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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

When a Man is Small...



M.F.K. Fisher, in her essay, When a Man is Small, wrote that “[w]hen a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity that soon dims.” Later she writes, “[S]ome foods are utterly delicious, and he thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.”

This essay got me thinking about the foods I once loved but haven’t eaten in years and, quite frankly, would find revolting if forced to eat them now, even on a deserted island with Kira Knightly. These were foods that I once gobbled up with a mindless intensity, blissfully ignorant of their blandness, chemical notes, or over-processed and over-salted construction. But damn did I love them at the time! While I would like to say that the following chronological list reveals some kind of culinary growth, each one is as banal as the one before it. Here they are: Vienna Sausages, T.V. Dinners, Hostess fried fruit pies, and Hot Pockets (don’t judge!).

OK, let’s start with the Vienna Sausage. That round, little, pale “sausage,” tightly packaged seven to a can. (This was actually a trivia question during trivia night at a local bar recently!). True story:  when my twin boys were just starting out on solid foods we gave them cans of what appeared to be Vienna sausages, but which were actually called “meat sticks.” I’m not kidding! I guess this was a marketing improvement?!  Well, I had to try one and, “oh my God!” I bleated, “these taste like shit!” Neither I nor my boys have had “meat sticks” since!

Moving up the culinary hierarchy, my next stop is an icon of Mad Men America: the T.V. Dinner! I’m talking about that aluminum, four-sectioned,  school-lunch-tray variety of the late 60s and 70s. Damn, did I love T.V. dinners. (When my Mom pulled one from the grocery sack, I got more excited that a senior citizen yelling “bingo!” at Shady Pines nursing home!) My favorite variety was fried chicken, perhaps because I grew up in the South; though this probably irked my Mom—though she didn’t show it—because she made damn good fried chicken. Of course, there was always that mystery desert at 12 O’clock. It was either some kind of chocolate or cherry concoction.

Speaking of cherry concoction, the next item on my list is the Hostess fried fruit pie. I must have eaten one of these every day for lunch for six or seven years. They came in various fruit flavors: cherry, blueberry, apple, and peach. As if the caloric count was not high enough, they also came in cream flavors, such as lemon, chocolate, and vanilla. My favorites, however, were the fruit ones, especially blueberry. Recently, I was in a handy mart getting some water and Gatorade for one of my son’s soccer games, when I spied one of these puppies. Out of curiosity, I flipped it over to take a gander at the calorie count. (We didn’t have these in 1981, or if did, we ignored them!). Holy shit! It was something life 4,235 calories. That’s enough to feed an entire village in the developing world! Hell, that’s enough to feed half of Hollywood!

So, let’s move onto high school and college. Now we’ve come to the Hot Pocket. I have no idea who came up with this concept. And hopefully the person who did has been convicted as a war criminal at The Hague. For those of you who are not familiar with the “Hot Pocket” concept, it is a pastry (almost like an empanada) filled with cheese and some kind of “meat product”—not to be confused with the aforementioned “meat stick”. The Hot Pocket is placed in some kind of sleeve (at least it was) and put in the microwave for a couple of minutes. What comes out is benign looking, but filled with a molten core hotter than Three Mile Island. How I got through 11th and 12th grade and 4 years of college eating these things I do not know. But damn I loved them at the time.  The last time I ate one was June 22, 1993, and it made me deathly ill. I’ve not eaten one since. If I’m going to get sick on food now, it better be locally sourced foie gras or P.E.I. oysters.

What I knew now, I didn’t know then. And what I truly enjoyed then, I find vile now. Nonetheless, that doesn’t diminish the apparent joy such food gave me then. Everything is relative. Going back to Fisher’s essay I mentioned above, she wisely, and more eloquently than my oscitant ramblings, captured how our taste in food changes and how food changes us over time:

But we must grow old, and we must eat. It seems far from unreasonable, once these facts are accepted, for a man to set himself the pleasant task of educating his palate so that he can do the former not grudgingly and in spite of the latter, but easily and agreeably because of it.

So the next time you go to the grocery store and take your buggy down those aisles of highly processed exemplars of American industrial acumen, say to yourself: “Wow, I thought the frat parties were bad enough…. !”

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Drinks: As Easy as One…Two…Three…

"I don't know what reception I'm at, but for God's sake give me a gin and tonic."
       —Denis Thatcher

Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer, has arrived! So break out the seersucker, the white shoes, and put away the brown water. In other words, it’s time for summer drinks. Let’s start with the big three: the gin & tonic, the margarita, and the daiquiri. 

Gin & Tonic

 The gin and tonic is the ultimate summer drink. (Though I was once told by an Englishman that a gin and tonic can be consumed in the winter as long as it is done during the weekend.) When it comes to the gin & tonic, your best bet is to go with a classic London dry gin (the ones that taste like Christmas trees), like Tanqueray, Beefeater, or Boodles. But as important as a good gin is to a good G&T, the tonic is just as important, if not more so. Nothing destroys a good G&T more than bad tonic—gin is a jealous mistress. Unfortunately, most store-bought tonic is atrocious. It is nothing more than carbonated sugar water.

But what is tonic water?

British officers stationed in India invented tonic water by mixing soda water with quinine. Quinine is an anti-malarial substance derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. (During a safari in Africa, our guide told me that, based on my quotidian intake of gin and tonics during happy hour, I had obviated the need for my anti-malarial pills!) Being good Englishmen, the officers countered quinine’s bitter flavor by adding gin, sugar, and lemon or lime. Thus, in the land of the Raj, the gin and tonic was born!  Eventually, the gin and tonic made its way back to England, yet another contribution made by the Pax Britannica.

Because Britain was the home of the Industrial Revolution, there should be no surprise that Schweppes, a London-based sparkling-water company, added "Indian" tonic water to its line of products in 1870 and began the mass production of tonic water. Canada Dry stepped in and began making tonic water around 1890. Since then, these two companies have produced most of the world’s tonic water. But it is a far cry from the original. Until now.

In recent years, several companies (e.g., Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Stirrings) have stepped in and halted the malaise, producing tonics that will certainly take one back to the glories of the British Empire. Of these new, artisanal tonics, my favorite is Fever-Tree, made with Rwandan quinine and cold-pressed orange oil from Tanzania.

One final note. It would be helpful to us gin and tonic drinkers if restaurants and bars would take note of this trend in artisan tonics. (In all fairness, some have; there are bars that even make their own tonic.) Please stop using that Barbarella soda gun machine-thingy! This is especially true for high-end restaurants charging me $12 for a gin and tonic.

Margarita
The modern, day-glo green concoction is a mere shadow of the original. Like many well-known cocktails, the origin of the Margarita is hazy. Those who have claimed the honor: a Texas socialite named Margarita Sames; the Kentucky Club in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and the Tail o' the Cock in Los Angeles. One thing is certain, it was never frozen, and it was never made from a mix.
Much like a well-made G&T should avoid “the gun,” a respectable Margarita should avoid: (1) cheap tequila, and (2) pre-made mix. Like most classic cocktails, less is more, and better ingredients mean a better drink.
Let’s start with Tequila. For most Americans, Tequila means Jose Cuervo shots in a college bar on Cinco de Mayo. But there’s so much more than that. Good Tequila, in this author’s humble opinion, rivals the best Scotch when done right. And when I say “done right,” I mean made with 100% agave. I would recommend Herradura, Patrón, or Corzo. 
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the present-day city of Tequila, Mexico, though the Aztecs had made a fermented beverage from the agave plant long before the Spanish arrived. And so when the Spanish Conquistadors ran out of booze, they did what any respectful invader would do: go local! They distilled agave to produce what is perhaps the first indigenous North America distilled spirit. It was pure; it was good; it was natural. And then America stepped in and turned it all to crap.
So, to get back to where it all started, here’s a classic, simple, and pure, recipe for a Margarita.
Recipe for the Classic Margarita
Ingredients
2 limes, halved and juiced, rinds reserved
4 oz. premium tequila
1/2 oz. Cointreau or triple sec
Margarita salt or kosher salt
Preparation 
Fill two stemmed cocktail glasses with crushed ice and allow to chill. Meanwhile, fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add lime juice, tequila, and Cointreau. Shake well. Empty the ice from glasses, rub rims of glasses with the pulp side of one of the lime rinds, then dip moistened rims into a saucer of salt. Strain margaritas into salt-rimmed glasses and garnish with a slice of lime, if you like.
Daiquiri 
This drink has always reminded me of that crazy, hot mess ex-girlfriend who just…can’t…let…go. You know what I’m talking about. Drunken, late-night calls from some bar with a “Mc” or an “O’.” in the name. She’s with her girlfriends who obviously don’t have the common decency to take her phone away. Yeah, the modern-day daiquiri is a mess. But it wasn’t always so. In the distant past, she was a 1930s movie star, elegant and graceful. Maybe Olivia de Havilland; maybe Greta Garbo; and maybe, just maybe, Marelene Dietrich. 
The origins of the daiquiri are just as delitescent as the margarita, but one theory has the Daiquiri being invented by James Cox, an American mining engineer stuck in Cuba at the time of the Spanish–American War. Few folks outside of Cuba had even heard of the drink until Rear Admiral Lucius W. Johnson, a U.S. Navy medical officer, tried Cox's drink. Johnson later brought the drink back to the the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., and within a few decades its popularity soared. Its fame was sealed when Ernest Hemingway and President John F. Kennedy made it one of their favorite cocktails. 
If I had to pick a provenance for the daiquiri, this story would be mine because it seems so American—the child of America’s spasmodic rise to world-power status in the early 20th Century. Perhaps it should have been named the “Teddy Roosevelt” or the “Rough Rider.”
Originally the drink was made with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of one or two limes poured over crushed ice in a tall glass, all finished off with two or three ounces of white rum. It was then stirred with a long cocktail spoon until frosted.
I suggest you break-up with the hot-mess girlfriend version and move on.
Recipe for the Classic Daiquiri
Ingredients
2 oz. white rum (Cruzan Light Aged, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Dry)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 bar spoons of sugar syrup
Preparation 
Pour all the ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir vigorously with a cocktail spoon and strain into a chilled glass.
Hemingway Daiquiri
Ernest Hemingway was diabetic, so according to legend this particular version was devised for him using maraschino liqueur in lieu of sugar. How this made the drink better suited for a diabetic escapes me. One reason I call B.S. on this story, but here it is nonetheless.
Ingredients
3/4 oz. white rum* (Cruzan Light Aged, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Dry)
1/2 oz. maraschino liqueur
2 bar spoons of grapefruit juice
2 bar spoons of fresh lime juice. 
Preparation 
Pour all the ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir vigorously with a cocktail spoon and strain into a chilled glass.

Well, there you have three classic drinks to get you through the hot summer months. If these don’t work for you, then grab an ice cold beer.

*I seriously doubt that Mr. Hemingway, one of the most famous professional drinkers in American literary history, would drink a daiquiri with less rum than the standard version. I would up this to 1-2 oz.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Long and Low

We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. I know I do. After all, I try to write a new post about every seven to ten days and frequently I have a hard time coming up with something new to write about. Cooking is that way too. Life gets in the way. Between work, the daily schlep to school, homework, soccer practice, and everything else in between, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the temptation to pick up the phone and order a pizza. And when one does summon up the energy to cook dinner, it is very easy to throw a piece of chicken on the grill or open a box of Kraft mac-n-cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with Kraft mac-n-cheese!

But there’s a way of cooking that has been around a long time that results in a good meal and allows for a bit of relaxing. I’m talking about braising. Braising is a cooking method that uses a little liquid and barely simmers at a low temp on the top of the stove or in the oven. In other words, long and low. The great thing about braising is that it gives you time to help the kids with homework, grab a cocktail, or if you are sans kids, play a quick game of Assassins Creed.

Braising is a very old method of cooking that has changed over time. Originally, braising was carried out directly on the hearth, cooking food slowly in hot embers. Fortunately for your local fire department, braising no longer requires an open hearth. While braising was typically used for tough pieces of beef, it also works well with tender chicken or fish, especially turbot or halibut. Braising can occur on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the stovetop, but either way you should use a good heavy bottom pot. A Dutch oven (Staub or Le Crueset) is a must.

Going back to life getting in the way of a good meal…

I keep a Costco-sized bag of frozen chicken breasts in the freezer for quick night dinners. Now, I know that nothing is more banal in our modern, homogenized world than skinless, chicken breasts. But they are convenient. And here’s where the braising comes in handy. With this technique, you can transform that boring chicken breast into a pretty decent meal. Of course, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken legs are the bomb when it comes to braising! But in a pinch, at 7:00PM on a Monday night with fractions and spelling practice closing in, the chicken breast will have to do.

After I’ve thawed the chicken breasts in a bath of hot water for about 15 minutes, I pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper and lightly coat them with flour. Then it’s time for a good sear in the Dutch oven using about two tablespoons of olive oil. (Maybe if no one is watching, I will use a bit of butter! Like Julia Child, I love butter!) After browning the chicken breasts on both sides, I remove them from the Dutch oven and set them aside. I then add some onion, garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until browned. I’ll then de-glaze the  Dutch oven with some white wine, vermouth, or white port. (If you’ve never cooked with vermouth, you’re missing out!) At this point, I add chicken stock, fresh thyme, parsley, and maybe a bit more white wine or vermouth. The amount of liquid should cover half or 3/4th of the chicken. I braise on the stove top at very low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. 

When finished, I remove the chicken and add some flour to thicken the sauce. Another approach is to strain the liquid and remove the excess fat and reduce if necessary. Beurre manié (roux) can also be added, but this seems to defeat the whole purpose. 

What do I call this concoction? French chicken, of course!  But you could just as easily think of it as your easy working day meal, simpler to prepare than you think and more rewarding than another pizza delivery.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Missing in Action, Part 3: Wine Tastings

© 2016 Chris Terrell
In Burgundy, wine cannot be ignored. Its physical presence is constant—every square foot of arable land is planted with vines. Over time, the rhythm of cool, warm, hot, and back to cool has annealed wine into the psyche of the people who live there—it’s visceral; it’s emotional. You cannot understand this unless you are Burgundian. But you can come close…and that’s still pretty damn good.

I must confess that wine wasn’t the sole reason I went to Burgundy. This was not intended to be a “wine tour.” In fact, I’ve always found the “wine tour”—at the least the Napa Valley version—to be hackneyed.  Don’t get me wrong, I love wine, and I love Pinot, but not in that crazy Miles-from-Sideways kind of way. When it comes to French wine (which I do love), my go-to regions have always been the Rhône and Bordeaux.

Yeah, I was due for an attitude adjustment.

When we drove into Burgundy for the first time, it was like one’s first trip to the Louvre: “wow, there’s a Renoir!”; “look at that, a Monet!”; “that’s a Picasso!” It was a struggle to focus on the road and not gawk at so many well-known places: Volnay, Pommard, Gevry-Chambertin, and Meursault. It was like walking into a bar in 1967 and finding The Who, the Rolling Stones,and the Doors all playing at the same time. But it’s even more than that because in Burgundy you can walk up to, and sometimes into, the vineyards and talk directly with the winemakers themselves. It’s like going into that bar and playing guitar with Pete Townsend.

During an afternoon drive from Beaune to Saisy, a bit groggy from lunch, I pulled off the main road into Pommard (Remember what I said about this not being a wine tour?) and found a co-op selling local wines. I was quickly greeted by a friendly and enthusiastic young woman (who says the French are rude!), who proudly gave me a mini-education about the wines of Pommard. 

She talked about how she wanted to visit America. I talked about my love of France. We both talked about our differences as a people—gregarious and optimistic Americans vs. the reserved and cynical French, although we both agreed that Texans are big and bombastic. An entente cordiale! 

Scooping up my wines, I energetically ran back to the Renault. I pulled onto the D973, heading back to Saisy. But wait! Is that a sign for Volnay? I thought. I couldn’t resist. After all, the first Burgundy I ever tasted in my life came from Volnay. How could I not stop?

I parked the Renault so I could better explore the village on foot. Laura promptly fell asleep in the car. (My enthusiasm for wine touring was waxing, and hers was clearly waning.) I walked around the village, past an old somnolent church on this random Wednesday—Volnay is a village of barely 300.
As I made my way back to the car, I noticed a vigneron’s shop, with a sign proudly displayed that read “open; tasting.” I walked into what looked like someone’s home, and it probably was. An older, slim, bald gentleman, who looked remarkably similar to Patrick Stewart, greeted me with a warm, yet formal, “Bonjour.” In my best halting restaurant French, I inquired about tasting his wine. His eyes lit up: “Mais oui!” We went down into the cellar where he let me try several of his wines: One from Pommard and two from Volnay. I bought all three. 

After Volnay, back on the D973 to Saisy. Then I saw the sign for Meursault, a village famous for its whites. Another tasting. Another two bottles of wine. And yet still it was not the last tasting; I was determined. 

This time—from Dijon to Saisy—we visited Gevry-Chambertin, one of the more famous villages in Burgundy. Two more tastings and four more bottles of wine. Here, one vigneron was a newbie, having only been in the business since the late 18th century. The second one was a bit more of a veteran. 

We walked into a parking lot situated between two buildings and a vineyard right to our left. Wine had been made here since the 17th century. We heard barking, both human and adult, and a young child’s giggles. Otherwise, the place was quiet. Suddenly a dog bounded up the stairs from the cellar, quickly followed by a boy around six or seven. Next, came his rather stern looking mother. 

As best I could, I told her that we would like to taste some of their family’s wines. With an efficient wave of her hand, she directed us to the tasting room.  We tasted several. This was damn good wine; even the young ones were good. We obviously saved the best for last. But it wasn’t just the wine that made this tasting so enjoyable. This was where a family had lived for generations making wine.

I helped the young boy with his English, teaching him to count from one to ten. (He was quite good.) Mom began to smile. We all got a good laugh when the dog Gaston—he had a name by this point—ate the crackers. As we left, the mom was insistent that Luc—he too had a name by this point—thank us and say goodbye in English, but he would have none of it. Chocolate was clearly denied as a result of this breach of manners, and he ran off, but when we walked back, I turned and saw him scamper back to the cellar with a piece of chocolate in his hand. Good to know that the infamous French parent may on occasion be soft as an American.

We arrived back to our cottage just as the sun was setting—just in time for dinner. Thankfully, I had the foresight to buy at least one bottle of wine that we could drink that night. As the lamb chops were braising, I opened the back door and looked out at the fields we would be leaving soon. I was both content and sad at the same time—that whole “parting is such sweet sorrow” thing. 

I thought to myself, “Damn I love this place.” 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Good Hamburger is a Damn Near Perfect Thing

Summer is just around the corner, at least here in Alabama. Late April, and the days are already hitting close to 80 degrees. When the days get longer and warmer, the kitchen moves outside to the grill. And one of the best things to throw on the grill is also one of life's great, guilty pleasures: a nice big, juicy hamburger! 
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Burger
There are as many ways to prepare great hamburgers as there are opinions as to what makes a hamburger great. For me, however, I like it simple, yet classic: lettuce, tomato, red onion, American Cheese, ketchup and mustard. Occasionally, I like to mix it up with blue cheese and bacon or swiss and sautéed mushrooms.

Louis Lassen
The hamburger is an American original, though its origins remain disputed. The “official” version, if there is one, comes from the Library of Congress of all places, which has officially declared that Louis Lassen of Louis' Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, sold the first hamburger and steak sandwich in America in 1900. According to the Library of Congress, a customer ordered a quick, hot meal, but Louis was out of steaks. Taking ground beef trimmings, he made a patty and grilled it and put it between two slices of toast. While this story sounds apocryphal, it nonetheless comports with our sense of American pragmatism and can-do spirit. 

There are burger joints in every town in America, each with its own legion of rabid fans. I’m not talking about the national chains, but the mom and pop joints. (Though everyone has their own favorite fast-food hamburger, even those who say they “don’t do fast-food.” Mine would probably be Five Guys, though I don’t really consider them to be “fast-food;” for true fast-food, I would have to go with Wendy’s.) 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Soul Kitchen
Birmingham has some great hamburger joints. My favorite would have to be Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale.  (The name comes from a nickname of the owner, Mike Wilson—“Sorry Ass Wilson.”)  

Avondale is an up and coming neighborhood; a casual culinary outpost in an increasingly foodie town. It’s nothing fancy, with maybe eight or nine tables inside and a few tables outside. Saw’s burgers are stacked high with lettuce, tomato, onion, and their special secret sauce. It is similar to other hamburger sauces you would find in Birmingham, slightly spicy and vinegary, similar to barbecue sauce. Hamburger Heaven, Demetri’s, and Milo’s have similar sauces.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
My version of Saw's burger.
So what makes a good hamburger? It is simpler than one would think. Here are my eight tips:

1. Buy ground chuck that is 80% lean and 20% fat. Please do not get the low fat stuff and don’t, unless you live in California, get ground turkey. This is not a low-fat endeavor, nor should it. The fat holds the burger together and gives it its flavor. Besides, it’s not like you eat them every day do you?

2. Form the patties with a minimum of manipulation. Using your thumbs, put a dimple in each side. This keeps the burger from turning into a blimp while grilling. Generously salt and pepper the burgers (that’s all the seasoning you need—trust me) and place in the fridge for about two hours before you put them on the grill. Do not let them come to room temperature before putting the burgers on the grill.

3. Get that grill has hot as possible. You want Three-Mile Island to look like a ski resort. 

4. Put the hamburgers on the grill. (OK, I know this one seems obvious….) Do not take your spatula and press down on the burger. This will force out all the juices and leave you with a dry burger.

5. If your grill has a cover, leave it open. If you close it, you will cook the burger before you can get a good char.

6. Now here’s the hard part. Leave the burger alone. He’s ok by himself. Go grab another beer and talk about the game with your brother-in-law. Once the burger gives a little without sticking, flip it over. Never flip more that once.

7.  At this point, place the cheese on the burgers and close the cover—you can even turn the eat down a bit.  Once the cheese is good and melted and dripping and about to cause a grease fire, remove and let rest for a few minutes. 

8. As for the buns. I like kaiser rolls that I’ve brushed with melted butter and toasted on the grill. 

Of course no hamburger is complete without french fries (more on that in a later post), but Lay’s potato chips will do in a pinch. Potato salad or even baked beans aren’t bad either. Of course, the drink of choice is a nice, ice-cold beer, preferably Miller High Life in my humble opinion. (Wine is never an option, even if it is a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc.)

I may run the risk of getting carried away here, but I think it is safe to say that the hamburger may be the perfect food. It’s inexpensive and easy to make. For most men, it’s the first thing they learn to cook, while they stand next to their old man with a beer in his hand who guides him in flipping that hamburger so carefully for the first time. Because the best hamburgers are made on an outdoor grill, they are best grilled in the summer. And when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the last sensations I will record, if I'm lucky, will be the sound of crickets in the early summer evening and the smell of hamburgers on the grill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Missing In Action, Part 2: Lunch on a Random Tuesday Afternoon In France

© 2016 Chris Terrell
It is the morning after that first meal in our little Burgundian cottage—a simple meal of cheese, bread, and fruit. Now, with the light of day, I am able to get a better sense of where we have ended up. It is relatively early—the sun has not yet burned off the morning mist. I grab my camera to capture this ancient piece of France that we will call home for the next several days.
© 2016 Chris Terrell


Our village is called Saisy (say-SEE). To call it a village is like comparing Peoria, Illinois, with New York City. A dozen houses line up haphazardly on either side of a single, narrow street. And like every village in France, there is an amaranthine church that lies solidly at the center of the village, covered in scaffolding. Workers tend to it with Gallic indifference. There is a Mairie (town hall) that doesn’t appear to be open, even thought it is after 9:00AM.
© 2016 Chris Terrell
But nothing compares to the pale green pastures and fields that surrounded us, guarded by suspicious cows and indifferent sheep.

The owners of our little cottage are American expats. The husband is a former executive and his wife a former environmental engineer. They have apparently been living in, and renting, this place for many years, as evidenced by the wealth of knowledge they have put into the handmade guidebook that comes with the house. Looking for a perfect place to find lunch, a third of the way into the guidebook, I find their favorite restaurant. It is in the village of Nolay, a short six and one  half kilometers away. 
© 2016 Chris Terrell
I park our Renault on the quiet main street, the restaurant to our left, across the street from the Hôtel de Ville. We pay our respect to the WWI monument, with a WWII appendage—there’s one in countless villages and towns in France—before heading over to the restaurant. 
It’s a bit on the late side for lunch, even for France, and we find the restaurant empty except for a table of four men just finishing their lunch and their wine and having a good laugh about an unknowable topic. While a nearly empty restaurant back home would be cause for concern, not today. I’m confident the food is good. We are not disappointed. The food is traditional country French but plated with the flair one would expect in L.A.  
Escargot, salad, main course, dessert; and of course, a bottle of red wine. We take our time. 
© 2016 Chris Terrell
I’m thinking about those fields near our cottage. When you are surrounded by where your food comes from, you care a lot more about how it is grown; how it’s prepared; and the time you take to enjoy it. 
Maybe it’s the wine, but I’m really enjoying France.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

BBQ!


“Southern barbecue is the closet thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wine or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.” 

     —John Shelton Reed  


©2013 Chris Terrell
Nothing establishes the culinary diversity of the South more than barbecue. Every region of the South—from the South Carolina Low Country to the mountains of Tennessee—has its own unique take on this delectable food. Southerners fight and argue over barbecue almost as much as they do about anything else, except maybe religion, politics, and football. Hell, most Southerners cannot even agree on the spelling. You will see BBQ, Bar-B-Que, barbeque, or barbecue! (My father, being an English major, was particularly offended by BBQ or Bar-B-Que.)

Barbecue begins with the Spanish conquest of the New World. When Spanish explorers moved into the Caribbean, they discovered native islanders roasting fish and game on a framework of sticks they called “barbacoa.” The word “barbecue,” which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1661, initially referred to such a framework and only later did the word “barbecue” come to mean the act of grilling or roasting meat on dry heat.  

The surest way in which to tell the difference between a Southerner and a Yankee is how the word barbecue is used. Up North, “barbecue” is a verb, as in “let’s go barbecue some chicken on the grill.” In the South, however, it’s a noun, as in “let’s go get us some barbecue after church… .” See the difference? 

In the South, the differences between regional barbecues can be found mostly in the sauce, and to a lesser extent the type of meat used. The barbecue of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee is almost always served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The sauce in South Carolina is mustard-based. And the sauce of Eastern North Carolina is the simplest—a concoction consisting of only vinegar and spices. Nary a tomato to be found! Alabama is also known for its distinctive white sauce made of mayonnaise and vinegar and originating in northern Alabama. It is used predominantly on chicken. 

Most of the South uses pork as the meat-base for barbecue.  Texas, however, relies heavily on beef brisket, though you can find barbecue made with sausage or goat, because of Texas’s German and Mexican heritage. And in Western Kentucky, mutton predominates. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled-pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued.

Of all the various permutations of barbecue sauce I've tasted, the best will always be that of Eastern North Carolina. And for me, the perfect embodiment of this style of barbecue was “Midgett’s Barbecue” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This was my first real introduction to barbecue; the best I will ever eat. Let’s start first with the name. It had nothing to do with the size of the people preparing the pig. It is an old family name. The Midgetts have lived on the Outer Banks for many, many years. (Many of them have served honorably in the Coast Guard rescuing folks from the stormy Atlantic coast.)

This place was not fancy. It was small. There was a front area with about six tables. And the place was decorated with “pig” bric-a-brac (piggy banks, pig clocks, paintings of pigs, etc.) In the back was a counter, behind which lay, in all its glory, a whole hog. Someone would take your order and Mrs. Midget would then take her cleaver and furiously begin to produce BBQ. Though she would never win a Miss Congeniality contest and the sanitary rating hovered between a C- and C+, we didn’t care. The ‘cue was divine. Since moving to Georgia and later Alabama, I’ve been on a one-man mission to convince my Deep South brethren that there ain’t really nothing like Eastern North Carolina barbecue nowhere! Don’t get me wrong, Alabama has some great barbecue. My favorites here in Birmingham are: Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Johnny Ray’s (closest thing we have to N.C.-style), Dreamland (for the ribs), and Full Moon. 

How does one determine whether a barbecue joint is legit? First, look at the name. Is it a family name? Most reputable barbecue joints are family-run affairs. (Because of the time it takes to make good barbecue, you don’t see a lot of chains—mass production just will not work.) What does the building look like? Is it a small, simple cinderblock building on the side of a winding country road just outside of a small town, next to a video/tanning-booth-store or a Piggly Wiggly? Also, are the tablecloths (if there are any) red-and-white checkered? And there should be at least some pig-related bric-a-brac or a pig on the sign! 

The menu should not be complicated. (For years, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, served nothing but ribs and white bread.) The sides should be straightforward: coleslaw (some of us actually put this on the sandwich!), baked beans, Brunswick stew, sometimes french fries or potato salad. Drinks will be Coke (this refers to all matter of soft drinks or “soda”) and, of course, sweet tea. Dessert will usually consist of banana pudding—maybe even pecan pie if it is a fancy barbecue “restaurant.”


Finally, a good indication of the quality of the barbecue served is the diversity of the clientele. Despite the South’s ugly past, barbecue joints and their cousins, the “meat and three,” are some of the most socially egalitarian eateries on the planet. You will find bankers and lawyers sitting next to construction workers and truck drivers. Whites will be sitting next to Blacks and Hispanics. They are all drawn to the same love: barbecue.