Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bookshelf: Maynard Davies, Bacon Curer

The recipe had been given to me by an old Quaker lady in America many years ago and I was unsure whether it would go down well in modern Britain, but I decided to do it all the same. I did it exactly as she as written it down in her wonderful hand and the first production, believe me or not, was like eating with God…

~ Maynard Davies
Maynard: Secrets of a Bacon Curer

Even vegans know that bacon is the meat of the moment.

Options for indulging in cured pork belly range from a well-regarded bacon-of-the-month club to bacon-themed wrapping paper and bacon bandages to questionable bacon-scented candles, mints, and car air fresheners. Bacon and chocolate candies may be the vanguard of hip: you may decide for yourself whether they are good.

But when bacon toilet paper is yours for the low, low price of $9.95 per roll, we’ve lost sense that bacon should be delicious. It should be meaty. It should be graced with streakiness and so well cured that it doesn’t shrink and shrivel in the pan, but renders just enough fat to lend a light brown crisp. Ideally, it comes from heritage breeds, raised and slaughtered humanely. But even swine from a feed lot can yield respectable bacon if the curer is a master.

Bacon lovers everywhere rejoice. That master is Maynard Davies. And for the last six years, he’s been telling his story in books. Davies, who retired after selling his Shropshire farm and curing business to Rob and Fiona Cunningham, trained from a young boy as a sausage-maker and curer of bacon and hams in England. His products have been praised by culinary preservationists, Slow Food types, and the British media. That he’s not well-known in the US is just a shame.

But it’s not entirely a mystery. See, Maynard—as he likes to be called—is dyslexic. His books are not polished. They read as if a charming and slightly dotty uncle, prone to aphorism and meandering tales, has sat down to relate highlights from his life and work. Which is exactly what he’s done in Maynard: Adventures of a Bacon Curer and Maynard: Secrets of a Bacon Curer. Maynard’s wife Ann has transcribed his tape recordings and pulled them together into a series of narratives that take Maynard from his earliest days as an apprentice through his stint curing bacon for an American prison to cured meats entrepreneur back in England.

Because of the narrative nature of the books, they aren’t exhaustive treatises on the minutiae of making bacon. They’re a collection of stories by a man who knows his craft inside and out and who cares deeply about making high quality, hand-crafted foods. But as he tells stories about making bacon for gypsies, about building a smokehouse, about raising livestock, or preparing a feast for his daughter’s wedding, a careful reader will glean valuable information about how to use equipment, how to wrangle smoke and fire, how and where to build a smokehouse, which parts of a pig are best for what recipes, and—regrettably—the scams bedeviling gullible country farmers.

His recipes are often unclear and beg questions, but if you know the least bit about curing meats, answers readily suggest themselves. Take, for instance, his presentation for dry salting according to one of his early mentors:
Theo’s Dry Salting Recipe
48lb fine salt
9lbs dark muscovado
9lbs demerara sugar
14oz saltpetre
3lbs sea salt

Spice Brine
40 gallons water
3lbs bay salt
56lb fine salt
1lb 1oz saltpeter
1 ½ oz sodium nitrite
8lbs dark sugar
½ oz coriander
½ oz pimento
1lb raisins
1lb currants

Soak raisins and currants in cold water and leave overnight.

Put currants, raisins and all spices in a container and boil until cooked and dissolved.

Strain into a clean container, cool and then add to brine.

Wait, which water? The 40 gallons? Or a smaller measure? The dry cure goes on after a brining and draining, but you need to read the paragraphs around the recipe box to figure that out as well as how much to use. Because Mayard seems to know so much about bacon, I suspect that he may not have recognized the gaps in directions that leap out at those of us who haven’t spent our lives working salt and seasoning into pigs.

But don’t let that stop you: Maynard speaks with the voice of an artisan. The read is charming, informative, and easy. The information is there, just not in the format to which cookbook readers may be accustomed. Maynard’s aren’t the best recipe manuals among my sausage and meat books. But they are the most endearing I own.

Maynard Davies (2003)
Maynard: Adventures of a Bacon Curer
160 pages, hardback
Merlin Unwin Books
ISBN: 1873674643

Maynard: Secrets of a Bacon Curer
176 pages, hardback
Merlin Unwin Books
ISBN: 1873674937


Friday, July 24, 2009

Bookshelf: Cocktail Boothby Hits the Shelves (Again)

Before going to press the manuscript of this little encyclopedia was submitted to many first-class bartenders, successful saloon-keepers, famous connoisseurs and well-known clubmen from all parts of the globe for their approval and endorsement, one and all of whom have unhesitatingly declared it to be “The Dope.”

~ Hon Wm. T (Cocktail) Boothby
The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908)

It’s time to drop the old chestnut about the scarcity of William Boothby’s bartender’s guides. While that was true a year ago, “Cocktail” Bill Boothby, dead these almost 80 years, is enjoying a new life through the publishing efforts of Fritz Maytag and Greg Boehm.

Boothby was a bartender, author, and California assemblyman who plied his trade in San Francisco before Prohibition. That he worked the stick in New Orleans, New York, Kansas City, Chicago, and Philadelphia before returning to California is irrelevant: San Francisco claims him as her native son.

Cocktail historian David Wondrich says of Boothby "If one had to pick a single name to stand as dean to the whole tribe of San Francisco bartenders, it would be the Honorable William T. Boothby, head bartender at the Palace Hotel and author of one of the most useful bartender's guides of the golden age of American drinking.”

Until this year, getting your hands on a copy of one of those bartender’s guides was an iffy endeavor. But if your tastes lean toward antiquarian books without a matching antiquarian book-buyers’ budget, you’re in luck.

Anchor Brewing Company has reprinted Boothby’s 1891 manual, Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender, in a handsome new paperback edition with a new 12-page forward by Fritz Maytag and David Burkhart who dive into historical and news archives for details about the man and his times. From a later edition of the book, they introduce Boothby’s own Boothby Cocktail, essentially a Manhattan cocktail with a champagne float:

The Boothby Cocktail

2/3 jigger Whiskey
1/3 jigger Italian Vermouth
2 dashes Orange bitters
2 drops Angostura bitters

Stir well with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, add Maraschino cherry, float on one spoon of champagne and serve.

Particularly fascinating for me (yes, I admit, I have spent parts of more than one summer vacation in archives working on my librarian’s tan) are reproductions of 16 handwritten pages of recipes from the collection of John C. Burton. The pages were found tipped into a 1900 edition of the book and include such drinks as the Vampire Cocktail, the Pineapple Bronx, and the Brandy Daisy.

Not to be outdone by the historical addenda in Anchor’s California edition, Mud Puddle Books in New York has issued a damn-near perfect reproduction of Boothby’s 1908 The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. The hand of John Burton is apparent here, too, in his introductory essay giving a succinct biography of William Boothby.

Mud Puddle’s Greg Boehm has made quite a name for himself reprinting old cocktail manuals that aren’t just facsimiles—from the paper to the fonts to the binding, boards, and endpapers, his reproduction books look and feel as the originals did when they were published sometimes more than a century ago. Like any ethical publisher, Mud Puddle makes sure the books are clearly modern works. Each, for instance, has an introduction explaining its relevance by modern drinks historians such as David Wondrich or Robert Hess.

For a look into California bartending as it was done a hundred years ago, do yourself a favor and check out Boothby’s work. Whether you want to plunk down the cash for an original is up to you, but in the meanwhile, consider grabbing both Mud Puddle’s and Anchor’s editions. Despite the great deal of overlap in the books, I got both and will be mixing drinks from them for years to come.

William Thomas Boothby (1891)
Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender
152 pages, paperback
2009 reprint by Anchor Brewing Co.
ISBN 978-9822473-4
Buy it here.

Hon Wm T. Boothby (1908)
The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them
143 pages, paperback
2009 reprint by Mud Puddle Books
ISBN 978-1-60311-189-8
Buy it here.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Oak Flavorings in Whiskey without Cask Aging

At Tales of the Cocktail earlier this month, Francesco Lafranconi moderated “Cask Strength 1:1,” a session exploring the roles of woods, including oak and the Brazilian tree Jequitiba rosa, in cask aging spirits. Sylvan Thompson and I both wrote recaps for the Tales of the Cocktail blog. His more in-depth recap is here and mine’s here.

As the session was breaking up, I overheard another attendee, in all earnestness, explaining that the practice of infusing spirits with wood shavings and essences rather than straight-up barrel aging is a relatively new practice borrowed directly from home beer brewers during the last 20 years. Yeah, I know: it's hogwash, but I was hustling to another meeting and so didn’t stop to get all Cliff Clavin on his ass.

Clearly, as bitters and bitter wine recipes spanning the last 200 years show, the practice of adding small bits of wood to high-proof alcohol for flavor and color is well known among spirits blenders. Set aside all the woody barks, chips, and shavings one finds in old recipes for flavoring and coloring spirits to be used as tonics, cordials, and bitters—the cherry bark, slippery elm, spruce, birch, Angostura bark, Brazilwood, cinchona, cinnamon, logwood, and cassia with which pharmacists and DIY bartenders are familiar. Just look at recipes for imparting oakiness to whiskey meant to be consumed as whiskey and not medicine or sweetened cordials: we can see there's nothing new about it.

To correct this mistaken notion that putting the barrel in the spirit is somehow a conceit taken from 20th century beer brewers, I offer two specific recipes predating Prohibition's repeal that bypass barrel aging in favor of a quicker, if not wholly authentic, method of achieving an oaked finish.

The first is from M. La Fayette Byrn’s The Complete Practical Distiller (1875, page 144) —
A quantity of oak-bark shavings, deposited for some time in spirits of wine, will form a dilute tincture of oak; this may be added to colour spirits, instead of burnt sugar.
The second is from a Prohibition-era distiller’s secret manuscript in my private collection.
Peach Flavoring for Whiskey

Steep for one month ten gallons dried peaches, 10 gallons oak sawdust and five pounds black tea in 40 gallons proof spirits, strain & filter.
I'll pass on Byrn's recipe, but the secret 1920's recipe book looks promising, as peach, tea, and whiskey go together quite nicely. Fish House Punch, anyone?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chickenshit Afternoon, Part II

If you have never had a "Goombay Smash"
you have been missing out,
but I don't recommend them in 95 degree heat
standing over a 5 gallon vat of hot oil.

~ Brooks Hamaker

Last week, I wrote about the Chicken Drop in a post I called called Chickenshit Afternoon. The Chicken Drop, a bettors' pastime involving chickens and the trajectory of their last meal, is not as common as it once was, but it's still so well known among New Orleanians that even the erudite bar professor Chris McMillian at the Bar UnCommon took once glance at my photos of a yardbird on a Twister board behind chicken wire strapped to a plywood platform on a pool table in a bar and declared authoritatively "Well, that's a Chicken Drop."

Of course, McMillian is a master bartender and there's a certain correlation between alcohol and the Chicken Drop. I'd put it somewhere near 1:1. One also hears of variations with other livestock, including swine. Not in a bar, of course. Or maybe I just don't know those bars.

Brooks Hamaker—Mayhaw Man for years on eGullet.org and former distiller—also knew the story. In fact, he'd written it for eGullet, complete with a turkey variant. He was also kind enough to send on a link to the follow-up in which a big ol' Tom turkey goes into the fryer.

Brooks' 2003 essay, The Turkey Terror of Oak Street, Part II, takes us to the end of the story.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Royal Blend, a Coffee Shop Refuge from the Mandess of Tales

When the mad hubbub of Tales of the Cocktail gets a little…much, I sometimes walk four blocks down Royal Street to Royal Blend. Tucked away in one of the French Quarter’s quiet, hidden courtyards, the coffee shop caters mostly to locals and tourists in the know rather than, say, the frozen daiquiri and hurricane crowd. And by "locals," I mean French Quarter locals, not just New Orleans locals.

The shop is easy to miss. But keep an eye out for the long, unlit archway in the 600 block of Royal. At the end, a sunlight-filled flagstone and brick courtyard opens to the sky. With fountains and lush greenery, it's a quiet place to take stock of what the day holds. Were I a horticulturalist, I could name those plants. Ferns, I suppose. That one seems to be a saw palmetto. And…ermm…ivy. We’ll just call them “plants.”

Head straight to the back of the courtyard, order at the counter, and grab a seat inside or among the metal chairs outdoors. Two big table umbrellas ward off the worst of rain and sun. The patrons are friendly and often chatty. Over the years, I’ve met other writers, filmmakers, cooks, journalists, photographers, artists, and tourists from all over. In the evenings, French Quarter ghost and cemetery/voodoo tour groups meet there in the courtyard. The ghost thing's not my bag, but knock yourself out if you’re into it. They meet nightly at 8:15. The cemetery/voodoo group gathers at 10:30pm on Sundays, but 1:15pm Monday-Saturday.

Of course, there’s lots of coffee—hot, iced, or all kinds of beans to go—but iced teas and frozen mocha slushies help keep the heat at bay just as well. For the peckish, there is an array of bagels, pastries, and light sandwiches. It’s my quiet place when I need to retreat, regroup, write, or just cool my boots.

Royal Blend
621 Royal St
New Orleans, LA 70130-2115
(504) 523-2716

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stanley — Breakfast all Day on Jackson Square

Stanley on Jackson Square in New Orleans is one of my new favorite breakfast joints. Yeah, they’ve got sandwiches—good ones like chicken clubs—but I’m a whore for solid breakfast and Stanley delivers.

The high ceilings, tile floors, and marble table tops give the feel of an old ice cream parlor, but the food is upscale diner: eggs, pancakes, corned beef hash, bananas Foster French toast, and plenty of ice cream sundaes. Most dishes go for about $12. A predilection for hollandaise sauce, though, is what keeps me coming back.

Among the egg dishes, benedict variations take the fore—Eggs Stanley (cornmeal-crusted local oysters, Canadian bacon, hollandaise, on an English muffin); Eggs Stella (cornmeal-crusted softshell crab) and the Eggs Benedict poor boy (yeah, the usual ingredients done as a poor boy sandwich). But for me, the standout was the Breaux Bridge Benedict. With the coarse South Louisiana sausage boudin, poached eggs, smoked ham, American cheese, and thin “Creole” hollandaise, the dish is rich enough to be completely satisfying and small enough not to slow you down in the sometimes oppressive heat.

For Tales of the Cocktails attendees, you all are in good luck: Stanley is a mere six blocks from the Hotel Monteleone and opens at 7am. Breakfast and lunch are served all day.

See you there.

547 St. Ann
New Orleans LA 70116

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chickenshit Afternoon

...professionals, students, bankers...would be watching a chicken
on a 10x10 board yelling in unison "SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!"
Ahh, you should have seen it.

The Chicken Drop was stupidity and senselessness

on a Herculean scale.

~ Brooks Hamaker

Grousing about New Orleans’ oppressive heat and humidity is all well and good, but if it weren’t for yesterday’s stultifying heat, my delicate mind would still bear a Chicken Drop-shaped hole.

As I approached Good Friends bar on the corner of St. Ann and Dauphine, the heat and sweat had put me in a mildly grumpy mood. Just in front of me, neighbors crossed into the cool interior with two large dogs. Turns out that Good Friends in the afternoon is the most dog-friendly bar I’d seen in the US. At least six meandered among the customers, lounged on the cool floor, and pretty much made themselves at home. At Good Friends, even the dogs were regulars.

But the pool table stopped me. It was covered with a plywood board that had a Twister mat duct taped to it. The board was surrounded by a wooden frame enclosed by chicken wire. It was my good fortune to stumble across the lead-up to a New Orleans chicken drop—half gambling, half brazen ploy to get bar patrons to linger and buy more.

The Chicken Drop is simplicity itself. Around a setup similar to the one above, patrons place bets—or as at Good Friends, simply put their names down under red, green, blue, or yellow columns with no exchange of money—on where a live chicken will, well, dump. I bought two beers just in anticipation.

Of course, there’s lots of build-up. “Ten minutes left!” the manager calls. “Two minutes to place your names!” “Thirty seconds, everyone! Get your names in for a free drink!” Oh, yes—patrons who correctly guess where the bird drops a deuce get a free drink. It’s the most juvenile fun I’ve had until actually writing just now the phrase “the bird drops a deuce.”

The assembled patrons gathered around to watch the live speckled hen gently removed from her carrier, then placed over the wire enclosure onto the board. The crowd jockeyed for positions around the table, guffawed, cheered, and tried to startle to chicken into prematurely defecating while she strutted over certain colors.

A few false starts as she bedecked the white spaces between the colored circles. Then, after about four minutes, gold. She dumped a huge number on yellow. I got a free beer, was all cool and refreshed, and the grump was gone.

I cannot wait until the Hamster Derby.

Good Friends Bar
740 Dauphine St
New Orleans, LA 70116-3055
(504) 566-7191

Goes well with:
  • Brooks Hamaker’s essay “The Turkey Terror of Willow Street, Part I” on the Chicken Drop for eGullet—with a Thanksgiving twist. It’s just a classic New Orleans bar game and a really fun essay. Helps that I’m staying with Brooks so he can elucidate these things for me.

Cocktail Tomes and Cookbooks in the French Quarter

Phillipe LaMancusa has been in the food business for the better part of fifty years. For most of that time, he’s been at the stove, but after Hurricane Katrina (“the storm” locals evoke in casual conversation), he opened Kitchen Witch, a French Quarter emporium of culinary books.

LaMacusa’s opening stock was his own collection of some 5,000 volumes, but these days, he’s just as likely to buy secondhand books from retiring chefs, culinary students, and scouts who bring him vintage and antique treasures. A case of cocktail, spirits, and wine books just inside the front should stop drinks enthusiasts in their tracks, but some digging among the shelves will turn up treasures. Berger Applegate’s 1916 Paul Verlaine: His Absinthe Tinted Dreams is a choice catch for aficionados of the green fairy.

There are also plenty of used (and some new) New Orleans cookbooks, including Mixing New Orleans and Gumbo Tales, Sara Roahen’s slam-dunk investigation into modern New Orleans food and drink. While tourists and collectors make up the bulk of buyers, plenty of locals shop here even still to replace books lost in the storm. Recapturing their readers’ lost recipes has been an ongoing project for food writer Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, food editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Their book documenting those resurrected recipes, Cooking up a Storm, is featured prominently. Score a copy.

Kitchen Witch
631 Toulouse Street
New Orleans, LA 70130

While you’re there, pick up:
  • Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
  • Bienvenue’s classic book of south Louisiana cooking, Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make A Roux? (a first edition of the book goes for $1,200 at the Kitchen Witch, about the only sticker shock in the whole place). More recent editions are $22.95.
  • Sara Roahen’s Gumbo Tales. A matchless introduction to what and why New Orleanians eat.
  • Mixing New Orleans, a cocktail recipe book with histories and an introduction by Wayne Curtis.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cantaloupe Bourbon Milk Punch

Anyway, it's hot here, it's hot.
That's all I gotta say.

~ Morcheeba
Let it Go

New Orleans isn’t as hot as last week they tell me, but Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse still has a sign on its revolving doors reminding patrons to use the side doors “due to weather conditions.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of cool marble counters, air conditioning, ceiling fans, and whiskey. At Bourbon House, all of them came together yesterday (with a dozen palliative St. Bernard Parish dozen oysters to wash down my Galatoire’s lunch).

Regulars know that the house drink— made with Old Forester— is a frozen bourbon milk punch. On a muggy New Orleans day, it’s a grownup’s answer to the frozen daiquiri slushies one finds in other frozen hooch parlors and drive-troughs in the area. Somewhere between a milkshake and a smoothie, this comes with a bourbon kick that just hits the spot on days that’d wilt frail constitutions.

During Tales of the Cocktail, attendees are in for a treat. Bartender Patricia O’Neil has been adding fresh cantaloupe puree to the mix and she plans to have them new version around for a while. Now, there’s no denying the drink is on the sweet side, and I wouldn’t want to knock back four or five of them, but when the thermometer creeps higher and higher, the icy melon goodness hits the spot.

As of yesterday, the recipe was only one day old. It might be named something else by the time you belly up—but they'll know what you mean if you ask for a frozen bourbon milk punch with melon.

Bourbon House
144 Bourbon Street (about a block from the Hotel Monteleone)
New Orleans, LA