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The Food Almanac: March 23, 2011

The Food Almanac: March 23, 2011

In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter, The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Food Calendar
Today is Melba Toast Day. It will be hard to celebrate, because packaged Melba toast is nearly extinct. The Turnbull Baking Company, which made almost all the Melba toast for almost every company that distributes it, shut down its New Orleans plant in 2010. If you think I'm kidding, see if you can find Melba toast in the cracker basket next time you go out to eat. (Assuming the place even has a cracker basket.) Melba toast, as well as the dessert peach Melba, is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the superstar opera singer of the late 1800s and early 1900s. She ate dried, thin toast whenever she was "ill" (read: needed to take a few pounds off her Rubenesque body). She supposedly revealed the secret of making the toast on this day in 1901.

Gourmet Geography
Melba, Mississippi is twenty-five miles west of Hattiesburg, in mixed woodlands and open fields. This is dairy cattle and horse country. A few farmhouses are nearby, and perhaps some of them have a spare packet of Melba toast to share. A better idea would be to head back toward Hattiesburg on MS 42 to the small town Sumrall. There, six miles away, is Murphy's Catfish House.

Edible Dictionary
tapenade, [tah-peh-NAHD], French. n. A finely-chopped, cool mixture of olives, capers, and salted anchovies, held together with extra-virgin olive oil. All the ingredients have salty, mouth-filling flavors. When spread on a cracker or Melba toast it becomes the ideal companion of a pre-dinner glass of wine or cocktails — especially pastis, the favored tipple of Provence from which tapenade comes. Although the formula isn't often tampered with, some makers of tapenade add other strongly-flavored ingredients like tuna, garlic, and oregano.

Food Entrepreneurs
Al Copeland died today in 2008. He was the creator of Popeyes Fried Chicken, which began in New Orleans and spread nationwide. He went on to open Copeland's, a chain of Creole-Cajun bistros, in 1985. Copeland was famous not only for his restaurants but also for his large-living personal style. He was big into motorboat racing, among other things. He was celebrated for having an acute palate. Ironically, he died of a disease of the salivary glands.

Annals of Food Writing
Fannie Farmer was born today in 1857. The cookbook she published in 1896 — which is still being revised and published — contained a major innovation without which cookbooks would not be nearly as useful. She was the first to specify exact amounts of ingredients in recipes, and precise timings and temperatures. Her cookbook assumed nothing of the reader, so it became a great help to people whose mothers were not good cooks. Its original name was The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, but now, well over four million copies later, it's known as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

Food in Outer Space
Astronaut John Young had a corned beef sandwich for lunch today in 1965 — in space. He was the first person to do so. It was on rye, with mustard, and kosher pickles. He smuggled it on board, an act which got him in hot water with NASA.

Deft Dining Rule #510 Even though corned beef appears to contain its own dental floss, all dislodging of it from between teeth must be accomplished out of view of other people.

Bizarre Liquor Law #5375
Today in 1896, the New York legislature passed the Raines law. It prohibited sales of alcoholic beverages on Sunday except in hotels. You could get a drink in a hotel, but only if you were a registered guest having a meal, or having the drinks served in your room. Intention: to shut down saloons on the one day that working stiffs might be able to enjoy them. Effect: a rise in adultery.

Annals of Beverage Packaging
The Dixie cup — made of paper coated with wax to make it waterproof — was introduced today in 1912. The inventor was Lawrence Luellen, who originally called it the "Health Cup." His aim was to improve sanitation, not convenience. That cleared the way for the go cup used by New Orleans bars and their customers. Go cups are almost unique to New Orleans; in other places, where laws disallow drinking in public, the idea of taking a beer or cocktail with you after leaving the bar is anathema. The Warren Glass Company received a patent today in 1880 for its milk bottle. It wasn't the first bottle for milk delivery, but it was the one whose shape set the standard. Even now, when glass milk bottles are rare, a Warren bottle still would be identified by most people as a bottle for milk.

Music to Eat Fruit By
The song Yes, We Have No Bananas was published by its writers, Frank Silver and Irving Conn, today in 1923.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Slightly underripe bananas, sliced end to end and then across to give four pieces, can be browned in butter and served as a starchy vegetable next to almost anything.

Food Namesakes
Francis Berry, Shakespearean scholar and poet, was born today in 1915. Architectural engraver Muirhead Bone was born today in 1876. (Funny, you don't see many people with that name anymore.)

Words To Eat By
"To the old saying that man built the house but woman made it a home might be added the modern supplement that woman accepted cooking as a chore but man has made of it a recreation." — Emily Post.

Words To Drink By
"Man is a genius when he is dreaming." — Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director was born today in 1910.