The Food Almanac: Thursday, January 16, 2014

It's International Hot and Spicy Food Day!

Wings are one of the most popular spicy foods in America.

Restaurant Anniversaries
The Red Fish Grill opened today in 1997. Ralph Brennan was running Mr. B’s with his sisters and cousins. He offered them the opportunity to buy into the new place he was planning for Bourbon Street, but got no takers. It proved to be a good investment. The Red Fish was (and still is) the most casual of Brennan restaurants. Its design is singular: it looks as if a bomb had been set off inside an old building, which was then patched up and painted, with cool furniture and neon installed. The design was by Luis Colmenares, who would do many more restaurants after that one. The Red Fish was the first full-service restaurant to open in the French Quarter after Hurricane Katrina.

Coincidentally, this is also the birthday, in 1966, of Chef Haley Gabel, the corporate chef for all of Ralph Brennan’s four restaurants. We first met her at the now-in-limbo Bacco.

Also celebrating its birthday is Chateau Du Lac, opened in Kenner on this date in 2005. Bad timing. After reopening following the hurricane, Jacques and Paige Seleun moved their French bistro to Metairie Road in 2008. It has always reminded me a lot of the original Crozier’s, with a similar menu (although it’s so classic that they can’t be accused of copying). It became much better after the move, and is a very pleasant place to dine. When you go there, ask them about le surprise (be sure to pronounce it in the French way).

Beer And Sports
Today is the birthday in 1911 of Dizzy Dean, the ace pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s. Later, he was the first major baseball play-by-play announcer on television, on the Game of the Week, sponsored by Falstaff Beer. I watched that every Saturday afternoon with my dad, who usually had a cold long-neck Falstaff in his hand during the game. To this day, Dizzy Dean reminds me first of Falstaff, second of baseball. Falstaff was the biggest-selling brand of beer in New Orleans in the 1960s, making millions of gallons of brew here. I did radio commercials for Falstaff in 1979, and after that I have no further impressions other than regret for the abandoned brewery, with its tower that tells what the weather would be like, based on whether the letters in “FALSTAFF” lit up from top to bottom or bottom to top. In recent times, the weather ball has come back to life. The plans are to make condos out of the old building.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Never fry beignets on a day when you see the letters on the Falstaff tower light up top to bottom before dawn and and bottom to top after dusk the same day. Don’t ask why, just remember.

Annals Of Temperance 
A federal law that would be repealed only thirteen years later went into effect today in 1920. But its effects are still felt today, and in some places the law is still in force. Prohibition began, and from that moment on very few alcoholic beverages were legal to sell in the United States. The worst result was that most of the winemakers around the country went bust, and thousands of acres of great old vines were ripped up, to be replaced with everything from table grapes to almonds. Morris Sheppard, who wrote the amendment, said that it would result in “a rise to a higher and better plane of civilization for the United States. It means more savings, more homes, better health and better morals. It means that the American republic has achieved a distinctive triumph for right and righteousness in the low and bitter struggle between good and evil.” This sounds a lot like what they’ve ben saying about trans-fat in New York City.

Food Calendar
This is National Fig Newton Day. How they’re made is more interesting than how they taste. The inventor, Joshua Josephson, used a rectangular-tipped funnel inside of another, larger one. The thick fig jam filling went into the funnel in the middle, the dough went into the one on the outside, and the whole thing was extruded in one operation. Then it was baked, cut, and named after the town of Newton, Massachusetts. I used to love them when I was a kid. Maybe they’ve made them sweeter, or maybe I don’t like sweet stuff as much as I once did.

It’s also International Hot and Spicy Food Day. My favorite way of making food hot and spicy these days is to sprinkle what I would have considered way too much crushed red pepper (the stuff you shake on a pizza) into it. As it cooks, it seems to mellow and spread out over a wider flavor spectrum. My taste in this regard is changing, too. I find myself liking my food hotter and spicier as I get older. Maybe I can’t taste it as well as I once could?

Gourmet Gazetteer
Rice, California is a ghost town in the middle of Mojave Desert. This part of which is among the hottest places in the United States. Rice was once a station on a branch line of the Santa Fe Railroad. The trains still go that way, but there’s nothing left of the town. Also passing through is an aqueduct that takes water from the Colorado all the way to Los Angeles. At one time a tamarisk tree there acquired notoriety for having old shoes hanging all over it. But the tree burned down in 2003. The nearest places to Rice to get some rice or anything else to eat are in the towns on the Colorado River, some thirty miles east. The Crossroads Cafe in Parker, for instance.

Alluring Dinner Dates
Today is the birthday, in 1948, of Ruth Reichl. After working in a Berkeley, California restaurant for a few years, she became a restaurant critic on the West Coast and with theNew York Times for years before being named editor of Gourmet Magazine in 1999. Her three-volume autobiography–Tender At The Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic And Sapphires–is fascinating, occasionally sexy, and delicious.

Annals Of Restaurant Criticism
Andre Michelin was born today in 1853. He founded the Michelin Tire Company in France in 1888, to make rubber tires for farm equipment. It grew into one of the world’s largest makers of the early removable automobile tire. To encourage people to travel around France more (and buy more tires), Andre Michelin published a guidebook to the points of interest, including restaurants. Ratings were added later, and that more than anything else contributed to the fame of the Guide Michelin series. It was the first published to award stars to restaurants, to a maximum of three. No accolade is more valuable to a restaurant than a three-star rating from Michelin.

Edible Dictionary
mezcal, (Mexican Spanish, n.–The high-alcohol Mexican spirit made by fermenting and then distilling the sap of the blue agave and the related century plant (maguey). Mezcal is famous for something that tequila is incorrectly famous for: a caterpillar (usually called a worm) inside the bottle. It’s the caterpillar of one of two species of moth that live inside the century plant, called the gusano. There’s a quality criterion: the red gusano is better than the gold gusano. Both kinds are edible and harmless, and add nothing to the flavor of the liquor. The presence of the worm, in fact, is not required, but a marketing ploy created by an American company in the 1940s.

Moving Food Around
The railroad refrigerator car was patented on this date in 1868 by William Davis, who quickly sold it to a Detroit meat packer. The car used ise and salt in racks to keep meat cool as it traveled from the place where it was butchered to markets. Although the railroads didn’t like the idea, it quickly became a huge force in the distribution of meat, and made a fortune for Swift and Company.

European Food And Drink
In a blow to standards of gustatory excellence, the European Community ruled today in 2003 that confections made with vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter could be called chocolate. Spain and Italy, sensibly, were opposed to this. Most of the questionable chocolate came from England. . . In a related story, the first Starbucks in France opened today in 2004 in Paris.

Food Namesakes
A lot of sho-biz today. The group Brandy had a Number One hit today in 1999, Have You Ever. . . A really stupid movie, Half-Baked, premiered today in 1998. . . Tennessee Williams’s play Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore premiered today in 1963. A milk train, in case you miss the reference, is one that stops at every depot along the line. . . Mass murderer Alfred Fish was executed today in 1939. . . Two actors named Bacon:Lloyd Bacon, who was in many Charlie Chaplin movies, was born today in 1890, and Frank Bacon (a rare double food name!), who was also a writer, in 1864. . . Osip Brik, a Russian writer, was born today in 1888. (Brik is a Tunisian appetizer of puff pastry and various savory fillings.)


Words To Eat By
“Sea urchin is the sexiest flavor on earth, a shock of soft, sensual richness that resonates in your mouth long after you have swallowed.”–Ruth Reichl, born today in 1948.