February 2

Groundhog Stew. Candlemas. Midwinter. Heavenly Hash. Mallow. Membrillo. Bottle Cap. Barefoot Contessa.

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras--26 Valentine's Day--12

Famous New Orleans Food Figures

Al Copeland, the creator of Popeyes Fried Chicken and the Copeland's restaurants, was born today in 1944. Without having graduated from high school, he worked in his brother's doughnut stand until he went out on his own in 1972 with the first Popeyes stand, in Arabi. It looked more or less the way Popeyes did for decades after. He had many other things right from the beginning, most notably the red-pepper-based seasoning that made Popeyes distinctive. Popeyes was a tremendous success, and Copeland used that success to get into many other activities--some successful. some disastrous. He opened the first Copeland's in 1985, which was so good and so far ahead of its time that it established Copeland's reputation as having had a golden palate. Ironically, he died from a rare cancer of the salivary glands in 2008. A fascinating man.


GroundhogIt's Groundhog Day, the approximate midpoint of winter. There are six more weeks of winter, no matter how an animal's shadow registers with him. While I was in evacuation in the Washington, DC area, I lived for a month in the basement of my wife's sister's mother-in-law, finishing my cookbook. One morning several groundhogs were walking around her yard, occasionally standing up. "They dig under the fence to get the apples that fall from the trees," she said. I'd never seen a groundhog before. They were bigger than I thought--twice the size of my fattest cat. I'd say they weighed thirty or forty pounds. They were so wary that you couldn't even enter the yard without scaring them off. I could see how they'd be afraid of their own shadows. Some people catch and cook groundhogs, usually into a stew. They have scent glands that may daunt anyone who may be uncertain about this idea to begin with. I hear they taste a lot like possum, but having eaten that before I can't accept it as a recommendation. A groundhog is the same animal as a woodchuck, which reminds me of a Latin maxim: "Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?" ("How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?")

The Fortieth Day Of Christmas

Today is Candlemas, the last gasp of the Christmas season. It's forty days since December 25, and according to the Jewish laws of purification, Mary would have presented herself and Jesus at the temple--if Jesus had actually been born on December 25. But the chances of that are 365 to 1. Oddly, the lore about Candlemas is similar to that of Groundhog Day. If it's a mild day today, then winter has more to throw at us. If it's a stormy day, then winter is almost over.

Today's Flavor

Today, we hear, is Heavenly Hash Day. "Heavenly hash" has two meanings. In most of America, it's a sort of trifle, with pineapple, cherries, nuts, and marshmallows suspended in whipping cream and rice. Around New Orleans, however, when you say those words you mean the concoction of dark chocolate, marshmallows, and almonds famously marketed by the candy shop at the old D.H. Holmes and, more commercially, by Elmer's.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Eaton is a rural crossroads in the northeast corner of Arkansas, 112 miles northwest of Memphis, Tennessee. The rolling land is about equally divided between farm acreage and woods. Two branches of Cypress Creek drain the land as they head towards the Mississippi. The nearest source of eatin' to Eaton is the Sportsman's Grill, three miles away in Lynn.

Edible Dictionary

almond paste, n.--Although this seems to require no explanation, there's more to it than meets the eye. It is indeed almonds ground into a smooth, spreadable consistency, it also contain sugar, water, and sometimes glycerin and almond extract to enhance its texture and flavor. Almond paste is a major ingredient in baking, particularly in France. It's used in almond croissants and cookies. Almond paste is also the heart of marzipan, used widely for cake decoration. The most opulent use of almond paste is in "gateau du roi"--the king cake, made in Northern France and Belgium to celebrate the Epiphany. It's nothing like the New Orleans king cake, even though its significance on the calendar is identical.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

To remove the skin from whole almonds, simmer them for about four minutes. Let them cool, then squeeze them like a crawfish tail. The meat pops right out of the skin. Then it's a good idea to toast them for ten to twelve minutes at 300 degrees. Watch to make sure they don't burn.

Food Inventions

Crown cap and opener.The crown bottle cap was patented on this date in 1892, by William Painter. Most widely used on returnable soft drink and longneck beer bottles, the crown cap (upside down, it looks like a crown) required either the blunt end of a churchkey, one of those wall-mounted openers that probably said "Coca-Cola," or a good set of teeth to remove. Until the mid-1960s, the seal was made hermetic with a thin layer of cork. It was replaced by the thin layer of plastic that's still used today. Crown caps are universally used on Champagne bottles during the lengthy period when the wine is resting on its yeasts. The ice cream scoop that's still in common use today was invented on this date in 1897 by Alfred Cralle, of Pittsburgh. His insight was that a scoop with a nearly-round bowl shape and a knife-like leading edges would scoop up a ball of ice cream.

Food And Media

Ina Garten, who hosts the television food program The Barefoot Contessa, was born today in 1948. After working in nuclear politics for two presidents, she opened a gourmet shop (also called Barefoot Contessa) in the Hamptons. Everything she did after that increased her fame.

Deft Dining Rule #215:

Almost all restaurants will let you bring in your own wines, but most will charge you a corkage fee. If you try to avoid this, the staff will pick you up on their unerring radar and give you less good food and service all night long.

Food Through History

Prince Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, one of the most avid gourmets in French history, was born on this date in 1754. He was so astute a statesman that he managed to remain prominent and active through the French Revolution, into the Restoration, and even into the reign of Napoleon. In his home he employed a seminal chef of classical French cuisine, Antonin Careme. Talleyrand-Perigord set a standard for grand dining with his banquet menu. It started with two soups, was followed by two seafood courses, then four varied entrees of meats and birds, then two large roasts, followed by four sweet courses and one of cheese.

Annals Of Winemaking

The first bottle of wine made from grapes grown in South Africa was produced today in 1659. The maker was Jan Van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Town. It was a Shiraz-Charbono blend. (No, it wasn't.)

Food Namesakes

Former U.S. Congressman from New Jersey Joshua S. Salmon was born today in 1846. . . Rock guitarist Alan "Tea" Caddy was born today in 1940. . . British model Michelle Bass hit the Big Runway today in 1981. (Not you, Michelle.)

Words To Eat And Drink By

"People are getting really baroque with their perversions."--Texas food writer Alison Cook, on fajitas marinated in a blend of Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper. "Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love. . . As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move. . . similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle."--Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, whose birthday it is today.