The Food Almanac: Monday, January 11, 2013

It's National Jambalaya Day!
Staff Writer
Jambalaya

Wikimedia Commons/ Cliff Hutson

Jambalaya

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

Days Until. . . 
Mardi Gras--1
Valentine's Day--3

 

Eating Around The World
According to tradition, this is the day in 660 BCE that Japan was founded by its first emperor, Jimmu Tenno. On this same date in 1889, the modern Japanese constitution was ratified. All of that history gave barely enough time for Japanese food to catch on in New Orleans. Although now Japanese restaurants are at least as numerous as Chinese, that was not the case as recently as the 1980s. New Orleans didn't get its first sushi bar until Shogun opened in 1983. The very few Japanese places previous to that were along the lines of Benihana, but not as good. The first Japanese place to break out of that was the Mount Fuji in Algiers, which had sushi, although no sushi bar.

Music To Have Dinner In The Diner By
In 1942 today, the first gold record for sales of over a million copies of a single song was presented to Glenn Miller for his classic Chattanooga Choo-Choo, sung by Tex Beneke and the Modernaires in front of Miller's big band. It included this delightful lyrical image:

Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, 
Than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina. 

Even a mediocre dinner in a railroad diner is wonderful.

World Records In Food
Today in 1977, fishermen off the coast of Nova Scotia pulled up aMaine lobster that weighed forty-four and a half pounds. It was the heaviest crustacean on record to be caught anywhere. Thermidor for fifty!

Food Calendar
Today is Jambalaya Day. Jambalaya is a dish in need of greater attention from the more ambitious chefs in New Orleans restaurants. Although most people in our part of the world agree that jambalaya is one of the most distinctive and delicious dishes in the local cuisine, not many restaurants serve it and not enough people cook it at home. The dish needs the kind of reassessment that repopularized chicken gumbo in the late 1970s.

As things stand now, jambalaya is relegated to booths at festivals. The most famous festival appearance by the dish is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where both major isotopes of jambalaya are made in big vats over an open fire. Those two varieties are--predictably--Creole and Cajun. The former is made with enough tomato to turn it a distinctly red-orange hue. The Cajun jambalaya may have some tomato in it, but probably not. It's emphatically brown, and typically spicier and meatier. The Creole version is more likely to include shrimp, while the Cajun version more probably includes spicy, smoky sausage or tasso. Chicken is common in both.

Jambalaya is often called a descendant of paella, but we question that. You could as well say it's a descendant of fried rice. Its name tells us something about its history. It comes from the words jambon a la ya-ya. Loosely translated, that means "ham made into a Creole party dish." Which sums it up well. 

A good model of what an inventive chef could create if he were to turn his attention to the dish is the jambalaya Richard Hughes makes (most, but not all the time) at the Pelican Club. It starts with exceptionally fine ingredients: enormous shrimp, well-made sausage, big chunks of chicken and duck. The rice component carries all these flavors--including those that arise from the fat in the sausage--without becoming greasy or dirty-looking. It leaves out nothing of the down-home flavor of jambalaya, but is much more than that.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Rice, Texas is a small town of a few hundred people on the I-45, 45 miles south of Dallas. It's been a stop on the main route between Houston and Dallas since the railroad days. It may well be a rice-growing area--much rice is grown in Texas--but the flat, mostly treeless terrain looks more like cattle country. It is not the home of Rice University (that's in Houston). While in Rice, stop for chicken-fried steak at the Ranch House Cafe.

Deft Dining Rule #624:
If you can identify everything in a jambalaya, it's not a very good jambalaya.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Jambalaya must be stirred with a wooden implement, whether it be a roux spoon or a pirogue paddle.

Edible Dictionary
paella, [pah-AY-lyeh], Spanish, n.--Paella is to the rest of the world the best known of all Spanish dishes. It admits of many ingredients and style, but simmers down to rice, olive oil, and chicken stock, cooked in a big pan with poultry, sausages, or seafood, plus peas, beans, and savory vegetables. The finishing touch is--if it's a superior version--the expensive and inimitable spice saffron. In the cheaper editions, annatto gives the color of saffron, but not the unmistakable flavor and aroma. Paella is native to Valencia, but it's everywhere in Spain now, as well as most other parts of the world. It often turns up on the menus of Latin American restaurants that want to show off their cooking abilities. Jambalaya is the Creole cousin of the dish, by way of the connection between the Spanish West Indies and Louisiana.

Food Inventions
This is the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, whose name is synonymous with invention. His great idea was the electric light bulb, which certainly changed the face of the restaurant world. Imagine what it would be like to dine only by candlelight. (If you want to experience that, have a dinner upstairs at Muriel's.)

Alluring Dinner Dates
Today is the twenty-fourth anniversary of my marriage to my wife, Mary Ann Connell. She motivates me to work hard.

Celebrity Chefs Today
This is the birthday (1926, near Lyon) of Paul Bocuse, one of the leaders in modernizing French cookery in the 1970s and beyond. He also raised the esteem of chefs among his countrymen. When he was given a major award from the French government, he accepted it not in formal clothing but in crisp chef whites. Bocuse came to New Orleans a couple of times, once cooking a dinner at Louis XVI in the late 1970s. His flagship restaurant, l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon, is a long-time Michelin three-star winner.

Food On The Air
Today in 1963, Julia Child's first television show premiered. It was called The French Chef, and was based on her groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. She fell in love with French cuisine during her many years in that country as, among other things, a spy for the OSS.

Food And Drink Namesakes
John Bock, NFL player, was born today in 1971. . . Scottish pop composer and musician Nick Currie was born today in 1960. . . SingerBrandy Norwood, who usually goes just by her first name, was born today in 1979.

Words To Eat By
"The Cajun jambalaya ($15.95) tasted as if some dry hot-spice-mix had been randomly sprinkled over chunks of flavorless chicken and shrimp."--From a newspaper review of the Cheesecake Factory, a place you should never go looking for jambalaya.

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