Monday, July 15, 2013

Evolving Thoughts on Food Media and Life

I wrote an entry on this blog in 2009 where I treated a few food celebrities rather harshly. Maybe one of the most satisfying while paradoxically uncomfortable experiences in life is to realize personal growth, and for this reason I believe that I particularly owe both Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman an apology.

I still stand by my belief that Zimmern's overseas work on Bizarre Foods, the shows that made him a celebrity, are a little bit silly. But I think that in my needless cynicism I missed the humility with which he undertook the task, never taking himself too seriously. Of course, the work we have seen from him lately has, to use a dreadful food celebrity cliché, kicked it up a notch. I braced myself when Bizarre Foods America visited New Orleans, but found myself smiling inside as Zimmern rode around with Kermit Ruffins. This was nothing compared to the show's thoughtful and sensitive rendering of West Virginia, a place whose culture has been hackneyed more than perhaps any other in the nation. Buckwild anyone? Many kudos to Zimmern who may have done the impossible - capture the essence of West Virginia while neither sanitizing nor essentializing. 

It was Guy Fieri who actually opened my eyes to newfound appreciation for Adam Richman. If you compare the formula for Man vs. Food to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, you will quickly see parallels. Both shows visit comfort food restaurants that most Americans would enjoy. This is where the similarities end. I don't know Guy Fieri, but the screen presence he delivers is flat and disingenuous. Is everything he eats at these places really "off the chain?" Nor does he seem to be liked very well by his peers if the reaction to his Times Square restaurant is any indication. Perhaps he is the victim of jealousy. I hadn't watched Man vs. Food for a while, and so it really hit me that Richman, like Zimmern, enters into the show with a great deal of personal humility, genuine interest, and overall good will. What a contrast it is to "Triple D." 

The viewpoints I shared on competitive cooking shows, however, have in some regard intensified over the last four years. I must confess that my wife and I are fans of Chopped, but not without reservations about the overall formula and what it says about the culture in which we live. A mystery basket, a ticking clock, even the judging of whose dish is best -- these are all fun. Yet the increasingly ludicrous tear-jerker stories of the contestants have grown so very tiresome. "I'm doing this for a charity who helps orphans with no legs" or "I'm doing this for my grandmammy who died last year," or "my daughter needs a special wheelchair." What is this, The Hunger Games? Dreadful.  Yes, $10,000 bananas is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but it won't change your life. Hell, it won't even buy a new Hyundai. Please, focus on the basket contents and try not to cry when the master-hipster of ceremonies, Ted Allen, invokes his best funeral director voice and tells you "I'm sorry, you've been chopped."

Yet the worst transgression of food television seems to be the furthering of everything that has gone wrong with the art of cooking by airing The Next Food Network Star. In its eighth season, this is the program that spawned Guy Fieri. Does the world really need another food celebrity? I can't help but wonder if Julia Child would have made it today. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Benny and the Jets

I stopped by a local small grocery store to buy a few things to bring home for lunch today. Nestled on a corner in a historic residential neighborhood whose live oaks only add the setting’s ambiance, Langenstein’s grocery is in a much better position to deliver on another chain’s slogan of “where shopping is a pleasure.” Cutting across the grain in a business governed by economies of scale, it manages to hold its own against the gleaming WholeFoods Market only blocks away through a combination of nostalgia, tasty prepared foods, convenience, and incredibly good service. Founded in the twenties, it’s a true survivor.

They also like to play rock-n-roll hits from the 1970s and 1980s over the store’s sound system. This can sometimes lead to humorous juxtapositions. One time I came through the entrance and peered down a narrow aisle of pickles, olives, and maraschino cherries to see an ancient Uptown matron gently scooting her walker to “I’m Just a Love Machine” by The Miracles. Langenstein’s reaches an older demographic than the Whole Foods. Yoga pants are also a less common sight, though not entirely unknown. The music, annoying at times, ludicrous at others, has grown on me. I realize that it harkens to an age when grocery stores like Langenstein's were starting to yield to big chains. Step into the store and it could be 1980 - in more ways than one.

As I brought my basket of egg and shrimp salad and coleslaw to the check out counter, the speakers began pumping out Elton John’s “Bennyand the Jets” and it all came flooding back. I saw it as clearly in my mind as it was then, even thought it was probably thirty years ago. Ed Steck, counting the proceeds from our annual summer garage sale, singing along to the lyrics happily while he sipped on a can of beer. “Ben-neee, Ben-neee, Ben-nee-ee and the Jets…” It struck me then and still makes me think that this was the first time I had ever seen a real grown up man singing along to popular music. Not only did my father, who was roughly the same age not listen to rock, he rarely if ever listened to music. He definitely never sang along. In fact, the only time I have heard my father sing was equally as memorable – at his “uncle” Art’s funeral. (Art was maybe a cousin. Certainly not an uncle, but one of dad’s favorite relatives.) I think I might have been ten at the time. Ed and Carolyn Steck had come up differently than my parents, I suppose. They had definitely married later and I suspect that Ed had been to college.  These were some of the key differences, but there were probably lots of others that drove one man to sing along with the radio and another to listen to Wally Phillips.

The scene hit me doubly this afternoon because I realize that at forty-one I am now almost exactly the age that Ed Steck was when he died. He was diagnosed with lung cancer not long after that summer garage sale. It moved fast and I know for a fact that he was gone by the time I reached the seventh grade. I think we may have had one more garage sale afterward with Carolyn but I have no memory of it.

With the consent of the Almighty, my father will be seventy-nine this summer. He’s a great guy. But I’d bet against his ever singing along to Elton John.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fightin' Side of Me

With my apologies for borrowing so wantonly from Merle Haggard, an occurrence during my daily morning walk with Greta set my morning ablaze with indignation. We've arrived at that time of year when families unceremoniously dump their tinder-dry Christmas Trees at the curb. The sight fills many people with regret, rooted mostly out of some lost childhood memory, but in New Orleans these trees end up fighting coastal erosion - at least in some small way. Besides, that's not the source of my indignation. There, heaped among the old wrapping paper and overstuffed trash bags of clutter begat of inane New Year's resolutions to "get organized" stood a tattered and abused American flag. 

it's old bones laid out to fold after getting it home and freeing it from the pole.

The shiny new black-and-gold "Who Dat?" pennant swaying gently from the house's flag escutcheon only reinforced the already sound impression that to the offender an American flag was no more than a seasonal decoration to be disposed of in the fashion of holiday gift wrap. It was disgusting and I need not go into the "men and women who died for this" routine. That should be obvious and cliché in any event. I offer no quarter here.

I am probably fighting against the tide in a country where Guy Fieri and Justin Bieber occupy a position of cultural importance to suggest one reconnect with any ritual of our forefathers. Still, I carried the flag for the remainder of our walk and brought it home for a respectful end. To the person who placed this flag at the curb with the morning trash, I know that I can safely address you like an idiot, so let me point you to something called "Google," an amazing invention that allows you to key in questions like "how do I properly dispose of an American Flag?" It will find useful sites like this one with the right answer.

The soiled and tattered condition of the flag was the former owner's first offense. For those who need an immediate answer or have not mastered hot links, the proper disposal method is a respectful burning. (Yes, Virginia, there were some jingoistic morons not long ago who proposed making this a crime.)You see, I respect, however I might disagree with, the right to burn a flag as a matter of free speech - but to dispose of it in a toweringly distasteful demonstration of one's ignorance? I think not.

a tip: if it is a nylon flag, make sure it is well-ventilated!
Thus, off it went. And, as an added bonus, it was nice to finally smoke out the Burger King on an early morning instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Tradition

It somehow seems ironic that we can trace the literal roots of our newest Christmas tradition to the broiling New Orleans summer. We had gone to shop for plants at Banting's Nursery on the Westbank over the Fourth of July weekend last year and came home with a much hoped-for pink grapefruit tree. For me, trips to Banting's, while fun, almost always result in an afternoon of exhausting work planting our purchases in near 100-degree New Orleans heat. It is almost always worth it. Most of our purchases have resulted in a steady beautification of our property. But on this particular afternoon, a friend of ours came over mid-tree planting and managed to lock us out of the house! More accurately, we were locked IN our back yard. With some reaching and climbing, we were able to free ourselves and toast with a cold beverage to a memorable afternoon. (This episode resulted in a subsequent replacing of our gate's latch, padlocked on the outside, to a numeric door lockset.)

Louisiana Pink Grapefruit with morning dew. Taken with Sony A77/16-50 2.8

When last spring came, our little tree held forth with all manner of fragrant white blossoms. Jessie, the practical one, suggested that we give the little tree a year to grow and remove the newly-formed marble-sized fruit that followed. "No," I said, "I want grapefruit." Nature took care of some of the decision as fruit fell off over the course of the summer, the majority between the quarter and lemon size stage. As Jessie predicted, the branches devoid of fruit grew handsomely, while the half-dozen grapefruit that made it to the fall continued to grow fat.

There are deep historical ties between Christmas and citrus. The origins of the connection between oranges and Christmas go back to old St. Nick himself, a story better told by the keepers of his memory than cribbed here by me. Trade between the Mediterranean (particularly Spain, Corsica, and Sicily) and Northern Europe supplied its manor houses with citrus for centuries. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it became en vogue to add an orangery to one's estate, making the ability to pluck fresh citrus from one's own trees in drab gray England or Poland the ultimate mark of status. We have no need build an orangery onto our New Orleans home, but we have been known to throw some old bedsheets on the citrus, hibiscus, and other sensitive plants during those rare freezes. Somehow the look is more vagabond than regal.

I have always loved the decoration of the Della Robbia wreaths found in the South (and made by the Boys Republic program in Los Angeles still today) to be an attractive expression of the region's flora. Here in New Orleans we are treated to the fall blooming of bougainvillea and camellia - and the groaning weight of Meyer lemons, oranges, satsumas, and grapefruit bending the limbs of neighborhood citrus trees.

Ready to eat!

Our first grapefruit was just as sweet as we could have wanted. Still firm and a tinge green on the outside, it was a lush pink on the inside, full of juice and flavor. In my mind's eye, I see this tree growing large, producing enormous amounts of fruit and enabling us to share this tradition with friends and family who either don't live here or haven't gotten around to building that orangery.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Put a Lid On It!

Entries to this blog normally revolve around food, but I am going to from time to time report on the doings of my various home improvement projects. This stems partly from the fact that these projects have taken away from my time in the kitchen, but also that many people who are interested in cooking also like old houses and often work on them.

By New Orleans standards, our 1928 Craftsman bungalow does not qualify as an "old" house. I read somewhere that the average age of occupied houses in Orleans Parish is around 100 years. But in the objective sense - wear and exposure to the tropical elements of the region - the house is not exactly new. We moved into the Fontainebleau neighborhood in October of 2009. Although we are enormously happy with our home, part of town, and our incredible neighbors, there were a few surprises about this place that have reinforced the legal maxim of caveat emptor.

We knew after a few months that our roof definitely leaked, but we weren't sure how much. For a long time, it seemed that the leaks were just here and there, something that could be easily fixed. In retrospect, I should have been suspicious of all of the shiny new radiant barrier that the previous owner had tacked up in the attic. Maybe he was mostly interested in insulating the house and that it hid all the roof leaks was just a side benefit. Then came Tropical Storm Lee. The random leaks had converged into a full-fledged sprinkler system.

It seems that after Katrina, there were a lot of unqualified and downright dishonest workmen repairing roofs, and ours was one of their work sites. A worthwhile tip to anyone buying a house in New Orleans: don't rely on your inspector to be very knowledgeable about a roof. We used a national home-inspection company that sent out someone who seemed to have been on the job for less than a month. A better idea is to pay a reputable roofer $100 or $125 to come out and do a specialized roof inspection. Had we done this, we would have known then that the post-K roof had been installed with an especially high degree of ineptitude.

We had an incredibly positive experience with our Realtor, Joey Walker, when we bought the house, so we turned to him for a few recommendations for roofers. We braced for how expensive this might be, but remained hopeful that with the slow economy we might find a deal. The first quote we got was for a whopping $15,800, which did not include some of the repair work to visible rot. Needless to say, we were taken aback by what I call this "born yesterday price." The second company that came out, however, quoted us $7,765 plus repairs, which were estimated to be $980. This was better!

In researching online, we found very little information about what to expect when putting on a roof, which has been in some measure, the main inspiration for sharing our experience. We signed a contract with Schwander-Hutchinson Roofing, Inc. in mid-October, and by mid-November had a new roof. What happened in between was a reassuring process.

It took about three weeks for the company to schedule our re-roofing. You need to be a little patient, after all, roofers cannot change the weather! The project began at 7:30 AM with the delivery of a dumpster, followed shortly thereafter by the removal crew. Schwander-Hutchinson's men worked like dogs for the next three days, repairing an enormous amount of rot and putting on a nice looking water-tight roof.  Even though they encountered A LOT more rotten wood than we had anticipated, the total bill for roof and repair came in at $9,440, which struck us as a good deal. They left our yard spotlessly clean and on time. It poured the very next day, but not a drop fell in our attic.

See ya' leaky old roof!

Moral of the story? Shop around. We could have paid twice as much for the roof we ended up getting. But even more so, don't rely on a regular home inspector when buying a house. Of course, there is still plenty of plaster to repair because of said roof, but that is a tale for another day.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Tribute to Lola

The first trip I ever made to New Orleans was in the spring of 1999. I was in my second semester of graduate school and needed to perform the first bit of research at the City Archives for a project that ultimately became my first book. A friend of mine in Athens, Georgia was at the time a training officer for the Clarke County police department. He had recently been to the Crescent City for a law enforcement conference, and shared what dining tips he had gleaned from his colleagues. Cops, you see, have an uncanny ability to sniff out some of the best neighborhood-style places. High on his list was Lola's.

Located at 3312 Esplanade Avenue in the beautiful Bayou St. John neighborhood, Lola's is as critic Tom Fitzmorris observes, the longest running Spanish restaurant in town. The paella that I ate on my first visit was so memorable (along with the garlic spread on bread) that it was virtually all I ever ordered for perhaps my first half-dozen visits. These were the days when the restaurant was cash-only and didn't have a liquor license, but the original Whole Foods was across the way and one could easily pick up a bottle or two for the evening's table.

There have been many memorable meals at Lola's in the last twelve years. Trips with visiting friends, hot summer nights with one too many bottles of Malbec, that first return visit after Katrina - all link the flavors of the restaurant's small open kitchen with people and key moments during the last decade of my life. Today Lola's takes cards to pay for your meal and you can find wine at either Canseco's, which took the old Whole Foods space, or Swirl, a bonafide wine shop next door on Ponce de Leon.

At some point along the way, I began ordering the wonderful garlic shrimp appetizer. Imagine a cast iron pan the size of a paint can lid full of peeled shrimp cooked in an amazing garlic/pepper/butter sauce. Consumed with the aforementioned garlic spread and a pistolette, you approach something near garlicky nirvana.

The following is my tribute to Lola's garlic shrimp. It doesn't pretend to be the same thing. If you want to replicate what's made on Esplanade Avenue, go taste it and you will probably pick up on the modifications one needs to make to this recipe to get closer to the flavor profiles served there. This recipe contains elements of Shrimp Mosca and the various New Orleans-style "barbecue shrimp" dishes you will find on the internet.
Do not fear garlic!

The best thing about this recipe is its ease of preparation and compatibility with entertaining guests. All of the real prep work can be done hours in advance, with the actual cooking time taking no more than ten minutes. In that time you will fill your kitchen with aromas that make your guests quite ready to eat!

Use: 1 pound of shrimp. De-head, peel, and de-vein. Set aside in your bowl.
Add: A ton of chopped garlic. Are three tablespoons too much? No, that's probably a minimum.
a tablespoon or so of Worcestershire sauce (important)
a tablespoon of good paprika
two tablespoon of finely minced onion
two or three tablespoons of finely chopped parsley
two tablespoons or more of finely minced shallot
hot sauce, salt, pepper to taste

Mix all of this up with some olive oil in your bowl. This can sit in your refrigerator until guests arrive. The key to all of these seasonings is that they will flavor the massive amount of butter in which you will cook the shrimp. This makes a dipping sauce for your bread.

This is what it looks like all mixed and ready for the pan. You can hold this until guests arrive.
To cook: Heat a small skillet to medium high temperature. Make sure you are not so hot that you brown or, God forbid, scorch your butter.

Toss in a good 3/4 stick of butter.  Don't be bashful. This is what restaurants do. Get over it and go to the gym tomorrow.

When the butter is all bubbly and nice, toss in your mixture, making sure the shrimp aren't clumped together. Turn them after a few minutes. Sautee this concoction long enough to make sure that the garlic and onions are getting a little bit cooked. Yet don't cook it forever so that shrimp get tough. You should be able to take this off of the burner within 10 minutes. Probably less.

Garlicky goodness in butter. Notice that the shrimp have not yet been turned.

Serve in a bowl with a side of nice French bread. I'm sorry I don't have a picture, but this dish usually gets eaten before I can get a good shot!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Celebrating the Fruit of Freedom

berries await our buckets!
We had been invited on many occasions to visit the country place of our friends Bob and Kelly, but it took until this Fourth of July weekend for other commitments and obligations to finally align and make the trip possible. The raison d'être for the journey was to pick blueberries. Bob, an avid horticulturist, has over the last fifteen years groomed their forty-acre Pike County, Mississippi farm into an Edenic escape from New Orleans. Included among the flora planted by his hand is a compact arbor of now-mature blueberry bushes.

The missus in the arbor
Blueberries, like strawberries, grow well from the deep South all the way into northern climes, but they are distinct varieties, so if you have fantasies of planting your own bushes, make sure your climate offers adequate hours of chilling for the plant in question. Southern berries are smaller than the nickle-sized variety that I once picked at a farm in the mountains when I worked at nearby Virginia Tech or the similarly plump fruit found on the bountiful Michigan crop. But they are very sweet.
our host at work

He explained to me as we stood plucking the fruit in the building morning heat that they are at variety of Southern Highbush Rabbiteye blueberry that require at least 350 hours of chilling for the fruit to set. There are types of blueberry that require fewer chilling hours and, as a consequence, can be planted further south - even in New Orleans. We've been seeing these berries at the Crescent City Farmer's Market since May. But it is July now, and we are picking away. A successful attorney in his weekday pursuits, Bob has a long list of clients and associates who look forward to sharing in his harvest.

The finished tart with a glaze made out of apple jelly
I decided to make a tart crust before leaving town and packed my bag with my rolling pin and tart pan for the trip to the farm. The crust is straight out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which my mom bought me when I went to grad school thirteen years ago, and remains my single-most favorite cookbook. My only exception to his instructions is that I find that warming up the dough and kneading it slightly after chilling makes for a better rolling experience. I'm not a pastry chef, so perhaps this technique is apostasy. I only know what works - and kneading until pliable works! It also seems to me that you can never use too much corn starch in your blueberry pie filling. The quarter cup that Bittman calls for isn't enough. A half cup is more like it. And with blueberry baking, cinnamon and a little lemon juice are your friend.

It was a fine weekend. Bob made a tasty chicken sauce piquant from Don Link's Real Cajun cookbook, and we followed it up with the tart. The only downer of the trip is that Greta, my faithful German Shorthair Pointer of nine years, once again has a sore paw after romping around the fields. The result of a chronic condition not unassociated with old age.

Refreshed, we drove back I-55 to town right in time for a friend's Fourth of July barbeque. Poor Greta is recuperating on the bed and dreaming of the bunnies she'll chase on our next visit.

"we could just move in, you know"