Lately I’ve been pondering over the merits of Waldorf Salad and it’s not due to me watching a certain episode of Fawlty Towers. Created at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1896 not by a chef but by the maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, the Waldorf salad became an instant taste bud triumph and is now classed as an iconic food.
When a Waldorf salad is prepared freshly and well it is delicious and I particularly like it when it includes candied walnuts, interestingly the original version of this salad contained only apples, celery and mayonnaise. Chopped walnuts later became an integral part of the dish and now mayonnaise tends to be replaced with more sophisticated dressings, but it is usually still served on a bed of lettuce.
So what got me lost in thought over Waldorf salad? Well, it was a journalist who was writing a piece on a competition in New York’s Waldorf hotel to find their next iconic dish, she approached me as a food historian for my opinion on what makes an iconic dish. The question of what makes an iconic food dish really made me think. After much deliberation and the eating of a Waldorf salad I concluded that all iconic dishes that stand the test of time tend to offer good taste, an element of novelty and their recipes tend to air on the side of simplicity. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the thing that all iconic dishes have in common is that they are moreish being delicious to the palette and having that slightly indulgent element to them that satisfies emotional and physiological appetites. After all there is always a tendency to crave that indulgent treat that makes us feel better or little decadent morsel as a reward.
Interestingly, iconic foods tend to be of a higher calorific value because generally we enjoy the taste, texture and aroma of fattier foods. Our bodies are evolutionarily programmed to prefer fatty, high calorie foods, because they give us more energy for a longer period of time. Butter, oils and other fats are frequently used to add flavour to a variety of foods such as salads and sauces and the mayonnaise in the iconic Waldorf salad or Marie Rose sauce on a prawn cocktail are testimony to this. Many people choose fatty foods as comfort foods when bored, stressed or unhappy and so when choosing a dish as a treat or emotional pick-me-up they tend to be rich in fat content giving the diner a sense of luxury and fulfilling our emotional craving for comfort food
In short I would say that Iconic dishes are really refined comfort food dishes that offer a little bit of ‘guilty pleasure’ without being heavy on the stomach. Iconic dishes are easy to rustle up, a pleasure for taste buds and soothing and nourishing for the soul. If all this wittering on about Waldorf Salad has left you hungry for more you can read the article written by Leah Hysslop and my comments at
Food has always been of great importance to Seren and despite her being renowned for her historical recipe recreations, her culinary skills were not honed, in the kitchens of top restaurants, but in the home kitchen from the age of being able to hold a wooden spoon.
When Seren was born her mother was taken ill and so she spent her early years being cared for by her grandmother, Minnie. This was to prove instrumental in the development of Seren’s love of cooking, for her grandmother was an accomplished cook, who’s kitchen was always awash with terrine’s, home-made pastry and traditional puddings. Minnie’s love of good food and her zest for life meant Seren’s childhood was filled with days of hedgerow picking, baking, traditional preserving and cooking recipes from the depths of a family copy of, Mrs. Beeton. She learned from an early age how to make Victorian puddings alongside elaborate noble pies and perhaps this explains her love of pastry making and the reason she won an accolade from The Great British Pie Awards this year.
Today Seren has great skill in bringing historical food to life and making it accessible and understandable to the modern cook and diner. Her enthusiasm and love of historical food and British cooking is evident in her presentations and she loves to revive forgotten recipes. She recently took part in ITV1’s Country House Sunday and has given live cookery demonstrations across the country at food festivals, historical houses and castles.
Trained as a herbalist and nutritionist, she has a deep understanding of improving health through food. Her interest in historic remedies and herbal folklore eventually extended to researching British food history, and reignited her early passion for cooking. Fifteen years on and Seren has amassed extensive knowledge and is now renowned for her historical food recreations and interpretations.
Seren’s interest in food history does not just extend to old recipes and cooking techniques, but to ingredients and manufacturers. From the age of fourteen Seren has collected food and drink packaging from early Victorian to the 1960’s. Her collection is now extensive and provides a wonderful snapshot in time that accompanies her vast knowledge of the development of British food and drink companies throughout history. She also has a huge collection of antique kitchenalia and moulds which she uses to replicate historical recipes and portray past eras.
Her training in herbalism and nutrition has not been wasted for despite her merits as a food historian and period cook she also delights in creating British Classic dishes for those with food allergies and intolerances (such as gluten and dairy intolerant). Her botanical knowledge has made her a keen wild food educator and forager that lends unusual as well as historical twists to all her cooking. There are also many points at which food and medicine intertwine throughout history and Seren is able to portray these developments and has also undertaken a lot of research into the British spice trade.
To Seren historical food is not a job, but a way of life.
Visit Seren's blog: Serenity Kitchen