Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eggs, William S. Burroughs — Wait, What?

In 1945, the American author William S. Burroughs may have had a dish named after him by the French chef who claimed to have created Crêpes Suzette. Why?

At the time the recipe was written, Burroughs had not yet published any books and had no particular reason for being known outside his circle of friends. There’s a chance Henri Charpentier’s Eggs, William S. Burroughs referred to someone other than the author of Naked Lunch, Junkie, and Cities of the Red Night. But that’s no fun.

I don’t know for sure how the two may have known each other, but I’ve got the recipe from a privately printed book now in my library, some backstory, and a tenuous connection. Perhaps someone with access to more extensive archives can fill in the gaps in this burning, all-consuming literary mystery.

Henri Charpentier (1880-1961) was once a well-known French chef who worked at the Savoy in London with Escoffier and at several other posh kitchens. His claim to fame was accidentally inventing, so he said, the orange liqueur-spiked dessert Crêpes Suzette while a young assistant in Monte Carlo. Later, he moved to the United States and eventually died in California. Before California, however, he had restaurants in New York and Chicago.

In New York, he worked at Delmonico’s but saved to open his own restaurant—Original Henri Restaurant & Bar—around 1906. For the next three decades, he took a role in several New York restaurants and was a celebrity in his own right. His customers included luminaries, presidents, and foreign heads of state. In 1938, he closed shop and moved to Chicago where he opened Café de Paris. By 1945, he had moved on to Southern California. Eventually he opened a restaurant, of sorts, in Redondo Beach: a single table, in his own home, where the reservation list was so long, it might take a year to secure a seat.

In a nutshell, that’s Charpentier.

So. William S. Burroughs. It’s possible Burroughs ate at one of Charpentier’s places in New York. Burroughs graduated from Harvard in 1936. While he was there, after all, he made trips to New York to explore the city with Richard Stern, a friend from Missouri. Maybe, possibly, there’s a connection there. I’m not feeling it, though.

My gut tells me the connection—if there is one—lies in Chicago. For a few years, in the early 1940’s, Burroughs lived in Chicago while Charpentier ran Café de Paris in the city’s Park Dearborn Hotel. He had a few jobs in Chicago, including a stint as an exterminator, a role that would resonate through his writing for decades. Exterminators don’t make bank, but with an allowance from his well-to-do family, Burroughs probably could afford to eat well. And he was definitely a character: he’d sawn off one of his own fingers in an effort to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. I’m guessing that even in 1943, William S. Burroughs made an impression.

I’m also supposing it was during this time, while Burroughs and Charpentier where both in Chicago, that the French chef caught a wild hare and decided to name a dish after an eccentric customer. Of course, this wouldn’t have been a unique honor. I don’t think ol’ Henri buttered toast without naming it after some American celebrity, friend, hero, or other person he’d want to compliment.

In fact, when Charpentier privately published 1,000 copies of Food and Finesse: The Bride’s Bible for friends and customers, he included hundreds of recipes of the kind Americans once thought were terribly fancy. The recipes read like a Who’s Who of American history: Pheasant, Samuel Morse; Lamb, Grover Cleveland; Cauliflower, Eli Whitney; Peaches Barbara Fritchie, Guinea Hen, Ulysses S. Grant; Brandy Apples, Amelia Earhart. There, on page 426, is the recipe for Eggs, William S. Burroughs.

Other than this single thing, I’ve never seen a reference to Burroughs in Charpentier’s writing. I admit I haven’t read every single thing Burroughs penned, but I don’t recall the chef showing up ever. Dr. Benway, yes; Chef Henri, no.

That’s all I got. If someone can make the connection, please let me know. I’m not exactly losing much sleep over this—any sleep, really—but it would be nice to put this mystery to bed.

Of course, in his mania for naming every dish under the sun for Americans known for one thing or another, Charpentier may have named an egg-and-pasta casserole after William Seward Burroughs (1857–98), inventor of the adding machine and grandfather to the beat author. I’d like to think the historical record’s so sketchy, though, that we’ll just never know.

Eggs William S. Burroughs
By Henri Charpentier, 1945

Chop one onion and place it into a pan with 1 tablespoon of butter. Brown it.

Take the green part of 1 chicory salad (keep the white part for a salad). Chop it fine and add it to the onion. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Then add 4 chopped hard-boiled eggs, 1 clove of garlic that has been crushed into a little chopped parsley, 2 chopped peeled tomatoes, 1 more tablespoon of butter, 1 teaspoon of meat stock, 1 pinch of pepper, one pinch of salt, and one sherry-glassful of claret. Cook for 5 minutes.

Boil 2 handfuls of noodles for 15 minutes. Strain. Be sure they are free of all water. Place them on the bottom of a baking dish. Cover with the chicory, etc., and bake in a preheated moderate oven of 350°F for 15 minutes. Season to taste.

Henri Charpentier (1945) Food and Finesse: The Bride’s Bible.
Privately printed, Chicago, IL

Goes well with:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Stoughton's Elixir, an Early Example

Stoughton (or Stoughton’s) bitters are one of those classic cocktail ingredients, now defunct, over which a certain breed of cocktail enthusiast swoons. First concocted in the late 17th century by British apothecary Richard Stoughton, Stoughton’s “elixir” was hugely popular and spawned countless homemade imitations. Just as ersatz Kahlúa recipes now pepper American recipe collections, ersatz Stoughton’s receipts cropped up in household manuscripts throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While looking for something else entirely last night, I came across an even earlier example: To make Stoughton’s Elixir from 1758. Eliza Smith’s’s book, The Compleat Housewife, was originally published in London in 1727, but was so popular that it went through many editions and reprintings in Britain and, later, America. As far as current research indicates, it was in 1742 the first cookbook published in what was to become the United States.

This makes Smith’s recipe for Stoughton’s the earliest published in America—assuming the recipe was in the 1742 edition. I looked and looked though the shelves at home and didn’t find one to confirm. All I got is this lousy 1758 reprint.

To make Stoughton’s Elixir. Pare off the rinds of six Seville oranges very thin, and put them in a quart bottle, with an ounce of gentian scraped and sliced, and six penny-worth of cochineal; put to it a pint of the best brandy; shake it together two or three times the first day, and then let it stand to settle two days, and clear it off into bottles for use; take a large tea spoonful in a glass of wine in a morning and at four in the afternoon; or you may take it in a dish of tea.
Eliza Smith (1758, 16th edition)
The Compleat Housewife - Or, Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Pineapple Cups to Pineapple Vinegar

Drinks around our house mostly come in glass or ceramic vessels. But now and then, I catch a wild hare and end up carving out whole pineapples to make oversized cups for two-handed drinks that invariably contain a bucket of rum. Yeah, yeah, it’s all terribly fancy.

The problem is what to do with the pineapple mugs when you’re done with the drinks. Some throw them out. Some compost them. Me? I rinse mine out and cut them — skin and all — into small pieces so I can make a light, fruity vinegar for my pork marinades, salad dressings, and some sausages.

The idea came from Diana Kennedy’s opus on Mexican food, The Art of Traditional Mexican Cooking. Piloncillo, the sugar she calls for in her recipe below, is readily available in Mexican markets. The hard little pylons of dark brown sugar may be either grated or crushed. I crushed mine in a tea towel with a hammer. The vinegar takes several weeks to make, but it’s good to have around.

It's worth noting that the vinegar, as it ferments, becomes a nasty, vile little pot of scum that attracts fruit flies from the surrounding five counties. I keep it outside, loosely covered with a lid to keep out rain and critters, but not so tight that it excludes air. I also use a rubber band to secure a large square of cheesecloth over the opening to keep the fruit flies out. Can't stress enough how disgusting this looks as it develops. No worries. When it's done, you'll strain it — and maybe rack it — and it will clear into a limpid, amber vinegar.
Pineapple Vinegar

When you are using a pineapple for other purposes, save the peelings, along with a little of the flesh. Add:

4 heaped tablespoons crushed piloncillo or dark brown sugar
1 ½ quarts water

Mix well and set, uncovered, in a sunny, warm spot to ferment. In it should begin to ferment in about three days and keep on fermenting until the sugar has been converted and the liquid becomes acidy
[sic]. It may be cloudy to begin with, but as it sits it will clear and gradually turn to a dark a amber color. This may take three weeks or more. By this time a mother – a gelatinous white disc – should be just beginning to form. Leave until it is quite solid – up to another three weeks – then strain the liquid and cork, ready for use. Put the mother with more sugar and water – a little more pineapple if you have it, but it is not really necessary – and leave to form more vinegar.
Diana Kennedy (1989)
The Art of Traditional Mexican Cooking:
Traditional Mexican Cooking for Aficionados.

Bantam Books, New York.

Goes well with:
  • Tiare Olsen's tiki drink Pineapple Delight calls for using an entire pineapple as a cup. See her recipe at A Mountain of Crushed Ice.
  • For instructions on carving that pineapple cup, see Dr. Bamboo's clear illustration here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ginger Pie, a Rescued Recipe

Harold and Maude—Colin Higgins’ black-humored 1971 film—once inspired me to bake a pie. If I’d known how much research eventually would be involved in making the simple dessert, I’d’ve said to hell with it. The perseverance paid off.

In the movie, Ruth Gordon’s seventy-nine year old Maude invites a much younger Harold (played by Bud Cort) into her rail car home. Maude—eccentric, art-loving, vivacious—stands in wild contrast to morose Harold whose faked suicides are sad jokes staged to wring some evidence of warmth from his frosty mother. In the rail car, Maude offers him oat straw tea and ginger pie. While prospects of oat straw tea did nothing for me, I was left dumb in the wake of increasingly irrelevant dialog at the mention of ginger pie.

Ginger pie? I’m no stranger to baking, but I’d never heard of it. At first, I mistook the pie for a physical thing. It had a homespun, old-timey ring that reminded me of something long forgotten. Dandelion wine, maybe, or spring tonic. At first dozens, then hundreds, then—literally—thousands of cookbooks stymied me as I hunted for a recipe. Gingerbread, ginger tea, ginger snaps, stir-fries, ginger syrups, ginger cordials, chutneys, beers, ales, candies, ginger-lacquered duck, and more, but no ginger pie.

Since nothing suggested or resembled what I was looking for, I put together working notes on a recipe of my own. Some of the ingredients were obvious, but I felt as if I were reinventing something that should be easy to find: Pie? No problem—got pans, got dough. Next! A great big mess of ginger. And eggs. And…um… sugar, of course. Plus…maybe…damn. There’s got to be a recipe in one of these books.

But I forged on. Southern chess pie had a sturdy, crack-topped custard that seemed a versatile base—But what kind of ginger? Fresh? Candied? Dried and ground? Preserved in syrup? In sherry? Just ginger juice? I try each of those. Fresh ginger turned out to have the strongest, most assertive flavor, giving racy overtones to an otherwise sweet and homey pie.

Fresh ginger holds promises of liveliness and sass, of exotic and ancient histories. There is a potency in a fat hand of fresh ginger that just might inspire a breath of fire when it's reduced to tiny, tiny cubes and strewn throughout a rum-laced custard.

The search for the recipe and subsequent experiments with what I thought ginger pie should be brought me a deeper understanding of what I was stalking. When I failed to uncover any recipes, I went back to Maude, the root of my inspiration.

Her eccentric, nuts-to-tradition take on life is a big part of the film’s appeal. During a memorial Mass, she psst, psst, pssts Harold’s attention with sibilantly inappropriate offers of licorice. Her wistful reminiscences hint at a past built on old world loves and tragedies. Once a firebrand activist, Maude continues in small ways undermining worldly complacency by finding joy in simple, everyday things; somersaults, a field of daisies, raucous songs, and seagulls, as well as frequent and spontaneous episodes of grand theft auto.

I came to realize that ginger pie was not some old-fashioned recipe fallen out of favor. It was more than that. By offering a slice, Maude extends not only hospitality, but a slyly camouflaged offer of herself and Harold’s first hints of escape from his doleful life. With the point of that pie, she wedges open Harold’s somber soul and floods it with bracing warmth and sweetness, the distillate of her own fading life’s fire and spice. Harold’s change is so profound that he picks up a banjo, abandons his mourning suits, turns cartwheels, and declares his intention to marry a woman old enough to be his grandmother.

This pie doesn’t affect those sorts of change; it’s not likely—not likely, mind you—to prompt proposals. Sitting here with a late-night wedge pilfered from the kitchen, though, I can’t help but smile. In the end, I don’t know what Maude’s recipe was, but I’ve cemented friendships over slices of this rich, ginger-and-rum custard pie. Surely that is the sort of thing she meant to dish up.

Ginger Pie

1 unbaked pie crust
¼-1/3 cup minced young ginger
2.5 oz aged rum*
1.5 cups sugar
8 Tbl unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ tsp salt
3 eggs
2.5 Tbl all purpose flour
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest

At least one hour before beginning, combine the ginger and rum in a small bowl or jar and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs one at the time and mix after each addition. Add remaining ingredients, including the rum and ginger, and combine thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie crust and bake at 350F about 50 minutes, until the center has mostly set, but is still just a little wobbly – it will firm on standing. It should have a slightly darkened, crusty top. If necessary, cover the pan with a tented piece of aluminum foil or an overturned stainless steel bowl to prevent overbrowning while the pie bakes.

Warm, the pie cries for heavy dollops of whipped cream barely able to hold itself together. Cold, it’s best to sneak mall slivers while the rest of the house sleeps.

* Appleton Estate V/X or Clement VSOP are both grand rums for the pie. You want something with some age to it. In a pinch, you could use a white rum, but avoid spiced and dark ones: After all, this is a ginger pie, not a rum pie.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Recent Projects: The Art of Distilling Whiskey

At Tales of the Cocktail in 2008, I sat on a panel to talk about the resurgence of homemade spirits in modern America. With me were distillers Mike McCaw and Ian Smiley. In the audience sat Max Watman, Bill Owens, and a smattering of other distillers (some with permits, some not) who knew full well that a sub rosa renaissance in small batch spirits was underway.

Afterwards, Owens asked if I would write about moonshine for a book he was planning on whiskey distilling. I tweaked the Tales talk and the result is a section in his The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits released recently. My section covers the resurgence of off-license distilling in the US, traces its recent history, and makes an attempt at categorizing such distillers into broad and sometimes overlapping categories.

Other contributors are essentially people in the room that day: McCaw, Smiley, Watman, me. Andy Faulker contributed photos and Fritz Maytag of Anchor Distilling—one of the godfathers of modern craft distilling—wrote the forward.

The book isn’t a manual of how to distill, but more an explanation of spirits categories with a heavy focus on the modern American market. There’s a section on stills and how various kinds work, but for me the most engaging aspect of the book is its profiles of distilleries and distillers that are shaping the future of artisanal American spirits. It's this section that reveals just how widespread distilling is becoming.

Distillers and distilleries highlighted include:
  • Sonja Kassebaum (North Shore Distillery, Illinois)
  • Guy Rehorst (Great Lakes Distillery, Wisconsin)
  • Chris Weld (Berkshire Mountain Distillers, Massachusetts)
  • Phil Pritchard (Pritchard’s Distillery, Tennessee)
  • Steve McCarthy (Clear Creek Distillery, Oregon)
  • Garrison Brothers Distillery (Texas)
  • Leopold Brothers (Colorado)
  • Tuthilltown Spirits (New York)
  • Philadelphia Distilling (Pennsylvania)
  • Chris Sule of Celebration Distillation [i.e., Old New Orleans Rum (Louisiana)]
And a few dozen others. Not a book to teach you how to distill, but definitely worth a look if you want to see what others are doing with their knowledge of how to run a still and—just as importantly—a distillery.

Bill Owens and Alan Dikty (2009)
Forward by Fritz Maytag
The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits
176 pages, paperback
Quarry Books
ISBN: 1592535690

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Paczki — Donuts with Vodka

I spent this last weekend in and around Appleton, Wisconsin, about three hours north of Chicago. Work-related, but there was time enough to explore the area, check out local restaurants, bookstores, liquor stores, bars…and bakeries.

Oh, yes, bakeries. As a kid growing up in Missouri, baked goods were some of my favorite treats: cream horns, cookies, pies, stollen, crumb cakes, and—from St. Louis’s long-closed Lake Forest pastry shop—a rare gooey butter cake. All vestiges and extrapolations of Northern European baking traditions, heavy on German and Swiss varieties.

So when I dropped by Manderfield's Home Bakery in nearby Menasha, I expected some of the bakeshop treats of my youth. Many were there, naturally. But also paczki, fried doughnuts that, while new to me, are probably old hat to anyone who grew up within driving distance of Chicago’s substantial Polish communities.

Paczki (pronounced in those parts “poonch-key”) are tacitly Catholic raised donuts generally available only from Fat Tuesday until Easter. They are often filled with fruit or, sometimes, cream. Some are glazed, some dusted in sugar. Others have no coating at all. And—get this, boozehounds—vodka is sometimes incorporated in the dough ostensibly to keep it from absorbing frying oil. I’m not sure I buy the story at all. Well, the rationale, anyway. Seems like temperature control would keep the oil in check. I’ll defer to the judgment of bakers on the effect of vodka in donut dough.

Since the bakery sells filled paczki only on Fat Tuesday itself and I was engaged elsewhere that day, I walked away with an unfilled version dusted simply with sugar. Where you’d expect a hole in a common American raised donut, each of Manderfield’s paczek has a flat, crisp disc covering one side, something like a tire's hubcap.

Sitting in the car, I cracked open a window to let in the smell of sugar and vanilla that swirled around the parking lot. Pulling apart the donut and cracking though the little crisp disc, I sent a cascade of sugar crystals down my black pea coat. I don’t need paczki every day, but I’ll make a special effort to be near a Polish bakery the next time Mardi Gras rolls around. And by next Lent, I'm going to get the bottom of this vodka thing.

Manderfield's Home Bakery
811 Plank Rd.
Menasha, WI 54952

Friday, March 5, 2010

Recent Projects: Modern Moonshine Techniques

Bill Owens and I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on what moonshine should be, much less what it is or even how to make it. But Owens understands the increasing popularity of specialty spirits that tap Americans' nostalgia for that good old mountain dew. On that, we can both agree.

As president of the American Distilling Institute, he also understands the revenue such spirits could generate for craft distilleries. When he asked me to edit Modern Moonshine Techniques, his recent book on distilling white dog and whiskey, I happily obliged.

When I'm not writing on my blog for free, I write, edit, and polish words for businesses that don't have the time or in-house expertise to tackle websites, books, manuals, reports, scripts, speeches—that sort of thing. Not as glamorous as whipping up cocktails before noon, but client projects that overlap like this make me especially happy.

The book is geared for distillers interested in setting up small craft distilleries and provides recipes for so-called moonshine (i.e., sugar wash spirits), corn whiskey, bourbon, wheat, and rye whiskeys. In it, Owens writes about federal classifications of spirits, types of stills, how to build a mash tun and a corn cooker for mashing maize, and how to distill on a 100-gallon pot still. Tapping ADI membership, he also gives sample spreadsheets for startup costs on a small distillery, grant application samples (for conducting distillery feasibility studies), and lists resources for supplies, books, and online information about running a distillery.

[Disclaimer: Should be obvious, but this isn't a review, just a description of a project on which I worked for my writing business. If you like, you can order a copy here. I'll leave it to others to review. My role was editing Bill's manuscript. I'm always open to talking to others about writing projects. For information on writing and editing services, click here.]


Monday, March 1, 2010

Max Watman Writes Second-Best Moonshine Book on the Market

There aren’t but a handful of good books on American moonshine. Most are flawed by romantic notions and half-understood hearsay, of things heard, but never seen or done. Restrict your hunt to those written the last quarter century and you’re left with two—only two recognize that the “dying art” take on illicit distilling no longer holds water.

The first is mine. Go ahead and buy it here.

The second is Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.

As a character in Watman’s book (see his chapter on hobbyist distilling), clearly I can’t be said to be objective. And we will let pass for the moment his suggestion that I be waterboarded to gain a broader understanding of who is who among American home distillers. He’s also a friend. That doesn’t mean that we should dismiss my admiration of his work. Max Watman clearly knows his liquor. Until I read his book, I hadn’t realized he’s a hell of a writer, too.

Chasing the White Dog briefly traces America’s well-known early history of illicit distilling, then dives into Watman’s own discovery of what moonshine is, how it’s made, and what it might become. In the process, he visits unspeakable dives where vile potations may be purchased and wedges himself into a racecar as he gets a grip on NASCAR’s connection to 20th-century moonshine.

I like to concentrate on small distillers trying either to make great products or doing interesting technical things with stills—essentially those making for themselves and their friends and family. Watman spends a great deal of his book on modern outlaws in the business of illicit liquor whose quality is more suspect.

He visits law enforcement types and sits in on trials, visiting with defendants and prosecutors alike. Moving away from suspect sellin’ whiskey, he hunkers down with distillers such as Jess Graber (who makes the particularly fine Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey) and Rory Donovan, co-founder of Peach Street Distillers, whose peach brandy is a sheer delight. In talking with these craft distillers, he gets a sense of the aspirations of modern American distillers, whether they’re operating in the open or in basements and garages.

If fact, Watman documents his own attempts to make liquor at home. From his first flawed experiments with George Washington’s rye whiskey to the creation of his own bespoke applejack, and his encouragement of others to do the same, Watman walks us through his false starts, his romantic notions, and, finally, his realization that making liquor at home should be no more illegal than making wine or beer. Bravo, Max.

Max Watman is a corn liquor Dominick Dunne, a literate, funny, and insightful apostle of bespoke liquor and homemade applejack. Like any jury-seasoned moonshiner, he claims his liquor-making days are behind him. Whether or not one chooses to believe that, let's hope his writing days are far from over.

Follow his Facebook page and Twitter account. And go buy his damn book.

Max Watman (2010)
Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.
304 pages
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416571787