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.
September 25, 2012
Once upon a time, Americans went blind from homemade moonshine, and meatpacking plants produced something more mystery meatloaf than pasture-raised. The ever evolving dance of food safety and regulation marches on, this time to protect us from…Wisconsin dairy farmers?
1. Raw Milk: In a state where citizens proudly wear giant wedges of foam cheese on their heads, dairy is king. Yet even in Wisconsin the lactose-centric cheer is quiet around raw milk. Many people swear by its such and such properties but plenty of others, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that “While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all.” In Wisconsin, raw milk devotees can acquire the semi-illicit substance only if purchasing it directly from a farmer. Roughly half of US states forbid the sale of raw milk entirely.
2. Foie gras: Long considered the height of indulgence, foie gras became a symbol of civil disobedience in July when chefs staged foie gras-themed dinners protesting California’s recent ban. The luscious, spreadable goose innards (specifically duck or goose liver that has been fattened up with force-feeding) raised protests from animal rights group but the debate turned particularly vile when complaints of animal cruelty were coupled with death threats for the chefs who serve foie gras. Known for his conflict-mediation skills, Anthony Bourdain tweeted “Every time a chef is threatened, someone should skin a panda.” But the ban came to pass and neither panda nor chef was harmed.
3. Soda: New York City made headlines on September 13 when it passed
a ban and a size limit on sodas available in restaurants, movie theaters and other establishments that fall under the supervision of the Department of Health. The ban will take effect in six months, according to CNN. Identifying the sugary calories in sodas and other sweetened drinks (including some of Honest Tea’s 16.9 oz. bottle beverages), Bloomberg defended the decision as a matter of public health. But seriously, who’s paying for drinks at the movie theaters anyway? Isn’t that what purses are for?
4. Horse Meat: While not illegal to consume, it is illegal to slaughter horses in the States. The situation is in a state of limbo currently after Congress lifted a ban on using federal funds to inspect horse slaughterhouses in November. Without any money to support the inspections, however, horse has yet to appear on many menus and the slaughterhouse industry isn’t picking up steam. Even if it did, culinary interest does not seem high and some have pointed out that the antibiotics and drugs given to these animals not intended for consumption makes them unfit for our plates. Something about that whole symbol of the American frontier also seems to keep My Little Ponies from the appetizer options.
5. Fly larvae cheese: Known as casu marzu, this cheese hails from Sardinia and is completely forbidden here. Because of its status as a traditional food, the cheese managed to maintain its legal status within the European Union. Just listen to this description of how the cheese is made and you’ll understand the ban. According to Delish, the cheese “develops when cheese fly larvae are introduced into Pecorino to promote advanced fermentation. As the larvae hatch and eat through the cheese, it softens. Diners have to dig in before the maggots die.” Poor Pecorino.
6. And one surprising food item that is not illegal: Roadkill. It is absolutely legal to haul that hunk of meat from the side of the road and bring home a feast. In certain respects, the practice makes economic sense and gets rotting carcasses off the street. But it also means an awful lot of meat is going without inspection. The finer points of roadkill cuisine were indeed part of my driver’s education materials though I have yet to try it.
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 29, 2012
The unassuming town of Buñol, Spain, home to 9,000 residents, is situated along the quiet Buñol river. It boasts a great paella, along with its many fruit, almond and olive trees, and compared with its neighbor to the east, the city of Valencia, is rather sleepy.
Until 40,000 people from around the world start throwing over 100 metric tons of tomatoes at one another.
La Tomatina, Buñol’s annual tomato throwing food fight, took place this morning with participants trying hard to reach one goal: to throw as many tomatoes as possible in what has come to be known as the world’s biggest food fight. With one single fruit and one single color, it might not be all that aesthetically pleasing, but you’d have to be crazy to say that it doesn’t look like a hollering good time.
The event began with its traditional Palojabón (literally, hamstick), a greased wooden pole two stories high topped with a delicious-looking Spanish ham. One brave participant must climb the slick stick and retrieve the ham in order for the events of La Tomatina to officially begin. This year, like most, nobody reached the ham. And this year, like most, it did not matter. People began throwing tomatoes anyway. Heeding only a few rules–tomatoes must be squished before being thrown to avoid injury, and tomatoes are the only weapons to be used–participants in this year’s festival donned protective glasses and gloves to protect themselves from the flying fruits. You may be asking yourself, what is the point of such chaos? It is just that. Pure, chaotic tomato-celebrating fun.
But La Tomatina is not only a food fight. Though the tomato throwers might be the most memorable part of the week-long event, the festival is a true celebration of cuisine and the end of the summer. It features paella cook-offs, parades, dancing and fireworks and attracts tourists from around the world to enjoy the scenic city and take part in its local pride.
The origins of the tomato fight, which dates back to the 1940s, is unclear. The AFP says that it began with a friendly, neighborhood food fight, while townspeople in Buñol claim that the first tomatoes were thrown by residents angry at the city’s councilmen. Whatever its humble beginnings, the event is now an internationally recognized event.
Dictator Francisco Franco banned La Tomatina for its lack of religious ties, but when he left power in 1975 the event was swiftly resumed. While most raucous, obscure European traditions seem to date back centuries (Oktoberfest, for example, began in 1810), La Tomatina is a relatively new event, fueled by a nationalistic passion for celebrating even the most everyday oddities.
When the fight ended and the participants were covered in tomato puree, the streets were left cleaner than they were before. Bunol’s officials say that it is the acidity levels of the tomatoes that scrub the concrete clean, but it might also be the water used, sourced directly from a Roman aqueduct. Town residents kindly sprayed down a couple of hundred residents, while other tired food fighters headed to the Bunol River to wash themselves free of tomato residue.
It’s a shame they never added any garlic or basil to the mix, to spread over a nest of angel hair, but we can only hope that tomato fighters will be more industrious and culinarily-inclined in coming years.
August 14, 2012
Two Eater editors declared their meal at New York’s Dans Le Noir the worst experience they’ve ever had in a restaurant. It wasn’t the touchy-feely service or the culturally-confused food, it was the lighting. Rather, it was the complete and utter lack of lighting. Part of an international chain, Dans Le Noir treats diners to a pitch black meal after leading them to their seats. Meant to emphasize and heighten the sense of taste, the concept left the two editors a little cold.
Located in the “armpit of Midtown,” just off Times Square, the restaurant seemed to have several strikes against it before the meal even began. As a gimmick, dining in the dark proved less than entertaining and the editors described themselves being in a state of near panic the entire time.
At first, the restaurant seems a clear case of conning New Yorkers into paying for an experience no one in their right mind would pay for. But the chain was actually founded with help from the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People as a way to raise awareness about what a simple meal out can be like. Perhaps the point of the review shouldn’t be how awful this restaurant is, but how awful most dining experiences around Times Square are. Noisy, crowded and uncomfortable, these are things we put up with in many other locations.
Writing for the Washington Post, Melanie D.G. Kaplan described dining at San Francisco’s Opaque with a friend who had been injured in Iraq and lost his vision. “He wanted friends to appreciate how hard it was for him to eat,” writes Kaplan. Hard indeed. Kaplan describes struggling to keep track of dish descriptions when the waiter rattled off ingredients. Fortunately, her friend was able to give her tips on how to manage a table in the dark: “run your fingers across the edge of the table to find things instead of knocking over water glasses en route to the butter.
No doubt the editors of Eater had a horrendous time. Midtown Manhattan compounded with the sudden loss of sight would be enough to induce a panic attack in even the steadiest of souls.
But done right, the experience can serve the dual purpose of showing what is lost and what is gained without sight. Dark restaurants now dot the globe. Organizations including the Foundation Fighting Blindness host dark dinners to raise money.
The ultimate conclusion? Don’t pay $100 to eat around Times Square. Just don’t.