November 27

Balsamic Vinegar

Days Until. . .

New Year's--35

Our Distinguished Restaurateurs

Ella Brennan, arguably the most respected figure in the New Orleans restaurant business, was born today in 1925. Although she is officially retired, she remains active in the operation of Commander's Palace, whose revival in the 1970s she spearheaded. That was her second restaurant career; the first one was in the original Brennan's, founded by her older brother Owen. She began there when she was barely in her twenties. She soon came to be in the front lines of the restaurant's management, and after Owen died in 1955, she rose to first among equals in her family in running the place.

Ella and her brothers and sisters were forced out of Brennan's in 1973. Owen's wife and sons owned a majority interest, and their ideas had diverged from Ella's. She started all over again at Commander's Palace, which she and her siblings had bought some years earlier but not emphasized. They turned the place into the most influential restaurant in New Orleans, and one of the most important in America. Hiring chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, Ella and he brothers and sisters redefined haute Creole cuisine. Ella's daughter Ti Martin and niece Lally Brennan run the daily operations, but Ella still lives next door, always watching.

Chef d'Oeuvre Du Jour

Strawberry Shortcake @ Commander's Palace, Garden District: 1403 Washington Ave. 504-899-8221. During the hegemony of Chef Jamie Shannon in the 1990s, Commander's Palace re-emphasized strawberries in its dessert menu. Jamie made true shortcakes--a sweetened version of a standard buttermilk biscuit--and tucked the whipped cream and strawberries inside of it. This was something no other restaurants did back then. We all learned how strawberry shortcake became such a classic to begin with. It's been on Commander's notoriously changing menu ever since.

Annals Of Relief

CARE (which stands for Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere) was founded today in 1945. It was an emergency effort to help desperate people in the ruins of Europe after World War II, shipping in food and medical supplies. It worked so well that the effort continues to this day. "CARE Package" has come to mean much more than life-saving supplies. One now hears packages of distinctive food items from home called by that name. A classic New Orleans CARE package (not from the CARE organization, of course) would include Union coffee with chicory, a jar of Zatarain's Creole mustard, a canister of Tony Chachere's seasoning, a bottle of gumbo file, a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, a pound of Camellia red beans, and other comestibles not easily found outside of South Louisiana.

Today's Flavor

Today is Balsamic Vinegar Day. A specialty of the region around Modena in Italy, balsamic vinegar is aged in wood barrels. . . but there's a bit more to it than that. The vinegar is made directly from grape juice, not stopping at the wine stage. It's then aged long enough to take on a dark brown color. In its best forms, the vinegar stays in the barrels for decades. Century-old balsamic vinegar is not unheard of. It's intensely flavored and it's very expensive.

Why would anyone hold onto vinegar for a hundred years? The clue is in the word "balsamic," a reference to medicinal qualities which, it was once believed, the stuff possessed. (Although it's said that the first balsamic vinegar was made by mistake, when a barrel of grape juice was forgotten for decades in a cave.) Balsamic vinegar first became popular in New Orleans in the early 1980s, when the first wave of innovative chefs swept through our town opening restaurants.

Most balsamic vinegar is not aged very long, and sometimes gets its color from additives. Even these are better than the cheap vinegars that used to dominate the scene even in the great places. You can spot the really good stuff because it's as thick as syrup, is not especially acidic, and adds flavor with only a few drops. It's a delicious, mouth-watering elixir. Here's a website with an interesting history of balsamic vinegar.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Flourtown is a suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about fifteen miles north of downtown. It's where the very old Bethlehem Pike meets Wissahickon Creek. The creek had enough water flow that at least three wheat-grinding mills operated there in the 1700s and 1800s. That's how the name came about. Now it's entirely residential. Along the creek are no fewer than four baseball fields. Flourtown's one-and-a-half-square-mile area has its own zip code (19031), and the Census Bureau counts its population at 4669. Quite a few fast-food restaurants line the pike through Flourtown, including several specializing in wings. Karla's Kitchen also sounds good.

Edible Dictionary

corn pone, n.--A variation on cornbread made without eggs and baked only until its browned a bit around the edges. It's served still quite moist, almost as much so as a spoonbread. It's also a good deal heavier in texture than cornbread. A little corn pone goes a long way. It's probably an Native American creation that was picked up by the European settlers in the South.

Food Records

Today in 2007, truffle hunter Cristiano Savini was scouting about in the woods neat Palaia (twenty-five miles from Pisa) when his dog Rocco suddenly became very excited. With good reason. When Cristiano dug up the spot where the dog began the excavation, he found a white truffle weighing 3.3 pounds--a world's record, topping a 2.86-pound Croatian truffle found in 1999. The truffle was auctioned for $330,000 for charity. The buyer was Stanley Ho, a casino owner in Macau.

Food Namesakes

Eddie Rabbitt, pop-country singer, was born today in 1941. . . Sir Charles Lamb was born today in 1849. He was a mathematician who was heavily involved in physics theory, particularly as it involved waves. From that his work instructed us on tides and earthquake propagation.

Words To Run A Restaurant By

"I love to change the carpets in my restaurants. It means that a lot of customers have worn the old ones out."--Ella Brennan.

Words To Eat Chocolate By

"The most expensive bottle of wine is way out of most people's reach; the most expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar costs more than a thousand dollars. But the most expensive chocolate bar costs only nine dollars."--Clay Gordon, publisher of