February 11, 2013
Let’s just say Dominic Episcopo has sunk his teeth into the “meat” of Americana. In his Kickstarter project, “Meat America,” the photographer has paired iconic images from Lincoln to Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with hunks of red-meat art. He spent six years gathering what he describes as uniquely American images for the coffee table book-to-be “manifesto” that hits shelves later this month.
“I was absorbed in this world of meat. When I was at the supermarket or at a restaurant, I thought, ‘What else could that be besides a hot dog?’,” he says. “I go in with drawings into the supermarket—they know me there. Now they run into the back to grab extra steaks for me to look at.”
According to his Kickstarter page, the series “is a state of mind, an eye-opening and artery-closing tour of America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, rebellion and positivity.” A few more examples of things you’ll find in the book: A “Don’t Tred on Meat” flag, a map of the “United Steaks,” and the Liberty Bell.
Food art is no new concept (Arcimboldo comes to mind); whether it’s a fruit sculpture at some swanky gala or an Edible Arrangement sent to a loved one for their birthday, playing with food is a thing Americans like to do. But what makes meat uniquely American? According to a Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009, Americans consume 279.1 pounds of meat per person each year. Australia is a close second with 259.3, but compare that to places like the United Kingdom (185 pounds/ person), Croatia (85.8 pounds/ person) or even Bangladesh (6.8 pounds/ person) and it’s clear: Americans like meat. And we like a lot of it, but what about a big ole’ steak connects the mind to cowboys rounding up cattle on the range? Episcopo says he’s not sure.
“I’m not quite as obsessed with meat as you might think,” Espiscopo says. “But I do think these images speak to a meat fetish thing that is uniquely American.”
He continues, citing his Kickstarter page: “This exhibition celebrates our collective American appetite of insurmountable odds, limitless aspiration, and immeasurable success. Though, some may just see it just as a bunch of states, presidents and American icons shaped out of animal products, which is also fine with me.”
Episcopo received his BFA in photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has lived and worked in the city for the last 25 years as a commercial photographer. Most of his “meat” series was produced in his studio inside of his home—a converted 150-year-old abandoned church—he shares with his wife and three-year-old son.
“A sense of humor in photography is hard to pull off and still be taken seriously,” he says. “Weegee’s got that tongue-in-cheekness to it and Penn’s work influenced my straightforward rendering [of the meat].”
To achieve that simple, untouched look for his meat photos he used cookie cutters and a keen eye for the right cut of steak. For the map of the “United Steaks,” he bought a ribeye, made one cut-in, bent one side to create Florida and the rest he shaped with his hands. The lines from the fat of the slab matter.
For the lettering in examples like “Love and Death” based on the famous Philadelphia statue by Robert Indiana, Episcopo uses deli cuts of ham, roast beef, salami and bologna. The settings and surrounding materials all have meaning and play a roll in telling the image’s story, he says. For “Love and Death” he included what he calls a Philadelphia breakfast: A pretzel, some coffee and the cover of the Daily News—all iconic images for the city.
“I can’t just use a cookie cutter to get a shape of Abe Lincoln,” he says. “I wanted it to look like the steak you bought at the supermarket.” Though Episcopo and his family eats only local, organic and grassfed beef, he says there’s a reason he can’t go organic with his images.
“Organic meat is purple,” he says. “I need a big, ruddy robust piece of meat to get the right idea across.”
He tries to maintain political neutrality with his work, but that doesn’t stop the letters from PETA advocates from coming in, he says. But flack for his flank art hasn’t stifled his creative energy around this endeavor.
“I love when I enter an art show and they ask me the medium,” Episcopo says. “How many people get to say meat or steak? Or ‘Meat is my Muse?’”
While we’re on the subject, a few other examples of “meat art” out there:
- Mark Ryden’s “The Meat Show: Paintings about Children, God and USDA Grade A Beef,” will have you gawking at paintings with Colonel Sanders, Abe Lincoln and a big, juicy steak on the same canvas.
- Though Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov, may not be going for the “Americana” theme with his work, he’s certainly another meat artist worth checking out. Rather than shaping sausages into the state of Texas, his series “Meat Weapons,” evokes a more visceral response featuring full-suited soldiers outfitted in very rare meat-made machine guns and ammo.
- Marije Vogelzang’s “Faked Meat” goes for the meaty look using anything but: Sapicu-wings with dark chocolate, “meat” lollipops, and veggie-made meatballs. The gist: there are a lot of meat substitutes on grocery store shelves.
- A basic search for “meat art” on Pinterest will find you something red and raw to look at (real or not). A personal favorite: This meat-looking mask by artist Bertjan Pot.
- Lest we not forget America’s bacon obsession: This Foulard bacon scarf just may be the perfect Valentine’s Day present for the bacon-loving, love of your life.
February 1, 2013
With the Super Bowl around the corner, it seems that buffalo chicken wings may have become the country’s favorite football-watching food. While the annual rumors that we’re running out of wings simply aren’t true, wings have indeed become the most expensive part of the chicken due to their popularity when fried and covered in buffalo sauce.
Few of us realize, though, that less than 50 years ago, wings were considered one of the least desirable cuts of the chicken—a throwaway part often cooked into stock—and “buffalo” was just a wooly ungulate that wandered the Plains.
Despite the recency of the invention, the event itself is shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, there is one thing we know for certain: the “buffalo” in the name definitively refers to the city in Western New York. The most authoritative account is by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, who investigated the dish’s history in 1980 as he sampled the city’s most well-regarded wing joints. He presented two competing versions of how a stroke of serendipity led Teressa Bellissimo, proprietor of the Anchor Bar, to invent the dish in 1964.
Her husband Frank Bellissimo, who founded the bar with Teressa in 1939, told Trillin that the invention involved a mistake—the delivery of chicken wings, instead of necks, which the family typically used when cooking up spaghetti sauce. To avoid wasting the wings, he asked Teressa to concoct a bar appetizer; the result was the wing we know today.
Dominic—Frank and Teressa’s son, who took over management of the restaurant sometime in the ’70s—told a slightly more colorful tale:
It was late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays…Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings—parts of a chicken that most people do not consider even good enough to give away to barflies—and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.
Both Frank and Dominic agreed on a few other crucial details—that Teressa cut each wing in half to produce a “drumstick” and a “flat,” that she deep-fried them without breading and covered them in a hot sauce, and that she served them with celery (from the house antipasto) and blue cheese salad dressing. They also both reported that they became popular within weeks throughout the city, where they were (and are still) simply called “wings” or “chicken wings.”
But there are even more competing versions of the story. John E. Harmon, a professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University who wrote the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States as a sabbatical project, writes that Teressa actually improvised the recipe to serve Dominic and a group of his friends when they ambled into the bar late at night.
The most dissimilar account is also mentioned by Trillin, who wrote that on his trip to Buffalo, he met a man named John Young who bluntly stated, “I am actually the creator of the wing.” Young points out that growing up in an African-American community, he’d frequently eaten chicken wings as a standard dish; what he invented was a special “mambo sauce” for the wings he served at his restaurant, John Young’s Wings ’n Things, during the mid-’60s. But he served his wings breaded and whole (rather than chopped into flats and drumsticks), distinctions that suggest to many wing traditionalists that they belong to an entire different category.
While it’s uncertain which creation myth is most accurate, what happened over the next few decades is clear: buffalo chicken wings exploded in popularity across the country. During the 70′s, the recipe spread to other eateries in the city and state—Duff’s, an early adopter, remains a favorite wing joint of many Buffalonians—then went national with the founding of chains like Wings N’Curls in Florida. Harmon reports that Trillin’s article itself sparked further interest, as did the 1983 founding of Hooter’s, which featured wings at the center of its menu.
In 1994, Domino’s spent $32 million advertising their national roll-out of wings, and Pizza Hut quickly followed suit. Since, the growth of chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and the placement of wings on countless local menus means that they’re essentially available anywhere in the United States. They’re gradually penetrating international markets, too, with Buffalo Wild Wings planning to open locations in Dubai, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia later this year.
Nowadays, buffalo sauce has gone beyond wings—it’s frequently used for boneless chicken fingers and pizzas, and gas stations sell everything from buffalo-flavored Combos to Pringles. In Buffalo, though, wings are still eaten roughly the way they were invented by Teressa in 1964: served in either hot, medium or mild buffalo sauce, with blue cheese and celery.
January 28, 2013
Excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl? Learn more about this Baltimore delicacy from Bonny Wolf, writer for AmericanFoodRoots.com, where this story was originally published.
What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.
So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)
For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.
“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said, ‘We wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”
People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks. He tried using brokers but, “They don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”
What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”
The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably. “Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.
Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.
As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.”
After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969. In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.
Read more stories from the 50 States’ best culinary traditions at American Food Roots.
January 15, 2013
Several food critics recently predicted barrel-aged hot sauce would be this year’s breakout condiment. The process originated nearly 145 years ago, when pepper seeds from Mexico and Central America took root in Avery Island, a salt dome in Louisiana. There, Edmund McIlhenny watched the red peppers grow, starting out green in infancy, then turning yellow, orange and finally deep red and ready for picking. He mashed them and mixed in salt from the island’s underground mines. Then, he dumped the mixture into white oak barrels, where it aged for three years, slowly fermenting.
Tabasco red pepper sauce was born.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it is colorless and only tastes and smells like the grain and the alcohol. It gets its color and richness in flavor from aging in charred oak barrels. Hot sauce, like Tabasco, works much the same way—it soaks in flavor and grows deeper in color in the barrel.
In 2009, a former chef at Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver purchased an eight-gallon charred whiskey oak barrel to add some smoky flavor to the restaurant’s house-made sauces. Last year, Vesta’s executive chef, Brandon Foster, purchased two more barrels, and they sit in the restaurant’s basement, allowing the chiles to age and absorb wood tannins and hints of whiskey.
The first iteration, dubbed Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, became a Louisiana-style sauce made with red Fresno chilies and habaneros, onion, garlic, salt and vinegar. After the chilies are pickled for two weeks in cans, the barrel is rinsed with a bottle of whiskey, and the mixture ages for a minimum of four weeks. Around week six or eight
, the whiskey flavor really seeps in, says Foster, and the resulting flavor is smoky with an acidic punch and some background heat.
Vinegar and salt pull moisture from the barrels into the hot sauce, bringing flavor with them, Foster says.
“The barrel has sauce aged in it, it’s had whiskey aged in it,” Foster says. “It’s going to have excess moisture in it and I think that’s the salt and the vinegar, the macerated chilies, that are really just reacting with that wood and pulling out as much flavor as possible.”
The first barrel, which cost $130, produced eight batches of hot sauce before Foster noticed signs of wear and tear and feared leaking or mold. His two new barrels have gone through ten to 12 batches of hot sauce, and recently welcomed a new concoction—this time, using tequila.
The new recipe, created by one of Vesta’s kitchen managers, calls for Serrano peppers, roasted jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar mashed together and poured into a tequila-rinsed barrel. The green, Latin America-style sauce, which will be hotter and sweeter than Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, will debut at the restaurant in a few weeks.
What sort of volume goes through one eight-gallon barrel during its lifetime? A lot: 250 to 300 pounds of chilies, 60 to 70 pounds of onions, 20 to 25 pounds of garlic and generous helpings of salt and vinegar. Foster uses chiles from California for the current batch, as Colorado’s winter weather isn’t easy on pepper crops.
Once the sauces have matured, the mixture is pureed, but it’s not smooth by any means, Foster says. He drains the barrel by setting it on a counter above a bucket and shaking it back and forth, then tosses the mash into a high-powered Vitamix blender, after which it’s pureed further through a cap strainer. Some pulp remains to add viscosity to the sauce, which is seasoned, bottled and served at Vesta’s sister restaurant Steuben’s, alongside 20 to 30 other hot sauces. And since the barrels are replenished regularly, some of the flavor customers taste has been building for two years.
For Ronnie New, executive chef at Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco, barrel aging hot sauce is a new venture. He’s been making his own hot sauce, similar to Sriracha, for a year and a half, adding it to the restaurant’s wings and fried chicken. Magnolia has no shortage of barrels—its bar buys bourbon and whiskey by the barrel for its house cocktails—so tossing hot sauce into one of them seemed like a logical move.
By June, he’ll fill a 53-gallon Evan Williams bourbon whiskey white oak barrel with 200 pounds of locally sourced chilies, age the mash for six months, and bottle it by 2014. As the vinegar in the mash starts to denature the chilies, New says some natural sugar will be released, causing the mixture to ferment. When natural proteins are exposed to salt and changes in pH, their coils unwind, and they tend to bond together to create solid clumps, losing some of their capacity to hold water.
“Hot sauces tend to develop more and more flavor the longer they sit,” says New, who will monitor the flavor as the mash ages. “Every single environment is different, so there’s not an exact formula. The end product might be slightly different each time we do it.”
On the opposite coast, Sam Barbieri, owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Brooklyn, recently emptied a 31-gallon barrel whiskey full of hot sauce and added it to his restaurant’s wings and buffalo-style calamari.
“If you’re aging whiskey in a barrel and dump it out, there’s still about eight to ten percent retention in the wood from the whiskey,” Barbieri says. “I put the sauce in there, and all those beautiful vanilla and oak tones will come into my hot sauce.”
The sauce, made from chocolate habaneros, Bishop’s Crown peppers and Serranos, ages for two years. The end result is extremely hot, so Barbieri adds pureed carrot or apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor and arrive at his desired pH level, roughly 3.5, a number he says those in the canning industry aim for to create a stable product. Then, he heats the sauce at 192 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes before bottling it.
Unlike Foster, Barbieri doesn’t reuse his barrels. Instead, he throws its staves into his barbecue pit to infuse pepper flavor into roasted hogs, adding hickory and apple. He’s in talks with local distilleries about acquiring his next barrel.
“As soon as you age your whiskey, I will come pick up your barrel,” he says.
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.