Monday, July 24, 2006

BAD Food (Airline Edition)

In BAD: or, the Dumbing of America, Paul Fussell draws a distinction between bad things and BAD things:

Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever--something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating. . . . Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If goldplated, they are BAD.

And, he procedes for some 200 riotous pages to enumerate the many BAD things that can be found in today's culture, from BAD advertising to BAD television.

I was reminded of his book last week on a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, during which I was handed ("tossed" might be a better word) my "snack" for the flight, which in today's times of airline belt-tightening is what passes for the inflight meal. Removing the plastic wrapper from the tray revealed a small bag of some sort of highly-spiced cracker-like doodads and a little plastic cup whose foil top read, in big letters, "Havarti". So, basically, cheese-and-crackers, but cheese and crackers that have gone uptown.

Or so it seemed, until I actually tasted them. The cracker doodles were so awful I could barely swallow one--very, very salty, with an overwhelming layer of powdered artificial flavoring blown onto the exterior. I put them aside, thinking, "at least I can eat the havarti."

But, upon closer inspection of the fine print on the foil wrapper, I noticed it wasn't Havarti at all. It was "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread Havarti-type Flavor." The first ingredient in the "havarti" was actually "cheddar cheese". Apparently, to make “Pasturized Process Cheese Spread” with “Havarti-like flavor”, you take plain old cheddar cheese and add to it water, cream, milk, and whey--to make it more fluid, I suppose, and better suited for packaging in a little plastic cup. Then, throw in some unspecified “natural flavor”, salt, and calcium propionate and—pow!—instant class.

Honestly, what would be so bad about some plain old crackers and cheddar cheese? Saltines would have been just fine—a little boring, maybe, but at least would have been edible. And, the most boring and washed out of supermarket cheddar cheeses would have been better than the so-called Havarti.

Why pretend that American airline travel is more elegant than it is? As Joe Bob Briggs pointed out in his classic column "Sardine Me!" , we are not willing to pay enough. So how about a good ole pack of Lance crackers instead?

At least there was Walker's shortbread in the snack pack too--wheat flour, butter, sugar, and salt. It's just as pretentious a thing to serve as the faux Havarti ("Imported from Scotland!"), but at least it tastes good.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


With the arrival of our second son back in March, our family has outgrown our present house, so we've got it on the market and are looking for a new, larger one. My wife has a long list of requirements for the new place--everything from the type of siding to the number of sinks in the master bath--but I have only one: the stove's exhaust fan must ventilate to the outside.

It doesn't look like we're going to be moving any time soon.

We've toured close to twenty houses, of varying sizes and styles, though all of them were built in the last 20 years. And, in every single one of them, the hood over the stove does not have a pipe that takes smoke and vapor outside. Instead, they all pass them through a thin, cheapy filter and push the air right back into the kitchen.

My current kitchen has just such a fan, and it is all but useless. Many of my favorite dishes--like braised meats and pan-seared steaks--involve an initial browning over high heat in order to get a good char on the meat. And this browning puts off a lot of smoke. So, I click the hood fan to high and it's so loud as to drown out conversation, but the smoke that it pulls into the fan is immediately spit right back out into the room, apparently unimpeded by the little charcoal filter inside. My favorite dishes, therefore, are all but guaranteed to fill the the whole house with thick greasy smoke, set off the smoke alarm, and start the baby wailing.

Perhaps, like flat-top ranges that are easy to clean but terrible to cook with, this is a symptom of how little real cooking most Americans do. Unless you are going to really crank up the stove and try to brown meat--and, honestly, how many people really do that these days?--you'd probably never even notice that the fan is ineffectual. So, why should a builder bother with the slight additional expense of running the pipe to duct the fan outside?

Because of my lack of effective kitchen ventilation, I've had to put a moratorium on creating one of my all-time favorite dishes, Pollo al Matone, which is Italian for "Chicken-Under-a-Brick" (I always call it the latter, which has such a nice ring to it.) This usually is a grilled chicken dish, in which a whole chicken is roasted over a fire with a big stone pressing down on it to flatten it out and make sure it cooks evenly. I do a modified stove-top and oven version that I borrowed from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and make in a big cast iron pan.

Chicken Under a Brick

1 whole chicken
2 tsp Kosher salt
1-2 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced rosemary
olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Prepare the chicken by removing the backbone and splitting it so it will lay flat. To do this, use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut along either side of the backbone from front to rear, removing it as a single 1- to 2-inch wide strip. Then, spread the chicken out flat.

In a small bowl, mix about 1 Tbsp olive oil with the salt, garlic, and rosemary, then rub the mixture all over the chicken--both the skin-side and the inside.

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, pour in about 1 Tbps of olive oil, and add the chicken, skin-side down. Then, weight the chicken so that it is firmly and evenly compressed. I usually cover the chicken with a piece of aluminum foil (just to make clean-up easier), then place a smaller cast iron skillet on top and an antique cast-iron clothes iron that I've found at a flea market and weighs close to ten pounds. You could use a brick or a big rock as well--it just needs to be heavy enough to press the chicken nice and flat.

Cook on the stove top over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, then move to the 450-degree oven. Allow it to roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan, turn the chicken over, replace the weights, and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes. (This last part can be a bit dangerous. Keep the kids out of the kitchen and use good, thick oven mitts on both hands--all that cast iron will be hot!) Before serving, pierce the thighs with a knife and be sure all the juices run clear. Remove the chicken to a platter, cut into pieces, and serve.

This requires a little heavy lifting and a lot of greasy smoke from the super-hot pans and oven, but it is very much worth it. The chicken skin will get so delightfully toasted and crispy, and the meat will be the juiciest, most flavorful you will ever have.

Maybe I'll luck up and find a house with a proper external-ducted range hood. If not, I'll just have to wait till Fall arrives and I can open all the windows and go nuts. Boy, do I ever miss chicken-under-a-brick.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

In Search of a Great Cheeseburger

Back when I was in graduate school, I had a friend who seemed to say about virtually every restaurant in town, "Oh, yeah, that place . . . they make a damn good burger." At the time, it irritated me to no end. Of course they make a damn good burger, I always wanted to say but never did. How hard is it to make a good cheeseburger?

Over the years I have changed my outlook. I now believe that it is difficult to make a good cheeseburger. And, it is particularly difficult to find restaurants that make good cheeseburgers. I've eaten a lot of cheeseburgers over the past five years, and in that time I've found only a handful of places abouw which I can say with confidence "they make a damn good burger."

In many ways, what makes a great burger is counterintuitive. Take Sesame, for example, a new restaurant here in Charleston--North Charleston, if you want to be specific. You would think Sesame would be an ideal candidate for cheeseburger greatness. It opened a few months ago in the Park Circle neighborhood--an up and coming but not yet trendy location-- and it's clear that the owners are dedicated to making top-quality, fresh food from scratch. The sweet pickles are homemade. The sweet-potato fries are handcut. The ketchup (yes, the ketchup!) is homemade. They make their own hotdogs! And, most importantly, the beef is ground fresh on the premises.

Since 1994, due to regulations passed in response to a deadly E. coli outbreak at West Coast Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, it has been illegal in South Carolina for a restaurant to serve burgers cooked any less than medium well. A bill has now been introduced to change that, but for now there seems to be one loophole to this law: if you grind the meat in-house you can serve it at whatever temperature your customers request. At present, only a couple of Charleston restaurants fit this bill, including Rue de Jean (downtown) and Poe's (on Sullivan's Island). And, now, Sesame has joined the ranks.

So, it was with great delight that I ordered a medium-rare Carolina burger, which came topped with pimento cheese (homemade, of course). The burger was thick and, because it hadn't been charred to a crisp, very juicy and tender.

But, ultimately, there was something wrong. It was the same reaction I've had in the past to supposedly "gourmet" cheeseburgers. My brain knew this was supposed to be a really great burger, but my palate wasn't buying it.

This isn't a knock on Sesame: it is a great restaurant. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the "blue corn" appetizer (ears of corn soaked in milk, roasted, and topped with grated cheese), which alone are worth going there for. I'm heading back to Sesame for lunch as soon as I can to try one of the homemade hotdogs. But, as much as I admire Sesame's dedication in grinding their own beef and making ketchup from scratch, I just can't put it high in my pantheon of great burgers.

"Gourmet" cheeseburgers tend to be too thick. And, they always seem to come atop a fat, thick bun. And, they have large, thick slices of good cheese on top--or, in the case of the Carolina burger at Sesame, a big pile of pimento cheese made from fresh-grated cheddar and parmesan. Individually, each of these ingredients are excellent. Put together, they don't quite come off.

Maybe it's because you have to work too hard to get it into your mouth, squeezing the bun and stretching your jaws as wide as possible. The cheese never seems to be melted quite all the way through, and toppings are always falling off onto your plate. And, even with the moistness of medium-rare ground beef, such burgers always seem to be too dry--perhaps due to the excessive amount of bun.

In my book, the best cheeseburgers are not the towering concoctions that appear on menus alongside dry-aged steaks and upscale risottos. And, no, they are not ones that seek to amuse or shock by topping a burger with novel ingredients like avocado slices or fried green tomatoes. The best cheeseburger is not about piling together the best ingredients nor the most exotic ingredients: let's face it, we're talking about cheeseburgers here. Instead, it's all about taking rather mundance foods and putting them together in the proper balance.

You need enough of a patty to taste meaty, but not one that's so thick that you have to work to chew it. And the bun should be fairly thin, too, so that you don't have to gnaw through three inches of bread to get to substance. The cheese needs to be melted--very melted--so that it almost fuses with the bun and the patty into a single consistent whole.

My favorite burgers are the 1960s drive-in-style ones. These are usually 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of meat--half a pound being too thick--and are wide and flat. In almost every case, the places that make my kind of burgers use a sandwich press or a griddle to toast the buns after the burger has been assembled, which guarantees a flat, hot burger with a slightly-toasty top and bottom and tender melted cheese inside.

Maybe this is a matter of upbringing. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, which is home to some of the best classic cheeseburger joints in America, all of which for some reason seem to be named Pete's--including Pete's Original on Pendleton Street, Como's Pete's on Augusta Road, Pete's Number 7 on Wade Hampton Boulevard, and Pete's on Poinsette, which is about a mile from my old college apartment and kept me alive for several years of undergraduate study. They all serve great cheeseburgers--and onion rings and milkshakes, too. And the burgers are all wide, flat, and toasted on a press.

Other South Carolina favorites include the Rush's chain in the Columbia area, and the now-departed Shealy's Sandwich Shop, which was a Columbia institution until it closed sometime back around 2000. And Rosewood Dairy Bar and Zesto.

Charleston doesn't seem to have too many places like these. Bessinger's on Highway 17 is perhaps the closest to the ideal. It's a restaurant that features barbecue now, but it was originally a drive-in back in the Golden Age of the Cheeseburger--the 1950s and 1960s--and, at the time, featured its burgers most prominently and barbecue sandwiches as a secondary item. And even though they don't grind their own meat, and the cheese on the top is highly-pasturized yellow American, and the buns are probably from Sunbeam or Merita or some other industrial bakery, their cheeseburgers are hands-down the best in town.

So, if you're going into the restaurant business and are thinking about trying to put out a damn good burger of your own, don't try to simulate "gourmet" qualities by using softball-like beef patties or massive whole grain buns or slices of eggplant on top of the meat.

Keep 'em flat. Keep 'em toasted. And keep 'em coming.

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