Monday, February 19, 2007

Feeding the President on President’s Day.

Today, February 19th …

The third Monday in February in the USA is a federal holiday to honour (perhaps that should be honor!) the country’s presidents, past and current. The day has its origins in the celebration of George Washington’s birthday on February 11th 1732 – which became February 22nd when the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar was accepted in Britain and all her Dominions in 1752.

The ‘original’ calendar was based on a year of 365 days, but the time taken by the earth to orbit the sun was close to 365.25 days. What this meant was that by the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar was out of step with the seasons. A leap year day was added every fourth year – creating the Julian calendar. Actually, the true length of a year was not quite 365.25 days, but either 365.2422 or 365.2424 depending on which astronomer you believe. To cut a long convoluted story short, this translates to another error of around 11 minutes each year, or 1 day every 131 years. In 1582 Pope Gregory XII decreed that the by now 11 day difference would corrected by jumping from October 4th straight to October 15th. Naturally the new Protestant countries of Europe were not going to follow a Popish calendar, and stuck to the old one as a matter of principle. One by one however they gave in and converted (to the new calendar that is), but it was almost two hundred years before Britain finally capitulated and accepted the Gregorian calendar.

America in 1752 was, of course, still one of Her Dominions, and officially accepted the new calendar at the same time, so Washington's birthday became the 22nd of February - although some old-fashioned souls were still stubbornly (or mistakenly) celebrating it on the 11th well into the nineteenth century. Then on February 12th 1809 Abraham Lincoln was born. After his assassination in April 1865 his birthday also became a nationally celebrated day. Employers don’t like too many staff holidays, and employees prefer the holidays they do have to be tacked onto a weekend, so eventually a compromise was reached and a federal holiday declared on the third Monday in February.

All of which does not appear to have much directly to do with food, but this blog is also about What Happened in Food History on This Day, so I thought the calendar confusion was worth an explanation. I don’t intend to leave the story food-less of course, so here is the menu for a dinner eaten by a real president on this day. The year was 1970, so it must have been Richard Nixon.

Suprême of Filet of Sole Véronique.

Breast of Pheasant Smitane.
Wild Rice Croquettes.
Green Beans Amandine.

Bibb Lettuce Salad.
Brie Cheese.

Vacherin Glacé aux Fraises.

Schloss Johanissberger 1967.
Château Latour 1964
Dom Pérignon 1964

This is a truly appropriate menu for a country which had shaken off its colonial masters and had become the greatest power in the world. A menu with truly international aspirations – even down to the language. Who needs Esperanto when you can use American Franglish?

I don’t mean to mock America here my friends! Right Royal English menus of the time suffer from the same affliction. If ‘Suprême’ in one dish, why ‘Breast’ in another? Why not Faisan instead of Pheasant? Or Strawberries instead of Fraises? Lets have some consistency please.

My language peeve aside, this menu has truly international roots. The Wild Rice is native to the American continent, and Bibb lettuce is a nineteenth century Kentucky variety. Sole Véronique (sole with green grapes) is as classic as you can get from the classic French (Escoffier no less) repertoire. A Vacherin when it is not a French or Swiss cheese is a dessert of meringue and ice-cream and fruit – the sort of sweet thing that could cross any international boundary and be instantly loved.

The Breast of Pheasant Smitane gives a nod to Central and Eastern Europe, and is our recipe for the day. Smetana is a sort of heavier duty crème fraîche which hails from that part of the world that has at times been at odds with our host nation for the day. It has given its name to Smitane Sauce, which, they tell me, goes wonderfully with breast of pheasant.

Smitane Sauce.
Brown lightly a finely-chopped onion; add a full glass of dry white wine, reduce on slow heat; add a pint of sour cream; let it boil for a few moments only, pass through a fine sieve and add the juice of one lemon.
[Andre Simon; A Concise Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy; 1952]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Salad, by Dumas.

On this Topic …

We have previously featured another menu enjoyed by Tricky Dicky (also written in American Franglish), in a post which gave an ice-cream recipe from 1747.

Quotation for the Day …

Today we had a lunch for Jaime de Piniés, the president of the General Assembly, then we had cocktails with the foreign minister of Austria. We passed through a Chinese dinner, and now we are here. It's our life. Otilia Barbosa de Medina, wife of Portugal's ambassador to the UN, commenting on diplomatic dining at a dinner given by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1985.


Julie said...

Oh, mock Americans. We deserve it after a menu like that.

The Great Supreme Leader of The Great Melting Pot (as we call our cultural heritage because of course we've got people from everywhere) and the best the WHITE HOUSE CHEF can produce is 'Bibb lettuce salad' and 'green beans amandine'?

That's just disgraceful.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Julie - this was 1970 dont forget - it was probably a pretty classy menu for then.

Brooke - Little Miss Moi said...

Dear old foodie. I never expected it - smetana on a menu for the US president. It's still very very very popular over here (but I do argue that in many ways, the Ukrainians haven't moved out of the 70s / 80s yet - not being mean, they just didn't experience it the first time). Great post! Loved the calendar info.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

That's quite a menu from the days of RMN -- lots of state dinners back then, as well as all those other "issues" going on ...

Good thing we celebrate the legacy of Washington and Lincoln!