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

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