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Posts Tagged ‘Food

“Luxury lives in the finer details. It’s a cloth napkin at a dinner table.”*…

“There should always be a pretty centerpiece”, instructs Sarah Field Splint in The Art of Cooking and Serving, a Depression-era etiquette guide that greased the rails for Crisco shortening’s steady slide into the American home. During Margaret Atwood’s 2006 short story named after Splint’s book, her preteen protagonist weighs decoration against utility. “The charm of my centrepiece would not however cancel out the shabbiness of our paper napkins”. Mattia Giegher’s 1629 Trattato delle piegature (Treatise on folding) offers an elegant solution to the young girl’s quandary: nix the centerpiece and fold your napkins into finery worthy of display.

Giegher’s Trattato appeared as part of Li tre tratatti (1629), joining his earlier works on meat carving (Il trinciante) and stewardship (Lo scalco). While we crease modern napkins as an entrée to the main task — a lap dam for gravy, say, or neck-tucked against crustacean spray — Giegher’s creations were never meant for dabbing. These were starched objets d’art.

During the fifteenth century in northern Italy and southern Germany, technical knowledge of the mechanical arts (think: crafts, machinery, and culinary recipes) began to appear in vernacular writing. “Why around 1400 did artisans take up pen and paper with such gusto?” asks Pamela H. Smith about these early modern how-to guides. Her answer involves war technologies, state power, and urban, cultural exchange. Come the seventeenth century, with literacy on the rise in pockets of Europe, the proliferation of manuals on carving, table service, and, in Giegher’s case, napkin folding suggests a widening interest in knowledge once exclusive to the princely domain…

The history and cultural significance of a lost art (plus lots of nifty pictorial examples): “Serviette Sculptures: Mattia Giegher’s Treatise on Napkin Folding.”

* Iggy Azalea

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As we practice pleating, we might send amusing birthday greetings to John Garnet Carter; he was born on this date in 1883.  A hotelier who ran a lodge at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee/Rock City, Georgia, he built the first “Tom Thumb Golf” course to keep the children of his guests occupied– only to find that the attraction was a hit with adults.

Miniature golf dates back to the 19th century in the UK and the earlier 20th century in the U.S., when putting greens became attractions in their own right.  But Carter’s patented “Tom Thumb” approach– which incorporated tile, sewer pipe, hollow logs, and other obstacles, along with fairyland statuary– earned him the honorific “Father of Miniature Golf.”

garnett Carter
Carter, putting

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“The pâté of childhood”*…

North Americans weren’t the first to grind peanuts—the Inca beat us to it by a few hundred years—but peanut butter reappeared in the modern world because of an American, the doctor, nutritionist and cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg, who filed a patent for a proto-peanut butter in 1895. Kellogg’s “food compound” involved boiling nuts and grinding them into an easily digestible paste for patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a spa for all kinds of ailments. The original patent didn’t specify what type of nut to use, and Kellogg experimented with almonds as well as peanuts, which had the virtue of being cheaper. While modern peanut butter enthusiasts would likely find Kellogg’s compound bland, Kellogg called it “the most delicious nut butter you ever tasted in your life.”

A Seventh-Day Adventist, Kellogg endorsed a plant-based diet and promoted peanut butter as a healthy alternative to meat, which he saw as a digestive irritant and, worse, a sinful sexual stimulant. His efforts and his elite clientele, which included Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth and Henry Ford, helped establish peanut butter as a delicacy. As early as 1896, Good Housekeeping encouraged women to make their own with a meat grinder, and suggested pairing the spread with bread. “The active brains of American inventors have found new economic uses for the peanut,” the Chicago Tribune rhapsodized in July 1897…

… and on to the introduction of “chunky,” the wide-mouth jar, the role of George Washington Carver– the story of the bizarre sanitarium staple that became a spreadable obsession: “A Brief History of Peanut Butter.”

* Food critic Florence Frabricant

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As we spread it thick, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, serendipitously, both National Peanut Butter Day and EWW’s birthday) in 1922 that another childhood favorite, the Eskimo Pie– an ice cream center covered in chocolate– was patented. Christian Kent Nelson, a schoolteacher and candy store owner, claimed to have received the inspiration in 1920 in Onawa, Iowa, when a boy in his store was unable to decide whether to spend his money on ice cream or a chocolate bar.  After experimenting with different ways to adhere melted chocolate to bricks of ice cream, Nelson began selling his invention under the name “I-Scream Bars.”  In 1921, he filed for a patent, and secured an agreement with local chocolate producer Russell C. Stover to mass-produce them under the new trademarked name “Eskimo Pie” (a name suggested by Mrs. Stover), and to create the Eskimo Pie Corporation.  After patent 1,404,539 was issued on January 24, 1922, Nelson franchised the product, allowing ice cream manufacturers to produce them under the now-ubiquitous name.  (The invention made Nelson “rich overnight,” according to a 1922 New York Times article about the dessert. By then, Mr. Nelson, then barely 29, was making $30,000 a week in royalties from sales of the product.)

Ultimately the company was acquired by The Dreyers division of Nestlé– which has, thankfully, announced that it will change the name and packaging.

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“Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer”*…

The tacos estilo Matamoros at El Ultimo Taco Taqueria, in Brownsville

Tacos Estilo Matamoros: a beef and cheese taco that originated in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico

A nod to the Rio Grande Valley’s cattle ranching heritage, tacos estilo Matamoros are made up of small, oily corn tortillas, a beef filling such as bistec or mollejas (beef sweetbreads), and crumbled or shredded queso fresco, and they usually come three to five in an order. Although they are wildly popular in Brownsville, they get their name from the sister city of Matamoros, where El Último Taco: Los Originales claims to have invented the style…

An excerpt from your correspondent’s favorite Holiday wishbook– and your guide to the many types of tacos– José R. Ralat, Texas Monthly‘s Taco Editor‘s “Tacopedia.”

* Tom Robbins

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As we lick our fingers, we might send wriggly birthday greetings to Pierre-Joseph van Beneden; he was born on this date in 1809. A zoologist and paleontologist, he discovered the life cycle of the tapeworm (Cestoda).

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Written by LW

December 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“People who love to eat are always the best people”*…

You might as well know, right at the outset, that Alice Waters does not approve of walking tacos.

The iconic chef’s first encounter with the dish-in-a-bag came during a trip to a school after the principal asked for her assistance with the food program. Waters describes the scene in her 2008 book Edible Schoolyard:

Parked in the middle of the asphalt, this building sold soda pop to the children during their recess and lunch hour, and it also sold something called a “walking taco,” which is as perfect a symbol of a broken culture as I can imagine. Opening a plastic bag of mass-produced corn chips, the food workers would simply pour in a kind of beef-and-tomato slurry from a can. The kids would then walk away, with no connection to one another.

If there’s such a thing as the opposite of Proust’s madeleine, this is it: a childhood experience, first encountered in adulthood, and repulsing in some formative way. The moment was the seed of Waters’ work with kids—planting vegetable gardens on school grounds; understanding where their food comes from; learning to eat fresh, healthful things. All good and noble and important work!

But I can’t help but wince at her broader critique: “As perfect a symbol of a broken culture as I can imagine.” Because while a walking taco may not be, like, good for you in a nutritionist-approved way, if you look at the deeper cultural perspective, it turns out there’s much to savor—it’s less about how things fall apart than how they come together…

The cultural history of a curious comestible: “Oaxacans, Mormons, and A Bag of Chips: A Brief History of the Walking Taco.”

* Julia Child

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As we mix and match, we might recall that today is Microwave Oven Day, a celebration of Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer’s 1946 invention of the now ubiquitous kitchen appliance.

In 1946, Raytheon unveiled its new Radarange microwave oven, a new use for the company’s magnetron tubes. The prototype shown here was called the Raydarange. [source: Bettmann/Getty Images]

Written by LW

December 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

“You don’t win friends with salad”*…

The best meal I had all pandemic cost $1.14 and took about 90 seconds to make. It was a Margherita pizza inhaled in the car on a desolate day in late April. I know the precise cost because my husband is the chef who made it: 61 cents for a few slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella, 24 cents for the San Marzano tomatoes and salt, a quarter for enough basil leaves to supply the rest of the menu’s needs for free, and just 11 cents for the dough, made from a mix of top-shelf imported Italian flours. In normal times, his restaurant sold a Margherita for $20, but he could get away with selling it for $10 and still reach 10% food cost.

We are a nation in the throes of an unprecedented eight-month pizza binge that shows no signs of abating. Multiple pizzerias in Los Angeles reported a 250% rise in sales on Election Day, and on Thursday, Papa John’s reported quarterly same-store sales growth of 23.8%. For months now, the underlying forces for the sustained pizza craze have been as hotly debated within the restaurant industry as the election results have been parsed by professional pollsters. Stress eating is a major cause; quarantine-induced failure of imagination and the return of three major-league sports within weeks of one another over the summer certainly didn’t hurt.

But the actual reason that doesn’t get nearly enough notice is that pizza is one of the few genres of food that is actually more profitable than — and almost as addictive as — booze. Fries and fried chicken — not wings, but tenders and drumsticks — are the only other foods that come close. If that reminds you at all of the suggestions that await you on Grubhub and Uber Eats, well, that’s what’s left of the menu when restaurants lose their alcohol sales and are forced to fork over a third of their gross revenues to delivery app commissions. There are not a lot of foods where taste collides so perfectly with profit: Pizza stands alone…

But times are nothing if not desperate, and the financial case for making a pivot to pizza is anything but ambiguous. Tens of thousands of independent restaurants have closed permanently since March, but independent pizzerias listed on the delivery app Slice have seen sales grow 60%. The chain Marco’s Pizza, which just opened its 1,000th location, in Kissimmee, Florida, has seen sales surge roughly 50% every week since mid-April, according to the consumer data analytics firm Sense360. The pandemic has even breathed new life into the forgotten Pizza Hut chain, which reported a 9% rise in U.S. same-store sales last quarter despite the July bankruptcy of its debt-saddled biggest franchisee, NPC International — which said in a filing that its Pizza Hut division’s 2020 earnings (before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) had exceeded its internal forecasts by a factor of eight. And mediocre pizza behemoth Domino’s, which was starting from a much higher base after reporting 38 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, reported a 16% uptick in same-store sales in its second quarter.

The losing side of this stark new restaurant reality is a virtually endless list, but the unequivocal biggest loser has been the so-called $15 salad genre embodied by the fast-food cum tech unicorn Sweetgreen, which recently announced it would be laying off 20% of its corporate staff in its second round of post-outbreak job cuts. Hard numbers on this mostly privately held category, which includes Chopt Creative Salads, Just Salad, Fresh & Co, and True Food Kitchen — all of which have at one point been hailed as the “next Sweetgreen” — were easier to come by in more prosperous times, but the few out there are ugly. Sweetgreen sales fell about 60% during the eight weeks after the first shutdowns, according to Sense360, and the one publicly traded chain in the salad business, Toronto’s Freshii, reported a 51.4% plunge in its second-quarter sales…

Learn how pizza won the pandemic—and Sweetgreen got left behind: “The Death of the $15 Salad.”

* Homer Simpson

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As we savor a slice, we might send well-preserved birthday greetings to the man who was ultimately responsible for that getting that especially- delicious tomato sauce to your pizzeria: Nicolas Appert; he was born on this date in 1749.  A confectioner and inventor, he is known as “the father of canning.”

In 1795, Napoleon, who famously understood that an army travels on its stomach, had offered a prize of 12,000 francs for a method of preserving food and transporting it to its armies.  Appert, who worked 14 years to perfect a method of storing food in sterilized glass containers, won the award in 1810.

Interestingly, that same year (1810), Appert’s friend and agent, Peter Durand, took the invention to the other side.  He switched the medium from glass to metal and presented it to Napoleon’s enemies, the British– scoring  a patent (No. 3372) from King George for the preservation of food in metal (and glass and pottery) containers… the tin can.

One of Appert’s/Durand’s first cans

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