Preface, Beer & Food: An American History by Bob Skilnik
THINK OF SOME of your favorite foods, ones that go so well with beer—foods that shout out
“Beer me!” Where to start? How about the pickled saltiness of thin-sliced corned beef, for
instance, packed between two slices of earthy rye bread—maybe the chewy bread laced with the
herbal character of caraway seeds—and a side order of sweet crunchy coleslaw (I know, you
New Yorkers like to pile the slaw on the meat), all washed down with a malty Vienna lager.
How about a spicy dish of chicken enchiladas and an accompaniment of rich refried beans and
rice with a light-bodied pilsner (or two) close at hand to quench the tingling in your mouth?
Twenty years ago I would have laughed at the idea of sitting down and digging into a small plate
of rich and chewy brownies with a creamy stout as a wash. I now realize that chocolate in any
form, and with just about any beer, can go hand in hand. But why do we associate certain foods
I remember my father enjoying his fair share of beers in the mid-1950s while munching on
foods I would have never considered until writing this book. How about chilled and pickled pigs’ feet or
the gelatinized mish-mash of boiled pig snouts, tail, and ears, commonly known as “head cheese” (but guised under any
number of names, depending on your ethnicity), shredded, then chilled to a jelly-like consistency, and served with a
splash of vinegar? And then there was my Dad’s favorite beer snack—Steak Tartar—cold, fresh, and uncooked ground
beef, served in a mound with a shallow well in it to hold a raw egg, with a handful of chopped onions alongside it, and
topped with a liberal dose of salt and pepper. These foods were his idea of beer snacks, his interpretation of the tastiest
foods that could be paired with a beer from the post-World War II era.
But he was from “The Greatest Generation,” and he wasn’t alone in his taste for “beer foods.” Until the late 1960s, many
of the neighborhood taverns in any big city were still serving foods such as pickled pork hocks or feet, speared from a
gallon glass jug by the bartender, much to the awaiting delight of middle-aged, beer-drinking customers. There were
always hardboiled eggs behind the bar too, served with pungent homemade horseradish, or small cans of sardines,
anchovies, or smoked kippers with salty crackers to match, washed down with a schooner of Schlitz or Pabst Blue Ribbon
beer. As always, salted pretzel sticks, thick as a workingman’s finger, were also available.
Going as far back as the days of National Prohibition, potato chips and pretzels could be found on the back bar of the
neighborhood speakeasy, buttressed in today’s taverns with the addition of such standards as smoked beef sticks, jerky,
and brand-named Beer Nuts—almost a generic term nowadays, somewhat to the dismay of the owners of the
Bloomington, Illinois-based business. A different generation and different beer snacks today, but with a commonality of
being pickled, smoked, or salty.
The use of beer in the kitchen has also changed. With the reemergence of beer styles that disappeared in the years after
Repeal, “new” beers like stouts, porters, bocks, and even wheat beers are being matched in the kitchen with food recipes
that sometimes push the envelope of what the household cook might normally consider preparing. Some of the latest
beer/food dishes even put a twist on old recipes by taking advantage of contemporary ingredients.
Consider the use of beer batter, an idea that seeps into contemporary recipes for deep-fried fritters, an old colonial era
foodstuff that upheld the Puritan credo of “waste not, want not,” and called for flat or stale beer in the batter rather than
water. Following a standard beer batter recipe and coating a Vidalia onion with it adds a new variation on an old cooking
practice. My father had a simpler outlook on beer’s position in food; if it stewed or simmered, it got a dose of beer.
After penning an article for the Chicago Tribune’s Good Eating section in 2003, titled “The Lightening of American
Beer,” I wondered if, having chronicled why and how so many of the beers of today are different than the beers that our
fathers, grandfathers, and even great-grandfathers enjoyed, I could also shed some light on beer’s historical use in food
or as an accompaniment. The trail backward, however, falls apart during the thirteen years of National Prohibition, when
legal beer disappeared from the cupboards of American households.
Even a search of cookbooks of the immediate pre-Prohibition era shows spotty evidence of beer being used to spice and
flavor household dishes. It wasn’t until the first decade of the twentieth century that beer could be found bottled and
available for delivery to customers at home—direct from the brewery. In the few years after bottled beer became more
common, until Prohibition, there’s scant evidence that cookbook authors of that era had ever suggested pouring a bottle
of beer into a Mulligan Stew just to kick up its flavor.
Most beers brewed during the period of 1870 to the early 1900s were consumed on premise in lager beer saloons as a
draft product, and if brought home in the fabled but primitive to-go container known as a “growler,” were consumed soon
after the brew crossed the family threshold. Without the portability of the canned or bottled beverages that we enjoy
today, beer had few chances back then to gain regular entrance into American kitchens.
It’s only until we look further back at a developing U.S. brewing industry in the early nineteenth century, with its
limited output, that we see the emergence of beer being used in food. Homebrewing, for better or for worse, led to the
first recorded inclusions of beer in food dishes in the beginning 1800s and somewhat earlier, but not necessarily as a
flavor enhancer. A lack of knowledge about the real workings of yeast, a lack of good-quality brewing supplies, a lack of
sanitation procedures, and a lack of mechanical refrigeration actually made for an abundance of bad beer. And bad beer
often made its way into simple stews or dough batters rather than being disposed of, as evidenced in a number of early
American food recipes.
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