The Food Almanac: Tuesday, March 26, 2013

This is the first day of Passover, which began last night at sunset. It commemorates the passing over of the Hebrew people during a plague that killed all the other first-born children in Egypt. That resulted in the release of the Hebrews from enslavement, and the beginning of their exodus to the promised land. It is celebrated by Jewish families around the world with the tradition-filled Passover seder dinner, whose foods and preparations are prescribed. No leavening of any kind may be present in the meal, for example. The ceremonies involve everyone at the table, especially children. It even includes gentiles who happen to be present. Seders continue nightly for the next week in many homes.

Food Calendar
Today is National Spinach Day. Spinach was first grown in what is now Iran about 1500 years ago. It spread to all parts of the world, almost immediately replacing other green leaves wherever it went. Spinach is among the most healthful and delicious of all those we eat. It's rare among them in that it's eaten raw as often as cooked. Its flavor is distinctive but not strong. The younger the spinach, the more tender the leaves and better the flavor.

And then there's the Popeye connection. From it we learn that eating spinach turns funny-looking pipsqueaks into powerful heroes. That's because of its reputed but overstated iron content. Popeye continues to inspire the eating of spinach, enough so that today in 1937, farmers in Crystal City, Texas–the spinach-growing capital of America–put a statue of Popeye in its town square.

An astonishing thing happens when you cook spinach. Few foods shrink as much when you cook it. You can put a whole bag of fresh spinach on top of a pizza, for example, and it will bake down to a thin green layer. The best way to cook spinach is in a pot over a medium heat, with only the water that clings to the leaves after you wash it. And wash it you must, because few vegetables carry more dirt than fresh spinach, although a lot of that has been solved by pre-washed, bagged spinach.

Chefs love spinach and have created many dishes with it. The most famous New Orleans spinach dish is oysters Rockefeller, even though the original version at Antoine's doesn't contain any spinach. It's also a major part of eggs Sardou. Spinach comes in many international dishes–Greek spanakopita, Indian saagwala, Italian and French florentine dishes, and omelettes, pastries, sauces. Why? Because when spinach is in a dish, it becomes more popular than it would be without it.

Edible Dictionary
tarragon, n.–An herb whose flavor is in the same category with basil and anise, although distinctive enough that it really has no substitute. It grows wild across Russia, where it probably originated. The cultivated varieties spread across Europe in medieval times. It was well enough established that when classical French cookery was forming, tarragon was there. It is the sine qua non flavor in bearnaise sauce, and the longest-used flavoring agent in vinegars. It's also one of the elements in the French fines herbes mixture. Fresh tarragon is so powerfully flavored that, unlike most fresh herbs, you can substitute fresh for dried in the same amounts. Tarragon's various names in most languages refer to dragons–perhaps because of the look of its roots. (For example, the Italian word for it is dragoncello.)

Deft Dining Rule #434:
Before you order a dish that has spinach mentioned in its menu description, ask these two questions. Will the spinach be visible and tastable? If so, would you order this if the spinach weren't there?

Annals Of Food Writing
The first American restaurant critic, Duncan Hines, was born today in 1880, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was a salesman who traveled by automobile throughout the country in the 1920s through the 1940s. He compiled a list of the restaurants and inns that he found to serve reliably good food. He passed it around to friends, and it created such a sensation that he published it as a book called Adventures In Good Eating in 1935. His name became synonymous with excellence. Restaurants put signs in their windows saying "Recommended By Duncan Hines" (sometimes when Hines had done no such thing). His name had such a ring of good taste that a very successful line of cake mixes is named for him, even though few remember the man anymore. The funniest reference to Duncan Hines I ever saw was in the window of a flophouse on Camp and Julia Streets in 1978, when that was the center of the wino district. A hand-written sign said: "Recommended By Drunken Hines."

Famous Local Diners
Today is the birthday of Tennessee Williams, in 1914. He gave the world a view of New Orleans life in A Streetcar Named Desire, and was one of the most successful American playwrights in the twentieth century. Williams spent a lot of his time living in the French Quarter, as was a regular customer in numerous restaurants and bars there, most notably Galatoire's and the extinct Marti's. Not by coincidence, the Tennessee Williams Festival revisits his legacy this time every year.

Food In Traffic
Today in 1965, truck driver Eugene Sesky was pulling a load of bananas to an A&P in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He lost control on Moosic Street, known for its steepness and danger in icy weather. The truck wound up doing almost ninety miles per hour before it flipped, killing the driver and injuring fifteen people. Singer Harry Chapin immortalized the moment with a song, Thirty Thousand Pounds Of Bananas.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Anise, Pennsylvania is a junction along Little Road in an area of rolling woods and farms, with big farmhouses. It's forty-three miles northwest of Philadelphia. Drive two miles to Big Road, and you find the Hickory Park Restaurant, the nearest place to dine.

Food Inventions
Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford was born on this date in 1753. He was born in the British American colonies, but he was on the British side through the Revolution, and moved to England. His greatest breakthrough was in noting that heat is the motion of atomic particles, not a substance in its own right. In the process of his experiments, he invented many utensils for the kitchen: the double boiler, the drip coffeepot, and a stove.

Food Namesakes
David Cook–who recorded under the name David Essex–got a gold record today in 1974 for his song Rock On. . . . Jan Berry, of the surfing-music duo Jan and Dean, died today in 2004, after being paralyzed for almost forty years as a result of a car accident. . . Elaine Chao, the United States Secretary of Labor during both terms of George W. Bush, was born in Taiwan today in 1953.

Words To Eat By
"More people will die from hit-or-miss eating than from hit-and-run driving."–Duncan Hines, born today in 1880. He also said:;
"If the soup had been as warm as the wine; if the wine had been as old as the turkey; and if the turkey had had a breast like the maid, it would have been a swell dinner.";

"I would think nothing of tipping over a table with a whole long spread on it just because there was turkey roll on the table and I had explicitly said, 'No turkey roll!'"–Steven Tyler, lead singer in rock group Aerosmith, born today in 1948.