Sky Full of Bacon

I owe thanks to many folks lately: Monica Eng for this nice blurb about Beard nomination links at the ChiTrib, Adam Kuban at Serious Eats for linking Raccoon Stories, Helen at Menu Pages and Chuck at Chicagoist for links for that podcast as well.

Meanwhile, Nance Klehm, urban forager and star of podcast #7, Eat This City, has turned up twice in the news in the last couple of days, once here at MSN and once here in the Chicago Reader. The latter is an especially interesting project of hers (hence my headline), check it out!

Books have been piling up at ye olde Baconarium, awaiting fuller reviews, so I will here dispatch three of them briefly but not any less completely, I hope, including one of particular note to LTHForum readers:

I first heard of Clementine Paddleford like almost anybody who’s heard of her did— from a Beard award-winning article in Saveur reviving her memory as a pioneering writer about regional food dashing around the US in her self-piloted plane.  Now the author of that article and the keeper of Paddleford’s papers at Kansas State (her alma mater and hometown) have expanded it into a full biography, Hometown Appetites, which should restore her rightful place as a foodie patron saint.  From the 40s to her death in 1967, she was probably the best known food writer in America, working for what was then the most interesting New York paper (not the Times but the Herald Tribune, employer of everyone from James L. Cain to Tom Wolfe) and its Sunday supplement This Week, which was distributed nationwide like Parade, except that it was actually literate.

There’s a lot about Paddleford that we would like today— her interest in regional traditions, her egalitarian tastes, her no-nonsense Kate Hepburn-style feminism— although it’s unlikely that her writing will enjoy a full revival; the bits included in the book seem chirpy, can-do in a way that’s too corny for modern tastes.  Ironically, in real life she mostly couldn’t do; she wasn’t much of a cook, and stuck to the local color while the recipes were churned out by the Herald Tribune’s test kitchen.  (In this way she may well have inspired Barbara Stanwyck’s kitchen-incompetent magazine writer in Christmas in Connecticut.)

Still, she was respected in her time— H.L. Mencken, who might have made a rich satiric target out of a middlebrow tastemaker like her, instead commissioned a serious anthropological piece from her on church suppers— and deserves to be remembered.  The reason she wasn’t is that everything she worked for went out of business right around the time she died, so there was no institution to promote her memory, as the Times has done for the likes of Claiborne and Franey.

The life is interesting too, at least at first.  Small town girl, gawky and not physically attractive but plenty captivating to men attracted by brains, moves to Chicago and then to New York, hustling her way to various lucrative freelance gigs on both the editorial and advertising sides at once; she marries a fella from back home, and before long he seems to be the one male she’s not interested in sleeping with.  (Paddleford destroyed a lot of personal correspondence, but enough hints of her sex life survive to indicate that she was unabashed and independent; one ex-lover’s ashes occupied her mantle for years, and when she adopted a dying sorority sister’s little girl, it was widely assumed, wrongly, that that was just a story to cover up her own pregnancy out of wedlock.)

At the time she entered magazine writing, women’s magazines were mostly run by clueless men trying to dictate scientific home management notions to women, and she was a leading figure in bringing a down to earth woman’s point of view to women’s magazines and, as a result, expanding their and her own popularity.  Tragedy struck early on— throat cancer nearly killed her and left her with an open trachea covered by a brooch and a throaty whisper, which somehow only added to her odd allure.

The story of her rise in such a male-dominated world is great reading; the story of her long and fairly uneventful survival at the top is less so.  Still, if the story is exciting only up to a point, there are plenty of middle-American recipes that look worth a try as well.  You could do worse than reading the book and then having a dinner in honor of old Clem, the fearless feminist barnstormer of the American kitchen.

UPDATE: As soon as this review went up, the 5-Step site was pulled down. (Of course, it is still available if you know where to look. Not that its availability or not should affect your decision about this book, useful on its own terms.)

Disclosure: When Gary Wiviott first devised his method for teaching the basics of barbecuing several years ago, I built the original Wiviott 5-Step Website; and from time to time reading Low & Slow, a sentence would pop out at me (if no one else, I’m sure) as having been written by me, as I expanded Gary Wiviott’s sometimes cryptic notes or phone comments into prose helpful to BBQ newbies like I was then.

Dozens of people have since followed the program to learn the rudiments of successful slow cooked BBQ, as noted in the otherwise rather exiguous acknowledgements, which raises the question why one should pay $19.95 for 256 pages of something that works in ten pages for free.  Of course, the answer is that no one buys barbecue books, they give them, to middle-aged men they are otherwise stumped as to gift ideas for. As Wiviott himself notes on pg. 13:

It’s a well-known phenomenon that once you have the reputation of being a serious barbecuer, people who know nothing about barbecue will begin giving you books, celebrity-endorsed tools, and accessories that you should never use. My motto: Accept graciously, re-gift rapidly.

If this is one worth hanging onto, it’s because the goal of Wiviott and his cowriter, Colleen Rush (The Mere Mortal’s Guide to Fine Dining), is to undo all the bad habits of all those other books, geegaws and whatnot that you’ve been gifted with over the years.  Barbecue was invented as a way to cook meat while you were busy doing other things, like roping cattle or converting Native Americans to Catholicism at swordpoint, and so not only does it not require a lot of messing with with fancy techniques and tools, it’s usually harmed by them. Keep It Simple Stupid, as Wiviott says (often), and you’ll most likely come out better.

At the same time, even amplified at two or three times the length of the website version, this lesson comes nowhere near book length (hence obvious padding like a quiz at the end of each chapter). It’s also true that while the additional material is often more in-depth in explaining why marinades or brines do what they do, say, that kind of length and digressiveness might be fine for reading on a wintry off-season evening, but isn’t necessarily as direct and, well, simple to consult as the website in the middle of a cook.

So the rest of the book is filled, inevitably, with recipes.  I approached these with a certain skepticism; once you get past the meat, tastes in BBQ-land tend to be pretty whitebread-pedestrian, and the recipes in barbecue books tend to be either the kind of macho appetizer/gutbomb that a sensible person eats warily, or the kind of bastard fusion (Thai sweet and sour ribs with pineapple salsa) that should be confined to chain restaurants named O’Hooligan’s or The Fudge Dispensary.

Wiviott is guilty of the former on occasion— dragon turds, sausage-stuffed jalapeno peppers, make an inevitable appearance under a more family-friendly name in this surprisingly, for him, G-rated and rather sobersided book.  But his considerable grounding in real Asian and Latino ethnic cuisines (he was, like me, one of the founders of LTHForum, a fact the back cover gets slightly wrong) means that when he brings in a flavor from outside U.S. borders, it comes in pretty authentically.  The templates for how to create things like rubs, marinades and brines are quite useful when it comes to offering the aspiring BBQist a platform for their own experimentation and creativity, and there’s an eclectic range of mostly good-sounding, barbecue-friendly side dishes from corn pudding to smoked tomato bruschetta or Thai cucumber salad.

As one of the founders of LTHForum many years and worlds ago, I take pride whenever one of our now mostly scattered company of amateurs graduates to greater professional accomplishments— Morowitz and Gardner with The Local Beet, Hammond’s ever-thoughtful print and radio essays, Cathy Lambrecht’s and Melissa Graham’s involvements across wide and productive spectrums of the Chicago food scene, or my own piece of a James Beard award nomination for Sky Full of Bacon. It’s a well-organized, genuinely useful book, of which both authors (I of all people should not forget Rush standing there just out of the limelight) should be proud.  Father’s Day is June 21st.

Teach a man to cook barbecue and you’ve given him something to talk about for a night, but teach him the cultural history of barbecue and you’ve given him something to argue about for a lifetime. Slowly, we’re building up a shelf of key histories of the major barbecue-producing regions; Texas had Robb Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook (despite the title, more history than recipes) and now North Carolina has Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

Two quotes from journalists in the book sum up North Carolina barbecue: “No man has ever been elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him,” and “Write about the succulent glories of Tar Heel barbecue at one’s peril. It’s much safer to take on the National Rifle Association.” That gives some sense of the importance in public life of BBQ, the swaggering white-frat-boy pride taken in it, and the deep and embittered divide between the two main styles (vinegary Eastern style and ketchupy Piedmont style).

Not having a pig in this fight, I sometimes rolled my eyes at the exaggerated xenophobia displayed by the academic authors, engaged in the perennial game of slumming and getting real with the people over barbecue. (Especially since the one thing that unites easterners and Piedmontese is slagging on Texas barbecue. A little of that goes a long way.) Still, the 75 pages of cultural history that launches the book is an admirably thorough and flavorful account of BBQ’s role in everything from labor movements to German immigration (that’s probably who put the ketchup in the sauce), accompanied by a scrapbook’s worth of flavorful photos and graphics.

It’s followed by 100 well-detailed pages on cooking a whole hog, making sauces and sides like cornpone (no Thai cucumber salad here), and finally, a series of oral histories with many of the most noted figures in North Carolina barbecue.

To be honest, the oral histories get a bit repetitive, and I haven’t read them all yet (for a representative sample, read Ed Mitchell on how he got started), but the point isn’t that you need to read them all, but that someone has gotten the words of these BBQ masters down before they’re all gone. That section will make Holy Smoke a primary source for many years to come.

So a guy posted this video about his visit to Alinea at LTHForum:

Which, he proudly pointed out, attracted attention (here and here) on Grant Achatz’s Twitter feed.

I just couldn’t resist:

Please don’t take the quality of this video as indicative of anything about Sky Full of Bacon videos… which can be found here.

1. Malort, a bitter, generally unrewarding liqueur with a local cult (and no presence anywhere else), is discussed in loving detail in a Mike Sula Reader piece complete with Malort cocktail recipes and a blog sidebar. It’s a fun story, if the drink is ultimately less interesting (yes, I’ve tried it) than the story around it.
2. This seems the natural followup to the above:

3. Extremely evocative report on Negril, Jamaica, full of mouthwatering images, posted at LTHForum (and a few other places).
4. Malaysian food is one of those things we just don’t get here. This is a nice blog of recipes and pretty pictures of it (I linked directly to the Malaysian page, but there are other pages for other Asian cuisines).
5. Proof there’s a blog about everything: a blog about trying to cultivate truffles in New Zealand.
6. Screw Ace of Cakes and all those shows about artfully constructed mountains of fondant, here’s a cool video about the making of a traditional Sicilian cassata, which looks both impressive and tasty.
7. Gotta include one April Fool’s joke, no?

PRE-POST NOTE 1. Bonus points for id’ing that movie reference.

PRE-POST NOTE 2. This is a restaurant review, though it may not look like it for a while.

PRE-POST NOTE 3. I’ve been contemplating a post on the weirdness of life in the personal media age, so add this to the list: you have a conversation with someone at lunch, then you think, I should post what we were talking about on my blog. Where… the person you had lunch with will be one of the three people who reads it. Despite the self-evident futility of doing so, here goes:

So one of the reasons I’ve been urging the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants awards to be more serious about weeding out places that don’t inspire the posting rapture they once did, is because otherwise, the list will harden into orthodoxy. When LTHForum came along, one of the things we set out to attack was the standard list of Chicago’s best, as encapsulated in every guidebook which said that the places you had to eat at while in Chicago were the likes of The Berghoff, Pizzeria Uno or Gino’s, Lou Mitchell’s, Al’s Italian Beef, Billy Goat, Gene & Georgetti, Carson’s Ribs, Ann Sather’s and so on.  Over time, LTHForum has gone a long ways toward popularizing an alternate view in which the must-eat places are things like Spoon Thai, Burt’s Pizza, Honey 1 Bar-B-Q, Cemitas Puebla… and Al’s Italian Beef.  Okay, that knowledge may not have trickled all the way down to tourists, but at least it’s pretty well disseminated in the foodie/food media world.

The problem is, today’s revolution is tomorrow’s new orthodoxy.  If LTHForum doesn’t keep that list fresh and lively, someone else will have to overthrow it.  And while some places on the list may be remarkable and sui generis, others are just there because they appealed to somebody at the right moment, and other places just as good happen to not get the LTH love through no particular fault, because they just didn’t happen to get the little push that snowballed into them becoming an LTH favorite.  And so the spirit of discovery that found the first place… becomes the spirit of conventional wisdom that prevents people from finding the second.

Take, for example, Palace Grill.  No, not White Palace Grill, the one place to fall off the LTHForum list in this recent renewal season.  White Palace Grill is a standard issue Greek diner just south of the Loop, overlooking where Maxwell Street moved to until it moved again recently, that’s been around forever and usually has a lively scene of the animated owner and staff joking around with cops and other regulars.  Palace Grill is completely different; it’s a standard issue Greek diner just west of the Loop, overlooking the restaurant supply places on Madison, that’s been around forever and usually has a lively scene of the animated owner and staff joking around with cops and other regulars.

So what’s the difference?  Why did one get the LTH love and the other didn’t?  It’s not food quality—in fact, the GNR debate over White Palace Grill was whether its atmospheric qualities trumped its decidedly standard-issue food.  Just the luck of which one somebody posted about and which somebody didn’t at the critical time. Both are pretty ordinary at lunch, so far as I can see— Greek diner hamburgers, that sort of thing, frozen patties and fries, serviceable but nothing to get excited about.  (I got further unexcited about Greek diner burgers here.)

But it’s a different story at breakfast— and this is where Palace Grill, the one on Madison not the one near Maxwell, rises above the pack of Hollywood Grill or Melrose Diner or a zillion other places.  For my Denver omelet, the ingredients were first slapped on the grill, and given several minutes of grilling in the juices of all the accumulated flavors of the grill.  Only once the onions and green peppers had softened, the ham had browned, etc. were they wrapped in the scrambled egg exterior.

Okay, that may sound like a small thing, but it’s all about the small things, isn’t it?  Where omelet ingredients are often smothered by a bland blanket of egg, these were sharpened up by the grill.  Likewise the hash browns had a bit of onion in them, so they weren’t the pure starch of typical Greek diner hash browns but had a little onion sharpness.  The service, for an adult and three kids sitting at the counter, was friendly and welcoming as could be.  For $5.95, that’s how the distinction gets drawn between not bad and pretty damn good.  So check out Palace Grill, not White Palace Grill, Palace Grill.  It’s a great neighborhood… joint.

Palace Grill
1408 W. Madison
(312) 226-9529

The first post here was about a Southern-themed party, and I recently had another one, experimenting with recipes from two more southern cookbooks, the 1950 Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts and Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking. I’ll post about all the rest of the things that went into the meal soon, but I want to devote a post of its own to the centerpiece of the meal, a country ham.

If you’ve read Pig Perfect or any of the other pig porn books out there, you’ve read rapturous odes to true old country ham… along, inevitably, with laments of how the real thing gets harder to find, and the best known name in the biz, Smithfield, is in fact no longer making true country ham at all.  True country ham is like prosciutto or jamon iberico, an artisanal product in which ham ages in lots of salt until it’s dense, funky, almost offputtingly salty yet blessed with a profound complexity of flavors.  It takes forever and so, the story goes, it’s nearly commercially extinct.

Well, yes and no.  This being the internet age, even as it disappears from conventional markets, we may be entering a new golden age of country ham in which it’s no further away than the nearest FedEx truck.  It’s not at all difficult to find suppliers online, and I had one in hand within three days of deciding that country ham was going to be the main course.  I ordered mine from Father’s in Bremen, Kentucky:

$38 plus shipping that brought it to about $50, still a relative bargain compared to others going for at least $60 or $70. Does one want a cheap country ham? Well, no, but I found this on some site being touted as the best value out of the ones sampled, so it sounded good to me.

It certainly smelled good— smoky, funky, hammy. Three days of soaking followed, and then I trimmed, laboriously, the rind off, revealing the naked, prosciutto-like ham underneath:

I had found an intriguing recipe in Charleston Receipts: it called for making a sort of gingerbread shell for the ham, full of cinnamon, cloves, and brown sugar, with a little pickling juice from whatever fruit you have handy thrown in. I rolled this thick dough out (another laborious process):

There’s something vaguely Flintstonian about the way that looks, like a drumstick of fried chickenosaurus. Five hours of baking, filling the house with Christmas cookie smells, and it looked like this:

It went off to the side while I prepared other things. Finally the time came to serve it, so I cracked the shell and started carving into it:

Actually, that’s Art, of my foraging video and The Pleasant House, carving as I raced to get the greens dished up and the biscuits baked:

Charleston Receipts actually assumes you’ll glaze and finish it some other way, but that really wasn’t necessary except for appearance, if you wanted a perfect looking ham. As far as flavor went— it was great, the salty smoky meat being counterpointed by the sweetness that the crust imparted. Some parts were tough, prosciutto-funky, others tender and juicy, the ring of fat was like bacon on some pieces, it was a wonderful meat that revealed different sides of its flavor seemingly with every bite. I think the crust roasting method, as hard work as it was compared to simply baking it with a lot of gooey topping, really did a lot to preserve the ham’s own flavor and juices and impart spice notes that enhanced it.

I made biscuits and had a variety of things to put on it— homemade fig preserves and apple chutney from The Gift of Southern Cooking, as well as Stonewall Kitchen’s Country Ketchup (which is really good, very tangy and more like a relish than ketchup) and other stuff. But pretty much anything you did with this ham, including cut some off the next morning and pop it straight in your mouth, was plenty good. I’m glad I added country ham to my repertoire. Even if it’s not something I’ll make often— as Lincoln said, “There is nothing more like eternity than a train ride of eleven days, unless it’s two people and a ham”— I can easily see making it once a year, setting aside some of the harder chunks for future use in soup, and picking it down to the bone over a couple of weeks each time.

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(Followup to Coppablogging and Coppamergency.)

When last we saw my coppa, it had green splotches which I washed off with vinegar.  Back into the wine fridge for a couple of weeks, and finally I decided now was the time.

But, as in a horror movie, I had no certain idea what would lie behind the bandages once they were removed… flesh of tantalizing beauty… or of unspeakable horror?

I peeled them back, slowly…

A little white mold, the good kind, but no hideous green or orange growths.

The smell, too, was the good funkiness of old school salume, not the bad funk of rot.

I sliced it in half, then cut myself the thinnest slice I could and tasted it.

The flavor, like the smell, was funky and deep, but not offensive in any way.  The texture was supple, buttery.  This being mulefoot, it’s more fat than meat, which is perhaps a slight disappointment, and I could wish for it being a little more salted, and perhaps a little more dried— it’s very much like raw meat in the middle.  But for a first try, I was extremely happy with having come so close to my model.

Half for me, half for Hammond whose pig it was.  So he has something to really look forward to when he comes out of his current self-imposed fast. Hey, I got yer satori right here, pal.

P.S. So I also had half of the lardo, as described here and here, hanging in the fridge for an extra few months. I took that down at the same time and sliced into it:

If there’s any difference between what I took down some months back and this, I can’t taste it. Had it been by itself, it might have dried out a little more, which would have been fine, but with the coppa in the same fridge losing its moisture, it didn’t come out any differently. So, three months, six months, doesn’t seem to make a vast difference when it comes to lardo. It’s all good.

Reviewing 47 possible candidates for Great Neighborhood Restaurant award renewal, the august board of GNR voting members has… denied renewal to one, White Palace Grill. Officially, everything else is still great.

Personally, I’d take a good look at how long it’s been since the last actual post reflective of an actual visit to any place I had doubts about.  A lot of the info on LTHForum is getting a bit long in the tooth, what with the board increasingly concentrating on revisits to the same handful of places and the official insistence that places that have clearly and unequivocally gone downhill— such as Salam— were merely caught on an off day.  (I think my last on day at Salam was in 2006.)

Those caveats aside, it is still a key list to the many of the notable ethnic restaurants in town, it just takes a little more sorting through these days to separate the actually good from the sentimental favorites that need to be put out to pasture.  Let’s join Dicksond in thanking those responsible for the program… well, most of them, anyway.

UPDATE: Helen at MenuPages links (thanks!) and says I cry foul. Well, more like unforced error. The excitement in a list like this comes from the real chance that something you like might not be measured as being good enough. When all the children are above average, there’s no drama (and consequently little media interest)— and the list becomes less trustworthy when it grows and grows with virtually no pruning.

In a way this goes back to the issue raised a couple of weeks ago about the Chicago Reader’s Best of here and here, which were, to no small extent, an LTHForum best of since LTHers chose many of the places and wrote about them. Information moves so fast in our foodie community that it’s easy for places to become old hat fast— discover Sun Wah this week, get tired of it next week. Now, I think there’s still value in writing about some of these places because the masses out there, who don’t read the foodie stuff obsessively, won’t have picked up on things by the time we’re tired of them. But, you need to approach them with a critical eye, have a certain ruthlessness about replacing older places with newer ones, be ever more vigilant for new and interesting. The problem is not that there are still some 2004 choices on the GNR list, but that it seems so heavily weighted to 2004 choices, it seems like a 2004 list. Clean out the old, be on the lookout for the new, and it will be a better list.

That is, assuming there still is real interest at LTHForum for looking out for the new…

UPDATE 2: Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: Something new is actually posted on LTHForum.

What are the odds of two people making videos about eating raccoon in the upper midwest in the same week?

I don’t know, but here’s the Detroit News’ Charlie LeDuff, talking to a guy who traps them in the reclaimed wildernesses of Detroit.

For my raccoon video, go here.

Doug Sohn, “Hot Doug,” has long been recognized as one of the key innovators on the Chicago food scene, albeit one usually relegated to a lesser position than the fine dining innovators— Achatz, Cantu, D’Angelo, Gras— because of lingering prejudice (rooted in 19th century aristocratic notions of what constitutes food art) toward common foods such as hot dogs and sausages.

Nevertheless, I think one of his new works represents a breakthrough for Sohn which catapults him into the ranks of Chicago’s most formally innovative and structurally incandescent chefs. I was fortunate enough to experience it today and, though I’m still digesting my experience (figuratively, not literally, as you’ll see), I have some initial thoughts which I think should encourage any of you to repeat my lunch sooner rather than later.

I noticed the surprisingly bare celebrity sausage board (as well as the uncommonly low price for a special) as I walked in.  “What’s it like?” I asked Doug as I reached the front.

“A little bit of everything,” was his cryptic reply.

Curiosity piqued, I ordered it along with fries and a drink.  “Be sure to have the special first, before you get into the fries,” Doug urged me.

A few moments later I heard “Mike G?” and I turned around.  As the guy who works the floor handed me the tray, he looked at me and said, “It’s not a mistake.  This is how it’s supposed to be.”

As soon as he set it down, I saw where the confusion might arise:

We often speak of minimalist hot dogs but clearly Doug was pursuing this to an entirely new level.  I stared at the meal, trying to comprehend how to eat it— which end to pick up, where to begin, whether ketchup was appropriate.

And as I stared at it, a curious thing began to happen.  Though I wasn’t eating personally, I began to take in the eating all around me— the kids sucking on the sticks of their corn dogs, the guys from the gaming company chomping into spicy pork sausage and bacon-cheddar elk sausage.

As I listened more closely, I began to pick out individual notes— the crunch of sauerkraut, the beery tang of St. Jacques mustard, the sweet-tart cherries on a pork sausage.  Flavor after flavor came at me from all directions, and the lack of anything on my own plate meant that I could savor everything in the restaurant.

In many ways it was almost overwhelming to experience so many flavors simultaneously.  I felt my vision begin to expand, I seemed to take in all of the restaurant at once.

The experience lasted a little under five minutes and then the sensations seemed to subside and I ate my fries and drank my Pibb Xtra while contemplating, a little shaken I must admit, the extraordinary synesthetic experience I had just had.

Doug has long been a playfully radical innovator, selecting ingredients by casting the I Ching or sometimes by playing canasta, but this meal exposed a new side of him, the hot dog artist as shaman, as trickster and mendicant, opening the doors of perception by bringing into question the very meaning of such concepts as “sausage,” “lunch,” and “value meal.”  As much as I’ve enjoyed my past meals at Hot Doug’s, I felt that this one took it in new directions which have for me completely redefined the experience of eating sausage.  I emerge from it reborn and grateful for the changes it has wrought in me for what is, unquestionably, a very small price for such, dare I say it, genius.

Hot Doug’s
3324 N California Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 279-9550