The Food Almanac: Wednesday, January 15, 2014

It's National Curry Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ cyclonebill

The word “curry” originated in the Tamil language, as the name for a dish cooked with a spiced sauce.

Annals Of Food Disasters
Today in 1919, an enormous tank of molasses broke open and flooded downtown Boston with over two million gallons of the sticky stuff. It proved that molasses in January is not all that slow. It moved at over thirty miles per hour, and before it stopped it had destroyed several homes and other buildings. Twenty-one people drowned in the molasses. People would not make gingerbread or pancakes for years afterward, I’ll bet.

Food Inventions
Today in 1889 Daniel Johnson patented a revolving table for dining rooms on ships. People sitting at such a table could turn it to have the food they were interested in come to them, rather than requiring a waiter do it. This concept can be seen in action in a number of restaurants in Mississippi, notably the Dinner Bell in McComb.

William Prout was born today in 1785. His work focused on the chemistry of food and the digestive system. He discovered that the stomach does its work with hydrochloric acid. He was also the man who noted that most foods can be classified as either carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. He’d be proud of those nutritional labels on food packages–the ones we’re beginning to consider more important than matters like taste and whether we really need to eat that stuff in the first place.

Today’s Flavor
It’s National Curry Day. In America, curry is one of the most misunderstood of food concepts. A curry does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) have the flavor of curry powder, with its powerful flavors of cumin and turmeric. The word “curry” originated in the Tamil language, as the name for a dish cooked with a spiced sauce. That admits of an enormous variety of dishes, with such a wide spread of flavors that the word “curry” becomes as generic as “stew” or “soup.” A good Indian restaurant will have dozens of dishes that they’d call curries, each with its own distinctive ingredients and flavor. [related]

Certain ingredients do turn up in many curries. But the actual spice blend for each curry dish is unique. Some of the most common components are coriander, cardamom, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, mustard, cinnamon, and fenugreek. Cayenne and other red peppers are now also common curry ingredients. Finally, there’s curry leaf, a member of the same family of trees that includes the citrus fruits. All of these are roasted and ground to the same consistency so they blend well.

Curries are found in many Asian cuisines. Thai curries have their own wide variety of tastes, none of which have much in common with Indian curries. The curries you find in Chinese restaurants have another range of distinctive differences. There are even American curries. These, interestingly, are the ones most likely to use curry powder.

Those who love curry know that it’s habit-forming. This is not merely because we like the flavor. There’s scientific evidence that the spices in curry are literally addictive. It’s a very benign addiction, however. The spices in curry all seem to be good for you. They certainly taste good.

Edible Dictionary
ragu, Italian, n.–The original meat sauce for pasta, developed in Bologna, and spread so widely that a national brand of bottled spaghetti sauce is named for it. The original ragu was made of finely-chopped meat (usually beef, but sometimes pork–cooked slowly for many hours with onions, celery, other ingredients the cook had at hand. All the ingredients would soften to a sauce consistency, even the meat. At the beginning, tomato wasn’t part of the recipe, because it predates the arrival of the tomato from the New World. Now a ragu it almost always contains quite a bit of tomato, cooked so long as to become sweet. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, ragu was a sauce for lasagna before it came to be used on ravioli and spaghetti. There is some dispute as to whether the word came from the similarly pronounced French word ragout, or the other way around.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The best tool for grinding spices is a coffee mill. Buy a separate one from the one you use to grind coffee beans. The flavor of cardamom and peppercorns will not ruin each other, but neither of them is acceptable in coffee.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Artichoke, Minnesota is in the west central part of the state, in the prairies where the Dakotas and Minnesota come together in the valley of the red River of the North. The vast farm fields are unambiguously given over to corn, not artichokes. They’re pocked with lakes of all sizes, the remnants of a good glacial scraping during the last Ice Age. Just two farmhouses share the intersection of county roads 8 and 25, both of them poker straight and meeting at right angles to one another. The nearest place to eat and enjoy some entertainment is the Alberta Bar and Grill, fourteen miles away in the town of the same name.

Deft Dining Rule #62:
No dish tastes the same in two different restaurants. If a restaurant closes, you will have to get unused to the way it cooks its food, and learn to like the best of what’s served elsewhere.

Annals Of Popular Cuisine
Today in 1990, Campbell’s produced the twenty billionth can of tomato soup, its original product. Canned tomato soup is more useful as an additive than on its own. For example, when added to beef broth along with crushed canned tomatoes, it makes a better soup than just the whole tomatoes alone.

Eating Across America
Today in 1777, Vermont declared its independence not only from its British colonizers, but also from New York, which had controlled it under the name of New Connecticut. Vermont’s most famous food product is its maple syrup, but its major specialty is dairy products, notably Vermont Cheddar cheese.

Food Namesakes
Captain Beefheart (real name: Don Glen Vliet), one of the farthest-out of the far-out rock and blues musicians of the late 1960s and 1970s, was born today in 1941. . . Early baseball pro Grover Lowdermilk stepped onto the Big Diamond today in 1885.

Words To Eat By
“Playwrights are like men who have been dining for a month in an Indian restaurant. After eating curry night after night, they deny the existence of asparagus.”–Peter Ustinov.