The Food Almanac: September 15, 2012

Get your day off to an appetizing start with food facts and trivia from Tom Fitzmorris
Staff Writer

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

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

Gourmets Through History
William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, was born today in 1857. He weighed more than 300 pounds, a record for the chief executive. Big guys were common in those days of massive eating. Banquet menus from that time make today's wine dinners look like snacks. Taft, after he finished his term as President, became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Turning Points in Eating
Marco Polo was born today in 1254. The explorer from Venice traveled widely in the Far East, establishing trade with those lands. The primary commodity: spices. Marco Polo is often credited with having brought pasta to Italy from China, but pasta was already there. Still, there was once a restaurant in Gretna (in the building where Kim Son is now) named for Marco Polo. Its menu combined Chinese and Italian food. Not a big hit.

Eating Around the World
This is Independence Day for most Central American nations. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all broke away from Spain today in 1821. There is, without question, a distinctive Central American cuisine. It has two sets of roots: in Spanish cookery and in that of the native pre-Columbian populations. It's based on the foodstuffs native to the area: corn, chile peppers, and beans.

Each Central American country has its own particular dishes, and many of them have different styles of cooking on their east and west coasts. One item found in all of the countries is the tamal — cornmeal and a little meat enclosed in a banana leaf. But even that shows big differences as you move around the isthmus.

New Orleans has never had many Central American restaurants. The most persistent at the moment is Pupuseria Divino Corazon, a Salvadoran café in Gretna that's been around since the 1990s. New Salvadoran restaurants have opened since the hurricane, notably the two locations of Pupuseria Macarena. We've occasionally had Nicaraguan and Honduran restaurants, even very good ones. Someday we'll support them long enough for them to become permanent.

Today's Flavor
In honor of the independence of the five Central American nations today in 1821, this is Pan-American Tres Leches Day. In any restaurant where you find it, tres leches cake can be counted on to be the best dessert in the house. Meaning "three milks," tres leches is made by layering a firm yellow cake with marshmallow cream, then soaking the whole thing in condensed milk, evaporated milk, and fresh milk. A good deal of variation appears in the recipes. Not all of them use the marshmallow cream. Some use fresh cream instead of one of the milks. Coconut milk also shows up in some. Crushed fruit, rum, and nuts in others. There's some dispute about its origins, but it seems to us that Nicaragua has the best claim. Tres leches is now found in almost every Central American restaurant in the United States. With good reason: it's wonderful.

Deft Dining Rule #2
Eat it where it lives. To paraphrase: When in El Salvador, eat pupusas.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Milkwater is the uninhabited location of a water well and tank on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the Four Corners area of Arizona. A range of lightly-forested mountains rise 300 feet just to the west of Milkwater. To the east is a vast, treeless desert plain, leveled by Crystal Creek, whose usually-dry bed runs about a mile away. You will find only water here. The nearest restaurant is the Junction. It's about 18 miles by hot-air balloon, but 56 miles by road — and those are gravel roads.

Edible Dictionary
saganaki, Greek, n. — This is the melted cheese appetizer of Greek restaurants. It starts with a square of cheese about two inches on a side and a half-inch thick. The most common cheese is kasseri, but kefaloteri and the Lebanese halloumi cheese are common. The cheese is browned in its own released fat in a hot little skillet. (The dish is named for that skillet.) In the most popular version, it's doused with Greek eau de vie (unaged brandy). At the table, the waiter touches a flame to it, making a ball of fire erupt for a second. He shouts "Opaa!" (Greek for "ole!"), and then he squeezes a wedge of lemon over the cheese. Everybody at the table is all smiles as they scoop up the cheese with pita bread. No big deal, but it gets the dinner off to an exciting start.

Annals of Candy
Today in 1995, the tan M&M's were replaced by blue ones, as a result of a poll of M&M's eaters that revealed a groundswell of interest in a blue piece. Interestingly, the tan M&M's entered the pouch to replace purple ones in the 1940s.

Music to Drink Cheap Wine By
Jimmy Gilmer was born today in 1940. He had two hits — both with food/drink titles — six years apart. The first was "Sugar Shack," in 1963. The second, with a completely different sound and under the name The Fireballs, was "Bottle Of Wine." It blistered the radio in 1968.

Music to Drink Cognac By
Bobby Short, perhaps the greatest male American cabaret singer in history, was born today in 1926. For decades, he played in the Café Carlyle in New York City, a little club that was packed with his fans every night. Short had a preference for the standards, rendered in a unique, sassy, jazzy way. He accompanied himself brilliantly on the piano as he sang with enough vibrato to shake leaves off a tree. He died in 2005, but his albums are still available. I'd recommend My Personal Property.

Food Namesakes
David Stove, an Australian philosopher, was born today in 1927... His countryman Terry Lamb, professional rugby football player, hit the Big Field today in 1961.

Words to Eat By
"Dessert is probably the most important stage of the meal, since it will be the last thing your guests remember before they pass out all over the table." — The Anarchist Cookbook.

Words to Drink By
"A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says, 'You've been brought here for drinking.' The drunk says, 'OK, let's get started.'" — Henny Youngman. 

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