The Food Almanac: Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras In Other Places

Many other parts of the world have eating traditions on this day. The entire French-speaking world does, of course–that's how it got to New Orleans. This is the day for pancakes in places that refer to this day as Shrove Tuesday–notably Liberal, Kansas.

In Hawaii, the Portuguese presence in its past left behind a tradition of making malasada, a kind of doughnut. The Amish people in Pennsylvania Dutch country makefastnacht, a potato cake served with dark syrup today. In Iceland, they call this Sprengidagur, which translates as "Bursting Day." They they celebrate by eating peas and salted, cured meats.

Deft Dining Rule #158: If you can't let yourself have a Lucky Dog on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, you have no soul. If you let yourself eat a Lucky Dog any other time, you have no brain.

Our Historic Restaurants

Today in 1979, Archie Casbarian closed on his purchase of Arnaud's Restaurant from Arnaud Cazenave's daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells. The old restaurant, once the city's finest restaurants, was in such a poor condition that it would take Casbarian most of the rest of the year to get it ready for reopening.

Our Celebrated Chefs

Chef Gerard Maras was born today in 1952. Maras was the opening chef and tastemaker of Ralph's on the Park and the now-gone Table One. But he first came to our attention as chef at Mr. B's during its greatest years in the 1980s. Their matchless barbecue shrimp recipe is his. He's not currently cheffing, exactly; and his wife run a farm raising gourmet vegetables and herbs near Franklinton. Maras was one of the first local chefs to encourage local growers to raise better produce, and we have him to thank for the improvements in that market. He occasionally teaches cooking classes at the New Orleans Cooking Experience.

Today's Flavors

It really ought to be put off until tomorrow, but this is National Whole Fish Day. The number of fish that come to the table still looking like a fish–with the head, tail, fins and everything in between still intact–is growing. For a long time, the only fish served whole was the West End-style whole flounder. Thank our Asian restaurants for making other large whole fish popular. Most people who enjoy fish that way first had it fried or steamed in a Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant.

Whole fish fall into two categories. Some weigh a two or three pounds, and are presented at the table, usually for more than one person. The most common fish prepared that way in New Orleans are redfish, drumfish, red snapper, and Dover sole. The other category is fish designed to be served to one person, who will pull the fish apart as he eats. The most famous of these is the Gulf flounder, fried or broiled whole. During the past few years, Mediterranean sardines have appeared, usually two or three to an order as an appetizer.

The best whole fish of all is a whole pompano of about two pounds. Hardly anything needs to be done to it besides gutting. It can walk across the grill and onto the plate, becoming the most delicious of all fish dishes.

It is also alleged to be Pound Cake Day. A pound cake is so called because it classically uses a pound each of flour, sugar, and eggs. Which is actually not a particularly good formulation. You also want to add a few things like vanilla and lemon peel.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Many visitors or transplants to New Orleans ask who was Chef Menteur, and what restaurant he cooked in. Although some fictional characters with that name have been dreamed up, no such person ever existed. Chef Menteur is the name of a tidal inlet from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Pontchartrain. It was given that name by the earliest French explorers under Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, who founded New Orleans in 1718. They crossed Chef Menteur Pass and thought it was a river. En route back to New Orleans, they found that it flowed in the opposite direction it had when they first encountered it. They named it Chef Menteur–which means "master liar" in French. A small community of fishing camps on the east bank of Chef Menteur also bears the name, as does US 90, the main highway through the area. Once there were several seafood restaurant in Chef Menteur, but Hurricane Katrina–whose eye went right over the spot–left few structures standing. The nearest restaurants now are a cluster of Vietnamese cafes seven miles west. The best of them is Ba Mien.

Regional Flavors

Vermont became a state today in 1791, the first to be admitted after the original thirteen. Vermont is a rough, infertile place for farmers, dominated as it is by the Green Mountains that gave the state its name. Dairy farming is a big deal, creating excellent cheeses. Vermont's most famous food product, of course, is the syrup that comes from its sugar maples–even though most maple syrup comes from Canada.

Annals Of Game

Today in 1909, the Unites States banned interstate transport of game birds. That was the first of a variety of laws that make it impossible for restaurants and grocers to sell pheasants, ducks, geese, and other avians killed in the wild. To this day, every duck, quail, or squab you eat in a restaurant is farm-raised.

Edible Dictionary

Chef d'oeuvre, [shef duhrv], French, n.–Literally, "masterwork." A great word for use in food writing, because it combines two familiar expressions with cooking connotations. We use it as the name of this almanac's department that offers the 500 best New Orleans dishes.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

One of the great mysteries of taste is why a fish that tastes "fishy" is considered undesirable by most people. This is like complaining that strawberries taste too strawberrylike.

Music To Dine By

This is the birthday in 1678 of Antonio Vivaldi, whose classical work The Four Seasons is almost certainly the most often-heard piece of classical music in restaurants. That's because everybody likes the first part of it. The second movement, while still a chef d'oeuvre, is less suitable as background. I once heard a restaurateur order that it be removed from the system for that reason. It seems to me that classical music is being played much less often in restaurants these days, giving way to smooth jazz (aaauugh!), sappy soft rock, or even grunge band music (somebody shoot me).

Music To Blow Out Candles By

The song most often heard in restaurants was published in sheet music form today in 1924. Happy Birthday To You–which evolved from a song called Good Morning To All–came under copyright protection in 1934. Public performances of the song still generate royalties for the Hill family, and will for another decade or so years. That's why chain restaurants have their own birthday songs instead of singing that one. Independent restaurants are a little too hard to persecute for celebrating their customer's birthdays by having waiters sing four lines of the ditty badly.

Food Namesakes

Early American racecar driver Buck Baker put his foot on the Big Gas Pedal today in 1919. . . Comedian John Candy had a fatal heart attack today in 1994. He was only 43. . . Folk singer Nancy Whiskey was born in Scotland today in 1935. . . Punk rocker Scott Sturgeon (stage name Stza–good luck pronouncing that) screamed for the first time today in 1976. . . Baseball pitcher Lefty O'Doul was born today in 1897. He founded a restaurant with his name on it in San Francisco; it's still there. But he has no connection with the non-alcoholic beer of the same name.

Words To Eat By

Robert Orben, one of the most quoted people in the world, was born today in 1927. He's still on the lecture circuit, still performs as a magician, and still writes funny speech material. He began writing gags for comedians, but his lines have such resonance that they're at least as popular among motivational speakers. He has quotable lines on every imaginable subject. Here are some about food:

"I always wondered why babies spend so much time sucking their thumbs. Then I tasted baby food."

"I understand the big food companies are developing a tearless onion. I think they can do it–after all, they've already given us tasteless bread."

"Remember the days when you let your child have some chocolate if he finished his cereal? Now, chocolate is one of the cereals."

"Old people shouldn't eat health food. They need all the preservatives they can get."

Words To Drink By

"Then trust me, there's nothing like drinking
So pleasant on this side the grave;
It keeps the unhappy from thinking,
And makes e'en the valiant more brave." 
Charles Dibdin, English writer, born today in 1745.