). Photo from Wikimedia Commons (2004).

In Ancient Greek, chrysocolla means “gold glue.” Alcman’s confection shares the name with a striking blue mineral that was used as solder by ancient goldsmiths, gluing the precious metal together. From the name and ingredients, we can infer that Alcman’s chrysocolla was a crunchy hard candy, resembling the sesame pasteli of modern Greece, the amaranth tzoalli of the Aztecs, and similar seed and nut candies enjoyed around the world. Deipnosophistae itself contains a reference to another ancient version, a Cretan specialty with both sesame and nuts called koptoplakous, from a word meaning “cut off” or “broken” (compare English “brittle”).

Today this type of candy often contains sugar refined from sugarcane, a plant which was unknown in Greece until 326 BCE, when Alexander the Great’s men returned from India with stories of “the reed which gives honey without bees.” The genuine honey in this recipe is enough to bind the flaxseeds together. The added olive oil helps keep the gold glue from sticking to everything else.

THE RECIPE

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-1 cup honey
-1 cup whole flaxseeds
-Olive oil

First, toast the flaxseeds by placing them in a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir continually for 5-7 minutes, until the seeds are glistening and start to jump around in the skillet. Remove from the heat. Oil a glass or ceramic dish and set aside.

In a saucepan, bring the honey to a boil while stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the honey is boiling, lower the heat, stir in the toasted flaxseeds and cook for an additional 15 minutes, continuing to stir.

Remove from the heat and spread the mixture onto the dish, smoothing it as much as possible with the back of a spoon. Let cool for 1-2 hours in the fridge, until it has set into a hard, amber-like candy. Snap the chrysocolla into pieces and place in cups.

Alcman described himself as an indiscriminate eater, but it would be hard to find anyone who would turn up their nose at this sweet, crunchy treat made with just three ingredients. Sometimes the simplest recipe can bring the greatest joy, a principle of cookery which Alcman well understood.

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“And then I’ll give you a fine great cauldron, wherein you may gather food in heaps. It’s still unheated by fire yet, but soon it’ll be full of that thick stew that the all-devouring Alcman loves, piping hot when the days are past their shortest. For he eats not what is nicely prepared, but demands simple things like the common people.”
~ Alcman quoted in Deipnosophistae Book 10

[Pass the Flamingo April Fool’s Edition] Dining with the Golden Girls (Florida, 1985-1992 CE)

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“Picture it: Miami, 1987…Four women, friends. They laugh, they cry, they eat. They love, they hate, they eat. Every time you turn around, they eat.”
~ Sophia Petrillo

Over the course of seven seasons and 180 episodes, the four Golden Girls did a lot of eating. Many of the show’s most memorable scenes started or ended around their Miami kitchen table (which mysteriously had three chairs, despite four people living in the house). They’re most famous for their passionate love affair with cheesecake, but in practice, the girls were as indiscriminate with food as they were with…never mind.

While Blanche was the least domestic (she couldn’t pronounce the word “bleach”), and Dorothy’s cupcakes were “dry and tasteless,” the other two women of the house were frequently seen cooking. Their tastes, however, could not have been more different.

SOPHIA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

Related imageAs the archetypal strong-willed Sicilian grandma, Sophia Petrillo is fiercely proud of her skill in the kitchen. She claims that her cooking saved her marriage, and that she nearly went into the frozen pizza business with Mama Celeste. Throughout the show’s run, Sophia makes many Italian and Italian-American dishes, from baked ziti to zabaglione, a wine-flavored custard. Her most cherished recipe is salsa grandiosa, a sauce prepared once a year in her home village on the Festival of the Dancing Virgins. Passed down through Sophia’s family for centuries, it has 152 ingredients, with each new generation improving upon the recipe in some way (“it was my great-grandmother who added heat.”)

Sophia often clashes with those who do not share her taste in food. She discretely dumps sushi into her purse while on a date with a Japanese guy and walks off the set of a pizza commercial when she tastes their “mighty lousy” product. At home, she derides Rose’s cooking as “garbage” and “Scandinavian crap on a cracker,” while Rose, with her trademark innocence, unknowingly insults Sophia by comparing her to Chef Boyardee.

ROSE’S SAINT OLAFIAN CUISINE

 

Image result for rose nylund cookingRose Nylund has a penchant for traditional recipes from her hometown of Saint Olaf, Minnesota, the peculiar names and flavors of which are a frequent punchline. Most of these dishes are made up to sound vaguely Scandinavian, playing off the character’s Nordic heritage. Rose’s mouth waters at the thought of eggs gafloofen or pigs in a svengabluten, and her housemates are revolted by the stench of sparehuven krispies until she explains that if you hold your nose while eating, they taste like strawberries and ice cream.

Some of Rose’s Saint Olafian recipes are based on real Nordic ones. These include her (in)famous fish balls, a common sight on Scandinavian tables, and her herring pie, which sounds similar to Norwegian fiskegrateng (fish au gratin), a creamy baked casserole. In one episode Rose serves Swedish stuffed cabbage leaves called kåldolmar (the name is related to Greek dolma, stuffed grape leaves). In another episode, Rose prepares a “Saint Olaf friendship cake” called vanskapkaka to win over an unfriendly coworker (Rose: “Want to see my vanskapkaka?” Sophia: “Only if I don’t have to show you mine.”) Vänskapkaka really does mean “friendship cake” in Swedish, and although the dish is fictional, its name resembles a genuine Swedish dish called “visiting cake.” According to legend, this lemon cake topped with a sweet almond crust got its name from its preparation; so easy that if you start when visitors are coming up your driveway, you can have the cake ready by the time they sit down for coffee.

But for the most part, Saint Olaf’s culinary delights, from gerfloogenblergen to yak intestine crackers, belong to the realm of fantasy. Not that fantasy stopped someone from creating an entire Pinterest board with recreations of Rose’s recipes.

COCO: THE LOST GOLDEN GIRL

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True Golden Girls fans know that in the pilot episode, the girls had another culinary expert among them: Coco, a gay male live-in cook. The only thing he’s seen making is enchiladas rancheras (Dorothy: “Why don’t you just shoot me?”), and after Season One, Episode One, he never appears or is spoken of again.

The official in-universe explanation for Coco’s disappearance is that after Sophia moves in with the girls in the pilot episode, she takes over the cooking. The actual explanation, according to a 2015 Atlantic article, is much more interesting. Coco was not originally part of the show’s concept. Concerned how audiences would react to a sitcom with an all-female main cast–a novelty at the time–the network introduced him to provide a male point of view, and made him gay so there would be no sexual tension within the house. The girls were so well-received by audiences that Coco was written out as unnecessary, with many of his jokes, like his job, going to Sophia. Blanche, Dorothy, Sophia and Rose would spend the next seven seasons as a quartet, sharing food as they shared laughter, one-liners and love.

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Happy April Fool’s Day!*

* Also Easter. Also the anniversary of the accession of the Roman Emperor Majorian, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands, and the birth of Rachmaninoff. There’s always something to be happy about.