Thursday, February 4, 1999
My bedside has amassed such a shocking palette of florescent flags sticking out from dog-eared pages of books and papers--most of them having to do with food--that I take it as a signal from the heavens. The time has come to disseminate this lot of trivia, and perhaps settle some internal debates that dedicated culinarians are undoubtedly waging with themselves.
For instance, gefilte fish. I've come close to buying one of those orange and white jars filled with fish balls, suspended in mysterious semi-solid translucent liquid, but was never quite able to reconcile the list of ingredients with the flavor in my imagination. After discovering how it is made--no, not from gefiltes (the Yiddish term for 'stuffed'), but from ground up whitefish or carp that gets mixed with eggs and matzo meal (the fine-grained crumbs of unleavened bread) and then rolled into dumplings and poached in fish stock--I still haven't tried them, and remain insecure with the prospect.
Then there's the issue of hominy. In the past, I have been humbled that a clear understanding escaped me when challenged on the fine points of this culinary chimera. But I am now simultaneously edified and shocked by this essential component of succotash and, sometimes, menudo (depending on which part of Mexico you're from). It's hard to believe that plain, unassuming corn kernels must be boiled in a bath of slaked lime or lye to rid them of their interior germ and exterior hull to create the big white hominy kernels; harder still to imagine how they first came up with this particular trick.
Credit goes to Chief Powhatan's tribe of Algonquins for turning the colonists on to the idea; and they, in turn, ground it all up for pudding. (Brits still hold the title of biggest per capita pudding consumers in the world.) Thus was born hominy grits. Further pulverizing the grits into meal gave the world cornbread, and even better than that, hush puppies.
Generally speaking, everyone I know argues that properly made hush puppies with plenty of finely chopped sweet onion and a hint of garlic are at least as good as the fish they're fried alongside. And they're historic, besides, if you believe the version that credits these crispy little corn cakes with saving the lives of an embattled Southern battalion. According to the story, the hush puppies were tossed to barking dogs that threatened to reveal the soldiers' location. One does wonder why the Yankees couldn't smell the fish frying.
Next, paella aficionados will scream and faint when they happen across food writer Lourdes March's recipe. Even though she wrote a book on the subject of true paella Valenciana, she maintains that actually making paella must be done by a man, and phooey on feminist shock and dismay, citing that it is "an ancestral rite of the cyclical fecundation of the earth performed away from the kitchen and thus away from the feminine hand." Yeah, right.
Naturally, it would follow that it must be cooked out of doors, according to this dogma, and a not unpleasant mandate to consider. But then there's the part that calls for either 12 snails or two sprigs of rosemary. Either, not both.
In Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, he explains. "In Valencia, when you catch snails for your paella, you feed them rosemary for a few day, both to purge them and to give them flavor. Herbs from the sunburned gardens of Spain are so intense that 12 snails contribute all the rosemary flavor you need," he writes. What they can do for a jar of gefilte fish is yet unknown. cw