Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Results: BBQ History Quiz #2

OK, so the polls have closed on Question #2 of the Barbecue History Quiz.  Time to see how everyone did.

Question: Many states claim to be the birthplace of Brunswick Stew.  In what state did it really originate?

   A. Georgia 66%
   B. North Carolina: 16%
   C: Tennessee: 11%
   D: Virginia: 5%

While Brunswick stew is a standard barbecue side dish in all four of the above states, Georgia is clearly the crowd favorite.  I can understand all the votes for Georgia, considering how ubiquitous the stew is in Peach State barbecue joints.  There's an entire city in Georgia with the name of Brunswick, and it even has a very specific material piece of evidence: the original Brunswick Stew pot, which is posted on a monument at the welcome center just outside of town.

If this pot is to be believed, the very first Brunswick Stew was made on nearby St. Simon's Island on July 2, 1898.  A mess sergeant, the full story goes, created the stew for a company of soldiers stationed at Gascoigne Bluff on the island.  He had no particular recipe, using whatever meats and vegetables he had handy, but it turned out so tasty that local residents started copying his formula.

Now, I'm not one to argue with an old stew pot, but the truth of the matter is that Brunswick Stew was in existence long before 1898, and it's original birthplace was not in the state of Georgia.

The correct answer, which only 5% of respondents chose, is D: The State of Virginia.

Partisans of Georgia and Virginia have hotly debated the claims over the years, but Virginia's version has the most documentary legs.

Brunswick Stew most likely was the creation of one James "Uncle Jimmy" Matthews from the Red Oak neighborhood in Brunswick County, Virginia.  A soldier who fought in the War of 1812, Matthews was a sociable rover and accomplished squirrel hunter whose squirrel stews made him a popular figure at picnics and public gatherings in old Virginia in the 1820s.

His recipe was quite simple.  He stewed the squirrels in water along with bacon and onions until the flesh separated from the bones, which were skimmed out.  He finished the stew with butter and breadcrumbs and seasoned it with salt and pepper.

After his death, Matthews was succeeded by Dr. Aaron B. Haskins as the local stew master, who was in turn succeeded by Jack Stith and then Col. W. T. Mason.  Each man brought his own innovation to the recipe.  Haskins was said to have added a touch of brandy or Madeira wine to the stew for flavor.  Stith introduced vegetables sometime during the 1830s, adding tomato, onion, corn, and potatoes.

By the 1840s and 1850s, Brunswick Stew was a fixture at election day barbecues in the Old Dominion State, a fact attested to by numerous newspaper and diary accounts of such events.

I can't be as definitely certain about the story of Uncle Jimmy Matthews as the originator, but the story has a decent documentary trail.  In 1886 the Petersburg Index-Appeal published a letter from “Tar Heel” that sketches the basic outline of the story.  In 1907, I. E. Spatig, the Commissioner of Brunswick County, Virginia, wrote a pamphlet that provided a capsule history of the county, and using information from letters he solicited from residents of the Red Oak District he traced the history of the famous stew, and the responses align with the story from the Petersburg Index-Appeal.  Now, even the Index-Appeal's story was some sixty years after the supposed events, and memories are murky and malleable, but it seems to firm enough to at least award the title to Virginia.  

BBQ Quiz Question #3 is posted now in the sidebar.

For more results from past questions, see Barbecue History Quiz Question #1

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Greying of America

The National Restaurant News reports that restaurant traffic is expected to slow as the Baby Boomer population ages.  In related news, tips are expected to plummet and the "dinner rush" to shift to four to six p.m., and waiters and waitresses will hit the after-hours bars at 8:30 PM and blow their night's earnings by 10:00.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I told you so . . . again!

It does seem that I have remarkable predictive powers. Things just take longer than I expect to develop. More than two years ago I made a set of food prognostications that I revisit now and again. Upon my first review, I found most of them unfilled. Like this one:

Prediction:Young cooks will fire their publicists, mothball the chef's table, and take their names off their restaurant's web sites . . .  Soon, America's leading chefs will not even have restaurants at all. They'll just show up randomly at various people's houses . . . and cook an unbelievable dinner for their surprised hosts.

Review: Okay, so I wasn't even remotely close on this one.  Guerilla Guerrilla Cuisine is still going strong, but we haven't seen any imitators crop up.  Unless, of course, I actually was right.  How would we know about it if the chefs don't have publicists and websites . . . maybe it's actually going on right in our own neighborhoods.  You just won't know about it until that knock comes at the door and in bustles a white-jacketed chef with obnoxious puffy patterned pants and a duffel bag full of battered cookware.  So, split the middle and call it 5 points, since I MIGHT have been right on here.

Ah. The trends may move slowly, but they will come. Now Stephanie Barna of the City Paper reports some more underground supper clubs coming to light, Renata Dos Santos' LIME here in Charleston and another up in Charlotte. The later is sponsored by Patron tequila, and if going commercial isn't the sign of a trend about to go mainstream I don't know what is.

Just three months ago I was able to declare fulfilled my prediction of heirloom ingredients being adopted by fast-casual chains.

Just waiting now on the return of Le Grande Cuisine ...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Results: BBQ History Quiz #1

Voting is closed, and the great majority of respondents were . . . dead wrong.

Question: What meat was sold at the first commercial barbecue stand in North Carolina?


A. Beef: 7%
B. Pork: 42%
C: Mutton: 35%
D: All of the Above: 14%

I'm not surprised that pork would get the most votes, since that is the signature meat of North Carolina barbecue today.  And, I can chalk up the 35% tally for mutton to the fact that I had said in my comments that "the answer might surprise you."

And that answer is . . . D. All of the Above.

In 1899, a notice in the Charlotte Observer announced that Mrs. Katie Nunn had rented a store on South Church St., where she planned to run a grocery store and a barbecue stand, with her husband doing the cooking on a pit he had constructed behind the store.  Two weeks later, this classified ad ran in the paper:

The appearance of mutton is especially surprising, since pork so dominates North Carolina today and mutton is something rarely found outside of Kentucky.  But, it helps illustrate the fact that regional barbecue styles were a 20th Century development, and one driven by the rise of barbecue restaurants.

BBQ Quiz Question #2 is posted now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Fried Green Tomato Swindle, Part II: A Clarification

Three years ago I wrote a post exposing what I termed "The Fried Green Tomato Swindle."  The gist of it is that although they're now considered one of the iconic Southern dishes, fried green tomatoes actually aren't Southern in origin at all.  Instead, they appear to have originated in the Northeast and Midwest, and may even have Jewish-American roots, and spread nationwide during the early part of the 20th century thanks to the domestic science movement.  Their identification as a prototypically Southern thing can be attributed to a single cultural event: the release of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in 1992. (See the original post for full evidence.)

Since then, I've had great fun slipping passing references to fried green tomatoes not being Southern in other food pieces I've written, and a reader or two will almost invariably take the bait and comment that fried green tomatoes are indeed Southern because his or her grandmother was making them way back in the 1950s.

Lisa Bramen of the Smithsonian's Food and Think blog recently posted about fried green tomatoes and my they-ain't-Southern contention (thanks for the shout out, Lisa!), and if you read the comments on her post you'll see both the they-must-be-Southern-because-I-grew-up-eating-them line of thought as well as the contradictory point that people grew up in other places (California, Pennsylvania Dutch Country) eating fried green tomatoes, too.

So, it's probably time for a little clarification.  I am not saying that no one in the South ate fried green tomatoes before the Fanny Flagg novel and its movie version came out.   Clearly--as the frequent comments of Southerners who grew up eating them attest--Southerners did eat fried green tomatoes.  The real point is that there's nothing particularly Southern about fried green tomatoes--or, at least, there wasn't until the movie spurred half the chefs below the Mason-Dixon line to add them to their menus.  After all, I grew up in the South eating meatloaf and spaghetti with meat sauce about once a week each, but no one would claim those to be distinctively Southern dishes.

I think fried green tomatoes are interesting not so much because of their actual origin--there are many other now-stereotypically Southern foods that originated in similar ways--but rather because of the way a single movie was able to so strongly shape people's perceptions of a particular dish.  It underscores the strong emotional and psychological elements inherent in our relationship with food.  And, more than anything, it shows how fast-changing our food traditions are and how transitory regional foodways can be.

Friday, August 13, 2010

My BBQ Quiz

I was messing around with the blog site to see what other gadgets Blogger had and came across the Poll gadget.  I thought this would be a fun way to put together a little barbecue history quiz.  So, my first question has now been posted over in the right-hand column.

I'll allow a week for everyone to answer, then post the scoop behind the question.  For this first question, there's a pretty interesting story behind the answer!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stickin' It to Slow Food

In Gastronomica, and now digested in the Utne Reader, Rachel Laudan sends a shot across the bow of slow food romanticists. She makes some very good points, but as the denouement and its qualified acceptance of the value of slow foodism indicates, she's sort of arguing against a straw man from the start. After all, I don't think the majority of modern foodies would actually argue that we should go back to the feudal era of peasantry.

The best point in the whole piece is that many of the things we think of as old, traditional foods are scarcely a century old.   It's a fact that's not often commented upon: foodways change and evolve rapidly, and the way people eat in one generation is likely to be almost completely different from the way their great-grandparents ate.  And that's not just a phenomenon of our era.

One of the points I make in my barbecue bookis that what we really think of as classic old-school barbecue was basically established in the early 20th Century with the rise of the restaurant industry, which commercialized a dish that had been popular in American since the early colonial days.  And, at the time barbecue restaurants were taking the country by storm, traditionalists were grumbling that it was a pale imitation of good old-fashioned barbecue, the kind they cooked over huge open pits dug in the ground back in the 19th century.

The historical food clock moves rather quickly, and, as Laudan persuasively argues, to try to turn it back to an idealized point in the past is bound to be a fool's errand.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All Aboard the BBQ Express!

I'm off on our family's summer vacation, which began early in the week in Atlanta (Six Flags, the Aquarium, and the World of Coke).  This morning we headed north up into the hills to Blue Ridge, GA, for a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, which I would recommend heartily to just about anyone, especially anyone who has a fondness (like me) for trains.

It's a one hour ride that chugs around the curves down a gentle grade all the way to McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee (siamese twin towns that straddle the Georgia-Tennessee state line), then, following a two-hour layover, heads back up the hill to Blue Ridge.

They call it the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, but I think a more appropriate name would be the BBQ Express.  When you first get off the train in McCaysville, you pass behind the All Aboard cafe, which has, hands down, the best barbecue marketing device I've ever seen.  Look closely in the picture below.  Do you see the little wisps of smoke coming out from under the brown shingled roof to the right of the photo?

That's the barbecue pit at the All Aboard, with the chimney coming right up and out just where hundreds of railroad tourists are disembarking from the train at . . . just a few minutes past noon.

But, the gang at the All Aboard don't have the field all to themselves.  As you head down the ramp between the All Aboard and the brick storefront that holds the Blue Ridge Scenic RR's gift shop, you can see directly across the street the following view:

That's Georgia Boy's BBQ, complete with a big front porch with lots of tables and a row of six-foot high corn stalks lining the sidewalk (I'm not sure why.)  While the All Aboard has a definite leg up with their big plume of hickory-smoke, the Georgia Boy's doing everything he can to compensate with a bunch of big red and yellow signs.

For big hungry boys like myself, this is what is known as a quandry.  I checked out the All Aboard first, but I didn't want to commit myself until I gave Georgia Boy's a good look, too.  And by the time I did that--and smelled the hardwood smoke coming from the big black cooker out in the pit which is plainly visible directly adjacent to the front porch--I figured I might as well have a sandwich.

Georgia Boy's chopped pork sandwich is served wrapped in white paper with a couple of pickles on the side (which I immediately dropped underneath the top bun where they belong.)  It's a really good sandwich: very smoky with just a small amount of sweet brown Georgia BBQ sauce.  The bun is lightly toasted the way it should be, and the two pickles are just enough to give a little crunch.

A very fine sandwich.

I'm already planning a return trip, either in October when the leaves are changing or around Christmas time, when the railway runs a special "Santa Express" train.  And when I do, I'll have to give the All Aboard a try, too.

All told, a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon with the family.

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