The Food Almanac: Friday, August 30, 2013

The Day Of No Restaurants
Today in 2005 was a really bad day in New Orleans. Katrina was gone, but the levees parted and the city filled with water. The flood would cover eighty percent of its formerly dry land with several feet of water, and remain for weeks. It would be a couple more days before FEMA and other governmental agencies got a grip on how bad things were. Orleanians in exile knew exactly how awful the situation was, as we gaped at what we saw on CNN. And the worst was still yet to come. I remember drinking many martinis and feeling powerless, homeless, and jobless. I hadn't yet started wondering what would happen to our restaurants. On this day five years ago, the number of them in operation was zero. That had never happened to any culinary capital in history.

Today's Flavor
This is National Seafood Stuffing Day. Restaurants from the lowest to the highest price categories stuff seafood dressings into all sorts of other foods. But what is it, really? Usually, a combination of claw crabmeat, tiny shrimp, bread crumbs, and herbs. In flavor, it ranges from bready, oil-logged, and tasteless to marvelous, fluffy, moist concoctions that add magic to whatever it stuffs.

Seafood stuffing can be dangerous. The temptation to make it out of a little bit of seafood and a lot of bread gives a bad name to what can be, when made well, a delicious thing. Stuffing can be actually stuffed into something (as in a stuffed fish, lobster, or soft-shell crab) or wrapped around the outside of the stuffee (as in stuffed shrimp). Or it can be served all by itself (as in stuffed crabs, which starts with only the shell of the crab, if even that).

The secret of good seafood stuffing is in starting with cubes of stale bread, rather than bread crumbs. You then soak the cubes in a flavorful seafood stock. Then mix it with as much seafood as you can, of a quality you would eat even if it were served by itself.

Food And Wine In Show Biz 
Today in 1968, the Beatles recorded the first songs on their new Apple label. One of them was their all-time biggest hit, Hey Jude,. It entered the charts at Number Ten (the highest entry level for any record ever), and was Number One for nine weeks.

Today is the birthday, in 1908, of actor Fred MacMurray, who had a long career in radio, movies, and television. His ranch in Sonoma became a vineyard, and under the management of the Gallo family has become a great source of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. Their reserve Pinot Noir I find particularly drinkable.

Shirley Booth, whose most famous role was as the eponymous maid on the 1960s television show Hazel, was born today in 1898. Talk about a show that would make no sense today! Hazel was a live-in maid who did all the cooking and serving for an upscale but not especially wealthy American family of three. She was a wisecracking busybody who bossed her employers around. Shirley Booth played another food-and-drink-related role, as Miss Duffy in the long-running radio comedy series Duffy's Tavern. In real life, she was the wife (and ex-wife) of Ed Gardner, who created the series and played Archie, the manager of a sleazy dive in which inedible food and bad drinks were served to a bunch of lowlifes.

Annals Of California Wine
Today is the birthday, in 1812, of Agoston Harazthy, considered the father of winegrowing in California. A native of Pest, Hungary, he brought thousands of vineyard cuttings to Sonoma County, planting what became the Buena Vista vineyards. His work to solve the problem of the phylloxera root louse–endemic in America–saved the vineyards of Europe when the louse found its way there.

Deft Dining Rule #194
When you hear someone rave about a wine because it comes from pre-phylloxera vines, you are listening to someone whose reception of flavor comes largely from self-hypnosis.

Edible Dictionary
surf and turf, n.–Substantial portions of seafood and meat served served together on a single plate as an entree. The classic combination is lobster (surf) and steak (turf). Shrimp are at least as common as lobster in the surf role. It's not known who originated the idea or the name, but it seems to have first appeared in the 1960s. Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of Roadfood, say it became popular at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair in the Space Needle restaurant. Surf and turf is popular because it creates the illusion of getting two entrees for the price of one. It's the same dynamic that propels buffets. Restaurateurs love surf and turf, too, because it allows them to use shellfish and steak of secondary size and quality, while the perception of quantity glosses over those shortcomings.

Bridges To Fine Dining
The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway opened today in 1956. A 23.86-mile, two-lane span (now the southbound span) opened as the longest bridge in the world. Lake Pontchartrain lies north of New Orleans; high water pushed into it by Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to break. (The Causeway, however, remained passable.) Its greatest effect was the development of the other side of the lake, now a major suburb of New Orleans. About twenty years ago I ran an April Fool review of a restaurant on the lower level of the mid-lake turnaround on the older span. Every now and then a radio listener calls about it. Come to think of it, that would be a good place to build an exit to a man-made island in the middle of the lake, with hotels, casinos, and restaurants there. Why not?

Politics In Food
Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, the most famous political figure in the history of the state, was born today in 1893. The lore about his life and idea fill many books. What we're interested in here is that promise he made to his constituents of "two chickens in every pot."

The Saints
Today is the feast day of St. Fiacre, who lived in Ireland in the seventh century. He is the patron saint of gardeners. His images depict him carrying a shovel and a bundle of vegetables.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Birdseye, Indiana is in the southern tip of the state, almost directly on the Grits Line, in rolling woods and farming country, about sixty-three miles west of Louisville, Kentucky. The population is about 500. You can stop for a quick lunch at the Birdseye Dairy Barn.

Food Namesakes
Coy Bacon, pro football player in the 1970s, was born today in 1942. . . Peggy Lipton, television actress, turned on today in 1947. . . R. (Robert) Crumb, the most famous and best of all the underground comix artists, was born today in 1943. . . Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice set an inglorious record today in 1984, by grounding into a record thirty-third double play of the year. He would run that total up to thirty-six. Otherwise, he was a great hitter. . . Samuel Whitbread, who would become the head of the largest brewery in England, was born today in 1720.

Words To Eat By
"I'm a salty, greasy girl. I give every French fry a fair chance."–Cameron Diaz, born today in 1972.

"All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."–John Gunther, American author, born today in 1901.

Words To Drink By
"A man cannot make him laugh; but that's no marvel; he drinks no wine."–William Shakespeare.