The Food Almanac: Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's National Potato Chip Day!
Potato Chips

Wikimedia Commons/ Rainer Zenz

Potato Chips

Restaurant Anniversaries
Muriel's opened today in 2001. At first, it was the newest location of a too-hip, mostly West-Coast chain started by a dot-com zillionaire. But in the aftermath September 11 that year, all the Muriel's locations closed, except for the one here. That restaurant proved resistant to fallout--not only from 9/11, but Katrina. It continues to thrive. The setting is unique: diagonally across from Jackson Square, in a building whose first use was as a pasta factory. (It had been the Chart House most recently.)

Food Through History
King Umberto I of Italy was born today in 1844. He was one of the first leaders of a united Italian kingdom, and was a forward-looking and well-liked monarch. But for our purposes, we remember him as the husband of Queen Margherita, his cousin. The original pizza--made in Naples with cheese and slices of tomato--was named pizza Margherita in her honor.

Food Calendar
It is National Potato Chip Day. Until the 1960s, most potato chips eaten in New Orleans were under the brand name Dickey's. That local company--on Elysian Fields across from Washington Square Park--was almost the only game in town until Lay's moved in. One of Dickey's advertising slogans was "Untouched by human hands." From the ten-cent bag upwards (there was a nickel portion, too), Dickey's potato chips contained a little packet of activated charcoal and silica gel--something else they promoted in their advertising. Lay's put them out of business by offering a more consistent product and better merchandising. The big issue surrounding potato chips these days concerns the kind of oil used to fry them. Now just about every maker claims that theirs are fried in oil free of trans-fats--a good change.

The most widely-circulated story about the origin of potato chips concerns a Native American chef named George Crum. He worked at Moon Lake Lodge, a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1853, a customer complained repeatedly that the fried potatoes Crum cooked were too thick. "I'll show that moron," thought Crum, who then cut paper-thin slices of potato, fried them, and asked whether these were thin enough for the guy. The customer was surprised but delighted by the result: the first potato chips. They became such a hit that Crum later opened his own restaurant, with "Saratoga chips" as a specialty.

It's easy to fry your own potato chips, but it's also easy to overcook them. Use a sharp potato peeler to slice the potatoes. Heat vegetable oil to just 325 degrees. When you have enough sliced to make a batch, fry them while slicing some more. But keep your eye on the ones in the fryer. If they're browning quickly on the sides but not in the middle, the oil is too hot. When they're brown all over, drain them in a large sieve (paper towels make them soggy). Salt them up and keep going. Depending on the number of people in the house, you may well be at this for hours, because freshly-fried potato chips are even more addictive than the ones in the bags.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Chips Island is in the middle of the Koyokuk River in west central Alaska. The Koyukuk is 500 miles long, and a major tributary of the Yukon River. Flowing south, it's flanked by mountains to the west and a large marshland on the east. All of this is a wildlife refuge for moose and bear. Chips Island is about a half-mile long and rock-throwing distance wide. Just downstream is a sluggish former channel of the river, now called Chips Slough. On the west bank is a structure known as Chips Cabin. What exactly these chips are has eluded our research, but we'll keep looking. No restaurants anywhere around there.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Make potato chips thick enough to stand up to the dip. Or make a dip thin enough not to break the potato chip going into it. Better still, do both. (Joke.)

Sounds Like A Drink, But Isn't
Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin on this date in 1794. It pulls the seeds out of cotton bolls, but you knew that. The seeds are pressed to make an edible oil which is widely used for frying. Still, every time I hear the words "cotton gin" it think that somebody ought to roll out a brand called "Cotton's Gin."

Edible Dictionary
fish and chips, n.--Fillets or goujonnettes (sticks) of flaky white fish, covered with a thick batter usually made of flour and beer, then deep-fried. The classic fish species for this is cod, but other fish have been known to step in when cod is unavailable. The chips part of the dish are good old French fries. The most famous of all British street foods, the combination is traditionally served in sheets of newspaper rolled up into a cone, the better to soak up the inevitable excess of oil. Malt vinegar is the standard condiment. Fish and chips have been tried as the theme of fast food restaurants in America for years, but never seem to catch on. I would say there's a good reason for this: fish and chips sound a lot better than they are, even from the hands of a great chef.

Food Namesakes
Composer Francois d'Assise Morel was born today in 1926. . . Archaeologist Albert Egges van Giffen was discovered today in 1884. . . Jasper Carrott, a British comedian, was born today in 1945. A quotation of his is famous among my radio colleagues: "I am amazed at radio DJs today. I am firmly convinced that AM on my radio stands for Absolute Moron. I will not begin to tell you what FM stands for." . . . Actress Wendy Rice hit her mark today in 1975.

Words To Eat By
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."--Albert Einstein, born today in 1879. He also said:

“An empty stomach is not a good political advisor.”

Words To Drink By
"I have lived temperately. I double the doctor's recommendation of a glass and a half of wine a day and even treble it with a friend."--Thomas Jefferson.

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