55/365: National Tortilla Chip Day

The only food holiday today is, thankfully, devoted to humans. February 24 is National Tortilla Chip Day. Viva la celebracion!

People often use the terms “corn chips” and “tortilla chips” interchangeably, but as I explained during National Corn Chip Day last month, there is a difference: though both are made from corn, tortilla chips go through a process called nixtamalization, in which they are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution such as quicklime, making them thinner and crispier. This process was first developed by the ancient Aztecs and, while I could go into a long and scientific explanation over how it is crucial in converting bound niacin to free niacin and preventing a vitamin deficiency disease called pelagra, I’d probably just scare you away from Fritos, which do not go through the same process, and I don’t want to do that because corn chips are tasty, too! Credit for the invention of tortilla chips goes to Rebecca Webb Carranza, who owned a tortilla factory with her husband in Los Angeles. Tired of the tortillas rejected by the automated tortilla manufacturing machine going to waste, she took these scraps, cut them into triangular shapes after her first choice – pentagrams – proved too controversial and her second choice, octagons, too complicated. She fried them up and sold them for ten cents a bag. In 1994, Carranza received the prestigious Golden Tortilla Award for her contribution to the Mexican food industry. Just a few decades ago tortilla chips were rarely eaten, but they gained popularity in the 1970s and now are as ubiquitous in Mexican restaurants as sombreros hanging on the walls and piped-in mariachi music. They are typically served with a dip such as salsa, guacamole, or lime jello, or turned into nachos. Tortilla chips are usually made with yellow or white corn, though blue and red corn varieties also exist. Beware the green corn tortilla chips: that’s just mold, amigo. You should toss those ASAP.

For today’s celebration, Tara and I enjoyed a late afternoon snack of corn chips with salsa and queso. It doesn’t get much easier than that!

Tortilla chips

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37/365: National Nutella Day

Today is an unusually confusing day. As you know, we have an official food calendar we are consulting for these various holidays. Just for fun, I double check several other sites every day, to verify there isn’t a mistake. It’s all about authenticity, folks! 99% of the time there are no issues. Today? Ugh. Our calendar says it’s National Nutella Day. Some online sources agree, but others say that was yesterday. Depending on who you believe, today is either Nutella Day, Chopsticks Day, Frozen Yogurt Day, or even Food Checkout Day. Weird that February 6 is so full of disagreement. Since at least 4 or 5 different sites match our calendar, and we’d already planned for it, we are sticking to our guns. With that in mind, Happy National Nutella Day!

Nutella (like carrot cake) is another food item we can thank World War II for. Chocolate rationing left Italian baker Pietro Ferrero in a lurch. Chocolate was his bread and butter, so to speak. Looking for a way to make his supply last, he turned to hazelnuts, which grew like weeds in and around his hometown of Alba, in the Piedmont region of Italy. Ferrero initially created a solid block of hazelnuts and chocolate, but in 1951 he produced a creamy version he called Supercrema. In 1963 his son Michele (yes, son) wanted to sell the product all over Europe, so he modified the recipe and renamed it Nutella. It was an instant global success. But Nutella has lately suffered from some negative press. A class action lawsuit against Ferrero was settled just last year, after it was deemed that Nutella’s marketing claim of being “part of a nutritious breakfast” was, to put it mildly, not exactly the truth. Well, duh! One glance at the label – sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa solids, and milk – should give a clue to even the most naive consumer that Nutella is not on par health-wise with, say, oatmeal. Half of the calories come from fat, and 40% from sugar. If you really think that’s nutritious, I’ve got a bridge for sale.

Nutritious or not, Nutella is good. I had never tried it before today! I know, I know. I lead a sheltered life. Since I was a Nurgin® (a Nutella virgin, and yes, I’m trademarking that), I figured the simplest presentation would be best. A slice of white bread toast topped with Nutella. I’m not a big fan of sweet breakfasts unless there is something savory to accompany them, which may be why I said, two bites in, that the Nutella toast would have been perfect if it were topped with bacon. I wish I’d thought of that sooner! But, it was good. Nutty and chocolatey and creamy and smooth. I get the appeal now.


Nutella on toast. Not a bad morning pick-me-up!

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29/365: National Corn Chip Day

It’s National Corn Chip Day, so tear open a bag of Fritos and get wild! That’s what we did. Minus the “get wild” part.

Many people confuse corn chips with tortilla chips, but they are in reality quite different. Both are made from corn, but tortilla chips go through a process called nixtamalization (the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution before being hulled, resulting in a milder flavor and less crunch). Think of them as being neutered, if you will. (Or don’t. You may lose your appetite). Tortilla chips are bigger and thinner, while corn chips are thick and crunchy, and taste strongly of corn. Gee, no kidding. fritos-original

In 1932, Charles Elmer Doolin owned a convenience store, but there was nothing convenient about it: the tortillas he kept stacked on the shelves kept spoiling. It was the height of the Depression, and Doolin could ill afford to let his food go to waste. He met a guy from San Antonio who was selling fried corn chips, and offered him $100 for the recipe; his mother, Daisy, pawned her wedding ring to come up with the cash. C.E. (as he was called) got to work, experimenting with different varieties of corn until he found the perfect strand – a type of corn he grew himself. Daisy loved to whip up new recipes for the corn chips, and one day tossed a handful into a pot of chili, creating the Fritos Chili Pie, which is pretty much the National Dish of Rednecks everywhere. Doolin went on to form The Frito Company and other inventions followed, including Cheetos in 1948. In 1961, he merged with H.W. Lay & Company, and Frito-Lay has been a powerhouse in the snacking industry ever since.

I love Fritos and bean dip, but somebody isn’t a fan of beans around here. Cheese dip is good, but too obvious. And we don’t skin our own squirrels for breakfast, so Chili Pie was out. I happen to have an excellent recipe for a Fritos Corn Salad that I got from somebody I used to work with. She would make this for office potlucks, and it was always a big hit – the one item that disappeared faster than anything else (even cocktail wienies!) and people were always wanting the recipe for. Tara was skeptical – a lot of people are, I guess given what seems like an odd combination of ingredients – but it’s really, really good. Trust me. I made it for a family function a couple of years ago, and my aunt demanded the recipe. Now she makes it any time she’s got a potluck, and people hit her up for the recipe. It’s the circle of life, I tell you.

Frito Corn Salad
2 cans of corn (well drained)
1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced green pepper
1 cup mayonnaise
1 bag Chili Cheese Fritos

Simply mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, adding the Fritos right before serving. The Chili Cheese work best, but you could substitute regular if you’re afraid of a little kick (it’s pretty mild, actually).

I made it tonight to go along with hot dogs, and of course it was a big hit. Even Tara liked it!
Frito Corn Salad
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19/365: National Popcorn Day

I promise not to pop off any corny jokes today. Let’s just celebrate National Popcorn Day by indulging in the salty, buttery snack favorite!

Of course, you might prefer yours differently. That’s the beauty of popcorn: it’s highly customizable. Some might like it with lots of butter and salt (me) while others prefer it sweet, or cheesy, or with unusual ingredients like dashi or seaweed flakes. Popcorn toppings are limited only to the boundaries of your imagination.

Popcorn was discovered thousands of years ago in Guatemala. One can only imagine the look of surprise on the face of the guy whose ears of corn suddenly started exploding! How does this happen, exactly? I’ll put on my Bill Nye bow tie and give you a science lesson, boys and girls. Corn is a grain with a hard shell that does not allow moisture inside, and a dense, starchy interior with a bit of natural oil trapped inside. When heat is applied, the moisture inside each kernel turns into pressurized steam as the starch inside the kernel softens. When the pressure reaches 135 psi and the temperature hits 356°F the hull ruptures, causing a sudden drop in pressure inside the kerne. This forces the steam to expand  and turns the starch and proteins into an airy, crispy foam that “pops” open. Voila! Your Jiffy Pop is ready, sir.

Popcorn made its way to Mexico and then north. Fossilized kernels have been found in New Mexico dating back thousands of years. English settlers who “discovered” America in the 16th and 17th centuries learned about popcorn from Native Americans. As thanks for turning them onto the tasty snack, they stole their land and wiped out entire tribes through battles and diseases, but that’s political commentary for another time. Popcorn really caught on during the Great Depression, when it sold for 5-10 cents a bag, far cheaper than most other snacks at the time. The movies were a favorite entertainment pastime, and cinema operators wanting to make a quick buck bought portable popcorn machines, set them up in their theaters, and began selling the snack to patrons to enjoy during the film. Popcorn, along with sticky floors and people who forget to turn their damn cell phones off, has been a movie theater staple ever since. During World War II, sugar rationing meant less candy, but more popcorn, and sales tripled. It’s been a favorite snack ever since! The average American consumes 51 quarts of popcorn every year.

IMAG0417Once upon a time, popcorn at home was usually made over the stovetop. This is not as easy as it seems, although with practice you can master it. With the invention of the microwave came microwave popcorn, probably the single reason most people use the bulky appliance in the first place. We have an air popper at home, and that is both convenient and easy to use, and the popcorn turns out uniformly perfect every time. Plus, you don’t have to worry about diacetyl, the toxic chemical that destroyed the lungs of workers in microwave popcorn factories a few years ago. Unless, like MSG, you find diacetyl irresistible.

To celebrate, we went to the movies. Naturally, right? Tara and I took the kids to see The Hobbit in 3D, which we enjoyed along with buckets of popcorn. This particular theater has a “butter bar” where you can choose from various flavored butters, like garlic and jalapeno, and an assortment of toppings. Garlic butter popcorn hit the spot, and everybody enjoyed the film. In fact, now Tara wants to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Be still my heart. I think I might have those movies lying around somewhere…

And I’m sure we’ll have popcorn while watching them, no matter which food day it is.

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