The pepper water saga

HAPPY EATER

December 09, 1990|By ROB KASPER

In Wednesday morning's paper I asked who was mulligatawny, the person the spicy soup is named after. By 11 a.m. Wednesday two readers had called me with the answer. Thursday morning's mail also brought two letters carrying the correct answer.

By most measures a response of four is considered paltry, piddlin', statistically insignificant.

However, when I get four people who not only contact me, but also have correct information, I am impressed. I regard it as "an overwhelming response."

I want to stop the presses, to call the office cutie "sweetheart," to fill out an expense account. In other words, to engage in all kinds of journalistic excesses reporters indulge in when we discover -- intelligent beings, other than our mothers, actually read what we write.

This heady feeling lasted about one hour. That was about how long it took me to figure out that this quick response was also telling me if I had done some real digging, like looking the word up in a scholarly dictionary, I could have easily found the answer.

Next I did what reporters do when we discover that our first story on a subject wasn't thorough -- I wrote about the same subject again.

And while on the topic of superficial treatment, I figured I might as well fold in a letter from a reader explaining why my Thanksgiving turkey was only cooked on the surface. And a letter critical of my eggnog.

Will the real mulligatawny please stand up?

From: Katharine LeVeque of Baltimore, Kitty Ullman of Baltimore and E. L. Hume of Joppatowne.

Re: Who put the mulligatawny in chicken mulligatawny?

Mulligatawny is not a person, it is an East Indian term meaning "pepper water."

Ms. LeVeque was the first person to call with this information. She found this out by looking the word up in a big fat dictionary, called the Oxford English Dictionary.

So did Francis P. O'Neill, reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, who sent me a letter.

Mr. Hume sent in a photocopy of the definition that he had found in Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary.

I had looked the term up in food books, to no avail. I have secretly looked up the word in a skinny little dictionary on my desk. But my dictionary wasn't much help with mulligatawny.

I suppose I could have gotten up from my desk and looked the term up in one of the gigantic dictionaries in the middle of the newsroom, but peer pressure stopped me. Reporters aren't supposed to be seen reading dictionaries. Editors, who straighten out reporters' attempts at prose, are the people who are supposed to read dictionaries. Legend has it that some editors even memorize them.

When Ms. Ullman called, she said had looked up "mulligatawny" in a 1949 work called "The Wise Encyclopedia of Cooking," a book she described as "a treasure."

Turkey in trouble

From: Susan C. Broadbent, Baltimore

Re: My failure to cook Thanksgiving turkey long enough on barbecue grill, even after removing bird's legs thereby cutting turkey's weight from 25 to 20 pounds.

Dear Happy Eater,

I empathize. Who among us, has not suffered the self-imposed ignominy of over- or underdone meat?

Empathy aside, I understand why your turkey breast was undercooked.

Yes, the bird itself weighed 20 pounds when the legs were removed, but the breast was still the breast of a 25-pound turkey. During conventional oven roasting the meat thermometer always plunged into the meatiest part of the bird -- the breast, the part that takes the longest to cook.

In other words, while the de-limbed breast weighed only 20 pounds, the density of the breast meat and bones for perfect doneness ought to have been subjected to a cooking period equal to that required for a 25-pound bird.

Does this make sense?

Eater responds: I ran this by cookbook author Sarah Lee Chase, spokeswoman for the hot line run by Butterball turkeys, who said this explanation did make some sense.

She also said that when you cook turkey on a grill, the skin browns faster than when you cook it on the oven. This means that the best way to tell when the turkey is done is to look at the meat thermometer, not the skin.

I also asked Ms. Butterball about cooking the turkey upside down. This idea, of cooking the bird with the breast side down, was passed along to me by aforementioned Ms. LeVeque, who reads the Oxford English Dictionary in her spare time.

The problem with cooking the bird upside down, I was told, was that while the meat is juicy, the bird ends up ugly. And since people like to photograph the bird -- 60 percent of the people who called the turkey hot line this year said they snapped a picture of the turkey -- this method has its drawbacks.

Custard's last stand

From: Margaret Seip MacLellan, Baltimore

Re: Column touting my egg nog recipe

Dear Happy Eater,

. . . I am out of patience with your boring and repetitious eggnog recipe.

It was traditional that my father made eggnog for our family on Christmas Eve. He faithfully followed a Southern . . . Civil War recipe.

After the ritual was completed, and all family and friends tasted ,, the "nog," he would say to me, "Daughter, now that I've swallowed that damn custard, will you fix me a drink?"

And as far as I can picture, your nog served with spoons is a "damn custard."

Do have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Eater replies: I toast you, madam, with my nog and pass along this little-known fact. The reason the rebels lost the war was their soldiers suffered from calcium deficiencies. Had they drunk more eggnog, their calcium and the South would have risen again.

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