Eating through the past year: The bigger and taller the better

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MANY year-in-review columns purport to look at the events of the last 12 months with a broad, objective overview. Not this one. This one looks at the year in food with the same narrow, subjective underview it brought to each encounter with food.

With that in mind, here is what 1996 looked like from my spot at the table. Overall, food and drink stuff got bigger, as did most of us enjoying it.

The year began with a bear of a snowstorm, a blizzard that dumped 2 feet of snow on us in one Sunday. The massive snowfall produced massive block parties. We cleaned off our sidewalks and then cleaned out our pantries, pooling foodstuffs and holding festive neighborhood get-togethers. Shortly after the reveling stopped, more snow descended, coming down in second and third helpings. We all got depressed.

The towering snowdrifts -- which in a certain light looked like big mounds of vanilla ice cream -- seemed to dominate my mental outlook for the remainder of the year. From the blizzard on, everything got bigger. A cup of coffee became a "tall" latte, french fries grew to "super-size." And roomy steakhouses serving enormous slabs of red meat became big hits.

Cookbooks seemed to get bigger, too, in 1996. There were plenty of your average-size, hold-in-one-hand cookbooks. But then came the big-and-tall books, such as the much touted "The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook," by Patrick O'Connell. It is gorgeous and as big as a missal. It needs an altar boy or two to hold it.

It is a cookbook, as the title says, not a coffee-table book. However, it is so large that if you need an extra piece of furniture you probably could stack a few copies of this book on top of one another and have yourself a coffee table.

In keeping with this bigness theme, my favorite new recipe of 1996, Maw-Maw's slaw from Emeril Lagasse's "Louisiana Real & Rustic" cookbook, makes a huge amount of food. The slaw is made with two kinds of cabbage, greens, onions, sugar, whole-grain mustard and peppers. The recipe says it feeds eight, but the resulting mound of slaw looks like lunch for 18 hungry farm boys. Nonetheless, it was so good when I made it that our urban family of four polished off the whole thing. I made more a few days later.

It was also the year of the big theory. One big theory was that if you get your kids to participate in the process of getting the food to the table, they won't be picky eaters. I heard this theory at a meeting of food writers held in St. Helena, Calif. An enthusiastic speaker said that at a nearby elementary school, kids were growing vegetables and then talking about them in class.

The speaker seemed confident that the next step -- kids eating vegetables -- would be an easy one. I wasn't so sure. I happened to have experience with an 11-year-old who helps me plant, tend and harvest tomatoes. He loves to grow tomatoes; he just won't eat them.

The same is true with fish. This fall, when the kid caught his first Chesapeake Bay rockfish, I thought he might break his ban on fish-eating. The kid took one bite and went back to his fish-free diet. So much for that big theory.

Big disappointments

There were big disappointments in 1996. The crab harvest never amounted to much; nobody seemed to know why. Eastern Shore tomatoes didn't have their usual tang, because the summer was not as hot and horrible as usual. (A miserable summer means good tomatoes.)

My home-grown horseradish roots turned out to be duds. Readers gave me ample advice on how to fire up the horseradish, though. One fellow told me not to peel the roots, another told me to add vinegar to the ground root. A concerned neighbor even dropped off some spare horseradish roots. I promised them all that next year I'd follow their advice and try to liven things up when I revisit my roots.

It was a big year for bad habits. Like many Americans, I continued to eat lots of barbecued meat -- considered a no-no in some quarters. I even traveled to some far-flung barbecue pits, eating some luscious pork ribs at the Bones N' Brew barbecue cook-off in Portland, Ore.; some heavenly beef burnt ends at LC's Bar B.Q. on the east side of Kansas City, Mo., and a brisket sandwich at Winslow's City Market Barbecue near downtown Kansas City.

This fall, in one of my most memorable moments as a meat eater, I was present at a dinner held for David Gilliss, a Baltimore attorney who had been a vegetarian for the past 20 years, and who was returning to the ranks of carnivores.

For the occasion, Gilliss polished off a 16-ounce New York strip at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. All the guys eating with Gilliss that night ate steak, including me. But, a few days later, mindful of the need to put a variety of foods in my diet, I ate a vegetarian pizza. The pizza was the most popular sample at the Natural Foods Expo, a big confab held in Baltimore's Convention Center.

On the beverage front, gourmet coffee drew increasing interest and was served in increasingly tall cups. As the cups got bigger, more and more milk and sugar seemed to be going into the coffee, making the distinction between a tall mocha and a short milkshake harder to spot.

The next big thing on the beverage front, somebody told me, is chai. This is a mixture of black tea, honey and spices, and it is popular on the West Coast. It usually takes awhile for the next big thing to sweep over Baltimore. After taking sip of chai the other day, I can wait.

On the local beer front, there were some big losses during 1996. We lost one brand of local beer, National Premium. The Stroh Brewing Co. stopped making it when it took over the old G. Heileman brewery in Baltimore County. Stroh then closed the brewery, shifting production to newer plants in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Stroh's Boh goes

Stroh's takeover of G. Heileman also brought into its fold National Bohemian beer, a brand of beer once strongly linked to Maryland, "the land of pleasant living." National Bohemian is now brewed outside the state by Stroh's.

On an up note, the number of locally made craft beers increased. Brewpubs -- places where beer is made and sold on the premises -- continue to pop up around the state. And the bigger craft-beer brewers, the ones who bottle their own beers, continue to add new varieties to their lines.

Having all these breweries compete for the loyalty of a limited number of local beer drinkers may worry the economists, but it makes for great times for beer drinkers.

Finally, 1996 was a big year for Italian food, at least in our tribe. A visitor from Italy came to our Baltimore home and taught us the art of making polenta -- golden, creamy cornmeal porridge -- and gnocchi, which are potato dumplings. Later in the year we visited this visitor and his family at their home in Fiesole, in the hills overlooking Florence. There we were fed a magnificent meal of delicate pastas, ripe olives, remarkable sausages and red tomatoes swimming in fragrant pools of olive oil.

The other night while I was stuck in traffic, I thought of part of that meal. I was counting the number of taillights between me and and my Beltway exit when a memory of the plateful of Italian olives washed over me. I recalled their sharp flavor, their bright green skin, the brilliant Tuscan sun rustling the leaves of the nearby olive trees. When my reverie ended, I was still on the Beltway, a taillight or two closer to my goal. December's dark seemed less ominous. I left 1996 smiling and thinking of bright green olives.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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