The Food Almanac: Monday, June 24, 2013

Today's Flavor
Today is National Pralines Day. Pralines are the official candy of New Orleans. Even though they're not eaten as often as, say, Snickers, and even though the typical Orleanian has not had a praline in awhile, we all say we love 'em. Don't we? 

Pralines are as simple as a candy can be. Sugar makes up about 90 percent of the recipe, followed by butter, condensed milk, and vanilla. Cook that down to the soft-ball stage, add the pecans and you're finished. The basic flavor is that of caramelized sugar, with its slight bitterness and butterscotchiness. The vanilla is an important but subtle note, and a good mouthfeel comes from the milk. In recent years we've been offered other flavors of pralines. Loretta's, one of the better makers of pralines, has pecan, coconut, chocolate, and rum flavors of pralines. Other makers have other flavors, some bordering on bizarre.

My favorite praline flavor is "praline." Especially those at Aunt Sally's in the French Market. They have a flavor and texture I prefer to any others. You can watch the manufacturing process in the window, or go in and take in the aroma. After boiling the liquid concoction for a half-hour, they pour the sticky, molten mixture onto a marble slab around pecans. That's everything a praline should be. The best time to have a praline is in an energy lull in the middle of the afternoon, and after a light meal, in lieu of dessert. The combination of sugar and nut protein does something nice to your head, and the creamy vanilla sweetness can't help but put you in a good mood.

One final matter: the right pronunciation of the word is "prah-LEEN." The only people who say "PRAY-leen" are those who would say "CRAY-fish" or "EYE-ber-ville Street."

Eating With The Seasons
This is Midsummer Day, noted more in Europe than here. It's the midpoint between the day of first planting and the day of last harvest. Obviously, those change, but this day was settled upon as a good average. It's more about hours of daylight than temperature, obviously. Nothing could be much hotter than the weather we've had lately in New Orleans.

Music To Eat Grits By
This is the birthday, in 1904, of bandleader and comedian Phil Harris. Extremely popular during the Golden Age of Radio, Harris led the orchestra on the Jack Benny show, and had his own half-hour situation comedy show. His signature song was "That's What I Like About The South," which made numerous culinary references to the likes of grits and turnip greens. Phil's daughter Phyllis lived in New Orleans, and so he came to town often. He was the king of the Bacchus parade in 1972.

Annals Of Expensive Coffee
Yesterday in 1817, the first coffee plants were put down in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kona coffee is now some of the best on earth, commanding higher than average prices in your local coffeeshop or supermarket. The local coffee is served everywhere in Hawaii, and they make it good and strong, too. If we could produce coffee in New Orleans, I wonder what it would be like.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Pecan is a country crossroads in the southwestern corner of Georgia, forty-six miles north of Dothan, Alabama. It is exceptionally well named: hundreds of acres of pecan orchards surround it on all sides, with new orchards being planted all the time. Not many houses nearby, but lots of pecans. It's three miles from the Walter F. George Reservoir on the Chattahoochie River, where there's a state park. For a good lunch or dinner, drive three miles west to Fort Gaines, where Tommy's restaurant waits to serve you. Try the pecan pie.

Edible Dictionary
kugelhopf, Also spelled gugelhopf. German, n.–A sweet yeast cake, usually made with a fluted tube pan (the kind used for bundt or angelfood cakes). It's a darker, breadier cake with a coarser texture than most cakes. It often contains some fruits and nuts, and is usually topped with powdered sugar–although sometimes the topping is a light sugar glaze. Kugelhopf is one of the best breakfast cakes, and serves well as a coffee cake. Great for a late-night snack; less appropriate for dessert at dinner.

Food Through History
Gustavus Swift, who created the first efficient method of shipping and marketing meat in America, was born today in 1839. He created the railroad refrigerator car, a major breakthrough in getting beef from the vast western herds to the markets in the East. Swift's railroad cars held meat that had already been slaughtered and butchered, instead of whole, living cows that had moved by cattle cars in the past.

Famous Names in Food
Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champ in the 1910s and 1920s, was born today in 1895. He had a restaurant in New York City after he stopped fighting. Jack Dempsey's is a seafood restaurant in the old Bywater section of New Orleans, and quite popular with those who favor very large portions. The restaurant was named not for the fighter but for a long-time police reporter of the old States-Item, who was quite a local character.

Food Namesakes
Betty Stove, a professional tennis player in the 1970s, is 60 today. . . Birkett Davenport Fry, who was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, was born today in 1822.

Words To Eat By
"Cabbage: a familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head."–Ambrose Bierce, born today in 1842. His Devil's Dictionary included many funny food entries. Here are some of those:

"Chop: a piece of leather skillfully attached to a bone and administered to the patients at restaurants." 

"Crayfish: a small crustacean very much resembling the lobster, but less indigestible."

"Eat, v.i.: To perform successively (and successfully) the functions of mastication, humectation, and deglutition. 'I was in the drawing-room, enjoying my dinner,' said Brillat-Savarin, beginning an anecdote. 'What!' interrupted Rochebriant; "eating dinner in a drawing-room?' 'I must beg you to observe, monsieur,' explained the great gastronome, 'that I did not say I was eating my dinner, but enjoying it. I had dined an hour before.'"