The Food Almanac: Thursday, August 15, 2013

Annals Of Food Writing
Today in 1912 was is the birthday of Julia Child. Even after her death in 2004, she remains the all-time greatest television chef, as well as one of the most honored and accomplished authors of cookbooks. I was lucky enough to have dinner with her once, at Begue's. I was surprised by how down-to-earth and unpretentious she was, and also that her unique voice and bearing were not just television affectations but entirely real. That night, she liked the oyster Rockefeller flan.

My favorite aspect of Julia's shows were that if she made a mistake or something didn't come out quite right, she'd admit it. You never see that on television now, even though we all know from eating in restaurants that all chefs make mistakes.

Today's Flavor
Today is National Lemon Meringue Pie Day. A good lemon meringue pie is wonderful, especially if you take that old recipe from your grandmother and cut the amount of sugar by at least a third (in both the lemon custard and meringue parts). We seem to have had a taste for much sweeter desserts forty or fifty years ago than we do now. Making a lighter pie crust is a worthy goal, too. Take liberties. I once had a pie that was creme brulee on the bottom and lemon meringue on the top. Fabulous.

Throw a meringue pie (leave out the lemon) at someone you love someday soon. It's great fun. On his birthday in 1981, the publisher of the newspaper where my restaurant review column has appeared for thirty years received a meringue pie in the face from my hand. He's gone, but I'm still there. So just go ahead and do it. Note: a pie can only be thrown at a man. Most women fail to grasp the humor.

Essential Ingredients
Speaking of pie crusts: Crisco was released today in 1911 by Procter and Gamble, the soap people. (Soap and fat are largely the same product.) The advance that made Crisco popular was that it was pre-creamed and shelf-stable. That accomplishment was achieved through hydrogenation. In more recent times, it's been found that hydrogenated fats–especially those with high trans-fatty acids–are rather bad for you to eat. So Crisco developed a new formula involving zero trans-fats. I like the stuff, and find it a good, clean product that's hard to replace in certain baked goods, notably biscuits and pie dough. Although the trans-fat issue did move me to start using butter instead in many recipes. Isn't that a turnabout! One of the reasons Crisco was created was to replace animal fats.

Edible Dictionary
shortening, n.–A solid fat, usually creamed for baking purposes. The unusual name tells what it does. The gluten in flour, when mixed with liquids, forms long strings that give bread its distinctive texture. But for some baking recipes–notably cakes and biscuits–these strings of gluten are undesirable and make the texture tough. Shortening keeps that from happening–making the gluten strings "short." Anything from lard to butter to margarine to creamed vegetable oil can be used for this purpose. However, the word is taken by most people to refer to vegetable shortening, of which Crisco is the best known.

Annals Of Drinking
Elvin Jellinek was born today in 1890. He was the first scientist to study intensively the causes and effects of alcoholism. He suggested that the condition be treated as a disease, not as a sin. In his day, alcoholics were thought of as merely weak-willed people, an approach that did little to address or correct the problem.

Citrus At War
The Satsuma War began today in 1863, between British would-be colonizers and the Japanese. Satsuma is a province of Japan. It's where the original satsuma fruit was grown, the ancestors of all those trees in Plaquemines Parish that will give us their succulent orbs in a month or so.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Pie Creek begins to flow from 5800-foot slopes in the rugged, often snow-topped Rocky Mountains in the Clearwater National Forest. In five miles it descends 3000 feet, which must make for quite a cataract of water in snowmelt season. At that point it flows into Kelly Creek, a prime spot for trout and fly fishing. This is in wilderness area at the base of the Idaho panhandle. The nearest city of any size is Missoula, Montana, 114 miles east. The nearest place to eat from the mouth of Pie Creek is the Cedar Inn Miners Shanty in the town of Pierce, fifty-one miles west.

Shift Change In The Woods 
One of the joys of living in the country, where road noise is muted, is that I hear birds singing. My favorite is a bird whose identity I've never discovered. I call it the queedle-deep bird, because that's what it's song sounds like. I know summer is over the hump when I no longer hear it singing. As if a shift change were involved, its place in the chorus of the woods is taken by another bird, singing in the same register, but with a different and much simpler tune. I call it the "tout-suite" bird for the same reason I named my early-summer friend. I don't know what he looks like, either.

Annals Of Military Cuisine
Napoleon Bonaparte was born today in 1769, on the island of Corsica. He left his mark on world history in such a pervasive way that he even crops up repeatedly in discussions of our own local special food interest. The Napoleon pastry, the Napoleon House, chicken Marengo, and Pascal's Manale (on Napoleon Avenue) come to mind immediately, and it wouldn't be hard to think of many more. In recent years, chefs have taken to calling any layered dish a Napoleon of this or that. (The pompano and scallop Napoleon at Broussard's is a good example.) Napoleon was a gourmet, and a personal chef was essential to him even in the field of battle.

The Saints
This is the day, in 1534, when St. Ignatius Loyola organized the Jesuits. I wouldn't be who I am without their influence. Whatever else can be said about them, I've always noticed that when you are in the company of Jesuits, you eat well. (Anyone who's been to Manresa Retreat House on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge can vouch for that.)

Food And Drink Namesakes
Bert Berry, a pro football player, was born today in 1975. . . Elias M. Fries, a Swiss botanist whose specialty was mushrooms, was born today in 1794. . . Congresswoman Maxine Waters was elected to life today in 1938.

Words To Eat French Food By 
"The French complain of everything, and always."–Napoleon Bonaparte, born today in 1769.

"Life itself is the proper binge."–Julia Child, born today in 1912.

Words To Drink By
"Drinking is the soldier's pleasure."–John Dryden.