December 17, 2012
With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.
Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
Other Holiday Spirit Boosters
Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.
Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.
He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.
Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.
Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?
November 16, 2012
The first thing I did when I got into the office this morning was a Google search for DIY Sno-Balls because I woke up to the sound of NPR confirming my worst fears: Hostess, the bakery responsible for Twinkies, is declaring bankruptcy and liquidating its assets in light of a labor strike that began on November 9. I’ll leave the discussion about how the bakery ran afoul of its workforce to other information outlets and instead focus on the actual baked goods. In the pantheon of novelty foods, Hostess was the prima domestic diva bar none. Not only were her wares fun to look at—a Sno-Ball’s shaggy mound of pink coconut-topped creme-filled chocolate cake, the curlicues of icing atop their branded CupCakes—but also fun to say. Oh that there were some sort of diagnostic to measure the volume of tittering that Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos elicited in schoolchildren over the decades. And while I used to joke that Twinkies could survive a nuclear holocaust on account of the preservatives, they and their brethren now seem to be on the critically endangered list of supermarket snack cakes. (There is the possibility that Hostess’ nostalgia factor will attract the attention of another company will buy out and continue certain product lines, but as of this writing, that remains to be seen.) So what does one do should these cakes go extinct?
The cream-filled sponge cakes debuted in 1930 with banana-flavored cream filling—later changed to vanilla when World War II made sourcing bananas a tough task—became a cultural touchstone in the 50s after becoming a sponsor for Howdy Doody, the wildly-popular children’s television program. Ever since, Twinkies have been the everyman’s eclair, and of all the Hostess cakes, they may very well be the most versatile. A staple at state fairs, you frequently see them battered, and fried. In 2006, an entire cookbook was concocted, inviting fans to expand the horizons of the humble Twinkie—sometimes in strange directions, such as the recipe for Twinkie sushi. The cakes have even inspired mixologists. Michael J. Neff, co-owner of Ward III bar in New York, admitted to experimenting with muddled Twinkies in his cocktails—although he found the combination of cake and booze to be perfectly unpalatable. Most people, however, approximate the flavor by combining a few choice liquors. So on the one hand, there’s an entire cookery subculture that would die off should these products no longer be available to sustain and inspire trash food devotees. On the other hand, this situation may be a win for our national fight against obesity and diabetes.
During a lunchtime trip out to the nearest CVS, I had a George Bailey moment and saw a vision of what the world would be like if Twinkies ceased to exist. The prepackaged cakes rack was stripped down to the wire, with the only Hostess products remaining being a few packages of Zingers and a healthy supply of fruitcake. If there’s a run on Twinkies, like I think there will given this morning’s news, what’s a person to do? It is not impossible to replicate these snack foods at home. Twinkie pans have been available to home cooks for ages and America’s Test Kitchen even came out with their iteration of Hostess CupCakes. For me, the more difficult treat to make at home is the Sno-Ball, because in this case, you have the component of marshmallow frosting that has to be sticky enough to make the colored coconut flakes stick, but no so sticky that you can’t eat it out of your hand without making an epic mess. It’s a delicate line to tread and I’m amazed at whatever chemistry and unpronounceable ingredients converged to produce this scientific marvel of modern baking. I found a recipe or two to work with, so we’ll see how this goes. So it is possible to more or less get your fix. But what you give up is the convenience of cakes that will stay fresh ad infinitum and packaged so that you can only have one or two at a time. If you make batch, you need to liquidate your stock in a matter of days. And that’s a lot of sugar—and fat—to have to consume in a short span of time. On the upswing, you may be able to produce a higher-quality product at home because you have control over the ingredients. And to be honest, part of Hostess’ downfall has been a cultural shift away from the processed foods that are the company’s bread and butter. (Well, Wonder Bread was the company’s bread and another culinary icon that may be biting the dust.)
Faced with the prospect of cowboy mascot Twinkie the Kid riding off into the sunset, is it worth the elbow grease to produce your own novelty cakes at home? And is the media buzz about the loss of the Hostess dessert products simply a case of overblown nostalgia or are we losing something more than a line of junk foods? Talk to us in the comments sections below.
November 1, 2012
There comes a point in every person’s life where they must decide how to take care of their mortal remains. There are tons of possibilities. There’s traditional: the crematorium or a simple pine box set six feet under. There’s the avant garde: artist Jae Rhim Lee’s prototypical mushroom suit where fungus spores grow on and break down the corpse. Some get especially inventive, such as comic book editor Mark Gruenwald, who had his ashes mixed in with ink and used to print a comic book, or Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who had his ashes launched into space. There’s also the debate as to whether to care for the dead at home or let a mortician handle the job, an issue explored by journalist Max Alexander. There also comes a point where you need to figure out how to feed the living as many cultures respond to death through food—and those responses are similarly rich in variation. And with people celebrating the Day of the Dead today—the Mexican festival that commemorates the deceased—it’s a perfect opportunity to look at some of these funerary foodways.
In a funereal setting, food can serve a number of functions, some of which are contingent on one’s spiritual convictions. In some rituals, food is meant to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians were notable for placing edible offerings in a tomb in the belief that a person’s spirit could thus be sustained for eternity—and in some cases the food itself was mummified and wrapped, as was the case with the joints of meat found in the tomb of priestess Henutmehyt. Similarly, Day of the Dead festivities include creating an altar in one’s home where food—usually the deceased’s favorite dishes—is laid to nourish traveling souls. (And in many communities, families will pack a picnic lunch to bring to the family cemetery plot where they eat pan de muertos, a sweetbread with bone-like decorations.) Other traditions incorporate food to ward off evil. At one time in Jewish tradition, bagels were meant to protect against the evil eye—although this bread is eaten, usually with a hard boiled egg, because the round shape is meant to symbolize the cyclical nature of life. In Japan, mourners may sprinkle themselves with salt as a ritualistic purification of the body or use it in the corners of their homes to ward off evil spirits—and it’s a tradition that inspired sculptor Motoi Yamamoto to create intricate, large-scale images with salt in response to the death of his sister.
But perhaps most importantly, food is meant to sustain the living, not just nutritionally but spiritually. In Molokan communities in the United States, the funeral dinner is a major social and spiritual event with hymns and prayers sung between courses, which can include dishes like borscht, boiled beef and a dessert course of fruits and pastries. The immediate family of the deceased, however, abstains from eating, showing that “spiritual food” is enough to tide them over during their time of grief.
When my paternal grandfather entered end of life care, neighbors and extended family came with boxes of food to load up Grandma’s pantry and freezer. When he passed and it came time to arrange the post-funeral meal, the family didn’t have to worry about preparing anything, only what items to pull from the fridge to set out for guests. The table was laid out, buffet-style, with platters of ham biscuits, deli meats, cheeses and slaw with desserts—two pumpkin pies and an Angel food cake—nearby on the kitchen counter. After an emotional afternoon at the cemetery, the mood lifted somewhat as people packed their plates and shared a meal and their memories of Grandaddy Jim. And the combination of good company and good eats is certainly helpful when processing the loss of a loved one.
October 30, 2012
The commemoration of the last day of the ancient Celtic calendar was a major influences on how we celebrate Halloween, but one significant tradition has (thankfully?) not survived. Kale, that leafy salad green, was a tool of marriage divination, identifying life partners for men and women in ancient Scotland and Ireland.
But first, some context: According to the Celtic calendar, on the morning of November 1, spirits and the supernatural “bogies” were free to roam the night of the 31st and into the morning as the new year represented the transition between this world and the otherworld. To fend off the spirits and to celebrate the coming year, Scottish youths participated in superstitious games on Halloween night that were thought to bring good fortune and predict the future marital status of partygoers.
Scottish bard Robert Burns describes the typical festivities for the peasantry in the west of Scotland in his poem, “Halloween,” originally published in both English and Scots in 1785. The 252-line poem follows the narrative of 20 characters and details many—often confusing—folk practices: Burning nuts, winnowing the corn, and the cutting of the apple:
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”
Also included among the party games mentioned in Burns’ poem is our first Halloween kale matchmaking activity, known as ”pou (pull) the stalks.”
1) Pou (Pull) the Stalks
In this Scottish tradition, instead of trick-or-treating, young, eligible men and women were blindfolded and guided into a garden to uproot kale stalks. After some time digging in the dirt, the piece of kale selected was analyzed to determine information about the participant’s future wife or husband.
In Burns’ poem, for example, the character of Willie, tries his luck and pulls a stalk as curly as a pig’s tail. He isn’t too happy about it:
“Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander’d through the bow-kail,
And pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow’t that night.”
The analysis was pretty literal according to Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal—meaning poor Willie’s curly-Q’d root didn’t look too promising. Characteristics of the stalk were thought to reveal signs about the potential partner: A short and stunted stalk meant just that for the player’s future mate. Tall and healthy, withered and old, and so on—even the kale’s flavor was thought to hint at the disposition of the future spouse (bitter, sweet, etc.). The amount of dirt clinging to the stalk post pou was believed to determine the size of the dowry or fortune the participant should expect from their husband or wife. A clean root meant poverty was in the cards.
“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”
2) Cook Up Some Colcannon
If you’re not satisfied with letting the “fates” determine the man or woman you will spend the rest of your life with, perhaps this Irish tradition may interest you. For Hallowe’en—what Christianity would later call All Hallows’ Eve—kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’. Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster for the lady lucky enough to discover it. Eating the dinner trinket-free seems to be the best of the three situations, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking. If the Halloween dinner were up to me, the only thing on the menu would be candy.
October 15, 2012
At about this time every year, Michelin begins releasing their vaunted series of international restaurant guides that highlight the best—and worst—places to sit down for a meal. While one of the best-selling dining guides on the market, they are not without detractors—notably British critic A.A. Gill who, in a Vanity Fair editorial, dubbed it an “assassin of the greatest international food” and finds the books to be limited in scope and guilty of food snobbery. Now, when I think Michelin, I think about cars and that charming little man made out of pneumatic tires. Their association with haute cuisine was something I just accepted and returned to my local newspaper/word of mouth/urbanspoon app for dining ideas. But why do we look to on automotive company to highlight the best in international cuisine?
The answer does indeed begin with cars. In late 19th century France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin were leading the pneumatic tire industry with their greatest innovation—tires that did not have to be glued to a wheel rim, but rather, easily removed and replaced—were outfitting bicycles and automobiles. Motor tourism was on the rise in and at the same time, there was also an increasing interest regional gastronomy, which was believed to contribute to the nation’s culinary richness. The Michelin grew out of this point of national pride, and when the guide first appeared in 1900, it provided information on how to change a tire, where to find Michelin dealers and a list of acceptable places to eat and sleep when on the go. But once car culture became more established, and repair places became easier to find, editions printed after World War I focused more on food and lodging, with it’s now-famous starred rating system introduced in 1931. In his book, Marketing Michelin, author Stephen Harp points out the following statistic: “In 1912, the guide had over 600 pages, 62 of which concerned tires. By 1927, however, the first section of the guide devoted to changing tires included only 5 pages, out of 990 total.” The flagship product took a back seat to people’s stomachs and with over a million copies of the guide sold between 1926 and 1940, it was clear that the tire company was defining quality French cuisine.
Both the restaurant guides and their tire industry has endured, the former being a wonderfully ironic piece of marketing that works keep the Michelin brand in the public eye. Plug food to sell tires—who’d have thought? But, as with any curated list, the question always arises as to whether said list is worth its salt. Personally, I find guides to be helpful, but only when I find one that seems to sync up well with my own personality. (For instance, when I took a trip to New York, I used the Not For Tourists Guide to the city and was able to find great food where the locals actually ate. It was a great way to feel like I fit in with new environs, and most of the places they recommended were spot-on with the cuisine.)
Do you think that the Michelin guide is a solid means to finding good food or do your sentiments fall with those of Mr. Gill and feel that it does more harm than good? Share your thoughts—or any experiences you’ve had dining in a starred establishment—in the comments section below.