February 17

Ashta. Cafe Au Lait. Latte. Three Coffeetowns. Sardines. Blondie and Dagwood. Cadbury. Beery. Wish Bone.

It's Mardi Gras, a day with several eating traditions. The first is eating and drinking whatever you want. Meat and alcohol are both proscripted for the Lenten season that begins tomorrow. So we overindulge today. The word "carnival" means "farewell to meat." My personal observance of this tradition involves eating a steak. And not just any steak, but a seriously large one of fine quality. I get it, in the company of anyone who cares to join me, at the Crescent City Steak House. I'll get there around two-thirty to begin the indulgence. The strangest aspect of Mardi Gras is that, despite this emphasis on indulgence of the senses, it's the worst day of the year to eat a gourmet repast. If you can avoid going to a restaurant, it's a very good idea to do so. Many other parts of the world have eating traditions on this day. The entire French-speaking world does, of course. The French connection is how Mardi Gras arrived in Louisiana. This is the day for pancakes in places that refer to this day as Shrove Tuesday--notably Liberal, Kansas. (See below.) In Hawaii, the Portuguese presence in its past left behind a tradition of making malasada, a kind of doughnut. The Amish people in Pennsylvania Dutch country make fastnacht, a potato cake served with dark syrup today. In Iceland, they call this Sprengidagur, which translates as "Bursting Day." They they celebrate by eating peas and salted, cured meats. Deft Dining Rule #158: If you can't let yourself have a Lucky Dog on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, you have no soul. If you let yourself eat a Lucky Dog any other time, you have no brain.

Days Until. . .

Mardi Gras--11
St. Patrick's Day--29
St. Joseph's Day--31

Food Calendar

It is National Cafe Au Lait Day. Every day is Cafe au Lait Day for me. In fact, I'm drinking the stuff as I write this. Can't imagine a morning without it.

Gourmet Gazetteer

Bread Tray Hill is a community of about fifty people, fifty-six miles southeast of Montgomery, Alabama. It's an intersection of two rural highways through a mostly wooded area. The namesake hill is bald at its 500-foot top, and from the south does look like its name. This is a farming and orchard area. The nearest restaurants are seven miles north in Union Springs. Among them is the inviting Pigg's.

Edible Dictionary

cafe brulot, [kaf-ay broo-LOW], French, n.--A hybrid of coffee and after-dinner drink, cafe brulot is lemon peel, cloves, and cinnamon flamed in brandy, with dark, strong coffee added as the flames die down. It's at least as much about the show as the flavor. While the spice-and-brandy mixture is burning, the waiter might intentionally pour the stuff on the tablecloth, where the blue flames burn harmlessly but dramatically. A special rig evolved for cafe brulot, involving a brass panholder held up by well-dressed demons, and thin, tall cups for serving the potion. Invented at Antoine's in the late 1800s, cafe brulot has become a universal end-of-dinner item in most of the traditional grand New Orleans restaurants, and has spread well beyond its boundaries. The best version now is at Arnaud's, where they stud an orange with cloves, then cut the skin away from the fruit in a spiral. The waiter pours the flaming brandy down the spiral, which not only is quite a show but brings the oils in the peel into play, adding flavor as well as making the room fragrant.

Deft Dining Rule #219:

The only way an ethnic restaurant can be truly authentic is to be located in the place where its cuisine came from.

Our Great Restaurateurs

This is the birthday, in 1957, of Jacques Soulas. He and Jerry Edgar founded (and still own) Cafe Degas in 1980. It was one of the first casual French restaurants in New Orleans, and even after all these years it remains true to the style of the small, inexpensive French bistro. (The only thing missing is surly waiters.)

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:

To make the most spectacular coffee of your life, next time you have about a dozen eggshells, crunch them up with the egg still sticking to them. Put the eggs into a coffee filter in your coffeemaker with two or three times as much coffee as you normally use. Brew a full pot. The egg whites pull all the bitter particles out, and the calcium in the shells neutralizes the acids and gets more extraction from the grounds. It's a lot of work, but the result is amazing.

Food Inventions

Julius Wolff of Maine became the first man to can sardines on this date in 1876. The kind of sardines you find in cans are generic fish and of more interest to cats than to humans. However, real sardines--named for the island of Sardinia--are a treat we sometimes see in New Orleans, particularly around St. Joseph's Day. They're six to eight inches long, pan-sauteed or broiled, and served whole. Their assertive flavor will not please those who complain about fish tasting "fishy." For those with more adventuresome palates, they're a delight.

Food In The Comics

This is the eighty-first anniversary of the marriage of Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, in the comic strip named for her. Blondie's maiden name was Boopadoop. Dagwood was a wealthy playboy whose choice of a bride (not a bad one, if he was looking for a lady with a great figure) caused his father to disinherit him. Dagwood went on to become an iconic chowhound. The overloaded sandwich (regardless of its contents, as long as there's plenty of different stuff, and sardines) is named for him.

Food Through History

On this date in 1454, Philip The Good, Duke of Burgundy, and son of John the Fearless (don't you wish we still used such epithets?), held a magnificent feast in Dijon. At its end, he took the Vow of the Pheasant, and swore that he would go on a Crusade to fight the Turks. Big words at that time, because the Turks had just taken Constantinople. He must have been drunk on Pinot Noir. He never did undertake the Crusade. Today is the ancient Roman festival Fornicalia, which was not what it sounds like. It celebrated the hearth, wheat, bread, and baking.

Food Entrepreneurs

William Cadbury, who founded the chocolate manufacturing concern that still bears his name, was born today in 1867.

Food Namesakes

Actor Noah Beery was brewed up today in 1882. . . Charles de Bourbon, the governor of Lombardy, was born today in 1490. . . Actress Christina Pickles hit the Big Stage today in 1935. . . American film director Michael Bay said "roll 'em" today in 1965. . . Rapper Wish Bone was pulled out today in 1975.

Words To Eat By

"So long as people don't know how to eat they will not have good cooks."--Escoffier.

Words To Drink By

"After a few months' acquaintance with European coffee one's mind weakens, and his faith with it, and he begins to wonder if the rich beverage of home, with it's clotted layer of yellow cream on top of it, is not a mere dream after all, and a thing which never existed."--Mark Twain.