Napkins, Please

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I’d like to think of myself as sophisticated - as a citizen of the world. “I’ve traveled,” I tell myself, “I’m cultured. I live in New York City, after all.”

But I’m Western. Very Western. Very American. And nothing reminds me of that like travel.

Take something as simple as napkins, for instance.

When I picture a paper napkin (do it with me if you like), there’s a little variation in size (cocktail or dinner?) and thickness, but all the napkins in my imagination are more substantial than a Kleenex and less sturdy than a paper towel. Right? Even the cheapest of napkins you’d get at a hot dog stand fall into this wide category. Except not in SE Asia. No sir.

At least not at the establishments I frequented on my visit to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam last month.

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What's missing?

I wasn’t pursuing fine dining. I attempted to eat where the locals ate - at the mom and pop places on every corner.

Here’s what I found: a napkin in Asia is not a napkin at all.

Most establishments would have a little dispenser, right next to the condiments of something that at first glance looked like it would hold napkins. But no, it contained a paper substance that resembled, or often was, one-ply toilet paper. So thin as to be translucent and often in a long roll you had to tear off. What? Why? This stuff is too flimsy to clean up a true mess or sit in your lap. It disintegrates on contact. But bring some with you along to the bathroom because you might be confronted there with a toilet a few inches off the floor and nary a paper product to be seen. Only a little hose, if you know how to use it. Otherwise, drip dry.

In Vietnam I found they use a slightly different, though equally less satisfying, napkin substitute. The wet wipe. Not a tiny packet like you’d find accompanying the heavy duty paper towel at a rib shack in Texas for post brisket cleanup, but rather a full-on moist towelette. They are more like something you’d wipe a child’s butt with but more watery. These, it seems, are really for pre-meal clean up not actual in-meal napkining. They are far too wet to put in your lap and end up sitting on the table slowly leaking water throughout the meal. Usable only in the most dire of circumstances because then your hands are all wet.

Are SE Asians are just a lot less sloppy eaters than we are? If that’s true, I salute them.

I, on the other hand, and for the sake of all around me, require a straight-up napkin. Preferably something to go in my lap. Possibly even more than one if a drippy curry is involved. Maybe for my next SE Asia visit I’m just going to take a roll of Bounty with me. That would work. I'm sure all six feet of me and my very absorbent paper towels won't stand out. Not at all.

Mama's Caramel Frosting

My mother has been gone a long time, but her recipe for caramel frosting remains on the refrigerator. She made it for every birthday cake. I learned to make it, too. It’s not terribly different from the “Caramel Ganache” in older versions of Joy of Cooking, except my mom usually made it with milk, not cream, which JoC calls for. It’s just as good, and even richer with cream, but given how much butter and sugar is in it anyway, the cream isn’t strictly necessary.

This recipe, in my mother’s handwriting, is just a shorthand for what it takes to make it. This version also reveals that she used cake from a mix, perhaps a true chef’s no-no. But I would argue that with frosting this rich the cake itself is a bit overwhelmed, so it doesn’t really matter if it is from a mix so long as the cake isn’t dry.

Here’s the recipe with a little more detail and instruction.

1 stick of butter (I use salted butter)

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed (we always used light brown, never dark)

1/4 cup milk (whole milk is best as skim tends to be too watery, but if you’ve got half-and-half or cream around, use it (!), but just know the icing will be a little thicker so use a “smidge” more half-and-half or cream than milk)

3 and 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar (I’m lazy so I seldom actually sift, which means I make up for it in the mixing, not always to the best effect. My mother always sifted. And she was right to do so.)

Melt the butter in a medium pot or deep saucepan on medium heat. Just as it is completely melted stir in the brown sugar with a wooden spoon until it melts in. Keep stirring and regulate the heat. You want to bring it to a full boil for just 1 minute, then turn off the heat.

If you’ve made it in a big enough pot, you can add the powdered sugar right in which keeps everything warm and makes mixing a little easier, but if you’re using a Kitchenaid you’ll want to transfer the butter/brown sugar mix to a bowl for mixing. Make sure to get as much of the butter/brown sugar out of the saucepan as you can, quickly, to the bowl, before it cools and hardens a bit.

Mix in the powdered sugar, slowly. I usually start adding and mix with just my wooden spoon at first, and then add in the beater/mixers after it gets a little too thick. In any case, don’t dump all the powdered sugar in at once. Keep mixing and stirring until it is well combined. Then keep mixing until there are no bits of unmixed powdered sugar and it is completely smooth. This all needs to happen pretty quickly as the frosting will harden. If for some reason it gets absolutely too thick to work with, add a few teaspoons of warm milk to thin it out.

It should smooth nicely and be a light caramel color. Have your cake ready because you need to pour it on immediately while it is warm.  Pour and spread with your spatula.

The results might not be as pretty as buttercream or beautiful-but-tasteless fondant, but I promise you that after one bite, nobody will be complaining.

Originally posted in Just a Pinch of South, 2013

Micah from The Old Try

(Originally written for Just a Pinch of South in 2012)

Continuing with my occasional series of interviews with people who embody the concept of “just a pinch of South” I had the opportunity to interview Micah Whitson from The Old Try a few weeks ago. He and his wife Marianna are Southern expats living in Boston, Massachusetts. Micah was raised in Alabama, but has also made his home in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina before moving to Boston in 2007. That’s what I call Southern ecumenical.

Micah and Marianna have day jobs, but you may know them from their unique Southern inflected letterpress posters. I first fell in love with their work when I saw (and immediately purchased) their manners print. It turns out that one is Micah’s favorite, too.

Micah and I talked books, faith, and barbecue (As Micah says, “Alabama barbecue is my jam.”), but there’s just too much to include it all. Here are some highlights.

JaPoS: What do you miss about living in the South?

MW: I certainly miss the food of the South, but I think the main thing I miss is that even if it’s really, really busy back home, there’s always this feeling of the possibility of fellowshipping around the corner.  You know you could just roll into someone’s house, or call up a friend, and could actually do things with them. Boston is such a scheduled and regimented place. Our best friends here we see three times a year, maybe.  If we don’t work with people then it’s really hard to get time to see them. There’s just that feeling of harried-ness here. When we go back home I can call up friends in Alabama and I can say,  “Hey, do you want to get a beer tonight?” and they are like, “Sure I’m not doing anything.”  Here I feel like it is tough to do those things and be neighborly because you try to do it, and nobody’s got the time for it.

JaPoS: How do you think living in New England has shaped or changed you?

MW: I think the biggest thing comes from living with people who have different kinds of backgrounds. I can be a pretty judgmental person and think, “This is right and that thing is wrong,” and there isn’t any grey area.  But living in New England has really allowed us to realize both as Christians and as human beings on the earth that there is a place to speak truth, and there is a call to do that with love, but at the same time, it isn’t really my place to judge. I can try to live an example, but I don’t think it is really my job to force that example onto everyone else.  Living here has made us a lot more accepting. Not necessarily that we have just thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but a lot of our lives are lived in that grey area. It’s a helpful thing to have to grow and think about that and wrestle with those ideas while not being surrounded with the “group think” that says, “This is just what we do, and if you don’t do it you can just move to a different state.” Instead, by living [in Boston] we’ve really had to confront those things and live with people who believe different things.  Because we are all just people, it’s our job to love one another.

I think too another thing that has changed, in part the main genesis for Old Try, is living somewhere else and then realizing that there can be a lot of shame in being a Southerner. I grew up just regular old guy in Alabama, and I feel like because of the stories that we are told and the things we read we think, “Oh man I guess we as Southerners are not as cultured as other people.” Then by moving elsewhere I’ve seen that there are just as many rednecks in Connecticut and Massachusetts as there are in Tennessee and Alabama.  You get somewhere else and you realize that there are all the same kind social problems and issues that happen in the South. I’ve realized that I don’t need to be ashamed of my Southerness.  I think now I can go toe to toe with a person who thinks something negative as to what being a Southerner is.  I can talk about it with some amount of realism because I’m living elsewhere.

What was the inspiration for The Old Try?

MW: Several things came together. Marianna made me a letter sweater which I wore to an Ole Miss game, and everybody was kind of fired up about it. They said, “I have to know where to get one.”  So Marianna and I said, “Well, let’s make some stuff that really connects people to what they are really about and where they are from.” For instance, I went to Ole Miss. But that won’t work for everyone. Let’s say your grandad went to Davidson. If you were to wear a Davidson shirt, that actually has a connection to you beyond just an arbitrary brand. But [because of the difficulty of collegiate licensing] and not knowing what the heck we were doing with fashion, we tabled it. Our name came from “the old college try” because of our original idea.  So [The Old Try] sat around and languished. Then the Tuscaloosa tornadoes came through 2 years ago. Being here, away from home, seeing helicopter footage of Athens and Limestone county, and seeing buildings that had been there for years disappear, it made me miss home. After that I saw a lot of Southern designers who were living outside the South doing different designs to show their solidarity and that they were thinking of home. I was on the bus thinking of that one day, and I realized while we didn’t know anything about clothing, I knew a heck of a lot about print design and how to do that. I walked home and ran the idea by Marianna. So the iteration of Old Try as it is took place in about five minutes on the bus.

Since then, The Old Try has made numerous letterpress posters (and now t-shirts) referencing a wide range of Southern places. To create them, Micah researches history and takes little details to create something unique. No “Hey Y’all” prints from these folks. Most recently, Old Try has partnered with Union Press to produce a print with proceeds going to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. To get one of these limited edition prints click here.

 Photo Credit: David Salafia

PBS's A Chef's Life

Photo from www.achefslifeseries.com

I don’t normally watch cooking shows. Mostly because they make me hungry. But a Twitter friend turned me on to A Chef’s Life on PBS.

I don’t know Vivian Howard, the chef/star of the show. But I feel like I do. She grew up in Eastern North Carolina and has is in possession of an accent you want to just fall into and never leave. It warms my heart. She sounds exactly precisely like the kids who attended Camp Morehead with me. And that is a good, good thing. The Eastern NC accent is a particular accent that if you haven’t had the pleasure of drinking in deeply, you are truly missing out.

Vivian also escaped to New York City for a number of years and only returned home when her parents offered to help her and her (Yankee) husband start a restaurant. I didn’t know Vivian when she lived here, but I could have. And we would be friends. Right?

Before I get too creepy/stalkery about the whole thing, let me tell you the other three things that make the show for me.

First, I love that each ep features a particular ingredient. Now, they may mostly be a little stereotypically “Southern” but I don’t care. Let’s talk real strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, pigs, grits, and muscadine grapes. I’m just fine with that. Almost licked the TV screen.

Second, I love the farmers and older people who help educate her on how to prepare different ingredients. More of that North Carolina accent, please. And the salt-of-the-earthiness. I want to give out hugs.

Finally, there’s a dose of reality in this “reality” show. By that, we discover the first episode that their restaurant burns down and they have to rebuild. Their reaction feels real. And in each episode Vivian and her husband, Ben, well, they kinda bicker a little bit. No one throws any wine glasses, nor do they pretend a Martha’ Stewart level of having-it-all-together facade. Just some back and forth like normal humans do. Refreshing.

I also like the difference between how Vivian appears when she narrates and teaches in the “educational” portions of the show when she is wearing her makeup (she looks looks great) contrasted with the “documentary” portion when she is in chef’s mode (kinda, well, frumpy). Not only does this make me feel okay about writing this post in m’sweatpants, but also reminds me that my mother was probably right about the difference “puttin’ on your face” makes after a certain age. Sigh.

All that is to say, my future best friend Vivian didn’t pay me a dime to talk up her PBS show, but I’m doing it anyway, because I’m really enjoying it. Check it out online here.

(originally posted on Just a Pinch of South, 2013)

Hacking the Rockaways

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You are dying for a day at the beach, and you’ve heard of the Rockaways*, but you’ve never been. Do it right. Here’s how to kill it your first time out.

1. Check the beach forecast. Sure, it looks sunny out the window of your 4th floor walkup, but the Rockaways are nearly 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan. Coastal weather can be very local, so be sure to check the conditions for zip code 11694. If it’s not going to be hot and sunny, just pivot to brunch and save the beach for another day.

2. Get up early. You work hard all week: we get it. Setting an alarm for a lazy beach day may seem counterintuitive, but the chance to lay claim to the best bit of beach before the crowds has its own rewards. You can always nap while you work on that cocoa butter tan. Plus, there’s a great Rockaway breakfast option (Thurs-Sun) you can only get before 11 am (see #5).

3. Obey your subway app. Estimated travel time via the A train from Midtown is about 1.5 hours. Now before you let that get you down, keep in mind that that is less than the wait for brunch at Clinton Street Baking Company. Here’s a little trick that may save you a few minutes. Sometimes it is faster to take the A to Broad Channel and switch to the S train that goes along the shore, however, depending on the whims of the MTA, it may be faster to take the A to Rockaway Boulevard and then switch to the Q53 Limited bus, which follows nearly the same route. Only your subway app will know for sure (try HopStop). Check it as you are pulling into the Rockaway Boulevard stop. If you take the bus, note that the Q53 stop is under the (elevated) subway stop. Take the bus to the 97th Street stop (across from Rockaway Taco, see #5 yet again). If you take the S train, get off at the Beach 98th Street stop.

4. Bring cash. Nearly every place you want to eat or shop is cash only. Don’t be the sucker paying outrageous ATM surcharges. Bring the green stuff.

Rockaway Taco taco

5. Eat well. The grim concession stands at Jones Beach are no match for the creative and tasty options at Rockaway. The mother ship of comestible goodness is Rockaway Taco. Set back a few blocks from the beach proper, the crowds of knowing hipsters lining up for lunch at 11:30 look more like tan LA transplants than the pale Brooklyn species we are more accustomed to seeing around the city. These city surfer types know what’s good because the tacos and fresh juices are on point. If you follow #2 and arrive early, Rockaway Taco serves chilaquiles (tortilla chips smothered with sausage and egg) for breakfast. Good stuff. Save some room because just a few blocks away right on the beach is the 97th Street Concession providing more delicious and unusual dining options from the kind of purveyors you would expect to see at Smorgasburg. We are fans of Bolivian Llama Party, and you will be too once you’ve tried one of their Triple Pulled Pork Chola sandwiches. If that’s not to your fancy are plenty of other options including La Cevicheria,  Breezy’s BBQ, and the Lobster Joint.  

6. Slather, rinse, repeat. It’s easy to be distracted by the good food from the actual point: enjoying the sand and the surf, but don’t forget to apply a generous dollop of sunscreen before you sit back relax and enjoy your urban beach day

 

*Never heard of the Rockaways? What are you, new to town?

The Rockaway Peninsula, usually called “the Rockaways” faces the Atlantic Ocean and happens to be in the borough of Queens. The beaches are wide and some of the shoreline has surfable waves.  In the neighborhoods along the shore you may find a set of row houses next to a surfer bungalow down the street from both a boarded up store and a rather fancy looking high rise. It’s a mix of decrepit buildings and new post-Sandy construction. The Hamptons it is not, but that is part of the charm.

Aspirational Southern Cooking Circa 1929

I found a little 64 page cookbook written in 1929 called "Our Favorite" and Tested Recipes compiled by some sort of committee of ladies from Atlanta. It must have belonged to my paternal grandmother. In the forward these ladies write:

Realizing the complexity of the present mode of life, and the high cost of living, this book has been collected and complied for the young housekeeper, who needs some tested and not too expensive but good recipes, from the homes of some of Atlanta’s good housekeepers, and their friends, noted for their good dishes. To them this Book is dedicated with the wish that there is never a failure.

And by “housekeepers” they do not mean hired help. They mean wives. How nice of them to think of young women and their need to never have “a failure.” I guess if housekeeping is all one puts her energy into, an unsatisfactory meal would have a certain emotional weight about it that it might not today.

What is also interesting is how very few of the recipes listed are what we think of as particularly “Southern” in nature. No fried chicken. They list chicken a la king, then croquettes, fricassee, panned and escalloped chicken. That is it. They list more puddings, not desserts, but puddings, than they do chicken recipes. There is an extensive list of different cakes and cookies. I have to say I don’t disagree with these ladies’ priorities. It’s hard to have a failure if you’ve got a good dessert.

I’ve included a recipe from the “Sandwiches” section that sounds delicious. And Southern. The name of the lady who submitted it is listed along with how to make it. Credit must go where it is due.

 

The Varsity Blues

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My mom died in 1997. My father called me at 6am and met me at the airport a few hours later.

When we walked in the door at home, it was already beginning to buzz with my mother’s close friends. Ann C and Ann P, our housekeeper Geraldine, Mrs. N. They were in the kitchen, mostly, doing I-don’t-know-what. Keeping busy. Trying to help.

By this time, I was drained, dazed, sad, yet relieved mom was no longer suffering. It had not been a matter of whether she would make it or not, but when she would go.

I didn’t really want to talk. What was there to say? I didn’t even need to cry. I was cried out. Watching the women at work, I felt a little lost.

The past few months my visits home had been about helping care for my mom, relieving my dad so that he could rest, and now there was nothing much for me to do.

He, too, seemed not to know what to do with himself. My mother always said, “Your father is good in a crisis.” Which is true. Those situations always bring out the best in him. But after the crisis? What is one supposed to do then? I think he picked up the newspaper and pretended to read. I wandered around the house trying to look occupied. Family would arrive soon enough. The house would fill up, and we would be busy with preparations for the funeral, but not yet.

There was a knock. My father’s friend Neal stood on our front porch with two boxes from The Varsity. Hamburgers, french fries, chili dogs, slaw dogs, pimento cheese burgers, onion rings. He presented his gifts and left a few minutes later.

It was such a small thing. Maybe it seems like an odd choice. But it was perfect for my dad and me. Neal read the situation exactly right. We didn’t need to talk it out. We didn’t need more “help.” We did need comfort. And Neal brought it to us, almost wordlessly, in a cardboard box.

The deviled eggs and casseroles would show up in their own good time. But I’ve never been happier to see that red box in my entire life. In my grief, I didn’t even realize I was starving.

 originally posted on justapinchofsouth.tumblr.com March 15, 2012

An Atlantan Ordering A Beverage in a Northern Restaurant

 No, Pepsi is not okay.

No, Pepsi is not okay.

INT. YANKEE RESTAURANT – NOON

Waiter:                What would you like to drink?

Atlantan:             A Coke, please

Waiter:                Sure. Is Pepsi okay?

Atlantan:             No.

Waiter:                No?

Atlantan:             No.

Waiter:                What would you like then?

Atlantan:             Iced Tea. Do you have sweet tea?

Waiter:                Yeah, I guess. It's sweet.

Atlantan:             Wait. Is it from a mix or is it brewed?

Waiter:                 Brewed? You want hot tea?

Atlantan:             No. Iced tea. Is it made with tea bags or a powder?I don't want it if it's made with a powder.

Waiter:                 It comes out of the same thing as the Pepsi. You know, the drink        machine (points to the soft drink dispenser).

Atlantan:             Water. Just bring me water.

*Originially written for justapinchofsouth.tumblr.com