The Food Almanac: Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's St. Joseph's Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ Stu Spivack


The Saints
Today is the feast day of St. Joseph, carpenter, father of a very distinguished Son, namesake of my own father (no insinuation there), and patron saint of Sicily. It's that last connection that explains all the celebration of the day in New Orleans. Because St. Joseph's Day always falls in Lent, the food connected with the day is meatless. The famous dishes on this day include cardoons (the stems of an artichoke relative), pasta milanese con sardi (see below), fennel salad, eggplant caponata, fava beans, and a wide range of cookies, flavored with anise, sesame seeds, and almonds. Some only appear that this time of year. St. Joseph's altars are found in both homes and businesses, and are almost universal in Italian restaurants. Many of the altars are listed in the newspaper today. Stop by, have a few cookies, pick up a lucky fava bean, say a prayer to St. Joseph, and feel moved by yet another essential New Orleans cultural undercurrent.

Edible Dictionary
bucatini, Italian, n.--Bucatini is either the thickest form of spaghetti, or the thinnest macaroni. It's made in long strings, but different from most other pastas of that shape in that it has a hole going through it from end to end. It's a very small hole, giving rise to a fun game among children. If you let a bucatini strand hang out of your mouth a little and suck on it, it whistles. Bucatini is the traditional pasta used to make pasta Milanese in New Orleans Sicilian homes on St. Joseph's Day. The meatless red sauce is sprinkled not with cheese but bread crumbs, which are supposed to honor the sawdust of Joseph, the carpenter. The word bucatini come from the same Italian root as the second part of "osso buco," referring to the holes in both things. Another name for bucatini (no pasta seems to have only one) is "perciatelli," meaning "pierced."

Food Calendar
This is Bread Crumbs Day. Bread crumbs are scattered over pasta dishes today in homes keeping the Sicilian traditional observance of St. Joseph's Day (see above). They're reminiscent of the sawdust in St. Joseph's carpentry shop, and are used in lieu of Parmesan cheese.

Bread crumbs are a lowly ingredient--the leftovers of stale bread. But they're magical, too. Their toasty flavor is the perfect finishing touch to many dishes in which they form the exterior coating, crisp and satisfying in flavor and texture. Perhaps the best such use is in panneed dishes--usually thin scallops of meat (or anything else, really) coated with bread crumbs and fried in hot, shallow oil. Bread crumbs are every bit as appropriate as cheese is for the topping of an au gratin dish. (The best au gratins have a blend of cheese and bread crumbs over the top.)

There are trends in bread crumbs, believe it or not. The current darling is panko, the Japanese-style coarser-than-normal bread crumbs. They seem more shredded than grated. Panko has long been used in Japanese restaurants to make the panneed dish called tonkatsu, but now chefs of all stripes are using them. And usually making a big deal about it since they're hip.

The most delicious local dish involving lots of bread crumbs is Italian-style baked oysters (also known as oysters Mosca, a trademark). The sauce is almost entirely bread crumbs, moistened with olive oil, oyster liquor, and lemon juice, flavored with garlic and herbs.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Crumb, Pennsylvania is in the mountainous, heavily wooded southwest part of the state, 108 miles east-southeast of Pittsburgh. It's just a crossroads, with few inhabitants anywhere nearby. It's a coal-mining area. One of the four roads meeting in Crumb is Crum Road, but I can't find anything further on that story. Although the word "crumb" usually has a negative connotation, its appetizing side is that it's what the inside of a bread loaf is called, to distinguish it from the crust. The nearest restaurant is Ed's O's, in Ogletown, about seven miles away.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: 
When you pannee, keep the first coating of flour as light as you can, but try to stick as many bread crumbs as possible to the egg wash coating. Then let the coated cutlets sit in the refrigerator for a half-hour or more before heating the inch-deep oil and doing the deed.

Music To Eat Gumbo By
Clarence "Frogman" Henry was born today in 1937. Ain't Got No Home--in which he sings like a girl and like a frog--remains one of the all-time classics of early New Orleans rock 'n' roll.

Food On The Air
Today in 1986, the New Orleans public television program Steppin' Out was aired for the first time, on WLAE-TV. It later moved to WYES-TV, where it remains a fixture on the Friday evening schedule. The show was created by Peggy Scott Laborde, who still hosts the show. (It's hard to imagine the show without her.) I was Steppin' Out's original food critic, for its first seven years, until my radio show moved to the late afternoon and conflicted with the TV taping. They seem to have got along well without me. (Better, some say.) The other panelists discuss film, music, and movies, interspersed with Peggy's cultural pieces.

Dining Across America
Nevada legalized gambling today in 1931. Although tourism boomed immediately, it was a long time before that development turned Las Vegas into a great restaurant town. As recently as fifteen years ago, you would have been hard pressed to name a single restaurant there, even if you were a restaurant buff.

Food Namesakes
Gay Brewer Jr., a professional golfer for decades, was born today in 1932. . . Lisa Nicole Baker,Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1966, was born today in 1945. . .Rapper Bun B had his buns slapped for the first time today in 1973. . . .Today in 1979, Brian Lamb launched C-Span, a cable channel that broadcast the proceedings of the House of Representatives and other political fare.

Words To Eat By
"I feed him interesting food, like chutneys and sardines and jalapenos, because I'm training him to be an adventuresome eater."--Michael Gross as Steven Keaton, talking about the food he gave his son in the television show Family Ties.

Words To Drink By
"Last night I dreamed I ate a ten-pound marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was gone."--Tommy Cooper, Welsh comedian, born today in 1921.