Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gumbo and Cajuns: An Odd Coincidence

As part of a series of pieces for Serious Eats, I've been digging into the history of gumbo. One of the earliest written descriptions can be found in a 1784 issue of a French journal called Observations sur la Physique, which includes an article about the American sassafras plant. In my Serious Eats piece, I discuss that article and what it tells us about gumbo, and I make the point that it establishes that gumbo antedates the arrival of the Cajuns (that is, the French Acadians who were exiled from Acadia in Canada by the British).

There's something quite peculiar about the article, though: its author. He was none other than Henri Peyroux de la Coudrenière. Peyroux was a French politician and author who had spent seven years as a soldier of fortune in Louisiana before returning home to France. He's less known for his writings on American botany than for the ambitious scheme he under took when he got back to France in 1783.

The Acadians were the descendants of the French colonists who who settled in Acadia in Eastern Canada in the 17th century. The British seized the territory in 1710, but the Acadians were allowed to remain there until the Seven Years War (a.k.a, in North America, the French and Indian War) when the British, suspecting the Acadians of aiding the French, booted them out and seized their land and property. Several thousand Acadians were deported to France, and the rest ended up scattered throughout the eastern seaboard of North America. That's where the opportunistic Peyroux comes into the story.  
Angling for a commission and a pension, Peyroux teamed up with Olivier Terrio, an Acadian exile, to coordinate a project to take the Acadians exiled in France and resettle them in  Louisiana. As a result of their efforts, 1,600 Acadians ended up sailing for Louisiana between May and October 1785. Peyroux went to Louisiana along with them, where he profited from his commission as a captain in the Spanish army and promptly screwed over his partner Terrio, refusing to pay him for his services.

Interestingly, Peyroux's article on gumbo was written in 1784, one year before the big wave of Acadians arrived in Louisiana. As it makes clear,gumbo was already being eaten in Louisiana well before they arrived (as my Serious Eats piece documents, gumbo was originally an okra dish of African origins). But, Peyroux, the first to document the dish gumbo in Louisiana, was also largely responsible for bringing the Cajuns to gumbo, and it soon evolved into one of the signature dishes of their culinary culture.    

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Favorite Pimento Cheese Ad

While writing the installment on pimento cheese in my Southern food icons series for Serious Eats, I was reminded of my favorite ad from my collection, which was for Elkhorn Pimento Cheese from the J. L. Kraft & Brothers Company of New York. The best part of all is the little gremlin guy down in the lower right corner, the perfect embodiment of the vogue for industrial food in the early part of the century because of worries about ensure pure, sanitary food.  Click on the ad to enlarge it if you want to read the text, which I think is priceless.

Pimento Cheese Ad, Ladies Home Journal (September 1920)

What We Know About Mrs. Fisher

 I've been researching gumbo for my series on Southern food icons for Serious Eats, and in the process spent some time digging into the story of Abby Fisher. She's the author of a fascinating book called What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, which was published in San Francisco in 1881. For a time Fisher's was thought to be the first published cookbook written by an African-American (that changed when scholars discovered an 1866 pamphlet written by Malinda Russell). It remains an invaluable insight into Southern cooking in the era immediately after the Civil War.
Very little is known about Abby Fisher's life beyond what it appears in her book. Culinary historian Karen Hess filled in the gaps as best as she could in the afterword to the Applewood Books facsimile edition, which was published in 1995, drawing mostly on the 1880 census record in which Fisher and her family appear. I was able to do a little more digging and turn up additional census records and city directory entries from the 1870s the flesh out the story a little more.

Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina, and we can only assume she was born into slavery. The census records list her as “mulatto” and indicate that her mother was born in South Carolina and her father in France. It seems probable, as Hess has suggested, that Fisher was the daughter of a French-born slaveowner and an South Carolina-born slave. 

At some point before the Civil War, the woman who later became Abby Fisher (we do not know her maiden name) wound up in Alabama, where the first four of her eventual eleven children were
born. By 1869, she was living in Mobile with her husband, Alexander C. Fisher, an Alabama-born mulatto minister. In May of that year, Alexander Fisher made deposit in the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Co. on behalf of his young daughter Eliza.

The Fishers stayed in Mobile until around 1876 when, for reasons unknown, they decided to move westward. They were in Missouri at least long enough for their fifth child, Mary, to be born, in 1877, and by 1880 were living in San Francisco, where Abby Fisher made a living as a cook and she and her husband operated a pickle and preserves business.

In 1880, Mrs. Fisher won two medals at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Fair for her pickles, sauces, jellies, and preserves. The next year, apparently due to repeated requests from the customers for whom she cooked, Mrs. Fisher dictated her recipes to a committee of nine residents of San Francisco (her “lady friends and patrons”, as she describes them in her preface.) It was published by the Women's Co-operative Printing Office, which had been founded in 1868 to give female printers a place to work in a male-dominated business.

Notice from San Francisco Bulletin (December 29, 1887)
Not much more is known about Mrs. Fisher's life after her cookbook's publication. City directories and newspapers show that she continued her cooking business at least through the 1890s.
She and her husband appear in the 1900, with his occupation noted as "janitor" and none noted for her. In the 1910 census, by which point both are in their 70s, no occupation is listed for them, though two of their daughter, both in their 30s, are living with them and working as a manicurist and as masseur at a doctor's office. I've not been able to turn up an obituary or death notice for Abby Fisher nor for her husband.

What makes What Mrs. Fisher Knows doubly valuable to culinary historians is that it is one of the earliest cookbooks written by an African-American and, paradoxically, that its author could neither read nor write, a fact she freely admits in the book’s preface.

A great many 19th cookbook authors borrowed recipes from any and all sources, so the fact that a recipe appears in a book published in, say, Kentucky, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an old Kentucky recipe. The author may very well have borrowed it from an English cookbook, and there’s not even a guarantee that he or she had actually tried cooking it.

In Abby Fisher’s case, it is much more likely that a recipe that appears in her book is something she learned to cook during her years in Alabama and South Carolina and that she actually cooked it from memory on a regular basis. And that gives us a very unique and valuable perspective on Southern cooking in the middle part of the 19th century.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

South Carolina has an Official Picnic Cuisine

It somehow managed to fly under the radar of most of the press, but on June 2nd, Governor Nikki Haley signed into law Senate Bill 1136, which declared barbecue to be South Carolina's "official picnic cuisine."

Apparently Haley wasn't persuaded by my arguments against the historical improbabilities of the claim, encoded in the bill, that South Carolina is the "birthplace of barbecue" (Surely she reads the Free Times, right?) In addition to the shakiness of the "birthplace" claim, the other “whereas” clauses in the bill are pretty murky, too.

The second whereas is this: “Whereas, South Carolina is unique in that it is the only state where one can find all four barbecue finishing sauces: vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato, and heavy tomato.”

The implication is that there are only four “finishing” sauces in barbecue, but that’s far from the case: there’s the dark brown tomato- and molasses-based stuff you find in Memphis, the Worcestershire-spiked vinegar “dip” they dress mutton with in Western Kentucky, and the odd but delicious white mayonnaise-based sauce in which they dunk barbecue chicken down in North Alabama.

Mabye our lawmakers are trying to say that South Carolina is the only state where one can find all four barbecue finishing sauces that are found in South Carolina, but that doesn’t seem like particularly effective whereasing to me. And, it leaves out altogether the 5th style of South Carolina barbecue sauce: the bright orange ketchup- and mustard-based blend you find at a lot of the Dukes Barbecue restaurants in and around Orangeburg County.

And, finally, I’m not exactly sure what a “picnic cuisine” is, really. I went on an awful lot of picnics when I was a kid growing up in Greenville, and cold fried chicken, ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, and deviled eggs were what we always had in our basket. While you could certainly eat barbecue at a picnic, I think most South Carolinians eat it sitting down in a restaurant

But, barbecue now joins an illustrious parade of official state comestibles. The peach is the state fruit, milk is the official beverage, tea is the official “hospitality beverage” (in my house, that would be a good bourbon or rye, but good luck getting one of those officially designated by the Legislature), boiled peanuts are the official snack food, and collard greens the official vegetable.

In 2000, Representative John Altman introduced a bill to officially designate grits as “the official state food,” but it languished in committee. Too bad they didn't use the same designation for barbecue. I would have gotten behind that notion 100%.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Whiskey-Flavored Pigs and Other Not-So-New-Fangled Inventions

"You reek of whiskey!"
There's been a bit of press and social media kerfuffle over the recent announcement by the Templeton Rye Distillery that it's going to bring to market a selection of heritage breed hogs fed a diet of spent Templeton Rye mash--that is, the grain leftover in the still after the alcohol has all been distilled away. The details direct from Templeton can be found here.

Somehow, the story got slanted by Quad Cities television station KQAD into something much more dramatic sounding: "Iowa distillery raises pigs to taste like whiskey." If you read the information from Templeton, I don't think they are claiming that exactly--just that it will be interesting to see how pigs raised on spent mash turn out.  But, that didn't stop Vox from jumping into the fray with a detailed explanation of exactly why a pig fed rye mash won't taste like whiskey.

KQAD indirectly quoted Templeton co-founder Keith Kerkhoff as saying "their pork experiment has never been done before," which isn't exactly true. Down here in Charleston, for instance, the guys at the Striped Pig Distillery have been sending their spent mash to feed the heritage breed pigs at Holy City Hogs for about half a year now.

But, that's splitting hairs. The reality is that feeding hogs on spent mash is not only not a new thing in the past year or past decade, it's not even new in the past two centuries. By the early 19th century, hog raising was a common side venture for distilleries. The proprietor would purchase hogs for the express intent of fattening them on the “pot ale” from the stills. Samuel McHarry, the author of the 1809 guide The Practical Distiller, estimated that a distillery owner could purchase 50 “poor” hogs at four dollars a piece, fatten them during the year, and sell them in the fall for seven bucks each, netting a clean $150 profit for the lot. 

Raising hogs remained a big part of the distilling business straight through the end of the 19th century, and it was quite common for distilleries to be surrounded by huge hog pens that let the owners squeeze a little extra value out of all that grain.

And, no, no one in the 19th century ever noted that the pork took on any specific flavor from the spent whiskey grains. There was one added bonus, though. Those hogs provided a source of much-needed entertainment for bored Kentuckians, for when the spent pot ale was thrown to them, the pigs would gorge on it and, in the words of bourbon historian Gerald Carson, “get the staggers on, and squeal with such delight as to arouse the envy of the loafers.”

So, no, what Templeton is doing is nothing new, and it certainly won't result in whiskey-flavored pigs. But, I think it's quite exciting that mash-fed pork is on its way back, and I would certainly be quite happy to give their Duroc pork a try. 

No word yet if Templeton will sell tickets for folks to watch their pigs get their staggers on, but boy do I hope they do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Best of Charleston: A Few More Critics Picks

The insane clown decided not to use these
  critic's picks. But I stand behind them!
The Charleston City Paper's Best of Charleston issue just hit the stands, and it includes both the Reader's Picks (voted on by the general public) and Critics' Picks, where the staff writers get to have a little fun. As always, there's never enough space for all the good ideas, and some of my picks ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are a few of them:

Best Use of a Carrot
At the Grocery, Chef Kevin Johnson created the year’s most stunning salad: pristine carrots roasted in his big wood-fired oven and sprinkled with crumbled pistachios, dates, greek yogurt, and feta. Simple, flavorful, and downright beautiful. I don’t expect to need glasses any time soon.

Best Repurposed Serving Dish
Order the Edwards Surryano Ham from Husk Bar and fantastic folds of smoky aged pork will arrive on a long, thin, slightly curved piece of wood, one side charred a mysterious deep black. It’s a stave from a bourbon barrel, with four little feet created from the tops and bottoms of other staves. What better way to serve the ideal side dish for a dose of old brown water?

Best Biscuit Name That Never Was
When the McAllister’s chain came gunning for Robert Stehling and Hominy Grill for their “Big Nasty” biscuit, Stehling took it in stride. McAllister’s, it turns out, trademarked the name, which uses for sort of convoluted open-faced roast beef sandwich. Ever the democrat, Stehling held a renaming contest for his signature sausage-gravy-laden fried chicken biscuit. The most worthy nominee was clearly "Litigation Biscuit", but the non-confrontational Hominy rejected that in favor of the “Charleston Nasty.” It will always be the Litigation Biscuit to me.

Best Empire Expansion that Didn’t Happen
For months, a big banner hanging in front of the new Boulevard development teased us with the promise of a new Maverick Southern Kitchen venture coming to Mt. Pleasant. Maverick kept mum on the name and the style, and we watched in anticipation to see what kind of joint it might turn out to be. And it turned out to be . . . nothing at all. A change in ownership of the Boulevard added even more delays, the Maverick team finally deep sixed the project. Sigh.

Best Locavore Tippling News
2013 brought not one, not two, but three new distilleries to the Charleston Peninsula: Striped Pig, High Wire, and the Charleston Distillery. Already a tempting parade of locally-made spirits are hitting local bar menus, and the future looks bright for a distinctive Charleston style of drinking.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Spain Meets the South at Mockingbird Hill

Fino Cesar Florido
“Do you think that Washington, D.C., is small?” the Frenchman next to me said. I started to answer, but he cut me off. “To me, it seems a very small city.”

It was 91-degrees and steamy outside, but inside Mockingbird Hill it was pleasantly cool. I was drinking pale golden sherry and sampling thinly-sliced ham.

“What does the sherry taste like?” the Frenchman asked. He was drinking a draft beer. “Is it sweet or dry?”

“Pretty dry,” I said. “But there’s some sweetness to it, too.” It was a Fino Cesar Florido, and it seemed unfair to box it in either way. It tastes like sherry, I wanted to say. It had a touch of citrus and pear and a firm undercarriage from fortifying spirits.

“I can tell you one thing,” I said finally. “It goes great with ham.”

Helping the good folks of Washington, D.C. discover the beauty of that combination is the singular mission of Mockingbird Hill, the South’s first ham-and-sherry bar. It’s the handiwork of Derek Brown, who shook his way to cocktail acclaim at the Passenger and the Columbia Room, and of Chantal Tseng, who ran the bar at D.C.’s noted Tabard Inn for close to a decade. They happen to be married to each other.

Ham Sampler
Their new venture is inspired by Madrid’s famed sherry bars, but with a definite local spin. The offer almost five dozen varieties of Spanish sherry, and they pair it not with a parade of imported Iberico or serrano hams but with meats from much closer to home.

That evening’s ham sampler included an American prosciutto from La Quercia and a fine lomo--a Spanish-style cured pork loin--made just a few miles away by D.C.’s Red Apron Butchers. In the platter’s 9 o’clock position lay fold after fold of “surryano” ham from S. Wallace Edwards & Son of Surry, Virginia. Long-aged and smoked over hickory, it has a deep mahogany color and a flavor that’s smoky, earthy, salty, and rich--every bit the equal of the fine Spanish sherry with which it’s paired.

As if to forever smash sherry’s frumpy image as an old ladies’ tipple, Mockingbird Hill has a brash wood-and-stainless steel decor. The long metal bar top gleams in the orange sunlight angling in from the big front windows. Patrons perch on three-legged wood-capped stools. Mission of Burma and the Clash wham out from the sound system.

More than Ham: Sardines, Too!
As I sipped my sherry and nibbled the last of the ham in the sparse but stylish room, Spain and the South merged into a strange but comfortable whirl, propelled by a punk beat. I vaguely recalled that two centuries ago D.C.’s political elite sealed bargains not over dry martinis or peaty scotch but with glasses of the finest imported port, Madeira, and sherry.

I paid my tab and stepped out into the steamy D.C. night. My former bar-mate was leaning against a sidewalk planter, having a smoke and arguing in French on his cell phone. I waved as I passed, but he didn’t look up. 

I only got panhandled twice before I flagged a cab and slid onto the stiff, cracked vinyl of the backseat. 

No, I thought as the taxi dodged its way west through a sea of tail lights. D.C. doesn’t seem like a small city at all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More Benton's Bacon on the Way

When I pulled into the parking lot at Benton’s Country Hams on my annual smoked pork restocking run over the Christmas holidays, I was surprised to find the cream- and green-painted building had more than doubled in size. To the right of the original loading dock stretched an entire new wing in the final stages of construction.

Allan Benton, the king of Tennessee hams and bacon, has been smoking and curing meats since 1973, when he took over the smokehouse from a retiring dairy farmer. For the first 30 years, the operation barely broke even.

Then, John Fleer, at the time the executive chef at the Walland, Tennessee, resort Blackberry Farm, introduced Benton’s superbly-smoky products to the fine dining world. Before long they were being served in restaurants as far flung as David Chang’s Momofuku in New York City and San Francisco’s Brasserie & Bar.

The new wing at Benton's Country Hams

Years ago, Benton made the decision to focus on quality, not quantity, taking a year or more to age his hams. (Large-scale producers turn out theirs in 90 days or less) and using the same cure recipe as his grandparents did. These days, more than half of his output is sold to restaurants across the country, and mail-orders from home cooks has continued to rise, too. As it has, waiting time for shipment has slowed to five weeks or more.

Finally, a little over a year ago, Allan Benton decided it was time to expand. “I didn’t have a choice,” he told me, as we stood in the entryway to his curing room, where hundreds of hams and bellies hung temptingly from old wooden racks. “It's not that I want to make more money. I just don't like giving bad service.”

The tiny retail room on the left side of the building--complete with its lone cash register and a glass deli counter filled with sausage and cheese--will remain unchanged, but in the new wing Benton is adding more cooler space, prep areas, and packing space so he and his team can produce and ship more hams and bacon to eager customers.

Once the new expansion is complete, Benton says, “Our goal is to ship within two or three days of the order.”

And that is very good news for Allan Benton’s far-flung legion of fans.

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