Monday, January 6, 2010
King Day. King Cake. Bean Station. Miss Leah. Joan of Arc. Nigella Lawson. Tom Mix. Mel's Diner.
Eating Around New Orleans Today
We are all practically bound by law to eat a slice of king cake today. Then to engage in the never-ending controversy as to which bakery makes the best ones. My nominee is inconvenient: Krummel's Mandeville Bake Shop. (Mandeville: 2203 Florida St 985-626-1952). A sizeable contingent of people continue to insist--even as they reach urgently for a cup of coffee to help get it down--that the only real king cake is the very dry, unbraided, unfilled, unfrosted, plain king cake they used to make at the old McKenzie's. For more about king cake, we turn to. . .
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 starts 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 all about it in advance.)
The king cake spread from there to become one of the culinary icons of New Orleans. In fact, king cakes have 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.
Deft Dining Rule #106: Only eat as many slices of king cake as you drink cups of coffee with it.
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 and a half weeks ago. Everything looks a little brighter each day from now until the summer solstice, when winter will be long forgotten.
Bean Station, Tennessee 37708, pop. 2500, is a quaint town in the northeast corner of the state, the country's richest area for place names with food references. It's in the Appalachians, in the valley formed by German Creek. The ridges on either side of the valley tower up about 400 feet in short order. Bean Station was founded in 1776, as a stagecoach stop on the highway that later became US 11. If you head south on that highway, it will take you all the way to New Orleans. For beans in Bean Station, go to Aunt B's Restaurant, right there on Main Street.
haricots verts, French, n., pl.--Literally, "green beans." However, when this expression is used on a menu in America, it almost always denotes unusually thin pods of green beans, always eaten without shelling, and usually cooked only long enough to take the snap out of them, while still remaining squeaky when you chew them. They're also known as "French green beans," to distinguish them from the many varieties of snap beans in bigger pods. The words are often incorrectly used in the singular form on menus, seemingly indicating a serving of one single bean. (It's like saying "red bean and rice.")
Celebrity Chefs Today
Today is the birthday in 1923 of the late Leah Chase, forever the reigning queen of Creole cooking in New Orleans. She was born on the North Shore, in Madisonville, and came to New Orleans in 1937. Miss Leah, who made Dooky Chase restaurant into a mainstay of dining here, started her cooking career at the old Coffee Pot restaurant in the 1940s, and kept at it until she passed away 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 still open, serving mostly lunch and early dinner. What a wonderful lady. To have known her (or even to just have met her) is to love her.
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 Conti.
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 breakfast
Starts the day off nice and bright
Gives you lots of cowboy energy
And a flavor that's just right
It's delicious and nutritious
Bite-sized and ready to eat
Take a tip from Tom*, go and tell your mom
Shredded 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.
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.