I don’t know about you but after the relentless crunch of holidays from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, I need a break. As a result, I tend to ignore the culinary holidays during the first half of January. If you’re one of those people who always makes the infamous “I will lose weight in the new year” resolution, you may wish to consider ignoring them as well. The first half of January makes it pretty clear that the culinary calendar is against you.
January 2 is Buffet Day. Seriously? On January 2? Why not simply INVITE people to break all those New Year’s resolutions. Cruel, I call it. Even more cruel – you know what else Jan 2 is? National Cream Puff Day. Yeah, that’s right. Cream Puffs. Go on. Resolve to lose 15 lbs. Just not on Jan2.
Maybe wait until the next day? I mean, one more day … oh wait.
I somehow suspect that it is not that ambrosia that they meant Ambrosia Day (Dec. 12) to celebrate. No, I believe that it is a day devoted to ambrosia the fruit salad, staple of the Southern table. Not as lofty sounding perhaps but certainly more accessible to those of us not numbered among the deities.
It occurred to me the other night – as I frantically scoured out one of my favorite saucepans while flapping at the smoke alarm with a tea towel – that things in the kitchen don’t always go to plan.
What had gone wrong? Well, I had been making mashed potatoes for myself in my new favorite manner, which is to simmer them in a bit of milk, and then use that milk for the mashing liquid. It takes a bit longer for the potatoes to cook but you lose none of the potato flavor to water, and you’ve already got hot potato-rich milk for the mashing. Add butter, and it’s a great no-draining method for mash just so long as you don’t get distracted by the TV as they’re simmering.
So begins one of the loveliest and headiest passages of poetry William Shakespeare ever wrote. It hails, of course, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and is spoken by Oberon, King of the Fairies.
It’s absolutely right and proper that such an intoxicating speech should begin with a reference to thyme. This evergreen herb has almost magical properties in the kitchen, and a fair number of medicinal uses as well. Continue reading “Thyme And Thyme Again”→
Ah, Bastille Day – I’d say something about it in French but my French is lousy. So rather than subject us all to that, let’s celebrate it by looking at a few French moments and highlights in culinary history.
The Richelieu clan was rich in dukes and cardinals – but also rich in culinary trivia.
Imagine it. It is 1637. Cardinal Richelieu, for reasons known only to himself – maybe his own safety (he wasn’t universally popular) or maybe he was put off his dinner watching people pick their teeth with pointy ends – suddenly orders the blades of his dinnerware to be ground down and rounded off.
Behold, the modern dinner knife was born.
Of course, the French created the whole classification of sauces thing. From my “Saucy Month of March” post:
Sometime in the 19th century, Antonin Careme, one of the great stars of French cuisine, categorized hundreds of sauces into 4 broad types. A short time later, Auguste Escoffier, who could rarely leave well enough alone, refined these categories further and we ended up with the five used today.
Sauce Béchamel (white)
Sauce Espagnole (brown)
Sauce Velouté (blonde)
Sauce Hollandaise (butter)
Sauce Tomate (red)
These sauces are called “mother sauces” and anyone interested in “mastering the art of French cuisine” (as Julia says) will need to tackle these basics. In fact, because the techniques and methods of French cooking have had such a significant impact on Western cuisines generally – mastering these sauces establishes a very solid foundation for any cook – professional or amateur.
Speaking of sauces and as mentioned above, the Richelieus were of a foodie bent and if you’re a fan of mayonnaise, you have another one of that foodie family to thank. I go into more depth on this most popular of condiments in The Myths and Making of Mayonnaise but here is the key bit for our French theme today:
No one really knows what the true origins of mayo actually are but the most commonly accepted and reasonable sounding explanation is that is was created to celebrate the capture of Mahon by the Duke of Richelieu in 1756. That would be Louis François Armand du Plessis, by the way – not to be confused with his great-uncle Cardinal Richelieu (above), linchpin of French history and chief mustache twirler in the Three Musketeers sagas.
Now, if you ask me, it seems an odd way to celebrate a military victory but the Duke was an odd duck (often insisting that his invited dinner guests dine in the nude) and the truth is that it was all probably due to supply shortages. The cook prepping the victory feast discovers that “Sacrebleu! We have run out of cream! Mon Dieu, I am ruined!” Trying not to panic, he knows that must decide quickly how to salvage the situation or his reputation will be ruined. Suddenly – inspiration! A substitution can be made. He cries out, “Marcel! The olive oil! Tout suite!” It may not have gone exactly like that but something to that effect.
Other French cities like Bayonne and Les Mayons also claim to have been the birthplace of mayo – Bayonne actually going so far as to claim that it was originally called bayonnaise before a typo changed history. But you know, until they come up with a story as good as a hyperventilating French cook, his assistant Marcel and a nude dinner party at the Duke’s – I’m sticking with the story above.
And lastly, the things we think of as quintessentially French? Some not so much.
We’ll move quickly over the fact that croissants are actually Austrian – shhhhhhhh) and pain au chocolat. The macaron is also, of course, considered to be iconically French but like the croissant, not as wholly French as you think. It’s an ‘immigrant confection’ of sorts, having been brought to France from Italy in 1533 when Catherine de’ Medici brought (in addition to massive amounts of luggage) her own pastry chefs in preparation for marrying Henry II of France.
In the ‘definitey French’ column, the first mention of edible ice cream cones appeared in French cooking books as early as 1825. And French bread.
So go on, get out there and celebrate Bastille Day by storming the food counters at your local bakery or deli. Enjoy!
Happy Piña Colada Day! Possibly it is a bit early where you are to indulge – it’s only 8:15am here. If so, then indulge in THIS classic tune ’till the bar bell goes off.
The residents of TransAtlantic Towers have just been discussing this song and its story – and we’re puzzled as to how and why this song ends the way it does. I like a happy ending as much as anyone else and I hope those two kids worked it out and lived happily ever after. But surely, once one or both of these people initially arrived at O’Malley’s, they would ask in affronted tones, “What the hell were you doing placing/answering personal ads?” Then there would be a row, someone would huff off and then they’d make up over piña coladas.
That’s not the only potential dust up linked to the fruity tropical drinks. No, no – just try to establish who invented it. See, it’s like this – there were these two Puerto Rican bartenders … which, come to think of it sounds like the beginning of a joke (“two Puerto Rican bartenders walk into a bar”) but it is really the beginning of a great cocktail mytstery.
Never mind, back to the origins of the piña colada, or as I like to call it, “The Tale of Many Ramóns.”
Ramón ‘Monchito’ Marrero Pérez (henceforth known as Ramón 1) claims he made the first piña colada in 1954 while working at the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan. This version of history states that the drink didn’t get its current name until several years later and that it was this delay that causes “origin confusion.” That’s as may be but since ‘piña colada’ means (as I recall) pressed or strained pineapple in Spanish I really don’t know why it would take so long for a drink involving strained pineapple to acquire that name. But hey – that’s their story.
Ramón Portas Mingot (henceforth known as Ramón 2) , on the other hand, claims that HE created the tall fruity goodness in a glass in 1963 while working at the Barrachina Restaurant (also in San Juan but Old San Juan).
Ramón 3 does not lay claim to inventing the piña colada but regardless of who did, he was instrumental in making it happen. You see, in addition to strained pineapple, a piña colada requires coconut milk and it was Ramón 3 (more usually known as Ramón López-Irizarry) who found a commercially viable way of processing the coconut milk. This became known as Coco Lopez and was newly available in 1954 when Ramón 1 was supposed to be concocting his cocktail. The fact that it was available since 1954 makes me wonder why it would have taken anyone until 1963 to put it all together but hey, I’m not a bartender. What do I know?
Now it seems to me that if Ramon 1’s story is true – then someone should recall having one during the 10 year span between his claim and that of his rival – and that would more or less settle the question of Ramón 2. But apparently no one spoke up post-1963 to say, “Hold on, I had one of these two years at the Beachcomber. Been having them for ages!” And when you consider the high profile nature of the guest list from the Caribe back in its heyday, you’d think they’d trot out one or two big names who’d sampled their local beverage.
And that is the Tale Of Many Ramons. Both the Caribe Hilton Hotel and the Barrachina still lay claim to their place in Cocktail History but no one feels like throwing down about it so everyone just drinks their drink and chooses whichever history they prefer.
Earlier today, on the eve of that Birthday of the United States of America, the 4th of July, Deborah posed a real, well, poser of a question: “What is American food?”
On the surface, this was a very easy question to answer. “Hamburgers!” “Hot dogs!” “Apple pie!” “Chop suey!” “Barbeque!” “Pizza!” were amongst the most vociferously voiced suggestions. And despite the fact that each of those originated in another continent (if not country), I completely agree.
But as an amateur food historian, I could counter those with “Popcorn!””Peanut butter!” “Turkey!” “Cranberries!” as each of those foods are actually native to the USA. Well, … Okay, so peanuts are actually native to South America, and the peanut butter we eat today was possibly loosely based on a Cuban culinary practice-but it became peanut butter in the USA. And no, it was not invented by George Washington Carver, but I’ve covered that story here.)
And anyway, I started to think about the question in a different, more personal, way. I thought about:
how I’m half American and have a deeply British side;
how-visits aside- I’ve only lived 4 of my 48 years in the USA; how I drink tea rather than coffee;
how I have a deeply emotional connection to Marmite and find the idea of mint or cranberry jelly rather than sauce unspeakable;
how I can be a tad snooty about the difference between Italian and Italian-American cuisine;
and how the only apple pie I’ve ever actually liked is made by my fully Irish aunt.
But then I thought about:
how whenever I move to a new neighborhood in London my first field trip is all about locating the nearest source of American peanut butter (the British version is at best tolerable);
how, about every three months, I have to have a Big Mac, or at least a good burger (it really doesn’t matter which);
how both sodas and beers to me are somewhat depressing unless they are ice cold;
how, for all their ingenuity in finding new flavors for crisps (potato chips, natch), the British have yet match the so-wrong-it’s-right deliciousness of the Cool Ranch Dorito;
and how I firmly believe that no party is complete without California Dip.
So what what then is American food to me? Is it just burgers and chips rather than crisps?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me American food is not just about examples of given foodstuffs, but rather about context. It’s about the experience; how eating (or drinking-what’s a better example of epicurean Americana than root beer?) makes me feel American when I’m not there, or makes me absolutely certain I’m in the right place when I am. It’s about combinations of food and drink, and most certainly all about the situations too.
Because culturally (and personally) all food is more than the sum of its ingredients. It becomes cultural because of when we eat it, when we share it, and who we share it with. Food becomes cultural because of how we feel about it.
So, with that realization in mind, let me dish up some examples of what American food means to me:
It means sharing a big tub of over-buttered popcorn for a Hollywood blockbuster, but nursing an iced coffee for an arthouse film.
It means a plain beef burger cooked at a friend’s backyard barbeque, with my choice of toppings.
It means being asked to bring a potato salad for that barbeque.
It means turkey at Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
It means eating cold Chinese food- with chopsticks- out of a cardboard takeout carton the morning after a heavy night.
It also means cold pizza the morning after a heavy night.
It means peanuts and popcorn on the bar to keep me thirsty, that heavy night before.
It means pumpkin, not apple, pie, damn it.
It means ordering a starter as a main course, because the portions are too big for me.
It means having a big old baked potato and sour cream with my steak, instead of “frites”.
It means pancakes with maple syrup, not sugar and lemon.
It means having those pancakes with maple syrup at a diner at 3am.
It means a near stranger telling me to sit down and stay for dinner when I’m one more than they had cooked for.
It means them Cool Ranch Doritos and a big glass of Hawaiian Punch over ice while I spend an afternoon watching American soaps.
It means donuts doused in powdered sugar.
It means at least two bowls of Apple Jacks while I’m watching old Looney Tunes cartoons.
It means the big smile on a host’s face when I ask for second helpings.
It means tearing corn off the cob with my teeth and not caring how much butter drips down my chin, or how many niblets are wedged in my gums.
It means arguing vehemently about what makes the perfect tuna salad sandwich and tt means having that tuna salad sandwich with a chocolate milkshake.
It means hot dogs that taste best outside on a chilly night, and bought on the street from some guy with a cart.
It means that singular chilly smell when you step into an American supermarket on a hot summer’s day.
It means iced tea on a hot summer afternoon and Long Island Iced Tea on a hot summer night.
It means piling all the junk food I can manage into the car when I’m off on a road trip with friends.
It means stopping off on that road trip for a roast beef sandwich with extra onions at the first Roy Rogers Restaurant I see.
It means lemonade so sour my stomach puckers.
It means tearing a lobster apart at a beach side shack while I’m wearing a plastic bib.
It means egg nog at Christmas parties.
It means having too much when I’m there and missing too much when I’m not.
I’m feeling quite American homesick now. But that’s okay. Because American food does on occasion still manage to be a moveable feast even outside its borders. I may not be spending the 4th of July eating junk food on a road trip to a shack where I can get lobster. And I won’t be having iced tea of either variety. But though I am here in the UK, I am going to an American barbeque, so that burger- just the way I want it, with my choice of toppings- is in my future. And yes, I’m bringing a potato salad.
Happy 4th of July folks! And if you’ve got a minute between mouthfuls, what does American food mean to you?
Happy Rocky Road Day! What will you do to note the occasion?
Rocky road ice cream seems an obvious answer – but that is, I gather, largely an American thing. Apparently in 1929, William Dreyer (yup, of Dreyer’s ice cream) decided that people needed something to cheer them up – ya think? – and that a new ice cream would do the trick. And he was no doubt entertained by calling something Rocky Road during those unquestionably rocky times.
The loser here seems to have been Mrs Dreyer, whose sewing scissors (according to this page) were used to cut up the marshmallows. No doubt she had something to say about the whole thing.
Today is World Milk Day – not to be confused with National Milk Day in the US.
Actually a lot of countries have a national day devoted to milk but the FAO picked June 1 to bring everyone together on the assumption that no one would mind a second day spent talking ‘moo-juice’ (as my uncle Allen would say). Of course, they also declared the last Wednesday in Sept each year to be World School Milk Day so it’s possible that the folks at the FAO have a TEENY milk obsession.
But never mind that – Did you know that milk is one of the most commonly thrown away/wasted foods by households in developed world? Of the roughly 360,000 tonnes of waste milk that is poured down British drains each year, almost half of it is designated as “avoidable waste” – the result of too much being served. The rest is discarded for being sour or past its sell-by date. Which reminds me – we’ll have a “sell by/best by date” discussion at some point as well because other than baby food, none of those days are regulated or consistently defined. Recipe for confusion!
So, what do you do if you are a small but busy household where the milk is only half used by the time you realize the date was a week ago and it’s smelling a bit odd? You either buy smaller containers of milk or you find a way to use more. The latter does not mean you must drink an extra glass every day. In fact, most adults I know don’t drink glasses of milk at all. Most of the milk here at TransAtlantic Towers goes into coffee, baked goods or white sauces. Just use milk in additional ways. Make rice puddings, soups, poach some fish – make a panna cotta. You can even use the milk once it’s “gone off” if you’re gonna be baking. WOrks well in lots of biscuits, muffins and breads.