Corpse Cakes and Funeral Pie: A Short History of Eating Grief | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 709
April 13, 2023

Corpse Cakes and Funeral Pie: A Short History of Eating Grief

Corpse Cakes and Funeral Pie: A Short History of Eating Grief

We’re joined by death scholar Candi K. Cann to learn how food is used in grieving rituals around the world, from ancient Roman funeral tubes to shiva bagels. Plus, we dive into the murky riverbeds of Oklahoma to get a crash course in catfish noodling from Bradley Beesley; J. Kenji López-Alt battles Chris over the best way to peel an egg; and we make a No-Fry Neapolitan Eggplant Parmesan.

Questions in this episode:

"What’s the best way to prepare garlic for cooking?"

"I was given a mysterious recipe for sun pickles - what’s the science behind adding rye bread to the brine and fermenting them in the sun?"

"Are induction stoves as easy to control and effective as gas stoves?"

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Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Today it's my interview with self-proclaimed death scholar Candi Cann, can we discuss the ways we cope with death around the world, from funeral foods to corpse maintenance?

Candi Cann: You take the people out of their graves every year and you clean them up. You brush their hair,

CK: you take the corpse out of the grave every year?

CC: Yes, yes, you go there, you're really interacting with the dead.

CK: We'll hear more from Candi later on in the show. But first, we're getting a lesson in the art of catfish noodling. Tennis players have rackets, golfers have their clubs, but catfish noodlers they use nothing but bare hands.

Bradley Beasley: You ask people they think you're crazy. You're nuts if you're going to do it. And to me it's easiest fishing form there is. I mean, when you ain't got to have no rod reel, all you got to do is have a way to get in the water. What else can you use?

CK: That was a clip from a documentary called Okie Noodling. Joining me now is the documentary director Bradley Beasley. Bradley welcome to Milk Street.

BB: Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me.

CK: So, I'm just going to jump right in here. Let me see if I get this right. You jump into a river, you go around the riverbank and look for holes. And you check out whether there's a large catfish in them. And you offer up your fingers, which the catfish thinks is something good to eat, chomps down in your hand, and you put your arm in and grab it by the gills and pull it out of the hole. Is that a pretty good description of catfish noodling.

BB: I mean, that's fairly accurate. Most people grab their bottom lip, which is kind of like grabbing a hold of a suitcase or something. Because if you go up through the gills, you have a chance of hurting them. And most of the guys that I go out with and myself included, want to catch the fish, maybe take a picture, and then put it right back exactly in the same hole in which you caught the catfish. And the main reason that the catfish is going to come and bite you is because they are protecting their nest, both the male and the female are in there guarding the eggs. And so, catfish noodling is really only applicable for about two and a half months out of every year. And that happens to be June, July and a little bit in August, because that's when the catfish are nesting.

CK: You say the males find a hole and clear it out with their tail. And then they find the female chase her in there. And they guard the eggs. So, the hole is less mucked up and muddy is that I mean how could you tell a catfish hole from just a regular hole?

BB: Yeah, that's right. It's because it's, they call it a good cleaned out hole. So, there's no debris in there. And they build up a kind of a little edge like the edge of a bowl.

CK: But still, the thing that struck me is that there are other things in holes and banks and in rivers like water moccasins and snapping turtles and a few other things. So, there's potentially an element for surprise in all of this right?

BB: Yeah, occasionally, but I mean, most of these spots are vetted out, you know, through generations.

CK: Okay, so the obvious question is do catfish have teeth? And what does it feel like when a 30-pound catfish clamps down on your forearm or your hand?

BB: Yeah, so they've got sandpaper, like teeth, it does not feel good. The teeth don't hurt that bad. Really. It's the power of their jaws. I mean, it's like a little baby bulldog or something grabbing on to the force. I mean, I've been doing it for 22 years or so. And that first time you get bit each season you're like, oh yeah, geez, I forgot what that feels like. Oh, there's another one right behind you.

This is big. Okay, I got to you got to. I got through both sides here. Grab right here taking both.

CK: So, you made your film. Okie Noodling back in 2001. So, what was it about noodling that you wanted to document or put on film? Was it the people? Was it the sport?

BB: Yeah. So first of all, I'm looking for a good character. And with, with Okie Noodling, we had the Baggot family that was three generations strong of noodlers. And then we had Lee McFarlane, who was kind of a a hotshot and like to touch on the other noodlers. And then we had catfish Jerry Ryder, who was just kind of out of his mind. But I think because it was so hard to find these guys and kind of clandestine when we started out. And just to understand how welcoming these guys were, and how they just delighted in seeing somebody that never been bit by a catfish get bid for the first time. And that was exciting to me to know that this was a sport that was welcoming, and that anybody could do it because you just don't need anything.

CK: So how does the tournament work? Is it throughout the whole state and how do they monitor everything? How does it work?

BB: Yeah, so the the tournament that I held for 15 years, the Okie Noodling tournament, in Paul’s Valley, and guys could enter the tournament and fish in any any body of water within the state of Oklahoma. And the other requirement was, you had to catch the fish within 24 hours of the weigh in, and the biggest fish is, you know, the big winner,

Voice: The biggest winner goes to ___ who was 114 pounds. That’s a lot of fish for one day. They got it nailed with their hands. You know, I'm making my own bait I'm not sticking my hand in nothing.

CK: So now that the sport has, I guess really caught on. Do you feel like it's lost some of its authentic charm?

BB: You know, I have dreams about this stuff about catching a big catfish like, I guess around March when it starts to warm up, I start having these noodling dreams. I mean, for me, the charm and the romance is just, you know, looking forward to this two and a half months each year in which you can go with your family and friends and recreate your childhood. It kind of gives you an excuse to have all these adventures and that part of it is still very appealing to me. And don't get me wrong. I love catching the fish. But also, you know, you you see bald eagles. You see alligator gars like, it's a fun adventure noodling to me.

CK: Bradley, it's been a pleasure, and all the best for the next season.

BB: All right, man. Well, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

CK: That was filmmaker Bradley Beasley. He's a recreational catfish noodler and also director of the 2001 documentary, Okie Noodling. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weekday Meals on public television. Also, author of Home Cooking 101. So, you did Good Morning America, the food prep. You know, I've done a bunch of morning shows over the years too, but those shows have changed a lot. They used to have in house like two or three full time stylists and cooks, (right) They come in everything was prepped food was really big part of it. What do you think about why things have changed in terms of food on morning shows,

SM: I think a lot of it has to do with money to have to pay you know all those people to prep all that food and you know, sometimes you even have a prop stylist as well as the food stylist. My girlfriend Karen Picket still works at Good Morning America doing all of that she's a one-man band, really. I mean, she just has a couple of prep guys who help her prep every so often by can't believe what she does.

CK: Well, people don't realize that before the cameras start their hours of work that go in to prep it (absolutely) and the food has to be staged out because you only have three or four minutes (and it's live) and it's live. And so, there were probably two, maybe three people working on this from five in the morning. The host you know, zip in for three or four minutes and zip out. But you know, one of the nice things about the shows is you get to know these different hosts and there's some really nice interesting people in that business. (yeah, there were) but we're but what goes on behind the scenes in the food is a whole different thing. Okay, let's take a call.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who is calling?

Caller: This is Mark from Ambler outside of Philadelphia.

SM: Well, how can we help you today, Mark?

Caller: I have some questions about garlic about how they're prepared and using the meals. There’re so many different ways of getting it ready just because you can crush it or slice it or mince it or press it or whatever. And then also when do you add it to a recipe? Sometimes add it at the beginning, but then it gets kind of brown crispy and bitter, or I wait to the end, and they end up with these little white nothings that don't even add any flavor. Help me with this, please.

SM: Well, there's so much to say about garlic and Chris and I don't agree. So, I'm glad I get to go first. here the finer you chop at the more you disturb the cells, you know, the stronger the flavor gets. If you cook it low and slow, you're going to get a more mild aroma out of it. What I do when I'm say sauteing vegetables and I want to add some garlic to them, is I sauté the vegetables till they're almost done. And then I add the minced garlic at the end for about 30 seconds. And that way I get a nice garlic flavor. If I want a more subtle garlic flavor, I'll either roast the garlic, you know, cut off the top, drizzle it with olive oil, wrap it in foil, a whole head and put it in the oven, you know, say 350 for quite a while till it's very soft, and then squeeze it out and use it. Or I'll cook it slowly hole or crushed in olive oil starting with cold oil to sort of infuse the oil. And then I either remove it and add whatever else or I’ll leave it in if the rest of the ingredients are going to cook gently. The other thing I wanted to mention is that it is fresh to begin with. The older the garlic, the less moisture that's in it, the more bitter it's going to be, the more intense and hot and garlicky it's going to be. Obviously, if you miss it and add it raw, that's going to be the most intense garlic flavor possible. Now, here comes Chris.

CK: There are two kinds of advice. There's good advice like brush your teeth twice a day. And there's really bad advice like mince your garlic. So, I'm feel very strongly about this. Never ever mince your garlic. And I say that because nobody does a good job of it, you get a really bad garlic flavor. And you're really inclined to overcook it in the pan. So, here's some choices. Sara did mention, you could crush whole clothes and throw them into the olive oil or whatever. And don't actually serve them, you can take them out. But if flavors do well, that's what the Italians do. And that's why you never get garlic breath in Italy, too. You can slice garlic cloves, which I like to do, which does not break down the cell membranes and like Sara pointed out, which means they're much less likely to get overcooked and burn and will not give you that horrible aftertaste. That's my preferred method. And you can do that very quickly with a decent knife by the way. The other thing is if you're going to use garlic in a vinaigrette, for example, or it's going to be whisked up in something grating garlic, which is not the most fun thing to do. But it breaks it down so much that the garlic will dissolve into oil or vinegar, which is nice. You don't get bits and pieces. I say whole cloves that are crushed, slice the cloves, which I love, or graded. Those are my three choices. Okay. I mean, Sara and I agree on most things, but this is clearly not one of them.

SM: No, this is a bone of contention, as you can see.

CK: Anyway,

Caller: thank you very much.

SM: Thank you. Hi. Welcome to Milk Street who is calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Brittany D__. I'm calling from Macomb, Illinois.

SM: Hi, Brittany, how can we help you today?

Caller: Well, I'm actually calling to inquire about a peculiar pickle recipe that was gifted to me by a patient at work. The recipe is called Sun pickles. When I saw the recipe, I thought it was so interesting because it was fermented in the sun. But also, it had a piece of rye bread added to the jar. I live on a farm in Illinois, and I have a huge garden every year. So, any new pickle recipes, especially fermented pickles always sparks my interest. My question today is what is the science behind adding the rye bread to the brine and why are the peoples fermented in the sun.

SM: The thing about naturally fermented pickles is you know you just sort of let them do their own thing. When you've made the other kind of pickles. You've set up a brine and coached him along. And you followed recipes from reliable sources. So, sun pickles, the idea is you throw them all in a jar and then put them in the sun and let them do their thing. (Yeah) the thing about that, that worries me is that the temperature might get too high for the fermentation to happen properly. And that would kill the whole process. And then you have the problem of bacteria. I am notorious for never having wanted to make pickles because I was sure I was going to kill somebody. It's an exact science and it's very important to have the right amount of acid, the right amount of salt, the right temperatures, you know, it makes me a little nervous this sun pickle because you can't control the temperature at all. I would find a recipe from a reputable source like the National Center for Home Food Preservation, or the USDA guide to home canning and get a recipe from them that's tried and true. So, you don't kill yourself or anybody else. Anyway, let's see what Chris has to say.

CK: What you don't want to kill people with your homemade pickle recipe.

SM: Oh God

CK: Sara, you’re getting so conservative in your old age. (Really) Well the answer to one question the breads there for the sugar content for the fermentation. It's feeding fermentation. I agree with Sara the temperature of the sun seems loosey goosey. Yeah. Are you just pouring vinegar? What are you using as the liquid here.

Caller: So, the brine recipe is about 20%, vinegar, 5% salinity.

CK: I agree with Sara, you don't want to mess around with this. I do quick pickles, which are used all the time. And like Japan and other places where you submerge carrots, cubes, whatever you want for about 15 minutes, 20 minutes in a brine vinegar mixture. That works great. But I would definitely go with something that's tried and true. If it's sitting out in 85-degree day, you might kill off the fermentation process right, if it gets too high, which means that other bacteria have a chance to grow. I'm usually not a nervous person. But when it comes to this, I'm a little nervous. Have you tried the recipe?

Caller: After I was given the recipe. I've tried many batches, and I've been tweaking small things. I have found that when you do have them out in the sun, they get soft, way too fast. (Right) I've been doing my ladder batches on the picnic table in a covered areas and not in the direct sun.

CK: Does that work better?

Caller: Yeah, it seems to work great. And people absolutely love them. I started reading The Art of Fermentation. That has been very enlightening.

CK: Oh, that's a good book. It sounds like you knew more about it than we do. Because you've done it more. I think we all agree leaving it out in the sun is probably not a great idea. (Yeah). You could always just call them Are you feeling lucky pickles you know? That's, it's a Clint Eastwood recipe yeah there you go.

SM: Okay.

CK: Take care.

SM: Alright

Caller: Thank you

SM: All right. Bye. Bye.

Caller: Bye

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Sara and I are here to answer your culinary questions. Give us a ring anytime. Our number 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Greg from San Francisco.

SM: Oh, lovely San Francisco. How can we help you today?

Caller: Yeah, so I'm intrigued about induction stoves. There seems to be this real trend towards using it. And I was just wondering from your experience if induction stoves are equally adjustable as a gas stove. And in terms of switching from gas to induction.

SM: Induction is hands down the greenest of all options. It works by electromagnetism. So, it's the pan that heats up not the burner, so that there's fewer accidents, there's no open flame. It's great and high altitude, you can boil water much faster. The only caveat is you have to have the right kind of pan, and we're talking about cast iron enameled cast Iron, stainless steel, if I was going to get a new stovetop, I would absolutely get induction. The thing about gas. We love it as chefs because you can see what you're doing. And also, it changes from high to low so quickly. So, you lose the visual with an induction. But overall, I think induction is the way to go. And it's so much better for the planet. Okay, Chris?

CK: We have eight of them in Milk Street for the cooking school. And we also use them as backup stove tops. And I've cooked on a lot. Sara's right that they're powerful, you can boil water and the same amount of time as you could on gas. It also we will adjust as quickly as gas, actually, you can go from a nine setting down to one setting and it'll be an instantaneous shift, the performance is fine. The problem is the controls, instead of just having a knob to turn, which you know is still the best way to control anything, right? Like your radio or anything in your car. You have a sliding scale. So, you have to put your finger on it. So, in order to turn this thing on, you got to hit the power button at the bottom left, then you have to hit the square that is the burner you want to use. And then you have to slide your finger along this horizontal bar and the number shows up at what level of heat you want. Doing that quickly while you're cooking or doing something else is not always easy. And it's not always easy to get to a five or to a six. It's not very precise, especially if your fingers are a little greasy or dirty. So, the controls are terrible, at least in the ones we have. But the performance is fine. And the other thing is as Sara mentioned you need magnetic pans at a scale of one to 10 gas is a 10. I would say inductions five or six just because of the controls, if you take the pan off the burner, if the stove top is still on, it starts beeping. So, it just drives you crazy. So, it has a lot of benefits over gas. I vastly prefer gas. But that's, that's just me.

Caller: Well, that’s good to know

CK: Now it's good to know one last thing. Where we are induction stovetop has different fire regulations than gas. Which means in terms of putting in hoods and other things. So, you may find, if you install induction may be a less expensive install, because you don't need as much venting. But that's something you should look into locally. I mean, they do a great job. It's just the control.

SM: I do believe there's new iterations,

CK: The performance is great. Just check out the controls. And if they get better controls, then go ahead.

SM: Yeah.

Caller: Excellent. This is really helpful. Well, thank you very much.

CK: Great, thanks.

SM: Okay, Greg. All right. Bye, bye,

Caller: Bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio, coming up funeral tubes, sin eaters and living room corpses. We're talking about the role of food in grieving right after the break.

Wes Martin: Hi, this is Wes Martin. I'm the director of culinary production at Milk Street between cooking for photoshoots recipe development and tastings. I get to make wonderful food from all over the world, which I make it home for myself all the time. Learn more about membership options at Milk Street

CK: This is Milk Street Radio, I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now. It's my conversation with just scholar Candi K Cann, she edited the book Dying to Eat Across Cultural Perspectives on Food Death and the Afterlife. Candi welcome to Milk Street.

CC: Thank you, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.

CK: I don't know why I really enjoy talking about death. I guess you do too. Hopefully. But one of the things you say is the definition of death is not universal. Some cultures see it as a process, others as a single moment. And we'll get to food and funeral soon. But could you talk about that Because I thought that was a pretty interesting thing to say.

CC: Oh, absolutely. So, one of the things I think a lot of people think of death as an end point. But in reality, each culture defines it differently. In some cultures, it's a process that can occur over a number of weeks, even a number of years. But I think medical culture has kind of shaped the way that Western cultures in particular industrial cultures view death.

CK: You say some cultures care for the dead, and others remember the dead. So, some cultures feel the dead are still with them in some way. And other cultures feel that they're not right.

CC: Yeah, so there is a death study scholar named Tony Walter in the UK. He's a sociologist, and he specializes in examinations of death and culture. So, he's the one that first recommended this distinction to me that perhaps some cultures care for the dead, while others remember the dead. And I really think that the function is very different. So, when you care for the dead. It's a renegotiation of the status of the deceased person while allowing the living to retain an active and participatory relationship with the dead and their new state. But remembering the dead is really much more a renegotiation of life without the deceased so there, you're trying to figure out how to move forward in life without the dead.

CK: So, let's do a little history. You said in the ancient Roman world, it was common practice to build tubes connecting the tops of the graves of the Crypts themselves. Mourners would regularly pour food and drink offerings bread and wine into these tubes. And this is the part whose other end and would be placed in the mouth of the corpse to feed the dead.

CC: Yeah, don't you love that I love that picture in which we're actively caring for the dead and feeding them. I mean, we see the same thing in the contemporary church where you take communion on behalf of and in order to remember the dead in order to, you know, participate in this kind of heavenly communion or heavenly meal. So, it's not so far-fetched. And I would say I'm from Hawaii originally and in Hawaii, we have these great cemeteries, and they'll drive by and people will put Big Macs on the tombstone and milk shakes

CK; You mention that. Could I make a note in my will not to put a Big Mac anywhere near.

CC: What would you put on there? Chris, what do you want?

CK: Well, my favorite foods apple pie, I don't think that's going to stand the test of time. So maybe a bottle of great sake, it has to be bourbon, rye or sake probably. (Okay) yeah, just pour a little on the grave. Or in the feeding tube. Yeah, even better. So, a lot of cultures, you know, instead of just having a wake and food, you say in Hindu Brahmin culture 16 rice balls are traditionally offered every day over 12 days. So, there's a feeding of the dead as they pass, I guess from one world to another.

CC: And you see this in all kinds of cultures were offering a meal to the dead. Your kind of giving this message that the dead can still operate symbolically, in our world. So you see this across many different cultures Dia de los Muertos, you'll go to the tombstones and the graveyards, and you'll bring the favorite foods of the deceased. But you also see, like you mentioned the Hindu funerary culture. You also see in Chinese funerary culture, this tradition of food offerings to kind of mark this transition of the person who was one living now into the realm of the spirits, and you want to offer them enough food, so that they're satiated. And they're able to make this journey into the spirit world.

CK: So, the food served the funerals is also culturally specific. In your book, you're right, high bound Episcopalians, talk about people who don't like to eat, prefer aspic, small rolls, and cheese straws. But you can always tell when a Methodist dies, they’re casseroles.

CC: Yeah, and it's interesting too right, because these casseroles are large, portable dishes, they can be carried from place to place, they can be reheated they serve a large number of people. So, there's this functional aspect of the type of food that served, whether it's meant for individuals’ consumption or community consumption. So, there's this underlying narrative that can be told through food. And it's kind of the same thing we do with the lives of people afterward when we're at a funeral meal. We're also telling stories, we're telling stories that weren't necessarily able to be told, in the religious service itself. They're more personal. So just even, you know, the way a meal progresses, right? It's telling a story,

CK: Eating the sins of the dead. So, you talk about 17th and 18th centuries in Great Britain, official senators were hired by a family, what is the Senator and what did they do?

CC: Basically, wealthy families would hire poor people, and place a biscuit or a cookie on top of the corpse. And then it was believed that the sins of the deceased would be absorbed by that corpse cake. And then the person who had pledged to be the quote unquote, sin eater would eat the biscuit or the cake and take on the sins of that person. So, on the one hand, you are reassuring the living family that the deceased now has less sins to worry about, or to negotiate with in their afterlife, of course, you know, there's other aspect of who ate the sin of the poor, right.

CK: So, what about sugar? You say in Chinese culture, leaving a funeral you're given a piece of candy to stop bad spirits following you home. So, it was something sweet also part of this tradition in many places.

CC: Yeah, so sugar is really interesting, because sugar, you know, creates this wonderful chemical reaction in the brain. It's a self-soothing response and the brain and body chemistry, you're releasing endorphins and pleasure. So, in a way sugar can offer this comforting food response. And I think it is partly where we see this rise of the popularity of handing out candy for Halloween. Right. So, Halloween was traditionally All Hallows Eve. It's the day before you remember the saint and then the dead. And so, this becomes a response that kind of offer comfort, this sweet taste in your mouth. So, it's not just in China, but it's also here. So, it's a really interesting similarity that happens across cultures and across countries surrounding the rituals and the dead.

CK: So, there's some tension here, though, some cultures don't like the notion of feasting to celebrate or to mark the passing of someone. You know, post burial feasting has been criticized in some quarters is excessive. In some places in Africa, they purposely leave out the spices, the food supposed to be bland, because you're not supposed to really enjoy it. So different cultures, I guess some people celebrate it and the food was supposed to be great. And you had a party or other people didn't want the food that tastes that good or to be that elaborate, right?

CC: Absolutely. So Radikobo Ntsimane, he writes about this practice in South Africa and about how the food isn't supposed to give you pleasure, because you're supposed to have bland foods so that you honor the dead with your mournful response. It's definitely the opposite of an Irish wake. Right?

CK: So, you mentioned earlier, in Hawaii, where people might leave at a graveside? Are there different traditions around the world in terms of leaving food for people?

CC: Definitely. And it just kind of varies, right. So, in Korea, you have to Jesa, which is kind of an autumn festival, a harvest festival. And so there you go to the gravestones of your ancestors, and you clean up the grave site. And then you have a meal, and you leave these very traditional offerings of fruit and rice cakes and stuff like that. And you pour wine for the dead. And China you have a ceremony called Ching Ming, which is the Tomb Sweeping ceremony. In Japan, you have Obon. And that was really fun, because it's a whole weekend. And in Hawaii, it became a whole month. And so, you would go around the islands to from temple to temple. And there you serve traditional foods. And again, rice cake is another popular one, they say that you serve rice cake, because in the mouths of the dead will will when they go back to report on the realm of the living that their mouths will be stuck together so they can't say anything bad about you. So that kind of tends to be a consistent food offering words that’s made.

CK: It has to be very sticky, short grain rice.

CC: Yeah. So, they can only say good things. And so, it's believed that in Japan, for example, the dead will come down to the realm of the living and dance with you and you, each temple will have a special dance choreographed and you'll serve them foods and you'll sell certain foods that kind of also create a temple identity. So, you'll have each temple will be famous for a different food. It's just a beautiful tradition. Indonesia and Sulawesi you take the people out of their graves every year and you clean them up, you brush their hair,

CK: You take the corpse out of the grave every year?

CC: Yes, yes, you do. Yeah. So that's Indonesia. And that's really traditional. And it's even traditional to leave the corpse in your living room for a year or two until you can save up enough money to give your relatives a really nice funeral. So, it's there, you're really interacting with the dead.

CK: So Jewish traditions, you say the old joke that almost any Jewish holiday can be summarized as quote, they tried to kill us we won let's eat was thought that was I guess funny. I rather dark. And that the bagel, this really happy bagels for Jews are an enduring symbol of the endless cycle of life, even in the midst of death. Is that true?

CC: Yeah. So that chapter was written by Rabbi Gordy. He is a good friend of mine on the East Coast. And so, he wrote about Jewish food traditions. And yeah, so I love that. And you see this and both Judaism and Islam. So, this is interesting in Islam the chapter that was written by David Oualaalou,

he's the scholar from Morocco, so he talks about how you use couscous, and other round shaped food items. And then in Judaism, Rabbi Gordy talks about how you eat bagels. And so, in both of these monotheistic traditions we see this emphasis on this return to God right and the oneness and wholeness through these foods that symbolize that unity. I absolutely love that. I just, and I hadn't realized until these two chapters came together in the book that both traditions did that.

CK: I'm really drawn to traditions where the food is enjoyed in there. there is pleasure in it. Even in the midst of celebrating or dealing with death.

CC: Because it reminds you, you're still alive, right? I mean, you're still nourishing your body, you're still feeding yourself and you're still part of this beautiful life cycle. I remember after my mom died; she died almost 25 years ago now. But after she died that same year, a few months later, my best friend had her second child and I was there for the birth and I just remember thinking wow, life really does go on. So, I had seen a death and a birth in the same year and that's what I love about food right? It reminds us that life goes on even though it's hard sometimes and it can be full of sorrow sometimes it it still goes on.

CK: Candi, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for being on Milk Street.

CC: Oh, thank you, Chris. It's been such a joy to be here.

CK: That was Candi K Cann associate professor of religion at Baylor University and editor of the book Dying to Eat Cross Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death and the Afterlife. You know, in doing research for this interview, I came across a poet Li -Young Li, and here he is reading his poem eating together.

Li Yong Li: In the steamer is the trout. Season with slivers of ginger, two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil. We shall eat it with rice for lunch brothers, sister, my mother who will taste the sweetest meat of the head, holding it between her fingers deftly, the way my father did weeks ago. Then he lay down to sleep like a snow-covered road winding through pines, older than him without any travelers and lonely for no one.

CK: That was the poem Eating Together read by author Li-Young Li. Now I've been to a few wakes in my time, but the most memorable was back in 1969. That summer I drove a Land Rover from London all the way to Nairobi. One evening camped in Cameroon I heard singing. I walked down the red dirt road and found myself in a very small village where they were dancing, drinking Busch beer, feasting and celebrating the passing of one of their community. It was a joyous all-night affair, and it proved the point. Food is the universal language. Even on a dark night in a small village in Cameroon. I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Coming up it's a battle over breakfast J Kenji Lopez Alt and I debate the very best way to cook and peel an egg. That's right after the break.

Hi, this is Wes Martin. I'm the director of culinary production at milk street between cooking for photoshoots recipe development and tastings I get to make wonderful food from all over the world which I make it home for myself all the time. Learn more about membership options at milk street

CK: I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time to chat with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe. No fry, Neapolitan eggplant parmesan, J M, how are you?

J M Hirsch: I'm doing great.

CK: You know Italy is an amazing place you and I go back frequently there are so many great recipes there but it's so interesting that you go to like Naples, right and you think you know what you're going to get like really thin pizza is cooked for 60 seconds in a woodfired oven. But it turns out that a lot of dishes there you think you know what you don't at all.

JMH: Absolutely every single time, and I actually I go to this one restaurant in this kind of back alley all the time La Tavernetta Vittozzi, it's run by five sisters. They are phenomenal home cooks, essentially. But home cooks who run a restaurant. And every time I go in and I say could you please teach me this, meatballs? Could you please teach me wedding soup? Could you please teach me your grandmother's lasagna which by the way, they still haven't done. And this time I went in asking them to teach me eggplant parmesan every single time. I'm shocked by how different and frankly, how delicious what they teach me is because you know, we're used to a very heavy eggplant parmesan, breaded, fried, doused with melted mozzarella. In Naples it's very different. It's lighter, it's brighter. It's very satisfying, still very rich, but a very different experience.

CK: So, breading the sauce. I mean, how did they start? They solve the eggplant and then press it, what do they do?

JM: Here's the thing that's important to know. Now, eggplant parmesan, is believed I mean, all sorts of people debate this, of course, and that's what you do in Italy, you debate the origins of food, and everybody claims it. Well, most people agree that eggplant parmesan originates in the south of Italy, and across the south of Italy, you're going to get a spectrum of styles of eggplant parmesan, some of them are just as breaded and deep fried as what we have in the United States. But some of them, especially in Naples, are the exact opposite. And it comes down to the way it is eaten, you know, in some parts of Italy, and certainly in the United States, eggplant Parmesan is a main course. But in and around Naples, it's actually considered a side dish or even and this is the part that blew my mind, a sandwich filling. (What?) So yes, I know it's crazy. But because of that, and because it's a side or a sandwich filling, it tends to be a much lighter dish. And that's what really drew me to this. So, the way they make it is just blissfully simple. They slice eggplant into long, thin planks. And they very, very briefly fry it in olive oil. Now, they do not bread it at all. They just simply fry it. And we're talking for seconds, just enough to crisp the edges. Give it a little bit of color and that's it. Just slice it thin, throw it in the oil, get it onto some towels, hat off the oil, and then you're ready to assemble your eggplant parmesan. It's really that simple. And the sauce itself is wonderfully simple and flavorful. Tomatoes, onions, olive oil, salt, not a whole lot else little basil, maybe they plank, the slabs of eggplant in you know in opposing directions. Give the eggplant parmesan, a little bit of structure. But the other interesting thing they do is the type of cheese, now we're used to, again, tons of really stretchy stringy mozzarella. They use smoked provolone, which adds just a delicious savory I mean anything smoked is delicious, of course but now you're going to add smoked Provolone to this along with a little bit of grated parmesan, which gives it those kinds of savory, nutty notes. It is an amazing combination that is quite rich, but not nearly as heavy or as thick, frankly, as American eggplant parmesan.

CK: So, your there in Naples. You're savoring this wonderful sandwich, muttering to yourself about how revolutionary this is and everybody else is going like yeah, this is lunch. Could you just like get over it pal. JM thank you. Almost no fry, Neapolitan eggplant parmesan. It's lighter and according to you, it's better. Thank you.

JM: Absolutely. Thank you. You can get the recipe for no fry, Neapolitan eggplant parmesan at Milk Street

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now let's see what's new in the world of K Kenji Lopez Alt. Kenji, how you doing?

JKA: I'm doing well. How are you doing Chris?

CK: Pretty good. I went to Paris a few months ago, I was doing a story on a few things. One of them was oeuf mayo which is a classic French Cafe dish, hard cooked eggs with a mustard mayonnaise. So, I was with a chef in the kitchen, and he took a dozen eggs with a spider into a big pot of rapidly boiling water right cooked him exactly eight minutes and 40 seconds. Took them out into a humongous ice bath. (Okay) I mean, not just the, you know, a little bowl but a big one. And let them sit for three minutes and then took them out. Every single egg peeled perfectly, which in my experience never happens.

JKA: It rarely happens. Yeah,

CK: You get 80 or 85%. anyway, we went back to the Milk Street kitchen. And we did this with dozens of eggs, fresh eggs, old eggs, Blah blah blah and every single egg peeled easily. So, I'm thinking, okay, it's time to call Kenji because I know you’ve done some work on this.

JKA: I've done a lot of work.

CK: I think it's that going from very hot to cooling off rapidly makes the egg shrink, and then separate from the inside of the shell and a more gentle cooling may not be that effective.

JKA: Yeah, I mean, I can definitely see why why you would think that but it's also not correct,

CK: So. So what do you think?

JKA: Well, I would say it's not the ice bath. It's actually the initial boiling step. I when I used to work in making brunch at a restaurant, I would boil eggs, a lot of eggs, and I would get maybe 70% of them working. And so, you know, for the last 20 years, I've been thinking to myself, if I could go back and give line cook, Kenji advice, what would he most wants to know? And the answer is, I would want to know how to peel boiled eggs. And so a number of times, over the past few years, I've done these really extensive tests. So, the most recent one was for the New York Times about three years ago, where I got 100 people to come to my restaurant at the time. And we cooked over 1000 eggs all close to 1000 eggs and all different ways. And then we got 100 people to peel them. And and then we sort of saw how well they peel them how many sort of minor imperfections that were how many big imperfections, how long it took each person to peel the egg, etc. And what we found during those tests was that really the only thing that makes a huge difference, and everything else is really completely negligible. The only thing that makes a difference is how hot the water is when you start cooking the eggs. So, if you start eggs in cold water, and bring them up to a boil, they kind of fuse to the shell. But if you lower them into already boiling water or put them into a steamer that's already pre heated, and they peel easily. And this is true, regardless of whether you shock them in an ice bath. Or if you just let them cool naturally, like on the counter, the cooling step part of it didn't actually make much difference.

CK: But I remember that article, I'm not going to let you off this easy. (Okay) In the article, you said it works 85% of the time (right) Now, I didn't do 100 people with a decimal. But we've done dozens, and it worked 100% of the time. Yeah. So so let me just follow up with you, your ice bath. I mean, was this humongous ice bath?

JKA: Well, if you've only got like a dozen eggs, there shouldn't really be any difference between whether you have an ice bath, that's like a couple of liters versus five gallons, the temperature is going to be zero degrees, no matter what.

CK: Isn't there something about the ability of an environment to either be a heat sink, for example, or to have a transfer of energy heat from the egg to the water, doesn't the mass of that cold water have something to do with it, it must.

JKA: So okay, so ice cools by melting essentially. So, it takes energy from the hot food, like whether it's a piece of asparagus or an egg, it takes energy from that food, and it uses it to melt. And that's really the only thing that is cooling down your food (right). So as long as at the at the time, by the time it's reached equilibrium, you know, which is zero degrees Celsius, or three degrees Fahrenheit. By the time everything in that bath has reached that temperature, if there was still ice remaining, then it doesn't matter if there was like five tons of ice versus a single ice cube, as long as there's ice remaining at the end. And the temperature in that bath is homogenous, then it will have cooled at the same rate and will have cooled the same amount because the only thing that is actually causing any cooling is the ice melting.

CK: If you put ice cubes in warm water, (yeah) it'll take time for the water to chill a pretty minimal amount of time. But yes, yeah, so you can have 50-degree water, yeah, with a ton ice cubes in it, and the waters isn't going to be 32 degrees.

JKA: So, by the time the ice has stopped melting, the water will be 32 degrees, all of it. As long as you have a you know, a real ice bath, which is there's ice basically throughout the mixture. It's all going to be at zero degrees really, really fast. I mean, in fact, that's the reason why you calibrate your thermometer in an ice bath is because the water is going to be at zero degrees in an ice bath.

CK: It's not that I don't trust you. It's just you and I have lived our lives based on empirical evidence so great. I, I'm going to go boil my eggs at eight minutes and 40 seconds. (Okay) I'm going to take them out and just put them in a bowl and let them cool. Yeah, and then peel them and I'll do a separate dozen in a very large ice bath.

JKA: Yeah, well what if you really want to be empirical about it, you shouldn't be the one peeling them because you're biased here. So, you should do a double-blind experiment where you get someone else to cook the eggs and someone else to peel them.

CK: You don't give me a break, do you? So, one other question which is, does steaming raise the temperature of the egg at the same rate as boiling?

JKA: So, steam doesn't transfer heat as fast because you know water is more dense and so there's more energy per unit water volumetrically but it does it fast enough as long as you're not trying to steam you know 1000 eggs over over a half inch of water but yeah, it does it well enough. So, you know when I when I do my eggs at home, I usually put like an inch to half an inch of water in the bottom of a pan that will just fit the number of eggs I'm cooking. Bring that to a boil than I put my eggs in straight and it doesn't matter if they're completely submerged or not, they're going to cook just fine and then cover it and then then I start my timer. So, I do eight to nine minutes for hard boiled.

CK: All right, so I'm going to go back, boil them, steam them, then I'm going to try a big bath. Just letting them cool naturally. Are you going to insist I do a small ice bath probably.

JKA: Yeah, you should do a big bath, a tiny bath and adjust right bath.

CK: Goldilocks huh, okay. (Yeah) All right. I'll do that and we'll reconvene and I'm putting my money on me. I bet you're not so okay. We're going to reconvene a month from now. Okay, and I'm going to go back and do these tests. And we'll see.

JKA: All right. Yeah, I mean, I look forward to hearing about your results.

CK: Well, it's tough to argue with Kenji Lopez Alt, but I'll do it. Anyway. Kenji, thank you.

JKA: All right. Thank you.

CK: That was J Kenji Lopez Alt. He's the chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats, a food columnist for the New York Times, also author of The Wok Recipes and Techniques. And now Kenji, and I would actually like to hear from you, which egg cooking and peeling method do you think is the best? Simply email us at Radio tips at 177 or leave us a message at 617-249-3167. That's 617-249-3167. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes at Milk Street or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk Street com there you can become a member and get full access to every recipe, access to our live stream cooking classes, free standard shipping from the Milk Street store and more. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH co-founder Melissa Baldino. Executive producer Andy Sensabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Alison, producer, Sarah Clapp, Associate Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock, additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street radio is distributed by PRX