Food For Thought – Stories From the Food World and Beyond

History

The Muses

1. Poetry – Calliope

2. History – Clio

3. Music  – Euterpe

4. Dance – Terpsichore

5. Love Poetry – Erato 

6. Tragedy – Melpomene

7. Comedy – Thalia

8. Geometry – Polyhymnia

9. Astronomy – Urania

And, in the words of the famous gastronome Brillat Savarin, Gasteria is the tenth muse. She presides over all the pleasure of taste. There is an old Italian saying, a tavola non’s invecchia, at the table one never grows old. Isn’t that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one’s sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?

With the help of the tenth muse, here are some thoughts on the pleasures of the table.

Salt

Salt appears in the Bible as well as the works of Homer, who described nations as poor when they did not use salt in their food. The word itself is found in almost identical form in many languages: sel, sal, salz, sol, etc. The word “salary” comes from the salt that was part of Roman soldier’s pay or that they bought with a special allowance.

Mined or drawn from seawater by evaporation, salt has been essential to life, as well as to the taste of food, which it enhances by bringing out the deep lying flavors. It dehydrates certain vegetables (such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and especially eggplants) and brightens the colors of others (such as spinach and green beans) if it is in the cooking water. Through thousands of years it has been crucial to the preservation of food.

About ¼ ounce is the daily human requirement, although the modern diet may provide several times this amount, and medical advice has been to keep salt intake low, particularly for older people and those with certain health problems such as high blood pressure or diseases of the heart, liver, or kidneys.

Rock salt comes from mining and sea salt (which chefs often prefer for its taste) from evaporation. Kosher salt has no additives, but table salt often does to provide dietary iodine and to prevent sticking due to dampness.

“The best smell is bread, the best taste is salt,” leading 20th century novelist Graham Greene wrote, adding “and the best love is that of children.”

Importance of Meals

The edicts of a Chinese emperor are said to have begun, “The world is based on agriculture,” and food has shaped human society since the very beginning. Eating is a process more vital than sex and the need more recurrent. The rhythm of eating and working defines the life of every individual, and the dizzying edifice made up of all the civilizations and savage tribes of history is based on food.

Food is closely interwoven with religion (the sacrifice of animals, the blessing of fields, the Eucharist, the traditional feasts) and it has been crucial to medicine, which for centuries was based on dietary principles. In its way, food has sown cities, formed politics, and been the root of both prosperity and war.

The most important human relationships are all celebrated or nourished by the sharing of food. Even death is marked by serving food and drink.

Al Dente

Pasta should be cooked in plenty of fast-boiled, salted water. Boiling water “seals” the pasta and allows it to move freely and swell. A bit of olive oil added to the water helps prevent sticking. The pot should be uncovered. Do not break the long strands but push them slowly in as they soften and bend.

Taste the pasta as it cooks; don’t merely time it. The time can vary, usually eight to ten minutes for dry pasta and about three for fresh. Drain it when it is still a trifle undercooked, or al dente.
The business of al dente (or “bitey”) shows up in every knowledgeable text. It is how the Italians eat it, or so they say. Since pasta continues to cook after it has been drained and all the way to the mouth, the advice given is to stop its cooking in the water when it is soft enough to be bitten through without it snapping. Once you’re accustomed to pasta being stiff and not soggy you are told you will want it no other way. Perhaps this is true, though in Italy you will find it often served long past al dente, and it is also true that elsewhere it is commonly overcooked to an unpleasant softness.

Soft-Boiled Egg

“The greatest dishes are very simple dishes,” Esoffier said. 

What could be more simple and pure than a single soft-boiled egg on the breakfast table in an egg cup along with some buttered toast? The egg cup is essential. It is an altar enhancing the egg’s beauty as well as holding it, still too hot to touch, while the crown is gently removed. A bit of salt, perhaps a touch of butter, and a spoon small enough to fit inside….one of life’s feasts is before you. No omelet or elaborate egg dish (poached, sauced, scrambled, whatever) can surpass it.

To soft boil an egg that is at room temperature, place it slowly into boiling water for approximately six minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

For a hard boiled egg, leave it in for nine to ten minutes, then place it in cold water for six to seven minutes to stop the cooking and make the shell easy to peel. Eggs cooked too long have rubbery whites and yolks that tend to crumble.

Hot Dogs

Its parentage was European, but the hot dog has been American since it was christened here in 1901. Previously called a frankfurter for its German hometown, and then a weiner when it migrated to Vienna, it was first know in this country as a dachshund sausage, after the elongated dog.

At the Polo grounds in New York on a chilly April day when the baseball Giants were playing, cold foods and drinks weren’t selling. Concessionaire Harry Stevens told his vendors to try shouting, “Get ‘em while they’re hot.” Sports cartoonist Tad Dorgan captured it for the newspapers, but he didn’t know how to spell dachshund so his caption called them “hot dogs.” The rest, as they say, is history.

In St Louis at the World’s Fair in 1904, they made their official debut in buns that matched their shape, garnished with George French’s newly created yellow mustard, a combination that has remained popular for more than a century.

Titanic

On the night of April 14, 1912, passengers in the Titanic’s first class dining room were served ten elaborate courses each with a specially selected wine. Oysters were followed by soup-consomme or cream of barley, and then a mousse of poached salmon. Next came a choice of filet mignon or chicken Lyonnaise. The fifth course, which included an array of vegetables, was lamb, roast duckling, or beef sirloin. Then a palate cleaning punch, followed by squab asparagus vinaigrette, and foie gras. Dessert was an array of puddings, peaches, eclairs and French ice cream. Coffee and port, along with cigars for the gentlemen, concluded the evening’s meal.

In today’s prices, those in first class were paying close to $150,000 for the privilege of crossing on the maiden voyage of the luxurious new ocean liner. Late that night, four days out of England, the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank in less than three hours. Of the more than 2,220 people aboard only 705 lived to eat another meal.

Asparagus

Asparagus should be cooked until just barely tender, so it still has a slight bite to it when eaten. Emperor Caesar Augustus knew this to be true when he coined the phrase velocius quam asparagi coquantur, or “faster than you can cook asparagus.”

Julius Caesar liked his with melted butter, while French encyclopedist Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelli was partial to oil on this favorite dish. His cook was preparing some in just that way when the Abbe Terrasson arrived unexpectedly and asked to stay for dinner. Dismayed that he would be deprived of half of his asparagus, Fontenelle nevertheless ordered that the Abbe’s be served with the white sauce which he preferred. As dinner was about to be served, the Abbe suddenly toppled the floor, felled by a stroke. Fontenalle immediately took action, calling out to the kitchen, “All the asparagus with oil!”

How to Become a Regular

It’s pleasant being a regular at a restaurant: recognized at the door, greeted and treated with obvious consideration. How do you qualify? Owners and waitstaff say there are a few ways of going about it.

  • You don’t have to show up every week. Three or four reasonably close visits are usually enough.
  • Loyalty is more important than frequency. If you travel to other cities and go to the same restaurant at least once each time, even if only twice a year, you often make the grade.
  • Spending money is infallible, either on the quantity and quality of what you order, how you tip, or (even better) both.
  • Attitude can be just as important as money. Customers who are polite and patient, especially when something goes wrong, are held in high regard.
  • Owners, chefs, and waitstaff are devoted to clients who are enthusiasts, those who love the food and don’t hesitate to say so.

Worcestershire

Worcestershire sauce was already such a standard at meals by 1938 that it was on the dining table in Munich on the day when Adolph Hitler forced Mussolini, Chamberlain, and French Premier Daladier to accept his disastrous terms. By then, its formula was already one hundred years old, created for an English lord who missed the sauce he’d enjoyed as governor in Bengal, India.

Back home in England, he asked his local pharmacists, John Lea and William Perrins, to try to reproduce the recipe that included anchovies, tamarinds, chilis, and molasses all marinated in vinegar. The result was so unpalatable that they put it in the basement and forgot it. When they rediscovered it a couple of years later, it had mellowed so successfully that they started to bottle and sell it, claiming (among other things) that it promoted the growth of beautiful hair. The recipe, and the aging process, have never been changed.

Oysters

The unknown and courageous soul who first ate raw oysters was followed by such fancies as Nero, Seneca,  Casanova (who allegedly ate fifty a day), Henry IV (the “Evergreen Lover” who ate as many as three hundred at a sitting), Louis XIV (who consumed nearly as many and had a royal preserve of them), Abraham Lincoln and innumerable others.

In antiquity, oysters existed in a continuous band for thousands miles from Scandinavia, down past Britain and France, around into the Mediterranean, circling Italy, and then all the way to Greece. That rich vein survives only in fragments today and everywhere the abundance of oysters has diminished (perhaps resulting from those eating 300 at a sitting).

It used to be a rule that raw oysters should be eaten only in months whose names included the letter r, that is, September through April. Before the age of refrigeration, they could not be safely transported in hot weather. Now, however, they are safe year round, though keep in mind that from May through August oysters spawn and tend to be creamy rather than firm in texture.

Oysters are best when of moderate size and from colder waters. They are best eaten only with a squeeze of lemon or the vinegar and shallot mixture served in France. Cold white wines make then sacred.

Meals Are Everything

The meal is the essential act of life. It is the habitual ceremony, the long-record marriage, the school for behavior, the prelude to love. Among all people and in all times every significant event in life, be it a wedding, triumph or birth, is marked by a meal or the sharing of food or drink. The meal is the emblem of civilization. What would one know of life as it should be lived or nights as they should be spent apart from meals?

As one of our favorite authors James Salter once said, “Life is many things, and among the best of them is meals.” We agree!