January 17

Popeye. Spinach. Beef Wellington. Hot Buttered Rum. Cable Car. Broccoli Raab. Today is the official celebration of the life of <strong>Martin Luther King.</strong> Somehow, trying to note a food connection to the great man seems too trivial. So I salute him and the large number of Americans who benefited from his life. Really, all of us have. Many offices are closed; many people take the day off.

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras--41 Valentine's Day--26

Deft Dining Rule #434:

Before you order a dish described as including spinach, find out whether the spinach will be visible and tastable. If not, it's just in there to boost sales. Everybody falls for spinach.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

Next time you cook spinach for anything, give it a single shake (less than a pinch) of nutmeg. When you eat it, you'll wonder why it tastes better than usual.

Gourmets In History

Benjamin Franklin was born today in 1706. He didn't invent the almanac, but he certainly set the standard for the genre with his Poor Richard's Almanack. It made him into a rich man who could afford the fine food and wine that Franklin enjoyed. In his honor, go out for a dinner that costs the amount of the bill on which Franklin is remembered. Or not: he was famous for his common-sense style of living and doing business.

Food In War

Today in 1991, the first Iraq war began. One of the Marines who saw action was Chef John Besh of Restaurant August. Being in the service is one of the things that persuaded him to take a job cooking. In other war news, on this date in 1827 the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was made supreme commander of all British troops, twelve years after he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The dish beef Wellington was created in his honor by a chef whose identity has been lost. It's a seared filet mignon (sometimes a very large section of the tenderloin) covered with foie gras and mushroom duxelles, then wrapped in pastry and baked. It's a grand dish to see, but just okay in terms of taste. It seems very British, and has a way of being overcooked. I've always thought it ironic that beef Wellington is served most often in fancy, very French restaurants.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Grit is a crossroads community in the farming countryside of central Virginia, fifty-three miles east of Roanoke. The main action as far as dining out is concerned is in the adjacent towns of Hurt and Altavista, three miles west. I think T.A.'s Place sounds most promising for reasons I'm at a loss to explain. Also, the name of the town indicates that it's probably south of the Grits Line, which separates the grits-eating part of America (the Southeast part) from the hash-brown eaters in the Northwestern three fourths of America.

Today's Flavor

It's Hot Buttered Rum Day. A drink dating back to Benjamin Franklin's times, this is spiced rum served warm; the butter is to make the spices rise to the top, where the aromas can be better released. Interesting when it's cold outside, but I can think of hundreds of better things to do with rum. Better we should make it Beef Wellington Day.

Annals Of Popular Cuisine

Today in 1871, Andrew Hallidie patented the design of the cable car, the kind used to this day in San Francisco. When we see a picture of a cable car, three things come to mind. First, the St. Francis Hotel, our favorite hotel in America, and the home of Michael Mina's fantastic restaurant. The cable car passes right in front of it. Second, we think of Chinatown, because if you hop onto the cable car at the hotel, it takes you there, and to within a block of the Great Eastern, our favorite Chinatown restaurant. Finally, the cable car reminds us of Rice-A-Roni. Television commercials for "the San Francisco treat" (it's really the Lebanese treat) always showed cable cars with ads for Rice-A-Roni on them. Those ads are still on many of the cars. One more: they remind us of Tony Bennett, and that song, and. . . well, now we want to be in San Francisco.

Edible Dictionary

arroz con calamares, [ah-ROEZ-con-call-uh-mah-ress], Spanish, n. Literally, "rice with squid." But that doesn't capture the big-time distinctiveness of this familiar Spanish dish. One of the main ingredients of the dish is ink from the squid's system of camouflage. A little of it goes a long way. A well-made bowl of arroz con calamares may be as black as anything you ever eat in your life. The ink provides not just color but flavor, too. It's usually made with enough pepper to make an impression that way, too. It's usually served as an entree, and although it might not seem to be the sort of thing that wears well, no avid diner leaves any of it behind.

The Saints

Today is the feast day of St. Anthony The Abbott, who lived in the third century. He is the patron saint of butchers, as well as of pigs and those who raise them.

Food Namesakes

Actor Noah Beery was born today in 1882. . . Captain James Cook became the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle intentionally, on this date in 1773. . . Aviation pioneer Norman "Squab" Read was born today in 1891. . . Raphael Ritz, a Swiss artist, was born today in1829. . . Model, former Playboy Playmate, and former Hooters waitress Kimberly Spicer was born today in 1980. . . It's the birthday (1933) of ventriloquist and puppeteer Shari Lewis, and indirectly also the birthday of her favorite puppet, Lamb Chop.

Food In The Comics

Today in 1929, Popeye the Sailor made his first appearance. He walked onto an existing comic strip by Elzie Segar called Thimble Theater, and before long he'd pushed the other characters in the strip into the background and became one of the biggest stars of the comics page. His major contribution to American culture, however, was in making spinach cool. His love of canned spinach was so influential among kids (including this one) that a statue of him stands in front of City Hall in Crystal City, Texas, the spinach-farming capital of America. In New Orleans, we think of something else when we hear Popeye's name. The national fried chicken chain started here (in Chalmette) was, however, not named for the sailor but for Popeye Doyle, portrayed by Gene Hackman, in The French Connection. That's what Popeyes creator Al Copeland said, anyway. King Features, which syndicates Popeye, disagreed, and wound up forcing Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken to pay royalties for use of the equally famous sailor's name. I can't say I'm nuts about the product Popeyes puts out these days. But when it first opened in 1973, I had it at the top of one of my early Ten-Best lists. That spicy style was something really different back then, and I though it was worth driving miles to get the stuff.

Words To Eat By

"Kill no more pigeons than you can eat."--Benjamin Franklin, born today in 1706.

"A mother never gets hit with a custard pie. Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never."--Mack Sennett, early filmmaker, master of slapstick movies, born today in 1880.

Words To Drink By

"Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whisky makes it go round twice as fast."--Sir Compton Mackenzie, English writer, born today in 1883.