January 28, 2013
Excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl? Learn more about this Baltimore delicacy from Bonny Wolf, writer for AmericanFoodRoots.com, where this story was originally published.
What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.
So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)
For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.
“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said, ‘We wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”
People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks. He tried using brokers but, “They don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”
What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”
The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably. “Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.
Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.
As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.”
After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969. In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.
Read more stories from the 50 States’ best culinary traditions at American Food Roots.
August 30, 2012
Some 3,000 people evacuated Plaquemines Parish outside of New Orleans early Wednesday as Tropical Storm Isaac quickly became a monster of another name: a Category 1 hurricane that slammed into Louisiana with 80 mph winds sending water over levees and flooding areas throughout the Gulf Coast. Things have calmed down—maximum sustained winds have since decreased to 45 mph—but a peek at the Waffle House Twitter account is one of the best ways to tell which region has been hit hardest by Isaac.
It’s no news that the Waffle House has got some moxie when it comes to natural disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, the chain shut down 110 restaurants from Tallahassee to New Orleans. Seventy-five percent of them reopened within a couple days of the storm. “We’re a 24-hour restaurant anyway,” Waffle House spokesperson and vice president of culture, Pat Warner says. “We don’t know how to close.”
FEMA Director Craig Fugate has joked that he watches a “Waffle House Index” to determine the severity of a disaster by the state of a Waffle House in a community. By seeing how much of its menu Waffle House is serving, he says he can tell just how bad it’s been with these three zones:
GREEN: Open and serving a full menu
YELLOW: Open but serving from a limited menu
RED: Location is forced to close
Furgate believes in it so much so that he owns a Team Waffle House Shirt.
But what started as a joke, has become something so much more.
“We started incorporating the social media last year with Irene and what we found was that people not only in the affected area but people who have family in these cities and haven’t heard from anybody look to that as another source of information about the storm.” Warner says. “We did it mainly to let our folks know which restaurants were open at first, but after Irene we realized what people were using it for so we really have paid attention to that.”
The crew has been tracking the storm since it was first spotted near Cuba and by Tuesday afternoon, the Waffle House response team including Warner, set out from Saraland, Alabama to bring aid to the 100 or so restaurants in the Gulf Coast region. The caravan includes two RVs equipped with satellite communication, a trailer with portable generators for restaurant coolers and a pickup truck with a fuel tank on the back.
While it’s great that the company has figured out a way to serve hash browns in a hurricane, what’s more important, Warner says, is the efficiency in informing communities in danger. From the “War Room” located in the company’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, communication specialist Meghan Irwin and her team monitor storms the minute they on spotted on the radar.
“With a title like “War Room,” the room itself might underwhelm you,” says Warner. “It is a conference room with the maps taped up on the wall, a speakerphone and about 7 computers to monitor local news reports. Meghan is constantly scanning government websites, closures and curfews and tweeting it out immediately.”
Here is a roundup of tweets from @WaffleHouse over the last three days that maps out the damage of Isaac:
While providing tactical support to their own stores may seem crassly commercial, the reopened Waffle Houses serve an important role for the devastated communities; often, its the only place in town to get a much-needed meal. “People see that we’re open and they say, ‘Okay, we’re working through this.’” says Warner. “Our customers want to regain that sense of normalcy.”
Warner and his team plan on checking on a restaurant near Lake Pontchartrain in Oak Harbor, Louisiana and then they’ll head back to the restaurant in Slidel that they are using as a command center.
August 20, 2012
When James Joyce sat down and wrote, in Ulysses, “Her griddlecakes done to a goldenbrown hue and Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess,” he probably did not imagine that decades later, bloggers in the 21st century would be attempting to cook the very foods he described. But in the past few years a proliferation of literary food blogs have crept up all over the internet, claiming the recipes for literature’s most epic delicacies and culinary disasters.
With both real and invented recipes, today’s literary food bloggers attempt to recreate not just a dish, but also the scene surrounding a dish in its greater literary context. The chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda, for example, is not just an ode to gluttony but also a symbol of the Trunchbull’s demented torture tactics as she forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to gulp down the cake in its entirety.
Nicole Villenueve, author of the popular Paper and Salt literary food blog, digs deep to find the real recipes of famous authors and literary personalities. “I can occasionally find the recipes that they used themselves,” she says, “whether in their letters or their collections of papers.” Villenueve focuses not only on the dishes in fiction but also on the real life favorites of authors like E.B White and Raymond Chandler. (Most recently she posted the recipe for Robert Penn Warren’s favorite cocktail).
Cara Nicoletti, a blogger, baker and butcher in New York, invents recipes inspired by literary food scenes on Yummy-Books, a blog that relies mostly on literary descriptions. “Most fiction novels don’t have actual recipes in them,” she says, “which is what makes them so creative and fun. My favorite literary food scenes are somewhat vague—like the unspecified red berry pie in Steinbeck’s East of Eden—because they leave me lots of space to interpret and imagine.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Nicole Gulotta, whose blog eatthispoem invites readers to try recipes inspired by basic fruits and seasons. She uses the framework of a poem and develops a recipe that “reflects the essence of the original text in some way.” The recipe follows the sentiment of the text as opposed to a measured formula. “The poem now lives on and off the page,” says Gulotta.
And why do this? What good is it to eat like characters from a novel? For most, it’s the chance to insert oneself into a favorite novel or poem by sharing in the most quotidian of human activities: eating. “Because I connected so deeply with these characters,” says Nicoletti, “eating the food they ate just seemed like a very natural way for me to be closer to them.” Cooking the food dreamed up by a favorite author can make us feel part of the bookwriting process, because, as Villenueve adds, cooking “is a very similar process to writing.”
The process works both ways; on the one hand, eating like a character from a novel invites readers into our favorite books, but it also beckons our favorite characters out into the real world.
No one has brought more attention to this theory than historian and curator Lucy Worsley, who performs the feats (most notably by cooking the same foods) of famous historical figures in an effort to experience what life must have been like in say, the days of Henry VIII. On any given day Worsley can be found buying pounds of pheasants and gulping gallons of saltwater. Lauren Collins, in her profile of Worsley in The New Yorker, describes this phenomenon precisely: “Food and drink are perhaps the most effective of Worsley’s tools for revivifying the past.”
Food scenes stand out to readers in the same way that food-related memories seem to triumph over even the grandest events in real life. Of all the scenes in a book, the most memorable are often the ones with visceral descriptions of food, the kind that leave you either starving or retching. “I remember certain scenes in books based soley on the foods that were eaten in them,” says Nicoletti, “but it goes the other way too. My memories of certain foods are bound up in my memories of reading certain novels, as well.”
If food is the way to a man’s heart, then descriptions of foods might be the way to a reader’s eyes. And cooking those descriptions brings them right to the table. “Food often allows you to step into the story just a little bit more than you otherwise could,” says Villenueve. “You may not have been to Paris, but with Hemingway you can down a few oysters and live vicariously through him.”
What food from literature would you most want to be able to cook for yourself? Let us know and we’ll pass along your requests!
January 17, 2012
Everything tastes better with bacon, Sara Perry grandly proclaimed on the cover of her 2002 cookbook. Since then, the love of bacon has grown to surreal heights; it’s become a collective obsession. Should you get the urge, it’s easy to order some bacon ice cream, bacon-infused vodka, bacon soap, or even a monstrosity called the bacon explosion, which is essentially a loaf of bacon-wrapped sausage with yet more bacon.
So what, exactly, could be inspiring this cult of bacon-worship? And why won’t it die?
Well, it’s delicious.
Arun Gupta of The Indypendent explained that bacon has six ingredients with umami (savory) flavor. But that’s always been true, and while we’ve been eating bacon for centuries, the kind of mania that exists in America today is a new trend. A Chicago Mercantile Exchange report from September 2010 found a recent surge in pork belly (where bacon comes from) prices, which have climbed steadily since 1998. Earlier this year, the CME retired frozen pork belly futures after 40 years of trading. In the olden days, when bacon was a seasonal treat, buyers could store frozen pork bellies and sell them once demand was high. But in the past decade, our love affair with bacon has become a constant, year-round obsession. We don’t need pork belly frozen and stored, we want the fresh stuff right now and keep it coming. Now, bacon goes on everything, all the time.
It’s also very, very unhealthy.
In the diet-crazed 1980s and 1990s, bacon was mercilessly demonized. It even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1984 as the face of America’s cholesterol problems. Today, we care a bit less about the calorie content of our food and more about its wholesome origins. Three years after Everything Tastes Better With Bacon was published, Corby Kummer hailed a bacon renaissance driven by the production of artisanal bacon, which is “a perfect cherry-wood brown,” and has a “deep, subtle, lightly smoky flavor.” Standard supermarket bacon, by comparison, is “tinny and one-dimensional.” On the other end of the spectrum, you could argue that its popularity stems from the desire to fly in the face of all the trendy rules of food and health. As Jason Sheehan wrote in Seattle Weekly: “The phrase ‘Everything’s Better With Bacon!’ becomes like a challenge: Oh yeah? Watch what I can do…” Bacon is fatty freedom food. Putting bacon on everything (or, uh, wearing it as lingerie) is a statement of hedonism, pure and simple, a defiant stand against any movement that suggests we moderate what we eat.
It’s more American than apple pie.
Oscar Mayer started packaging pre-sliced bacon in 1924, and soon bacon became a staple of the American family breakfast. As Chris Cosentino, founder of Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts, pointed out: “You look at classic Norman Rockwell pictures of people at a diner, and what are they eating? Bacon and eggs.” Bacon is the iconic food memory of most people’s childhoods—which makes it the ultimate comfort food. The nostalgia for Mom sizzling up some bacon on Sunday morning—even if it didn’t actually happen to you—is a collective American experience. Bacon’s not just a delicious meat product anymore; it’s a shorthand for the fuzzy golden heyday of our past.
The most bizarre bacon products floating around the Internet:
Bacon mints: Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose?
Diet Coke with Bacon: Hold the sugar, add the bacon.
Bacon Kevin Bacon: It was only a matter of time.
Bacon alarm clock: An alarm clock that wakes you with the real aroma of cooking bacon.
Do you have even weirder examples? Leave them in the comments.
December 2, 2011
The first time I tried a persimmon was a few years ago. I spotted the attractive fruit at the supermarket, and its smooth skin and deep orange color tempted me to buy one. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the variety of persimmon I bought—hachiya—shouldn’t be eaten until it is extremely ripe. It tasted like industrial-strength cleaner. Since then, I’ve learned that fuyus, which are short and squat, are the variety to buy for eating fresh; pointy-bottomed hachiyas are better for baking.
Fuyus have a pleasantly firm, mango-like flesh. The most similar flavor I can think of is papaya—sweet, but not overly so, with a hint of floral or spicy tones. Both fuyus and hachiyas are usually available in late fall and early winter. Here are a few ways to use either variety:
1. In a salad. Despite originating thousands of miles apart, persimmons (from East Asia) and pomegranates (from the Middle East) harmonize nicely—both flavor-wise and visually—in a fall/winter fruit salad. For an even more colorful (and very nutritious) dish, toss them with sliced red cabbage, Romaine lettuce, Asian pear, hazelnuts and gorgonzola cheese, as in the Rainbow Chopped Salad from Epicurious.
2. As a condiment or accompaniment. Organic Authority suggests serving a fresh persimmon salsa with grilled fish or chicken. Or it can be cooked into a spicy chutney with apples and raisins, as Moscovore recommends. Firm fuyus can also be sliced and roasted to be served as a sweet/savory side dish, as in this recipe from About.com.
3. Dried. Hoshigaki, or dried persimmons, are a popular treat in Japan, where they are made through a labor-intensive process you’re unlikely to want to replicate at home. But even the shortcut method you can make in your oven—like this recipe from Martha Stewart—produces a yummy (albeit very different, I’m sure) snack.
4. In a drink. Just because I’m teetotaling for the next few months doesn’t mean you have to. Imbibe magazine’s recipe for a persimmon margarita rimmed with cinnamon salt is a novel twist on one of my favorite cocktails. On the nonalcoholic side, 101 Asian Recipes explains how to make a Korean persimmon tea.
5. In dessert. Nicole of Pinch My Salt shares her grandma’s recipe for sweet, moist persimmon cookies. And I would like to be in Denise’s Kitchen next time she makes this delicious-looking fuyu persimmon, pear and walnut rolled tart. Having spent only one very rainy day of my life in Indiana (on the interstate en route from Nashville to Chicago), I was unaware that persimmon pudding was a traditional regional food there. Joy the Baker explains how it’s made (including how to wheedle the fruits from your neighbor), describing the result as “sweet and super moist bread pudding meets spice cake.” Sounds good to me.