Food Facts & Lore, Monday Magazine

This Week in Food History – 03/13/2017

March 13 is National Ginger Ale Day. Ginger Ale is a fairly young beverage. Its predecessor, ginger beer, was indeed an alcoholic beverage consumed in England in the 1800’s. It was brewed from a concoction of water, lemon juice, ginger, sugar and a culture of fermented organisms similar to that used in Kombucha. The alcohol content was rarely below 11%, and probably higher. The Irish produced the first non-alcoholic ginger ale in 1851. Meanwhile, if the brand “Canada Dry” comes to mind, there is good reason. The appellation, “dry” does stand for non-alcoholic. It was created by Canadian entrepreneur John J. McLaughlin, in 1907. The satisfying, dry ale gained in popularity during prohibition (1920-1933). McLaughlin’s father was the founder of McLaughlin Motor Car, later to become General Motors of Canada.

Other Noteworthy Food Celebrations This Week…

March 14: National Potato Chip Day
If this were a Jeopardy game, our first words might be, What do the Spanish conquistadors and Thomas Jefferson have in common? The potato. The conquistadors brought the root vegetable from Peru to Europe; Jefferson brought the recipe for “potatoes fried in the French manner” back from Europe, along with a pasta machine he purchased because he could not resist the urge to do so. And thus is that the first French Fries were probably served at Monticello. The potato chip is a natural evolution, born in the minds of modern-day marketers.

March 15: National Pears Hélène Day
It is not every day that we encounter a dish that was inspired by a classic Opera. First, let us describe said dish: Picture if you will, and it is disturbingly easy, pears poached in a sugar syrup, garnished with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and crystallized violets, no less. Today’s rendition may substitute chocolate chunks. The creator was none other than famous chef Auguste Escoffier. It was a tribute to composer Jacques Offenbach’s Opera La belle Hélène (1864), portraying the elopement of Queen Helen of Sparta with the Prince of Troy; the very thing that started the Trojan War.

March 16: National Artichoke Hearts Day
Some believe that the ancestor of today’s “common” artichoke was a native of Northern Africa. Others place its origins in Italy since it is first mentioned in reference to its being brought to Naples from Florence in the mid 15th century. In any case, the artichoke is a member of the thistle family. Its first claim to fame emerged from the European courts where it had a reputation as a potent aphrodisiac. Hmm… moving on…

March 17: Corned Beef And Cabbage Day
Of course… but did you know we owe today’s corned beef and cabbage tradition to the merging of two American Immigrant cultures? New York. Lower East Side. Traditional Irish bacon meets corned beef from Jewish neighbors. Non-traditional (at the time) corned beef and cabbage is born. Pastrami was but a few shorts steps away as it merely required the addition of extra spices. Now, to confuse matters even further, some food historians believe New York Italians should be in the picture here somewhere. Today we raise a good ale to all the great traditions of the New World.

March 18: Oatmeal Cookie Day
European explorers brought oats to the New World in the 17th century. Today’s oatmeal cookies are a variation on the ancient bannocks and oatcakes of the British Isles. You may be surprised to learn that the addition of raisins, spices and nuts is not a modern take on the confection. The practice was common in the Middle Ages. What was different in more recent times is our associating oats with “health foods.” The history of oat cakes and cookies takes a leap with the invention of the breakfast cereal around the turn of the 20th century.

March 19: National Poultry Day
Gallus gallus domesticus. That’s the name of the species of the chicken that used to be attached to that drumstick on your plate. The grandfather of all chickens, or grandmother, was a wild bird named Red Jungle Fowl. It was first domesticated in Asia, possibly around 7,000 BCE. Incidentally, the question of whether the egg of the chicken came first takes on a new twist at this point since the original bird was not a chicken at all, but a member of the pheasant family. Tasty nonetheless.

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