Food Facts & Lore, Monday Magazine

This Week in Food History – 12/18/2017

December began with National Pie Day and, fittingly so, will conclude with Champagne. More about this on the 31st. By the end of the month, we will have celebrated 16 desserts, treats and candies. This comes as no surprise as we have well established by now that the National Food Holidays calendar is obviously heavy on the sweet side. No complaints here. One item stands out, however, and that is the Microwave. It had its National day of honor on December 6. We don’t recall seeing mention of any other appliances in the course of our research for this series. The microwave is thought to be the only appliance that was invented entirely by accident. Learn more in THIS Popular Mechanics article. Then, come back.

Meanwhile, here are this week’s food & beverage highlights… 

December 18 is National Roast Suckling Pig Day – Little piglet lovers forgive us, but this indeed is the celebration of the day. As you might imagine, the quality of the meat is a key inspiration for slaughtering and roasting a piglet before it is weaned, that is between 2 and 6 weeks following birth. The fact that the pig is one of the first animals domesticated for food is significant. References to suckling-pig based dishes date back to the 6th century and can be found from China to the Mediterranean region. The wild boar is the only hog species to have been domesticated, sometime around 10,000 years ago and initially in two specific regions we know today as China and Turkey. Early farmers migrating to Europe were accompanied by livestock. Migrants coming to the Americas brought their pigs along.

December 19 is National Hard Candy Day – The word “Candy” has French, Middle-English and Arabic roots referring to “crystallized sugar.” But its Sanskrit root, “Khanda”, is of special interest. It means “fragment.” Candy is ancient. The first sweet confections were made of sugar, herbs and spices and were consumed chiefly as digestive aids. Modern day sugar canes and cough drops are direct descendants. Licorice is another example. As techniques evolved, so did inspiration. Sugar coated seeds, fruit and nuts were the first hard candy consumed for pleasure. All peoples of Antiquity, from China to the Roman Empire, to South American tribes, made honey-coated confections using seed, dried fruit and even stems. The wealthy traveler of the Middle Ages enjoyed sweets after copious meals consumed at Inns. These were often served in small boxes to be taken up to their rooms.

December 20 is National Fried Shrimp Day – Shrimp, like candy, is an ancient delicacy. But, interestingly enough, shrimp salad made a splash in America long before fried shrimp. Fried shrimp became popular after WWII, as did the tradition of breading, which not only added the appeal of a golden, crisp envelope, but also concealed imperfect, perhaps less appealing specimens. Even drive-ins served shrimp dinners then, especially in Southern states and on the east coast. By the early 1900’s, shrimp were so readily available in California that some San Francisco restaurants offered a complimentary dish of shrimp, fried or cocktail-style, as a prelude to the main course.

December 21 is National Hamburger Day – Many could lay claim to the invention of the hamburger. Take the men of Genghis Khan, for example (1162 – 1227). They stashed raw meat under their saddles to tenderize it for later consumption. There’s nothing like a good “hamburger” after a conquest or two! Then there was Louis Lassen (1865 – 1935), who opened the first Hamburger Shack in New Haven, CT, where he served scraps of beef between sliced bread for a convenient, fast meal. The establishment is still in operation four generations later, and still serving hamburgers. Meanwhile, in 1891, German cook Otto Kuasw created a fried beef patty, fried egg and toast sandwich that was extremely popular with sailors. It’s easy to imagine why.

December 22 is National Date Nut Bread Day – A recipe comes to mind. You’ll need:

1 cup pitted dates, chopped
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup strong brewed coffee.
1/4 cup vanilla yogurt
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Slightly oil the loaf pan. Bring strong brewed coffee to a boil. Pour hot coffee over the dates in a small bowl. Set aside. In a second bowl, combine and mix the yogurt and egg. Blend the flour, sugar and baking soda in a separate, large bowl. Include chopped nuts if desired. Add the yogurt and egg mixture, coffee and dates. Bake for 1 hour until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let stand a few minutes and remove from pan. Serve with fruit and cheese or apple sauce.

December 23 is National Pfeffernusse Day – Ah, the most delicious word in the dictionary! Pfeffernusse cookies originated in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The Dutch call them “Pepernoten,” which gives us a good hint of its root, “Peppernut.” While white pepper was an early ingredient, the “pepper” in the name now refers to spiciness rather than to pepper specifically. Almonds or walnuts are the traditional nuts; cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon or pepper provide the spicy notes. Pfeffernusse cookies were initially baked on Sinterklass, a Dutch Holiday feast celebrated on December 5th. This celebration is one of the inspirations behind our modern-day Santa,  and the practice of leaving cookies out for him. In Germany, however, Pfeffernusse was a Christmas time treat.

December 24 is The Feast of The Seven Fishes – Eating fish on Christmas Eve is an ancient tradition in Italy, but the various regions of Italy have such personal traditions about the Holiday meal that no one is certain what the original feast looked like. One thing is certain, the reference to seven stems from Biblical symbolism and the fish theme evolved from the custom of abstaining from meat on the eve of religious Holidays. If you’re in the mood for something different at your own Holiday table, this can provide delicious inspiration. One version of the Feast of The Seven Fishes requires the family gather round the table to share seven different seafood dishes in the course of a single meal. The selections range from fish soup to gnocchi with tuna.

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