February 5

Ruth. Sunset. Sirloin Strip. The Strip District. Vitamin Man. Beef Biscuit. Mammoth Jell-O. Naked Lunch.

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras--12
Valentine's Day--10

Dining On Wheels

Today in 1883, the second transcontinental railroad in America was completed, creating a continuous line from New Orleans to San Francisco. The Southern Pacific's Sunset Route is the southernmost of the transcons, and the one that crosses the least mountainous terrain. The last rail was spiked down (with a silver spike) just west of the Pecos River near Langtry, Texas. The new line helped move California produce to the rest of America. Millions of bottles of wine traveled the Sunset Route. You can still ride the whole thing on its namesake train, the Sunset Limited, the oldest passenger train name in America. Some of my most memorable train rides have been on that train. I remember in particular an unexpectedly superb prime rib in its dining car in the summer of 1978, somewhere in Arizona.

Great Local Restaurateurs

Ruth Fertel in her younger days.Ruth Ann Udstad Fertel was born in New Orleans today in 1927. She is the Ruth of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the restaurant she bought for $18,000 from Chris Matulich in 1965. By the time she was finished with it, she was the most successful female restaurateur in the world, with nearly 100 locations of the top-end steakhouse, in every city that mattered. An overachiever all her life, she skipped grades in school and started college in her mid-teens, majoring in chemistry and physics. She was working as a researcher at Tulane University when she saw an ad to sell Chris Steak House. Even in 1965, it was recognized as one of the two or three best places to get a steak in New Orleans, with prime beef sizzling in butter. She mortgaged her house and used her savings to buy it. Chris took the money and left her to figure it all out on her own.

Figure it out she did. Her principal idea was that her customers could have anything they wanted all the time. You didn't have to find your waitress to ask; anybody on the staff (including Ruth herself) would fetch you more butter. She charged you well for this, but long before Outback claimed it, there were no rules at Ruth's Chris. It became far more than just a steakhouse. The Ruth's Chris on Broad Street was for decades the meeting place of the alpha males of the community. Ruth sold her restaurant chain--the biggest of its kind in America--in 1999. In the three years left in her life, she became a philanthropist, underwriting among other things a culinary arts center at Nicholls State University. She died in 2002.

I lunched with Ruth a few times. She was a fascinating person. In our first meeting, she chewed me out for some things I said in a review. My complaint was that the au gratin dishes had too much cheese. "We give them what they want!" she retorted. "You wouldn't believe how many people ask for extra cheese! Some people want cheese on a steak, and you know that's crazy. But we give it to them!" The next time--and every time thereafter--she was as friendly as can be. Inside dope: she always said that her best steak was not the best-selling filet mignon, but the sirloin strip. No question about that. She also said that her own favorite dish on her menu was the veal chop.

Food Calendar

In honor of Ruth Fertel, today is Sirloin Strip Steak Day. For my money, it's the best standard steak there is. That's appropriate because today is the earliest possible date for Mardi Gras, which celebrates a farewell to beef before Lent.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Fish, Georgia is in a farming area off US 278, about fifty-six miles west of Atlanta. It is on a tributary of Fish Creek. There's not much there; it looks as if the standard culinary culture is to reel in a namesake animal, and cook it over your campfire. The nearest restaurant, however, is much less Lenten: it's called just Steakhouse, three miles away in Rockmart.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

The thicker the steak, the better it cooks.

Deft Dining Rule #782:

If a restaurant's steak selection doesn't include a sirloin strip, the place is not seriously a steak specialist.

Edible Dictionary

marbled, adj.--Having thin flecks and streaks of fat in the lean. The term is most used to describe a desirable characteristic of beefsteaks, most often seen in the higher grades. The streaks resemble those in a block of polished marble, hence the name. The fat is particularly effective in tenderizing and adding flavor to sirloin strips and filets mignon. Looking for marbling in steaks is a better way of buying quality steaks than going by the official grade. A well-marbled USDA Select steak will be better than a Prime steak with less marbling, despite the two-grade difference.

Annals Of Food Research

Lafayette Benedict Mendel was born today in 1872. He spent most of his career discovering which elements of food made it nutritious. He was one of the discoverers of Vitamins A and B. . . Today in 1850 Gail Borden--who would make his fortune a few years later by inventing condensed milk--created a meat-enhanced biscuit that carried a lot of protein to the eater. He had the military man in mind. His biscuits lasted for a long time without losing goodness. It could also be used to make soup. Why does this suggest dog biscuits?

World Food Records

The biggest bowl of Jell-O ever made--7700 gallons--was completed in Brisbane, Australia today in 1981. The flavor was watermelon. It cost $14,000, but it made Guinness.

Food In Literature

William S. Burroughs was born today in 1914. He was one of the Beat Generation's favorite writers, and his novels were shocking in their time. The one with the food title was Naked Lunch, but it is more about drugs than an underdressed good midday meal.

Food Namesakes

Robert Peel, who established the London police force, was born today in 1788. The British cops are still called "bobbies" for him. . . Actress Barbara Hershey was born today in 1948. . . Today in 2001, William D. Baker ran amok at a diesel engine factory and killed four people, then himself. . . . Sugar Ray Leonard won his first pro fight today in 1977. . . Diego Serrano, a TV soap opera actor, was born today in 1973. . . Olympic rower Pete "Chip" Cipollone paddled out into the world today in 1971. . . Canadian hockey commentator and former pro hockey player Don Cherry was born today in 1934. His nickname is also edible: Grapes.

Words To Eat By

"Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don't catch steak hanging around when you're poor and sick, do you?"--Judith Martin (Miss Manners).

Words To Drink By

"The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature."--William James: Varieties of Religious Experience