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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!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lunch Boxes

A few Sundays back, I was having brunch and happened to look up above the bar to find a row of old metal lunch boxes. (This is why I love brunch—you can eat at a bar and drink before noon!) They were sitting above a T.V. that was playing a DVD of T.V. commercials from the 70s. At this point, it hit me: kids today don’t take their lunch to school in metal lunch boxes anymore. Instead, they either use brown paper bags or, if they have more progressive minded parents, they take their gluten-free, non-PBJ lunches encased in soft-sided reusable faux lunch bag contraptions. If they are really fortunate, then they will have a re-purposed, fair trade model from Whole Foods.

But alas, they will never enjoy the fun of a metal lunch box, dented and rusting at the edges because it got left in the rain at the bus stop with paint that may or may not have lead and a Thermos bottle loaded to the hilt with BPA! That’s how we rolled in the 70s! Even the kids lived on the edge with their fake cigarette candy bubble gum!

By the time I was in school in the 70s, lunch boxes had been around for some time. Apparently, the first one was made in 1935 with Mickey Mouse on it. By the time television hit its stride in the 50s and 60s, the movie/T.V. show-tie-in was in full swing.

OK, I'm not sure how they were able to breath on the moon!
Speaking of TV shows, my first lunch box was a Space 1999 lunch box. This piece of classic T.V. sci-fi melodrama was about the crew of a base on the moon called  Moonbase Alpha, and how they struggled each week to survive after a massive explosion throws the Moon from Earth’s orbit into deep space. It aired for three seasons (1975-77), and I think my first real crush was on the actress Barbara Bain who played Dr. Helena Russell. (Pictured above.)

I also had a bright green lunch box with dragsters on it. (No, not those kind!) I think I got this one after I went to my first drag race when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. My last one was red with Peanuts cartoons on it. I must have have read those strips about a hundred times. Poor ol' Charlie Brown never did get that kite out of the tree! 

And I remember the day I had to retire the Peanuts lunch box because one of my friends told me that once I went to Junior High, I would have to trade in my lunch box for a plain, brown paper bag. That was the day that my childhood truly died.

I also think that we were a better country when metal lunch boxes ruled the schoolhouse cafeteria. It certainly made us better at logistics, or at least our moms. You see, moms had to pack a fulfilling, nutritious lunch in a space that was slightly larger than a paperback book after the Thermos was placed in there. My mom was the master at this. PB&J (again, this was the 70s—we lived on the edge) took up less space than a ham and cheese with iceberg lettuce—likewise, a bologna sandwich. Twinkies could be crammed in a tight space too. And we were all budding commodities traders: I’ll trade you a Twinkie for your Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie! And of course, there were the days I knew the larder was low. This usually meant a plain cheese sandwich made from the heals of a bread loaf and some desiccated carrot sticks. At least that was better than the kid who ended up with a green bell pepper at least once a week!

These days, when I pack my kids’ lunches for school, I recall those metal lunch box days fondly. And I feel that my kids are getting shorted compared to what I got. Though every now and then, I will smuggle something sweet and give them a “don’t tell wink”—the 70s still live!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Going Local

There’s been a lot of talk lately about eating local, locally sourced foods, or even being a “locavore.” (I’ve not made up my mind about the last term—sounds rather contrived to me.) Without sounding like I’ve hitched a ride on the latest bandwagon, the intuitive part of me tells me that there’s probably some truth to this. After all, I grew up in an age of mac and cheese from a box. So, I asked myself: do dishes prepared from local, in-season produce taste better? I put this question to the test this past weekend, and I think the answer is yes, even if it was all in my head—but that’s OK. 

This past Saturday morning, I hit my local farmer’s market, Pepper Place Saturday Market, in search of fresh, local ingredients that are in season here in Alabama: blueberries, tomatoes, and corn. I arrived about 8:45am, which I considered to be pretty early for a Saturday morning. But no, the place was packed! Some of these people must have camped out like groupies getting tickets for a Rush concert in 1982!

I started with the blueberries. I went to two different stalls, each had samples. I was surprised in the difference in taste. One of the purveyor’s blueberries were decidedly sweeter than the other. I really shouldn’t say who won this taste contest, but it was Petals from the Past. This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve gotten blueberries from them, and both times I was not disappointed. (More info can be found at:http://petalsfromthepast.com). The blueberries were destined for a cobbler.

My next stop was for tomatoes, but not just any tomatoes, but heirloom tomatoes from Snow’s Bend Farms, located just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (http://www.snowsbendfarm.com). They grow more than 50 vegetables destined for some of the best restaurants in Birmingham (Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega, and Bettola). These beauties were reserved for a tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad.

The final stop was for some sweet yellow corn. No respecting Southerner can go through summer without getting them some corn, whether in the form of fritters, cornbread, corn-on-the-cob, creamed corn, or even whiskey. When corn is good, it is real good. As Garrison Keillor once said: “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh, sweet corn.” I grabbed some cobs that were firm and had their silk still attached and had leaves still green. They looked promising. These were destined for creamed corn.

So, I had three ingredients for three dishes. And of the three, I must say that the creamed corn was my favorite. Creamed corn is a straightforward dish, as the name implies. But I wanted to try something different and tap into a cookbook I had not used before. 

© 2013 Chris Terrell
I recalled that a few days earlier I had been flipping through Thomas Keller’s cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, when I noticed a recipe for creamed corn. The great Thomas Keller has a recipe for that humble Southern dish of creamed corn?! I pulled the book off the shelf and, sure enough, there it was! It turned out to be the best creamed corn I’ve ever had! (Except for yours Mom!)

So did all this fresh, locally-sourced, in-season produce taste better? Maybe it was all in my head, but you know what, who cares! Perhaps, walking to a local market and looking the grower in the eye and asking him or her about their produce made me pay a little more attention to technique; read the recipes more carefully; and, more importantly, take my time. All out of respect for the food and the people who grow it.

Here’s Thomas Keller’s recipe for creamed corn from Ad Hoc at Home (my comments in brackets):


6 ears supersweet white or yellow corn, shucked
1 large lime
3 tablespoons (1½ ounces) unsalted butter
Kosher salt
¾  to 1 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1½   tablespoons of finely chopped chives

With a sharp chef’s knife, cut vertically down each ear of corn to slice off the kernels. Put the kernels in a large bowl, then hold each cob over the bowl and use a spoon or the back of a knife to scrape any remaining corn and the milk from the cob.

Grate the zest of the lime, preferably with a Microplaner grater [word!]; set aside. Cut the lime in half.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the corn, squeeze about 1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste, over the corn, and season with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the liquid has evaporate, concentrating the flavor, and the corn is beginning to sizzle, 15 to 17 minutes. [This is where the patience comes in!]

Stir in ¾ cup cream, the cayenne, and lime zest. Continue to cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cream is absorbed by the corn. Add up to ¼ cup more cream if desired for a creamier texture. [Yes, please!]. Add salt to taste and stir in the chives.

Serves 6 

Monday, July 15, 2013


 © 2013 Chris Terrell

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Who doesn’t love butter? I know I do—always have. I recall that as a child my parents would frequent this steak house; the kind popular in the 70s: very dark with a single candle on the table. The waiters would place on the table a bowl with those little pats of butter with the wax paper on top. While my parents discussed whatever it is that parents talk about, I would proceed to eat pat after pat of butter unbeknownst to them. To this day, there is always a good pound or two of butter in my fridge at all times. (I’m sure a shrink would have a field day with this!)

Now, I do keep butter's healthier cousin, olive oil, close by and handy, but I will not hesitate to turn around, walk across the kitchen, open the fridge, and grab some butter. It’s like having a miniature Paula Deen (can we still mention her?) and a miniature Dr. Oz whispering in my my respective ears: “yes;” “do it;” “no;” “evil!”

For me, it was with great pleasure a few years ago when margarine got the bad-boy label in the never-ending Health Food Inquisition. (America’s relationship with good food reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”) You see, margarine had this funky little ingredient called a “trans fat.” I’m not going to bore you with all the science,  especially because I don't understand it anyway, but let’s put it this way: it ain’t natural. So butter has made something of a comeback.

Butter has been around since ancient times and is used in almost every culture on Earth. It is ubiquitous because of its simplicity. It is made from milk or cream in which most of the water and milk solids have been separated, leaving a golden treasure of 80% fat. While butter is mostly made from cow’s milk, in Africa and Asia, it can be made from the milk of the buffalo, camel, goat, ewe, mare, or even the donkey.

In the West, there are two competing schools of thought on butter—the sweet or cream butter of the English or Irish and the lactic butter of the French, particularly Normandy. (Apparently, the Vikings introduced butter making to the Normans, but if you mention this to a Frenchman, you are likely to cause an international incident!) French butter is saltier and tangier than English or Irish butter because the French add more salt and because cultures (i.e., bacteria) are added to the milk or cream to cause the build-up of lactic acid. One way to introduce such cultures—and I’m not kidding—is to stick one’s arm into the vat of milk or cream.

As I mentioned, butter is used around the world. One of the more interesting variations of butter is ghee from India.  Ghee is clarified butter and, like many things in Indian culture, has a religious significance. (In fact, ghee is used in some religious ceremonies.) Ghee is  mentioned in the Purāna, a collection of legends, religious precepts, and rules for practical living. (What’s more practical than butter?!) In the Purāna, the human body is represented by circles associated with primordial foods: palm sugar, wine, ghee, milk, yogurt, and water. Who can argue when a food product is considered an essential element of the human body?! 

Butter is remarkably easy to make at home. Simply take some heavy cream or whipping cream and pour it into a bowl, vigorously apply a whisk or mixer, and proceed to beat the hell out of it. (If you want your butter to resemble Normandy butter, then leave the cream sitting out overnight at room temperature; this causes cultures to form.) Eventually the cream will become whipped cream in no time, which should convince any sane person not to buy another tub of Cool Whip. Keep beating and the water and milk solids will separate, leaving pale golden butter. Save the liquid—that’s butter milk, which is useful for many things and forms the basis for many good eats in the South. 

Next take the butter and place it in a colander with cheese cloth, rinse it with very cold water, and squeeze it through the cheese cloth. Do this rinse and squeeze process several times until the water runs clear. Now here’s my special technique: take the butter and spread it onto the sides of a bowl. You will notice beads of water form on the surface. Take a paper towel and gently blot the water. (The goal is to remove as much excess water as possible.) Add salt to taste and mix well. Then form the butter into a square, round, or whatever shape floats your boat and keep in the fridge for about 24 hours before using. The butter will keep for about 10-14 days. 

I guarantee that once you have made your own butter, you will develop a new-found respect for it. Without butter, food would be so boring. Thanksgiving Day turkey, chocolate chip cookies, or lobster would taste the same without butter.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Julie and Julia occurs when the other main character reverently leaves a pound of butter underneath a photograph of Julia Child at her display at the National Museum of American History. Butter deserves such respect. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Besides, in the words of Julia Child, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Of Past Hot Dogs Remembered

Today is the birthday of the French novelist Marcel Proust. He is perhaps best know for his novel, The Remembrance of Things Past. In one of the work’s most renowned passages, the narrator is transported to his childhood in Belle Epoque France upon tasting a simple petite madeleine: 

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

This connection between memory and taste persists in popular culture. Anton Ego in Ratatouille is also flung back to simple childhood memories upon the first taste of the film’s eponymous dish; likewise for Tony Soprano upon tasting some cappicola. I have heard that smell is the sense most associated with memory. And because smell plus taste equals flavor, this theory should apply to food with equal force. 

All of us have our own version of Proust’s madeleine. And like Proust, such foods fling us headlong back into childhood, albeit a rose-colored one lacking in verisimilitude. But that’s no matter. When we eat certain foods, we must face—good or bad—the ghosts of loved ones long gone; weddings that never lived up to their promise; but also birthday parties, the birth of a child, or one’s first kiss. 

Back in the Day
My “madeleine,” is the hot dog, though not just any hot dog. It has to be a hot dog from Capt’n Franks, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks. Capt’n Franks opened in 1975, when I was a mere five years old, and I’ve been making an almost annual pilgrimage for the last 38 years! Capt’n Franks is located on the Outer Banks at Mile Post 4½, and back in the late Seventies, MP 4½ was in the middle of nowhere. It was pretty much the last stop for food on the way back home in the back seat of my Dad's canary yellow Toyota Corona. 

Oh How Much Has Changed! (But Still the Same Great Dogs!)
I still remember the time I was old enough to eat an entire footlong hot dog all by myself, and later with chili! I also remember mastering the Galaga arcade game in the back near the restrooms, but not the Ms. PacMan next to it. (She was a fickle creature.)  I also remember the time a friend of mine ate 10 corn dogs and my Dad paying for each one with nary a complaint. (While my friend’s name is long forgotten, we all still recount this story as if it were yesterday.) As a kid, my favorite was a plain dog with ketchup, mustard, and relish—still my go-to dog. As a I grew older into a teenager—less impressionable but no wiser—I disdained Capt’n Franks as lacking in “sophistication.” Eventually, I got over myself. 

It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I really began to appreciate Capt’n Franks and the memories that welled up in my eyes. Now, no trip to the Outer Banks is complete without a stop at Capt’n Franks. Just recently, I visited there with my two boys—twice. And while the Galaga and Ms. PacMan games are long gone—replaced by the T-shirt counter—it still has the same effect on me. Every time, when I see the old, faded pictures of Capt’n Franks from the Seventies lining the walls (including the one of Johnny Cash!), I tell my boys, “I remember when it looked like that!” Fortunately for now, they are young enough that they say, quite earnestly, “wow, Dad!” I also know that in a few years, that same statement will drip with disdain and sarcasm. But, if all goes well, they will come around just like I did and their childhood will come back to them in time while sharing some hot dogs and fries with their own children.

Happy Birthday Monsieur Proust!