October 3, 2013
Movie theater popcorn is a concession stand staple whose scent has spawned marketing ploys and copycat recipes, but movie theaters haven’t always been saturated with the tempting smell of salt and butter. The history of popcorn is vast, and it intersects with movies in the relatively recent past–a symbiosis of taste and place created to save the fledgling movie theater industry from near collapse during the Great Depression.
About 8,000 years ago, maize was cultivated from teosinte, a wild grass that doesn’t look much like the modern corn we know today. Popcorn–a name mostly associated with puffed kernels of corn–is actually a strain of corn, characterized by especially starchy kernels with hard kernel walls, which help internal pressure build when placed over heat. It was one of the first variations of maize cultivated in Central America. “Popcorn went north and it went south, but as far as I can see, it really only survived in South America,” says Andrew Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn. Eventually, trade and commerce brought the unique kernels northward. “Most likely, North American whalers went to Chile, found varieties of popcorn, picked them up and thought that they were cute, and brought them back to New England in the early 19th century,” Smith explains.
After popcorn made its way to the eastern part of North America, it spread rapidly. Eaters found the act of popping corn wildly entertaining, and by 1848, popcorn, the snack food, was prevalent enough to be included in the Dictionary of Americanisms. Popcorn had literally exploded onto the scene and was available everywhere–especially at entertainment sites like circuses and fairs. In fact, there was really only one entertainment site where the snack was absent: the theaters.
One reason for popcorn’s increasing popularity was its mobility: in 1885, the first steam-powered popcorn maker hit the streets, invented by Charles Cretor. The mobile nature of the machine made it the perfect production machine for serving patrons attending outdoor sporting events, or circuses and fairs. Not only was popcorn mobile, but it could be mass-produced without a kitchen, an advantage that another crunchy snack–the potato chip–lacked (the earliest potato chips were made in small batches in kitchens, not ideal for mass snack appeal). Another reason for its dominance over other snacks was its appealing aroma when popped, something that street vendors used to their advantage when selling popcorn. Still, movie theaters wouldn’t allow the popular street snack into their auditoriums.
“Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn,” Smith says, “because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters. They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn’t want popcorn being ground into it.” Movie theaters were trying to appeal to a highbrow clientele, and didn’t want to deal with the distracting trash of concessions–or the distracting noise that snacking during a film would create.
When films added sound in 1927, the movie theater industry opened itself up to a much wider clientele, since literacy was no longer required to attend films (the titles used early silent films restricted their audience). By 1930, attendance to movie theaters had reached 90 million per week. Such a huge patronage created larger possibilities for profits–especially since the sound pictures now muffled snacks–but movie theater owners were still hesitant to bring snacks inside of their theaters.
The Great Depression presented an excellent opportunity for both movies and popcorn. Looking for a cheap diversion, audiences flocked to the movies. And at 5 to 10 cents a bag, popcorn was a luxury that most people were able to afford. Popcorn kernels themselves were a cheap investment for purveyors, and a $10 bag could last for years. If those inside the theaters couldn’t see the financial lure of popcorn, enterprising street vendors didn’t miss a beat: they bought their own popping machines and sold popcorn outside the theaters to moviegoers before they entered the theater. As Smith explains, early movie theaters literally had signs hung outside their coatrooms, requesting that patrons check their popcorn with their coats. Popcorn, it seems, was the original clandestine movie snack.
Beyond wanting to maintain appearances, early movie theaters weren’t built to accommodate the first popcorn machines; the theaters lacked proper ventilation. But as more and more customers came to the theater with popcorn in hand, owners couldn’t ignore the financial appeal of selling the snack. So they leased “lobby privileges” to vendors, allowing them to sell their popcorn in the lobby of their theater (or more likely on a bit of street in front of the theater) for a daily fee. Vendors didn’t complain about this arrangement–selling popcorn outside the theater widened their business potential, as they could sell to both moviegoers and people on the street.
Eventually, movie theater owners realized that if they cut out the middleman, their profits would skyrocket. For many theaters, the transition to selling snacks helped save them from the crippling Depression. In the mid-1930s, the movie theater business started to go under. “But those that began serving popcorn and other snacks,” Smith explains, “survived.” Take, for example, a Dallas movie theater chain that installed popcorn machines in 80 theaters, but refused to install machines in their five best theaters, which they considered too high class to sell popcorn. In two years, the theaters with popcorn saw their profits soar; the five theaters without popcorn watched their profits go into the red. Eventually, movie theater owners came to understand that concessions were their ticket to higher profits, and installed concession stands in their theaters.
World War II further solidified the marriage between popcorn and the movie theaters. Competing snacks like candy and soda suffered from sugar shortages and in turn, rationing, as traditional sugar exporters like the Philippines were cut off from the United States
By 1945, popcorn and the movies were inextricably bound: over half of the popcorn consumed in America was eaten at the movie theaters. Theaters began pushing advertisements for their concessions harder, debuting commercials that played before (and sometimes in the middle of) movies that enticed audiences to check out the snacks in the lobby. Maybe the most famous of these is “Let’s All Go to the Lobby,” a 40-second advertisement that debuted in 1957.
In 2000, the advertisement was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry due to its cultural and historical value.
But for all their marketing ploys, movie theaters saw their popcorn sales steadily decrease into the 1960s. The culprit was a new technology, the television, which lessened the need to go out to the movies. “The popcorn industry sags in the ’50s as Americans begin to watch more and more television and go less and less to movie theaters,” Smith says.
Popcorn wasn’t widely eaten in homes, mostly due to how difficult it was to make: consumers needed a popper, oil, butter, salt and other ingredients to replicate their favorite movie theater snack at home. To ease this burden, one commercial product, EZ Pop, marketed itself as an all inclusive popcorn maker–simply move the container over a heat source, and the popcorn pops, completely flavored. After EZ Pop came Jiffy Pop, a famous at-home popcorn product that used the same “all-in-one” philosophy. By making popcorn an easy-to-make snack, commercial popcorn products were able to gain a foothold in the home. In the 1970s, microwave ovens become increasingly common in homes, creating another boom for popcorn: now, families can enjoy popcorn in minutes simply by pressing a button.
As popcorn re-entered the home, traditional associations of popcorn and movies, or popcorn and entertainment, persisted. Nordmende, a German electronics company, even used popcorn to advertise its microwave, purporting it to be a “sponsor of the midweek movie.”
Nowadays, the popcorn industry attaches itself to our home movie nights in a very direct way, through commercials that directly engage with popular films or “movie theater” styles of microwave popcorn that market themselves as a direct replica of the beloved theater snack.
But the relationship between popcorn and the movies has changed more than the smell of a theater lobby or the at-home movie night: it’s changed the popcorn industry itself. Before the Great Depression, most popcorn sold was a white corn variety–yellow corn wasn’t widely commercially grown, and cost twice as much as the white variety. Movie vendors, however, preferred yellow corn, which expanded more when it popped (creating more volume for less product) and had a yellowish tint that belied a coating of butter. People became accustomed to the yellow popcorn and would refuse to buy the white variety at markets, requesting the kind that looked like “the popcorn at the movies.” Today, white popcorn accounts for 10 percent of commercially grown popcorn; yellow popcorn takes up almost the rest of the commercial market (with some color varieties, like blue and black, grown in negligible amounts).
Popcorn is just as economically important to the modern movie theater as it was to movie theaters of old. Patrons often complain about the high prices of movie concessions, but there’s an economic basis for this: popcorn, cheap to make and easy to mark-up, is the primary profit maker for movie theaters. Movie theaters make an estimated 85 percent profit off of concession sales, and those sales constitute 46 percent of movie theater’s overall profits.
And so the history of popcorn and the movies was written in stone–sort of. In recent years, luxury theaters have begun popping up around the country–and they’re reinventing the popcorn-snack model. These theaters offer an old school approach to the movies, trying to make the experience of attending a movie theater tantamount to going to a live show (much like the earliest movie theater owners once tried to do). As Hamid Hashemi, the CEO of iPic Theaters, a luxury theater chain with nine locations, says, “Think about going to a live Broadway show—our movie theaters provide that kind of experience. The average time spent in the theater at our theaters is around four hours.” iPic Theaters still provide popcorn to patrons, but their focus is on a more gourmet level of movie theater dining, offering a menu of larger, cooked items like sliders and flatbreads.
Even as the demand for luxury theaters increases, Hashemi doesn’t think popcorn will ever be phased out. “Popcorn is the cheapest thing you can make, and to a lot of people it has that ritualistic experience,” he says, suggesting that for movie theater owners, a cheap snack never loses its golden appeal.
September 20, 2013
You have to hand it to Chipotle. Not only has the company released a captivating and buzz-worthy viral ad/video game package, with The Scarecrow, but it has also managed – in just a few short years – to position itself as a viable alternative to other fast food menus leaden with industrially produced meals.
Indeed, a slick dystopian storyline and a heart-wrenching soundtrack do go a long way these days. And Chipotle made a smart choice when they hired MoonBot Studios, a meticulous, craft-obsessed media firm, which apparently spent two years developing nearly 200 incarnations of the brief story before landing on the current scarecrow-as-farmer-who-bucks-the-system narrative. The final product has been called hauntingly beautiful, brilliant, and amazing by more some of the most influential voices online.
Now that the dust has settled, and nearly 6 million people have seen the video on YouTube, some viewers may be left wondering: Could it really be that simple? Does Chipotle really represent the “other side of the food debate,” as this article from Midwest-based food and farming reporting collaborative Harvest Media implies? As I see it, the answer is: Yes. And no.
On the one hand, Chipotle has built its brand — and taken a significant business risk — by sourcing higher quality ingredients. In addition to buying some locally sourced produce, the cornerstone of this effort has been a commitment to serving meat raised without subtherapeutic (or growth-promoting) antibiotics. But that hasn’t always been easy to do, and finding a consistent source of this meat can be difficult. In Chipotle’s 2012 Annual Report, the restaurant acknowledges this fact, saying:
Some of our restaurants served conventionally raised beef for short periods during 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and more of our restaurants may periodically serve conventionally raised meats in the future due to supply constraints. When we become aware that one or more of our restaurants will serve conventionally raised meat, we clearly and specifically disclose this temporary change on signage….
More recently, the company has been in the spotlight for considering a switch to less-stringently produce “naturally raised” meat, and acknowledges that it may take less of a hardline approach to antibiotics. The company, says NPR, is “evaluating if this strict ‘never-ever’ antibiotic protocol is best for the animals, or whether animals can be treated when necessary and allowed to remain in the herd.”
We’ll go a little further into these supply constraints later, but for now, it’s worth acknowledging that these practices (and the company’s expressed interest in remaining transparent about it) has legitimately set Chipotle apart from many competitors.
On the other hand, let’s not forget that Chipotle is, ultimately, a giant company that does many things on what is more-or-less an industrial level. According to the latest annual report, Chipotle has close to 1,500 restaurants and, by the end of2012, it employed about 37,000 people, including about 34,000 who work hourly. Their average starting salary is $10.50 an hour, or a little higher minimum wage. In 2012, AOL reported on their employment practices:
A crew member is paid an average of $8.51 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, compared to $7.63 at McDonald’s, $7.69 at Wendy’s, and $7.80 at Burger King.
Still, some Chipotle employees gripe anonymously on Glassdoor.com that they’re underpaid, given the intensity of the grind.
“Full-time effort for part-time pay,” wrote one crew member in Brunswick, Ohio. “The amount of pressure for a burrito joint is unheard of!” chirped another in Austin, Texas. And true enough, most Chipotle employees work full-time hours, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said, although schedules can vary.
None of these employees are unionized or covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Last year, after refusing to do so for six years, the company finally signed on to a fair food agreement that provides tomato pickers in Florida with one penny more per pound.
Chipotle’s business model also requires a few other departures from the scarewcrow’s quaint little taco stand sourced with produce fresh from his farm. For one, the average restaurant sales were $2.113 million, meaning it sells around 3 billion dollars of food every year, resulting in revenue of over $800 million.
Of course, none of these factors mean that Chipotle can’t, or shouldn’t be sharing its interpretation of the realities of our food system. But “The Scarecrow” raises other, bigger questions about just how far a private business can truly go to change that system on their own.
In a corporate statement released by the company on the day the video went live, Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle said:
In a system that is so heavily dominated by industrial agriculture and factory farms, we are committed to finding better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use and to helping build a better food system, much the same as the character in ‘The Scarecrow’ is taking important steps to fix what he perceives as being broken in his world.
Providing a larger market for sustainably raised food has its value. But as the shortage of antibiotic-free meat mentioned above implies: That’s not all there is to it. Companies like Chipotle can help drive a small wedge into, say, the highly consolidated livestock industry (where in four companies—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield—process more than half of the meat we eat). But they’re much less likely to get involved when it comes to say, helping new farmers access the land or capital required to start the kind of antibiotic-free and pasture-based operations that many consumers are asking for. Food industry consolidation has also resulted in a great deal of political power for the industry in the states where the nation’s farm policy is decided, so that efforts like The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in this year’s Farm Bill, for instance, often lack a solid base of support.
This is not an argument for Chipotle to start lobbying in Washington (although things could get interesting if they did). But let’s not pretend that three minutes of dramatic, well-scored animation (nor the upcoming “TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014”) is enough to single-handedly turn a huge, entrenched industry on its head. And we shouldn’t expect it to. But this ad – and the response it has generated – certainly says a lot about the increased expectation on big businesses to solve the problems other big businesses have wrought. Or, maybe that’s just what we tell ourselves — as we wait for the next sleek video to be released.
September 13, 2013
Last winter, salt farmer Ben Jacobsen opened a saltworks on the grounds of an old oyster farm stationed on a lonely stretch of the northwest Oregon coast. Jacobsen’s delicate, crunchy flake salt has quickly and quietly become the essential mineral underpinning some of the best cooking in America, beloved by the likes of Thomas Keller and April Bloomfield. (Or perhaps not so quietly: recently, Bloomfield sang its praises while preparing peas on toast for Jimmy Fallon on late-night television). Though he is little known outside the rarefied world of top chefs, Jacobsen is intent on bringing high-end American salt to the home table.
“Ben’s salt is all about the story, our connection to where the food comes from, which I respect,” the salt expert Mark Bitterman told Portland Monthly earlier this year. He carries Jacobsen flake salt at both the New York and Portland locations of The Meadow, his high-end salt boutique. “But he is a guy who has been playing with salt for a few years; he could never come close to a Frenchman following a hundred-year-old tradition for making fleur de sel.”
The slight stung. But as it happened, Jacobsen’s attempt at making America’s first-ever fleur de sel was already underway. Despite the fact that the United States is the second-largest industrial producer of salt in the world, behind China, very little of it is used for cooking; chefs have always looked elsewhere for their salts. The labor-intensive process of making fleur de sel, the most prized of the sea salts, traditionally involves harvesting by hand from the salt ponds of Guèrande, Brittany, on the coast of France, when the weather is warm and the seas still (between June and September.)
Paludiers, trained for years in the art of salt harvesting, carefully rake and collect the top layer of crystals (the “flower,” which only holds its shape in calm conditions). The salt is valued by chefs for its high moisture content — it maintains its integrity when finishing hot dishes like steak or fish — and for the mineral richness that imparts a sense of place. Flake salt, on the other hand, has flat, large crystals and a brighter, cleaner taste; it’s recommended for use on salads, vegetables, and baked goods. Ancestral salt fields have been found everywhere from Peru and the Philippines to Portugal, and the best fleur de sel today is still carefully picked in those places.
“It’s so peculiar that we haven’t had a fleur de sel to call our own,” Jacobsen said recently. Hanging out with Jacobsen in his Portland neighborhood shows him to be a surprisingly appropriate ambassador for the humble-yet-essential role of salt in cooking: he’s an unassuming, amiable guy in a plaid shirt and denim trucker hat who’s liked by all, and you don’t notice that he’s everywhere until you actually start looking around. (His flake salt is used in the city’s top restaurants, and carried in boutiques from here to the Atlantic coast.) Jacobsen is earnest when he says he thinks it’s about time for a great American salt, given that the country is surrounded by salt water. “As chefs and home cooks,” he observes, “we’ve forgotten about our resources.”
It turns out that the Oregon coast has a salt-making pedigree of its own, hosting an operation during the winter of 1805-1806, when five men on the Lewis and Clark expedition were dispatched to the sea to gather salt for elk meat that was already spoiling. For two months, they camped a hundred paces from the ocean and kept five brass kettles of seawater boiling around the clock, eventually producing three and a half bushels of salt for the return journey across the continent. Lewis called the product “excellent, fine, strong, & white.”
At the modern-day operations of Jacobsen Salt Co., not much has changed with regard to the science: it still involves boiling seawater down to make salt. But with regard to rigor, the process is a great deal more stringent (in scaling up, Jacobsen has hired a chemist to help streamline production with precision). To make his flake salt, Jacobsen pipes seawater up from pristine Netarts Bay, a protected conservation estuary; filters it through seven different systems; and boils it down to remove calcium and magnesium (the minerals give salt a bitter aftertaste, and also interrupt crystal formation). Once the desired salinity is achieved, Jacobsen evaporates the rest in custom stainless-steel pans kept at a constant temperature, so that salt crystals form on the surface. On a recent visit, I watched as series of crystals grew to completion and fell to the bottom of the pan, one by one, drifting like snowflakes.
Making fleur de sel — though laborious in its own way — involves even more waiting. At the time of this writing, Jacobsen is patiently evaporating the first batch of fleur de sel in a hoop house outside the main facility, using just the sun. Unlike flake salt, fleur de sel is made from unfiltered seawater, so that the natural minerality comes through. Each batch can take anywhere from two to twelve weeks, depending on the weather, and each pond can produce 100 pounds of salt. As the water evaporates, Jacobsen uses a pond skimmer to carefully collect the crystals. He is wrapping up plans to farm an acre of fleur de sel at a new location on the coast, with a facility dedicated to the specialty salt (with the use of greenhouses, he expects to be able to extend the traditional fleur de sel “season” by a month or two on either end).
According to Jacobsen, the quality of Netarts Bay seawater is among the best in the world, and it’s validated by the chefs who buy his flake salt every week. So it only follows that fleur de sel made from that water would have an excellent flavor profile that’s uniquely representative of this part of the Pacific coast.
Despite the care put into each jar of product, the salts are meant to be used, and not in a precious way. The fetishizing of artisanal food products, Jacobsen says, has made it difficult for the average American consumer to feel comfortable buying and using really good salt. “People will spend $150 for a bottle of wine for a two-hour dinner,” he told me. “But good salt is one of those things you can spend less than $10 on, and it will last a household for two months. It elevates everything, and it’s a luxury you can have at your table.”
You’ll be able to buy his fresh-off-farm fleur de sel for your table on October 3 from Jacobsen’s website and various retail outlets.
Good Salt for Your Kitchen
We asked Jason French — chef at the Portland restaurant Ned Ludd, and fan of Jacobsen Salt — to give us an easy home recipe that highlights what a good salt like fleur de sel can do. Here’s what he came up with.
Salt-and-spice-cured trout and arugula salad with capers and lemon cream
Serves four as an appetizer, or two as a main course
For the trout:
2 boneless skin-on trout fillets
6 thinly sliced lemons
For the cure:
2 T. Jacobsen fleur de sel
3 T. sugar
1 heaping T. garam masala (a traditional North Indian spice mix easily found in any supermarket)
For the salad:
1 large bunch arugula, washed, soaked in ice water, and spun dry
3 T. brined small capers, rinsed
1/2 c. parsley leaves
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Jacobsen fleur de sel
For the lemon cream:
1 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup heavy cream
Jacobsen fleur de sel
1. Lightly toast the spices in a pan until aromatic. Cool and mix with the fleur de sel and sugar. Place the trout on a small sheet pan lined with plastic wrap. Coat the flesh of the trout fillet well with the cure and lay three slices of lemon to cover. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the trout and cover with another sheet pan and weight with some canned items from your pantry. Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
2. Make the lemon cream by macerating the shallots in the lemon juice and zest for 20-30 minutes. Season with a pinch of fleur de sel. In a separate bowl whisk the cream until just starting to thicken and mix with the shallots. Continue to whisk until lightly thickened. This should be made just before the salad is served.
3. For the salad, chop the capers and parsley together. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and whisk lightly. Season with a pinch of salt. Toss with the arugula.
4. Divide the arugula between the plates. Rinse and dry the trout fillet and slice thinly at an angle using broad strokes, peeling the flesh away from the skin with each slice. Divide among the plates. Drizzle the lemon cream over the trout and arugula and serve. (Note: the trout may be done ahead of time, but make sure to rinse and dry it so it doesn’t over cure.
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times, and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.
September 10, 2013
The American superhighway system is dotted with some truly bizarre and unique roadside attractions. There are dinosaurs, Cadillacs stuck in the ground and kitschy souvenir stops with advertisements of questionable taste. But for those drivers with some extra time on their cross country trips, they should add these large, statue versions of everyone’s favorite foods to their itinerary. We’ve narrowed down the cornucopia of foods to 10 must-see, “World’s Largest” food-related attractions for your hypothetical (or real) adventure.
1) Strawberry—Ellerbe, North Carolina
The Berry Patch, off of old Highway 220, in Ellerbe, North Carolina, got its start as a small patch in 1995 run by the appropriately monikered Berry family. In 2002, they built the self-described “World’s Largest Strawberry” to house their homemade ice cream shop. The 24-foot tall building is made from sheet rock and polyurethane foam molded to its berry shape. There are a few other self-proclaimed largest strawberries: one worth highlighting is this 130-foot tall berry water towerin Poteet, Texas.
2) Peach—Gaffney, South Carolina
Once you hit I-85 West leaving from Charlotte, North Carolina, toward Atlanta, Georgia, look up. The world’s largest peach structure in Gaffney, South Carolina, a peach-painted water tower also known as the Peachoid, stands at 135 feet tall and holds one million gallons of liquid. The giant peach (No, James and his friends do not live inside) was commissioned by the Board of Public Works in Gaffney in 1981. The foundation used no less than 10 million gallons of concrete and the 60-foot leaf along the side of the peach weighs seven tons. As the story goes, the people of Gaffney picked the peach tower because at the time of its construction, the local economy was dependent on peach orchards. The water tower served as a (large) reminder that Georgia, known as the “Peach State,” produced fewer peaches than Cherokee County. Today, South Carolina produces over 200 million pounds of peacheson average a year, second to California. (Georgia is the third largest producer).
3) Peanut—Ashburn, Georgia
Floodlights shine on the World’s Largest Peanut located off of I-75 in Ashburn, Georgia. The peanut, which hovers above an impressive crown, was built in 1975 and designed by A.R. Smith, Jr. to honor the state’s official crop. (Georgia produces almost 50 percent of the total United States peanut crop). The monument became an official state symbolin 1998.
4) Field of Corn—Dublin, Ohio
On an acre-and-a-half plot in Dublin, Ohio, 109 concrete ears of corn stand at six feet, six inches apiece—an agricultural community in transition. Artist Malcolm Cochran, created this field of statues in 1994 as a memorial for the now-fallow corn field that once occupied the land. On this site, Sam Frantz and his family had been a leading corn hybridizer from 1935 through 1963. It’s “not unlike a cemetery —and a surprising roadside attraction in the tradition of coffee shops that look like a giant cup and saucer or diners in the shape of hamburgers,” Cochran said in an email. Head to the Osage Orange trees at the west side of the location to learn more about the town’s agricultural history.
5) Egg—Mentone, Indiana
There isn’t a whole lot to see driving through north-central Indiana, until you get to Mentone: the self-proclaimed “Egg Basket of the Midwest” and home to what the town considers the World’s Largest Egg, a 3,000-pound concrete structure in a bank parking lot near the town’s center. The structure was most likely built in 1946 to promote the Mentone Egg Show.
6) Popcorn Ball—Sac City, Iowa
In 1995, Sac City, Iowa (locally known as the “Popcorn Capital of the World”) built the first of three giant popcorn balls—a 2,225-pound mound of syrup and popcorn. That same year, a team of Boy Scouts beat the city’s record and by 1997, the original Sac City ball was blown up at the Sac County Fair. But in 2004, Sac City went at it again when a local popcorn factory made a 3,415-pound ball, currently housed in a small building off of Highway 20. When the 3,415-pound record was beaten, in 2009, construction of the latest and greatest popcorn ball weighing in at 5,000 pounds began. Two hundred fifty-three volunteers gathered in Sac County to construct the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. (Ingredient breakdown: 900 pounds of popcorn, 2,700 pounds of sugar and 1,400 pounds of Dry syrup mixed with water). It held the record until this August when a group at the Indiana State Fair, built a 6,510-pound popcorn ball, beating Sac County’s- record by 1,510 pounds, but the Indian ball was pulled apart to feed livestock at the end of the festivities. Sac City’s ball remains the largest popcorn ball still intact.
7) Watermelons—Green River, Utah and Luling, Texas
If you want to see giant melons of the water variety, you’ve got two choices: the watermelon tower in Luling, Texas and the 25-foot slice of painted wood in Green River, Utah. The water tower in Texas presides 154 feet over a watermelon patch—a tribute to the local melon industry. Each year at the Watermelon Thump festival (named for the way you thump a melon to test its ripeness), locals enter the seed spitting contest or claim the “Thump Queen” crown. Green River’s melon is less like a tower and more like a parade float. The formerly motorized melon slice makes appearances during the region’s Melon Days festival each year. Both places claim to be the watermelon capital of the United States.
8) Pistachio—Alamogordo, New Mexico
In the middle of the southern New Mexico desert, along U.S. Highway 54, a 30-foot-tall pistachio stands as a monument to Tom McGinn, founder of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch. “I wanted to erect a proper monument that would represent his enormous passion for the creation of a pistachio farm in the bare desert,” Tim McGinn, the founder’s son, said in an interview with the Alamogordo News in 2009. The giant nut is covered in 35 gallons of paint and is anchored by nine feet of concrete. McGinn based the design off of a nut hand-selected from his crop of pistachios.
9) Donut—Inglewood, California
Homer Simpson would go bonkers for this roadside sculpture built in 1954. You may recognize the massive pastry on top of Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, California from Randy Newman’s video “I Love LA,” or from the film Mars Attacks. The drive-in style building, designed by Henry J. Goodwin in 1953 has several locations in the area—four of the original giant donuts survive, most of which were constructed with a 32 and one fifth-foot diameter. A fun thing about a giant donut: sometimes, you can throw basketballs through its center.
10) Artichoke—Castroville, California
Castroville, California, is the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World” and the 20-foot tall artichoke made of rebar and concrete built in 1963 by Ray Bei, founder of Ray Bei’s Giant Artichoke Restaurant and Fruit Stand, is a stunning reminder of the region’s main crop. A pit stop here offers artichokes prepared pretty much any way you can imagine, though fried is probably your best bet. The annual artichoke festival takes place in May to celebrate the Monterey Bay County’s famous food. Fun fact: in 1948—11 years before the festival began—a young starlet named Norma Jean, later known as Marilyn Monroe, was crowned the first Artichoke Queen in Castroville. The sash she wore is now on display in the Castroville Chamber of Commerce.
August 20, 2013
Sake plays as important a role in Japanese food culture as wine does in Europe. Polishing rice kernels into white pearls, converting their starch into sugar with a mold called koji and fermenting the sugar into alcohol has been a commercial trade for more than 2,000 years on the islands of Japan. Today, some Japanese breweries are centuries old, and the culturally ingrained knowledge, the varieties of rice and the generations of tradition embedded in Japanese sake production provide modern brewers with a rock-solid foundation upon which to base their craft.
Yet sake brewing is catching on in the United States and Canada, where there are now about a half-dozen microbreweries, plus a few mid-sized ones.
“Most American sakes are good, well made and clean tasting,” says John Gauntner, a sake educator and writer originally from Ohio and now probably the world’s most sake-savvy non-Japanese citizen. “But in Japanese sake, you tend to get more depth.”
Gauntner describes Japanese sakes as having “layers, and development, and profiles of flavor,” whereas North American sakes “tends to be more one-dimensional.” Gauntner says the lack of a variety of great, sake-specific rice cultivars in America is a major reason sake here has, sometimes, lacked in character.
But American sake is getting better. At True Sake in San Francisco, one of just four sake-only retail shops in America, owner Beau Timken says that until about three years ago the majority of American sake was “uneventful, watery, flat.” For this reason, Timken—whose shop features more than 200 labels—has never carried an American-made sake.
However, American brewers are honing their skills, he says, and it shows in their product—especially that made by the SakeOne brewery in Portland, Oregon.
“Those guys have made huge advances,” Timken says. “Of all the breweries on this continent, SakeOne is probably the best.”
SakeOne’s Momokawa brand has made the strongest impression on Timken, who plans to begin featuring it soon. Not only is Momokawa good, Timken adds; it’s also affordable—about $13 a bottle. Most imported sake, on the other hand, costs upwards of $30 per 720-milliliter bottle (a standard Japanese size).
“Sake is freaking expensive,” he says, noting, too, that the price on Japanese bottles has been escalating in recent years due to economic instability. “I need value in my shop, and that’s where the locally made sake is gaining.”
Timken also applauds Sho Chiku Bai, made in Berkeley by the Takara sake company, a satellite branch of a Japanese sake brewing corporation. A bottle of the Sho Chiku Bai “junmai classic”—Takara’s entry-level sake—goes for $6.50. The brand includes several other styles, and Timken may be selling them “down the road,” he says—but Momokawa is first in line.
Other experts have been similarly impressed by America’s expanding sake culture. Chris Johnson, a certified sake sommelier in New York City who goes by the industry nickname The Sake Ninja, notes that Japan has 2,500 years of collective sake-making experience, compared with about 25 years in the United States. Yet, “American sake is getting extremely good,” says Johnson, who also names Momokawa as the best, and most affordable, American brand available.
Another brewery of note, according to Johnson, is Moto-I, a restaurant in Minneapolis that operates like a brewpub, with draft house-made sake sold onsite. Unfortunately, the sake—an unpasteurized style called namazake—is only available to the restaurant’s patrons.
Johnson also commends the Texas Sake Company, whose bottles are currently only available within Texas but will soon be distributed in New York City. The sake produced here is very all-American, made with local rice and Texas flair. Brewer Yoed Anis uses a unique rice cultivar called shinriki, introduced from Japan to Texas in the early 1900s. Anis barely polishes the kernels before fermentation—a diversion from the traditional approach of milling away at least 30 percent, and sometimes more than 50 percent, of the rice kernel’s outer layers before brewing. The outer layers of a rice kernel contain oils and fats that can produce what some call “off flavors,” and, generally, the more milling of the rice, the cleaner-tasting—and more expensive—the sake.
“By leaving some of that outer layer of the rice, we retain the character of the rice, rather than just getting pure starch and pure sugar,” Anis explains. He adds that Japanese brewers frequently brew to a higher alcohol percentage—18 or 20—then cut it down with water, further clarifying both taste and appearance. Anis, however, brews to about 15 percent and keeps it there—no water added.
Johnson says Anis’ method makes for heavy, robust aromatics—a great complement to local cuisine.
“He’s got a really rustic flavor that pairs well to the barbecued foods of the Texas area,” Johnson says.
Another brewer, Jonathan Robinson of Ben’s American Sake in Asheville, North Carolina, has said he plans to age sake in bourbon barrels.
“That would be a very untraditional style, but it could be an amazing thing,” Johnson notes. “That flavor profile might really work well.”
But Rick Smith, who, with his wife, owns and operates the Sakaya sake shop in Manhattan, says he remains relatively unimpressed by North American sake. He has tasted countless sakes and he says those made in Japan tend to have complexity, subtleties and nuances absent in sake from America and Canada, where at least two facilities are now in operation. Like Timken at San Francisco’s True Sake, Smith has never carried an American brand. But unlike Timken, Smith has no plans to start carrying them. Smith believes that North American brewers lack the collective knowledge and the quality of ingredients necessary to making great sake.
“American sake is in its infancy,” he says. “To compare it to Japanese sake is like comparing an embryo to a fully grown adult.” Smith says American and Canadian brewers regularly offer him samples to taste—and he is open to the possibility that, someday, one of them “will walk in here with a sake that amazes me.”
Sake is a beverage with a unique set of flavor components. SakeOne recently produced a copyrighted sake-tasting aroma wheel—a concept innovated years ago as a vocabulary-inducing tool for wine tasting. Listed around the perimeter of the sake wheel are such aromas and flavors as steamed rice, wet leaves, pine, green tea, celery, hay and ginger. Many newcomers to sake, Timken points out, don’t like the stuff at first taste.
“Sake is like tequila that way,” he says. “Everyone has had a bad one, and instead of saying, ‘Sake isn’t for me,’ you need to give it a second chance.”
So, what style should one serve to a party of sake skeptics? Timken suggests going with a nigori sake, that aromatic style often served in sushi bars, unfiltered and cloudy white. “Nigori is easy, sweet and creamy,” he says. “Everyone loves it.”
And if you want a deal, buy American. Timken recommends the nigori sakes from Sho Chiku Bai. Momokawa also makes a nigori.
“But nigori is really just a stepping stone to filtered sake, which is drier, more complex and subtle,” Timken adds.
Johnson says he is open to the idea of sake-based cocktails—often called “sake-tinis”—as a vehicle for introducing the concept and flavors of sake to newcomers. The goal, of course, is to have them eventually drinking pure, unadulterated sake. Smith, meanwhile, suggests going big and knocking a newbie’s socks off with the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo. A bottle of this clean and clear Japanese sake is $37, which Smith says “is relatively inexpensive for top-of-the-line sake.”
He adds, “And if you pay $100 for a bottle, you’ll get something really amazing.”