Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prognostications: Gearing Up

I've been trying to gear up for my next round of prognostications, seeing that the year 2010 is rapidly drawing to a close and 2011 is now literally just around the corner.  (Well, not literally just around the corner.  Just around the corner it is still 2010, and my neighbor Stanley still hasn't raked up any of his leaves yet this year.  For which I am thankful, since I--or, to be more accurately, various members of my family--have raked up at least SOME of the leaves in our yard so it's only ankle deep in leaves, not knee deep, and compared to Stanley's yard we look downright prim.  Raking leaves, I predict, will NOT be a big trend in 2011, in my household, at least.)

After a couple of years of great cavalierness with the timing of my predictions for the "new" year, this year I've vowed to be on top of things and get them done absolutely no later than Jan 1st or a few days or weeks thereafter.  I've scribbled a few raw notes on the back of cocktail napkins and was really about to get into the swing of things when I heard the latest Dinner Party Download (DPD) podcast from Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, which effectively demolishes the whole practice of predicting food trends.

The segment on trends picks up around 11:45 into the podcast.  If one can predict anything about food trends in 2011, it's that the predictions about such trends are going to be really lame, as evidenced by DPD's summary of the early trends identified by food trend consulting firms (yes, there actually are such outfits, which may mean I have totally missed my calling in life.)    "Action in adult beverages?" "Frugality fatigue?" "Poutine?"  Is this really what we have to look forward to next year?

So now I'm totally deflated in my efforts to at compiling my own prognostications.  Maybe I'll just take a nap this afternoon instead.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is a Sack of Meat

Last weekend my wife gave me my Christmas present early: an Artisan Meat Share from Craig Deihl of Cypress Restaurant.

We've already broken into the pork pate and the summer sausage, and both are terrific.  The pork pate includes, in addition to the obvious coarse-ground pork and spices, rich ingredients like pork liver, eggs, and cream plus onions and garlic, which result in what one might term one of the best meatloafs ever.

I'm even more enamored with the summer sausage.  It's a fermented, semi-dry sausage made from half beef and half pork, and it's blended with a whole bunch of spices that include black pepper, smoked paprika, mace, garlic, juniper, caraway, mustard, and marjoram.

Summer Sausage w/ a Selection of Cheese and Crackers

The fermentation not only helps preserve the sausage but also gives it a delightful tangy edge.  That and the slow smoking results in something that can only be described a deep and complex flavor.  The taste grows and expands as you hold it in your mouth, with very warm, smoky finish.  We've been eating it as simply as possible: sliced and served alongside cheese and crackers--and a dollop of pimento cheese, for good measure.

Also included in the bag is this line up: guanciale, lonza, saucisson sec, salami spread, country bologona, smoked turkey breast, and--if you can believe it--lamb bacon.  This last one is the most intriguing of them all.  It's cured with salt, brown sugar, and spices for 10 days and, the Meat Share's "User Guide" advises, should be eaten without cooking.

These should keep me busy over the Christmas holidays, and you can believe one or more of them will be turning up on the appetizer plates I'll be making for various holiday gatherings this week.

When in doubt, give the gift of meat.

P.S. Did I mention that my wife is the best Christmas gift buyer in the world?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old School Biscuits

This week I got a little old school with a batch of biscuits.

Old school how?  For starters, I used an old recipe.  And by old I'm referring not to the age of the formula itself but rather the condition of the paper it's written on.  I transcribed it from my mother's version some twenty years ago when I was first teaching myself to cook and trying to learn some of her stand-by recipes.  This is one recipe that has been put to very good use.

The Recipe
But, age of the paper aside, I've actually gone more old school with this batch than I have in the past, and that's because just a few days ago I received my order from Columbia's Anson Mills and it included their Colonial Style Whole-Grain Wheat Flour.  This is flour the way it used to be made before the era of the iron-roller mills.  It's made from whole grains of Red May wheat, which you can tell right away from not just the coarser texture but also the little dark flecks scattered throughout it, which are the bran.

Anson Mills' Colonial-Style Red May Wheat Flour
I figured such old-school flour needed something a little better than plain old supermarket buttermilk, so I splurged for a bottle of buttermilk from Homestead Creamy.  Their milk comes from just two farms--their own in Wirtz, Virgnia, and a neighbor's.  It's bottled in real, old school glass bottles, and if you live in Roanoke, they'll deliver it to an insulated milk box on your doorstep via their old-fashioned milk delivery service.  (Being a bit outside their delivery area, I picked up my bottle at Earthfare.)

Good buttermilk
It's remarkable stuff: very, very thick and creamy.  In fact, it's much more like good yogurt in texture and flavor than the regular buttermilk you get at the supermarket.  (As a side note, it is still cultured buttermilk, meaning that it is regular milk with bacteria added to create the lactic acid that gives buttermilk it's distinctive sour edge--much the way yogurt is made.  True old-school buttermilk is the thin stuff left over after butter is churned.  I am hot on the heels of acquiring myself a bottle of that, but that's another story altogether.)

Here's the recipe.


2 cups flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
1/3 cup of cold butter
3/4 cup of buttermilk

First, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and mix together.  Next, cut in the butter.  There are several ways you can do this.  You could use a pastry blender (like this one), which is a handy little device with five or six parallel metal blades  that chop up the butter and mix it in with the flour.  By all accounts they work well, but I've never tried it: I just cut the butter in by hand.  To do so, I take the cold butter and chop it into small cubes, then toss them in the bowl with the flour.  I cover the butter lumps with flour and squeeze them between my fingers to break them down into smaller bits and rub the butter into them.  You just squeeze and rub, squeeze and rub until all the butter is blended in and your left with a bowl of what looks like bread crumbs.

Important: You want to make sure the butter is cold; otherwise, it will just mix in with the flour.   You want those little lumps: those are what make the biscuits flaky in the end.

Finally, stir in the buttermilk and mix up the dough until the liquid is all absorbed by the flour.  With your hands, knead and shape the dough until all the flour is worked in and the dough is of a single consistency.  It should be still be slightly sticky to the touch, but not so sticky that it clings tou your hands and the side of the bowl.  Now you're ready to roll out the biscuits.

Dough rolled out and ready for cutting

Sprinkle a little flour across a cutting board (or you could do this right on the kitchen counter), turn the dough out on it, and knead it up and down on the board, sprinkling on a little more flour if it seems too sticky.  Roll out the dough on the board with a rolling pin (I rub mine down with a little flour to keep the dough from sticking) until it's between a half-inch and an inch thick.  How thick you like your biscuits is a personal preference.  I tend to make my a little thinner--probably a half inch thick when rolled out.

To cut the biscuits, you could use a biscuit cutter if you have one.  Or, just do what I do and use a plastic cup of the desired diameter.   This again is a matter of personal preference.  Lately, I've been making them several inches in diameter, which is perfect for slathering with jelly and having for breakfast.  If you're going to use them for other purposes, though (like topping them with ham and pimento cheese for a tasty appetizers) you could make them even smaller.

Ready for the oven

Place the biscuits on a greased or non-stick baking pan and bake in a 450 degree oven till brown and crispy around the edges.  My old handwritten recipes says to start checking the biscuits at 8 minutes and every two minutes after that.  For this batch, it took me a full twelve minutes to get them fully done; smaller cut biscuits will likely take closer to eight minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack, though in practice you can eat one as soon as it's cool enough to hold, and half of this pan disappeared within five minutes of its being out of the oven.

This recipe would work just fine with regular old all purpose flour and cultured buttermilk,  But, the Anson Mills flour makes an remarkable difference.  The biscuits turned out a light brown color reminiscent of good whole wheat bread.  And, the flavor of the old-fashioned flour is stunning.  The biscuits are notably crispier than ones made with regular all-purpose flour, and there's a good, solid body to them.  Little flecks of bran remain in the biscuit, too, giving it a touch of a grittiness to some of the bits that is unusual but not at all unpleasant--a lot like stoneground grits, in fact.  The bottoms of the biscuit get a nice dark brown and crispy, too.

To serve, I simply sliced them in half and spread on a little butter and some good strawberry preserves.  A perfect breakfast.

Monday, December 13, 2010

BBQ & Books: Nosh Mob Event This Thursday

This Thursday I'm part of the City Paper's next Nosh Mob event: a barbecue tasting & book signing at Blue Bicycle Books.

Where: Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St.
When: Thursday, Dec. 16 from 5:30-7:30
What:  Samples from Home Team BBQ (and there's rumors about beer, too.)

I've apparently signed myself up for a little presentation where I "deconstruct the standard barbecue menu and talk about how brisket, sauces, slaws, and more fit into the larger history of 'cue."  We'll see what I come up with, but drop on by if you have a chance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cornbread with a Side of Controvery

Cornbread is a long-standing and genuine Southern staple.  Unlike pimento cheese or fried green tomatoes, which were never served in the South Carolina home of my boyhood, cornbread is something that we ate on a regular basis and thus is for me a nostalgic, homey comfort food.  It's also really, really good.

This recipe is my paternal grandmother's, which she wrote down and gave to my mother not long after she and my father got married, and my mother, in turn, wrote down for me at my request when I got really interested in cooking in my early 20s.

For the bread to turn out properly, you really have to cook it in a cast iron skillet.  I have an 8-inch one that's just the right size--a Lodge pan that I bought at Hiller's Hardware in downtown Columbia and seasoned myself back when I was in graduate school.  I suppose you could make this same recipe in a regular old baking pan, but you would miss out on the very best feature of cornbread: that crisp, firm quarter-inch of dark brown crust that's created from the heat of the iron pan.

Grandmother Moss's Cornbread (With a few Small Enhancements)

1 cup cornmeal
1/2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
3 T vegetable oil (to go in the batter)
1 T of butter (for greasing the skillet)

Optional enhancements:
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
about 12 pickled jalapeno rings, chopped

To begin, you have to preheat both the oven and the skillet.  I can't emphasize this step enough because if you start with the batter in a cold pan you won't get the same crust and it will stick to the pan instead of popping right out when it's finished (and leave you with an ugly, ripped up top to your cornbread).  So, turn the oven to 400 degrees and put the empty cast iron skillet inside so that it preheats along with the oven while you are mixing the ingredients.

Next, make the batter.  Not much to it: put all the dry ingredients (the first four) in a mixing bowl and stir them together.  Put the buttermilk,  the egg, and the vegetable oil in a separate container (I use my glass measuring cup) and mix them with a fork until the egg yolk is broken up and mixed in.  Then, pour all of the liquid into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients and stir until it is all mixed in and of a smooth consistency, but don't over mix it.  Finally, add whatever optional enhancements that you like (such as the onions and pickled jalapenos that I usually add).

Once the oven is heated and the iron pan is good and smoking hot, remove it from the oven to the stovetop (you'll need a good thick oven-mitt or kitchen towel since that cast iron will be HOT).  Toss a pat of butter in the pan and stir it around with a spoon till it's totally melted and coating the pan--this will both flavor the cornbread crust and help it crisp up and not stick to the pan.  Pour the batter into the skillet, return it to the oven, and bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown.

Now, some folks find getting the finished cornbread out of the skillet to be tricky, but it shouldn't be.  The key is to not let it cool in the pan. Here's what I do: put a plain old dinner plate on the counter, remove the skillet from the oven (again using a thick oven-mitt), and invert it over the plate.  Most of the time the cornbread will drop right out onto the plate and you're done.  If you turn the skillet upside down and the cornbread doesn't move, simply put the pan down on the stove top, get a butter knife, and run it around the inside of the pan to loosen the crust from sides of the pan.  Then invert it over the pan again and it should pop right out.  Once it's on the dinner plate, let it cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

My two standard enhancements to my grandmother's recipe are the chopped onions and jalapeno.  You can leave them out if you like, but I think they add extra moistness and flavor to the bread, and lest you're worried about the heat factor, as long as you use the pickled variety from a jar and chop them finely, the jalapenos don't make things too spicy (using chopped fresh jalapenos is a different story).

A Side Dish of Controversy: Sugar and Flour in Cornbread

Note that while I'm pretty open minded about optional enhancements--you could toss in bacon, cracklins, herbs, hot sauce, whole kernels of corn, you name it--there are two ingredients that do not and will not appear in my cornbread.  They're the kind of things that I would consider not "optional enhancements" but "flat out adulterations".  Those ingredients are wheat flour and sugar.

There's been much silly debate over whether corn bread should or should not have sugar in it.  Silly, I say, because it is so plainly self evident that corn bread could not possibly have any sugar in it for as soon as you add any you immediately transform it into cornmeal cake.  The real deal is rich, hearty, and possibly even savory, but it certainly is NOT sweet.  

The same prohibition goes for wheat flour, which only heightens the cake-like quality of adulterated corn bread.  It's also completely at odds with cornbread's history, though that's a long enough subject for a whole separate post.

I am well aware that this is just an opinion and, to judge by a cursory Internet search, one that puts me in the cranky minority.  So, I threw together a little poll and put it up in the sidebar.  Weigh in and let me know what you think.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Does Authenticity Matter? The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern

The Lee Brothers Simple Fresh Southern (Clarkson Potter, 2009) 

Right out of the gate I had an immediate visceral reaction when I read the dust jacket for the latest cookbook from brothers (and fellow Charleston residents) Matt and Ted Lee.  The blurb starts off strong: "Matt and Ted Lee grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, immersed in the flavorful traditions--long-simmered gumbos, fish-fry marathons, whole-hog barbecues--that have made southern food the most beloved of American cuisines."  That had me hooked.

Unfortunately, the very next word that follows is "but," and the copy proceeds to explain how busy life is today in this era of two working parents and how the recipes therein are meant to update traditional recipes with lighter cooking methods and new, more modern ingredients.  In fact, not just the dust jacket but the rest of the marketing material for the book sticks to the key themes of "easy", "fast", and "healthy," selling these as "simple" recipes aimed at "the busy home cook."  The Publisher's Weekly review did little to advance the cause, either, noting that the book is an exercise in "applying the principles of the current fashion for simplicity and speed in the kitchen to the revered down-home flavors of the South" and "bringing Southern cooking into the 21st century."

"Fast", "light", and "easy" just isn't my style (and, as my wife will quickly point out, neither is "neat", "elegant," nor "one-pot meal").   In my working drafts folder I have a half-finished piece entitled "In Defense of Slow-Cooked Vegetables" in which I argue passionately for the virtues of simmering vegetables in a dutch oven with a big chunk of smoked meat until they cry "Uncle".  As far back as the early 1990s I was toying with writing a cookbook entitled "Cooking with Lard",  but I never got around to it and two guys named Mike beat me to the punch with a jokey version and then Jennifer McLagen, a Beard Award-winning cookbook writer,  came out with a serious and authoritative tome on the subject.

It would be easy for one to write off the Lee's latest effort by saying "that's not real Southern cooking," meaning, of course, that it's not authentic.

But, if you actually read the recipes in Simple Fresh Southern and not just the dust jacket copy, you'll find that, while the dishes may be light and quick and possibly even healthy, they are really just plain good eating.  In fact, it makes you wonder whether whoever wrote the marketing materials actually read the book or whether they simply plugged a few words into a template designed for today's average cookbook buyers.

I don't think Matt and Ted Lee are on a mission to save us from the the busy bustle of daily life nor the "burden" of homecooking so much as they are trying to rescue Southern cooking from the depredations of the mid-20th Century (and, if you judge by the women's magazines and newspaper food pages, everyone was far too busy to cook from scratch back then, too.)

You don't really find within the Lee brothers' book too many updated versions of the fatback-and-greens, lard-based biscuits, and fried sidemeat dishes that were stereotypical of Southern cooking in, say, 1890.  Instead, you get a lot of updates on the kind of recipe that your great-aunt may have found in one of those spiral-bound community cookbooks and took to her church family night supper in 1962, recipes that usually began with, "Open a can of . . ."

There is, for example, green goddess potato salad, which the Lees note was "dreamed up in a fancy hotel kitchen far from the South"--that is, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1920.  But, it appears so frequently in mid 20th century Southern cookbooks, they argue, that it might as well be considered Southern.  Matt and Ted use the mayo-and-sour cream dressing (made green with chopped scallions, parsley, and tarragon and spiced with anchovies) to dress red potatoes into a warm potato salad.  It's a definite upgrade from the versions you find in newspaper columns in the 1960s and '70s, which called for things like "2 teaspoons French's Herb Seasoning, 1 teaspoon French's Minced Onions, and 2 teaspoons French's Worcestershire sauce" and was used to dress iceberg lettuce

In New Fairyland Cooking Magic (1964) from the  Fairyland School PTA from Lookout Mountain, GA,
the Lees  found a recipe for "shrimp and deviled egg casserole", an insidious-sounding concoction of deviled eggs layered into a casserole pan, covered with a thick, cheesy cream sauce with shrimp, ketchup, Worchestershire, and sherry, and finally topped with buttered bread crumbs, baked, and served--in a final indignity--over canned Chinese noodles.  What made them think they could rescue such a mutt is beyond me, but rescue it they did, homing in on the potential in the marriage of shrimp and deviled eggs.  The result is an egg salad made with farm fresh eggs, store-bought mayo, dijon mustard and tabasco into which is folded chopped local shrimp with a  squeeze of lemon and smoky bacon and scallions.  The mixture is tucked inside toploading hot dog bun to create a Southern version of a New England lobster roll.  And it looks delicious.

Now, be honest, would you rather have the authentic original or the updated one?

The Lees banish marshmallows and canned mandarin oranges from ambrosia and replace them with fresh grapefruit and oranges and toasted coconut flakes.  Heck, they even take a flyer at reforming Purple Jesus, that iconic college party punch traditionally made with Everclear, citrus juices, and grape Kool-Ade in big plastic trash cans.  Matt and Ted offer up a variant with vodka and soda flavored with cherries, blackberries, and citrus that's more suited for a classy summer front porch party than the kind of affair that leaves you sprawled prone in the bushes.

The book is less about Southern recipes and more about Southern ingredients and preparation techniques.  Watermelon makes its way into margaritas, gets tossed with squid and basil, and is brined into watermelon and onion pickles.  Bourbon is poured with a liberal hand to marinate flank steak, flavor ice cream, and to spike up a fig compote.   There are "shopping notes" on how to find everything from fresh shrimp and oysters to salt and olive oil, and instructional sidebars on techniques like stove-top smoking and quick pickling that seemed aimed a returning some of the old flavors of traditional preservation techniques to the modern-day kitchen, flavors that were lost in the era of canning and freezing.

In this sense, it's a cookbook that's very much in line with the efforts of Linton Hopkins and Sean Brock and all those other chefs who are "reclaiming the soul of Southern food".  Is it "authentic?"  You be the judge.  But, it's definitely good Southern eating.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Authentic" Pimento Cheese

People get passionate about pimento cheese.  It's been called the "Pâté of the South" and "Carolina Caviar."  It's the kind of thing that Southerners get all misty eyed remembering from their youths and Yankees get all wondrous and rapturous about when they discover it.

Like other foods that stir diners' passions--barbecue, for instance--pimento cheese can also stir up a lot of disagreement.  It's the kind of thing that people quickly harden into a "my way or the highway" kind of mentality about.  In fact, every single ingredient can be debated.
Grating the Cheddar (Finely, in this case)

The base of just about every pimento cheese recipe you see today is three-part: cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos.  But, do you use cheddar, white cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Parmesan, cream cheese, or Velveeta (or a combination of several of these)?  Do you grate the cheese finely or leave it in  big ole chunky shreds?

The Basic Foundation: Cheese, Mayo, Pimento
You would think the pimento part would be fairly straightforward, but as I discussed a few days ago, it's not clear whether fresh or canned peppers would actually be more authentic.

And what about the mayonnaise?  Nan Davis of Oxford, Mississippi, who won the Southern Foodways Alliance's Pimento Cheese Invitational in 2003 with a recipe she learned from her Aunt Lella.  As Davis recalls that when Lella taught her the recipe, "She started with 'Well, first you make the mayonnaise'. I interrupted her and said that I was not going to make homemade mayonnaise, just to give me the proportions on the cheese, pimentos, and spices. There was a long pause and then she said 'Well, you might as well not bother'".  Davis has used homemade mayonnaise ever since.

One of my favorite pimento cheese versions of all times is that of Sarah O'Kelley of the Glass Onion here in Charleston.  The Glass Onion is a die-hard farm-to-table, fresh local ingredients kind of place, but O'Kelley is insistent on using store bought mayo for her pimento cheese.  "You must use Duke’s brand,”O'Kelley told Garden & Gun magazine.  "Duke’s has no added sugar and more egg yolks."

Ready for Sampling
I'm partial to Duke's Mayonnaise myself, perhaps in part because I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, where Eugenia Duke first began making her no-sugar mayonnaise in 1917, and the yellow-labeled jars were omnipresent.

Once you get the first three ingredients in the mixing bowl, the concoction becomes a palette for your culinary creativity, and what each cook adds from there is what makes their "special" pimento cheese recipe so special.  Black pepper, cayenne, jalapeños, lemon juice, onion, bacon, pecans, hot sauce, garlic powder, mustard, cider vinegar, and celery seeds are just a few of the things you might see adding a little zip or kick or twist.

Or, You Could Gussy it Up a Little
When next summer rolls around I plan on going all lardcore and making my pimento cheese with fresh, fire-roasted pimentos, handcrafted hoop cheese, and homemade mayonnaise from Southern-sourced oil (maybe I'll even press it myself from locally-grown soybeans.)  Until then, here's the standby recipe I'm going with for holiday parties and other family gatherings.

Pimento Cheese

8 Oz. sharp yellow cheddar (or 4 oz. sharp cheddar and 4 oz. aged white cheddar)
1/2 cp. Duke's mayonnaise
1/2 cp. pimentos from a jar, drained and chopped into 1/4-inch bits
black pepper
pinch of salt
1/4 cp. diced green onion
1 t. dried mustard
1 t. freshly-squeeze lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cayenne

Grate the cheddar.  Lately I've been using the fine holes on my grater, but (yes, Janet) you could use the larger ones if you prefer big shreds instead.  Put the grated cheese in a large mixing bowl and stir together all the ingredients.  Start with a little less than a half cup of mayo and add a little more once you have everything else mixed in to make sure you get the right consistency--I like mine to be thick but still loose enough to spread easily, and the 1/2 cup of mayo will usually do it.   

I like to make my pimento cheese the day before I serve it so it has a good night in the fridge to let everything merge and meld together.  You can serve it immediately, though, in a pinch.

Lately, I've gone for mustard and black pepper for a little zip, cayenne to add a subtle bit of heat, and lemon juice to brighten it all up.  But, there are a hundred different things you could use instead and come up with a similarly satisfying spread, so here's your chance to get creative.

How to serve pimento cheese once it's made is a topic for several more posts, but you can get all fancy and spread it on little toast points (see glamor shot above), or just serve it in a bowl with some crackers around it, or--as usually ends up happening to me--simply leave it in a plastic container in the fridge and scoop out a couple of spoonfuls here and there until it's gone before you get a chance to serve it at any sort of gathering.

It's good stuff.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Does Authenticity Matter? Pimentos

The authentic pimento?

The authentic pimento?
I'm currently somewhat obsessed by pimento cheese, having had so many splendid examples in various restaurants and venues over the past year and spent a considerable time trying to perfect my own home version.

One of the versions that caught my attention was that of Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta.  He makes his with a blend of white cheddar and extra sharp yellow cheddar along with homemade mayonnaise (from local farm eggs), tabasco, and black pepper and--the kicker--real Georgia pimentos that he buys fresh and roasts himself, being sure that a little of the black char from the skin gets into the mix.

"Georgia used to produce a huge amount of true red pimentos for pimento cheese, the classic Southern staple," Hopkins told Creative Loafing Atlanta a while back. "But now it all goes to the canning industry. So you don't see them here anymore. The local farmers don't have them; it's all done by the big agribusiness."  

What Hopkins says is almost all correct, but for perfect accuracy you would have to remove the words "now" and "anymore."  Georgia did indeed produce huge amounts of red pimentos in the past, but from the very beginning they weren't produced by small local farmers but rather by "big agribusiness."

No one in the South had even heard of a pimento pepper until well after the Civil War.  Through most of the 19th century, the word "pimento" meant allspice, the unripe berries of the Eugenia Pimenta evergreen from Jamaica and the West Indies.  The spice was popular throughout the United States, and oil from Jamaican pimento berries was prescribed as a purgative and toothache remedy.

Pimento was not used as a term for red peppers until the 1880s, when sweet peppers from Spain began being imported to the United States, packed in tin cans (which themselves were a relatively new innovation).  Not long after, recipes calling for “sweet Spanish peppers” began appearing in print.  In the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion, Maria Parloa noted that such a pepper, when green, “is much milder than the common bell-pepper, although they look so much alike it is often difficult to distinguish them.”  She recommended that they be stuffed and baked.  Thomas Jefferson Murrey, one of the most popular cookbook authors of the era, was a proponent of the sweet pepper, too, incorporating it into recipes for salmon a la Creole, boiled beef salad, and omelet with Spanish pepper.

By the late 1890s, Americans were calling these imported peppers by their Spanish name, pimiento.  Soon the “i” was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them “pimentos”.  Thanks to their bright red color, which helped liven up salads and other dishes, and their mild, sweet flavor, pimentos became one of the darlings of the "domestic science" school of cookery instructors, and their magazine articles and cookbooks advanced the pepper's adoption in home kitchens nationwide.

While the peppers were popular throughout the country, the South--specifically, the state of Georgia--became the center of the American pimento industry.  Imported Spanish pimentos were expensive, and a few enterprising Peach State residents saw an opportunity to get into the game.  Around 1911, farmers affiliated with the Georgia Experiment Station outside of Griffin, Georgia, began trying to cultivate a domestic pimento.  Working with imported Spanish varieties, Samuel D. Riegel identified the plants most suitable for the Georgia soil and from them developed the “Truhart Perfection” pimento, which became the basis of a new local industry.

In 1914, Riegel's son, Mark, invented a roasting machine that made peeling the peppers easier, and the next year he founded the Pomona Products Company to can them commercially.  By the 1920s, a flourishing pimento industry had developed in and around Griffin.  1938 was the peak year, with 25,000 acres under cultivation, and the Pomona Products Company alone was producing 10 million cans per year.  California growers began competing with Georgia around this time, but the Peach State remained the leading producer of the little red peppers until at least the 1960s.

So, from the very beginning, pimento peppers were grown on a large scale with the express intent of being canned and nationally distributed.  The pimentos used by your Southern grandmother in her special pimento cheese recipe were, in all probability, purchased in a tin can or glass jar, even if she lived in Georgia.

But, does that make pimento cheese made with fresh pimentos somehow "inauthentic?"

Linton Hopkins has developed strong relationships with local organic farmers near Atlanta who are interested in heirloom varieties, including Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms, who began supplying him with fresh, locally-grown pimentos.  I was thrilled when I found this out, because--while you can apparently get them during the summer in various farmers markets--I don't recall ever seeing a fresh pimento pepper myself.  I'm dying to try making pimento cheese from fresh peppers as soon as summer rolls back around and I can maybe track down some pimentos at a roadside market.

What could be tastier?  And if, strictly speaking, using the fresh peppers is not really authentic to the way the iconic cheese spread was made in the past, I don't why we shouldn't try to make these old recipes even better by using fresh ingredients.  And, at the same time, I see no reason to feel guilty about using diced pimentos from a jar.
Now, all of this might have you wondering how we started mixing those canned pimento peppers into a cheese spread in the first place.  As it turns out, pimento cheese itself has a long and curious history, and one, in fact, of highly questionable authenticity.  But that's a topic for a later time.

I'm off to the store for a jar of pimentos to whip up some pimento cheese.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Southern Cooking: Does Authenticity Matter?

CNN's Eatocracy blog has stirred up something of a hornet's nest over its coverage of their first CNN Secret Supper at Linton Hopkins' Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta and their celebration of modern Southern chefs like Hopkins, Steven Satterfield,  and Sean Brock, whose passionate, intensive use of fresh, traditional ingredients constitute "a love letter to the cooks, farmers and soul of the South" and "reclaiming the soul of Southern food."

This drew the ire of many commenters who claimed that such food is "no more Southern than braised kangaroo". Why?  Because it's just "some New York Yankee's idea of Southern cooking", and "I've never seen anything like this served on any down home southern table," and--more than anything--it's "not what my grandmother made."   Eatocracy sums it up nicely: "You can't out-cook a ghost."

The editors' invitation to readers to "share your thoughts on the state of Southern cooking" has sparked a full-on flame war with over three hundred comments in two days, and the content suggests it's virtually impossible for us to have a discussion about Southern cooking without everyone starting to talk about where they were born and raised and sooner or later somebody telling the Yankees to go home.

For me, though, it re-raises a question that has been nagging at me for some time, and one that my research into the history of Southern food has done little to resolve: how much does authenticity even matter?

One problem with using authenticity as a measure is that our own conceptions of Southern food history are so slippery.   Take this list of Southern staples: sweet iced tea, pimento cheese, barbecue, hushpuppies, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, RC Cola and moon pies.  Are these things traditional Southern foods? 

It all depends upon  how you define "traditional."  Did it have to be served in the region in antebellum days ("before da wah?")?  Before World War II?  Before Jimmy Carter made the South cool?  Before the turn of the 21st century?  Does it have to be something your grandmother cooked or your grandfather loved to eat? 

And then there's geography: does anything originating in Florida or Texas count? What about foods that were popular not just in the South but in other parts of the country, too?  What about something made by your grandmother who was born in the North but lived in the South her entire adult life?

It's hardly news that Southerners have a unusually strong interest in the past, but too often we seem less concerned with the past itself as we are in employing it as a cudgel in some contemporary argument.   Hate agribusiness and want everyone to start eating fresh, local, organic, heirloom vegetables?  Intimidated or annoyed by expensive restaurants and ingredients you don't recognize and wish people would just serve you a cheap fried pork chop?  Either way you can turn to the some point in the past and find evidence to buttress your position.

I'm launching a series of posts that dig more into this question of authenticity.  The idea is to look at some of the things we're eating and making such a fuss about these days,  how we are talking about them, and the history--both factual and mythologized--behind these "traditional" Southern food.  Does authenticity matter?  Should we concern ourselves with how people cooked and what they cooked in the old days?  Or, should we just shut up and eat?

Gotta go . . . Just made myself hungry thinking about fried pork chops. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fullsteam: Lardcore Beer

When I attended the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium back in October, I had the good fortune of sampling the products of Raleigh's Durham's Fullsteam Brewery for the first time. They were in attendance at the big catfish fry out at the Taylor Grocery, tapping four kegs of different beers from their lineup.

At first I thought it was just one more new regional craft brewery, the kind that have been cropping up in every decent sized Southern city these days.  There would be nothing wrong with that--those craft breweries are turning out some excellent beer--but Fullsteam takes things up about three more levels with some seriously intense beer alchemy.

Calling themselves a "plow to pint" brewery, Fullsteam is definitely pushing the envelope.  In case you doubt me, see how the F in Fullsteam is backwards?  That's edgy!  But even more edgy are the flavors they are introducing to beer.  On tap that night out at the Taylor Grocery were a Sparkling Scuppernong Ale, Carver Sweet Potato Amber, Summer Basil Wheat, and Hogwash Hickory-Smoked Porter.

Fullsteam's "plow-to-pint" aesthetic is self-consciously radical, with small batches of beer purposely brewed with unusual flavors from ingredients that are grown right here in the South.  Local, organic, seasonal--a little trendy, perhaps, if you're talking about food, but still pretty novel in the beer world.

The Summer Basil, made with twelve pounds of basil from Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina,  is a remarkable beer, a hearty wheat brew that is absolutely infused with the rich flavor of basil.  When the pourman described it to me, I figured it couldn't possibly be any good--basil in beer?  But in fact, it was remarkably tasty, like a mouthful of flowers (and, strange as it might sound, I mean that in a good way.)

But, the start of the show for me was the smoked porter.  That's right, Hickory-Smoked Porter. It's made from barley that Fullsteam smokes themselves over hickory wood in the classic North Carolina barbecue tradition, and while it's not overpowering you can really taste the smoke flowing through. I can't attest for the beer's pairing with hickory smoked pork, for there was no barbecue in sight that evening.  The order of the day was deep-fried catfish, and I can state without a shred of doubt that Hogwash is a brilliant accompaniment for deep fried catfish.

The world of microbeers have progressed so far now that just another brewery introducing another good beer to the market is hardly worth even mentioning.  But, highly flavored beer that bring the pure, intense sensibility of the farm to table movement to the craft of beer brewing is certainly worth making note of.

All I can say is, Fullsteam ahead!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Southern Cooking Takes New York (Again)

I've been watching with interest as Southern food continues to further capture the fancy of Gothamites.  Barbecue rib joints started taking off a few years ago.  Now Southern cooking is going upscale. just reviewed two new Southern-themed restaurants--Seersucker and Peels--that are wowing New Yorkers with shrimp and grits, country ham, and pickled eggs.

Seersucker, the creation of Arkansas-born Robert Newton, has been earning raves from many quarters (and a few brickbats from others, especially for the high prices).  At Peels, it seems, you can have your down-home treats like biscuits and hushpuppies in a thoroughly high-end New York restaurant environment, complete with a security guard at the door and a 90-minute weekend wait.  The fried chicken will run you twenty bucks, but it is free-range and freshly-killed.  And that, I guess, is proof positive that Southern cooking has arrived.

But, of course, Southern food in New York City really is nothing new at all.  The tens of thousands of African-Americans who came North during the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th Century brought with them the traditional cooking of their home states, and Harlem developed a thriving Southern cooking tradition (dubbed "soul food" in the 1960s).  Between 125th and 135th street, rib joints flourished eight decades before Blue Smoke and RUB came into being.

Now, curiously enough, the Soul Food restaurant tradition is dying out, as the New York Times reported a few years ago.  The food gets a big knock for being heavy, fried, and salty, plus food costs are rising and local tastes are trending more toward Indian, Thai, and Chinese places.

The rise and fall of Southern cooking in New York City, happening at the same time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why My Wife Won't (and No One Else Will, For That Matter) Watch a Movie With Me

We rented the Sherlock Holmes movie tonight--you know, the recent Sherlock-kicks-a-lot-of-butt one starring Robert Downey, Jr..  Four minutes into the film there's this little exchange of action-movie banter:

Dr. John Watson: You remember your revolver?
Sherlock Holmes: Oh, knew I forgot something. Thought I left the stove on.
Dr. John Watson: You did.
Me: LEFT THE STOVE ON?  Are you KIDDING me?  This thing is set in 1890. 
The Wife:  Just let it go, honey.
Me: There were no electric stoves in 1890!!!
The Wife: Maybe he left a wood stove on.
Me: How do you leave a WOOD stove on?

Someone at IMDB have tracked down a bunch of other anachronisms and recorded them here, but I've not seen anyone bothered by the stove thing yet.  Doesn't matter.  After four minutes I was done.  From the few glimpses I got passing through the living room for the rest of the night, it doesn't look like I missed much.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Search of the Infamous Charleston Waffle

I am hot on the trail of a lost South Carolina delicacy: the Charleston Waffle.  I'm not exactly sure what it is, but somewhere around 1910, the city of Charleston gained nationwide attention--and, not long afterward, notoriety--for its waffles.  In fact, the term "Charleston waffle" seems to have become synonymous with a rich, heavy breakfast dish.

The first mention I've found of the Charleston waffle is a short paragraph in the Montgomery Advertiser on November 25, 1910.  It reads, “The [Charleston] News and Courier is in favor of using the Charleston waffle to fix ships that leak. Sure, that's all they're fit for. The Charleston waffle, from what we can learn, is better for patching purposes than either asbestos or leather.”

That's a weird paragraph, but actually not all that unusual for 1910. That decade was the high era of the “paragraphers” in American newspapers, when a typical daily would devote several columns if not a whole page to corny one-paragraph jokes, some of them commentary on issues of the day, some snide remarks about paragraphs from other newspapers, and some just the kind of groaners your goofy great-uncle used to repeat at dinner parties. Things like: “A somersault is nothing to a hot-air artist.” And, “We don't imagine that the Missouri man sentenced by a judge to obey his wife for six months will notice any particular difference.” Some paragraphers even wrote paragraphs about paragraphers, like “A paragrapher has one consolation. He knows his children will never be annoyed by the inheritance tax.”

And, boy, did the paragraphers love the Charleston waffle. In March 1911, when President Taft rushed 10,000 troops to the Texas border as revolutionary violence swept through Mexico, the Charleston News and Courier reported that “the troops in Texas will be fed Charleston waffles every Sunday morning.” A paragrapher for the Philadelphia Inquired replied, “Probably one of the disciplinary measures of the camp,” and added for good measure, “Charleston, by the way, is somewhere on the coast of South Carolina.”

In fact, almost all of the documentary evidence I can find about the Charleston waffle is captured in various three-line cornball commentaries. Here are just a few of the dozens I turned up:

“One good thing about Charleston waffles in these days of high prices for food is that those that are served for breakfast necessitate so much chewing that they are about ready to swallow by the time the supper hour arrives.” - Charlotte Observer (December 26, 1911).
“We are convinced that the Chicago man in whose stomach the surgeons found nineteen pocket knives, seventeen nails, five knife blades, a dozen screws, and a silver dollar, could digest a Charleston waffle.” - Augusta Chronicle (September 11, 1912)
“Germany's death rate shows and increase. Have they started eating Charleston waffles over there?” - Columbia State (September 12, 1912)
“The pneumatic Charleston waffles are guaranteed against puncture.” - Columbia State (September 4, 1913)
“We wish to raise our voice in earnest protest against sending any Charleston waffles to Belgium.” - Columbia State (September 4, 1913)
Columbia's State newspaper was one of the most prolific abusers of the Charleston waffle—part, I am sure, of the long-standing rivalry between the South Carolina's old capital city and its new one. The State's editors, Robert Elliott Gonzales and Ambrose Elliott Gonzales, even captured in verse the following suggested punishments for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa:

Make him sing the Star Spangled Banner, or,
Become an umpire, or
Work in a munitions plant, or
Drink some blind tiger likker, or
Live in Charlotte, or
Read the Congressional Record, or
Eat a Charleston waffle, or
Appoint him a paragrapher.
I think that technically counts as verse since it has short lines and everyone of them sort of rhymes with the others.

The Charleston News & Courier, it seems, undertook a spirited defense of its hometown specialty in paragraphs of its own, though other newspapers invariably used these as opportunities to heap on more corn. In April 1911, for instance, the N&C wrote, “We sent a Charleston waffle to New York but, of course, some postal clerk could not stand the temptation, and he took it.” The Baltimore Sun reprinted the paragraph under the headline “Wanted to Mend a Tire, Maybe.” When the N&C claimed in February 1912 that, “A gentleman gained ten pounds in one week eating Charleston waffles,” the Philadelphia Inquirer shot back, “Either from mere indifference or neglect to inquire more closely into the affair, however, it does not give any information concerning the result of the inevitable surgical operation.”

But, wisecracks aside, what in the heck was the Charleston waffle? It was definitely more than just a paragraphers' joke.  In its restaurants section, the 1912 New Guide to Modern Charleston noted about Riddock's Arcade on King Street, “A specialty is the Charleston waffle, reknowned for its delicacy all over the country.”  I've as yet been stymied, however, to uncover exactly what made Charleston's version of the waffle so special and how it gained nationwide reknown.

Part of the horrified reaction to the city's waffle might have been related to the more widespread criticism of the richness of the Southern diet, which since the 1890s had been coming under fiercer and fiercer attack from the new movement of nutritionists and "domestic scientists."   A big theme of these folks around the turn of the 20th century was the idea of "hot" and "cold" foods and their proper diet for a particular climate.  Waffles fell into this bucket.  A reporter for the New York Sun, for example, visited the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 and recorded that, “the cold-bread eaters of the North and West” typically react “with horror of the richness of Southern cooking, their hot bread and waffles and their highly seasoned dishes.” Such food was thought to be at odds with the hot climate of the South and created, for whatever reason, “dyspepsia.”

But, most of the people making fun of the Charleston waffle were Southern newspapermen, ones I can only imagine had their fill of biscuits and cornbread on a regular basis.  So, the search goes on as I dig farther back into recipes and newspapers to see what I can dig up.  If anyone out there has any information that would help shed light on this mystery, please pass it along!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Big Ole Sodas

I went to the movies this weekend for the first time in months, and when my wife made a snack bar run she asked me what I wanted.  "Get me the smallest size Coke they have," I said.    She returned with a squat, fat stubby cup--the diameter of one of those 64 oz Big Gulps but only half the height.

"THAT's the small?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

Truthfully, though I wasn't really surprised, since the movie theaters have long been the home of wantonly excessive soft drink volumes, and I've long been chronicling the ever-expanding packaging sizes of soft drinks (see, for example, whether you can even afford Coke machine Coke these days.)

So, much to my amazement, when I went to my local grocery store yesterday, did I notice not one but TWO new soda container sizes on the soft drink aisle: six-packs of 7.5 ounce cans and, perhaps most surprising of all, 1.25 liter bottles.

I can understand the market for the 7.5 oz cans.  There are plenty of people--most of them in the higher end of the age demographic--who like a soft drink now and again but don't feel compelled to suck down more than a single glass worth at a time.  This is, in fact, almost a throwback to the 6 ounce glass bottles of their youth.

But what about that 1.25 liter bottle?  Is this for the same demographic as the 7.5 oz can, only meant to be kept in the fridge so you can have four or so glasses of your favorite Coca-Cola product over the course of a few days?  Or, is it meant as a single serve for our overcaffeinated, over sugared, ever-growing (and I mean that literally) younger consumer set?  Is this a sign that portion sanity might be returning to the soft drink market, or is it the final proof that the prediction I made about a decade ago--that single serve soft drink containers would eventually grow so large that people would need special contraptions with wheels and handles just to lug them around--is about to come to pass?

There is surprisingly little in the press or on the InterWebs about this new turn of soft drink development, but experimenting with packaging sizes is not a new phenomenon.  The 3-liter bottle was a big thing for a while back in the 1990s, but those have long since faded out, probably because their clumsy bulk was hard to fit in the fridge and difficult to pour when full, outweighing the cost break you might get from the extra volume.

Back in 2004, soft drink bottlers experimented with alternate bottle sizes again.  That year, Beverage Digest cited John Alm, the then-President and CEO of mega-bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises, saying that new sizes--1.5 Liter, 1.25 Liter, and 1.75 Liter--will "reduce dependence on 2-Liter," which one can only take to mean reduce Coke's dependence on getting so much of their revenue from 2-Liter sales.   (Side note: the Coca-Cola Company owns the brand, the formula, and the marketing.  Coca-Cola Enterprises is a separate company that performs the actual bottling and distribution.  This got even more confusing this year when Coca-Cola acquired the North American operations of Coca-Cola Enterprises but not all of the company.)

And why would reducing "dependence on 2-Liter" be important?  For starters, in the New York Metro market Coke and Pepsi were duking it out head to head on store shelves in a price war so fierce they were often losing money on sales.  The plan was to raise margins by introducing the 1.5 liter bottle at a price that was higher per-ounce but conspicuously lower per bottle than Pepsi's 2-Liter, and then to raise the price of the Coke 2-liter, so that there was effectively a lower priced and a higher priced Coke offering bracketing Pepsi's two liter.

The plan backfired out of the gate.  Many stores dropped the 2-liter Cokes altogether, and some didn't even drop the price on the new 1.5-liter bottles, causing howls of protests from shoppers who thought they were getting screwed.   The outrage was exacerbated by the fact that the 1.5-liter bottles were the same height as the 2 liters and had contours that made them look similar in width to their larger cousins.  Coke's share of the Metro New York soft drink market fell from 35.6% in January to 30.1% in June, while Pepsi's rose from 34.1% to 38.2%.  (See details here and here.)

Leave it to Papa Coke to come to the rescue.  The Coca-Cola Company's 2004 Annual Report noted that "the Company worked closely with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. to reverse early unit case volume losses in the weeks after the May introduction of a new 1.5-liter package in the New York City area. By working with customers, re-examining price and package elasticity, and overhauling in-store merchandising, the Coca-Cola system regained unit case volume share lead on a full-year basis in the New York City area by the end of 2004."  They did so by encouraging store managers to return the 2 liters to the shelves and put them in prominent positions where shoppers could easily see and compare both sizes and prices.  By the end of the year their market share was back up, and profits were, too.

Although the 1.5 Liter Coke bottle is a very common size overseas, it hasn't been seen in the United States very much outside of New York City.  So what's up with the new sizes?  Is this a fresh attempt on the Coca-Cola company to push up the price-per ounce on us?

Not really, according to this dispatch from Joe Guy Collier at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  This time around, apparently, it's all about "packaging diversity", an attempt on the part of Coke to boost their sagging North American sales.  Novel sizes and bundles of Coca-Cola products, the theory goes, will stimulate interest and spur purchases.   In addition to the two new sizes I spotted in my grocery store, recent packaging "innovations" include twin-packs of 50 ounce (1.5 liter) bottles and an 8.5 ounce aluminum bottle similar to those things Budweiser came out with lately.

And, hey, it just might work.  It caught my attention enough to snap some phone camera pics and write a blog post about it.

In the end, though, it really just comes down to getting more cents per ounce for the product.  "There was a point in time when value was defined as more — more ounces for less (money)," the Journal-Constitution quotes Ralph Kytan, VP of Coke's North American bottling operations, as saying.  "Package diversity is about matching up the benefits of the package with the needs of the purchaser for the occasion they're buying for."  Meaning, in other words, figuring out new ways to get them to pay more per ounce than they would for a boring old two-liter.

And does it work?  In a very unscientific survey, I found the following on the shelf tags at my supermarket:

Two liter: 2.6 cents per oz.
1.25 liter: 2.9 cents per oz. (and on sale, with a regular price equating to 3.5 cents per oz.)
12-pack of 12-oz. cans: 4.3 cents per oz.
6-pack of half-liter bottles: 4.5 cents per oz.
8-pack of 12 oz. bottles: 5.2 cents per oz.
8-pack of 7.5 oz cans: 7.2 cents per oz.

I predict the fairly rapid demise of the 1.25 liter bottle because, it seems to me, you buy a can or bottle of soda for either single-serving consumption, meaning you are going to drink the contents of the container all at one time without resealing it, or for multi-serving consumption, meaning you are either serving a bunch of people from a single bottle or drinking it all yourself over the course of a few hours before it can go flat, the way my wife does, ingesting Diet Coke continually throughout the day almost as if it were connected to an IV drip.

If you're buying single-serve, I would speculate, you'll choose the container most suited to your typical serving size.  If buying  multiserves, you'll want the one that gives the lowest per ounce cost without becoming too large to carry.  The 1.25 liter bottle doesn't seem to serve either purpose.

My wife, by the way, orders the extra large fountain drink at the movies, and she was delighted recently when the snack bar started allowing free refills on the largest size cups.  As for me,  I threw my small cup away still half full and still had a bad case of too-much-damn-sugar stomach the rest of the afternoon.  That 8 pack of 7.5 oz. cans is perfect for me.  Just big enough to wash down my Geritol.

And it might very well last a full year.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

"Profuse in the Extreme"

I'm reading a lot of late 19th century descriptions of Southern cooking right now, and what stands out is the sharp divide between two schools of thought, one fueled by moonlight and magnolias nostalgia for the elegant meals on plantations before the War.  The other--generally expressed by domestic reformers and other busybodies from Northern cities--has nothing but horror and contempt for the deplorable diet of Southerners.

Here's one of the latter, from Helen Campbell's 1880 Good Company article, "A Year in a Southern Cooking School", which pretty apty describes my own Southern diet today:
The Southern diet was, and is, utterly unsuited either to climate or constitution.  Profuse in the extreme, its processions of hot breads, its inordinate use of fat in the form or ham or bacon, and its equally inordinate coffee and spirit drinking, ensured a nation of dyspeptics.
And she makes that sound like a bad thing.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oh My Goodness . . .

In case you thought the KFC Double Down was something dramatic, here's the latest Extreme Stunt Food, as discovered by Janson Cumbie and Stephanie Barna out at the Coastal Carolina Fair.

Yes, it's just what the picture looks like: a cheeseburger made with two Krispy Kreme doughnuts as the bun.   Dubbed "The Luther", this, in my book, shoves the Double Down on the playground and rubs its face in the dirt.

Apparently, this monstrosity has been around for a few years, but, since I don't hang around too many State Fairs, it's a new one to me.  Check out it and all the other fair food  pics in the City Paper piece: they've got about thirty doozies that will either make you really really hungry or turn you into a vegetarian.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Results (Finally): BBQ History Quiz #4

Major procrastination seems the be the new theme with my BBQ Quiz.  I've been on the road a bunch lately (including fours days down in Oxford, Mississippi for the wonderful Southern Foodways Alliance symposium) and just haven't gotten around to keeping up with my blog deadlines.  But, in case you've been wondering at all about the answer to the stale question sitting over in the right hand column of the blog, here it is.

Question:  The first usage of the word "barbecue" to describe an event (and not just a cooking technique) occurred in the 18th Century.  In which colony was this event held? 

A. Massachusetts: 9%
B. New York: 9%
C: North Carolina: 45%
D: Georgia: 36%

North Carolina and Georgia do seem like the most plausible answers, but the truth might surprise you: it's A. Massachusetts!

The first usage lexicographers for the Oxford English Dictionary have been able to find is from 1733, when Benjamin Lynde, Jr., of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded in his diary, "Fair and hot; Browne, Barbecue; hack overset."  The OED interpreted this to mean that Lynde when to a barbecue with Mr. Browne, and on the way there was a carriage accident.  This is as good of an interpretation as I can make of the cryptic entry.

In fact, barbecues were quite common in New England in the 18th Century, and I've been able to find plenty of references to them in old newspapers and journals.  In October 1752, the Rev. Ebenezer Bridge of Chelmsford, MA, recorded attending "a Barbacue in Dracut."  The diary of Mary Holyoke of Salem includes three mentions of barbecues in 1761 and 1762.  In 1767, seventy gentlemen attended a barbecue in Braintree to celebrate the launching of a ship named the Barnard.

By the end of the 18th Century, barbecues seem to have faded from New England.  But, for a brief period, it seems, Yankees were eating as much barbecue as those in the Southern colonies. 

For more results from past questions, see Barbecue History Quiz Question #3

Sunday, October 31, 2010

From Thrill Ride to Fear Factor: The XLerator Turns Ugly

A while ago I wrote about the XLerator about which I said it's something akin to a bathroom thrill ride for 9 year old boys.  To quote that previous post, "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."

These observation still hold, but now that my younger son (who is four) is fully potty trained and able to use restraurant bathrooms, the old XLerator has taken on a whole new persona: evil weapon of terror.

The four year old is particularly sensitive to loud noises, and especially those in bathrooms, which I imagine is due to the echoing and amplifying effect of all that tile.  Loud-flushing toilets are bad enough. "Is this one a loud one or a quiet one?" he always asks as we approach a new bathroom.  Once inside, he carefully evaluates the standing urinals, which, if they're low enough he can use, or the regular old johns, which are always the right height but more prone to having a very loud flush.  Often I end up doing the flushing for him, once he has backed away to a respectable distance and covered his ears just in case.

I vaguely recall having a similar fear of loud toilets--there was a particular one in the bathroom of our church in Great Falls, South Carolina, that, back through the misty fog of early childhood memories, I still recall being terrified of.

But, I never had to deal with the XLerator, unlike my poor four year old.  The thing roars like an F18 taking off right there in the echo chamber of your local restaurant restroom,  rendering a noise-phobic four year old into a howling, curled up, almost-comatose ball of fear.

So, now we have a new routine when we go to bathrooms.  Upon entry, look first to see if they have traditional paper towels, old school wimpy hand driers, or the infamous XLerator.  If the latter, while the little one does his business, I stand casually and directly in front of hand drier, shielding it with my body to prevent any other bathroom patrons from sneaking up and using it to dry their hands before we can evacuate the premises.

And then there's the question of what to do with the four year old's hands once he's finished, since I'm still working to instill in him the social nicety of washing your hands after a visit to the restroom.  In some bathrooms they have both paper towels and the XLerator, and this works just fine, though the four year old will keep stealing glances at the silver beast out of the corner of his eye just in case the thing might decide to go off on its own.  In other bathrooms, though, the air dryer is the only option and we have to just let the restroom hygiene lessons wait for another day.   After all, I tell myself, which is more unsanitary, a couple of unwashed hands or having a four year old collapse in terror and roll around on a bathroom floor?

This is what parenthood--and the XLerator--has reduced me to.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oh, No Sir, I Must Protest!

BBQ Geek, a blog I follow regularly and, most of the time, at least, respect heartily, has had momentary lapse of sanity and has posted the following "opinion" (and I put it in quotes because it's hard to argue opinions but in this case it is just patently wrong):  "Of all the BBQ sauces out there, SC mustard probably has the fewest fans and is the most regionalized sauce."  Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

Fewest fans?  Based upon what evidence?  And compared to that weird-ass white mayonnaise sauce they serve down in Alabama?

Anyhow, sauce blasphemy aside, it's an interesting piece on barbecue carts in New York City.  I myself, in NYC on business just a few weeks ago, looked up all the recently-opened barbecue joints and thought seriously about trying one out for dinner.  But, midway through searching Chowhound NYC for BBQ, I realized something:  you shouldn't go all the way to New York and eat barbecue, especially if you live in the South,

New York doesn't have great barbecue.  The remarkable thing about eating barbecue in New York is this: "can you believe we found good barbecue in New York, of all places?"

Brother, stick to barbecue when you are at home in the South, are on the road at a great barbecue city like Memphis, Kansas City, or Lexington, North Carolina.  If you're in New York, go to Katz's for pastrami or Keen's for a steak or the lobby at the Algonquin for a cocktail.  Don't go looking for barbecue.  Even if it is served from a street side cart and the pitmaster used to cook at Daniel and Le Cirque.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Vertical Schfarms

I'm listening right now to a podcast with an author nattering on and on about the future of vertical farms, which essentially means indoor hydroponic farms that feed urban populations without requiring all the soil and acreage of traditional land-based agriculture. It's a compelling sci-fi sort of concept, especially when you hear that currently to feed the city of New York it takes the land acreage of the entire state of Virginia but, according to vertical farm theorists, at least, it would take only a thirty story building on a single city block to prove the same number of calories.

All well and good, except for one thing. I'm not aware right now of there being a particular shortage of farmland in the United States. It's not like farms are bloating out all over the country and starting to gobble up the land that used to be used for subdivisions. Instead, in my neck of the woods, at least, huge tracts of lands that used the be used for food farming are now being planted over with pine trees for timber and leased out to groups of town-dwellers as hunting land. (As is the case with the 800 acres of former farmland my family owns in south Georgia.)

So what problem, exactly, are our "vertical farm" advocates trying to solve?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lake Trout: Who Knew?

My wife and I just finished watching the full run of the HBO series The Wire on DVD from Netflix.  Absolutely brilliant, gripping, and for me, at least, proof positive that television shows--yes, television--will be considered the high literature of our day fifty years in the future.

Part of the reason is that the show captures the city of Baltimore in the way that no one has captured a city since Raymond Chandler portrayed L.A. in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  There's a throw-away line somewhere in season 3 or 4 where someone mentions "lake trout" and notes that it's neither a trout nor from a lake.

And I had no idea what they were talking about until I saw John T. Edge's United Tastes piece on it in the New York Times.  As it turns out, Atlantic whiting is the most commonly used fish for "lake trout".  It's a great piece, and makes me want to learn more about Baltimore.  A fascinating city.

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the Way: the Rice Market

Nice to see, as the Post & Courier reported this weekend, that the old Boathouse location down on East Bay St. will soon be home to a new restaurant called the Rice Market.   It sounds like the Crew Carolina guys are going to be involved in running the place, and it will serve "regional and international cuisine."

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this comment from one of the partners, Walter Brock, in explaining the restaurant's motif: "We have an overabundance of Lowcountry fare, which is always delicious, but if you live in Charleston full-time you don't get the same thing you get in bigger cities."

It's not like shrimp and grits and she crab soup are the only things you can eat in Charleston.  La Fourchette, Fat Hen, 39 Rue de Jean, G&M, Mistral, Trattoria Lucca, Al Di La, Bacco, Fulton Five, Pan e Vino, Wild Olive, Mercato, Il Cortile de Rey,Fuel, el Bohio, Cajun Kountry Kitchen, Basil, Quyen/Party Kingdom,  Pho Bac, Tasty Thai, Red Orchids, Olimpik, Samos Taverna, Opa Cafe, Manny's, Nirlep, Pooja's, Taste of India, Lana, Muse, Ali Baba, the other Ali Baba, La Nortena, Santi's, Uno Mas, Wasabi, Tsunami, O-Ku, Sushi Haru, Chai's Lounge, and the Voodoo Lounge are just a few of the "international" places that immediate spring to mind.

But, still, I'll be curious to see what the Rice Market brings to the mix.  It's a great location and a big space to work with.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Chicagoans Invade the South on BBQ Road Trip

Kevin Pang and Keith Claxton, two guys from the Chicago Tribune, are off on a barbecue road trip through the South.  Day 1 took them from Chicago all the way to Nashville, then Day 2 and 3 across the state of North Carolina, where they hit such notable spots as the Barbecue Center and Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, Richard's in Salisbury, Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, the Pit in Raleigh, the Skylight Inn in Ayden, and Wilber's in Goldsboro.  That's one hell of a two day winning streak.

Day 5 took them through South Carolina where, I must say, from a purely barbecue perspective, they squandered all their time in Columbia instead of getting off I-20 and heading to Hemingway and Gadsden.  Day 6 was a dash through Atlanta all the way to New Orleans, where they are apparently now off on a raw oyster detour.

One of the more interesting things is their coverage of a stop at the improbably-named J.J. McBrewster's in Lexington, Kentucky, where the staff was resting up and bracing up for the broadcast of their appearance on Guy Fieri's cloying Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives."  The interesting part is what an appearance on "the Triple D", as it apparently is called, can do for an otherwise out-of-the-way strip mall restaurant: 3 hour waits, apparently, are par for the course.  Go figure.

The road trip's good stuff, and you can follow it here:

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A Lost Southern Delicacy

What could be more Southern than pimento cheese and boiled peanuts?  How about the two of them mixed together?

My recent research has led me into the origins of various Southern foods, and recently I uncovered this gem from George Washington Carver's Bulletin Number 31 of the Experimental Station at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (1916).   Carver, the famous peanut innovator, included the following recommended peanut recipe:


To every pound of cream cheese grind ½ ounce of pimento pepper and one ounce of peanuts in the same way recommended for the above [a recipe of “peanut cream cheese with olives”]. 

This recipe was part of Carver's treatise “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption”  It appeared as  item #102 on the list, well after dozens of scrumptious sounding candies and desserts and even after such dubious concoctions as Liver with Peanuts (#37) and Peanut Macaroni and Cheese (#46). While ambitious in its combining two items that were well on their way to becoming iconic Southern foods, Carver was notably unsuccessful in getting peanut pimento cheese to stick.

Two great tastes that taste great together?  You be the judge . . .

Monday, October 04, 2010

Are we at a lull?

I always like pondering food trends, and I have great fun trying to prognosticate them, though in reality I am so poor at predicting trends it seems the only safe way to try it is with tongue firmly in cheek.  That's the ultimate "win-win"--okay, sorry--the ultimate cop out.  If I get any of them right I can claim to be a genius; if I get them wrong (and I usually do), well, you see, it was all just a joke, right?

So what's happening these days?  Where is it all going?

Beats the hell out of me.  Right now I feel like we're in sort of a lull, stuck somewhere between the ebbing of "locavorism", which is still the most prominent trend in the food world today, and whatever is going to succeed it.

Don't get me wrong.  Locavorism, despite its ludicrous name, is still hot. Just this week, the National Restaurant News declared  gardens to be the hottest restaurant trend of 2010 (thanks to Robb Walsh via Twitter for the tip).  But, you have to admit, it's starting to feel a little stale.  It seems like something is about to turn, that we're on the cusp of something new and dramatic breaking loose.

Maybe its a reflection of what's going on in the country and the world at large: the pending November elections?  This lingering recession/depression thing?  We got all into the weeds of it back in late 2008/early 2009 and made a big fuss and did a lot of soul searching, and then it seemed for a while earlier this year that things were starting to slowly, inch by inch, get a little bit better.   Then a few months ago it all ground back down to a halt and perhaps even turned back a little in the wrong direction.

Mostly, though, it just feels like we're on hold, waiting in limbo for something to happen, but we aren't really sure what it's going to be or even what we want it to be.

Maybe it's just me and the particular spot I am in in my life, but I feel like there's something looming out there--good, bad, or just different: who knows?  But something is pent up behind the dam and ready to break.  I don't care to speculate about global economics, but in the food world I'm waiting for something exciting and new to happen, too.

The Internet has knocked food journalism into a tizzy, with food magazines on the ropes, traditional publishers struggling, and even a turnover in the old warhouse profession of restaurant reviewing (which really isn't that old of a profession, since we've had computer scientists and astronauts for about long as we've had restaurant reviewers.)  But, somehow Yelp and iPhone apps just don't seem like they're really the way of the future.

Whatever it's going to be, it's going to be new.  We need something different: a hot new trend.  Food trucks have official worn out their novelty, and they were always sort of a mobile locavorism anyway.

So, what's next?  I don't know.  But I have just two words: bring it!

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