The Food Almanac: Monday, January 13, 2014

Annals Of Restaurant Fires
Today in 1830 a major fire swept through New Orleans. It destroyed a large part of the French Quarter and downtown. But the city was prosperous then, and after the fire a building boom ensued, with the result that a large number of structures in the French Quarter and CBD date back to the 1830s–including most of those being used now as restaurants.

Over the years a number of restaurants have been ravaged by major fires. The one most people remember was the fire started in an air duct by the flames from bananas Foster at Brennan's on April 3, 1975. It took six months for the restaurant to reopen. The same year, Visko's in Gretna burned down and reopened, but it was never the same afterwards. In 1980, also in Gretna, the local branch of the Natchez catfish house called Cock of the Walk went up in flames, never to return. Right after it opened following Katrina, Mr. Ed's in Bucktown had a disastrous fire from which they quickly rebuilt.

Fires in kitchens happen more than you might realize. Any restaurant serving soufflee potatoes has two or three fires per night. Fortunately, kitchens have such good fire-prevention apparatus that fires in them rarely take the whole place down. Instead, they close the restaurant for the night, and give everybody in the house when it happens a free meal.

Outstanding Restaurateurs
Mark Benfatti is fifty-three today. He's the owner of N'Tini's in Mandeville, a restaurant with a story. It originally opened in 2004 in Chalmette, where Mark lived and had operated an all-night cafe for a few years. N'Tini's was as upscale as any other restaurant in St. Bernard, and had attracted a lot of regulars when Katrina destroyed the restaurant, Mark's house, and everything else in St. Bermard. Like many others from that area, he moved to the North Shore and started over. N'Tini's became not only a haven for the transplants, but also a very popular place among Northshorinians, too. He's among the most hospitable of restaurateurs, and always has something special going on.

Today's Flavor
Today is National Peach Melba Day. See "Edible Dictionary,"below.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Peach, Tennessee is just over the Alabama state line, 144 miles west of Chattanooga. It's hilly country around there, with large farm fields interspersed with equally large patches of woods. The crossroads community is on the East Fork of Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River. Peach Road crosses the stream not with a bridge but with a ford. Talk about rural! The nearest restaurant is the Fish Creel in Anderson, Alabama, about nine miles south.

Edible Dictionary
peach Melba, n.,–A dessert made by surrounding a scoop of vanilla ice cream with fresh (let's hope) sliced peaches, and spooning a raspberry puree over the resulting sundae. It's usually garnished with chopped or sliced almonds or walnuts. It was invented in the 1890s by no less than August Escoffier, one of the most renowned French chefs of all time. He made it for Dame Nellie Melba, the famous Australian opera singer who is also the namesake of melba toast. A story has it that she though the dessert was good for her vocal cords, but any singer or speaker will tell you that dairy products, sugar, and cold foods are all to be avoided before opening one's mouth.

Deft Dining Rule #29:
If a restaurant has removed your favorite dish from the menu, and you miss it, just ask for it. Four times out of five they'll make it for you.

Annals Of Food Writing
Today is the birthday of Pierre Franey, long-time food writer for the New York Times and author of several cookbooks, including some in collaboration with Craig Claiborne. He made his name as a chef at Pavillon in New York City, a seminal restaurant that brought first-class French culinary style to the American restaurant scene. Franey was on my radio show once, and I had dinner with him afterwards at Les Continents, in the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was full of stories and bonhomie.

Presidential Eating
Today in 2002, President George Bush II choked on a pretzel while watching a football game. He passed out momentarily. Another good reason not to watch football games. This episode gave rise to the vice-presidential motto: "One pretzel away from the Presidency."

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
After you bake potatoes, get them out of the oven immediately and open them up. The best way is to poke a cross on top with four insertions of a fork. Then squeeze the sides with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. It will pop open and let the steam out, so they don't get soggy.

Annals Of Seafood Research
On this day in 1998, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that 20 million tons of edible fish per year–about ten pounds for every living person–are caught as "bycatch" and thrown away, dead. This is one of the worst pressures on fish stocks. Laws in recent years have addressed this, although the situation is still pretty bad.

Music To Eat Gumbo By
Two New Orleans jazz greats were born today: guitarist Danny Barker (1909) and trumpeter Percy Humphrey (1905). I was lucky enough to hear both of them numerous times in the old Bourbon Street jazz clubs, near the ends of their long careers, and before bands playing rock and country music took over.

The Saints
This is the feast day of St. Kentigern, a bishop and missionary in Wales and Scotland in the sixth century. He is the patron saint of salmon. One of the stories told about him is that he caught a salmon, cut it open , and turned up a ring lost by the queen of Cadzow. Speaking of salmon. . .

Today, the Monday after Epiphany, is Plow Day. That's the day when farmers return to work after the twelve days of Christmas, plus whatever else the calendar allows them to get away with–a whole week, this year. Here in New Orleans, we wind up postponing anything serious for a month or two longer, because Epiphany is the first day of Carnival, and we turn a lot of our attention to that celebration. So, if we did do any plowing around here, it wouldn't get started in earnest until Ash Wednesday.

Food Namesakes
Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was born today in 1808. His picture was on the now-extinct $10,000 bill. . . A year earlier, Major General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford of the Union Volunteers was born. The oversize Rally's hamburger is not named for him, but his name brought it to mind.

Words To Eat By
"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." –Mark Twain.

Words To Drink By
"Nothing In Moderation."–The epitaph on the gravestone of brilliant early TV comedian Ernie Kovacs, who died today in 1962.

"Oh brother, be a brother, fill this tiny cup of mine.
And please, sir, make it whiskey: I have no head for wine!
Nick Cave.