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.
January 9, 2013
Dan Koester wants to assure you, there’s nothing to fear. Despite having names such as the Worthy Adversary, Alimony Ale and Nippletop Milk Stout, craft beers aren’t as intimidating as they appear, though just try ordering a Fulton Lonely Blonde without feeling like a crusty, old sailor. But Koester, craft enthusiast and author of The Definitive Guide to Buying Craft Beer: Discover Everything You Need to Know About Buying and Enjoying Craft Beer, says craft beer is for everyone.
“I think the group in general, the people who are enjoying craft beer, is just a very laid-back group,” says Koester, who sports a respectable mustache and hails from the brew-loving land of Wisconsin. During the day, he’s conscientious, Oak Creek Dental Care Dr. Koester, but in his free time, he’s a bit of a Renaissance man, restoring old cars, biking with his family and trying any craft beer he comes across.
After sampling craft beers his son was bringing home while working at a liquor store, Koester began exploring a world previously unknown to him. Now he travels the country, most recently to Oregon, to try as many varieties as possible.
His interest coincides with a national boom in the craft industry. After a serious slump post-Prohibition, large companies were the only survivors, acquiring smaller operations so that by the end of the 1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies in the country, according to the Brewers Association. Koester says homebrewing grew in popularity in response to industry consolidation. Craft breweries blossomed from basements and garages and, as regulations began recognizing the smaller breed of brewers, craft beer gained a foothold in the market. Over at the Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida sifted through the data to figure out why craft brewing seemed to boom in certain states. Interestingly, the state comparison revealed that income played less of a role than education level (the higher the level, the more breweries abound). Florida also found some interesting corollaries:
“…craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).”
“Curiously, there was a negative connection between craft breweries and two other unhealthy behaviors or “sins” — smoking (-0.28) and even more so with obesity (-0.54).”
Some states have even begun trying to attract craft brewers as a way to boost local economies. And, in true trendsetting fashion, American craft brewers are now feeding demand in Europe, according to PRI’s The World, who argue that the big shift came two years ago at Munich’s Oktoberfest when a Samuel Adams beer took home gold. The victory in the heart of European beer country was compared to the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976 when two California wines bested the competition in a blind tasting.
There are now 2,126 breweries in the country, according to the Brewers Association, with 2,075 considered craft breweries, meaning they produce 6 million barrels of beer per year or fewer.
Before you get overwhelmed by the choices, Koester offers his expertise on everything from food pairings to essential questions to ask before you buy a drink.
On food pairings:
Spicy Foods: “With spicier food, Mexican food, that sort of thing, I like the Scotch Ales, they go very well with spicy food,” says Koester, singling out Samuel Adams’ version of it in particular.
Best Bets: For a gold medal-winning brew, try Oskar Blues Brewing’s Old Chub Scottish ale, which placed first in its category at the U.S. Beer Championships. The beer is “brewed with bodacious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt,” creating a flavor profile “of cocoa and coffee, and a kiss of smoke.”
Heavy Foods: ”The more bitter, hoppy beers, which I do like a lot, the IPAs and Imperial IPAs
like a Russian Imperial Stout, go really well with German food. The heavier, meatier foods seem to go well with the bitter, hoppy beers,” says Koester.
Best Bets: The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper, with a promise to put hair on your chest, took the top honors over at Beer Advocate in the Imperial IPA category. And Paste Magazine nominated Great Divide Brewing Company’s Hercules, also a double IPA, for its balanced flavor and hoppy finish.
Sweet and…Sweet: With the glut of holiday cookies upon us, Koester says you can’t go wrong pairing a similarly sweet brew with a sweet treat. “Something like an Abbey Triple or a fruitier beer, a Lambic, with something sweet goes very well,” says Koester.
Best Bets: Developed from a Belgian recipe from the 1300s, the Allagash Brewing Company makes a Coolship Resurgam that the Wall Street Journal calls, “clean and tart with an effervescent strawberry finish.”
On craft beers for wine lovers:
So maybe you remember a little too well the stale, pale flavor of college party beers past though you wish you didn’t. For whatever reason, you’re a wine-only person. To get out of your grape rut, Koester again recommends starting with something like a Lambic, known for a refreshing, bubbly profile with hints of fruit that should appeal to the wine-lover’s palate.
Best Bets: And for another great Lambic from abroad, the New York Times likes Lindemans Cuvée René as an older, aged variety “with wonderful raspberry aromas that combined with a sort of earthiness.” For a sweeter finish, the New York Times suggests, De Troch Apricot Chapeau from Noble Union Trading, saying it had a ”nut flavor almost like Turkish delight.”
On beginner brews:
“A lot of the things that will turn people on or off is how bitter is the beer,” says Koester. “I think that’s a very basic question: Do you like more of a sweet or milder beer?” Because the hoppier brews can be a bit strong for beginners, he says brown and amber ales tend to cut a middle road. “They have some bitterness, some hoppiness, but they’re also a very flavorful malty beer.”
Best Bets: Tröegs Brewing Company’s amber ale, Nugget Nectar, has the highest user-generated score of any amber ale over at Beer Advocate. Available February through March, the brew promises to “take hopheads to nirvana with a heady collection of Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk hops.” Meanwhile, Red Brick’s version, Laughing Skull, placed first in its category at the 2011 U.S. Beer Championships with its signature zombie logo.