The Food Almanac: Friday, April 5, 2013

Legends Of New Orleans Dining
In 1910 on this date, one of the most important New Orleans restaurateurs of all time was born. Thirty-six years later, Owen Edward Brennan founded Brennan's. He was later joined in the business by his siblings Adelaide, John, Ella, Dick, and Dottie, and then by his sons Pip, Ted, and Jimmy Brennan. What came out of that combination was a style of grand dining that dominated the high end of the scale for decades. In its evolved form, it still does. 

Owen E. Brennan's first business was the Absinthe House, which he opened in 1943. He was a congenial host, and the place became a celebrated hangout. A running joke was that people would go to the Absinthe House to complain about Arnaud's. Owen duly reported this to his friend Count Arnaud Cazenave. Count Arnaud came back with a fateful challenge: "If you think you can do it better, why don't you open a restaurant yourself? No Irishman can serve French food!"

Owen leased the Vieux Carre Restaurant (across the street from both the Absinthe House and Arnaud's) and opened Owen Brennan's French & Creole Restaurant. Brennan's was a success from the outset. Its freewheeling style–calling the food French cooking, but serving whatever sounded good to the customers–changed the way first-class dining rooms operated. It did so well that the landlord insisted on a piece of the business when the lease came up for renewal. Owen told him to stick it, and found a new location on Royal Street.

A few months before the new Brennan's was to open, Owen attended a dinner of La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a gourmet society of which he was a member, at Antoine's. He ate and drank well. He died in his sleep that night. He was only 45. He left a legacy of hospitality that lives on in all the Brennan restaurants, and those owned by people who worked in them. I wish I had met him.

Legends In Winemaking
Today in 1994, Andre Tchelitscheff died, ending the most influential career in the history of California winemaking. Born in 1901 in Russia, Tchelistcheff worked in the French wine business before going to California as Prohibition ended. At Beaulieu Vineyards he pioneered methods of winemaking and wine marketing that made them what they are today. Tchelitscheff planted French grape varieties and blended wines in a French way, but used American oak barrels for aging. He also was the first to use cold fermentation, and developed methods for protecting vines from disease and frost. His laboratory and wine library was the most respected source of information about viticulture for decades. When you drink a Napa wine especially, you are benefiting from Tchelistcheff's legacy.

Legends In Seeds
W. Atlee Burpee, who founded the seed company that bears his name, was born today in 1858. His company sold seeds nationwide by mail order, and the varieties of plants whose seeds he sold became dominant just by that fact.

Legends In Dairy
Today in 1881, Edwing Houston and Elihu Thomson received a patent for a centrifuge that separated cream from raw milk. It made possible all those creamy soups and sauces we love so much. Cream–practically a sauce unto itself–is a magic ingredient. So much so that restaurants overuse it, sometimes winding up with too many dishes that taste the same. When you find more than fifteen percent of a restaurant's non-dessert menu made with a substantial amount of cream, you are in a restaurant with a failure of imagination.

Today's Flavor
In honor of Owen Brennan, whose grand Breakfast at Brennan's redefined the upper limits of the meal, today is Fancy Poached Eggs Day. Most of the egg creations on Brennan's menu were French classics revived by Chef Paul Blange. It shortly became clear that the ones people liked most were poached eggs (which few restaurants offered in the 1940s) set atop some flavorful food (ham, crabmeat, creamed spinach), and covered with hollandaise. From that came the endless variations we find today in any restaurant that serves Sunday brunch. The restaurants love such dishes: few menu items carry as low a food cost percentage as do eggs.

Deft Dining Rule #168:
If you want to see how good a breakfast chef is, ask for coddled or shirred eggs. If they make either without question, you have a winner.

Annals Of Salt
On this day in 1930, Mohandas Gandhi took a group of his followers to a salt flat and began collecting salt from the ground, in defiance of a British rule that all salt had to be bought from England. He was arrested immediately, but scored a moral victory.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Benedict, KS 66714 is in the southeast corner of Kansas, ninety miles east of Wichita. It's a town of 73 people (down from 103 ten years ago), all living in a grid of perfectly square blocks. Most of those blocks are home to many more trees than people, with only three or four houses on each. Benedict first appeared on a map in the 1880s, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad touched the Verdigris River here. Farming has always been the main occupation, but the Dust Bowl years were hard on Benedict. Discovery of oil and gas boosted the population in the 1950s. It's not enough to support a restaurant, though, and you have to drive eight miles to Buffalo and Drakes Place Cafe to get a bite to eat. I wouldn't bet on getting eggs Benedict there, either.

Edible Dictionary
eggs Benedict, n.–Poached eggs set atop grilled ham on some kind of biscuit or toast, with the entire stack topped with hollandaise. Eggs Benedict are universal in restaurants serving brunch or fancy breakfasts. Many variations on the idea exist, enough that some menus show a category of "benedicts" or even "bennies." Many other ingredients have been used in lieu of the ham, ranching from other meats to fish to vegetables. How the dish was created is a subject of dispute, with several authoritative sources each telling a different story. Most agree that eggs Benedict became popular early in the 1900s. Several different people named Benedict have been put forth the person who was present at its invention. Food writer Elizabeth David says that it descended from an old French dish made with salted, dried codfish. The main data worth knowing are a) the bread on the bottom needs to absorb the water from the poached eggs without getting soggy, and 2) the hollandaise has to be flavored with a touch of red pepper.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Non-iodized table salt is the purest salt in the history of salt-making. I can't think of a reason not to use it.

Food Namesakes 
Alberto "Cubby" Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond movies, was born today in 1909. Not only does he have a food name, but one of his ancestors actually created the vegetable by hybridizing cauliflower. . . Gregory Peck was born today in 1916. . . Daniel Bakeman was the last surviving soldier from the Revolutionary War when he died today in 1869. . . The Lord of the Satsuma Clan, which lived on the island of Kyushu in Japan, invaded Okinawa on this date in 1609.

Words To Eat By
"Without butter, without eggs, there is no reason to come to France."–Chef Paul Bocuse.

Words To Drink By
"Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age."–Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, born today in 1937.