Friday, November 15, 2013

Barbecue "Innovations"

Daniel Vaughn has a nice post over at TMBBQ offering a Concise History of American BBQ Innovations. I might quibble with a few of them. For instance, while cattle may have made it to the American mainland a few years before pigs, it would be ludicrous to claim that beef as a "BBQ innovation" antedated pork, considering that in almost all barbecue accounts before the 1770s pig is the animal almost universally mentioned.

But, the rest are pretty good. Two that didn't make the list are backyard "barbecues" (what we in the South call cooking or grilling) and barbecue restaurants. The Luddite resistance to the first is quite common, but almost no one these days objects to barbecue restaurants.

Not so back in the mid-20th centuries, when barbecue stands and restaurants ruled the American highway. Check out the clip below from Rufus Jarman's "Dixie's Most Disputed Dish", which appeared in the July 3, 1954 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Being a Luddite about barbecue traditions, it seems, is itself an enduring barbecue tradition. And, yet, barbecue has always continued to evolve right along anyway.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Downfall of "the Walkist"

Edward Payson Weston, the Celebrated Walkist
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints
& Photographs Division
One of the most delightful things about doing historic research in old newspaper archives is that you sometimes stumble across gems of a story like this one from the Daily Eastern Argus of Portland, Maine, about Edward Payson Weston, the reknowned "Walkist."

Weston, it seems, in 1867 set a record by walking from Portland to Chicago, covering 1,220 miles in 30 consecutive days, if you don't count the Sundays, on which he rested, it being the 19th century.

In July of 1868, Weston attempted a new feat of walking when he attempted to walk 50 miles in eleven hours before a crowd of onlookers in Forest City Park. Weston got off to good start, walking a 25 miles at a brisk pace between 8 am and noon, but then trouble set in.

"He wasted rather unwisely 10 to 15 minutes that afterwards were badly wanted," the Daily Eastern Argus reported, "and partook too heavily of crackers and iced tea, which made him feel somewhat indisposed. He recommenced with great confidence and after a few miles indulged in a cigar, which had an unfavorable effect in his then excited and somewhat peculiar condition."

Weston recovered once again, though, and resumed his pace, though he was slowed in the end by a leg injury. He finished his fifty miles in 11 hours, six and a half minutes, missing his goal by just a tiny margin.

So, here's a little advice to you would-be marathon walkers: lay off the iced tea and cigars.

As for Weston, he went onto greater fame, becoming "the Father of Modern Pedestrianism" and, if you can believe it, making a career as a professional walker. He performed pedestrian feats across the United States--including strolling from New York to San Francisco in 100 days--and toured Europe on numerous occasions, taking on the continent's most feared race walkers.

If this isn't enough to satisfy your interest, check out the recently-published biography by Helen Harris, Paul Marshall, and Nick Harris in A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Edward Payson Weston (2012)

I found this story, by the way, while researching the history of iced tea. Go figure.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Wasabi Peas in the Business Traveler's Hotel Bar

So, I decided to grab a nightcap at my business traveler's hotel before turning in for the night. It was crowded in the bar area, but I found an empty stool and sat down at the bar, scanned the shelf behind it, and noted the usual suspects--Jack, Jim Beam, Cuervo Gold, Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, etc. And then I noticed the little white snack tray on the bar, left over from the patron before me, it seemed, for it was only half-full.

And what it was half full of was little spicy green wasabi peas.

"Well, that's different," I thought. You don't often see spicy wasabi peas served as a bar snack in your standard issue business traveler's hotel bar.

Just then, a two-top opened up at the edge of the bar area, and I abandoned my stool to sit there, a little more comfortable and further away from the flat screens blaring sporting events I didn't care about. And there, on the little round table, next to the table tent of drink specials and a stray napkin, was another little white bowl of wasabi peas, also half-empty and, I could only assume, left behind by my departing predecessors.

The waitress whisked away the napkin and the leftover bowl of wasabi peas, then came back over a few minutes later with a cocktail menu and a fresh bowl of . . . not wasabi peas, but mixed nuts--almonds, cashews, peanuts, and, mixed evenly throughout, a generous sprinkling of green wasabi peas.

And then I got it. Every single patron in the bar was being served a little bowl of mixed nuts that includes wasabi peas. And every table ate all of the nuts in the bowl except the wasabi peas, which they left behind. And yet, rotely and religiously, the bar staff kept delivering bowl after bowl of nuts with wasabi peas mixed in. I wondered how many months or years that had been going on, the cascades of green peas getting dumped night after night into the trash.

I had been sort of excited about munching a few wasabi peas with my nightcap, but after the first couple of bites the novelty of a salty and blazingly hot snack faded quickly, and I soon found myself picking out the almonds and the cashews and the peanuts.

When I paid my check, I left behind, next to the faux leather holder with the "restaurant's copy" slip inside, a small white bowl half-filled with a beautiful layer of bright green wasabi peas.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Six Weeks? Who Has that Kind of Time?

Robert Sietsema's recent Eater reflections on the current state of restaurant reviewing have sparked a flurry of pieces rethinking the decades-old conventions of the restaurant review. L.V. Anderson, for instance, argued in Slate that restaurant critics should dine on their own nickel instead of expense accounts "to convey what it’s like for a normal schmo to dine at a restaurant." Now, another Slate piece, this one from Luke O'Neil, takes a shot at a different policy: that of waiting 6 to 8 weeks before reviewing a restaurant in order to let it shake out the opening kinks.

O'Neil thinks it's time to 86 that one. Nearly all the arguments for delaying reviewing a restaurant, he claims, "overlook the critic’s primary concern: the reader." He makes some interesting points, but ultimately I don't buy 'em. Here's a few of his points and my reaction:

"We review early drafts of various art projects all the time."Writers write about leaked music demos, rough drafts of books, and rough cuts of movies all the time, and why should restaurants be any different? 

O'Neil here, I think, undercuts his own argument by talking about books and movies. No one writes full-length critiques of a novel based upon reading a first draft and no one writes full-length movie reviews based upon watching pre-edited rushes (I'm struggling to think if I've ever even seen such animals before). Sure, lots of buzz and talk and hype spreads around leaked sneak peeks, but I would bet most of us still want our reviewers to critique the finished product.   

We already do the exact same thing with restaurants. There are any number of "previews"--touring the restaurant weeks before opening when the construction is still underway--and "first looks" based upon a soft opening night or media invites. The bigger the name of the chef or owner opening the spot, the more intense and breathless the early looks are.

Restaurants should have the kinks worked out in advance. "It's not as though opening night is the first time the chef and team of cooks have cooked, or the servers served, or the bartenders mixed drinks," O'Neil argues. He uses the analogy that we wouldn't expect a sports team to forget how to play the game when it plays for the first time in a new stadium.

That sports analogy might work if you are talking about a restaurant moving from one location to another, but not for a brand new restaurant opening up. A better analogy would be a bunch of experienced professional athletes playing together for the first time on a brand new team. How many expansion teams have a winning record their first season? Almost none, and it routinely takes years for one to win any sort of championship. 

Analogies aside, anyone in the restaurant business will tell you that there are countless changes and adjustments made in the first few weeks. Restaurants are different from theatre productions, where the whole troupe rehearses for six to eight weeks before opening. One thing you can be pretty sure of: no matter how experienced and professional the staff is, if you want to experience a new restaurant at its best, wait a couple of weeks before visiting.      

3. "Is the money of the first few hundreds or thousands of people to buy a ticket or make a reservation worth less than the people who see a play or visit a restaurant after it’s hit its stride?" 

We could turn that one around, I suppose, and ask whether the money of the remaining thousands of diners is worth less than that of the first few hundred.

The reality of the business is that once a restaurant has been reviewed by a publication, it isn't going to get another review from them for quite some time--typically several years, and often only then if there's a significant change like a new chef or a thorough menu redesign. That initial review is going to be online for potential diners to find, linked to by Yelp and other sites, and pop up in search engines for quite a long time to come. 

All told, the more I think about O'Neil's arguments, the more insulting they seem to chefs and restaurateurs. He's pretty much saying that if a restaurant can't perform flawlessly on the first night, it's a failing on the part of the owner and the staff, who should be more professional. And, his closing assertion is laughable: "if you’re not ready to let critics form impressions about your restaurant, then maybe you're not ready to charge full price for what you're selling." What?      

I think O'Neil is right on one overarching point: that the primary concern of the reviewer should be for the readers and for providing them with useful critiques to help them pick where to eat. Readers will have to ask themselves whether they would prefer to read a review that's based upon an experience that very likely is going to change--perhaps even change dramatically--in a week or two or wait a few weeks in order to get a more solid, accurate assessment.  

But really, is this even a problem at all? Is there any shortage of information and opinions and buzz right now about new restaurants opening up? Is the dining public out there wandering around helplessly, wondering if they should eat at that new Indaco place or not (which, by the way, had a few opening week adjustments of its own)? If only there was an intrepid restaurant reviewer who would be brave enough to knock out an in-depth review the day after opening night!

Plenty of readers complain today about the sped up, buzz-driven, Cronut-obsessed nature of restaurant coverage in the media. Clearly, there are plenty more readers who eat such coverage up. The one thing I've never once heard anyone say, though, is "I wish you guys would review restaurants more quickly." 

There is plenty of reason to wonder, in an age of Twitter pics and instant Yelp reviews and hourly Eater posts--not to mention the never-ending hemorrhaging of traditional newspapers' budgets--whether the long, formal restaurant review will still be around a decade from now. One thing I'm pretty certain of, though, is that the way to keep it alive amid competition from the newer, faster, buzz-driven Internet forms is not to blindly try to ape them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bad Economics Doesn't Help Anyone

UPDATE July 30, 2013, 11:05 pm: Since the article I discuss here originally ran, HuffPo has added a correction at the bottom that the "researcher" in question is actually registered as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. As yet, no substantive changes to the general thesis of the story, though. has also updated their story, tacking on 3 paragraphs at the end in which a UK economics professor splashes a little cold water on the undergraduate's "leap of faith."

I would like to start this off by stating that I fully support raising the minimum wage and that I am not comfortable with the notion that the median hourly pay for a fast food worker is less than $9.00 an hour (which translates to around $18,000 a year for a full-time employee).

And it's for this very reason that ledes like this one from the Huffington Post raise my hackles: "McDonald's can afford to pay its workers a living wage without sacrificing any of its low menu prices." Their source for this sweeping statement is "a new study" provided to them by "a University of Kansas researcher." 

That "researcher," it turns out, is a research assistant at the University of Kansas School of Business. One assumes that he is still in training and has not yet learned how to read an annual report much less how corporate finance operates. The mistakes of a student are understandable. What isn't so understandable is why paid journalists (even poorly paid online journalists) don't bother to do a basic fact check on it.

If you take the six seconds required to pull up McDonald's 2012 Annual Report, you can see exactly where the "researcher" got his numbers. They're on page 28, the consolidated statement of income. McDonalds' total revenues for 2012 were $27.567 million. Later in the same chart, the line item for "Payroll & employee benefits" is $4.71 million. Divide payroll expense by total revenues and you get 17%, which is the number the "researcher" used for the argument that you could double wages and only have to increase menu prices by 17%.

Here's problem #1 with that thesis: he used the wrong revenue number. McDonalds doesn't own all its restaurants. Most are franchised. The salary expense figures used in the "study" are for company-operated restaurants, while the revenue number is for the whole company, which includes fees from franchisees. If you do the same math exercise with just the revenue figure for the company-owned restaurants (which is $18.6 million and is available right there on the same income statement), you see that payroll and benefits makes up 25% of the revenue from company-owned restaurants.

So, the whole "study" starts with an elementary mistake, but it's a supremely flawed premise in the first place, as if a corporation is machine which you can steer just by pushing a couple of levers. It assumes that the price of food is inelastic and that you can just blindly raise prices 17% and not see a fall off in demand, because it's "just 68 cents per Big Mac" (or, $1.01 per Big Mac if you use the 25% figure.)

And yet other outlets like (who one would think understood corporate financials better) have started picking up the same report and publishing it without a bit of scrutiny. In fact, their description of what the "researcher" did sounds pretty impressive: "he did some financial modeling based on McDonald’s annual reports and data sets submitted to investors." This "modeling" involves, basically, dividing two numbers, one of them the wrong one.

Ultimately, "analysis" like this is so simplistic and reductive as to be meaningless. It makes a great splashy headline, but it implies that the problems of wage inequality and affordable food is black-and-white simple: if these damn corporations just stopped being so greedy all the problems would go away.

But it's not that simple. Since the 1950s, the fast food industry has been defined by a low-margin, cost cutting model with cut-throat price pressure from the market. And consumers, literally, have been eating it up. The notion that there's so much headroom lying around in the financials that companies could simply double their labor costs is laughably naive.

I think it galls me so much because I'm on the side of the people who want fast food workers to make more money (and for fast food quality to be much better, too.) And, there are some very interesting and dedicated people out there trying to make that happen. I've written about a few of these folks in the past, like Nick Pihakis of Jim 'n Nick's BBQ, and I've got a lot more stories in the works.

It's not as simple as us all just paying 68 cents more for a Big Mac, but for me, at least, it's a lot more promising because it's a future that might actually happen. I'll take a look at some of the practical things that could happen in a couple of future posts.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Staying Sober, 1830s Style

In 1830, the Macon Weekly Telegraph of Macon, Georgia, printed a letter under the perhaps not totally accurate headline “Temperance”, advising the newspaper’s readers on how to avoid drunkenness. Signed, “A Friend to Temperance,” the letter’s author revealed that he fell into his former drunken ways by “taking a dram in the morning” on the recommendation of an old neighbor, who was fond of morning drams himself. 

“I was told that a glass of bitters before breakfast was an excellent thing to give a body an appetite”, the writer related, and admitted that it did indeed make his blood circulate faster and his appetite stronger. So, he adopted the plan and “every morning took my bitters, mint julip, or gin cocktail.” 

Before long he found his appetite so stimulated that he ate breakfast to excess, and by mid-morning, heavy and languid, needed another dram to pick him up. And then another glass before the afternoon dinner, and a few more afterwards, and the next thing he knew he was never sober at any point of the day.

He tried total abstinence on multiple occasions but kept lapsing back to his old ways. The solution? Never take a drop of spirituous liquor before breakfast, nor anytime afterwards on an empty stomach. By keeping to this rule and drinking only after a hearty meal he had been able to avoid drunkenness for over five years. 

Just passing this along as a public service.

“Temperance”, Macon Weekly Telegraph (June 26, 1830), p103

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What are they Cooking in Dubuque Tonight? The New York Times Goes Global

The New York Times' restaurant critic Pete Wells just filed a review of Hog and Hominy, which is not in Manhattan or even Brooklyn but way out in the outer borough of Memphis, Tennessee. It's part of a calculated move. As Wells explained it back in May in a post in the now-defunct Diner's Journal blog, "it’s time for the restaurant critic of The Times to cast a wider net. The Times has been a national paper for years now, and its Web site is seen all around the world."

But, this isn't a move that's limited to the Dining section. The New York Times is making moves across the board to not only making itself a fully national journalistic organ but an international one as well. In the Sports section, for instance, international soccer matches have now displaced baseball from front page coverage, a move that isn't sitting well with everyone.

I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing restaurant reviews from Europe and Asia in the near future, too. It's a curious new direction from one of the lead voices in a publishing world that once famously considered civilization to end at the banks of the Hudson.

I've no strong opinion one way or another about whether this is a change for the better or worse. But, one wonders if such a widening of the focus will serve to highlight the splendid variety of cooking across the country and around the globe or advance the general blurring of regional and national boundaries into a single fusion cuisine that bounces from one hot spot to the next.

Time will tell.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Anatomy of the Tip: Heads in Beds

Jacob Tomsky's (relatively) new memoir Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality is a good read. I plowed through the whole thing in less than 24 hours, which is something I don't do with too many books these days.

In part, it's just good writing. Tomsky manages a deft blend of his personal life story with the insider details of  the hotel industry to keep the thing zipping along, and despite more than his own fair share of hijinks and questionable behavior, he still comes off as quite likable.

As a frequent traveler, none of the behind-the-curtain insights particularly shocked me, but it was good to get the perspective from the other side of the check-in desk. And, I picked up a couple of new tips that I will put to good use on my many more upcoming days on the road. (Boston and Philly coming up this week and, no, I did not book on Expedia.)

More than anything, though, Heads in Beds is a detailed exposition of the ins and outs of the hotel tipping system--what to tip, when, why, and how. And the schemes and intrigues the various hotel staff roles use to extract more of the folding green from patrons, and what the ramifications are when they can't.

There's been a big hullaballoo recently about tipping in restaurants, with a snowball starting to form of people declaring it's time for that ancient practice to be retired. I haven't heard much of anything about the tradition of tipping in hotels, but I bet we will soon (and, per Tomsky, it sounds like the wheeled roll-aboard suitcase is already starting to chip away a bit at that institution.)

More than anything, Tomsky's memoir fueled my lurking sense that, considering all the unintended consequences that spin off from the practice, if tipping in restaurants goes the way of the buffalo, then hotel tipping won't be far behind.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Social Media Peak Hours: Or, Close That Twitter Window and Get Back to Work!

Aren't You Worried He's Watching You?
I long ago noticed, based on the number of posts in my streams and the number of responses I got to my own posts, that the peak hours for social media activity is during the business work day. And, usually I can't stand "infographics", which pack a lot of disparate, hard-to-digest data into a single slickly-designed image.

But, this nice infographic from is actually very useful, and it confirms with hard numbers what I've long suspected: most people are Twittering and Facebooking their day away when they are sitting at their desk in their office, supposedly doing work for whatever company is paying them for their time. Over the weekend, when they have more interesting things to do, it drops off dramatically.

But, here's the kicker I didn't expect: the stats for LinkedIn, the one site that is explicitly work related, show that it gets its highest traffic not during the work day, but rather right before and right after business hours during the work week. Considering the extent to which LinkedIn is used these days in sales and any sort of customer-facing roles (in the consulting game, we look up people on LinkedIn all the time, trying to figure out who they are, where the came from before they joined their current company, to recruit and headhunt, etc., etc.), I would have thought the workday numbers would be much higher.

Perhaps those LinkedIn users are logging in around 5 in a bit of a panic, trying to shore up their professional network in case they get fired because they just wasted the whole day on Facebook.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Is Lardcore Finished?

How're the pork belly futures looking?
So, I asked Josh Ozersky whether he thought the pork-heavy, ingredients-centric Southern movement he dubbed "lardcore", and he answered on Esquire's Eat-Like-a-Man blog. His take:
Lardcore is the biggest and most meaningful movement to come along since farm-to-table came along in the late '70s. It isn't going anywhere.
Just three days later, Liz Gunnison of the Wall Street Journal fired back with this plea:
God willing, 2013 will go down in history as the year chefs emerged from the haze of fat-forward cooking, rubbed the lard from their eyes and discovered all the flavor they were missing. . . . The cooking aesthetic I'm talking about is summed up quite evocatively in a term coined a couple of years ago by the food writer Josh Ozersky: lardcore.
For starters, I don't think Gunnison fully gets the lardcore concept. Yes, bacon and pork fat play a prominent role in lardcore (hence the name), but it's not all about fat. It's about an obsessive focus on ingredients--especially almost-lost heirloom ones--and the intensity of their flavor and traditional ways of cooking, too.

Gunnison references "the rivers of butter and cream that course through these meals unseen," but that doesn't seem a particular "lardcore" feature. That's much more the legacy of the high French cuisine that still influences so much of modern restaurant cooking.

The very counter-trend that Gunnison is laying out is very much inline with the lardcore aesthetic: cooking good carrots sous-vide to intensify their flavor, using protein-rich meat stocks rather than butter- and flour-thickened sauces, looking toward grass-fed beef, fish, game bird and game meats like venison with "earthy complexity". If you heard that Sean Brock or any of the other leading "lardcore" chefs were doing these things (and, in fact, they all are), it wouldn't surprise you a bit. Yes, at Gunshow, Kevin Gillespie's month-old Atlanta restaurant, he is wowing guests with pork skin risotto, but it appears alongside first-of-the-season peaches with asparagus and feta and alongside trout with corn mousseline and shrimp salad.

But, somehow the high-Southern cooking movement has been conflated in the popular imagination with things like the Bacon Explosion and the scandalous portions of butter and cream in Paula Deen's recipes.

I've been waiting for the lardcore backlash to come. Perhaps now it's on the way.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Southern Food & Drink: the Week in Review (June 3 - June 9)

Southern BBQ Takes Manhattan: An all-star squad of Southern barbecue kings dragged their rigs all the way up to Madison Square Park in New York City so the city folks could get a proper taste of whole hog. The occasion was the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party 2013, and notable cooks included, to name just a few, Jimmy Hagood (BlackJack BBQ, Charleston, SC), Sam Jones (Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC), Chris Lilly (Big Bob Gibson's, Decatur, AL), Pat Martin (Martin's, Nashville, TN), Ed Mitchell (Raleigh, NC), Drew Robinson (Jim N' Nicks, Birmingham, AL), and Rodney Scott (Scott's, Hemingway, SC).

Fish Tales: Ken Vedrinski of Charleston's Trattoria Lucca has opened a second restaurant, Coda del Pesca, north of town on the Isle of Palms. Serious seafood and pasta with something very rare in Charleston: oceanfront dining.

Gunshow Swooning: Down in Atlanta, initial reviews of Kevin Gillespie's new dim sum-meets-lardcore restaurant Gunshow are starting to roll in. Josh Ozersky penned a "Love Letter to Atlanta" that gives a nice, brief snapshot on what's happening in that city these days, including his praise for Gunshow. Cliff Bostock in Creative Loafing gave it high marks in his first look, too. Pork skin risotto, anyone?

Pic of the Week: Rodney Scott gave some barbecue lessons to Fox News Sunday. Word is they did a pretty good job with the mopping, except that most of the sauce ended up on the pig's right side.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Food Talk: How We Say It In These Parts

Josh Katz, a graduate student at in the Statistics Department at NC State, has put together "Beyond 'Soda, Pop, or Coke'", a dramatic site visualizing geographic difference in dialect that has stirred up a good bit of buzz on the Interwebs in the past few days. After having spent way more time than I intended clicking through all the maps, I've put together this meta-study if you will of what Katz and Bert Vaux's data tells us about the way we say stuff about food around here.

My findings about South Carolina:
  • We eat "man-aze" on our sandwiches, and we have no problem putting a little "slaw" on them. 
  • Despite the fact that Charleston has  a wonderful downtown joint called "Dave's Carry-Out", almost nobody in uses "carry-out" as a generic term for "take-out"food.
  • We have never heard of such a thing as a drive-through liquor store.
  • We seem divided on whether we like PEE-can or pee-KAHN pie for dessert, though if we drizzle a sweet topping on we'll call it "carra-mel sir-up".
  • We're just as likely to wash that pie down with a soda as we are with a Coke. (Mississippi, it turns out, is the hotbed of calling all carbonated beverages "cokes")

In the "who knew" category:
  • A lot of people around Kansas City apparently put "vinegar and oil" on their salads (instead of "oil and vinegar")
  • The use of "supper" to refer to the evening meal (and "dinner" to refer to the midday one) is not more prevalent in the South than the rest of the country. If anywhere is the hot-bed of eating supper, it's North and South Dakota. Nobody in California, on the other hand, ever eats supper--probably because the traffic is so bad on "the 5" that time of day that they'd never get there.
  • In Tidewater Virginia, they call drive through liquor stores "brew thrus"
  • When they want to get the front seat on the way to a restaurant, a lot of folks in Iowa shout "dibs" instead of "shotgun"
  • If you call a shopping cart a "buggy", you can rest assured that you are in the South. 

Friday, June 07, 2013

Introducing the Unexpurgated History of the Sazerac Cocktail

I am fast at work on my latest project, which is a history of booze in the South. In the course of the research, I dug deep into the history of the classic New Orleans cocktails, including the Sazerac.

It's a bizarrely complicated tale, and just uncovering the real story was sort of a step-by-step drama in itself, running down leads and discovering many missteps, bad assumptions, and downright wrongness in so many previous accounts of the drink's history.

As I was working on the draft, it kept getting more and more complicated, and I kept having to go back and change details and elaborate as I dug up more information. In the end, the narrative became so long and complicated that I don't think anyone but a few hard-core cocktail buffs would be interested in reading it. I'm trimming it way back and totally recasting it in the book draft, but, in case you are one of those hard-core cocktail buffs, I figured I might go ahead and publish the whole unexpurgated story here on my blog. I've created it as a separate page that you can read here.

Yes, it's long and detailed, but there are a lot of curious twist and turns in it that I found just fascinating. And it made me quite thirsty, too.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

What's the Deal with Restaurant Specials, Anyway?

Last week Michael Pollan dictated seven "Rules for Eating Out" to help hapless patrons navigate the uncertainties of restaurant dining. Predictably, there was backlash, and among the more amusing responses was Josh Ozersky's point by point rejoinder on the Esquire Eat Like a Man blog.

I was particularly struck by Pollan's rule #5: "If there are daily specials, order them. Usually means fresh ingredients and a thoughtful preparation."

Ozersky's response was this: "Specials were invented to get rid of old food. That's the primary 'thought' behind their preparation, and it basically consists of a dollar bill with wings on it."

So which is it? I ran back through my own experience working at restaurants and eating in them, and while I remember some examples of specials meant to use up an item before it went bad, I don't remember anyone ever sending outright bad, spoiled food on the old blue plate. And, there are innumerable examples of chefs who run specials because they get in a particularly good fish that day or have something creative they want to flex their muscles on.

And that's when I had this heretical thought: what the hell difference does it matter? Yes, if you eat a special and end up hugging the commode all night long with food poisoning, then it makes a difference, and you would never go back to that restaurant. But, if you have a brain and listen to the waiter's description and think the special sounds good, and it comes out and tastes good and you enjoy it, isn't that all that matters?

Reductive rules like "always order the special" seems to assume that restaurant patrons are clueless when it comes to how to order. Are we really so uncertain about how to navigate the modern food world that we need lists of easy-to-understand, black-and-white rules to guide us?

The answer, I'm afraid, judging by the popularity of "rules" and "eat-this-not-that" and "10 simple tricks" books and lists, is that we probably are. So I have just one rule to add to the mix: "Trust your tastebuds: you know more than you think you do."

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Southern Food & Drink: The Week in Review (May 27 - June 2)

A lot of pigs and pork in the news this week.

Saving his Bacon: Near-disaster was narrowly averted when Allan Benton's smokehouse in Madisonville, TN, caught fire. As firefighters worked to put out the blaze, Benton and some friends ran inside and saved the bacon, and the ham, too. No word yet on whether the product will be extra smoky for a while.  

Fleer to Asheville: It's official. John Fleer, who made a name for himself at Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, is opening a new restaurant in downtown Asheville, with a focus on Southern cuisine.

Looking East: Asian bakeries are taking off in Atlanta, and The Local Palate rounded up a few.

Shifts & Changes: In Nashville, Strategic Hospitality announced Josh Habiger would transition out as chef at the Catbird Seat to work on new projects, including a restaurant of his own.

This Little Piggy Went to China: Smithfield Food, America's largest hog processor, announced that it is being bought by China's Shuanghui International for $4.7 billion. Environmentalists are worried about the global expansion of factory farming, members of Congress are worried about jobs moving overseas, and the editors at Forbes composed the headline of the week: "US Regulators To Examine Whether Smithfield Foods Sale Is Kosher."

Pic of the Week: Separated at birth? April Bloomfield and Sean Brock

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Southern Food & Drink: The Week in Review

Biscuitology: The 4th Annual International Biscuit Festival, which included its own Southern Food Writing Conference, wrapped up on Sunday. Rebecca Orchant provided a good recap for the Huffington Post.

Cool Season: A cold, wet spring has led to one of the best strawberry crops in years. But, those same cool temperatures have limited the supply soft shell crabs, making them hard to come by in places like New Orleans.

More Husk, More Brock: Husk Nashville, the new Tennessee outpost of the Sean Brock's Charleston restaurant, opened its doors  Wednesday, bringing its much-anticipated all-Southern-ingredients cuisine to the Music City. If that wasn't enough, PBS announced that Brock would be featured alongside New York City's April Bloomfield in the second season of "The Mind of a Chef."

Debt & Infighting: The pink building on Royal Street that has housed legendary New Orleans restaurant Brennan's for over fifty years was sold at auction this week, following years of debt and family infighting. The restaurant remains open while the Brennan family tries to negotiate a lease with the building's new owners.

Roast Beef in Texas: Oh, and some guys down in Texas made a lot of fuss about barbecue. Nobody paid them much attention.

Pic of the Week: Afraid of vampires? Hugh Acheson tracked down just what you need at the Athens farmers market. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I'm Sorry, You're Putting WHAT In Your Pimento Cheese?

A Base for Pimento Cheese?
Around the South, you hear lots of debate over what kind of mayo should be used to make pimento cheese. Some people are loyal to Hellman's, while others insist on homemade mayonnaise. And then there are those who are right and use Duke's.

Apparently there are people in Boston, though, who  don't have much respect for mayo and instead are making pimento cheese out of . . . wait for it . . . plain yogurt.

That, at least, is what the folks at the Boston Globe are recommending in their "Recipe for Southern pimento cheese."

Sounds like a recipe for an argument to me.

Of course, if you look back at the long history of pimento cheese, perhaps using a little yogurt isn't so much of departure. The original version consisted of just plain cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese with minced pimentos mixed in it--no mayo, no cheddar, no lemon juice or cayenne pepper or other secret ingredients. (You can find the full, somewhat scandalous history of pimento cheese in my collection Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining.)

The yogurt, the Globe's recipe writer suggests, is "lighter" and "tangier". Turns out that they're not alone. A Google search reveals any number of "guilt-free pimento cheese" recipes that substitute plain yogurt (often Green yogurt) for good old mayo.

I don't know. Something tells me that if I served my guests pimento cheese made with yogurt, I would have plenty to feel guilty about.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again . . . Or Is It the Other Way Around?

So, over the weekend, Josh Ozersky pounded out a bit of a humdinger for the Wall Street Journal entitled "The New Barbecue", in which he profiled several upstart chefs who are taking on what he calls "the sacred cow of barbecue", a tradition he feels has "become so stagnant and so dogmatic that many pit masters haven't changed their recipes or routines in decades."

He praises Tim Rattray at San Antonio's Granary 'Cue & Brew for unmistakably modern dishes like Moroccan lamb shoulder on preserved lemon couscous. He gives an admiring nod to Tim Byers' coffee-cured brisket at Smoke in Dallas and Andy Husbands' smoked duck confit po boys at Tremont 647 in Boston.

As one might expect, there's was an immediate backlash. Daniel Vaughn, ardent champion of brisket and author of the just-released Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, traded Twitter barbs with Ozersky, including "You say stagnant and dogmatic, while I say traditional and reverent" and "100 year old techniques have lasted because they don't require improvement."

North Carolina blogger Porky LeSwine (a.k.a BBQJew) weighed in, too, labeling Ozersky's effort "a truly idiotic piece of writing" based upon "a startling lack of understanding of what barbecue is and what makes it great--tradition, family recipes refined over generations, simple techniques that render (literally) exquisite meat."

I suppose my view has a bit longer lens. The controversy brought to my mind a passage in an article that Rufus Jarman wrote for The Saturday Evening Post back in 1954, in which he described the reactions of barbecue purists to the rising tide of barbecue restaurants. These purists still held to the old 19th century tradition of barbecue as a gigantic outdoor event where hundreds if not thousands gathered to dine on whole animals cooked over a pit dug in the ground.

As Jarman reports, the new-fangled restaurant style of barbecue--the very "tradition" that Vaughn and LeSwine  so passionately defend today--struck the old timers in the 1950s as "an insult to the honorable name of barbecue", amounting to "an underdone pork roast served with a sauce so hot and bitter that the victim can't tell what he is eating."

Change has never come easy in the three-century history of American barbecue, but it has come all the same. I'm not quite sure I'm ready for a plate of beef shoulder garnished with coffee-laced quinoa and pickled celery, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's a harbinger of even more radical innovations to come.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls, Chicken and Waffles. It Tolls For You.

Chicken and Waffles from the Rarebit
And, speaking of the fading of pork fat's star, one can only wonder how much longer Charleston's recent crush on chicken-and-waffles will last.

Clearly an invention from far off (there's contention over whether Atlanta or Harlem is the true birthplace), fried chicken and waffles snuck their way into Charleston less than a decade ago, with A.C.'s Bar & Grill being perhaps the first local purveyor.

Suddenly, a year or so ago, they started popping up everywhere. Early Bird Diner, true to its name, got early attention for theirs, even getting the full-on food porn treatment from Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The first plate I had in Charleston was from the Rarebit, and I found them pretty good. Fuel, Lowcountry Bistro, Liberty Tap Room, and Poogan's Porch all serve them on their brunch menus. And there's more coming, like the soon-to-launch Kitchen 208, which will feature a chicken and waffle sandwich.

There's nothing wrong with a good plate of chicken and waffles, but I think it's just because fried chicken is good and waffles are good. I've not experienced any sort of magic synergy between the two, despite the combination's apparent ability to send so many diners into rapturous odes.

Will they prove to have legs? Time will tell, but I'm skeptical.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The (Re)-Emergence of Yankee 'Cue

Curtis Tuff cooking ribs at Curtis' All-American
Bar-B-Q, Putney, Vermont
A week or so ago, Warren Johnston of the Valley News in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, interviewed me for a piece that just came out on the resurgence of barbecue in New England.

Ten years ago you couldn't find barbecue of any sort in his corner of Vermont and New Hampshire, Johnston reports. Now there are "at least four retail smoke houses, four restaurants and a couple of stands selling barbecue prepared after long hours of slow cooking over low, smoky hardwood fires."

Here's a New England twist that I've not heard of before but seems like a sure-fire winner: cooking over maple wood. Johnston describes the cooker in front of the Route 4 Country store in Quechee, Vermont, as "wafting maple smoke and the aroma of slow-cooking pork and beef into the air." That's the sort of Yankee ingenuity I can get behind.

For the piece, I provided a little historical background on barbecue in New England, which (believe it or not) actually had a thriving barbecue tradition in the 18th century that totally fell off the map after the American Revolution. Now, after a two-century hiatus, it seems to be making its way back.

And now I must go start the planning for my summer roadtrip to the wilds of Vermont and New Hampshire . . .

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Meat of the Moment? Fish

I got a call from a reporter up in the DC area who's working on a story about what the "hot meat" is right now in various food cities around the country. She wanted to know what the meat of the moment was in Charleston. I scratched my head about it for a while and couldn't really come up with anything.

A year or two ago  I would have said, without even batting an eye, "pork, and the fattier the beter!" These days, though, pork fat is definitely on the wane. You can still find chunks of seared pork belly on one menu after another (alongside bowls of shrimp and grits, of course), but the heyday of the pig appears to be behind us.

I was out at The Grocery last night and posed the reporter's question about the hot meat of the moment to chef/owner Kevin Johnson, and he paused over that one for a couple of seconds. "You know," he said finally. "I'm really much more interested in fish and vegetables right now."

That seems to be the trend all over town. The meat of the moment is fish--good, fresh fish plucked straight from local waters. Chefs these days are getting into whole fish cookery the same way, just a few years ago, they were all atwitter about carving up whole hogs.

Skipjack Butchery
A few weeks ago at the Ordinary, chef de cuisine Geoff Rhyne invited me and visiting barbecue writer Daniel Vaughn to witness him butcher a couple of whole skipjacks  just received from Mark Marhefka. In addition to carving off long, dark red, tuna-like loins, Rhyne told us with unmistakable excitement how they would use the collars and the heads to create all sort of new and wonderful treats.

Vaughn, the newly named Barbecue Editor for Texas Monthly and the author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, is a man who knows a thing or two about beef and pork, but even he was impressed with the skipjack.

 Fish is the new pork fat. You heard it here first.     

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Resigning from the Club

A Pernicious Double Decker Club
Just Waiting for Its Next Victim
This month, Adam Rapoport of Bon Appetit devoted his Letter from the Editor to a celebration of the classic club sandwich. Specifically, he expounds upon the soothing effect a club sandwich has on a weary traveler who, after days or even weeks on the road, is ready to put aside adventurous eating for a night and just relax.

Being a frequent traveler myself, I am totally familiar with that inevitable need for a little break from novelty. (I just wrote about it, in fact, in this review of the Meeting Room at the new Holiday Inn Historic District in Charleston). And a meal from the hotel restaurant is often just what the doctor ordered.

That said, I have to take issue with selecting a club sandwich in such circumstance. In fact, I have quite a few grievances against the club sandwich in general.

Let's start with the toasted bread. Rapoport does, in his defense, specify that the bread needs to be "lightly toasted" so it stays pliant. But, invariably, it's toasted pretty darn crisp and, thanks to the double decker stack, not only are there three slices but the whole thing rises up so high and that it's all but guaranteed to scrape the top of your mouth to ribbons, leaving a soreness that persists even to the next morning. The crisp bacon only exasperates things. (I meant to write "exacerbates", but I think "exasperates" captures it pretty nicely, too.)

And, let's talk about this whole slicing the sandwich into four triangles thing, which Rapoport insists upon. I consider the extra slicing a grievous error. Carving your sandwich into quarters--especially a double-decker one--only increases the probability of all the ingredients spilling out when you bite into it, flying directly in the face of Rapoport's own admonition that there not be too many ingredients because "the sandwich shouldn't spill out of the sides when you bite it."

And then there are those frilly toothpicks which earn bonus points from Mr. Rapoport. The mere fact that they are needed indicates a serious problem with sandwich construction. At least fifty percent of the time, it seems to me, as soon as I draw the spears out, the sandwich collapses in a heap before I even get a chance to bite it.

A chaotic, mouth-rending, hair-trigger-crumbling, mess-in-the-lap-making club sandwich is the last thing a business traveler needs to wind down and recharge his or her batteries.

For me, the go-to on-the-road-and-too-tired-to-make-the-effort food are buffalo chicken wings. These are probably even less defensible than a club sandwich, so I won't even try. Not sure if a traveler can find them in Bankok or Milan just yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

In Search of a Great Cheeseburger (Continued)

Sean Brock and I appear to share a common obsession with parsing the nuts and bolts of what makes for a great cheeseburger. Since opening Husk, he's been tweaking and updating his burger, and now Eater National has a rundown of his latest stab at creating the perfect burger.

Most of his elements fly in the face of the typical gourmet "serious burger", for he abjures fancy buns, expensive cheeses, and unusual toppings and focused instead on the interplay of the basic elements.

A Typical Gourmet Burger. Stick a Knife in It.
In particular, I applaud these choices:
  • A moist, soft but durable bun with maximum squish factor
  • Thin griddled patties of 100% chuck beef
  • American damn cheese
  • Simple toppings: just onions and pickles
That's more like it. Old-school burger at Bessingers, Savannah Highway, Charleston.
Not quite a Husk Burger, but in the same ballpark.

Amen, brother. I first weighed in myself on the subject way back in 2006, and reached the following conclusions:
You need enough of a patty to taste meaty, but not one that's so thick that you have to work to chew it. And the bun should be fairly thin, too, so that you don't have to gnaw through three inches of bread to get to substance. The cheese needs to be melted--very melted--so that it almost fuses with the bun and the patty into a single consistent whole.
More recently, I conned my editors at the Charleston City Paper to let me drive around town, eat a bunch of burgers, and then pontificate on the need for a burger reformation:
The next time you dine at the newest burger joint to hang out its shingle, abjure the sultry lure of fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms and bacon jam. Order a plain burger, and skip right past the brie and fontina and insist on good old-fashioned American cheese. If the chef can't press it on the griddle for you before sending it out, make do with your own palm and give it a good solid squish. It'll do you and your burger a world of good.
It's good to know I'm not the only burger nut out there with such heretical opinions. I've not been in to Husk for a burger since Brock's latest round of improvements, but I predict a little late-afternoon snack at the bar very soon.

Update (4/18/2013): In addition to publishing an anatomy of Brock's burger, Eater National has now named the Husk Cheeseburger one of its 38 Essential Burgers Across the Country

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Early Report in On Beer Milkshakes

I pinged John Schumacher of the Charleston RiverDogs to see how the debut of their beer milkshakes went, and here's the tally from opening night at the Joe: total beer milkshake sales around 250. That broke down into about 100 each for the Guinness Caramel and Palmetto Espresso Porter varieties and about 50 for the Sweetwater Strawberry 420. Schu's take: "Not a bad start!"

The buzz (from the media, that is, not from the 7 ounces of beer in the milkshake) is proving to have legs, too. The beer milkshakes, the peanut butter, pepper jelly, and jalapeƱo bacon burger, and the taco dog were just featured in Esquire Magazine's Eat Like a Man blog as well as ESPN's Fandom blog. I'm still waiting for the first national TV news segment, but that's probably just a matter of time.

If the rain holds off, I'm planning on hitting the Joe for the game tonight against the Augusta Greenjackets and see about giving the new shakes a test drive in an actual game environment.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Texas BBQ Sauce's Missing Link?

 Rodney Scott's mop sauce at  Scott's Variety
Store,  Hemingway, SC. Rodney slices lemons
 into his sauce, too.
Daniel Vaughn, the newly named "barbecue editor" of Texas Monthly Magazine and author of the forthcoming book The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, sent me a clipping the other day from a Dallas newspaper from 1937. Piggy-backing off the prospect of visitors from Latin America sampling barbecue at the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exhibition, the writer provides a detailed description of the state of barbecue in Texas in 1937.

Of most interest to me was the description of the sauce. In my own barbecue book, I documented how barbecue sauce in the 19th century was pretty much uniform from Virginia all the way out to Texas, and it was a simple blend of vinger, some sort of fat like lard or butter, salt, and red and black pepper. During the early 20th century, cooks began adding a bunch of other stuff into it, which is how it eventually evolved into the wide variety of high-flavored sauces we enjoy today.

The article Vaughn sent me helps fill in the gaps between old and new versions. It describes barbecue sauce in mid-Texas in the 1930s as follows:
It is made simply of vinegar and hot water, melted butter if the purse allows, or rendered beef suet if not, black and red pepper and salt (pioneer sauce stopped there) and generous dashes of catsup and Worchestershire sauce. Onions and sometimes lemons are sliced into it, and canny masters of the grid thicken it slightly with flour and water as thin gravy is thickened, to hold it smoothly together.
This sauce, or "dip", was used to baste the meat while it cooked, and, the writer notes, it would be served with "pitchers of hot sauce made by pouring a little hot water into leftover dip."

And now I'm hungry for brisket.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Can You Say Wacko Taco?

The shutters on the new Wacko Taco stand will get
unrolled for opening day on April 11th,
Whenever I write one of my less-serious food pieces, like the one that just ran in the City Paper on the Charleston RiverDogs new beer milkshakes, there's always one line that gets me chuckling out loud as I write it. Invariably, that particular line will get immediately stricken from the story by the editor, probably because no one on earth but me would find it funny.

Usually Stephanie Barna is the one who puts the knife in my most beloved wisecracks, but this past week it was managing editor Chris Haire, who was covering the humor-suppressing duties while Barna was out on vacation.

Here's the line as it ran in the paper:

The Nacho House got its walking papers during the off-season, and it's been replaced by Wacko Taco.

Here's how it read in the original draft I submitted:

The Nacho House got its walking papers during the off-season, and it’s been replaced by Wacko Taco, a new stand focused on tacos whose name no one is really sure how to pronounce.

Okay, you're probably not rolling on the floor laughing, either, and looking over it with a little distance, I can definitely see there's a little structural issue with that sentence so that it's not exactly clear if its the name of the stand or the tacos themselves that no one knows how to pronounce.

I meant the stand, of course. You might find it more amusing if you had been with me at the park and realized that no one working for the RiverDogs seems to have a clue how it's supposed to be pronounced. The name "Wacko Taco" looks perfectly reasonable in print, but try saying it out loud a few times yourself.

It's clearly not "Whack-oh Tock-Oh," which is painful to even utter. "Whock-oh Tock-Oh" rhymes but sounds silly. If you say "Whack-oh Tack-oh", you sound like a housewife from Minnesota.

Both of the RiverDogs food and beverage gurus, John Schumacher and Josh Shea, stumbled over it when I asked them how it's pronounced. After butchering a few attempts, they both ended up landing on "Whack-oh Tack-oh," which I supposed is how it will end up being called.

Oh well.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Washington D.C.'s Barbecue Grove

In Barbecue: the History of an American Institution, I wrote a lot about barbecue's long tradition in American political life. In particular, I dug into early 19th century political barbecues, which evolved from a few local candidates speechifying at rural gatherings into massive, well-organized political events, reaching full maturity during the 1840 presidential election pitting William Henry Harrison against Martin Van Buren.

Here's something I didn't come across in all of my research: during the Jackson Administration James Maher, the Superintendent of Capitol Grounds, directed the planting of two patches of "barbecue trees" on the east lawn of the capital. Their purpose? To provide shady groves in which to hold barbecues, one grove for Whigs and one for Democrats.

Joe Haynes, who writes the Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue blog, dug up the story, and his full write up has just been published in Smoke Signals Magazine. It's a splendid illustration of how entrenched a part of 19th century politics barbecue was. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

OK, So Alan Richman and I Don't Exactly See Eye to Eye

I had to chuckle when I read Alan Richman's introductory comments to his 12 Best Restaurants of 2013 piece in Esquire GQ, for they almost completely and directly contradict the entire theme and thesis of the essay I wrote for the Charleston City Paper's Winter Dish issue, which I composed weeks before Richman's piece ran but just came out in the City Paper today.

It's almost like we were debating each other with back and forth salvos without even realizing it. In fact, here's a spliced together version of that debate:

Richman: "We yearn for restaurants that are like us: casual, kindhearted, original, and a little too loud."

Me: "'Hearty comfort food to warm the soul' is leaving mine rather cold."

Richman: "The setting doesn't have to be stylish, and the waiters can put on whatever they want, even the T-shirt they wore the night before [and it's fine with me]"

Me: "We're witnessing an ever-deepening slide into the casual corner with servers' attire and restaurant decor [and that's not a good thing] . . . . Khakis led to blue jeans, oxford shirts are giving way to T-shirts emblazoned with restaurant logos."

Richman: "Deviled eggs with domestic draft beer is the food-and-beverage pairing of 2013."

Me: "When did deviled eggs become fancy restaurant food? You can top them with all the house-smoked bacon and microgreens you want, but it doesn't make them any better than the stuff our moms used to make for picnics, funerals, and other auspicious occasions."

Richman: "Food is plated differently these days. Less often will you come upon meat, potato, and vegetable all together, neatly arranged, occupying the same plate."

Me: "I relish the carefully-composed plate, one that wows you with its visual beauty, then backs up the promise with stunning layers of intense, complex flavors in combinations that you never would have imagined possible."

At least we have this in common: we both think the Ordinary is great. Richman named it one of the 12 best in the country, and I was fulsome in my praise as well, for the same reason: the food's so damn good.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Evolving the Ordinary: The First 6 Weeks

When I interviewed Mike Lata for my recent profile of The Ordinary in the Charleston City Paper, he gave me far more material than I could fit into the piece, including some inside scoop on how the format had evolved during the first few weeks of the restaurant’s being open.

“The menu was the very last thing to come together,” he told me. “There was so much work to do with the rest of the project . . . I told myself I’ll get to the menu when I get to, it, but I’ve been working on the dishes for the past two years at FIG.

“Three weeks before opening we had three menus worth of ideas, and we highlighted what we knew we could execute on. We got open with a pretty small, pretty simple menu. Each day we’ve been open, we’ve added one new thing, or tweaked one thing.”

One of the big things they tweaked is the format of the menu itself. Lata originally planned to offer a single plat du jour that changed daily and came with a salad and dessert, which would fulfill the fixed-priced “ordinary” meal concept (from which the restaurant borrowed its name) and let him keep everything else as a mix-and-match small plate grazing format.

But, a lot of diners struggled to assemble those small-bites that into their familiar pattern of dinner being an appetizer plus a soup or salad plus an entree. Not long after opening day, four larger plates were incorporated into the “Hot” section. A month later, they had been split out into a separate “Mains” section.

Lata is pragmatic about such adjustments. “An idea isn’t worth a damn if you can’t execute it,” he told me. “The most important thing is that each plate we put out is delicious.”

The prices on the menu have also received a mixed reception, and I think it’s the flip side of putting oneself into such a well-defined category. Each diner has their own set of expectations when they hear the term “oyster bar,” especially when it comes to price range.

There are plenty of worthy spots around town where you can knock back a dozen Gulf oysters and couple of beers and get out for under thirty bucks. The Ordinary isn’t one of those places. Its rates are more in line with other fine-dining establishments, which means that unless you just duck in for a bowl of fish chowder and a beer, you’re going to to shell out about the same amount of money as you would at any of the other new high-end places lining King Street.

“It’s a boutique oyster hall,” Lata admits. “We’re curating a list of very noteworthy oysters.” That means working with small regional producers who don’t have the economies of scale that the high-volume boys do. Once the oysters arrive in the kitchen, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing them, too. “We have to cull through them and make sure there’s nothing in them that isn’t ready for the half-shell,” Lata says. The ones that don’t pass muster get fried or baked or incorporated into stews.

That choosiness pays off on the ice-filled tray. Each oyster is flawless, consistent in size, and exceptionally flavorful. Each diner will have to decide for him or herself whether that’s worth paying between $2.50 and $3 per oyster.

I, for one, think the fine dining prices are worth it. As I say in the profile, my dinner at the Ordinary was the best restaurant meal I’ve had in quite some time, and it’s going to be interesting to watch how that format continues to evolve in the upcoming months as Lata, Adam Nemirow, and Brooks Reitz continue to define what it means to be a high-end Lowcountry oyster hall.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Rye Returns to Baltimore

Pikesville Rye Ad from 1937
An Aristocrat in Decline
Last week, I wrote a bit for Garden & Gun in which Doug Atwell, the bar manager at the great Baltimore cocktail bar Rye, concocted a recipe for a local-themed cocktail in honor of the Ravens' trip to the Super Bowl.

As I was chatting to Atwell about the cocktail, I asked him whether he saw rye whiskey making a comeback in Baltimore. I had already written about the rye revival taking place these days in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, and was curious to hear how the old spirit was faring in Charm City. Rye has an even deeper history in Baltimore, which made its fall into near oblivion there all the more dramatic.

Whiskeymaking in Kentucky and Pennsylvania dates back to the colonial era, arriving with the first Scotch-Irish settlers, who brought a deep-rooted culture of grain distilling with them. Distilling arrived much later in Maryland, an outgrowth of the city’s commercial boom after the Civil War.

Gilded Age Baltimore sat at the center of a wide network of trade, and among its many merchant houses were dozens of liquor wholesalers, who bought spirits from inland distilleries (most of them in Pennsylvania) and packaged them for sale to retailers throughout the surrounding region, especially in Virginia and North Carolina. A few of these wholesalers, like Charles H. Ross & Co. and the Gottschalk Company, decided to try their hand at making their own whiskey, and by the 1880s a flourishing local distilling industry was underway.

In Pennsylvania and Kentucky, hundreds of small-scale distilleries existed side-by-side with major industrial producers. In Maryland whiskey production was dominated by a handful of large firms. These distillers may have come late to the game, but their brands--Mount Vernon, Melvale, Monument, Pikesville--became some of the most well-known in the country.

“The best rye,” the journalist, humorist, and cocktail authority Irvin S. Cobb wrote in 1936, “has always come from Maryland, just as the best Bourbon has always come from Kentucky.” Cobb attributed the quality to the state’s “radiantly pure spring water” and the softening presence of limestone conjoined with the skill of the traditional distillers.

Cobb wrote those words as the American whiskey industry was trying to stage a comeback after fourteen years of national Prohibition. Unfortunately for Maryland rye, its best years were already behind it. Most of the old Maryland brands had changed hands during the blackout years, and though they were brought back on the market after Repeal, they never regained their former stature.

Why Maryland’s distilleries failed to recover remains a mystery. Some historians have speculated that in Kentucky, bourbon-making families didn’t know any other trade, so they held onto their buildings and equipment during the dark years and returned to the business once it was legal again. In Maryland, whiskey distilling had always been more of a large-scale commercial venture than a family tradition, no different than selling any other manufactured goods. When Prohibition shut their businesses down, the proprietors moved on to more profitable lines of work and never looked back.

It’s as good of a theory as any. The actual causes may be murky, but the unfortunate results were clear: one by one the old Maryland brands disappeared from the market. By the 1970s Baltimore, once one of the country’s most prominent whiskey towns, had moved on to vodka and gin. In 1972, the final barrel of Pikesville Rye whiskey was filled at the old Majestic Distillery and rolled into a warehouse to age. It was the last barrel of rye whiskey produced in Maryland. The Pikesville brand was sold to a Kentucky distillery, though, in a fitting irony, it’s still sold and consumed almost exclusively in Baltimore.

When Doug Atwell and his partners opened Rye in 2011, the whiskey they named their bar after still languished in obscurity. "There were still people drinking Pikesville,” he told me, “but it was a kind of dive bar thing. Old Baltimoreans would drink it, especially in Fells Point, as shots."

Slowly and steadily, though, more and more of patrons have started returning to rye whiskey, and it’s the classic pre-Prohibition cocktails that are driving them toward it.

When Rye first opened, Atwell told me, they focused on what he called ’nouveau classics’--their own inventions inspired by but riffing upon older recipes. Not too long ago, though, “we put a sidebar on menu for classics like Mahattans and Sazeracs, and we started moving a ton of them. People during the holidays were drinking like their uncles and grandfathers.” Within weeks, their top three top sellers were Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs, all of which are made with rye whiskey.

For Atwell, it’s a satisfying turn of events. “When we opened here in this neighborhood, there were plenty of people who thought we were crazy for doing what we are doing. 'Fells Point, that’s a beer and shot neighborhood',” he says. “Now we’re seeing groups of 25-year-old guys coming in and ordering four Old Fashioneds.”

That’s introducing a whole new generation to the glories of what was once Baltimore’s signature spirit. And it suggest that in the long, proud history of American rye whiskey, there are still plenty of more chapters left to be written.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Dining for the 0.1%?

I wrote the regular essay again for the City Paper's upcoming Dish issue, and this time around I tackled the topic of the increasing tone of informality that's overtaking the fine-dining world,  which led me to wonder why it is that we go out to eat big-ticket meals in the first place. That piece won't hit the streets for another week or two, but the topic of class in dining--high vs. low vs. middle--is still very much in the front of my mind.

And so, I couldn't help notice this line from a not-so-recent (May 2012) piece in the New York Times about superchefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz:

While their restaurants may be accessible only to the world’s 0.1 percent, chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food — not just the way they cook it.
We, of course, have heard a lot about the 1% in the various political debates over the past few years,  and when you move that decimal one more place to the left, it suggests that the folks dining at Keller's and Aduriz's establishments must be among the very rarified elites indeed. You know, the kind that actually own their Gulfstream jets instead of just timesharing them.

But I don't think that's necessarily the case. Yes, only a very slim majority of the population will ever eat at one of these restaurants, but it's not because they're somehow "inaccessible" to ordinary people.

Ordinary middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans, that is. The current prix fixe menu at the French Laundry, Keller's flagship restaurant, is  $270 per person. This is an awful lot of money for a single meal, I concede--more than the annual per capita income in some Third World countries. But, any number of not-super-wealthy Americans regularly shell out that same amount for a deep sea fishing charter or a night at the blackjack tables or a shopping spree to a high-end mall--all of which are one-day treat-yourself-to-a-good-time type of experiences. They are quite accessible experiences for a large number of people . . . assuming, of course, that they highly value that sort of thing.

Several years ago, I was on the road for business with two colleagues, and we got to talking and it turned out that all three of us liked good food and sought out nice restaurants wherever we traveled for work. These were not wealthy one-percenters--middle-management corporate types, yes, but not craven plutocrats sitting atop the financial heap. And yet, as it turned out, both of them had been not only to the French Laundry but to Per Se, too--places I've not yet made it to myself (and, yes, I was duly jealous.)

Only a very narrow sliver of the elite could afford to eat at such high end restaurants on a week-in and week-out basis, but isn't that missing the point? Aren't these supposed to be rare, once-in-a-blue-moon, talk-about-if-for-years experiences, not a regular mode of eating? What ever happened to the concept of the big night out when you throw caution to the wind and just let it rip?

I've belabored the point enough, but what it comes down to is this: in our ongoing conversations about food and ethics, I'm increasingly worried that we don't even even have the terms of the debate right. When it comes to farm-to-table issues, shouldn't we be slugging it out at the daily meal level--at the grocery store and the mid-priced eateries, places with enough volume and scale that it might make a noticeable difference on the market? That's certainly where my attention is increasingly being drawn.

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