Leftovers of the Gods
The exciting world of accidental foodstuffs
Two things link Cobb Salad, chicken wings, and nachos. The first is that they’re all great. The second is they came about by accident.
The Cobb Salad was invented in 1937 by Bob Cobb, owner of the small but storied Brown Derby chain in Hollywood. He rocked up at his eatery after midnight with a pal, probably after more than a few drinks, and realized they had the munchies. So Cobb lurched into the closed kitchen out back and rummaged around for things to put on a plate — just setting them down in lines, as per traditional renditions of the dish to this day. He eventually returned with lettuce, avocado, tomato, cooked bacon, a bit of chopped-up leftover chicken, hardboiled egg, and blithely sprinkled some blue cheese over it — and a California legend was born.
Buffalo wings came into being in 1964 in the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. The owner, Teressa Bellissimo, was confronted late one night by her son and some friends demanding something to eat. Sadly she was unable to respond by snarling “The hell do you think this is, kiddo, an all-night diner?” — because running one was in effect her actual job. So she grabbed some wings (then a widely-ignored spare part of the chicken) fried them, then threw them in a mixture of butter (or more likely, margarine) and Frank’s hot sauce to coat. She put blue cheese dressing on the side simply because the restaurant had a signature version of it, using Maytag. The traditional celery sticks? Who knows — though as the owner of a teenager myself, I suspect it was just an attempt to get the child to eat some goddamned vegetables.
With nachos, the story goes that a group of ladies in Texas, after an evening featuring multiple cocktails, turned up at a nearly-closed Tex-Mex restaurant desperate for something to eat. After a while a large plate of taco chips, covered in chili, with cheese melted over it, arrived at their table, with salsa and guac on the side. They fell upon it, and demanded to know what this wondrous dish was called. The owner shrugged and said “it’s Nacho’s” — “Nacho” being short for Ignacio, the name of the off-duty cook in the back who’d thrown the meal together out of leftovers.
I’ll note that while the first two are well-attested, the genesis of nachos is murkier, and the story may be apocryphal, though I’ve seen basically the same account in a couple of places. I look forward to being sternly put right in the comments. Vernacular food is like that, and provenance is not always clear. Do not, for example, get involved in the conversation about who invented the Reuben sandwich. That debate goes beyond the heated and into the realms of the actively dangerous.
What’s interesting about all this is how it illustrates the happy chances that lead to great edible things. If you know any more, please add them in the comments. It’s always been this way: it’s said the venerable French sauce known as Beurre Blanc came about because some harried chef simply forgot to put the eggs in a Hollandaise. And Chicken Cordon Bleu, for just one example, (grab some chicken, wrap it around some cheese, ooh and ham, yeah, and then sure — why not bread and fry it!) has all the hallmarks of being invented by someone who was really quite stoned: and beer and even bread will have been born in happy accidents rather than design.
People can confit this, and deconstruct that, and sous vide the other — and I support them in these endeavors, and will happily try their wares — but it’s the dishes people made up on the fly out of whatever happened to be in the kitchen that we reach for when we simply want some tasty stuff to put in our heads. Foodstuffs like the Louisiana staple of red beans and rice, a gut-warming result of (a) using up a leftover ham bone and scraps from the weekend meal and (b) needing something that could cook slowly and unattended throughout the traditional Monday washing day. Borscht is an Eastern European take on the same impulse: take that leftover beef bone, put it in water with some potato and beets and cabbage, simmer it for ages, then let’s call the result “food” — and with some sour cream and a ton of dill on top, it absolutely is.
The three American classics described at the start of this post do make me curious about late-night concoctions that didn’t make the grade, however. Boiled carrots and cottage cheese, perhaps, or left-over steak mixed in peach yoghurt. And also if there’s some cook out in a tiny diner someplace, right now, and in the small hours every evening, feverishly coming up with new combinations in hope that a hungry party will stop by, desperate for sustenance… and that tonight might be the night that their egg fried rice with anchovies and ice cream finally enters culinary history.
National dish of Britain, chicken tikka masala has multiple conflicting origin stories, some attributed to Glasgow, others Birmingham but most involving a confused local in an Indian restaurant in the 70s ordering a chicken tikka (a succulent, spiced but sauceless chicken dish). When it arrived he saw it and asked where the gravy was. It was returned to him a few minutes later covered in a gloop made from spices, cream and Heinz tomato soup, and this tikka masala has since become more popular than fish and chips.
Just yesterday I went to the fridge and all I could find were leftover roasted sweet potato slices sooo I drizzled them with butter added toasted pecans dripped chili crisp on top and then hit it with some feta... ummm Delicious! ❤️