Wednesday, March 30, 2011


One of my favorite parts of spring is fresh asparagus.  Over the weekend I had some splendid local asparagus sprinkled with goat cheese from Jeremiah Bacon down at Oak.  The next day, I picked up a little of the new crop from Boone Hall Farms to make at home:

If the asparagus is in, that means strawberries can't be far behind.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Creating a (New) Southern Icon, Part 2: Memories & Recipes

About a month ago I dug into the history of pimento cheese and the surprising fact that, despite its current status as the quintessential Southern food, it was actually invented by Yankees. For most of the 20th century, in fact, pimento cheese was popular nationwide and was largely an industrial food product, something that people bought at the store rather than made from scratch.

I left hanging the question of how this “up-to-date”, nationally-distributed food become so closely identified with Southern cooking while fading both from supermarket shelves and from culinary memory everywhere else in the country. In part it was because the post was already much too long and in part because I don't have nearly as much concrete evidence on that question as I do on the origin of the famous spread.

But, I need to give it a shot. I gave my best stab at it verbally last weekend when I was interviewed by Nicole Lang for her forthcoming documentary "Pimento Cheese Please!" (due out this fall), and here is a written version of it.

As best as I can tell, it's a two-fold answer. First, more than in any other region, Southerner cooks took an industrial product and made it their own, creating home recipes that turned it into something special. Second, and seemingly more important, is the function of the collective Southern memory when it comes to food.
Today, it is taken for granted by most cookbook writers that “real” pimento cheese is made from a combination of grated cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos. Hotly debated is which type of cheese to use—sharp cheddar, white cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Parmesan, or even Velveeta (I use sharp cheddar for mine). And, whether the mayonnaise should be homemade or a specific store-bought brand (I'm a loyal Duke's partisan) and what other elements should be added for flavoring. Black pepper, cayenne, jalapeños, onion, bacon, pecans, hot sauce, garlic powder, cider vinegar, and celery seeds are just a few of the more common enhancements. You can find a few recipes here and there that call for the original cream cheese, but they're definitely in the minority.

These formulas for “real” pimento cheese is a rather recent phenomenon. If you judge from cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines, pimento cheese remained in most people's minds a manufactured product for most of the 20th century. Before the 1980s, it's hard to find any published recipes at all for making your own pimento cheese at home. There are plenty of sandwich and salad recipes that include pimento cheese, but it's treated almost exclusively as an ingredient you would buy at the store, not make from scratch as a standalone dish.

Now, I'm not saying there were no cooks in the South making their own pimento cheese at home. Far too many Southerners today have vivid memories of their family's homemade versions for that to be the case.

Audrey Parker Brooks, a newspaper columnist who grew up in Texas in the 1920s, recalled of her school lunches, “My mother made delicious pimento-cheese sandwiches from scratch. It was mixed with Mamma's own homemade salad dressing.” In Gadsden,  Alabama: Stories of the Great Depression, Robert Wilbanks recalls the sandwiches of that era, noting that, “very few ingredients were prepackaged . . . pimento cheese did not come from a store but was made at home by cutting and mixing 'hoop' cheese and pimentos from a jar.” Plenty of Southern cooks, it seems, were making their own pimento cheese from scratch. They just weren't making a big deal about it.

Substituting of grated cheese and mayonnaise for the Neufchatel or cream cheese from the original domestic-science versions may have been the turning point in creating what is today a Southern classic. The new availability of “hoop cheese” in Southern stores in the early part of the 20th century likely inspired some Southern cooks to use it instead of the softer cream cheeses in their pimento cheese concoctions. Grated cheese, of course, would need something to bind it together, so adding mayonnaise was a natural adaptation. From there, any number of additional enhancements—from onions and mustard to lemon juice and jalapenos—would add flavors and make the mixture more and more interesting.

But, good homemade recipes are only part of the story. An even larger factor appears to be the role of memory. In the 1980s, Southern writers capturing in print their memories of the pimento cheese sandwiches of their youth. Pimento cheese starts showing up in a lot of Southern novels, like Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987) and Clyde Edgerton’s Raney (1986). Before this time, pimento cheese was treated in print—when it was treated at all—as simply another food product you would buy at the store. In the last two decades of the century, Southern writers transformed it into, to use the phrase of Reynold Price, “the peanut butter of my youth—homemade by Mother.”

The cause of pimento cheese got a big boost from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in 2003 when it staged the Pimento Cheese Invitational as part of its annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. More than 300 entrants submitted recipes and accompanying essays capturing the memories that made the food special to them. The winning recipe, provided by local entrant Nan Davis of Oxford, called for grated cheddar and pimentos bound together by homemade mayonnaise and seasoned with onion powder, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of sugar. While the other two finalists used store-bought mayo, Davis insisted that only homemade would do. She called it “Lella's Pimento Cheese,” after her “very special aunt” Lella, who was famous for the pimento cheese sandwiches she reliably prepared any time there was a funeral, a family illness, or a church gathering.

The Pimento Cheese Invitational struck a chord with Southern food writers. In the wake of the event, dozens of recipes for pimento cheese that referenced the SFA event began appearing in Southern-themed cookbooks and magazines. In The Book Club Cookbook (2004), Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp described the Pimento Cheese Invitational and published the recipe of novelist Lee Smith, who had been a speaker at event, noting, “a traditional Southern food, pimento cheese is held sacred by southerners, in spite of being largely unknown outside the South.” In The Place Setting (2009), Fred Sauceman reprinted Nan Davis’s recipe and recounted the SFA event, noting, “They came with stories of red-headed aunts. Stories of surviving beauty school, of long-gone corner grocery stores. Memories of bridal showers and Epworth League meetings and lunch breaks at a North Carolina cotton mill. They came with remembrances of Meemaws, Mawmaws, and Grandmas. The substance that ties together all these recollections is pimento cheese.”

John T. Edge, the SFA’s Director, was the organizing force behind the Pimento Cheese Invitational, and he has his own personal connection to the food. In Southern Belly (2002) he writes, “In all my born days, I had never eaten a sandwich that tastes as good as the white bread-encased chicken salad and pimento cheese treats my aunt Ruth Barrett made. Trimmed of their crust, lavished with a thick smear of Duke's mayonnaise . . . for me, they were the ultimate evocation of care and comfort, a bland yet beatific blessing bestowed by my mother's only sister, my surrogate grandmother.” That's some powerful, personal stuff, and it shows how the affection for pimento cheese in the South is linked as much to the people who made it and the places where it was served as it is to the food itself.

But why in the South and not elsewhere in the United States? Conceivably, considering how popular pimento cheese was across the country in the 1930s and 1940s, plenty of people from Minnesota or Oregon should have fond childhood memories of the pimento cheese served by a grandmother or favorite aunt at one or another social functions.

Perhaps in the South the sort of social functions at which dainty spreads like pimento cheese were served—funerals, church gatherings, weddings, and receptions of all kinds—played a more prominent role in average daily life and, therefore, have a stronger hold on the memories of Southerners raised in the middle part of the 20th century. Perhaps it's because of Southern food writers like Edge and Sauceman, who look back at the traditions of their childhoods, document them, and celebrate them. Or perhaps its because of New Southern chefs like Louis Osteen and Bill Neal, who turned away from French haute cuisine and created updated, high-quality versions of the things they remembered eating as children, sweeping pimento cheese into the mix along with more traditional Southern foods like grits and okra. Quite likely, it's a little of all of these.

This is not to say that the modern day version of what might be called “high-end” pimento cheese is not a genuine Southern delicacy. One of my favorites is the spread Sarah O'Kelley makes at The Glass Onion here in Charleston. A Georgia native, she recalls her father's making her spicy pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread. Like most cooks, she is adamant about the ingredients, and her recipe keeps it simple: cheddar cheese and pimentos—both grated rather coarsely—along with a little chopped green onion and Duke's mayonnaise. It must be Duke's, O'Kelley insists (amen!), since it has no sugar and more eggs yolks for richness.

It doesn't seem like such a simple combination could be so strikingly delicious, but I vividly remember the first time I had it—as a part of a picnic spread at Middleton Place during the closing outdoor concert for the Spoleto Festival. “Be careful,” my hostess said as she passed the tray of crustless white bread sandwiches stuffed with a layer of orange spread. “That’s pimento cheese from the Glass Onion. You'll be hooked.”

And I was. They were rich, creamy, and exceptionally complex in flavor. I don't know how many of those tiny little sandwiches I managed to put away, but I do know that my midsection hurt long before the concert began and by the end of the first tune I was nearly prostrate on the grass.

In just the past year, New York City magazine writers and bloggers have hailed the arrival of pimento cheese, the “Southern comfort food,” to the Big Apple. The Tipsy Parson on Ninth Avenue now serves it with housemade crackers and deep fries it into fritters. Bobby Flay offers a pimento burger at his Bar American, while Arkansas-born Robert Newton wows Brooklynites with his “Southern snack tray” of deviled eggs, pickled okra, and pimento cheese at his new restaurant Seersucker.

Pimento cheese has finally arrived home in New York after a century-long journey, and it managed to improve itself considerably during its travels. Does it really matter that its Southern pedigree isn't terribly long? As Southerners, we've taken on pimento cheese as an item of our own and transformed it into a delicacy, and that's more than enough justification for me, at least, to consider it a (new) Southern classic.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Installment 2: Cypress Artisan Meat Share

If you want a taste of why Cypress's Craig Deihl is a finalist for this year's James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southeast Award, just try a sample from the big brown sack of goodies he calls the Artisan Meat Share.

The second installment of this year's share hit the streets last weekend, and here's just a sample:

For the record, here's the inventory:

1. Pork pate
2. Hard salami
3. Lonza (cured pork loin with crushed red& black pepper, thyme, and bay leaf)
4. Picante salami
5. Pecan-smoked bacon
6. "City" Ham - a big, round slice of ham cured with salt, brown sugar, crushed red pepper, bay leaf and time and smoked with pecan wood
7. And the capper . . . Pork butter.

I've had pork butter before, but I wasn't exactly sure what went into it.   It's not, as you might think, really a bunch of lard.  Instead, as Deihl was nice enough to explain to me when I stopped in to pick up my bag, it's starts with the crispy bits of meat left after Deihl and crew finish rendering out lard from fatty pork.  They take those bits, grind them fine, and whip them into butter and marscapone cheese.  And it's sinfully creamy and delicious.

And as a bonus--which I forgot to include the in picture and now are long gone--was a small bag of fresh fried pork rinds.

Diehl's up against some formidable competition for the Beard award: Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, Hugh Acheson of Athens's Five & Ten,  Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holman & Finch in Atlanta, Edward Lee of Magnolia 610 in Louisville, and John Fleer, formerly of Tennessee's Blackberry Farm and now at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, North Carolina.

I'll just slip the Beard judges a little dab of pork butter on a freshly baked biscuit.  That'll seal the deal for our local contender.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pork on the Road

A buddy of mine likes to send me pics from the road.  Here's his latest:

Can anyone name the restaurant?  Hint: it's not in the South--far from it, in fact.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Will Cooking be the High Art of the Twenty First Century?

CNN's Eatocracy blog has an interesting bit of video of Chris Cosentino (of San Francisco's Incanto and Boccalone) imploring young chefs to learn the fundamentals and the classics.  Watching this, I had a weird flashback to my old grad school days studying 20th Century American Literature and very similar instructions from successful writers to young aspiring modernists to learn their classics--their iambs and dactyls, their Ovid and their Milton.

I would hardly argue that a cook doesn't need to know how to make an omelet, braise meat, or chop an onion.  That seems pretty obvious.  But, when  Cosentino insists not that a young chef would gain a lot from it but rather that he or she MUST know what a demi-glace is or how to make a shirred egg, suddenly I'm hearing old schoolmasters insisting that if you can't conjugate the Latin you can't possibly construct a passably readable sentence in English.

It's taken me almost a decade, but I've now come to terms with the fact that, a hundred years hence, video games will be the high literature of current our decade, studied with groans by countless classrooms of bored high school students.  But maybe, just maybe, there will be a similar canonization of the great chefs, with cooking being instituted as one of the great expressive arts of the early 21st century.

Or maybe not.  But, all the signs of a coalescing "high art" are starting to appear.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Peek Behind the Scenes at Keegan-Filian Farm

I've you've eaten out at one of the nicer places downtown recently, you're probably noticed "Keegan-Filion Farm" chicken or pork on the menu.  The folks over at The Glass Onion have a nice profile of Mark and Annie Filion on their Soulfood Food blog.

It probably shouldn't, but it still surprises me when I read profiles like this that, even with as much success as the Filions have had getting their fantastic products into so many restaurant kitchens, it still isn't generating a whole lot of income (Mark Filion continues in a day job in industrial sales).

I have this notion in my head that we would all be better off if we ate half as much meat but paid twice as much per ounce in order to have the really good stuff.  For instance, instead of going to the grocery store and plunking down 5 bucks for a 3 to 4 pound whole industrial-farmed chicken you paid ten bucks for a high-quality, free-range chicken that had spend most of its life wandering around a grassy field and had actual flavor to its meat.   And, you stretched that high quality bird out over two 4-serving meals rather than one.

Could the economics works?  Could the logistics?  Is there even enough land around for farming that this would be practical if a significant number of people adopted the "pay more, eat less" mantra?  I mean, no one is going around America today suffering from a lack of protein in their diet.

I'll continue looking into it.  Until then, though, if you see Keegan-Filion chicken or pork on a local menu, do your palate a huge favorite and order it post haste.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Local Bartenders Getting Their Props

Charleston's chefs have been receiving national media attention for quite some time, and now some of our local bartenders are getting a little notice, too.

Garden & Gun just ran a nice piece featuring Brooks Reitz of FIG, who gave them a recipe for the lost classic Remember the Maine (how's that for a drink name?)  And, Joe Raya of the Gin Joint appears in this Imbibe Magazine piece on Southern Comfort for his take on Philadelphia Fish House Punch.

I talked to both Reitz and Raya myself not too long ago for a piece on rum I wrote for the City Paper, and I can attest they not only know their stuff but are really nice guys, too.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Riding the Inside Pork Track (or Something Like That)

So, those rubes over at the City Paper think they're all cool because they found out that tickets to the Guy Fieri Food Show go on sale tomorrow at 10:00 am.

On sale to the general public, maybe.  Those of us in the know have had access for quite some time now.  In fact, you can buy your tickets RIGHT NOW if you know the SECRET INTERNET PRE-SALE PASSWORD!

What, you don't know the SECRET INTERNET PRE-SALE PASSWORD?  Okay, let me clue you in.  The password is . . .


That's right. P-O-R-K.

Just in case you were planning on getting up at 3:00 am tomorrow (after a long night of St. Paddy's Day reveling) to get in line to ensure you had a crack at those $250 "Off Da Hook" tickets, don't bother.  Log in from your iPad and book them now.

Don't believe me?  Check out the screen cap below:

I could have shelled out a quarter grand and bought myself an Off Da Hook ticket on row B, which, as it turns out, is ON THE FREAKIN' STAGE, but I didn't.  I'm trying to give everyone else a shot at swankiness, being an egalitarian at heart.

Now, how did I get this super inside scoop, you might ask?  And, why in the hell is "pork" the SECRET INTERNET PRE-SALE PASSWORD?

As it turns out, the Guy Fieri Food Tour is presented by . . . wait for it . . . the National Pork Board.  Man, talk about not being blah and being inspired, what could be less boring and not-white-meat than Guy Fieri?

Now, you might be wondering: did I get this inside scoop because my blog post a few days ago about the National Pork Board's attempt at re-energizing their marketing efforts got me way into the NPB's good graces, or was it all just some crazy coincidence?  I'll let you decide. But, hurry now if you want to beat hoi polloi: once the ticket sales are opened to the general public, you'll never know what kind of riff raff may buy their way into an exclusive meat-and-greet with the Food Network star.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inspired Work from the Pork Board

In stunning news coming out of Des Moines, Iowa, the Pork Board announced that it is retiring the beloved "The Other White Meat" slogan in favor of . . .  wait for it . . . "Pork: Be Inspired."

. . . sorry, I nodded off for a moment there.

I do sort of feel sorry for the marketing guys at the Pork Board, since coming up with a slogan to replace the quarter-century-old "The Other White Meat" is a pretty tall order.  The tag line ranks as one of the most successful product slogans in marketing history.  A study by Northwestern University's School of Integrated & Marketing in 2000 showed it to be the 5th most recognized slogan in the country.  It probably doesn't help that after two decades it had become so integrated into the American consciousness that, despite legal efforts of the Pork Board to protect its brand,  its primary use today seems to be as the fodder for jokesters' t-shirts (like, "Cat: the Other White Meat", and others even less tasteful.)

But, despite the cultural penetration of "The Other White Meat" as a slogan, for pork sales it hasn't seem to do much of anything.  The Pork Board's VP of marketing, in the hoopla around the rebranding, told the Associated Press that the famous slogan "stemmed a decline" in pork consumption but now times have changed and consumption remains flat.  Stats from the U. S. Department of Agriculture (see graph below) suggest that those sales have been flat for a long time.

What's not noted in all the recent media pick ups of this marketing story is that "Be Inspired" isn't the first attempt to re-energize the pork brand.  Six years ago the Pork Board announced that it was phasing out "The Other White Meat" in favor of a new campaign: "Don't Be Blah," which sought to cast pork as the exciting alternative to boring old dinner fare like tuna and chicken and to win over new consumers, especially women in the 25-49 age demographic (see a good NY Times summary here).

This time around, the Pork Board is going back to its base.  Noting that 28% of American households make up for 70% of the at-home pork consumption, they're looking to get those loyal pig-eaters to incorporate it into more meals.  The "Don't Be Blah" campaign downplayed the meat itself, focusing on people and lifestyle instead.  In the reboot, they're getting back to the food itself, with print ads showing a pulled pork sandwich piled high on a bun and a freshly sliced roasted pork loin (see examples on the campaign's official website).

While I have to say this new approach sounds more likely to succeed, it's hard to miss the irony.  After all, here's an industry that self-consciously bred pigs to be leaner and grow ready to slaughter faster and, at the same time, used a remarkably successful campaign to convince people that pork is really a lot more like chicken than beef.  And now they're spending millions of dollars to convince consumers that their products aren't boring.

A quick side-by-side taste test of a pork chop or roast from the typical factory-farmed pig against one from a pasture-raised heritage breed like Tamworth or Berkshire shows the remarkable difference between today's "white" meat and the good old-fashioned red kind.  Today's pigs have an estimated 50% less fat than pigs of the 1950s, which may have seemed like a good idea back when beef was getting shellacked by nutritionists for its high saturated fat.  But, even though beef sales have declined consistently since 1970, Americans still eat a lot more of it each year than they do pork.  

Here's a modest proposal to help spike those flat pork sales numbers: make it taste good again.  That might help Americans be inspired to eat more of it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Swordfish BBQ

Last weekend I had the onerous task of covering the BBQ, Blues, and Brew event at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.  You can read my account of the event on the City Paper website.  While there, I took some great pics of the two swordfish that were barbecued by Dan Long of Crosby Seafood, but they ended up on the City Paper's cutting room floor--perhaps because, if you aren't totally into the whole "what the hell is that on that BBQ grill?" thing, you might have been a little skeeved out by it.  I myself thought they were alligators when I first got a glimpse of those reptilian snouts sticking out of the smokers and was mightily relieved to find out they were just massive six-foot long fish.

Here they are in all their glory for those who aren't too faint of heart:

The swordfish, for the record, was wrapped in banana leaves, and the resulting big chunks of meat (which were topped with tomato sauce, some sort of olive spread, and grated parmesan) were tender, tender, tender, and only slightly smoky--probably because all that banana leaf protection held in the moisture and kept out a lot of the smoke.  But, of course, I'm just speculating, having never slow-smoked my own banana leaf-wrapped whole swordfish before . . .

Okay, I do have to admit--that big eyeball is pretty damn freaky.  

I'll just sit here watching the email for that notification of my Pulitzer prize for photojournalism.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Soul Food on the Ropes in Chicago

A little while ago, I wrote about the irony of soul food restaurants' struggling in Harlem just as upscale Southern cooking was becoming all trendy down in the lower numbered blocks.  Now, Amy Evans Streeter of the Southern Foodways Alliance reports a similar trend at work in Chicago, though in the Windy City's case there seems to be at least a little bit of a silver lining to the story.


Saturday, March 05, 2011

Putting a Name on Texas Oysters

Robb Walsh, the legendary Texas food writer and now one of the founding members of the Foodways Texas organization, has been actively advocating of late for Texas oystermen to adopt the labeling of their products with place names just like oysters from all over the rest of the country do.  It's become a bit of a controversial stance, but Walsh makes a very compelling case for the practice in this recent blog post.  What I like most about his explanation is not the part about how the places make a difference (which I don't doubt) but rather the effect that having specific place names, as opposed to the generic "Gulf Oysters" appellation, has on the commercial behavior of oyster producers.

Fascinating stuff, and I'll be looking for a dozen Pepper Groves or maybe some Point aux Pins to join the Blue Points and Malpeques at a my local oyster bar very soon.

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