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Food and drink

Comic relief: When food meets inspiration

Maybe it’s the renewed awareness of the ’70s politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to office in California, who has been resurrected in our collective consciousness through the movie, Milk. On the other hand, maybe it’s just coincidence.

But at least three times in as many weeks I’ve run across the term “milk-toast” used to describe a person or situation as weak, insipid or just plain wimpy.

Picture, as I’m sure the various writers are, toasted Wonder bread soggy from being soaked in milk or, for those generations who never knew milk toast as a food for invalids, a white Melmac serving tray bearing lightly buttered toast and a glass of lukewarm milk being carried to the darkened bedroom of an old pock-marked aunt convalescing from some unmentionable disease.

Only problem is every time I see it I want to pull my hair out. It’s not “milk-toast” it’s “milquetoast,” derived from one Caspar Milquetoast, a cartoon character created in the 1920s by American cartoonist, Harold Tucker Webster, for his comic strip, The Timid Soul. It ran in the New York World, an illustrated tabloid bought by Joseph Pulitzer in the late 1880s.

The paper folded in the early ’30s, but not before intrepid reporter Nellie Bly — not only was she a real person, she was one of the first investigative reporters — pulled off a publicity stunt for the paper in 1889 by going around the world in 72 days. Her amazing feat inspired the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.

Caspar Milquetoast, on the other hand, would have been horrified at such an adventure. A faded, wilting grandfatherly-type with no hair, a limp moustache and thick-lensed, wire-framed glasses, his creator described him as the kind of fellow who would go out and buy himself a new hat rather than retrieve his own which had blown onto a lawn with a “Keep off the grass” sign. A “Watch this space” sign would occupy him for hours.

Obviously, he was playing this character and his name off milk toast served to invalids. But the reverse happened in the case of Dagwood Bumstead, where a famous dish — the Dagwood sandwich — was named for a cartoon character.

Blondie and her husband, Dagwood Bumstead, still enjoy life today in some 2,500 newspapers, albeit a modernized life complete with contemporary references like a recent one to Brad Pitt. But I’m not sure how long it’s been since Dagwood, who was born in the post-flapper 1920s, made one of his famous sandwiches — a tottering tower of multiple layers of bread slices, cheese, frilly lettuce, tomatoes and deli meats, invariably topped with a pickle on a toothpick that would only have held together the top inch or so.

Dagwoods are now a sandwich institution, although the term usually means a multi-layered sandwich a fraction of the height of the original cartoon one, another instance of life diluting art.

In the case of Peach Melba and Melba toast, though, it wasn’t a cartoon character inspiring the name of a dish, but rather a famous opera singer, another Nellie, this one Dame Nellie Melba of Australia. Born Helen Porter Mitchell, Aussies take note, she changed her name to Nellie Melba in honour of her home town, Melbourne, Australia.

In the late 1800s, to celebrate her triumph in Wagner’s Lohengrin, the redoubtable chef Auguste Escoffier created a dessert of peaches poached in vanilla syrup and served on vanilla ice cream: pêches Melba. Years later he added the indispensable raspberry purée.

Later in her career, Dame Melba was on an arduous tour in America. While resting up at the Savoy in New York, where Escoffier was head chef for seven years, she was visited by her doctor, who recommended a light diet that included toast.

The wife of César Ritz, who was running the Savoy while Escoffier ran the kitchen (this after they joined forces in Monte Carlo years earlier at the luxurious Grand Hotel), had always complained that she didn’t like toast because it was so thick. Chef Escoffier to the rescue: He shaved the toast so thin that it even pleased the demanding Madam Ritz in a taste test, and so we have Melba toast.

Nellie also inspired strawberries Melba — vanilla ice cream with strawberry purée — and Melba garniture, small tomatoes stuffed with chicken, truffles and mushrooms and served with a velouté (velvet) sauce.

Conversely, when Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova — the first ballerina to tour the world — visited Down Under in the 1920s, a chef concocted the famous fruit-topped meringue dessert in the shape of a tutu in her honour. Debate still rages as to whether pavlova originated in New Zealand or Australia, but most of the hard-core evidence points to the former.

Crêpes suzettes are said to honour the French actress, Suzanne Reichenberg, also known as the Baronne de Bourgoing and subject of Dhurmer’s beautiful Art Nouveau painting, Ophelia, Portrait of Suzanne Reichenberg, which you can only see occasionally as it’s part of a private collection.

As for one of the richest and most expensive dishes you can find on a menu, tournedos a la Rossini was drummed up by a Parisian chef for the inimitable Italian composer, Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, who wrote 39 operas including The Barber of Seville and William Tell. For this dish, rounds of tenderloin wrapped in fat are served on fried bread and topped with liver paté and a nice brown sauce of truffles and wine.

This gourmand, who is often haled as a perfect junction between music and culinary delights, has also inspired chicken, egg and pasta dishes bearing the Rossini name. Conversely, his Rice Aria was supposedly composed while he was waiting for his risotto to be cooked in a Venetian restaurant.

Rossini also wrote some obscure plucky little piano pieces called Radishes, Anchovy, Pickles, Butter, Dry Figs, Almonds, Raisins and Hazelnuts. The polar opposite of Caspar Milquetoast, he was a man who loved his food and the limelight, so-named not for the citrus fruit, but rather a cylinder of lime that was heated until it burned with a bright white light.

On the other hand, old Caspar would have preferred a quiet evening at home, enjoying meatloaf and mashed turnips and possibly Jell-O or a pineapple upside down cake for dessert, typical fare back in the 1920s — if you weren’t sick.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who likes her toast piping hot and her milk made with rice.