Category Archives: Language

Alfredo

I first had fettuccine Alfredo in 1966–served to me by Alfredo.

I was just fifteen, traveling with my parents. Getting to Italy was a lifelong dream of my dad’s, and we had the pleasure of coming along when he fulfilled that dream. He’d studied Italian history, art, and culture for years, and had been drilling us on useful Italian phrases for nearly a year before the trip–where is my hotel, a table for four please, how much does that cost, bring the check please, and so on.

Long before we arrived, dad had figured out many of the places where he wanted to dine, mostly historic venues (such as Hostaria dell’Orso, which had been a favorite of Dante’s), while leaving plenty of room for discovering charming little trattorias. Among the must-visit places was Alfredo al Augusteo, the source of fettuccine so good that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had given Alfredo a golden fork and spoon for consuming the dish.

At fifteen, I was not as saturated with history as my dad was, and I probably could not at that time have told you who Pickford and Fairbanks were, but I knew if my dad was impressed, I would be, too. The restaurant was a delight, walls covered with photos of movie stars and heads of state who had dined there. Overhead, a massive marble frieze showed Alfredo in a Roman chariot, one hand holding the reigns, the other holding a plate of the namesake pasta.

The menu at the time bore the words Il vero re della fettuccine–the true king of fettuccine. However, when he signed our menus, Alfredo gave himself a promotion, to Imperatore, or Emperor, a title that now seems to have eclipsed his claim to being king.

Alfredo Di Lelio was already famous even then, but far from stuffy or impressed with himself. He was a showman, and he loved anyone who loved what he did. For people with whom he connected, he would toss the fettuccine tableside. Order the crepes, and he would come out dancing, ladling flaming brandy into the air. It was great fun. My dad, who could make friends with a doorpost, charmed Alfredo, and we went back often, each member of the family being offered the golden fork and spoon on subsequent nights (a sign that Alfredo had taken a fancy to you). He related how the fettuccine recipe was born–it was something his wife could keep down while she was pregnant.

A few visits into our first trip to Italy, my dad jotted a bit of light verse on a piece of paper and handed it to Alfredo, sealing the friendship. I sometimes think that our trip back the following year was just so dad could go to Alfredo’s again–and, happily, Alfredo remembered him and welcomed him enthusiastically.

In the photo below, I’m the teen on the left, and that’s Alfredo with his arm around me. The handful of pasta is dry, kept handy as a prop for photo opportunities. Mom thought she was getting out of the photo.

Of course, the experience was memorable, but for me, it was one more reason to be amazed by my father.

And here is the poem:

To Alfredo
Firenze, Roma, or Milano,
Who’s the number one Paisano?
Who’s “tops” with burro and formaggio?
Who should sit for Caravaggio?
This charming Re. This handsome fellow.
No, He should sit for Raphaello.
Better yet, call for Bernini
To sculpt the King of Fettuccine!

And should you be headed to Italy, here is the website for Il Vero Alfredo–the true Alfredo. http://www.ilveroalfredo.it/
family-with-alfredo-2

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Fun Fact: Thomas Jefferson

There are, of course, numerous food stories surrounding Thomas Jefferson, who was remarkably gifted and accomplished in many fields, but not least of them food, from introducing dishes to establishing new crops to inventing recipes. However, this fun fact is only tangentially related to food, because I found it in a cookbook.

As part of my food history research, I read a fair number of antique cookbooks. Not very long ago, I was perusing a cookbook published in 1876, on, and in honor of, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, some reference to Thomas Jefferson had to be made — and there is such a reference. On the last page of the preface, it states that it wishes for readers, “in the renowned classic of Jefferson, ‘May you live long and prosper.'”

So were the creators of Star Trek fans of our talented Founding Father — or does this mean Jefferson was a Vulcan?

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Fun Fact: Individuals

The term “individual” was not applied to humans until the mid-1600s. Before that, everyone was identified as part of a village. Village society was not about individuals but about the success and survival of the village. People didn’t live on their farms; they lived in the village and walked or rode to their farms (which were nearby, but were not considered home). In a time where villages were few and far between, considering the village as the irreducible unit would have helped ensure that everyone had food and a degree of protection.

The original source of the modern word is the Latin individuum, a noun that meant “an atom” or “an indivisible particle.” In Middle English individuum began to be used in the early 1400s to mean “individual member of a species.” But the idea that it could mean “a single human being” (as opposed to identifying people as a segment of a group) emerged in the 1640s. The current, common meaning of “a person” has only been traced back as far as 1742.

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Nathalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Nathalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Florida Crackers

I had heard the term “Florida Cracker” before this trip, but had never heard it explained. The term comes from the early days of Florida settlement. When Spanish explorers in the early 1500s failed to find gold, silver, or the fountain of youth, they headed back to the well-established Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, leaving behind all the livestock they’d brought with them, including large herds of cattle and many horses. The animals became feral and adapted to the Florida climate. When English settlers began arriving, about a century after the Spanish had left, they found the makings of a cattle industry just waiting for those resourceful enough to take advantage of the by now substantial, if wild, herds of livestock.

Some came on horseback, while others captured the wild horses abandoned by the Spanish. With nothing more than a horse and a whip with which to move the herds of cattle, these early settlers founded successful ranches. In time, they became known for the loud crack of their stock whips–hence, crackers.

The small, agile, wild horses they adopted were so indispensable to the success of the crackers that they became known as cracker horses, much as mounts in the American West would become known as cow ponies. They were the horses needed by those managing cattle.

However, this was long before the American West had even been explored, let alone settled. So the first American cowboys, horses, and cattle ranches were all Floridian. Even today, Florida is a major beef producer, and Florida Cracker culture lives on.

The culture lives on, but the traditional horses were eventually replaced by quarter horses. However, efforts have been made to preserve the bloodlines of the handsome, little Florida Cracker Horse. Here’s a video about their history and those efforts to keep them around.

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Fun Fact: Daily Grind

We still talk about the daily grind, but generally without thinking too much about the origin of the phrase. It dates back a few thousand years, to when people had to grind their own grain — every day. It took at least a couple of hours of grinding or pounding to create enough meal or flour for that day’s porridge or bread for a family. It was hard work, which is why people generally didn’t grind more than they needed each day. (Plus, of course, there was the issue of things spoiling faster once ground.) Worth remembering is that most of those doing the grinding were doing it at the end of a full day’s work or travel.

Various people at different times developed easier ways to grind grain, using animals or slaves or running water, but on the march or on the frontier, hand grinding remained the only option until the last few hundred years — though it is still the main method of processing grain in some places.

So next time you pick up a loaf of bread on the way home for work, you can be grateful that your daily grind doesn’t actually end with a daily grind.

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Almonds

Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.

Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.

The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener. Continue reading

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Armenian Nutmeg Cake

Nutmeg

Nutmeg


As noted in the previous post, the Latin name for nutmeg is Nux muscatus, and in the name of the recipe below, you can almost make out the Latin muscatus in the Aremenian meshgengouz.

This cake is really delicious. It has been a huge hit wherever I’ve taken it. It has a somewhat crunchy base and a moist, tender, fragrant top. The two parts really work together. Enjoy.

Meshgengouz Gargantag
(Armenian Nutmeg Cake)

2 cups white flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Grease a 9-inch-square baking pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the flour, baking powder, and salt a bowl and stir to combine. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. (This is easily accomplished with your fingers, but you can use a food processor, if you don’t enjoy “hands-in” cooking.) Add the brown sugar and stir to combine thoroughly. Press half of the flour and sugar mixture into the bottom of the cake pan.

Beat the sour cream into the cream until mixture is smooth. Dissolve the baking soda in the cream mixture. Stir in the beaten egg and nutmeg. Add this to the remaining half of the flour and sugar mixture, stirring until the cream mixture and flour mixture are thoroughly combined. Pour this batter into the cake pan, smoothing so that it covers the base evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly over the batter. Continue reading

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Nutmeg and Mace

The ancient world was rife with mythic twins: Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. But there is another pair of twins that, while eluding the ancients, once seemed almost as mythic as these legendary pairs—twins that engendered centuries of argosies and adventures. The fragrant, flowering evergreen tree known as Myristica fragrans is the mother of these twins. When the fleshy, peach-like fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns somewhat brownish as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard nut is nutmeg.

Nutmeg and mace were being traded in Asia long before Europeans knew these spices existed. A few scholars maintain that the ancient world did know of nutmeg, but there is little evidence— and the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world did not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants who traded all across North Africa, but it didn’t get to Greece or Rome. However, it had reached Constantinople by the 9th century, as it was recorded that St. Theodore the Studite allowed monks to use nutmeg on their pease porridge on meat-free days.

Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.

The Portuguese had located the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, by 1511, sighting (or perhaps just smelling) cloves growing in the northern islands. However, no Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Banda Islands, in the southern Moluccas. The Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace grew. (The northern Moluccas were the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.) Continue reading

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Mangoes

Mango
When I arrived in Chennai in southern India, almost the first thing my guide pointed out was the mango trees. He told us that there are 400 varieties of mango in India, which is about half of the varieties that exist worldwide. It may seem to us in a temperate climate that a fruit tree is not the first thing you’d point out to a foreign visitor, but the mango is not just another fruit tree; mangoes are the most important fruits in the world, and in fact are one of the planet’s 15 most important food crops. And nowhere is this more evident than in India.

Mangifera indica is, as the name indicates, indigenous to India, or at least partly to India, with its most likely natal region stretching from eastern India through Myanmar. Mangoes were being cultivated long before history was being recorded, but they were slow to spread. The fruit is extremely perishable, and even the seeds don’t remain viable for long. The Greeks and Romans never saw mangoes–with the possible exception of Alexander the Great, but only because he invaded India. But if he did see mangoes, he didn’t mention them, and none went back to Europe with him (not that they would have survived the trip). Continue reading

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