The Food Almanac: Friday, December 21, 2012

It's National Hamburger Day, and National Absinthe Day!


In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Days Until. . .
Christmas--4
New Year's Eve--10
Make those reservations now!

Looking Up
The winter solstice occurred at 5:12 a.m. Central. That made it the earliest beginning of winter since 1896. Today's daylight is the shortest of the year, with the sun lowest in the sky. "Solstice" comes from Latin words meaning "sun stands still," which it apparently does. For the past few days and the next few, the points at which the sun rises and sets hardly vary at all. That was obvious to me as I drove south-southeast across the lake. The sun was almost directly in my eyes, which is odd. The winter solstice is a cheery day for us here in the Northern Hemisphere, because it means summer is on its way back.

Oh, and one other thing. . . the Mayan calendar says that the world will end today. See ya!

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Bacon fried at the exact moment of the solstice will neither shrink nor curl, but instead lie flat. Unless you've bought really cheap bacon. Or unless your name is Bacon (see below), in which case no bacon should be eaten on this day.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Ginger, Texas is a curve in a farm-to-market road on the plains of north central Texas, seventy miles east of Dallas. It has been settled since the 1870s, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway arrived in the 1880s. The place is named for the color of the clay that crops up nearby. It was used to make bricks for sixty years, until the clay ran out in 1940. The sky is immense and the trees small as the cattle graze below them. Ranch houses that claim Ginger as a locale are set back well off the main road, emphasizing the vastness further. If you lived in one of them, you'd have a four-mile drive to the nearest promising restaurant, the Chateau Bistro northeast in Emory.

Today's Flavor
Today is National Hamburger Day, says someone, somewhere, who probably had a space to fill on a calendar. Of course, every day in America is National Hamburger Day. If you consider how many restaurants serve the things as a main menu item, then note how many dishes are variations on hamburger (meat loaf, meatballs, kafta kebabs, chopped steak, on and on), the astonishing appeal of ground beef is revealed. Just under nine billion of them are sold every year in this country, two-thirds of them in restaurants. So they break up the home. Hamburgers account for about forty percent of all sandwiches sold. But what person in his right mind wouldn't prefer a roast beef poor boy, or an oyster loaf, or a muffuletta? Or a gyros or a deli corned beef on rye? Beware the hamburger's strong pull on your appetite. Resist it and improve your eating.

Two years ago this was named National Absinthe Day. Absinthe is a highly alcoholic liqueur, very popular in France in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, it was banned there and here, too. Its flavor is dominated by herbs in the anise family of flavors. If you drink Herbsaint or Pernod (both of which were created as absinthe substitutes), you get an idea of what absinthe was like. One of components of absinthe was wormwood. Despite its evil-sounding name, it's a green herb. It carries a toxin that was alleged to be the reason for absinthe's illegality. However, none of that toxin comes through the distillation of well-made absinthe. The real reason for the ban was that an anti-alcohol movement was underway in the early 1900s, and the popularity of absinthe made it a target. Absinthe is making a strong comeback in recent years, and its fans are overzealous about it. They've even revived the elaborate ritual for sweetening the stuff, involving the use of special perforated, flat spoons for the sugar to rest on.

Edible Dictionary
gingerbread, n.--A crisp cookie made with not only ginger but a variety of other aromatic spices. Because of its resistance to getting stale, most gingerbread is made into shapes, and used for decoration as well as for eating. Making gingerbread houses is a signal activity during the Christmas holidays, when families as well as pastry shops in large restaurants and hotels create amazing sculptures of gingerbread. The basic recipe emerged from the Middle Ages in England, when spices from the Far East began to be easily available. In the early days, gingerbread was made with molasses or sugar syrup and bread crumbs. Over the years, the breadcrumbs were replaced by flour, eggs, and milk, and the syrup by sugar. The icings and other decorations came later. There's a Louisiana version of gingerbread: it's called a "stage plank," made with molasses in the sugar cane country. Stage planks come in two forms: thick and soft, and thin and crisp. Both kinds are frosted on one side.

Restaurant Anniversaries
The first Morton's Steakhouse opened in Chicago today in 1978. Owners Arnie Morton and Klaus Fritsch. It is a classic expense-account restaurant, catering to business travelers. Morton's is all over America, so a guy (it's mostly men who go there) in a strange town will find it comfortably familiar. The prices are at the top end of the spectrum, and the menu is primarily beef, with the standard steakhouse alternatives. In 2012, Morton's was bought by the large, Houston-based chain-restaurant operator Landry's.

The Saints 
Today is the feast day of St. Baudacarius, a Benedictine monk who tended the grapevines and kitchens at his monastery in seventh-century Bobbio, Italy. A legend about him is that he once ran out of food, and after praying for divine assistance he was able tofeed thirty monks with a single duck.

Annals Of Brewing
This is the day the Pilgrims debarked from the Mayflower in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The year was 1620, and the ship had been at sea for sixty-three days. The crew didn't have enough beer to last all the way to Virginia and then back to England, so they unloaded the Pilgrims to lighten the pressure on the lager. (This is not a joke.)

Food Namesakes
Ray Romano, whom everybody loves, was born today in 1957. . .Francis Thomas Bacon, who developed the first fuel cells, was born today in 1904. Fuel cells, which may power the next generation of automobiles, make electricity and water at the same time. . . Kristi Cooke, Miss Ohio in 1991, was born today in 1967. . .David Nathaniel Baker, a classical composer and cellist, joined us today in 1931. . . Another classical composer, Edward Everett Rice,came into the world today in 1848.

People For Whom No Dish Will Ever Be Named 
Today is the birthday, in 1879, of Josef Stalin. Whose real name, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, is even less likely to be honored with something delicious.

Words To Eat By
"Dinner at the Huntercombes' possessed only two dramatic features--the wine was a farce, and the food a tragedy." --Anthony Powell, British writer, born today in 1905.

Words To Drink By
"There is only one absinthe drinker, and that's the man who painted this idiotic picture."--Thomas Couture,whose birthday it is today (1815). He was talking about Manet's painting "Absinthe Drinker."


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