The Food Almanac: Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's Boxing Day, The first day of Kwanzaa, and National Roast Beef Poor Boy Day!


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

Days Until
New Year's Eve--6

The First Day of Christmas
Today, various people gave their various loves a partridge in a pear tree, a song for the Christmas tree, a Japanese transistor radio, and a crawfish they caught in Arabi. I woke up this morning thinking about this song (which has till January 6 to run, even if you're quite done with it already), and how I would write the words from the perspective of a New Orleans cook and eater. The results are below.

On the first day of Christmas I'd like to cook for you:
A filé duck-andouille gumbo.

On the second day of Christmas I'd like to poach for you:
Two eggs Sardou.

On the third day of Christmas I'll sugar-dust for you:
Three beignets.

On the fourth day of Christmas I'd like to cut for you:
Four fourths of a muffuletta.

On the fifth day of Christmas I'd like to fry for you:
Five soft shell crabs!

On the sixth day of Christmas I'd like to roast for you:
Six char-grilled oysters.

On the seventh day of Christmas I'd like to flame for you:
Seven bananas Foster.

On the eighth day of Christmas I'd like to grill for you:
Eight links of sausage.

On the ninth day of Christmas I'd like to steam for you:
Nine cups of rice.

On the tenth day of Christmas I'll slow-simmer for you:
Ten cups of red beans.

On the eleventh day of Christmas I'll barbecue for you:
Eleven jumbo shrimp.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I'd like to dress for you:
A twelve-inch dressed hot roast beef poor boy.

This is the first day of Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage first celebrated in 1966. It runs through January 1, with glad tidings every day and gift exchanging on New Year's day. The word Kwanzaa is from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits." We who enjoy the unique pleasures of Creole cooking ought to note this holiday, regardless of our backgrounds. Without the African influence on our food, it would be nothing like it is, and not nearly as delicious.

Observances
Today is Boxing Day, a holiday in England and the Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, and a few other countries. It is traditionally the day on which servants were given their Christmas gifts. So it's was the day the chefs and waiters got their bonuses. The origin of the name is not agreed upon, and none of the theories are interesting enough to go into.

Food Inventions 
On this date in 1865, the coffee percolator won a patent for James H. Nason (sometimes noted as Mason). The percolator automates the task of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. It works by isolating a small amount of water near the heat source, so it will come to a boil quickly. When it does, the boiling forces the water up a tube to the top of the pot, where it spilled into a compartment filled with ground coffee. The water then percolates through the grounds to brew the coffee. The percolator has fallen into disrepute among coffee purists, who note that toward the end of the process brewed coffee is boiled as it cycles through the system. I think this effect actually adds something to coffee. But then again, I drink coffee and chicory, which coffee purists also decry.

Annals Of Food Writing
Today in 2005, a man who inspired me to search for fabulous, little-known restaurants passed away. He was a sixty-four-year-old comic strip character named Steve Roper. His serial adventure strip had been in newspapers since 1940. Roper was a magazine reporter and photographer who covered the tough stories, so he was always involved in high adventures. When I was about ten, one of the episodes intrigued me. Roper's boss asked him to show the new fashion editor around the city and take her to dinner. The woman was beautiful and sophisticated, and was disdainful of Roper's apparently rough lifestyle. Especially when Roper drove her to the back of a warehouse in a bad neighborhood. She was on the verge of panic when Roper knocked on the door. A maitre d' in a tuxedo opened it up, welcomed Roper as a regular customer, and walked them through a spectacular dining room to the best table in the house, set with flowers and fine napery. Over the next few strips, the fashion editor was astonished by the food, service, and wine at this unheard-of location.

"Not too many people know about this restaurant," said Roper. "And the management likes it that way."

Then and there, I decided that the ultimate restaurant would be one that not only served great food very well, but which was not well known. I've looked for such places all my career, and taken delight in finding them. All because of Steve Roper.

More Career Influences
Today is also the birthday (1921) of Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show and a major influence on my broadcasting style. As is the case with many early television stars, Steve Allen's work is largely lost, so his genius is not widely realized. Hi-ho, Steverino. . . Another hero of mine came to an end today in 1954. The Shadow was the first radio drama I ever heard, when episodes from the 1940s reappeared on radio in the early 1960s. The stories about the man who could cloud men's minds so they cannot see him grabbed my young imagination when I was ten or eleven.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Eggnog, Utah is in the spectacular arid mountains in the south of the state, with Glen Canyon just to the south and the alarmingly beautiful Capitol Reef National Park to the immediate west. Eggnog is an uninhabited spot along the Burr Trail, an old cattle trail that is now used by hikers and explorers in off-road vehicles. Eggnog is at the spot where the Burr Trail crosses Bullfrog Creek, requiring a steep climb up a sharp, long switchback. As you might imagine, if you are in Eggnog, you are a long way from the nearest restaurant--about 100 miles, many of them on a dirt road. And the names tell you something, too: The Boulder Mesa Grill, the Burr Trail Grill, and Hell's Backbone Grill.

Edible Dictionary
mincemeat pie, n.--Usually made in the standard two-crust, nine-inch-diameter round form, a mincemeat pie is filled with a mixture of chopped fruits, almost always including apples. The fruit mixture is seasoned with aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, and mace, and often spiked with a bit of rum or brandy. It is of British origin, and is still popular around Christmastime. It dates back to medieval times, and was popular enough that by the 1600s Oliver Cromwell made a law against serving mince pie (its alternative name) it on Christmas Day--probably because of the alcohol content. Originally, mincemeat actually included meat. That practice has all but disappeared, although some recipes still call for beef suet to be used in cooking down the fruits. Butter is more common now.

Today's Flavor
It's Roast Beef Poor Boy Day. In many homes, prime rib is left over from the Christmas feast. Even the scraps of that are the makings of a great sandwich, to say nothing of the gravy. In the spirit of the season, we refrain from insisting that it be a poor boy sandwich. Philly cheese steaks, subs, hoagies, and French dips all qualify for fulfillment of your obligation on this day. However, much more about the New Orleans roast beef poor boy is in our Recipe section.

Unusual Foods
Remember eating emu? The big, flightless, ostrich-like bird appeared as a special on menus around town in the early 1990s. It's a red meat, very low in fat, and seemed to have enough promise that emu farms were started by many people persuaded that it was soon to be a big business. It all collapsed on this day in 1997, when it was reported that emus were running around free in Texas, where many of the failed farms were. Problem: no taste, tough texture. I didn't like any of the samples of it I tried. Didn't any of these people eat the stuff first? Dishes made with emu and ostrich have been turning up on a few menus around town lately, but I don't think they're exactly taking off.

Speaking of exotic foods, on this date President Bill Clinton signed a measure banning the practice of capturing sharks, cutting off the fins, and throwing the now-helpless fish back into the sea. The fins were destined for Asian markets, mostly for shark's fin soup. Which tastes like nothing to me.

Annals Of Food Writing
This is the birthday of Alan King, a stand-up comedian whose greatest popularity was in the 1960s through the 1980s. He wrote a book in 1991 with New York restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, entitled Is Salami And Eggs Better Than Sex? It begins this way: "As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced."

Music To Drink By
The song Escape--better known as The Pina Colada Song--is about a couple in an evaporating relationship. They find one another again through a personal ad, in which the guy asserts his liking for pina coladas, the taste of Champagne, and other first-date issues. It made Number One on the pop charts today in 1979. Rupert Holmes was the singer.

Food Namesakes
Elisha Cook, Jr., an actor who appeared in The Maltese Falcon, among other movies, was born today in 1902. . . Susan Butcher, a multiple winner of the Iditarod dog-sledding race in Alaska, hit the Big Trail today in 1954.

Words To Eat By 
"It may not be possible to get rare roast beef, but if you're willing to settle for well done, ask them to hold the sweetened library paste that passes for gravy."--Marian Burros, food writer for the New York Times.

 

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