The Food Almanac: Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's National Muffuletta Day!
Staff Writer
Muffuletta

Wikimedia Commons/ J.C. Winkler

Muffuletta

Food Calendar 
Today is National Muffuletta Day. The muffuletta has an obvious Italian ancestry, but it was created in New Orleans, from which it has spread to some other parts of the country in recent years. A well-made muffuletta is one of the world's best sandwiches, and a perfect lunch for a meeting that needs its brains cleared. (As long as everybody is eating it, anyway.)

Although it's obviously Italian, you won't find muffulettas in Italy. The word is a rarely-used Sicilian dialect word for a big, round, thick loaf bread. That's what a New Orleans Italian (there is dispute over who he was) used to make a new kind of panino in the early 1900s. The unique touch wasn't the bread but the dressing: a chunky salad of olives, peppers, garlic, and various marinated vegetables. Also in there are ham, Genoa salami, mozzarella, Swiss cheese (at least), plus mortadella and provolone (perhaps). A muffuletta is essentially an antipasto sandwich. 

It's a fascinating battle between elements with powerful flavors (salami, garlic, olives) and those with mellow, moderating flavors (cheese, olive oil, and crusty bread). The ham centers everything else. It's a flavor like nothing else in the sandwich world. 

Two controversies attend the muffuletta. The first is who invented it. We know that it came out of first-generation New Orleans Italian grocery stores in the French Quarter. The Central Grocery voices the loudest claim to have created the sandwich, but there are too many other stories out there to take that as gospel. 

The other issue is whether it should be served hot, as it commonly is these days. It did not start that way, and the old muffuletta mills never have heated their sandwiches. I think that heating a muffuletta upsets the balance of flavors, makes the meats greasy and the cheeses slimy, and ruins the olive salad. But most shops now heat muffs automatically. This is a move away from the sandwich's origins, and it must be stopped.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
It's bad luck to split a muffuletta more than four ways. Worse luck will come from eating a whole one all by yourself.

Deft Dining Rule #272:
Cheese tastes best at room temperature. Chilling cheese hides its flavors and aromas. Melting cheese takes away its integrity.

Service Hall Of Fame
Gilbert LeFleur (his name tag said "Louis") had two long stints as a waiter at Galatoire's. In between, he was a waiter and then the maitre d' at LeRuth's. When that legendary restaurant closed in the 1990s, he returned to Galatoire's. He was one of three cousins from the Cajun country who worked in that classic dining room. He was on the floor right until the day before he died of a sudden heart attack on this date in 2006. Gilbert was one of my regular waiters at Gal's, as well as a good friend, always smiling and telling jokes.

Annals Of Popular Drinks
Today in 1894, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. Until then, it was strictly a fountain drink. Bottling caused the product to take off, and it gave birth to an entirely new industry. Coke became so big that on this same date, in 1987, it became a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And if that isn't enough coincidences for you, this is the day, in 1929, when Asa Candler died. He bought the formula for Coca-Cola from its inventor and began marketing it.

Edible Dictionary
veal cheeks, n.--Here is one of those items which causes the uninitiated to think, "I wonder what that is? Surely it can't be what it says!" But in fact that's exactly what it is: the cheeks of a veal calf. There are also cheeks on other animals; pork cheeks are becoming more popular lately. Cheeks are much tastier than you might imagine. Cheeks are fairly strong muscles, and so must be cooked long and slowly with a lot of moisture. However, they also contain a lot of gelatin and just enough fat to make the final result a melt-in-the-mouth experience. Veal cheeks are most commonly served as an appetizer, making them very useful in dinners in which a seafood entree will follow.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Blackberry, Minnesota is on US 2 in the flat, glacier-scraped, lake-pocked northern part of the state. It's seventy-five miles northwest of Duluth. The township, which takes in the many farms in the vicinity, has a population of 717. The nearest restaurants are seven miles up US 2 in Grand Rapids. Our pick, based on name alone, is the First Class Cafe.

Music To Stroll Around The French Quarter By
Arranger, composer, and conductor Paul Weston was born today in 1912. He had a long career during and after the Big Band era. In the 1950s he composed a marvelous pop-jazz-symphonic work called Crescent City Suite. Listening to it gives one a feeling for what New Orleans was like in those days. Weston wasn't from here, but he liked our city. His wife was Jo Stafford, a strong choice as the finest female voice rendering the American standard songbook.

Food Through History
Today in 1930, Mohandas Gandhi began a two-hundred-mile walk with many of his followers to the seashore, where salt naturally forms by seawater evaporation. However, the British colonial law said that all salt must be bought from British producers. Picking up natural salt was illegal. Gandhi challenged this stupidity, picked up the salt, and was immediately arrested, as he knew he would be.

Eating Around The World
Today is the National Day for Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean. It celebrates its independence from England in 1968. Mauritius, one of the most prosperous of African nations, was the home of the dodo bird, which was quickly killed to extinction after the Portuguese arrived in the 1500s. Imagine: a pigeon the size of a turkey! I wonder what that tasted like. A New Orleans chef is from Mauritius: Dominique Macquet, of Dominique's on Magazine.

Food Namesakes
Leonard Chess, founder of the record company that bore his name, was born today in 1917. We wonder if he liked his namesake pie (like a pecan pie without the pecans). . . Pro baseballer Darryl Strawberry came into the world today in 1962. . . Today in 1986, Susan Butcher won the Iditarod dog-sled race, 1158 miles, in Alaska. . . William Thomas Jr., who played Buckwheat in the Our Gang films, was born today in 1931.

Words To Eat By
"A Frenchman in the train had given him a great sandwich that so stank of garlic that he had been inclined to throw it at the fellow's head."--Ford Madox Ford, English writer of the late 1800s and early 1900s, who clearly had experience with a muffuletta.

 
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