Friday, February 19, 2010

Mardi Gras 2010: Show Us Your…Kids?

This year’s Bacchus parade here in New Orleans reminded of why I love Mardi Gras. It’s not the beer or the beads. It’s the sheer, unadulterated joy that flows through the crowds from start to finish. And, oddly, all the kids.

If you’ve never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, your view of it is undoubtedly skewed by portrayals in national media of wild revelers flashing untanned body parts, stumbling drunkenly around the French Quarter, and generally behaving badly.

That happens. It’s true. But those are primarily Texans and they do that kind of thing every big weekend whether they are here or at home. No, unless you come to New Orleans, you’re liable to miss something important about Mardi Gras: the celebration changes from neighborhood to neighborhood and it’s not the drunken debauch so often portrayed in media.

I’m staying Uptown in a friend’s house about five blocks off St Charles, the main parade route up here, lined with live oaks, Spanish moss, and stately homes. If I should forget a parade is happening, there’s the thunder of drums in endless marching bands to remind me to throw on shoes and a coat and get my ass down there.

And what’s there? A tailgate that snakes for miles along, and spilling over, the streetcar tracks. There’s beer here, sure ~ coolers full of it and in kegs pulled along in wagons by students from Tulane and Loyola. Just what you expect at a tailgate, along with grills and propane stoves stocked with sausage, burgers, and jambalaya giving off enticing smells.

But also generations of New Orleanians, from grandparents to infants, line the streets. Unlike the jostling, drunken, Girls-Gone-Wild crowds thronging Bourbon Street, Uptown parades are largely family affairs. The littlest toddlers are perched up on ladders while grade schoolers get front row spots where passing float-riders often reach down and hand them beads, necklaces, and plush toys, throws that they’re just tossing to everyone else.

During the Proteus parade, I spoke with a couple visiting from Alabama. The husband was from here and wanted to bring their two small boys to Mardi Gras. He wife was appalled at the idea. Until she came and realized—as all the locals know—it really is a safe place for little kids, older adults, and everyone in between. One son—who inititially claimed “I don’t want any beads”—was throwing his arms in the air after a mere six floats, screaming “Throw me somethin’, mistah!”

Now, I like catching parade throws as much as the next guy and lord knows I don’t mind a nip during a parade, but up here, among so many families—these are parades I never want to miss. Seeing rapturous kids beaming with smiles and hearing their whoops of delight remind me that Mardi Gras will outlast us all and that—for as long as I get this sack of bones to the route—parades will roll here in New Orleans.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mardi Gras with Rowley, Wayne, and Chris

Everywhere else, as they say, yesterday was just Tuesday. But here in New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras.

After making it through the Zulu crowds, I walked through the Marigny where I planned to catch up with the costumed revelers of the Society of St Ann, one of my favorite parades. St Ann is a rambling, stomping, great time. Unlike the huge parades uptown that make their way to Canal Street, this is a long band of motley, bawdy locals and hip visitors dressed up in costumes that range from the expected (hey, I saw that grinder monkey last year) to the topical (lots of Saints references). The crowd grows as it moves along from the Marigny to the French Quarter and picks up new characters.

On the way to R Bar, a sort of St Ann ground zero, I ran into Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson. We shared a drink with his lovely girlfriend and moved on. Once in the Quarter, bon vivant bar tender Chris Hannah saw through my mask and offered a drink. Chris had a cooler filled with Chief Lapu Lapu, one of my favorite tiki concoctions. Made with Cruzan and Smith & Cross rums, it was just the thing.

And who was that in the Nagin-B-Gone exterminator outfit? Why, it’s that charmer Wayne Curtis dispensing Sazeracs to the crowd. First a squirt of bitters from the spray bottle, then a dose of Old Overholt from the pump dispenser.

Even the crowd of human-sized cockroaches couldn’t say no.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Who Dat? Black and Gold Boba Fett leads the 501st Legion

You may think that cocaine unicorns are the world’s most amazing mashup, a synergistic commingling rising to unparalleled heights of awesomeness. You’d be wrong.

What you would have failed to consider—and, to be fair, like me, you might not even know such a thing even existed—is Boba Fett. But not just any Boba Fett: a black-and-gold Boba Fett adorned with fleurs-de-lis and waving an American flag in the Who Dat Nation colors. Right there on St. Charles Avenue.

Yes, I’m in New Orleans again. Have been since before the Super Bowl. Will be ‘til next week. While I’ve seen some unforgettable sights in Mardi Gras parades before, I’d never seen the 501st Legion marching in the Krewe of Tucks.

The 501st—otherwise known as Vader’s Fist—is a band of dedicated Star Wars fans whose detailed costumes speak to endless hours of research and handicraft or thieving from Lucasfilm’s costume department. There were Jedis. There were jawas. Armored storm troopers marched in columns while the Imperial March cranked from speakers.

And when Darth Vader’s float came into view? Oh, forget about it. Vader, riding with a beer-drinking Jedi and buxom jawa, waved, shook hands, and handed out toys. Santa Claus himself could not have driven the crowd to greater frenzy.

Well, maybe if he were being pulled along by flying cocaine reindeer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tiki Roadtrip Part III: Hollywood's Tiki Ti

Last month, a road trip took me through California and Arizona. The trip was for work, but I got to hit a handful of drinking landmarks along the way. Tucson’s Kon Tiki was the first, followed by Polynesian prop provisioners Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California. The last stopover was an extended happy hour at Tiki Ti in Hollywood.

Tiki Ti (“the Ti” among friends who introduced me to it) has been kicking around since 1961. When Filipino bartender Ray Buhen founded the tropical bar, Kennedy was president. It was the year the Berlin Wall went up and the CIA reckoned the Bay of Pigs was a solid plan. Heady times. All of that’s gone. All except the Ti, that is.

Buhen, who had worked at Don the Beachcomber’s and Steve Crane’s Luau, banked on the popularity of rum-heavy tropical drinks he knew so well. He scored big time. His bar is not just still around: it’s still owned by the same family and is now run by his son, Mike Buhen, and grandsons. Tiki pilgrims will find iconic drinks prepared well and fast. But they’ll also bump elbows with locals — this is very definitely a neighborhood bar as well as a destination.

Over a few rounds, I chatted up patrons who lived nearby. One young couple referred to the joint as their living room and was working their way through nearly 90 drinks named on the menu. The walls, posts, and support beams are festooned with little cards bearing the names and messages of regulars who, over the years, have attempted to tackle that list. Silverlake barware supplier—and friend to bartenders everywhere—Joe Keeper is up there, right above the door’s lintel. Overwhelmed by the choices and can’t decide on a drink? Take a spin of the wheel and accept whatever potation fate declares. Seriously. No changing your mind. If you aren’t up for taking whatever the wheel deals, then just pick something off the menu.

But here’s the thing. Tiki Ti is small. Maybe a dozen stools at the bar and even fewer small tables. You could walk from end to end (when the place is empty) is five seconds. When it’s open, the joint is packed. Bartenders, tourists, business travelers, locals, and regulars jostle each other for a place at the cash-only bar. Lubricated with Scorpion Bowls, Nui Nuis, Painkillers, and 151 Rum Swizzles, the crowd is jovial and boisterous—but never so busy you can’t get a fresh cocktail.

If you plan on making a trip to Tiki Ti, check out their website for hours. It’s closed completely Sunday-Tuesday and only open evenings the rest of the week. Last call’s at 1:20am. It also closes for a while every now and then, so become a fan on Facebook and get hip to the schedule.

4427 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles California 90027
(323) 669.9381
Open Wed. through Sat. 4 pm to 2 am


Monday, February 1, 2010

Bookshelf: Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer

What makes a good bacon curer is not rocket science,
but common sense.
The whole idea is not only to make bacon
but good bacon.

~ Maynard Davies

Such is the thrall in which bacon holds modern Americans that a young woman approached me and my stack of curing manuals at the coffee shop and, barely taking her eyes off them, asked “Can I come home with you?”

The passions which bacon ignites are understandable. Bacon should be wonderful. It should ignite passions. So often, it's the idea of bacon that fires us rather than actual bacon. Which is not how it used to be. In his 1833 Cottage Economy, William Cobbett lauded the stuff: “it has twice as much strength in it of any other thing of the same weight.” It’s only recently that truly excellent cured and smoked sowbelly has been broadly available as Americans rediscover the flavors and textures that we’ve been missing for all too long.

Most of what has passed for bacon during my lifetime has been pallid, tepid stuff. Oh, it was ok. And occasionally examples from small smokehouses were great. But the majority was so pumped with water and polyphosphates that it shrank to half its size on frying and threw off a strange white residue that brought to mind the gummy white residuum that accumulates in the corners of some peoples’ mouths when they’ve forgotten to drink their water.


Enter master curer Maynard Davies. I don’t go much for role models, but if I did, Davies—Britain’s reigning bacon pornographer—would be king of them all. Retired now from the trade, he’s a bit of a cult hero in the UK, a darling of Slow Food types for his continuing promotion of traditional British charcuterie. Given Americans’ lust for bacon and a growing locavore sentiment, it’s surprising he’s not better known here. His new book, Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer, might be just the thing to bring him to wider and well-deserved American attention.

His previous books—Adventures of a Bacon Curer and Secrets of a Bacon Curer—were charming memoirs from a seasoned expert in curing meats, must-haves for aspiring bacon-makers with a bit of experience under their belts, but not how-to manuals. Davies is dyslexic and his earlier, less structured, narratives about life on his farm and the vagaries of cottage industry charcuterie meant one had to read between the lines a bit to glean valuable gems about curing meats.

Not this time. Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer shows a firm editorial hand and explains his processes in clear, tight detail. It is truly a manual. Even an amateur could pick up this book and come away with a solid idea of what’s involved in curing pork and how to get started. The charm is still there. But his recipes are now laid out with precise ingredients and succinct directions. If there’s a brine, it’s not a “strong brine”—it’s 70% or 40% or whatever that particular recipe calls for. The color photographs are the best of any charcuterie or butchery book in my library.

The manual is meant for professional bacon curers and others who work with pork who might regularly break down entire pig carcasses, but the small batch sizes and easily scalable recipes mean that amateur and aspiring bacon curers will be able to tackle most of these recipes at home or in restaurant kitchens. A smoker, however, does help with the most interesting of the recipes.

Ingredients, techniques, and tools are covered as are facilities. Want to know how to lay out a curing house? That’s here. So is how to construct a proper smokehouse and how to maintain brine tanks. He includes notes on which pigs of what size to use and lays out—in full-color, step-by-step photos—how to divide their carcasses into useable parts. Be warned that the photos are deliciously graphic.

Recipes—about 150 of them—cover bacon (wet and dry cures), ham, an array of sausages, and other specialty items such as brawn, tongue, black puddings, and faggots (no snickering: they’re ancient British forcemeat balls roasted under a mantel of caul fat, akin to fancy-ass French crépinettes). Want haggis recipes? There are two. One, seemingly, is not enough.

Bacon varieties include: Ayrshire (with Demerara and black pepper); Derbyshire Favourite spiked with juniper berries; hard Romany bacon with mace, bay, and caraway; Penitentiary Dry Cured (a recipe learned from his younger days teaching American prisoners how to cure meats); London Spiced (allspice, coriander, muscovado sugar); and others, variously infused with the flavors of ginger, honey, raisins, coriander, cider, red wine, white pepper, red pepper, beer, treacle, and other ingredients that could delight American palates unfamiliar with traditional British recipes.

If you make sausage or cure your own meats—any kind, not just pork—don’t delay. Get a copy of Maynard’s book today.

It’s the one we’ve been waiting for.

Maynard Davies (2009)
Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer
160 pages, hardback
Merlin Unwin Books
ISBN: 978 1 906122089

Buy it directly from here or US Amazon here.