May 2, 2013
The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, is as famous for its music as it is for its food. In fact, some people insist it’s the po’boys and alligator pies that take center stage.
Born in 1970 and christened by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Jazz Fest is unlike any other music festival in the country and not just because it actually has good food. Residents and tourists arrive by foot, bike and cab–some official and others just enterprising locals with a car. The acts are a mix of big names–Billy Joel, Black Keys, Frank Ocean–and local favorites–Rebirth Brass Band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Trombone Shorty. When everything wraps up in the early evening, the crowd filters out into the streets, past colorful shotgun houses, to continue the party around town.
In other words, it’s not just a festival in New Orleans, it’s a festival of New Orleans. So what’s more New Orleans: the food or the music?
For many who have been coming for many years, the festival can’t get started until they have their favorite dish to kick things off. Catherine King makes a beeline for Patton’s Catering for an oyster patty, crawfish sack and crawfish beignet. “It’s my tradition every year. This is the first thing I have to have.”
And even though seafood tends to dominate the conversation and the cooking, Bill Storer says he comes for the fried chicken. “I travel around the world in search of good fried chicken,” he says and since 1998, he’s traveled to New Orleans from San Jose, California for a plate of the good stuff at Jazz Fest.
Over the years, he says things haven’t changed much but he did have to switch his morning dive bar routine after the one he frequented closed recently. “You like to start off in the morning at a good, seedy bar,” he explains, “Have a few drinks right off and then come here for lunch.” This year he settled on Ms. Mae’s, located across town. “It’s the ultimate dive bar. I was there and the lady said, please get out of the way, you’re standing in vomit.”
The festival puts food front and center. After walking in past the gospel and jazz tents, a wide lawn of tables and food stands opens to your right. Each vendor offers one plate or dish. You can get Storer’s fried chicken and Cajun jambalaya from New Orleans’ own Catering Unlimited or cheesy crawfish bread from Panorama Foods based in Marksville, Louisiana. With 22 stands representing all parts of Louisiana, this is just one of nine places to find a bite to eat so pace yourself.
Enchanted by the food, you might miss the truck off to your right, loaded up with produce courtesy a one Mr. Okra. Raised in the 3rd ward, he’s lived in the 8th for nearly 30 years but he’s known all over town. Mr. Okra can usually be found driving his truck loaded with lemons, greens and more through the streets of New Orleans, singing the day’s offering into a speaker system. Joined by his daughter and friend, Mr. Okra now offers his goods to Jazz Fest visitors as well. “I’ve been coming out here about three years. I like it,” he says seated in the truck with a view of the Jazz and Heritage stage, “You meet a lot of people.”
Unlike Storer’s shuttered dive bar, the festival has continued to grow over the years, surviving hurricanes and oil spills. According to retired shrimper Jim Hebert, the explanation for that is simple: “We still have the best seafood around and that’s coming from a Cajun in the seafood industry.” Po’Boy in hand, Hebert explains, “I’m kind of partial to shrimp, my family is in the shrimping business.”
Hebert hadn’t been back to Jazz Fest for nearly 20 years, but says it’s even better than he remembers. “Although it was fantastic back then, this has grown.” Spread over two weekends, the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of food and music fans. Twelve music tents offer a wide variety of experiences. If you want the big shows and big crowds, the Acura Stage offers that for more mainstream acts (and rather un-jazzy) including Maroon 5 and Fleetwood Mac. Breaking the trend at Acura, though, is one act you won’t want to miss: the legendary Trombone Shorty (so named because he was tearing it up even as a kid) and Orleans Avenue, performing Sunday. Meanwhile the Fais Do-Do Stage, named for the Cajun dance parties that borrowed the name from mothers whispering “fais do-do” or “go to sleep” to fussy children, has a smaller stage and bleachers you might even get a chance to sit on. For local acts, like the Stooges Brass Band or the festival favorite Mardi Gras Indians, the Jazz and Heritage Stage also offers a smaller space.
You can also catch some of the Mardi Gras Indians and second line bands as they parade through the festival itself. Born out of funerary traditions, the second-line parades are full of color and big brass and not to be missed. Everyone gets in on the action, including children, and crowds join in behind the slow march, clapping and dancing. There is a schedule but the felicitous appearance of the music makes it all the more infectious.
You can even park at one of the tables after getting your food and likely catch one of these high-energy parades.
A couple of Coors in front of him, Kenneth Gunndersson is digging into a mound of juicy red crawfish as a group of feathered Mardi Gras Indians go by. He traveled all the way from Sweden for the dish and he says it actually reminds him of home. “In Sweden, we eat crawfish but the spices are not that strong,” he explains, “We use dill and salt.”
“And vodka!” His friend interrupts.
“Yeah, we drink vodka too.” Gunndersson says crawfish are popular for a few weeks in August in Sweden. “I remember when I was a boy, fishing for crawfish with my brother, my father and my uncle. Every time I eat crawfish it reminds me of my home and my childhood.”
Halfway through a tour of cities that would take him to Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Mississippi; and Austin, Texas as well as New Orleans, Gunndersson says, “The best food? New Orleans, of course.”
If you can’t make it to Jazz Fest this weekend, listen in over at WWOZ.
April 5, 2013
Despite recent flirtations with secession and even being accidentally listed as a foreign destination by the State Department, Texas is not its own country. The Republic of Texas may have dissolved in 1845, but the Czech Republic of Texas is doing better than ever, thanks to a surge in interest in Tex-Czech’s most beloved dish: kolaches.
The doughy pastry came over with a wave of Czech migration in the late 19th century and found a happy home in the rural communities like West, Texas (a town of fewer than 3,000 people but which serves as a touchstone for Czech culture in the region) and others at the heart of the state, sometimes called the Czech Belt. For the most part, the culture settled in quietly. Unlike other urban centers in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, rural Czech families maintained relatively traditional dialects and recipes.
“The dialect of Czech spoken here is very old-fashioned. It’s from 100 years ago and people are always amazed to hear it and I think the food is the same way,” explains Austin-based food blogger Dawn Orsak. From her blog, Svačina Project, Orsak honors her Czech grandmother and chronicles her many adventures with kolaches, from judging to baking.
In the Czech Republic, kolaches come in two varieties: dense wedding kolaches that are formed in circles or frgale, which Orsak describes almost like a pizza, and covered in toppings. In Texas, you’ll find both the wedding kolaches and rectangular options with lighter, more bread-like dough. Since coming to the States, kolaches have added a few flavors (you would never find a kolache with meat in the Czech Republic, for example), including one of Orsak’s favorites: sauerkraut. Based off recipes that once used sweetened cabbage filling, sauerkraut kolaches arose only after coming to Texas. Though sauerkraut is now part of the Tex-Czech canon, other flavors still haven’t found complete acceptance within the community.
As big companies inside Texas capitalize on the kolache-trend, Orsak says it inspires her even more to find out about the roots of the food and to get it right. “My friend Laurie and I take pictures of the most bizarre fillings we can find and email them to each other with a subject line that says ‘Eww.’” She remembers one in particular, “There’s a place that makes a cream cheese kolache that has one of those mini Hershey’s bars stuck in the center, it sort of melts in there. I laugh because I am biased.” While she’s open to trying these new takes on the Czech dish, she says she can’t stand when big companies use gelatinous fruit fillings or get the dough wrong.
And she doesn’t seem to be alone in wanting to celebrate the century of Czech tradition in Texas. As a judge at the 2011 Kolache Festival in Caldwell, Texas, she says she was heartened by the number of young people entering the contest.
Her first taste of the pastry, traditionally filled with dried fruits or cheese, was in her grandmother’s kitchen on special occasions. Nowadays, Texans can grab the treat from bakeries and even gas stations on a whim. For the most part, says Orsak, these varieties aren’t true to the Tex-Czech roots of the pastry. The big three traditional kolache flavors are prune, apricot and cheese. But at these combination bakery-gas stations, you’ll often find savory buns with meats and even vegetables.
“It’s funny, there’s a company in Austin called Lone Star Kolaches that now has like four locations and they don’t even sell prune,” she says. “I asked about it a couple weeks ago and they said, we don’t sell that, which I was really surprised about.”
But when Texans find themselves outside the warm, buttery embrace of the Czech Belt, they crave everything from the sweet stuff to the less conventional and their demands are helping spread the dish, from Pittsburgh to D.C.
In February, Shana Teehan, spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin Brady from Texas, begged Roll Call writer Warren Rojas to find her some kolaches in the nation’s capital. “I’ve never had a flavor I didn’t like,” she told him, “whether it was a sweet, fruit-filled bun, or a savory option filled with sausage, cheese or peppers.”
Czech cuisine also enjoys some fame for its influence on Texas barbecue, which owes a lot to Czech and German smoked meats. In fact, the most common place to find Czech food–other than at a bakery–is at a meat market or barbecue.
All of this is helping bring the food of the Tex-Czech community, most visible at festivals and bake-offs but largely tucked away in rural kitchens, onto a wider stage. From a new bakery in Brooklyn, New York to hungry politicians in D.C., kolaches may be ready for their close-up.
Orsak offers up her favorite recipes here.
February 26, 2013
The Chicago seafood restaurant J. H. Ireland Grill opened in 1906 and had a colorful client list. It attracted everyone from gangster John Dillinger (who preferred the grill’s frog legs) to lawyer Clarence Darrow, who went there to celebrate big wins. But the co-founders of Cool Culinaria, which finds and sells prints of vintage menus, remember it for a different reason: its menu design. As colorful as its past, the best-selling menu uses bright colors to convey the fresh and vibrant ingredients to be found inside.
Menus from across the country featured fantastical fare with an artistry that often goes unrecognized, according to Cool Culinaria co-founder Eugen Beer. Along with Charles Baum and Barbara McMahon, Beer works with both private collectors and public institutions including universities and libraries to license menus from the late 19th century through the 1970s. Beer is British, and McMahon Scottish, but he says, “America, for whatever reason, has this vast collection of fantastic art that sits in boxes.”
Their favorites are from a golden age of design and dining ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s.
“You had this incredible explosion of restaurants in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s when the American economy, partly driven by the Second World War, was doing incredibly well. And you had the great highways,” explains Beer. “In Europe at the time, of course, we didn’t have that. I grew up in the United Kingdom in the era of post-rationing and even in the ’50s in England we still had rationing.” But, he says, “In America, you had a fantastic boom in independent restaurants and you had these buccaneering restauranteurs who, in order to give their establishments a sense of identity, invested money in the design of their menus and actually employed well-known artists or interesting designers to produce them.”
Beer firmly believes that the menus they deal with are museum-worthy works of art and will even call in art restorers to handle some of the more delicate cleanup jobs.
But reading the insides can be just as much fun as looking at the artful covers. “I always stop dead at my desk to read the interiors almost like a book and to imagine myself sitting in that diner in the 1940s or a sophisticated nightclub after Prohibition in the 1930s,” says McMahon. Sometimes diners left clues to help McMahon complete the picture: “There was one that I really love, it says in this spidery handwriting, Johnny and I dined here, 1949.”
“They’ve even circled on the actual menu what they ate,” adds Beer.
“Hamburgers, wasn’t it?”
Back then, says McMahon, hamburgers and even a trip to a fast food chain, like McDonnell’s in Los Angeles, was a treat. Serving some of the state’s best fried chicken, the chain actually raised its own chickens on a 200-acre ranch.
The food wasn’t the only reason to head out. If it was Saturday night in Chicago, you could only be one place: The Blackhawk Restaurant, host of the weekly radio show, “Live! From the Blackhawk!“ Opened in the 1920s, the swinging restaurant hosted Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Perry Como and Louis Prima. Beer and McMahon say they like this one for its bold Art Deco graphics:
The Hotel New Yorker struck a serious tone with its 1942 menu designs. With four different wartime themes, including “Production” and “Manpower,” the menus spoke to the patriotism of the hotel, which also had its own print shop. The menus reminded visitors that while they may be having a good time in the Big Apple, they shouldn’t forget what’s happening abroad.
Despite the folksy charm of this 1940s menu from Columbus, Ohio restaurant, the Neil Tavern, the restaurant was actually the premier spot to be seen in the Midwest capital. Part of the stately Neil House hotel, the tavern’s notable diners included Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Sadly the 600-room establishment was torn down during a 1970s redevelopment project. Beer calls the menu design an incredibly witty ode to American agriculture. But McMahon likes the tiny ships of imported goods, too, including bananas and coffee.
Today, Moscow, Pennsylvania has a population of roughly 2,000. In the 1940s, the borough didn’t even make it on the Census, so it’s a bit of mystery that the town once seemed to host one of the liveliest nights around at the Ritz Grill Club. “Greetings,” reads the 1940s menu cover, “Here stop and spend a social hour in harmless mirth and fun. Let friendship reign–be just and kind and evil speak of none.” And in the interest of providing clients “the best in the line of entertainment, food and drinks” and maintaining “that super-class atmosphere and environment,” the club requested that each patron spend at least $1 for the evening.
Out on the West Coast, things were even more fantastical. At the Oyster Loaf, mermaids rode side-saddle (naturally) atop giant lobsters, as depicted by artist Andrew Loomis.
And at A. Sabella’s, fish donned chef’s hats, lipstick and canes for a night out on the Wharf. Opened in 1927 by Sicilian immigrants, the restaurant was run by the same family over four generations before closing in 2007.
Many of the restaurants included in Cool Culinaria’s collection are no longer in business. “A lot of these were family run, independently run and there would come a point in the 1960s and 70s, presumably when the children said, ‘We don’t want to run the restaurant we’re going into advertising or the motor industry or something,’” says Beer.
A. Sabella’s 1959 menu reveals a culinary fish at the center of a swirl of ingredients and utensils. Alongside the plentiful offerings of seafood, the menu also offers “Spaghetti with Italian Sauce.” McMahon says she comes across this a lot; “You see, Italian-style spaghetti, that’s the phrase, especially in the diners. We’re assuming this was long before the average American household used garlic or olive oil in cooking and it probably signifies that the spaghetti in red sauce had been adapted to American palates.”
By the 1960s, coffee shops became just as cool a place to be seen as any hip nightclub. Lexington, Kentucky’s coffee house, The Scene II, played on that popularity with its 1960 menu featuring a beatnik couple. “Be seen at The Scene,” reads the cover.
But well before beatniks were growing their hair out and smoking pipes, the real place to be seen was Mexico City’s La Cucaracha cocktail club. “Famous the world over,” the club touted its Bacardi rum and English-speaking personnel for visiting Americans. McMahon suspects, but isn’t sure, those visitors included Ernest Hemingway.
February 4, 2013
Is your lemon juice really citrusy sugar water?
Is that hunk of white tuna sushi actually escolar, a cheaper fish associated with its own kind of food poisoning?
And is your age-defying pomegranate juice just plain-old grape juice with a splash of the good stuff?
After winning a seat in the pantheon of so-called “super foods,” pomegranates got a burst of popularity, with consumers craving everything from fresh seeds to juices and teas. But its newfound fame also found it the victim of an age-old problem: food fraud. According to the non-profit organization U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) in Maryland, pomegranate juice was the most common case of food fraud in the past year, often watered down with grape or pear juice to cut costs.
The group operates the Food Fraud Database, which went live in April 2012 and recently added 800 new records. Other usual suspects from the scholarly articles, news accounts and other publicly available records include milk, honey, spices, tea and seafood.
Though senior director of food standards Markus Lipp says we enjoy a high level of food safety in the United States, he also warns, “The real risk of adulteration is that nobody knows what’s in the product.”
Adulteration, according to the Food and Drug Administration, includes foods in which, “any substance has been mixed and packed with it so as to reduce or lower or injuriously affect its quality or strength,” including, added poisons or deleterious ingredients. Sometimes contaminants pose severe health risks, as was the case with the tainted milk from China in 2008. But often it’s a matter of using a cheaper, but still legal product to cut another.
To avoid fraud, Lipp subscribes to the idea that if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is, particularly for liquids. And for ground foods, like spices, coffee and tea, Lipp suggests buying whole food products to have a better sense of what’s really in there.
1. Olive Oil: Olive oil might have the distinction of being the oldest adulterated good. “Olive-oil fraud has been around for millenia,” according to the New Yorker. Cut with sunflower and hazelnut oils, olive oil was considered “the most adulterated agricultural in the European Union” by the late 1990s. Even after a special task force was formed, the problem remains. In his 2012 book, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” Tom Mueller writes about the ongoing fraud. Mueller tells the New Yorker, “In America, olive-oil adulteration, sometimes with cut-rate soybean and seed oils, is widespread, but olive oil is not tested for by the F.D.A.—F.D.A. officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far too long, to police the olive-oil trade.”
2. Honey: In 2011, honey was at the center of the largest food fraud case in United States history, along with “a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.” The $80-million case involved a flood of cheap honey imported into the United States after being contaminated first with antibiotics and then with “corn-based syrups to fake the good taste,” according to the Globe and Mail. A quick search on the USP database reveals the problems persists, with added sweeteners like corn, cane and beet syrups.
Spices and Ground Goods
3. Saffron: Corn silk, dyed onion, beet fiber and sandlewood dye; these are a few of our least favorite things, that get passed off us as saffron, according to USP. Lipp says it’s particularly easy to disguise other products as higher quality spices because the fine grain hides discrepancies. “If I buy ground black pepper, I obtain a fine powder of a gray speckled mess,” he says. But if he buys whole black peppercorns, Lipp says he can, “just by visual inspection, make sure there’s not a large amount of twigs or any other low-grade materials in it or anything else but black pepper.”
4. Tea: Suffering from a similar “speckled mess” problem as saffron, ground tea can disguise adulterants like, turmeric, copper salts and even sand and colored sawdust, according to database results. Loose leaf teas may offer a more reliable route, plus you can take up a cool new hobby and learn to read tea leaves.
5. Wasabi: You watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and now you’re eating your way through all the Japanese eateries within a 50 mile radius, but–and no disrespect to the fine establishments you frequent–are you actually eating real wasabi? That kick in the sinuses may actually be courtesy of horse radish, mustard and food coloring, not paste made from grated wasabi root. Fortunately, horseradish still manages to get the job done but if you want the real thing, you may have to do some digging.
6. Sriracha: This “hipster ketchup” that is “so popular, that people are counterfeiting it,” recently got the rundown on the radio show, The Dinner Party. The mix of jalapenos, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar comes in an iconic rooster-stamped, green-capped bottle from California’s Huy Fong Foods. And though there is a town in Thailand called Sriracha, Randy Clemens, author of “The Sriracha Cookbook,” told the Dinner Party, the hot sauce there is very different from the mix hipsters love so dearly, though it involves the same core ingredients. In an attempt to capitalize on Huy Fong’s success, bottlers have begun mimicking the brand, even replacing the rooster with a unicorn in one instance. Less a matter of faked ingredients, it’s still pretty misleading and falls under the FDA’s regulations on “misbranding.” To make sure you’re getting the real Huy Fong deal, Clemens says, “You want to look for the green cap.”
Curious about what might be in your favorite food? Check it out on the Food Fraud Database.
January 14, 2013
Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, “Are we a nation of soul food junkies?” The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” premiering tonight on PBS.
The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food’s history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant’s early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother’s collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That’s how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family’s cultural culinary traditions but it’s also a big part of my “family.” If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you’ll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it’s persisted and is so popular?
Well, it’s a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It’s hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what’s going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
Where does some of the resistance to change come from?
I think the sentiment that a lot of people have is that this is the food that my grandmother ate, that my great-grandfather ate, and my great-great-grandfather ate, and if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me, and why should I change something that has been in my family for generations?
How were you able to make the change?
Through education and awareness. There was this woman I was interested in dating years ago, when I first graduated from college. So I invited her over to my apartment and I wanted to impress her so I decided to cook her some fried chicken. I learned how to cook fried chicken from my mother.
She came over and I had the chicken seasoned up and ready to put into this huge vat of grease that had been cooking and boiling for awhile. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Are you going to put that chicken inside that grease?”
That was the first time that anyone had sort of challenged that. To me it was normal to cook fried chicken. Her mother was a nutritionist and so she grew up in a household where she was very educated about health and nutrition. So she said, this is not healthy. I had never been challenged before, she was someone I was interested in, so from that day forward I started to really reconsider how I was preparing my chicken.
When she challenged you, did you take it personally at first?
I think I was a little embarrassed. It was like she knew something that I didn’t know, and she was sort of rejecting something that was really important to me, so I felt a little embarrassed, a little bit ashamed. But I wasn’t offended by it. It was almost like, “Wow, this person knows something that I don’t, so let me listen to what she has to say about it,” and that’s pretty much how I took it.
How would you describe your relationship with soul food today?
I do eat foods that are a part of the soul food tradition but I just eat them very differently than how I ate them growing up. I drink kale smoothies in the morning. If I go to a soul food restaurant, I’ll have a vegetarian plate. I’ll typically stay away from the meats and the poultry.
The film looks beyond soul food to the issue of food deserts and presents a lot of people in those communities organizing gardens and farmers markets and other programs. Were you left feeling hopeful or frustrated?
I’m very hopeful. There are people around the country doing great things around food justice and educating people who don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables on how they can eat better and have access to foods right in their neighborhoods…I think that we’re in the midst of a movement right now.
How are people reacting to the film?
I think the film is really resonating with people, especially among African American people because this is the first film that I know of that speaks directly to an African American audience in ways that Food, Inc., Supersize Me, King Corn, The Future of Food, Forks over Knives and other films don’t necessarily speak to people of color. So this is really making people talk.