The Food Almanac: Wednesday, March 26, 2014
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.
buttermilk, n.–Originally, buttermilk was the whey left over when butter was churned from cream. It contains very little fat, although some of the curds remain, as well as certain enzymes which added a slightly sour taste. That flavor makes buttermilk of interest, particularly in the making of thinks like biscuits and pancakes. It’s also a good ingredient in salad dressings. Very little buttermilk is made by the original method. Most of it is skim milk turned a little sour with the addition of the butter enzymes. Afterwards, its ultra-pasteurized to kill those organisms, so it ceases to be an active product. Still good for baking, and very low in fat, despite the name. The reason buttermilk is so good in biscuits is that its acidity enhances the chemical reaction of baking powder. An oddity about buttermilk is that if it’s heated even gently, it breaks.
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.
Butters, population 294, is in the southeastern quadrant of North Carolina. It’s closer to a CSX Railroad main line than to the main highway, and is on the edge of a swampy corridor with dozens of small streams weaving back and forth along the wooded land. Cotton and lumber are historically the mainstays of the economy. The nearest place to eat is two and a half miles south on Highway 211: San Jose Mexican Restaurant.
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.
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.
Words To Drink By
Here’s to women’s kisses,
And to whiskey, amber clear;
Not as sweet as a woman’s lips,
But a damn sight more sincere!–Irish toast.