Sky Full of Bacon

I’ve read an entire book on North Carolina barbecue and I still have trouble keeping track of which part likes ketchup in their sauce and which doesn’t, and which part is whole hog and which shoulder, and what the hell the damned Piedmont is. This site tries to explain it for me:

The big difference between eastern barbecue and western – or Lexington-style, as it’s sometimes called – barbecue is that ketchup is commonly added to the sauce of western barbecue. The other difference is that in the east they use the whole hog, both white and dark meat, while in the west they cook only the pork shoulder, which is dark meat and thus more fatty, moister and richer.

All that said, though, the truth, says me, is that – contrary to the mythical status of this east-west “rivalry” – most casual barbecue eaters probably wouldn’t even notice the difference between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue if you put one of each before them.

Certainly, if you compare the two styles against the whole panoply of American barbecue styles there’s far more similarity than difference. The unadorned chopped pork meat is distinctly different from, say, Memphis chopped pork covered in goopy red sauce and slaw, let alone from brisket in Texas or ribs in Kansas City.

Anyway, we were in Richmond for a few days, which was just close enough to North Carolina for a totally insane person such as myself to drive for eight hours down to North Carolina, across the center of North Carolina for three or four lunches, and back up to Richmond with lots of leftovers for the rest of the family to share. Seriously, I drove more for lunch (es) that day than we drove getting from Chicago to West Virginia. But when else was I going to get to North Carolina? I’d gotten this far in life without ever going there, and there seemed little enough reason to expect that to change otherwise.

With the help of the North Carolina BBQ Trail I plotted out a number of candidates and took off. The first one I knew I wanted to hit was Allen & Son near Chapel Hill:

Looks like a great old barbecue place, doesn’t it? (That was it at the top, too.) I wouldn’t know, though, since it was closed for two days for no particular reason. I’d been Faidley’d again! Given that Aaron Deacon at LTHForum had roughly the same experience, I think we have to regard the allegedly great Allen & Son as having passed into an unreliable phase of its existence where you’d best have a backup at the ready.

Allen & Son Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q
203 Millhouse Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27516-8101
(919) 942-7576 (calling first strongly recommended)

Which I did; another 15 minutes of driving brought me to this place:

A&M Grill in Mebane looked and felt less like a barbecue spot than it did any old family restaurant in the South. But don’t let the comfortably padded, honey-voiced waitress who greets you fool you; a glance in the kitchen revealed serious barbecue equipment:

I ordered sliced pork, per the BBQ Trail’s guidance, then felt regret as I contemplated the probable result, gray CAT-scan-slices on my plate. Still, I was cheered by the first thing that arrived at my table, a freshly-fried platter of the best frickin’ hush puppies I’d ever eaten in my life. Okay, I was hungry enough that if I’d eaten the napkin it would have gotten two Michelin stars, but still, I ate four places’ hush puppies on this trip and these were easily the champs, light and yet complexly spiced. Really great.

My plate came, bearing something large and brown on it— a bun? Damn, I’d meant to order a plate of meat, not a sandwich…

No, it wasn’t a bun. It was an enormous sweet potato, fresh from the oven, what I’d imagined would be a little scoop of orange mash but was, instead, practically a meal in itself. While the “sliced” pork was what anyone else would call pulled, nice long strings of supple, lightly but definitely smoked pork flesh, moderately doused with a ketchupy, heat-laced mop of sauce and accompanied by a peppery slaw. A&M Grill doesn’t normally make the top tier of Carolina barbecue places (the trail site was the only place I’d seen it mentioned), and I grant I was hungry enough at that point to love anything that came on a plate, but this was first-rate in every way, the waitstaff and my fellow diners were friendly (when my sweet potato came a weatherbeaten old boy smiled at me, minus a couple of teeth, and said he wished he’d ordered that), it’s clean and bright, I absolutely recommend it as a backup to Allen & Sons… or on its own.

A&M Grill
401 E Center St
Mebane, NC 27302
(919) 563-3721

The next stop, Hursey’s, was another 20 minutes away in Burlington, which was the main thing that recommended it.  The three smokestacks set the atmosphere— except for one thing: no smoke coming out of them.

Not a good sign, and between that and the somewhat overly clean and professional look of the place, I decided not to spend too much time here and get my order from the only marginally friendly to-go counter.

Chopped is a legitimate style for North Carolina barbecue but this was chopped so finely it was practically liquefied; it was chopped to the kind of no-teeth-necessary consistency one associates with other Depression era foods when people couldn’t afford dentistry as the Maid-Rite sandwich or Russell’s BBQ in the Chicago area. That said, with some of the (perfectly standard) cole slaw and some sauce on it, this wasn’t a bad sandwich, really (and they did have the best fries of the day). It’s just that with smoke apparently existing only in this place’s memory, it isn’t barbecue in any sense I’m willing to recognize. This place seems to have been yuppified out of its roots, and isn’t worth the travel for the barbecue tourist.

1834 S Church St
Burlington, NC 27215
(336) 226-1694

Thankfully, you could spot the smoke easily at my fourth and final stop. Despite my geographical confusion, I’m pretty sure that the Lexington Barbecue in Lexington is an example of the “Lexington style” referenced above— though the only sauce I saw was a vinegary red dip as clear as raspberry Kool-Aid, without a trace of ketchup gooeyness to it.

As I came around the side to see where the smoke was coming from, I found a window into the kitchen and a cook hard at work chopping the meat. When I asked permission to snap a picture, he invited me inside for a closer look:

Lexington cooks only shoulders, round as hams, with cardboard flaps over the meat to keep the smoke in and ash that flies up from falling down on the meat. The firebox was roaring away just a foot or two to the right:

Lexington gives you a wide variety of ways to order your meat— coarse chop, medium coarse, with brown (outer skin), etc., and what makes this possible is that the shoulders are disassembled and neatly organized in the kitchen:

When I was finished snapping pictures he asked, “You gonna have somethin’ to eat?” When I said yes, he escorted me through the kitchen to a side door which put me straight into the dining room. I ordered a plate of coarse:

Not that I needed much to eat at this point, but the meat was tender and full of flavor— though still not that smoky, even though this had been the smokiest place I’d visited all day. The cole slaw was way too strong, almost like eating cocktail sauce; only that night, when I put it on a sandwich, did it really work as the condiment, rather than a side dish, it is. The people couldn’t have been nicer and so I ended my day by ordering some more food to fill out my assortment of leftovers (have the peach cobbler), and took off for Richmond. I couldn’t wait till dinner in about 3 hours, and another chance to eat barbecue.

Lexington Barbecue
10 US Hwy 29 70 S
Lexington, NC 27295
(336) 249-9814

* * *

Barbecue was not the only pork-related adventure I wanted to have in this part of the world, however. If North Carolina was for barbecue, Virginia was for ham in my book. I imagined seeing hand-scrawled signs for country ham by the side of the road, and kept my eye out for same, but I didn’t spot any, at least not in the middle of the state— maybe in a seriously ham-oriented area like Surry County, but not up Richmond way.

I did find one place online that was on the way back to D.C., however: Calhoun’s Country Hams. It was in Culpeper— where I have a couple of friends at the Library of Congress’ new film preservation center— and ironically enough it’s the one ham producer who comes to the Alexandria farmer’s market, just blocks from my sister’s house where we’d be staying. But it worked for us to visit him in his natural element, and I was glad I did— the sight of these beautiful hams hanging on a plywood wall was worth the drive alone:

Mr. Calhoun, as you might suspect from someone selling in the city, aims for a more natural-tasting, less salty product than many old time producers, and even uses refrigeration during part of the curing process to allow him to get away with the minimum salt necessary. (This is no blasphemy; prosciutto producers have always done the same, beginning the curing process in winter to take advantage of the cold.) Besides the hams, there was a variety of other bits and pieces sitting, cured and unrefrigerated, on display. I picked up some fatback, of which more anon.

I had dreams of talking my way into a tour of the smokehouse, or curing rooms, or something. Unfortunately by the time we got there it was straight up noon, and a lunchtime crowd ordering sandwiches made it impossible to schmooze my way into special treatment. So we bought our ham— the young woman stressed the price (around $55) to make sure I knew what I was getting into— and in the meantime ordered sandwiches to eat in the car. As we waited, a man getting his lunch struck up a conversation with me about country ham, how to cook it, etc. He seemed even more excited for me to be getting a Calhoun ham than I was.

We had our sandwiches in the car; the meat was milder than others I’ve had but it had the full flavor of true country ham, and it’s hanging proudly in my basement right now, awaiting an occasion for soaking and cooking soon.

There’s just one thing I’m still left wondering about. I bought the fatback, which looked very much like the bacon I make. And I started to fry some up last Sunday morning. But I could tell as it fried, it was going to be very, very salty. Too much so, in fact, for any of us to eat with pleasure. So what is this fatback for, exactly? It would have to go into something, where it would add salt to the dish and lose some of its own, I guess. Has anyone used this kind of true country fatback, extra salty, and what did you use it for?

Calhoun’s Country Hams
219 South East Street
Culpeper, VA 22701

Here’s part 2 of my DC-area trip… the part in which this Kansas-born inlander attempts to develop a greater appreciation for the seafood Marylanders grow up eating.

We had one day in Baltimore. Plan was, take the kids to the aquarium, afterwards my wife would feed them at something kid-friendly in aquarium area (I believe they went to Potbelly), I would hike over to the Lexington Market to try Faidley’s.

Faidley’s, here I come. Oh boy, this is going to be good. But wait, it’s strangely quiet at the fried foods counter…

All the rest of Faidley’s, raw bar and seafood counter and so on, is operational. But the part why someone would come there during August which is, you might notice, a prominent tourism month… it’s closed. Without a word on the website, which I had visited the night before.

Thanks a lot, Faidley’s.


The rest of the market doesn’t look that great but I decide, hell, I have to eat something. I get a crab cake from another stand, foreboding hanging over me. If I knew my crabcakes, if I loved crabcakes, I could rail against the pathetic thing I was given in artful literary fashion. Let’s just say, it tasted like a ball of Stove Top Stuffing, deep-fried.

I found another stand and ordered another one, just to complete my humiliation. It was all right, actually. It actually had crab in it, for one thing.

Given more time, I could have done better than this, I’m sure, but I had to meet up with the family again, so this was all I could do, and hope for gelato or something to wash away the taste of betrayal.

* * *

I also had dreams of a day spent toodling around the Maryland countryside. The reality proved to be racing across it as fast as we could to spend a day at Rehoboth Beach, where most food seems to come in $15 tubs. (Grotto pizza isn’t bad at all NY-style; the much-heralded French fries taste exactly like Five Guys.) So my ideal of the little, rickety crab shack in the middle of nowhere eluded me. We did manage to visit picturesque, just-interesting-enough-for-half-a-day Annapolis and hit the popular, by no means small and untouristed, but still reasonably authentic and reliable Cantler’s:

This still seems a stranger way to eat than we experienced at Queen Makeda’s, and by the end of it I had a long gash in my thumb full of Old Bay Seasoning, but I guess once a decade, this is fun and reasonably tasty.

Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road
Annapolis, MD 21409-5912
(410) 757-1467

Top Chef would have us believe that Washington, D.C. is a great restaurant town, but foodies I know have some doubts on that score when it comes to high end dining, and my own suspicion is that it’s the kind of city full of people who pay little attention to what they’re shoveling in, though being seen in the right places to do so may matter a lot to them.

Step down from the high end, though, and I fully believe it’s one of the best food metro areas in the country, simply because it’s an immigrant magnet— and that’s the D.C. I explored over part of the last couple of weeks. I had some help from LTHers including Dominic Armato (whose Skillet Doux is the Top Chef blog, speaking of that, and who though now in Phoenix, spent a few years in Baltimore wisely exploring the food in the region every chance he had); nothing I checked out was terribly new to folks in the area, in fact most of them had enough Washingtonian and City Paper clippings on the wall to start a Five Guys franchise. But it was new to me, and their help, and the occasional Road Food or Chowhound post, guided me well, mostly, on where to go and what to have there. The following covers most of what we ate in DC itself, though I’ll have at least two other posts on other parts of the trip.

One thing for which I certainly needed little convincing was that I should finally try Ethiopian food in D.C. Five years ago I’d walked past the Ethiopian restaurant row on Utah going between my first lunch at Florida Avenue Grill and a second one at Ben’s Chili Bowl, but it wasn’t the right time for it– it’s not something easily ordered solo, but my kids wouldn’t have tolerated it then. Since then, though, they’ve eaten Ethiopian in Chicago– they dig ripping up the injera bread and eating it, or sometimes, making things out of it, as Cousin Olivia did:

So one morning we did the Natural History Museum on the mall (not as good as the Field, but it has two ace attractions, the Hope Diamond and an Easter Island head) and then headed up for Ethiopian at Dom’s suggestion of Queen Makeda.

We were directed immediately to a kind of salon on the first floor where, this being Washington, C-Span hearings on gulf shrimp droned in the background. That aside, the service was tremendously warm and welcoming, and the food was, indeed, the best and brightest Ethiopian food I’ve had. I wouldn’t say it altered my perceptions of things, since most of it simply tasted like really good Indian food, bright curries, except for the doro wat in the middle, which was more like a Mexican mole in its dark richness and complexity. But it was a terrific meal, and has encouraged me to give African (one of my own dark continents when it comes to ethnic cuisines) more of a try.

Queen Makeda
1917 9th St
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 232-5665

Afterwards, we went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This has a nice collection of American folk art, Elvis icons, religious art made of tin cans, etc., but amidst it all there is one magnificent work that jumps out at you like a deer on a highway:

The wall tag refers a bit condescendingly to the amateurish perspective. Well, amateurish in the same way that all pre-Renaissance Italian painting is, say. But that only adds to the intensity of this portrait, which throbs with a kind of neurotic energy in every brushstroke. It’s called Stag at Echo Rock, and it instantly became one of my favorite American paintings— and no one knows who painted it, nor has any other work by the same hand apparently been identified.

There was also a special show of Norman Rockwell paintings, from the collections of a Mr. Lucas and a Mr. Spielberg, and I finally got to answer a question I’ve always wondered about. In Rockwell’s painting of the man standing in front of the Jackson Pollock-type drip painting, did he do a Pollock-type drip painting himself— or did he fake it, carefully outlining and filling in each blob? The answer is, he dripped the Pollock (you can see the three-dimensional drippings), and painted the Rockwell part (masked off before or after the dripping was done).

On the way back we spotted a gelato place. Not just any gelato place, but NPR-approved gelato! Pitango gelato makes organic free-range cruelty-free gelato, or some such, there were various magazine articles and such on the walls about the farms the stuff comes from. All I really cared, though, was that the flavors were very fresh and very tasty (oh, and cold and wet, which matters in DC in August). I had mojito with flecks of mint, and I think white grapefruit with it, and it was first-rate.

413 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Speaking of curry-like things, another place we tried was an Afghan kabob joint in Crystal City (Arlington), Kabob Palace. By sheer dumb luck, we happened to arrive five minutes before the sun went down on a night in Ramadan, so we got tables (there were nine of us) before it filled up and got to partake of the various Ramadan freebies being set out as we waited for our food.

These guys know which side an Afghan restaurant whose delivery area includes the Pentagon’s naan is buttered on.

We got all kinds of kabobs, goat chops, etc. as well as some vegetable sides, and all of it was of very high quality, fresh spices and well-grilled. We stuffed nine people for less than $50. No wonder this place is as busy as an Afghan bazaar (once the sun goes down). There are actually two places of this name in the same block, I think the other one is a slightly nicer, more upscale version, but the action is at the brightly-lit, 24-hour one we went to.

Kabob Palace
2315 S Eads St
Arlington, VA 22202

Finally, several people mentioned Eden Center, a mostly Vietnamese strip mall in Falls Church. By myself, I might have eaten my way down one side and across the other, but with a party of nine, I settled on Huong Viet based on the recommendations for dishes I could find online— and except for one caramelized fish dish which weirded my sister and brother-in-law out, overall it was a fine meal, as good as any Vietnamese meal I’ve had here; a tamarind soup with canteloupe and other sweet notes in it was especially fine and novel to me. We wandered a few of the shops afterwards but they were all closing up kind of early; we just had time to freak the kids out a little with durian candy and the likes, and to buy them chocolate pockys to keep them sugared up.

Huong Viet
6785 Wilson Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
(703) 538-7110

So I would call it a successful venture into the mostly ethnic side of the DC area. Posts about Baltimore, crabs, country ham and North Carolina barbecue to follow.

I hope to get some posts and pics up about our recent two-week trip to the D.C. area, but it won’t happen until next week. Until then, this will have to tide you over: a work of foodie archeology. In 1998 my wife and I went to France for two weeks, what is now almost a 12-year-old boy then on the way (so only I got to drink), and needless to say a big part of the point was to eat at fine places. We dined at Alain Ducasse, which I think still holds the record for the most we’ve ever spent on dinner (around $750 for two) and was not, by today’s standards, worth it; sure, it was an exceptionally well-crafted meal, but by now, for that kind of money we just expect so much more showbiz and intellectual excitement– there was no liquid nitrogen, no hot and cold dishes, nothing like that, just poulet bresse (the best chicken I’ve ever had, but still, chicken is chicken), asparagus and morels, high-toned stuff like that in a vaguely oppressive atmosphere— and so far as we could tell, everyone submitting to it was American.

What was worth it, however, for only slightly less money, was a meal at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance, in Vezelay. Vezelay is a cool, atmospheric medieval town— its basilica has a most excellent, folk-art-like work of medieval relief sculpture which my wife’s sister the art historian has studied at length— and lunch at L’Esperance was magical. To be honest the food was perhaps a little behind the times— I will not attempt to explain why that enchanted me here, while I fault Ducasse for not being from the future already— but the lovely small-town-garden setting was, well, just so French. It will always be one of the great meals of my life…

…and as it happens I know exactly what we ate, because we sent the art historian sister-in-law a postcard describing it, course by course. Here it is, my very first food post:

What a novel idea— writing down what you ate, to share with others! How eccentric of me, it will never catch on.

Actually, seeing this again for the first time in 12 years, I note two things: I didn’t actually write it, my wife did (it was a collaborative effort worked on as we waited for food to arrive), and it wasn’t actually the first one, apparently we sent her a postcard from an earlier meal (probably La Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence). But it’s the one I remember and so, like the cave paintings at Lascaux or the oldest surviving Usenet message, it’s the one I choose to honor as the beginning of all this food stuff to follow.

Of which more and better will follow next week, I promise you.

I just read a review of Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition which sniffed at it as being journalism rather than history. Guilty as charged; if ever there were a subject which called for a fast-paced, impressionistic and anecdotal treatment more than sober examination, it was the 13-year-experiment in telling Americans they couldn’t drink. The subject sprouts analogies like a hydra; this is the most insightful political book, the most informative book about what we put in our bodies, the most revealing book on American morals of the year, and it moves at a pace that, if it sacrifices detail (suddenly Prohibition has passed everywhere— were none of those state by state fights fascinating in themselves?), utterly fits a subject that seemed like a kind of mania that seized the country, and was undone by half a dozen other madnesses it spawned in its wake.

Prohibition came out of the religious revival of the early 19th century, but took a back seat to other moral causes (such as slavery) at first. (It was not being allowed to speak on temperance that drove Susan B. Anthony toward demanding votes for women.) A country so thoroughly drunken as the United States seemed unlikely to ever adopt such a cause, and there was never a pro-Prohibition majority in America, but by choosing to go the Constitutional amendment route (where they could assemble the necessary votes among rural states, and avoid the urban majorities of the House of Representatives), and where necessary preying on anti-immigrant sentiment against those beer-swilling Irish and Germans and the booze-inflamed Negro threat to white womanhood, they managed to eke out state by state victories. Suddenly, without the largest states and cities having had a say, alcohol was illegal nationwide, and the victorious Drys declared a new day had dawned in America, forever.

What they failed to reckon on was, simply, American ingenuity. Prohibition exploded in a million ways of getting liquor past the laws. People with boats could sail to floating liquor supermarkets just past the 3-mile limit of US legal jurisdiction over the seas, or take a new kind of vacation called a “cruise” to a Caribbean destination where rum flowed freely. Doctors issued alcohol prescriptions, drug stores opened to fill those prescriptions (and built mighty chains like Walgreen’s on alcohol profits, squeezing non-alchoholic druggists out of the business), and gentiles became “rabbis” to be able to distribute wine for ritual purposes to their supposed flocks. Great fortunes were made (the Bronfmans, but not, Okrent argues, the Kennedys, at least not nearly so much as is claimed today).  The formal dinner party, with its after-dinner segregation by sex, was replaced by the cocktail party, mingling lawbreakers of both sexes who, having broken one rule of morality, didn’t stop there. The income tax was created, largely to replace the decline in government revenues caused by outlawing liquor and, thus, eliminating liquor taxes. (In a real sense, the lifeblood of government before then was alcohol.)  The search power of the police was vastly expanded (including to the telephone); something called the “plea bargain” was invented to deal with the immense volume of cases.

Oh, and there was a little thing called “organized crime” that grew from a tiny scourge of inner city ethnic populations into a major, permanent feature of the economy and society, corrupting every police force that existed with an irresistible shower of money for something that, truth be told, most of them simply didn’t believe was wrong in the first place. The Maryland State House had an official bootlegger, who had to be fired when Prohibition ended.  In San Francisco, the city trash service delivered California wine— and took away your empties.

It’s a marvelous story, in the sense of marveling at how so many outrageous things happened, and it’s one that is trotted out all the time as a demonstration of the futility of government legislating morality, not least in the matter of our own modern prohibition of mood-altering illegal substances. Ironically that’s the one form of Prohibition that actually did work, for a time; for 40 or 50 years after the government outlawed narcotics, they did stay pretty much out of the mainstream, unlike bootleg liquor. The lesson is, you can outlaw something that people are already convinced is wrong and to be avoided, though once they stop believing that, as people did about pot in the 1960s and 1970s, you’re back where Prohibition started.

Likewise, cigarettes could be restricted once people were against them anyway, and our modern game of replacing lard with trans-fats and trans-fats with the next fat and HFCS with something else can work as long as no one really has to make a sacrifice beyond Mickey D’s fries tasting slightly different. But get more restrictive (or bossy) and you will create a black market in Russian mafiya Twinkies overnight. And while we’re tallying up analogies, the way in which Prohibition was passed through every clever procedural maneuver known to man despite substantial voter doubt and opposition, and trumpeted as a great and permanent achievement that ordinary people would learn to appreciate in time, can’t help but remind one of Obamacare earlier this year. Health care is surely as personal as drinking, and if its restrictions come to seem too intrusive on personal choice, it is not hard to imagine that American ingenuity may sprout just as ingeniously beyond the 3-mile limit of the internet. The lesson that passing a law is not the same as having the consent of the governed has to be relearned with every generation, apparently. The only truly permanent law is the one of unintended consequences.

In Prohibition’s case, when it became (rather belatedly if you ask me) obvious to the Anti-Saloon League’s tight-leashed coalition in Congress that the law was being widely violated, they did what politicians always do— they Got Tough On Crime with something called the Jones Law in 1927, which ratcheted up the penalties for serving a single glass of hooch from speeding ticket level to felonies. To the extent it frightened ordinary barmen and druggists and rabbis out of the business, it only removed competition for the gangsters who were unafraid of any laws, and its excesses finally provoked national outrage against the pecksniffs and humbugs who’d foisted this whole regime on America and found no aspect of everyday life they couldn’t stick their noses into.

Newspapers were filled with tales of the crimes the Jones Law had led to, such as “The Massacre in Aurora,” in which a middle class Illinois housewife was gunned down in her kitchen by Prohibition agents seeking to search her cellar. Even Prohibition’s victories, like the conviction of Al Capone for violating the tax laws that only existed for the same reason he did, couldn’t stem the growing conviction that it had all been a big, naive mistake.  A Wet coalition, improbably uniting immigrants (led by the likes of Al Smith and Fiorello LaGuardia) with the bluest of bluebloods (Pierre duPont, William Randolph Hearst) on the common ground of telling government to buzz off, overwhelmed the worn-out, demoralized Drys. The most effective Wet political figure, forgotten today, was probably a Morton Salt heiress named Pauline Sabin, a former Dry who came to believe that responsible social drinking among the young was better than the irresponsible binge drinking Prohibition fostered. (In a weird way, Prohibition and Repeal were both attempts to reduce the amount of alcohol consumption and the attendant social damage.) She legitimized the Wet cause among society women, and that legitimized it for everybody. And so a cause that had started with women’s newfound political power ended with it, too.

It would take five more years to pass the only Constitutional Amendment designed to completely invalidate a previous Constitutional Amendment— the Depression, and the need to restore liquor tax revenue when incomes sank, probably did the trick in the end— and pockets of dryness exist in rural counties to this day. But the idea that government could tell citizens not to drink was discredited forever on the national level (well, except for 18 to 21-year-olds, the one group that still parties like it’s 1929). And so Prohibition ended, but the types who forced it through moved on to other things to frown upon. H.L. Mencken, a vigorous defender of his own heritage of beer-drinking Germanic gemütlichkeit, described them for future generations to recognize and resist:

They cannot stop the use of alcohol, nor even appreciably diminish it, but they can badger and annoy everyone who seeks to use it decently, and they can fill the jails with men taken for purely artificial offences, and they can get satisfaction thereby for the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.

It must seem like a wondrous fantasy of salvation to modern journalists waiting for the ax to fall on an entire industry— a government program to pay writers to write! Alas, the 1930s Federal Writers Project was the sort of idealistic New Deal-era folly our hardened age would find too frivolous to spend money on, unlike more practical fictions such as credit default swaps or a viable American auto industry.  Auto workers actually have to be paid to make cars, but as the internet has proven, writers will crank it out no matter what.

The idea of offices full of neurotic young men and women composing acres of government poetry and plays about the working man would have been horrifying, so someone had the brilliant idea of sending them into the sunshine and fresh air to gather material for guidebooks about the 48 states and various major cities. The result was the wonderful, literate, highmindedly populist WPA Guides; and when those were mostly done by the late 30s, the people still in the program were given the further task of gathering material about the food cultures of the various states. These food manuscripts were collected in Washington, and a guide composed from them was being readied to go to the printer… on December 7, 1941. After that day, other priorities took over, and according to The Food of a Younger Land, an anthology edited by Mark Kurlansky (Cod, etc.) and now in paperback, most of these manuscripts were buried like Rosebud or the Lost Ark in a box in a warehouse, until this book brought them to light for the first time…

…that is, if you don’t count the previous anthology made out of the same material, and at least one book collecting a specific writer’s contributions to the project.

So if this isn’t quite the unknown treasure trove claimed, it’s still a rich slice of one of the major food projects of the previous century, and one of the earliest records of foodways around the nation.  For this foodie age, it’s not only a picture of our cuisine’s prehistory B.C. (Before Child, Julia), but a record of how people thought about food before people thought as much about food as we do, or at least in the particular way we do.

The book is, unsurprisingly, organized regionally; and it starts, unfortunately, in the northeast, a section which proves a bit colorless when it comes to food.  America Eats! had already used the better of two pieces on a Vermont May breakfast, and the one that’s left sums up the boringness of the flinty Yankee palate perfectly (“Among other things served at that first breakfast was cold boiled ham”). It only comes to life in gleaming Art Deco New York, where we get a snarkily droll account of a literary tea (“If the party happens to be given in honor of a new author, he is almost always completly ignored”), and a well-observed piece on drugstore lunch counters that includes news of a new dish, hyphenated as if T. Herman Zweibel were writing, called the cheese-burger (“a doughty bit combining grilled hamburger and melted American cheese served on a soft bun and tasty enough to ensnare even the one-cylinder appetite”).  Most usefully to the author of imitation hardboiled fiction, there’s an extensive glossary of classic diner slang, such as Bay State Bum (a demanding lousy tipper), Guinea Footballs (jelly doughnuts), or Two Cackles in Oink (ham and eggs).

The South, unsurprisingly, has the longest and most colorful section, not to mention the biggest names among the writers (such as Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston). Many of these pieces read like fiction, or scenes from longer stories, and you can just about pick a passage at random and find something evocative of that old weird America:

The Negroes begin to gather by sundown. The host walks around barking:
“Good fried hot chitlins crisp and brown,
Ripe hard cider to wash them down,
Cold slaw, cold pickle, sweet tater pie,
And hot corn pone to sap your eye.”
(Menu for Chitterling Strut: A North Carolina Negro Celebration)

This is the part of the book that fulfills the idea of a lost American food culture, full of exotically named delights (Mississippi Mullet Salad, Georgia Possum and Taters, South Carolina Pee Dee Fish Stew) and, more to the point, a rich social dimension to how food is made and consumed in large groups.  It’s also the part that truly seems to care about how you make the food; where the New England section could be frustratingly cryptic about recipes, here the detailed descriptions are loving and meticulous.  It is hard not to conclude that this is the part of America where food matters, has always mattered, as more than mere sustenance.

The Midwest portion is missing some sections (Chicago, for instance, somehow vanished from the surviving manuscripts) and some of what’s left reads like parody of its food’s legendary plainness— the first piece on Kansas seems designed to convince you it’s the most boring steak-and-potatoes place on earth. There’s also a definite tendency to overwrite here, as if to make up for the drabness of the subject— Nelson Algren’s would-be intro to the section is a clumsy clip-job of the info presented in the actual pieces. And William L. White— son of the smalltown editor William Allen White, and famous for the European airs he put on after working as a foreign correspondent— affects a rowdy rusticness in the other major piece on Kansas that sounds like a city dude trying to play a tall-hat rancher.

A lot of the Midwest section is devoted to what the Indians ate before the white man, and the same is true of the Southwest section, which, as the area was pretty unpopulated, would be quite short if Southern California weren’t shoehorned in. The best of this part is a surprisingly thorough picture of the basics of Mexican-American cooking, introducing the cheese-burger’s great rival for the hearts of late 20th century Americans, “a sandwich called the taco: a tortilla fluttered through hot grease, folded around shrimp, sausage, and chili stew, garnished with shredded lettuces and grated cheese.”  The remaining section, covering the west and northwest, gives just a modest preview of the impact this region would have on American dining in the postwar era, mainly conjuring up a half-lost world of plentiful seafood like geoducks and salmon. It does offer two of the quirkiest pieces; one is a three-page rant against inferior ways of making mashed potatoes, and the other is sympathetic account of the choices in industrial alcohol products available to skid row sterno bums, which reads like a parody of connoisseurship (“a new type of tippler now tops all in drinking bravado, according to Portland police. His drink is a mixture of gasoline and evaporated milk”).

Mexicans come off pretty well, and so do blacks, thanks to the regional division of the book. Otherwise ethnic cuisine is pretty much ignored, save for the occasional ringer (some Scandinavian material from the midwest, a piece on Basques in Idaho).  You’ll look in vain for New York deli or Providence red-sauce Italian; this is a book about the old WASP culture.  Of course, fast food doesn’t exist yet (those nascent cheese-burgers and tacos are just harbingers from the future) and there’s little mention of restaurants at all outside the New York and Los Angeles sections; “famous chef” is very nearly an oxymoron in these days.

Mostly this is a book about social gatherings, as that would be the main occasion when rural Americans (and the country was still about evenly rural and urban then) escaped a subsistence diet (like the “corn-dodger” bread described in one piece) and managed to eat, well, high on the hog.  We tend to be convinced that the generation or two before us spent less time consuming media and more time interacting with people, but this book is so filled with affection for church suppers, barbecue struts, Nebraska bison roasts, police widow benefit potlucks and the like that you start to wonder, did they feel like the golden age of food togetherness had been just before their time, too?  Were they regretting the time they spent listening to Amos & Andy and thinking they should have been out catching possums for a burgoo?  On the evidence of this book, America has been bowling alone for longer than we may realize, and the social events that bring us together over food at its most dressed up have always been the cherished exception, not the everyday rule.

Okay, it’s announcement time. Yeah, that’s what you come to a blog for. But if you came here to read this much, you might as well know where I’ll actually be this week:

• I will be guest-blogging this week at Grub Street Chicago, synthesizing and regurgitating Chicago food news while the regular regurgitator, Nick Kindelsperger, is on vacation. So go there and while it won’t be very much like Sky Full of Bacon, I hope it will be interesting all the same. (UPDATE: For the historical record, this links you to my five days of work: M Tu W Th F)

• I’ll be on vacation the two weeks after that, but I have two book reviews ready to go up during those weeks, so come by to check out those, at least.

• There haven’t been as many Sky Full of Bacon videos this year, it’s true. Partly this has been the busy-ness of life— hey, part of the point was to help get me assignments, and once they come, that eats into videomaking time; and that’s not even counting how time-consuming things like the kids getting into baseball get. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that two are in the works, so there will be at least two more during 2010. I haven’t forgotten video, in fact, I’m kinda raring to get back at it… when I get back.

Have a good summer, eat crazy summer food, read Grub Street, see you soon.

UPDATE: I tweeted this last week, might be worth sharing here.

Three things I learned doing Grub Street: 1. People are still paying for astonishingly bad PR pitches.

2. Meanwhile, contacting restaurant, offering coverage that costs them nothing if they’ll just email their menu results in dead silence.

3. There is basically no way to find anything on a newspaper site that you don’t already know exists.

Pisco Sour at The Bristol.

Two meals in Bucktown/Logan Square:


The Bristol
I’ve eaten at The Bristol three times. I wasn’t wild about brunch but the two dinners were both excellent, a dish with duck egg and orange sauce nearly made my ten best last year. So I was a bit mystified by a recent dinner that just… well, it was a dinner for somebody else, not me. Everything I ordered was well crafted, interesting, subtly flavored, but I just sat there admiring it without liking it. It was like the food someone else would have chosen, who has a completely different idea of what’s good to eat. This is a well-constructed salad of apples, celery root and manchego cheese, but I chewed it like it was cud:

This was a tete de veau (veal headcheese, though the staff uniformly called it tete de vous, Head of You) with a nicely bitter salad and… get ready for this one… fried duck testicles. Of course. When the server described them as “fried and just adding a little creaminess,” I said “You should have let it go at fried duck testicles.”

Anyway, I ate ’em, and they were probably the best part in a fried organ meaty kind of way (though I found the variation in size alarming); the tete though, served quite cold, just didn’t have a lot of flavor, especially after the excellent similar one at Big Jones a week or two ago. I know health regs require stuff like this to be kept cold, but I wish there was some subtle way to bring it up to room temperature before serving; I can’t believe it would be served slab-in-the-morgue cold like this in France.

The last thing I had was ravioli stuffed with peas, topped with diced bits of sugar snaps and basil and lemon confit. This is the sort of hyperseasonal straight-from-the-farmer’s-market dish I’d be all over, so I was really surprised that this didn’t really do it for me either; it was almost too brightly green, too basil-y and lemon-y and spring-y. Too many notes, young Mozart, too many notes.  Yet Mark Mendez tweeted about this dish rapturously. [NOTE: correction in comments]

I’ve argued in the past against the idea that somebody blogging about food night after night, taking each meal as it comes, has to stick to the Phil Vettel rules of trying a place multiple times before laying down your verdict for all time; I’m capturing each moment in time as it happens, and always subject to revision. But this was the kind of moment in time that argues for multiple visits; I’m not suggesting that The Bristol has gone downhill at all, everything represented obvious skill and care, but we just didn’t click, The Bristol and I, that night, the way we have before.

Longman & Eagle

I popped into Longman & Eagle after an event that didn’t wind up feeding me (the nerve!). It was packed, I grabbed a half seat wedged between some guys at the bar and, well, the actual brass bar next to the drink ordering computer.  Just enough room to try two things: some grilled sardines with a nice char, and a dish that was so good, I had to stop during the first bite and just sit there, savoring it, as the music on the iPod went skee-ratch! and the whole room froze and a hole in the space time continuum burst open, revealing my past life as Zarxis, Avenger King of the Mindanites.

It was a tete de cochon, covered with the frankly getting a bit ubiquitous if not ridiculous egg (duck, I believe).  But it was roasted with a Chinese-y tart mustard glaze, and accompanied by some brightly vinegary onion; imagine the best stray bits of pork meat assemblage from Mado, trucked to Sun Wah for them to glaze and roast Chinese BBQ style.  Voluptuous and bright and hot and tart all at once, the only thing against this was that it’s too much of a rich thing for one person to eat all of, but if you’re going there with anyone at all, assuming you can find more than half a place to sit, it’s a thing you have to have.

*  *  *

Next week I’ll be guest-blogging at Grub Street, come on by!

As you’ve probably noticed by now (say, around the time that a post on burgers turned into a long piece on the Cold War and the Space Race), food can lead to some pretty highfalutin’ flights of literary fancy around here.  But not every meal inspires my muse.  This post will be a short roundup of some recent meals which might have some interest as possible places to try, but didn’t inspire me beyond that to write much about them. (It includes the 48th and 49th entries in my series of 50 places no one has written about on LTHForum. I promise I’ll find something more interesting for #50.)

Meal: Donde Zuly y Marta (#48)
Reason It Failed to Inspire: Puerto Rican Food

The great undiscovered continent in Chicago dining is Puerto Rican food. There’s lots of it to discover, but except maybe for rotisserie chicken, it’s just not the kind of thing that lends itself to rapturous posts and precise taxonomies of whose is best. It’s comfy, it’s easy to take, it satisfies, but the really memorable Puerto Rican dishes I’ve had make a very short list, the difference between the best and the worst is sort of from A to C, and the most interesting places usually take in some other adjacent cuisines which are more exciting, like Cuban. I’m never sorry I ate it, I just don’t have anything to say about it. Anyway, I popped into this new place last week thinking it was Mexican. But instead of tacos, I wound up with a plate of chicken and rice. It was fine. The people were friendly; I imagine that’s Zuly cooking and her daughter Marta serving. If you feel like something homey and plain some day, go check them out.
Donde Zuly y Marta
3638 W. Fullerton Ave.

Meal: Shawarma King (#49)
Reason It Failed To Inspire: Look, a Shawarma Cone Just Like At…

Two places with this name, possibly related, have popped up suddenly, one on Lincoln around 5500 north or so, one where Louie’s diner used to be just off Devon. It’s a middle eastern place exactly like every other middle eastern place. Baba ghanoush was nice and lemony, and I liked the thin pita with bits of char on it a lot. The shawarma sandwich was rolled up inside foil (like at Semiramis) and it was stuffed with a little too much lettuce, which deadened the flavor a little. The meat was perfectly all right, but failed to establish by what divine right it deserved the title of king. In short, if you were close to this, it would be a fine choice, but there’s nothing to set it apart from plenty of other places serving the exact same menu.

Meal: Joey’s Shrimp House
Reason It Failed to Inspire: It’s a Shrimp House and I’m From Kansas

There are some subjects I’ll dive into with passion and knowledge— barbecue, say. And then there are ones where I know I’m still a hick from the sticks. It isn’t a matter of knowledge so much as of just not having an intuitive feel for something because you didn’t grow up with it. Cocktails are one; what can I say, I grew up in the place and era when all anybody under 50 drank was beer, and the only cocktail anybody had even heard of was the one in “The Pina Colada Song.” You young’uns whose formative drinking was in the cocktail renaissance will never understand how deprived of our cocktail heritage we were in the 80s. We are the Lost Generation.

Anyway, seafood is another one. I’m pretty good on big fish in fancy restaurants, on sushi, but the place I still just have trouble is fish as a fast food, as blue collar joint food, as comfort food. There was no such thing as a shrimp house in Kansas when I was growing up, there wasn’t even the idea that there could be. (Heck, I used to see crawdads in the creek in front of my house, and that was well within city limits. But nobody had the idea of frying them.) Fish was synonymous with Mrs. Paul, even though I used to go fishing with my grandfather for perch and crappie and the like.

So I go and try a shrimp house every once in a while. And I just can’t get to the point where I think it’s a real meal, or can tell a good one from a bad one. This new one has been praised by Nagrant and others, the decor is fun, at least it’s clean (some shrimp places are kind of scary). But the shrimp were cooked pretty hard, the fries were limp, and the breading was just, well, breading. And really, it’s just some fried shrimp, and shrimp all taste the same (which is, like not much), unless you get some really fantastic ones. At least that’s how it seems to me, but what would I know— I’m from Kansas.
Joey’s Shrimp House
1432 N. Western

1. Don’t play this French animated music video until you’re ready to have its catchy song about having “un café” stuck in your head:

2. Best thing on LTHForum lately: a woman asks how to make better pasta sauce than her husband’s Americanized recipe, and the result is a mostly friendly little symposium on good techniques.
3. I’ve never been a big fan of framboise, the Belgian raspberry lambic beer sold here, along with a similar cherry one, Kriek; they’re a little too much like drinking pancake syrup, in part because they’re usually made not with fruit, but with an industrial extract. The one I did like a lot one summer in Bruges was peche, the peach version, which was much subtler, but it’s harder to find over here. Anyway, Lottie + Doof finds a good use for framboise: sorbet.
4. Good Food has a special short podcast about pie running alongside its regular podcast; the best one so far is this talk about forgotten pie recipes (hmm, seems like I saw a video podcast that touched on the same subject), though I’m not convinced all of these are as lost to modern cooks as they say. Still, it includes mention of the mock apple pie made with Ritz Crackers which Cathy Lambrecht actually made once:

5. Nick Zukin (aka Extramsg) has a post that amusingly explains why granola-y Portland (Oregon) seems so hostile to molecular gastronomy, and how one place might sneak it by them as molecular locavorism.
6. Go have an English countryside zen moment by looking at these pictures of what’s growing there in early summer, at a blog called Nordljus.
7. These two posts at the Vietnam-based blog Noodlepie seem to make an appropriate pair: in one he pleads guilty to being exactly the New York Times’ parody of the obsessed blogger, in this one he rips ex-Timeser Mimi Sheraton for her parachute-journalism piece on the best pho in Hanoi.

ONE MORE: If you haven’t heard about the Speakeasy event at the Palmer House organized by Phillip Foss and featuring top chefs including Mike Sheerin (Blackbird), Koren Grieveson (Avec), Ryan Poli (Perennial) and David Carrier (Kith & Kin) among others, with hooch by all the local distilleries and set in the spectacular vintage Empire Room on August 5, go here to find out why you should attend this benefit for Paramount Room beverage manager Shawn Koch in his fight with a rare form of brain cancer.