I like food, especially local dishes in far away places, but doesn’t everybody? Having a cheesesteak on a street corner in Philly, ripping apart crabs along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, chomping a corn beef on rye at the Stage Deli, dipping littlenecks in butter on Cape Cod, finding the best Green Chile Stew in Santa Fe, scooping guacamole onto your taquitos on Olvera Street, washing down raw oysters with a cold Dixie in a dank New Orleans bar, or tearing lobsters apart on the coast of Maine is a large part of the fun of traveling.
And while we’re talking about lobsters, did you know that before the middle of the 19th century, lobsters were considered pauper food. These wonderful crustaceans were routinely given to servants, fed to prisoners, or used as fertilizer by the upper crust in New England.
Dining is a wonderful pastime, but I’ve done a bit more than just eat. I’ve sought out the places where they’ve actually invented some famous dishes. Take the Bloody Mary. I’ve downed many of them in the bar where they were created—At Harry’s New York Bar on the Rue Daunou in Paris. Harry named this drink after Marie Antoinette, who suffered a most unfortunate incident, just a few blocks away. Harry’s is also where Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and Humphrey Bogart used to hang out, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that it was on the piano at Harry's that George Gershwin composed An American in Paris—in between Bloody Marys no doubt. I’ve often fantasized that when the smoke clears in the darkest corner of Harry’s, you can see…what is it…it looks like…like, three guys fighting for Rita’s attention—Papa, Bogie and Bob.
Historians and drunks alike still argue about where the martini and the manhattan were invented, so I’ve been forced to drink them everywhere just to make sure I’ve covered all my bases. But, there seems to be no argument about where the screwdriver was invented, it was created by American petroleum engineers in 1940s, alcohol-free Saudi Arabia. These inventive engineers secretly poured vodka into their orange juice cans and stirred it with their screwdrivers. I haven’t been to Saudi, so I regularly celebrate this great invention by duplicating their original process. Oh, before I forget, these new electric screwdrivers don’t work worth a damn.
I’ve munched Caesar Salad where it was first created, at Hotel Caesar's in Tijuana, Mexico. The story goes that on the 4th of July in 1924, Caesar Cardini was so swamped with business that he ran out of all of his usual salad vegetables, so he made do with what he had on hand, adding the dramatic flair of table-side tossing to make up for his lack of ingredients. We’ve always heard that necessity is the mother of invention. Way to go, Caesar!
Have you ever pried salt water taffy from your teeth on the boardwalk in Atlantic City? I have. And, just like millions before me, we owe a special thanks to a little girl way back in 1883. She walked into David Bradley’s candy shop the day after it was flooded in a big storm leaving all of his taffy drenched in Atlantic sea water. She asked for taffy. David, thinking on his feet, said, “Yes ma’am, I have ‘salt water taffy’.”
I’ve buttered Parker House rolls at the Parker House Hotel in Boston, twirled Fettuccine Alfredo around on my fork at Alfredo’s in Rome, and slurped Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s in New Orleans. And, like Harry’s in Paris, these places still serve the wonderful dishes they invented. I’ve also had a Chimichanga (Spanish for thingamajig) at Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen in Phoenix, but I’m not sure that this counts because they are just one of several places that claim to have invented this great gringo additon to Mexican cusine.
Now, if I could only find where they distilled the first batch of Scotch Whiskey, or meet the Mexican who first dreamed of making booze from those big, spiny succulents. As best as I can tell, tequila or something like it, was made by the Aztecs long before Cortez and his boys came ashore and screwed over their lives. And, I’ll bet you didn’t know those tequila-making agaves are pollinated by bats—bats, mind you.