Thursday, April 15, 2004
Dishes Once Common Are Now but Memories
By ROGER M. GRACE
Health warnings and changing tastes have rendered foods that were staples in earlier times anachronisms today.
I’ve already discussed organ meats. There’s just not much call for lamb kidneys anymore, popular as they once were, and versatile as they are.
There are no “In-and-Out Sweetbreads” stands and no “International House of Calves Liver” restaurants.
Other foods, once common, have also vanished from menus, or are virtually gone.
Youngsters today would probably gag at the thought of eating garden critters such as snails, frogs and turtles.
But escargot, frogs’ legs, and turtle soup, though never cafeteria fare, were all consumed by a broad segment of the populace.
Escargot is still found on menus in French restaurants, generally served with garlic butter. You’ll encounter escargot elsewhere, though with far less frequency than in years gone by. Though associated with the French—who were introduced to snails by Roman troops when Caesar invaded Gaul—this common mollusk had been eaten by various civilizations, going back (according to archeologists) to prehistoric times.
I haven’t seen frogs’ legs on a menu in a good long time. Those born in the Kennedy Era or later probably cannot imagine that any part of a frog was once consumed by humans. The legs were, and they were delicious. There was “frogs’ legs sauté meunierre,” a meunierre sauce being comprised of melted butter with Worchester sauce and lemon. The amphibian’s gams were offered in garlic butter, in a tomato based broth, french fried, and in a multitude of other ways.
While not something served at church socials or featured in a TV dinner, frogs’ legs were not strictly gourmet fare. I recall having frogs’ legs in a hotel coffee shop in San Bernardino in 1964. I’m sure of the year because I was there for a Goldwater rally.
Live frogs, in case you wanted to know, are sold at a fish store on Broadway in Chinatown. Frozen frogs’ legs are available at an Asian version of Smart & Finals on Alameda Street south of the Civic Center.
Turtle soup is no longer served, and by law can’t be. Since 1978, sea turtles have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. It is lawful, of course, to sell “mock turtle soup,” which originated in England in the mid-18th Century as a low-cost substitute (made with calves’ heads). But it’s probably not profitable to offer it on menus. If people don’t know what real turtle soup tastes like, they’re not apt to find interest in an imitation of it.
Creamed dishes, once common, are now passé in light of the concern over cholesterol—a danger, by the way, which my wife’s consultation-by-phone doctor in Boulder, Colo., who specializes in metabolic medicine, dismisses as hokum. In light of prevailing medical thought, however, it might be prudent not to discount the notion that excessive cholesterol leads to heart disease.
On the other hand, preoccupation with current health theories should not lead to total abstinance from foods that have long been enjoyed. The praised-today, condemned-tomorrow nature of medical advice on foods should point to a need to avoid dietary absolutism
Yet, in these days of anticholesterolism, chicken à la king, for example—once a standard dish everywhere from lunch counters to “classy joints”—would be a surprising inclusion on menus.
It was a dish prepared to perfection at the Brown Derby. In those days, when the dishes were not pre-prepared with the ingredients unalterable, it was even possible to specify that, for example, the peas be omitted.
Usually served on toast, chicken à la king is also known to be ladeled on rice. Or, I should say, was.
Virtually taboo in these times, along with that dish, are creamed turkey, lobster thermador, any kind of shellfish in newburg sauce, or the eggs goldenrod I extolled last week.
Various other foods are becoming, or have become, relics of past tastes.
Bone marrow, found on menus in a time earlier than I can recall, is never, never, on menus nowadays.
Seldom found are prune juice, sauerkraut juice or (an unfortunate omission!) clam juice.
“Pink Champagne” is a song which has outlived the availability of its subject matter. Crepe suzette, baked Alaska and huckleberry pie are deserted desserts, and Welsh rarebit is a bit of a rarity.
Some of the above dishes may or may not still be available at Musso & Franks on Hollywood Boulevard which was, in the 1970s and ’80s, a venerable eatery with a menu that had retained dishes, well prepared, from bygone eras. That establishment, founded in 1919, still exists but, sadly, does so with food of diminished quality and with service that ranks among the worst in the vicinage.
I wonder if a retro-cuisine restaurant—with decent service, appropriate motif, and recipes faithful to the originals—would succeed.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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