The Food Almanac: Monday, January 20, 2014

Today is the official celebration of the life of Martin Luther King. Somehow, trying to note a food connection to the great man seems too trivial. So I salute him and the large portion of our country who benefited from his life. Really, all of us have. Many offices are closed; many people take the day off.

Eating Around The World
Today in 1831, Belgium became an independent country after being dominated by the French and Germans (among others) for centuries. It has retained much French culture, particularly in its cooking. Belgium is the most underrated food country in Europe, with superb restaurants serving a mix of classic French cuisine and touches of Flemish (Dutch) flavor. There is no better place in the world to eat mussels and fried potatoes, both of which are Belgian obsessions.

Today's Flavor
Among the many distinctive Belgian food specialties are Belgian endives. They have four words for it (chicory, endive, witloof, and chicons), and hundreds of uses. In recognition of the Belgian national day, this is Belgian Endive Day. The spearhead-shaped heads are cultivated by a unique process. First, a bushy head of lettuce with many-lobed leaves comes up. That's cut off and fed to animals. The roots–which resemble pale, stumpy carrots–are packed upright in boxes stored in a dark, cool barn. When it's time for a harvest, the boxes are filled with a nutrient solution and brought into a warmer but still dark area. That's when the white leaves emerge to form the Belgian endive. They're usually eaten raw, but are sometimes cooked. The bitter flavor is palate-perking, and its unique crisp texture adds sparkle to a salad.

They also roast the roots of those plants, grind them, and add them to coffee. Sound familiar? Belgium is one of the few places on earth outside New Orleans that still drinks coffee and chicory. Most of the chicory we use in coffee here comes from Belgium.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Eatin Fork–which boasts a rare double food name–is in that rich vein of deliciously-named places, in the area where Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina come together. The town is in the most rural part of Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachians in southeast Kentucky, ninety-four miles north of Knoxville. These hills are home to a lot of horses, who must enjoy all that green grass between the thick continuum of woods. You will be able to wield an eatin' fork only if you're willing to drive the seven miles eat into Barboursville, where you'll find both Billy Bob's and the Hillbilly Country Restaurant. Easy to picture both of those.

Edible Dictionary
grillades, [GREE-yahdz], French, n., pl.–The word means "pieces of grilled food," understood to usually refer to meat. In New Orleans, grillades are typically veal or calf sliced from the round or the chuck, cooked and served with a Creole sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and celery. The sauce is beefed up (literally) with the juices and stock from cooking the meat slowly for an extended time. The classic partner for grillades made that way is grits. The resulting dish is more often served as a breakfast or brunch item than at any other time.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The roasted, ground chicory root used by coffee roasters is available all by itself. It's made by the Luzianne Coffee outfit, and sold in orange boxes under the name Coffee Partner. It's pure chicory. For an interesting taste experience, make a pot of "coffee" using pure chicory and no coffee at all. Zero caffeine; very bizarre flavor.

Deft Dining Rule #722:
The presence or absence of chicory coffee in a New Orleans restaurant is no longer indicative of anything.

Looking Up
In 1969 on this date, the star whose explosion created the Crab Nebula was found, in the middle of one of the jumbo lumps of the crab. It was a pulsar–an invisible neutron star that gives off pulses of radiation as it whirls rapidly. The Crab Nebula is the expanding cloud resulting from a spectacular supernova explosion in 1054.

This is traditionally the off-season for our local blue crabs. Crabs like warm weather. The lake and other nearby waters do contain crabs this time of year, but most of them bury themselves and are waiting for the water to warm up so they can move more freely. This means they're not eating much, which means that they're not very fat. But in the past few years crabmeat has continued to be available through the fall and into the winter. The price goes way up, but people buy them anyway.

The seasonal swings in availability and price has caused some restaurants to start using pasteurized, foreign crabmeat. We can't really blame the restaurants entirely for this. The average customer who enjoys soft-shell crabs or fish with crabmeat on top doesn't want to hear that it's out of season. They just want the dish, and they get upset when they can't have it. The restaurants comply, finding that far fewer people can tell the difference than complain about the absence of crabmeat.

For the connoisseur, however, this is the time to eat oysters. The beds in places like Barataria Bay are still recovering from the side effects of the BP oil spill. There was no oil there, but fresh water used to flush it out killed all the oysters. But most restaurants now have a steady supply of good Louisiana oysters that are big and meaty. They will continue to improve for the next couple of months. By which time your crabmeat will be back.

Food On The Air
George Burns was born today in 1896. He lived to be just a couple months shy of 100. He and his wife Gracie Allen starred in one of the great radio sitcoms for over twenty years, then moved to television for another decade. When Gracie (who had all the good lines) died in 1964, Burns faded from sight for a long time. He made a major comeback in the 1980s, with a string of movies and concerts. A running joke on the radio show concerned his desire to sing and his lack of singing talent. He wound up recording some Western songs anyway. The Burns and Allen Show usually had food sponsors, notably Hormel (the maker of Spam), and Maxwell House Coffee.

World Food Records
The record has since been topped, but on this day in 1964 the largest cheese ever made up to that time was a Cheddar created by the Wisconsin Cheese Foundation for the New York World's Fair. It weighed seventeen tons and required over 40,000 gallons of milk. The following year it was eaten at a meeting of cheeselovers.

Speaking of. . . One source says that this is National Cheeselover's Day. The word "cheeselover" makes me think of junk-mail catalogs touting clubs from which members receive monthly shipments of varied but always hyper-pasteurized cheeses, all of which tasted more or less like very mild Cheddar.

Food Namesakes
British actor Tom Baker was born today in 1934. . . Actress Stacey Dash was born today in 1967. . . Scotch actor Finlay Currie was born today in 1878. . . Supreme Court Justice David Josaiah Brewer was born today in 1837.

Words To Eat By
"The kind of crabbing my wife likes to do is to return from an afternoon's swim or sunbathing session, open the refrigerator door, and find a generous plate of crab cakes all ready to cook."–Euell Gibbons, natural-foods enthusiast and writer.

Words To Write Reviews By
"Critics are eunuchs at a gang bang."–George Burns, born today in 1896.