The Food Almanac: August 23, 2012
This is National Sponge Cake Day. Not to be confused with angel food cake, sponge cake is another word for genoise, a light cake made with eggs beaten with sugar, after which the flour and other ingredients are added. In other words, a typical fine cake.
More interesting is another observance on this date: Gravy Day. Gravy. Not sauce. But what, after all, is the difference?
The Penguin Companion to Food says, "Gravy in the British Isles and areas culturally influenced by them is... well, gravy, a term fully comprehensible to those who use it, but something of a mystery in the rest of the world." The French (and restaurateurs who are trying to avoid the common sound of "gravy") have a word for it: "jus."
Gravy begins with the juices and browned bits that come from cooking meat. That's thinned or deglazed with stock or water, in the pan where the meat was cooked. Then it's thickened up again (maybe) with a little flour or roux. A good gravy will be a little dirty with flecks of meat.
The most celebrated gravy in New Orleans is the one that wets down a roast beef po'boy. But there are as many more as there are meats to throw it off and take it on. Chicken gravy. Turkey gravy. Ham gravy, and its Southern variation, red-eye gravy. (Made in the pan where you just grilled the ham steak by adding a bit of coffee to it. Yuck.)
Confusing everything is "red gravy," meaning Italian-style tomato sauce. If you use the expression, you're thought of as a native, no matter where you are.
Burger, Tenn., is a junction just about on top of the main ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, not far from the Great Smoky Mountains. The mountains rise to 1,300 feet, about 300 feet above the waters of Burger Branch, which cuts a dramatic valley through the area. Burger is some 70 miles from the world headquarters of Krystal, the leading purveyor of sliders in the South. A little closer to Burger as a source for burgers is Tellico Junction Café, three miles from Burger in Englewood.
marrow, n. — The soft interior of large bones, marrow makes blood cells for the animal. Its most frequent appearances on the table are in dishes using the foreshanks of veal calves, with osso buco being the most famous. Marrow is pale ivory in color, and gelatinous. It's retrieved by using an oyster fork or (in really fancy places) a small spoon made specifically for the purpose. It has an extraordinarily rich flavor, from high components of fat and cholesterol. Marrow is one of the distinctive ingredients in very old versions of marchand de vin sauce, a practice that has become extinct locally.
Eating Around the World
Today in 1821, Spain signed a treaty allowing its former colony Mexico to become an independent nation. It was triggered by political instability in Spain, which was occupied by Napoleon at the time. Mexico — heir to one of the world's richest and most distinctive culinary traditions — was as different from Spain as the United States is different from Great Britain. Mexican food and culture expands in the U.S. every day. That's also true in New Orleans since the hurricane, although I don't think we've seen anything spectacular yet from the influx.
Annals of Eating Like a King
Today is the birthday, in 1754, of King Louis XVI, the last king of France before the Revolution. He and his wife Marie Antoinette were guillotined, but while his reign lasted he and Marie had it pretty good. The old Louis XVI French Restaurant — originally in the Marie Antoinette Hotel — attempted to duplicate that dining grandeur in the 1970s. Under Chefs Daniel Bonot and Claude Aubert, it succeeded. The restaurant is still in existence, but only for breakfast and private events.
Annals of Amphibians
The Goliath frog — the largest frog ever caught, weighing seven-and-a-half pounds — was found today in 1960 in Guinea. It was the size of two chickens. One frog fed a family of eight. But it was very tough. The sauce was the inevitable garlic and herb butter.
Drinking on Stage
A play called Ten Nights In A Barroom premiered in New York City on this date in 1858. It was about to play in New Orleans, until the local producers learned that it was a cautionary tale about the evils of drinking, and canceled it for fear nobody would understand the point they were trying to make.
Food in War
On this date in 1944, the Allied forces liberated Marseilles in France, releasing bouillabaisse from the Axis stranglehold.
Overeating in the Comics
Today in 1919, the comic strip Gasoline Alley premiered. It is still being published, although not in New Orleans. (You can read it online here.) Originally, it depicted a bunch of guys standing around talking about their automobiles, which were still a new thing back then. Then one of them--Walt Wallet — adopted a baby left on his doorstep. From that moment, all the characters aged in real time — a new idea in the comics. Walt is still alive in the strip, well over 100. He has always been an overweight chowhound. The baby, Skeezix, is now 89. Walt's other son, Corky, owns a diner.
This is the feast day of St. Rose of Lima. She is the patron saint of vanity, which ought to make her the patron saint of restaurant critics. (And television chefs, too.)
Johnny Romano, the all-star catcher for the White Sox in the 1950s and 1960s, was born today in 1934... James Roe, a professional football player, took the Big Snap today in 1973... Robert Mulligan, a movie director, said "Action!" today in 1925... Basketball pro Kobe Bryant was born today in 1978.
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, New York Times food writer.
Words to Drink By
"I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage." — Erma Bombeck.