Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hunger at Home

For over 25 years, the primary focus of my professional career has been food.

In my personal life, food has played a major role, falling just behind faith, family, and friends.

I create, prepare, and sell food for a living. When I’m not working, I’m traveling, eating, and writing about traveling and eating. I eat a lot. When recognized while out of town, I’m often asked, “Aren’t you that guy who eats a lot?” Again, food.

I grew up in a modest middle class home, raised by a single working mom, though I never wanted for food. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve been truly hungry— possibly never.

In my life, I have been food rich. I once ate a 32-course, five-hour meal at The French Laundry, the nation’s premiere restaurant. In a few weeks, I’m going back there to participate in another culinary bacchanalia.

I realize how lucky I have been.

Millions have not been so lucky. While you’re reading this, a significant number of our nation’s seniors are debating on whether to pay the water bill or buy groceries. Over the course of a day, 12.4 million children are living at risk of hunger. Real skipping-meals, days-without-food hunger— not in some remote foreign country— here in America.

While we’re planning our next family vacation, there are millions of parents hoping to just make it through the night. They have no clue as to what they’ll feed their children for breakfast.

Of all of the 50 states, Mississippi is at the top of the list for food insecurity. Walker Satterwhite, Executive Director of the Mississippi Food Network, told me recently that last year MFN was feeding 65,000 needy Mississippians each month. Today, that number— due to the change in the economic climate— has risen almost 50% to 100,000 people.

MFN supplies 320 food pantries and soup kitchens across Mississippi with over one million pounds of food every month, but there is still a huge void. “Many Mississippi communities with larger populations have multiple non-profits, large numbers of giving churches, public transportation and friends and family who can assist the needy,” Satterwhite said. “This is not the case in many rural areas. We are seeking out churches, civic groups, and non-profits in the extreme rural areas to take advantage of our program in underserved areas. We have the expertise to assist these organizations in the process of opening these agencies.”

If you are reading this, and live in one of those smaller communities that need help in feeding its under-resourced citizens, please call Mississippi Food Network 601-353-7286.

Walker Satterwhite is one of my heroes. This state is full of heroes. Cookie and Bill Prout formed Christian Services in Hattiesburg in 1986. They prepare and serve 600 meals per day. They also prepare food for Meals on Wheels, which feeds seniors who are homebound. As if that weren’t enough, the Prouts prepare food and distribute it out of a delivery van in three underprivileged neighborhoods in town.

I never focus on how someone got to the point of needing food. That’s a problem for someone else to solve. I care that there are children in my town who are going to bed hungry every night. I know that they had nothing to do with the circumstances that put them in that situation.

My son and I visited The Edwards Street Mission in Hattiesburg a few weeks ago and the shelves had been depleted. Edwards Street is feeding 600 families every month. They need help. Today.

They all need help, today. Send food, volunteer time, send money. Just do something, and do it today.

I’ve spent 25 years in the surplus side of the food business. I’m about to spend a large portion of the next 25 in the food-deficit side— making sure that those who don’t have access to food get it. Join me, and join Walker Satterwhite and the 320 agencies supported by the Mississippi Food Network, or the local soup kitchen or mission pantry in your area, and make a difference.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Let the Riots Begin


I’m no Nostradamus, but I am about to make a bold prediction: Within a matter of days this country will witness a take-it-to-the-streets rebellion and massive, frenzied uprising like we have never seen.

Be warned: These riotous insurrections will occur instantly, without notice, and will quickly spread across every town and community in this country. I predict that the National Guard will have to be called out in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam, to try and restrain the nation’s frenzied citizens. The Southern states, namely Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia will be hit the hardest as this event will make the current riots in Iran look like an afternoon on the playground.

How can I be so sure of this impending crisis? Today I read a news article in the Cleveland Leader with the headline: “Chubby People Live Longer than Skinny People.” Hallelujah, amen, and pass the cinnamon rolls! Let the gluttony begin.

The Cleveland Leader stated, “People who are a little overweight at age 40 live six to seven years longer than very thin people, whose average life expectancy was shorter by some five years than that of obese people, the study found,”

"We found skinny people run the highest risk," said Shinichi Kuriyama, an associate professor at Tohoku University's Graduate School of Medicine who worked on the long-term study of middle-aged and elderly people. Ha! I knew it. The skinny people are going first.

I don’t know who this Kuriyama fellow is, but he’s obviously brilliant. He has become an instant deity in my book, a sage, a learned prophet, and a man whose true genius will be honored by fat people like me for years to come. All hail Kuriyama!

Again, be warned: As soon as people read this news story, panic is sure to engulf the continent, a culinary red alert will take the threat level to orange, or at least something similar to orange-flavored cake.

We will see food shortages and surpluses simultaneously. The shortages will begin at the nation’s donut shops. There will be mass, sugar-fueled uprisings as crazed mobs tear down donut-shop doors screaming, “I want a hot one! Where are all the hot ones?”

The candy isles in convenience stores will be ransacked as excited gangs of junk-food pillagers take to the streets vandalizing and looting chocolate and sweets. It will then spread to ice cream parlors which should run out of product within minutes. In a matter of hours, barbeque stands will be torn apart, and unprecedented scarcities of cream, cheese, and bacon will be the norm.

On a brighter note, there will be a surplus of granola across the land, which, if the president is smart, he can ship to Iran to make their mobs even angrier.

The National Guard will be forced to concentrate their efforts around the thousands of Weight Watchers clinics and dieting centers, where millions of angry fat people will storm the weight-loss offices and threaten to sit on their diet counselors until they receive instant cash-back refunds, while burning Richard Simmons in effigy

A national culinary emergency will be on our hands, and a pig-out of gargantuan proportions will ensue. Instantly, restaurants which serve nothing but Chili-Cheese Fries and chocolate shakes will replace all of the salad bars and veggie-wrap sprout bars.

Our new Supreme Leader, hereafter referred to as Lord Kuriyama, said, "We had expected thin people would show the shortest life expectancy but didn't expect the difference to be this large.”

If being fat means living longer, call me Methuselah. Ladies and gentlemen, let the eating begin.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Tennessee Top Ten

My wife and I dropped the kids off at summer camp in Arkansas and then spent a week eating our way through Tennessee (summer camp for adults). Here are the top ten culinary highlights from the journey.

10.) BBQ Memphis— Actually, I had planned on eating bbq in Memphis, but we arrived too late and everything was closed. However, the night before in Hot Springs, AR, we ate at a restaurant named McClard’s. The restaurant has been there for decades and the bbq is OK., but what really blew us away was a tamale dish. It is called Tamale Spread and it looks just like a big cheesy-brown blob on a plate. I wasn’t too excited about it, and ordered it for the kids. The adults laid it to waste. It had tamales, chopped beef, beans, bbq sauce, corn chips, cheese, and onions. Surprisingly tasty.

9.) Hot Water Cornbread—Watermark, Nashville— We took our friend Julia to dinner at Watermark in the Gulch neighborhood. The Hot Water Cornbread was actually a component of a BBQ Shrimp dish at this white-tablecloth restaurant. It was so good I asked for seconds on just the cornbread component, even though there was a breadbasket on the table.

8.) Lunch Salad— Blackberry Farm— The salad was served with Allan Benton’s bacon and a Chopped Egg Vinaigrette. The best salad I’ve eaten in two years.

7.) Tri-Tip Steak— The City House, Nashville. Our friend Julia took us to The City House where I ate one of the more flavorful tri-tips in recent memory.

6.) Grits Soufflé—Watermark, Nashville— Joe Shaw, the restaurant’s executive chef, studied under Frank Stitt in Birmingham. It shows. This dish was amazing.

5.) Onion Soup— Blackberry Farm— Adam Cooke is the new Executive Chef at Blackberry. John Fleer put them on the map, but when he and Blackberry parted ways, the chef from Danny Meyer’s restaurant at the Museum of Modern art in Manhattan, The Modern, took the reins. While his food was first rate, I never thought it “fit” the Blackberry mold. Cooke’s does. For this simple onion soup, he used fresh, sweet onions from the gardens on the grounds, cooked them down, and thickened the soup with bread— simple, subtle, beautiful.

4.) Sweet Potato Pancakes— The Pancake Pantry, Nashville— whenever I’m in Nashville I eat breakfast at The Pancake Pantry. This marked the first time I had eaten their Sweet Potato Pancakes served with cinnamon butter and syrup. Along with our friend, Bobby, we tore them up.

3.) Mexican Popsicles— Las Paletas, Nashville— Five years ago, two sisters opened a business which serves homemade popsicles and that’s all. The flavors are exotic, original, and each popsicle is made daily from fresh ingredients. I know this because while I was ordering, one of the sisters was unloading flats of strawberries, cases of limes, bananas, and all manner of berries to be used in the next day’s offerings. There wasn’t even a sign outside of the business and the place was slammed. I am glad there’s not a Las Paletas anywhere near my house. I’d weigh twice what I do now.

2.) Sourdough Yeast Rolls— Barbara’s Home Cooking, Franklin, TN— 
Barbara grew up just a few miles down the road from me in New Augusta, MS. I’m not sure where her Sourdough Yeast Roll recipe comes from, but no one in this part of the country has ever made anything that comes close. Again, I’m glad this food item isn’t available anywhere near my hometown.

1.) Heirloom Sharlyn Melon and Champagne Terrine with Benton’s Ham— Blackberry Farm— I had never heard of a Sharlyn melon. It’s a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew. Cooke drew inspiration from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and compressed the melon in a v
acuum-sealed bag before serving it alongside champagne-mint gelee and a small, rolled-up sliver of Allan Benton’s 16-month aged domestic prosciutto. This marked the first time in my fine-dining eating career that I have ever ordered seconds on an amuse bouche.

Honorable Mention Gi Gi’s Cupcakes Nashville, Strawberry Shortcake at Barbara’s Home Cooking Franklin, TN, and everything that we ate during our stay at Blackberry Farm that wasn’t listed here— especially those items served during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze

1 lb. Foie Gras cut into 2 ounce slices
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
8 Slice Fresh Brioche, crusts removed and cut in half on a diagonal
1 recipe Fig Relish
1 Recipe Port Wine Glaze

Preheat oven to 450

Arrange the brioche on a baking sheet.
Season the foie gras with the salt and black pepper. Heat a large skillet over high heat and arrange the foie gras in the skillet so they do not touch. Cook 45 seconds. Carefully turn each piece over and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Place the brioche in the oven to toast.
To serve, place one piece of the brioche toast on each serving plate, top with one piece of the cooked foie gras. Top each piece of foie gras with 2 tsp of the fig relish. Rest another piece of toast atop of the foie gras. Drizzle the plate with the port wine glaze and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings.

Fig Relish

1 Tbl butter
2 Tbl minced shallots
1 1/2 cups whole fig preserves, small dice
2 Tbl brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl minced celery
2 Tbl small diced red peppers
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leave, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pot. Cook the shallots for 3 minutes. Add in the diced figs and brown sugar, and cook 5-6 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and burning. Add in the sherry vinegar, celery and red bell peppers and lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, salt and black pepper and remove from heat. Best if made a day or two in advance. When ready to use, warm it slowly in a small sauté pan over a low heat.

1 1/2 cups

Port Wine Glaze

1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbl brown sugar
1 cup port wine
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pot. Simmer and reduce until mixture forms a thick syrup.
Yield: One quarter cup

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Piney Woods Challenge


Yesterday I drove a carload of kids— under the age of 12— on a seven-hour trek that ended in Arkansas’ Ouachita National Forrest so they could attend summer camp.

Early on, the van was relatively calm. Most surprising, the van was quiet. I think it’s because my wife packed the snacks. The kids were munching on pita chips, cheese crackers, and bottled water. I stopped for gas in some small town an hour from our destination and the kids went inside by themselves to get their own snacks— ice cream and candy bars.

I learned two things: 1.) Even though they might claim to have the capacity, kids have NO clue how to take care of themselves. 2.) Left on their own, they would die from sugar poisoning and daily overdoses of chocolate and corn chips.

The van instantly became raucous. The sugar fueled their madness as arguments began to break out between warring factions of the middle seat versus the way-back seat. Things were being thrown, toys were getting broken, and strange odors began to materialize. The tranquility that had enveloped the van moments earlier was a distant memory.

I thought back to my youth. Water didn’t come in bottles and pita was never chipped. I mainlined sugar through any source available— soft drinks, punch, Kool-Aid, my grandfather used to make glasses of homemade lemonade, which contained probably a half of a cup of sugar.

When snack time came at the park, I bought candy bars (chocolate and sugar), cotton candy (spun sugar), Orange soda (liquid sugar), hard candy (hard sugar), and those large plastic straws filled with — you guessed it— colored sugar.

I rarely drank iced tea in my youth, but when I did, it was loaded with sugar. Sweet and Low, Equal, and Splenda were nowhere to be found. My mom had some little saccharin pills in a bottle, but I used those as ammunition for my slingshot— not because I was creative when it came to ammo— but because I was so hyped up on sugar at the time, my judgment was clouded and it seemed like a good idea. Artificial sugar? Ha! We used it to kill birds.

My son eats healthy, grown-up cereals like Special K and Kashi. I ate sugary cereal when I was a kid, and if the Frosted Flakes didn’t taste sweet enough, I poured on more sugar until there was a layer of thick sugary sludge in the bottom of the bowl (which always made the second bowl of cereal even tastier).

I was the poster child for hyperactivity. I spent most of my days babbling on, twitching involuntarily, and bouncing off of the walls in the classroom. “Robert, finish your Cap’n Crunch, chocolate milk, and sweet rolls. You’re going to be late for school.”

 “Mrs. St. John, Robert won’t sit still in class.”

“He’ll be fine, just give him a few Twinkies and some chocolate milk. That’ll settle him down.”

I stayed in trouble. I ate sugary stuff all day long, never skipped dessert, and smuggled cookies into my bedroom late at night. With the money I made mowing lawns, I bought whole cases of Sour Apple Jolly Rancher candies.

My youth was filled with sugar-fueled moments that didn’t turn out well. Most notably there was The Piney Woods Challenge. I remember that event like it was yesterday (probably because I had a carload of screaming kids yesterday). In my mind’s eye, I can see my brother and mother in the front seat of the old yellow Plymouth. I was in the backseat— which smelled like our wet Cocker Spaniel— eating miniature Milky Way bars and drinking Mountain Dew. I was jabbering a mile a minute and my mother, who was at the end of her rope, issued a challenge: “If you can be totally still and completely quiet until we get to Jackson, I will give you five dollars.”

We were passing the Piney Woods School at the time. It would be 25 minutes, at the most. Twenty-five minutes of silence for five dollars. I said, “O.K. you’ve got a deal,” and then took another swig of my soft drink. Five dollars was a ton of money in 1969.

I sat on my hands and looked out the window with my lips drawn in and my mouth closed tightly. I concentrated on the five dollars while I twitched involuntarily. The pressure mounted as the car drove on. The pounding in my head grew louder. Be still. I wanted to tell someone about it. Be quiet. I wiggled and squirmed. Five dollars. Five dollars. Finally, I could take it no longer. Somewhere around Star, Mississippi, I screamed, “Where are my Jolly Ranchers? And began jumping up and down on the back seat.

I didn’t make it five miles. I did my best, but I failed. My brother, whom I think had been pulling for me said, “That’s alright Robert. Cheer up, you’ll get it next time. Here, have my Snickers and Orange Crush.”


Monday, June 01, 2009

Praline Bacon

For the last few months I have been hearing about a dish called “Praline Bacon.”

It was popping up in conversations, in emails, on websites, and inmagazines. I had never heard of Praline Bacon, so I took these randomoccurrences as a Celestine suggestion, and made a decision to lookinto this strange new food product.

Of course, it didn’t take to much inner dialogue to convince myself,as “Bacon” is in the title. Had I kept hearing about PralineCauliflower or Candied Brussels Sprouts, I might have just pushed therandomly occurring hints aside.

After researching Praline Bacon on the Internet, a restaurant in NewOrleans named Elizabeth’s appeared to be ground zero.

Around the time I was looking into this strange foodstuff, my friend,Bill Kirby invited me to breakfast. He, too, had been hearing aboutPraline Bacon and wanted to check it out.
I am blessed to have a lot of friends with diverse interests andtastes. Kirby, is a kindred spirit of the culinary variety. He, likeme, has no problem driving five hours with the sole purpose of eatinga perfectly fried piece of chicken, only to turn around and drive fivehours home.
Our culinary field trip was set.

Elizabeth’s is located at the foot of a levee in the Bywater sectionof the Upper Ninth Ward in a house that looks and feels each of it’s100 years. We arrived around 8:30 a.m. and were only one of threetables.

Kirby has a lot of rules about diners and breakfast joints. He oncetold me, “If you get a mean waitress, that usually means it’s going tobe a good meal.” Sitting in Elizabeth’s he said, “You see all of themismatched chairs and tablecloths? That’s a good sign. This is goingto be good.” Coming from a man who woke up at 6 a.m. and rode twohours to eat bacon, I’ll take him at his word.
Our waitress wasn’t mean, but efficient. Kirby ordered the EggsFlorentine (poached eggs, creamed spinach, fried oysters, andhollandaise). I ordered Eggs Elizabeth (poached eggs, ham,hollandaise, and toasted French bread croutons). I told Kirby that, “Ihave always believed that if a dish is good enough to use either theowner’s name or the restaurant’s name, it’s a safe bet.” As I spoke, Ifelt he was mentally filing my assumption away to add to hismismatched-chairs and mean-waitress theories.

I ordered an entrée of Strawberry and Cream Cheese French Toast forthe table and we each ordered a rasher of Praline Bacon. “Do you wantthe bacon first?” the waitress asked. It was a strange question. I hadnever ordered an appetizer course for breakfast, but the query caughtme off guard, and I figured that the bacon must be so good that peoplecan’t wait to eat it, or they have to eat it immediately. Or maybe therestaurant wants people to order it first because they know they’llorder more later, beefing up the check average. Either way, all of thesigns pointed towards good bacon, so I said, “Yes.”

Through research, and a little help from our waitress, I learned thatPraline Bacon is everyday, run-of-the-mill bacon that is partiallycooked on a sheet pan in the oven, and a sprinkling of brown sugar andfinely chopped pecans is added halfway through the cooking process.
The Praline Bacon arrived to the table a few minutes later. I begantaking photos to upload to my Facebook page and blog. The bacon lookednice— a little greasy— with a crust that came from a light dusting ofbrown sugar. I took a few photos, blotted a few grease spots, took afew more photos, and then looked over to Kirby. His bacon was gone—all four pieces.

“Where’s your bacon?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “I ate it.”

Indeed he had— four pieces in 90 seconds— an average of 22.5 seconds per slice.
I took a bite. It was good, but I’m not sure if it lived up to itspre-billing. The brown-sugar crusted bacon was certainly much betterwhen paired with the slightly sweet Strawberry French Toast than thesavory egg dishes.

Sharing breakfast with a friend is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Aculinary field trip with a fellow food lover makes it even better.

So was Praline Bacon worth the trip? It depends on whom you ask. Icould take it or leave it. Kirby might be able to add anothersupposition to his stable of mismatched chairs and mean waitresstheories: If bacon is good, it can only become better with theaddition of brown sugar and pecans.

Stuffed French Toast
2 lbs Cream cheese, softened
1 Tbl Orange zest
3 /4 cup Sugar
2 tsp Vanilla
1 1 /2 tsp Cinnamon

2 cups Half and half
2 cups Milk
8 Eggs + 4 yolks
1 tsp Vanilla
3 /4 cup Sugar
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 /2 tsp. Nutmeg
French Bread, cut into 8 five-inch-long pieces

To make the filling, mix all ingredients together using an electricmixer until light and fluffy. Hollow out a one-inch tunnel through thecenter of the French bread pieces. Fill a pastry bag with the creamcheese filling and stuff the French bread.

Make the batter mixture and pour it over the stuffed French toast. Letsoak for two hours or longer. Rotate the bread often so that all sidesbecome equally saturated.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place French toast on a well-buttered sheet pan and place in oven.Bake 12 minutes. Remove and turn bread over. Return to oven and bakeeight more minutes. Serve with warm maple syrup and fresh slicedstrawberries. Yield: eight servings