Thursday, September 30, 2010

Godspeed, Buccaneer, and Fair Winds!

The City Paper reports that The Buccaneer is closing its doors today.  I reviewed it back in 2009 when it first opened, and went back once or twice afterwards, and I always thought it was an interesting blend of good, solid food served in a tourist-friendly environment.   (That review, oddly enough, actually provoked someone to leave a comment defending the quality of the restaurant scene in Myrtle Beach.  Go figure.)

The company's press release blames the challenge of opening a "large capacity family-style themed restaurant in a very difficult economy."  There's surely a lot of truth in that, but I also think its out of the way location--hidden away on alley-like Faber St. just off of East Bay--probably didn't help.  It simply wasn't the kind of restaurant you would stumble upon unless you were looking for it, and even trying to give someone directions on how to get there was something of a challenge.

Nevertheless, I'll have fond memories of knocking back a Legendary Painkiller or two and wolfing down spice-laden shrimp-and-tasso-stuffed collards.  Blimey, matey.  We'd barely said ahoy and now it's gangway and godspeed!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

BBQ Sundae Part 3: The Trend Continues

A few months ago I noted the rise of the barbecue sundae, the newest new-fangled way to make barbecue portable.

Now, the good folks over at Thursday Night Smackdown report finding the perfect accompaniment for your BBQ sundae at the Hamilton Park BBQ Festival: banana pudding in a jar!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Closing for the Season

No, I'm not shutting down the blog or anything.  But I feel like I should find something to close temporarily, since I'm officially in an "end of the season" sort of mood.

We spent the late afternoon at the neighborhood pool, enjoying the golden sunset that comes earlier each day now.  It was probably our the last visit to the pool this year.  Labor Day is long behind us, the boys are back in school, and September is coming to a close.  And that means autumn, which arrives late on the South Carolina coast, is finally upon us.

Fall is without question my favorite time of the year, and since the summers here in Charleston are long and oppressively hot, autumn always comes as a long-anticipated relief.  But, it's a wistful time, too.

I've always loved going to the beach in the late fall and early winter, long after the last party of vacationers have packed up their minivans and roof-rack containers and headed back to their regular lives somewhere else.  The amusement parks and pancake houses and souvenir stands, idle and shuttered for the season, hold a strange sort of stark, wistful beauty, half melancholy and half sweet.  The bustle and noise and heat of the summer lies behind us, and a cold, slow winter lies ahead.

A new season and all its energy will come again, somewhere off in the distant future, but for now it's time to rest and wait.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Results: BBQ History Quiz #3

So, I got a little behind and didn't give out the answer for BBQ Quiz Question #3 on time.  Here it is  . . . finally.

This one was rather undramatic, since right out of the gate pretty much everyone got the answer right:

Question: Which regional barbecue sauce style is most like the sauce used at 19th century barbecues?

A. Midlands S.C. (mustard-base): 11%
B. Eastern N.C. (vinegar-based): 66%
C: East Texas (tomato-based) 0%
D: Memphis (tomato & molasses): 11%

The answer, as most respondents knew, is B: Eastern North Carolina.  Perhaps it's because Eastern North Carolina sauce is so simple that it seems old, or perhaps it's just common knowledge, but the thin, spicy, and vinegar-based does appear to be the closest thing to the original American barbecue sauce.

One of the great differentiators in regional barbecue styles today is the sauce. In Eastern North Carolina it’s thin, spicy, and vinegar-based while in Texas it’s sweet, thick, and tomato-based. Some variations—like the white mayonnaise-based sauced from Alabama and the yellow mustard-based sauce from my home state of South Carolina—are specific to only a narrow region and not widely known in other places.  These famed  regional sauce variations are relatively recent developments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sauces used for barbecue followed a consistent formula throughout the colonies and then the early United States. 

Perhaps the earliest instructions for pit-cooking barbecue appears in Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839).  For sauce, Bryan called for “nothing but a little salt-water and pepper, merely to season and moisten it a little.” Once the meat was done, Bryan advised cooks to “squeeze over it a little lemon juice, and accompany it with melted butter.” Three decades later, Mrs. Annabella Hill, from La Grange, GA, published similar directions in Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1872), though her recipe incorporated butter and a little mustard into the basting liquid: "Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoonful of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste.” At the end of cooking, “pour over the meat any sauce that remains.”

This basic combination of butter or some other fat, vinegar, and pepper was the standard sauce for the rest of the 19th Century. An 1860 account of a Virginia event described iron vessels positioned along the side of the pit, ”some filled with salt, and water; others with melted butter, lard, etc. into which the attendants dipped linen cloths affixed to the ends of long, flexible wands, and delicately applied them with a certain air of dainty precision to different portions on the roasting meat.”  A Harper’s Weekly 1896 account of a Georgia barbecue noted that the meat was cooked for twelve hours and “basted with salt water . . . then, just before it is eaten, plentifully bedabbled with ‘dipney’—a compound of sweet country lard and the strongest vinegar, made thick and hot with red and black pepper.”

Texas today has not one but at least four separate barbecue styles, but before the 20th century it was pretty much the same as its Eastern cousins.   On a Mexican Mustang Through Texas, an 1883 travelogue, described a barbecue outside San Antonio with a sauce almost identical to that used in Virginia and Georgia: “Butter, with a mixture of pepper, salt, and vinegar, is poured on the meat as it is being cooked.”

The regional variations in barbecue sauces developed in the 20th century, driven largely by the rise of barbecue restaurants and the specialization they fostered.  Of all the modern variations, the simple Eastern North Carolina style of vinegar and red pepper sauce seems most like what was used in the earliest barbecues in this country.

For more results from past questions, see Barbecue History Quiz Question #2

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Raw and the Cooked (Mostly Cooked)

This City Paper blurb about the new Sunday brunch buffet at the Woodlands mentions a "raw bar of local shrimp and crab claws," which got me thinking about raw bars. I've noticed on several occasions recently "raw bars" where little if anything is raw. Oysters on the halfshell: those are typically raw. But shrimp? Crab claws?

Another local restaurant I visited recently had only a single raw item (oysters, of course) on their "raw" bar but plenty of cooked ones, including shrimp cocktail, crab louis, and steamed snow crab legs.

"Shellfish bar" would be more descriptive, but in reality, are any things raw other than oysters served on a raw bar these day? Clams, perhaps, but you never see them raw in this town. Sushi, yes--but that never appears on a raw bar menu but on a separate sushi menu. So where did the "raw bar" term come from, anyway?

Mystery abounds.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Newbie from L.A. Discovers Charleston Cuisine

Jessica Garrison of the Los Angeles Times gives a starry-eyed account of her Charleston restaurant tour.  She admits that before this trip, she had not "spent even five minutes in the South," so it's a fun snapshot of a diner's first introduction to Lowcountry culinary delights.

Edisto's Po Pigs Bo-B-Q (yes, that is spelled correctly, after owner Bobo Lee) gets a glowing mention, as does dinner at FIG and brunch at Hominy Grill.  If you had to pick just three spots for lunch, dinner, and breakfast, those are pretty good choices.  (And, such continued publicity will do nothing to help reduce the ever-growing line of tourists on the Rutledge Avenue sidewalk on Saturday morning.)

I have to call foul on just one thing, though: the narrative hook that opens of the story: "Our waiter was staring at us in disbelief," Garrison writes.  "Finally, he leaned forward and, ever so politely, asked my husband to repeat himself."  The husband, it turns out, was inquiring of his waiter at FIG where they might go next to try more Charleston culinary specialties, after the couple had just finished three appetizers, a soup and two main courses.

Now, either it was the waiter's first week on the job, or maybe he just couldn't hear the husband the first time.  Asking where to go next is just par for the course when you're trying to cram in a full week of dining in a single weekend in Charleston, and I can't imagine any seasoned downtown waiter being phased by such an eminently reasonable request.  (I would have advised McCrady's, by the way, for a post-prandial pre-Prohibition cocktail and a few of the bar snacks like pimento goat cheese or ham hock and jalapeno boiled peanuts.  There's always room to squeeze in a few of those.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Meet Meat Mitch

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from Kansas City sent me a bottle of Meat Mitch BBQ Sauce, which some friends of hers--part of a KC-based competition barbecue team--have just put out on the market.  I tried some right away, and thought it was pretty good, but you really need to let these things sit and percolate for a while.

So, over the past few days, I tried it here and there on some barbecue chicken wings, on some left over pork ribs, and on some of my own home-cooked chopped pork.  And, in all instances, it held up quite nicely.    It's a sweet, dark-brown concoction very much in the Kansas City vein: brown sugar and ketchup are the primary ingredients, and it's got a pretty considerable spice kick to it.  And, one of the ingredients might surprise you: vanilla extract.  Not a typical thing to find in barbecue sauce, but if you pay close attention you can detect a very subtle, sweet vanilla flavor underlying the spice.

On the label, Meat Mitch advises, "When in doubt, JUST ADD SAUCE!  Use it for ribs, steak, brisket, pork, foie gras, chicken, 9 irons, eggs, your mother-in-law, use it to water flowers.  WHOMP!"  This might be pushing things a bit.  But, it makes me wish I had some proper burnt ends to give it the true test on.

I may be a South Carolina boy, and I have a big plastic squeeze bottle of homemade mustard-based barbecue sauce in my refrigerator at all times--useful on everything from chopped pork to pickled okra.  Still, I have a long standing fondness in my heart for Kansas City barbecue, and Meat Mitch's sauce is a little reminder that I need to get out west of the Mississippi very, very soon.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fleecing the Lambs

I make my living in the Internet software business and, on the side, write for good old dead tree publications, so the intersection between the web and the traditional publishing world is a topic that has long fascinated me.  I've noticed--over Twitter, of all places--a seeming increase in magazines making "calls for submissions" for food writers . . . only to look at the fine print and see that there's a "reading fee" of $25 to $50 for writers to have their submission considered.  This is nothing new, of course.  Agents and "literary" journals' charging reading fees to gullible but hopeful writers is a long-standing tradition.

But, with the much heralded decline of traditional print media, the pressures to resort to such revenue-generating tactics seems to be increasing.  Two weeks ago, Publisher's Weekly, the old warhouse trade publication of the mainstream publishing industry, announced that it was launching PW Select, which they described as "a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment."  The deal?  Pay Publishers Weekly $149 and they will include you in their listing of self-published titles (complete with your name, title, price, brief description, and ordering instructions).  Plus, they will select 25 titles for a published review.

PW, the announcement noted, "briefly considered charging for reviews, but in the end preferred to maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy."  So, instead of knowing that your $149 buys you a review, you're just signing up for a slight chance.  And, the best part is, this review doesn't appear in the actual Publisher's Weekly print journal but rather in the "special" PW Select supplement.

The journal's "DIY" site claims that their regular  readership--everyone from agents and publishers to booksellers and librarians--constitute an "ideal audience" for such a supplement, because they are "always on the alert for new talent, worthwhile books, and marketable products."  PUL-LEASE.  What better way to guarantee that no one takes a look at your particular self-published book than to segregate it in a "special" issue along with all the other self-published titles out there?  Most agents and publishers don't even bother--or, perhaps more accurately, don't have the physical ability much less the commercial need--to even skim through the massive flood of over-the-transom manuscripts and proposals they get delivered to their doors daily.  What makes anyone think they would actively seek out more material from self-published authors?

And that got me thinking about what it would cost for a self published author to just run his or her own ad in the real Publisher's Weekly--the one that all the agents, publishers, and bookstore buyers actually read.  It's a little hard to tell since--not surprisingly, considering the PW Select side business--the magazine doesn't post their rates online.  But from a few other online sources--like this one from the Independent Book Publishers Association--suggest that non-discounted rates for a 1/6th of a page ad would likely run you in the neighborhood of a grand.  About five times as much as the "PW Select", but at least you have a prayer of someone actually seeing it.

I know the traditional print media trade is suffering, and I believe that new online media channels offer writers and other "content producers" intriguing new options for earning money from their pens . . . oops, I mean . . . keyboards without the traditional intermediaries of the publishing world.  But, this worst-of-both worlds approach strikes me as more than just a little unseemly.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Labor Day Barbecue

It's Labor Day weekend, and for many Americans that means one thing: barbecue.  (Or, at least, grilling out in the backyard.  There's a difference.)  Ever wondered why?

Barbecue and Labor Day have a long association, going back to the early years of celebrating the holiday. As the name suggests, Labor Day was as product of the 19th century labor movement.   Around 1880, unions and other labor organizations staged the first celebrations and gatherings, and it was made a Federal holiday in 1894.

In the early days, Labor Day celebrations were specifically linked to unionism, and they usually included massive parades with music, pro-labor banners, and lots of American flags and other patriotic symbols, too.  During the conservative 1920s, the celebrations were gradually stripped of their more radical trappings, and marches were replaced by more general gatherings, festivals, and speeches, and, particularly in the Midwest and the South, barbecue was frequently served at the event.

Serving the Crowds at the Free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado (1940)

Over time, Labor Day became a more general public holiday dedicated to leisure. In the South, leisure time meant picnics and outings, and barbecue pitmasters took advantage of the opportunity to make a little money. In Columbia, South Carolina, a half dozen barbecue stands advertised their wares in newspaper ads each Labor Day during the 1920s and 1930s. As E. B. Lever's advertisement below shows, the meat was often sold by the bucketful, with the customers bringing their own buckets to the barbecue stand to be filled.  Rival pitmaster S. E. Perry sold his "Bucket Barbecue" for 60 cents a pound and hash at 30 cents. Some of these  holiday barbecue stands evolved into permanent barbecue restaurants. (I just wrote about Columbia Labor Day barbecue stands and other little known nuggets of South Carolina barbecue history in this a piece for the Charleston City Paper.)

During the 1950s, the AFL and CIO still hosted massive barbecues on Labor Day. In 1955, for example, the organizations hosted a Labor Day rally at Denison Dam that drew union members from all over the state of Texas and was capped by a keynote address by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn. By this time, however, the Labor Day barbecue had lost many of its connotations of unionism and was treated more as a long weekend of relaxation, and the barbecue gradually shifted from the pit-cooked to the backyard variety.

In 1956, the Dallas Morning News reported that members of the city’s country clubs were "preparing for a gala and final summer fling over Labor Day weekend,” with events including dances, swim meets, and barbecues.  Newspapers and magazines in the 1950s and 1960s were filled with advertisements for charcoal, grills, and meat for Labor Day barbecues, and cooking out in the backyard has been an inseparable part of the Labor Day holiday ever since.

So, whether you're digging a pit to roast a whole hog, or are picking up a big aluminum tray of pulled pork from a local barbecue joint, or even just grilling some burgers out on the back porch this holiday weekend, you're taking part in a long and storied American tradition.

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