The Food Almanac: Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It's National Prosciutto Day!

Annals Of Food Comedy
How y'all are? Today is the birthday, in 1914, of Justin Wilson, in Roseland, Louisiana (just north of Amite). He wasn't exactly a Cajun, but that didn't stop him from becoming the world's best-known ambassador of Cajun culture. He picked up most of his style, speech, and stories while working along Bayou Lafourche as a young man. He first came to public attention with his comedy routines, but soon he started talking about cooking. Wilson's pioneering television cooking shows became among the most popular of their kind. The recipes were less than brilliant, often using less than the best ingredients. But that was quite authentic. Justin Wilson died in 2001, but his TV shows are still in circulation, his many cookbooks still sell well, and his Cajun jokes are still being repeated--I garontee.

Food Through History
Today in 1877, Federal troops left New Orleans, ending Reconstruction here after it made a shambles of the town. One effect of the new freedom was a burst of new restaurant openings in the next few years. Some of the more notable additions were Commander's Palace, The Gem (a little-remembered but very important restaurant on Royal Street), La Louisiane, Victor's (the restaurant that evolved into Galatoire's), and Madame Begue's.

Edible Dictionary
Westphalian ham, n.--A smoked, cured ham from northwestern Germany. The borders of Westfalia have changed a lot over the centuries, so there's no exact zone from which Westphalian ham must come. The pigs used to make it come from the beech forests east of the Rhine River, and eat the acorns and other nuts they find. The hams are wet-cured (brined) for a few weeks. Then the hams are cold-smoked for days over smoldering beech wood. Westphalian ham is considered as excellent as prosciutto or serrano ham, and you serve it the same way--thinly sliced, as an appetizer on its own. But it's made differently and has a different flavor and texture.

Annals Of Soft Drinks
Today in 1833 two inventors--Jacob Ebert and George Dulty--patented the soda fountain. The bubbles lifted the water and carbonated it at the same time. The new drink was well received by the public, as the inventors suspected they would. Water with gas bubbles was already a big deal in Europe. By the end of the 1800s, soda fountains were everywhere.

Today's Flavor
This is National Prosciutto Day. Prosciutto is dry-cured ham. Dry-curing takes much longer, and creates a much more intense flavor, than the brine curing more commonly applied to hams. To make prosciutto, salt is applied to the outside of skinned pig legs, usually with the bones still inside, and hung up to dry for as much as a year. In the old days, that was done outdoors. Now prosciutto makers have big warehouses whose walls allow free movement of air from outside through the hanging hams. The word derives from a Latin word that means "all dried out," which it is after all that time.

The best prosciutto comes from Parma and San Daniele in Italy, but much prosciutto is made in this country. Its flavor is very intense; it should be sliced as thin as possible, and used sparingly. Classic uses of prosciutto include wrapping melon slices with it, stuffing it into veal and poultry concoctions, and standing alone as antipasto.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
A prosciutto made from the left leg of the pig tastes better than one from the right leg, which is tougher. Unless the pig is a southhoof.

Deft Dining Rule #452
It is impossible to slice prosciutto too thin.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Ham Creek flows about two miles across a flat spot in the generally hilly terrain of extreme southern Illinois. The wide cornfields supply just the right thing for potential hams to eat, which probably accounts for the name. It's forty-eight miles from Evansville, Indiana. The nearest town of substance is Albion, six miles southwest. There you find Elsie's Diner, an alternative to all the chains there.

Annals Of Chocolate
Britons breathed a sigh of relief today when World War II chocolate rationing finally ended in 1949. Until then, they had to make do with hollow bunnies made from a mixture of toothpaste and coffee.

Food And Space
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched today in 1990. Its magnification was so acute (once they got it focused, anyway) that it could actually detect an amuse-bouche on a restaurant table from space.

Food Namesakes
Former Connecticut congressman Charles Bakewell was born today in 1867. . . William I of Orange, who ran the Low Countries for a time on behalf of Spain, was born today in 1533. . . Kristie Krabe, Broadway actress, was born today in 1974.

Words To Eat By
"So to church, and staid out the sermon, and then with my aunt Wight, my wife, and Pall and I to her house by coach, and there staid and supped upon a Westphalia ham, and so home and to bed."--Samuel Pepys.