The Food Almanac: March 3, 2014

Staff Writer
It's National Deli Meats Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ The Wordsmith

Cured, smoked, and sliced deli meats range from the irresistible goodness of dry-cured hams, pastrami, salami, and deli-style roast beef to such unspeakable atrocities as luncheon meat and standard bologna.


In New Orleans today is Lundi Gras–Fat Monday. Its celebrity relies entirely on that of the next day. Sort of like Christmas Eve. A suburb of a holiday. While a pre-holiday has become more famous than the holiday itself (Halloween), but Lundi Gras will be forever sandwiched between the Sunday before Mardi Gras–when the parading reaches its peak–and Mardi Gras itself. Few people work in New Orleans on Lundi Gras.

Sounds Like Candy, But Isn’t

The United States Mint was established today in 1791. On this same date in 1835, Congress authorized the building of a branch mint here in New Orleans. It lasted until the Civil War. The building is still there, part of the Louisiana State Museum now, at the southeastern corner of the French Quarter. In a few weeks, we’ll be there for the French Quarter Festival.

Music To Dine By

Today in 1931, Cab Calloway recorded his biggest hit and theme song, Minnie The Moocher. She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher, rhymed the song, which went on to note that “Each meal she ate was a dozen courses.” Sounds like my kind of girl. What’s a hootchie-cootcher?

Today’s Flavor

It is National Deli Meats Day. Cured, smoked, and sliced deli meats range from the irresistible goodness of dry-cured hams, pastrami, salami, and deli-style roast beef to such unspeakable atrocities as luncheon meat and standard bologna. The gamut of goodness among hams alone goes from silky and mellow (prosciutto) to disgusting (ham roll).

But things are looking up. Supermarket delis are adopting higher standards than ten years ago. Their customers buy better deli meats if they’re available, even at significantly higher prices. The only downside is, with limited space in the typical deli case, some cold cuts of old are becoming hard to find. Cured beef tongue, once universal in delis, is now seldom seen. How much longer will liver cheese be able to hang on?

The next wave in the deli will be the appearance of deli butchers. They will make recommendations among the various meats, and slice them with better-than-present care. We would like to hurry this trend along by suggesting that deli employees be tipped. They make a tremendous difference in the goodness of what they sell. Thinly-sliced meats give a better flavor release than thick-sliced, because of the greater surface area exposed in the meat. Despite that, most deli employees cut meats as thickly as they can get away with unless you ask otherwise.

Edible Dictionary

pastrami, n.–Cured, brined beef, usually brisket, which has been peppered and cold-smoked. Its history can be traced back to Turkey, Armenia, and the Balkans, where the technique was originally a method of preservation. Meats other than beef were (and probably still are) prepared the same way there. Originally, the meat was air-dried, in the same way that prosciutto is, but not as long. The pastrami you find in delis has evolved from that to become a lightly smoked, tender sliced meat with a bit of fat around the edges, a reddened brown color, and a distinct tang of salt and peppery spices. It’s usually steamed before it’s served, and usually winds up on a sandwich. Where, as is true of all deli meats, the thinner the slices the better.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

All meats – hams and roast beef included – are easier to slice thinly and uniformly if they are ice-cold.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Bologna Lake is in northeastern Minnesota, nine miles from the Canadian border. This is wilderness country, the glacier-scraped lakes and marsh-lined rivers interspersing the gently rolling terrain. Bologna Lake is about a half-mile east-west and a third of a mile north-south, with a small island in its center. It drains into the well-named Frost River. Surprisingly, you don’t have to travel far to get to the nearest restaurant: Gunflint Lodge, a wilderness vacation resort right on the Canadian border.

Deft Dining Rule #76:

If you ask a restaurant for a recipe and they refuse to share even a hint, it probably means that they’re buying the dish ready-made and just warming it up. This is a certainty if they respond to your request with, “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you or kill myself.”

Annals Of Extinct Eating Fads

In the spring of 1939, one Lothrop Withington (he sounds like a freshman at Harvard, and in fact he was) swallowed a goldfish plucked out of an aquarium on a dare. For a few months, his feat was repeated at an increasing rate not only of frequency but in the number of goldfish swallowed. By the time the fad played out, a record 300 fish were eaten in one go. Then laws and medical advice slowed goldfish eating. What goldfish tasted like never came to light; most were swallowed whole. 

Dining By Rail

George M. Pullman, the creator of the railroad sleeping cars that bore his name, was born today in 1831. The Pullman Company operated the sleepers and diners cars on almost every railroad in America until 1969. It set standards for service at a time when America was far from a country of gourmets. Pullman dining cars on the best trains equaled the food serves in all but the finest restaurants. I read a story once, for example, about a Pullman waiter’s being dressed down for inserting the cocktail fork for a shrimp cocktail into the meat of a lemon wedge instead of just under the skin, as he was supposed to. All of this is only a memory now. Eating on Amtrak isn’t horrible, but it’s nothing special at all.

Food In The Movies

Today is the birthday in 1911 of Jean Harlow, the most unforgettable (because of her voluptuousness) character in the classic film Dinner At Eight. It’s about a fabulous dinner with guests and conversations from hell.

Eating Across America

Today in 1845, Florida became the last state in the South to join the Union. It had been a Spanish colony until well into the 1800s. The dominant cuisine of Florida now, other than standard American, is Cuban, particularly in the southernmost part of the state. There’s also a strong Greek presence around Tarpon Springs. And Southern cooking throughout the Panhandle. Lots of fine seafood resources, notably Apalachicola oysters, pompano on the Gulf Coast, and royal ruby shrimp and rock shrimp. Conch is a big deal in the keys. But the finest Florida food export is oranges, the best juice oranges this side of our own here Louisiana.

Words To Eat By

“Round a table delicately spread, three or four may sit in choice repast, or five at the most. Who otherwise shall dine, are like a troop marauding for their prey.”–Archestratus, ancient Greek food authority and poet.

Words To Drink By

10 Boar's Head Meats You Shouldn't Eat a Lot Of10 Applegate Farms Products You Shouldn't Eat a Lot OfSandwich of the Week: Grilled Chipotle Pastrami at Sam La Grassa's in BostonSandwich of the Week: Oinkster Pastrami SandwichSandwich of the Week: The Noble Pig's Smoked Duck Pastrami

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”–Emile-Auguste Chartier, French writer, born today in 1868.