Category Archives: Culture

Kentucky Barbecue

It’s always a delight to try something one has always heard of, but it is equally delightful to find something one didn’t know existed. So to have both things at one meal was definitely joyous.

I’d first read about Kentucky burgoo as a youngster, looking through some of mom’s cookbooks. The really old cookbooks usually included game in this traditional stew, which is generally made in huge quantities and served at large community gatherings. More current recipes leave out the game, though one suspects that it would still appear in some versions. As a result, when a food conference (International Association of Culinary Professionals) took me to Kentucky, I was excited to see burgoo listed as something one could try during one of the offered food tours. But even more intriguing was the mention of something unfamiliar to me but apparently very traditional in parts of Kentucky: barbecued mutton.

Of course, if one has done any research into barbecue, one encounters the fact that different regions, and even micro-regions, have different specialties, from sauces to preferred animals to specific cuts. But even having read about (and as often as possible, having tried) variations on barbecue traditions, I had never before encountered barbecued mutton.

Most of the several hundred in attendance at the conference had opted for bourbon or fried chicken tours, and only three of us picked mutton and burgoo—which was fine with me, as it gave us more time to talk to our “guide” for the day, Wes Berry, college professor and author of the definitive book on all the various regional Kentucky barbecues.

We headed about 15 miles out of Louisville, to a BBQ shack constructed in 1896 (though renovated by the current owners). Shack in the Back was the name of the venue, and there is indeed a shack in the back—a smokehouse with a couple of large, hard-working smokers pumping out vast quantities of hickory smoke. (My clothes smelled great for days afterwards.) We had a long chat with the owner about the restaurant and got to view fires, coals, and cooking meat. But then we headed for the dining area and got to try a bit of everything.

Shack in the Back BBQ


The smokehouse out back

Worth noting is that not every Kentucky smokehouse makes barbecued mutton these days, so this had been special ordered for our visit. But the burgoo is a regular menu item, as are the house-made andouille sausage, pulled pork, baby back ribs, beef brisket, “turkey ribs,” and smoked salmon. Classic sides included mac and cheese, green beans, baked beans, and fried corn. We started with a plate of crispy pork rinds, and after that, the dishes just kept coming.

Before the trip, I’d done a bit of research, learning that Kentucky has an ideal climate and terrain for raising sheep and that a tariff in 1816 made wool production profitable, which led to keeping sheep until they were older and tougher and therefore more suited to long, slow cooking. I also discovered that Calvin Trillin wrote in a 1977 article in The New Yorker that barbecued mutton is “not bad at all.” I, on the other hand, thought it was quite wonderful, but then I like mutton, and mutton cooked long and slow and saturated with smoke has a lot going for it.

Unlike the other barbecued items we were served, the mutton did not come with barbecue sauce but rather with “Mutton Sauce,” aka “Mutton Dip” or “Black Dip.” Wes explained that it is made from Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, pepper, and vinegar. He noted that some places also add tomato paste, to make it stick better, but what we had was the traditional, tomato-free black dip. It was perfect for the mutton.

A few dishes–plus Mutton Sauce

The “turkey ribs” should probably also be explained. They are apparently a growing trend. Not ribs at all, they are white turkey meat attached to the scapula, or shoulder blade. The traditional sauce for these is a mayo-based white barbecue sauce. Very tasty. Easy to see why they’re becoming popular.

The Kentucky burgoo was also delicious. Mike, the owner of Shack in the Back, says he cooks it for two days. As one might imagine of anything cooked for so long, it was thick and flavorful, but for me, the chiefest delight was simply that I was in Kentucky eating so iconic and historic a dish.

You may never have thought of Kentucky in terms of barbecue, but now you can. And, of course, don’t forget the burgoo. For someone like me who loves both history and regional specialties, this was a splendid meal.

Oh – and if you want a little more background on Kentucky barbecue, including burgoo (which is traditionally served at big barbecue events, and is therefore associated with BBQ), here’s the introduction from Wes Berry’s book KY BBQ: https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/southern-bbq-trail/kentucky-bbq/

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Alfredo

I first had fettuccine Alfredo in 1966–served to me by Alfredo.

I was just fifteen, traveling with my parents. Getting to Italy was a lifelong dream of my dad’s, and we had the pleasure of coming along when he fulfilled that dream. He’d studied Italian history, art, and culture for years, and had been drilling us on useful Italian phrases for nearly a year before the trip–where is my hotel, a table for four please, how much does that cost, bring the check please, and so on.

Long before we arrived, dad had figured out many of the places where he wanted to dine, mostly historic venues (such as Hostaria dell’Orso, which had been a favorite of Dante’s), while leaving plenty of room for discovering charming little trattorias. Among the must-visit places was Alfredo al Augusteo, the source of fettuccine so good that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had given Alfredo a golden fork and spoon for consuming the dish.

At fifteen, I was not as saturated with history as my dad was, and I probably could not at that time have told you who Pickford and Fairbanks were, but I knew if my dad was impressed, I would be, too. The restaurant was a delight, walls covered with photos of movie stars and heads of state who had dined there. Overhead, a massive marble frieze showed Alfredo in a Roman chariot, one hand holding the reigns, the other holding a plate of the namesake pasta.

The menu at the time bore the words Il vero re della fettuccine–the true king of fettuccine. However, when he signed our menus, Alfredo gave himself a promotion, to Imperatore, or Emperor, a title that now seems to have eclipsed his claim to being king.

Alfredo Di Lelio was already famous even then, but far from stuffy or impressed with himself. He was a showman, and he loved anyone who loved what he did. For people with whom he connected, he would toss the fettuccine tableside. Order the crepes, and he would come out dancing, ladling flaming brandy into the air. It was great fun. My dad, who could make friends with a doorpost, charmed Alfredo, and we went back often, each member of the family being offered the golden fork and spoon on subsequent nights (a sign that Alfredo had taken a fancy to you). He related how the fettuccine recipe was born–it was something his wife could keep down while she was pregnant.

A few visits into our first trip to Italy, my dad jotted a bit of light verse on a piece of paper and handed it to Alfredo, sealing the friendship. I sometimes think that our trip back the following year was just so dad could go to Alfredo’s again–and, happily, Alfredo remembered him and welcomed him enthusiastically.

In the photo below, I’m the teen on the left, and that’s Alfredo with his arm around me. The handful of pasta is dry, kept handy as a prop for photo opportunities. Mom thought she was getting out of the photo.

Of course, the experience was memorable, but for me, it was one more reason to be amazed by my father.

And here is the poem:

To Alfredo
Firenze, Roma, or Milano,
Who’s the number one Paisano?
Who’s “tops” with burro and formaggio?
Who should sit for Caravaggio?
This charming Re. This handsome fellow.
No, He should sit for Raphaello.
Better yet, call for Bernini
To sculpt the King of Fettuccine!

And should you be headed to Italy, here is the website for Il Vero Alfredo–the true Alfredo. http://www.ilveroalfredo.it/
family-with-alfredo-2

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Fun Fact: Thomas Jefferson

There are, of course, numerous food stories surrounding Thomas Jefferson, who was remarkably gifted and accomplished in many fields, but not least of them food, from introducing dishes to establishing new crops to inventing recipes. However, this fun fact is only tangentially related to food, because I found it in a cookbook.

As part of my food history research, I read a fair number of antique cookbooks. Not very long ago, I was perusing a cookbook published in 1876, on, and in honor of, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, some reference to Thomas Jefferson had to be made — and there is such a reference. On the last page of the preface, it states that it wishes for readers, “in the renowned classic of Jefferson, ‘May you live long and prosper.'”

So were the creators of Star Trek fans of our talented Founding Father — or does this mean Jefferson was a Vulcan?

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Food and Power

cuisine-and-empire
I read a lot of food history books, and I generally enjoy them, but occasionally, one impresses me more than others I’ve read. While good writing always gets my attention, a different approach can be really captivating. And so it is perhaps not surprising that I found Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History to be a particularly good read. It is very well written, but the thing that sets it apart is that, while most food histories seem to focus on a single item (including my own book, Midwest Maize), a specific period, or a specific country, Laudan’s book takes the novel approach of tracing cuisine by the progress of history’s great empires. Equally importantly, Laudan also draws a clear distinction between humble cuisine and high cuisine, once that division occurred in society.

Of course, in the context of history, this approach makes a lot of sense. A conquering people generally either introduced their ideas into conquered countries, or they adopted what they found in the places they invaded. Controlling or mandating cuisine became a political tool. Plus people in power have, for at least a couple of millennia, eaten better than the man on the street—though modern cuisine (since 1810) adds to this “middling cuisine,” the food of those who are neither rulers nor peasants—i.e., the middle class.

Of course, there have been a lot of empires, and the book could end up with hundreds of chapters, so Laudan further divides the topic by major influences (such as the agricultural revolution or the rise of Buddhism) and time periods. With a timeline running across more than 20,000 years, the book is definitely ambitious, but it offers wonderful insight into how cooking has developed from the first boiled-grain gruels into the sophisticated international cuisines of today.

The book is massively well documented, should you wish to track down the sources of some of her information. It is the kind of book that could be used simply for reference of a period of interest, or read through, as one watches history unfold through the meals that made civilizations possible and cultures identifiable.

So if you’re interested in food history, or the history of the impact of the world’s great empires on food and food’s impact on politics through history, I definitely recommend Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire.

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Waste Not, Want Not

A lot of attention is being focused these days on waste–especially food waste. Most of the stories I see published are looking at the food system–crops that don’t get bought because they don’t match a store’s ideal, imperfect food that gets thrown out, and so on. But as much of the attention shows, people are working hard to avoid these kind of situations where food gets wasted. It’s not fixed yet, but it’s not being ignored.

However, there’s a huge area of waste that isn’t getting talked about as much, and that’s the food that consumers waste. I know people who actually brag about how much stuff they buy that just spoils in the fridge because they’re too busy to get to it. So buy frozen. It will wait for you–and because it’s frozen in the field, it probably has more nutrients than the stuff in the produce section. Or if heads of lettuce are dying in the fridge because you don’t have time to prepare them, buy pre-washed, chopped lettuce. Do what it takes to not be throwing out the food you buy. Plan meals around things you have, so it gets used up in time.

And in restaurants, think about what you’re ordering. I regularly see people over-order by an astonishing amount, and then walk away from the table, not even bothering to ask for their food to be boxed to take home. To avoid the spread of disease (a good thing), all that food has to be thrown away. Granted, there are times that you can’t take a carry-out container with you — but then order less. And at buffets — take less with each trip. I see stunning amounts of food left on tables by people who pile more than they can eat on their plates and then just leave it. (Some buffet restaurants now post signs that you will be charged for wasted food, but this is still not common.)

So instead of simply looking to the food industry to “save the day,” consider making it a priority to not waste the food that comes through your house or when you go out to dinner. Teach your kids or challenge your friends to be less wasteful. When I was a youngster, we were always told to “finish what’s on your plate, because children are starving in [fill in the blank with place currently in the news]” That’s still a legitimate consideration. You might think that a restaurant would have to throw out the food anyway, if you hadn’t taken it, but they can send the food to shelters if it hasn’t left the kitchen. They can’t do that once you get it at your table. Health laws. (Again, a good thing.) So buy what you can use and use what you buy, and then smile and feel good about yourself, because you’re part of the solution to a very real problem.

As for the phrase, “waste not, want not,” it may just be that you’ll have more money to spend because you’re not over-ordering or throwing out food you don’t get to in time. But it may be someone else who doesn’t “want” — that is, go hungry — because you didn’t waste.

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Radishes

If you can grow vegetables in your backyard and eat them fresh every day, at least in the summer (for those of us who live in places with winter), you know how nice it is to have something that was just picked. However, for most of us, there simply isn’t enough backyard, or enough time in the day, to come close to raising all the vegetables we want to eat. Fortunately, there are farmers who do this for a living. Also fortunate is that clever people have devised machines that make every part of the process move more swiftly. This helps compensate for the fact that the number of farmers keeps dropping. It also makes food both more readily available and a lot more affordable. So please, go ahead and plant your garden, if you can–but then be grateful that you don’t have to limit consumption to a few warm months or what you can grow yourself.

Here’s one good example: radishes. This video shows a machine harvesting radishes in the Netherlands. The machine also gathers the radishes into bunches of 20, ready for the market. Remarkable.

If you want something interesting to do with radishes other than just put them on a relish tray or pack them in lunches, here’s something a friend suggested for when the radishes you buy are too strong to be enjoyable–or if you just want a new side dish, to shake things up a bit. This is a variation of a French approach to consuming radishes. It makes the radishes mellow and nutty.

Trim the top and stem ends of the radishes. (If the greens are fresh and green, look up a recipe that uses them, as they’re very nutritious.) Cut radishes in half lengthwise or, if they are very large, in quarters. Preheat oven to 400˚. Drizzle radishes with olive oil to coat and sprinkle with a bit of salt. Spread the radishes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until beginning to get lightly golden brown and tender. Enjoy hot.

Of course, you can also toss the radishes into the roasting dish with a chicken or pot roast, or mix them in with other root vegetables you’re roasting. Roasting vegetables brings out the sweetness of root vegetables.

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Avgolemono

While my mom was a truly wonderful cook, it was my dad who was the serious food adventurer. He would come home from the office at the end of the day excited because he’d discovered some new ethnic restaurant—which may not sound all that remarkable now, but in the late 1950s through the 1960s, this was not the norm for most families. My mom was from Chicago, and she’d grown up going to Chinatown, but my dad was from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he’d grown up eating Cuban, African American, and Spanish foods. Then he went to North Africa and the Middle East with World War II, where he sampled every local food available. He returned home a dedicated pursuer of culinary alternatives.

While we were certainly not the only people eating outside the mainstream, our habits were not common. Sometimes, the things I took to school for lunch got me strange looks and unkind comments. But I didn’t care, because by the time I was in grade school, I was already a convert to international dining.

Dad could cook, too (most happily on his Weber kettle, where he turned out marvelous lamb shish kabob on a regular basis), and he and mom even joined forces with the rare couple who shared their interests to prepare dishes that took a full day of construction (especially Mexican food: enchiladas or chiles rellenos) However, dad was especially delighted when he found a new place to dine.

One day, returning from the office (walking from the train station, as most men in our suburb did), he burst through the kitchen door gushing about a new little hole-in-the-wall place downtown that served Greek food. It was called Dianna’s Grocery. Here, you stood in line inside the grocery store part of the establishment, waiting for one of the very few tables in the back room. The “restaurant” opened in 1961, and was unique at the time. It would be a few years before owner Petros Kogiones would open the larger Dianna’s Opaa, and we would follow him there, since the lines weren’t as long. But in 1961, Dianna’s Grocery was pretty much the entire Greek dining scene.

Today, I had something of a flashback to that time. I just moved my mom to a retirement home near me, and to help her recover from selling her house two states away, I’m taking her out to lunch a few times a week. Today, we went Greek—and we both ordered a soup that we first loved all those years ago at Dianna’s—avgolemono—Greek egg lemon soup.

I actually learned how to make this while I was still living at home, and it was the late-night snack with which I sustained myself through college. In college, I made it with water and bouillon cubes, rather than with good chicken broth, but I improved the soup once I was out on my own. For some reason, it fell out of my repertoire—I still ordered it on occasion, but I didn’t make it any more. But today, I decided I need to remedy that. This is a wonderful soup, and while there are some fairly complex recipes available, it can be tremendously easy, depending on how much effort you want to put in. It’s quite tasty even made with bouillon, canned broth works well, or you can start with a chicken and make your own broth. If you make the broth from scratch, you can shred a bit of the chicken and add it to the soup, to make a meal of it. However, it’s dandy without it.

Avgolemono
Egg Lemon Soup
4 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup uncooked white rice
2 eggs
2-3 Tbs. lemon juice

Cook the rice in the chicken broth (follow instructions on the rice package). Just before the rice is done, beat the eggs and lemon juice together, until slightly frothy. (The first time you make this, you can start with 2 Tbs. lemon juice at this stage and then adjust upwards, if the soup is not sufficiently tart for your taste.) When rice is done, remove from the heat. Use a ladle to get some of the hot broth out of the pot, and add it to the egg-lemon mixture, whisking constantly. Add another ladle of broth, and continue to whisk. Then pour the now-warm egg-lemon mixture into the pot with the broth and rice, and continue to whisk until it is smooth. Return to the heat for about 2 minutes, until heated through. You should have a very pale yellow, velvety, flavorful soup. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary (never necessary with bouillon, but might be if you made your own broth). Serve and enjoy. Makes roughly 4 servings. Unless you’re a college student.

 

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Which State Consumes the Most Brandy?

I couldn’t decide whether to post this on my Midwest Maize blog, since it’s about the Midwest, or here, since it includes a couple of “fun facts,” a category I created for this blog — so I decided I’d post it there and link to it here. So if you want to know the answer to the question in the title, you can click through here: https://midwestmaize.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/and-the-nations-top-brandy-market-is/

I think you may be as surprised as I was.

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Tampa, New

Tampa has in the last few years experienced an explosion of craft breweries, which seems to be happening in a lot of places, largely as a result of so many folks losing high-paying jobs and figuring that, if they can’t make a lot of money, they might as well have a lot of fun doing something they love. I’m not a beer drinker, but I know enough people who are that I figured this was worth passing along.

Along with the increase in the number of new beers, there have been increases in other areas of consumption. While in Florida, I tasted a dangerously tasty cocktail made with coconut rum from Wicked Dolphin Artisan Rum Distillers, from Cape Coral, Florida. (Here’s the recipe for their Wicked Punch, if you’re interested.)

One of the more remarkable places we visited was the Epicurean, a new food-focused hotel created by the owners of Bern’s Steak House. The hotel features a cooking school, organic greens growing on the walls in the main restaurant, and gourmet amenities in the guest rooms, from butcher blocks and wine coolers to delightful goodies in the stocked fridge. And it’s across the street from the steak house and its remarkable wine collection, so one need not drive home if one samples a bit too much of that collection.

A lot of the new restaurants in the area are focusing on artisanal foods and beverages. Haven was remarkable for having the fabulous, climate-controlled cheese locker shown below, which both displays and protects their remarkable, international collection of cheeses.

Cheese room at Haven

Cheese room at Haven

Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee; it’s the name of a legendary Native American princess) has the advantage of lovely views across the Hillsborough River, great gardens, and a fabulous building: the repurposed 1906 Tampa Water Works Building. Ulele focuses on the abundance of Florida, particularly indigenous ingredients. Everything we ate there was just crazy good, but the standouts for me were the alligator hush puppies, spicy lobster cakes, garlic-laden charbroiled oysters, Ulele salad (greens, cheese, beans, roasted peppers, onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette) and the crab mac and cheese. Everything was good, but those were the “wows” for me. The house-made ice cream was pretty special, too.

Ulele Restaurant

Ulele Restaurant

So Tampa is definitely a good choice for people who like to eat.

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Tampa, Old: Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant

The Columbia Restaurant was the only food destination from my childhood that I was able to revisit on this trip. It was as fabulous as I remembered—not just the food, but the décor, the Old World charm, the sky lights and balconies, and most especially the gorgeous tile work inside and out.

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa


The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida, having opened in 1905. It was created by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. I love that kind of history.

As well as being the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is also the largest—and in fact, according to their website, is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Everything I have ever eaten there has been wonderful, but they are particularly known for their Cuban black bean soup, sangria, flan, “1905 salad,” Cuban sandwich, and seafood dishes.

Over the years, a few other locations were opened for the Columbia, including what is now the oldest restaurant in Sarasota. But the original Columbia is at the outer edge of Ybor City in Tampa. Ybor City is a National Historic District that has been home to a wide range of immigrants over the years, most especially Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish.

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa


Ybor City is now a top destination for cigar aficionados, as the main street is lined with shops carrying hand-rolled cigars. We explored the length of 7th Avenue, enjoying the historic markers, statues, and old buildings, and stopped in a couple of cigar shops to watch the artisans at work, appreciating the care and skill needed to make really good cigars. Then, we headed for the Columbia.
Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars

Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars


Should you get to Florida, here is more information on the Columbia Restaurant (including a lot more history, plus the menus) and on Ybor City (again, more history and lots of useful information for visitors).

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