Thursday, December 31, 2009

Farewell 2009, Hello 2010

Well, it looks like we've officially made it through the decade without anyone coming up with a good name for it. The 1990s are the "Nineteen Nineties".  The 2000s are . . . what . . . the "two thousands"?  I never hear anyone actually saying that, but it's the closest thing we have.  (And, yes, I know that TECHNICALLY the decade doesn't end until Dec 31st, 2010, just like the millennium didn't technically start until 1/1/2001, but again, popular usage says the "aughts" are up).

So, now's the time to look back over the last 10 years in food.  For every decade-end retrospective like this one that declares the 2000s  to be the decade of the foodie, I've found another story like this one that shows a decade long trend in exactly the other direction (yikes!  And hattip to NMissCommentator for the link).  You could interpret this as an increasing gap between the culinary haves and have-nots, or maybe just a never ending expansion of variety in the world of food.

I'm not a bit immune to the urge to look back on a decade of trends.  Jeff Allen and I put together our own "top ten of the last ten" list for the Charleston City Paper.  Now, I'm heading off to make sure I have enough supplies to cobble together an old-school Hoppin' John with real red cowpeas and Carolina Gold rice, too (locavore AND heirloom ingredients--it's SO 2009!).

I wonder what we'll be eating this time in 2019?

Happy New Years, everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rotten Oysters Return(s)

Rotten Oysters is back from more than a year of seclusion to lay down a new Charleston restaurant review . . . Welcome back, R.O.!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Introducing Al Forno's Big Barbecue Map

So, here's my latest foray into Web 2.0 mash-uppin', and if that sort of technological interlinking is good for anything, it would have to be to find good barbecue. So, herewith, Al Forno's Big Barbecue Map:

View Al Forno's Big Barbecue Map in a larger map

I dug up a bunch of old blog posts on barbecue, most of them from various journeys on the road, and linked them into the map. I've got a lot of cool pictures, historical nuggets, and other scraps in the old archives that I'll work in. Right now, the only pins on the map are places I've written about, but I'll add more over time.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Favorite Gift this Year

It's not the biggest gift, but it's definitely the coolest: a salt pig! I didn't even know they existed, but it's hard to believe I've lived without one for so long.

Perfect for anyone who likes cooking with salt by the pinch.

As a gift giver, The Wife rivals Jack Donneghy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The NINTH Wonder of the World!

My buddy Mike Murphy sent along these snapshots from one of his motorcycle tours over the summer, and I found them today and figured they were just screaming to be shared.

This is one that I've not made it to yet. But, it's barbecue . . . cooked in a blue school bus . . . on the side of a country road in Vermont. And, it's the ninth wonder of the world (not sure what the eighth is, but it must surely pale in comparison).

I was all set to scoot up there over the Christmas holidays, but good thing I checked the web first, since Curtis's is only open from April to October.

Curtis All-American Bar-B-Q
7 Putney Landing Rd.
Putney, VT 05346

View on Al Forno's Big Barbecue Map

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Homemade Limoncello

I got fascinated with limoncello a few months ago after sampling the housemade versions at local restaurants like McCrady's, Mercato, and Cuoco Pazzo. Of course, it's really a summer drink, but it takes months of steeping to make correctly, so my first batch is just now ready for consumption.

To get started, I surfed the web for a good recipe, and landed on the one provided by Not Knowing Trusting which, for some reason, seemed more reliable than the other options.

Since South Carolina is an Everclear-friendly state, I started with that rather than vodka, though I did dilute it out with water to be closer to the proof used in the recipe and also to avoid danger from fire in case a bottle got dropped.

Here's the saga:

1. Zest the lemons (15 of them, in my case) and put the peel in big Mason jars along with the (diluted) Everclear

2. Sock it all away on a shelf somewhere (the pantry in my case) and try to avoid the sinking feeling that, "this is going to take forever." Before you know it months will have gone by and you'll be thinking, "I really need to finish up that stuff." See the real recipe for better time guidelines. But, hey. It's a thin line between patient and lazy.

3. Mix up a simple syrup (again, follow a real recipe for actual amounts), mix with the lemon-booze brew, and put it back in the jars to sit.

4. After a few more weeks (or months, if you're really apathetic), strain through coffee filters and pour into old, sterilized bottles (though snooty instructions might tell you to go buy special bottles with decorative stoppers, the Everclear bottle you started with and a few other spent liquor bottles work just fine.)

5. Put it in your freezer and let it sit somemore--several more weeks for it to get at its best.

Now, you're ready to remove from the freezer at a moments notice for a nice apertif.

The recipes tell you to freeze and let sit for at least a week before serving. I found that even after a week the limoncello seemed to have a harsh, industrial alcohol edge to it that I attributed to the Everclear, thinking maybe if I'd started with good vodka it wouldn't be so rough. But, after another two weeks or so of finishing in the freezer, it has mellowed out nicely, and it's every bit as delightfully sweet, lemony, and smooth as the local restaurants' housemade stuff.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Charleston's Top Cocktail (2010)

Head over to the Charleston Magazine site and help select the finalists to be featured in the 2010 Charleston Fashion Week's "Next Top Cocktail" competition. It's fun to look at all the entrants, and it makes you realize how sophisticated our local bartenders have become in their concoctions.

I have to get out on the town more often . . .

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Update on Woody's

Turns out the Woody's BBQ that's coming to Mount Pleasant is a franchise of a Jacksonville-based barbecue chain that now has some thirty locations, most of them in Florida.

Judging from the web site, it looks like they specialize in ribs, but as an ongoing example of the geographic blurring that's going on in the barbecue industry, the menu includes a laundry list of items that includes barbecued pork, beef, turkey, chicken, and brisket.

It's the kind of place that sells T-shirts saying "Sloppy Woody: You Know You Want One", "Woody's Pulled My Pork", and "Best Racks in Town". And the interior may well look a lot like this:

I would be surprised if any hash and rice manages to sneak onto the menu, but we'll just have to see.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Brothers vs. Brothers

The New York Times has a fun piece that compares the latest book from the Lee Brothers against the latest from Paula Deen's boys.

I'm not sure which pair is truly more Southern, but I know which ones my money would be on in a Texas cage match . . .

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Meat, meat, and more meat

Craig Deihl of Cypress has started a blog, with the first post recounting how he got started butchering whole hogs in house. He also announces his new Artisan Meat Share, a CSA-style arrangement but rather than four zillion tons of rutabagas and squash you get a big sack of artisanal charcuterie, made right there at Cypress from whole South Carolina hogs.

This might be the breakthrough food event of the year.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Barbecue Springs Eternal

Mt. Pleasant has seen it's share of short-lived barbecue ventures, like Ray's over on Coleman and Oink up on Highway 17, both of which opened and closed within the span of a year. But, barbecue keeps on coming back.

Local father-and-son team Jerry and Bennett Crites just opened Palmetto Pig Bar-B-Q over at Towne Centre, a franchise of an operation whose two original restaurants are up in Columbia. The Crites have taken over the old Mama Fu's location and put in a barbecue buffet.

Meanwhile, a new banner announcing "Woody's BBQ: Coming Soon" has appeared in the Publix shopping center by Park West, in the location where The Loop used to be. It's not clear how soon "soon" is, but judging from the construction still underway it won't be open next week.

For those keeping the running tally:

Barbecue +2, Sandwich/Pizza/deli -1, Chinese Joints -1.

Net net, a gain for the area.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From Oink to Oak

The Charleston Regional Business Journal reports that Oak Restaurant's Brett McKee is launching a new "comfort food" restaurant in Mt. Pleasant in the former home of the short-lived Oink barbecue joint.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Bacon

I'm starting to think that the folks down at Ted's Butcherblock really like bacon:


Fifty years from now, Ted Dombroski will be remembered as either the Al Capone of his generation or the Jonas Salk--or maybe just the Johnny Baconseed. I'm not sure which it will be yet, but I'm leaning toward Salk or Baconseed because . . . bacon tastes GOOD.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What is up with Chinese people and why do they like bacon so much?

So, I wander away from the old blog for a few days, er, weeks, or I guess it's actually been a few MONTHS now (Christ, has it been THAT long? There's a good reason, really, I promise . . . and I'll explain later, I promise, and no it's not something dreary or depressing like a family illness or divorce or anything like that. Something actually positive but complicated). But now I've been getting these random comments popping into my email box, and they're all in Chinese. Or, at least, something that looks a lot like what I assume Chinese must look like, though clearly I've never learned anything about the Chinese language.

And, they're all being left on the same post . . . a trivial little thing called "A Call For Bacon" that I threw out there to get ideas for an article I was writing for the City Paper.

I have no answers, only questions. Questions I've been too lazy to really track down the answer for. But here are the questions:

1. Who are these people leaving comments on this post?
2. Why this post and no other posts?
3. Is that really Chinese?
4. What do these messages say?
5. I am assuming this is all some bizarre automated spam and I should ignore them. Is that true? Are these just posts for some Chinese version of Mexican viagra?
6. How hard would it be for me to figure out the answer to #5?
7. Is it even really worth it?
8. What if they aren't spam but really trenchant comments on something I'm totally missing out on because I'm too lazy to teach myself Chinese just to decipher comments that are probably really just spam?
9. What if Chinese people (or people of whatever nationality they really are, since I haven't even established definitively if these comments are Chinese or something else, and even if they are are they in Mandarin or Cantonese, or maybe some other dialect that I don't even know about because I don't even know what all the Chinese dialects are or even if that's a silly statement because there are thousands of Chinese dialects and I only know there are two, but what if I don't even have those two right . . .

And this is a death spiral of ignorance that has no end. And I don't even know the answer to question #4,231, which is, "Do Chinese people even like bacon?" (Answer: "Of course they do. EVERYONE likes bacon!") And here's the crazy thing: I actually took an entire 3-hour college course on Chinese history AND I've actually been to China! And apparently learned nothing from any of that and all that tuition and airfare money was totally wasted.

So, please, if anyone out there can read Chinese or whatever language these comments are in, please leave a comment telling me and both my readers (or, wait, have all these Chinese comments boosted my page hit rates . . . I need to go check out Google Analytics and find out. I might be making a fortune off those Chinese Google ad word ads that are now popping up, even though I've never made enough off those stupid little ads for Google to even cut me a single check, though it sounded like a good idea at the time.)

Anyhow, stay tuned . . . I've got a really good story for where I've been for the last three months.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Season for Pimm's #1

Johnathan Miles of the New York Times was in town last week and enjoyed a Pimm's Cup downtown . . . but he neglected to say where, an odd omission, since he proceeds to name four Manhattan bars that make their own variants of cocktails with Pimm's. He does admit, however, that Pimm's is "underappreciated hereabouts." (Hereabouts being NYC.)

Miles is right that it's a "drink that thrives in sunshine," which may explain why it's quite easy to turn one up here in the Holy City. It's featured on the cocktail menus at McCrady's, Red Sky, High Cotton and Charleston Place's Thoroughbred Club, to name just a few, and it's rare to find a Charleston bar of any seriousness that doesn't have a bottle of Pimm's #1 on the shelf.

The mercury's been stuck firmly in the mid-90s for days now, and a cool Pimm's Cup sounds like just what the doctor ordered!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cracking the Inner Sanctum

I ate dinner recently at a local Italian restaurant that claimed to have authentic Italian food. And, sure enough, as I was eating two very Italian-looking men in aprons came out of the kitchen periodically and chatted up the tables with very authentic sounding Italian accents. But, the menu was pretty much the same old Italian-American classics we've been seeing since the days of the red-checked tablecloths and candles in wicker-clad Chianti bottles: veal marsala, chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna.

I was immediately suspicious. I have become convinced in recent years that there's a whole secret world of dining out there that's denied to the ordinary restaurant patron. This seems particularly likely at restaurants operated by immigrants to the United States but serve up food that has clearly been adapted for American tastes--Mexican restaurants serving taco salads in big crispy tortilla bowls, Chinese restaurants with General Tso's this and that, etc.

I don't have a problem with practical commercial sense, particularly if it lets an aspiring restauranteur actually make a decent living. And--provided it's prepared well--I like a lot of Americanized ethnic food, like lasagna with a ton of cheese and red sauce and enchilada platters strewn with lettuce and sour cream.

But, I still have this sneaking suspicion that I'm missing out on the real stuff--the secret gems of the owner's native cuisine that he or she will cook up just for a select few, the inner circle who knows the secret handshake.

I visited China many years ago, and was struck by how totally novel and wonderful the food was in in Beijing and Hong Kong--and how different it was from any Chinese food I've had in American restaurants, even supposedly "authentic" ones. Several forays into highly-recommended restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown led to some tasty dinners, but all very different from what I'd had overseas. On my last visit to San Francisco I gave up on the guidebooks and took a tip from a Chinese cabbie who swore this place was "where the local Chinese people eat." It was good, and the tables were definitely filled with plenty of Chinese-Americans, but the food was pretty much the same selection you can get in any number of Golden China Huts in Pensacola, Florida or Lincoln Nebraska.

I recently discovered James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, which promises to forever free the ambitious eater from the tyranny of the constricted English menu. The next time I'm in San Francisco, I'm going to give it a shot.

Here at home, when I find real Italians dishing up a veal saltimbocca recipe straight out of Newark, I know there's gotta be something I'm missing out on. I'm contemplating an aggressive response, like a crash conversational Italian course, something just intensive enough to learn to say, "Hey, enough of the tourist dishes, already. Give me some of the good stuff." Maybe that Rosetta Stone software that you see advertised in every inflight magazine these days would do the trick.

Hardworking farmboys dream of Italian supermodels. Middle aged food nuts dream of secret preparations of savory meats and exotic herbs. Any day now I'm going to crack the code.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Boone HALL Farms

Okay, just for the record since I think now a dozen out of towners have called me on this . . .

Boone Hall Farms is a historic Charleston plantation that has been converted to a large farming operation, and their ventures include a U-pick strawberry patch and a farm store that sells all sorts of great local produce plus fresh seafood, good cheese, and pretty darn good meats, too.

Boone's Farm is that rot gut swill that used to be fortified wine and now (due to some wrinkle in the tax law) is now a malt beverage but is still just as likely to make you puke when you guzzle a bottle of it while sitting on the hood of a car in some cul-de-sac or perhaps on a remote creek bridge at 2:00 am.

Just look for the "hall", okay?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Call for Bacon

I'm on the hunt for bacon. Specifically, for places in Charleston serving bacon in interesting or innovative ways, for a feature I'm writing for the upcoming City Paper Dish issue.

A few weeks ago, I sampled the Chocolate-covered Bacon Sundae at Shine (home of my new favorite summer drink, the caipirinha). Ted's Butcherblock has a great selection of artisan bacon, including a bacon-of-the-month BLT on their cafe menu.

Last week at Fish & Farm in San Francisco I had a surprisingly good Bacon Drop cocktail, which blended apple-bacon vodka, sweet potato and molasses bourbon, smoked hickory bitters, and orange extract in a martini glass with a rim dusted with BBQ rub and half strip of good, smoky bacon as a swizzle. Is anyone in Charleston doing a similar cocktail?

Where else should I be looking for great Charleston bacon?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

One-Trick Ponies

Do you think it's risky enough opening a store that just sells olive oil? How about one devoted to just Moon Pies and Moon Pie paraphernalia? Rumor around town has it that local investors are already scouting out locations for the next single-product emporiums, which (if my sources can be trusted), include "The Salt Box"--a specialty shop dedicated to fine salts from around the world--and "Chiclet City", where the walls are lined with nothing but Chiclet gum in a rainbow of flavors.

You heard it here first.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Grits: the Foundation of Southern Fusion Cuisine

Atlanta's has a good article on grits by Shane Touhy, the chef at Dogwood Restaurant and Charleston restaurant alumnus.

Touhy's description of Dogwood's "grits bar" illustrates grits' foundational role in what I call "Southern fusion"--that is, a variety of foods gathered from different subregions of the American South and rolled together into an upscale restaurant offering.

Dogwood's grits variations include (of course) the requisite shrimp-and-grits, and they bring in ingredients as diverse as Benton's country ham (Eastern Tennessee), Frogmore Stew (Lowcountry South Carolina), tasso (Cajun Country in Louisiana), an pimento cheese (which I think of as a Midlands South Carolina and Georgia specialty, but I'm not sure exactly where it originated.)

It's an appropriate role for grits, for what food could be more representative of how today's chefs have taken once-humble fare and elevated it to the realm of high cuisine?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How Big Are Your Biscuits?

A recent post on biscuits by A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen got me thinking about the size of the typical Southern biscuit. Growing up, I seem to remember them always being very small--2" or so in diameter. These days, however, it seems we are experiencing serious biscuit inflation.

I suspect it has something to do with Hardee's and other fast-food restaurants starting to sell biscuits back in, I guess it was the early 1980s. The size of your average biscuit has steadily increased until what used to be enormous "catheads" are now the norm.

Am I just crazy, or is biscuit inflation a real phenomenon? What size are the biscuits you cook at home?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Adventures in Pig Country

I've been doing a lot of work up in the Raleigh-Durham area, which means a lot of dull four-and-a-half hour drives up I-95. But, as it turns out, my handy electronic barbecue restaurant finder also has the capability for recommending driving routes between two cities (who knew?). It told me that I could make the trip to Durham up U.S. 41 rather than the Interstate, which not only saves a few minutes but is far more scenic.

This has led to some good barbecue, including a little detour over to Wilber's in Goldsboro a few weeks ago and, on my last trip, at stop at Shuler's in Latta.

Wilber's is perhaps the quintessential Eastern NC barbecue joint, one of the few left that actually cooks solely with wood (Wilber Shirley uses oak). The interior looks the way most restaurants looked when I was a kid: brown paneling and red checkered tablecloths. The place is big, too, with two broad dining rooms that seat up to 300 people.

I had a barbecue plate with chopped pork, a finely-minced coleslaw, potato salad, and golden brown hushpuppies, and it was wicked good. I didn't have my camera with me on that trip, but I did get a t-shirt:

As much of a legend as Wilber's is, I have to say that, in my book, Schuler's of Latta is equally worth a stop on a long drive through the Carolina swamps.

It's in a big log cabin building off the side of Highway 38, an all-you-can-eat buffet that's open (like so many SC BBQ joints) just Thursday through Saturday. The chopped pork was good, but for me the star were the ribs--thick, meaty, and very smoky. I can't say for sure, but I think that Shuler's cooks over charcoal (an assumption based upon the fact that there were a bunch of huge sacks of charcoal stacked up out front). In any event, it's good barbecue, and the side dishes (several dozen of them to choose from) will guarantee you leave with a groaning belly.

Along the way, I uncovered a business I never new existed before: Hog Slat.

That's right, Hog Slat (singular).

I had no idea what this business was, but the name intrigued me, and I passed by several different outlets on my circuitous route back from Goldsboro to Charleston. Hog Slat, later research revealed, is the "world leader in swine production solutions." Which is a relief, even though I didn't realize we had swine production problems. As it turns out, a "hog slat" is used on the floor of pig nurseries--a sort of reinforced concrete floor with slits in it, which I can only assume is so that the, er, unwanted materials, pass down through the floor to be carried out to somewhere else. Which is about as much about large-scale hog farming as I need to know.

I've also passed by several billboards for the Nahunta Pork Center in Pikeville, which claims to have "The Country's Largest Pork Retail Display." Now this is the kind of thing that it's hard to pass up, but I was pressed for time on my last few trips. I'll be heading back up in a week or two, so lookout, Pikeville, here I come. I'll make sure to pack a cooler.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Summer of Caipirinhas

I had dinner down at Shine the other day, and one of their specialty drinks is the Caipirinha, which is supposedly the national drink of Brazil. Shine's version won me over, and it's taken a high place on my list--right up there with the mojito and a (proper) margarita--of the best drinks for summer.

Cachaca is a fermented beverage made from the juice of sugar cane juice. It's similar to rum, but rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane processing, rather than from sugar cane juice itself.

Shine uses Cachaca 51, the best selling brand of Brazilian cachaca, and adds Clements Orange Liqueur, which uses rum as its base (rather than brandy, which is used by Grand Marnier, or neutral spirits, which are used in most triple secs). The orange liqueur is Shine's added touch: the traditional Caipirinhas recipe just has lime and sugar.

I happened to be fresh out of Cachaca in my home liquor cabinet, but I improvised with some dark rum and it was still a great drink. Shine uses brown sugar for theirs, but white sugar is more traditional. I tried it both ways and think both are good.

Here are the basics:

Cut a lime into slices and place in a glass. Pour in 1 heaping teaspoon of sugar (or perhaps a bit more) and muddle until the lime is throughly mooshed and the sugar is all dissolved:

Add two ounces of whatever liquor you're using--cachaca if you got it, but rum or vodka are common substitutes--add crushed ice and stir.

If you want to goose it up a little like Shine does, add a splash of your favorite orange liqueur. This is a great, refreshing summertime drink, and it prevents scurvy, too. Now I just need to get my hands on a real bottle of cachaca . . .

Friday, May 29, 2009

Strawberry Basil Mojito

So, my visit to the Boone Hall U-Pick strawberry patch coincidend with a trip to the fabulous H&L Market in North Charleston, where I picked up a massive bag of basil for something like a dollar and seventy-five cents. That much basil seems destined for only one thing: a big batch of pesto. But, before then, I might as well use it to put a little dent in my strawberry stockpile.

This recipe is an attempt to recreate a splendid drink that I discovered for the first time out at The Lettered Olive on the Isle of Palms. It's a fine twist on the traditional mojito, and the strawberry and basil provide a nice sweet-minty interplay.

You make it pretty much the same way you would a mojito, but substitute basil for the mint and toss in 2 or 3 sliced strawberries. Just be sure you start with a proper mojito recipe!):

4 - 6 large, fresh basil leaves
2 - 3 strawberries, sliced
1 T sugar
3 T rum
Juice of 1 lime
2 T of club soda

Put the basil and sugar in a glass and muddle vigorously until the basil is starting to disintegrate and is melding into the sugar. Add the strawberries and mush with the muddle until blended with the basil and sugar. Put the mixture into a cocktail shaker and pour in the rum, lime juice, and club soda. Add ice, then shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, Add ice and shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda, garnish with a lime, and enjoy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sharpen up the filet knife, Sarah . . .

Stingrays win 4-2, taking a 2-1 lead in the series. It's starting to look like king salmon for the guvner--though I hear he wants to sell it to pay down state debt rather than eating it . . .

She-Crab Soup & Shrimp and Grits for Alaska

The Alaska Aces are in town tonight for game three of the Kelly Cup finals against the South Carolina Stingrays. SC Governor Mark Sanford and his Alaskan counterpart, Sarah Palin, have a little wager on the outcome: he'll deliver Palin some she-crab soup and shrimp-and-grits from Tristan if the Aces win, and she'll pony up king salmon if the Stingrays come out on top.

Nothing against salmon, but this somehow doesn't seem like a fair trade. Maybe that Palin's wilier than she looks.

Right now the series is tied 1-1 . . .

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries

I hit the Boone Hall Farm U-Pick strawberry patch over the weekend with The Eight-Year-Old, The Three-Year-Old, and The-Eight-Year-Old's-Friend. Three free jump castles are only part of the draw. We spent about ten minutes picking berries and those little fingers--even The Three-Year-Old's--are surprisingly nimble. I'd barely had time to turn around before we had four buckets groaning with fresh red berries.

I spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out what to do with all the bounty. Strawberry waffles, strawberry-basil mojitos, strawberry sorbet--and I still had a massive bag left, starting to show those signs of darkening and turning to mush. So, I sliced the rest and macerated them with sugar and put them in the freezer.

If I invite you over for dinner anytime in the next three months, don't be surprised if the dessert menu features strawberries . . .

Monday, May 25, 2009


John T. Edge's third installment of his splendid United Tastes series for The New York Times came out last week, and it's devoted to the story of David Tran and his Tuong Ot Sriracha sauce, or as I now prefer to call it, "rooster sauce."

Inspired, I picked up a bottle of Sriracha over the weekend (at H&L Market, which had an entire endcapped stacked with cases of the green-capped bottles). The stuff is pretty darn hot, but it has a delightfully complex flavor, with sweet, garlicky undertones than shine through the initial fiery burst of peppers. You can see why every one from Jean-Georges Vongerichten to Korean taco truck operators have glommed onto the stuff.

Tran's story is interesting enough on its own merits, but it really is an all-American story, harking back more than a century to the many immigrant entrepreneurs who brought flavors of their birth countries to a new shore and adapted them to a new market and, in the process, changed the way Americans ate. It makes one wonder what "mainstream" American food will look like three or four decades down the road. If the success of sriracha is any indication, I predict it will look very, very different than it does today.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Finally . . . to Market, to Market

It's been a busy Spring, but I was FINALLY able to make it down to the Marion Square market for the first time this year. Carrots, green beans, stone ground grits, and some gorgeous radishes from Rita's Roots, which I gave the butter and salt treatment. Good stuff.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Go, Shrimp-Eaters!

In case there's any doubt over the prominence of shrimp in Charleston's historic food culture, consider that over a century ago the city's baseball team bore the proud nickname of "The Shrimp-Eaters." And note, as well, that we put a 9-2 hurtin' on the Charlotte Hornets, the lingering resentment over which may have played a factor in the Queen City's nefarious plot to steal our cuisine by luring Johnson & Wales away from us. (Better luck next time--Mike Lata just brought home our second consecutive Best Chef Southeast James Beard award; Charlotte didn't even score a nomination!)

I turned up this piece doing some research on shrimp in the 19th century. A (very) cursory search hasn't uncovered up anything more on the Charleston Shrimp-Eater's ball club, but I know there's a story out there.

And, I plan on lobbying Mike Veeck to officially rename the Charleston Riverdogs the Charleston Shrimp-Eaters out of respect for the city's culinary and sporting heritage. I've got nothing against the name Riverdogs, but it is sort of generic. watch for the petition drive, coming soon . . .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thrill Ride

Not too long ago, while dining at The Bucanneer downtown, I took The Eight Year Old to the restroom and discovered a stunning thing: the XLerator.

I thought when I bought my blender--the infamous Black & Decker CrushMaster--that I had found the most macho of non-woodworking electonic appliances. Boy was I wrong,

The XLerator is hands-down the most powerful and loudest hand dryer on the planet. Wash your hands, shake free the excess water, and punch the button on the XLerator. The bathroom is filled with the rushing roar of a fighter jet at takeoff, and your hands are blasted with an F5 tornado of hot air so powerful that the moisture is whisked away in a matter of seconds. You'll leave the restroom with ringing ears, but your hands will be real dry.

The Eight Year Old's conclusion: "That's AWESOME!"

One might say that the XLerator is to handdryers what the Hummer is to sports utility vehicles (the original Hummer, not the wussy H3)--extreme, testosterone laden, and completely over the top.

But, as it turns out, the XLerator is actually marketed as a green appliance--which explains its presence at a self-avowedly green restaurant like the Bucaneer. Not only do you avoid all those paper towels, but the one quick, massive blast of air supposedly uses less electricity than the old traditional model, which puffs warm air gently over your hands while you twist and rub them for a good sixty seconds before getting impatient and leaving the restroom with damp hands.

The electricity savings sounds plausible enough at first brush, but I bet there's one factor the manufacturers didn't consider. During our 45-minute dinner The Eight Year Old managed to come up with excuses to go back to the bathroom THREE more times. I tried telling him that it was a bathroom not a thrill ride, but the young are remakably obtuse in such matters.

So, I figure the go-greeners are now seeing a 4X increase in handdryer usage, which pretty much cancels out any energy savings. But, it was a valiant try.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My Favorite Food Books

I must admit that, despite spending far, far too many of my waking hours thinking about food, cooking food, and eating said food, I have never been a big fan of cookbooks.

I don't mind the occasional recipe here and there, but I never want to pick up a book with 200 recipes and flip through them looking for something interesting. My food book curiosity is more in the realm of narrative and history, of reading about food and where it came from.

Many of the food-oriented people I know have shelves brimming with cookbooks of every stripe and flavor, from geographic- and ethnic-centric to restaurant-focused and diet-focused manuals. Not me. My food books fit nicely on a single shelf. I may check cookbooks out of the library, but rarely would I plunk down dollars twenty five for one.

Here is, in no particular order, my (current) list of my favorite five food books from my (small) food bookshelf:

The Tummy Trilogy ( American Fried, Alice Let's Eat, and Third Helpings) Calvin Trillin is an American treasure, and a complete rarity among foodwriters. He writes passionately and honestly about good food, but completely deflates the overwhelming pretension and silliness that plagues most food writing. To read a food piece by Trillin is to get hungry, to want to hop in your car and drive all night in search of genuine boudin or to track down the original Buffalo chicken wing. To hell with La Maison de La Casa House: bring on Arthur Bryant's!

The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten's writing persona is brilliant: a passionate, compulsive bumbler who lurches his way through one culinary investigation after another. He throws himself headlong into his pursuits and never fails to both amuse and educate.

The Taste of America, by John L. Hess and Karen Hess. A delightful polemic, first published in 1976, that skewers the state of American cooking and dining in the 1970s. It may be a quarter century old, but the book is still relevant today not only because of the broad ranging history of American food it provides but also because the central tenants of what makes for good eating--and what makes for gussied-up food charlatanry--are as relevant now as they ever have been.

Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney. This barbecue book is what every book on barbecue should aim to be: well-researched, wide-ranging, funny, lavishly-illustrated, and just downright enjoyable. Sure, there are recipes, but they don't overdo it. Who really needs four thousand recipes for barbecue sauce? A mere half dozen will do. Between the authoritative history of barbecue in the Tarheel state to the in-depth interviews with the state's legendary pitmasters, Holy Smoke not only entertains but also leaves you a lot smarter and hungrier than when you picked it up.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain. I'm a little leery of the gonzoesque nature of Bourdain's original book, having OD'ed on Hunter S. Thompson quite a while ago, but something about Bourdain's writing still manages to hook me. The sheer lack of romanticism is part of the appeal, as is the underlying love for food and the restaurant life that shows through every page. Best of all is the energy. In writing about food and cooking, Anthony Bourdain makes you want to be there and live the life, and that's the hallmark not just of great food writing but great writing in general.

All great books, and all great writing and storytelling, too.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Margarita Time Again

It's May, which, in these parts, at least, means it sure as heck feels a lot like summer. And that means . . . margaritas!

I shelled out big bucks for a bottle of good tequilla and Cointreau this time around, and I couldn't be happier.

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