Tuesday, July 31, 2012

AH HA! Part 2..."Kitchen Bitch"


Just to recap I'll give you the second to last paragraph then enter the kitchen...Watch out for "Crash"....he's a pisser.

The cows that I knew and loved were replaced by a sometimes motley crew of half-assed cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, pot smokers, whip-it fans, coke heads, alcoholics, frat boys, sorority girls, party animals, degenerates, poets, drug addicts, philosophy majors, back stabbers, wanna be drug dealers, bookies and other assorted ass-clowns of the type and variety that you can only see in a mediocre restaurant, which is to say…a lot of them.

I told you about the farm so I could tell you this one...My first professional kitchen and all the grandeur and fame that goes with being a cook...Yeah just like being married, each day is better than the last...and more sex too! Looking to buy a bridge? By the way this one is a bit longer than my other posts so if you get scared or light-headed cause you had to read a couple thousand words feel free to sit down or pull over to the side of the road and get some air. If you're reading this because you want to be a cook and you had a tough time...you may want to consider a career in astrophysics ...cause this shit's hard!

I changed the names around a bit to protect the guilty people involved…except for the first guy because I’m pretty sure the name I know him as, was not his “God Given Christian Name.”  The guy on the broiler station was a former U.S. Marine named Crash, was six-four and rock solid from running and working out every day for five years.
His outfit was typically a Dead Kennedys or (insert other early 80’s punk band name here) long sleeve or three quarter sleeve shirt, suspenders, BDU Camouflaged Shorts or Pants, (compliments of Uncle Sam) Dr. Martens boots and a mohawk of no particular color because at any given minute it might change, and a dishwasher’s snap front shirt with the short sleeves ripped off.

Dan he was the head chef. I only knew him as "chef" and he did expo...he was slight of frame and average height and was very quiet, so quiet in fact that I can’t even recall anything about his voice except to say it was quiet mono-toned and steady. Dan was a good guy, a great leader and in control but he liked to drink A LOT at the end of his shift…like a lot a lot….so much so that they actually kept a bottle of vodka outside the doghouse so he could stay and continue to drink long after everyone decided to take the party elsewhere.  Dan was sad and that was that…I never asked or knew why because I was immortal and had all the problems of a seventeen year old from a middle class upbringing…which is to say none. I could only assume everyone else’s world ran as swimmingly as mine.

We had a Mexican named Dave (well it wasn’t Dave but he called himself a name that was whiter than me!) working sauté who liked to sexually harass the wait staff(this was before sexual harassment was a “thing” and even today this thing is more rampant from both sexes in the restaurant world than in any other industry short of Porn), screw in the walk in, smoke weed with bill the dishwasher and at times sleep in dry goods when he was too high to drive home. I wished I could say Dave was a strong cook, he wasn’t. His cooking skills were augmented by his good sense of humor. Sauté at this restaurant wasn’t as glamorous or fast paced as it is at most restaurants today and as a result on slower nights Dave worked the fry station as well.

Jeff was on Grill and was even-keeled until the end of the night where last minute diners drove him to fits of rage to the point Crash had to hold him back and keep him from shouting out the back door at the "unwelcome" patrons who were taking “all the sweet fucking time in the world.” Expressing to them in his most sincere and heart-felt way "what a bunch of cocksuckers they were"....he was like Jekyll and Hyde at the end of the night, but during service he was rock steady and fun to be around.

These were the main players from the kitchen but there are a few worth mentioning. I mentioned Bill the dishwasher who Dave loved to smoke pot with, well aside from wash dishes I’m pretty sure that’s all Bill did was smoke pot and snap at the wait staff. Patrick who was one of the owner’s two sons who was my age, full of piss, vinegar and thoughts of revenge and anger towards his folks for making him be in this industry. Anyway had access to the apartment over the restaurant where the real debauchery would take place after the restaurant closed for the night.

There were the owners themselves let’s call them Bob and Hilda (as in Broom) who were rarely there and thank heavens as they were both about as much fun as a zip top baggie full of pig testicles. There was another son whom we shall call Dick (short for Richard of course) who would travel around from kitchen to kitchen spreading his gift for being  moody bitch with everyone in all five kitchens in the parents growing restaurant empire. Then there was Dick’s girlfriend and travel companion who also cooked and curmudgeoned her way around all the other restaurants. Let’s call her…  Constance or if we can....the shortened female version of Dick….you get the idea. But as these characters don’t really come into play for this story, that’s all I will say about them.

I didn’t stay a bus boy too long because Dan found out I could hold a knife and not kill anyone, so I stopped being a bus boy and moved into the kitchen as a prep cook. I learned more tips and tricks in two weeks of doing prep than I had learned since I started watching Julia Child with my dad when I was five or so. I loved doing prep because although there was a lot to do… it wasn’t especially hard as long as you were well organized.

Everybody knows how well organized teenage boys are just by looking at their rooms, so this was a bit of a challenge. One of the good things about working in a kitchen and doing prep is that it is a “carrot and stick” environment. Do well and you get the carrot. Do poorly, screw up and you get your ass beat with the stick. Putting together those stuffed mushroom caps means grabbing about fifteen things so forgetting just two or three things means extra trips to the walk-in cooler or worse, all the way down the back stairs to dry storage. Making those extra trips means extra time…extra time is something you don’t have a lot of. So when you burn it up just walking around you get …dans la merde! Literally translated…in the shit!

The one benefit in being a prep cook is that you are at least higher on the food chain than both the dishwasher and most of the front of the house people. This is also where you first discover the divide between the front and back of house. This is where you are groomed to understand that the wait staff are all idiots out to screw you every chance they can because it’s all about them and their precious tips. Of course only being a lowly prep cook you are somewhat invisible to the “real” cooks and are sort of a man without a country. In limbo to defend your station against the poaching hordes looking to steal those shrimp you’re cooking, and you’ll get your ass kicked by chef if you let them.

Crash’s looks intimidated me a bit but I loved listening to him telling wait staff what a bunch of bombastic fuck-ups they were. I was a prep cook and that made me lower than a ticks ass amongst most of the other back of house employees. So one day while I was futzing around doing prep in the kitchen while Crash dressed down another waiter and telling him he could "Roll his art-history degree up tight and jam it in his ass sideways..." I chuckled at this and thought the "sideways" was a nice touch...

I looked up and Crash was staring at me and posed the question “and just what the fuck are you laughing about?” Caught off guard and feeling red in the face from embarrassment, I opted to go with “I’m not sure if it’s your face or your ass but if it’s the latter, that’s the most impressive handstand I’ve ever seen!”*** To which Crash just turned his head in the direction of the other line cooks who were now laughing, looked back at me and half smiled saying “well…I guess Cubby’s a fucking comedian…” 
***  (this was part of a joke my father used to say and always made me laugh) I'm glad I said it because had I let him attack me without digging him back...I would have been the kitchen bitch.

Cubby, as it turns out was the nickname they had given me because I had somewhat of a crew cut and chubby cheeks so they decided I looked like Cubby from Disney’s Mouseketeers. Nicknames are a good thing in the kitchen even though they’re not always good. Let me explain…a nickname is something you’re given if the other cooks give enough of a shit that you’re even there. The downside is you aren’t in any way involved in the “Nicknaming” process.

 It’s usually as a result of something you’ve messed up or do as a habit, or is sometimes indicative of your more base predilections. Suffice it to say I was lucky. Even though the nickname was meant to be an insult of sorts in saying I was a chubby little kid… which I guess in some ways I was…ok, in all ways I was. But I’m glad it wasn’t “Pissy” nickname given to one of the cooks who drank piss from a beer bottle, (the result of a prank) “maricón” (vulgar Spanish for a gay male) given to one of the cooks cause he accidentally tried to pick up a transvestite while on a bender and the transvestite came and visited him at the restaurant, “cojones” Spanish for testicles given to the only female cook as in…she had bigger testicles than her boyfriend (the owner’s eldest son)who was aptly nicknamed “Mary”.

I did prep for most of the summer and just before school was about to start I was “lucky” enough to be there on a Thursday night after working all afternoon and Dave came in not feeling so well. And by not feeling so well I mean he was hung over and probably either had some kind of stomach virus or was genuinely sick. It was decided he would only do sauté and I would do fry station… I wasn’t asked to do it, I was told that would be my job with the only instruction being…”Don’t fuck it up” in a calm tone and manner that was indicative of how chef always talked…Yes Chef was about all I could say.

Fry Station: Fry stations in higher end restaurants don’t get much use with the exception of maybe deep frying some capers, sage or basil for garnish, or perhaps the odd order of steak frites for a flash fry to crisp them up. In this restaurant everything short of prime rib went in there. On two occasions I even saw those go in there because they came back from the dining room with the waiter saying "they weren’t well done enough." Chef was not there and it was the end of the night so you guessed it…Jeff decided “these fuckers want me to kill their shit...OK, I'll kill it!!” into the fryolator they went. Trust me when I tell you people take an already well done steak and give it five minutes in a fryolator at 375 degrees…it is more.... well…donerer?!

That horrible sound …when you’ve never worked in a kitchen, or even if you have and are with a new crew for the first time, the sound that dupe printer makes induces nervousness in some cases, and in my case sheer terror…Oh God No…I thought to myself...What the fuck am I doing here?! I look over at chef as he scans the order…he looks over at me in what seemed like slow motion and said “are you ready?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything and to be honest I don’t think he was looking for a response. Fire Three Haddock, Fire Three Fries, Fire An O Ring, Fire One Shrimp, Fire Two Calamari…everything sounding of nothing.

I looked back to see if Dave could give me a little instruction  but he was in the bathroom driving the porcelain bus…”CUBBY!” chef shouted. Looking back to see chef with raised eyebrows…”Yes Chef?” What did I just say to fire? Ummm was all I could muster. “Aw Fuck” said chef! Wow I thought to myself, I never hear chef say fuck…then the realization that he said it because I was the one fucking up before I ever “fired” anything…he repeated the order and I repeated it back to him then reached in the low boy for the haddock…dropped them in the batter and then into the hanging fry basket before lowering it into the hot oil. There I thought to myself and with a sigh of relief... I got this. I then started to work on the fries, shrimp, calamari and o-ring.

I went back to the basket with the haddock to shake it like I was told. come to find out what I had really done by dropping the haddock in the basket before lowering it in the oil, was guarantee to weld it to the bottom of the basket…I tried shaking it harder but to no avail… I figured if I let it cook longer it would free itself… or get crispy and break free….or maybe do some kind of magic fish thing…While I was contemplating that…”How long on the Haddock?! “Looking over at chef I thought about it and looked back at the fish…pulling a number from somewhere between my ass and mid-air I said one minute chef. It was kind of golden-ish...right?! I grabbed three plates and scraped the three pieces of fish from the bottom of the basket and put them on the plate batter less side down and one of them even broke in half. I was  thinking it looked fine and besides... the chef wouldn’t notice. oddly enough he did…

Keep in mind this whole time he was yelling something new to fire about every five seconds. I would then repeat what fry items he was asking for and dropping them as fast as I could…but no matter, chef took the time to come back across the line from expo and down to the fry station where I suspected he’d give me an “atta boy” or “job well done Cubby.” What I got instead was…If I ever see this again, (holding the plate of awful fish) I’ll make sure you’re not only back to front of house, but I’ll make sure you’re fucking under it!
Nobody said anything and continued to cook. I just lowered my head and continued to bust my ass because there was nothing I could do but keep cooking…”Fire Three Haddock On The Fly Dumbass” (Translation= Like Yesterday...Dumbass!) By this time Dave came back and was able to help get me going in the right direction. He brought up a five gallon pail and sat it between the fryolator and stove where he would occasionally duck his head to vomit. This is where I learned; in the kitchen…you don’t call out from work…unless you’re dead. And if you're dead, then somebody else better be calling in for your faking ass!

Work always ended with cocktails for the cooks, with the exception of course being Patrick and I. We were seventeen and the bartender Nancy thought of herself as our work mother and wouldn’t allow it. So instead, on nights when Patrick worked the line we would end our day with cocktails in the upstairs apartment usually in the company of a few of the wait staff and other cooks. Most nights would end somewhat uneventful but if it was from Wednesday night on, all bets were off.
I won’t go into specifics except to say, if I combined all the stories of “Sex, Drugs and Alcohol” I could build a ship made out of cocaine and marijuana, float it on a sea of alcohol and filled with every porn star on the planet and still not come close to those first two years of restaurant life. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much…but I saw a lot of things that made me think the restaurant life was the life of a rock star… if that rock star had no singing or musical abilities.

Most people are not aware of what restaurant life is like in the kitchen. I’m sure most have this romantic notion that It’s all about the chef walking around and adding a pinch of this or a dab of that to sauces and stews. Maybe you're thinking he makes suggestions about what might be good in this or that dish. Meanwhile the other cooks sort of stroll around watching each other flip stuff in pans and chit chat about ingredients, or what they should create next, or last night’s episode of Iron chef. Some might think of it as an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with the head chef walking around with all the time in the world to yell at you and have everybody come over to look at the burned scallop. Finally after not fucking up the NY Strip for the fifth time having the chef call your name…”Cubby…Nicely done!”

Allow me let you in on a little secret…It is nothing like that. Chefs don’t have that kind of time and rarely have that kind of patience. I'll personally guarantee if you mess up a NY strip five times in a row you’ll either be fired, or you’ll be peeling potatoes. Come to think of it you’ll be fired and the guy peeling potatoes will be doing your job, and his cousin who was washing dishes will be peeling potatoes. Most chefs aren’t lunatic assholes…let me rephrase that, most chefs aren’t assholes. They want you to do well, it’s in their best interest for you to do well.
Provided you do everything the way they want it done, every, single, solitary, time, exactly, the, same, way, with, zero, exceptions. They are most certainly lunatics to some degree. Who the hell else in their right mind wants to work on every damned holiday, handle scheduling, staff problems, somebody wants a raise, everybody wants a raise, firings, catering, ordering, inventory, HR issues, equipment breaking down, produce not showing up, got the wrong meat order, your fish guy is tryin to screw you, your grill guy maybe wants to go work down the street...plus have sixty to eighty hour work weeks for a salary you’d expect to make as a first year accountant?!

It’s hard work. It’s often times thankless work. Until recently it was considered unskilled work where cooking was what you did when you weren’t good enough to do anything else. Now everybody wants to do it, or at least thinks they can do it, and they think they can do it because they’ve cooked with lemon grass and quinoa. There are culinary schools out there where they say you can be a chef in as little as fifteen weeks. WTF... Whiskey Tango Foxtrot...over. There are chefs out there from the old brigade system who were bellman in a hotel for two years before they could even go into the kitchen, and you’re gonna be a chef in fifteen weeks?

Assholes on Yelp think it’s just that simple. I mean really, they have every cookbook ever done by Ina Garten and Bobby Flay…and they’ve even cooked some recipes from them that their friend's liked….so why didn’t someone fold my napkin when I went to the bathroom? I’m giving one star cause I’m somebody and I know these things goddammit, besides I didn’t get enough hugs as a child so I’m going to shit on a restaurant and in turn, a chef's life work cause I’m a spoiled little bastard. Yelp…You’re dead to me. And soon enough... Thankfully...you’ll be dead to everybody else.

Going to culinary school WILL NOT teach you how to cook. Cooking in a restaurant on the line with a team, will teach you how to cook by giving you one ass kicking service after ass kicking service. By doing this enough, if you survive that long... you will learn to cook as if your kitchen tools are an extension of you. Culinary school will give you a baseline of technique, and the people you work with... a rash across their ass because you’ll probably think you’re better than them. Hell you may even get a bit more pay. But until you’ve out-worked, out-sweated and out-bled them… you aren’t shit. So get rid of the delusions of grandeur and dreams of being the next Iron Chef in the near future… there’s too much work to be done and never enough time to do it.

I wish I could tell you I rose through the ranks and worked every station flawlessly. I wish I could tell you it all worked out in the end. I wish I could tell you all those guys are still there cooking their asses off and living like rock stars. I didn’t, It didn’t and they aren’t. I worked for the next year and a half on fry station helping on grill and sauté when needed. I never mastered anything and the food I was serving was by today’s standards, antiquated shit. I learned a few things, drank quite a bit, and screwed as often as any waitress would let me.  I enjoyed the work no matter how hard, and I came to enjoy the guys I sweated with on the line… but after I graduated high school and worked there for one more summer…I kissed the restaurant life goodbye until some eight years later I came back for yet another two years of being kicked in the balls.

Maybe more on that later…

Monday, July 30, 2012

AH HA...Part 1 (Farm Days)


Everybody has had their “AH HA” moments with regards to food. For some only one moment was needed to drive them to the world of food. Others like me needed to be given the culinary equivalent of a beat-down before I figured out I wanted to be connected to food in some way. Going from my fist real job of working on a dairy farm to a professional kitchen were just two such jabs...

I was finishing my junior year in high school when a friend asked: “Do you want to work at the restaurant with me this summer?” I never really thought about having another job before. Until then I had worked at a dairy farm nearly every summer since I was about twelve, and before that I had done chores there to earn a few bucks ever since I could hold a corn broom and sweep silage back into the mangers.

Farming was something I enjoyed, It was a job where you could see the fruits of your labor daily and seasonally. Whether it was putting the hay in the barn, drinking a fresh glass of milk, filling containers with maple syrup you helped produce, eating vegetables you helped plant and grow or eating bacon or fresh eggs. Nearly every day there was something new and productive going on, and even when there wasn’t…it was still pretty damned good.

Tedding hay (flipping or turning hay so it dries faster) for ten hours straight meant hours of mind numbing tractor noise with only a warm Mountain Dew and my own thoughts to keep me company.  IPods weren’t around yet and a Walkman wouldn’t have been nearly loud enough to play over the drone of the engine from that old Massey Ferguson tractor. It wasn’t much to look at and was comparatively small next to the larger tractors used to run the disc mower or the baler, but when I drove it to get diesel or to the store for a sandwich and a cold drink it was a Cadillac… and I was cooler than ice cream at the north pole.

Bonus points were earned while driving down the road or being at the store if I could see an envious friend who couldn’t yet drive legally (because I had an AG license I could) or a cute girl who would surely be impressed with my driving prowess. To top it off I was on a relatively big piece of equipment…the childhood equivalent of having a Tonka truck and giving Barbie a lift!  At least that’s how it worked in my mind as I drove on back to the field to continue tedding and daydreaming. The days of tedding however, were followed by a long hard day of tossing hay.

Tossing hay was my least favorite thing to do, as being one of the stackers meant you had to be fast and hand stack the hay in a Jenga like fashion while standing on hay bales stacked a day or two before. Bales outwardly look like a stable surface but when you’re actually standing on them it is more akin to walking on the chest of a very large, very big breasted woman. Take care not to step on the crack between them (the bales of hay people...let's focus) because you’ll sink up to your knee in hay. All the while thirty pound bales are being fired at your head and chaff rains down on your sweat covered neck and back in the sweltering heat of a well insulated hay loft in summer …it’s an itchy situation.

One of the things I enjoyed was the morning milking which happened at about 4:30am. It wasn’t the great hours that drew me to it, but rather the solitude. You’re a Zen master who’s living as one with whatever song that is playing in the background and the Cows quietly chewing their cud. I would stand in a concrete bunker (or pit) up to my waist. Opening the sliding door from the backside of the pit with a rope and pulley system allowed the cows to file in four on each side. In front of them was a bin with grain and their hind-end was nearer to the pit. While the cows were busy eating breakfast I would walk up and down each side cleaning their udders (which are now at face level) and putting on the inflations which draw the milk from the cows.

You can watch the fresh milk flowing through a clear topped vessel with a black knob on top before going through stainless steel pipes into the bulk tank where it is cooled and held for transport. It flows through this clear topped vessel so you can see it when the milk nearly stops flowing. When it does you pull up on the black knob and the inflations drop off the udders and are pulled up by a retractable cord into a waiting position where they are ready for the next cow. Then a rope is pulled on the front side of the pit signaling to the cows that breakfast is over... with a quick whistle they begrudgingly begin to file out of the milking parlor to allow for a new batch of eight to file in.

It’s a quiet time when you are alone in the milking parlor; a radio plays almost unnoticed in the background nearly drowned out by the hum of the milk pump. There is about a five minute window while the cows are being milked where you can actually eat whatever sandwich you brought for breakfast. I say sandwich because this is not a place to be bringing yogurt or oatmeal unless you like unintentional things being added that aren’t in the form of fruits or nuts, besides…where would you keep the spoon? As cows are not potty trained, there are panels between the cow's butt and where you are standing.



But nature being what it is, the cows are not always diligent about standing square in their stalls. So it misses the panel and there is somewhat of a splatter effect from the cow’s morning constitution which means you get to experience first hand the old adage “when life hands you a shit sandwich every now and then you have to take a bite”. Like a coal miner you hold the sandwich in one spot and eat around that spot and when you’ve eaten as much as you dare…it’s a good idea to throw the rest away so as to avoid getting shit in your teeth.

One fine spring vacation after all the fields had been planted and there was a bit of a lull waiting for haying to begin, a farmer up the road needed help getting his crops in the ground so I was asked to go help him out. The farmers name was Larry and he picked me up after milking one morning and we began the five minute drive to his farm…I didn’t know Larry very well but I knew “of” him. He was a very quiet man who had moved down from northern Vermont and had a thick Vermont accent.

Larry said he had other things to do and his boy Ralph would take me to the fields that needed work…more on that in a moment. Ralph was the younger of Larry's two boys and it’s fair to say I liked him immediately. Ralph had a habit of chewing tobacco, and it was rumored that he chewed so much and so often that when he had to brush his teeth in the morning all he did to keep from having to spit out his chew was to move it from one side of his mouth to the other.

I don’t know if that was true, but I know when he did chew he kept a large amount in his mouth and it only made it more difficult to understand him when he spoke. That combined with a thick northern Vermont accent made for a funny conversation. We arrived at a freshly plowed field when he turned to me and asked…You ever do any heroin? I played the question back in my head, then I looked back at him with what must have been a deer in the headlights look “no...never”…then it occurred to me I should ask him the same. “Have you?”

He looked as confused as I was for about ten seconds…we stared at each other until it dawned on us what was meant by each other and almost simultaneously we busted out laughing. In northern Vermont when pronouncing a word that ends in “ing” they typically drop the “G” and the “I” becomes an e sound. So harrowing (the act of smoothing out a freshly plowed field with an implement called smoothing harrows) becomes Heroin…the drug. He was asking if I had harrowed a field before, not if I had done heroin.

I saw some really good things happen on the farm growing up…calves and pigs being born, cheese and butter being made, crops being harvested, and seeing visitors bottle feeding calves getting head butted in the nuts because they didn’t know to hold the bottle to the side instead of in front of their genitals.

Other highlights include having to round up female calves at four in the morning because they had been cut free from their little huts kept out in front of the main barn. Someone was protesting veal by releasing baby dairy cows into what I suppose the protester(s) thought was their natural habitat. I don't know about you, but it has been years since I saw a herd of wild cows roaming the fields and forests of New Hampshire. These mutton heads took the time to spray paint “NO MORE VEAL” on the sides of the calf huts where the great realease had taken place. 

There were far more good times than bad, but there were some lowlights and life lessons along the way. Picking the new spring crop of 100 pound plus rocks by hand cause there is no other way to harvest them. Seeing old milking cows get sent to auction or get slaughtered because their production was inevitably dropping.
Seeing failed crops get plowed under because there was no rain, too much rain or flooded over. Seeing animals put down that were too sick or had a broken leg. It was a very matter of fact way of living. A circle of life that you could watch from begining, to end, to begining again. Either it is…or it isn’t. There are very few gray areas in farming, no place to hide when mistakes are made and excuses were just that…an excuse.
Working on the farm taught ma a lot of life lessons as well with regards to food. I don't get bent out of shape if someone is preparing my food and they accidentally touch it with their bare finger *gasps* I've eaten cow manure, how much dirtier can your finger be? I appreciate farm stand corn being more expensive than a bag of Green Giant corn because I know the work that went into all aspects of it, and I know the higher price will be justified by the end result of taste. When I eat animal proteins of any kind, I respect and honor them by not wasting them, or only eating the filet, breast or loin.

“Well do you want to!?” my friend asked me a bit impatiently…snatching me back from the farm to reality. “Why would I want to work there?” I asked him as if there were any better place on this earth that I’d rather work than the farm.  “Uh hellooooo, hot waitresses!” was his reply…then he added, ”Plus they have an opening and they asked if I knew anyone”. “Hot waitresses?! When can I start?!” So my love of farming and being at one with terra firma was supplanted by my love of gawking at the fairer sex. 

The cows that I knew and loved were replaced by a sometimes motley crew of half-assed cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, pot smokers, whip-it fans, coke heads, alcoholics, frat boys, sorority girls, party animals, degenerates, poets, drug addicts, philosophy majors, back stabbers, wanna be drug dealers, bookies and other assorted ass-clowns of the type and variety that you can only see in a mediocre restaurant, which is to say…a good number of restaurants.

But to me for a couple of short years they were a family of sorts…a super dysfunctional family with all the high drama of a two year non-stop Thanksgiving Day dinner complete with the food and your crazy assed uncle who gets so drunk he ends up chasing the neighbor’s dog down the street and does a perfect face-plant on the yellow line to the howls of entertained and horrified relatives. So next post...it's on to the romance of the kitchen…

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Saint Louis Makes Twitter its Bitch...


My Twitter Dream (a.k.a. Saint Louis, MO)

Now that I’ve beaten the living hell out of the evil that is social media in the form of Yelp and other such sites, maybe it’s time to look at the good side of social media. I mean not every form of social media could be chucker-block full of a-holes looking to give one star to a restaurant for having the audacity to serve them gazpacho… chilled…Can they?

I was looking around at different cities and found some shining examples of who’s doing great things with regards to food and social media. St. Louis, MO is perhaps one of the best examples I found of what good can come with the proper use of Twitter, Foodspotting and other social media sites. Sure there are probably bigger, better and (badder-ist?) cities that are somewhat further ahead, with NYC, Chicago and LA coming to mind. But as an outsider looking in, I couldn’t imagine being more comfortable than in the STL.

It all started with a likely business trip to STL that started me looking into the food scene there. I already had a friend on Twitter in the form of @mcharcuterie who is a prominent and respected fixture in the STL food scene. So I started by picking her brain as to where I should go and eat. Being as sweet as she is, she was happy to oblige and proceeded to give me some general ideas as to where I might find some good food. Finding out I had a culinary background she immediately said, “You know who you need to talk to is Chef Joshua Galliano @cookingkid, you and him can talk shop and really figure out the food scene around here.

@mcharcuterie got started in social media several years ago because she was tired of reading in the paper about food events that were happening all around her... after the fact. Social media filled that void and then some. She started taking pictures of the foods she was eating at these various events and local restaurants and sharing them through Foodspotting. This took off and really got her some attention to the point @stltoday did a story on her. Now she has nearly as many followers in the one year she’s been using twitter as my local food magazine has for its entire existence...more on “them” in a minute.

Thinking to myself, Awwww how cute…she knows a cook I can talk to. Not wanting to be unprepared to talk to him and being the nosey bastard I am, I looked this guy up so I would know whom I was dealing with. Holy Shin Splints, cook indeed…this guy has a cooking pedigree and background so deep that by comparison…there was no comparison. I was trying to figure out what I would ask this chef first and how to phrase my e-mail so as to avoid the mention of my so-called culinary school…then I got an E-mail.

It had only been some fifteen or twenty minutes since my friend had thrown the idea out there and had given me the contact info and that “son of a bitch” (meant with the highest respect and meant as more of a state of shock blue collar New England thing) had already composed an email with no less than thirty or so places “to start with”  as well what I should eat at each place, farmers markets, butchers and specialty stores, and if I had any questions I could feel free to contact him. *blink….blink* Where the hell do I even begin?

I’ve sent emails, tweets and on a few occasions tried to contact local chefs here on the seacoast, Boston and New York and each time getting a chef to reply is like pulling teeth. I’m not talking the Mario Batali’s of the food world here (who is actually very much into twitter and communicating with fans and patrons), as very few of them had anywhere near the cooking chops as Chef Galliano. Yet this man took the time to drop me an email that was more than… “Here are three fine dining places…good luck in STL.” I was truly awed by the act of kindness and thought perhaps this was the exception rather than the rule.

I am happy to report…it is most assuredly not. If I am looking for restaurant recommendations for STL or nearby cities (and one time Kansas City), thoughts on an ingredient, farmers market info or where is the best place to buy such and such a food… everybody from Chefs like Gerard Craft @GerardFCraft, Joshua Galliano @cookingkid, Kevin Nashan @knashan John Griffiths @jgriffs and many others will more than likely weigh in…

These are some weighty chefs here people! Don’t just take my word for it; ask the good folks who nominate chefs for James Beard awards. Yet somehow these people are reachable. The gruff but loveable freelance writer Andrew Veety @amveats will put his two cents in, and sometimes five if the topic so moves him...as will writer Evan Benn @EvanBenn a beer columnist (best job ever next to inventory taker for a blind liquor store owner). It seems as though everybody in this damned town has something to say on food.

Restaurants often get involved, the local craft brewers, the Saint Louis Brewers Guild, food stores, Food trucks (which there are a ton of and damned near all of them awesome, the ones that aren’t awesome are by all accounts are great and striving for awesome) farmers markets, Bloggers @AmuseDouche11 @sippinstl @MoEats and @ironstef  as well as the local “cibo” (see urban dictionary…I reserve the word foodie for assholes) population like @CashewChicken or @jpjernigan.  It’s a very comfortable, fluid and God help me…symbiotic relationship between all food related entities.

I’d seriously love to mention everybody from Saint Louis who has reached out and offered help, kind words or recommendations…but there wouldn’t be enough room to gush about how awesome they all are.  The good people of Saint Louis understand it is about the greater good of all parties involved. I don’t want to make it sound like a tree hugging bark eating commune, so let’s just say this…. Saint Louis, Missouri has embraced Twitter and made it... its fuzzy little bitch.

Their own Food magazine @SAUCEmagazine actually promotes all foods… from the humble sandwich shop to the best in fine dining and everything in between. Every week they give shout outs to everybody and anybody in their food community, they promote cibo folks, bloggers, restaurants, chefs and anybody else who has something to say regarding what’s happening in the STL food scene. In return the people there look to SAUCE as a current, relevant and integral part of the food community.

When there is a problem with a dinner service from a customer, it gets aired on twitter and solved on twitter in a smooth matter of fact manner that everyone understands as the only way to do things. They get social media…they understand that it is the future and have figured out the best way to use it so it benefits all people. Nobody is insulated and everybody is accessible. If you’re in STL and you need to find out where the next food festival, feast in the field, food truck gathering, beer fest, wine tasting, restaurant opening, restaurant charity benefit, Pop-Up or anything else food related is… Just find any one of the aforementioned people and if they don’t know…they know someone who does.

My Reality

Ah Portsmouth, NH…where do I begin. It’s a nice town of some twenty odd thousand people forty minutes north of Boston, and if you include surrounding towns and coastal communities you have maybe seventy to a hundred thousand people. Being an old New England seaport town means it is filled with quaint little boutiques that have words like Ye Olde and Shoppe in the title and usually means if you want to buy anything here you need not pull out your folding money… as only plastic or a first child will do. As a result of this “charm” it is also overflowing in the summertime with fanny-pack sporting affluent flatlanders from points south.

A fortunate ancillary benefit of the tourist industry is that the restaurant scene is quite nice with a goodly mix of fine, moderate and low priced dining establishments. Most do a fairly good job and most have something good to offer. The fact that it’s a seaport means seafood and as a result plenty of inexpensive, plentiful, high quality seafood is available at all times. There are Butchers, specialty shops, bakeries, excellent grocery stores, farmers markets, online food magazines, cheese chops, pastry shops basically all manner of food one could ever want with just one little problem…nobody’s talking to each other.

I did a review of a local restaurant that’s doing some really good food. In a follow up discussion I had with one of the chefs I asked him about his twitter account. I have one but I never use it. I said, I know I tweeted to you the other day and you never responded. His response…”what’s a tweet?” ARRRRGH! He told me he was into yelp, and even had a yelp sticker on his front door as do most restaurants in town.
Yelp is dead I told him. He looked surprised and confused by the comment. "Look...Don’t you ever get tired of answering stupid questions from people who don’t know what they’re talking about?" "Yes" he said, somewhat relieved. Well, that’s my point…most everybody who cares and knows about food, is on Twitter. Only foodies and peta assholes depend on yelp.

The downside to Portsmouth being so touristy in the summer is that it is cricket city in the dead of winter….well it would be if crickets could survive the seven to ten feet of snow and below zero temperatures one can expect from Portsmouth in any given winter. So restaurants survive with a feast or famine ebb and flow.
Through the use of Twitter it wouldn’t have to be this way…but still they chug on with little notice of such a powerful free tool at its fingertips. Often the restaurants here that are on twitter…with Grape Ape as my witness…PAY people to tweet for them. I shit you negative. They pay people to tweet for them because "it's too time consuming!"

After I started to discover the wonders that are the STL food scene, I decided I hadn’t put enough of the same effort into my own town so I went looking. I found my local online food magazine called @TasteMagazine and started flipping through what I felt was a decent effort… but it was missing some things. I tweeted them requesting a DM and got nothing. A few weeks later I tweeted again, and again received nothing in response. So I found an Email contact and sent off a note with my thoughts to help them make it more appealing for the readership or more importantly… potential readership.

I was happy to get a reply within five minutes to tell me they were extremely busy but thought that I had some “interesting ideas” and would reply within the next week or two….It has been over 4 weeks now and I have sent a friendly reminder that I’d still love to hear from them. *chirp chirp…..chirp chirp* So somebody shows an interest in what they are doing, and doesn’t even rate so much as a follow? So I thought maybe I’ll go through their followers and see who the real heavyweights were in the seacoast food world. What I found was shocking…

It was loaded with every “marketing spambot” known to man, and had I weeded them all out I’d probably stand a good chance of having more followers then them. Uh huh, just what I thought…@TasteMagazine has a bad case of cranial rectal inversion. It has what I like to call “Yankee” disease. Yankee is a national magazine based out of New England, based on New England and at one time… on New Englanders. Now it’s about multi-million dollar Newport RI mansions and Martha Stewart types and nearly unreadable except by people named Biff and Bunny Tipton. So if that’s what you’re looking to do Taste…you’re headed down the right track except for one small detail…readership…you’ll need a readership to drag to the land of the pretentious foodie.

So Portsmouth, it looks like we have a lot of catching up to do and without a flagship to guide us…it looks like it’s up to me and precious few others to single handedly yank some heads out of some asses. Saying this is akin to telling your spouse off in the mirror, when your spouse isn’t in the house…or even in the country. Because the reality is, hardly anybody in Portsmouth is listening to anybody else save for a couple of good food writers in @cjmcmahonSMG and @ RachelForrest. We are never going to be as large or as well put together as Saint Louis, but we sure as hell can do better than this.

So to you wonderful people of Saint Louis I say thank you for being so generous and giving of your time and if you’re ever heading to the New Hampshire seacoast, please do tweet me so that we may break bread and have beers together. Allow me to show you my New England. But whatever you do don’t ask me what’s going on food wise, because that would involve driving around with the windows down and our noses out trying to smell what’s happening. “Here…hold the wheel…I think I smell something!”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Do You Have Store or Brand Loyalty?


I saw an interesting article yesterday on grocery stores. The premise was that millennials, are more apt to go to multiple stores to get the kinds of food products they want rather than just settle for what a particular grocery store had to offer. It said that baby boomers are more apt to have store and brand loyalty that limited their desire to visit multiple stores and settle for what brands one store had to offer.

The article discussed how stores and brands are being proactive in order to accommodate the consumer’s wants and needs because they are starting to lose market share…Here's what I have to say on the matter of stores and brands being proactive to gain customer loyalty...Buuuuuull Shit!

Flash back ten years…I’m standing at the deli counter of a southern grocery store chain which shall remain nameless. Let’s just call it Jiggly Porcine and leave it at that. Now we aren’t talking about a location in bugger bottom here, or Mayberry RFD…we’re talking about metro Birmingham, AL. I had the following conversation:
Deli Clerk: Can I help you?
Me: Yes please…Do you have any Mortadella?
Deli Clerk: Uh…what is that?
Me: It’s deli meat.
Deli Clerk: Well I’ve never heard of it…
Me: well ok, never mind…If you don’t carry something I want, can I ask that you order it and I will buy it whole?
Deli Clerk: Yeah sure. *leaves and returns with order form* what can I get you?
Me: Mortadella
Deli Clerk: *puts away order sheet* Well I’ve never heard of that.

This isn’t the only time I’ve ever asked for something at a grocery store and been met with gratuitous lip service rather than customer service. I’ve asked for Olive salad, Sriracha, deli meats of different varieties, sausages, various vinegars and so on. So over the past ten years never once did I get a request filled. I could understand this with perishable or fresh items, or even if the store didn’t have a relationship with a particular vendor.

But in some cases I’ve actually seen the product in another location of the same store chain within a distance of 15 miles. My thought was they have access to it as I’ve seen it in another one of their stores…and yet they won’t bring it here? You have three brands of canned hearts of palm and you can’t make room for Trappey’s hot peppers in vinegar?! I don’t think the hordes of hearts of palm folks will riot if one of the brands is suddenly missing.

I have a few local grocery stores I enjoy going to and several that I won’t go near. The one’s I won’t go to are because of their customer service and/or store policies. Anyone who knows me knows how I despise “store cards.” I’ve already beat that into the ground so I’ll discuss it no further except to say this…The stores that have loyalty cards could have the best meats, dairy and produce on the planet... plus give you a free spider monkey and a bag of silly putty with every purchase and I still wouldn’t visit them.

I must admit I am a bit confused on how the whole grocery store product placement thing works but near as I can tell the vendors pay to place products in certain and specific positions in a store or chain of stores. Or that's about as far as I got in a conversation with my cousin Deb who is a regional sales manager for a baby food company...Then my ADD kicked in and I spent the rest of the time looking at the pretty colored packaging she had on a shelf behind her in her office.

So it just may be that I’m an idiot and we can leave it at that. But it seems to me if they have the same vendor or brand and more than one shelf space…I should be able to get at least one request out of ten! I mean really... the hearts of palm folks got their way, why can’t I?!

I myself have certain stores and farmers markets that I go to for produce. Not that the other stores produce sucks, but they may have a little better selection or carry particular items I buy a lot of. For meats I like a local butcher shop and a grocery store where I have a good relationship with the meat guys. Guys whom I trust and know what I like and more importantly, what I don't like. 

Then there are specialty food stores, co-ops and ethnic markets…oddly enough the grocery stores in the big cities of Lee and Northwood New Hampshire (total population in the 5,000 range) don’t carry a lot of Asian ingredients outside the esteemed and well regarded “La Choy” line of crap.

I shop nearly every day and I know most people can’t or won’t do this, because for a lot of folks it’s just not practical. I also have routes I will take to hit two or three stores for particular food items. This is something I also know a lot of people won’t do. I don’t mind traveling to get the products or services I want.

I used to think maybe I was an oddball for doing this, but I know a lot more people that are adopting similar habits. I think this will be a growing trend in the food buying world, and with good reason. This is how a lot of shopping in Europe is and has been done forever. Butcher, baker, produce, etc…The baker makes better bread, and who would know meats better than a butcher? It just makes sense. 

The Europeans tend to shop that way because they feel as though they deserve better than what can be brought together in one place. Even in a produce market, they may not decide what's for dinner until the actually see what's available so they may have "the best" of whatever is available that particular day.

We deserve better, and with a little work we can have better. My mom used to go to one grocery store and load up for the week with a menu and shopping list in hand because there were few options...this isn't the case anymore and she shops more often and at multiple stores now. Of course she'll still call me asking what to do with "the green and spindly looking broccoli!?" Uh, that's broccoli rabe mom. "Why do they use the name broccoli then?" ....*sigh*..... Cause it's just spindly broccoli mom...

Let’s face it, a store can’t bend to the will of all its customers or be all things to all people, some stores are really only good for one thing. Hell, Wal-Mart proves this in spades every time I go in there. Yeah, I do go there because the thing they can't be beat at is price point. Price point is what I want on paper/disposables, processed foods or other consumables.

The meats I don’t have a problem with although I don't typically buy mine there…I’ll explain… if what you’re looking for is USDA Choice cut of meat…That’s what you get at Wal-Mart. It’s the same stuff you get when you go to an Outback, Longhorn or Texas Roadhouse restaurant or even in most cases your own local supermarket. Thumbing your nose at it just because it is from Wal-Mart is silly.

The reason I don't buy meat there is because as I said earlier, I have a good relationship with my butcher and with the meat guys at a local supermarket. They will do things for me Wal-Mart won’t, and sell me cuts of meat Wal-Mart doesn't have…for instance...if I’m in a hurry and want a rack of lamb Frenched, a roast trimmed, or I want a USDA prime dry aged côte de boeuf. The last place I'm going is a place that sells pork rinds next to pre-cooked bacon.

Brand loyalty, I suppose I have a few brands I’m particularly fond of and wouldn’t switch…Toilet paper comes to mind first as I grew up in a house where you could read a newspaper through the toilet paper. If you ever have to seriously consider which of the two papers (News or Toilet) you’d rather use for…the job…you need better toilet paper. Aside from toilet paper, Beer, aluminum foil, zip top baggies and paper towels… there are few brands I need to have.

Probably lowest on the list of product loyalty would be any processed foods. When I heard the folks who make processed foods are stepping up to gain market share by producing more organic and artisan products, I nearly sprayed coffee all over my keyboard.

Hey processed food guys, I’m pretty sure that’s why you’re losing market share to begin with…people are tired of being lied to and crapped on by your marketing department. Not everybody looks at a can of cream of chicken soup and pleasures themselves to the thought of it being gluten free...they usually take it for granted. Besides…If you're gonna pleasure yourself at the supermarket, save it for the beer aisle.

When you start jerking the paying consumer around by the collar and marketing with words that have nothing to do with your product…you’re just being dishonest. Artisan potato chips sold by the ton has made me somewhat suspicious that someone is actually making them by hand. Instead of using terms like organic, free-range and Artisan…try this for a marketing angle.

New from Gampbell’s… the good folks who brought you arsenic free chicken noodle soup…proudly introduce two new flavors to you… the American sheep public. Toe nail free spicy acorn gazpacho and camel consommé (naturally low in ethylene glycol). I’m sure these would fly off the shelf I mean…who really knows “what” is going into your competitions product?! Right?!

I don’t condemn supermarkets for trying to provide more and better products to their customers, but work on the customer service and services available first…the products and store loyalty will come along with that. I also have no problems with food companies that have a track record of producing great product and expanding their product lines in a like manner. As for food companies trying to be what they were never intended to be I’ll finish by saying this.

You can take a dog terd and put it in a pretty container; you can label it gluten, trans-fat free, diet, lite, all natural, organic, cage-free, free-range and artisan. You could spend billions of dollars marketing it in TV and Print advertising, then putting it in every grocery store in America….but in the end…It’s still shit.

Friday, July 13, 2012

From Farm to Whose Table?


As I sat here dawdling around on an article regarding grocery stores and being somewhat bored and uninspired, I did what I normally do in such circumstances. I went to Google with the intent of looking up different stories to help develop my story on grocery stores and somehow ended up on a site where there were dogs dressed up as human adults. After being fascinated and somewhat disturbed I got back on track by checking out local farmers markets and saw an upcoming “Dinner on the Farm” event.

Being supportive of local farmers and businesses I thought this might be a fun event to attend. At the site where I was to buy a ticket I noticed a little movie and slideshow of previous events so I thought I’d check it out. After flipping through the slideshow and watching the little movie I went to click on the “Attend” button and stopped myself then looked back at the movie and pictures…I came to a conclusion. If we haven’t already slid over the precipice into pretentious asshole-town with regards to local farmers and farm to table, then that ship is definitely getting ready to sail.

“Oh come on Pav, those events have great chefs and serve amazing food, surely that’s worth a hundred bucks to you!” Yes it most certainly is people and that…is precisely my point. A hundred dollars might be something serious cibo people and chefs might not bat an eyelash at. But I can tell you for a fact that there aren’t a lot of folks wandering around the local supermarket looking for ways to punch up their hamburger helper so it hit’s the hundred dollar mark.  Hmmm…so after I add the packet of “cheesey mix” then I add the truffles?!

I’ve been to a few of these events before and really enjoyed myself with regards to the food and with whichever guests I have attended with. But if I’m being honest, I found most of the guests who attended to be complete pant loads. I found them to be soul crushing windbags, who were desperate to drain the life force from the people around them. A good portion but not all of these people are the progeny of something between Thurston Howell the third from Gilligan’s Island, (but without the charisma) and a 12 hour lecture on “string theory”. Pretentious and yet so utterly boring and devoid of entertainment value it would make your forehead implode.

I’m all for putting on a good show and showcasing what limits can be reached with super good produce, meats and dairy products. But how about just for giggles and grins we go ahead and show what the struggling family can do with these same products? Not all the time I mean, I know “we” certainly don’t want “those types” of people to be enjoying the finest food products around. We should absolutely keep them all to ourselves.

I mean this way we get to scoff at people who actually dare buy produce or even worse, processed foods down at the local Wal-Mart! This always makes great dinner conversation…Me: “So uh, Tiffs…what was the last thing you’ve bought at Wal-Mart? Tiffs: Wal-Mart?! Uh, I’ve never even been to a Wal-Mart thank you very much. Tiffs’ date Chipper: Wal-Mart?! I’ve never even heard of Wal-Mart! (Group howls with laughter)Yeah pretty friggin funny until you’re a family of four and are buying pizza rolls and frozen french-fries as a balanced meal cause it’s cheap.

We laugh at folks because they dare eat things we find below the level of our contempt. But rather than spread the wealth and show people how to eat better foods that are fresh and available locally, we run around throwing ourselves fabulous dinners and patting ourselves on the back for doing “farm to table” cuisine. What a bunch of hooey, and whose table is that farmer’s bounty going to anyway? I don’t see my neighbors walking around with produce from local CSA’s or farmers markets as I’m sure most of you don’t either.

I walk around the Farmers markets and after buying what I want, I sometimes sit on a bench and watch the people walking around. A lot of times, that’s all they’re doing. I see more people leaving farmers markets empty handed because it’s the place to go when you want to see or be seen. Hey look at me with my recycled reusable hemp bag and my bottled water ….I’m hip, I’m green… I’m everything fabulous about local food because it’s the in thing to do.

Locavores/Slow Food/ Farmers Markets/ CSA’s/ they are all just about to get in line with “Foodie” as another way of saying Pretentious/Overpriced/Self-Involved/Over-Hyped. I mean really, if you can’t inform and welcome the folks who could truly use a little 411 with regards to fresh local foods…you’re just doing a self-serving money grab. This is fine with me as I’m not one of the “don’t bungle with the jungle” crowd but I’m also not a hypocrite. The fact that you folks… Locavores/Slow Food/ Farmers Markets/ CSA’s/ don’t seem to hold or promote events geared for the average Joe tells me that you are very much the epitome of the word hypocrite.

While I’m at it, let’s touch on farmer’s markets real quick….could you “walkers” and people just there to be seen do us “buyers” all a solid and wear a distinctive shirt. My suggestion would be for day-glow orange or fire engine red. Maybe you could go one step further and stencil or have iron on letters that say “Oxygen Thief” or “A-hole Chillaxing”. This way all of us serious buyers will know it’s ok to cut in front of you while we’re trying to buy green beans or just move you out of the way when we want to ask the farmer a question and your jabbering away about how you like to come here all the time and you have a Prius.

People with baby strollers are fine if they’re actually buying…. More often than not…they aren’t. So maybe you can take your precious and “obviously” well cared for precious little angels to the park instead of showing what a good wholesome parent you are to the other good wholesome parents who aren’t buying shit either. If I had to guess your children aren’t crying because they need something, I’d say they’re crying because of how idiotic and delusional mommy or daddy really is…and they’re stuck for another 14-17 years!

Dog walkers, there is no reason for your dog to be there. Your dog is an animal and no matter how cute they are or how many times you’ve gotten laid because of them… I still never feel comfortable when little lassie is sniffing my crotch while I’m trying to inquire about summer squash. If you ever get a dog that looks like Scarlett Johansson then feel free to bring her and I’ll take her for a walk myself. In the meantime you can live without your little precious puppy for an hour or so…in the meantime try to think of something interesting to say as a means of picking up women…you aren’t getting a second date because your St. Bernard Leonard is more interesting than you, deal with it.

So let’s get our collective heads out of our ass and start to think of ways to incorporate “The Whole Community” in community supported agriculture, farmers markets, and farm to table events. We aren’t doing nearly enough and you know it. Let’s do some events for everyone to show that this great food is not out of reach, to show that this stuff is accessible and attainable. I have no idea why people think the food “revolution” is in full swing and raging except it’s probably the result of technology.

Technology must be the answer because we keep in contact with likeminded people who have a shared interest in food. But go to any grocery store and watch the people buying burgers ground God knows how long in advance and boxed up, or the breaded chicken tenders in some kind of sauce. You shake your head at those people don’t you? I do too and think to myself, I thought we’d come so far…I thought with food and cooking on so many channels people were starting to “get it”. Well they’re not….not as long as those food shows are stripped down to their lowest common denominator.

People eating massive amounts of crap food are not an inspiration to eat local and healthy. People making cupcakes and cakes out of everything BUT cake won’t cut the muster either…The bottom line, It’s up to us. We have to be the bearers of light. We have to take it to the streets. We don’t have to shove it down their throats but we sure as hell need to be doing a better job of it than we are now. Either that or we can keep giving ourselves congratulatory dinners. Out of one side of our mouth convincing each other the food revolution is a success, then out of the other bad mouthing the” ignoran”t…while the whole thing was just a means to make a shit ton of money. I don’t want any part of that….do you?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

HOT DOG...How Do I Love Thee?!


I’m not sure how old I was the first time I ever ate a hot dog but I was probably about two or three. I seem to remember camping, my parents having a hibachi, a little camping trailer, firing beer cans filled with cement out of a mortar at a target in a field, trying to catch little fish in a cup, my brother nearly drowning, my father running, a German Shepard, (the last one I remember that didn’t want to bite me), and an 8 mm camera to prove it all really happened… and somewhere in that André Breton painting that seemed to be my childhood…there was a hot dog. If I had to guess what kind, I’d have to say… a charred one, in a natural casing.

I was probably in second or third grade and sitting looking confused in the school cafeteria. I remember bringing my tray back to the lunch lady. Which I never did unless is was to do my best Oliver impression…More, Please sir?! She asked what the matter was, and I asked… what was in the beans? She said weenies. I said they look like hot dogs. She said they are hot dogs…don’t you like hot dogs? I love hot dogs, but there’s something wrong with them. What’s wrong with them? They got no skin!

There are two types of people in this world. Discerning, good looking, intelligent people with excellent taste in all things who love their encased meats to be in natural casings…then there’s the “other” people. I never could understand people choosing to eat a hot dog that didn’t have natural casings. They taste fine and all but I always feel like they’re missing something. It’s kind of like eating a casserole and not having any of the crunchy, charred, tasty bits on top.

I’ve mentioned this story before but I think it bears repeating. My father loved hot dogs…the same kind of love he reserved for very few things including, but not limited to…being the first one to be able to read the Sunday paper (4:30 am), getting the Sunday paper (4am), thinking about getting the Sunday paper (probably started around 3am), donuts (gotten at the same time as the Sunday paper), and washing the cars and waking the rest of the family on a Sunday morning (5am) But hot dogs were right up there to the point he made them for mine and my brother’s breakfast before an early morning fishing trip.

It was four am on a Saturday morning and my brother and I were woken for a long promised fishing trip. Dad got out a cast iron skillet, then added butter and made some nice over easy eggs. He dropped some bread in the toaster and started to heat another fry pan. I was excited by this as I knew that meant breakfast meat of some kind…but which one?! I was personally hoping for bacon although kielbasa or some other kind of sausage would be perfectly acceptable as well. You could have knocked me over with a feather when dad added butter to the pan followed by three butterflied hot dogs.

My brother and I looked on as my father charred them on one side and then on the other causing a great amount of concern between my brother and I as to our fathers state of well-being not to mention a certain amount of smoke. Apparently we were not alone in this concern as my recently awake mother came into the kitchen to see what was “burning.” “I’m makin the kids breakfast sandwiches for fishin!” My mother stood blinking at what she surely must have though was a dream…”Are those hot dogs?!”

Indeed they were, and dad never replied but rather went about the business of adding cheese to the tops of the dogs. My brother and I both laugh about that to this day but I must admit I’m guilty of making them at least once a year. I go about the business at a late hour and in secret so as not to have any uninvited guests popping in and discovering a guilty pleasure from my youth.

Although I suppose in some respect I also do it for the taste of nostalgia. Otherwise I’d be doing it for the taste of heart failure because what dad buttered the toast with…was bacon grease. This was from the can that was always kept in the fridge until I was perhaps a sophomore in HS. It stopped then in favor of the obviously more healthful…margarine.*sigh*

Dad had a bit of shithouse rat craziness to him at times, and I remember him eating on occasion a cold hot dog wrapped in sliced American cheese and peanut butter. Not sure why, and at times like those it was always best not to ask… as I’m sure there was a good and viable, if not sane reason. Mostly he would sneak hot dogs direct from the package as a snack until mom started freezing them after visits to the grocery store. After that and undeterred, dad started sneaking bits of raw hamburger. This is when I discovered what tartare really was, and what raw hamburger wasn’t.

Dad was a purist and liked nearly nothing on his cooked hot dogs. If he was eating “upstreet” at “the hot dog man” (this guy was about 30 yrs. Ahead of the food truck curve) he would perhaps have a bit of mustard or bacon or celery salt. Oh yeah, not real bacon, but “bacon bits”…the processed soy ones with zero real bacon and you eat them at noon and belch them until midnight. These were served on a steamed New England style hot dog roll… which I never realized was a style until I tried to buy some in Texas when in my twenties.

Not me, I was for a time in my youth the king of condiments. I loved Ketchup, mustard, horseradish, piccalilli, cheese, chili, celery salt, sauerkraut, onion, relish, pickles, bacon, mayo or whatever else I could get on there. It was all about the flavors, it was about the possibilities and the excitement of making it taste different every time. Then at about ten years old mom and dad took my brother and I to our first Red Sox game. I’ll never forget coming out of the piss riddled darkness that is the underbelly of Fenway Park, and seeing what must be the greenest grass on planet earth.

My brother and I watched as run after run was scored and we sat there waiting for foul balls to come somewhere near our open and waiting gloves. I remember several things about that particular game that have changed me to this day and most of those things are in no particular order. There is no greener grass on the planet, after watching the Sox lose 13-0 I became a Yankee’s fan and have been happy ever since, peeing in troths filled with ice makes no sense. Probably the biggest, most important thing I learned that day was that a hot dog’s flavor is the single most important thing about a hot dog.

I found this out begrudgingly when the vendor selling “Fenway Franks” came around and my dad was able to buy one for each of us without a gov’t bailout because it cost more than the space shuttle. Keep in mind this is when the Sox had Rice, Lynn, Tiant, Fisk and Yaz just to name a few. Now I don’t know half of the players and getting a beer and hot dog is akin to taking your wallet out and throwing it in the pee troth, and just as tasty…but I digress.

That Fenway Frank of my youth was hot (something it never is now) and plain on a bun, which I did not know. So after opening it and finding no condiments I was shocked…after visually searching for the now vanished vendor I decided to try the frank sans condiments. Now it is a “skinless” hot dog but I figured they called it a frank so I wouldn’t argue the point. It was magical in flavor if not in texture. The genius was its simplicity and I realized for the first time….it’s about the hot dog stupid!

Now I’m an adult and have had Hot dogs from all over the world and nearly everywhere in the United States… that one fact still holds true. It’s all about the dog but most styles tend to bury it in toppings. That being said, I appreciated all the styles… be it the slaw or scrambled dog of the southeast, Sonoran of the southwest, Chicago dog of…well come on, or the dirty water dog of NYC… I love them all. They all have their value and merit and there’s only one hard and fast rule for me when it comes to hot dog toppings.

Don’t ever tell me what I can and can’t have on one. Anyone who knows me knows that nothing will piss me off faster than a definitive when it comes to food. This not only applies to hot dogs but any food. We’ve all heard this guy …“We don’t let our customers use ketchup on our hot dogs.” Or “The only thing a hot dog should have on it is maybe mustard or a bit of sauerkraut.” Really?! Its food people…and food…is a celebration of life. Hell, it’s why we usually eat in groups of people. We celebrate food and its life giving sustenance often surrounded by loved ones and friends…the exception of course being Thanksgiving. If you want to have rules try this one on for size…Don’t be an A-Hole. I know it sounds simple, but you seem to be struggling with it my friend!

Opinions are like nipples, most everybody has one and some have a couple. But the thing I find that’s great about opinions is that they’re free, and unless they’re mine… almost never right. I’m sure most of you find them the same way. So if you think shredded brussel sprouts, raspberry jam and Asian pear in balsamic reduction would make a great topping on a hot dog, go ahead and take that rocket ship to planet freak! It’s your hot dog! As for me, I’ll have a natural casing hot dog on a steamed Martin’s Potato Bun with Benton’s or North Country Apple wood smoked bacon and a simple Asian inspired slaw to cut the fatty smokiness and add a touch of heat…or if I’m in a hurry…just pass the friggin ketchup, and Dirty Harry…you can kiss my ass...uh…sir.

ASIAN SLAW RECIPE

4 cups napa or  cabbage sliced fine

1 cup matchstick carrots

½ red bell pepper finely julienned

1 serrano chili seeded and veined minced fine

1 green onion cut thin on a bias

2 tbs cilantro chopped

5 tbs rice wine vinegar

2 tbs soy sauce

3 tbs sesame oil

2 tsp peanut butter

¼ tsp fresh grated ginger

Juice from half a lime

Combine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, peanut butter, lime juice and grated ginger. Mix well then toss well with other ingredients to taste. Let sit for at least an hour before serving.