June 9

Roux Day

Blender Man. Roux. Hires. Sassafras. Rhubarb. Automat. Donald. Fake Choppers. Jelly Roll.

Days Until. . .

Father's Day 12

Food Calendar

This is Worldwide Roux Day. Making roux is a classical French culinary technique dating back to the 1600s. But nowhere in the world is it done as much as here in Southeast Louisiana. Although there are many ways to make a roux, we all seem to agree that making it one way or another is essential to get the distinctive flavor and texture of Creole and Cajun food. It thickens sauces, adds color, and contributes a special mouthfeel and nutty flavor.Roux as we know it is a blend of flour and fat, cooked to some degree. The fat component can be almost anything: butter, oil, or rendered animal fat. It's cooked with the flour until it reaches the color the cook wants. The essential technique is simple, but taxing: you have to keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the mixture from burning. Burned roux can't be repaired. It has an unmistakably horrible flavor.Going back to the beginning: as the flour and fat cook its texture changes to create blond roux--the first stage, used for some dishes as a thickener, and for making bechamel. It keeps getting darker, at an increasing rate, as it cooks, going through a distinctly reddish stage (the word "roux" is a reference to this redness), to dark brown and finally almost black. By that point it's extremely hot. It has been called "Cajun napalm" for what happens if a big blob of hot roux happens to splash on your arm. Everybody has a different way of making roux. French chefs usually cook it dry on the oven, and add the oil later. Some cooks heat the oil very hot first then add the flour and stir like mad as the roux darkens with alarming rapidity. With a lower heat, it's less tricky, but takes more time. Roux can even be made in the microwave oven by nuking it in diminishing bursts and stirring in between. (A very strong glass container is needed, and there's still risk of breakage.)

The standard home use of roux is to add the other ingredients for the dish when the roux is the right color. The vegetables will also cool the roux as they cook. Most chefs, however, make a large amount of roux, and add it as they need it to the pot. That way they get the exact right amount of thickening and darkening.

Today is also allegedly National Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day. Wonder how many people celebrate that? But it reminds me of a story. In the dining car of the California Zephyr heading east in 1978, I was in the diner for dinner and was surprised to be offered rhubarb pie for dessert. "The fools thought it was strawberry, so we got it by mistake," said the dining car manager. It was pretty tasty.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

The first step in making a roux involves neither flour nor oil, but chopping the vegetables you will throw into the roux when it gets to the color you want. Or filling a cup with stock and placing it within easy reach of your roux position.

Music To Puree Vegetables By

Fred Waring was born today in 1900. He was best known for his Big Band, the Pennsylvanians, in the 1930s and 1940s. He played sweet music, as opposed to jazz. But his longest-lasting legacy is the Waring Blender. He didn't invent it, but he improved the concept so much that his became the standard blender design, the one we use even now. Food processors supplanted it for many uses, but the blender is still an essential kitchen tool, and has seen a resurgence in recent years.

Annals Of Soft Drinks

Hires Root Beer made its first appearance in 1869 on this date. It is still widely available, and occasionally you'll see a Hires Root Beer barrel in an older restaurant. It's the original root beer, as well as the oldest continuously-marketed brand of any kind of soft drink. It started as a make-it-yourself herbal tea of roots, berries, and leaves. But Charles E. Hires thought the name "root beer" would have more appeal than "herbal tea." I remember it tasted a lot different from Barq's, which probably explains its rarity in these parts.

Edible Dictionary

sassafras, n.--One of several species of tree that grows in the eastern half of the United States. Its leaves, when dried and ground, are the only ingredient of gumbo filé, an aromatic herb added to gumbo at the table. The leaves have a big-time nonconformity: they come in three shapes, all mixed together on every specimen of the tree. One of them is a standard point-oval leaf shape. The second looks like a mitten. The third has a large central lobe and a smaller lobe on each side of it. The roots were once used to make root beer, but were banned from that use in 1960 because of evidence it caused liver damage and cancer.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Sassafras is a rural crossroads in extreme southern Indiana, fifty-nine miles west of Louisville, Kentucky. It's a mix of wooded areas and farm fields. A number of small lakes formed on the streams around there suggest fish farms. Interstate 64 runs just north, and that's where the nearest place to eat is: nine miles west, at Deb's Truck Stop.

Annals Of Fast Food

Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened the first Automat restaurant in Philadelphia today in 1902. You'd insert coins into a slot next to the glass door displaying the dish you wanted, and the door would unlock, allowing you to remove your dish. Meanwhile, a full kitchen staff was back there cooking more food and plating it up to fill all those little windows. It was the first fast food restaurant--although its menu had nothing on common with the fast food of today. Automats were especially popular in New York in the 1920s through the 1950s, when they began to fade. At their peak, the 157 Automats served over a half-million people a day. It now seems a very strange way of serving food, but it worked for those whose only goal was to allay their hunger. The last Automat closed in New York in 1991.

Inventions In Eating

Although George Washington is famous for wearing them, the patent for false teeth was claimed today in 1822 by Charles Graham. It may seem strange now, but the main effect of the appliance was to prevent starvation in older people. Now there's so much food out there with what seems to be a pre-chewed texture that a toothless person could probably get by, if he could stand looking funny.

Music To Eat Your Sweets By

Jelly Roll Morton recorded Jelly Roll Blues today in 1924. It's not really about the spiral cake rolled up with jelly, although no internal evidence in the lyrics betrayed this.

Food Namesakes

In 1969 today, Warren Burger was confirmed as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. . . Cole Porter, one of the two or three greatest composers of American popular songs in the 1930s and 1940s, was born today in 1891. He had a rare name that includes both food and drink words. . . Luigi Fagioli, Italian racecar driver, started his engine today in 1898. (Fagioli is Italian for beans.)

Words To Eat By

"The various kinds of roux are used as the thickening agents for basic sauces, and their preparation, which appears to be of little importance, should actually be carried out with a great deal of care and attention."--August Escoffier.

Words To Drink By

Woman first tempted man to eat; he took to drinking of his own accord.--Unknown.

Cheese Of The Day

Chaumes, (French), adj.--A powerful cheese made from cow's milk in Southwest France, in the area of Perigord. It's a semi-soft cheese in the "monastery" style, which is to say that it has a washed rind and an interior that ripens into a very assertive flavor. When it gets overripe, it can become bitter with base components, which some people enjoy. It's for palates that enjoy stinky cheeses. Chaumes comes in a flattened disk with an orange exterior and a creamy yellow interior. If you eat this one with wine, make the wine a big red.

Food In Cartoons

Donald Duck was born today in 1934, with an appearance in the Disney cartoon The Wise Little Hen. He retired in 1961. He wore a kind of naval jacket but no pants. For many years, he had a kid's platter named for him at Dooky Chase; I forget what it was.