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.

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