Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Gluttonous Myth of Diamond Jim Brady

David Kamp has a nice piece of culinary-historical investigation in The New York Times that assesses the legendary gluttony of Diamond Jim Brady.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Al Forno Charleston 2.0 - New & Improved!

My web hits at Al Forno Charleston have be sagging a bit lately.  It could be that I didn't post anything for a month and then, when I finally got around to it, the best thing I could come up with was a crummy link to a video of Chris Cosentino cutting up a beef heart.

But that's probably not it.  I think I just need to jazz things up a little bit and make the old site more appealing.  So, check out the prototype of the new-and-improved layout and look-and-feel for:

I think this is just the sizzle the old site's been missing . . .

Hat tip to the Bloggess for the link . . .

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Oh, it is ON!

None of the major media outlets have picked it up yet, but it seems a full-fledged war has broken out in the northern reaches of Mount Pleasant.  

For years, Sonic has reigned supreme as pretty much the only drive-thru fast restaurant north of the IOP Connector.  Sure, there was funky local contender Jack's Cosmic Dogs, and a Quiznos and a few chain-type sandwich shops, but when it was time for a quick fix of greasy fries in a paper sack ordered through a drive-thru microphone, Sonic owned the neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, though, an aggressive new player muscled in on Sonic's turf, as captured through this crafty surveillance photo:

That's right. Chik-Fil-A is on the move. It wasn't enough for them to dominate the US 17 corridor from the Ravenel Bridge all the way to I-526 with their habit-forming chicken filets and a drive-thru line that I swear sometimes wrapped around the building twice. Now they've opened a new location in the Oakland Market shopping center just north of Highway 41 and are bringing it straight to Sonic.

But Sonic isn't taking things lying down. "You wanna do chicken?" it said to the brash newcomer. "Oh, we can do chicken all day long:"

And Sonic ain't stopping there. This weekend, they took the gloves off altogether:

Aw, snap. What you got to say now, chicken boys?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Least Likely to Succeed

If the term "locavore" just isn't silly enough for you, try out this one:

"Palmetto Vore"

Just rolls off the tongue, don't it? My favorite part is that it's goal is to "put a friendly face on agribusiness."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daddy Joe's

One a recent drive from Rock Hill, SC, over to Greenville, the wife and I stopped in at Daddy Joe's Beach House BBQ and Grill in Gaffney. This was just a random pick off a billboard we saw along I-85, and I still have no idea why a BBQ joint in the Upstate of SC is called a "Beach House" (maybe it's because they have fried fish and shrimp on the menu), but it wasn't bad barbecue at all.

I had a chopped pork sandwich with fries, BBQ slaw, and hushpuppies.

It may not be an old-fashioned pit, but at least they're using some real wood in their smokers:

Top it off with a cold draft beer, and it beats the heck out of McDonalds!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Labor Relations and Barbecue Jurisprudence

In my research into the history of barbecue, I recently turned up a (somewhat) landmark legal case involving barbecue, labor relations, and housing law.

In 1914, Henry M. Williams, a weaver at the Cotton Mills Company in Columbia, South Carolina, asked to be excused from work for two days because he wanted to prepare and give a barbecue. The request was denied, but Williams left work for the barbecue anyway. When he returned to the mill a few days later, he was told that his loom had been given to someone else. Williams was offered another position at a lower wage, which he declined, and he was subsequently evicted from his company-owned house in the mill village.

Williams brought suit against the mill company for wrongful eviction and won. The mill company appealed and the case made it to the South Carolina Supreme Court. One of the key issues was whether Williams should have been allowed to testify the reason he missed two days of work. The mill’s lawyers had objected, apparently recognizing that—in South Carolina, at least—knowing that a man skipped work to barbecue would likely bias any jury in his favor.

Williams won the appeal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just Shillin', Food Network Style

Though I find most of the shows on the Food Network these days to be tedious and silly, I still regularly visit their website to look up recipes. I've always found it a much more reliable source than, say, Google to turn up a pretty good version of solid, made-from-scratch cooking. Part of this is because the Food Network once had quite a stable of cooks, including Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and--when he wasn't too busy bamming up everything in sight--Emeril Legasse.

So, imagine my surprise when I logged in the other day and found at the top of my search results a "Sponsored Recipe" provided by Kraft. The particular recipe in question was for "Simply Lasagna", and it required the following ingredients:

1 lb. ground beef
2-1/2 cups KRAFT Shredded Low-Moisture Part-Skim Mozzarella Cheese, divided
1 container (15 oz.) POLLY-O Natural Part Skim Ricotta Cheese
1/2 cup KRAFT Grated Parmesan Cheese, divided
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, beaten
1 jar (26 oz.) spaghetti sauce
1 cup water
12 lasagna noodles, uncooked

This is precisely the kind of industrial food glop that I turned to the Food Network recipe search for in the first place.

Not to fear . . . I did turn up a fine Batali recipe for "Neapolitan Baked Lasagna" that I ended up using. It was from his show back in 2000. I figure it'll get purged from the database before too long to make way for more "sponsored" schlock.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Oh, you poor thing!

It happened again a few days ago when I was eating dinner at one of the nicer restaurants down on East Bay Street. The crowd was a mix of people clearly out for a business function (I was one of those), some well-heeled tourists taking in Charleston cuisine, and a few families and older couples out for a celebration or maybe just a nice evening on the town.

Over at a corner tables, one couple stood out. The young woman was pretty and probably not quite old enough to order a drink. She was wearing a stylish dress (you could almost call it a cocktail dress) and high-heels, and she had clearly taken a lot of time with her hair and make-up. She was sitting at the table on an obvious date with a guy about the same age as her, only he was in ratty blue jeans with a rather rumpled looking t-shirt and apparently hadn't combed his hair in days.

This was hardly the first time I'd witnessed such a mismatched young couple. In fact, in nice Charleston restaurants down on the Peninsula, it seems to be par for the course--and it's always the guy who's in the jeans and sneakers. And I always want to know what the story is.

Maybe there's an innocent explanation, like the guy asked the girl to go out for dinner and he was thinking pizza and she was thinking five-star meal. But that would be more likely if you saw the two in a booth over at Andolini's.

Is this their first date? Is she sitting there checking her watch, mortified at his uncouthness and running through the line she's going to use to drop him like a hot rock at the end of the night? Or maybe this is date number twenty and she's resigned herself that "that's just the way he is" and figuring maybe he'll change someday when he finally grows up. Could it even be possible that she digs his casual style?

It's times like these that I become aware of my rapid advancement into middle age. At one time, even several years after I had gotten married and was thankfully no longer part of the dating scene, I understood the ground-rules: where you would go for a casual date and where you would go when you wanted to drop a bundle and really impress a girl. I understood what one should and should not wear for such occasions, and certain basic principles like never saying, "yikes!" when you first look at the entree prices, and never saying at a Mexican restaurant, "I think I'll just have a taco a la carte" after your date orders the seven-plate combination dinner. (This actually happened to The Wife on a first date in college, which helps explain how even a sloppy, absent-minded barbecue nut like myself seemed a catch when I finally came along.)

Increasingly, I get the sense that the rules are changing, but I'm not exactly sure how. I know we've gotten to be more casual, and rare is the restaurant today that will kick you out if you aren't wearing a coat and tie. But, are jeans and t-shirt acceptable attire for a dinner date these days, or is that guy just a punk?

My instincts say "punk", and I hope his young date soon finds herself a more worthy companion. But I'm not 100% sure anymore.

Before long I'll stop even wondering and just mutter into my Scotch, "Jesus . . . the kids these days!"

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Barbecue for the Uneducated

I gave The Wife a GPS for her car as an anniversary gift. (Yes, I know, REAL romantic . . . but it's what she wanted.) Hands down the the best feature is the option to find Points of Interest > Food > Barbecue. I don't think this is why she wanted a GPS, but--for me, at least--anything that has a built in barbecue locator is a gadget worth having. (It's what led me fortuitously to Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q in Jacksonville.)

So, we're playing with the thing the first day, and I see the barbecue option and make her select it, and the nearest barbecue joint to our turns out to be . . .

"Shane's Rib Shack!" The Wife announces. "2.1 miles!"

"Naw," I say, on impulse, "That's not real barbecue."

But everytime I got into the Wife's car and punched Points of Interest > Food > Barbecue into the device (which was a lot), it made me think, and I realized I hadn't really been fair to old Shane's.

For starters, I'd never actually eaten there. I knew it was a franchised chain--part of the Raving Brands stable of single-food oriented "concepts" that include Planet Smoothie (smoothies), Doc Green's (salads), and, at one time, the Moe's burrito chain. (It turns out Raving Brands sold Moe's to Focus Brands last year.)

But is that really enough to turn up my nose and snub Shane's outright? I mean, what if just 2.1 miles down the road from my house is a little storefront selling national-class barbecue and I've just been too pig-headed--or maybe not pig-minded enough--to even find out what I was missing?

So one afternoon, feeling particularly open-minded and hungry, I swung by and picked up a big "Shack Sample" combo dinner to go. When I opened the lid to the styrofoam box, two long orange strips caught my eye, and it was enough to give me pause. Buffalo chicken fingers . . . in a barbecue combo? Nothing barbecue about them--just deep fried chicken tenders coated not in barbecue sauce but in the conventional spicy wing sauce.

I pushed them aside and proceeded to the chopped pork. Nothing particularly bad about it, but nothing good about it, either--really quite bland, without a hint of smoke.

The baby back ribs had a very familiar flavor to them that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but I think it was something in the sauce, since there was nothing smoky about them at all. While they were definitely better than the chopped pork, they struck me more as the kind of thing you might make in your oven and not over a barbecue pit.

The coleslaw, though made with cabbage chopped into fine bits they way I like it, was as bland as the pork. There was flavor enough to the Brunswick Stew, but it wasn't a very good flavor, and the whole thing had that oddly glutinous texture that suggests corn starch or some other thickening agent.

Now, I firmly agree with whoever it was who said that, like sex, even bad barbecue is better than no barbecue at all. I suppose if you were stuck somewhere like Michigan and couldn't get sweet tea and people gave you diced corned beef when you asked for "hash", having a Shane's open up on the corner might be a welcome event. People eat all kinds of things when they're desperate (q.v. The Donner Party).

But, when just a few more miles down the road there's Melvin's, and Momma Brown's, and Ray's BBQ, and Sticky Fingers--well, Shane, who really needs you?

As it turns out, quote a few people actually do need Shane. These are people who have money to spend but don't like barbecue--or, at least, are so benighted that they've never actually tasted proper barbecue before.

Jim Auchmutey profiled Shane Thompson, the founder of Shane's Rib Shack, in the Atlanta Consitution back in 2006, and the interview reveals a man actively at odds with the traditions of barbecue. For starters, while the interior of Shane's outlets have plenty of Hee-Haw-esque country decor, you won't find little pig statuettes or cartoons of cute oinkers dressed in overalls or chef's hats. "That whole pig thing--I don't like it," Thompson told Auchmutey. "You know, a lot of people think pigs are dirty animals."

Cleanliness is a big thing for Shane's Rib Shack, and I doubt you'll ever find one with a "B" health rating. Thompson unapologetically extols the virtues of electric cookers over wood-fired pits and even the gas-wood combo smokers that dominate the restaurant industry today. Shane consciously sought them out so that his barbecue would have less smoke flavor, believing that women not only prefer clean restaurants to smoky old BBQ joints but also like a lighter smoked flavor than men. With their electric cookers, you'll never find a red smoke ring on Shane's barbecue, but that's intentional. "We don't want people thinking the meat isn't done," Thompson said. "A lot of people are uneducated about barbecue."

So, it's easy to spot Shane's target market.

Ordinarily, being a rather mild-mannered guy and loath to offend, I would have refrained from even discussing these issues. Shane Thompson, the former medical salesman turned electric pitmaster, sold his restaurant and the formula to Raving Brands back in 2005, remaining on simply as a folksy "goodwill ambassador" in the marketing materials.

A charitable person might hope that this Shane character is just a loose canon spouting off for reporters and that the marketing-meisters at Raving Brands would have more sense than promoting such blatant heresies as the fact that pigs are dirty animals, that women don't like the taste of real barbecue, and that chicken tenders belong on a barbecue combo platter.

But, it didn't take much detective work to turn up the AJC interview: it's right there on the Shane's Rib Shack Corporate website. So, I can only assume the corporate suits buy in part and parcel to the notion that the way to create a successful barbecue empire is to get rid of as many of the characteristics of classic barbecue as you can. Perhaps they're onto something. From 26 units in 2006, Shane's has grown to some 90 restaurants today, with another dozen or so more on their way.

My Garmin Nuvi might say that Shane's is the closest barbecue restaurant to my house, but I'd have to take issue with that.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pomegranate is the new Grenadine

I'm into tiki drinks and other rum concoctions in a big way these days, and during my explorations I've stumbled across any number of recipes that call for grenadine.

I don't think I've ever owned a bottle of grenadine before this summer. It was always something I remembered from my restaurant days as what we mixed with Sprite to make Shirley Temples. And we used non-alcoholic Blue Curacao syrup to make Smurfs, too, another kid classic. Do restaurants still get orders for those these days? When I was in college, going out for dinner was still a big enough event for families that they would want to order the kids something "special" from the bar. These days, a restaurant meal is more routine than a homecooked meal for many children, and soft drinks far more common than milk . . . and what kid today would even know who the Smurfs were?

But I digress. Back to grenadine.

It's sort of scary stuff--a neon, unnatural red color. If you look closely at the label, you'll notice it's mostly high fructose corn syrup. If you spill even a small bit on to your countertop (which, if you're like me, is an unwise white color)when mixing up a drink (which, if you're like me, is fairly likely, especially on later rounds), it'll leave nasty pink stains that it takes harsh cleanser and a lot of elbow grease to get clean.

Enter pomegranate nectar.

A pleasant purple color. It's much less sweet than grenadine (which is understandable, since Rose's grenadine is probably something like 99.5% corn syrup), but you are left with a tropical drink that feels tropical and doesn't seem like it should have been mixed in a slushy machine.

Like this modified version of the Mai Tai:

1 oz. light rum
1 oz. dark rum
1 oz. Triple sec
1/2 oz. pomegranate nectar (instead of grenadine)
1/2 oz. pineapple juice (instead of orgeat syrup)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake with ice, strain into chilled glass (preferably an authentic Tiki mug) over crushed ice, and garnish with a spear of pineapple and cherry, or a nice paper umbrella if you have one.

You can also substitute pomegranate for grenadine in tequila drinks, like this Mexicana:

1 1/2 oz Tequila
1 1/2 oz. Pineapple Juice
1 oz Lime Juice
1/2 oz. Pomegranate nectar (instead of 1 tsp Grenadine)

Shake with ice and strain into a glass with crushed ice.

I know there's a lot of hoo-hah out there right now about pomegranate juice, and it seems a lot of people are drinking it for various antioxidants and other health fixes. Maybe. But at least it's easy to find now, and it makes a great addition to the cocktail mixer lineup.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Night at Tristan

If watching the election returns at home is too tame for you, and you're not up for the rubber chicken at the typical local politico shindig, Tristan has something a little more upscale that might fit the bill.

It's their inaugural "Election Party", where you can watch the returns in the lounge and enjoy a special appetizer selection along with a Brandy Sidecar for only $16.

If you get hungry, there'll be a three-course prix fixe meal that includes Washingtonian selections such as Blue Point Oysters, Filet Mignon, and a Hazelnut Soufflet for dessert, all for a mere 55 bucks.

A little extravagant, maybe, but surely your candidate is going to win, and he'll fix this whole economy thing in a jiffy.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Florida Barbecue at Bono's

My recently-acquired high-tech barbecue locating device served me well this week on a trip to Jacksonville, FL. At lunch time it plotted a route directly to Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q. I was a little skeptical as we pulled into the parking lot since it's just off a four lane parkway near a big mall, and the place looks just a little too clean and upscale.

But, as soon as I stepped in the door and was hit with a big snootful of hickory smoke I knew it was going to be just fine.

We had St. Louis cut ribs, pulled pork and--just for the hell of it, since it's fairly unusual item--barbecued turkey. All three were fantastic. The ends of the pulled pork were tinged that beautiful deep red from real wood smoke, and the turkey--big chunks of white breast meat--was far better than I expected, succulent and rich with smoky flavor. The ribs were perhaps the smokiest of all, the meat still tender and--thankfully--served without a lick of sauce on them. They didn't need any..

Bono's "original 1949 sauce" is a quite tasty yellow concoction that would more than, um, cut the mustard in a South Carolina BBQ joint. It's the farthest South that I can remember finding a mustard base--a reflection, perhaps, that what many call the "Midlands South Carolina" style actually scoots across the border into Georgia in the counties around Augusta. Apparently, it may have slipped a little down the coast into Florida at some point, too, though Bono's has Brunswick Stew and not hash as a side item.

I applied a little of the mustard-based sauce to my pulled pork and it went quite nicely. There was also a "hickory red" sauce that struck me as a bit Texan in origin, but there was really no need for it, since the ribs were more than flavorful enough to stand on their own.

Bono's has been around since 1949, when the Lou Bono opened his first location on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville. There's now a good two dozen locations, mostly in North Florida. They cook their barbecue in big Southern Pride smokers, which are gas-fired but burn wood for smoke flavor. These are pretty common these days (Southern Pride claims that 12 out of the top 14 barbecue chains use their equipment), but Bono's takes an extra step and finishes the meat on a big open pit over Black Jack oak.

The open pit features prominently in the restaurant, positioned right behind the lunch counter, where you can watch the pit boss take the big shoulders and racks of ribs out and hand-slice each portion as orders come in.

I can't saw for sure how much of an effect the open pit has on the flavor, but Bono's barbecue does seem a lot more smoky and flavorful than a lot of other places that use those combo gas/wood smokers. At a minimum, it makes for a great effect, and keeps the delicious aroma of wood smoke in the air.

And, as a sidenote, I have to say that I'm a big fan of serving sweet tea with a slice of lime, like Bono's does, rather than the more standard lemon. It must be a Florida BBQ thing, since they do it the same way at Shorty's down in Miami, another classic Florida BBQ joint.

Some people like to sneer at Florida and claim it isn't really a part of the South. I can see how one might get that idea if they just fly into Orlando for a conference or a visit to Disney. Such folks ought to drop by Bono's for a little pulled pork, though. It might change their outlook.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Scenes from Domestic Life, Episode 4

If you cook like I do, it takes a little while. And that's part of the whole point. "Not now. I'm trying to cook dinner," I tell the Seven Year Old, who wants me to wrestle or play cards or play X-Box with him, since having the first 11 hours of a Sunday utterly devoted to his every whim just hasn't been enough "play time".

The longer I can draw that process out the better. Some men play golf to get themselves out of the house for a good four or five hour stretch. I cook overly complex meals. And hence this little drama:

Scene 1: A kitchen in a house in suburban Mt. Pleasant, SC. A father is preparing a chicken to roast in the oven.

[Enter Seven Year Old, wearing a down vest, plastic space helmet with visor, and plastic raygun]
Seven Year Old: Daddy, send me on a mission!

Father: Okay [thinks for a few seconds]. Trooper, the evil turtle has set a bomb that will go off in three minutes. To defuse it, you need . . . um . . . a pink shoe, a bridge, and . . . um . . . an article of clothing with a "B" on it. [sets kitchen alarm]. You have five minutes. Ready . . . GO!!!

[Seven year old exits stage left, hauling ass.]

[Father mixes a mai tai, listens to a little music on the stereo, enjoys the relative quiet downstairs.]

[Four minutes and fifty three seconds later, the Seven Year enters stage left, hauling ass and sweating in his down vest, which is much too warm for a South Carolina October. He's clutching a pink flip flop, a wooden bridge piece from the Thomas the Tank Engine train set, and a Boston Red Sox cap.]

Father: Great job! You defused the bomb. And with just seven seconds left!

Seven Year Old: Give me another mission!

Father: Okay [thinks a minute]. This time, the bomb is set for SEVEN minutes. And to defuse it you need to find five things that start with the letter 'Q". Ready . . . go!

[Seven year old exits stage left again, still hauling ass.]

Father: Parenthood is easy.

Scene 2: An upstairs family room in a house in suburban Mt. Pleasant, SC. A mother is sitting on the couch, trying to watch her favorite TV show while her two year old crawls all over her, demanding attention. She turns on the closed captioning so she can follow the dialog over the toddler's screeching.

[Enter Seven year old, hauling ass.]


Mother: What? What are you talking about?


Mother: I'm trying to watch my show! WHAT do you need a PINK shoe for?


Mother: No, you don't, I'm . . . fine, whatever. There's a pink shoe in my closet. Just leave me alone!

[Seven Year Old exits stage right, hauling ass. Fifteen seconds later's he's back.]


Mother: I'm TRYING to watch my show! WHAT do you need?


Mother: Oh MY GOD!

Scene 3: A bedroom in a house in suburban Mt. Pleasant, SC.

Father: Man, aren't the weekends great!

Mother: [feigns sleep]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Holy Smoke!

My much-awaited copy of John and Dale Reed's Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue arrived this week, and I've been working my way through it eagerly. It's a three-part book, covering "The Lore" (history and evolution of barbecue in the state of NC), "The Food" (a thorough cataloging of all aspects of the NC style--including recipes!--from cornsticks to Brunswick Stew), and finally "The People" (interviews with a dozen heavy-hitters in the world of NC barbecue).

The material is detailed and definitive--the most thorough volume to date on barbecue in the Tarheel State--but the Reeds have a great light-hearted style, and there are hundreds of priceless pictures, making it an all-around fun book.

I haven't been able to finish the thing yet because everytime I sit down with it I can only make it through about forty pages before I have to grab my keys and head out to find a barbecue joint. If I don't get too much sauce on the pages, I'll give a full report in a few days.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Real Apples

I spent the weekend at the beach with my parents, and they brought with them a big bag of fresh-picked mountain apples from North Carolina. While I've bought "mountain apples" a few times at farmer's markets here in Charleston, it was the first time in recent memory that I've had ones fresh off the tree. Man, what a difference. Sweet, tart, and so flavorful they'll knock your socks off.

Plus, the apples travel pretty well. My folks bought them on Saturday, and here it is five days later and I'm enjoying one of the big Granny Smiths I took home with me, pairing them up with a nice manchego cheese and, criminey!, the two flavors just blend together perfectly.

These aren't even heirloom varieties, just fresh picked versions of what you normally buy at the local BiLo. I don't see how I can ever settle for one of those tasteless Washington State models again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Barbecue Primer in the Key of G

You can read a ton of books about barbecue and all its regional variations. But here's all you really need to know:

Thanks to Kevin Johnson of Anson for the tip.

Friday, September 19, 2008

New(ish) Blogs

Matt Bolus, who recently bought Red Sky out on Seabrook Island, has a four-month-old blog called Thyme for Food.

David Heiser, the film and restaurant critic for the George Street Observer, the College of Charleston's campus newspaper, has been blogging for a while now over at

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Garden & Gun

I've been rather impressed by the relatively-new periodical Garden & Gun, which was launched last year by the parent company of the Charleston Post & Courier newspaper. While it's not specifically food-focused, there are plenty of culinary features and sidebars, like a recipe from Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon restaurants in New Orleans for a Bloody Mary that includes (that's right!) pork broth. Or, a feature on mail order Southern products that includes two of my personal favorites--Anson Mills grits from Columbia and Benton's bacon from Madisonville, Tennessee.

There are some heavy hitters writing for this outfit, like Rick Bragg, Clyde Edgerton, Reynolds Price, Jack Hitt, and a guy named Jimmy Buffett, who I think also moonlights as a singer/songwriter. And there's a fine meditation by Roy Blount, Jr. on corn. Any one who quotes old Hee Haw jokes is good in my book.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fake Restaurants

By my count, there are at least two national TV commercials in which some lowbrow fast-food joint fakes having a "nice restaurant" that serves its food. First it was Hardees, with their "" bit, where they try to dupe innocent patrons into shelling out $14 for a cut-rate Hardees Thickburger. Hot on their heels, Pizza Hut pretended to serve its pasta at a white tablecloth bistro and captured diners' reactions on film.

Pizza Hut's version turns out to be even more complicated--a triple-fake-out that involves at least three different restaurant names, as explicated over at Population Statistics.

Not to be outdone by its fastfood rivals in mocking hapless consumers on air, Burger King has released as series of "Whopper Freakout" commercials where the restaurant isn't fake, but innocent patrons are lied to on camera just to catch their reaction.

But this trend isn't limited to U.S. restaurant chains. Wine writer Robin Goldstein recently staged a fake Italian restaurant in order to gull Wine Spectator into a questionable award-for-pay brouhaha.

And then Ruby Tuesday's faked blowing up a fake restaurant that they pretended they thought was a Ruby Tuesday's.

Get real, fellas.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Palmetto Pit BBQ

Moneyhun's Oink out on Clement's Ferry Road had some pretty darn good barbecue, but apparently it wasn't cutting it on the business side. After a brief closure, the spot has reopened under new management and the name "Palmetto Pit."

The basic setup remains the same, and the barbecue and sauces are a little different but still pretty good. I do miss Moneyhun's sweet onion slaw and fresh-made barbecue beans, though.

The Palmetto Pit is open just for lunch for now, and starting Sept. 15th they'll be going to an all-you-can-eat buffet approach. Let's hope they can make a go of it: Charleston can use all the good barbecue joints it can get!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

More Food History Graphs

I'm a sucker for historical food consumption data. Beyond Blueberries has a nice selection of data from the recently-updated USDA Economic Research Service's Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System.

Capsule summary: meat's up, grain's down, and fats and oils just keep on rising.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pig Cuttin'

For those of you who aren't freaked out by seeing food in a close-to-natural state, Sean Brock has some great pics of his crew butchering and curing a 260-pound Spotted Poland China pig down at McCrady's.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lost in the Icebox

My refrigerator is generally pretty orderly, since I tend to throw out food when the expiration date is passed and/or it's starting to look mushy, fuzzy, or dangerous. (This is not native behavior, The Wife will attest, but a result of domestication.)

The freezer is a different story. It's an icy Sargasso Sea of old leftover meals, odd chunks of variety meat, vegetables, tubs of duck fat, and bags of heirloom grains. I know it's impossible, since we moved into this house just a year ago, but some of the meat looks downright prehistoric.

So, today, out it all came onto the kitchen counter for a good sifting and sorting:

About a third of it went into trash, and the rest is now back in the freezer, fussily arranged on the little racks (it's one of those side-by-side models with four wire basket/racks). Meat on the bottom, vegetables and grains next, then premade food and leftovers, and miscellaneous stuff like bread and sauces on the top.

The good news: I discovered I have several weeks worth of meat on hand. The bad news: two weeks from now it will be a complete disaster again.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Workin' Out, Sorta

As soon as I stepped into my room at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, I knew there had been a mistake. It was a large room--some sort of suite, so I couldn't complain about that. But the whole broad end of the room by the big plate glass windows was filled with . . . some sort of bizarre, Rube Goldberg-like machinery.

Upon closer inspection I determined that they were not in fact cruel instruments of torture but rather high-tech exercise equipment, of all things: a treadmill, a medicine ball, some adjustable-weight dumbbells, and some sort of big rubber workout ball that I'm not quite sure how one would use. It appeared that I had been booked into some sort of "fitness suite."

Or, as the Westin people call it, the WestinWORKOUT(R) Room, where you can "recharge yourself on your own time, in your own room."

I have no problem with people who follow a rigorous exercise routine when on the road, even if I never quite manage such discipline on my own. Going for a jog in a new city is probably a great way to take in the scenery, and if the weather is bad or you're booked into one of those dreary motels off an Interstate exit, I can see how some laps in the indoor pool or a quick workout on the stairclimber in the hotel gym would go a long way toward keeping off those extra pounds despite three restaurant meals a day.

But isn't having the exercise equipment right there in your room just a tad excessive?

In their delightful 1975 phillipic The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess lamented the "solitary drinking" that seemed an epidemic within the rooms of "hotels that advertise 'free guest ice' on every floor'". It's a marked contrast to the nominally-sociable practice of boozing it up in the hotel bar, where there's at least an outside chance of actually interacting with similarly bored and/or lonely traveling souls.

The WestonWORKOUT(R) room seems the early 21st century's version of solitary hotel-room drinking: solitary hotel-room exercising. A depressing metaphor for the Bowling Alone generation.

I must admit, though, that the treadmill did come in handy. The handrails served quite nicely for hanging my suit pants at the end of the day when I changed into jeans for a visit around the corner to Gates BBQ.

A few hours later, as I lay on the bed stuffed full of hickory-smoked brisket, pork ribs, and ham, I suppose I took some small comfort in knowing that if I woke up at five a.m. with an overwhelming urge to exercise I had a handy treadmill just two steps away.

I woke up at seven, feeling quite fine.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

BBQ Odyssey

Two guys from up north are blogging their way through a week-long barbecue odyssey across the South in a rented Toyota Prius. They hit Charleston yesterday and took in Melvin's. Next stop is Macon . . .

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are you a Foodie?

Something about the term "foodie" has always rubbed me the wrong way. It's never been something I wanted to call myself, even though (if forced to reflect upon it) I must admit that I meet several of the defining criteria.

The term "foodie" derives, as best as I can tell, from Paul Levy and Ann Barr's 1985 book The Official Foodie Handbook. Here's the opening paragraph:

What is a Foodie? You are probably. A Foodie is a person who is very very very interested in food. Foodies are the ones interested in food in any gathering - salivating over restaurants, recipes and radicchio. They don't think they are being trivial - Foodies consider food to be an art, on a level with painting and drama. It's actually your favourite art form.
Why did we need a new term? "Epicure" and "gourmet" had served us just fine for years. But, following the hangover of the James Beard and Julia Child days and the onset of the anti-grande cuisine reaction in the 1970s and 1980s (triggered, I guess, by Alice Waters and the whole California food thing), those old terms had just taken on too much baggage: stuffy, snobbish . . . food priggery.

Levy's definition of "foodie", with its references to high art, may not sound much better, but it definitely took on a different slant from "gourmet." The latter was some one interested primarily in just eating, the pure connoisseurism and enjoyment of the very best in refined dining. The refined part didn't matter as much to the foodies. The were food amateurs, but they loved not just eating but everything about food, including learning as much as possible about food and, of course, talking incessantly about it.

Somewhere along the line "foodie" took on its own set of negative connotations, namely obsessive compulsion and judgmentalism. It wasn't enough that foodies had to memorize every strain of bacteria used in fermented cheeses and proceed to enumerate them for you with color commentary at cocktail parties. While they were at it, they took the extra time to sneer at the pasteurized cheddar chunks that your host was so ill-informed as to serve.

But my resistance to the term goes deeper than the negative overtones. Part of it is a general impatience with people who let a hobby or interest get all out of whack until it becomes a "lifestyle" or, worse, forms a large portion of their identity.

The truth of the matter, if you get down to it, is that a predilection for pursuing good eats at the expense of reason and practicality doesn't define your identity so much as it defines the identity of your spouse or significant other, who must endure countless sidetrips down country roads because "I think I remember hearing about a guy around here somewhere who makes the best liver pudding in three counties." Who must suffer through extensive mumbled gripes and kvetching any time you spend more than two days encamped at the homes of relatives who insist upon serving pre-breaded, pre-flavored frozen chicken breasts to you for dinner. Who frequently is told "I'm just going to whip up something light for dinner" only to return three hours later to a kitchen knee-deep in dirty pans and the smoke alarm going off.

"The poor woman," she overhears them say in hushed tones. "She's married to that food nut."

But, let's cut to the chase. The fact of the matter is that "foodie" is simply one of the damn silliest names for a food lover that anyone could have come up with.

It would be one thing if it was an insult concocted by a bunch of fast-food junkies and Hamburger Helper devotees to mock food snobs. But why would any sensible human being want to say to another, "Oh, yes, I am a foodie!" Would a motorcylist announce, "I'm a bikie?" Would a oenophile embrace being a "winey" or a numismatist a "coiney"? Somehow I think not.

Maybe Levy tacked on that dorky "-ie" suffix just for that reason, to separate down-to-earth foodies from the stuffier, self-important gourmets. No latinate technical terms or snooty faux-Frenchism for them, just cute, little inoffensive "foodies." Or maybe the British are just weird.

In any event, it doesn't work for me.

I've always been partial to Calvin Trillin's preferred term, "big hungry boy," which describes someone who's passionate about food but mostly just wants to eat all the time and will go to great lengths to seek out tasty items but rarely, if ever, lords it over people who might have (if you were a foodie judging them, at least) "less discerning" tastes. A Big Hungry Boy would be far less interested in a yet another foie gras-topped filet than an unparalleled "River Dog" from Joseph Riley Park in Charleston (with its unbeatable combination of coleslaw, mustard-based barbecue sauce, and a big spear of pickled okra laid along top).

But, what's in a name? The Wife frequently chastises me for my "obsessive" interest in matters such as finding housemade pancetta or fresh, on-premise-ground burgers. But she has her own unnatural fascination with the daily minutiae of third-rate screen actors and really has no room for throwing stones.

After all, when I'm off on the road on yet another business trip, she may be stuck at home with two young children and nothing in the cubboard but a tin of really good Spanish sardines, a jar of handmade mustard, and six varieties of heirloom rice that take three hours to cook. But, I doubt she worries too much that I'm out at the nudie bars "entertaining clients" or hitting up the bellhops for tips on evening entertainment. It's a much safer bet that I'm alone in my room at 9:00 PM, sleeping off another triple-platter from Gates's Barbecue (ribs, sliced beef, and ham!) and calculating in my REM-sleep whether I have time to finish a client meeting at 10:30, grab a burnt ends sandwich on the way to the airport, and still make a 12:20 flight.

I suppose it could be a lot worse.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Two Great Tastes . . .

Okay, so it's more than a year old, but still newsworthy in my mind: bacon-flavored mints! What could go wrong?

From a tip on Food on the Food.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Death of the Entree

In recent months, it seems like every time I have dinner in a restaurant I'm blown away by the appetizers (or "starters", "primi", or "small plates") then totally underwhelmed by the entree that follows.

This first started a few months ago when I reviewed Langdon's for the Charleston City Paper. The scallops with sweet corn puree knocked my socks off and far overshadowed the lamb chops I had for my entree. There was nothing wrong with the lamb--it was quite tasty--but when it came time to comment on them for the review, I was at a loss for something to say. The best I could come up with was that they were "everything lamb's supposed to be — rich, tender, moist." (Little wonder I didn't see that James Beard Award this year!)

It happened again and again. At Cypress they do up an unbelievable combination of kumomoto oysters layered with sashimi tuna along with cilantro, lime, and pineapple wasabi that goes down cool, fresh and spicy. The scallops and bacon, with a big slab of smoky bacon and a rich pork reduction over the top, is even better. So good, in fact, that I had little interest in the big pork chop that followed.

At Soif it was something as simple as a radish soup with feta and shallots. At Bacco, the unbelievable roasted olives (from their wood-fired oven) and the caprese salad with made-to-order mozarella are all I can really remember about the meal. Everything else was an afterthought.

I have a few theories for this new appetizer fixation (or, perhaps more accurately, "entree aversion").

One is the tapas aesthetic, of which I am a wholehearted proponent. Food is meant to be shared, and the more different combinations and flavors you get to try the better. Call it "sampling." I love going out to dinner with parties or six or eight because it means more chances to order "a few appetizers for the table" and pass around a parade of savory delights.

For me, it's heresy to go to dinner with someone and order the same entree they do. I've consciously cultivated a group of fellow diners (starting with The Wife) who understand from the beginning that sharing is the name of the game. I mean, really, is it even possible to enjoy being with one of those fastitidious people who get freaked out by the thought of someone else touching their food?

But there's more to it. An entree is a commitment, a major choice that's not to be taken lightly. What if your selection is disappointing or--even more frightening--what if your dinner companion's is even better?

When you surround yourself with Proper Diners, they will, completely unprompted, announce, "you must try some of this duck!" and carve off a large slice for you, taking care to include a little of the sauce and potatoes, too, so you get the full effect. But, even with such companions, the best you can get is a little taste of that entree. If--horrors!--yours is the inferior order, you're cursed with the first-hand knowledge of how good Entree A is while you limp your way dejectedly through Entree B, calculating carefully the exact minimum amount you are required to eat to still be able to justify ordering dessert.

This isn't a problem when you have a table full of small plates. If you have a bite of something less than delightfuly, no problem--just pass the plate on and try another. If you come across something so scrumptuous and sublime--like the short ribs with Anson Mills grits at McCrady's--that it disappears in a flash--just order another!

Last week I stumbled into an invitation to a dinner out at The Lettered Olive, the new restaurant out in the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms. Chef Enzo Steffenelli served up what was for me the perfect approach to appetizers: two sampler plates for each guest, the first with a selection of three or four cold dishes, the second with hot appetizers.

Crab dip is something I would never order on my own. It's the kind of thing that tastes great for the first three bites but steadily goes downhill from there, leaving you overly full and a little sick to your stomach. Three bites from the sampler served up by the Letttered Olive (a restaurant named, by the way, for South Carolina's official seashell) is just about perfect.

Then there were short ribs with a peach BBQ sauce and candied sweet potato that had that rich tenderness you only get from slow-braised beef. The tropical tequilla ceviche was even better--shrimp, scallop, and squid in a tasty citrus marinade with a splash of tequilla over the top. The rest of the sampling--shrimp with grits cakes, seared ahi tuna, bread with pimento cheese for dipping--just sealed the deal. So much, in fact, that I heartily recommend all restaurants add an appetizer sampler platter to their menu.

These are things that are best in small doses. After all this variety, an entree is usually just a let down.

There's an old show business adage that you want to leave the audience not quite satisfied, so they walk out wishing there was just a little bit more. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be the goal for restaurant dining. "I was still hungry when I left," is not an endorsement--it's the kiss of death.

Maybe it's time to change that. Why shouldn't we leave restaurants wanting just a little bit more rather than feeling so bloated and full that our middles hurt and all we want to do is lay down in a cool, dark room?

So, I'm on the "small plates" bandwagon from here on out. I may never order an entree again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Happy 120th, Ray

An old co-worker of mine emailed me to remind me that today is mystery novelist Raymond Chandler's 120th birthday. What better way to celebrate than with a gimlet, the cocktail that plays such a central, nostalgic role in Chandler's best novel, The Long Good-bye.

Chandler claimed that, "A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else." He was either a little nuts or liked a mouthful of tartness. A gimlet is basically a martini with Rose's rather than vermouth: a better ratio is 3 parts gin to 1 part Rose's.

But, whatever the ratio, the drink will always be a sentimental favorite for me. So, to Ray, whereever you are, here's a gimlet toast!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sweet Tea Mojito

No, I'm not getting kickbacks from Firefly Distillery, nor am I angling for a free case or two (really, honest, I mean it . . . though, now that you mention it . . . I mean, absolutely not!!!). I just think it's cool that we not only have our own local vodka distillery but also that it's kicking out something as unique and trendy as Sweet Tea Vodka. And, I'm completely on this little kick to see how all the local bartenders are working it into their own custom creations.

As readers who regularly follow this blog can attest (and I thank them both), I also have a long-standing fixation with the dark art of the mojito. So, when I saw Cypress was muddling up a Sweet Tea Mojito, I had to give it a try. Putting mint into iced tea is almost a no-brainer, and the sweet tea is a natural match for a drink that is already highly sugar-based.

The verdict: quite nice, especially when served in a tall glass over plenty of crushed ice. With all the citrus, the Sweet Tea Mojito definitely has echoes of that ultra-lemony, completely unnatural Lipton canned iced tea. But, it's so much better than that. It isn't really a fit for Cypress's too-cool-for-school neo-industrial interior, but if you had a deck somewhere looking out over a salt marsh at sundown--now you're talking. Atmosphere aside, for now it's sitting at the top of the leaderboard in my tally of local sweet tea vodka concoctions.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eating Local (Almost)

It's that time of year for the many "Eat Local Challenges" to hit the cyberstreets (funny how they always seem to happen in the middle of summer, when local produce is at the peak of ripeness . . .) Having once again wussed out of undertaking such an endeavor, I've been taking great delight watching from the sidelines as various bloggers have adapted (or failed to adapt) to the challenge of eating only foods produced within a circumscribed area (such as North and South Carolina, as in the case of the "Eat Carolina Food Challenge").

One interesting thing is how many of the bloggers taking the challenge don't fall back upon traditional local recipes, which you would think would be the easiest route for making tasty dinners with just things produced in the region. Instead, they go through all sorts of contortions trying to adapt any number of international fusion dishes to ingredients they can find locally. One old friend of mine, irked because she couldn't make proper tortillas with locally-milled wheat flour, cheated and snuck in a little self-rising flour made by the same company but with ingredients that come from who knows where. Just my two cents, but maybe a meal involving tortillas isn't something that's optimal for "eat local" week?

And then there's coffee. I can't tell you the number of "eat local challenge" entrants I've seen who've included, without comment, coffee that was roasted locally (for example, at Charleston Coffee Roasters for a Chucktown-based blogger). While I suppose there are some style points for getting freshly-roasted coffee, I'm hard pressed to see how this advances the goal of "sustainable, local agriculture." What could be more symbolic of large scale, global agriculture than beans grown on overseas coffee plantations?

I feel for the poor bloggers who are deprived of their morning caffeine fix. Here in Charleston, I suppose, you could make do with a stiff cup of tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, but in other states you're pretty much screwed.

But, for those locavores who really want to stick to the letter of the game, I have a solution, for others have been through similar deprivations in the past (though, perhaps, not quite so self-imposed). During the Civil War, Southerners found themselves similarly cut off from their normal supplies of coffees. While some hoarded beans and diluted their limited supplies, others were more resourceful and devised substitutes. In The Confederate Housewife, John Hammond Moore compiles over a dozen substitute recipes published in Civil War-era newspapers, including the following:

  • Corn & Rice Coffee: Equal parts corn and rice, ground and boiled

  • Rye coffee: "Take Rye, boil it not so much as to burst the grain, then dry it, either in the sun, on the stove, or in a kiln, after which it is ready for parching, to be used like the real Coffee Bean."

  • Sweet Potato Coffee: "Peel sweet potatoes and cut to a size of coffee beans. Spread in the sun until perfectly dry. Then parch in an oven or pan until thoroughly brown before being ground."

  • Persimmon Coffee: "Save the seeds of the persimmon after they have been boiled, and you let out the slop; for they are excellent for coffee, rather stronger and rougher than the genuine Rio [I'll bet!--Ed.]; hence I mix two parts of dried potatoes to one of persimmon seeds."

There's many more examples, but this should be sufficient to get you through that morning coffee craving while sticking true to the eat local principles. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fine Dining, Orangeburg Style

Four Moons Restaurant opened two weeks ago up in Orangeburg. Their publicist sent me a nice color picture of the interior, and I'm a sucker for nice color pictures. So, if you want to know what fine dining in Orangeburg looks like, here you go!

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Second-Rate Education

Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot by Lettie Teague (Scribner, 1997).

I'm the first to admit that I probably don't know as much about wine as I should. I love drinking the stuff, and I love going to dinner with someone who really knows what they're talking about and letting them select the wine. While I'm not a complete ignoramus, I am painfully aware that when I pick a wine on my own there's a considerable element of arbitrariness and false price-based rationalization--like going to the horse track and placing bets based solely upon the horse's names or the published odds.

Every now and then I become determined to correct this deficiency and bone up on the subject. I briefly entertain fantasies of becoming a serious connoisseur, that guy who everyone turns to expectantly at the restaurant table and says, "Oh, and of course you must order the wine tonight!" This illusion usually gets me through about fifteen minutes of research before I become so annoyed by the overarching pretentiousness and obfuscation of wine writing that I give up in disgust and pledge to stick to beer going forward.

So, it was great hope that I picked up Lettie Teague's Educating Peter. It sounded like a great idea: a book about wine that's presented in a readable, enjoyable way. In Teague's case, it's a project to teach Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, a self-avowed "wine idiot", the fundamentals of ordering, enjoying, and talking about wine. What better way to approach a subject that's normally frought with pretention, intimidation, and outright impenetrability?

If only the book delivered.

It starts off promisingly enough, with short chapters on basic subjects such as how to taste (or, more accurately, smell and taste) wine and an overview of six "noble" grapes. Based upon the reviews I'd read and the dust jacket copy, I expected a little more hilarity in the interchange between Peter and his teacher, but it's still mildly amusing and rather informative.

Then, around page 22 things begin to come off the rails. This is a chapter, called "Peter's Tasting Vocabulary," that provides a brief glossary of key words and tasting terms that a wine connoisseur needs to know, such as "beefy" and "extracted". The definitions are fine, but they are presented in alphabetical order with little context around them. I read the whole chapter closely, but just a few hours later, when I flipped back to it to look up a term, I realized that I couldn't remember what half of the terms meant.

It gets worse once you get into the main body of the book, where chapter after chapter marches relentlessly through each wine producing country of the world, with each chapter broken down into sections devoted to the key regions of that country. Again, there's nothing wrong with the material, but it is much more of a reference book than an accessible, guided tour.

Halfway through the Bordeaux section of the France chapter (the first of the country-dedicated chapters) I started to glaze over, as the details of the St. Emilion region blurred into the Paulliac. And I was only on page 55. "I'll never remember all these unconnected details," I thought. I started skipping ahead to the more conversational and interesting sections, like "How Champagne is Made."

The biggest disappointment is that the central conceit of the book, the supposed education of Peter in the ways of wine, ends up becoming just window dressing. Teague, for some reason, does not represent their interaction as a two-way conversation. Instead, Peter's comments or questions are presented as direct quotations (in quotation marks), but Teague's "responses" are not captured as dialog but rather as regular prose, and often is decidedly non-conversational. An example:

"Well, what can you tell me about Pinot Noir that's good?" asked Peter.

Pinot Noir is the grape of all the great reds of Burgundy, and like Chardonnay it's important in Champagne. Pinot Noir is also found . . .

Instead of an enjoyable, funny dialog, we get long, expository passages about wine broken up with occassional remarks and questions from Peter. Sometimes they are sort of funny, but most of the time they are pretty pedestrian.

Ultimately, the book leaves the impression that the real trick to becoming a wine connoisseur is memorizing a zillion names and dates and adopting an insiders' cant that, while purporting to provide a proper vocabulary for describing wine, seems to function mostly as a way to distinguish yourself from the unwashed masses who don't know the right terminology.

Which leads to annoying little "lessons" like this one, from the chapter on Champagne: "Don't say bubbles, say bead, I reminded Peter. And the collection of bubbles that forms on the top of the glass is a mousse, not a head, by the way." I'm all for specialist terminology, but how does "bead" more effectively describe the bubbles in Champagne than the good old word "bubbles"?

I know there's more to wine than this. I can tell the difference between good wines and bad ones, even if I can't always come up with the right terms to explain why. I know there are good vineyards and good vintages and a never-ending array of varietals and tastes to explore.

I'm just waiting to find the right book to guide me through it all.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Moving House

I'm in the middle of setting up shop at a new location for Al Forno over at the Charleston City Paper blogsite. There are still a few kinks to work out, but I'm going to see how it goes. The new URL is as follows:

I'll probably keep posting in parallel for a little while here until I figure out the best way to move forward with two sites.

Update (8/3/08): After playing around with it for a month, it makes more sense for me to stay right here on Blogspot rather than moving Al Forno over the City Paper site. Instead, I'll start contributing posts to the Eat blog. So watch for those, too!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Eat Local" Jumps the Shark

Oh, yes. I saw it coming. Eating local is going mainstream. This coming Tuesday, Wal-Mart and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture will formally launch a partnership to promote "Certified SC Grown" produce in Wal-Mart stores across the state, kicking it off with a press conference at the Airport Wal-Mart in North Charleston

Speaking at the event will be Ashley Rawl of W. P. Rawl & Sons up in Pelion, SC. The press release for the event describes Rawl as a "local farmer" (though he seems to wear a few hats and sometimes has to also serve as the Director of Marketing). Rawl & Sons products include pre-washed, chopped, and packaged kale, collards, turnip greens and mustard greens grown on their small family farm (only 2,500 acres or so of fields) where the family and a few hundred close friends ship some 35 tractor trailer loads a day from their packing facilities.

Eating local just gets easier and easier!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka

Local distiller Firefly from out on Wadmalaw Island seems to be hitting on all cylinders these days. Its latest production, Sweet Tea Vodka, is the hot pour around town and has local bartenders getting creative with new ways to mix it up.

Down at McCrady's they're serving it in a "Charleston", a take on the Manhattan that combines the sweet tea vodka with Grand Marnier and brandied cherry syrup. It's sweet but tasty, and boy does it pack a punch. Who needs New York, anyway?

Peach and coffee vodkas are on the way next from Firefly, so watch for a stream of creative new cocktails coming from the Peninsula's bartenders.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Rise of Humble Cuisine

Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle has a great piece about the results of the James Beard Awards and what they indicate about trends in the restaurant world. He sums it up as a shift of focus to chefs from smaller, neighborhood restaurants and takes it as a sign that "as a dining nation we are growing up":

Winning doesn't necessarily mean glitzy surroundings, high-profile names and chic locations; it's about how the people behind the stove translate their passion to diners.

I agree wholeheartedly, though I might give it a slightly different spin: "fine-dining fatigue." Diners are getting a little bit tired of the same old run-of-the-mill Wagyu beef and D'Artagnan duck and Kurobuta pork with inventive gastriques and playful vegetable sides. I'm sticking to my guns and still predicting that we're about to see a return to the good-ole-days of the grande cuisine, but until then chefs (like Best Chef Southeast winner Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill) who have taken the low and slow road of humble, high-quality downhome cooking will see their stars continue to rise.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lowcountry Nibbles: June 13th

Awards and Notices

Robert Stehling of the Hominy Grill took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast, beating out some serious Georgia competition and Charleston's Mike Lata from FIG, too. McCrady's Sean Brock came up just short on the Rising Star, but the three nominations and one win for Charleston are a huge confirmation of the city's growing stature as a culinary city.


Circa 1886 is holding the "Charleston's Choice ice cream contest." Charlestonians are being asked to create a flavor that is most representative of the city. The winning combination will earn its creator a free dinner for four at Circa 1886, and it will be featured on the restaurant's menu during the month of August. Submit entries here.

Charleston Magazine and The Charleston Food + Wine Festival are holding a design contest for the poster for the 2009 festival. The winning design will "reflect Charleston's rich culinary history and exciting food scene," and the winner designer will take home $1,000 in cash, a selection of local retail items . . . and an ampersand!

Openings & Closings

The city of Orangeburg will get a shot at fine dining when Four Moons Restaurant opens near the Orangeburg Mall on June 25th. The menu will feature "Adventurous American Cuisine" and a 500-label wine list, along with a separate tapas menu featuring items like lamb carpaccio, blue cheese mousse, and "corn dogs" made of grouper, tuna, and shrimp. Executive Chef Charles Zeran comes from Glendorn Lodge, a Relais & Chateux resort in Bradford, PA, and professes a passion for molecular gastronomy. Yes, I did say Orangeburg.

Ken Vedrinski of Sienna is opening Trattoria Lucca on Bogard Street downtown, which will offer affordable Italian cuisine with late-night hours.

Miss Ellie's Island Soul has opened on Daniel Island in the spot formerly occupied by Baker's Cafe. They serve an old-school diner style breakfasts, and the lunch menu features sandwiches and "blue plate specials" like fried chicken, chicken pot pie, and fried whiting.

Luna Rossa, the Mt. P wood-fired pizza joint, has closed after 30 years of business. Word is the spot will be transformed into "Abe's Oyster Bar and Saloon".

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Beard Awards in Near-Real-Time

Jeff Allen is up in New York City covering the James Beard Awards (or at least eating his way through Manhattan). Check out the latest over at the Eat blog, and let's root for the hometown boys--Mike Lata of FIG and Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, both up for Best Chef - Southeast, and Sean Brock of McCrady's, up for the national Rising Star award.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

She-Crab Pointers?

I'm undertaking a little project to delve into the subject of She-Crab Soup, one of Charleston's indisputed culinary classics. I'm well underway on my sampling tour of the city's restaurants, but there are hundreds of candidates to choose from, and I'd hate to miss out on a really good bowl.

So, I could use a little help. What restaurants do you think serve the best She-Crab Soup in town?

Feel free to pass along any other tips, memories, preferences, or anecdotes that would help, too.

And what better month than June for a nice steamy bowl of cream-based soup?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Carolina Pilau

These days, as I've been looking more and more into the old-school classics of Lowcountry cooking, I find myself eating pilau a lot. In Charleston, that's usually pronounced "per-low" or "per-loo", but it is related historically to the Middle Eastern rice dishes that are more frequently called "pilaf" outside of Charleston. Made incorrectly, pilau can be a dry, boring rice dish. Put together just right, it's a tender, steamy delicacy. I can't say I've completely mastered the pilau yet, but I'm getting closer.

For this recipe, I started with the version from John Martin Taylor's Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, which I've found to be one of the best sources for classic Lowcountry recipes. One thing was noticably missing from Taylor's version, though: bacon. Bacon shows up in almost all of the 19th century pilau recipes from South Carolina, so I added in a slice or two once I hit the step where you sautee the vegetables (after all, bacon is essentially just an extension of the vegetable food group, right?)

Here's how it goes:

1. Cover a whole chicken (or the parts from one chicken) with water (about 2 quarts), bring to a boil, and simmer for a half hour.

2. Remove chicken from the stock and reserve the stock. Allow chicken to cool, then remove the meat from the bones.

3. Melt a bunch of butter in a dutch oven or similarly large pan. Don't be scared--used a whole stick.

4. Add a diced onion, 2-3 ribs worth of diced celery, and 2 slices worth of minced bacon. Cook till the vegetables are just starting to brown. (I snapped the photo below just before remembering I needed to add the bacon!)

5. Toss in a diced tomato along with salt and pepper and some fresh thyme (about a tablespoon if it's fresh, a teaspoon if you only have dried). Add two cups of rice and the chicken and stir till well coated in the butter. I prefer to use Carolina Gold rice for this dish, though you could use plain old long grain rice, too--it just won't have quite the dense, chewy texture of the original.

6. Add 4 cups of the reserved chicken stock. The ratio of rice to liquid is important here, so measure!

7. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat till the liquid is just simmering (medium low on my electric stove). Cover and cook undisturbed thirty minutes.

When it's done, remove the lid, fluff the grains of rice with a fork, and serve. It's rich and filling and a classic of the Lowcountry.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Margarita Matters (Revisited Part B)

So, one day after my post on the Golden Ratio for margaritas, I open up the newly-arrived July issue of Saveur and see that Robb Walsh has an article in it on great Lone Star State margarita joints. And, he provides his formula for the "classic shaken margarita." (Recipe here.)

Ordinarily I would shrug off any competing ratios (for what can beat the elegant simplicity of 3 to 2 to 1?), but this is Robb Walsh we're talking about--a masterful chronicler not only of the history of the margarita but also of Texas barbecue. I mean, what would you do if you'd just published a long treatise on quantum mechanics and found out the next day that Max Planck had just published his own article on the same topic in a competing journal? (Okay, Wife, you can stop doing that whole making-an-L-with-my-fingers-on-my-forehead thing already.)

So, even though it was ten o'clock on a work night I felt in the interest of science I had to give it a try. The margarita recipe, that is.

Walsh's ratio lacks elegance: 4 parts tequila to 1-1/2 parts lime juice to 1 part Cointreau and 1/2 part simple syrup. Parts, in his case, is ounces. So, if you were to try to make it more elegant, you could do 8 to 3 to 2 to 1, which is still complicated as heck. Good luck remembering that one when shaking up the third round.

I do have to give him one thing: I think the addition of simple syrup actually works in a margarita made with Cointreau, which lacks a little of the sweetness of Triple Sec.

But I do have a bone to pick. If you follow Walsh's recipe step by step, you'll start off with four (4!) ounces of tequila in your shaker, which seems like an awful lot for a weeknight. But, in the interest of science, one does want to follow to formula to the letter . . . and then you get to the last line it says, "pour into 2 small ice-filled tumblers." Now, since when did you ever hear of cocktail recipes that make two servings? That tomfoolery may have worked on the coeds down at UT Austin, Walshy, but I'm not falling for it!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Margarita Matters (Revisited)

It may still be Spring elsewhere, but it is full on Summer here in Charleston. The mercury got up in the 90s this past weekend and the neighborhood pool was packed. And that can mean only one thing . . . Margarita time!

Last Memorial Day I expounded on my theory about the Margarita's Golden Ratio, and I've been trying to validate that through rigorous empirical research. Lots and lots of rigorous empircal research. (Hey, somebody's got to do it!)

So far, my formula still holds up: 3 to 2 to 1. That's three parts tequila to two parts triple sec to 1 part lime juice. No sugar or blender required. Just shake vigorously with ice and pour over the rocks.

This time around I invested in a bottle of Cointreau to take the place of the triple sec, and I think it improves things nicely.

Bring on the summer heat. I'm ready.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Monday, June 02, 2008

Radish You Were Here

I had dinner at FIG Saturday night. For an appetizer, I ordered the local radishes with Vermont butter and fleur de sel. This was one I hadn't tried before, and I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting--some sort of dressed salad kind of thing, I guess. Instead, the plate came out with food in three sections: a small pile of pink radishes on the left--cleaned and sliced in half but otherwise completely raw and unprepared in any way--along with an egg-shaped scoop of yellow butter in the middle and a small pile of coarse, flaky salt on the right. Hmm, I thought. I surveyed the plate with a sinking heart. Looks like someone forgot to put the thing together.

I looked enviously over at The Wife to my right, who was busy tucking away an insanely delicious-looking warm potato dumpling concoction with a creamy sauce and bits of green onion and herbs all over it, and then to my friend on the left who was forking into two of the largest stone crab claws I've ever seen. I put on a brave face, smeared a radish half with some of the butter, and dabbed it in the salt and . . .

It was good. Unbeliveably good. Crisp and spicy radish with the creamy artisinal butter and the zip of the salt. In fact, it's hard to think of what cooking or marinating or other preparation could have possibly added to the combination.

I guess one could make the argument that this isn't really cooking: it's just someone shopping for you. But I don't care. It's sort of like those rubes who look at Abstract Expressionist art and say, "hell, my ten year old could paint that!" Yes, he probably could. But did he paint it? Would he ever think to if he didn't have a Jackson Pollock version to imitate?

Now, coming fast on the heels of my having a phenomenal "Spring Radish Puree" soup at Soif a few weeks ago, I am in danger of developing a full-on radish obsession. Now if I could just get Mike Lata to spill the beans and tell me where he gets those local radishes . . .

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lowcountry Nibbles: June 1st

Awards & Notices

The Charleston Food + Wine Festival made Forbes Traveler's list of Best U.S Wine & Food Festivals. Not bad for an event that's only three years old. (Maybe now they'll finally be able to afford that ampersand.)

Slightly North of Broad was just inducted into the Nation's Restaurant News' Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

Chefs on the Move

Charles Arena is moving from the Boat House at Breach Inlet to the Library Restaurant at The Vendue Inn.

David Szlam, formerly of the departed Cordavi, has taken on the chef's spot at Uno Mas.

Chefs on the Road

Mike Lata from Fig will be the featured chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN, June 22nd to June 24th.

Marc Collins of Circa 1886 is traveling up to Hartford on June 6th to be one of eight guest chefs in the Connecticut Culinary Masters Classic fundraiser.

Openings & Closings

Caviar & Bananas, a "gourmet market and cafe" has opened at 51 George St. downtown and offers gourmet groceries (including charcuterie, cheese, and sushi) as well as a range of prepared foods for eating in or taking out.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Top 10 Tips

Writing about Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking got me thinking about my own favorite bits of advice for cooking.

So, I looked back over the past 18 years (jeez . . . has it really been that long?) since I first started cooking for myself as a college student. I had just moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with a real kitchen and somewhere along the line decided I needed to learn how to cook (the memories are a little fuzzy, but it's a good bet the reasons centered on trying to impress girls). One of my first specialties was "EZ Chicken and Rice", a recipe I got from my mother which involved primarily putting chicken parts in a baking pan, pouring over a can of cream of chicken soup, and baking for an hour. No longer in my repertoire today, but as I recall it beat the pants off of dining hall food.

I've come a long way since, and here is my Top 10 list of tips and techniques that made the most difference in improving the quality of food coming out of my kitchen:

1. Use butter, real butter. This has nothing to do with the health benefits of one over the other (and who can keep track of the latest scientific consensus, anyway). Butter has a creaminess and a texture and an enriching quality that you just can't get from margarine, which is essential salty vegetable oil, and it is indispensible for so many classic recipes. Unsalted butter is best--you can always add salt to a dish, but you can't take it away. If you splurge for the expensive, imported, high-butter fat stuff from Europe, all the better, but even the supermarket brand is miles better than Country Crock.

2. Use wine to deglaze pans. This is a simple step that adds so much. I keep a four-pack of those small bottles of white wine (the single-serving size) in my refrigerator for just this purpose.

3. Reduce sauces (and don't thicken with flour or constarch) Using a lot of flour to thicken sauces dates back to the days of Scientific Cookery in the late 19th Century, but it can be a crutch that ruins the texture of sauces. It's a snap to stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour to thicken something up; using cornstarch is even easier. But, they introduce an unpleasant gummy texture and, since they replace the long-simmering time required to make reduced sauces, result in a less-flavorful sauce. It's a shortcut that isn't worth it. Just turn up the heat and let the sauce bubble away until it is reduced down to the thickness you desire.

4. Make your own stock and use it liberally. Non-cooks seem to be overly impressed (or just puzzled) by people who make their own stock. I'm not sure why. It may take hours of cooking time, but the actual work involved is minimal--you just put a pot of water on to boil and toss in some meaty bones or chicken carcasses and some roughly chopped vegetables. Even if you roast your bones and vegetables first and skim the stock while it simmers, it's just not very labor intensive. And the payoff is huge. Using stock in dishes adds so much more flavor--and complexity of flavor--that once you start cooking with it, it's hard to imagine going back. It's an essential component of many classic sauces, and certainly a key for "high cuisine", but it also makes every day recipes--like chili and spagehetti sauce--richer and more flavorful as well. And, if you make a big pot you can freeze it in plastic containers and always have it on hand for cooking.

5. Control your own spices. The supermarket boasts dozens of pre-made spice mixes, like "chili seasoning" and "Italian Herbs", that are convenient but take all control of the flavoring away from you. Many contain non-spice additive like starch or MSG that, like using flour in sauces, is a shortcut way to get some thickness or body to cooking but, ultimately, result in an industrial aftertaste to food. It takes trial and error to learn what spices go well together and in what proportion, but over time you will achieve far, far better flavor than you would if you rely on a packaged mix to do it for you.

6. Get a good chef's knife and learn to chop and dice. I got a good chef's knife as a wedding present, and I'll never go back. There's no need to drop 75 bucks on a package that comes with 12 different knives (most of them serrated, which is the only way to make cheap metal able to cut) and a block to store them in. The same $75 will buy you a nice chef's knife, and that's really all you need--and I mean really. I have only two other knives that I use regularly (a thin boning knife and a bread knife), but in a pinch the chef's knife could substitute for either of them. Spend a little extra for a steel and keep the knife sharp.

Those chef-sized knives with a serrated edge are next to useless (q.v. bad kitchen equipment)--you can only use them for sawing, not chopping or slicing. With the cheapy knives (or a dull good knife), you'll never be able to chop or dice vegetables finely, which cuts out a whole spectrum of cooking. Once you have your good knife, it will be a prized tool for years to come.

7. Cook with Shallots and Fresh Parsely: For some reason, these two ingredients are not widely used in most home cooking, but both add deep, harmonious flavor to a wide range of dishes. One of my absolute favorite cooking smells is when I dash a handful of minced shallots and parsley into a hot frying pan along side an almost-done steak or pork chop. That's the scent of heaven. Buy some shallots the next time you are at the grocery--they are remarkably inexpensive--and give them a whirl.

8. No-Stick Pans Suck: Unless, that is, you like having little black flakes of indigestible coating in your food. You may not have the budget for a full set of top-of the line stainless steel pans, but don't get suckered by Teflon's false promise of convenience. Cast iron frying pans are cheap as can be and are easier to clean than no-stick, and you can get great milaged from plain old enameled stock pots.

9. Meat Needs Space: When you brown meat, particularly beef, don't crowd the pan. The meat will give up its liquid and you'll end up simmering rather than browning the meat, and that's not the objective. You are much better cooking the meat in batches, making sure there's a little space between the pieces, so that it will brown quicker. If you notice that liquid starting to pool up, take some more of the meat out and brown it in a later batch.

10. Seek Inspiration and Imitate Great Food: Most of my favorite dishes in my repertoire came not from reading a recipe in a book or magazine but rather from my trying to recreate a dish I ate out at a restaurant. Identify new recipes with your palate first, find the ones that really knock you out, then start looking up recipes to help you create them. And, don't be frustrated if the first attempt isn't as great as the original that inspired it. It often takes time to perfect the recipe.

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