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.

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