Thursday, February 9, 2012

Subs, Heroes, Grinders, Hoagies . . . & Muffulettas

Is it that I’m in a bready state of mind lately (recent posts have been on bread and French toast) or is it that I just got back from a long weekend in New Orleans where you have to treat yourself to a muffuletta or two (not to mention a po’boy, some beignets and chicory coffee, fried crawdaddies, oysters on the half shell, gumbo with Andouille sausage, jambalaya, blackened just-about-anything, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, three-layered coconut cake, at least a couple of hurricanes and sazeracs—and all that in one long weeked!).

When I managed to stop eating (which wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane heading home), I got to thinking. The muffuletta in particular got me wondering about sandwiches and their names. Is there any other food you can think of that’s got so many different names? There are club sandwiches, Reubens, Monte Cristos, and Dagwoods. There are Italians and Cubans and there are the ones known familiarly by abbreviations (BLT’s and PB & J’s), not to mention the dozens that are named more straightforwardly after their main ingredients. 

Still, a club sandwich is a club sandwich is a club sandwich, whether you’re ordering it in New York or California. Most sliced bread sandwiches are pretty consistent in terminology. You can walk into a diner or deli anywhere in the country and order a BLT or a tuna sandwich. But enter the wonderful world of sandwiches made on torpedo-shaped Italian or French rolls, and you better know the custom of the country or you’re likely to go hungry. Oh, I suppose you could cheat and call them all subs, but it’s a lot more fun to master the local lingo. When in Rome, as they say. 

Thus, for the record. If you’re in New York, make your life easy and order a hero sandwich, but when you’re in Philadelphia, ask for a hoagie. In New England, they’re known as grinders. States like New Jersey have it tough, because you have to know whether you’re in the north, which follows NY usage, or the south, which is more akin to Philly. Connecticut has a similarly split sandwich personality, with half the state eating heroes and the other grinders. Oh what the Earl of Sandwich wrought when he slapped a few pieces of meat between slices of bread so as not to have to leave the gambling table!

But there’s no place other than New Orleans where you can get a muffuletta (which seems to be spelled in as many different ways as there are places that make them).

So what is a muffuletta, for those of you who’ve never tasted New Orleans’ claim to sandwich fame? I’ll tell you. You cut a round loaf of sesame bread in half horizontally, pull out some of the inside of the bread so as to make as much room as possible for the filling and then layer one of the bread shells with thinly sliced Italian cold cuts like genoa salami, mortadella, capocola salami, ham, and a few slices of provolone cheese. Slather the other bread shell with the olive salad and pickled vegetables without which a muffuletta is just any other Italian sandwich. The goal here is to pack in as much filling as possible. Press the two halves together and weight it while you wait for it for an hour or so. Some people heat it to let the cheese melt a bit, but most places don’t. Generally speaking, muffulettas are so big that they’re cut not just in halves, but in quarters.
Here, then, is some food for thought to occupy you while you’re waiting for your muffuletta to . . . well . . . weight. From what I can gather, the New Orleans specialty gets its name from the round sesame bread it’s been made on since 1906 when an Italian immigrant named Lupo Salvatore who owned a shop called Central Grocery on Decatur Street had the bright idea to put the cold cuts and olive salad inside the bread (rather than serving them alongside, as had been done for centuries in the old country), thus making it easier for the Sicilian farmers to eat their lunch while sitting on crates and barrels. A soft round bread was easier to stuff and bite into than long crusty loaves and the soft round bread that was perfect for the job was known in Italian as a muffuletta, which is the diminutive of muffola, or muff. Believe it or not, our English muffin is a related word, although it’s tough to see much similarity between a corn muffin and the behemoth of a sandwich I managed to eat last weekend.

To be honest, it was half a muffuletta I ate, not the whole thing. I don’t think I could have. It’s curious, isn’t it, that such a gargantuan sandwich should have such a diminutive little name? Makes me think of jumbo shrimp. Which, by the way, is another thing I ate way too much of last weekend.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Who put the "French" in French toast?

An embarrassing moment: I was being interviewed for a radio show this morning and the host asked if I’d like to comment on the name of whatever it was I had for breakfast. I drew a blank. What could I say about Special K? What’s the K for anyway? Kellogg probably. But where could I go with that?

Here’s what I should have done (oh, those should-have-dones—don’t they just drive you crazy?). I should have pretended I’d made French toast. Then I’d have had something interesting to talk about.

I could have said that there’s a recipe that’s almost 2,000 years old for a dish that we’d recognize as French toast. It’s in a Roman cookery book and it tells us to soak bread in milk and beaten eggs, and then to fry it up in oil. They didn’t use butter in ancient Rome and they certainly didn’t know from maple syrup back then—hence the oil and honey in the recipe. But it’s definitely French toast nonetheless.

So here’s the question I would have asked. If the dish dates back to the Roman Empire, why do we call it French toast instead of Roman toast?

I would probably have gotten around to noting that more or less anyone who’s got bread has some version of French toast. After all, if you’ve got bread, sooner or later you’re going to have stale bread and what could be better than to let that stale bread soak something up? In India, they dunk their bread into a mixture of eggs, milk, salt, green chili, and onion, and then deep fry it in butter or oil; the resulting dish is called Bombay or Masala Toast. In Spain, torrijas are made by soaking thick slices of bread in milk or wine, dipping them in egg, frying them, and then serving them with spiced honey. In Germany, Arme Ritter, “Poor Knights,” are made from old bread that’s been soaked in egg, coated with bread crumbs, fried in butter, and served with sautéed apple slices or plum jam. When the bread is soaked in wine instead of milk, the dish is called Versoffene Jungfern oder Ritter, “Drunken Maidens or Knights.”

I could have talked about a similarly alcoholic version in England that's sometimes known as “Poor Knights of Windsor." Its ancestor, back in the fourteenth century, was called Paynfoundew, which is French for Melted Bread. It was a pretty elaborate concoction, as things tended to be in late medieval times. You'd soak some stale bread in red wine, grind it to a paste with raisins and honey, bind it up with egg whites, boil it until firm, and then slice it, sprinkle it with sugar and sweet spices, and brown in a hot oven. Back then, such an expensive and time-consuming dish was bound to have a French name.

As the centuries went by and the dish evolved, it began to look less like a pudding and more like what we'd recognize today. It came to be known as Payn Purdew, French for Lost Bread—the “lost” alluding either to the bread’s getting lost in the beaten eggs or, maybe, to the leftover or “lost” bits of bread that went into the recipe.

Finally in the 1660 cookbook  The Accomplisht Cook, or, The Art & Mystery of Cookery, Robert May referred to the dish by the name we use today—French toast—maybe because the bread specified for the dish was the French wheat loaf known as a manchet.

But what I would have wanted to emphasize is that whether it was Paynfoundew, Paynpurdew, or French toast, the name of the dish has always had something French about it—with one exception, which, I’m proud to say, hails from my neck of the woods: New England. When Mary J. Lincoln published her 1871 The Boston Cook Book, she included a recipe she titled “Egg Toast, or Bread Sautéd,” to which she added a note of explanation: “It is called French, Spanish, German, and Nun’s Toast; but Egg Toast seems to best indicate the character of the dish.”

So why don’t we serve Egg Toast for breakfast, I would have asked? And what makes me so sure that German Toast or Nun’s Toast wouldn’t go over too big? 

My conclusion would probably have come around to the fact that we English speakers tend to think anything even remotely French sounds better than anything English—and certainly better than anything German. Even when the House of Representatives, objecting to France’s opposition to the United States’ involvement in Iraq, insisted on removing the “French” from French toast on the menus of their cafeterias, they never considered calling it “German Toast"—not because Chancellor Schroeder had similarly opposed the US policy, but because they knew that the restaurants wouldn’t be too happy if breakfasting politicians all of a sudden refused to order the exact same dish they’d known and loved for years when it suddenly appeared on the menus of the nation’s capital with a Teutonic name.  

That's what I would have said if I'd been quicker on my feet.