In Conversation

Although I tend to keep interviews to The Four Questions, I was very excited to interview food historian Ken Albala for this blog because he’s a bit of a folk hero in the food studies world. But apart from his academic pursuits, he’s also an accomplished home cook. He recently published his second book of DIY home recipes and techniques, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home: The Happy Luddite’s Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency, with co-author Rosanna Nafziger Henderson. I asked Ken about this DIY ethos and how he decides to make something himself or go to the store for it.

I keep reading about new books on the domestic life and self-sufficiency, from making one’s own poptarts to pickling everything in the CSA. Where do you think this DIY ethos is coming from?

It’s coming from being fed up with expensive food that doesn’t taste good or is grown or reared unethically, and I think from the longing to make and eat interesting food as a hobby, diversion, pleasure.

Was it difficult to find the ingredients for these recipes? I love the idea of making my own birch beer, but finding sassafras?

Some things were, like the ambergris, but I bought it online. Likewise sassafras. You can get anything online, but better yet forage. The acorns, birch bark, spruce sap, etc. are very easy to find if you look. Most everything wild I found in the city of Stockton. And the organ meats, blood, etc. can easily be found in ethnic grocery stores. Sausage casings, likewise, I buy them online.

Having spent a little time in other countries, I’m always amazed at the regulations our government imposes on things like pasteurized cheese. And yet, people seem to get sick from peanut butter. Do you think there’s a nice balance out there? Or, should we be scared?

The peanut butter and other industrial food scares have to do with scale. One thing goes wrong and thousands get sick. If something goes wrong in your kitchen, you usually notice it. I am a lot more scared of industrial-scale food than things I make myself from whole ingredients. And almost all cases of home poisoning happen from improper canning – people at home trying to replicate industrial processes. We don’t in this book.

What are some condiments you’d never consider buying now that you can make them yourself?

Speaking personally, I’m not dogmatic about this. I like my own mustard, ketchup and mayo a lot, but I still buy them, preferably good ones. I love my own bread, but I still buy great bread. Quality is the index for me, and if I have the time and inclination to do it myself, I do for kicks, but if not, of course I buy it. Likewise wine; my few bottles of wine a year from the backyard aren’t going to go that far. Likewise the few jars of olives from my tree.

What are some condiments that you’ve discovered are totally worth going to the store for?

All of them and none of them. I almost always have a homemade version on hand and some store-bought ones. That goes for jams, soy sauce, Indian pickles, even regular cucumber pickles when I run out. It might be different if I had a farm and a lot of room, but I don’t. So I almost always have both on hand.


Cooking by the Book

There are some dishes I can just count on. I know that Aunt Bev will be serving Brussels sprouts with leeks at her Thanksgiving in a few weeks. I know my mother-in-law will be rolling out chocolate peanut butter balls for the annual Carroll Christmas party. And I know that my mother will be serving red lentil stew this Shabbat.

Let me explain this last one, because, well, it needs a little explaining: The Torah is divided into 54 portions, and every week, in synagogues around the world, we read the weekly portion, or parsha. Right now we’re in the Book of Genesis, and this week’s parsha, Toldot, tells the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. More specifically, we’ll be reading about the sneaky trade Jacob made with his brother, Esau the Hunter: a bowl of red lentil stew for Esau’s birthright. It’s a really great story, in a really terrific book of Torah, so my mom always serves a red lentil stew in honor of the portion.

(If this sort of thing interests you, definitely check out my friend Elisha’s blog where she cooks up dishes inspired by the weekly portion. Red lentil stew is just the beginning for her. Think agua fresca for last week’s parsha where some matchmaking is done by a well, or squash lattice baskets for the parsha where baby Moses is sent down the Nile. Just great stuff.)

I’ve been meaning to post a red lentil stew for this week for three years running, and to make sure it would happen in time for you to cook it for Shabbat this year, I actually took photos of this dish when I made it last winter, when Rich’s friend Brian came for Shabbat dinner. The soup was great, and aren’t those flowers that Brian brought me amazing?

This soup is a Mollie Katzen recipe, so you know it’s a good one. Although the dried fruit might sound a little odd, it’s really wonderful.

Lentil Soup with a Hint of Fruit Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven

Preparation time: 45 minutes (10 minutes of work)
Yield: 6 to 8 servings


2 cups red or brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
8 cups water (maybe more)
2 cups minced onion
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup minced dried apricots
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
3 to 4 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar (or, to taste)
Black pepper and cayenne to taste

Extra slivers of dried apricot
A drizzle of yogurt
A sprig or two of cilantro or parsley


Place the lentils and water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat to a simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the onion, cumin, and mustard, and continue to simmer, covered, until the lentils are very soft (about 15 more minutes). Add small amounts of additional water, if it seems too thick.

Add the garlic, apricots, and salt, cover, and let sit for another 15 minutes or so. Stir in the vinegar, black pepper, and cayenne to taste (and correct the salt too, if necessary). At this point the soup will keep for several days.

Heat gently just before serving, and serve hot, topped with a few slivers of dried apricot, a drizzle of yogurt, and a sprig of cilantro or parsley, if desired.