Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No, I Am Not Making This Up

I visited Amazon.com today to look for books.  And here's what I was displayed as recommendations, "Inspired by Your Browsing History."


That recommendation engine is scarily accurate.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Burning with Guilt

As if we all didn't have enough things to get bunged up with guilt about, now, the New York Times reports, we're going to have to worry about our wood-burning fireplaces. I would have assumed this is just a northeastern urban and West Coast phenomena, especially since it's the first I've heard of "fireplace guilt", but the article quotes a woman from Boone, North Carolina (admittedly, a "public relations executive"), so it seems to be heading our way, too.

The fireplace I can certainly do without, considering that at my previous house I never once built a fire the whole time I was there and in my current one we have gas logs that haven't been lit in over a year because the propane ran out and it's not really worth the expense of refilling the big tank.

But, don't you dare come gunning after this baby:



It burns logs.  Real ones.  And for twelve hours or more at a time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Barbecue: Woeful Lapses Addresed

I received an email from Barry Foy recently taking me to task for some "embarrassing gaps" in my knowledge of barbecue.  The esteemed Mr. Foy, it seems, admits that I turned up some good material in my research for Barbecue: the History of an American Institution, but that when it came to the meaning and derivation of the word itself my scholarship was grievously lacking.  And he should know, being the author of The Devil's Food Dictionary: A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies.

Mr. Foy was kind enough to set me straight with a few definitive definitions, which I will be sure to work into the revised and expanded edition that my publisher will no doubt ask me to just as soon as I get those movie rights sold. (Note to Hollywood agents: when you do come knocking at my door demanding to handle the disposition of said rights, please form an ordely line out on my stoop and sidewalk and, please, no shoving.)

Here's the straight dope from The Devil's Food Dictionary:

BARBECUE: An extremely vague term for one or another of several approaches to cooking one or another type of food, usually meat except when it is something else, which make use of one or another cooking technique that most often involves smoke, though not always, and in which a sauce of one sort or another plays either an essential, a prominent, or a negligible role. Barbecue has a nearly fanatical following in North America, particularly in the southern United States, where it carries a lore rich in history, culture, and the sort of factionalism that often leads to gunplay. History documents some legendary feuds over what constituted 'authentic' barbecue, most of which ended with the victors roasting their vanquished enemies on spits over hickory, cherry, or mesquite embers (depending on where the conflict took place), then basting or dipping them in a sauce that was either sweet, vinegary, or spicy (also depending on location), and serving them with sliced white bread at stock-car races."
Now while this might seem to be the last word on the subject, if you check out the “I” chapter you’ll find the following:

I HADN’T FINISHED TALKING ABOUT BARBECUE YET: In conclusion, every American forms a specific mental image at the mention of the word 'barbecue,' but research shows that no two such images are alike. Nonetheless, expert opinion is unanimous on at least the following points: 1) the word 'barbecue' derives from the Spanish barbacoa, which comes from a Taino Indian word…unless it comes from the French de la barbe √† queue or barbaque; 2) real barbecue is made only with pork, only with beef, only with mutton, or only with chicken, except when it is made with armadillos, rattlesnakes, tofu, etc.; 3) only one type of wood produces the right smoke for barbecue, except for certain other types of wood; 4) only Americans cook proper barbecue, except for citizens of countries on every other continent except Antarctica; 5) sauce is merely an optional garnish for real barbecue, except when it is an integral, indispensable component of it; 6) barbecue can be cooked only over hot coals on a spit, except when it is cooked on a grill over gas flames with the addition of wood chips, or in an oven or pressure cooker after a basting with liquid smoke; 7) producing good barbecue is a complicated and time-consuming process, except when it is so simple that an eight-year-old could do it in less than forty-five minutes.

And I think that pretty much clears everything up.  If you've not read The Devil's Food Dictionary (which I've been a fan of since its blog days back before it was published in book form),  you're missing out.  Where else will you find definitions like these: "Pear: Perhaps the only fruit famous enough to be shaped like itself." Or, "Aspic: . . . once a common technique in French cuisine; regrettably, everyone who remembered why has now passed away."

I stand corrected!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Shrinking South?

The Washington Post reports that D.C. is rapidly losing its Southernness.  And it's not just the District of Columbia alone but a large portion of northeastern Virginian.  Some noted Virginians seem ready to throw in the Southern towel altogether.  "I do think we've reached a critical mass of some kind," the Post quotes 72-year old former state senator Russell Potts as saying.  "We're not a real Southern state anymore."

Historians and linguists agree that the northern boundary of the South has moved somewhere down around Richmond which, perhaps not coincidentally, is where researchers have also drawn the "sweet tea line", a demarcation of where restaurants stop offering sweet tea to customers.  (Though, it seems, McDonald's is now doing what it can to break down this barrier by offering sweet tea nationwide.)

It is a curious evolution, for though Virginia still maintains its long, rich tradition of Southern country hams, its once-famed barbecue culture  (as I've discussed before) has long since faded into obscurity.

I, however, am not one to despair, for I contend whole heartedly that the state of Florida--which most commentators routinely write off as not Southern at all--is in fact one of the most Southern states we have.  Anyone who doubts that fact should try barbecue at Shorty's in Miami or Bono's in Jacksonville, Florida, or spend a football weekend in Tallahassee.  Or, pick up Diane Roberts's splendid book Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife, which I am about midway through reading and recommend highly for anyone who wants to get a feel for both the history and contemporary reality of the state of Florida.  Or, for that matter, just to have a rip-roaring good laugh, for she is wickedly funny.

If everyone out there would just agree with my contention, then we'd pick up Florida right off the bat and that would more than offset any geography lost by the defection of northern Virginia.

And, anyway, the rumors of the demise of the Southernness of Virginia may be greatly exaggerated to begin with.  What better to trust than the food we eat?  Safeway grocery stores, the Post reports, says that the group of its stores located between Culpeper, Virginia, and Frederick, Maryland, "posts the company's biggest sales of such regional offerings as fried chicken, ham hocks and other 'country meats,' collard greens and sweet potatoes."

So I say the jury is still out.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Planter's Punch: the History--In Verse

The Charleston City Paper just ran a piece I did on the history of Planter's Punch, for which I turned up some new historical material that I've never seen anyone else discuss.

It is often claimed that Planter's Punch was created right here in Charleston. The potent concoction of rum, sugar, and citrus was the specialty of the house at the Planters Hotel in the 19th century, and it went on from there to gain national fame. Or so the story goes. Unfortunately, it's not true.
The Planters Hotel was indeed a famous antebellum establishment. It opened in 1809, when Alexander Calder converted the old Dock Street Theatre into a hotel, and it became the favorite resort for rice planters when they came into the city for the winter. The hotel was well known for its imbibing client√®le: a British visitor who stayed there in the 1830s noted that during dinner "very little wine is drank, and rather too much brandy." But there's not a shred of evidence that its bar ever served a beverage called Planter's Punch. That association seems to have been made in recent years based solely on the name of the hotel itself. 

See the City Paper for the whole story. 

I managed to turn up not just a couple of old Planter's Punch recipes but old recipes in verse!  

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