Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage

BC: Before Cabbage
This time of year, the pantry is loaded and the fridge is full. We’re working our way through it all, but we’ve had our fill of rich dishes and heavy meals. My last hurrah will be a huge pot of grillades we’ll cook off this afternoon for a New Year’s breakfast tomorrow. Otherwise we’re winding down the holiday season and have started picking at leftovers rather than cooking many full meals — carving off a few ounces of smoked ham for hash, sandwiches, or snacks; killing off the gravlax, tucking into roasted sweet potatoes from two nights ago; using the last bits from open bottles and jars.

A fridge purge, in other words. Good to do a few times a year, anyway, but eating up everything in what's been a fridge full of rotating food makes me feel — just a bit — virtuous. Either that, or I'm a sensitive about how much money we tend to blow on the holiday feasting and it's time to reel in the spending.

Part of the purge did involve a bit of cooking, but a hot dish of pork and apples — and a few other odds and ends lying about the place — was quick and barely any work at all. The juniper berries give it a whiff of gin; just the thing for a chilly night.

AD: Already Done
Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage 
8-12 oz smoked bacon, sliced and cut into finger-width pieces
1 green/white cabbage, cored and sliced coarsely
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cooking apples, cored and cut into slices or small chunks 
6-8 juniper berries, crushed
1 tsp sea salt
2 long peppers, crushed (or 1 tsp black pepper)
1 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 Tbl brown sugar
a knifepoint of ground mace or a few gratings of nutmeg 
Heat the oven at 350°F/180°C. 
In a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid (I use a big-ass Le Creuset), cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and just lightly crisped at the edges. Add the onion and cook until it softens. Add the apple chunks and stir them around until they’ve got a bit of color, then stir in the seasonings and the cabbage. Add the remaining ingredients and cover. Pop it in the oven and cook 30-45 minutes until the apples are cooked through, the cabbage is softened, and the whole thing is piping hot.

Goes well with:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Home Fires: The State of Home Distilling in the US

Lew Bryson, editor at Whisky Advocate, asked me write about the current state of affairs for home distilling in the United States. A blanket federal ban on the practice is in place, but a few states are bucking those laws with more permissive laws and regulations of their own. Regardless of the laws, sub rosa distillers from the East Coast to the West are making an awful lot of homemade liquor for themselves, their families, and friends. No, I didn't forget you, Alaska. In fact, I'd be surprised if we don't see a new reality show called something like Alaska Bootleggers or Ice Road Moonshiners in the near future. From the Fall 2013 issue of Whisky Advocate, here's a piece originally titled Home Fires.

Casual observers often assume that home distilling, like wine making or beer brewing, is legal in America. Zymurgy Bob knows better. According to federal law, distilleries are never permissible in homes. His advice? “Do everything you can to reduce your visibility to the law,” he exhorts. “Conceal what you are doing.” The pseudonymous author of Making Fine Spirits, a guide to building and operating home-scale stills, closes his introductory chapter with modern home distilling’s most ironclad commandment: Thou Shalt Not Sell.

Alcohol distillation in the United States is highly regulated and federal judicial code is uniformly severe with those who skirt the rules. Once federal prosecutors bring charges against a suspect for illicit distillation, they are forbidden by law from dropping the case without express written permission from the Attorney General. If found guilty, violators could face up to five years in prison and be fined $10,000. Because illicit distillation, the argument goes, is a tax dodge, those who defraud the United States of tax revenue through such clandestine distilling shall forfeit (not may or mightshall forfeit) the land on which the distillery is located as well as equipment used to make spirits and all personal property in the building and yard.

Running off a few liters of whiskey or ultra-pure vodka in the basement may seem a harmless pastime to some, but are they perverse enough to risk losing homes, land, and nearly all their possessions by actually firing up a still?

For thousands of Americans, the answer is yes. Across the country, hobbyists buy and build small stills for making spirits in secret. Profit is beside the point; these distillers do not sell their products. Compared to the output of Chivas or Beam, their covert batches of gin, rum, seasonal brandies, whiskey, and hausgemacht absinthe are miniscule. Tuthilltown Spirits alone loses more in angel’s share than what most hobbyists produce in a year. Their enthusiasm, however, burns no less brighter than that of professional — and legal — craft practioners.

One California hobbyist, Navy Frank, grows wormwood in his yard and keeps glass jugs of homemade spirits in his dining room. Home distilling, as Frank describes it, is a facet of a larger DIY ethos. “It’s a maker mentality that drives people to make homemade cheese or beer or build something with their own hands or garden. There’s all this wonderful cross-pollination. If you sketched the connections of what people like us get excited about, they would form the most overlapping Venn diagram ever.”

Frank — not his real name — is a Navy veteran and an engineer by trade. In his cellar he makes rum, neutral spirits, absinthe, honey distillates, and a peated single malt. “That’s probably my favorite, but after sharing, and sampling, and more sharing, I’m down to just one bottle.” His modular distillery system uses three separate pots that can be rigged with different heads and condensers that vary with what, and how much, he is making. The largest boiler could hold a child. The smallest, no bigger than a rice cooker, is for extracting botanical essences.

I mention a New York distiller who created a flavor library of over 200 botanical extracts, including angelica seed and rare agarwood. “Oh,” he smiles. “Ramón!” Despite the continent between them, the two distillers know each other through online hobbyist groups. In this, they are typical. Hobbyists regularly turn to online forums such as Yahoo Distillers and Artisan Distiller for guidance. Like Frank and Bob, Ramón prefers a pseudonym, but because he works in the distilling industry, his concern goes deeper than their straightforward desire to avoid legal attention. While it’s not uncommon for craft distillers to have learned the basics of their trade at home, and even continue to refine it there, the majority who do so will not admit that on the record. Like them, Ramón assumes investors, concerned that federal liquor violations could ruin a licensed distillery, might jettison a partner or employee accused of illicit distilling. “If TTB keeps making it easier to open distilleries,” he muses, “then maybe the hobby side of the equation could finally become legal. I’d happily pay for a permit to make ten gallons or twenty each year for myself. I bet 90 percent of home distillers would do the same.”

While it’s true that several hundred American craft distilleries have opened in the last decade, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) does not issue permits for home distilling for any price. Some states, though, allow noncommercial production to varying degrees. Alaska, for instance, excludes “private” manufacture of spirits from its alcohol control laws...except in quantities that exceed federal limits. In other words, Alaska allows zero liters for home distillers. Missouri is more explicit, asserting that “No person at least twenty-one years of age shall be required to obtain a license to manufacture intoxicating liquor...for personal or family use.” Such use in the Show Me State, it may be noted, is up to 200 gallons per year. Go, Missouri. Arizona expressly permits personal distilling of spirits such as brandy or whiskey if owners register their rigs with the state’s Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. According to DLLC, however, none has done so.

Mike McCaw, distillery consultant and publisher of Zymurgy Bob’s book, argues that as governments are forced to examine all spending, “We may, just may, be at a political inflection point where [legalizing home distilling] could happen...it is simply not cost effective to chase down people with ten gallon stills.” Bob himself is less sanguine. Speaking by phone on his book tour, he says that pursuing people with ten gallon stills “does make sense if they’re selling it and there is tax evasion going on. And that is one of the main points of the whole “do not sell” prohibition. There is no money and so no tax being evaded there.”

“I hope — I hope — that’s giving me a margin of safety.”

I hope so, too. Good luck, Bob.

Goes well with:

  • First things first. If you have legal questions about distilling in your country, state, or province, please get in touch with consultants and/or attorneys who know your local laws. The discussion forum of the American Distilling Institute is a good place to start. In the UK, check in with the Craft Distillers Alliance
  • The business about unregistered distilleries and distilling with intent to defraud leading to forfeiting  one's property in the United States is addressed 26 USC § 5615. The full text is here
  • Zymgurgy Bob's book, Making Fine Spirits, is available here. Mike McCaw, distillery consultant, still designer, and publisher of Bob's book, can be reached through The Amphora Society
  • Whisky Advocate magazine is here. An earlier piece I did on white whiskey — and what to do with it — for the magazine is here
  • Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me, in which a New Orleans...ahm... independent contractor disapproves of me.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bookshelf: The Big Con

Never be untidy or drink with a savage. 
There is nothing worse than drinking 
when you are trying to tie up a mark. 
You've got to have your nut about you all the time. 
You need what little sense you've got to trim him—and 
if you had any sense at all, 
you wouldn't be a grifter.

~ anonymous roper in David W. Maurer's The Big Con

Today, we've got something on the fringes of saloon culture and the sporting life. I've spent uncounted hours — years, even — in the company of criminals. Moonshiners, mostly, but thieves, embezzlers, enforcers, bad cops, and felons of various stripes. One connected mook I knew in Philadelphia had $80,000 stolen from his closet and didn't report it because, well, it wasn't the sort of stash one wanted to explain to the 5-0. After nearly three decades of hearing and hearing about cons, the patter of confidence games, scams, and rip-offs spike in the conversational landscape like flashes of lightning.

Short cons, designed to separate a person from the money he is carrying on him, seem particularly obvious. In fact, on my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, the short con was ubiquitous; vendors, waiters, taxi drivers, fixers, and others tried to shave a bit of trim from tourists. Here, someone "forgets" to give the right change, there someone else pads the bill with an entree nobody ordered. For the locals, it must be like shooting fish in a barrel. The short con is not always a terrible thing. In New Orleans, if a little kid bets you a dollar that he can tell you where you got your shoes, take the bet, lose a buck, and walk away with everyone smiling. A con, sure, but also a dollar's worth of entertainment.

Then there's the big con. Almost nobody walks away from a big con with a smile. In 1940, University of Kentucky linguist David W. Maurer published The Big Con, his study of confidence men, suave criminals who, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, bilked marks out of enormous amounts of money. By the time Maurer wrote his book, this particular style of grift was already in its decline. Nominally concerning the language of these mostly nonviolent criminals who gained the confidence of newly-made millionaires, well-to-do farmers, wealthy businessmen, and others who could get their hands on lumps of cash, the book is simply fun reading.

Maurer introduces grifters such as the Yellow Kid, Crawfish Bob, Limehouse Chapppie, the Big Alabama Kid, Slobbering Bob, the Postal Kid, Queer-pusher Nick, the Hashhouse Kid, Fifth Avenue Fred, the Indiana Wonder, the Jew Kid, Tear-off Arthur, Devil's Island Eddie, and the High Ass Kid. You'll learn about the blow-off, the cackle-bladder, the wire, the rag, the pay-off, and a whole lot more of the language you might expect to hear around Prohibition-era saloons, joints, and hangouts.

In the world of criminals of the period, con men were talked about as the aristocrats of crime. Insidemen who maintained big stores (fake betting parlors, brokerages, and gambling dens where mark were fleeced one right after the other) traveled widely, stayed at the finest hotels, dined well, dressed impeccably, sometimes had drivers and avoided socializing with 'lesser' criminals such as second-story men, pickpockets, and heavy racket types who resorted to violence. They leveraged and worked with crooked cops, hoteliers, circus managers, train conductors, detectives, judges, district attorneys, and saloonkeepers. They almost never worked their home town or anyone who lived in the town in which they operated. Rather, they worked over travelers on ocean liners and, especially, trains.

Writes Maurer:
The ease with which people make traveling acquaintances may account for the great number of marks which are roped on trains or ships. When a mark is off his home ground, he is no longer so sure of himself; he likes to impress important-looking strangers; he has the leisure to become expansive, and he likes to feel that he is recognized as a good fellow. The natural barrier to friendships come down. He idles away time chatting and smoking in a way he would not do at home. And the roper knows how to play upon the festive note which is always latent in a traveler away from home.
Cities such as New York, Denver, Chicago, and New Orleans had hundreds of ropers working the trains feeding the city. When they found a mark they felt could be taken for $10,000, $50,000, or more, the roper befriended the 'savage' and brought him into town to meet the insideman who would propose a sure-fire way to make money...illegally.

And the whole con hangs on that. Con men felt that they could never cheat an honest man because he wouldn't take the bait of a crooked way to make a killing by, say, delaying the results of a horse race by a few minutes to place a bet with the help of a disgruntled wire operator. But, writes Maurer, the first world war "brought a crop of millionaires and sub-millionaires whose purses swelled out of all proportion to their knowledge of investments. As soon not these men had made the money slightly on the shady side and to them the rag and the pay-off [two types of con games] appeared as very logical methods of taking profit." These were the marks on whom con men preyed.

If you've enjoyed movies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, David Mamet's House of Cards, The Sting, and — especially — The Grifters, do yourself a favor and check out Maurer's book. Nicholas Cage in Matchstick Men is a lesser contribution to the genre, but even bits of Django Unchained seem lifted from its pages. It's back in print with a forward by Luc Sante from Random House's Anchor Books imprint.

Goes well with:
  • Gene Siskel's and Roger Ebert's takes on the 1990 film The Grifters

Monday, December 2, 2013

John Egerton (1935 -2013)

When news of John Egerton’s death came last week, I was moments away from meeting friends camped out on a Puerto Vallarta beach. I left the condo stunned, numbly descended a long and treacherous staircase the regulars dubbed The Exorcist Stairs and made my way to their group mere feet from the surf. Sitting under a palapa with a bucket of ice and beers with my toes in the sand should have been the start of a fantastic week. Instead, heartache spread from my chest, down my arms, and settled into my very bones. I was sick with sorrow.

What's in that glass, John Egerton? Tea? (Photo from the SFA's site)
John was co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and in the group’s early years I served with him on its board. John Egerton was good. He was kind. He was fiercely smart, deeply self-deprecating, and possessed of a burning sense of justice. When he wrote and spoke about the American South with such affection, he didn't shy from pointing out its flaws...and sometimes a way forward from its tangled and occasionally painful past.

Without John, there may not have been an SFA. If there had been no SFA, I might never have met people who became some of my great friends and favorite sidekicks. The might never have been a moonshine book which I wrote primarily at the insistence of author Ronni Lundy, another SFA co-founder. The ripples of Egerton's touch continue even today when I listen to music I know only because a friend from North Carolina stayed with us in July and relentlessly plied us with new tunes on Spotify. The friend? Dean McCord, VarmintBites on Twitter and a current SFA board member. Dozens of others have made my life better, people I know mostly through our connections to this singular gentleman.

Last summer, I wrote about his book Southern Food and included an anecdote about his power as a storyteller. I have so many fond memories of John Egerton, but this  — after a long bus ride and too much whiskey for everyone — is one of my favorites.
In the summer of 2004, I threw a small get-together in Birmingham, Alabama. I was on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance then, a group dedicated, in a nutshell, to celebrating the food and drink of the changing American South and the people who made it. Maybe a hundred of us were there for a small conference. After two long bus rides that day, the group was beat, so I invited a handful to come up to my hotel suite for restorative drinks and food once they'd recovered from the sun, the bourbon, and the rides.
One of those was historian John Egerton. 
A few restaurateurs showed up. Several editors from papers, magazines, and broadcast news were there. Bartenders and writers rounded out the group. A half-dozen different conversations rose and fell until one voice—one kindly, avuncular voice—dominated the room: Egerton's. 
Egerton is a charmer with a ready smile and (almost) always a kind word to say. He so mesmerized this group of experts with his tales that they soon gathered around him in a loose semicircle on the floor and spilled onto beds and chairs, absorbing warmth from the Promethean fire of his insight and wisdom.
The hole he left is gut-wrenching, but John Egerton helped to bring together uncounted strangers and make them friends. I like to think he'd chalk that up as a win.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Squayrill Stoo

Accretion of Squirrelly Evidence
Our neighbor has been feeding the squirrels. Now, I like our neighbor and have no beef with squirrels...in the abstract. Watching them frolic in the park has always given me a smile and I've bottle-raised scads of Midwestern grey squirrels back in my days as a nature center volunteer.

These days, however, I own a home and the footing is far less certain for those little red-tailed beasts. The current crop of chattering rodents raids the garden, gets under the eaves, and digs holes all over the yard. They're not nearly so charming when they turn destructive. Yet they come to gorge themselves on peanuts laid out just over the fence by our well-meaning neighbor. As they feast, they drop spent shells over the ground. The shells don't particularly bother me. Easy enough to shovel up every week or so, but the destruction is getting out of hand and if they start chewing on wiring, we could have some serious safety problems.

It occurred to me that peanut-raised squirrels might —like hogs finished on acorns, peanuts, or chestnuts — be delicious. Smoked is, of course, one way to go, but with so little fat on them, they'd need wrapping in bacon or some other basting arrangement. Stewed squirrel has always been popular in parts of the American South. Brunswick stew, though mostly made with chicken these days, was often made with squirrel — and is a great accompaniment to pulled pork barbecue. A bit more than I want to tackle today, though.

With that in mind, I pulled out a South Carolina recipe for 'squayrill stoo' or, rather, squirrel stew. The unusual spelling stems from the fact that the recipe is from a book of Gullah cooking called Bittle en' T'ing: Gullah Cooking with Maum Chrish' by Virginia Mixson Geraty. The Gullah are an African American people who have long lived in coastal South Carolina and Georgia — heavy on the "African." Gullah speak a creole language derived from Sierra Leone Krio, tell African folktales, make African handicrafts, and are largely descended from slave laborers who worked on rice plantations in the area.

Here's Geraty's take on what to do with the little buggers — first in Gullah, then in standard American English. Remember to sabe de tail fuh de mens weh on dem hat.
Squayrill Stoo (Squirrel Stew) 
Tek cyah wen de squayrill skin. Nail de hide up fun dry fuh mek colluh. Sabe de tail fuh de mens weh on dem hat.
Clean de squayrill en' rub'um wid pot-salt en' peppuh. Dreedge'um wid flowuh en' browng'um een bakin greese. Sametime chop uh laa'ge onyun en' pit'um 'long de squayrill. Kibbuhr'um wid watuh, pit uh lead 'pun de pot, en' set'um back fuh cook tell de squayrill meat tenduh en' de graby t'ick.
One squayrill specify fuh mek stoo fuh fo' head.
Maum says:
Be careful when you skin the squirrel. Nail the hide up to dry for a collar. It makes a nice fur piece. Save the squirrel's tail for a man to wear on his hat. 
Clean the squirrel and rub it with salt and pepper. Dredge it with flour and brown it in bacon drippings. 
While the squirrel is browning, chop a large onion and have it ready to put in the pot. Add enough water to cover the squirrel, and add the onion. Put a lid on the pot and set it back on the range to cook until the meat is tender and the gravy is thick.
One squirrel will make enough stew for four people.
Goes well with: