Have you ever had an authentic San Francisco “tempeh taco”? They are hearty, healthy, delicious, and oh so easy to make.
|Tempeh Tacos: A vegan, gluten-free bite of goodness!|
I’d love to take credit for the invention of the tempeh taco, but that honor belongs to my old roommate. If you ever get to San Francisco and manage to find him, make sure you ask him to whip some up!
Now, I would love to enlighten my clever and efficacious readers with a tale about how the tempeh taco singlehandedly shaped centuries of British culinary history. Maybe I'd add an epilogue that chronicles the exploits of the tempeh-loving diaspora now in the United States. But I don’t think the British ate very much tempeh in those days.
However, tempeh-tacos broach another question in the history of food: the history of “substitutions.” Now, substitutions are timeless facts of cookery. We make use of them all the time: when we want something healthier, something tastier … or when we’re just too lazy to go to the store.
How might one write a history of the substitute?
On the one hand, the substitute provided men of limited means with vicarious enjoyment that would otherwise be out of their reach. Shortly after turtle feasting took the British public by storm during the 1750s, “mock turtle” made its culinary debut. It was made from calves brains and forced meat and dressed up with a few Creole influences, such as Madeira and cayenne pepper, to remind people of the real thing. Indeed, mock turtle wasn't all that different from “calves head hashed:” an older traditional stand-by. It used similar ingredients, similar methods of preparation and required the same amount of labor to prepare. Calling the dish “mock turtle,” however, implies some degree of culinary expertise, a familiarity with real turtle, and a finished product that is somehow more than the simple sum of its ingredients. There was nothing very embarrassing or humiliating about this substitute at all. In fact, it was often served alongside real turtle!
By the turn of the 19th century, however, it seemed as if the substitute’s status began to decline. War, a few bad harvests and impending bread riots prompted social ‘reformers’ to devise all kinds of wacky substitutes for bread. The pamphlet below, published in 1796, included an entire glossary of underutilized comestibles that that were sure to please the pauper’s palate. "Dogstone" soup, anyone?
Historians of this age have also linked edible substitutions to the abstracted impersonality of industrial life. As men and women became increasingly disconnected from the food they ate, they came to be nourished on spurious imitations that, in society's eyes, did not even count as food, robbing them of the last vestiges of humanity.
The reigning king of all substitutes, unquestionably, was the potato. This is the Irish lumper, known colloquially as the “famine potato.”
|A student recoiled in horror when she saw these warty, mutant potatoes. |
"However might one peel such a thing?"
Yet the potato seemed to create even more controversy over substitutes. Potatoes grew like weeds, they were easy to store, and they didn’t even require any preparation. In many ways they resembled fast food: simply boil and serve. Potatoes unarguably provided a lot of nutritional bang for the buck, yet they raised serious red flags even for the most well-meaning and morally upstanding 19th century social reformer. According to the literary critic Catherine Gallagher, there was something a little dirty and blasphemous about the fact that it was the “substitute for the very food that most commonly stood as a signifer for all food.” Second, given the pauper’s overly picky palate, how could one encourage the poor to choose tubers over wheat? And last, in a political climate where the mere sight of a poor person chowing down portended Malthusian apocalypse, reformers wondered whether all these edible substitutes were really such a good thing after all.
Alas, noble readers. Have the processes of industrialization robbed the substitute of its soul? For many Britons, the most visceral (and painful) reminders of World War II were the fascinating edible inventions –– margarine, powdered eggs, snoek piquante –– that sought to artificially approximate feelings of culinary normalcy in war-time. But perhaps we are today turning a culinary tide in the history of substitutions. After all, many of today’s most expensive breads now regularly eschew glutinous wheat in favor of beets, turnips, almonds and rice …. the edible symbols of poverty at the turn of the 19th century.
How to Make Tempeh Tacos
What you need:
--1 package of tempeh (I like the flax kind from Whole Foods)
--Half of an onion, diced
--A handful of shiitakes, chopped
--A handful of shiitakes, chopped
--Pumpkin or sunflower seeds
Sauté your onions, shiitakes and crumbled pieces of tempeh in a skillet with olive oil. Add add soy sauce in small intervals and mix vigorously. Add the kale last to the mixture … it tastes best when it retains a little crunch. In a separate sauce pan, sauté some pumpkin seeds in olive oil mixed with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Keep your eye on the pumpkin seeds … they’ll keep browning well after you take them off the heat. Add the tempeh mixture on top of the corn tortilla. Now comes the magic. Reader, I know what you’re thinking … salsa and hummus … together?! But these contrasting flavor properties actually work surprisingly well together. If you are lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, try to snag a bottle of salsa from Papalote Tacqueria. Spicy, creamy and smooth, this hummus-salsa combination is divine. Top with your crunchy-spicy cayenne-pumpkin seeds. Enjoy!
 To compare the two dishes, I drew on a recipe for “Calves Head Hashed” from Susanna Carter’s The Frugal Housewife (London, 1759) and a recipe for “Mock Turtle” in Francis Collingwood’s The Universal Cook (London, 1792.) Both call for many of the same ingredients, are around the same length, and involve the same number of “steps” to prepare the dish.
 See, for example, Sandra Sherman, Imagining Poverty: Quantification and the Decline of Paternalism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001)
 The original, published in 1798, doesn't mention potatoes much, but by the time the 6th edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population came out in 1817, Malthus had added a bunch of extra sections devoted to potatoes in Ireland. The potato's many roles in British (and Irish) history are meticulously documented in Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1949) an “oldie but a goodie” to say the least. But my favorite piece of potato-eating scholarship is Catherine Gallagher, “The Potato in Materialist Imagination” in Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
 See Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (London: Allan Lane, 2011). Also check out Ina Zweiniger-Bargeiolowska's Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).