Succotash, anyone? Recipes' odd histories

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Among the other tidbits shared in "Rare Bits" are these:

*Caesar salad sprang from Tijuana, Mexico, in 1924. It has nothing to do with Julius Caesar, but owes its name to Caesar's Hotel.

*Buffalo wings, the spicy chicken pieces, were concocted by a Buffalo, N.Y., tavern owner in 1964 as a late-night snack for her son and his friends.

*Ketchup, which has evolved from Asian brines (ke-tsiap and kechap) to ketjap, kitchup, and finally ketchup, only became associated with the tomato once it came to America.

*Baked Alaska, the oven-browned frozen dessert, began as Alaska-Florida after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.

*Fudge became popular at Eastern women's colleges around the turn of the century and may have gotten its name when students "fudged" by making the confection when they were supposed to be in bed.

*Chicken Tetrazzini was named for Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini, possibly in San Francisco, but judging from her 1921 autobiography, she was unaware of this fact.

Chicken Tetrazzini

The legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier may have been the creator of this dish for the equally legendary Italian coloratura, Luisa Tetrazzini. As rich and heavy as its namesake, it continues to get standing ovations as is did when it was conceived 100 years ago. Turkey is often substituted for the chicken.

1 5- to 6-pound chicken with giblets (except liver)

2 chicken bouillon cubes

1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 large celery rib, coarsely chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 bay leaves

5 whole peppercorns

1 pound pasta (linguini, spaghetti, ziti, or egg noodles)

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms, sauted in butter

FOR THE SAUCE

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup sifted flour

2 cups chicken stock (see recipe directions)

1-1/2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2 tablespoons lemon juice

FOR THE TOPPING

1 cup soft, fresh bread crumbs

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cut away and discard any fat from the cavity of the chicken. Place chicken in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add about 1 quart of cold water, along with the giblets, bouillon cubes, onion, celery, carrot, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover, and cook 2 hours, or until tender.

When chicken is cool, remove it from stock, peel off and discard skin, and cut meat into bite-sized pieces. Strain stock and spoon off any fat.

For the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour, 2 cups of the stock, then remaining sauce ingredients. Continue heating and stirring until sauce thickens.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook pasta according to package directions, slightly undercooking it. Drain thoroughly, pour back into pasta pot and add sauce, chicken, and mushrooms.

Pour into a buttered 3-quart shallow baking dish. Top with bread crumbs mixed with cheese.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes until mixture is bubbling.

Serve with a simple mixed-greens salad.

Serves 6 to 8.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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