The Food Almanac: Friday, October 18, 2013

Staff Writer
It's National Baked Alaska Day!
Yun Huang Yong
French chefs discovered that if you put ice cream inside a thick layer of meringue, the millions of egg-white bubbles insulate the ice cream, so that you can actually brown the thing in a hot oven without melting the ice cream.

Today's Flavor
The United States took over the territory of Alaska on this day in 1867, having bought it from Russia for $7.2 million. In Alaska, this day is celebrated as Alaska Day. The best salmon in the world comes from Alaska, as does some incredibly good halibut.

Logically enough, this is National Baked Alaska Day. It was the fancy dessert phenom in the last half of the 1900s. Every major restaurant in America served it. The idea, if not the name, was a bit older. French chefs discovered that if you put ice cream inside a thick layer of meringue, the millions of egg-white bubbles insulate the ice cream, so that you can actually brown the thing in a hot oven without melting the ice cream. (It helps that meringue browns very quickly.)

Baked Alaska almost disappeared when restaurants shucked off classicism for innovation in the 1980s. It's mostly old restaurants that still have it. It's the signature dessert (literally, because each one is signed) at Antoine's, where it's not only the best dessert but also the definitive version of baked Alaska. Antoine's omits the widespread practice of flaming baked Alaska at the table. That is not great loss. On the other hand, they've begun serving chocolate sauce with it, which to me distorts the flavors. 

I make a bread pudding version of baked Alaska that comes out pretty and delicious. Lately, I've wondered whether the baked Alaska idea could be applied to some other foods. The best I came up with was a baked Alaska-style tuna sushi using unsweetened egg whites with some wasabi and soy sauce stirred in. Some day I must try that.

Restaurateurs In Sports
Today is the birthday, in 1939, of Mike Ditka, hero as both player and coach for the Chicago Bears. He is less renowned in New Orleans, where he operated a very good restaurant on St. Charles Avenue shortly before being fired as coach of the Saints. After Ditka left town, the restaurant went into decline and closed. It was Mike's on the Avenue (different Mike) before Ditka came along, and it has reverted to Mike's On The Avenue again. Mike Ditka's restaurant is still going strong in Chicago.

Food In Show Biz
The musical Raisin opened what would be a long run off Broadway today in 1973. It was a musical version of Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 play, A Raisin In The Sun, one of the great African-American works of theatre.

Food In History
Today in 1776 Betsy Flanagan served a chicken dinner to an assortment of Revolutionary American troops under Washington and French soldiers with Lafayette. She stole the chickens from a neighbor whose sympathies were not with the Revolution. Flanagan owned a tavern (which served as a restaurant in those days), and she also dispensed drinks to the soldiers. She decorated them with the tail feathers of the chickens and called the drinks Cock Tails. The story is of dubious veracity, but it's still worth remembering on this date.

The Saints 
Today is the feast day of St. Luke, apostle and evangelist. He is the patron saint of butchers and brewers.

Food In Science
Remember cyclamates? They were powerful artificial sweeteners that for a time replaced saccharin in soft drinks. It was so sweet that a teaspoon of it had the sweetness of three dump trucks of sugar. (Or something like that.) Today in 1969 cyclamates were banned for human use, because it was found to be a likely carcinogen.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Rabbit Town is in central Kentucky, thirty-four miles west of Lexington. It's a rural crossroads surrounded by pastures for horses and cows. If it has a center, it's at the junction of Rabbit Town Road and Trapp Coffs Corner Road. The place to grab a bite to eat is--ironically--Fox's General Store, two miles down the country road from Rabbit Town.

Gourmets Through History
Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès was born today in 1753. He was a statesman who is remembered as having assembled the Napoleonic Code, which is to French law almost what the Constitution is to the Unites States. This is of interest to us in Louisiana, where our French heritage left behind a lot of Napoleonic Code in our laws--notably those having to do with succession of heirs. more than a few laws. Cambacérès was also a gourmet of the highest order, and when he held dinners they were the equals of any. He oversaw the kitchen personally, and was so compulsive about perfection that, if you showed up late for his feasts, you were denied entry to the table, no matter who you were.

Edible Dictionary
canola oil, n.--One of the lightest-tasting, most useful vegetable oils for cooking, canola oil has several interesting tales to tell. First, the name was made up from "Canadian oil." It needed a name different from the one that describes it, because it's the oil of the seeds of the unfortunately named rape plant. Rapeseeds have been raised for oil in the Middle East and Africa for thousands of years. Finally, it's second only to olive oil in its content of monounsaturated fat--which has a salutary effect on your cholesterol level. It's the oil I use for most frying, both deep and shallow.

Deft Dining Rule #197
The correct response to being offered a slice of doberge cake is to squeal with delight, and then surreptitiously to refrain from eating any.

Food In Literature
A.J. Liebling, one of the great journalists of the twentieth century, was born today in 1904. He wrote voluminously for The New Yorker, on as broad an array of subjects as you could imagine. But a favorite topic was eating and drinking, which Liebling did in full measure. He very much liked Louisiana; one of his major pieces was about Louisiana Governor Earl Long. His book Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris is one every serious eater should read.

Food Namesakes
Chuck Berry, the early rock 'n' roll artist who had the greatest influence on the rock of the 1960s, notably the Beatles, was born today in 1926. . . Today in 1870, Benjamin Chew Tilghman patented the process of sand blasting. . . Freida Pinto, an Indian-born actress, came out of the pod today in 1984. . . . Today in 1697, the Venetian landscape artist Canaletto was born. His name sounds like a kind of Italian ice cream, but isn't.

Words To Eat By
"The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite."--A. J. Liebling, American journalist, born today in 1904. Here's another quotation of his:

"In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiner's Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sauteed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island Duck, he might have written a masterpiece."

Words To Drink By
"Alcohol is a misunderstood vitamin."--P.G. Wodehouse.

Related Links
Snackshot of the Day: Baked Alaska