Seer Torshi (haft saleh)/(seven-year) Pickled Garlic: One of the Gastronomical Luxuries of Persia

Seer Torshi (haft saleh)/ (seven-year) Pickled Garlic

Some of life’s luxuries are simple, inexpensive, but luxurious nonetheless. Seer torshi haft saleh is one such luxury. Seer torshi haft saleh is the pickled garlic, aged for seven years, of Persia (Iran). Whole fists of garlic—skin and all—are rinsed clean in cool water and allowed to air-dry in a colander or sieve. Once dry, the garlic fists are stacked upright into a large, hot water-sterilized glass jar. One-half teaspoon of salt is added for each fist of garlic; then regular, room-temperature, cider vinegar is poured over the garlic fists, completely covering them. The glass jar is then tightly sealed—preferably with a glass or plastic lid to avoid corrosion over time—and placed in a cool, dark place for at least seven years (and sometimes for as long as 20 years!). The result: soft, candy-sweet, amber-colored, garlic fists, the cloves of which are eaten one by one (along with the softened skin) as a delicacy to accompany any savory dish or as a cocktail treat, the way olives or smoked nuts may be eaten as an appetizer. Some Persian families establish a jar of seer torshi each year on Nowruz (also spelled “Norooz,” “Nourooz,” etc.), the first day of spring, the New Year’s Day of the Persian calendar. Each jar is identified by the year of its establishment.

[ When the luxury of time is not available, a “quick” version of seer torshi may be made: Rinsed, air-dried garlic fists are stacked upright into a large glass jar; a mixture of cider and balsamic or wine vinegars, salt, and about a tablespoon of honey is brought to a boil; the hot vinegar mixture is then poured over the garlic fists, completely covering them; the jar is then tightly sealed and placed in a cool, dark place for about two or three months before the succulent garlic fists are served. ]

The Proper Placement of Eating Utensils at the End of a Course or Meal

The Proper Placement of Eating Utensils at the End of a Course or Meal

How used silverware is placed onto the plate at the end of a course is a matter of both form and function. The used eating utensils should be placed onto the plate, aligned vertically towards the right side of the plate, so that as the table assistant approaches from the right side to retrieve the plate, holding it by its rim, his thumb can easily secure the silverware, while his four fingers are placed under the plate to steady the dish from underneath. While some authorities allow for the vertical (knife, blade pointing inward, to the immediate right side of the fork, tines facing upward) placement of used eating utensils in the center of the plate, such a placement is impractical for the person tasked with removing the plate since he is not able to readily secure the silverware with his thumb as the plate is being hoisted and removed.

But the foregoing addresses only the functional component. In terms of form, the placement of the silverware at the end of a course is inspired by the manner in which the table is set at the commencement of the meal. As such, the knife is placed to the right of the fork, blade pointing inward, and the fork is placed alongside the knife, tines pointing upward. On the rare occasions where a knife, fork, and spoon are used to eat a particular course (for example, poached pear à la mode), the spoon is placed to the right side of the knife, bowl upward; and the knife is placed in the middle, blade pointing inward, with the fork next to the knife, at its left, tines upward. (See also below subsection on “Soups”; See also below subsection on “How to Eat Certain Foods”—discussion on “Iced-tea” spoons and straws).

Overlapping the knife and fork to form an “X,” or meeting the tips of the knife and fork to form an inverted “V” defeat both form and function and are incorrect. And placing the fork with its tines facing downward is a definite dining no-no–almost as blatantly incorrect as when a person, with childlike defiance, turns a drinking-glass or teacup upside-down in order to indicate his lack of desire for a particular beverage.

Any eating utensil designated for a particular course but not used by the diner should be left on the table, where it will be retrieved by the table assistant when the dishes for the course are being removed, or at the end of the dinner when the table is being cleared.

The Correct Way to Hold a Glass of Red Wine versus a Glass of White Wine

How to Hold Wine Glasses

The wine at a fine dinner will be served in stemmed glasses. White wines, which are traditionally served chilled (from very cold in the case of champagnes, to around 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the case of full-bodied white wines such as Chardonnays and white Burgundys) in order to ignite their acidity, which then releases their delicate flavors and aromas, should be held by the stem so as not to compromise their ideal drinking- temperature by the natural warmth of one’s hand. Red wines, on the other hand, are best served at a few degrees above cellar temperature—at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. And as they slowly acclimate, their aromas and flavors are released. Red wines, therefore, should be held by the bowl of the glass, not by the stem, thereby allowing the natural warmth of the human body to accelerate the release of their properties. Besides, red wine glasses, at the recommendation of red wine producers, are increasingly being designed with larger bowls so as to best exploit the properties of red wines, and holding such glasses by their stems would render them top-heavy.  Sherry and port are served in small, stemmed glasses and should be held by their stems since those wines are served at cellar temperature or slightly warmer and need not be enhanced by body-warmth.

But whether red or white, stemmed or otherwise, a gentleman must first properly chew and then swallow whatever food is within his mouth, then pat/press-wipe his lips clean of any food residue before taking a drink, for “grease islands” floating atop one’s wine or water can be most unappetizing.

Mercato Centrale di Livorno (Central Market of Livorno)–The World’s Most Beautiful Covered Municipal Market


Mercato Centrale di Livorno, Italy

Much of gentlemanly comportment is linked to good health. And much of good health is linked to a healthy diet, which, in turn, is linked to good food. For urban-dwelling gentlemen, traditional municipal covered markets, which typically sell fresh, unpackaged foods, allow for customers to hand-pick the best produce in the exact quantities desired. The wise, practical, age-old philosophy behind such markets is that shopping for perishable foods should be a daily occurrence, only the ingredients required to prepare the day’s meal being carefully selected. Luxurious municipal covered markets, with their vast and varied offerings, epitomize that approach to grocery-shopping—typically within a beautiful, hygienic, comfortable setting.

There are several world-famous covered markets across the globe. They are the “supermarkets” of yesteryear. They are usually housed in impressive, historic buildings situated in the city-center. Perhaps the grandest and most beautiful of Europe’s covered market buildings is the Mercato delle Vettovaglie (which means “Provisions Market,” but is more commonly known by the Livornese as “Mercato Centrale di Livorno”). To approach the imposing structure—especially from the direction where the building serves as backdrop to the city’s Royal Canal—is to behold the type of edifice that in any other city the size of Livorno would be its museum of fine art rather than its market for fresh produce. But in Livorno, market it is—a veritable living, bustling museum to the art of Tuscan cuisine, and a testament to the Livornese predilection for things Livornese.

Situated in the heart of Livorno (also referred to as “Leghorn,” the alleged English corruption of melodic Italian’s “Livorno,” or perhaps of “Ligurian,” the sea in which the port-city is situated), not at its busy harbor, the Mercato Centrale has always existed to serve, first and foremost, the Livornese people. And it is perhaps that Livorno-first outlook that has served to keep the beautiful market from blossoming into the internationally renowned tourist attraction that it easily could have become—considering that Livorno is not only Tuscany’s premiere port, it is also one of the major ports of the entire Mediterranean. Perhaps another reason for the port-city’s “guarded” outlook is its history: Founded in 1017 as a small coastal fortress to protect Pisa, Livorno belonged to the Republic of Pisa until it was acquired by the Republic of Genoa as the spoils of the 1284 Battle of Meloria; in 1421, Livorno was sold to Florence, and it was not until the late 1580s, when Ferdinand I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, declared the then-fortified town (Fortezza Vecchia was built between 1518 – 34) a free port, that the town came into its own. So taking into account Livorno’s “stepchild” history; six devastating fires between 1284 and the middle of the 20th century; and the almost total destruction at the hands of Allied bombing during World War II, it is small wonder that the Livornese are wary of outsiders, tourists included, and that they allegedly harbor an inferiority complex vis a vis the more famous sister-cities of Florence, Pisa, and Siena, assuming as a result that cruise ship passengers would prefer those cities over Livorno. But on the other hand, Livorno has long been one of Tuscany’s most cosmopolitan cities. In the 1590s, in order to regulate its porto franco (free port) status, the duke’s administration established Leggi Livornine, laws that, in addition to regulating international trade, protected merchants from crime and racketeering. The laws remained in effect until 1603 with the arrival of the Counter-Reformation to Livorno. Leggi Livornine also offered freedom of religion, the city thus attracting Jews and Moors who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 16th century, as well as Protestants from all over Europe (Livorno’s Old English Cemetery is the oldest foreign Protestant burial ground in all of Italy) and Orthodox Greeks. On March 19, 1606, at a ceremony held at the Fortezza Vecchia’s Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici elevated Livorno to the status of “city.” From its earliest years as a full-fledged city, then, Livorno has been an international one—so much so that the city has been dubbed “città storica delle nazioni,” much like New York City or Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, the bustling cruise ship capital of the United States Virgin Islands. And, of course, all those peoples brought to Livorno their culinary traditions, many of which are evident in the offerings and ambiance of Mercato Centrale. But perhaps to the market’s greatest credit is the fact that to experience it (and the environs leading to it) is to experience the authentic Tuscany. The experience at Mercato Centrale is beautifully real: the aromas, the colors, the diversity, the sounds, the good, the bad, the ugly, the picturesque, the exotic, the sublime…. At Mercato Centrale, because its client base is quintessentially local—albeit with ancient international origins—vendors expect to see their customers again and again. So smiles are broad and warm, and service is genuine. People are courteous because it is their way. The extra spoonful or complimentary treat—added after the bill has been tabulated—is given as a gift for the unexpected guest, who must be welcomed at the Tuscan table, or to ease the burdens upon a young family.

Mercato Centrale, a classic example of Belle Époque architecture, is testament to post-unification Italy’s campaign for providing and improving public services. By the end of the 19th century, grand public buildings were being constructed throughout the country, Mercato Centrale being one of the most important in Livorno. The 95-meter-long building was designed by engineer Angiolo Badaloni (Livorno, 1849 – 1920), Chief Architect of the Municipality of Livorno at the time. Construction began in 1889, and the market opened its doors on March 1, 1894. The project was lobbied for and then spearheaded by—despite much public criticism—then-mayor Niccolò Costella, at the cost of four million lire. One of the building’s most prominent features is its ceiling: thirty-five meters high with a spectacular skylight of glass and iron, installed by the Gambaro firm. The eight caryatids by sculptor Lorenzo Gori, each bearing the fruits of the earth, are located in the sprawling central pavilion. Made of clay, the caryatids are another of the edifice’s most remarkable interior features. But arguably the most interesting fact about the storied building, even taking into account that it was significantly damaged during the 1943-44 bombing of the city, is that world-famous, Livorno-born artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920 ) is said to have rented one of the building’s large upper rooms at the corner of Via Tommaso Gherardi Del Testa around 1909 upon his return from his artistic sojourn in Paris.

Livorno is a Mediterranean sea-port, and as such its inhabitants are privileged to some of the world’s finest seafood. The Mercato Centrale therefore boasts one of Europe’s best fish markets. [Though the fish section is officially “closed” on Mondays, it is still possible to find an array of fresh fish on that day at many stalls]. And the city’s famous fish soup, “cacciucco alla Livornese,” is one of the delicious byproducts of that marine bounty. But Livorno’s countryside areas are also noted for fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. In years past, the “Gabbrigiane,” countrywomen from Gabbro, would bring fresh produce to the market each day. But that is a thing of the past…. One of the smaller halls of the building is named in their honor. Today, the market’s fresh produce is brought in from all over the world, but especially from Val di Cecina and Val di Cornia, both located in the Province of Livorno. Then, of course, there are all the Italian national delicacies available at the market’s many stalls: prosciutto, fantastic cheeses, wines, fresh pasta, olive oils, etc.,—in addition to the many stalls specializing in prepared, deli-type foods. All the makings, therefore, are there for the Mercato Centrale di Livorno to take its rightful place as perhaps the greatest of Europe’s luxurious covered markets. But like a beautiful—but aging—former prima donna, the market is in need of a cosmetic makeover and a new lease on life. The market still closes at 2:00 p.m., during the week (and does not open on Sundays), as if in the days of old, seemingly oblivious to the fact that today’s city dwellers—men and women—work outside the home and must prepare dinner in the evening, after a long day on the job. A municipal market with extended hours—like San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale di Firenze, which is open 365 days of the year, from 10:00 a.m., until 12:00 midnight—would be far more practical. [Since January of 2015, Mercato Centrale di Livorno has been experimenting with opening until 8:00 p.m., but only twice per month—on the first Wednesday and Friday of each month. But who will ever remember so infrequent a schedule?] And if Livorno’s market marketed itself as a tourist attraction to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who sail into the port on board cruise liners each year, market vendors would thrive instead of just survive on account of new, tourist-derived revenue in circulation each day. Just as tour-operators offer pre-sold packages of Tuscany’s famous cities to passengers arriving at the port of Livorno, there could be more aggressively marketed pre-sold tours of Livorno itself, one of the highlights of which would be a visit to the Mercato Centrale. The market’s original black slate pavement could be polished and made resplendent once again; and the faux red brick flooring that was installed in the center walkway back in the 1950s should be replaced with tiles made of the famous Tuscan marble from nearby Carrara—after all, if Carrara marble was good enough for Michelangelo, it is good enough for “Il Mercato.” And if the market were managed by a consortium or cooperative or association of vendor-owners, rather than as an arm of the municipality, administrative matters pertaining to upkeep, amenities, security, utilities, entertainment, hours of operation, community-engaging workshops, etc., could be efficiently decided and quickly implemented. The building’s upper level, rather than serving primarily as warehouses and municipal offices, could be converted into rent-generating satellite boutiques for the same major retail outlets—Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, La Perla, etc.,—of Florence and Siena that the vast majority of the tourists arriving by ship to Livorno are so keen on rushing off to visit immediately upon disembarking. And perhaps the most obvious of all is that the apartment once occupied by Modigliani could be furnished with period-pieces and decorated as the artist’s studio would have looked in the early 1900s, that one room serving as a mini-museum that would attract thousands of art lovers and Modigliani devotees each year, many of them patronizing the market’s vendors in the the process. The enormous basement level, with its 92 cellars, could be converted into wine boutiques and wine bars, each featuring the major wines from each of Italy’s wine districts—accompanied by live jazz in the evenings, of course. Tuscany’s famous tobacco products could also be sold in the basement level. All this could be financed by a negligible per-passenger port fee. For the market to flourish in the modern era, it must also appeal to the young generations of Livorno, not just to the little old ladies who have shopped their all their lives and want or need nothing else. Instead, the market must be a place where young people meet to socialize. (Caffe Mercato, situated just inside the main entrance, off Via Bernardo Buontalenti, is a perfect rendezvous-point for the young and the beautiful). And once the market becomes a hub, restaurants, bars, and clubs, followed by boutiques, will open in the neighborhood, making it chic and artsy. And as with all great modern-day luxurious covered markets of the world, the Mercato Centrale di Livorno could become a venue for live entertainment, art, and music, all within the context of one of those things that best define a people: food.

Edible Gold and Silver–for Decorating (before Devouring!) the Human Body during Sexual Foreplay

“The procedure, it is said, is simple:  The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….”


Gold Leaf (23 karat edible gold—96% gold, 4% silver) and Silver Leaf (99.9% edible silver)

It is oftentimes said, especially in the fashion industry, that crows and humans are a lot alike: They are attracted to “bling.” But despite mankind’s alleged innate penchant for objects resplendent, there is something revoltingly decadent, and, arguably, ungentlemanly, about eating precious metals: It somehow smacks of tales of monarchs of yore pulverizing pearls and imbibing them with nectar, the mythological drink of the gods, or of “Let them eat cake,” the infamous declaration commonly misattributed to Queen Marie Antoinette. After all, there must be at least a million and one other things on which a gentleman could spend his hard-earned money in order to delight himself…. But even so, there is no denying that for thousands of years—despite the fact that neither gold nor silver has any taste or smell discernible by humans [Well, until the Manetti company, at Expo Milano 2015, introduced edible gold crumbs in four of life’s greatest flavors and aromas: vanilla, lemon, white truffles, and olive oil], and that neither metal has any nutritional value—mankind, from Africa to Asia to Europe and now the rest of the world, has eaten gold and silver, some cultures citing aphrodisiacal justifications. All the gold ever mined—since the beginning of human history—would fit into a 100-cubic-feet container. And much of that gold has been used to make jewelry, jewelry-making remaining the single largest use for gold. But from over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians would eat gold for medicinal and healing purposes; the Chinese, as far back as 2000 B.C.E., were known to eat gold during certain sacred ceremonies; and the Indians and Japanese have long used gold and silver to decorate food. But it was upon the tables of the great houses of Renaissance Italy that gold-adorned food and drink became, and remains, a part of Western tradition.

Traditionally, when gold or silver is consumed, it is not—for obvious reasons—ingested in the form of nuggets or jewelry or coins. Instead, it is eaten as leaf, flakes (the size of Kellogg’s corn flakes), crumbs, or dust. But not all gold and silver leaf, for example, is manufactured for human consumption. Gold leaf to be used for gilding furniture or picture frames oftentimes contains a percentage of copper, which, in high concentrations, is toxic to humans. So a gentleman who wishes to consume gold and silver must be certain to obtain edible varieties. Edible silver is 99.9% silver, and edible gold is typically 96% gold and 4% silver since pure gold is somewhat soft and somewhat sticky, making it difficult to manipulate for food-decoration purposes. The small percentage of silver is added, therefore, to give the gold more workability.

Vark” (also spelled “varak” or “varakh”) is the Sanskrit word for any foil comprised of pure metal, typically of silver, but also of gold, used for garnishing food. In South Asian cuisine, vark (referred to as “edible gold leaf” and “edible silver leaf” in the Western World) is used to decorate sweets. In the European Union, gold and silver are approved for food foils (When created as decorative food additives, gold is assigned the E-number E175 and silver, E174 [“E” standing for “Europe”]). In the United States, edible gold and silver are regarded as food additives, and like in the EU, may be used to decorate food and drink. And both edible gold and silver are certified as kosher. In addition, because gold and silver are inert metals, they pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed into the body. (Besides, the quantities utilized in normal consumption are miniscule: One ounce of pure gold [28.3 grams/31.1 grams per troy ounce] can be hammered into a 10.7-square-yard [nine square-meters] sheet of gold leaf, which can produce approximately 80 twenty-five-sheet booklets of 3” X 3” gold leaf sheets; and the total metal intake for sweets decorated with gold or silver is less than one milligram per kilogram [2.2 pounds] of sweets. The typical circa-3-inch-square sheet of gold leaf or silver leaf has a thickness of 0.2 – 0.4 microns. Yes, inappropriate consumption of silver can cause argyria, a symptom of which is the human skin taking on a bluish or bluish-gray color. But which gentleman in his right mind would eat bowlfuls of silver, day in, day out, for years?)

But as with all products which are to be ingested, the highest level of due diligence should be exercised. And when it comes to edible precious metals, the company Giusto Manetti Battiloro of Florence, Italy sets the “gold standard.” From its earliest recorded beginnings in the 16th century, to its affiliation with the great Renaissance era Medici family, to its presumed unintended destruction at the hands of Allied Forces bombing during World War II, to its present status—four hundred years after its earliest days—as a multinational entity, the name Manetti and its various commercial manifestations have been linked to luxurious gold.

Because baptismal records of the region date only as far back as 1580, nothing is known of the parentage of Matteo Manetti, the family’s patriarch, who lived in the village of Quinto, a few kilometers from “La Patraia,” a Medici villa, some time between the late 1400s and the early 1500s. What is known, though, is that his grandson, also named Matteo Manetti, began distinguishing the family’s name in the gold business when he moved to Rome to work alongside Battino Bologna on the gilding of the golden ball atop Michelangelo’s dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica project established the young Manetti’s reputation so much so that in 1602, when lightening destroyed the golden ball of Florence’s Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, young Manetti was summoned to the city to restore the ball. On September 18, 1602, one month after receiving the commission, the work was completed to much acclaim, resulting in Matteo being appointed Cathedral Goldsmith, the appointment regarded as the Manetti family’s first major public recognition. And it is that same Matteo Manetti who would shortly thereafter establish the first Manetti workshop, employing gilders, decorators, and “battilori,” (Italian for “goldbeaters”), craftsmen who transform gold and silver into thin sheets or “leaf” for gilding, silvering, and/or eating. Matteo further solidified the Manetti family’s ties with the powerful Medici family when in 1633 his son Lorenzo Manetti was baptized godson of Don Lorenzo de’ Medici (1599-1648), thereby buttressing a relationship with the Medici family which is believed to have officially begun by the infant Lorenzo’s grandfather, Antonio Manetti, who is reputed to have worked on the restoration of “La Patraia” for Don Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The 1700s saw the Manetti family’s sustained distinction when in 1732 Nicolò Manetti was appointed Consul of the Academy of Drawing, an appointment which remains to this day a great source of family pride. But perhaps the turning point of the family’s fortune occurs in 1811 when Luigi Manetti (1791-1855), son of Domenico Manetti (1753-1816), embarked, at his father’s suggestion, upon a tour of Europe—Italy, Spain, France, and Prussia—in the throes of the Industrial Revolution to witness, firsthand, a transforming Europe. In 1816, the year his forward-thinking father died, Luigi returned to Italy, poised to give new life to his family’s business. In 1820 he purchased a shop in the heart of Florence, the focus of the business being the production of gold leaf. And in honor of his first-born son, Giusto Manetti (1818-1890), Luigi named the business Giusto Manetti Battiloro, the name which remains with the enterprise to this day. With the knowledge of industrialization gained during his five-year sojourn, Luigi began modernizing the company. And following in the footsteps of his father, Giusto further modernized the company and oversaw its emerging national reputation.

But it was Giusto’s son Adolfo Manetti (1855-1926), who besides further mechanizing gold leaf production through the use of automatic hammers, began exporting the company’s products to other European countries: Giusto Manetti Battiloro, after 300 years, had emerged as a company known outside the borders of Italy. And today, with subdivisions Manetti East and Manetti Iberia, the company is a bona-fide multinational, headquartered at Campi Bisenzio, Florence.

Besides rising from the ashes of World War II under the leadership of the family’s war hero Giusto Manetti (1891-1961), named in honor of his grandfather, the company’s crowning glory occurred, prophetically, in 2002 when the Manetti family financed the restoration of the golden ball of Brunelleschi’s dome at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, exactly 400 years after their ancestor Matteo Manetti, namesake and grandson of the family’s patriarch Matteo Manetti, had answered the call to restore the city’s lightening-destroyed symbol in 1602. So the moral of the story is: When it comes to Manetti gold and silver ( ), a gentleman can put his money where his mouth is! And what is even more appetizing is that gold leaf and silver leaf, because so little precious metal is used to form each sheet, is relatively inexpensive: A packet of twenty-five 3” X 3” sheets of gold leaf typically retails for around $70.00 on . So edible leaf packs a lot of “bling” without too much “cha-ching!”

Some of life’s greatest moments—anniversaries, weddings, and births, for example—are celebrated with food and drink, and with gold and silver. So when food, drink, and those two precious metals are combined, the result is usually a tour de force of over-the-top proportions. Many people know about Goldschläger, the liqueur with flakes of floating gold. And long-stemmed gourmet strawberries are beautiful and delicious in their own right. But when they are wrapped in gold leaf, the element of glamor is added, making the decorated whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. Likewise, there are few things in life more delicious than dark, bitter-sweet chocolate. But when it is presented, gift-like, covered in edible silver or gold, it is elevated to the mythical food of Aztec gods. And it is said that some sexy, 21st -century gentlemen dress (or permit to be dressed) certain body parts with edible gold and silver, offering those parts to their lovers to be savored. The procedure, it is said, is simple: The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….

“Kallaloo” of St. Croix–One of the World’s Oldest, Enduring, and Delicious Delicacies

Crucian Kallaloo

When Crucians (natives of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands) think of Christmastime, one of the things at the forefront of their thoughts is food. And when Crucians think of food, they usually think of kallaloo. That is because of all the foods eaten on St. Croix, kallaloo is arguably the most revered—so much so that many a cook has built his or her reputation upon the ability to cook “a good pot of kallaloo.”

What is particularly noteworthy about the eclectic, sophisticated, difficult-and-time-consuming-to-make (correctly) dish is its pre-15th-century West African origins. The ingredients list is long and varied (so much so that the word “kallaloo” is used throughout the Caribbean as a metaphor for “complicated”); the prepping-and-cooking time is formidable (so much so that it remains a mystery as to how enslaved people, with their limited “free” time, could ever have managed to have such a complex dish as their daily fare when today’s Crucians, with all their modern kitchen appliances and conveniences, find the dish too cumbersome for regular preparation); and despite its savory palate, kallaloo’s flavor derives from none of the now-ubiquitous, Temperate Region, European flavorings such as garlic, onions, and celery. Instead, the dish, considered one of the world’s most flavorful, obtains its primary flavors from fish, mollusk, and meat (pork and beef) stocks, as well from its mélange of leafy ingredients, hot peppers, and salt. The dish is so much a part of the Crucian DNA that unlike with most fine things, such as Italian wines and German beer, or Persian caviar and French truffles, most Crucians never have to “acquire” a taste for kallaloo; instead, they emerge from their mothers’ wombs loving it. It has been that way for as long as anyone can remember. But despite the long-standing, local affinity for the “territorial dish,” most islanders—even those of the older generation—do not know the historical origins of this age-old delicacy.

In 1767 Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, in his capacity as inspector for the Moravian Church, journeyed to the Danish West Indies to report on the Moravian missions, which had been established in the islands 35 years earlier, beginning in 1732. He remained in the islands for a year and a half. But today, Oldendorp’s findings, first published in Germany in 1777 under the title Geschichte der Mission der evangelischen Brueder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John), serve as much more than a church history, for Oldendorp’s two-volume work not only presents a detailed account of the establishment and development of the Moravian missions, but also details, with Pliny The Elder (23-79 A.D.)-type scope of interest, everything from local flora and fauna to pirates to the cultivation of sugar cane to detailed accounts of the lives of slaves in the Danish West Indies. And it is Oldendorp’s keen ability to observe and report that provides scholars today with one of the earliest written descriptions of kallaloo: “The Negroes call everything calelu [he also spells it “kalelu”] which they cook into a green vegetable stew from leaves and other ingredients. However, a really complete calelu, which the Whites and particularly the Creoles [in this case, the word refers to island-born whites] also like to eat, consists of okra, various kinds of leaves, salted meat, poverjack, which is a kind of stock-fish [presumably “wenchman”], kuckelus, a variety of sea snail [perhaps “conch” or “cockle”], various fishes, tomato berries, Spanish pepper, butter, and salt. Along with the dish are eaten big soft dumplings made from corn meal flour.” Oldendorp also reports—presumably from previously written records and/or oral accounts regarding mission life on St. Croix in October of 1740—of kalelu as an already-cross-cultural, local dish. Referring to the pioneering efforts of missionaries Friedrich Martin, Christian Gottlieb Israel, and Georg Weber, Oldendorp writes, “They set up their cooking facilities in the regular Negro fashion. A dish called kalelu, or green cabbage, prepared from plant leaves and land crabs, which fortunately were plentifully available there, served as their daily fare in those days.” In essence, then, within a mere seven years after the Danish purchase of St. Croix from the French in 1733 for 750,000 livres, kallaloo had already become such a prominent dish amongst the local, enslaved African population that it was even being consumed by European missionaries to the islands on a daily basis.

But where did the name “kallaloo” come from? And how was consensus as to its ingredients, consistency, and taste achieved? The most probable answers are that the name of the dish is West African in origin, and its recipe probably derived from a synthesis West African ingredients and culinary techniques. In present-day Angola, for example, a very similar dish called “calulu” is served with “fungi” made either of cornmeal or cassava.

Though the French, who immediately preceded the Danes in their colonization of St. Croix, also brought enslaved Africans to the island, very little documentation has survived from the French era (1665-1733) on the island. And very little is reported in the surviving documents regarding what the enslaved populations ate, let alone what those dishes were called. What is known, however, is that by 1695, the French colonists on the island were given instructions from the crown to pack up their belongings—including their slaves—burn the island to the ground, and depart for Sainte Domingue (present-day Haiti) since it was generally regarded that the colonial efforts on Saint[e] Croix were not sufficiently profitable. (The French rationale for burning the island—and breaking down their buildings—was to make the island, which they still legally owned despite their official decision to abandon it, less appealing to squatters and pirates).

It is well established that Denmark concentrated most of its slave-trading efforts on the African continent in the region that is today called Ghana. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that a significant percentage of enslaved Africans transported to the Danish West Indies on Danish slaving vessels came from present-day Ghana or nearby regions, where language groups would have been interconnected. But it is also equally well established that slaves from all over West and Central West Africa were brought to the slave-trading posts all along the coast of West Africa and sold to the various nations involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Regions such as present-day Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Congo,Mali, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast, for example, all served as major sources for enslaved Africans. And quite intriguingly, “papa lolo,” also known as “kallaloo bush”—the premiere herbal ingredient in Crucian kallaloo—is still called by that name in the outdoor produce markets of Ghana. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that the word “kallaloo,” spelled variably, is used in other Caribbean islands to describe okra-and-herb-based dishes, oftentimes flavored with land crabs and/or fish, conch, and salted meats, giving rise to the theory that the name of the dish and its manner of preparation derived from the coastal regions of West Africa before the peoples of those regions were dispersed throughout the New World during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Even in the cases where the word “kallaloo” or a form thereof is not used to describe a similar dish [A similar dish of Antigua is called “pepperpot”; an okra-and-pork dish popularly eaten in Curaçao is called “yambo”; in Bahia, Brazil, “caruru,” a dish made primarily of okra and cashew nuts, is eaten as a ritual meal for the children’s feast, “Ibejis,” within Yoruba Candomble; and the world-famous “gumbo” of New Orleans is often regarded as mainland America’s “cousin” of kallaloo], it is clear that a fundamental connection exists between those dishes and the “kallaloos” of the Caribbean.

Already identified as the foremost local dish by the mid-1700s, kallaloo maintained its popularity into the 1800s. In 1828, when a Lt. Brady of the British Royal Navy came to St. Croix to visit his brother, who was manager of Estate Mannings Bay, the lieutenant observed the lifestyle of the black people on St. Croix, thereafter committing his observations to paper in the form of a pamphlet that apparently served as the basis for an 1829 publication titled, “Observations on the State of Negro Slavery in the Island of Santa Cruz, the Principal of the Danish West India Colonies, with Miscellaneous Remarks upon Subjects Relating to the West India Question and a Notice of Santa Cruz.” In that publication, Brady describes kallaloo as follows: “The common and favourite mess [dish] with negroes is a soup called calalue, which is composed of pork or fish, pigeon peas, ochras, yams, capsicum, and other vegetables boiled in water, with a pudding of corn-meal; this is commonly their supper.” Though Brady’s list of ingredients varies somewhat from the generally accepted recipe, his observation regarding the popularity of the dish in the early decades of the 1800s is invaluable.

Kallaloo maintained its position as the premiere local dish into the middle of the 1800s, as evidenced by the writings of young Danish schoolmaster Johan David Schackinger, who arrived on St. Croix on July 25, 1857 to serve as First Teacher at the Danish School in Frederiksted. In a series of letters addressed to his parents back in Denmark between July of 1857 and 1863, when he suffered an untimely death, young Schackinger describes, in charming detail, his life in the tropics—from the island’s people to its vegetation, entertainment, and cuisine. In a letter dated February 10, 1859, the schoolteacher mentions some of the then-popular soups: turtle soup, white bean soup, guava soup, cucumber soup, and “ ‘calalu’ (the Negroes’ usual meal).” It is interesting to note that of all the aforementioned soups, kallaloo is the only one not to have been relegated to a footnote on the local menu.

Kallaloo was also popular in St. Thomas and St. John. In the 25-year period between 1882 and 1907, Danish lawyer N. A. Kjaer lived on St. Thomas, where he served in various public capacities, the most prominent being Police Assistant and Royal Accountant. After returning to Denmark, he wrote his memoirs, which were later expanded and published in Copenhagen in 1934. In his writings he describes the social unrest in Charlotte Amalie surrounding the 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike: “On one of the days,” writes Kjaer, “unrest broke out at the French shipyard. Before I went to the shipyard with a smaller force of police, I asked my wife for something to eat but the food wasn’t finished. When she offered me a West Indian dish called ‘calalu,’ I first declined it with contempt but as there was nothing else, I had to swallow the bitter pill. But when I had tasted the Calalu, a kind of cabbage mixed with fish and spices, I found it to be excellent and from that day I would eat Calalu and other West Indian dishes. Did nothing else come of those September days, then I at least learnt to eat West Indian food which was more agreeable to me than the heavy Danish dishes, ill-suited for the climate as they are.”

In the late 1940s, just about a half-century after Kjaer’s introduction to kallaloo during turbulent times on St. Thomas, celebrated New York fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes decided to spend some time on St. Croix during those tumultuous years on Seventh Avenue, when fashion was at war with itself: couture versus ready-to-wear. In her book But Say It Politely, published in Boston in 1951, Hawes created a local and national sensation when she—without restraint—discussed race relations on St. Croix; poked fun at the island’s white, racist, self-proclaimed elitist families; and expressed her concerns about how tourism would affect the long-term authenticity of St. Croix.

Hawes, too, took a liking to kallaloo, though by her time it had become a once-a-week dish more than a daily meal. Hawes took up residence in Christiansted, employing a local cook by the name of Astrid. “I decided to invite the Hollinses to eat fungi and calalu,” Hawes writes, “the chief Crucian dish.” “The dish,” she continues, “consists of some kind of salt pork, okras, eggplant, crabs, fried fish, hot pepper, and four kinds of weeds, the chief being calalu. This is all thrown into boiling water at various times depending on how long it has to cook, and finishes up as a sort of thick stew which is eaten with fungi—corn meal flour boiled in just enough stock to come out a solid ball. The dish is not only delicious but it’s a whole and balanced meal.”

From time immemorial, kallaloo was served locally with fungi. And one of the earliest recorded descriptions of fungi comes from the writings of Reimert Haagensen, a young Danish plantation owner who came to St. Croix in 1739, just six years after the island was purchased from the French. After achieving rapid success in the islands, Haagensen returned to Denmark sometime around 1751. In his book Description of the Island of St. Croix in America in the West Indies, published in Denmark in 1758, he describes the making of fungi: “This corn is ground, as the slaves do it, between stones, in such a way that the grain, which is itself dry, is quickly ground and turned to flour. The latter they boil with water and salt, which to the slaves is a delicacy, since, in addition to alleviating hunger, it is highly nourishing.”

Another early record of kallaloo’s chief complement, fungi, comes from Johan Lorentz Schmidt, who lived on St. Croix during the 1770s and 1780s, working as a surgeon on the Schimmelmann family estates of La Grange and La Grande Princesse. In 1788 his manuscript detailing his experiences in the Caribbean, titled Various Remarks Collected on and about the Island of St. Croix in America, was published in Copenhagen. He writes: “From daybreak, and often before, the Negroes work until eight or nine o’clock, when they have about half an hour free for breakfast. All of them sit down and eat whatever they have. Usually they have ‘fun[g]ie’ with them, which is made of corn meal pressed into large clumps or balls.”

Though today regarded by many as a delicacy to be eaten only on special occasions, kallaloo was in former days an everyday meal because its key ingredients were readily available, free, from nature. Kallaloo bush, or “papa lolo,” was commonly found in cane fields, locally called “canepieces.” And except for tania leaves, which were grown in provision gardens, the other herbal ingredients, namely [“man”] bower, [“woman”] bata-bata, whitey Mary, and pusley, were “yard-bushes”—those herbs that tended to catch root in the towns’ “big yards” and alongside “long-rows,” and village-houses back in the days when Crucians were still sweeping their yards clean (sometimes until the compacted earth attained a glossy patina). And interestingly, the brooms used to sweep those yards were made by lashing the discarded papa lolo twigs—after all the precious leaves had been picked off for use in the pot—to a tan-tan stick. Those clean-swept yards, swept with traditional “kallaloo brooms,” served as fertile ground for the other kallaloo herbs. And so the cycle continued, generation after generation: kallaloo brooms made way for yard-herbs, that in turn combined with papa lolo to make the kallaloo dish.

By 1966, the sugar cane industry of St. Croix—after serving as a way of life from around 1736—had come to an end. Many Crucians moved off the plantation villages and out of long-rows, finding lodging in public housing. Likewise, they left their agrarian ways and found employment with the Virgin Islands Government and in the tourism and manufacturing industries. In essence then, the way of life that kallaloo had sustained and the way of life that had sustained kallaloo was altered. The Crucian desire for the dish, however, never waned. So when the average household could no longer prepare kallaloo on a weekly basis, Crucians turned to local restaurants and cook-shops to fill the need, each establishment preparing its kallaloo on a designated day: Pennyfeather’s on Mondays, Steen’s on Tuesdays, Birdland on Wednesdays, Harvey’s on Thursdays, Brady’s on Fridays, Motown’s on Saturdays, for example. Even Crucians who had left the island to live abroad never gave up on kallaloo, even when they had to substitute spinach and collared greens for the traditional herbal ingredients. Some families would go as far as to clandestinely send the herbal ingredients via airmail so that mainland relatives could make “kren-kren,” which is kallaloo made with the same herbal ingredients, dried, thereby taking on a brownish, rather than greenish, appearance. And in the late 1980s, mainland-transplanted Crucians were thrilled with the coming of Express Mail and Federal Express siince they were then able to have frozen kallaloo shipped from St. Croix with guaranteed, next-day delivery to them all across America.

Not even the “Stay off the Swine” campaign of the early 1970s could dissuade Crucians from eating kallaloo; the no-meat disciples simply turned to a seafood-only version of the classic dish, which is accepted today as sufficiently authentic—except, of course, by the old-school traditionalists.

The problem for the traditionalists is that the ancient, noble kallaloo tradition is quickly fading. It is not uncommon today, for example, to hear of Crucian children who do not “like” or “don’t eat” kallaloo. And even though great Crucian cooks have preserved the recipes for future generations in their cookbooks such as Amy Mackay’s Le Awe Cook (1980) and Laura L. Moorhead’s Krusan Nynyam—from Mampoo Kitchen (1977), many of today’s young cooks—people in their 50s and younger—could not identify the key herbal ingredients of kallaloo in an open field if their very lives depended on it. And those herbal ingredients are critical for achieving the authentic kallaloo flavor.

Of critical importance to the preservation of kallaloo is the new generation’s ability to identify its traditional herbal ingredients. And until a Virgin Islands Department of Culture is established, and/or until the Virgin Islands Department of Education adopts a cultural curriculum, old-time Crucians will have to adopt an each-one-teach-one approach (by, for example, posting “how to” videos on YouTube), less this great tradition–one that came across the Atlantic in the holds of slaving vessels to sustain and nourish Crucians throughout four centuries–will be lost in a generation or two.

Puerto Rican Lechon: Arguably the World’s Most Delicious Pork!


During the colonial era, wherever the Spanish went, “lechón” went—and stayed. So today, from the Spanish Caribbean to South America to the Philippines, and, of course, in Spain itself, there is lechón. But of all the world’s lechóns, the lechón of Puerto Rico is unequaled. It is arguably the absolute, all-time, most delicious pork—though many would insist that Italian “porchetta” is equally delectable.

Leche” is Spanish for “milk.” And the word “lechón” was originally—and in Spain and some Latin American countries, still today—used to describe a suckling pig that is roasted. But in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, for example, the word “lechón” is used to describe a spit-roasted whole pig—of any age and size, pigs from 90 to 120 pounds (40 to 55 kilos), large enough to feed about 50 people, being typical.

Traditionally eaten at Christmastime and on special occasions, lechón is today prepared and eaten in Puerto Rico primarily on weekends—on account of the many hours required to prepare the delicacy. The Caribbean island’s lechón is distinguishable from other lechóns primarily because of the seasonings typically used to marinate the meat: annato oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary.

But before the pig is seasoned, it must be properly “prepped”: The butcher is notified of the size-range of the desired pig; it is then slaughtered, its entrails and hair removed (The head, tail, and hooves are left intact); any hairs missed by the butcher are removed by the chef, using scalding-hot water and a razor; the carcass is then thoroughly washed, inside and out, with a cider vinegar-and-water solution, rinsed thoroughly with cool water, then pat-dried with paper towels in preparation for the seasoning.

Approximately 24 hours before roasting, the pig is seasoned, inside and out, the foundation of the seasoning blend being annato oil. Annato is the spice derived from the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), also called the “lipstick tree” because of the spice’s traditional use in body-painting amongst the native peoples of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The desired quantity of the brick-red, somewhat triangular-shaped spice, about the size of a lentil, is put into a heated skillet and slightly toasted in order to release the essential oils. Cooking oil is then added to the skillet, thereby allowing the oil to be infused with the color, flavor, and aroma of the spice. (Annato is used worldwide as a natural colorant in such foods as cheese and butter. The spice imparts a yellow-orange color and is oftentimes used as a substitute for saffron. The flavor and aroma of annato are at once somewhat peppery, nutty, and sweet). The contents of the skillet is then passed through a sieve, and the annato-enhanced oil is then allowed to cool before being mixed with the salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary to form a seasoning blend with a paste-like consistency. The seasoning blend is then generously rubbed onto the entire carcass, inside and out, before the carcass is placed into a refrigerator, where it marinates for about 24 hours.

After marinating, the pig is readied for roasting: A wooden or metal spit sturdy enough to support the full weight of the pig is passed through the entire length of the pig, emerging through its mouth. (Because of their relatively delicate nature, the pig’s ears and tail are protectively wrapped in aluminum foil until the last two hours of cooking, when the foil wrapping is removed so that those parts can attain the same reddish-brown hue as the rest of the pig). The carcass is then secured onto the spit with culinary wire before the point of a knife is used to perforate the carcass in strategic locations so as to enable any excess melted fat to escape during the roasting process.

Lechón is traditionally slow-cooked, rotisserie-style, over a white-hot charcoal fire, the charcoal usually made from local woods that impart a slightly smoked flavor to the meat. Approximately one hour of cooking-time is required for each 15 pounds of pork, a 120-pound pig therefore requiring about eight hours of cooking-time. The pig is given a quarter-turn about every 10 minutes, and the entire pig is basted with annato-infused cooking oil with each turn, the skin (when fully roasted called “cuerito” [“litte leather”], the diminutive of the Spanish word “cuero,” meaning “leather”), in the process, obtaining a crispy, caramelized texture and its characteristic reddish-brown color.

When fully cooked, the pig is moved to a large table and the spit is removed. Thereafter, the roasted pig is allowed to “rest” for about 20 to 30 minutes so that its juices may evenly distribute throughout the carcass. Thereafter, the meat is carved—traditionally with a razor-sharp machete—and served, each serving presented with a portion of prized “cuerito.”

Lechon is “down-home” food—so much so that it is the official dish of Puerto Rico. It is traditionally served with rice-and-beans, arepas, boiled cassava, or guineitos en escabeche (pickled green bananas). During the Christmas holidays, the complementary drink is coquito (See “Major National Liquors of the World” above), and during the rest of the year, rum or beer.