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?
August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
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!
April 30, 2012
In 1933, James Hilton, a British novelist who read about travels in Yunnan Province in National Geographic magazine, wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which describes a mythical kingdom set far, far away from the rest of time: Shangri-La. Three years later, Frank Capra turned Hilton’s paperback best-seller into a film. The place entered our lexicon as an earthly retreat from the worries of modern civilization.
The fictional Shangri-La appears to be an amalgam of Yunnan Province and Tibet. But the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan became, in the American mind, the closest thing to the real-life incarnations of the people of Shangri-La. The Hunzakut people reportedly lived to be 100 and had a practically illness-free existence in an inaccessible mountain valley. Paeans to healthy Hunza proliferated. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist reported that Hunza men could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. In 1960, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial extolling the virtues of the Hunza diet as a harbinger of hope for human longevity and modern medicine.
“Hunzaphilia” is one of the many compelling (if a bit chronologically disordered) stories in historian Harvey Levenstein’s new book Fear of Food. The natural, edible fountain of eternal Himalayan youth fit into a long line of claims about exceptional longevity—except that, at least among the Hunzakut, it contradicted the truth. One Japanese doctor, Levenstein writes, reported “rampant signs of poor health and malnutrition—goiter, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis—as well as what seemed to be horrific levels of infant and child mortality, which are also signs of poor nutrition.”
Nonetheless, the idea that these healthy people cut off from the rest of the world could live practically forever would persist, Levenstein writes, thanks in part to an ex-I.R.S. employee named Jerome Irving Rodale. Like Hilton, he had never traveled to the Hunza Valley, but Rodale was well-versed in the robust genre of books touting the Hunza—including both Robert McCarrison’s 1921 Studies in Deficiency Disease and G.T. Wrench’s 1938 The Wheel of Health, one of the basic texts of the health food movement.
Rodale’s book The Healthy Hunzas attributed their longevity to whole grains, dried apricots and almonds, as well as breastfeeding, relatively low alcohol use and plenty of exercise. “They are a group of 20,000 people, none of whom dies of cancer or drops dead with heart disease. In fact, heart trouble is completely unknown in that country! Feeble-mindedness and mental debilitations which are dangerously rampant in the United States are likewise alien to the vigorous Hunzas.”
Later, Rodale founded Prevention magazine, and Levenstein writes, “It regularly used the Hunza as examples of how eating natural foods could ward off the illnesses caused by the over-civilized diet.” By avoiding modern science and with it the ills of modern society—all on the basis of what it was not—Rodale’s exaltation of a more “primitive” people paved the way for the Paleolithic Diet, the Primitive Diet and the modern natural foods movement as a whole.
Yet Hunza health and longevity remains apocryphal, and Rodale himself left us with one of the movement’s more dramatic cautionary notes. One week after telling Wade Greene, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, “I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” Rodale went on the Dick Cavett show, served some asparagus boiled in urine, and then died on Cavett’s couch. He was 72.
Image: Wind-powered apricot cracker via Nigel Allan/Geographic Review, 1990.