Thursday, September 27, 2007


September 27th

The Dow Chemical Company filed a patent application on this day in 1940 for a thermoplastic synthetic resin which was to be used to provide a protective coating to military equipment being transported to various theatres of war. What has this to do with food, you ask?

By the end of the war there was a huge infrastructure geared up to the production of plastics of various kinds, and no-one in the industry was going to simply give up on that sort of investment. The plastic patented on this day by the Dow company was called Saran. Military strength Saran was modified after the war so that it could form thin transparent, self-adhering sheets, and, along with many other similar plastics, was quickly given the appelation GRAS (meaning “Generally Recognised As Safe”) in respect of their association with food. Tupperware had a similar origin. Voila! – a by-product of the war effort was rapidly converted into a myriad indispensible products for every post-war kitchen.

What on earth did we use to wrap up our lunch before we had the convenience of “thermoplastic synthetic resins comprising polymers and co-polymers derived from vinylidene chloride”? We used leaves, baskets, paper, pots, glass jars, and pieces of cloth – none of which ever needed an official GRAS label. I feel confident that our ancestors came to little harm from their food wraps – but I am not so confident about plastics, particularly in view of the fact that we now don’t just wrap or package but actually cook in plastic containers in our microwave ovens.

Perhaps I should review the once-fashionable art of cooking in paper. Nicolas Soyer, the grandson of Alexis Soyer, published a book called Paper Bag Cookery in 1911. The preface to the American edition is enthusiastic:

“M.Soyer’s system of Paper-Bag Cookery has made a great furor in England, and the English press have everywhere given it the attention it deserves.”

Naturally, Nicolas noted that “specially prepared bags should be used” – so there was clearly a commercial enterprise behind the book. The concept was, however, an old one – traditionally known as cooking en papillote. I am sure some carefully folded kitchen paper would work just as well in the following recipe from the book.

Entrée of Chicken.
Cut up a chicken in pieces, dust with salt and pepper. Add one tablespoonful of flour, tomato or mushroom (if desired), or a little tomato ketchup. Add a small chopped onion, according to taste, and a little bunch of bay leaf, parsley, and thyme. Place all in the middle of the bag. Add three tablespoonfuls of water, stock, or wine, according to taste. A little chopped ham or bacon (if desired) will add to the flavour. Seal bag up and place on the broiler, and allow 45 minutes in a hot oven.
Any other poultry treated in the same way will give the same satisfactory result. The seasoning and garnish can be left to the taste of the cook. The viands will not spoil if left a little longer than 45 minutes.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Eating African

Quotation for the Day …

The benevolence of wrapping the partridge in a vine leaf brings out its quality, just as the barrel of Diogenes brought forth the qualities of the great thinker." Des Essarts; French actor 1740-1793.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

This truth comes out! I never dreamed that sandwich wrap was a byproduct of "conflict." And in all this time, they've never quite figured out how to keep it from sticking to the roll ...

Ed Charles said...

Now all the rage, in molecular gastronomy at least, is cooking in plastic wrap or ziplock bags with a nice posh word for it: sous vide. I'm guessing it is a similar to cooking in paper bags. How history repeats itself.

The Old Foodie said...

The only significant difference may be the petrochemicals that may be leaching from the GRAS plastic sous vide bags.