Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Japan. Dinner In The Diner. Jambalaya. Marriage. Light Bulbs. Rice. Bocuse. Fideua. The French Chef.
Eating Around The World
According to tradition, this is the day in 660 BCE that Japan was founded by its first emperor, Jimmu Tenno. On this same date in 1889, the modern Japanese constitution was ratified. All of that history gave barely enough time for Japanese food to catch on in New Orleans. Although now Japanese restaurants are at least as numerous as Chinese, that was not the case as recently as the 1980s. New Orleans didn't get its first sushi bar until Shogun opened in 1983. The very few Japanese places previous to that were along the lines of Benihana, but not as good. The first Japanese place to break out of that was the Mount Fuji in Algiers, which had sushi, although no sushi bar.
Music To Have Dinner In The Diner By
In 1942 today, the first gold record for sales of over a million copies was presented to Glenn Miller for his classic Chattanooga Choo-Choo, sung by Tex Beneke and the Modernaires in front of Miller's big band. It included this delightful lyrical image:
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer,
Than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina.
Even a mediocre dinner in a railroad diner is wonderful.
World Records In Food
Today in 1977, some lobstermen off the coast of Nova Scotia pulled up a Maine lobster that weighed forty-four and a half pounds and is believed to be the heaviest crustacean ever caught anywhere. Thermidor for fifty!
Today is National Jambalaya Day. Jambalaya is a dish in need of greater attention from the more ambitious chefs in New Orleans restaurants. Although most people in this part of the world would quickly agree that jambalaya is one of the most distinctive and potentially most delicious dishes in the local cuisine, in fact not many restaurants serve it and not enough people cook it at home. What it needs is the same kind of reassessment that came to chicken gumbo in the late 1970s. In a couple of years, the quality and availability of that other spectacular local classic skyrocketed. Best jambalaya in town, according to my jambalaya experts at home: Luke, if Eric Loos ever makes it.
As things stand now, jambalaya has been relegated to booths at festivals. The most famous festival appearance by the dish is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where not one but both the two major isotopes of jambalaya are made in big vats over an open fire.
Those two varieties are--predictably--Creole and Cajun. The former is made with enough tomato to turn it a distinctly red-orange hue. The Cajun jambalaya may have some tomato in it, but probably not. It's emphatically brown, and typically spicier and meatier. While both styles can have the entire range of proteins, the Creole version is more likely to include shrimp, while the Cajun version more probably includes spicy, smoky sausage or tasso. Chicken is common in both.
Jambalaya is often called a descendant of paella, but we question that. You could as well say it's a descendant of fried rice. Its name tells us something about its history. It comes from the words jambon a la ya-ya. Loosely translated, that means "ham made into a Creole party dish." And that's exactly what it is, really--although sausage has largely taken the place of the ham.
A good model of what an inventive chef could create if he were to turn his attention to the dish is the jambalaya Richard Hughes makes (most, but not all the time) at the Pelican Club. It starts with exceptionally fine ingredients: enormous shrimp, well-made sausage, big chunks of chicken and duck. The rice component carries all these flavors--including those that arise from the fat in the sausage--without becoming greasy or dirty-looking. It leaves out nothing of the down-home flavor of jambalaya but is much more than that.
Most people who make jambalaya use a mix. My wife, who loves the dish, has researched all of them and finds most barely acceptable, with Tony Chachere's being the best and Zatarain's the worst. But there's something about doing this with a pre-mix that seems wrong to me. Especially since all of the ingredients are in our pantries. We just don't cook it enough. She says the pre-mixed spices are perfectly balanced, and she still makes stock from scratch with a smoked chicken and sautees the trinity first. She also adds a little pulled pork fat to hers.
Rice, California is a ghost town in the middle of Mojave Desert. This part of which is among the hottest places in the United States. Rice was once a station on a branch line of the Santa Fe Railroad. The trains still go that way, but there's nothing left of the town. Also passing through is an aqueduct that takes water from the Colorado all the way to Los Angeles. At one time a tamarisk tree there acquired notoriety for having old shoes hanging all over it. But the tree burned down in 2003. The nearest places to Rice to get some rice or anything else to eat are in the towns on the Colorado River, some thirty miles east. The Crossroads Cafe in Parker, for instance.
Deft Dining Rule #624: If you can identify everything in a jambalaya, it's not a very good jambalaya.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: Jambalaya must be stirred with a wooden implement, whether it be a roux spoon or a pirogue paddle.
fideua, [fih-THEY-wah], n., Spanish--A pasta dish made with the same ingredients used to make the rice dish paella. Typical ingredients include chicken, shrimp, sausage, mussels, clams, peas, and onions. The best versions are flavored and colored with saffron. Like paella, fideua is a specialty of the Valencia region of Spain. Unlike paella, fideua is of relatively recent vintage. Some sources say it was created in the town of Grandia, when a restaurant ran out of rice and substituted vermicelli pasta. Fideua caught on in a big way. It may now be even more popular in Spain than paella. Fideua is often served with aioli--a garlic mayonnaise.
Today is the thirty-first anniversary of my marriage to the former Mary Ann Connell. It was a cold, high-pressure, blue-sky morning, and at St. Mary's Assumption Church in the Irish Channel the knot was tied. That was followed by a fantastic spread of food catered by Chef Andrea Apuzzo and some pretty good wines in the home of Billy and Kit Wohl. Our wedding was the culmination of something that happened seven months before. Mary Ann, who was in charge of reworking all the programming at WSMB, called me in to see if I were interested in a gig. I was, and they were, even though I made a very bad impression on her personally. The Food Show--which I still do every day--began a couple of weeks later. Then I tricked her (she says) into a date. And it seemed like the next thing we knew, we were married. We are both still happy to be. Among its more salutary effects, it has moved me to do much more cooking than I did when I was single.
This is the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, whose name is practically synonymous with invention. His great idea was the electric light bulb, which certainly changed the face of the restaurant world. Imagine what it would be like to dine only by candlelight. (If you want to experience that, have dinner upstairs at Muriel's.)
Celebrity Chefs Today
This is the birthday (1926, near Lyon) of Paul Bocuse, one of the leaders in modernizing French cookery in the 1970s and beyond. He also raised the esteem of chefs among his countrymen. When he was given a major award from the French government, he accepted it not in formal clothing but in crisp chef whites. Bocuse came to New Orleans a couple of times, once cooking a dinner at Louis XVI in the late 1970s. His flagship restaurant, l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon, is a long-time Michelin three-star winner. He died in 2018 in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, France, the same town in which he was born.
Food On The Air
Today in 1963, Julia Child's first television show premiered. It was called The French Chef, and was based on her groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. She fell in love with French cuisine during her many years in that country as, among other things, a spy for the OSS.
Food And Drink Namesakes
John Bock, NFL player, was born today in 1971. . . Scottish pop composer and musician Nick Currie was born today in 1960. . . Singer Brandy Norwood, who usually goes just by her first name, was born today in 1979.
Words To Eat By
"The Cajun jambalaya ($15.95) tasted as if some dry hot-spice-mix had been randomly sprinkled over chunks of flavorless chicken and shrimp."--From a newspaper review of The Cheesecake Factory, a place you should never go looking for jambalaya.