Food is no less subject to fashion (at least amongst those that can afford to be choosy) than are frocks and footwear. In late nineteenth century America, to serve apple pie ‘in the fashion’ was to serve it with ice-cream. As the fashionable menu language was still French, this was to serve it ‘a la mode.’ No knowledge of the French language was required to have a comfortable certainty that one would get ice-cream if one ordered pie a la mode – and this was the case right up until …well, almost if not definitely the present time.
It was not always so. Once upon a time (the seventeenth century) a dish styled ‘a la mode’ (often spelled alamode) referred to a meat (usually beef) dish. The certainty ended there however. There was a huge variation in recipes for Alamode Beef. To many, including the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, alamode beef consisted of ‘scraps and remainders of beef boiled down into a thick soup or stew’ – in other words it is a dish of recycled leftovers glamorized with a fancy French name. At one time or another, in England and America, other cooks and cookbook writers have given the name to virtually any beef stew or pot-roast – each individual no doubt determined that theirs is the ‘real’ dish.
Alamode Beef was a common café and take-out item, and major cities in the English speaking world had ‘Alamode Beef Shops’ where no doubt the version sold was not always the most savoury – metaphorically speaking.
The author of an article in The Ladies Literary Cabinet (New York, 1819) was quite adamant on the subjects of alamode beef shops (the English variety) and the definitive recipe – in this case a rather elegant dish of beef larded with fat bacon and cooked slowly, slowly, in a sealed pot.
Real Beef Alamode.
Though what are called alamode shops swarm in London, there is not, perhaps, one place under that denomination in the city where the real beef alamode is sold. What passes under this name in England is nothing more than the coarsest pieces of beef stewed into sort of seasoned soup, not at all superior to those of ox cheek or leg of beef, and often by no means so good. The real alamode beef is well known to be thus made. Take some of the veiny piece or a part of the thick flank, or rather a small round, commonly called the mouse buttock, of the finest ox-beef, but let be at least five inches thick. Cut thick slices of fat bacon into proper lengths for lardings of about three quarters of an inch thick; dip them first into vinegar and then into a mixed powder of finely beaten mace, long pepper, nutmeg, a clove or two, and double the united weight of salt. With a small knife or larding pin cut holes in the beef to receive the bacon thus prepared; the lardings tolerably thick and even; rub the beef over with the remainder of the seasoning; put it into a pot or pan just sufficiently large to contain it, and add a gill of vinegar, a couple of large onions, some sweet herbs, a few chives, a little lemon peel, some truffles and morels, and half a pint of wine. It should be very closely covered up and have a wet cloth round edge to prevent the steam from evaporating. It must be dressed over a stove or very slow fire, and will require six hours to do it properly. When half done it should be taken off, turned, and again closed up as before. If thick flank or the veiny piece be used, it may necessary to tie up the beef with tape, on putting it into the pan or pot; which of course must be taken off when meat is dressed.
Quotation for the Day.
Smell brings to mind … a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years.