The Food Almanac: Thursday, February 27, 2014

Today is National Strawberry Day, although the strawberry industry doesn't seem to know about it. Strawberries worth celebrating. Here in Louisiana (where the strawberry is the official state fruit), the strawberry season is in high gear, after beginning well before Christmas last year. (They seem to appear a little earlier each year.) That schedule owes to our southerly latitude. Strawberry harvests will radiate north over a great deal of the rest of the country for months.

Strawberries are unusual in that they carry their seeds not inside but outside the fruit. A botanist would jump in here and say that what we call the seeds are actually the fruits, and what we call the fruit is really a much-expanded base peg. That said, we note that few fruits can match the fragrance and lusciousness of big, ripe strawberries at the peak of the season. When they're at their best, the best way to eat them is all by themselves–no cake, no whipped cream, no sugar, no saccharin.

Unfortunately, the goal of the agricultural industry is to grow big, colorful strawberries that stay that way long enough to make it to the supermarket and stay there for a week or more. To do that, they've developed strains that resist ripening while having a gorgeous, ripe-looking red cast. That's why they don't have the fragrance and the sweetness we remember of old.

The most glorious time for strawberries is when Louisiana strawberries are sold by the flat from trucks on the sides of roads. It's running a little late this year, what with the colder-than-normal winter we've had. The berries are lots better than other sweets you could be eating. Full of Vitamin C and fiber. And, most important, full of juicy, sexy deliciousness.

Eating Traditions

Today is one of several candidates for the birthday of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Today in 1827, students home from schools in France put on masks and paraded through the city, celebrating the last day of freewheeling eating and drinking before Lent. It would be another thirty years before the celebration jelled into the first major parade of Comus. The first recorded celebration of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama (which claims to have had it first) was this date in 1703.

Annals Of Food Research

Today in 1879, saccharin was created in the lab at Johns Hopkins University by Constantine Fahlberg and Ira Remsen. It was the first artificial sweetener, about three hundred times as sweet to the tongue as sugar. That comes at the price of a slight chemical or metallic aftertaste, which I find can be masked almost completely by using a little real sugar with it. Saccharin didn't hit the big time until World War I, when there was a shortage of sugar in the United States. Its use declined in the 1970s, when tests seem to indicate that it's a carcinogen. It carried a warning label for years. However, since then its safety has been confirmed, the label is gone, and it's in pink packets everywhere.

Edible Dictionary

pricklypear, n.–Also known as cactus pear. The fruits of a number of species of cactuses, most with large , thorn-covered pads instead of stems and leaves. The fruit follows a showy, large yellow flower in springtime, and grows to a pear-shaped fruit two to three inches long and an inch or two across. When ripe in the fall, it becomes a deep red-purple, and often falls off the cactus pad of its own weight. It's covered with tiny spines and filled with seeds, but when run through a kitchen juice extractor, all of that is removed, leaving a good juice and pulp. It's usually quite tart, but with sugar added it can be made into either a good syrup or a jelly. It also is an interesting ingredient for a savory sauces for meats or full-flavored game birds.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Blackberry, Texas is sixty-one miles northwest of Houston. It's in gently rolling, mostly open country, interspersed with borders and patches of woods. Historically, this was cotton country, but other crops and grazing cattle take up a lot of the land now. It is quite possible that the Texas blackberry–a very good, commercial-quality variety–are grown in the area. Blackberry is a decidedly rural crossroads, with a few houses around the intersection of farm-to-market roads. You need to drive five miles to Plantersvilel to find a restaurant. Choose between the Relay Station and Allphin Barbecue and Smokehouse.

The Old Kitchen Sage Says:

If you'd complain if you got lukewarm or reheated food in a restaurant, why would you ever get take-out?

Deft Dining Rule #226:

You'll never get the best food in a restaurant if you get it to go.

Beverages In Politics

Today in 1985, Geraldine Ferraro – the first major female candidate for Vice-President of the United States – appeared in a Diet Pepsi commercial on television. She was allowed control of the content of the spot, and more or less made it into a speech about women's rights. Nevertheless, she was criticized for doing this. Walter Mondale and Ferraro lost the election in 1984 against the unbeatable incumbent Ronald Reagan.

Food In Literature

John Steinbeck was born today in 1902. His gripping, important novels of unfortunate people in the American West have – for some reason – titles that refer to food: The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row.

Alluring Dinner Dates

Today is Elizabeth Taylor's birthday, in 1932. She had dinner at the now-extinct Christian's once. Owner Chris Ansel asked if she would autograph a menu. She said she would if he'd pick up the check for dinner. Chris said, "Never mind."

Food Namesakes

Today in 1912, Lord Herbert Kitchener opened a railway from Khartoum to El Obeid in Sudan. . . Pro basketballer Chris Dishman was born today in 1974. . . Film actor Alan Fudge was born today in 1944. . . NFL Hall Of Fame player Raymond Berry was born today in 1933. . . Singer Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas was born today in 1971.

Words To Eat By

"Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating us."–Peter De Vries, American author, born today in 1910.

"All culture corrupts, but French culture corrupts absolutely."–Lawrence Durrell, English author, born today in 1912.

Words To Drink By

"We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink."–Epicurus.