Thursday, January 17, 2008

An unfortunate invitation.

January 17

January 17 1920 was the first new day of that Noble Experiment, Prohibition. It was also the twenty-first birthday of that less-than-noble person, Al Capone – which I find an amusing irony or synchronicity for some reason. I wonder if his birthday was marked with an income-producing epiphany?

‘They’ say that no-one is all bad, even amongst the baddest. Al Capone did start up an impressive Soup Kitchen in Chicago during the Depression, and if, as his critics said, it was merely to improve his image amongst the working folk, then at least some poor hungry souls got a feed. Others say that there is honor amongst thieves. An example of this honorable behaviour took place at a banquet held by Scarface himself in May, 1929, which we have previously featured here. To summarise the story: Big Al had gotten wind of a plan by three of his men – Scalise, Anselmi, and Giunta to betray him. He invited them to a banquet. He feasted them with sumptuous food and wine and good-old gangster bonhomie. Then he eliminated them in a most spectacular fashion right there at the table. The reports vary, but most involve clubbing them severely around the head then shooting them for good measure. Doubtless, the unequivocal message was understood by any other wannabe-heads of The Outfit that may have been present at the dinner.

Dreadful things can happen at banquets - not just if your host is a gangster with a grudge, and not of just of the prosaic food poisoning kind. Dining history is full of spectacular dinner incidents that have nothing directly to do with the food. A couple of examples will have to suffice.

The traditional belief about the astronomer Tycho Brahe – that he died in 1601 of a ruptured bladder caused by his unwillingness to appear impolite by leaving a banquet table to answer a call of nature - has been overturned by recent evidence that mercury poisoning was the cause of his death. The story still hangs together however, as he almost certainly self-administered medication for the bladder obstruction triggered at the banquet – and the medication of the time contained mercury.

Poor, popular ‘mad’ King George III attacked his son and heir, the future George IV at a state dinner in November 1788, bashing his head against the wall to the accompaniment of an unintelligible tirade. We now believe that King George was suffering from a disease called porphria which can sometimes cause bouts of mental instability, but we also now know that the Number One Son was an unpleasant, disrespectful and greedy man who would have tried the heart of any parent. The dinner table can be the place where it all comes out!

Napoleon broke the news of his intention to divorce his beloved Josephine at the beginning of dinner, citing his country (which needed an heir) as her competitor. His timing hardly seems fair, for with servants scurrying about she was forced to restrain her reaction until the meal was over, whereupon she fell apart, her reason fled, and passed out.

There are many more stories of murder and betrayal most foul occurring at dinner – and completely opposite stories too of wonderful opportunities and gifts, but these must wait for another day, for these blog stories are supposed to be short.

Suffice it to say, as parents often do, if there is any justice in the world, you reap what you sow. Al Capone ended up in Alcatraz for one set of his sins, finally dying a few years later from syphilis for another set of his sins. I don’t know when he succumbed to a life of crime, but perhaps on his twenty-first birthday he was a fresh-faced young man enjoying a family party. With Prohibition just starting, the women’s pages of the newspapers on this very day in 1920 were already tackling the problem of how to cook without using any forbidden products. From the Appleton Daily Post in Wisconsin on January 17, 1920, here are a couple of retrospective birthday dishes for our anti-hero.

‘As the last rites are being said over John Barleycorn, the question arises as to what substitutes for brandy and wine can be used in making good fruit cakes, cookies, mince pies and chafing dish creations. … The following recipes illustrate the use of fruit juice as substitutes for brandy and wine:

While Fruit Cake.
Cream 3/4 cup butter, add one and one half cups sugar, three egg-yolks beaten thick. Mix two and one half cups flour with two teaspoons of baking powder. Sift twice. Mix one and one half pounds seeded raisins, one pornd currants, one half cup citron, one cup candied orange peel, dredge with flour mixture then add. ¼
cup of cream, ½ teaspoon nutmeg. Add ( ¾ cup of brandy) grape juice used as substitute, to butter sugar and egg mixture then add flour and fruit and mix. Fold in the whites of three eggs and bake in buttered pans from 40 to 60 minutes.

Lobster a La Newberg.
Two and one half cups of lobster, three teaspoons of butter one half tea spoonful of salt, dash of cayenne, one cup citron, one half cup of sherry and brandv mixed, (fruit juice used as a. substitute) Saute the lobster in the butter, add cream and egg-yolks, also seasoning. When boiling add fruit juice.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Just for Fun.

Quotation for the Day …

Champagne will not a dinner make,
Nor caviar a meal
Men gluttonous and rich may take
Those till they make them ill
If I've potatoes to my chop,
And after chop have cheese,
Angels in Pond and Spiers's shop
Know no such luxuries.

Mark Lemmon.


Anonymous said...

How much cream? How many egg yolks?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Anonymous: back in those times, cookery books were based on a lot of assumed understanding. I think with this particular recipe, as the egg yolks and cream were just to enrich the sauce, the quantity could be very variable (also depending on how thick you wanted it to be)