Good Eats April 26, 2006

Food vocabulary is a funny business. Names and their meanings can vary from region to region, even state to state.

Loosemeats in Siouxland are Maid Rites elsewhere. "Pop" here is "soda" there. Hot dogs? They're "franks," "frankfurters," "wieners," "weenies," even "tube steak" depending on the locale. Where I grew up, we had casserole. But North Dakota friends say "hot dish."

It's fun to dig into dictionaries and encyclopedias and fish out facts and educated guesses about stories behind foods we know and love.

The "sandwich" is almost universally attributed to the fourth Earl of Sandwich, otherwise known as John Montagu of George III's court. In 1762, the notorious gambler ordered a bread-and-meat dish he could eat while he gambled. He was served a "sandwich," later named in honor of the royal gambler, or so the story goes.

It's likely somebody thought of slapping meat between two pieces of bread long before Montagu demanded a hand-held meal. We'll never know who was first. But we do know the dish became an enduring hit particularly after soft white loaf bread appeared on the scene in the late 19th century. When mass produced white sandwich loaves debuted decades later, the repertoire exploded.

These days, dozens of combinations of meat, fish, seafood, veggies, legumes, cheeses, pickles, condiments, jams, jellies, honey, nuts, even marshmallow creme serve up tasty sandwich fillings that whet lunchtime and dinnertime appetites. What would we do without peanut butter and jelly? Ham and cheese? Bacon, lettuce and tomato? Tuna salad and chicken salad? Or how about that occasional Reuben with its thinly sliced corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing assembled between slices of robust rye and then grilled to a toothsome crisp?

Food historians offer a few stories to explain the Reuben's origin. One says the deli classic was created in 1914 by Arnold Reuben, owner of Reuben's Restaurant in New York City. Another credits Reuben Kolakofsky, an Omaha grocer, who is said to have whipped up the sandwich in 1922 for hungry poker players at the Blackstone Hotel. Fern Snider, a Blackstone waitress, entered the recipe in the 1956 National Sandwich Contest and won first prize.

Still another story takes us to the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Neb., where the Reuben appeared on a 1937 menu. The Cornhusker's written evidence is impressive, but the poker story seems more in keeping with the earl of Sandwich origin. Can we ever know for sure who first devised the savory Reuben? Probably not.

We're more confident of the origin of S.O.S., the alternate name of chipped beef on toast. Fill in the blanks and you've got one of food's earthiest titles. S.O.S. came out of World War II mess halls. For readers who've never partaken, chipped beef starts with top round, bottom round, sirloin tip or knuckle that's brined, dried and perhaps smoked. The processed meat is shaved, a/k/a "chipped," to produce convenient pieces of well-preserved protein.

Chipped beef was a food staple long before refrigerated rail transportation made fresh beef widely available. It also predates canned meat. The drying process yields beef resistant to spoilage. It also makes meat lighter and more compact. Chipped beef could go most anywhere, making it ideal for sailors, soldiers and settlers who could only dream of fresh steak or pot roast.

Even after the wonders of mechanical refrigeration brought Americans fresh meat on a daily basis, chipped beef remained popular as a creamy open-faced sandwich. The "cream" is actually flour-based gravy doctored up with ground black pepper and maybe a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce.

Chipped beef remains one of those foods that rarely get any play. But maybe one day it'll rise to the level of Spam and inspire a hit Broadway musical. Meanwhile, let's take a look at some chipped beef classics.

Chipped Beef on Toast

1 package Hormel Dried Beef (2.5 ounces), chopped

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons flour

One and one-third cups milk

One-half teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Dash pepper

Buttered toast points

In skillet, cook dried beef in butter three minutes. Stir flour into butter mixture; add milk. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir one to two minutes longer. Stir in Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Spoon over toast. Makes three servings; 180 calories, 11 grams fat each. Source: Hormel

Creamy Hot Beef Dip

1 Hormel Dried Beef 5-ounce jar

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese softened

One-quarter cup milk

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

3 drops hot pepper sauce

French bread chunks

Rinse dried beef with boiling water; drain. Chop dried beef into small pieces. Combine beef, cream cheese and milk; mix well. Stir in horseradish and hot pepper sauce. Spoon mixture into 9-inch pie plate. Bake in 375 degree F. oven 15 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Serve with bread chunks. Makes eight servings; 41 calories, 3 grams fat each. Source: Hormel

Flaming Cheese Ball

1 Hormel Dried Beef jar (5 ounces)

1 (8-ounce) package shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese softened

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper

Reserve one-third of the dried beef. Rinse remaining beef with boiling water; drain. Chop rinsed beef into small pieces. Combine chopped beef and remaining ingredients; mix well. Cover mixture and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Chop reserved beef into small pieces. Form cheese mixture into ball. Coat ball with remaining dried beef. Serve with celery sticks or cocktail bread. Source: Hormel

Dried Beef and Macaroni Casserole

2 cups cooked elbow macaroni

1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup (10.5 ounces)

One-half cup milk

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

3 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1 package Hormel Dried Beef (4 ounces) cut into bite-sized pieces

2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Blend soup and milk. Stir in cheese, onion, cooked and drained macaroni, and dried beef; fold in eggs. Pour into ungreased 1.5-quart casserole. Cover; bake 30 minutes or until heated through. Makes four servings. Source: Hormel

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