August 23

National Sponge Cake Day

Gravy. Genoise. Walnut, IA. Birch Beer. Mexico. Louise XVI. Ten Nights In A Barroom. Gasoline Alley.

Days Until. . .

Coolinary Summer Specials End 8

Today's Flavor

This is National Sponge Cake Day. Not to be confused with angel food cake, sponge cake is another word for genoise, a light cake made with eggs beaten with sugar, after which the flour and other ingredients are added. In other words, a typical fine cake.More interesting is another observance on this date: Gravy Day. Gravy. Not sauce. But what, after all, is the difference? The Penguin Companion to Food says, "Gravy in the British Isles and areas culturally influenced by them is. . . well, gravy, a term fully comprehensible to those who use it, but something of a mystery in the rest of the world." The French (and restaurateurs who are trying to avoid the common sound of "gravy") have a word for it: "jus."Gravy begins with the juices and browned bits that come from cooking meat. That's thinned or deglazed with stock or water, in the pan where the meat was cooked. Then it's thickened up again (maybe) with a little flour or roux. A good gravy will be a little dirty with flecks of meat.The most celebrated gravy in New Orleans is the one that wets down a roast beef poor boy. But there are as many more as there are meats to throw it off and take it on. Chicken gravy. Turkey gravy. Ham gravy, and its Southern variation, red-eye gravy. (Made in the pan where you just grilled the ham steak by adding a bit of coffee to it. Yuck.)Confusing everything is the localism "red gravy," for Italian-style tomato sauce. It is not unique to New Orleans, but if you use the expression, you're thought of as local.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Walnut, Iowa, population 800, is a quaint farming town town in southwest Iowa, about two-thirds of the way between Des Moines and Omaha. Founded in 1871 with the arrival of the Rock Island Railroad, it was named for a large walnut tree on Walnut Creek. It grew to become the center of commerce for the vast dairy and cornfields in the area. After a bad fire in the 1890s, the entire town was rebuilt in brick. Those antique buildings dominate Walnut's downtown today, and lend a distinct charm that attracts 80,000 visitors a year. A lot of them have lunch or dinner at Sandy's Food and Spirits, right in the middle of town.

Edible Dictionary

birch beer, n.--A variation on root beer, created in the 1880s as a competitor to the new and highly successful Hires Root Beer. It genuinely does use birch bark and sap as one of its flavoring ingredients, along with herbs and vanilla. It has a lighter flavor and color than root beer. Some varieties of birch beer are very pale or even colorless. It's more popular in the Northeast and into Canada, but birch beer was common in New Orleans in the 1950s through the 1980s because it was the primary fizzy beverage sold by Royal Castle, a chain of hamburger restaurants. Royal Castle is still in existence in its hometown of Miami.

Eating Around The World

Today in 1821, Spain signed a treaty allowing its former colony Mexico to become an independent nation. It was triggered by political instability in Spain, which was occupied by Napoleon at the time. Mexico--heir to one of the world's richest and most distinctive culinary traditions--was as different from Spain as the United States is different from Great Britain. Mexican food and culture expands in the U.S. every day. That's also true in New Orleans since the hurricane, although I don't think we've seen anything spectacular yet from the influx.

Annals Of Eating Like A King

Today is the birthday, in 1754, of King Louis XVI, the last king of France before the Revolution. He and his wife Marie Antoinette were guillotined, but while his reign lasted he and Marie had it pretty good. The old Louis XVI French Restaurant--originally in the Marie Antoinette Hotel--attempted to duplicate that dining grandeur in the 1970s. Under Chefs Daniel Bonot and Claude Aubert, it succeeded.

Annals Of Amphibians

The Goliath frog --the largest frog ever caught, weighing seven and a half pounds--was found today in 1960 in Guinea. It was the size of two chickens. One frog fed a family of eight. But it was very tough. The sauce was the inevitable garlic and herb butter.

Drinking On Stage

A play called Ten Nights In A Barroom premiered in New York City on this date in 1858. It was about to play in New Orleans, until the local producers learned that it was a cautionary tale about the evils of drinking, and canceled it for fear nobody would understand the point they were trying to make.

Food In War

On this date in 1944, the Allied forces liberated Marseilles in France, releasing bouillabaisse from the Axis stranglehold.

Overeating In The Comics

Today in 1919, the comic strip Gasoline Alley premiered. It is still being published, although not in New Orleans. Originally, it depicted a bunch of guys standing around talking about their automobiles, which were still a new thing back then. Then one of them--Walt Wallet--adopted a baby left on his doorstep. From that moment, all the characters aged in real time--a new idea in the comics.

The Saints

This is the feast day of St. Rose of Lima. She is the patron saint of vanity, which ought to make her the patron saint of restaurant critics. (And television chefs, too.)

Food Namesakes

Johnny Romano, the all-star catcher for the White Sox in the 1950s and 1960s, was born today in 1934. . . James Roe, a professional football player, took the Big Snap today in 1973. . . Robert Mulligan, a movie director, said "Action!" today in 1925. . . Basketball pro Kobe Bryant was born today in 1978.

Words To Eat By

"It may not be possible to get rare roast beef, but if you're willing to settle for well done, ask them to hold the sweetened library paste that passes for gravy."--Marian Burros, New York Times food writer.

Words To Drink By

"I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage."--Erma Bombeck.