Category Archives: Dining

You Want That With Cheese?

"And while you're at it, do you have any mustard back there?"

“And while you’re at it, do you have any mustard back there?”

Chances are, you ate a sandwich recently.  That isn’t mere speculation on my part; according to food-industry statistics, the average American eats 193 sandwiches per year.  Even allowing for the fact that you are a way-above-average American, you’re eating plenty of sandwiches, right?

We’re not including wraps and burritos and other hand-held variations, either.  We’re talking about an official sandwich:  two or more pieces of bread that have at least one layer of something edible between them.

Some authorities trace the origin of the sandwich back many centuries, where its remains were found in a bachelor’s refrigerator.  The most common explanation, however, involves John Montagu (1718-1792), whose hereditary title was 4th Earl of Sandwich.

He was known to enjoy gambling, and supposedly one night in 1762 during a marathon card game, he ordered a servant to bring him some meat between two pieces of bread.  This enabled Montagu to continue playing cards while having a meal.  Having bread on the top and bottom meant he didn’t have to touch meat with his bare hands, so the cards didn’t get greasy.

Others in his circle of acquaintances began to order up this nameless food item by calling to the servants, “the same as Sandwich.”  The name caught on, and so did the portable, inexpensive meal between slices of bread.

With the growth of industrial society in the 19th century, the sandwich became very popular in many places around the world.  It was one of the few things associated with the 4th Earl of Sandwich that worked out well.

To his credit, as First Lord of the Admiralty Montagu funded a couple of Captain James Cook’s expeditions.  Cook made the politically expedient gesture of naming one of his discoveries the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii).

Most of Montagu’s other decisions about British naval deployment were not successful.  For instance, his strategy during the American Revolution was to keep most of the British navy at home to fend off possible invasions, rather than sending ships to North America.  That had to be helpful to the colonies, since their navy pretty much consisted of some retrofitted merchant ships and a couple of inner tubes.   Meanwhile, critics accused Montagu of corruption:  taking bribes and giving jobs to his cronies.

While Sandwich’s sandwich in 1762 may have been a roast beef, many varieties have developed since then, of course — and the origins of most of them are in dispute.  The club sandwich, for example, is traced by some to the Saratoga Club in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Other food historians associate it with club cars on railroad trains.

The hamburger’s name suggests it originated in Hamburg, Germany, but apparently that might not be so.  Claimants include New Haven, Connecticut, Tulsa, Oklahoma… and Hamburg, New York.

The use of peanut butter didn’t become, uh, widespread until the 1920s, but is now among the most popular sandwich ingredients.  According to the National Peanut Board’s website, “The average child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he/she graduates high school.”

Personally, I’m partial to corned beef on rye… although when it’s done right, grilled cheese is hard to beat.  And then there’s thinly sliced turkey — Mmm.  So  what’s your next sandwich going to be?

Dining in the Dark

No kidding -- when I held my hand in front of my face, this is what I saw.

No kidding — when I held my hand in front of my face, this is what I saw.

“The lights will be going out in ten minutes, so if you want to use the restroom, this would be a good — ”

The voice on the microphone was drowned out by the sound of several hundred chairs being pushed back and that many people rushing to the banquet room exits.  It had occurred to all of us simultaneously that even something as mundane as slipping out to “freshen up” would be impossible in total darkness.

This event was arranged by a charitable organization called Foundation Fighting Blindness.  It honored our friend Mary Romo, who is herself visually impaired but volunteers at the Braille Institute and at schools to help others whose eyesight is limited or gone.

The unique aspect of this dinner was that it would be served in the dark, giving diners some sense of the daily challenges faced by those who are sightless.  Even the servers at this banquet were blind.

Our server came to the table before the lights were turned off, asking each of us individually if we had any dietary restrictions.  It probably gave him a chance to recognize us by voice, which would be helpful to him during the serving process.

There were ropes and stanchions around the room which allowed the servers to find their way to and from the kitchen, and around the banquet hall.  I noticed that a peg had been taped to the back of the chair of the woman who sat to my right.  Presumably this helped the server locate her as #1; he would work around in a counterclockwise direction, so I would be the last served at our table.

After we all made it back from the restrooms, the lights were turned off, and you could hear a few gasps around the room at how dark it was.  Seriously — it was black in there.  I held my hand in front of my face and couldn’t see it.

The event organizers had sealed off all sources of light, however faint.  Even the illuminated exit signs were blacked out.  The planners had made arrangements with local authorities to have special marshals on hand in case of an emergency.  I believe they were wearing those infared night-vision goggles, but as I said, I couldn’t even see my own hand.

When the meal arrived, there were guesses around the table about what we were eating.  I’m fairly certain it was chicken florentine, broccoli and scalloped potatoes, but I’m ashamed to admit that I was going more by feel than by taste.

Oh, at first I tried to cut bites with my knife and fork.  Things were squirting around my plate, though, and possibly into the middle of the table for all I know.  Eventually I realized that if I was going to get any nourishment, my hands would need to be more directly involved.  Fortunately, it was impossible for anyone to take incriminating photos of me fumbling with my food like a two-year-old.

After about a half-hour, the lights were turned back on; the conversation was subdued for a bit because we were all processing the implications of what we had just experienced.

In the dark, we had seen things we tend to take for granted.  You might say that when we temporarily had our vision blocked out, our eyes were opened.  And with the lights back on, I could also see that my suit would definitely need to be dry cleaned.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Sipped, not gulped.

Sipped, not gulped.

There are hundreds of different combinations of ingredients served in bars around the world, but no cocktail bespeaks sophistication and elegance quite so much as the martini.  Of course, there are almost that many opinions about what constitutes a proper martini.

James Bond, for instance, famously insisted that his martinis be “shaken, not stirred.”  Those who favor the opposite — stirred — claim that shaking the mixture “bruises” the gin, which seems to mean that the gin tastes more bitter.

The “shaken” people retort that their preferred method gets the drink colder; “stirred” people begrudgingly agree, but claim that shaking a martini makes it look cloudier in the glass, due to air and ice fragments.

Martini enthusiasts on both sides of the shaken/stirred debate would agree that what James Bond drank was not a martini, because he ordered his with (shudder) vodka.  Purists are adamant that a true martini is made only with gin — well, and some dry vermouth, garnished with an olive or two, or with a twist of lemon peel.

Who invented the drink, and when, is also the subject of controversy, but it’s safe to say that eloquent toasts have been made with raised martinis since the early 20th century.  They gained popularity in the U.S. during Prohibition (1920-1933) partly because bathtub gin was in more plentiful supply than other kinds of booze.

The recipe for a martini in its introductory phase called for — brace yourselves, drinkers; this might trigger your gag reflex — one part gin to one part vermouth.  By the 1950s, the gin-to-vermouth ratio was commonly 3 to 1.  That’s how it would be served in a bar unless the customer specified otherwise.

“A very dry martini” is a way to let the bartender know to go easy on the vermouth; others, who like the proportions to be more like 50 to 1, will order “an extremely dry martini.”

According to the book “Vintage Cocktails” by Susan Waggoner and Robert Markel, Sir Winston Churchill made his favorite drink by pouring gin “and glancing briefly at a bottle of vermouth.”

A variation on that recipe, according to authors William and Mary Morris, was the one favored by Alfred Hitchcock.  He supposedly combined a well-chilled glass, five jiggers of gin stirred with ice, and a bottle of extra-dry vermouth, which he tapped lightly against the cocktail shaker three times.

If you’re not into vermouth — and clearly, almost no one is — it’s a fortified wine (additional alcohol added) that is flavored wtih herbs and roots and shrubs and whatnot.  In the context of vermouth, dry is an antonym for sweet, not wet.  There is such a thing as sweet vermouth, incidentally; it’s used in Manhattans, another popular cocktail.

The leading international brand of vermouth is Martini & Rossi, which may have contributed to the misunderstanding in Florence, Italy, when my wife ordered a martini.  The waiter came back with an old-fashioned glass… yeah, you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?  It was filled with Martini & Rossi vermouth.  Although she managed to drink it, it sort of left Sally feeling shaken, not stirred.

The Big Picture on Popcorn

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

It’s a question that has occurred to me several times in my adult life, but I’ve never had the chance to ask it.  That’s partly because “farmer” is the occupation of only 1% of the U.S. work force, so there aren’t many opportunities to encounter one.  When I do, though, I’ll dispense with the pleasantries and get right to it:  “How do you decide what crops to grow?”

“Betting the farm” is an expression gamblers use, meaning “to take a big risk.”  Farmers literally bet the farm every year, and I’d be fascinated to find out how one figures out that the best use of his land and resources is, say, popcorn.

Presumably the soil type and weather conditions are part of the equation, but when his neighbor is able to grow sweet corn, what makes a farmer think, “Nope.  I’m going with popcorn.”

Most of the world’s popcorn production is in the United States, and there are at least 6 cities that claim to be “The Popcorn Capital of the World”.  All are in the Midwest, far from Hollywood, where popcorn’s constant companion — movies — are made.

Popcorn has actually been around a lot longer than movies; Smithsonian scientists have found evidence in Peru of popcorn that dates back over 6,000 years.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that commercial popcorn poppers were invented, though, and someone thought, “Hey, you know what would go great with this stuff — moving pictures!”

Well, the connection between popcorn and movies was a little more complicated than that, but one of the factors is what the popcorn producers call “expansion ratio”.  That refers to the increase in volume that occurs when those little kernels are popped; a good expansion ratio is in the neighborhood of 40 to 1.

Why does that matter to movie theater owners?  Because they buy popcorn by weight and sell it by volume, so the higher the expansion ratio, the higher the profit.  And popcorn is a more important income source to theaters than ticket sales.

Ticket revenues have to be split with the films’ distributors, but exhibitors pocket 100% of concessions.  According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, concessions account for about 20% of movie theater gross revenues — but 40% of profits.

By the way, the stuff that makes movie popcorn taste so good — the butter-flavored motor oil they drizzle on it, for instance — adds so much fat that a good-sized tub of it is said to be comparable in fat grams to several Big Macs.

On the other hand, pure unadulterated popcorn — the less tasty version — is actually good for your health.  A study completed in 2012 showed that in addition to its high dietary fiber, popcorn has levels of antioxidants that are greater than some fruits and vegetables.  However, the study’s author, Dr. Joe Vinson, warned that adding too much butter and/or oil could negate the health benefits.

Here’s what occurred to me, though.  A previous scientific study found that there are health benefits associated with chocolate (see my blog post “Rx: Chocolate”, 10/26/11).  Just go with me on this.  If popcorn and chocolate were combined… huh?  Sounds good, right?  Maybe Harry and David’s Moose Munch will prove to be about the healthiest thing we can eat!

Essential Facts About Pumpkins

A tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion pounds produced in the U.S. each year

OK, the title is a little misleading:  There are no essential facts about pumpkins.  You can go on having a reasonably happy life without knowing where those members of the gourd family thrive — unless you’re a pumpkin farmer, of course, and if you are, you already know far more about pumpkins than I do.

The dictionary defines essential as “absolutely necessary; indispensable”, so I’m pretty sure it’s not essential to know that China is the world leader in pumpkin production, in spite of the fact that the Chinese do not observe Halloween or Thanksgiving.

Those holidays are associated with pumpkins in the United States, which is fourth among the world’s pumpkin producers.  States like California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan grow a lot of them, but take a moment to consider this fact, which, while not essential, is pretty darned impressive:

Ninety percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Illinois.

That’s what a University of Illinois website says, anyway, and I don’t think they would make a claim like that just to boost Peoria tourism.  The University happens to have a trove of information about the orange-colored fruit that is related to the cucumber.  For instance, its website mentions that pumpkins were once recommended for removing freckles and curing snakebites.  Maybe someone at U of I should do a study to see if people living near Peoria have a lower incidence of freckles and snakebites.

You have to look elsewhere, though, to learn that the practice of carving jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland.  The Irish typically used turnips or potatoes for that purpose, but when immigrants arrived in America, they applied their fruit-and-vegetable carving skills to pumpkins, and an American holiday tradition was born.

The University of Illinois hasn’t yet had a chance to update its information about the world’s largest pumpkin.  That record was set a few weeks ago by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island (well, not by Ron himself — by a pumpkin he grew).  It weighed 2,009 pounds, breaking the one-ton barrier that had eluded pumpkin growers until now.  Presumably their new goal is to grow one that weighs more than a car; they’re only a few hundred pounds away.

The subject of colossal pumpkins leads us to Thanksgiving, the holiday traditionally associated with “topping off” a big meal with a huge chunk of pumpkin pie.

Let me pass along the pertinent facts to answer a question that has probably occurred to you by now.  The world’s largest pumpkin pie was made in New Bremen, Ohio, in 2010.  It contained over 1,200 pounds of canned pumpkin, 109 gallons of evaporated milk, 525 pounds of sugar, 233 dozen eggs and a pinch of cinnamon — 14.5 pounds.  I don’t have the details about the crust, but the whole thing weighed just under 3,700 pounds, and measured 20 feet in diameter.

Whipped cream?  Why yes, I don’t mind if I do.

Let’s Do Lunch

“Luncheon of the Boating Party”, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1881), Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

If you had lived 500 years ago, you never would have heard of a meal called lunch.  Of course, you never would have heard of computers, either, but that’s sort of the point — things change.

For many centuries, the midday meal was called dinner, and it was the biggest meal of the day.  Supper was the evening meal, and often consisted of leftovers from dinner, since refrigeration had not yet caught on.  Supper was also a precursor of today’s Early Bird Specials:  it was eaten around 5 p.m. or so. That’s because in the absence of artificial light and cable TV, people went to bed when it got dark.

To review, then, if you had been hungry in 1512, you would have had breakfast soon after dawn, dinner around noon, and supper at sunset.  “But what about lunch?” I hear you mutter.  (Or maybe that’s your stomach growling.)

The word once conveyed the idea of “snack”, possibly derived from the Spanish word lonja, which means a slice of ham, or loncha, a slice of cheese.  As recently as 1755, lunch or luncheon meant a portion; a hunk of something.  In his dictionary of that year, Samuel Johnson defined it this way:  “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”  Fast-food chains still base their menus on that definition, apparently.

It was not until the mid-19th century that the rearrangement of our meal designations took hold, with dinner moving to the evening hours, and lunch taking over the noontime slot formerly held by dinner.

There were several reasons for that, one of which was artificial lighting.  Oh sure, candles had been around forever, but who wants to eat dinner by candlelight?  Well, yes dear, candlelight is very romantic.  I’m just saying it was the practicalities of meal preparation and cleanup that made having a meal after dark, you know, impractical.  With improved oil lamps and gas lamps, it became possible to eat dinner later.

Another reason for the change had to do with social conventions of the upper classes, who were obliged to call on friends and acquaintances during the early afternoon.  Let’s say someone had dropped in while you were away from home.  Etiquette required you to return the in-person call at their residence the following day.

As Bill Bryson notes in his book At Home, “What this meant in practice was that most people spent their afternoons dashing around in a similarly unproductive manner trying to catch up with them.”  That had the effect of pushing the dinner hour later.

Perhaps the most important factor was the transition from rural to urban life in the 1800s.  Back when you owned a farm — or worked on one that someone else owned — you were close to home at midday.  That made it possible to sit down to a big dinner at noon.

When farms were replaced by factories, though, and people went off to work in cities, the noon meal at home wasn’t possible, so the dinner hour was delayed.  Lunch filled the void.

A current exhibit at the New York City Library makes the claim that “Of the three meals that mark the American day, lunch is the one that acquired its modern identity here on the streets of New York.”  Sounds plausible to me, but what do I know?  Some people tell me I seem “out to lunch”.

Restaurant Tips

Ile St-Louis, Paris (photo by Sally Reeder)

In U.S. restaurants, it is customary to leave a tip of 15% if the server brings your food sometime during the same calendar year in which you ordered it.  For exceptional service — if your server smiles, for instance — a tip of 20% of the total bill is a nice expression of gratitude.

By European standards, these amounts seem extravagant.  For instance, tipping is not common in Spain — by locals, anyway.  When they do tip, they tend to round up to the nearest euro. 

Rounding up is the practice elsewhere, too, although in France and Italy it’s to the next big number.  If the bill is, say, 32€, leave 35 €; if it’s 46€, go to 50 €.  In fancy restaurants, you might tip a bit more — 5 t0 10% of the total.

You may already be familiar with those guidelines for tipping restaurant servers, but here are some tips for restaurant customers.  The objective is to make your dining experiences more enjoyable by avoiding common mistakes.

No one who reads this blog needs to be told that when a waitress says, “Do you have any questions?”, it’s not appropriate to ask “Are you single?”  However, some of you do seem to need this advice:  When a server brings your food and says, “Be careful, the plate is very hot,” that means that you should not touch it.  For some reason, that seems to be the impulse — to ignore the verbal warning and test the temperature of the dish, even though the marinara sauce is still bubbling.

Here’s another tip:  If your business associate is making a big production out of the wine-tasting ritual, just look away to spare him embarrassment.  The point of putting a small amount of wine into his glass from a newly-opened bottle is just to determine that the wine didn’t turn into vinegar due to a faulty cork.  True connoisseurs (as well as novices) can usually tell in about a minute if the stuff in the bottle is wine or salad dressing; it’s not necessary to gargle it or to splash a few drops behind each ear.

Another common mistake in eating establishments happens when customers are making their decision about what to order.  “How is the sea bass,” they will ask, or worse, “Is the sea bass good?”

Does it seem likely to you that an employee will truthfully tell you that it’s awful?  Besides, you just met her a few minutes ago when she said, “Hi, I’m Kimberly and I’ll be your server this evening.”  Do you know her well enough to value her opinion?

And suppose she does blurt out, “It’s terrible, you’d be better off sawing your tongue with that butter knife”?  You’re probably still going to order the sea bass anyway, which can create an awkward moment. 

My tip is to frame the question in a way that allows you to interpret the server’s response — something like, “How is the sea bass prepared?”  If the server is evasive, or clueless, go with your second choice on the menu.

Oh, and one more tip about tipping:  At the outdoor cafes in Spain, a euro will usually make the accordion player go away.