An interview with Sarah Lohman
Victorian beef tongue stew, seven hour hardboiled eggs, handmade chicken-flavored peeps and marmite soup. Sarah Lohman will cook it, all in the name of history.
As a self-described historic gastronomist, Lohman uses the past to enrich the way we think about food today. In 2005, at the tail end of her art-school career, it became clear to the Cleveland native that her interests lie at the intersection of food and history, so she set to work on a pop-up restaurant serving meals inspired from Colonial-era America.
In more recent times, Lohman has delivered lectures as part of the culinary history and science duo Masters of Social Gastronomy and curated food-centered events and exhibitions around New York City. She currently works as an educator for the Lower Tenement Museum and blogs about her kitchen adventures in “temporal fusion cuisine” on Four Pounds Flour.
I want to talk about your thesis project in art school because it seems that in a sense, that’s where things began for you.
Well, things really began when I was sixteen and needed a job. My mom worked at a history museum in Ohio where they do re-enacting, and that’s where I ended up working. In that museum we cooked every day. Even though I didn’t do a lot of the cooking, I started thinking about food from different times, which was new to me.
Then I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art, which at the time had a five year program. You did two years of Foundation Studies, two years of your major and then your final year was devoted to a thesis project. At that point my work kept coming back to history. I had gone to this museum on the east coast that advertised that they had a 1830’s restaurant. I was actually rather disappointed with their food, since I felt like the beef stew I ordered tasted just like an ordinary contemporary stew. So I thought, why doesn’t someone do it right? And I decided to do a restaurant.
For my thesis project, which was titled Jump In The Pan, I did what now you would call a pop-up restaurant but in 2005 that wasn’t really a thing. I created a space within a space in an old kindercare, which was part of a building owned by my school. I prepared food inspired by the late 1800’s, which included squab and rabbit. We did two dinners for ten people per night for four nights, so we seated almost a hundred people. I did the design, the menu planning, I trained the staff, I worked with a programmer to create a ticketing system. It was very well received and I ended up winning a post-graduate scholarship based on that project.
After I moved to New York, I was kind of sick of it for a while. Then I stumbled upon Jerry Thomas’s bartender’s guide, which was the first bartending book ever written. I read through it thinking, “Oh I wonder what a 1860’s cocktail tastes like.” So I decided to have a little party. I called my friends and asked if they wanted to come over try these cocktails. A couple of nights before the party people were calling and asking, “can we bring costumes?”
Of course I said ok and before I knew it there were thirty five people in my tiny apartment in civil war costumes getting smashed off of these cocktails. I thought well, maybe there’s something more to this.
At the same time I was working for New York Magazine’s Grub Street so I got into the New York food scene. When I quit the magazine to go freelance, I also decided to start my blog. That was 3 years ago.
Do you ever entertain the idea of doing another restaurant?
I think it’d be fun to do a pop-up and to do consulting for someone, but after being so closely involved with restaurants while working for Grub Street, I realized that I couldn’t make those sacrifices. Running a restaurant is such an incredible amount of labor. It dazzles me how hard people work in the restaurant industry. But I love doing the events that I do and short term things.
I also noticed that you studied digital technologies in school. Are there specific ways you combine your love of history with your interest in technology and with food?
That’s a good question. I’m not that interested in pure recreation. Besides, you can never entirely and accurately recreate something from the past. It’s just not possible. So what I love to do is keep my head in 2012 and look into say, the 1860s. My major was Integrated Technology and Media environment, and I was in the second full graduating class from the program at the time. You were required to also have a fine arts minor. I minored in photography and in performance art. My major gave me the computer skills that allowed me to get my blog up and running. I also learned how to be part of a team and how to work as a freelancer. It taught me to do essentially what I do now, which is work for myself and work on these long form projects, and pitch ideas to museums and galleries. Of course, my minor in performance art influenced my final project and what I do now.
Do you use a lot of contemporary gadgets or substitute ingredients? How flexible are you?
It depends on the moment. A lot of different people read my blog: culinary historians, people who are interested in New York food, artists. They’re all looking for different things and different levels of historical accuracy so I think it’s important that I try to be transparent. I’ll say these are the choices I made and why, this is what they would have done then and this is why I’m not doing that. Sometimes I’ll say “I don’t know what this means. Anyone have a thought? Because I’m clueless.” And if I’m working from a historic recipe I always post that recipe.
I’m very open about it being just me and this being just a blog and I get very few challenges. It does happen sometimes. There are people with a bug in their butt! But mostly it’s people who are offering different perspectives. I think that’s helpful and I think the blog should provide a place for that kind of discourse and community.
Most of the cooking I do I just do in my Queens kitchen with a gas stove and using modern equipment. If I’m interested in a specific process then I might take away a labor saving device, just to see for example what it’s like to make meringue by hand. On the other side of that, I’ll be teaching two classes in May on hearth cooking in Park Slope, which I’m excited about.
You mentioned the discourse that happens through the blog. Are you aware of a community of culinary historians outside of your blog?
Absolutely. There’s the Culinary Historians of New York, and I know a couple of them. I think what they do is great but I’m more interested in this other subculture of people who are interested in historic food and combine that with other elements. For example, at the end of April, there’s an event called The Brooklyn Beefsteak, based on a Victorian beefsteak club. This is a tradition of men going to the back of a club where they would drink beer and be served delicious strips of steak with butter, basically until they burst. So these guys revive the tradition at this huge event at the Bell House. Hundreds of people go and they feed you steak and there’s McSorley’ beer and a band playing and people drink and eat and it’s so much fun. I love moments like that, where young people look to the past for inspiration.
Do you have any recommendations for people who want to get into historical food? Maybe a book or a recipe that would make a good starting point?
Recently there have been a lot of people who ask me, “How do I do this? How do I become a culinary historian?” which is the same question I had a couple of years ago [when] I was asking people like Linda Pelaccio, who is a member of the Culinary Historians of New York. Everyone told me “I don’t know!” Only now are there programs you can go into, like the NYU food studies program. The people I looked up to cobbled together their knowledge from different degrees and their own research. As soon as I realized that, I got over my own personal hump of thinking ” Well, who am I? I’m not a historian.” So I’m trying to help people find their way into this field, which is gaining interest.
I can’t remember how I started in terms of books. Now I have a lot of both reprints and original editions of historic cookbooks, from the first cookbook published in America in the 1790’s to cookbooks from the 1970’s, which I consider historic. I also have a shelf of reference material. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America is an amazing source and I would recommend that. I’ve got a whole shelf of contemporary cookbooks and magazines. I also have a lot of non-fiction books that deal with food like Twain’s Feast [: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs], which looks at American food through the lens of Mark Twain’s writing. At some point two years ago, I was starting to write for my blog and getting in touch with people about doing events, my mom was like “Ok, now you have to read everything. Every piece of information you can get your hands on.”
I think that’s how it goes. My advice would be just read, cook and write. If you’re doing good work, people will take notice.
What do you think we’ve lost and what do you think we’ve gained, when you think about the way we eat now as opposed to a few hundred years ago?
For me, it’s a question of what has changed and what’s stayed the same. There’s a quote I love from the novel The Go Between: “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” But at the same time I feel like….they don’t! The more I learn about history the more I feel that everything has always been exactly the same.
One of the most fascinating pieces of information I came across while doing research for the Masters of Social Gastronomy lectures, was that the Romans had artificial sweeteners. They weren’t growing sugar and the only natural sweetener they had was honey. And it takes a lot of honey to make something sweet as sweet as with suga. At some point, someone figured out that if you boil down unfermented grape juice, you get this sweet syrup. And if you did that in a lead vessel, you got something even sweeter. It’s because the acid in the grape juice was reacting with the lead and creating lead acetate. They were using that to sweeten a lot of their food. That’s ancient Rome, you know, and they were dealing with artificial sweeteners, which we think of as a very new concept. I find that everything we think of as new isn’t new.
Right now we’re very focused on eating locally and there’s the locavore movement and the farm-to-table movement. A lot of people tell me “Oh people must have eaten so much better in the past, everything was local.” We have to remind ourselves that America was “discovered” because we were looking for spices that came from halfway across the globe. We always loved this idea of getting things from far away. We always loved trying new things and eating exotic foods.
Our tastes on the other hand have changed over time. Think about foods that you’d never seen or heard of a decade ago that are now ubiquitous.
Tell me more about the Masters of Social Gastronomy.
Yes! It’s my favorite project I’ve done recently. In October 2010, Jonathan Soma, who’s one of the co-founders of the Brooklyn Brainery came up to me at an event I was doing at Apex Gallery in Tribeca. It was a show about works of art that had been inspired by literature. My friend was the curator and she had a budget for a public event so she called me and asked if I wanted to do something. I had just finished reading Charles Dickens’ American Notes, which is about his trip to America in 1842. In this book he mentioned the cocktails he drank while in America. Cocktails were so American; if you visited America you had to go have a cocktail. So we did this big event, where we had five cocktail stations set up and people didn’t just taste the cocktails, they had to learn how to make them, too. Jonathan came up to me while I was doing this, and said “Hi my name is Jonathan Soma, I co-founded the Brooklyn Brainery, would you like to teach a class?” Months later, I emailed him and I ended up teaching a class there every other month.
I love the Brooklyn Brainery! It’s a great institution and a great place to try things out and develop different ideas. We ended up teaching an ice cream class together. I’m really good with doing demos and going into the social history of things while he’s really good with chemistry and technique. [In fact,] people would tell him their dream flavors, and he would tell them exactly what they need to make it happen.
The Masters of Social Gastronomy lecture series grew out of that. We’ve done three so far. The first was titled “Strange Meats.” The next one we did was “Candy” and the most recent one we did was “Artificial vs. Natural.”
For a long time we’ve had this back and forth about natural and artificial vanilla. It’s an ongoing argument between Soma and me. He’s always argued that artificial vanilla is good enough. It’s made from vanillin which is the primary flavor note in vanilla. I say no, real vanilla extract tastes and smells completely different and it’s more complex. So we had a showdown. I baked two kinds of snickerdoodle cookies. One used natural vanilla flavoring and also used Ceylon cinnamon, which is authentic cinnamon. The other used artificial vanilla, which is basically vanillin, and cassia. Cassia is what is sold as cinnamon in America but it comes from a related tree. So you had me saying these two ingredients are the real thing, they’re better and him saying no, it’s not worth the extra money, you’re just going to lose flavor when you cook with them. Let the audience decide, I thought. And by a margin of 2 to 1 the audience picked the artificially flavored cookies.
We didn’t announce it until after Soma gave his speech, which was about where artificial flavors come from. He was basically saying “Look, a chemical is a chemical is a chemical. It can come from a vanilla bean or you can manufacture it from petroleum. But once you manufacture it, it’s indistinguishable from the one you got from a natural source.” This got a heated debate going. When I got up and told them that they had picked the artificial flavors, people were really shocked.
Our next lecture is about fake meat. I’m going to talk about the history of artificial meat, which is surprisingly long. And related to that, the history of vegetarianism, veganism and raw food, which have all been around for more than a century.
I admit that I might have picked the artificially flavored cookie too, but I’d still be upset about it. I guess I think that sometimes flavor alone is a really narrow lens through which to look at food. And so is health. There’s something to be said about being connected to nature and to place through a flavor. Isn’t it better for us to eat something that comes from a tree rather than a lab? I mean, I think it is but who knows?
But that’s exactly it! And I don’t think Soma and I are really opposed to each other’s ideas. He’s an avid cook and cooks with a lot of real spices and real ingredients. And given the choice, I’d rather eat a real strawberry than an artificially flavored strawberry shake at Burger King. But I’m also not opposed to artificial flavors. My dad and brother are both biochemists, maybe that has something to do with it.
I think what we’re trying to do is to make people question what they think is true about food. Because there’s a lot of rhetoric about what’s better or healthier that needs to be questioned. Like the whole idea of thinking that fewer calories means healthier food, when calories aren’t doing anything but giving you energy.
Do you have a favorite time period to cook from?
I focus on America since it has been America, really the last 200 hundred years. But if something comes up from say 6000 BC China I might also work with that because I think it’s interesting.
So, what percentage of the time do you cook historic food? Is that what do you eat for dinner?
Occasionally I find recipes that are real winners, both as weeknight dinners and as what I bring when I visit someone’s house. Recently I cooked Hugeuenot Torte, which is one of my favorite desserts of all time. It’s unlike any other dessert; I don’t really know what to compare it to. You mix apples and eggs and sugar, pecans and just a little bit of flour. When you cook it, the top crisps up like a meringue while the bottom becomes almost caramelized. It’s very sweet so I like to serve it with some almond flavored whipped cream with only a little bit of sugar in it to cut all that sweetness. My ex-boyfriend actually makes it all the time and thanks me for that recipe.
I do indeed eat historic food. But I also like to use dinnertime to try contemporary recipes that I’m curious about. I’m a big fan of Martha Stewart publications. I cook a lot of one-pot meals. On one of my days off I’ll cook maybe a chili and a stew and then eat that for lunch the rest of the week. I’m normal! But I don’t eat out very often. That’s something that came out of quitting New York Magazine one year before the recession. As a freelancer, I lead a very ascetic lifestyle! But I do enjoy cooking and one of the pleasures of cooking for yourself is that you get to make things exactly to your taste.
Speaking of events, here are two upcoming opportunities to meet Sarah:
Masters of Social Gastronomy: Fake Meat!
Tuesday, April 24, 7pm
Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street, Williamsburg
Campfire Cuisine Beyond Hot Dogs: An Introduction to Hearth Cooking
Two dates: Sunday, May 6th or Sunday, May 13th
11:00 am – 3:00 pm
The Old Stone House & Washington Park, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Interviewed by Maria Pithara