Thursday, August 31, 2006

Twenty Four Hours, Four Flights, and One Mojito

I flew out for Puerto Rico at 4:00 PM on Sunday, changed planes in Atlanta, and got into San Juan just a little before ten. The tail end of tropical storm Ernesto was just passing by the island, and the tropical night was warm and rainy.

We were staying at the Ritz-Carlton, a massive ocean-front palace with a full casino and a spa lots of dark wood and marble in the lobby. So far so good. The problem was: I had an meeting the next morning at 7:30 am and, because of other commitments back home, a flight out at 2:30 PM that afternoon. All in all, just 17 hours on the ground, including sleep time. No time for sopa de arroz con pollo, no time for plantain tostones, and not even enough time for lechon asado (barbecued pig). Not even enough time to snap any pictures (I borrowed the one here from the Ritz Carlton website.)

At least I got a good mojito.

Okay, so it's really a Cuban drink, but the rum was Puerto Rican, and it was advertised as the specialty of the house at the Ritz-Carlton Lobby Lounge, where my colleagues and I had a drink and watched as the tropical rain pounded down outside. It seemed like the thing to try. And it was really, really good.

Mojitos are a big trendy drink in the U.S. now--so trendy that Delta airlines was flogging them onboard the plane on the trip down, made I'm sure from some high-fructose mix. Most mojitos I've had have been, frankly, pretty disappointing--a mess of soda water and undissolved sugar and annoying clumps of mint leaves. I've made them at home, too, but they've always come off as too strong--either too much of an alcohol bite from the rum or too sour from the lime.

So, when I took a sip of the one at the Ritz-Carlton and found it a perfect smooth blend of sweetness, sourness, and mint, I kept one eye on the bartender and took notice the few next times he made mojitos.

The ingredients were simple: rum, fresh lime juice, sugar, and mint with just a touch of soda (not half a glass of soda, as I've seen it made in too many places). And, smooth as it was, it wasn't because he skimped on the rum--the doses, in fact, were pretty darn generous. The key, it seems, was in the muddling. In most mojitos I've had, the mint is beat up a little in a cocktail shaker, sometimes with a spoon and sometimes with an actual wooden muddle. At the San Juan Ritz, the bartender used an actual mortar and pestle (both wooden, I think) to not just crush the mint leaves but to pulverize them. The resulting drink was not clear with little bits of green mint leaves floating around inside but rather a bright, neon-green liquid. Lots of little bits of mint were suspended in the liquid, but so tiny that they didn't stick to your tongue and clog up the works while you were drinking. It was so good that I wanted a second one, but I had to be up in five hours, so it was off to bed.

The only other island specialty I got to sample was the coffee, which is grown locally and brewed up thick and strong--more like an espresso than the typical weak mainland brew, and served in appropriately small cups. At our meeting that morning, most of the attendees took their coffee con leche, with a health dose of warm milk added and mixed in. A carafe full of milk was kept warming on one of the coffee-machine burners just for that purpose. I had mine black, and its strong, rich flavor helped kicked the morning into gear. Then it was a blur of meetings, high speed rides to the airport, and racing for the airplane gate.

With any luck, I'll be heading back to Puero Rico again in the near future, and next time I plan on staying at least long enough to eat dinner.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Food Origin Myths

I’ve long been fascinated by food origin myths—particularly the stories of how today’s popular foods came to be. The more you read these types of stories (such as who invented the ice cream sundae), the more you notice some common themes, such as these:

The sole inventor. One common element of food origin stories is that the item in question was fabricated by a single person. Food origin myths speak to the fundamental human need for certainty. It just isn’t satisfying to think that a lot of people were making ground beef patties in the mid-to-late 19th Century, that many of them started serving the patties on various types of bread, including soft white buns (which were becoming more popular after the Civil War), and there were many names for such sandwiches but one of them—hamburger—over the course of decades won out and became an iconic food. It’s much more dramatic to think of a single moment when a single person executed the deed. We prefer the certainty and good stories to the messy, ambiguous facts of history.

The Eureka! Moment and the Last Minute Improvisation. Just as there’s something compelling about the concept of a sole inventor, if the circumstances under which he or she conceives the invention are dramatic, then the story is just that much better. Sir Isaac Newton’s being hit on the head by an apple and coming up with the concept of gravity all at a flash makes for a much better story than his puzzling a theory out over the course of years, informed by lots of reading and discussions with friends and colleagues. The same is true in food origin myths. It’s rare to hear a story about how a cafĂ© owner experimented for years with new sandwich combinations, introducing a long line of duds (smoked salmon, olives, and green beans on toast, anyone?) before finally finding a combination of corned beef and sauerkraut on rye that people seemed to like and ordered again and again.

The Hamburger

The hamburger provides a great example of food origin myths at work, and--in classic food myth fashion--there are many competing stories. Most of them demonstrate the elements of the sole inventor and the last-minute improvisation. These stories can be found in a range of sources, but Linda Stradley's "History of Hamburgers" at What's Cooking America provides a good compilation. A few representative examples:

    Hamburger Charlie: 15-year-old Charlie Nagreen from Seymore, WI, was having little luck selling meatballs from a cart at the 1885 Outagamie County Fair. Deciding that business was slow because it was too hard to eat meatballs while walking around the fair, he had the brainstorm to flatten out the meat and server it between two slices of bread. His creation was an instant hit, and Nagreen returned to the fair to sell them every year until his death in 1951, earning the nickname "Hamburger Charlie".
      The Menches Brothers: Frank and Charles Menches, traveling fair concessionaires from Akron, Ohio, were working the fair at Hamburg, NY, in 1885 when they ran out of pork for their sausage-patty sandwiches. The local butcher had stopped slaughtering pigs because it was too hot, but he offered the brothers ground beef instead, which they substituted in their sandwiches, naming their creation "Hamburgers" after the town.
      Louis Lassen: Louis Lassen, proprietor of a lunch wagon in New Haven, CT, specialized in selling steak sandwiches to local factory workers. One day a customer in a hurry asked for something quick that he could eat on the run, so Louis ground up some scraps of steak and served them between two slices of bread.
    The "hard to carry at a fair" improvisation, interestingly, is similar to the explanation frequently offered for the origin of the hotdog (fair sausage vendor puts his product in a bun to be easier to carry) and the origin of the ice cream cone (ice cream vendor runs out of cups and serves his product in the rolled product from a nearby waffle vendor.)

    In many versions of the Louis Lassen story the explanation is more mundane: Louis was an economical guy and came up with the hamburger as a way to use up leftover steak scraps. This latter story makes much more sense than a last-minute idea for a hurried customer (after all, would a sandwich made from ground meat scraps be any quicker or more portable than a regular steak sandwich?). But, the improvisational details add drama to the story and make it all the more compelling.

    And that's why we love these stories so much.

    Sunday, August 06, 2006

    A Compelling Wild Ride

    Brett over at In Praise of Sardines has kicked off a really interesting series of posts on opening a restaurant in San Francisco. Though I spent many years in my life working in restaurants, I never really saw it much from the business side, so I think this is a great series.

    Sweet Tea the Simple Way

    I'm never sure whether it's worth passing on little tips like this, because once you start using them they seems so obvious. But, for years I was completely unaware of simple syrup, so I can only figure other people must still be, too.

    I've lived in the South all my life, and for all my life I've heard complaints about how once iced tea has been cooled it's impossible to sweeten it. These complaints usually come when I'm traveling in the North with fellow Southerners or here at home when eating at one of those snooty upscale places that have the nerve to say, "we only have unsweet tea." And I'll watch as a dedicated sweet-tea lover dumps packet after packet of sugar into the glass, only to have it sink undissolved to the bottom, leaving a glass of unsweet tea with an inch of sugar sludge at the bottom.

    I gave up on trying to sweeten tea with granulated sugar many years ago and just drink it unsweetened--which is fine with me, since I like both sweet and unsweet tea. But, my openmindedness seems to be uncommon: most people are either dogmatically sweet or unsweet in their preferences and abhor the other kind. This was always a problem when people would drop by my house unexpectedly: I like to offer them something to drink, and most people like iced tea when they're not up for something alcoholic, but my visitors always seem equally split between the sweet and unsweet camps.

    But not long ago, while trying out recipes for various summertime drinks like the mojito, I stumbled across a trick that is perfect for sweetening even the iciest-cold iced tea: simple syrup.

    Simple syrup is just plain old sugar dissolved in a small amount of water. But, for sweetening drinks, it's magic: unlike regular sugar, the syrup blends right in and merges with the cold liquid. You can use it for all sort of alcoholic drinks, too, like margaritas and daiquiris, and stop messing around with those sickly-sweet mixes.

    So, now I always have pitcher of unsweet iced tea in my fridge along with a little container of simple syrup. Pour a splash of syrup in the bottom of a glass, add ice and unsweet tea, and even the most die-hard sweet tea fan will be satisfied.

    Now if we could just get those snooty restaurants to start putting little pitchers of simple syrup on the table . . .

    Simple Syrup

    Use a 1-to-1 ratio of sugar to water. So, to make 2 cups, bring 1 cup of water to a boil and stir in 1 cup of sugar, stirring till the sugar is fully disolved. Cool and store in a closed container in the refrigerator.

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