did the pretzel
get its knot? When did hot dogs get their buns? And who put the hole in
There's a story behind every food item, it seems, and the more elaborate the dish the more bizarre the tale. Chicken Tetrazzini, for instance, is a dish named in honor of the early-century Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini. The impressive soprano inspired a calorie-rich sherry and cream sauce generously sprinkled with grated Parmesan and cooked lightly until brown and bubbly. Applied to strips of boneless chicken breast atop a plate of spaghetti, the dish was reportedly one of the high notes during her frequent visits to San Francisco.
"She was," said James Beard, "a woman of astounding girth."
Revealing the base ingredients of our gastronomic heritage is the primary purpose of "The Cook's Tales: Origins of Famous Foods and Recipes" (Globe Pequot Press, 1992) by home economist Lee Edwards Benning. The sources of 75 classic dishes, from apple pie to zuppa Inglese, are mercilessly exposed and their formulas laid open for all to see.
"Everyone who tasted it was conquered," according to Benning. "The making of gingerbread spread like butter on hot bread to Holland, England, Belgium, and back down to Italy. Rich and poor, highborn and lowborn, everyone wanted more of this pastry. So great was the demand, in fact, that a German guild of bakers sprang up in the fourteenth century to do nothing but bake honey-based thin gingerbread. This effort was the beginning of German sweet bakings, or sussgeback."
Recipes for gingerbread traveled to America on the Mayflower and steadily evolved. In her 1796 cookbook "American Cookery," Amelia Simmons gave instructions for the variety of gingerbread that 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin bought on his way to Philadelphia to become a printer's apprentice. (see Gingerbread Cakes in sidebar)
The origins of French onion soup are pretty clear, but an authentic recipe is impossible to determine. Onion soup was served in France as early as the 14th century, but it was ignored at court and considered fit only for peasants.
In the 17th century a Polish king, Stanislas Leczinski, was on his way to Versailles to visit his daughter Maria, queen of France, when he stopped in at an inn at Chalons. The choice of food was limited. Only the onion soup was hot that night, and so the royal party dined on the hearty broth with a huge crouton and melted cheese on top.
Stanislas was so taken with the dish that he insisted on learning how to make it, and when he arrived in Versailles he had it served to his daughter and son-in-law. Their nods of approval made French onion soup famous, but the original recipe has been lost.
"Today you can find as many recipes for onion soup as you have cookbooks," Benning explains. "Anything goes, as long as you use onions. You can top a steaming crock with chopped raw onions, sliced black olives, bread crumbs, slivered almonds, or you name it. All because Stanislas made onion soup a dish fit for a king."
Hot dogs developed by chance as well. Frankfurters are one of the oldest forms of processed meat and a favorite fast food since the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. They were served in paper wrappings, however, until the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition when a concessionaire and his brother-in-law baker conspired to make long soft rolls to hold the meat.
The phrase "hot dog" was coined by a sports cartoonist in 1906 who published it beneath a drawing of a barking dachshund nestled in a bread roll.
"Purists maintain that a hot dog isn't a hot dog unless placed inside a roll, slathered with mustard, and topped with slippery relish. Unadorned, it is simply a frankfurter or a weiner or, if you insist, a dachshund," Benning explains.
As for doughnut holes and pretzel knots, food historians disagree on their origins. Mason Crockett Gregory of Rockport, Maine, claimed to have invented the doughnut hole when, as a youngster, he poked holes in his mother's cakes before she fried them. But a man named John Blondell patented the first doughnut hole cutter in 1872.
The knots in pretzels are believed to have started with a 7th century monk who shaped bread into a long roll and then crossed the ends to form two arms piously touching their opposite shoulders. Others believe that the shape of a cross encircled by a ring is a non-Christian symbol of a sun cult. In some cultures pretzel-shaped bread has been worn around the neck to ward off evil spirits.
Copyright © 1993 by Michael Hofferber. All rights reserved.
The Cook's Tales:
Origins of Famous Foods and Recipes
3 lbs of flour
2 oz. ginger
1 lb. sugar (dark brown)
3 t pearl ash (a.k.a. potash, baking soda) dissolved in cream
1 lb. butter
Knead it stiff. Shape it to your fancy. Bake 15 minutes.
French Onion Soup
3 medium-size onions, thinly slices
2 T butter
1 T flour
2 C consomme'
4 C water
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 C scalded milk
6 slices stale French bread, lightly toasted
2 T melted butter
1/4 lb. grated Gruyere cheese
Cook onions until golden brown in butter. Sprinkle flour over them and stir until it is incorporated and free of lumps. Add consomme and water. Cover and cook gently for 20 minutes. Add milk, the secret ingredient. Put a slice of buttered bread in the bottom of a heatproof soup bowl, pour soup on top, and sprinkle with cheese. Place in 450 degree F oven until cheese is melted. Serves 8.
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