Food Facts & Lore, Monday Magazine

This Week in Food History – 03/20/2017

Stuffed pasta is first recorded in Medieval times cookbooks (5th to 15th century). Of course, such books were rare, but we do know that, in Europe, pasta might have been filled with meat and spices. But another version of the dish, also served at that time, stands out: pasta stuffed with cheese, honey and nuts. It is not until the late 15th century that pasta is doused with tomato sauce. We had to discover the New World first to bring tomatoes back to Europe from South America. And what of Italy? The Ravioli trail gains much clarity here as evidenced by thousands of preserved letters from a 14th century Italian merchant by the name of Francesco di Marco. The ravioli he describes is stuffed with pork, cheese, eggs and herbs. Pork was omitted during Lent. And this, in a pasta shell of sorts, is the brief history of Ravioli on National Ravioli Day.

Other Noteworthy Food Celebrations This Week…

March 21: National French Bread Day
French bread and Baguette are two different things, though both are French. This is not a riddle, though it could be. The true “French Bread” is also commonly known as “Pain de Campagne,” or country loaf. It is a round loaf bearing the characteristic cross cut. The “Baguette,” which is the version most of us imagine upon hearing the words “French Bread,” was introduced in the 1920’s in response to a law that prohibited bakers from working before 4 am. They circumvented the lack of time by creating a long loaf that required less time in the oven, yet provided the same amount of bread.

March 22: Coq Au Vin Day
The practice of tenderizing meat by simmering it in wine was formerly associated with the peasant fare as these folks of sparse means often only had access to scrawny birds that produced rough meat. Only the wealthy could afford plump, tender cuts. Yet the technique was made popular among the rich as a delicacy. French chefs made the dish popular and it became even more popular in America during the 1960’s when “French” became a widespread culinary trend.

March 23: National Chip and Dip Day
The dip portion of this duo is what captured our attention. Dips have been around since ancient civilizations fell in love with a good table spread (no pun intended), but the Great Depression of the 1930’s boosted their popularity significantly as many affluent Americans had to rethink home entertaining when they became maid-less for the first time. Convenient, frugal recipes and new ways of serving food to friends filled women’s magazines and dip was an overnight classic. It was easy to prepare, added variety to the table and could be served elegantly in spite of being so simple.

March 23: National Melba Toast Day
Dame Nellie Melba had a tender stomach. Indeed, the famous Australian Opera singer became very ill in 1897, while staying at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, and required a special diet. Chef Auguste Escoffier to the rescue again (didn’t we just hear from him last week?). He was a lover of opera after all and created the thin crisp bread on her behalf. The Hotel’s proprietor is said to be the one who suggested the name during a conversation with Escoffier who, incidentally, also created the Peach Melba dessert for her.

March 24: National Chocolate Covered Raisins Day
Raisinets are 90 years old this year. They were among the most popular treats for early movie-goers who could purchase a box for as little as a nickel. Have you ever wondered how such a wrinkly little fruit can appear so well polished once covered with chocolate? The fact is, they are polished. The process is automated these days, but they were originally polished by hand. It took about an hour to polish a batch of 350 pounds of chocolate covered raisins. A typical production batch today weighs 2,500 pounds and contains almost 1 million Raisinets. Raisinets are made with California grown Thompson grapes exclusively.

March 25: National Lobster Newburg Day
Lobster Newberg is one of those classic dishes born of legend. The story of its creation begins at Madison Square’s famous Delmonico’s Restaurant when fruit trading sea captain Ben Wenberg stopped in announcing he had brought a new way to cook lobster. The chef was intrigued. The dish was prepared on the spot. The chef loved it and added it to the menu. He and Wenberg later had a falling out, but Delmonico’s patrons loved the dish, so he modified the name to conceal authorship. Hence, Wenberg became Newberg… and that is fact or legend, and nonetheless delicious.

March 26: National Spinach Day
The Chinese call it “Persian Green.” Spinach likely originated in Persia and was later brought to China. Early references date back to sometime between 200 and 640 AD. The first written evidence placing spinach in the Mediterranean region occurs in the 10th century, notably in medical texts. Spinach does not grow well in such climate. Ingenious Arab agronomists devised a special irrigation system that helped the plants thrive. The Italians had deep curiosity about using produce they acquired from world-traveling traders and explorers and were very influential in introducing spinach to the Mediterranean diet.

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