Sky Full of Bacon

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