May 5

Cinco. James Beard. Hot Tamales. Tamal. Just One. House Of The Rising Sun. Snook.

Days Until. . .

Mother's Day--5

Food Throughout The Americas

Today is Cinco de Mayo, celebrating the surprising Mexican victory over a well-trained French army in the state of Puebla. Originally a date celebrated only regionally, it has come to be a day for partying by anyone of Mexican descent. And anyone who likes things Mexican, especially beer and tequila. In Texas and the rest of the Southwest, it's a big deal for Mexican restaurants, where a celebration roughly comparable to what happens in Irish taverns on St. Patrick's Day takes place. Somebody hand me a taco.

Food Calendar

It's being Cinco de Mayo, and the event's having taken place in Puebla, it's entirely appropriate that this is Pan-American Mole Poblano Day. "Mole" (pronounced "MOE-lay") comes from a Native Mexican word meaning "sauce." While many moles are made in Mexico, when the word turns up in America it usually means the style made with chocolate and chiles. That's the Puebla style--hence the name "poblano." Perhaps the most distinctive sauce in all of world cookery, mole is not at all sweet. The chocolate lends a bitterness and depth of flavor to all the other ingredients. Recipes for mole poblano tend to include two or three dozen ingredients and take a long time to prepare. The sauce is most often served with chicken, but can turn up in other places. It's incomparably delicious when made well, and it's a shame that it seems to be getting rarer in Mexican restaurants.

Deft Dining Rule #381

If mole sauce appears on a Mexican menu, the chances of the restaurant's being excellent rise by an order of magnitude.

More Latin American Culinary Observances

It's probably an American who declared today National Hot Tamale Day. Hot tamales as we know them are a mixed-breed dish. Most pure-bred Latin American tamales are much larger than the tamales sold from windows and the old street-corner carts. They're a porridge of corn meal wrapped in a corn husk and steamed, with meat in the center--or not. One of those makes a meal.The American hot tamale is about the size of a fat hot dog, made of ground beef, masa meal, red pepper and cumin, among other seasonings. They're simmered in the fat released by the beef and colored by the seasonings. They're gross to describe, but hard to stop eating once you start.The most famous hot tamales in New Orleans were the ones sold from the window at Manuel's on South Carrollton Avenue for decades. The hurricane and the age of the lady who owned it (she took it over when her husband died) brought Manuel's story to a close. Perhaps the recipe will be revived some day and it will return. I keep thinking that the Tex-Mex tamale is a dish that some creative chef should take a look at, with a mind to developing a new dish.

Deft Dining Rule #809:

You may well be able to eat a dozen hot tamales, but one Central American tamal should do you.

Annals Of Food Writing

Today is the birthday, in 1903, of James Beard. He became one of the most famous and respected American authorities on cooking because acting and singing opera weren't supporting him in New York City. He began catering in the 1930s, and found an audience so receptive that he soon published the first of his many cookbooks. He had a way of presenting cookery as fun, sophisticated, and satisfying. The fact that he was a large (both tall and wide) man who looked like a gourmet advanced that career. What else set him apart was his insistence that American food was as good as any other, and deserving of the greatest care and best ingredients. His recipes tended to the elemental, simple side.I had lunch with James Beard once, in 1984, at the Caribbean Room in New Orleans), he talked about what pleasures could be coaxed out of a good potato, without butter or salt, even, if you knew how to cook it. After Beard died in 1985, the house in Greenwich Village where he lived and taught became the headquarters for an educational foundation named for him. It's become the leading awarder of prizes to American chefs, cookbook writers and others in the food biz. His name carries so much stroke that restaurants all over America willingly pay all the expenses for doing a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, the proceeds going to the organization.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Peppers is a wide spot in the road in the Appalachian Mountain in extreme western North Carolina. It's fifty miles north of Asheville. Big Rock Creek runs through the place, cutting a valley about 1500 feel into the 3800-foot mountains on both sides. It suffered a bad flood in 1997. To say that the little farming community is tucked away is an understatement. A mix of woods and fields makes it quite scenic. You have to drive four miles for a bite to eat--in Bakersville, where are both Helen's Restaurant and Dot's Coffee and Tea Shop.

Edible Dictionary

poblano, Spanish, adj.--A variety of chile pepper native to the state of Puebla, in Mexico. ("Poblano" means "from Puebla.") It's about six inches long and three inches wide at the stem end; it tapers to a point. It has a mild heat, and so is often used for chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers). Its pepper-fruit flavor makes it a good ingredient to flavor a salsa. It is an essential ingredient in the chocolate-based sauce mole poblano. Poblanos are also dried into the crisp, black, powerfully flavored (although still mild) called the ancho chile.

Food In Show Biz

Spencer Tracy was born today in 1900. He made a lot of great movies, including Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? . . . Alice Faye, singer and actress, was born today in 1912. She was comedian and bandleader Phil Harris's wife. She has a New Orleans connection; one of her daughters married a local guy. . . Ann B. Davis, who played the housekeeper on the Brady Bunch television show, was born today in 1926. Imagine having a live-in cook and maid without being wealthy. It was common until the 1960s. Now it seems preposterous.

Music To Drink By

Eric Burdon, the lead singer of the Animals, was born today in 1940. The Animals made a hit out of a song whose first line is, "There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun."

Food Namesakes

Ron Snook, a rower for Australia in the 1996 Olympics, was born today in 1972. A snook is a great eating fish caught mostly on the Florida Gulf Coast, but it turns up here now and then. Good for grilling. . . Canadian singer James LaBrie gave forth his first note today in 1963.

Words To Eat By

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience."--James Beard, born today in 1903.

Words To Drink By

"My dad was the town drunk. Most of the time that’s not so bad. But New York City?"--Henny Youngman.