Succotash, anyone? Recipes' odd histories
Restaurant menus have always been one place where children (and adults) come face to face with what they don't know and may not wish to try.Skip to next paragraph
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Even a 1960s Howard Johnson's menu offered its share of curiosities to this writer. Sunday nights at the local orange-roofed restaurant were memorable for the connect-the-dot place mats, 28 flavors of ice cream, and that strange-sounding dinner choice that my mother liked: Welsh Rarebit.
The name has long puzzled me. Thanks to Patricia Bunning Stevens, however, the mystery is solved.
In her book, "Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes" (Ohio University Press), the historian and enthusiastic cook gets to the bottom of the rarebit riddle and a whole lot more.
Taking first things first, here's the lowdown on Welsh Rarebit, which also goes by Welsh Rabbit.
Those names are actually a joke of sorts, meant as 18th-century social commentary. As a pointed hint that the Welsh couldn't afford meat, the English called a new dish of melted cheese and toast Welsh Rabbit.
"The alternate spelling, Welsh Rarebit, developed later and is imitative," Ms. Stevens writes. "If a Welshman had some cheese, it would be a 'rare bit' indeed."
For this and more than 200 other culinary classics, arranged cookbook-style, the author offers a short history plus a recipe meant to be authentic, yet suitable for modern home-cooking styles and taste buds.
Some recipes carry names that suggest their connections, such as Kaiser rolls and Waldorf salad. But even here, nuggets of little-known lore surface.
Kaiser rolls, for example, spring from the German word for "emperor." These rulers wore velvety crowns shaped like the rolls.
Waldorf salad, meanwhile, was introduced at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the1800s, not by a chef, but by a worker who rose from busboy to head waiter to food-service executive.
One of the ingredients in Waldorf salad is mayonnaise, the former mahonnaise, the sauce a chef named for a French military victory at the port of Mahon in 1756.
Mayonnaise is also a fixture in Thousand Island Dressing, which comes from Canada and is inspired by the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River.
In a margin note, "Rare Bits" explains that the dressing is really too heavy for mixed green salads, despite often being served with them. Stevens suggests using the rich dressing with just a wedge of iceberg lettuce, a popular way of serving it in the 1930s.
The ingredients of succotash - corn and lima beans - almost stumped a recent contestant on "Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?" the popular TV game show. Fortunately, he wasn't asked the dish's origin. The name, Stevens says, probably derives from "msickquatash," a Narraganset Indian word meaning "ear of corn."
Sometimes recipes have disputed histories. Chicken a la King, for instance. One version claims the recipe began as Chicken a la Keene in 1881, when a London chef created the dish to celebrate the racing victory of a horse owned by American millionaire James Keene. Another version, however, places the birthplace at the Brighton Beach Hotel, a resort outside New York owned by Clark King Jr. in the early 1900s.