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. 

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