Monday, May 28, 2012

Burgers & Dogs: An All-American Barbecue

Some food for thought as you flip those burgers and dogs on this long holiday weekend that, apart from commemorating our nation’s veterans, also marks the (un)official start of summer, season of backyard barbeques.

Imagine walking up to the counter at your local McDonald’s, gazing up at the menu, and placing your order: “I’ll have a liberty steak and a large freedom fries.” A hundred to one, you’d be met with a blank stare and a “What?” Yet time was when ordering a hamburger would have been regarded as downright unpatriotic—it’s German, after all—and it was only a few short years ago that French fries appeared under the moniker “freedom fries” in response to France’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.  (For the same reason, by the way, French toast briefly became freedom toast, and even the makers of French’s mustard felt compelled to release a statement clarifying that their product had been named after its founder, Robert T. French. “The only thing about French about French’s Mustard is the name,” their statement insisted).

Puts our national obsession with the burger in a whole new perspective. You mean that those millions and millions of ground beef patties aren’t so very American after all? Well, they are hamburgers, which, despite what some people seem to believe, have nothing whatsoever to do with ham, but instead owe their name to the German port city Hamburg. Frankfurters, for that matter, similarly trace back to Frankfurt, where porky sausages are known as Frankfurter W├╝rstchen—German for “little sausages from Frankfurt”). 

When anti-German sentiment was at fever pitch during World War I, true-blue Americans were faced with the dilemma of either giving up their hamburgers or being suspected of sympathizing with the enemy. The solution? Simple. A quick name change. After all, as Juliet said to her Romeo, “What’s in a name?” By her logic, that which we call a hamburger, by any other name would taste as good. Thus, “liberty steak.” Thus, “Salisbury steak.” It took the post-war Billy Ingram, inventor of White Castle’s five-cent 2 ½-inch square “slider” in 1921 to elevate the hamburger-qua-hamburger to the popularity it enjoys to this day.

I’d love to be able to say that hot dog arose similarly, as an all-American replacement for frankfurter or for the equally Teutonic Wiener (from Wien, the German spelling of Vienna), but, in all honesty, I cannot. Nor can anyone else. If I had a dollar for every theory I’ve read about where the name comes from, I’d be rich.

Perhaps it was the visual pun of newspaper cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “TAD” Dorgan who drew the image conjured by a hawker’s cry at a New York Giants baseball game in 1900: “Get a red-hot dachshund sausage in a roll!” (Others argue the venue was a bicycle race at Madison Square Garden in 1906).

On the other hand, perhaps the name reflects early suspicions that it wasn’t beef or pork the sausage makers were using—hence, the lyrics of the 19th-century “Oh where, oh where is my little dog gone.” Most of you remember the song’s plaintive lyrics about a cute little lost dog “with his ears so short and his tail so long,” but the rest of the song isn’t nearly as sweet. Written to the melody of a German folk tune, “Der Deitcher’s Dog” bemoans the lack of money—and hence the lack of beer and sausages—and ends by speculating on the fate of the little lost dog:   

Un sausage is goot, bolonie of course,
Oh where, oh where can he be;
Dey makes 'em mit dog und dey makes 'em mit horse,
I guess they makes 'em mit he.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Pot of Basil

How’s this for a story? Your family wants you to marry a rich nobleman but you fall for a humble workman instead. When your family murders him, his ghost comes to you in a dream and tells you where his body is buried. You dig him up, cut off his head, and plant it in a pot of basil, which you water with your tears for evermore.

That, believe it or not, is the legend of Isabella and her pot of basil, included in Boccaccio’s Decameron, adapted by the English poet John Keats, and lavishly— and often ghoulishly—painted throughout the 19th century by the likes of William Holman Hunt and Sir John Everett Millais. Not quite up there with those more famous star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, but what the story lacks in credibility, it more than makes up for in culinary curiosity.

Why, you have to wonder, would a young woman bury her lover’s head in a pot of basil?

 Because she was fond of pesto sauce? Because you never know when a yen for a salad caprese will come upon you? As far as I’m concerned, those are two entirely valid reasons to always have a pot of basil on hand, whether watered with tears—or, as is more often the case, with plain old water (and a little plant food every now and again).

But there’s got to be more to the story. Why didn’t Isabella bury him in oregano?

Well, it turns out that Lorenzo (the poor guy’s name) wasn’t the only one buried beneath basil—or at least something that sounds sort of basily. How about Saint Peter, the head (so to speak) of the early Christian church? Tradition holds that he’s buried under the church known in Italian as the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, and in English as Saint Peter’s Basilica. 

Basilica and basil. How’s that for a connection? Both derive from the Greek word for king, basileus. Not just any old church qualifies as a basilica and not just any old herb qualifies as a royal herb either. To the ancient Greeks, basil was held in such high esteem that only kings were allowed to cut it.

And there’s more. Not only was basil believed to be an aphrodisiac (it’s still sold as an erotic fragrance on aromatherapy websites) but it was also burned during funeral rites to symbolize the love between the deceased and those left behind. Which brings us right back to Isabella and her pot of basil.

Love. Death. Saint Peter. Isabella and her Lorenzo. And you thought basil was just another herb to plant in your garden come Memorial Day.