The Food Almanac: Monday, March 18, 2013

It's National Tomato Sauce Day!
Tomato Sauce
Wikimedia Commons/ R Walker

Tomato Sauce

Annals Of Everything
The world was created today in 3952 BCE, according to calculations from the Bible made by The Venerable Bede. Happy birthday, Earth!

Today's Flavor
Today is National Tomato Sauce Day. Tomato sauces are so numerous and distinctive that long books of recipes could be compiled for them. The tomato flavors are always front and center, yet most ingredients added to the sauce emerge to be tasted, as well. This gives rise to a wonderfully broad range of sauces.

The Italian tomato sauce variations alone could keep us here all day. There's marinara, cacciatore, ragu, fra diavolo, amatriciana, arrabbiata, and sugo, to name only a few. Sometimes the variations are as slight as those that distinguish one pasta shape from another, giving rise to millions of dishes. 

Tomato sauces are also widespread and varied in the cuisines of the tomato's native home--Mexico and other parts of the New World. Here in New Orleans where I live, our default version is sauce Creole--onions, bell peppers, celery, black pepper, the tomatoes not losing their fresh flavor in the brief cooking.

Tomato sauces also turn up in Indian cooking. Let's draw the line at barbecue sauce. It's usually made with a predominance of tomato. But it's not really red.

One of the most interesting and important properties of a tomato sauce is that it loses its sharpness as it cooks, while the sugars in them emerge. A tomato sauce cooked for five or ten minutes with fresh herbs still has a fresh, gardenlike taste and a chunky texture. The same ingredients cooked for hours become smooth and mellow, with a completely different flavor. Cooks who get a feel for this can play with it endlessly and deliciously. 

Tomato sauce has one other major nonconformity. While most chefs make a big deal about using fresh ingredients for everything, few object to the use of first-class canned tomatoes. While it could be said that the science of canning tomatoes is long perfected, the time a tomato spends in a can can be considered part of the cooking process. Adding fresh tomatoes to the mix adds further possibilities.

Deft Dining Rule #280:
Pasta with red sauce should only be eaten at the second or later dinner with a new person you're attempting to date, or with a new business associate.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: 
When tomato sauce cooks with bubble and splatter
Aside from the mess, something's the matter
Give it a stir and lower the heat
It's an hour or two before you can eat.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Tomato, Arkansas is an isolated spot on the rich alluvial floodplain of the Mississippi River, near the levee. It is the easternmost named place in Arkansas, just south of the Missouri boot heel. Tomatoes grow very well around there. No buildings are in Tomato--it's a ghost town. The nearest restaurants are in Blytheville, where seven miles away is a place called Boonedocks.

Edible Dictionary
sugo, Italian, n.--While we New Orleanians like to think that the expression "red gravy" was born here and is unique to our food argot, in fact it is in common use (with some variations) in every American city where large numbers of Italians have lived for a hundred years or more. The original word is sugo, which translates as "juice." This could be the juice of almost anything. But it picked up the connotation of the cooked sauce at the bottom of a big family platter of pasta, meat, or whatever. In the course of learning English, the second generation mistranslated sugo as "gravy." Since the most common sugo in Italian-American homes was red sauce, it became gravy. Red gravy, as opposed to brown gravy. But both were considered sugo. The confusion evolved into language.

Food In The Wild
In 1543 on this date, Hernando De Soto noted that the Mississippi River had flooded over its banks in Louisiana. He was the first European to report any kind of flood anywhere in the New World. Because of the soil the river dumped on its floodplains, we have good vegetables, especially tomatoes.

Annals Of Winemaking
Ernest Gallo was born today in 1909. He and his brother Julio created what would become the biggest family-owned winery in the world under their names, and now many others, too. Lore about the Gallo brothers is that when they decided to get into the business, Julio asked whether Ernest could sell all the wine he could make. Ernest answered, "Can you make all the wine I can sell?"

Cocktails On Broadway
Pousse Cafe, a play set in the 1920s, opened today in 1966 on Broadway. It would only have three performances before closing. A pousse-cafe ("coffee chaser") is a sweet after-dinner drink made by layering cordial liqueurs of contrasting colors in a small, slender glass designed for the purpose. They were once the rage, but the liqueur makers began making their potions with uniform proofs and specific gravities, and it became difficult to layer them. That's the excuse the bartenders make, anyway. We think they just don't want to be bothered.

Food In Advertising
Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, was introduced on this date in 1961. His first gig involved touting Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, the croissants in a can. I'm sure you've seen his joke obituary. If not, it's funny enough to read.

Food Namesakes
Susan Butcher won her second Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska today in 1987. . . Comedian and actor Dane Cook went for his first laugh today in 1972. . . Boy band singer Devin Lima looked cute for the first time today in 1977. . . Jacob Bunn, American industrialist and friend of Abraham Lincoln, came out of the oven today in 1814. . . British barrister and columnist James Pickles gave his first opinion today in 1925.

Words To Eat By
"Of plants tomatoes seemed the most human, eager and fragile and prone to rot."--John Updike,novelist, born today in 1932. The line is from his book The Witches of Eastwick.

Related Stories
The Canned Tomato Taste Test

Words To Drink By
"You know you're drunk when you think that the cab fare is the time."--Dane Cook, comedian, born today in 1972.