The Food Almanac: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tom Fitzmorris publishes The New Orleans Menu

Eating Around The World 

According to tradition, this is the day in 660 BCE that Japan was founded by its first emperor, Jimmu Tenno. On this same date in 1889, the modern Japanese constitution was ratified. All of that history gave barely enough time for Japanese food to catch on in New Orleans. Although now Japanese restaurants are at least as numerous as Chinese, that was not the case as recently as the 1980s. New Orleans didn't get its first sushi bar until Shogun opened in 1983. The very few Japanese places previous to that were along the lines of Benihana, but not as good. The first Japanese place to break out of that was the Mount Fuji in Algiers, which had sushi, although no sushi bar.

Music To Have Dinner In The Diner By 

In 1942 today, the first gold record for sales of over a million copies of a single song was presented to Glenn Miller for his classic Chattanooga Choo-Choo, sung by Tex Beneke and the Modernaires in front of Miller's big band. It included this delightful lyrical image:

Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, 
Than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina.

Even a mediocre dinner in a railroad diner is wonderful.

World Records In Food

Today in 1977, fishermen off the coast of Nova Scotia pulled up a Maine lobster that weighed forty-four and a half pounds. It was the heaviest crustacean on record to be caught anywhere. Thermidor for fifty!

Food Calendar

Today is Jambalaya Day. Jambalaya is a dish in need of greater attention from the more ambitious chefs in New Orleans restaurants. Although most people in our part of the world agree that jambalaya is one of the most distinctive and delicious dishes in the local cuisine, not many restaurants serve it and not enough people cook it at home. The dish needs the kind of reassessment that repopularized chicken gumbo in the late 1970s.

As things stand now, jambalaya is relegated to booths at festivals. The most famous festival appearance by the dish is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where both major isotopes of jambalaya are made in big vats over an open fire. Those two varieties are — predictably — Creole and Cajun. The former is made with enough tomato to turn it a distinctly red-orange hue. The Cajun jambalaya may have some tomato in it, but probably not. It's emphatically brown, and typically spicier and meatier. The Creole version is more likely to include shrimp, while the Cajun version more probably includes spicy, smoky sausage or tasso. Chicken is common in both.

Jambalaya is often called a descendant of paella, but we question that. You could as well say it's a descendant of fried rice. Its name tells us something about its history. It comes from the words jambon a la ya-ya. Loosely translated, that means "ham made into a Creole party dish." Which sums it up well.

A good model of what an inventive chef could create if he were to turn his attention to the dish is the jambalaya Richard Hughes makes (most, but not all the time) at the Pelican Club. It starts with exceptionally fine ingredients: enormous shrimp, well-made sausage, big chunks of chicken and duck. The rice component carries all these flavors — including those that arise from the fat in the sausage — without becoming greasy or dirty-looking. It leaves out nothing of the down-home flavor of jambalaya, but is much more than that.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Rice, Kansas is in the midst of the vast, waving plains of grain for which Kansas is famous, in the north central part of the state. It's a crossroads of two state highways, with the former main line of the Rock Island Railroad running east-west. It's the Kyle Railroad now, hauling the grain from this corn and wheat country. (But not rice country; not enough water is available.) The Republican River dips close to Rice, putting a little roll into the land. It's lonely out there, but a five-mile drive into the bigger town of Concordia brings you to dinner at the Tumbleweed Steakhouse and tavern.

Deft Dining Rule #624:

If you can identify everything in a jambalaya, it's not a very good jambalaya.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

Jambalaya must be stirred with a wooden implement, whether it be a roux spoon or a pirogue paddle.

Edible Dictionary

dirty rice, n. — A Cajun side dish made by mixing rice with ground pork, pork liver, chicken giblets and gizzards, black pepper and cayenne. The recipes differ from cook to cook, and usually including savory vegetables like onions, celery, and bell pepper. Crushed red pepper flakes are also common. Dirty rice can be said to be a simplified version of jambalaya, with fewer additives. In its Louisiana homeland, it's most often served with poultry, particularly fried or roasted chicken. It's also good with pork chops.

Food Inventions

This is the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, whose name is synonymous with invention. His great idea was the electric light bulb, which certainly changed the face of the restaurant world. Imagine what it would be like to dine only by candlelight. (If you want to experience that, have a dinner upstairs at Muriel's.)

Alluring Dinner Dates

Today is the twenty-fourth anniversary of my marriage to my wife, Mary Ann Connell. She motivates me to work hard.

Celebrity Chefs Today

This is the birthday (1926, near Lyon) of Paul Bocuse, one of the leaders in modernizing French cookery in the 1970s and beyond. He also raised the esteem of chefs among his countrymen. When he was given a major award from the French government, he accepted it not in formal clothing but in crisp chef whites. Bocuse came to New Orleans a couple of times, once cooking a dinner at Louis XVI in the late 1970s. His flagship restaurant, l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon, is a long-time Michelin three-star winner.

Food On The Air

Today in 1963, Julia Child's first television show premiered. It was called The French Chef, and was based on her groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. She fell in love with French cuisine during her many years in that country as, among other things, a spy for the OSS.

Food And Drink Namesakes

John Bock, NFL player, was born today in 1971. . . Scottish pop composer and musician Nick Currie was born today in 1960. . . Singer Brandy Norwood, who usually goes just by her first name, was born today in 1979.

Words To Eat By

"The Cajun jambalaya ($15.95) tasted as if some dry hot-spice-mix had been randomly sprinkled over chunks of flavorless chicken and shrimp." — From a newspaper review of the Cheesecake Factory, a place you should never go looking for jambalaya.