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Chris Amirault

Using the Internet as a Food History Source

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I have this friend, Liam, who's something of a prankster, or slacktivist, or goof-ball. I'm not really sure. As it turns out, 140 years ago, one of his forebears also invented chicken salad. Here's the proof, from that authoritative food history source, wikipedia:

Chicken salad is any salad that comprises chicken as a main ingredient. In Europe and Asia this may be complemented by any number of dressings, or indeed no dressing at all and the salad consituant can vary from traditional leaves and vegetables, pastas, cous cous to noodles or rice.

In the US it refers to a salad consisting primarily of chopped chicken meat and a fat-based binder such as mayonnaise or salad dressing. Like tuna salad, it is served as a creamy spread, and it is often used for sandwiches. Typically it is made with leftover or canned chicken in the United States.

Chicken Salad is thought to have been first served by Town Meats in Wakefield, Rhode Island in 1863. The original owner, Liam Gray, mixed his leftover chicken with mayonnaise, tarragon, and grapes. This became such a popular item that the meat market was converted to a deli which still stands to this day.[1]

You'll note the footnote here, the citation that proves that the claim about Mr. Liam Gray is indeed true. That links to the following Dekalb County Times-Journal article written by one Judy O'Daniel in July 2008:

We all know about chicken salad, but how long has this favorite dish been around? Some historians say a cook named Liam Gray first made it in Rhode Island in the late 1800s. His original recipe consisted of leftover chicken, chicken “drippings”, an oil and egg mixture and small seedless grapes — and we thought the addition of grapes was a modern, creative addition. Not so.

Sense a bit of circularity? Damned skippy: the article refers to the wikipedia entry, which cites the article, which....

You get the idea. Apparently, much of the rest of the internet does not. Ask.com, reference.com, instapedia.com, and a bunch more got punk'd.

We've debunked a lot of myths around here, but this little anecdote makes me wonder if we've missed the forest for the trees. What other internet "food history" is ripe for the plucking?

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Chris, you've peered into Pandora's Box. This problem is general online and acute on Wikipedia, whose serious look and sometimes authoritative content mislead some readers into accepting other content that's not just inaccurate but easily demonstrated as such! I've seen many examples about food and drink, it would be a full-time job to respond to them with well-documented history. (Is the macaroon origin still shown 200 years later than French reference cookbooks will easily tell you? The "sandwich" entry seems OK when I glance at it, no longer giving lip service to the notion that the Earl of that name "invented" it, a point food books have been correcting for a century or more.)

In my experience, some Wikipedia subject areas are more reliable than others. It might be because there's much less armchair expertise around about, say, molecular structures or art history than about food.

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...  it would be a full-time job to respond to them with well-documented history. ...

It would be a full-time job for several people for a long time, I think.

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It would be a full-time job for several people for a long time, I think.

Unfortunately it shows what's insidious about the Internet as information resource. People (including journalists, I gather!) are choosing ease over accuracy, and don't seem to know it. The most poetic example I saw was googling a few years back about Pope's famous saying -- a little learning being "a dangerous thing." Many hits came up, most of them garbling the quotation in different ways. (Pope would be gratified, I think.)

In pre-Internet US, people simply looked the subject up in Bartlett's Quotations (or asked their friendly librarian, who steered them to it) and found the right answer. The experts paid (full-time) to research and write reference books did add something in return for the money.

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People (including journalists, I gather!) are choosing ease over accuracy, and don't seem to know it.

For me, the most infuriating example of this came when I googled "o'charley's rolls recipe" hoping that I could make a reasonable facsimile without a lot of experimentation. The first recipe included a step where you form three little balls and place them together in a muffin tin. Huh? That's like a cloverleaf roll. Clearly not the rolls at O'Charley's (pictured here... http://www2.prnewswire.com/mnr/ocharleys/31428/ )

Oh well, I clicked 'Back' and selected the next google hit. Same thing. Next one. Same recipe. And on and on it went. Many have disclaimers like "This isn't my recipe and I haven't made it. I found it on another site and thought I would post it here". It's in recipe sites, message board replies...everywhere. Every time someone asks for an O'Charley's roll recipe someone googles it and perpetuates the same bogus recipe.

When I finally did find a different recipe that looked plausible, I looked up at the start of the post. There it was again - "I found this on another site but I haven't made this recipe myself..." Aiigghh!

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I am tempted to see this as a sign of the age. True truth (as if truth wasn't an absolute) is in short supply these days. Polititians tell their version of the truth (therefore not the real truth)to get votes. Scientists turn into advocates and lose grip of what is true in service to what they believe-in. And journalists "fact check" on websites that are notorious for their bias and inaccuracy, because they don't even care aboutthe accuracy of their product.

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... True truth (as if truth wasn't an absolute)...

"True truth" starts to sound like scepticism :smile:

But if truth is beauty and beauty truth, and that is all you, me and the urn know or need to know; and yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder, where does that leave truth ? I have my doubts about absolute truth; a neat convention within certain thought disciplines, sure, but isn't absolutism what the Enlightenment saved us from ?

As for Wikipedia (and many other sources besides, cookbooks, particularly, included) I find it's not usually that hard to recognise the nonsense history apart from credible history. Applying the 'how would we know that ?' test does most of the work, doesn't it ?

Sorry, Chris, no stories of bad food history on the net - I had fun with some of the old cookbooks at Google Books recently - food history in its original written form. I'll take some trash-wading if I get to find gems like that :smile:

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Wikipedia's standard is verifiability, not truth for a very good reason. Before everyone gets all in histrionics over the internet, it's not like food history before the internet was much better. Go into Barnes & Noble today and you'll still find a dozen books published this year that claim searing helps seal in the juices.

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That's not history; that's technique. Still, it's a good point, as there's a lot of bad food history on library shelves, particularly concerning the more anthropological claims of "ethnic" foods.

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... True truth (as if truth wasn't an absolute)...

but isn't absolutism what the Enlightenment saved us from ?

Absolutism : relativism as truth : falsehood

There are truths out there. If enlightenment involves falsehood then I'll stay in the dark. :-)

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When I was growing up we'd have sardines on toast for supper (pre-bedtime snack) from time to time - and occasionally as an easy lunch, to go with some soup. Those tinned sardines are plenty oily, and crushed on to bread all they need is some seasoning to make a good dish.

The tuna that comes in cans is far leaner. When i was 13 or 14 or so, I wondered what could be done with it, and casting about, came up with a mixture of canned tuna, mayo, a splash of white wine vinegar, some garlic salt and a bit of mustard, salt, pepper and a splash of oil from the can, all mashed together. Great on toast or in sandwiches. I used that a lot in my teens, before ever coming across the common use of a tuna-mayo mixture in sandwiches elsewhere, I think first when I moved away from home to the city, as a student.

So, in my experience, I 'invented' tuna salad. Not that I ever made a noise about it: I never supposed that the tuna salad I found in town derived from my solo pottering about in a kitchen in the sticks. Makes a nice memory, somehow, but that's all.

Chicken Salad ? As cultural/anthropological phenomena, these kinds of things that are so simple, tend to emerge and evolve over time, organically, being 'discovered' or improvised in many different places and taken up by word-of-mouth (or taste-of-mouth !).

Absolutism : relativism as truth : falsehood

There are truths out there.

"Chicken salad was invented by Martha Shuggs on Tuesday 17th Julember, 19canteen" - is that the fault of misplaced absolutism, in the 'there must be an eternal truth for everything' mould, or misplaced relativism of the form 'as far as I know it, this is true, so that's the truth' ?

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I teach a class that includes basic computer skills to high school freshmen. I always include a warning about the validity of Wikipedia. If you don't mind, I'd love to use your example in my class.

Magi

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"Chicken salad was invented by Martha Shuggs on Tuesday 17th Julember, 19canteen" - is that the fault of misplaced absolutism, in the 'there must be an eternal truth for everything' mould, or misplaced relativism of the form 'as far as I know it, this is true, so that's the truth' ?

Good point. Many people have a low standard for verifying what they "know" to be true. A hairdresser's advice or what they read in a chatroom carries equivalent weight with a seriously verified source. Opinion becomes fact eg "drink 6 glasses of water a day to have good skin" and such blather.

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Wikipedia had never been an acceptable source in my college experience.


Edited by ambra (log)

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Today I did a bit of poking around in Google Books. I've now edited the Wikipedia article on Marmalade, which read:

In 1797[12], James Keiller[13] and his mother Janet ran a small sweet and preserves shop in the Seagate section of Dundee; they opened a factory to produce "Dundee Marmalade", that is marmalade containing thick chunks of Seville orange rind[14]. This recipe (probably invented by his mother) was a new twist on the already well-known fruit preserve of quince marmalade.[15]

to read

In 1797[12], James Keiller[13] and his mother Janet ran a small sweet and preserves shop in the Seagate section of Dundee; they opened a factory to produce "Dundee Marmalade", that is marmalade containing thick chunks of Seville orange rind[14]. Some claim this preparation as a new twist by Keiller on the already well-known fruit preserve of quince marmalade.[15]

Others see the Keiller claims as canny commercial promotion, backed up by such references as "My wife has made marmalade of oranges for you" in James Boswell's letter to Dr. Johnson of April 24th, 1777[16].

- but I should probably keep the excitement to myself.

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Today I did a bit of poking around in Google Books. I've now edited the Wikipedia article on Marmalade...

Well done. It's not the Internet that is the problem, it's how we use it. You used Google Books to find information in a book, the same way that anyone could look up the Pope quote in Barlett's online. Good research skills are what is needed, whether you use them in a library or online.

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Thanks for saying so, purplechick. But "The Pope quote" ? Is there only one ?

PS Cratinus. Tut, tut.

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Thanks for saying so, purplechick. But "The Pope quote" ? Is there only one ?

Sorry, I should have been more clear. MaxH wrote above:

The most poetic example I saw was googling a few years back about Pope's famous saying -- a little learning being "a dangerous thing." Many hits came up, most of them garbling the quotation in different ways. (Pope would be gratified, I think.)

In pre-Internet US, people simply looked the subject up in Bartlett's Quotations (or asked their friendly librarian, who steered them to it) and found the right answer. The experts paid (full-time) to research and write reference books did add something in return for the money.

That's what I was referring to.

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... That's what I was referring to.

Ah. My mistake for missing it. Thanks.

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Thought I'd bump this up because of a spate of examples in the cocktail world. Every time I search on a recipe I find four or five "genuine" origin stories. Anyone else finding this phenomenon?

This long predates the internet. Here is what William Grimes had to say on p. 41 of Straight Up or On the Rocks:

Grimes.jpg

(And while we're ragging on the internet, let's take a moment to praise it. I remembered the phrase "barroom etymology," searched for it on Google Books, grabbed an image of the passage and posted in here. All that took about 5 minutes.)

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The history of food is a pretty tough topic, as restaurants rush to establish authenticity by asserting or fabricating their historical roots, while academics have little to no interest in the subject, preventing it from becoming robust or verified.

A really goood collection of essays on the subject is The Language of Food which uses linguistic analysis to determine the history of particular food items.

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Obviously, anything found on the internet should be taken with a peck o' salt. But conventional (print) food history is full of purloined misinformation as well.

While researching an herb I'd heard of (butnege) I found only three references in print -- all three were, word for word, identical. None contained any worthwhile info, and none cited their source. A letter from Paula Wolfert was the only thing that led to a decent answer (turned out that "butnege" was nothing more than dried mint -- something that none of the printed sources seemed to know).

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