The Food Almanac: September 20, 2012

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

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

Today's Flavor
Today is National Mussels Day. Mussels, once a rarity on New Orleans menus, have become commonplace. Mussels are bivalves, related to oysters, and similar to them in many ways. The best mussels have thin black shells and meats that are about a third the size of an oyster's. They are inexpensive — a good thing, because anything less than two dozen mussels doesn't even make for much of an appetizer. In restaurants that specialize in mussels, they come out in huge bowls containing even more than that. In Belgium — the mussel-eating capital of the world — they're served by the bucketful. I counted 62 mussels in one of those in Ghent one lunch.

The most common recipe for mussels involves steaming them in a pan with the water that comes out when they open, along with wine, garlic, herbs, and butter or olive oil. But many variations exist. A common one is to add tomato to the sauce.

The traditional way to eat mussels is to use a fork to dislodge the first one, then use its now-empty shell to loosen each succeeding mussel. As you go through a serving of mussels, you'll find that the meats come in two colors. The cream-colored ones are the females; the orange ones are the males.

We see two kinds of mussels here. The first, and better, are the black mussels, the best of which come from Prince Edward Island in Canada. The other kind are green-lipped mussels, a frozen product from New Zealand and Australia. They're bigger, with pretty shells ringed with iridescent green. Perhaps they're good there, but the flavor doesn't survive the trip.

Two important things to know about cooking mussels. First, make sure they are very clean, with the byssus ("beard") removed. Sometimes you need to cook them a little so they'll open before you can get all the sand out, although these days the mussels you buy in stores are already very clean. (They cultivate them on ropes.) Second, any mussel that doesn't gape open after being heated in a pan was dead on arrival and is possibly bad. Throw it away. Mussels cook very quickly and begin to shrink alarmingly when overcooked, so take it easy.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Musselman is in central Ohio, 53 miles south of Columbus. It's surrounded by farmland, but is in a 300-foot-deep valley, wooded on both sides, cut by the North Fork of Paint Creek. By way of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, the water in the creek winds up in New Orleans. No mussels in the creek; the town is named for an old family in the area. An old, now-abandoned main line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad passes through the middle of Musselman's 10 or so structures. It's a six-mile drive east into Chillicothe for a bite to eat, at Dakota's Roadhouse.

Annals of Food Journalism
Upton Sinclair was born today in 1878. He was a crusading journalist — some called him a muckraker — whose books brought many atrocities in American life to public consciousness. His most famous work was The Jungle, an exposé of the unspeakable sanitary standards practiced by much of the meat industry, particularly in Chicago. The book was such a powerful indictment that publishers wouldn't touch it. Sinclair ultimately published it himself. It became a best-seller, and its effects were immediate. Within a few years, food and drug purity acts were being promulgated throughout the country and at the federal level. For Sinclair himself, what he saw turned him into a vegetarian.

Great Moments in Hunger
Today in 1832, Mahatma Gandhi began a hunger strike — one of several he would undertake in his life — to protest the way the Indian caste called "untouchables" were treated.

Edible Dictionary
billi-bi, n. — A creamy soup made of mussels, saffron, and cream. It was one of the standard dishes during the golden age of New York French restaurants in the postwar period and for decades after. It's generally agreed that it was created before the war in Maxim's of Paris. Chef Louis Barthe usually gets the blame for the name, although there's dispute as to which Billy B. it referred to. Billi-bi could be found in any classic French restaurant through the 1970s, but disappeared once nouvelle cuisine and other trends that tossed out the book took over. Too bad. It's a great dish — thick and hugely flavorful.

Annals of Food Franchising
William Rosenberg, the man who created Dunkin' Donuts in 1948, died on this date in 2002. His shops were doing pretty well, but what turned them into the world's biggest chain of bakeries was franchising, which he began in 1955. He later became a promoter of franchising in other businesses. Franchising restaurants has certainly been successful, and it's credited with improving the business standards of the whole industry. On the other hand, it has not been good for the quality aspects of restaurants — at least not in food towns like New Orleans.

Alluring Dinner Dates
Today is the birthday, in 1934, of Sophia Loren, one of the most delicious women ever to appear on the big screen. My favorite cinematic moment involving her was in the 1950s movie Houseboat, in which she dangles a long, bare leg in the water over the side of the boat. "Dolce far niente!" she says in Italian to Cary Grant. "How sweet to do nothing!" she translates. For a long time, I thought that the Far Niente Winery and its sweet wine Dolce were references to this bit of dialogue, but when I told them that they looked at me with puzzlement.

Kitchen Inventions
The electric stove made its first appearance today, in 1858. George B. Simpson of Washington, D.C., designed what he called the "electroheater." It wasn't very effective, because the powerful electricity needed to generate major heat wasn't widely available. But it introduced for the first time the idea of cooking over heat produced by something other than a fire.

I live in a place where natural gas lines don't run. So I have an electric stove. This surprises most people, who hold to the idea (which I'll admit is true) that gas is quite a bit superior to electricity for cooking. However, necessity is a mother, and after 16 years I've become so accustomed to cooking with my radiant glass-surfaced stovetop that I'd say I can do anything on it this side of wok cookery as well as I could using gas.

Sir James Dewar, a British chemist and physicist, was born today in 1842. One of his many areas of study was the physics of low temperatures. In order to hold those temperatures as long as possible, he invented a double-walled container that became known as a Dewar Bottle. It was the first example of what evolved into the Thermos bottle. He had nothing to do with the Scotch of the same name. (No, not Thermos Scotch.)

Food in Music
The Archies, a group of session musicians who never performed anywhere but in the studio, had a Number One hit on this date in 1969 with "Sugar, Sugar." It was supposed to be Archie, Jughead, Reggie, Veronica, and Betty from the Archie comic books, and indeed a cartoon was made of them singing the song. It was the biggest bubble-gum record of all time.

Food Namesakes
Jazz pioneer and piano great Jelly Roll Morton was born today in 1885... Italian pop singer Mia Martini was shaken not stirred today in 1947... Chet Lemon hit his 200th career homer today in 1988... Pro-baseballer Jason Bay entered the Big League today in 1978.

Words to Eat By
"Everything you see I owe to spaghetti." — Sophia Loren, born today in 1934.

Words to Drink By
"The only things that distinguish us from the rest of the animals... is our habit of drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at any time. — Pierre Beaumarchais, French playwright, revolutionary, and inventor in the 1700s.