Tom Fitzmorris publishes The New Orleans Menu.
Gourmets Through History
Today is the feast day of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He died on this day in 814, of natural causes, after a great life. He united much of western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, and set a new standard of civilization and government. His dining style was revolutionary, too. At Charlemagne’s banquets, roses were scattered over the tables and guests ate with utensils, not fingers. (The implements were mostly knives, the fork having not yet been invented.) One of the world’s greatest white wines is named for him: Corton Charlemagne, all Chardonnay, big and rich. He wasn’t a saint, but he was beatified.
Cereal, Illinois is well-named. It’s in the middle of the vast cornfields on central Illinois, 109 miles south-southwest of Chicago. It was founded as a a station on a branch of the Illinois Central Railroad from Kankake to Bloomington. The line was spun off into its own company some years ago, and is now called the Bloomer Line. All it does is haul corn from grain elevators to major rail connections. A branch of Indian Creek loops around Cereal, and a few farmhouses are scattered nearby. The nearest restaurant is Marie’s Meating (!) Place in Chatsworth, about five miles away.
This is International Lasagna Day. The cold weather likely on this date makes a big casserole dish full of meaty, saucy, cheesy, heartwarming lasagna seem perfect. Lasagna is a long time in the oven—what could be better than a winter day for that?
Like many dishes, lasagna is named for the container in which it is made. In this case, it’s unappetizing. The Greek word from which lasagna descends meant “chamber pot.” The first versions were baked in large, deep dishes. The ingredients and their assembly probably evolved from the many layered, baked casseroles (Greek moussaka is the most familiar) that are still found in the Balkans. Lasagna as we know it—with its layers of cheese, meat, and sauce—is probably not much more than a hundred years old.
However, recently a story broke in England claiming that the dish originated there. This is not entirely incredible, because layered dishes (shepherd’s pie) are also of long standing in the Isles. Here’s the story from the BBC.
The current controversy among cooks of lasagna in America is whether the dry noodles (flat, broad sheets, sometimes wavy at the edges) should be layered into the dish cooked or uncooked. Both seem to work, but we have a better idea: the best lasagna is made with fresh (undried) pasta sheets, uncooked.
Many sources report that today is also Blueberry Pancake Day. Fresh blueberries are completely out of season in America. They are, however, growing nicely and ready to fly or float in from Chile. They’re not even all that expensive. Still, this doesn’t seem like the right day for this. Not even the pancake part. Pancakes are associated with Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras to you and me), whose earliest possible date is eight days off.
edamame, [ed-eh-MAHM-ee], Japanese, n.–The Japanese name for soybeans. It literally translates as “beans growing on bushes.” In this country, it refers to lightly boiled, salted pods of soybeans. They’re served cool as an appetizer in Asian restaurants, particularly sushi bars. They seem uninviting until you squeeze the pod, pop a bean out, and munch it. After that, it’s hard to stop eating them. The beans are underripe, green, and soft. The water in which they’re boiled is quite salty, so the beans are too. It may be a plot to get you to drink more beer, with which edamame goes well.
Deft Dining Rule #834:
You should never be able to finish a restaurant serving of lasagna comfortably.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The perfect lasagna has exactly twice as much cheese–both in kind and in quantity–as it has meat.
Music To Dine By
Today in 1830, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s opera Fra Diavolo opened in Paris. It was about a reprobate from Naples bearing the same name as the opera. Fra Diavolo means “brother devil.” It appears on Italian menus as a spicy dish of shellfish (shrimp and lobster, most commonly) and a peppery red sauce.
Annals Of Food Writing
This is the birthday, in 1873, of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, a French novelist who wrote under her last name alone. She was highly quotable on the subjects of eating, drinking, and loving. Here are a few of her memorable lines:
“The three great stumbling blocks in a girl’s education are homard a l’Americaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus.”
“As he chops, cut, slices, trims, shapes, or threads through the string, a butcher is as good a sight to watch as a dancer or a mime.”
“If you aren’t up to a little magic occasionally, you shouldn’t waste time trying to cook.”
“If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles.”
Today in 1945, General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell reopened the Burma Road from that country to China, a victory in World War II. . . Jackson Pollock, the painter famous for dripping paint on canvases, was born today in 1912. (Pollock is the northern Pacific fish used to make fake crabmeat.). . . Marty Fried, drummer for the 1960s rock band the Cyrkle (who opened for the Beatles when they toured America) was born today in 1944. . . Jan Lamb–Hong Kong stand-up comedian, radio personality, and voice-over artist–bleated his first today in 1967.
Words To Eat By
“Voluptuaries, consumed by their senses, always begin by flinging themselves with a great display of frenzy into an abyss. But they survive, they come to the surface again. And they develop a routine of the abyss: ‘It’s four o clock. At five I have my abyss.’”–Colette, French playwright and author, born today in 1873.
Words To Drink Zinfandel By
“Someone is putting brandy in your bonbons, Grand Marnier in your breakfast jam, Kahlua in your ice cream, Scotch in your mustard and Wild Turkey in your cake.”–Marian Burros, New York Times food writer.