Thursday, August 30, 2012

Banh Mi: New Amercian Icon or Flavor-of-the-Month?

This week for the City Paper I undertook a head-to-head bánh mì battle, surveying the various options for the Vietnamese sandwich here in town and, at the insistence of my editor, selecting one as "best in town".

Unlike Southern cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have large Vietnamese immigrant communities, bánh mì is brand new to Charleston, showing up for the first time last year. (Though, after the piece ran, I did hear via Twitter that there used to be an Asian grocery out at Rivers and Remount that sold them back in the early 2000s.) Included in the story is a look at the roundabout way the sandwich traveled from the streets of Saigon to upscale digs on Charleston's King Street, plus some musing on banh mi as an example of the American culinary melting pot at work:
A food starts off as an exotic dish found only in immigrant communities. Then, a few intrepid outsiders stumble upon it. Finally, if all the stars are aligned, it goes mainstream in a big way and, as the years pass, becomes so thoroughly a part of American eating that it's no longer thought of as "ethnic."
Of course, the "stars are aligned" part is the key. The hot dog may have made the journey from exotic "frankfurter sausage" to American icon, but how many other German delicacies didn't?  That gap from ethnic to mainstream is pretty darn wide.

I suppose it’s time for the hipsters to start moaning about shark-jumping and inauthenticity and move on to the next new thing.

In fact, we’re hearing it already. The local versions have raised grumblings over their prices. "Hate they charge $10 for this sandwich!," one reader Tweeted. "It's a $2 sandwich in CA!" And then there are the creative liberties. Short ribs and kimchi on a bánh mì? You’d never find it that way on the streets of Saigon!

Yes, but in some ways that’s just the point. Bánh mì began as a fusion of different food cultures, and it’s only natural that adaptation continues as it moves to new locales. The core palette of bánh mì flavors — the cool, minty cilantro merged with carrot crunch and jalapeño heat — provides a firm platform that can support any number of riffs and variations. Roasted eggplant? Eggs and Canadian bacon? Pulled pork and pickled okra? Heck, why not.

Hot dog partisans argue fiercely over the merits of New York’s mustard-and-kraut version versus the dragged-through-the-garden excess of the Chicago-style dog. No one worries about how they used to serve them in Frankfurt. Perhaps in a few decades, sandwich fans will get just as passionate about the endless variety of traditional American bánh mì. It might just happen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Death of the Entree: Part 2

Four years ago, I declared the death of the entree. Now Pete Wells of The New York Times is trying to bring it back from the dead. "Very few small plates really lend themselves to sharing," he writes in his blog this week. "Either they look like a car crash by the time you’ve divided them in four, or your portion ends up being so small you hardly get to know it before it’s gone." No, what Wells really wants is a good old fashioned large plate entree: "When I really like a dish, and I’m not obsessing about my calorie intake, I tend to want to eat more of it. "

Besha Rodell of the L.A. Weekly took issue with Wells and came to the defense of tapas-style plates:
The tapas trend has done for American dining what no other trend has done, at least not as pervasively, and that is to make eating out more communal and less formal. . . . like Japan and sushi, Spain's way of eating has infiltrated to the point where we claim it as our own. And much like sushi, there will be a period of derision and then it will be such an integral part of our dining culture than people will cease to comment on it at all.
Now, John Kessler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has jumped on the bandwagon, too. He has always liked the smaller sizes as a restaurant reviewer because they allow him to sample more things on a menu. But now, he notes:
Everyone else is starting to eat this way as well. Stick a fork in your main course, and then pass it along. The entree is just about dead. . . .  Now, I’m seeing so many menus that offer a couple dozen starters to consider and then maybe a handful of entrees. I look around and I see forks flying at many of the tables around me.
And here I was thinking I had settled this whole issue four years ago. Back then, I made the case that, after all the variety of a splendid appetizer line-up, an entree is often just a let down. And, unlike Mr. Wells, I'm not so sure having a huge portion of something is such a great thing:

There's an old show business adage that you want to leave the audience not quite satisfied, so they walk out wishing there was just a little bit more. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be the goal for restaurant dining. "I was still hungry when I left," is not an endorsement--it's the kiss of death. 
Maybe it's time to change that. Why shouldn't we leave restaurants wanting just a little bit more rather than feeling so bloated and full that our middles hurt and all we want to do is lay down in a cool, dark room?

My experience over the past four years has done little to change this conviction. In fact, I've noticed again and again entrees that are having to really stretch to be a big, whopping meal: the groaning mounds of mashed potatoes, piles of veggies that taste just fine on bites one and two but get tired and dull after a dozen forkfuls. And those proteins: massive double-cut pork chops, two filets of fish when one would do, half a large chicken. Who eats that much at a single sitting?

I've come not to praise the entree but to bury it. And this time it better stay dead.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dining in the Post-Husk Era: A Few Extras

For the City Paper's Summer Dish issue, I contributed the essay, in which I assess Charleston dining in the post-Husk era and contemplate where we might go next. As is usually the case with such pieces, I had far more material than would fit, and a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Most of it was expendable, but I did regret that there wasn't room for me to talk about some of the more encouraging things going on around town in terms of furthering a distinctive local culinary style. I didn't want the piece to have too negative a note, for as a general matter I'm very bullish on what's going on in Charleston dining these days.

Here's what I originally wrote about some of the positive trends in town:
At the Charleston Grill, Executive Chef Michelle Weaver recently added a fine-dining version of Frogmore Stew to the “Southern” panel of her four-sectioned menu (though I would advocate they rename it “Lowcountry”). There’s also a squab and butterbean appetizer, which hints at another promising trend. The squab is the product of Sumter’s Palmetto Pigeon Plant, for which Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad has long been an advocate. Now Weaver and other chefs, like Mike Lata at FIG, are adding it to their repertoire.
In his Vogue piece [on Charleston dining and Husk in particular], Jeffrey Steingarten singled out the Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake for praise, noting that it is “said to be a Charleston specialty.” I’m not aware of any other Charleston restaurant serving a similar coconut cake, but perhaps they should--and recreate the long-lost Lady Baltimore cake while they’re at it. 
Husk itself is pushing in the right direction on the cocktail front. Yes, its bar established itself early on as a temple of bourbon--that foreign Appalachian import--fetishizing Pappy Van Winkle and stocking 50 other premium brands from Kentucky and Tennessee. But, with an eye to local history, they’ve added a selection of punches, too, including Charleston Light Dragoon Punch, the signature tipple of Charleston’s elite 19th century militia unit. Following a recipe obtained from the Charleston Preservation Society, Husk’s version packs a potent dose of three liquors--brandy, peach brandy, and Jamaican rum--under the cover of black tea, lemon juice, and sugar, and it’s splendid. There’s an offering of Madeira wines, too, right there on the main cocktail menu--a fitting revival of what was once the premier wine of the Lowcountry elite.
 A Light Dragoon Punch at cocktail hour, then Frogmore Stew for dinner followed by coconut cake, all accompanied by a fine old Madeira. Now there's a meal you'll only find in Charleston, SC.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

South Carolina's Earliest Barbecue?

During my research for Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, I pored over countless journals and newspapers and other sources, but I was never able to find a single mention of a barbecue being held in Charleston in the colonial era. And that really surprised me, especially since I turned up a good account of a "barbacue house" and the carousing that went on there just down the coast in Beaufort. It's hard to prove a negative, but eventually I had to conclude that, "Though it was firmly entrenched in the daily life of Virginia planters, barbecue does not seem to have played a significant part in the Lowcountry plantation culture of Charleston, South Carolina."

Now, ironically, while engaged in a completely different line of research (seeking out recipes for rum toddy in the colonial South), I have stumbled across a barbecue reference in Charleston--and very early on, too. It's in an imitation of Horace that was published in London's Gentleman Magazine in 1753, and it was written by one "C.W." residing in Charles Town, South Carolina.

The writer is reveling in the spring, the time at the end of the Charleston season when the planters were wrapping up their business in town and preparing to head back to their rice plantations to begin a new growing year. But first, the poet implored, they should should enjoy themselves a little:
Let's each hold a gen'rous barbicu feast,
And with toddy and punch drink rich wine of the best.
So, perhaps barbecue did have a role in colonial Charleston's social life after all.

The full poem is below:

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