January 6

It's King Day

King Day. King Cake. Beans. Miss Leah. Joan of Arc. Nigella Lawson. Tom Mix. Mel's Diner.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Although some calendars say that yesterday evening was the Twelfth Night of Christmas, for some reason that observance is tonight in New Orleans. It comes on the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany or King Day, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Here, the date has greater importance than in most places, because it not only ushers out the Christmas season but commences Carnival. The official deed is performed by the Lord Of Misrule at tonight's ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers, one of the oldest organizations in the New Orleans Carnival hierarchy. Its characters and rituals predate New Orleans by centuries in Europe. Shakespeare wrote a play about it.The central ceremony at the Twelfth Night Revelers ball is the cutting of the king cake. The debutantes in attendance at the ball each have a slice of king cake, each with a silver bean inside--except one. She is the Queen, and her slice has a gold bean. (It's supposed to be a surprise, but she probably knew about it in advance.)The king cake spread from there to become one of the culinary icons of New Orleans. It's not long before an icon graduates to an obsession, then to commercialization. King cakes have indeed spun completely out of control, being available everywhere throughout the Carnival season. Variations on king cakes have begun spreading out into the Christmas season, and I've even seen them made in green for St. Patrick's Day.The New Orleans-style king cake is a ring of sweet yeast dough--often made in the style of brioche--decorated with coarse granulated sugar colored purple, green, and gold--the colors of Mardi Gras. Sometimes the dough is braided, with cinnamon between the layers. The cake is frequently topped with white icing, and some versions are filled with fruit or custards. An essential ingredient is a small plastic baby. The person who gets the slice with the baby inside is required by tradition to give the next king cake party. Hundreds of thousands of them are baked and shipped throughout the year to people elsewhere who want a piece of New Orleans culture, but don't know (or care about) the tradition behind it.

Our Legendary Culinarians

Today is the birthday anniversary of Leah Chase, the reigning queen of Creole cooking in New Orleans. She was born in 1923 in Madisonville, and came to New Orleans in 1937. Miss Leah, who made Dooky Chase restaurant into a mainstay of local dining, started her cooking career at the old Coffee Pot restaurant in the 1940s, and she kept at it until her death last year. In fact, one of her cookbooks is very appropriately entitled And I Still Cook. Her most recent cookbook is another one of her favorite lines: Listen, I Say Like This. Dooky Chase is back open at last, serving mostly lunch and early dinner. What a wonderful lady. To know her (or even to just meet her) was to love her.

Gourmet Gazetteer

King Crab Landing, New Jersey is on the Delaware Bay side of Cape May, the southernmost tip of New Jersey. A nice beach runs along the coast, where summer cottages, fishing docks, and other getaways abound. King crabs don't live around there, but blue crabs probably do run in some profusion in the area. The fishing is quite good, with flounder, weakfish (like speckled trout), striped bass and tripletail common in the area. If you don't go fishing, you can go three miles down the beach to the town of Villas, where there are many restaurants, notably Tiffany's Bean and Birds.

Edible Dictionary

napoleon, n.--The American name for a French pastry made by stacking layers of puff pastry with pastry cream between the layers. (Pastry cream is a blend of milk, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and flour, all cooked into a kind of custard.) The top pastry layer is traditionally decorated with white icing or fondant, with brown (but usually not chocolate-flavored) icing striped artfully across it. It's a very rich pastry, better with coffee in the middle of the afternoon than as a dessert at the end of a meal. In France, pastries of this kind are known generically as mille-feuille ("a thousand leaves"). There is no entry for "napoleon" in Larousse Gastronomique, the French bible of cookery. Among contemporary chefs, the word "napoleon" has come to mean almost any layering of any alternating stuff and soft ingredients.

Looking Up

Today we turn the final corner on the way to summertime. This morning's sunrise was the latest of this year (by standard time, anyway). The earliest sunset was about a month ago, and the shortest day two weeks ago. Everything will look a little brighter each day from now until the summer solstice, when winter will be long forgotten.

The Saints

Speaking of local saints, today is the traditional birthday, in 1412, of Joan of Arc, the patron saint of New Orleans. She was born in Domremny, France, and became a French hero in the Battle of Orleans when she was only 19. Our namesake French city adopted her as their patron, and so did we. A statue of St. Joan stands in the triangle at Decatur and St. Philip Streets in the French Market area.

Alluring Dinner Dates

British cookbook author and food writer Nigella Lawson was born today in 1960. Her two best known books are How To Eat and How To Be A Domestic Goddess, both of which sold in the hundreds of thousands. Then she went to television, first in England and now on the Food Network. She grabs attention with lusty, borderline sexy commentary about the pleasures of cooking and eating. She claims no particular training in cooking; she does what comes naturally. She seems to know what many food writers and TV people don't: what tastes good.

Annals Of Cereal

Today in 1880, Tom Mix was born. He was the original movie cowboy, going back to the silent movie era. A radio show sponsored by Ralston Cereals featured Tom Mix as the lead character, but portrayed by other actors. The jingle comes to my mind, sung to the tune of "When The Bloom Is On The Sage." Here are the lyrics: Shredded Ralston for your breakfastStarts the day off nice and brightGives you lots of cowboy energyAnd a flavor that's just rightIt's delicious and nutritiousBite-sized and ready to eatTake a tip from Tom*, go and tell your momShredded Ralston can't be beat.*Tom Mix, not this Tom. Maybe I'll sing this on the radio show today if somebody asks. One more bit of trivia: Tom Mix is the cowboy on the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Restaurants On Television

Vic Tayback, who played the memorably the grumpy cook-owner of Mel's Diner on the TV show Alice, was born today in 1929.

Food Namesakes

Pro football player Robert Bean walked onto the gridiron of life today in 1972. . . He was followed by fellow pro Bubba Franks in 1978. . . Theoretical chemist and winner of the 1999 National Medal of Science Stuart Alan Rice conducted his first experiment--breathing air--today in 1932. Theoretical chemists are being consulted by some avant-garde chefs lately. . . Allan Appel, who writes novels about time travel (among other things) came to us from out of 1945 today. . . Pro baseball pitcher Brian Bass stepped onto The Big Mound today in 1982.

Words To Eat By

"In taking soup, it is necessary to avoid lifting too much in the spoon, or filling the mouth so full as almost to stop the breath."--St. John Baptist de la Salle, the founder of the Christian Brothers.

Words To Drink By

Stir the eggnog, lift the toddy,Happy New Year, everybody. --Phyllis McGinley, American poet and writer of children's books.