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

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