Things I Learned
Thursday, April 1, 1999
The best way to avoid revolution? Keep the masses well fed and entertained. Or, as the Roman poet and political observer, Juvenal, more poetically put it, give them "bread and circuses." I''ve always been fond of that phrase, rich with the associations it conjures up of ancient pagan rituals, colorful and doomed.
It''s impossible to have an interest in food without uncovering glimpses into what defines us as a culture, as sparks of interest detonate and lead you off in new directions. William Safire, author of the syndicated column, "On Language," refers to it as "things I learned on the way to looking up other things," a condition that, if you''re not careful, can leave your list of pursuits feeling chronically unfinished.
For instance, inspired by Paris Bakery breads, and Sonja and Jackie Jegat, this started out to be a column about bread in general, and yeast in particular. Then, while nosing around a book on bread, up popped Juvenal''s comment, which lead me to muse over William Safire, whose etymological quests must find his head regularly screwed into the ceiling. He must be forced to limit himself to a strict diet of only two words to research per day.
Food related etymology is no less rich a fodder. How to resist "Hangtown fry"? All the more difficult, if you''ve ever eaten one. This combination of sauted oysters, served with scrambled eggs and spinach is a local specialty in Placerville, the rough and ready "Hangtown" of the Sierra gold rush era. If you were part of the boom at that time, you might celebrate with such a signature dish.
Ever wondered who was Anna? "Anna was a lovely bride/but Anna, damn''er, up and died." Anadama bread, made with cornmeal and molasses, was highly prized on long sea voyages, and if you''re not opposed to an apocryphal account, you may appreciate the epitaph her widower Yankee captain so romantically endeared.
Dealt a similarly dramatic fate, Depression-era streetcar workers fostered the creation of another American classic, the Po'' Boy. Loaves of French bread, split down the middle and filled with fried oysters or softshell crab, lettuce, onions and tomatoes took their place in history when public transportation shifted from steel rails to rubber wheels, prompting the legendary New Orleans French Market caf to offer free meals to any union worker caught up in the strike. Free eats were magnanimously served to "any poor boy" looking for a bite.
New Orleans also takes credit for at least one of the theories behind the origin of the term, "cocktail." In the late 1700s, breakfast time started with a shot of something stiff. Antoine Peychaud was an apothecary with an old family recipe for an eye-opener that included rum. He was also in the practice was of serving his style of highball in an egg cup, or coquetiers in French, a term later shortened to "cocktail."
Such a habit would usually be followed up with a caf noir chaser, N''Awlins favorite high octane brew that if you were Italian, you''d recognize as espresso. And if you were Italian, partial to enjoying your espresso with a cloud of steamed milk crowning the cup, you''d toast the offshoot order of Franciscan monks that insist on wearing the hoods to cloak their coffee-colored habits, the Capuchins--and you''d order a cappucino.