July 8, 2013
In the realm of the popular mythology of the American West, food rarely comes to the fore. At most, we generally see a token saloon and the barkeep who keeps whistles wet but otherwise amounts to little more than set dressing. But the truth is, people who boarded a westward-bound train were able to eat pretty darn well. This was thanks to entrepreneur Fred Harvey, who launched a successful chain of restaurants (called Harvey House) along the Santa Fe railway and provided fortune seekers access to fine dining on the frontier. And at each location, patrons were served in the dining rooms by an elite force of waitresses known as Harvey Girls, a corps of women who helped settle the West and advance the stature of women in the workforce.
While the American West of the 19th century was a place for great opportunity, it lacked creature comforts, namely access to quality dining. Here, English-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw a chance to launch a business. Working with the nascent Santa Fe railway, he opened a lunchroom at the Florence, Kansas, train depot in 1878. The first location was so successful that additional locations were opened up along the line and by the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey restaurant every hundred miles—America’s first chain dining establishment. Strict standards ensured that a Fred Harvey meal was consistent at each location. Bread was baked on-site and sliced three-eights of an inch thick; orange juice was squeezed fresh only after it was ordered; alkali levels of the water were tested to ensure high-quality brewed coffee; menus were carefully planned out so that passengers would have a variety of foods to select from along their travels. Harvey took advantage of ice cars to transport highly perishable items—fruit, cheeses, ice cream, fresh fish—to the harsh environs of the southwest. For railroad towns eking by on fried meat, canned beans and stale coffee, the Harvey House chain was nothing short of a godsend.
Then there was the factor of the service. After the team of waiters in the Raton, New Mexico, location were involved in a brawl, Harvey fired the lot and replace them with young women. It was a radical idea. As far as respectable society in the late 1800s was concerned, a woman working as a waitress was considered to be as reputable as a prostitute. What else were the high-moraled society to think of single girls working in places that served alcohol, soliciting orders from male patrons? But this facet of Harvey’s venture could possibly succeed if the same structure and standardization used in the kitchen was applied to the serving staff. Placing newspaper ads calling for intelligent girls of strong character between the ages of 18 and 30, Harvey put applicants through a 30-day boot camp. By the time their training was over, they had the skills to serve a four-course meal within the thirty-minute meal stop a train would take at each station. The trial run at Raton was so successful that women replaced the male wait staff at all Fred Harvey establishments.
When working the dining room, Harvey Girls were forbidden to wear jewelry and makeup. They wore a conservative uniform: black ankle-length dresses with Elsie collars, white bib aprons. Waitresses lived in a dormitory supervised by a matron who strictly enforced a ten o’clock curfew. Working 12-hour-shifts six and seven day weeks, when a waitress wasn’t serving a customer, she was busy keeping the dining room spotless. In this way, the Harvey House functioned as a corporate chaperone that was able to provide the waitressing profession considerable social respectability.
Although being a Harvey Girl was hard work, there were considerable benefits. In terms of pay, they were at the top of their profession: $17.50 a month plus tips, meals, rooming, laundry and travel expenses. (By comparison, waiters made, on average, $48 a month, but have to pay for room and board. Men in manufacturing made about $54 a month, but all living expenses came out of pocket.) Not only were these women able to live and work independently, but they were able to save money, either to send home to family or to build a nest egg for themselves. And given that the West had a higher male-to-female ratio, they had improved odds of finding a husband. ”The move west in the late 1800s and early 1900s was, for men, a change to break with the past, look at the world beyone the family porch, and being a new life,” Lesley Polling-Kempes writes in her exhaustive study on the Harvey Girls. “Fred Harvey gave young women a similar opportunity. A sociologist could not have invented a better method by which the West could become inhabited by so many young women anxious to take part in the building of a new region.”
Women of loose morals and rough-and-tumble, pistol-packing mamas are among the stereotypical images of women that abound in the literature and movies. And so too did the Harvey Girls attain their own mythic status, fabled to have married business magnates and to have inspired the ire of the local dance hall girls. The waitresses even inspired poetry, such as the fllowing by Leiger Mitchell Hodges, published in 1905:
I have viewed the noblest shrines in Italy,
And gazed upon the richest mosques of Turkey—
But the fairest of all sights, it seems to me,
Was the Harvey Girl I saw in Albuquerque.
The idea of the Fred Harvey’s waitresses as a force of womanhood that civilized the West saw its fullest expression in the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls. With music by Johnny Mercer, it’s a perfectly hummable treatment of the wild west, although rife with its share of historical inaccuracies. And the musical/comedy treatment detracts from the fact that these women worked a long, hard day. But for the sight of synchronized table setting alone, it’s well worth a watch.
As airplane and automobile travel gained in popularity, business declined in the years following World War II. By the late 1960s, Fred Harvey restaurants were no more and the waitresses who kept the train passengers fed were the image of a bygone America. And while they were simply hard working women, their role as community builders is not to be underestimated. “Harvey Girls became women well educated in the needs, moods, affectations and habits of people from all over the United States,” Poling-Kempes writes. “Harvey Girls were among the most upwardly mobile women of the American West, crossing social boundaries in their daily routines, playing the role of mother and sister to travelers rich and poor, famous and infamous.”
Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West. New York: Random House, 2010.
Henderson, James. Meals by Fred Harvey. Hawthorne: Omni Publications, 1985.
Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
May 24, 2013
Turns out, there may not have always been money in the banana stand.
Ask Bob Teller. The frozen banana stand he opened on Balboa Peninsula in the ’60s popularized the famous snack in Newport Beach, California—something fans of the cult Fox television series, “Arrested Development,” may find familiar.
In the show, which returns for a fourth season on Netflix after a seven year hiatus on May 26, the Bluth family runs and owns a frozen banana stand on Oceanside Wharf boardwalk on Balboa Island—a business endeavor launched by George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor)—though the Bluth’s banana stand was actually filmed in a fishermen’s village in Marina Del Rey, 50 miles from Balboa Island. According to the show’s pilot, George held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the booth in 1963—the same year Teller opened his banana stand. The connections do not end there. In 1976, a 13-year-old Mitchell Hurwitz, along with his brother Michael (another connection!), opened up a dessert stand of their own right next to Teller’s Banana Rolla Rama. With the help of their father Mark, who coincidentally went to college with Bob Teller, they rented an abandoned taco stand and renamed it the Chipyard. Hurwitz would later become the creator, executive producer and mastermind behind “Arrested Development.”
Though several restaurants on Balboa Island claim to have invented the “original” frozen banana dipped in chocolate and nuts—both Dad’s Donuts and Sugar and Spice say they sold them first on the island (a conflict reminiscent of the season three, episode eight “Making a Stand” when G.O.B. sets up the “Banana Shack” feet away from the original), the story of the first banana stand in Newport Beach goes a little further back. Circa 1940, Don Phillips, the true “frozen banana king“, opened a banana stand, “The Original Frozen Banana,” on Balboa Peninsula right next to the ferry landing—an idea he may have borrowed from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
About 20 years later, in 1961 at the Arizona State Fair, Bob Teller was also selling frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and nuts with his wife, Rita, from their concession stand, the Banana Rolla Rama. Teller borrowed the idea for the frozen bananas from a candy shop in Lake Arrowhead Village, California. The recipe was simple: Freeze a banana, dip it into the specially-made, proprietary chocolate, and roll it in nuts or sprinkles. They sold for 25 or 30 cents each, depending on the size of the banana.
Teller was a true entrepreneur—though he received a degree in real estate and finance from the University of Arizona, he dabbled in running a flea market and vending his frozen bananas for the state fair. In 1963, when Teller was interested in manufacturing car seat belts, he and his wife headed to San Diego for a business convention.
“My parents had honeymooned there,” says Jeff Teller, Bob’s son. “They saw a sign for Balboa Island where the original frozen banana was and decided to check it out.”
When Bob and his wife were in line to buy a couple frozen treats, he told the teenager behind the counter that he had also sold frozen bananas in Arizona. The counter help was not interested in the coincidence, but there was a gentleman within earshot who certainly was. Roland Vallely was looking to rent out a commercial space near the ferry landing across from Balboa Pavilion where Don Phillips ran his shop. “[Vallely] told my dad that he’d make $50,000 in a summer selling bananas in that space,” Jeff says.
Vallely and Teller exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. Nearly two months later, when Teller learned that Phillips’ original frozen banana stand was closed by the health department, he remembered Vallely’s offer.
“That night my dad tossed and turned,” Jeff says. “When he heard Phillips was never going to reopen his doors, he thought ‘My God! What a captive market to sell the product to!’”
Bob called Mr. Vallely at six the next morning and signed a lease to open up a banana stand later that day. As expected, Phillips never reopened the original banana stand and Teller’s shop next to the peninsula’s Fun Zone thrived. Vallely and Teller would later become next door neighbors and remained so until Vallely’s death in 2003.
“As the story goes, [Phillips] had said that everyone had deserted him—that he was living the life of Job from the story in the Bible,” Jeff says. “Everybody deserted him, including God and Mr. Phillips felt the same way.”
A connection to the show’s G.O.B. Bluth (pronounced “Jobe”) is unlikely, but the coincidence is bananas.
“Everyone says that one of the characters in that series is loosely based on Bob Teller,” Jeff says. “There’s a lot more truth to the show than one may realize.”
Whatever happened to the actual banana stand?
According to the Daily Pilot, a few years later when Mr. Phillips died, the Internal Revenue Service auctioned off the business and Teller bought it for $125—a steal for Teller as the building still contained equipment from the original stand including freezers for the bananas. Teller began selling his Banana Rolla Rama desserts in Disneyland in the mid ’60s, expanding the frozen banana’s presence to the greater southern California area. In the mid ’70s, Bob sold the company to his insurance broker, Emory Frank, so he could focus on his mall chain, “Bob’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream,” which sold his real claim to fame: a vanilla ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts that he called the “Beach Bar,” later known as the “Balboa Bar“. Teller had at least 70 shops at the chain’s peak. Frank kept the name, Banana Rolla Rama, but Teller could not confirm how long Frank ran the business after he sold it.
Around 1976, Teller’s other business investment, a “swap meet,” a kind of large-scale flea market in Orange County now known as the Orange County Marketplace, took off. Bob ran a flea market and sold concessions including his frozen bananas and “Beach Bars,” making use of the Orange County fair grounds. His son, Jeff, is the current president of the company.
Bob Teller, now 75, was unavailable for comment, but he is still involved with the family business. All the more time for his latest entrepreneurial foray: the development of electric boats. Though Teller is no longer a seller of bananas, he said in an interview with Orange Coast Magazine in 1990, that ”When I look at things to buy, I still think in terms of bars and bananas I’d have to sell to afford them.”
On May 8, a recreation of “Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana” banana stand, also known as the “Big Yellow Joint“, began a world tour, dolling out chocolate-covered fruit in London, then New York City the following week. The stand was last seen in the Los Angeles area just days before the program’s return.
While we can confirm a few items in the show are based on real life experiences, some things—whether or not anyone in the Bluth family has ever seen a chicken, for example—remain up for debate.
March 1, 2013
For a burger joint like Mickey D’s, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich is surprisingly popular: Pirates would give their arm for one and apparently, whales eat “boatloads” of them. The Atlantic-Pollock based lunch item is consumed at a rate of 300 million a year— 23 percentof them are sold during Lent, and we can thank the Catholics in Ohio and a struggling businessman for the fast food classic.
When Lou Groen opened the first McDonald’s in the Cincinnati area in 1959, business was tough. McDonald’s was new to the area—the McDonald brothers had only just begun to franchise their stores six years prior. Groen’s son, Paul, who worked at his father’s McDonald’s for 20 years straight and later bought a few of his own, remembers how hard his parents worked to keep the business alive in the beginning.
As a child, Paul was paid 10 cents an hour to pick up the parking lot and keep the kitchen clean. “McDonald’s wasn’t the brand it is today back then—people didn’t come to his little McDonald’s, they went to Frisch’s,” Paul says. According to a sales ledger from 1959 (pictured below), he and his wife made a total of $8,716
profit revenue in their first month of business.
“We make that much in one day now!” Paul says.
“Opening day, my father made $307.38 in sales. The restaurant only had two windows, one register at each window. There was no inside seating. How do you run a business on $300 a day? My mom and dad were just struggling to make it. My brother and sister worked for free for two years!”
Though Lou Groen’s restaurant was one of 68 new franchises opened that year by founder Ray Kroc, there was something about Monfort Heights, Ohio, that didn’t bode well for a little-known burger joint during Lent: About 87 percent of the population was Catholic. When Groen was 89, he recalled to the Chicago Tribune News:
I was struggling. The crew was my wife, myself, and a man named George. I did repairs, swept floors, you name it. But that area was 87 percent Catholic. On Fridays we only took in about $75 a day.
Groen was working ungodly hours and had twins to feed at home—$75 was not cutting it. He noticed that a restaurant nearby owned by the Big Boy chain was doing something different—they had a fish sandwich. “My dad told me, ‘If I’m gonna survive, I’ve got to come up with a fish sandwich,’” says Paul. So Groen went to work creating a simple, battered, halibut-based prototype, with a slice of cheese between two buns.
He did his research, investigating what the Big Boys chain was doing right, trying out different cost-effective recipes. He brought the idea to corporate in 1961. “The Filet-O-Fish sandwich was groundbreaking. My father went through a lot to introduce that sandwich,” Paul says. “He made a number of trips to Chicago to present the idea to Ray Kroc.”
In 1959, access to top management was somewhat easier, Paul says. There was only a handful of operators that Kroc dealt with—rather than the thousands of operators that exist today. Owners like Lou received more guidance from upper management. According to an interview with Groen in the Business Courier in 2006, McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, was not all that excited about Groen’s fishy dreams at first:
“You’re always coming up here with a bunch of crap!” he told Groen. “I don’t want my stores stunk up with the smell of fish.”
But Kroc’s initial rejection of the idea may have come from a more selfish place. He had a meat alternative idea of his own, called the “Hula Burger,” a piece of grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun. But Kroc was willing to compromise: On Good Friday in 1962, both the Hula Burger and the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches would appear on the menu in selected locations—whichever sandwich sold the most would win. The final score? Hula Burger: 6, Filet-O-Fish: 350.
By 1965, the Filet-O-Fish, ”the fish that catches people”, became a staple on the McDonald’s menu nationwide among other greats like the Big Mac and the Egg McMuffin. Kroc would later recall the failure of his pineapple creation and the success of the sandwich in his biography Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s noting:
“It [the Hula Burger] was a giant flop when we tried it in our stores. One customer said, ‘I like the hula, but where’s the burger?’”
According to the sales ledger from 1962 (pictured below) the first time Groen’s halibut-based Filet-O-Fish was sold was Tuesday, February 13, 1962. (The whitefish sandwich we see today wasn’t officially put on the menu until 1963). “This sales ledger, or ‘the Bible’ as we used to call it, is an affirmation of the stuff I knew from the stories my father told me,” Paul says.”It really is a piece of family history—I look at these numbers here and I’m just amazed at the contrast.” In the first month of the Filet-O-Fish’s existence, 2,324 total fish sandwiches were sold. The McDonald’s corporation declined to provide current monthly averages.
Next to the total sales for February 13, the words “Predict—Fridays will equal Sat. Busi., maybe Sundays” are scratched into the margins of the record. Though Paul cannot confirm who initially scrawled this note onto the page, the prediction itself wasn’t too far off from what came to fruition: The success of the sandwich during Lent would far surpass Groen’s initial expectations.
The company has gone through plenty of advertisements for the sandwich, but one character in particular, remains somewhat elusive—Paul barely recalls the campaign. A cartoon by the name of Phil A. O’Fish had a brief stint as the face of the marketing campaign for Groen’s invention in 1976. But by ’77, the anthropomorphic sailor fish was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a simple advertisement that offered some “Food For Thought.”
By ’78 the “Deliciously Different” sandwich stood its ground sans smiley mascot.
The fishy, Irish cartoon for the sandwich emerged right when the McDonaldland characters were taking over Mcdonald’s ads and playscapes country-wide. Characters like the Hamburgerlar, Captain Crook, Mayor McCheese and—of course—Ronald McDonald were introduced in ’71 when the chain’s drive-ins were replaced by mansard-roofed restaurants. It was a fictional land that served as the basis for playgrounds attached to McDonald’s restaurants where french fries grew from bushes, burgers popped out of the earth like flowers by “Filet-O-Fish Lake” and was home to Ronald McDonald and all of his friends.
By 1979, the McDonaldland gang became the face of the “Happy Meal Toys” promotion—Phil A. O’Fish was sleeping soundly in Davy Jones’ locker by then. In 2009, a different fishy fellow took the spotlight with the popular “Gimme Back That Filet-O-Fish” commercial featuring a singing, bass wall decoration. It did so well on television and on YouTube, (reaching over one million views in 2009) that the corporation sold the singing fish commercially.
The Filet-O-Fish sandwich has featured real fish since Groen wrote up the recipe in the ’60s (believe it or not). Whether the fish was sustainable, however, was up for debate. In the past, the company as well as other chains like Long John Silver’s have used the New Zealand hoki fish, whose population has diminished significantly in the past few decades due to its wide commercial use.
But in late January, McDonald’s announced the addition of the sustainable blue “ecolabel” from the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies that the Alaskan Pollock used in the sandwiches come from places with sustainable fishing practices. According to the MSC, McDonald’s Corp. now gets all its fish in the U.S. from a single Alaskan Pollock fishery.
To celebrate the sandwich’s 50 plus years of existence, McDonald’s launched a new product just in time for Lent this year: Fishbites. The mini-morsels of battered and fried Atlantic Pollock are available through March 2013 in Philadelphia region restaurants. Though, if you ask the Groen family, Lou always said his orignal halibut-based recipe was better.
Groen passed away in May of 2011 and won’t be able to taste the new variation of his original recipe, but his legacy lives on with Paul, now 62, who took over two McDonald’s in Northgate and Tylersville when his father sold his 42 restaurants back to the company in 1986. Today, Paul owns 12 restaurants in Northern Kentucky along a 27-mile stretch of Interstate 75 and plans to pass the family business to two of his children.
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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.
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.