The Food Almanac: September 14, 2012

Get your day off to an appetizing start with food facts and trivia from Tom Fitzmorris
Thinkstock Images

In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter, The New Orleans Menu, notes food facts and sayings.

Food Calendar
This is International Shish Kebab Day. Stringing pieces of food on a stick and roasting it over an open fire is such an obvious and simple preparation that it's almost certainly been practiced since prehistory. The word "kebab" has been traced back to the oldest Middle Eastern languages. The method not only has tremendous flavor and aroma appeal, but uses meat very efficiently. A lot of meat comes in pieces substantially smaller than a roast or a steak. Even when they don't, it's easier and faster to cook small pieces of meat than large ones.

But small pieces of meat have a way of falling into the fire. The shish — the skewer — solves that problem elegantly. The skewer holding kebab meat together takes many forms, from short wire rods to large vertical spindles that are more like rotisseries. All are considered kebabs; the shish is an option. The homeland of kebabs stretches from India to Morocco, and from there they've spread almost everywhere else in the world.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez
If you want to grill shrimp on skewers, use two of them per portion. That way, when you turn the shrimp, they can't rotate. So no shrimp wind up getting cooked twice on the same side.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Rice is the small remnant of an old farming town in north central Kansas. It's 166 miles north and northwest respectively from both Topeka and Wichita. Wheat farming all the way, on wide fields flattened out by the Republican River, which passes within slingshot distance from Rice to the north. A secondary main of the Missouri Pacific Railroad used to pass through, but it's been abandoned. The big city in the region is Concordia, five miles west. There you can hunker down with a pile of lunch at Heavy's BBQ.

Edible Dictionary
spiedini [speh-DEE-nee], Italian, n. pl. — "Italian shish kebabs" tells 90 percent of the story. But spiedini has enough distinction to deserve its own definition. For starters, spiedini are almost always made entirely of meat — no vegetables. The meats tend to be rather good; even ground meats are considered raffish in spiedini (although sausage is welcomed). Most spiedini use more than one variety of meat on the skewer. Here in New Orleans, a variation has emerged in which the meats are stuffed with a concoction of bread crumbs, prosciutto, garlic, Parmesan, and olive oil. They're even better than the all-meat versions. The word is rarely spelled correctly on menus.

Food in Science
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born today in 1849. The Russian scientist is most famous for his experiments with dogs. He found that any kind of stimulus a dog associated with food would make the dogs salivate. This worked not only for the sight and smell of food, but any activity that routinely preceded the dogs being fed. This became known as a "conditioned reflex," and it works on people as well as dogs.

The Saints
Today is the feast day of St. Notburga, who lived in the 13th century in Tyrol (now Austria). She is a patron saint of waiters and waitresses. She worked as a maid for a wealthy family that threw its leftovers to the pigs. Notburga would surreptitiously collect the food and give it to poor, hungry people instead. In one of the stories about her, she was caught doing this by her employers, who demanded to know what she had in her apron. When she opened it, the food had turned to wood shavings and vinegar.

Today's Worst Flavor
Today in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it had found fresh bagged spinach contaminated with e. coli bacteria. For weeks afterward, no spinach salads were served anywhere, and fresh spinach became hard to come by.

Food Namesakes
Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman to be elected a New York state senator or appointed to a Federal judgeship, was born today in 1921... Erieatha "Cookie" Kelly married Magic Johnson today in 1991... Deryck Victor Cooke, a British composer, was born today in 1919... British pop singer Amy Winehouse uncorked today in 1983.

Words to Eat By
"The most usual, common, and cheap sort of food all China abounds in, and which all in that Empire eat, from the Emperor to the meanest Chinese; the Emperor and great Men as a Dainty, the common sort as necessary sustenance. It is called Teu Fu, that is paste of kidney beans. I did not see how they made it. They drew the milk out of the kidney beans, and turning it, make great cakes of it like cheeses, as big as a large sieve, and five or six fingers thick. All the mass is as white as the very snow, to look to nothing can be finer. Alone, it is insipid, but very good dressed as I say and excellent fried in butter." — Friar Domingo Navarrete.

Words to Drink By
"We frequently hear of people dying from too much drinking. That this happens is a matter of record. But the blame almost always is placed on whiskey. Why this should be I never could understand. You can die from drinking too much of anything — coffee, water, milk, soft drinks, and all such stuff as that. And so long as the presence of death lurks with anyone who goes through the simple act of swallowing, I will make mine whiskey." — W. C. Fields.