January 13

National Peach Melba Day

Bananas Foster. Fires. Peach Melba. Pawpaws. Lost Dishes. Baked Potato Opening. Bycatch. Saint Of Salmon. Salmon P. Chase. Moderation.

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras--45Valentine's Day--17Today is Friday The 13th. Dine in a bad restaurant today.

Annals Of Restaurant Fires

Today in 1830 a major fire swept through New Orleans. It destroyed a large part of the French Quarter and downtown. But the city was prosperous then, and after the fire a building boom ensued, with the result that a large number of structures in the French Quarter and CBD date back to the 1830s--including most of those being used now as restaurants.Over the years a number of restaurants have been ravaged by major fires. The one most people remember was the fire started in an air duct by the flames from bananas Foster at Brennan's on April 3, 1975. It took six months for the restaurant to reopen. The same year, Visko's in Gretna burned down and reopened, but it was never the same afterwards. In 1980, also in Gretna, the local branch of the Natchez catfish house called Cock of the Walk went up in flames, never to return. Right after it opened following Katrina, Mr. Ed's in Bucktown had a disastrous fire from which they quickly rebuilt.Fires in kitchens happen more than you might realize. Any restaurant serving soufflee potatoes has two or three fires per night. Fortunately, kitchens have such good fire-prevention apparatus that fires in them rarely take the whole place down. Instead, they close the restaurant for the night, and give everybody in the house when it happens a free meal.

Today's Flavor

Today is National Peach Melba Day. A scoop of vanilla ice cream with fresh (let's hope) sliced peaches, all topped with raspberry puree. It's usually garnished with chopped or sliced almonds or walnuts. It was invented in the 1890s by no less than August Escoffier, one of the most renowned French chefs of all time. He made it for Dame Nellie Melba, the famous Australian opera singer who is also the namesake of melba toast. A story has it that she thought the dessert was good for her vocal cords, but any singer or speaker will tell you that dairy products, sugar, and cold foods are all to be avoided before opening one's mouth.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Melba is on the southwestern outskirts of Boise, Idaho, about ten miles from downtown. Its population is 450. Most of the people are involved somehow in farming. This is potato country, watered by the nearby Snake River, which cuts a fertile valley through these parts. They also grow a lot of corn and wheat. It's a good area for fishing, hunting, and winter sports. The town was founded in 1912. There are a couple of restaurants, the most intriguing being Buck's Saloon and Steakhouse.

Edible Dictionary

port, n.--Also called Porto and Oporto, for the large Portuguese city from which most port wines are shipped. Port is a fortified wine made from several varieties of red grapes grown in the Douro River valley in Portugal. The wine is fermented only partly, leaving a good deal of natural grape sugar unfermented. The fermentation is stopped when brandy (also made from the local grapes) is added to the fermenting barrels. This also has the effect of raising the alcohol content to about twenty percent--far above that of a conventionally-fermented wine. Most ports are "ruby" ports, drunk not long after bottling. Some ruby ports are made in a darker, more robust style and called "super-rubies." These have become very popular in the last decade. Vintage ports--which rank among the world's best wines--are made only in superior years (rarely more than three per decade). They can be aged for many decades, improving all the way. Tawny ports start the same way ruby ports do, but are aged for years in barrels, making them lighter and browner in color, with a distinctly caramel flavor. All ports are primarily drunk after dinner, with dessert or cheese.

Deft Dining Rule #29:

If a restaurant has removed your favorite dish from the menu, and you miss it, just ask for it. Four times out of five they'll make it for you.

Annals Of Food Writing

Today is the birthday of Pierre Franey, long-time food writer for the New York Times and author of several cookbooks, including some in collaboration with Craig Claiborne. He made his name as a chef at Pavillon in New York City, a seminal restaurant that brought first-class French culinary style to the American restaurant scene. Franey was on my radio show once, and I had dinner with him afterwards at Les Continents, in the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was full of stories and bonhomie. He died in 1996, but is still well remembered in gourmet circles.

Presidential Eating

Today in 2002, President George Bush II choked on a pretzel while watching a football game. He passed out momentarily. Another good reason not to watch football games. This episode gave rise to the vice-presidential motto: "One pretzel away from the Presidency."

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

After you bake potatoes, get them out of the oven immediately and open them up. The best way is to poke a cross on top with four insertions of a fork. Then squeeze the sides with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. It will pop open and let the steam out, so they don't get soggy.

Annals Of Seafood Research

On this day in 1998, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that 20 million tons of edible fish per year--about ten pounds for every living person--are caught as "bycatch" and thrown away, dead. This is one of the worst pressures on fish stocks. Laws in recent years have addressed this, although the situation is still pretty bad.

Music To Eat Gumbo By

Two New Orleans jazz greats were born today: guitarist Danny Barker (1909) and trumpeter Percy Humphrey (1905). I was lucky enough to hear both of them numerous times in the old Bourbon Street jazz clubs, near the ends of their long careers, and before bands playing rock and country music took over.

The Saints

This is the feast day of St. Kentigern, a bishop and missionary in Wales and Scotland in the sixth century. He is the patron saint of salmon. One of the stories told about him is that he caught a salmon, cut it open , and turned up a ring lost by the queen of Cadzow.

Food Namesakes

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was born today in 1808. His picture was on the now-extinct $10,000 bill. . . A year earlier, Major General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford of the Union Volunteers was born. The oversize Rally's hamburger is not named for him, but his name brought it to mind.

Words To Eat By

"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." --Mark Twain.

Words To Drink By

"Nothing In Moderation."--The epitaph on the gravestone of brilliant early TV comedian Ernie Kovacs, who died today in 1962. "Oh brother, be a brother, fill this tiny cup of mine.
And please, sir, make it whiskey: I have no head for wine!
--Nick Cave.