The new Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink has landed on my desk, an estimable work at 693 pages, chock-full of nuggets. Take this one: LifeSavers caught on so darn quick because the original flavor - mint - was stocked next to the cash register in bars.
It chews over weightier subjects. "The Rise of the Restaurant," for instance. Why, when it comes to eating out, do singles spend more per capita than members of family units?
Well, posits The Oxford, it's "probably due to the diseconomies of small-scale cooking for one, and the general dreariness of eating alone." Most probably, indeed.
Deference, as it should be, is accorded Philadelphia, whose food and drink scene was, in a sense, the American appetizer.
Under "A," you will find "Automat," the McDonald's of the sidewalk age, opened in 1902 by Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, who installed a "waiterless" lunchroom at 818 Chestnut St., foreshadowing - one might argue - the rise of the Fast Food Nation.
And under "S," you will find an illustration of a box of Franklin Granulated Sugar, refined right here in River City circa 1890. Its claim to fame was that it was "free of dirt and contamination." (This week, though the refineries are now condo sites, sugar claims were still being parsed in Philadelphia, this time in federal court in the suit by Equal against Splenda's claim to be "made from sugar.")
The Oxford is a quirky compilation, chronicling the rise and (as refined foods got a bad rep) fall of Wonder Bread, and the contributions of Jersey boy John L. Mason, who fueled the home-canning rage with his patented glass jar and screw-on zinc lid.
But the book got me thinking. How about a companion to the Companion? A sort of sidekick?
I see, under "B" Blackfish (also known as Chowderfish) on p. 55. Well, it's not just a fish: It's one of the hottest new BYOs, surprisingly in Conshohocken.
"C" is for caviar (glancingly listed in The Oxford). Hereabouts, caviar was once a king. In the 1880s, the New Jersey village Caviar (now gone), near the mouth of the Delaware Bay, was a sturgeon killing field. For a decade or so - until unchecked overfishing wiped out the stock - Caviar supplied more caviar than the Russians.
"D" is for distillation. Philadelphia lost the last of its 100 breweries just as the craft-brewing movement rose at Yards, in Kensington. But the city is also home now to its first legal pot-still since Prohibition (in a nondescript office park behind the National Guard Armory on the Roosevelt Boulevard). It makes a fine, citrus-edged gin called Bluecoat, to eliminate any confusion with its British cousins.
"F" is for Frango Mint, a bellwether of department-store consolidation. It used to be the signature of Marshall Field's in Chicago. But with the Macy's-ization of everything, you can now find it in Macy's (nee Wanamaker's) here. To Chicago's chagrin, it's now made in Dunmore, Pa., outside Scranton.
"G" is for grasshoppers (or chapulines), fried with chile and lime, now on the menu at Tequila's Bar at 16th and Locust.
And so on. Hershey's: Making a peanut butter-banana creme Reese's Cup now in honor of The King, as it makes plans to shift a big chunk of its Pennsylvania manufacturing to Mexico.
"S" would be a biggie: It's for "spruce," the boughs of which were a colonial beer flavoring; "soft pretzels," turned into a global snack by Auntie Anne's, now with 900 locations franchised from its world headquarters in Gap; "scrapple," "saltwater taffy," "shad," "shoo-fly pie," and the extremely occasional "sturgeon," descended from a beast the caviar kings missed while marauding the Delaware Bay.
There'd be a lot to say about "V." Vanilla was big in Philadelphia, noted for its purity (as it still is). Vegetarianism was rampant, though short-lived: its mecca on Third above Girard ignominiously demolished in the 19th century, according to Ken Finkel's Philadelphia Almanac, to make way for a slaughterhouse.
And let us not forget Vietnamese, who've added spring rolls and pho soup to the city's menu.
"Z?" The Oxford offers the Zombie, the rum cocktail, period.
But my companion should wish to note Philadelphia baker Walter G. Wilson's animal crackers, popularized at the city's Centennial in 1876.
They were, at their birth, known far and wide as "Zoologicals."
The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew F. Smith, 2007 Oxford University Press, $49.95.