Saturday, December 31, 2011

Scenes from the Road: Craft Beer is Officially Uncool Now

Man, it's been a busy December.  I've been on the road for almost two weeks, but finally back in Charleston and able to reflect on my travels.  Here's a quick one: the term "craft beer" is finished.  The evidence?  See photo below:

Can you identify the "craft beer" in this selection?

This is from the menu at one of those national chain restaurants (site of a dinner I'm still trying to forget).  I particularly like the handy photo-based design, ideal for people who don't read so good, and of course, like all classy restaurants, no prices on the booze selections.

If you have to ask, you can't afford that craft beer, dude.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Things We Said That Sounded Good at the Time

I'm working on a year-end retrospective on Charleston food for the City Paper this weekend, and in the process was cruising through some back issues of the paper to refresh my memory.  In the process, I came across this headline: "Salads Can Be Just as Satisfying as a Plate of Pulled Pork."

Wow.  That is so fundamentally just not true.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

More Mysteries of the Roffignac Cocktail (Part the Third)

In which depending upon the kind assistance of strangers produces a curious recipe.

[This is part three of a series on the Roffinac.  Start with Part 1 to get the whole saga from the beginning.]

Thanks to a tip from Tom Freeland (a.k.a. NMissCommentor), I reached out to Tom Fitzmorris for more information about the Roffignac cocktail--particularly in its final incarnation as the house cocktail at Maylie's Restaurant.  Fitzmorris--the proprietor of the indispensible New Orleans Menu website, author of Hungry Town and the hot-off-the-presses Lost Restaurants of New Orleans--not only remembered the cocktail from his days as a Maylie's regular back in the 1970s but also conjured up a recipe, taken straight off an old Maylie's menu.

And, without further ado, here is the Roffignac as it was last served in New Orleans:

In a rocks glass filled with ice cubes, add:
1 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. rye whiskey
Grenadine to taste
Splash of club soda
Add a lemon twist and there you are. 

I wasted no time in stirring one up and, from sip number one, it was quite fine.  In all my permutations before, I never thought to mix Cognac and rye.  I sort of associated Cognac as the original version and rye as the later substitution, so  it's curious to see a recipe with both together.  But I think it really works.

Next steps: try to replicate a Roffignac with himbeer essig syrup in place of the grenadine.  With the "to taste" admonition, I think we can make it work.

Thanks again to Tom Fitzmorris for his generous assistance!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Is Competition Barbecue a Menace?

Wright Thompson has a wonderful piece in the Oct/Nov Garden and Gun on the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the efforts of the Fatback Collective, a motley band of award-winning Southern chefs--Donald Link, Sean Brock, John Currence--and veteran barbecue kings--Rodney Scott, Nick Pihakis, Pat Martin, Drew Robinson.  Their mission was not just to win the whole hog category but, in the process, "rescue a barbecue contest, and maybe barbecue itself, from a crushing sameness."

It's a great read and makes you really wish you could have snuck onto the team, but the central premise of the article got me thinking not about the past but about the future of barbecue.

Memphis in May, Wright writes, is "a threat to authentic barbecue", with its judges acculturated to lean pigs shot full of MSG and sugar, the cooking manipulated through their Mr. Wizard tricks like filling cavities with sticks of butter and using ice-filled pillow cases to halt cooking.

Thompson may be right when he says that these high-tech competitive teams are currently "the face of Southern barbecue."  They certainly have about as much exposure as one can imagine through cable television and full-color glossy books.  But, it just doesn't strike me as something to worry about.

The competition barbecue circuit is a closed, almost insular world, one in which teams travel from weekend festival to weekend festival, mingling and bonding and getting to know each others' families along the way.  As Wright points out, the trick to winning a barbecue competition is to understand who won the last few contests and mimic their techniques, a sort of closed-island evolutionary accelerator that has resulted in a barbecue style that can truly be found only on the grounds of a sanctioned barbecue competition.

But is this really a threat to authentic barbecue, the slow-cooked regional variations that barbecue lovers hold so dear?  I don't think so.  Sure, some of the champions publish bestselling recipe books that have certainly shaped what your average backyard barbecuer (that is to say, a backyard griller) is throwing on his gas grills or his shiny new Big Green Egg.  But, how many of those folks were ever going to dig a pit and fill it with hickory coals?

No, the real threat to barbecue is the Southern Pride gas-powered, wood-chip-smoke infusing cooker and others of its ilk for the simple reason that they make it really easy to have barbecue that, while not great, is pretty good.   A barbecue restaurateur can put on the meat, set the thermostat, and go home and sleep in a comfy bed instead of staying up all night.

There are other threats, too.  Like health department regulations that make it a herculean task to get approval to open a real wood-burning pit.  Like a fast-food restaurant industry where the never-ending race to the bottom makes it hard for a slow-cooked product to compete with four dollar combo meals and computer-controlled deep fryers.

Going old school and winning one of the new fangled festivals with some old fashioned pig would be sweet.  But even sweeter would be keeping our rich, ever-evolving barbecue tradition moving forward in the right direction.  For my money, that means getting more good barbecue joints onto more street corners, with a new generation of barbecue kings learning the glories of cooking over wood and letting smoke and time work its magic.

No, I have no idea how that's going to happen. But still I have hope.          

Friday, December 02, 2011

Rum's Inferiority Complex

Check out the fun Flash segment on the home page of Appleton Estates Jamaican Rum.

Here's a synopsis, for those of you on iPads or too busy to fill out the mini-customs form required to access the site (what's with liquor sites making you enter your birthdate--does the law require them to do that, or just their lawyers?): It's a clever little bit showing a glass of dark rum over ice with a paper umbrella in it.  Along comes a stream of red fruity-looking liquid.  The umbrella spins into action, sending the juice flying in all directions and keeping the glass of rum pure and pristine.  "The Rum That Needs Nothing" is the punchline.

It's a clever bit, but it's also a little sad, for it shows how much the recent fetishization of bourbon and Scotch is spilling over into other realms.  You know the drill: the connoisseur who would pay $60 not for a bottle but for a single glass of whiskey with a lone sculpted cube of ice in the middle--unless, of course, they are the purist sort who would threaten to shoot you in the face if you even think about bringing a scoop of ice within ten yards of their drink.

I can hardly blame the rum guys for trying to keep up with the Joneses (and Beams and the Van Winkles).  If I were them I would do whatever I could, too, to be able to slap three digit price tags on bottles of "limited reserve" products.

But, this elevation of rum to a sip-it-slow-on-the-rocks connoisseur drink is a little depressing.  From the very beginning--when it was blended with sugar and citrus into punches--rum has been the consummate joiner, always playing well with others.

Yes, I know its reputation has been tarnished by two generations of frozen banana daiquiris and sugar-soaked pina coladas.  But, from the purity of an original daiquiri to the exquisite muddled mint of the mojito, there are any number of rum concoctions that are subtle mixtures suitable for grown ups. As classic tiki drinks like the Zombie illustrate, rum is alone among the liquors in that it can be mixed with other varieties--letting you blend a light rum and a dark rum and finish the drink off with an overproof rum float.

A while back, I was given a bottle of Ron Zacapa Centenario, a 23-year-old, barrel-aged rum. It's rich, mellow, and warm, absolutely perfect for sipping on the rocks and every bit the peer of a fine bourbon. I quite am sure that, using the proper subtle recipes, it could be incorporated into a splendid cocktail--perhaps something as simple as a little lime and sugar, or perhaps something more complex that builds in a couple of liqueurs and maybe even an overproof-rum kicker.

But, every time I've pulled out that brown, rattan-wrapped bottle with the intention of shaking up a cocktail, I hear the voices of the brown-liquor snobs whispering in my ear, "You can't do that, you philistine!  It would be a sacrilege."  And the 23-year-old rum ends up cold and alone in a rocks glass with just a chunk of ice to keep it company.

But, would it really be a sacrilege to let such a rum mingle with a few close friend? As Jeff "Beachbum" Berry relates, Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron developed one of the classics of tiki bar culture because he had received a bottle of 17-year old J. Wray and Nephew rum and believed, "the flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings."

Did he serve it in a stylish glass with a single orb of handcrafted ice in the middle?

Hardly.  He blended it with orange curacao, rock candy syrup, orgeat syrup, and the juice of one lime.   And thus was born the legendary Mai Tai.

So, my plea to the premium rum distillers is this: don't try to compete head-to-head with bourbon and Scotch as a sipping liquor.  You can't win a me-too game.  (Did pork gain anything over chicken by branding itself "the other white meat?" The answer is an emphatic no!)

Instead, change the playing field and take the game to a place where bourbon and Scotch can't follow.  Don't make rum aficionados feel guilty about mixing in a little lime juice or simple syrup. Encourage them to experiment.  Hell, if you invent some fancy enough formulas with fine cognacs and multiple aged rums, you might be able to come up with single-glass cocktails whose price tags make single-malt Scotches look like house brands.

There's about two ounces of Ron Zacapa Centenario left in that bottle in my liquor cabinet, which I've been saving for a special occasion.  Perhaps tonight I'll use it in a mai tai.

And I won't feel guilty about it at all.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Presidential Barbecue

A team of archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a barbecue pit at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison near Orange, Virginia.  Barbecue has a long, rich history in Virginia, and there are quite a few connections with George Washington, who in his journals recorded attending many barbecues and even hosted a few of his owns.  This establishes a connection with another American president.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Unraveling the Mystery of the Roffignac Cocktail (Part 2)

In which I attempt to contract a febrile affection or two.

(For the story up to now, see Part 1 of Unraveling the Mysteries of the Roffignac Cocktail)

Secrets of Red Hembarig Revealed

I was stuck hard on the identity of the sweetener named Red Hembarig, but I plugged away at it periodically.  A forum thread on eGullet (which included a helpful response from cocktail and punch guru David Wondrich) speculated that "Hembarig" was a corruption of himbeere, the German word for raspberry, and that "red Hembarig" was nothing more than raspberry syrup.

This didn't strike me as fully satisfying--why would Arthur include raspberry syrup as an alternative to raspberry syrup?--but it was just the hint I needed.  Back to the newspaper archives, and with a little trial and error I was able to track down not only "himbeer syrup" in turn of the century New Orleans but something even more interesting: a syrup that pairs himbeer (raspberries) with essig--the German word for vinegar.

And there you have it.  The elusive "Red Hembarig" is, I believe, Arthur's elision of himbeeressig syrup, which means the long-lost ingredient of the great Roffignac cocktail is . . . pause for drama . . . raspberry vinegar syrup!

Now, raspberry vinegar, to modern palates, seems more fit for salad dressings than for cocktails.  But, it  was rather common in drinks a century or more ago.  Like a lot of things in the world of 19th century imbibing, it comes out of the medicinal realm.

You can find raspberry vinegar and raspberry vinegar syrup recipes in any number of 19th century handbooks for pharmacists and chemists.  The formula from the 1884 edition of the National Dispensary is pretty typical: you mix a "convenient quantity" of fresh raspberries with a "sufficient quantity" of sugar (the precision of these pharmaceutical recipes is amazing) and let it rest for 3 days.  Then, you press and strain out the juice and let it sit until it has completely fermented and become clear (which should take a day or less), then filter it.  You mix this liquid with sugar (2 parts of liquid to 3 parts of sugar), heat it to a boil, then strain and bottle.

And what do you do with such a concoction?  The National Dispensary notes that "This syrup has no special medicinal virtues.  It forms an agreeable addition to mixtures, and with water a pleasant drink for febrile affections."  Febrile affections (per Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms) means pretty much any medical condition accompanied by a fever, so it might be safe to say that raspberry syrup is good for whatever ails you.  During the Civil War, in fact, a letter writer to the New York Times recommended raspberry vinegar as "a grateful, cooling and wholesome drink for the fevered, sick and wounded."

But why wait until you are sick or wounded?  Pharmacists and bartenders alike (and, in old New Orleans these occupations were often one in the same) discovered somewhere in the mid 19th century that raspberry vinegar syrup made an agreeable addition to cocktails, too.

In How to Mix Drinks (1862), Jerry Thomas includes not one but three recipes for raspberry vinegar syrup.  In one, you first make raspberry vinegar by macerating 30 pounds of raspberries in 7 1/2 gallons of wine or cider vinegar for eight days before pressing and straining it.  Then, you dissolve 80 pounds of sugar in the vinegar, boil it for 2 minutes, then skim and strain.  Another recipe calls for 3 1/2 lbs sugar, 1 pint raspberry juice, and 2 pints of vinegar.

Thomas does not provide, any recipes for drinks using the syrup, but there are plenty out there in other publications, some alcoholic and some not.  Raspberry shrub--a few tablespoons of the vinegar syrup mixed with a glass of water--was a popular summertime beverage, while hot raspberry ade (which added lime juice) was a wintertime refresher.  Amanda Hesser of the New York Times rediscovered raspberry vinegar as a beverage component a few years ago, using it by the spoonful to spruce up a glass of sparkling water or prosecco.  Her recipe, borrowed from a 1900 New York Times article, is for 1-1/2 quarts raspberries macerated for three days in one cup of vinegar, then mashed and strained and made into a syrup by simmering with a half pound of sugar.

Raspberry vinegar syrup was particularly popular in New Orleans, where it was commonly referred to by its German name himbeeressig.  Why the German was used in New Orleans and not elsewhere in the country is uncertain, but New Orleans did have a substantial German-American community, and its members played a prominent role in the city's pharmacy, hotel, and restaurant trade.

Advertisement for Loubat's Syrups for
Soda Fountains
(Times-Picayune, March 5, 1934)
One commercial vendor of himbeeressig syrup in New Orleans was the Loubat Glassware and Cork Company, which dates back to at least the 1870s (and is still in the restaurant supply business today as the Loubat Equipment Company).  In the 1920s, it advertised himbeer essig as one of the 14 flavors of Loubat's Syrups, which it sold to soda fountains in one-gallon jugs for $1.50 a piece.

So, it seems, there was plenty of raspberry vinegar syrup floating around the pharmacies, soda fountains, and bars of New Orleans around the turn of the century.  Little wonder that it made its way into a few liquor drinks.  

The Legacy of the Roffignac Cocktail

And that brings us back to the Roffignac.  Having equipped myself with a bottle of Cognac and dozens of recipes for "Red Hembarig"--that is, himbeer essig--syrup, I was ready to take a crack at constructing perhaps the original Roffignac cocktail

But, first, here's how not to create raspberry vinegar syrup.  Flush with the victory of uncovering himbeer essig, I raced to the Historical Cocktail Testing Facility.   All the recipes I had uncovered called for days and days of steeping, but I was in the heat of the hunt and figured I could cut corners and mix one part of the raspberry syrup made in my previous Roffignac forays with one part cider vinegar.  This, emphatically, does not work, and the pungent vinegar concoction quickly ended up in the Failed Experiment Disposal Unit (a.k.a. kitchen sink drain), wasting an ounce and a half of perfectly good rye whiskey in the process.

I resigned myself to having to wait, using the recipe for raspberry vinegar syrup from Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks and recalculating the proportions to make a more manageable amount.

Himbeer Essig, or Raspberry Vinegar Syrup

12 oz. raspberries
24 fl. oz. (3 cups) cider vinegar

32 oz. sugar

Put raspberries and vinegar in a large plastic container and let them soak for 8 days.  Strain through a sieve, mashing and pressing the raspberries to extract all their juice.  Put the liquid in a saucepan along with the sugar, bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Let it simmer a minute or two, then cool and bottle.

The preparation of the syrup will give your house a good fumigation and send the wife and kids running for the doors.  But, once it cools and the flavors blend in the fridge overnight, it's a truly remarkable substance: sweet and tangy and complex, the bite of the vinegar mellowed and smoothed by the raspberries and sugar.

Now, there's just one confusing thing about Stanley Clisby Arthur's recipe for a Roffignac.   "Sirup" appears twice in the ingredients list:  1 jigger of whiskey, 1 pony of "sirup", seltzer or soda water, and, finally, "raspberry sirup".   In the instructions that follow, he says simply to add the whiskey, then "the sirup, which may be raspberry, grenadine, or red Hembarig."  So, does this mean you use a pony of regular simple syrup and a splash of raspberry, grenadine, or "red Hembarig"?  Or, do you use a full pony of the flavored syrup?

A Roffignac made with a jigger of rye and a pony of regular raspberry syrup is nicely balanced.  The same drink made with a pony of himbeer essig was quite off: way too pungent and strident.  I loved the zing of the raspberry vinegar, but it was much too strong.  So, I tried a few variations where I moderated the himbeer essig, cut it with plain simple syrup, added in a little bitters, swapped Cognac and rye in and out.

A version made with rye whiskey and a blend of simple syrup and himbeer essig was getting close to the mark, but something about that vinegar tang and the sharp edge of the rye just wasn't quite there.

Finally, I mixed up one with Cognac and himbeer essig diluted 2 parts to 1 with a simple syrup made with demerara sugar, which has a nice pale brown color and a little darker, richer flavor than a syrup made from granulated white sugar.  I stirred it up, took a sip, and and thought to myself, Goddamn.  That tastes almost exactly like Coca-Cola.  With, of course, a very pleasing kick.

Could this be the original Roffignac?  A drink as mild as Coca-Cola but as potent as a Sazerac?


The Original (Perhaps) Roffignac Cocktail

1.5 oz. Cognac or other good brandy
2/3 oz. simple syrup
1/3 oz. himbeer essig syrup 
soda water

Combine the Cognac and syrups in a rocks glass and stir.  Fill glass with ice, top with club soda, and give one final stir. 

Arthur calls for a highball glass, which would be at least eight ounces, but unless you just drown the thing in soda it leaves it awfully empty.  I generally use a 6-ounce rocks glass, which seems more appropriate

The Roffignac Cocktail,
Rye Whiskey Version

A Roffignac Rebirth?

While I like my version of the Roffignac, I am painfully aware that I'm totally shooting in the dark, trying to recreate a cocktail I've never tasted before and with ingredients that are murkily established at best.

It doesn't seem possible to me that a whiskey soda with a splash of raspberry syrup would have been special enough to become a signature New Orleans drink, one that would rival the Sazerac or Ramos gin fizz.  My Coca-Cola-esque version seems more like the kind of thing that would have gotten the attention of locals and tourists alike.  But I'm just guessing.

Errol Laborde over at recently retold an amusing anecdote about Roffignac cocktails taken from an 1892 edition of the Mascot literary magazine.  I'll let you read the anecdote over there, but the fact that the Roffignac passes itself off as a temperance drink further suggests that it would have been very soft drink like in flavor.

Larborde also notes that the Roffignac, which never came back into fashion after Prohibition, lingered on as the house specialty at Maylie's, which opened in 1876 and lasted 110 years.  When Maylie's closed in 1986, Laborde writes, "so did the public life of the Roffignac."

1986, alas, was just a little before my (legal) drinking time, but perhaps someone who remembers the Roffignac from Maylie's could weigh in on the concoction: was it just a raspberry-flavored whiskey-and-soda, or something more subtle and complex?  Does anyone from New Orleans remember seeing a bottle of himbeer essig syrup at soda fountains or elsewhere?

Maybe, just maybe, the public life of the Roffignac is not at its end just yet. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Unraveling the Mystery of the Roffignac Cocktail (Part 1)

In which I am stymied by the mysterious Red Hembarig

I am currently neck deep in research on the classic cocktails of New Orleans, and along the way stumbled upon a bit of a mystery.  The Sazerac, the Ramos gin fizz, even the absisnthe frappe: these I was familiar with.  But not too long ago, while working through old newspaper archives from around the turn of the 20th century, I came across a cocktail that I had never heard of before.  It was highlighted as one of the signature drinks of New Orleans, and it had a splendidly rich, dramatic-sounding name: the Roffignac Cocktail.

That name came from a man known in New Orleans as Joseph Roffignac but who bore the even more grandiloquent full name of Count Louis Phillipe Joseph de Roffignac.  Roffignac fled France during the Revolution and established himself as a leading merchant in New Orleans.  He served as mayor of the city from 1820 to 1828, inaugurating under his watch the first paving and lighting of streets, and was by all accounts a bon vivant and all-around great guy.

While it isn't likely that Roffignac himself ever tasted the drink named in his honor (he died in 1846, long before I can find any trace of the cocktail in print), it had become one of the city's signature drinks by the 1890s.  

Maylie's Restaurant, New Orleans
Home of the Roffignac Cocktail for Almost a Century
Mannessier's Confectionary--a Royal Street shop known for its coffee, ice cream, and pastries--was also famous for its Roffignac cocktails. In its 1899 guide for carnival visitors, the New Orleans weekly Harlequin included included Mannessier's along with the Sazerac, the Imperial Cabinet, and the Old Absinthe house as drinking spots not to be missed, noting that "the Mannessier has a great reputation for its roffignacs."

Mannessier's closed in 1914, but the Roffignac lived on at Maylie’s Restaurant on Poydras Street. Originally named Maylie and Esparbe, the restaurant dated back to 1876 and catered initially to the butchers of the Poydras market.  By the turn of the 20th century it was considered second only to Antoine's among the city's restaurants.  Its classic dishes included its soups, eggs Remoulade, panned veal, and pan-fried trout, and the Roffignac was the house cocktail.

So what kind of cocktail was it?

The 1937 Primary Source for
Roffignac Recipes
Googling up some basic information on the Roffignac was easy, since it has appeared on several cocktail enthusiast blogs recently.  All of the recipes seem to trace back to a single source: Stanley Clisby Arthur, whose slim 1937 volume Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em is an indispensable guide to historic New Orleans libations. Here is Arthur's recipe for the Roffignac, which is essentially a whiskey soda with raspberry syrup:
1 jigger whiskey
1 pony sirup
seltzer or soda water
raspberry sirup
Arthur's instructions have you mix the whiskey, "sirup," and soda water in a highball glass and add ice.  He notes that you could replace the whiskey with cognac, which was used in the original version of the drink, and instead of raspberry syrup use something called "red Hembarig," which he describes as "a popular syrup when old New Orleans was young."

Down in the Historical Cocktail Testing Facility (a.k.a. my kitchen), I easily mixed up a whiskey-and-raspberry syrup version of the Roffignac, since, thanks to a bag of raspberries in my freezer, I had all the necessary ingredients on hand.

Quick and Simple Raspberry Syrup
This would be better with fresh raspberries, but if they're out of season or you are in a historically-driven cocktail research rush, you can limp by with frozen.

2 cups raspberries
1-1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Combine raspberries, sugar, and water in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  Reduce heat and simmer five minutes or so, then remove from heat and allow to cool.  Pour through a strainer, squeezing all the juice from the berries, and bottle.  Refrigerate and use as needed.

Raspberry syrup and a bottle of Old Overholt rye in hand, I proceeded by Arthur's instructions to construct my first Roffignac.  The resulting cocktail had a brilliant red color and was pretty tasty but, I would have to admit, nothing to make a big fuss about--just a raspberry-tinged whiskey soda.

The next step, of course, was to try to recreate the original version hinted at in Arthur's recipe.  The Cognac made perfect sense: it was the liquor of choice in New Orleans cocktails up until the 1870s, when, in part because of the phylloxera outbreak in France, Cognac and other real French brandies became rare and expensive and the city's bartenders began substituting whiskey.  The original Sazerac, in fact, was made not with rye whiskey but with Cognac, and its name comes from Sazerac de Forge et Fils, a much-esteemed brand of Cognac in the mid-19th century.

But what about that other ingredient, Red Hembarig?  My efforts to track it down hit a brick wall very quickly. The term seems to appear only in the work of Stanley Clisby Arthur, and all the references I could find on the Interwebs (like cocktail blogs) pointed ultimately back to Arthur's book as their source.  Searches through digital book, newspaper, and magazine archives came up dry.  It seems a word invented by Arthur himself.

For a few days I was stuck fast.  What on earth was Red Hembarig?

And then came a lucky break . . . which I'll tell all about in Part 2.

Part 2 now posted here

Friday, November 25, 2011

Classic Cocktail Books

Brandy Sour, Which I Enjoyed While
Composing this Post and May Explain
the More Egregious Typos
So, this came to me via my old buddy Robert Trogdon, who sent in a tweet:
  any rec for good cocktail book? Something old school.

A little too long a topic for 140 characters, so I'm jumping to the blog to record a few recommendations.

If you want to go REALLY old school, you have to go to Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks, or, the Bon-Vivant's Companion (1862) which, most authorities agree, is the first bartender's manual published in the United States.  Fortunately, since it dates back to the Civil War, it is long out of copyright and readily available online at Google Books and many other places.

But, unless you're just a total cheapskate, it's well worth plunking down a few bucks for David Wondrich's Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.  Despite its impressively 19th century title, it's a recent work (2007) that draws from the recipes in Thomas's original guide and adds a lot of great historical anecdotes and also solid, helpful advice on translating the old formulae and ingredients to the modern bar.

I recently ordered Stanley Clisby Arthur's Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em, an essential 1937 work that is a time capsule of classic recipes from American's most important cocktail city.

And, perhaps the book I reach to most when actually mixing a cocktail is Dale DeGroff's The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks, it's got a great selection of both classic and modern cocktails, and DeGroff's deft hand with ingredients results in recipes that are always just a bit tastier and more interesting that other bar guides.

Hope this helps, Troggie, and I hope we can lift a glass together soon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Now Available Online: Pimento Cheese Please!

Pimento Cheese, Please! from Christophile Konstas on Vimeo.

The waiting is over. Pimento Cheese, Please!, the best sixteen minutes of documentary film ever produced on the subject of classic Southern cheese spreads, is now available online. I pop up every couple of minutes with a few fun facts on the history of pimento cheese, and you gotta watch out for the coolest clip of all--the guy about 3/4s of the way through (okay, at 13:54 to be precise!) carving up watermelons with a handsaw.

Nice job, Nicole and Christophile!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Pimento Cheese Please, a documentary from Nichole Lang and Christophile Konstas, is premiering at the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond this Wednesday (November 9th). Read all about it in Richmond Magazine.

Lang and Konstas shot much of the documentary here in Charleston, including interviews with Matt and Ted Lee, Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, and, of all people, me.  I shared with them a great old pimento cheese advertisement from the 1920s that I hope made it into the final cut.

If you're in the Richmond area, check it out!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The High Cost of Knowledge

In the midst of a round of research this morning, I came across a number of articles in scholarly journals that I was interested in taking a peek at, but I didn't because they were locked up in pay sites for various journals or consortia of journals.  This is nothing new: since I'm not affiliated with any university, I'm used to the fact that most content published in academic journals isn't freely accessible to me.  

This morning, though, a particular irony struck me for the first time: it seems the most expensive content out on the Web is the stuff being published by non-commercial, not-for-profit educational institutions, those whose missions are all about spreading knowledge to the world. 

For example, you can go to the Cambridge Journals site and access an article in Modern Asian Studies (just to pick one at random) for the low, low price of $30.00 (yes, in case your missed it, that is more than the price of a typical hardback book) or, better yet, rent it for 24 hours for just $5.99.

And, mind you, this is not for a physical copy of a publication that must be printed and mailed . . . that would be understandable.  This is just for the information itself, delivered at virtually no marginal cost over the Interwebs.  And, there's no authors' costs to consider here, either: unlike commercial periodicals, academic journals don't pay their contributors.  And, accessing the information online would not prevent specialists in the field from subscribing to the journal itself: the article is three years old. 

It did occur to me that harping on the exorbitant single-article price might be a little unfair, since perhaps all the Cambridge University Press is doing is trying to get users to buy a subscription, which would make the content available much less expensively.  How much less?  I have no idea.  In order to even see the subscription prices, apparently, you first have to register for an online account.  When I tried to register for an account, no values were populated in the drop down list for "Country" and the site crashed when I tried to submit my registration.

It wouldn't be worth even complaining about normally: if the price of something is too high, who cares.  Don't buy it.  Nobody owes me free journal articles.  And, if they have a bad web site that prevents people from buying things . . . well, they won't be making much money off their journals. 

But what gets me is that when you visit the "About Us" page for the Cambridge Journals Online, you are presented with a bunch of self-important hooey about their commitment "to advance learning, knowledge, and research worldwide" and how "the dedication of Cambridge University Press to advancing knowledge is visible within our journals, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day" (except when the site crashes, of course.)

And how to do that?  Delivering journal content over the Internet, the "About Us" statement says, "has led to new markets opening up across the world.  These include libraries operating together as consortia, and institutions in the developing world becoming able to access journals for the first time."  [emphasis mine].    "Markets" is strangely jarring amid such high-minded prose about advancing knowledge, and I assume these libraries are forced to operate as consortia because the price of journals is too damn high for them to buy on their own.

There's something oddly Mandarin about it: the ensconcing of knowledge within the expensive, hard-to-access walls of academia, available only to those who are willing to pay an extraordinary amount for it.  Preaching a mission of spreading the noble light of knowledge to the masses while simultaneously making it as costly and difficult as possible to access it.

Here's a piece of advice from the commercial world: if you're really serious about expanding knowledge around the world, make it as cheap and easy to access as possible.  Putting academic articles behind not just pay walls but exceptionally expensive pay walls only guarantees that they will not be read and learning will not be advanced.  

So, I guess I won't be reading that article in Modern Asian Studies.  I hope it doesn't have any groundbreaking information in it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mislabled Fish

"No, really, I am tuna!"
The Boston Globe has a great but disturbing investigative piece into the seemingly growing practice of mislabeling fish.

That it occurs in not particularly surprising, especially when you consider how trendy fresh, locally-caught fish has become.  It's easy to imagine a couple of unscrupulous wholesalers out there who can't pass up the temptation to double or triple the price of the humble hake by labeling it cod or upgrading some perch filets to snapper.

What's a more unsettling is how widespread and accepted the practice seems to be among restaurateurs.  In some cases it's just a little creative substitution when the price of a menu fixture gets too high.  In others, though, it seems to almost a standard operating procedure, like serving tilapia as "red snapper" and escolar as "white tuna" in sushi restaurants.  This does little to calm my own sushi fatigue.

And, as fish supply chains grow longer and longer, it makes one wary of the whole thing.  The Globe piece is Part 1 of 2.  I'm curious now to see what the second piece reveals.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Keeping the BBQ Flames Alight

This Rick Perry Barbecue Roadkill story is turning out to have a lot more legs than I thought.  I wrote an op-ed about it last week for the Los Angeles Times, and it took almost a full week from the time I finished the piece until it ran, and I was worried that by the time it hit print the story might be on its last gasp.

Not so.  Not only did my op-ed get a nice pick up through the Times' syndication network, but there are now some new developments in the case.  The Burlington Times News now reports that not only has Wilbur King of Kings Restaurant in Kinston sent a letter to Governor Perry weighing in on the matter but now, finally, Perry's opponents are waking up to the potential landmine just waiting to go off.  From the Times News report:

“We got a call Thursday from the (Mitt) Romney people wanting to know if we would send some food to Romney,” King said. “He would like to comment on it because they heard about Perry's comment. ... They said they'd be back in touch with us.”

I'm waiting with bated breath for Romney's response.  C'mon, Mitt.  Don't let us down.
My op-ed is showing some legs, too.  I can now officially say that this turkey ran in newspapers from Bangor, Maine, to Sacramento, California. Here's a quick rundown of the papers where it appeared, in addition to the original in the L.A. Times:
Bangor Daily News
Bellingham (WA) Herald
Charlotte Observer
Kinston Free Press
Myrtle Beach Sun News
North Jersey Record
Sacramento Bee

Watch your backs, Woodward and Bernstein.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

That's My Boy

Actual transcript of a conversation between my wife and our five year old:

Charlie: What is Thanksgiving?

Wife: It's a holiday where we think about all of the happy and good things in our life.

Charlie: Like barbecue?

Exactly, son.  Like barbecue.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Roadkill BBQ Flap Continues

© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0
The Los Angeles Times asked me to weigh in on the recent Rick Perry roadkill barbecue controversy, which I did in an op-ed that ran in the Sunday paper yesterday.  The political world is still reeling.

But not as much as if the piece had run as I originally wrote it.  My editors routinely have the most picky, trivial complaints about the drafts I submit, like "it's way, way too long", "much too dry and dull", and "not supported by facts."  While their emendations are probably to blame for my being passed over for the Pulitzer yet again this year, they do have the nice side effect of giving me a little extra material for my blog.

One of the things that wound up on the cutting room floor was my rejoinder to one of the L. A. Times's own writers.  Here are the two paragraphs from my original draft:

Apparently this dust-up baffles some folks on the West Coast.  A few days ago Los Angeles Times opinion writer Paul Thornton declared,  “This can’t be real.  Either today's political culture of umbrage-taking, and over the smallest offenses, is fed primarily by the media (thus this story is way overblown), or we snobby coastal dwellers are right to regard anything between Miami and Seattle as flyover country.  I hope (and believe) it’s the former.”
Personally, I think Thornton either has a really dry sense of humor, or he’s just another naive, earnest Berkeley grad who’s never actually been far enough away from the Left Coast to realize that sometimes folks say things with a straight face that they don’t really mean just because they think it’s funny to pretend like they’re having an argument and also if you fly too much farther east than North Carolina you’ll end up in the damn ocean.  I hope (and believe) it’s the former.

Now, the putative reasons the editor gave me for excising this passage was that a) it was too long (it's 160 words, and that is a lot for a short piece) and b) because Thornton's piece "appeared only in a blog post on a blog with very few readers." (Hey, those are your editor's words, Mr. Thorton, not mine . . . though I enjoyed adding the emphasis.)  I have no reason to question that rationale.

Perry, for his part, has responded to the controversy by ignoring it completely and, I guess, hoping it will just go away.  In fact, as of yet, there has not even been an official response from the Perry campaign, not even a denial that he has dined on gamy, well-aged dead animal carcasses that may or may not have tire tracks on them.

As every political handler knows, that's the absolutely worst way to handle a PR crisis.  Personally, I would have advised Perry to go on the offensive immediately, attack the credibility of the Reeds and their book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, which started this whole thing.  Heck, they spent their entire careers in academia, and the book was published by a university press and has a lot of big words in it.  Surely they could spin up some pretty damaging "East Coast intelligentia" charges?

Better yet, embrace the scandal: announce publicly, "yes, I eat roadkill.  I love it and I'm proud of it!"  Think of the potential for a photo op of with old Rick Perry lifting a fork of mesquite-smoked raccoon.  Surely there are any number of barbecue joints down there in Texas that could serve it for him.  The good people of North Carolina, I dare say, would respect a man who sticks to his principles and might even forgive his lousy taste in barbecue.

But, the Perry campaign has ignored all my advice, and look what it's brought them.  Last month,  Perry was leading the field of presidential contenders in the state of North Carolina, with 35% of poll respondents saying they would vote for him.  In just a few short weeks, that number has fallen to 15%, and Perry is now in a sorry fourth place behind Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.

Just one more politician laid low by barbecue.  A story as old as the nation itself.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bourbon's Rise

There's a good piece over at NPR about the continuing trendiness of bourbon--the tastings, the festivals, the tourists following the "Kentucky Bourbon Trail".

Interesting fact from the story: with 4.7 million (!) barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses, there are now more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people (4.3 million).

And that suggests that when the bourbon bubble bursts (as I predict it will), there's going to be a huge glut on the market and bourbon is going to get really, really cheap.  Just my own little prediction . . .

Monday, September 26, 2011

How Low Can You Go?

So, for several years now we've had chefs trading in their toques for overalls and opening barbecue stands--so long, in fact, that I think I've typed "chefs trading in their toques for overalls" at least a half dozen times and better find a new phrase.  Then it was gourmet burgers.  Then high-end tacos, often served from rolling trucks.

Now we're on to hot dogs, with Richard Blais's (yes, the Top Chef guy's) HD1--as Broderick reports in a Savory Exposure post with some really sharp pics--just one of the latest incarnation of the gourmet hotdog stand.

I'm trying to think of what cuisine could be lower than the hot dog?  The peanut butter and jelly?  The grilled cheese?  Sorry, that's already been done: so 2007.  Can't be macaroni and cheese--chefs have been making mac n cheese with gouda and fontina and even big chunks of lobster for years now.  Real ramen, we have learned in recent years from those noodle bars popping up all over the place, is SO much better than that packaged crap we ate in college.

I'm dragging the bottom of the barrel here: Slim Jims?  Vienna sausages?  Potted meat?

Surely potted meat is the lowest of the low.  Has anyone run into a gourmet version at a hipster food truck yet?

If not, it's only a matter of time.

You heard it here first.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

More BBQ Scandal

Porky Le Swine over at BBQ Jew makes a trenchant point about the ever-widening Rick Perry BBQ/Roadkill scandal: in his comments, Perry is effectively admitting that he eats roadkill!

Maybe in Texas, Rick.  But, really, do we want flattened armadillos being served at state dinners?

This is getting more and more disturbing with each passing day.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

BBQ Politics Goes Viral

My fellow barbecue historians John Shelton and Dale Reed (authors of the wonderful Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue) have a knack for turning a phrase.  Now they've gone viral thanks to an anecdote about Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry's allegedly saying back in 1992 after sampling the offering at a certain North Carolina barbecue joint: "I've had road kill that tasted better than that."

Google that phrase about roadkill, and you'll see hundreds of hits already in just the two days since the Raleigh News & Observer broke the story (and racked up 139 comments on their site already).  I'm happy to dribble a little more oil on the flames!

No response yet from the Perry campaign, but this is the kind of scandal that could wreck a campaign.  Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Taking a Poke at the Bourbon Fans

Over the past year or so, I've become an advocate of rum as the true historical drink of the South, and I've had fun taking a few pot shots at the trendiness of bourbon along the way.  In my latest piece on rum for the Charleston City Paper I review the new locally-distilled Sea Island spiced rum from from the guys at Wadmalaw Island's Firefly Distillery (the same ones who created the sweet tea vodka a couple of years ago).   I held off for most of the piece, but couldn't help throwing in a little dig at bourbon in the last paragraph of the piece:

If there was ever a time for Southern foodies to end their unnatural fascination with bourbon and return to their good old rum roots, that time is now. And what better way to get started than with a distinctively local product like Sea Island Rum?

So, imagine my surprise, when I opened the City Paper yesterday (or, to be more accurate, pulled it up in my web browser) and saw my editor had taken a few liberties and moved my poke at bourbon to the opening paragraph!

But, I'm actually pleased with the emendations, even if it gives the piece a little more of a controversial slant.  Bourbon, fans, you're on notice!  Rum, the original Southern liquor, is on the rise!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Google Buys Zagat

Yesterday it was announced that Google was buying Zagat, which struck me as interesting since Zagat and its maroon-covered guidebooks seem like such an orphan in these days--stuck somewhere between the old fashioned printed expert guidebooks like Michelin's and the new freewheeling social opinion sites like Yelp.

It vaguely occurred to me that Zagat probably has a website, but if I had ever visited it before I don't remember doing so.  And when I navigated over the to check it out, I can see why I never used it before.

First, it's a pay site that lets you get a basic listing of restaurants but not see any ratings without buying a subscription, which seems doomed in this day of free sites.  Second, the "Related Buzz" column on the right hand side (which showed when I searched for restaurants in "Charleston SC") has an old story from back in March  about Tony Bourdain and Kat Kinsman having a slap flight over food writers (not really "buzz" if it's six years old, guys) that seems in no way related to the search.

Things are no more relevant if you, for example, search for "pizza" in "Atlanta".  "Buzz" from May about a pizza restaurant opening in Baltimore is not useful to someone looking to each pizza in Atlanta, Georgia.  Maybe a little search expertise will help . . .

Zagat's pay-wall model had another interesting downside: it made it harder for people to find content on the site, since it would show up very high on Google searches. (That'll probably change soon . . .)

I'm sure Google will manage to take the reader-generated content and put it to some sort of good use, but the deal is interesting for other reasons.  Apparently, the New York Times story reveals, the Zagats courted Google pretty aggressively and not the other way around.

My favorite line from the article, quoting an analyst: "It's a little bit of a consolation prize." Two years ago Google made a failed half-billion dollar bid to acquire Yelp, the top online restaurant review site.

It should get interesting over the next few months . . .

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hyderabadi Biryani

All over Hyderabad last week, big billboards from the Times of India announced the newspaper's Best Haleem & Biryani Contest, inviting readers to submit (via text messages of the Times's website) their favorite restaurants the city's two signature dishes.  Being new in town, I didn't have a favorite to submit, but I figured it was a clear sign that I needed to check out the local haleem and biryani.

I got to the biryani first, which was pretty easy to do since it was on the menu or buffet at just about every restaurant where I ate that week.

While many regions of India have their own variations of this dish (as do other countries such as Iran, Sri Lanka, and Thailand), Hyderabadi Biryani is perhaps the most well-known, and it's a reflection of the city's Muslim history.  Hyderabad was founded in the late 1500s on the banks of the Musi River by the sultans of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, rulers of Turkish descent who migrated to India in the 16th century and then conquered the kingdom of Golconda in south-central India.  The Qutb Shahi ruled Hyderabad until 1687, when the city was captured by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.  The Mughals, themselves Muslims of Persian descent, granted authority over the city to the Nizams (administrators) of Hyderabad.  Seven Nizams ruled the city from the mid-1700s until Indian Independence, and they were known not only as great patrons of the arts and literature but also of great food, and it is from their kitchens that the traditional Hyderabadi Biryani is said to have emerged.

Biryania is a single-pot dish of basmati rice and meat, blending Mughal and Turkish techniques with the local ingredients and spices of the Hyderbad region, which tend toward chilis, garlic, coconut, and spicy pickles and chutneys.  The meat traditionally used in biryani is mutton, though chicken is very common and lamb sometimes used as well.  Now, "mutton" in India generally means goat's meet, not sheep--a fact that I didn't figure out until about halfway through the trip and which immediately explained why the "mutton" dishes I ate, all of which were delicious, didn't have any of that distinctive "wet wool" flavor you get with, say, good old British-style mutton chops.

Whether mutton, chicken, or lamb is used, the preparation is pretty much the same.  The meat is typically cut into small pieces with the bones left in and marinated in  a mixture of curd (yogurt) and spices for a couple of hours.  As to which spices, it was a little hard for my palette to determine what was in the several varieties I sampled at various times during the week.  But, the marinade typically has a dozen or more spices in it: red chili powder, green chili paste, ginger garlic paste, cinnamon, cardamom, tumeric, mace, shah jeera (carraway), clove, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper, mint, garam masala, coconut powder, saffron, lemon or lime juice, and even dried fruit and nuts all appear in various recipes.  It's the careful selection of these spices that distinguish one cook's biryani from another.

The long-grained basmati rice is pre-cooked until about half-done, then its layered together with the meat in a single deep pot.  Some cooks make just two layers, with meat on bottom and rice on top, while others alternate a couple of courses of rice and meat, rice and meat, and a final layer of rice on top.  That top layer is then garnished with things like cashews, onions, and more spices.

In the old days, biryani would have been cooked over the coals of a fire in a big ceramic pot, its top sealed with chapati dough to keep in the moisture.  In more contemporary versions, a modern stove and a stainless steel pot with a tight-fitting lid is used.   The whole thing is then cooked briefly over a high flame and then for twenty minutes or so over a low flame, with five or ten minutes off the heat at the end to allow it to finish.

The real skill in making biryani, it seems, is to be able to cook the meat properly through while not overcooking the rice into a sticky mush.  Properly made, the long, twisting grains of the basmati rice each stand out individually, soft yet firm enough to chew.  And, the best part is the little chunks of fragrant meat tucked away inside.  That long list of spices and the yogurt, too, impart a complex savoriness to the mutton or the chicken (the chicken, in fact, tends to be colored a deep red, like it is with good barbecue, though from the spice combination, not smoke).  It's a subtle dish, filling and pleasing with the perfectly-textured rice, and the meat and spices add nice complementary notes but don't dominate the dish they way they do in, say, a curry.

In fact, though it's touted as one of Hyderabad's grand delicacies, I found biryani to be less an exotic, dramatic treat as I did a homey, comforting dish.  On my very first day in the city, as I forked my way into a big plate of a delicious chicken version, I couldn't help but thinking, "this certainly seems familiar."  And it didn't take long for me to figure out why that was.  The spices and flavors were very different, but the dish itself--the texture of the rice, the savory meat tucked inside--were the spitting image of the classic Lowcountry pilau.  And, some initial research indicates that there likely is a real historical connection between the two.

But that's a story I'll have to leave for later . . .

Now, as to my vote for the Times of India contest, it will be a little difficult.  Of the twenty restaurants on the biryani ballot, I only got to try the version from the famed Paradise Restaurant--which many consider the best in the city--though my lunch was not at the original location in Secunderbad (the adjoining twin city to Hyderabad) but at the new Hi-Tech City branch (conveniently located next door to the KFC).  It was the fourth version of biryani I had tried in Hyderabad, and while it seemed a little spicier and more aromatic than other restaurants', it's hard for to declare one way or another if it was the best.

It looks like the voting is still open, but we should find out the winner, soon.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Home Again, Home Again

I just got home yesterday from a week in Hyderabad, India.  The jet lag isn't quite as crippling as I was afraid it would be, especially compared to coming back from England or even the West Coast of the U.S.  I think it's because there was plenty of time to sleep on the sixteen hour long flight from Delhi to Chicago, arcing up over Russia and Greenland and Canada.  So, my body has no idea what time zone it's in, but it's at least relatively well rested.

Hyderabad Airport

I had aspired to blog about my trip as it happened, but between long days at work (it was a business trip to work with some partner software teams), busy nights out exploring the local food, and general spottiness of internet connectivity, I wasn't able to do much more than a tweet a few pictures.

But, now that I'm back I hope to capture a few of the food-related experiences here.

Until then, here are just a few random pictures I took along the way.
Street View (from my hotel)

Golconda Fort (16th Century)

Old Hyderabad

New Hyderabad (Work in Progress)

Friday, August 05, 2011

Best SC Pizza: EVO

In breaking news, Food Network Magazine named North Chuck's EVO Pizzeria as having the best pizza in South Carolina. Good pick.

In even more stunning breaking news, we find out that the Food Network has a magazine!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The End of Eat Local and Farm-to-Table

Passionate about eating local? Want to know your farmer and know where your food comes from? Frito-Lay jumps on the bandwagon.

So, on to the next trend . . .

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shrimp & Grits: The Irresistible Seductress

Shrimp & Grits: My Version
Man, is it almost August already?  The kids got out of school at the beginning of June and suddenly I looked up and here we are more than halfway through it.  I've been keeping busy with work, travel (including a great family vacation to the Mid-Atlantic that I keep meaning to post pictures from) . . . and then a little family illness fun to boot.

I've also kept myself busy working on the City Paper's Summer Dish issue (coming out any day now), which mostly involves eating my way across the city.  Plus, as a follow up to my review visit to the Red Drum, I caught up with chef/owner Ben Berryhill and got the scoop on his new restaurant Next Door, which you can read here.

One thing from my interview with Berryhill that didn't make the City Paper piece was his take on shrimp and grits, which is another installment in a drama I like to call "Shrimp and Grits, the Irresistible Seductress." It goes basically something like this:

Young (or not so young) chef moves to Charleston seeking opportunity in a flourishing restaurant scene.  A true artist and dedicated to his craft, he defiantly declares that while he WILL immerse himself in the traditional food culture of his new city but he will NEVER, EVER serve that beguiling, evil recipe . . . Shrimp and Grits!

After all, what could be more cliched and trite? Does this city really need one more restaurant serving shrimp and grits?  No, it does not! our hero declares, and boldly stakes out a unique, original, and acclaimed fine dining menu.

The years pass, and delicious fresh shrimp flow in from local waters and appear on the chef's plates, and he's dishing up delicious heirloom stone-ground grits, too.  And then there's that fantastic, smoky artisanal bacon or sausage sitting right there on the line, too . . . and eventually, the temptation just overcomes him and the shrimp and corn and bacon merge . . . and there, on the menu, is that one item that he swore would never darken the pass-window at his restaurant: the diabolical SHRIMP AND GRITS!!!

Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk was one of the most vocal holdouts against our city's staple dish, but he caved several years back and has since produced a splendid version at McCrady's, complete with grits from heirloom Jimmy Red Corn that are blasted frozen by liquid nitrogen before grinding, molded into a disk with shrimp, and topped with shrimp stock gel, sea-like foam, and colorful herbs and flowers.  At Husk, his version is a little more rustic but still fantastic, studded sometimes with Benton's bacon and other times with Surry County sausage plus wood-roasted tomatoes, braised fennel, and even a braised pigs ear.

Ben Berryhill told me a similar story.  When he came to town in 2005 and opened the Red Drum, he  was fresh off a twelve-year stint at Cafe Annie, the acclaimed pioneer of high-end Southwestern cuisine  in Houston, Texas.  Berryhill's plan (which he executed flawlessly) was to take traditional Lowcountry ingredients and apply his chile- and wood-grilled Southwestern style to them.  And, he was adamant that he would NOT  serve those treacherous shrimp and grits.

Ah, but the flesh is weak.  A few years later, he confesses, he "broke down" and created his own "Low-Tex" version.   The "Low" is fresh Lowcountry shrimp and Anson Mills grits, while the "Tex" is the venison sausage from Broken Arrow Ranch in the Texas Hill Country and the chile beurre blanc served on top.  And, boy, are they good.

Let those among us without sin cast the first stone.  One can fully understand the impulse for chefs to steer clear of the over-exposed, cliched local "specialties".  But, they all come around soon or later, and for one simple reason: the flavors of shrimp and corn are perfect together, and when you toss in a little smoky meat, it's absolutely glorious.

(I, too, have fallen.  I captured my version of shrimp and grits here some time ago.)


Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Do We Tip (Redux)

I'm a big fan of NPR's Planet Money Podcast.  It's my go-to selection on my iPod while I'm cooking dinner.  So, I listened with great interest this weekend when Planet Money delved into one of my long-standing favorite topics: why do we tip waiters in restaurants?  I've weighed in on this subject on multiple occasions, including this hoary blog post from five years ago which lays out my general party line.

My opinions have not changed much in a half-decade, and I still continue to be bemused by how most people who delve into the subject of tipping look at it primarily from the customer's point of view (e.g. Steve Buscemi's Mr. Pink character in Reservoir Dogs) and not the waiter or restaurant owner's.  Planet Money, though, does a pretty good job, I think, of looking at it from all angles, and their piece turns up a couple of interesting points.

First, they wonder why it is that, even though so many people express frustration at tipping, we still do it:  "How do you undo five hundred years of custom and expectation? . . . No one wants to be the first guy who starts stiffing all the waiters because they feel like tipping is illogical."  As I go into in more depth in my old post on tipping, I think this is primarily because the real decision-making power on the topic is in the hands of the waiters and restaurant owners, not the customers.

We can see that in cases of other occupations that over the course of a decade or two have transitioned away from a tip-based compensation scheme.  Take grocery store bag boys, for example.  Interestingly enough, the Planet Money commentators ask during their piece how come we don't feel compelled to tip workers in grocery stores.  Perhaps they are a little younger than me, but when I was a teenager you always tipped the bag boys in grocery stores who took your bags out to your car for you, as my high school friends who worked as bag boys were prone to discuss ad infinitum.  These days, that custom is all but extinct (as is, I suppose, the term "bag boy").

And how did it happen?  In many of the grocery stores I frequented it was due to an active decision and campaign on behalf of the store's management, who posted big signs on the wall saying something to the effect of, "Carrying your bags out to the car is a service we perform free of charge.  Please, no tipping."  After a few years, everyone began feeling comfortable not tipping that nice kid who helped with the cart, and these days I not only don't recall anyone tipping bagboys anymore but I don't even remember seeing those signs saying "please don't tip".

I'd be curious to hear from someone who was behind those management decisions why it was they decided to actively discourage tipping, but I bet it was because as the economy changed they found that they could attract better employees if they offered them a more fixed, reliable wage.

But that still leaves unaddressed the question of why tipping persists in the restaurant industry when it's on the outs in supermarkets.

That's where the second interesting point from the Planet Money piece comes in.  During their interviews, the reporters found that when they asked waiters and waitresses if they would trade making the same money guaranteed through a fixed service charge rather than through tips, the answer was almost always no.  And why?  "They like it.  They like the excitement, and for every bad tip there's a good one around the corner."

And why is that?  I think it's because, as I said in my original post on the topic, "Waiting tables is very much a customer-facing sales position, and any waiter who has figured out how to upsell tables with appetizers and drink specials understands that tipping is essentially a slightly-unstable commission system."

And that optimistic willingness to forgo the guaranteed moderate income in favor of the uncertain upside chance for a really big score is a characteristic I've seen in all sorts of salespeople, from the waiters and waitresses hoping to move a little extra liquor and charm a few extra percentage points out of a check to the high-end software sales guys angling to land a six-figure commission on an enterprise deal.

And I still don't think tipping in restaurants is going anywhere anytime soon.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Back for Summer: the Strawberry-Basil Mojito

Now that summertime is officially here, I'm ready for a lot of hot weather friendly drinks--especially the rum-based ones.  This week, a small bag of basil leaves showed up in my Rosebank Farms CSA share and that, along with the load of fresh local strawberries still in my fridge, all but demanded that I drag out an old favorite recipe: the strawberry basil mojito.  

It's a wonderful variation on the Cuban classic that I first encountered out at The Lettered Olive on the Isle of Palms and then concocted my own recipe in imitation.  The strawberry, basil, and lime meld splendidly together, and the aroma of the basil when you first muddle it into the sugar is nothing short of sublime.

Here's my recipe:

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

This is really enough for two to share, or you could make it a double and keep it all to yourself.  

To create: put the basil and sugar in a cocktail shaker.  Muddle vigorously until the basil is starting to break into bits and blending into the sugar. Add the strawberries and press with the muddle until well mashed and incorporated into the basil and sugar. Pour in the rum, lime juice, and  ice.  Shake until well blended. Pour into two rocks glasses (or one big one, if you're doing the double) and top with club soda.  Garnish with a lime and enjoy.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Pimento Cheese Sandwich Crisis at the Masters

A near-crisis situation on Tuesday as a pimento cheese shortage strikes the Masters Tournament in Augusta.  A severe shortage of the famed green-plastic-wrapped pimento cheese sandwiches ensued after a thunderstorm knocked out power at the sandwich processing center.

Fortunately, power is back on now and the sandwich pipeline in flowing once again.


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