The Food Almanac: Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Happy Birthday, M.F.K Fisher!

Music To Eat Gumbo By 
It's the birthday (1930) of New Orleans jazz legend Pete Fountain. In addition to being a clarinet virtuoso, he's the leader of the Half-Fast Walking Club, a fixture on Mardi Gras morning. Pete's dad was for years an oyster shucker at Bozo's. He even owned a small restaurant (a hot dog stand) at one time, called Peter's Wieners, in Waveland. Good old Pete. He's a tremendously nice guy.

Annals Of Food Writing
Today is the birthday (1908) of M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, whom many consider to be the finest food American food writer of all time. She was widely traveled, a student of sensuality (all kinds), and highly literate. Born in Michigan, she lived most of her life in California, but was attached to France and spent a lot of her life there. Her books, while containing many recipes, are more about the pleasure of eating than the technique of cooking. And they are a great pleasure to read. A good starter is a book called The Art Of Eating, which compiles three books she wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. She kept at it until she died in 1992.

In my files somewhere (although I have a bad feeling it was among the many archives I lost in my office after Hurricane Katrina) is a personal letter from Fisher I received in the early 1980s. A mutual friend gave her a subscription to the New Orleans Menu (it was a print newsletter at that time), and she wrote, "As a famous food writer I get many things from many writers, but for some reason I always make time to read your little magazine. It's very enjoyable." I have never been so thoroughly flattered.

Food At War 
One of M.F.K. Fisher's books (How To Cook A Wolf) was written with the food shortages of World War II in mind. But we had it easy in the United States, compared with Europe. Today in 1954, after nine years, food rationing finally ended in England.

Looking Up
The Dog Days begin today, and hang on for forty more. The ancient Romans believed that when Sirius--the Dog Star, and the brightest star in the sky--came up at the same time as the sun, it made the weather hotter. Probably not, but here in New Orleans we hardly need to be told that this would be the most uncomfortable time of year were it not for universal air conditioning.

Food Calendar
It is Seafood With Beans Day. Fish and beans are a natural flavor and texture combination. The goodness of the match came to me a few years ago when, for some reason, I had three different dishes along those lines in as many days at various restaurants around town. I remember one was scallops and lentils at Ralph's on the Park, and another was redfish with crowder peas (or something like that) at GW Fins. In both cases, the seafood was on top of the beans, so the combination was unavoidable. After the third of the dishes (whatever it was), my eyes were opened. And I'd like to open yours. Next time you have some seafood and you're wondering what to serve with it, think beans. It inevitably works brilliantly.

Edible Dictionary
Appaloosa bean, n.--An heirloom variety of the pinto bean, popular in gourmet circles in the Southwest. Its markings are like those of an Appaloosa horse, with splotches of dark reddish brown and white. It resembles the cranberry bean, but is longer, creamier, and has a distinctive herbal flavor. It also has a lower percentage of bean sugars, and so produces less gas--as if that were a consideration in choosing it to eat.

Eating Across America
This would be a good candidate for National Potato Day if that weren't already October 27. Today in 1890, Idaho entered the Union. We like the potatoes from there, especially the russets, which make the best French fries.

Delicious-Sounding Places
Potato Patch, Arizona is about two-thirds the way from Phoenix to Flagstaff, in the middle of Prescott National Forest. It's a camping area, near the top of Mingus Mountain, with the widely-scattered trees characteristic of that part of the country. The Hassavampa River flows from a spring of the same name and forms a small lake nearby. It's excellent hiking and camping country. Those who don't enough food to grill over the campfire can find a few restaurants in Jerome, four miles northeast. They include the Red Rooster, the Flatiron, the Mile High, and Asylum. Hmm. I wonder which one has the loudest music.

Deft Dining Rule #304
The only vegetable worth eating in the cheese-covered variety of the au gratin style is the potato.

Fromage Du Jour 
Colby, n., adj.--An American variation on Cheddar, made from cow's milk, colored pale orange with annatto, and aged for only about a month. It differs from Cheddar in that it doesn't undergo the "cheddaring" process, in which the curds are cut and restacked as the whey drains. As a result, its texture is utterly smooth, and a Colby doesn't break in the jagged way that Cheddar does. It's much less sharp in flavor and softer than Cheddar. Colby is an old cheese, invented by a farmer in the town of Colby in 1874. Because of its smoothness, it works well better for cheese-topped kind of au gratin dishes, macaroni and cheese, and the like. It doesn't release as much fat as Cheddar does in those dishes.

Annals Of Fruit
Today in 1806, a large white strawberry from Chile was introduced in England. It was the forerunner of the strawberries we eat today, hybridized with the much smaller, much redder berries that had been cultivated from wild strawberries only a couple of centuries earlier. The process is still dynamic, as plant researchers continue their efforts to remove the last hints of flavor from strawberries so they look better and hold up longer on supermarket produce racks.

The Saints
Today is the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle, the patron saint of doubters. Because of that (and perhaps because I am named for him), I think he should be the patron saint of restaurant critics. But the Vatican inexplicably has turned a deaf ear to my suggestion.

Food Namesakes
Soul singer Fontella Bass was born today in 1940. . . Michael Cole, who played a character on the Mod Squad, came in today in 1943. . . Henry Frederick Baker, a British geometer, postulated himself today in 1866.

Words To Eat By 
The following are all from the pen of M.F.K. Fisher, born today in 1908:

"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it--and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied--and it is all one."

"A complete lack of caution is perhaps one of the true signs of a real gourmet: he has no need for it, being filled as he is with a God-given and intelligently self-cultivated sense of gastronomical freedom."

"Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat."

"Between the ages of twenty and fifty, John Doe spends some twenty thousand hours chewing and swallowing food, more than eight hundred days and nights of steady eating. The mere contemplation of this fact is upsetting enough."

"First we eat, then we do everything else."


Words To Drink By
"Licker talks mighty loud w'en it git loose fum de jug."--Uncle Remus, written by Joel Chandler Harris, who died today in 1908.