The Food Almanac: Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's May Day!
Wikimedia Commons/ Rasbak


It's May Day, which has various meanings around the world. In Europe, it's the equivalent of Labor Day here. In most places, it's a celebration of springtime. You might be able to argue around New Orleans that it's actually summer. Or that this is the peak of the crawfish season.

Today's Flavor
May is alleged to be all of the following: National Asparagus Month, National Barbecue Month, National Egg Month, National Hamburger Month, National Salad Month, National Salsa Month, and National Strawberry Month. And some silly ones: National Chocolate Custard Month and National Gazpacho Aficionado Month. The first week of May is supposed to be National Raisin Week.

Let's go back to National Asparagus Month. This is the time of year when the best asparagus--the big ones that sprout from the "crown" that good asparagus plants (bushes, really)--come up and into the markets. The thin ones are a secondary growth and don't have as interesting a flavor. 

We have two favorite ways of eating asparagus. The first is to steam them and serve them with an extra-thick hollandaise with more lemon than usual. The second is to poach them a little, then arrange them parallel on a baking pan. You sprinkle them first with olive oil, then grated Grana Padano cheese. Run them under the broiler just till the cheese melts, take them out, let the cheese cool a minute, then serve them.

Shifting gears entirely, there's the problem with. . . well, you know. Asparagus has a very good effect on your body's plumbing. But the same substance that does that shows itself to the olfactory sense--but not everybody's. What amazes me is how soon after eating how few (one is enough) this effect manifests itself.

Food On The Rails
Amtrak was born today in 1971. The federally-subsidized National Railroad Passenger Corporation took over the operation of almost all long-distance passenger trains across America that day. The first thing it did was permanently cancel about half of them. Passenger rail was a very sick service, squeezed by improved highways and better automobiles in the short-distance market and the much faster airlines for longer trips. Amtrak coordinated what was left into a national system, pulling together the best equipment from the participating railroads. Most of what it saved is still operating, with a new generation of rolling stock. 

Amtrak's dining cars are the oldest equipment in its fleet. Many of the diners running east of the Mississippi date back to the 1950s. In the early days, Amtrak's diners operated much as diners had for decades, with small kitchens performing actual cooking of substantial menus, served by waiters who at least attempted to follow the Pullman rulebook. 

All of that was diluted as years went on. Many of the kitchens were replaced by banks of freezers and microwave ovens. China, glassware, and silverware went away in favor of plastic everything. Occasionally. Amtrak has spates of upgrading its diners, with better serviceware, regional menus, and more real cooking. But inevitable budgetary problems usually made those improvements temporary. We ride the train often enough to report that the food is edible and occasionally very good in the dining cars, but nothing to write home about. Although you certainly have the time to do so if you're on a train.

Deft Dining Rule #701
If you will be having more than two meals in the dining car of a train, give the waiter an extra-large tip at the first repast, to assure your getting a good table for the remainder of the trip.

Deft Dining Rule #702
When on a long-distance train, find out whether it will be passing through any long stretches where alcoholic drink sales are prohibited. (For example, the entire state of Georgia on Sunday.) Stock up before you get to those places.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Crawfish Valley is in the Appalachian Mountains in the narrow westernmost part of Virginia. Bear Creek cuts a modest gorge with Walker Mountain on the north and Brushy Mountain on the south. Both rise about 250 feet above the valley. Brushy Mountain's summits are Big and Little Turkey Knob. A rough route called Strawberry Road runs through Crawfish Valley. (They like to give food names to places in this part of the country.) You might catch a fish in the creek, but if that doesn't work out the town of Wytheville, eleven miles away, offers Robby's Diner and Big Mike's Restaurant.

Food In The Sky
The first meals cooked in an airplane for service to passengers were concocted today in 1927 aboard a flight from London to Paris. The airline was Imperial Airways, a predecessor of British Airways. The food was neither fish nor fowl, it was rumored.

Annals Of Fishing
Today in 2005, what is believed to be the biggest freshwater fish ever caught was taken in the Mekong River by some Thai fishermen. It was a catfish, and weighed 646 pounds. Nine feet long. You've got to see the photo of this thing, in an MSNBC story here.

Edible Dictionary
Dutch chocolate, n.--A method of mellowing the natural acidity of cocoa powder by treating it with alkali. That makes it mellower in flavor. It also gives it a lighter color and lets it dissolve into other ingredients more easily. As you might guess, all this made chocolate more appealing to most eaters, especially in candy or ice cream. In recent years "dutched" chocolate has decreased in popularity among gourmets and pastry chefs, for a number of reasons. It doesn't rise as well in cakes, and the flavonoids (which have been claimed to have good effects on health) are also lowered a bit. It's called "Dutch" because it and many other processes that made chocolate easier to work with were developed by the van Houten family in the early 1800s.

Music To Drink Cocktails By
The Kingston Trio got together on this date in 1957. Scotch and soda, mud in your eye. . . Dry martini, jigger of gin. . . oh what a spell you've got me in. Oh, my. Now we'll be thinking of that song all day.

Annals Of Popular Cuisine
Cheerios were introduced today in 1941. General Mills originally called them Cheerioats, which tells what they're made of. They taste pretty good as highly-processed cereals go. . . Today in 2001, a lawsuit on behalf of Hindus was filed against McDonald's for the chain's failure to state that its French fries contained beef flavoring. But really, what could you expect from such a place?

Food Namesakes
Buffalo Bill Cody put in his first Wild West show in this date in 1883. . . Peaches and Herb--a rare double food name!--hit Number Two on the pop charts withReunited today in 1979. . . Mr. Potato Head was born today in 1952. In its original version, you used an actual potato as the head. The toy is all plastic now. . . We have another double food name:Frank W. Fries, which sounds like an order in a drive-through fast-food place. He was a Congressman from Illinois, and born today in 1893.

Words To Eat By
"In the nineteenth century, it was traditional to serve three courses of asparagus--thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac--to a French groom on the night before the wedding. The modern French gentleman has discarded the noble asparagus for the more romantic passion prompter--Champagne."--Food author Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Related Stories
3 Amazing Asparagus Recipes7 Ways to Snap Some Stalks and Cook Some Asparagus

Words To Drink By
"Drinking will make a man quaff,
Quaffing will make a man sing,
Singing will make a man laugh,
And laughing long life doth bring,
Says old Simon the King."--Simon Wadloe, tavern-keeper at the "Devil," London, seventeenth century.