The Food Almanac: Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It's National Vol-Au-Vent Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ Rainer Zenz




In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Days Until. . . 
Mardi Gras--34
Valentine's Day--36

Annals Of Bacon And Beans
The Battle of New Orleans took place today in 1815, the last battle in the War of 1812. The war had already ended, but word hadn't reached the 7500 British troops. They slogged through the swamps in what is now St. Bernard Parish, where they met defeat in Chalmette by Andrew Jackson's collection of 3100 back-bayou defenders. Who took a little bacon and a little beans, so that a rhyme could be made with a mispronunciation of "New Orleans." The battle was a rout, with 2000 British killed. It turned Andrew Jackson into a hero both here and nationally. His statue stands in the most prominent possible place in New Orleans.

Today's Flavor
Today is National Vol-Au-Vent Day. Or, to translate into Creole, Pattie Shell Day. Made in sizes from that of a thimble to that of a coffee mug, vol-au-vents are made of two layers of puff pastry cut into circles. The top layer has a hole cut in the center. When stacked and then baked, they become cups to contain concoctions that typically run to the rich and saucy. The name translates "fly on the wind," which suggests the ideal lightness of these puff pastry cups.

Unlike the smaller patty shells, vol-au-vents are usually made with a cap of pastry to cover the contents to keep them from cooling. The cap is always tilted off center, so the contents inside the vol-au-vent can be seen. Larousse Gastronomique says that vol-au-vents were invented and named by Marie-Antoine Careme, famous French chef and author of the nineteenth century. 

In New Orleans, vol-au-vents are most often made into a dish called oyster patties--little vol-au-vents filled with oysters in thick sauce, baked a little more to make them crusty. Nine out of ten of these are terrible, usually because the the sauce is too thick. In the hands of a skillful chef, however, vol-au-vents can be fantastic. The best I ever had was a sweetbreads and mushroom dish made by Chef Denis Rety at the short-lived but brilliant Le Chateau in Gretna. The vol-au-vent was about five inches across and three inches deep, and was delicious enough to compete with the goodness of the creamy sauce and rich sweetbreads. You'd never know it was a close cousin to the gross little oyster patties forced upon you at wedding receptions.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
If you have a delicious dish whose consistency registers as glop to some diners, and if it doesn't seem right to serve over rice or pasta, bake it in a vol-au-vent. Everyone will find it very fancy.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Bacontown is a small, historic community about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It's named for Maria Bacon, a slave who in 1860 was freed along with seventy other slaves by Achsah Dorsey, a landowner who later willed thirty acres to Maria. The community has kept its African-American roots ever since, even though big-box stores and subdivisions of the town of Laurel grew up around it. It has lately been the focus of successful renewal efforts. The nearest restaurant is Pho 89, a half-mile away in Laurel.

Edible Dictionary
guanciale, [gwahn-CHAH-leh], Italian, n.--A kind of bacon made with the cheeks (jowl) of a pig, rather than the belly, as standard bacon is. Guanciale is cured with the same ingredients (salt, pepper, sugar) as belly bacon, but it's not usually smoked. It is the nature of guanciale to appear in small morsels rather than slices. Guanciale is becoming more popular in America as chefs insist on using it to make a number of classic Italian dishes in which it's considered essential. The two most famous of these are spaghetti carbonara and spaghetti all' amatriciana. If you didn't know that it was hog jowl, you'd think you were eating bacon.

Annals Of Candy 
Walter E. Diemer, the inventor of bubble gum, was born today in 1905. (He also died on this date, in 1998.) Diemer was working for the Fleer Chewing Gum Company as a bookkeeper, but his interest in the product was fervent enough that he often fooled around in the test kitchen. He made a five-pound sample of pink gum that was both softer and more stretchable than standard gum base. It was tested in a store in Philadelphia, and became an immediate hit. Diemer not only created the gum but the technique for blowing gum bubbles, which he had to teach to his salesmen. He said that the most amazing thing about his gum was not its popularity but the fact that most of it is still pink, as if that were part of its essence. Fleer still makes Dubble Bubble.

Food At Sea
Today in 2004, the RMS Queen Mary 2 was christened by Queen Elizabeth II, the granddaughter of Queen Mary. At the time, it was the largest cruise ship in the world, and hailed as the peak of luxury. The Eat Club took its first voyage on the QM2 in April, 2009, New York to London. We did not dine as well as we expected, but still found the ship the most luxurious in our experience.

Music To Eat Banana Sandwiches By
Today is Elvis Presley's birthday,in 1935. About twenty years ago a line of wines bearing Elvis's name and likeness appeared. "Was this Elvis's favorite wine?" I asked the distributor. "Elvis didn't drink wine," he said. "But if he had, this is the wine he would have liked."

The Saints
This is the feast day of Saint Erhard of Regensburg, who lived in Bavaria in the 600s. He is one of many patron saints of bakers.

Politics And Food
Tonight in 1992, the first President Bush, attending a state dinner in Tokyo, became nauseous and lost his lunch in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister. The White House explanation was that Bush had stomach flu, a euphemism for food poisoning. Make up your own sushi joke.

Food Namesakes
Soupy Sales, a deliciously wacko comedian who was on TV a lot in the 1960s--frequently with a pie flying in the direction of someone's face--was born today in 1926. . .Bill Graham, the leading impresario of rock music in San Francisco in the Summer of Love (1967), began his trip today in 1931.

Words To Eat By
"All knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost, in self-defense, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time tomorrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature."--Charles Dickens, referring to the way we eat in America.

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Words To Drink By
"Americans may be drinking fewer alcoholic beverages, but they are certainly eating more of them than ever before. Wittingly or un."--Marian Burros, food writer for the New York Times.