October 5

Filé

Days Until. . .

Halloween 26
Eat Club Dinner at NOLA 6

Today's Flavor

It's Filé Day here in Louisiana, about the only place where that herb is routinely used in cooking. Filé is made by drying and crushing the leaves of the sassafras tree into a powder. Sassafras is a smallish tree that grows in the shady woods throughout the South. The leaves are unusual in having three distinct shapes, mixed uniformly throughout the tree. Some are leaf-like pointed ovals, some look like mittens, and others look like mittens with thumbs on both sides. The one and only use for filé in the kitchen is a big one in these parts: making gumbo. It's usually a gumbo made with something like chicken or sausage. (I personally think it doesn't belong in seafood gumbo.) Some chefs add it during the cooking process as a thickener, but it has a bitterness when used that way. I think the aroma is better than the flavor, and so I dust it on the top of the gumbo at the table. I've tried using fresh sassafras leaves in gumbo, but that doesn't do a thing. Apparently the drying process is necessary for the aroma to emerge. The name "filé" is derived from French, in which it translates as "string" or "line." When filé is stirred into a liquid, it forms a sort of string until it gets fully soaked. Filé's dirty secret is that parts of the sassafras tree have been found to be carcinogenic--notably the roots, which were once the source of flavoring (and the name) for root beer. Products containing the problematic substance are banned. However, little if any of that is in the leaves, and apparently the small amount of filé you ingest in gumbo isn't enough to hurt you. Although who knows? You can make your own file. I've found a very thorough explanation of how to do so, along with pictures of sassafras leaves, at this web site.

Edible Dictionary

Chincoteague is an island, town, and bay off the Atlantic Coast in Northeastern Virginia. It has been known for the quality of its oysters for hundreds of years, and still ships large quantities of then to seafood shops and restaurants. The oysters are of the species crassostrea virginica, the same one that is harvested all along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Because the water is colder and saltier, Chincoteagues tend to be small and more intensely flavored than Louisiana oysters, but the tradeoff leaves the two kinds as equals. They are more expensive than Louisiana oysters, too.

Annals Of Fast Food

This is the birthday in 1902 of Ray Kroc. He liked the hamburger stand operated by the McDonald brothers in Southern California so much that he bought the company. He was more impressed by the innovative rapid-service aspect of McDonald's than the hamburgers. As time went on, what little there was to be said good about McDonald's food fell victim to the need for speed. The French fries, for example, used to be freshly-cut from whole potatoes on the individual restaurants, fried in beef tallow. They were great! Now they're just sticks. Even the burger has come down a lot. Formerly freshly grilled with the onions, now they're cooked in advance and warmed in a microwave right before being served. The curve points downward, while the company continues to thrive.

Deft Dining Rule #137

If you have to eat while driving, make it a standard single McDonald's hamburger. It's so dry that there's no chance any of it will get on your clothes.

Food in Show Biz

Today in 1961, the movie Breakfast At Tiffany's, based on the Truman Capote book, was registered in the U.S. Patent Office. The most delicious part of it was its star, Audrey Hepburn.

History Of Cooking

Today in 1568 in what is now Belgium, Willem of Orange and his army took over Brabant. That sounds like a food story, but isn't exactly, although Brabant potatoes--fried cubes drizzled with butter--are named for the place. The Belgians have been frying potatoes (better than anybody else, at that) for a very long time.

The Saints

Today is the feast day of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, who is much revered in New Orleans. He is buried in the church where my wife and I were married, St. Mary's Assumption, in the Irish Channel.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Kraut Creek runs about ten miles as it drains 14,339 acres of the gently rolling farm fields along the Ohio-Indiana state line. Its two upstream forks come together six miles from the point where it flows into Greenville Creek, the first of a series of streams that lead to the Ohio and then the Mississippi River. The fields through which Kraut Creek flows may well produce cabbage for its namesake dish. But if you're hungry it wil be more expedient to drive the five miles to the Indiana side of Union City (the state line runs through the town) for a bite at the Sidetracks Restaurant.

Food Namesakes

Penny Baker, Playboy's Playmate of the Month in January 1984, was born today in 1965. . . Jimmy Ritz, one of the Ritz Brothers comedy and vaudeville team, was born today in 1903. British actor Fred Feast stepped onto the Big Stage today in 1929.

Words To Eat By

"It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement."--Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's chain, born today in 1902. He was talking about his first meeting with the woman who he would later marry.

"Well, there doesn't seem anything else for an ex-President to do but to go into the country and raise big pumpkins."--Chester Allen Arthur, the twenty-first President, born today in 1830.

Words To Drink By

"There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." --Ecclesiastes, 2:24.