“Beware the ides of March”. Fear not, some of our favourite, tastiest foods were born out of adversity, resourcefulness and luck – or were just a fortuitous mistake. They are serendipity dishes.
By Jeremy Ryland
Tomorrow, 15 March, is the “Ides of March”. “Beware the Ides of March” was a warning for the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who was assassinated on this day in 44BC, which marked a turning point in Roman history. Ever since, “the ides of March” have held sinister symbolism.
But in fact, “ides” simply means the middle of the month. The Roman calendar was a lunar calendar based on three fixed points in the month: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month). The Ides were in the middle and were supposed to coincide with the full moon.
The Ides of March may have been bad for poor Julius, but adversity can also bring good things. Some of our favourite foods came from bad times…
Whilst there are several stories, most historians believe that the Caesar salad is not related to Julius but honours restaurateur Caesar Cardini (1896-1956), who invented it on the Fourth of July weekend, 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico. It is said that on this busy weekend, Cardini was running low on food and had a sudden influx of guests. He could have panicked and sent them away, but he made do with what he had and put together a salad for his guests from what was left over in the kitchen. His original recipe included cos lettuce leaves (called Romaine in the USA), garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, coddled or raw egg, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. The original salad was prepared at the table “a la chef”. Anchovies were not in the original – the anchovy flavour came from the Worcestershire sauce – but anchovies are now also a common ingredient.
Caesar salad is one of those happenstances, serendipitous dishes that were developed by chance. In fact, some of our favourite, tastiest foods were born out of similar resourcefulness and luck – or just a fortuitous mistake.
Beer for example which is thought to have been invented or discovered in the 6th century BC by accident during bread making. When Mesopotamians began storing grains for bread and making dough, their storage spaces occasionally became damp, which caused the grains to ferment. This fermentation process resulted in the earliest beer. We should all raise a glass to that first Mesopotamian who was brave enough to sample the strange liquid.
Cheese & yoghurt
Cheese and yoghurt probably originated when nomadic herdsmen stored milk in containers made from the stomach of a camel or goat, thereby fermenting the milk and mixing it with the rennet from the stomach lining.
Coffee is thought to have originated by happenstance when a 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder noticed the energising effects on his flock when they nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush, so chewed on the fruit himself. He took the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into the fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed - and so coffee was born.
Another dish born out of similar circumstances to Caesar salad is nachos. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya was the maître d’ at a restaurant called the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico. One day in 1943, a group of military wives crossed the border from the local army base. Unable to find his chef and faced with ten hungry women, Anaya decided to improvise. He took a plate of tostadas, covered them with grated cheese, passed it through the salamander and topped the whole thing with jalapeños salsa. The dish was dubbed “Nacho’s especiale” (“Nacho’s special”), which was later shortened to nachos when Anaya opened his own place - Nacho’s Restaurant.
Tart tatin was a mistake made good. It is named after two sisters, Stephanie and Caroline Tatin, who ran a hotel outside of Paris called Hotel Tatin in the late 1800s. When making a filling for an apple pie, Stephanie, accidentally left the apples cooking in butter and sugar, nearly burning them. She then put the pie crust on top of the apples in order to prevent them from burning more and put the pan in the oven. She served it upside-down so the crust was on the bottom. Her guests loved it, and it became the hotel’s signature dessert, later to become a permanent dessert at restaurant Maxim’s in Paris.
Crêpes Suzette has a similar history and while the origin of this dish is disputed, the most common story starts in 1895 with a 14-year-old assistant waiter, Henri Charpentier, at a cafe in Monte Carlo. While preparing a crepe dessert for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of England, the dessert accidentally caught fire. What followed was an amazing mix of flavours and this became one of the most popular crepe dishes of all time. The dish was named after a lady at the prince’s table.
The classic Australian lamington is another serendipitous cake, consisting of sponge cake dipped in chocolate and liberally sprinkled with fine desiccated coconut. It was created in Queensland and is named after Lord Lamington who was Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Governor Lamington's chef, Armand Gallad, was called upon at short notice to provide something to feed unexpected guests. With little in the kitchen, Gallad cut up some leftover French vanilla sponge cake that had been baked the day before, dipped the slices in chocolate sauce and set them in coconut (an ingredient not widely used in European cooking at that time). Lady Lamington's guests loved them and asked for the recipe. The lamington became an Australian icon, but ironically, Lord Lamington was known to have hated the dessert that had been named in his honour, once referring to them as "those bloody poofy woolly biscuits”.
Another common item at afternoon tea is the sandwich. Whilst bread has been filled with meats and vegetables for centuries, the invention of the modern sandwich is attributed to John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich in the 18th century – who it is said, ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, because it allowed him to continue playing cards, so he could dine without getting his cards greasy from eating meat with his bare hands. Because Montague was the 4th Earl of Sandwich, others began to order "the same as Sandwich!" It was initially perceived as food that men shared while gaming and drinking at night; however, the sandwich slowly began appearing in polite society as a late-night meal amongst the aristocracy. The sandwich's popularity increased dramatically during the 19th century with the rise of industrial society and the working classes, making fast, portable, and inexpensive meals essential – the earliest and most enduring form of modern fast food.
Popular with sandwiches and in Caesar salad is Worcestershire sauce. Legend has it that Lord Marcus Sandy of Worcester, England was craving his favourite Indian sauce after returning home from governing Bengal in India. He asked drug store owners John Lea and William Perrins to make something similar, constructed only from Sandys descriptions. The product they created proved to be far too smelly to sell in their store, so they put it away in their basement. After two years they rediscovered it and found that the aging period had improved the flavours considerably and the sauce became a hit with customers.
Potato chips or crisps were born accidentally from an unsatisfied customer at a diner at Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, USA. The customer complained that his French fries were too thick and sent them back. The chef, George Crum, sliced and fried up a new batch of thinner potatoes, but they were still too thick for the customer. Chef Crum was tired of the complaints, so he sliced the last batch of potatoes as thinly as he could, fried them well and salted them, and sent them out. The customer loved them and soon the word of these crunchy fried potatoes spread across the region and the thin, crispy potato chips we all know and love were born.
Perhaps one of the most famous mistakes – or at least the most popular – is champagne. Although not verifiable, most people credit Dom Perignon with the creation of champagne; however, the problem of bubbles caused by a secondary Spring fermentation in the wines of this region occurred several decades before him. This secondary fermentation caused stoppers to push out and the bottles to explode. Perignon was a Benedictine monk, responsible for overseeing wine production at the abbey. Perignon was asked to get rid of the bubbles forming in a few of the wines. He couldn’t, and instead tasted the bubbly drink and helped harness the gas and develop the wine we know today. Perignon reportedly said, “Come quickly, I am drinking stars”.
Sometimes the best things come from one’s mistakes. That’s what serendipity is all about.
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"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."