June 4, 1411: The Cheese Stands Alone

Even in 1411, the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon had been making cheese as long as anyone could remember.  And all because a young man was lured away from his lunch by a fair young maiden. Or so the story goes.

The cheese-making folks of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were probably the only ones making the tangy, crumbly sheep’s milk cheese with its distinctive veins of green mold. Nevertheless on June 4, 1411, French King Charles VI granted them a monopoly for the ripening of the Roquefort cheese.

What makes Roquefort Roquefort is its aging in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Popular legend suggests that the cheese was discovered when a young man eating his lunch of bread and ewe’s milk cheese spied a hot young woman in the distance. Naturally, he ran off to pursue her, leaving his lunch in the cave. Legend leaves the results of his amorous pursuit to our imaginations, but his appetite must have been somehow satisfied since he didn’t return to the cave for several months. When he did, the mold present in the cave – Penicillium roqueforti to be exact – had done an ugly duckling number on his lump of cheese transforming it into a cheese of beauty. The bread, however, was another story.

The French take their wine and their cheese seriously. A ruling in 1961 decreed that although the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon method for the manufacture of the cheese could be followed across the south of France, only those cheeses ripened in the natural caves of Mont Combalou could bear the name Roquefort. Today, its production involves some 4,500 people who herd special ewes on 2,100 farms in a carefully defined grazing area. In 2008, 19,000 tons were produced, with 80% of it consumed in France.  It’s a laborious process — 4,500 folk dropping their 4,500 lumps of ewe’s milk cheese and running off in hot amorous pursuit of 4,500 other folk.

 

To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad. ~ Jack Handey

 

April 1, 1903: The Tenor Nose

Fabrio Abruzzi was born in a village near Milan in 1883. The Abruzzi family was quite poor with Fabrio’s father cobbling together their existence as a shoemaker. Almost from the time Fabrio could walk, he was put to work pounding leather for his father. He was a nice boy (the villagers lovingly called him bambino brutto) and he was hard-working although his mind would wander and he frequently distracted himself by singing popular Italian folk songs.

As a child, he always had a pleasant singing voice and when, as a teenager, his voice changed, it became a magnificent tenor voice. Fate smiled on Fabrio. A LaScala impresario happened through the village and heard the young man sing as he pounded leather. He took Fabrio under his wings, coached him extensively and on April 1, 1903, scheduled his debut as the principal tenor in Puccini’s Euripedes et Copernica.

On the day of his performance, he prepared himself (as many leading singers of the day did) by forcing lumps of pancetta up each nostril of his nose to lubricate the nasal passages (he had a magnificent Roman nose). Unfortunately, the pancetta became wedged there and he was forced to go on stage with it still in place. Things looked bad. Fabrio did not sound like a magnificent tenor; his voice was stuffy and nasal. The audience was growing restless with the need to toss tomatoes (which Italians always brought with them to the opera). Fortunately, the famous aria ti amo mortadella comes early in the first act. It’s a robust piece and Fabrio gave it his all, thereby dislodging the pancetta and hurtling meaty projectiles through the air. One put a crack in the second violinist’s Stradavarius; the other slammed into the conductor’s forehead, causing him to lead the orchestra off into an unrestrained allegro punctuated by several tomatoes to the back of his head.

But Fabrio was a success. He went on to have a short but illustrious career and was known throughout Italy as voce bellissima brutte facce.

And of course April 1 is . . .

spaghetti238The first day of April marks the beginning of the annual spaghetti harvest in parts of Europe, those happy days when family farmers go forth into their groves and carefully hand pick the strands from their spaghetti trees. They don’t, of course. The spaghetti harvest was one of the great April Fools Day hoaxes, all the better for having been aired on the venerable BBC television network. A BBC cameraman dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria had teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it.

Aired in 1957, the report showed a family in southern Switzerland as they gathered a bumper spaghetti harvest after a mild winter and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” Footage of a traditional “Harvest Festival” was included along with a discussion of the breeding necessary to develop a strain that produced spaghetti of the perfect length.

Pasta was not a readily available product in England at the time, and Brits were primarily familiar with canned spaghetti in tomato sauce (think Franco-American).  An estimated eight million people watched the program, and hundreds phoned in the following day, some to question the authenticity of the story but many to ask for more information about how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

 

What fools these mortals be. — Seneca

January 31, 1990: Next Day on Your Dressing Room They’ve Hung a Tsar

mcdonalds-russiaContinuing severe economic problems and internal political turmoil took a backseat on January 31, 1990, as Muscovites lined up to try a most unRussian guilty pleasure. The Soviet Union might be crumbling around them, but that icon of Western decadence, purveyors of glasnost on a sesame seed bun, was riding high. McDonald’s had come to town.

Those Big Macs, with fries and shakes might cost a day’s wages, but the people of Moscow were eating them up. The notorious golden arches of capitalism were signs that times they were a’changing in the Soviet Union – in fact, within two years the Soviet Union would dissolve. A Soviet journalist saw no great political earthquake but rather an “expression of America’s rationalism and pragmatism toward food.” Could the Quarter Pounder be the ultimate example of the People’s Food?

Whatever it was, they took to it in Moscow like a Bolshevik takes to a putsch. Located in Pushkin Square, this McDonald’s was the world’s largest, boasting 28 cash registers and a seating capacity of 700. Its opening day broke a McDonald’s record with more than 30,000 customers served. It remains the world’s busiest McDonald’s, serving more than 20,000 customers daily.

Moscow resident Natalya Kolesknikova told Russian State Television that when out-of-town guests came to visit, she showed them two things, McDonald’s and the McKremlin.

 

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November 16, 1620: Kansas in August

After having lived for months on board ship in cramped, dirty, smelly Corn vintage woodcut illustrationquarters, the Pilgrims finally sailed into Provincetown Harbor in November of 1620. On November 16, a group of 16, led by Myles Standish (also known as Captain Shrimp behind his back, being a tad short of stature) set off to explore the nearby environs.

They found fresh water at a place called Pilgrim Springs. (It wasn’t called that at the time they arrived.) Then at the top of a hill, hidden in a teepee, they found a cache of a funny sort of food — long ears with tidy little rows of yellow kernels. They called it corn and promptly stole it. The hill itself they called Hill Where We Stole the Corn from the Natives. That being quite a mouthful, it quickly got shortened to Corn Hill.

From this point the long historical march began to “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” and high fructose corn syrup.

What, you’re shouting — they just up and called it corn?

Yes kids, they did, but it’s really not that a-maize-ing (sorry). The word corn to Europeans at the time simply referred to grain, any grain. In England, wheat was “corn,” in Ireland oats were “corn” and in Indonesia rice was “corn.”

Today, Americans, Canadians and Australians are the only ones that call the yellow ears corn, To most people, it’s maize as in “I’m as maizy as Kansas in August.”

 

The trick to writing an aphorism is to place a period at the point where you’re inclined to say, “in other words….” ~Robert Brault

November 14, 2006: Wings on a Pig

When the first Pig Stand opened, it was a restaurant like no other that had gone before. The year was 1921, the onset of the Roaring Twenties. Americans were in love with their pigstandautomobiles. More than eight million Fords and Oldsmobiles and Pierce Arrows roamed newly created highways.

Located on a Texas highway between Dallas and Fort Worth, the Pig Stand catered to those automobile folks – the first drive-in restaurant in the United States The restaurant’s owner, Dallas entrepreneur Jessie Kirby, reckoned that all those drivers would flock to a roadside barbecue where they could drive up, fill their faces with good Texas vittles, and drive off, without ever stepping out of their automobile. “People with cars are so lazy,” said Kirby, “they don’t want to get out of them.”

Kirby was a showman who knew how to attract customers. The Pig Stand had a red-tiled pagoda-like roof set on a rectangular building framed of wood and covered in stucco. As a customer was pulling in, teenage boys in spiffy white shirts and black bow ties would dash over to the car, hop onto the running board, and take an order – before the driver even came to a stop. For this derring-do, the servers were given the nickname carhops. Food historians credit the Pig Stand with the introduction of deep-fried onion rings, chicken-fried steak sandwiches, Texas Toast and high cholesterol.

The Pig Stand was a big hit with hungry drivers, and it soon became a chain, through one of the first franchising arrangements in restaurant history. Pig Stands popped up everywhere. By 1934, there were more than 130 of them in nine states, sporting the slogan “America’s Motor Lunch.” And dinner – Pig Stands boasted that more than 5,000 people enjoyed pig sandwich dinners every evening in Dallas alone. Pig Stand drive-ins soon replaced male carhops with attractive young women on roller skates, but maintained the formula that had got them this far: good-looking young carhops, tasty food, and speedy service – all in the comfort of your automobile.

Wartime gasoline and food rationing took its toll on the Pig Stand chain. And then came McDonald’s.  And Burger King.  And Wendy’s. By the end of the 1950s, all of the franchises outside of Texas had closed. And by 2005, only six remained in the state. Then on November 14, 2006, state officials closed the last two Pig Stands restaurants for unpaid sales taxes. And an icon oinked off into the Texas sunset.

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style. ~Sydney Smith

July 7, 1104: It’s Our Pleasure, Your Bacon

 

Dunmow FlitchEngland is not without its share of quaint ceremonies, many dating back to medieval times. One of the more unusual of these is the Dunmow Flitch which had its inception in Little Dunmow, Essex, during the 13th century and gravitated from there to Great Dunmow (a larger venue perhaps). The custom was a celebration of marital bliss in which a lucky couple who could satisfy judges of their own would be rewarded with a flitch of bacon, basically half a pig.

To win the flitch, the couple must prove that they had lived for a full year in a state of wedded euphoria, never uttering a harsh or quarrelsome word, nor shooting even a nasty glance in the other’s direction. No negative thought or a hint of regret could enter their minds. And if they had the opportunity to do it all over — well, you get the drift. If the judges were convinced:

“A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.”

The happy couple were then paraded around town with their flitch of bacon and a lot of ballyhoo.

Were you to think this a very difficult way to procure a flitch of bacon, you’d be spot on. From the 13th century until the 18th century when the custom died out, there were, strangely enough, only six recorded winners. And according to an unreliable source, one of the early winning couples was a ship’s captain and his wife who hadn’t actually laid eyes on each other for the year after their wedding. Another couple, successful at first, had the flitch taken away from them after they began to argue about how it should be dressed. Yet another couple failed when the husband, who took part reluctantly, had his ears boxed by his wife during the questioning.

The custom has been reintroduced sporadically over the years. It is currently held every four years and is scheduled for July 2016.

Maybe If They Hadn’t Had To Slice Their Own Bread

“The greatest thing since sliced bread” is high praise indeed, denoting the ultimate in ingenuity, a hallmark of good old American know-how, a real “Wonder,” if you will. Sliced bread? Really? How important can sliced bread be?

Well, for example, in 1943, U.S. officials imposed a ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure for reasons known primarily to U.S. officials. Why not just cut off everyone’s right arm? A letter from a frantic housewife to The New York Times was typical of the reaction:

I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast.  Without ready-sliced bread, I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!

Sliced bread, specifically a loaf of bread pre-sliced by a machine and packaged for consumer convenience, made its debut on July 7, 1928, and was hailed as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” (they couldn’t really call it the greatest thing since sliced bread). It was produced by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, as “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread.”

Kleen Maid was followed by the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country. And in 1930, Wonder Bread started marketing sliced bread (or a plastic replica of it) nationwide, and the rest, as they say in the bread world, is history.

 

July 5, 1937: Spam Conquers the Universe

Chopped pork shoulder meat, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch just for spam2fun, and sodium nitrite to give it chemical balance – who in 1937 would have thought such ingredients might add up to one of the most ubiquitous meat products known to the world. In 2007, the seven billionth was sold. Sure, McDonald’s has sold more burgers, but they don’t come in a can. Spam do.

Known as in some circles as a precooked luncheon meat product and in others as mystery meat, Spam has probably been the butt of more food jokes than any other product. Its pervasiveness led to the lending of its name to junk email.

World War II saw a huge increase in the use of Spam. Replacing fresh meat, it was served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and called “ham that didn’t pass its physical” or “meatloaf without basic training.”  After the war, a troupe of former servicewomen, the Hormel Girls, toured the country promoting the eating of Spam as being downright patriotic. The show went on to become a radio program all about selling Spam.

Hawaiians eat the most Spam per capita in the United States. It’s even sold at Burger King and McDonald’s.  Hawaii holds an annual Spam Jam in Waikiki during the last week of April.

In 1963, Spam was introduced to schools in South Florida as cheap food and was even used for art sculptures. It was so successful that Hormel Foods introduced Spam in school colors, the first being a blue and green variety that is still used today.

The North American home of Spam is Austin, Minnesota – “Spam Town USA.”   It’s home to the Spam Museum, celebrating the history of the Hormel company, the origin of Spam and its place in world culture.  Austin is also the location of final judging in the national Spam recipe competition. Competing recipes are collected from winning submissions at the top forty state fairs in the nation. And there’s a restaurant with a menu devoted exclusively to Spam – “Johnny’s SPAMarama Menu.”

And of course there’s Monty Python and “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam!”

 

Born July 5, 1958, Bill Watterson:

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June 25, 1987: Ronald Reagan Never Noodled

catfishIn addition to his significant and far-reaching designation of ketchup as a vegetable, President Ronald Reagan had another major food moment on June 25, 1987, when he issued the Presidential Proclamation (number 5672, if you’re keeping track) calling for the celebration of National Catfish Day, a day to recognize the value of farm-raised catfish – not the ordinary bottom-feeding catfish found in any catfish hole, but those fine-finned fellows raised on pristine family farms.

More and more Americans, said the Prez, are discovering this uniquely American food delicacy. “They thrive” – the catfish, not the Americans – “in clean freshwater ponds on many American farms, where they are surface-fed soybean meal, corn, fish meal, vitamins, and minerals. Farm-raised catfish not only furnish American consumers with a tasty delicacy but also provide a nutritious, low-calorie source of protein that is also low in cholesterol.”

Top with a dollop of ketchup and you’re on your way to seafood Shangri-la.

Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. — Wikipedia  And hopes for the best, one would presume.

September 11, 1680: The Unfortunate Roger Crab

crab-1Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.