The Food Almanac: Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Happy Birthday, Alton Brown!

Celebrity Chefs Today 
Today is the birthday, in 1973, of Chef Tory McPhail. He's the executive chef of Commander's Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans. Tory is one of those lucky guys who's always known what he wanted to be. He took a shine to the idea of being a chef when he was a teenager. To that end he was already raising ducks and chickens and vegetables in his hometown of Ferndale, Washington. After culinary school, he moved to New Orleans in 1993 and landed a job at Commander's as a sous chef under Jamie Shannon. After a tour of duty at the Palace Cafe, he left town to get some experience in other cities here and abroad. He returned to Commander's in 2001 and never left again, taking over after Jamie's tragic, young death. Tory is not only a good chef but an engaging personality. He gives good cooking demo.

TV Food Celebrities
It's the birthday, in 1962, of Alton Brown, whose shows on the Food Channel and elsewhere attract more serious cooks than most of the shows over there do. Brown is intrigued by what happens to food as it cooks: how the chemical changes bring about flavors and aromas. He's written several books, the most famous of which is I'm Only Here For The Food, a fine sentiment. Much of his success as a television chef owes to his early career as a television and film producer. He's often said that the reason he got into cooking was that he thought television food shows were clumsily produced, and thought he could do better. I'd say he did. He's a nice guy, too, as I learned during his two appearances on my radio show.

Other Great Food Cities
Baltimore was founded today in 1729. The city's greatest claim to culinary fame is that it is the birthplace of the crab cake. The nearby Chesapeake Bay is home to the same species of blue crab that we eat around New Orleans. Where we made stuffed crabs with ours, they made crab cakes with theirs. My reading of old cookbooks persuades me that fifty years ago crab cakes were a lot like stuffed crabs. But Baltimore restaurants began to brag about the excellence of their crab cakes, setting up a competition that resulted in spectacular (and very expensive) crab cakes. (More on crab cakes below.) Baltimore also serves whole hard-shell crabs, steamed with a crust of Old Bay seasoning instead of boiled as we do.

Today's Flavor
In honor of the birthday of Baltimore, this is National Crab Cake Day. The conventional gold standard for crab cakes these days is that they should contain as high a percentage of jumbo lump crabmeat as possible. It's been said that the ultimate crab cake holds itself together by the gravity of the lumps. Well, that is the problem with making great crab cakes. Something has to hold it together. I like how they do it at Commander's Palace: they jam the jumbo lump and seasonings into one of those metal rings that Waffle House uses to grill hash browns. When the crab cake is browned on one side, they turn it over; when both sides are done, the whole assembly is moved to a plate and the metal ring removed, leaving a perfect nearly-pure crabmeat.

Another great idea came from the late Chef Jean-Louis Palladin from the Watergate Hotel. He pureed shrimp and used that as his glue. The shrimp disappears in both sight and taste, and it does hold the crabmeat together. (The Rib Room's crab cakes are made this way.) My own technique is to use a bit of béchamel sauce to hold it together. Its flavor doesn't get in the way of the crabmeat, and it carries all the seasonings for me.

And there should be other things in there, too. I like green onions, parsley, a little garlic, a little bell pepper, and a thin layer of bread crumbs around the outside, to be crisped and toasted in a hot pan. Crab cakes should fall apart at the touch of a fork. You shouldn't be able to jab it and pick the whole thing up. 

Every restaurant that serves crab cakes claims theirs are the best anywhere. You don't see this phenomenon for many other dishes. It's as if a crab cake can't be considered any good unless it's the best in the world. This brings up the inevitable question, which crab cake really is the best around here?

Gourmet Gazetteer
Crab Bay, Alaska is about fifty miles east of Seward, the deep-water port for Anchorage. It's in the Chugach National Forest, on the south side of Evans Island. It's alarmingly beautiful around there, the mountains rising off in the distance, sending glaciers down to the sea. The crabs referred to in the place name are no doubt Alaskan king crab, which are indeed harvested here. The nearest place to eat is probably aboard one of the many cruise ships that pass within a few miles in the summer. Or you can fly over to Seward, and lunch at Christo's Palace.

Edible Dictionary
she-crab soup, n.--The name tells most of the story: it's a soup made with female crabs, preferably those carrying eggs. It's made by combining crabmeat and crab stock with milk or cream to make a mild soup whose flavor comes predominantly from the crabs. It's sometimes thickened with a blond roux or pureed rice, and flavored with some kind of onions--usually snipped green onions. The soup is a specialty of the Low Country of South Carolina, and rarely found elsewhere--at least not under that name. The advantage of she-crabs--the roe--has been obviated by the fact that in most places the law requires that any crab bearing eggs must be returned to the water, in order to continue the species.

Deft Dining Rule #301
Don't believe any claim by a restaurant's menu that the place serves jumbo lump crabmeat until you see the lumps, as big is the end of your little finger. Shreds and flakes are not jumbo lump.

Annals Of Cereal
This is the birthday of corn flakes, invented by William K. Kellogg in 1894. It was quite a breakthrough, keeping a surprisingly large amount of the food value of the original corn in the flakes. He didn't realize it, but Kellogg had re-invented something the Aztecs did routinely with their corn in order to store it for easy eating.

Food In Music
Brenda Lee recorded Jambalaya today in 1956. It became her first big hit. Written by Hank Williams, Jambalaya was recorded by a surprising number of singers, most of whom did pretty well with it, including the highly polished and urbane voice of Jo Stafford.

Food In The Movies
Today in 2004, the movie Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It's about two young guys who head out in search of White Castle hamburgers (the original "sliders," those thin, square burgers best known in these parts under the Krystal banner) , but who wind up exploring the deeper meaning of life while telling raunchy jokes.

Food Namesakes
Pro golfer Duane Bock teed off his life today in 1969. . . Australian born actor Simon Baker came out of the oven today in 1969. . . American guitarist Duck Baker--a rare double food name--was born today in 1949, in Washington, DC. He has a lot of New Orleans and Cajun music in his repertoire. . . Pro hockey executive Jay Feaster sat down at the Big Table today in 1962.

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Words To Eat By
"In Baltimore, soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added."--H.L. Mencken. "My body is like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don't think about it, I just have it."--Arnold Schwarzenegger, born today in 1947. He doesn't think about breakfast, lunch or dinner? Wow. Now I know he's crazy.