Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bookshelf: Fix the Pumps

It wasn’t uncommon, in the early years, for soda fountains to explode.

~ Darcy O’Neil

Darcy O’Neil has forged a thing of wonder.

O’Neil, who writes about beverages at Art of Drink, has leveraged his training as a chemist and bartender to bring together a fresh understanding of American soda-fountain drinks in his recent work, Fix the Pumps.

Soda fountains, You know: filthy, sticky wallows of vice where, for mere pennies, dope fiends could get their daily fixes of cocaine, strychnine, and morphine. See? Fresh understanding. O’Neil lays out a picture more akin to Luc Sante’s 19th-century New York underbelly than the squeaky-clean soda fountains fetishized by Americans yearning for wholesome, simpler times. When he’s done, you can appreciate why the anti-alcohol Temperance League waged war on soda fountains.

In about 100 pages, Fix the Pumps covers the origins and historical trajectory of American soda fountains and their relationships with druggists and saloons. It also cover basic chemistry and the terms, tools, and ingredients necessary to make the kinds of non- or low-alcohol drinks one would have been served in a soda parlor until the early 20th century.

For another 8o pages or so, a tightly organized collection of recipes for bygone syrups, tinctures, and flavorings is laid out. In addition to recipes for straightforward beverages, O’Neil includes directions for making nearly extinct classes of drinks—phosphates and lactarts. These drinks, once found across the country, have faded into such obscurity that in my entire life, I’ve only run across two parlors still making them.

These aren’t secret recipes, exactly, but they are the kinds of things you’d find primarily in obscure old recipe books, formularies, circulars, and manuals intended for the professional apothecary and druggist trade—the kind of books I have at home, but that’s because I spend too much time indoors.

Part of the beauty of Pumps is that O’Neil’s done the heavy lifting for you by scouring a long list of those old tomes to select a comprehensive and representative sample to transcribe and organize. He’s also converted archaic apothecary measurements of drachms, gills, grains, and minims into easy-to-replicate metric and American units of milliliters, ounces, grams, etc.

As much as I admire and respect what O’Neil has done, I absolutely hate the fact the Fix the Pumps is available only as a PDF right now. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad to have it on my desktop. But there’s the problem: it’s on my desktop. Since it exists only as a PDF, I’m tethered to a computer whenever I want to refer to it. No taking it to the park, no reading it in bed, no thumbing through it at the coffee shop. Consequently, I read it much less than I want to. See, if I’m mixing syrups and blending acids, I don’t want my computer — or even a new iPad — anywhere near hotness, stickiness, or potentially corrosive mixtures. Darcy says that he’s considering a printed version. I will buy it the day it comes out.

Fix the Pumps also desperately wants an editor. O’Neil has taken on the gargantuan solo task of sorting through and presenting a delightful cache of forgotten gems of particular interest to the cocktail crowd. There’s no question that the author knows his stuff. But the writing wanders at times from repetitive narrative to sharply focused, crystal-clear explanations, and then back into the narrative weeds. A second, printed edition may also give time to tighten the copy.

These are minor concerns, though. I’m delighted to have a PDF of Fix the Pumps and eagerly anticipate a copy sitting on my shelf. Or my kitchen counter. Or my nightstand. I might even get one for the shelf and one to get sticky.

For your own copy, click here.

Fix the Pumps
Darcy S. O’Neil

Goes well with:


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day Old & Bold: Francis Lam’s Banana Pudding

It takes a little time to develop that flavor
(Day old banana puddin')
To soak it all up with your vanilla wafer

(Day old banana puddin')

So get out your bowl and your wooden spoon

(Day old banana puddin')

'Cause I can smell your pudding clean across this room

(Day old banana puddin')

~ Southern Culture on the Skids
Banana Pudding

A few days ago, in a Facebook thread about a pork shoulder I’d been cooking, banana pudding came up—specifically, a caramel-laced version Francis Lam posted recently. Someone—someone in my own household—declared “We ♥ Francis Lam.”

This is true. We do. What’s also true is that Francis, a friend of friends and erstwhile editor for Gourmet, has disrupted more dinner plans at our house than earthquakes and kitchen accidents combined. After Gourmet disbanded, Francis started writing—and writing and writing—at’s food section. I really like his stuff. So much so that dishes I’d planned to make for dinner get shoved aside so I can play with his recipes instead.

Last Friday’s recipe for banana pudding in particular caught my attention. I had a load of bananas I intended to make into a Filipino banana ketchup. Enter Lam, all tatted up and full of loose talk about “Fancy Pants Banana Pudding.” Now, I like this tropical trifle as much as the next guy, but the version he wrote about incorporated a banana-spiked caramel. I was hooked. Ketchup? What ketchup? That’s for another day.

It was time for banana pudding. Click above to see Francis’ original post, but I’ve made some adjustments to the recipe (you know how these things go), so you can compare them if you like.

The result is simply one of the best banana puddings I've ever had. Homemade custard is almost always an improvement over store-bought powder, but the real trick pony here is the banana caramel. It gives deep, sweet, luxurious notes to the whole thing. Next time, I might toss a little rum into the dish (a quick dip of the cookies in, say, a nice Demerara), but for now, all I need is a spoon.
Banana Caramel
2 average to large bananas, very, very ripe (brown spots on skin)
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
  1. In a blender or food processor, puree the bananas fully, until they pour like pancake batter.
  2. Combine sugar and water in a very clean, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over high flame, and turn it down to a vigorous simmer. As the water boils off and you're left with pure molten sugar, the bubbles will get bigger but slower and less violent. Nothing will look like it's happening for a while, but keep an eye on it.
  3. When you start seeing some color develop at the bottom, gently swirl the pan to distribute it; this helps the sugar caramelize evenly. Caramel is a game of chicken: Pull the sugar off when it's too lightly colored, and the flavor is one-dimensional. Pull it off when it's too dark and it's burnt, bitter and acrid. But once the color starts to turn, it turns pretty quickly, so you have to be brave but not stupid; only repetition and a good memory for color will tell you when you've got the perfect color. But if you're new to this, play it a little safe and cook and swirl until the sugar is amber-colored and remove it from the heat, still swirling gently.
  4. Pour in the banana puree and stir vigorously with a spoon, heat-proof spatula, or whisk, making sure to dig in the corners of the pan. It'll hiss and sizzle and maybe even boil. Just stick with it and it'll calm down. When it's cooled, give it a taste. Delicious! You will have extra; keep it in the fridge [edit: in fact, you’ll have enough for a double-batch of the pudding below).
1 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy whipping cream, plus ½ to 1 cup more for whipping
3 Tbl 25g cornstarch
3 Tbl/45ml cold milk
2 eggs
6 Tbl/80g sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 Tbl/30g unsalted butter, cut in pieces
¼ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup banana caramel (or to taste)
1-2 large, firm bananas (ripe, but still pale yellow)
Nilla wafers (or ginger snaps , ladyfingers, or cookie or cake of your choice)

  1. In a heavy 2-quart pot, heat the 1 ½ cups of milk and the cream just to the point of simmering, lower the heat, and hold it there.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 3 Tbl cold milk to assure there are no lumps.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, and salt together until light.
  4. Combine with the cornstarch mixture.
  5. Slowly pour—while whisking—about half of the hot milk/cream mix into the egg mixture. This helps to temper the eggs and make sure that the shock of a bunch of hot dairy all at once doesn’t curdle them. Add the remaining hot dairy, and whisk to combine.
  6. Working quickly, clean out the pan used to heat the milk (or just use a clean one), then return the mixture to the clean pan. Stir over medium heat, adding butter bit by bit, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
  7. Once thickened to a loose, well, pudding-like consistency, take off the heat, and pour into a mixing bowl.
  8. Add the vanilla extract.
  9. Fold in the banana caramel (if it’s very cold and thick from the fridge, measure some into a bowl, stir in a cup or so of the warm pudding, then fold this lighter, more malleable mixture back into the pudding).
  10. Assemble the pudding by putting down a layer of cookies in whatever dish you intend to use. Then about a third of the caramel-laced pudding. Then a layer of banana slices (about ¼” thick), then more cookies, then a final layer of the remaining pudding mix.
  11. Cover the top with plastic wrap to keep a skin from forming, and chill in the fridge overnight.
To serve, lash it with whipped cream.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Great Migration & Southern Cooking in New York City

If you're in New York next month, stop by the Museum of the City of New York for a panel discussion about how Southern migration influence the food and cooking of the New York with three of my friends; Jessica Harris, Ted Lee, and John T. Edge. Dollars to donuts, they'll talk about Edna Lewis.

From the Southern Foodways Alliance notice:

On February 18, 2010, the Museum of the City of New York, in partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance and Mississippi Development Authority/Division of Tourism, will host a discussion, focusing on how The Great Migration transformed the culinary culture of the North.

Leading the discussion are Jessica Harris, author of a forthcoming history of African-American foodways, and one of the 50 founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance. In 2007, she took leave from Queens College (where she is a full professor) to assume the Ray Charles Chair at Dillard University in New Orleans. And Ted Lee, one of the James Beard award-winning Charleston Lee brothers. Ted, along with his brother, Matt Lee, is at work on a book of essays about New York City food culture. The work will certainly examine the influence that South Carolina natives have had on New York, but at its core, the book will be a celebration of the multicultural delights of our nation's culinary capitol. John T Edge will moderate the discussion.

Click here to learn more about the event and purchase a ticket.

What's my connection to these folks? Jessica has printed several of my recipes for various preserved things in her books. Ted—along with his brother, Matt—gave an early plug to my moonshine book in the New York Times, and John T., as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has given me more than a few platforms to hold forth on whiskey in person and on the page. I'm grateful to them all. If I weren't going to be in New Orleans, I'd join them on the 18th.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Tiki Roadtrip Part II: Polynesian Prop

After an overnight stay in San Diego (replete with a bracing Meyer lemon Tom Collins), I headed north to Los Angeles on the second leg of my tiki roadtrip. Few stars shine so brightly in the tiki firmament as the City of Angles and I was headed to two of its oldest tiki dens.

Here's a look at the first.

More than 50 years ago, Bob Van Oosting and Leroy Schmaltz hung out a shingle for Oceanic Arts, their import and decorating firm in Whittier, California. Van Oosting handled the business end while Schmaltz worked production. Their specialty was—and remains—Polynesian-style décor.

The popularity of their Polynesian-inspired carvings and other architectural artifacts of tiki culture has waxed and waned over the years, but their quality was such that restaurants and hotels around the world—even in Tahiti and Hawaii—came to them for custom carvings. Oceanic Arts installation crews have traveled around the globe helping to transform restaurants and bars into slices of tropical paradise.

The nondescript, industrial warehouse itself gives no clue about the stash within: it’s stacked to the rafters with carvings and baubles to outfit anything from a whimsical desk ornament to a full-on tiki wonderland of tropical exotica. Lamps made of seashells, puffer fish, and huge glass globes cast light on rows of museum-type shelving. Among the shelves: war clubs, shields, elaborate canoe paddles, wood trim carved with Polynesian flowers, masks, door panels, and spears. Elsewhere, bamboo-covered bars, fishtraps, tikis no taller than your knee and tikis that dwarf even my 6’ frame. An entire side room is stocked with nautical paraphernalia for giving your beachcomber pad that castaway look.

Van Oosting, sporting a tropical shirt and a precisely trimmed little white moustache, was at the helm the day I dropped by. Still a charmer after all these years, he answered my questions, let me wander around to explore, pointed out rarities in his doublewide cabinet of vintage tiki mugs, and broke out books of photos from clients who have tikified their homes and businesses. Clearly, tiki folk adore Oceanic Arts and the men who run it.

If it’s tiki décor, Oceanic Arts can get you what you want—finished or unfinished, assembled or piecemeal. Shoot, you can even rent panels, torches, a bar, and as many carved tikis as you need if all you want is a weekend backyard luau without permanently converting your home into a madman’s notion of what a tropical paradise ought to be.

I walked away a thing. A small thing, really, and not a note of incipient tikimania, you understand. A red glass globe, entwined in knots and netting. Extremely useful. Very practical...just the thing to start a tropical paradise right here in my own home.

Oceanic Arts
12414 Whittier Boulevard
Whittier, CA 90602-1017
(562) 698-6960

The website is rudimentary and not the tool to use is you've got online shopping in mind. Bob says if anyone has questions about items and pricing, they should call. And, as he reminds me as we walk away "Think tiki!"


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Travels: Three Tiki Landmarks in Two Days

Between Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles, I put over 1,000 miles on the car last week. Others might have been tempted to take in gorgeous mountain scenery and stunning sunsets. Me? It’s already gorgeous where I live and I can see the mountains from a block away, so I ditched the scenery to take in some of the West’s more unnatural and surreal sites: Tiki bars. Well, two old tiki bars and a massive California warehouse that supplies bars like them across the world.

Hell, I was driving anyway, and who knows when I’d be in the neighborhoods again?

These faux Polynesian retreats, relics from another century, bring me back to a past that, in actual fact, I never knew. By the time I was in grade school, tiki bars—with their carved idols, puffer fish lamps, exotic drinks, indoor waterfalls, and outrigger canoes suspended from ceilings—had grown tatty and embarrassing. I wasn’t even old enough to go into one, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to. Despite a recent renewal of interest in Polynesian pop culture, people still talk of “umbrella drinks” with haughty disdain.

But there’s something so charming about the few that still exist that it’s hard not to cross their thresholds and be whisked away to another more simple time and place. As a 21st-century drinker, this isn’t the South Sea island paradises envisioned by drinkers 40 and 50 years ago—it’s America of 40 and 50 years ago itself. Sitting at these bars, one gets a sense of what it may have been like for our parents and grandparents escaping their humdrum everyday worlds into a tropical paradise that, while it may have been utterly fake, was easily accessible.

Some of those places have remained open for longer than I’ve been on this Earth. Since I would be in the neighborhood, it was time to check them out. First up was the Kon Tiki in Tucson. The Kon Tiki (no relation to Stephen Crane’s popular Kon-Tiki restaurants from a half-century ago) has been dishing up and pouring tropical wonderment since 1963.

After a hands-down fantastic stack of flapjacks at Matt’s Big Breakfast in Phoenix, I’d hit the road and headed south. Pulling up at 11:30am in an otherwise nondescript old strip mall, I was dismayed to see that a large old carved tiki outside the place had been defaced with white spray paint. Manager Louie Lazos explains that the tiki—an original by master carver Milan Guanko—had been vandalized several months ago and that, while tagging is a problem in Tucson generally, this was still a shock. The tiki had been set alight once before by partying fraternity boys and this latest vandalism was making him rethink keeping it outdoors.

“We may have to bring it inside, restore it, and just keep it safe,” he mused. “Maybe we can find someone willing to donate time to carve a new one.”

Inside, past the heavy red doors and their “Welcome to Paradise” sign and the notice that, pursuant to A.R.S. §4-229, firearms are forbidden inside, thoughts of vandalism melted away. Once my eyes adjusted to the permadusk of a tiki interior, I was amused to find a band of regulars encamped at one end of the dark bar. Back lit by a huge fish tank on one side and the playpen of Thor, an enormous monitor lizard, on the other, the retirees bantered as only drinking buddies do. The air was thick with inside jokes and Kelly, the bartender who knew their drinks without even asking, gave as good as she got whenever one of the duffers got raunchy. My kind of bartender.

I settled on a scorpion which, even half-sized rather than the usual bowl, was a seriously big-ass drink. I put on my nursing shoes and nursed it as long as I could while I snapped pictures, witnessed a few bartender tricks, and ordered up one more.

I’m not quite ready for 11:30 am drinking with the old-timers, but if I lived in Tucson, I’d haunt the Kon Tiki. The next time I pass through, I’ll make it for happy hour.

Next up: the Los Angeles leg of the trip, including my first bit of tiki décor, a frightening long pour of tequila, and beefy manliness.

For more images of Tucson's Kon Tiki, see the Kon Tiki entry at Critiki.

Kon Tiki
4625 East Broadway
Tucson, Arizona 85711

Matt’s Big Breakfast
801 N. 1st Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85004


Monday, January 11, 2010

Bookshelf: Sri Owen's Indonesian Food Adds Fuel to the Tiki Fire

A new book by Sri Owen is a matter for celebration.

~ Alan Davidson
Petites Propos Culinaires

Sri Owen, a one-time BBC broadcaster and now one of the grande dames of Britain’s culinary scene, may not be well known to Americans, but she is a dogged sleuth at the very top of her game. Framing it for the cocktail crowd, she’s Ted Haigh, David Wondrich, and Jeff Berry rolled into one.

She has traveled to far-off villages in Bali, Java, and Sumatra with notepads and a camera. She was hip to Batavia arrack long before American cocktail enthusiasts knew what it was. She has tracked down endangered recipes across social, religious, and linguistic bounds, and presented her findings in a dozen books, various articles, and presentations at scholarly symposia. Her field? Indonesian cookery. Others have written about the foodways of these Pacific islands, but when you want to get right to the source, read no further than Sri Owen’s books.

Of what interest is Indonesian food to American drinkers? Think tiki.

Her latest book, Sri Owen's Indonesian Food, contains a 29-page spread on satay alone. Forget those “Monkeys on a stick” from mid-century tiki bars. A tiki enthusiastic looking for fresh ideas for backyard/basement luaus or a refreshed bar menu would do well to study Owen’s latest book. Here, she presents satays of minced beef, of pork, prawns, sweet potatoes, fish, ox tongue, and tripe along with an entire chapter on sambals (condiments akin to salsas or, more closely, chutneys) for giving them a tropical kick. Ok, maybe your guests won’t cotton to tripe-on-a-bamboo-skewer, but the rest have broad appeal.

In clear, engaging prose, Owen introduces ingredients, techniques, and dishes of the Indonesian archipelago. Recipes for braised beef ribs, tamarind lamb, stuffed wontons, steamed plantains, fish cooked in bamboo segments, grilled catfish, stuffed and poached prawns, and ice creams (of kaffir lime, durian, avocado, and black rice, to name a few) blend familiar and novel tastes and textures. Lumpia—fried spring rolls—will be familiar to tiki enthusiasts, but the book is packed with fresh takes on Pacific islands cookery. Well, fresh to Americans, anyway.

To accompany and enliven the dishes, readers learn how to make a variety of condiments and bumbus—seasoning pastes with exotic spices such as galangal, fresh tumeric, lemongrass, shrimp paste, candlenuts (careful: they’re toxic if eaten raw), and more. A useful glossary explains the ingredients and pronunciation.

One of my favorite recipes—and she’s printed it elsewhere—is for rendang: chucks of beef (water buffalo if you want to stick to the taste of the islands), simmered in spiced coconut milk that permeates the beef until the water evaporates, leaving coconut oil to collect which the cook then uses to fry the chunks in the same pot. Rendang is time-consuming and rich, but delicious, and perfect for heating the kitchen and belly in the ungodly cold weather the rest of the country is having.

Owen applies a similar technique to fried chicken. It’s not the same as the Southern fried chicken so familiar on these shores, but it has become part of our yardbird repertoire. For Ayam Goreng Jawa, Owen cooks chicken in seasoned coconut milk until it absorbs the sauce, then briefly cools and deep-fries it. Imagine the same recipe applied to a batch of chicken wings and served alongside a mai tai, a fogcutter, or a cinnamon-spiced nui nui.

As the Brits might say, it tastes rather more-ish.

Ayam Goreng Jawa
Central Java Special Fried Chicken

One chicken, about 1.5 kg/3.25 lbs), cut into 8 pieces
Peanut oil for deep-frying

For the bumbo (paste)
390ml/14 fl oz coconut milk
6 shallots
1.5 tsp ground coriander
3 candlenuts (or macadamia nuts), chopped
1 tsp fresh galangal, chopped
1 tsp fresh turmeric root, chopped
1 tsp fresh lemongrass, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt (and more to taste, if necessary)

Using just three tablespoons of the coconut milk, blend all the other ingredients for the bumbu to make a not-too-smooth paste. Put the rest of the coconut milk in a saucepan, and add the paste. Mix thoroughly, add the pieces of chicken, and boil for 45-50 minutes until all sauce has been absorbed by the meat. Allow to cool, then deep-fry the chicken four pieces at a time until golden brown [at 300°F, about ten minutes, a bit longer for breasts].

Notes: We ate with this with sambal ulek, a bright and lively chile paste widely available in Asian grocery stores and easy enough to make at home. If using candlenuts, be aware that they are toxic if eaten raw and must be cooked. Another tiki connection: the oil of candlenuts (so-called because they could be lit for light at night) was sometimes used as a coating for outrigger canoes so often seen suspended from the ceiling of tiki joints.

My notes are for the UK edition of the book published by Pavilion. Interlink has published an American version titled The Indonesian Kitchen: Recipes and Stories. I haven’t read that one, so I can’t comment on its contents. Owen herself, however, writes that the differences are minimal.

Sri Owen (2008)
Sri Owen's Indonesian Food
288 pages, hardback
ISBN: 1862056781
Price: £25.00