Monday, December 26, 2005

Roasted Chicken

Since it was just my wife, my son, and me for Christmas dinner yesterday, I skipped the traditional turkey and went with a roasted chicken instead. This is something we eat in our house at least once a week. It's one of the most basic dishes there is, and also one of the tastiest. And it's blissfully easy to make.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Take one 3-4 pound broiler chicken. Remove the livers, necks, and other stuff in the body cavity (I freeze the chicken necks and use them for stock).

Create a rub for the chicken by combining the following: 1 clove garlic diced fine, 1 T kosher salt, ground black pepper, and about a teaspoon each of whatever spices you have on hand. I typically use minced parsley, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Stir in enough olive oil to make a thin paste (1 to 2 T, usually).

Place the chicken breast-side down in a roasting pan or other ovenproof disk (I use Pyrex baking pans) and smear a few teaspoons of the paste over the back and legs of the chicken. Turn the chicken over breast-up and coat the skin with the rest of the rub. Put in the 350 degree oven and bake 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours, until the cavity juices run clear. You may want to let it sit for 10 minutes or so before carving and serving.

It's about as simple as can be, but a roasted chicken is one of the those indescribably good comfort foods. My wife and I are nuts for the crispy, salty skin and usually peel off most of the breast skin well before the chicken makes to to the table.

Sidenote on selecting chickens: For years I've been using the regular 3-4 pound broilers when roasting chicken, probably because they are so cheap (less than $4 bucks, usually). The few times I've tried going upscale and purchasing one of those $7 to $10 roasters I have been bitterly disappointed. Everything I have read has said that roasters (which are larger and older birds) have better flavor than a broiler, and in a sense that is true in that the meat itself has a stronger flavor while a broiler tends to be very mild. But, my roasters have always come out with an unpleasant toughness to the meat, especially in the dark meat, which is my favorite part. I suspect it may be because of the lower fat-to-meat ratio, and fat's what make things tender and tasty.

Part of me suspects the roaster may be, like grass-fed beef, one of those things where once you get used to the difference you begin to appreciate the tougher texture and stronger flavor. It's twice as expensive, after all, so surely it must be better? Perhaps in the name of gastronomy I should go for the roaster and teach myself to like it.

But I'm not going to. I'm sticking with the broiler. It's just so damn good.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Beef Misinformation

I know nothing about Ingrid Newkirk, and the animal rights movement interests me very little. But, while while searching the web as part of my ongoing (and slow moving) research on the history of barbecue, I came across this gem from Newkirk's book Making Kind Choices: Everyday Ways to Enhance Your Life Through Earth- and Animal-Friendly Living. Newkirk, the President of PETA and a militant animal rights activist, wrote the following:

I don't know if it is true that the very first barbecue took place during
the Depression, when a man named Henry Perry put ketchup on some
cow ribs, dug an outdoor pit, and cooked them over it. What I do know
is that times have certainly changed.

The interesting thing is that in the midst one of the most colossally ignorant sentences that I have ever read, Newkirk actually mentions a real person from barbecue history. Henry Perry was born in Shelby, County, TN (the county in which Memphis is located) in 1875. He bounced around the Mississippi area for a while, working as a steamboat cook and kitchen hand, before settling in Kansas City in 1907. Long before the Depression (which Ms. Newkirk may not realize took place in the 1930s), he opened a barbecue stand in a Bank Street alley, where he cooked meat over a wood-filled pit dug into the ground, selling ribs wrapped in newspaper for 25 cents per slab. As his operation grew, Perry moved several times, winding up in an old trolley barn at 19th and Highland. Several of Kansas City’s legendary barbecue men apprenticed under Perry, including George Gates and Charlie Bryant. In the 1940s, Gates took what he learned and opened his own restaurant with a partner; he later passed his knowledge down to his son Ollie, who opened Gates & Son Barbecue at 47th and Prospect, which is now one of the legends of the Kansas City Barbecue scene. Charlie Bryant purchased Henry Perry’s restaurant and ran it along with his brother Arthur. In 1946 Charlie retired, and Arthur took over the restaurant, renaming it Arthur Bryant’s, covering the sawdust floors, and replacing the wooden tables with Formica-topped ones. It is today perhaps the most famous barbecue restaurant in the world.

So, how in the world did Newkirk get the name Henry Perry into this offhand statement that is otherwise blissfully free of any historical fact whatsoever (barbecue, for example, extends well back into the 16th century and was a key part of 19th Century American political and social culture)?

Judging from the few pages before and after that quote (all that Google Print will let me view--and I'm not about to shell out any cash to read more), the book also appears to subscribe to the notion that if we just really knew what it was we were eating we would swear off meat. Newkirk tells an anecdote about visiting a farm with a photographer from New York who finds out that the tongue in tongue sandwiches actually comes from--get this--a cow's tongue. ("I had a feeling things would never be the same again for her at lunchtime in Manhattan.") Who the hell over the age of 13 doesn't know that "tongue" is tongue? And where did we get this notion that if we only knew where our meat comes from we would all stop eating it? How many cattle farmers are vegetarians? How about all those people in the 19th Century who slaughtered their own animals and ate them?

In the midst of this story, Newkirk states that on that cold morning at the farm she was rubbing her fingers "over Willis's [the bull's] warm brisket, that thick, tufty bit of cow that juts out of their chest way under their chins." This is, of course, patent nonsense. The brisket comes from the front of the cow, but way down on the breast--part of the pectorals. It's as much a part of a side of beef as any other cut (not some dangly appendage), and there are two briskets per cow.

One could forgive a committed vegan like Newkirk for not knowing this and for not having a handy cuts of meat chart to look it up on. The problem is that she uses her misinformation to further "enlighten" the hapless photographer Jill who, apparently more clueless about all things meat than even Ms. Newkirk, stammers, "That's a brisket . . . That's what you see in the deli case!" And somehow this carnival of ignorance is supposed to make us less inclined to eat meat.

All of this is presented very straight-faced, and I can only assume she's serious. It's Newkirk's way of setting up a couple of recipes that offer simulations of barbecue and grilled meats, including a "Faux Brisket" concoction that starts with "a nice big glob of wheat gluten" and continues on with blending up "whatever veggie meats you have in the fridge" along with rice, beans, and other starches. You mold all this into something vaguely brisket-shaped, soak it in barbecue sauce, and grill it. (Which leads to vegan question #3: if veggies are so good and meat so horrible, why take all the trouble to simulate meat?)

The mind reels.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Good Kitchen Equipment

In the spirit of fair play, it seems proper to follow up a rant and rave on bad kitchen equipment with one on good kitchen equipment.

As a general rule of thumb, good kitchen equipment is solid and durable, usually plain and free of excess ornamentation. I find it interesting the range of things that people I know have in their kitchen, and certainly the equipment you value most will depend heavily on the type of cooking you do. Here's my list of the things I use the most and can't do without.

The Essentials: Things that are used all the time (at least once a week, if not every meal)

  • Frying pan, cast iron skillet, large and small saucepans, stockpot
  • Wooden spoons
  • Chef's knife and boning knife
  • Cutting board (wood or plastic please--for God's sakes no glass)
  • Sieve
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Cheese grater
  • Spatula
  • Tongs
  • Ramekins and au gratin dishes

The nice-to-haves: usually used for more specialty purposes, but still good to have

  • Lemon zester
  • Rolling pin
  • Jelly roll/sheet pans
  • Cooling rack (for baking)

Bacon Clock

My favorite part from a short article about the resurgence of pork:

Matty Sallin, a graduate student at New York University, has engineered an alarm clock that cooks a slice of bacon in lieu of ringing a buzzer.

Monday, September 05, 2005

I'm an elitist? No . . . you're the elitist!

Thanks to Amy of Cooking with Amy for noting this one: Julie Powell (of the old Julie/Julia Project blog) has a recent New York Times editorial ("Don't Get Fresh With Me", 22 July 2005--okay, so maybe it isn't so recent, but I just read it for the first time) claiming the organic foods movement is "elitist", and this has created quite a hullaballoo on the blog circuit.

I don't want to get in the middle of the spat, but I do find it curious how everyone is throwing around the "elitist" label and trying to make it stick. Powell begins with the simple organic food costs more and there's snob appeal in buying it line, but her reasoning goes beyond a step further: "[the organic movement] equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics." By buying rainforest nuts and expensive fruit, organic food adherents place themselves morally above those poor schlubs shopping at Safeway. So, it's inherently elitist, see?

Many of the food bloggers who responded to Powell rightly point out that this is a straw man argument and that most organic foodists aren't sneering at low-income parents buying corporate food with WIC stamps. And, of course, they turn the elitist argument around and try to tar Powell with it. My favorite retort is Barbara Fisher's on Tigers & Strawberries:

I believe that the true elitists are those who shop at the cavernous, air-conditioned local grocery store and demand that completely unseasonable produce be available to them at all hours of the day or night, at prices that are kept artificially low by subsidized water, international trade agreements which squeeze small farmers out of business and cheap petroleum. . . . American consumers demand cheap food. They don't necessarily care if it tastes good, or is produced ethically or safely, but by God, it had better be cheap.

Somehow I doubt the typical American grocery shopper actively has the Guatemalan laborers in the front of their mind when deciding whether to buy grapes or not, and I doubt very many ever explicitly think, "I don't care what it costs the environment and foreign workers to produce my food as long as it's cheap because I am better than they are and I deserve it." Most, I figure, are probably just thinking, "Look--cheap strawberries!" and the source of such fruits never enters their mind.

Which brings up an interesting question: can you be an elitist and not know it? It seems to me that if someone is truly an elitist and you accuse them of being an elitist they will say, "Of course I am. That's because I am better than almost everyone else." Or, at least they will be thinking that but won't actually say it because of a sense of decorum or a desire not to get punched in the nose. I don't think either side of the debate falls into this category.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

UglyRipe Update

It looks like the Senate is about to get involved in the UglyRipe tomato fight . . .

Red Delicious RIP?

Probably too early to celebrate, but the future doesn't look bright for the bland Red Delicious apple. Thanks to Too Many Chefs for the link.

Beer-Battered Chicken Chile Rellenos

I found some great poblano chiles at the Marion Square market over the weekend, and this is the dish I concocted to use them. I happened to have some leftover barbecued chicken (hickory smoked on the grill the night before) and corn, so that's what I used for the filling. But, you could substitute all kinds of ingredients and make an equally great meal. Here's my version, which used four poblanos (enough to serve two people):

First, make the batter, since it needs to chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so before using. Mix 3/4 cup flour with 1/2 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt, then pour in half a bottle of beer (the rest is for the chef) and stir until smooth. Refrigerate the batter while you do the rest.

The next step is to roast and peel the four poblano peppers. There are many ways to do this, but since I don't (alas) have a gas stove I use my oven's broiler. Place the peppers on a sheet of aluminum foil and put under the broiler. Broil them for a minute or two on each side until the skin is blistered, turning the peppers with tongs until they are roasted all over. Don't worry if the skin turns black in some places, as long as the pepper doesn't get totally charred. (Other ways to accomplish the blistering is to toast them marshmallow-style over a gas burner, toss them in a hot cast iron skillet, or roast them in a 375-degree oven.)

Once the skins are blackened and bubbly, wrap in damp paper towels and put in a plastic baggie (or, in a bowl covered with plastic wrap), and leave them there for 10 minutes or so. This steaming will make the skin easier to remove.

While the peppers are resting, mix up the filling. To follow my version, dice up a smoked chicken breast and mix it with about a 1/2 cup of corn kernels, 4 oz. of white cheese (white cheddar in my case, though queso blanco, Monterry Jack, or mozzarella would work, too), and 1/2 an onion diced small. (All sorts of ingredients would work well here--Ground beef, leftover beef, shrimp, rice, or blackbeans--though I would insist that there always be cheese in some form.)

To peel the peppers, make a long slit down the side, then pull out the seeds and other bits from the middle. The skin should be well bubbled away from the sides of the peppers by now, and you can just grab it with your fingers and peel it away. Stuff each pepper with the filling mixture, then close the opening with a toothpick or two.

To fry, heat a large pan over medium-high heat and, once hot, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom well. Roll each stuffed pepper in the batter until it is well coated, then place in the hot oil. Fry for a couple of minutes on each side until golden brown, then allow to drain on paper towels.

You could serve these in a zillion ways. I surrounded mine with shredded lettuce and diced tomato, put a dollop of sour cream on top, and served with lime wedges for squeezing over the top. I think it was the combination of the smoky chicken with the crisp batter, but they were even better than I expected, and a great summertime meal.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Atkins & the Potato Farmers

You may have heard that Atkins Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy, but who knew the potato farmers would be so happy about it?

Bad Kitchen Equipment

Most kitchen gadgets are just that: gadgets. They're trivial little gewgaws that promise to do something special or trim a corner or just make your life easier in some way. They're usually highly specialized, like a melon baller or an olive pitter or a garlic peeler. In the end, most aren't terribly useful and don't do anything that you couldn't accomplish with basic tools such as a knife and spoon. But they are fairly harmless, since they don't actively hinder your efforts to do something in the kitchen. They just get pushed to the back of the drawer where they quietly gather dust.

Then there is bad kitchen equipment. These are varieties of common kitchen tools that perform (or, at least, are supposed to perform) a standard function in the kitchen. And they do it so poorly that they actually hamper your work and make the cooking process unpleasant. Unlike gadgets, these are core tools that you must use again and again or shell out money replace them with proper versions.

Most bad kitchen equipment, I am convinced, is designed by and for people who don't cook. There can be no other explanation for how supposedly-useful things could be designed so poorly. Take glass cutting boards, for example. I can see their appeal: they seem so sanitary. Glass isn't easily stained, and even the stickiest food can be scrubbed right off. And, since they are clear, you can tell when you've gotten every last shred of crud off of them, and once washed they are gleaming and spotless. It's the perfect thing for a world that is panicked about bacteria and the "hidden killers in the kitchen".

There's only one problem: chopping anything on a glass cutting board is an excruciating, ear-grating, mind-maddening nightmare. Unlike wooden or synthetic boards, glass does not give at all under a knife, so the blade just tick-tick-ticks along the surface with a sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard. Glass boards are slick, too, so vegetables tend to slide around like crazy and you're always one slip away from a serious laceration.

There seems to be some debate over the relative merits of wooden vs. plastic in terms of bacterial safety, but glass rarely enters into the discussion--if only, perhaps, because even an aesthetics-free organization like the Food and Drug Administration could not make a straightfaced recommendation that a cook use glass instead of wood or plastic.

I can go either way on plastic vs. wood. Personally, I prefer a good heavy wooden cutting board for aesthetic reasons: it just feels nicer to me when chopping, and I hate the way a plastic board gets scarred up with repeated use. But I can see why people would prefer plastic, particularly since you can just throw it in the dishwasher and not worry about ruining it. But, I see no way that anyone who actually cooks (that is, anyone who needs to dice a carrot or slice an onion every once in a while) could stand to use a glass cutting board.

Yet I seem to come across them all the time--at friends' house, relatives' houses, and especially in rented beach houses. They are passable if you need to, for example, cut a lime into eighths for a margartia or Corona bottle (explaining perhaps their presence in rented beach houses), but anything beyond five or six knife strokes sends me into a fit (and my wife, too, who is by now thoroughly sick of hearing me complain about glass cutting boards at rented beach houses).

I think the health issue factors into it: glass seems cleaner, so many people buy that. Also, it seems that if you want to buy decorative cutting boards then glass is the way to go. You can get all sorts of glass boards painted with scenes of homey looking fruit and cheese displays--perfect for a house that probably rarely if ever sees fresh fruit or actual wheels of cheese because, after all, where would you cut them? Not on that glass cutting board. It would drive you mental.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Charcoal Chimney Starter

I would never have thought to write a post about charcoal chimney starters, except that the past few times I've had friends over for a cookout they asked about mine and made clear that they not only didn't use one but also didn't even know what it was. And that's unfortunate, for the chimney starter makes getting a charcoal fire going an absolutely breeeze.

A lot of hardcore barbecue-circuit guys seem to use the devices, but they don't seem to be well known the average backyarder. Maybe it's just an example of older technology that has gradually fallen out of favor (I remember my grandfather's using one when I was a child when we grilled burgers at his lake cabin). Or, maybe they seem like just another sketchy barbecue gadget to people who are just getting started with their first grills and are overwhelmed by the array of brushes, tongs, lobster mitts, and silly aprons that clog the aisle at the local home improvement store. I spent years messing with lighter fluid (the only rule I learned there was you can never use too much) and having the fire go out, or using the more expensive match-light kind. Then one day I happened across a chimney starter in a hardware store, remembered my grandfather's, and bought one.

They are cheap ($10 to $20), and a snap to use. No lighter fluid is needed. You crumple a few pieces of newspaper (3 works perfectly for mine) and stuff them in the lower compartment, then set the chimney on the charcoal rack of your grill and fill the top with briquets. A single match is usually enough to get the newspaper burning and, after that, all you do is wait. The amazing thing about the chimney is that it works perfectly every time, even when it's windy. The device is designed so the airflow comes in and moves upward through the chimney and guarantees an evenly-burned grill full of charcoal. Once the briquets are glowing and covered with white ash, you dump the contents of the chimney into the grill bottom, spread with a stick, and you are ready to cook.

So, if you're still wrestling with charcoal lighter fluid and never know how much to use and always worry about a fireball singeing your eyebrows and then have that inevitable sinking feeling when, after five minutes of a monstrous inferno the flames mysteriously whiff out . . . try a chimney starter instead.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Fourth of July Cookout: London Broil

This is a favorite of mine for large groups, and it's what I served at my July 4th cookout (which was actually last night on the 3rd, since I think a get-together is a lot more fun if you don't have to worry about going to work the next morning). The first time I ever tried cooking London Broil was at a gathering of old friends for a weekend outing in a cabin on the Chattahoochee River, and it was hit. When you slice the beef thinly and lay it out on a big platter, it creates a gorgeous mound of meat--perfect for a group of hungry carnivores.

Though you can find cuts of beef labeled "London Broil" at many supermarket meat counters, it's really a way of cooking meat and not a particular cut. A top round roast is what's generally used, though flank steak will do nicely, too. Since I like my beef rare, I look for a roast that's as thick as possible (at least 2 inches). I generally allow a pound for every three people, which usually guarantees at least a little bit left over for sandwiches the next day (which are delicious).

The first step is to marinate the beef. I'm not picky about the ingredients and use whatever's on hand---you really just need some sort of acid, a little oil, and spices. Yesterday morning, I put the meat in a flat plastic container and sprinkled it liberally with kosher salt, black pepper, and paprika; diced some garlic and shallots and tossed them on top; then, drizzled it all with some olive oil, red wine vinegar, and the juice from half a lemon. I put the container in the fridge and took it out every few hours to turn over the meat. If you can start the roast marinating the night before it's best, but even if you only have an hour or two the marinade will add good flavor.

I grilled my London Broil over hot charcoal, allowing about five to ten minutes per side. I never time these things, instead waiting until the color looks good and the meat is just starting to firm up when I press on it with my fingers. I've found touch testing the absolute best way to gauge when the meat is ready (here's a good description of how to do it)--it takes a little practice, but it's pretty easy to get the hang of.

For serving, I took the meat into the kitchen to my big cutting board and sliced it as thinly as I could across the grain, holding the knife at a forty-five degree angle. Since most roasts are a little thinner at each end than in the middle, you usually end up with a good range of doneness (from medium to rare in my case), and the juice from all the slices pools up nicely in the bottom of the serving platter--I like to put a spoon on the platter so people can ladle a little on their meat. I served it with my favorite roasted potatoes, sourdough bread, and a green salad. A great way to celebrate the Fourth.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

On water . . .

An interesting piece on the body's need for water (or the lack thereof) . . .

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Weird UglyRipe Tomato Controvery

Don't know how many people have noticed the story of the UglyRipe tomato, but it's something I've came across a while ago and find strangely compelling. I won't repeat the story (see links below for an overview), but here are a few of the elements I find particularly interesting:

  • Where knew there was such a thing as the Florida Tomato Committee?
  • It's curious that the dictates of the Florida Tomato Committee are not in force from June 15th through October 10th (when locally-grown ripe tomatoes are available throughout the country). Why is that? I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that grocery stores don't buy Florida tomatoes during the summer because they can get local ones, but I still don't get the logic.
  • The whole thing is typically positioned as a David-vs-Goliath story, but Procacci Brothers is one of the largest vegetable distributors in the country. So it's really more of a Goliath-vs-Goliath story. This doesn't necessarily affect who is right or wrong, but it's interesting to note.

I also find it curious that the debate is usually framed as a choice between whether consumers should be guaranteed tomatoes that look good (round, red, etc.) vs. whether they should be able to have good tasting tomatoes year round. An editorial from the crunchy Mother Earth News is particularly amusing, in that it assumes that tomato growers are so stupid as to not understand how the American vegetable market works and that the average consumer is powerless in the face of Big Food (yes, outraged columnist really do use that term):

Apparently, we need to let the [Florida Tomato] committee members (and the USDA and Congress) know that the tomatoes they send to our supermarkets are so bland and tasteless that many of us are no longer even tempted to buy them. If they want to “improve grower returns,” then they need to start selling better-tasting tomatoes.

At the end Mother Jones urges people to grow their own tomatoes or buy them locally, but they seem to tacitly accept the notion that we have the right to have good, fresh vegetables anytime we want them (seasons be damned) and that they should be easily available in supermarkets so we don't have to spend any energy growing them or at least actively looking for them.

I hold to the general principle that good taste should be the ultimate criteria for judging food, but it's the year-round thing that gets me. As annoying as it is that there is some quasi-governmental committee controlling what produce can and can't be shipped out of Florida, I just can't get too worked up over the fact that I can't get a good tomato in January. Of course you can't get a good tomato in January! They grow in the summer! Why not do what people have been doing since well before the rise of the railroads and the intercontinental produce trade: save your fresh tomato recipes until summer and use good canned tomatoes for sauces, etc. during the off season?

And, I can't get worked up over the fact that supermarket tomatoes are consistently awful. It's not like it's hard to find fresh locally grown tomatoes when they are in season--there are at least a dozen roadside stands and guys-on-the-side-of-the-road-in-pickups within a ten minutes drive of my house where I can find baskets of vine-ripened local tomatoes. I can only assume that the reason most supermarket tomatoes are so bad is that (contrary to the contention of Mother Jones) most shoppers really don't care, or at least don't care enough to make the effort to find better ones or, failing that, decide to eat something else.

There was a flurry of publicity about the UglyRipe tomato six months ago, which I can only assume meant the Procacci Brothers tried to open a serious PR front to the war. Things seem to have died down since, and it looks like the Procacci's have lost the battle (for now, at least).

Here are a few background links:

The latest press release from Procacci Brothers

A few outraged columninsts (about six months old, but they give a good sense of how the story was framed):

USA Today

Roasted Potatoes

This is a simple preparation I came up with after finding wonderful roasted potatoes in several Italian restaurants in London. This is by no means the recipe they use--the potato varieties are quite different--but it's become one of my favorites.

I've read a lot of recipes that call for parboiling potatoes before roasting and what not, but I don't find that necessary at all. The real key seems to be having good new potatoes. My favorite is a bag of mixed potatoes that I pick up at the Marion Square farmer's market (which is held every Saturday in downtown Charleston) from a stall run by a woman who grows them on a family farm out on Wardmalaw Island. For three bucks I can get a generous-sized bag of small round red, white, and purple new potatoes along with wonderful little yellow fingerlings. When I can't make it down to the market, new red potatoes from the supermarket work pretty well. The fresher the potatoes the better.

All I do is cut the potatoes into bite sized chunks (leaving them whole if they are really small potatoes, quartering medium-sized ones) and toss them in a baking dish--I usually use a ceramic au-gratin dish that I line with foil to make clean-up easier. Drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle salt, pepper, and paprika over the top, toss on a little minced parsely, then pop the pan into a 400 degree oven for about an hour. Every fifteen minutes or so I'll pull the dish out and toss the potatoes around so they'll cook evenly. I like to wait until they are crispy brown all over the edges before serving.

Simple as can be, but really good. I like to serve these with red-meat dishes like veal saltimbocca (another of my favorites picked up from Italian restaurants in London) and braised short ribs, which is what I'm having tonight.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bessinger's Barbecue

1602 Savannah Highway
Charleston, South Carolina

Ate at Bessinger's the other day with my wife and son--a place that's only a few miles from my house but I haven't been to in a year or so, primarily because I've been purposely trying to eat at as many different barbecue joints as I can and it seems like cheating to just head around the corner. But, this last visit reminded me how good it is and I imagine I'll be ducking in a lot more regularly over the upcoming months.

Bessinger's is a Charleston restaurant, but it provides a taste of the genuine Midlands South Carolina mustard-based barbecue (the kind with the yellow sauce). To my taste buds, at least, it is virtually identical to the barbecue served at Maurice's and Melvin's--separate restaurant chains that are all owned by the various Bessinger brothers, but all with essentially the same menu. This Bessinger's is brother Thomas's (now run by his sons Tommy and Michael) and is a few miles south of the city on Savannah Highway (a.k.a US 17).

The place has been around since 1960 when, under the name "Piggy Park", it was more of a drive-in with the standard hamburger and hot-dog menu along with barbecue. The hamburgers and hotdogs are still on the menu, but over the years the barbecue has moved more into the foreground, and somewhere along the line the old drive-in building was replaced with a new building that is two restaurants in one. On the left side is the country buffet, which apparently is one of those all-you-can-eat things with barbecue plus a whole bunch of other southern cooking. I've never actually ventured onto the left side because I always head to the right into the sandwich shop, where you can get barbecue sandwich baskets as well as pork or rib platters.

The new building is done up in a rather hokey, sanitized farm look that bears more than a passing resemblance to the set of Hee-Haw. But, the Big Joe Basket is excellent--a large sandwich with fries, slaw, and a big ole onion ring. The meat has good smoky flavor and comes topped with that sweet yellow mustard-based sauce--not enough to drown the barbecue flavor but enough to give it a zip. One thing I like in particular are the pictures on the wall of the restaurant dating back to the old drive-in days.

If you want a taste of classic South Carolina mustard barbecue, I would highly recommend stopping into one of the Bessinger brothers' places.

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