About Me

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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!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ice Ice Baby

A few days ago, we celebrated the U.S. of A’s 241st birthday.  We did so, no doubt, with plenty of beer, burgers, hot dogs, and fireworks. But what makes America—dare I say this?—great? What is this thing called “Murica”? Is it our big cars? Big houses? Hot dogs? Apple pie? No, it's something even more prosaic. It's ice. But it’s more than that, because many nations have ice, it’s rather the ubiquity of it that defines America and makes us stand tall above the other nations of the world. Ice is everywhere and it's generally free for the taking!

This recently occurred to me one night walking down a dimly light hallway to my hotel room, having just arrived from the airport.  Around the corner from my room was an alcove, and above it was a sign that simply read "ICE." Inside, an attentive ice machine hummed with stalwart efficiency. 

This was a large, convention hotel (39 floors in all). By my rough calculation, there had to be at least 90 ice machines in the building, not including those standing watch in the bars and restaurants. That's a lot of ice. I'm not sure the iceberg that sank the Titanic contained that much frozen water. 

But then again, hotels have had a long association with ice and ice machines.

Back in the day, the first thing I did when we stayed in a motel--after testing the T.V., of course--was take the little plastic bucket with the plastic liner and get some ice. It made little difference that we wouldn't need all that ice, in fact we didn't use it most of the time, it was just...what...you...did. 

And so that night, out of habit, I grabbed my bucket and shuffled to the ice machine, and with a cacophonous roar, old faithful filled my bucket to the rim with clear, clean ice. Unfortunately, there was no minibar in the room and the bar downstairs had closed. And in the morning, I had a bucket full of clear, clean water. 

I don't think I've ever seen an ice machine in a European hotel. 

And what is it with the Europeans and ice? If you have ever visited Europe and asked for a Coke with ice, you'd be luck to get three, but more likely, two diminutive ice cubes. Europe has trains that travel 200 mph and amazing highways, so surely they have mastered the mundane engineering that goes into designing and building ice machines. This is likely one reason the Europeans are lousy at cocktails. Cocktails require ice (or at least the good ones) and lots of it. 

Maybe we use a lot of ice in America—and let’s be honest here—because we can. We can afford to produce tons of ice for cocktails, ice cream, and ice sculptures at wedding receptions. Ice has always conveyed a sense of luxury and decadence. After all, the Romans had ice and snow mixed with their juices and wines for cooling effects. Though  likely apocryphal, the Roman emperor Nero would have snow and ice transported by runners from the mountains to Rome. Top that Pax Americana! 

There’s a lot of talk out there about American decline. I don’t see it based on the 24 oz. cups filled to the brim with perfectly shaped cubes of crystal clear manmade ice. I’m not going to worry until I have to ask for a fourth cube of ice at my local McDonalds. At that point, I better have my passport ready and a fast car to the border.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Authenticity is In the Eye of the Beholder

The most overused word in the foodie universe these days is “authentic.”  And, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I have probably used the word myself. How many times have you heard someone mention—usually with a tone of self-satisfaction—a restaurant where the food was the authentic embodiment of some country or people’s cuisine (usually the more exotic the better)? Really, how would they know? Have they actually been to Kerala region of India? 

So what does it mean for a particular dish to be “authentic?” More importantly, authentic to whom, when and where?

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

A recent trip to Huntington, West Virginia, provides a perfect example. I was in town on business; it was late; I was hungry. Like many of us, I grabbed my iPhone and pulled up the Urbanspoon app and found a place called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It got a pretty good rating and seemed halfway decent, so I decided to give it a try. I thought I’d find the typical burrito there, but to my surprise, they served one with Hawaiian pork-confit with a grilled pineapple glaze, shaved red cabbage and fried plantains; and one called the “Bulgogi,” with ginger and sesame marinated flank steak, kimchi, and cilantro Dijon and smoked  cashews. The one that really caught my eye, however, was a curry burrito. Vindaloo spiced chicken with smoked peach chutney, seasoned rice, all topped with a curry sauce.  Of course, this is not even remotely “authentic” Indian, but then again neither is chicken Tikka masala (the national dish of England).

A nation’s cuisine is not monolithic. It is inaccurate to speak of one kind of “French,” “Italian,” or “Indian” food because what people eat varies so widely within their own borders. Classic haute cuisine in Paris would be foreign to people raised on the rustic stews of Southwest France. The red sauce that Americans associate with Italian food is rarely found in the cuisine of Northern Italy. And what most Americans consider “Indian”—a country of a billion people—comes from just one rather modest-sized region. If anything, authenticity is a concentric circle that expands outward from the home to the larger world. The authenticity of my mom’s fried chicken did not extend past the front door, and North Carolina style barbecue ceases to exist once you drive into South Carolina. Authenticity is also about time, as much as place, because like any human cultural endeavor, cuisines evolve over time. For example, what is “American” cuisine? Is it jelled veal from colonial New Hampshire (yes, this is a real dish) or a turducken? 

With the world getting smaller and the international travel ever more routine, maybe one day there will be something called “world cuisine,” the last concentric circle. Pizza is seen as American more than Italian, with a pie from a NYC pizzeria no less authentic than one from the Piazza Navona in Rome. Heck, you can get chicken Vindaloo burrito in a small restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Happened to Lunch?

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?”
—Gerald Ford

Please let me work here!
No one goes to lunch anymore, at least not during the hours of nine to five, Monday through Friday.
Grabbing a burrito at Chipotle while picking up dry-cleaning, or grabbing a sandwich at the corner bodega, or grabbing a protein bar that is scarfed down between emails at your desk doesn’t count. Doesn’t come close. I’m talking about a real lunch at a restaurant with friends, colleagues, or one’s spouse. Do any of us really remember when that happened? 
When did we become so dull?
I’ve come across several reasons during my extensive research for this post (wink-wink): lunch has gotten more expensive; more people are working from home; pressure to be more productive. Yeah, that all sounds good—after all it was written by people who actually get paid to write—but my theory is more intoxicating: no one drinks at lunch anymore. It’s an antique, like the 9-volt battery. 
Back in the day, the three-martini lunch was lunch. Now it’s a unicorneveryone has heard of it, but never seen it. But they did exist, at least according to some wistful old-timers I knew when I first entered the work-a-day world in the mid-1990s.
Believe it or not, work is getting done here.
Of course the three-martini lunch was once more manageable. The drinks themselves were half the size of today’s titanic tipples. One could easily spend two hours at The Palm on Madison avenue and give your liver time to do its magic before that 2:00 p.m. meeting with the client. (In fact, that client was probably with you at lunch and, if you were lucky, there would be no need for a 2:00 p.m. meeting.) And during this two-hour excursion, there were plenty of oysters and steak to soak up that gin or vodka (if you were so inclined). And the nicotine from those Lucky Strikes surely helped. 
R.I.P. Mr. Moore. I miss the 70s too.
The three-martini-lunch was a big deal because not everyone could imbibe. It was typically reserved for the boss…the partner…the CEO.  And yes, ladies, it was pretty chauvinistic. But then again, do you want your boyfriends/husbands hanging out with you while you get a mani-pedi? More importantly, the three-martini-lunch meant that you had arrived; you were somebody because you could eat steak and drink alcohol in the middle of day and not get fired.
And that’s why going out to lunch at work is dead. Hierarchy is dead. Democracy is in. Bosses are now expected to eat at their desks like their “colleagues” in the cubes. (Who, by the way, doesn't get a door to close while eating a ham sandwich.) Really? This is progress? Morale would increase considerably if us plebes were allowed, or even expected, to leave the building for lunch. Besides, most of us would rather do that that read some TPS memo and smell the leftovers from Tuna-Melt-Tuesday. 
The return of the three-martini lunch could even restore some civility and commonsense to our divided politics. Can you image the possibilities if Sens. Mitch McConnell and Bernie Sanders sat down and threw back a few? (Ok, I don’t see Bernie drinking a martini, but maybe a can or two of Schilitz?)
I know bringing back the three-martini lunch may be a fool’s errand. But all revolutions begin in the minds of the nostalgic. So come now my fellow workers and break those shackles that tie you to your desk and a reheated Hot Pocket! Let’s grab a burger and a beer and dare the boss man to fire us!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sometimes Every Dish Hits the Fan

Today is Memorial Day, the unofficial first day of summer. 
The day that the grill gets its first test drive around the block. Who doesn't love to grill? It's virtually foolproof! 

Until it's not.

Let's start with the grill. I know there's a raging debate in America (no, not that one!). Gas vs. charcoal. They both have their merits. Charcoal certainly provides great flavor, and the ritual associated with its preparation is worthy of anyone's attention. But gas is so convenient. And what about smoking? (No, that one!)  I usually smoke a pork shoulder at least once a year, but that requires getting up early on a weekend. Otherwise, your guests are doing the 10:30 p.m. Continental dinner thing. 

At with least grilling on the back deck, with copious amounts of beer, there is a wide margin for error  One reason most red-blooded American males love to grill. A mere 15 feet and you're in the kitchen where, of course, it can all go so wrong, so horribly wrong, so easily.

Everyone who loves to cook and cooks often will, at some point, make something that is simply wretched. Something just plain awful and which looks nothing like the dish in that glossy photograph in the cookbook. For example, I recall one morning when I had this burning desire to make hash browns. After a cursory glance at a recipe, even before I had my morning coffee (big mistake!), I made something that only barely resembled hash browns—but if only hash browns were GREY!

Though I doubt she ever made grey hash browns, Julia Child recounts a similar event in her memoir, My Life in France, which involved eggs Florentine for a friend she had invited over for lunch:  

I suppose I had gotten a little too self-confident for my own good: rather than measure out the flour, I had guessed at the proportions, and the result was a goopy sauce Mornay. Unable to find spinach at the market, I’d bought chicory instead; it, too, was horrid. We ate the lunch with painful politeness and avoided discussing its taste. I made sure not to apologize for it. This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook . . . ,” or “Poor little me . . . ,” or “This may taste awful . . . ,” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, “Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!” Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed— eh bien, tant pis!
My Life in France, pp. 89-90. 

I think this is valuable advice for amateur cooks everywhere. We cannot be perfect. Besides, us mere kitchen mortals should take comfort in the fact even the great Julia Child made a dish which she described as “vile.”  This pressure to be perfect in the kitchen has become worse in our media-saturated age. As Melissa Clark of the New York Times once pointed out in her column, A Good Appetite, “food porn” in foodie magazines and T.V. shows has created a “cult of foodie perfectionism.” (Melissa Clark, No Apologies Necessary When a Dish Goes Awry, New York Times, p. D1, Oct. 10, 2012) So, we should all fight the urge to stress out about the meals we make and by all means, don’t apologize. It’s probably not as bad as you think. But, if it really is that bad, then just order a pizza!  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Splitting Rails and Grinding Corn

It had to be done. It couldn’t wait any longer. 

Yard work. 

The two foulest words that any homeowner can utter.

Last summer I got off easy because of the drought here in Alabama. Not once did I mow the back forty because even the weeds wouldn’t grow. This year, things were different. A wet spring and the backyard was in full weedy bloom. I dragged out the lawnmower a few weeks ago, sufficiently motivated to tackle the fecund jungle that is my back yard. After 15 minutes of pulling the cord to no avail, my arm sore, and realizing that my neighbors were likely tired of hearing me curse on a Sunday morning, I gave up.

Fast forward two weeks. I really needed to get my lawnmower fixed. And then my next-door neighbor came to my rescue. 

“Sounds like it could be your carburetor.” 

I looked at him blankly, trying to remember my high school German. I quickly recovered. 

“Oh yeah, that’s got to be it. Damn modern exhaust systems!”

“You have no idea what a carburetor is do you?”

Sadly, I didn’t.

About an hour later, my lawn mower was ship-shape and Bristol fashion.

I then realized that before I could mow the “lawn,” I had to remove the branches and sticks that had fallen from the many trees in my yard since last spring. I then  also realized that I still had not removed the tree that had fallen during a recent storm and thankfully just missed my neighbors’ house by a mere five feet. This required the use of my chain saw and, after two  hours of hauling tree parts to the street, I could finally mow. After this came the weed-whacking. I had some weeds that actually required the use of the aforementioned chainsaw—I’m not kidding! Jurassic Park indeed!. 

So, after three hours of yard work I was done. I was not just done. I was spent. I was exhausted. My best-laid plans of a nice grilled Mahi-Mahi on the back deck were a delirious memory.

How did the heck did the pioneers do it? These people cleared entire forests without the benefit of chainsaws. They grew crops without the benefit of modern fertilizers. They did all this without Home Depot! Granted they didn’t have the IRS, the EPA, or the Kardashians on Bravo (or is it A&E?)

Thankfully, they had plenty to eat. 

They ate what was available and abundant, live beavertail and cod (the former has fallen out of favor thankfully and the latter sadly suffering from popularity). What they brought with them from Europe they quickly combined with what they found here and what came from the Caribbean and Africa, a rich culinary traditions that tragically arrived on the backs of slaves.

And then there was maize, a/k/a corn. The motherlode.

Unlike wheat, corn requires very little manual labor. And the pre-Columbian peoples living in North and Central America devised a creative way to use corn to lend a helping hand in growing their other two main crops: beans and squash. With the addition of corn, this trifecta was called the “Three Sisters.”

The three crops benefited from each other. Corn stalks provided a structure for the beans to climb so there was no need for poles, which had to be made—did I mention there were no Home Depots back then? The beans added nitrogen to the soil. The squash leaves spread along the ground, blocking the sunlight, preventing the establishment of weeds—there was no Round-Up back then either.

* * *

After three hours of yard work, I had closed all three rings on my Apple Watch. I headed inside to my air-conditioned home and took a long, warm shower.  I dried off in clean towels just pulled from the drier. I grabbed a cold beer from the fridge and grabbed my iPhone.

I’m ordering a pizza for delivery. 

Now just think what Davy Crockett would have done with that!


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tis Hatched and Shall Be So

Easter and Passover are behind us—the  expectancy of summer is sure to follow. 
Passover and Easter are troubled cousins who sometimes refuse to recognize their patrimony. They both celebrate life or rebirth. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt—a rebirth. Easter celebrates the literal rebirth—life from death—of Jesus. Both have strong food traditions associated with them, though my Jewish friends tell me I’m not missing much (think gefilte fish and matzo). 
Both holidays, however, also embrace death as a foundational premise.  In Exodus, God helps the Children of Israel escape their slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians. The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born. For protection, God instructed the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes—hence the English name for the holiday. And for Christians, there’s the Crucifixion. This was a form of execution long used in the ancient world that resulted in a slow, painful death that lasted for hours, if not days, until the victim died of exhaustion or suffocation. I don’t recommend one read Exodus or the New Testament just before bedtime. 
What many of us (both sides of the Old/New Testament divide) often forget are the similarities between the two faiths. It’s no coincidence that both Easter and Passover occur during the same time of the year. They also share a common food: the egg. 
One of the items on the Seder plate (a special plate containing symbolic foods that retell  of the story of the Exodus from Egypt), is beitzah, a hard-boiled egg. This symbolizes the festival sacrifice offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, that was then eaten as part of the meal on Seder night.
Now that sounds pretty familiar to us Gentiles—the Easter egg—a symbol of fertility and rebirth.
Of course, in celebrating Easter (whether secular or not), the Easter egg would be nothing without the Easter egg hunt—a brutal competition to collect more eggs than your sibling. Now that’s the true meaning of Easter for the under-10 age demographic!
But I grew up as an only child, so I missed out on the joy and pain of sibling Easter egg hunts. So I improvised. I employed my competitive desires in other ways: finding all of the two-dozen easter eggs hidden by my mother in record time (record: 10 mins, 15 secs.). There was also the great Sunday School Easter Egg Competition of 1980, weaving together the pagan and the sacred in one spectacular afternoon.
Change was in the air. Ronald Regan was challenging Jimmy Carter. Maybe all of us back then could sense the competitive go-go Eighties lurking just around the corner. And perhaps because of this, my Sunday school class decided to hold a contest for the best decorated Easter egg. Game on bro! 
I was determined to win this thing. This was my year! I convinced my mom to buy an expensive store-bought egg decorating kit (a rule-breaker for sure, as we were a food-dye-and-vinegar family) that involved Day-Glo powder and a Ziploc bag—a shake-n-bake approach to Easter. I even glued tiny gold leaves and silver beads onto that blue egg until it looked like a bona fide FabergĂ© egg! And yes, I did win in a landslide.
As I mentioned earlier, we were old school when it came to dying Easter eggs. Eggs were dyed the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, using nothing more than vinegar and food coloring. I’m not sure about the brand, but I remember these teardrop shaped bottles. You carefully put several drops in coffee cups filled with hot water and vinegar. There were only four colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. Anything more sophisticated required the guide on the back of the box: two drops of red + one drop of blue = purple; two drops of yellow + one drop of red = orange. You get the picture. To this day, the smell of vinegar takes me back to the spring days of my childhood. It is my Proustean Madeleine.  
The day’s newspaper covered the table so as not to stain it, though I’m sure I did. We rested the freshly died eggs on plain, white paper plates to dry, leaving a light-colored spot where the dye ran, which  didn’t matter because we would place them in the basket in such a way that you wouldn't see the spot. And of course the basket contained green, plastic grass that lingers like death and taxes,  showing up obscure corners of the house months later. The next morning, I was rewarded with chocolate, including a large chocolate bunny proudly displayed in the middle of my Easter basket. 
After taking a few bites of that chocolate bunny (always start with the ears), the Easter egg hunt would promptly commence. We used the real eggs we dyed the night before. My mother took great pride in finding clever ways to hide the eggs, while leaving a few in pretty obvious locations lest I get too discouraged. After I had found them all, then it was my turn. I tried my best to be clever in how I hide the eggs, though my mother lovingly made it seem they were impossible to find. We held these kind of hunts even when it rained, which seemed a rather frequent Easter occurrence now that I think about it. And the hiding places were no less clever when the hunt was indoors sometimes too much so. One year, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find that 24th egg. We did eventually—sometime in June. Ugh.
And then the Easter eggs that I had so carefully made and so carefully hidden were now ready for their final role: deviled eggs. 
I looked forward to deviled eggs at Easter as much as the chocolate bunny in my basket. 
My mother kept to the traditional side of things when it came to food. This was no less true when it came to deviled eggs, nothing more that eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper. From there, the debate will never cease. Relish or not. Paprika or not. My mother was  pro-relish and pro-paprika. I am as well. 
I still love deviled eggs. I still make them. I still make them like my Mother did with a bit of paprika sprinkled on top. Anything else would be sacrilegious – as even the Easter Bunny would agree, I’m sure.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Don't Mess with the Classics

“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” 

—Robert Benchley


Last month we traveled to New York for my birthday. This time, I wanted to see a play.  There were several good choices that weekend, and we decided on The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I was excited. Not only is this one of the greatest of American plays (and one of my favorites), but the main role of Amanda Wingfield was being played by Sally Field. As I had not read the play in many years, I bought a copy and re-read it on the train. I finished it shortly before we arrived at Penn Station. 

The production we were going to see is directed by Sam Gold, known for his bold reinterpretations of the classics. I'm not opposed to "re-interpreting" the classics—Richard III set in a counter-factual fascist England or Romeo and Juliet in mid-20th century New York. For Shakespeare, this works reasonably well because his plays are about language, regardless of time and place.

We booked the tickets for this play before the reviews had come in, flying blind so to speak. But it was Tennesse Williams; it was Sally Field; it was Sam Gold. That was all the information we needed, right?

Lunch that day was at ABC Cocina, a shabby-chic styled tapas restaurant next to the famed ABC Home design Mecca in Manhattan. At this point, however, instinct suddenly kicked in; my amygdala woke up. “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” Much like my Neanderthal ancestor who grabbed a spear upon seeing a saber toothed tiger, I quickly grabbed my iPhone to read the reviews. 

I know that reviews about plays and movies, much like restaurant reviews, should be taken with a grain of salt—merely one person's opinion—but when three major New York-based publications slam a production for nearly identical reasons, then it's time to pull the fire alarm. The opening paragraph from the review in The New Yorker was especially blistering:

The despair and disgust I felt after seeing the director Sam Gold’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 play, “The Glass Menagerie” (at the Belasco), was so debilitating that I couldn’t tell if my confused, hurt fury was caused by the pretentious and callous staging I had just witnessed or if my anger was a result of feeling robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.

Ouch!

But I couldn’t agree more.

Thankfully, dinner at The Modern did a lot to compensate for what we had just witnessed. It certainly gave us plenty to talk about.

As is my custom, I ordered a martini before dinner. That got me thinking. Just like certain classic plays have no business being “reinvented,” the same holds true for certain cocktails, the martini being the prime example.

With the simplest of ingredients, the martini is sleek, cool, and seductive. It’s like someone poured a Maserati into a glass. Even the glass is elegant. It forces you to be deliberate in how you progress through happy hour. It forces you to be civilized. You must be careful not to spill any of the contents, guiding the glass slowly—but not too much so—to your mouth while making a witty, but obscure, comment about Dorothy Parker. This is not some cheap whisky thrown over ice into a double old-fashioned glass at the 19th hole. 

And then it all came crashing down. The martini’s simplicity became its first victim. What followed in the early Aughts was like so many bastards with claims to the throne. There was the ubiquitous "Apple-tini" with an electric day-glo green tinge that looked like it had been cooked up in a meth lab. There was the Chocolate-tini," the “Cinamon-tini,” and the Lemon-tini. The martini was corrupted because it was made complicated.

And this is what Sam Gold didn’t realize when he reinterpreted The Glass Menagerie. He forced complexity onto the audience. He gave his audience the theatrical version of an Apple-tini. The Glass Menagerie is a great and timeless play because Williams’ language distills all of our very sad human hopes, dreams, and fears into a drink that must be handled carefully and sipped slowly. 

There are just some classics that don't work well unless performed in the vernacular. 

And by the way, a vodka martini is not a martini. Enough said.