October 19

Seafood Gumbo

Days Until. . .

Halloween 12

Great Inventions In Dining

Today in 1879, Thomas Edison worked out the details of the electric light bulb and built the first one. The effect of that invention on human behavior is almost incalculable. What were restaurants like before electric lighting? Although many most of their business by day (Tujague's, for example), surely Antoine's and other venerable dining rooms were open at night. Gas lighting was common. Gasoliers still exist in some French Quarter buildings. There's one in the Gold Room upstairs at Brennan's. I asked once to have the electric lights turned off so we could see what it was like to eat by gaslight alone. I must say it made the food and the ladies look better.

Today's Flavor

It's Seafood Gumbo Day. Seafood gumbo is much more distinctly a New Orleans dish than chicken gumbo. Which is not to say it's better. But while you can get chicken gumbo from Campbell's, canned seafood gumbo is a rarity. So is edible seafood gumbo in places outside Southeast Louisiana. The number of variations on seafood gumbo in New Orleans is equal to the number of cooks preparing it. Each version is regarded by the cook and his or her cadre of supplicant eaters as the One True Seafood Gumbo. The diversity is a good thing. It means the dish is still a living thing. That said, a few guidelines that ought to be followed. Okra, for example, seems essential. It gave gumbo its name, and in combination with the local seafood it creates the classic gumbo flavor. The second essential is a shrimp or crab stock. Many recipes don't include that, but those that do are clearly better. Stocks are easy to make, take less than an hour, and use cheap ingredients (shrimp or crab shells). Then there's the roux. Although the vogue in recent years favors rouxless gumbo, it makes the gumbo better. Medium-dark in color, it should be a smaller pecentage of a seafood gumbo than for a chicken gumbo. The most controversial matter in the making of seafood gumbo is whether it should contain any tomato. I think it should--but not very much. It not only adds another flavor dimension, but solidifies the gumbo's Creole bona fides. The final touch in a great gumbo is to have the seafood added at the last minute. The shrimp, crabmeat, or crab claws should be just barely cooked in advance, then added to the gumbo only enough ahead of serving to allow them to heat through. That avoids hard little shrimp and soft crabmeat. Oysters should go in raw, right before serving, with a couple minutes of simmering before serving. Seafood gumbo is, more than any other Creole dish, the one that is least often successfully exported. To eat a good one, you have to be somewhere around here.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Bacon Hill is a collection of very modest houses at the northernmost extreme of Chesapeake Bay, in the northeast corner of Maryland. It's wedged between the Old Philadelphia Road (from Baltimore) and the former Pennsylvania Railroad (now the main line of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor). The area is swampy and not very inviting, with landfills, junkyards, and a power plant. The physical Bacon Hill rises to 210 feet just west of town, and has the greatest concentration of houses in the area. It's across the highway from the nearest place to eat in these precincts: the Seven East Deli.

Food At War

Today in 1917, volunteers working for the Salvation Army began frying doughnuts for American troops fighting in France during World War I. This was not the first appearance of the doughnut--it has been around since 1847. Nor is it the origin of the name "doughboy," a name for American soldiers in World War I. In fact, I'm not sure why I brought this up.

Wine In War

Today in 1453, the British were pushed out of Bordeaux, France, bringing the Hundred Years' War to an end. However, the presence of Englishmen in that prime wine district had a lasting effect. To this day, many Bordeaux wine chateaux are owned by families with roots in England. And the English have always been the greatest consumers of the best Bordeaux wine, even creating an English word for it: claret.

Food Science

Today in 1688, English physician William Cheselden was born. He discovered that the secretions of the alimentary canal are what digests food. Before his noting this, it was believed that food was digested by muscular action in your innards. You can prove he was right by holding a bite of cracker in your mouth for a few minutes. You will detect after awhile that it starts to turn a little sweet. This is caused by the digestive action of saliva.

Edible Dictionary

hazelnut, n.--The nut of a tree in the Corylus genus. It resembles a small, light-colored chestnut. It's also known as a filbert. Hazelnuts are not much eaten on their own, but are ground into a near-powder and blended with other ingredients. They are only rarely the main component in the many confections made from them. It best-know starring role is in the spread Nutella, very popular in Europe. There's a bit of cocoa in Nutella, as there often is where hazelnut turns up. One of the most interesting is a Swiss candy called Ice Cubes. These appear to be ordinary squares of chocolate, but the presence of hazelnut powder in the mix brings the melting point down to approximately the temperature of the human mouth. As they melt, they absorb heat, giving a cooling effect. Hazelnuts are quite healthful to eat.

Food Writer Hall Of Fame

Today in 2000, Julia Child was awarded the French Legion of Honor. She won that for her long championing of French cooking, beginning with her first book and television show, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That work woke Americans up to the possibility that they could cook in the French style, and many people took it up.

Food Namesakes

Pro footballer Reggie Rusk kicked his life off today in 1972. (A rusk is the hard, light bread you find under eggs Benedict. . . Speaking of: Ruud Bread, pro soccer player, was born today in 1962. . . Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry died today in 1995.

Words To Cook By

"Stock to a cook is voice to a singer."--Unknown.

Words To Write Cookbooks By

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes."--John LeCarre, novelist, born today in 1931.

Words To Drink By

"For each glass, liberally large, the basic ingredients begin with ice cubes in a shaker and three or four drops of Angostura bitters on the ice cubes. Add several twisted lemon peels to the shaker, then a bottle-top of dry vermouth, a bottle-top of Scotch, and multiply the resultant liquid content by five with gin, preferably Bombay Sapphire. Add more gin if you think it is too bland. I have been told, but have no personal proof that it is true, that three of these taken in the course of an evening make it possible to fly from New York to Paris without an airplane."--Isaac Stern, classical violinist.