Monday, January 30, 2006

The Mint Julep

Rule number 237 of the 362 Undeniable Truths of the Deep South Restaurant Business is: True Southerners never drink mint juleps.

When a customer steps up to the bar in a Southern restaurant and orders a mint julep, we already know five things about him:

1.) He comes from North of the Mason Dixon line. Usually a state such as Rhode Island or Connecticut.
2.) He is amazed that everyone is wearing shoes down here.
3.) He thinks he is hearing a foreign language when the bartender uses the terms, “Ma’am,” and “Sir.”
4.) He will try to slip the word “y’all” into a sentence, but use it in the singular.
5.) He will make a hilarious lemon-squinted face once he tastes the mint julep.
6.) He will then order a glass of white zinfandel or strawberry daiquiri and ask when the next Civil War reenactment is scheduled.

Some Northern tourists believe the South is still nothing more than Gone with the Wind and Jim Crow. To those people, the Southerner falls into one of two categories: The poor, barefooted child walking down a dirt road, or Big Daddy in his seersucker suit sitting on the front porch of an antebellum mansion sipping a mint julep.

It’s ridiculous, and akin to saying that everyone from California is a surfer, everyone from Texas is a cowboy, and everyone from New York is rude. Well, two out of three…

Outside of Louisville, Kentucky on Derby Day, no one in the South drinks mint juleps (even on Derby Day, Kentuckians don’t enjoy them). People who say they like to drink mint juleps only enjoy the romantic thought of drinking mint juleps. At any rate, Kentucky is barely in the south and its proximity to Ohio leaves it suspect

My Aunt Virginia occasionally drank mint juleps, but she moved to Maryland in her youth and took to drinking scotch and milk later in life. I always supposed that anyone who could mix milk with scotch was suffering from lifeless taste buds to begin with. To her, mint juleps probably tasted fine.

In a word, mint juleps… suck. Maybe that’s three words, or it could be six, nevertheless, you get the picture.

Therefore, I submit for your perusal, The 10 Irrefutable Truths of Mint-Julep Drinking Tourists from the North:

1.) They will order a Coke by calling it a “Pop.”
2.) If they muster the courage to order grits, they will put sugar on them.
3.) Even though their mother has a double last name, they will make fun of the waitress’s double first name.
4.) They will be surprised when the iced tea arrives at the table already sweetened— and heavily so.
5.) They have more than likely contemplated vegetarianism at least once in the last three months.
6.) The waitress will think that they, too, talk funny, but will be too polite to say so.
7.) At least twice during the course of the meal, they will call a crawfish a “Crawdad.”
8.) They will remove the three cheeses, fried croutons, and all of the ham and bacon from the restaurant’s heart-healthy salad offering.
9.) They will have no clue that catfish is truly the other white meat.
10.) They will quickly learn that the best parking space was not the one closest to the door, which was puzzlingly available when they arrived, but the one way across the parking lot in the shade

Monday, January 23, 2006

Screaming Yellow Zonkers

In 1969 my Mom, a widowed art teacher raising two small boys on a limited income, taught painting classes out of a small studio room in our attic. Her students— various ladies from the neighborhood— learned how to paint mushrooms onto small blocks of wood using shades of avocado green and harvest gold.

Occasionally, I was asked to model while she demonstrated portrait painting. I usually found it hard to sit still for longer than 90 seconds, so mostly I planted fake vomit, and rubber dog poop around the studio for her students to find.

Mildred Puckett, a doctor’s wife— tall, fun, with a great sense of humor and a contagious laugh— was one of her students. One night Mrs. Puckett showed up with a black cardboard box and asked me if I had ever eaten Screaming Yellow Zonkers. “No, ma’am,” I said.

“Well try these,” she said. I did, and I was hooked.

Screaming Yellow Zonkers are my all-time favorite snack food. They hit the market in 1969, two years removed from the Summer of Love, and smack dab in the middle of the psychedelic era. A counter-culture snack aimed directly at the stoner crowd with a bad case of the munchies.

At eight-years old, I didn’t know what the munchies were, Mrs. Puckett probably didn’t either, but I knew that the Screaming Yellow Zonkers’ box filled with light butter-toffee-glazed popcorn tasted good.

For years I thought that Screaming Yellow Zonkers had been discontinued. Last week I learned that they are still being produced by Lincoln Snacks, the same company that manufactures Fiddle Faddle and Poppycock. I Googled “Screaming Yellow Zonkers” and found an outfit that would mail-order a few boxes to me.

The box was black. It still is. Actually, Screaming Yellow Zonkers were the first food ever to be packaged in a black box. The font on the box is pure vintage 1969. Best of all, Screaming Yellow Zonkers still taste great.

In 1969, there were two things I wanted to be when I grew up: An astronaut, and a hippie. When I learned that being a hippie took a lot less math and training, I decided to move in that direction. While most kids wanted a new bike, I wanted sideburns and a moustache. I actually ordered a pair of lamb-chop sideburns and a Dennis Hopper-style moustache from the back of an Archies comic book. I wore them to school and made it through three periods of the third grade before my teacher sent me, my sideburns, and my box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers to the principal’s office.

The counter culture intrigued me. I didn’t know where Haight-Ashbury was, but I knew it was a long way away from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Being eight-years old, and learning that mail-order sideburns were not the solution, I figured Screaming Yellow Zonkers were the closest I could get to hippiedom.

I would retreat to my room, crank up Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, turn on the black light, light some incense, and eat handfuls of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Move over, Peter Fonda.

While the country was turning on and dropping out, I was doing my part. Little did I know that for the next few years, the closest I was going to get to being “turned on” to anything, would be the offer of Screaming Yellow Zonkers by Mrs. Puckett.

Alas, the obstacles of becoming the world’s first, and youngest, hippie astronaut.

Somewhere out there, my principal, Mr. Russell, is probably still locked in his office, strobe light on, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida blaring over the school sound system, wearing the confiscated fake sideburns and moustache, dancing wildly, and eating my box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

“Yes” + Touch = Memorable Meal

When dining in a restaurant and the chef approaches your table asking, “What are you in the mood for?” Your reply should be, “What do you recommend?”

If he or she then asks, “Do you want me to take care of you?” Your answer should always be an unequivocal, “YES!”

Not “Maybe,” or, “Well, if you want to,” or “What did you have in mind?” but a simple and quick, “Yes,” and sometimes, “Yes, please” and in certain instances, “Oh yes, please, oh please, oh please, oh please. Yes. Yes. Yes!”

This is the response you have stored away in your back pocket, the one you’ve been looking forward to using once again when the time was right. You have been waiting for months, years, sometimes decades, hoping for just the right restaurant, at just the right time, when the stars align, your cooking kismet and culinary karma have caught up with you, the restaurant gods are smiling down upon you, and the chef offers to put the fate of your dinner in his hands. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does— a moment of silence, please, while I remember my most recent meal at Restaurant August— it is a memorable event.

This moment hasn’t occurred if the guest has to ask the chef to “Take care of me.” Those dinners will be good, but nothing akin to the meal that follows the unsolicited offer tendered by the chef.

My wife and I were in New Orleans this past weekend, and dropped in on John Besh at Restaurant August. He stopped by our table and we caught up with each other, enjoyed some small talk mixed with meaty banter, and then it came: The question. “Do you want me to take care of you?”

After an excited, “Yes!” Besh retreated to his kitchen.

Minutes later the waiter stopped by the table and said, “So the chef’s gonna fix you up tonight?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well sit back, buckle your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride.”

I looked at my wife and said, “This is going to be good.”

John Besh is a genius. I don’t use that term flippantly, especially when it comes to the culinary arts. However, if the chef coat fits…

Our first course was a salad of heirloom beets, lump crabmeat, cherry-smoked bacon, quail eggs, and black-eyed pea croutons. It was the most memorable salad I have eaten since a frisée concoction prepared by Alfred Portale in his Manhattan restaurant, Gotham Bar and Grill, two years ago. Actually it might rank as one of the top three salads I have ever eaten in my life.

John Besh has excellent “touch.” One of the most important qualities a chef possesses is touch. It can’t be taught, it can’t be learned. It has to come from within, he or she is born with it. Good “touch” in cooking is knowing just the right amount to use, when to back off, and when to add in. Some have it, others don’t. Besh has it in spades.

The crabmeat and heirloom-beet salad was a prime example of good touch.

The second course arrived and my wife was served three separate oyster preparations: an oyster seared with country ham and truffle spoon bread, a crispy-fried oyster with Louisiana caviar, and a baked oyster served with an infused cream and Parmigiano reggiano. All were superb, the last being outstanding.

My second course will— from this day forward— be referred to as: “Death by Foie Gras.” On one plate I received four unique and inventive treatments of my favorite food, seared, grilled, smoked, and wrapped in the thinnest of five-layered pastries. I could have called it quits at that moment and the meal would have gone down in my top ten of all time meals, but there was more to come, much more.

For her third course, my wife was served a potato gnocchi (dumpling) with lump crabmeat and black truffle which once again reinforced the chef’s expertise and touch. The flavors were simple yet subtly amazing.

My third course was a dish of agnolotti (small stuffed pasta) filled with a crawfish reduction and tossed with fresh peas, sweetbreads, morels, and a small dice of the most intensely flavored smoked bacon I have ever tasted. The pasta was tossed in a cream-infused fish fumet that had— here comes that word— just the right touch.

Again, I could have stopped right there, but Besh wouldn’t have it.

Our fourth course was a fish course. My wife was served an almond-crusted sheepshead filet finished with a brown butter and crabmeat, while I received Loup-de-Mer (sea bass sometimes called wolfish) on top of a cauliflower puree finished in a truffle-infused veal stock reduction. Both were excellent.

After the fourth course, the server heard my wife and me moaning quietly (good moans, mind you) and instructed the chef to combine the upcoming meat and poultry courses. For our fifth and sixth combined courses we received a Moroccan-spiced duck breast with polenta, more foie gras, and dates. We were also served a Kobe beef short rib, a small fingerling potato filled with smoked marrow, and a petite filet mignon.

At this point I tried to remember if I had ever enjoyed a meal this much. Had Charlie Trotter’s been better? No. Had Gary Danko been better? No. Had any meal in New York or New Orleans ever been better? The answer again was, no.

It was during that epiphany that three dessert plates were set on our table. A chocolate tart with a small glass of warm spiced wine, a banana-rum cake with Creole cream cheese icing, and a plate adorned with a pear brulee, apple sorbet, a small candied apple, and a quince strudel. Stick a fork in him folks, he’s toast.

I could write for days of Besh’s skill, generosity, talents, and qualifications, but all of that information can be picked up on the website . What you should know is that he was born in Mississippi, raised in Louisiana, trained at the Harvard of cooking schools— the Culinary Institute of America— apprenticed in France, led a battalion in the Gulf War, worked at the Grill Room at Windsor Court, was chosen by Food & Wine magazine as one of the country’s top young chefs, and opened Restaurant August in 1999.

Besh’s August was the first New Orleans tablecloth restaurant to reopen (using actual tablecloths, silver, and china) after Katrina. He reopened only 30 days after the storm hit the city. In addition to operating one of the finest restaurants in the country, he has fed 1,100 displaced people— in three separate tent cities— breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day.

Sitting in Restaurant August and witnessing one of the country’s top culinary talents at the top of his game was a pleasure I will never forget. It was a magical, humbling, and wonderful experience.

Always remember, if the chef asks, just say “Yes.”

Monday, January 09, 2006

Peanut Butter and Jelly

I took my son to a birthday party over the weekend. The kids ran and bounced in one of those blow-up jumpy things, drank some punch, and then ran and bounced some more. After a few hours of play time everyone was called to lunch: Barbeque and all of the usual accoutrements for the adults, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the children.

My son grabbed a couple of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I made a plate of barbeque, although I was eyeballing his plate. Being an adult and wanting to make sure that each of the children got a sandwich, I resisted the pbj temptation and stuck with the grown up food. It was either that, or I just didn’t want to embarrass myself by eating kids food while there was plenty of “grown up food” available. More than likely it was the latter rather than the former.

In a conversation with a New Orleans food writer, legendary restaurateur, Dick Brennan, posed the question: “You know why kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? It’s because they’re good.” Who am I to argue with a Brennan?

I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I ate them almost everyday for the first six years of my life. They were just about all I would eat. I still eat them today. I own three restaurants and can eat whatever I want for lunch, but I go home a few days every month and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my wife.

For me, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich needs just a few easily acquired accompaniments to be the ultimate quickie lunch— an ice-cold glass of milk and a few Fritos corn chips. Fritos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches go together like… well… like peanut butter and jelly.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich would have been the perfect school lunch, except that school milk was never cold enough. Milk has to be at the just-above-freezing stage to properly accompany a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is law: Red wine: 63 degrees, white wine: 53 degrees, milk: 35 degrees, no more, no less.

As a kid, I ate triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I invented the three-layer sandwich way before McDonald’s came up with the Big Mac. Today, my children eat frozen, pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They prefer the frozen ones to fresh. Unfortunately the frozen sandwiches don’t come in triple-decker sizes and my kids don’t know what they’re missing.

Early on I liked the crust cut off of my sandwiches. Today Ironkids makes crustless bread. My grandmother always cut the crusts off for me. There is just no end to a grandmother’s love.

Once, my mother was all out of grape jelly and had to use orange marmalade on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I like orange marmalade on buttered English muffins but it is blasphemous to put orange marmalade on a six-year old’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The criteria by which I select jelly has changed over the years. Early on I was only interested in the jelly-jar glass that the jelly came in. I had a full collection of Archies jelly-jar glasses. My mother was a Bama jelly woman. She swore by it. Today I use one of those all-fruit jellies.

For years, Jif was my peanut butter of choice. I had eaten Peter Pan on occasion, and in emergency situations, had eaten Skippy, but a 44-year old man has no business eating a product named “Skippy” (I have to draw the line somewhere).

Five years ago I wrote a column about peanut butter. I assembled a small panel and meticulously taste-tested all of the peanut butters available in my local grocery store. I was certain that my beloved Jif would win the day, easily. Ultimately, Reese’s (of chocolate-peanut-butter cup fame) won the taste testing by a mile. Today we only eat Reese’s. All hail George Washington Carver.

In this world you are either smooth eater or chunky eater. It’s like boxers or jockeys, one doesn’t vacillate between the two. I like it smooth. My brother was a chunky guy.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is comfort food to a six-year old. It is comforting food, even today.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Revival, Reopening, and Renewal

My last New Orleans meal prior to Hurricane Katrina was a lunch with my wife and children at K-Paul’s restaurant. I have often revisited that memorable experience during the stress and rebuilding of these last four months. For my first dining experience back in the city I wanted to return to Paul Prudhomme’s mainstay on Chartres Street.

After easily finding a prime parking space, my wife and I began our leisurely walk through the French Quarter. It was the Friday evening before New Year’s Eve and the city was eerily still. We passed a bar, usually loud and packed with tourists, only to find a lone bartender behind the bar and a cocktail waitress— palms in her chin— sitting on the only occupied barstool.

All was quiet on the restaurant front. There seemed to be more police than pedestrians. I commented to my wife that I felt safer than I have ever felt walking the streets of the Crescent City.

We turned at the Saint Louis Cathedral, headed South on Chartres, and were surprised that everything looked the same, though cleaner. As we approached K-Paul’s the sounds of a Zydeco band playing on the sidewalk echoed off of the centuries-old buildings. Chef Paul was greeting guests in front of the restaurant. A routine, I am told, he has been observing every evening since the reopening.

I have often stated that the shrimp creole, jambalaya, and etouffee, produced daily in the K-Paul’s kitchens are the finest examples of those dishes ever created… the gold standard. We began the meal with an appetizer portion of shrimp etouffee and a shrimp Rockefeller dish served on fried green tomatoes. The etouffee was dark, rich, and flavorful, and held up to all previous billing.

When a guy wants to know how the national monetary system works he goes to Alan Greenspan, when he wants to learn how to throw a pass he calls Brett Favre, when he wants to eat the world’s best gumbo, he looks no further than Paul Prudhomme. Our second course was a bowl of chicken and andouille gumbo, and I quickly reminded my self— for the 935 th time— why I love living so close to New Orleans.

As we finished our soup, the members of the Zydeco band, who had now made their way through the front door, began strolling from table to table. I have eaten many a jazz brunch; this was my first Zydeco dinner. Midway through the song, Chef Paul entered the dining room waving a white napkin and leading a conga line of customers. It was a surreal experience. “Only in New Orleans,” my wife commented.

The city felt alive again.

After entrees of expertly prepared blackened tuna and pan-fried drum, we skipped dessert, with hopes of visiting the newly reopened and virtually tourist-free Café Du Monde.

On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, I asked Prudhomme how his life had been impacted since the storm. “We have fed 35,000 relief workers since the storm,” he said, “We were the first tablecloth restaurant to (re)open in the Quarter.”

When I told him that his etouffee and Creole dishes were the finest examples of those dishes I had ever tasted, he replied, “It’s all in the stock.” I then commented on how his stocks were so intense, rich, and deep with flavor. His response was, “they have to be,” the food, like the man— no nonsense.

No one has impacted the nation’s regional cooking scene more than Paul Prudhomme. He is the most underestimated chef in America. He is much more than blackened redfish. Make no mistake, he is still the king. He packs more flavor and boldness into a dish that anyone I know.

Julia Child and James Beard were two of this country’s greatest culinary icons. Sadly, they are gone, which— in my mind— makes Paul Prudhomme America’s greatest living culinary national treasure. He has won countless culinary awards and accolades, lectured around the world, fed heads of state, given tirelessly to charities, written eight cookbooks, and produced six instructional cooking videos, two of which topped the Billboard charts for 53 consecutive weeks.

In these days of image-conscious and cleavage-bearing T.V. chefs, designer foams, elaborate vertical presentations, and salads made with fiddlehead ferns, it is refreshing when a world-class chef sticks to the basics. Prudhomme has the knowledge to prepare any type food he wants. Lucky for us, he stays true to his roots.

While walking past the Saint Louis Cathedral a military Humvee stopped in front of the church and six National Guardsmen stepped out. As we spoke to the soldiers, bells began chiming at the Cathedral. Of all of the times I have been in that area, I have never heard a bell ring. I don’t know if the carillon has always been there, or if the bells have been installed since the storm. Either way the sound was beautiful, signaling the end to a perfect night in the city, and heralding a fresh start with good things to come in the upcoming year.