The Food Almanac: Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's National Strawberry Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ Knaak


Today's Flavor
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--which is right now. It's a lot 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
vacherin, [va-shuh-RANH], French, n.--The word has two meanings, for a cheese and a dessert. The cheese is probably the older. Vacherin cheese is made from cow's milk (hence the name, vache meaning cow), and visually resembles a Brie. It's a round disk about a foot in diameter and an inch and a half or so thick. It has a washed rind that blooms with mold, and a soft interior when ripe. It's made around the French-Swiss border, with examples from both countries. An oddity about vacherin is that it's traditionally packaged in a spruce-bark box, in which it can be warmed. That wood gives the cheese a slightly resinous aroma and flavor. The vacherin dessert seems to be an imitation of the cheese. It's a sandwich or hard-baked meringue with either creme chantilly or ice cream in the center, and sometimes strawberries or other fruits. It's the sort of thing we used to see in classic French restaurants with good pastry chefs.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Strawberry, South Carolina is twenty-five miles north of Charleston. It's in a part of the state with enough tidal streams and bayous to make the area somewhat marshy. The original community of Strawberry--a time point on the Seaboard Coast Lines--is all but gone now, having gone industrial. However, two new suburban communities have been developed nearby. Orchards of pecan trees take up a lot of acreage. There's a Church's Fried Chicken in Strawberry, but for a real restaurant you have to drive two miles north to Doc's Bar and Grill.

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.

Related Stories
6 Sweet and Savory Strawberry Recipes

Words To Drink By
"We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink."--Epicurus.