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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch 99 …

You certainly would never find a box of Hamburger Helper or Shake ‘N Bake lurking on my pantry shelves. But it’s not because I’m a from-scratch purist. Open my freezer and behold a bounty of veggie potstickers, custard buns, and edamame all ready to steam up for dinner. Open my cupboards and you’re likely to find packages of Patak’s palak paneer or a jar of Indonesian “simmer sauce.”

While food enthusiasts like myself may scoff at packaged “American” foods, somehow packaged foods from other countries and cultures seem just all around more acceptable.

That mindset is helping ethnic grocers to grow. An Associated Press article picked up by the Modesto Bee, among others, looks at the growth of Asian, Mexican, Indian, and other ethnic markets across the country.

But you don’t have to be a sociologist or business analyst to notice that ethnic grocery stores are hot—just drop over to your local 99 Ranch Market on a Saturday and try to find a space in the parking lot.

Ode to Joy

The rerelease of a 75th-anniversary edition of classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking has sparked a lot of food-writer musing. First of all, purists should note that the new book’s a complete turnabout from the 1997 edition, a tome so up-to-the-minute that it sparked rancorous criticism from cooks. The 1997 is held in almost universal contempt.

As Nancy Stohs
wrote
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ”’Joy’ is once again a comforting friend in the kitchen,” noting that the food experts who rewrote the book for the ‘97 version (causing readers to detect “a tone of snobbery, a yuppifying of what for so long was the bible of mainstream home cooking”) have been replaced by writers who favor a more homespun, instructive approach.

Some cooks will be delighted to find that the new edition includes vintage recipes (old-fashioned pickles, one-pot casseroles), as well as those calculated to appeal to modern tastes. Others find the approach a bit schizo, as is evidenced by this quote from an Associated Press story:

... Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl wonders if the new Joy isn’t trying to do too much.

Retro recipes like “mystery cake” (a ’50s classic made with canned tomato soup) sit uneasily alongside directions for making tofu from scratch. “Do the same people really want all these things? I don’t think so,” says Reichl, who recently edited her magazine’s own comprehensive cookbook. Better, she thinks, to “let (cookbooks) live in their own time.”

Me, I’m just happy to have a substitute for the 1951 copy I have worn to a nub.

Meanwhile, The New York Times finds Joy still on its must list (registration required), along with out-of-print cookbooks that remain hot items, like Pillsbury’s Best 1000 Recipes: Best of the Bake-Off Collection and A Treasury of Great Recipes, first published in 1965 by horror movie icon Vincent Price and his wife, Mary.

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Still Holed Up in Alabama

I spent a couple more days in Florence, Alabama, writing and trying not to eat anything noteworthy. On a wild compulsion, I had dinner at Grille 360, the revolving concrete monstrosity lurking far above my hotel.

It’s quite expensive and as spiritually vacant as intergalactic space. Join me for some high anxiety in this video: Movie file

Hear a quick note about my Grille 360 experience in this podcast, mumbled into my recorder while eating: MP3

Breakfast in the concierge lounge at the Marriott was surprisingly good:

There may not be much great eating in Florence, but all of Alabama lies enticingly to the south. My cousin Michael, who lives in Birmingham, met me halfway, in Decatur, which happens to have some famous ‘cue.

I am forever indebted to Michael for bringing up some ribs from Birmingham I’d hoped to try, and, moreover, taking the impressive step of strapping those puppies into a child safety seat for maximal protection:

Below are the ribs Michael brought from Demetri’s Barbecue (1901 28th Avenue South, Homewood, Alabama; 205-871-1581). They’re quite good, though a bit flat tasting. Maybe the two-hour ride knocked out the je ne sais quoi.

We scarfed them in the parking lot of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (1715 Sixth Avenue S.E. (a.k.a. Highway 31), Decatur, Alabama; 256-350-6969), which we subsequently hit for dinner.

This is a real Alabama landmark—for pie, white sauce, barbecue baked potatoes, and overall good barbecue in general. The big news was that they quietly make a superb spuddy Brunswick stew, rife with potato chunks, which I adored.

White barbecue sauce is a unique local innovation (just served in this part of Alabama, to my knowledge, and known here as “white sauce”) that’s good on chicken and for dunking french fries. Here’s Gibson’s recipe, courtesy of the Food Network … and here’s a totally different recipe, also claiming to be authentic, from the WhiteTrashBBQ blog.

The chicken was wonderful, especially with that white sauce:

You can get a feel for the chicken’s tenderness from this shot, and also gawk more closely at that weirdo cole slaw:

I don’t totally understand the barbecue baked potato (one of Gibson’s famed innovations), and it looked like hell. But after my first tentative, probing forkful, I couldn’t stop eating it.

I’ve gone to the unusual length of offering two shots of the ribs (below). You’ll notice that they have a slick, hard, greasy sheen. They taste slick, hard, and greasy, too. They were served hot, and while I don’t suspect the kitchen actually fried them to rewarm, mucho oil went in late in the game, and to my palate it really deteriorated what had clearly started out being fine ribs. Depressing!

Killer wonderful pies!

I nearly knocked Michael unconscious with a third barbecue stop (he called the next day to say that he’d awakened with a food hangover), but it had to be done. On the way, we passed this amazing car:

b.b. perrins (608 Holly Street N.E., off Highway 31, Decatur, Alabama; 256-355-1045) is as soulless a sports bar as you’d guess from its corny lack of capitalization. Everything in this place screamed, “Get out before it’s too late!” But the ribs were excellent, as was the chicken.

Hear my shock at finding great barbecue in a horrid sports bar: MP3

This barbecue, too, was rewarmed, though with a lighter hand, making it more enjoyable (I’m quite sure Big Bob Gibson’s ‘cue would beat them right out of the smoker, though). I guess these places are trying to zing up their ‘cue to appeal to the widest possible market.

But just as I was complaining about the greasy sizzly cynical rewarm, my mind flashed back to Demetri’s ribs, which had seemed flat to me at room temperature. So I guess these places are damned if they do reheat and damned if they don’t! Come to think of it, the ribs I tried outside Chattanooga (see report #25) were at room temperature, too. But somehow they managed to taste quite lively. I’m confused. But no time for further research, as it’s time to roar north for (I’m actually trembling with anticipation!) the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Attempted Culinary Seclusion

Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Florence, Alabama

As I said in my last report, it was clearly time to quit while I was ahead and get out of Chattanooga (hear my Chattanooga wrap-up in this podcast: MP3).

But on my way out, I couldn’t pass up a tip about Riverside Catfish House (18039 Highway 41 North, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-821-9214), 12 miles outside Chattanooga. I had high-class catfish last night at Canyon Grill, but I still craved some plain old catfish-house catfish.

You immediately sense that Riverside is a great place. It’s full of that high-energy vibe that augurs deliciousness. Its big, informal dining room is perched on the unbelievably scenic banks of the Tennessee River.

I loved the sunny décor, with lots of down-home touches:

This place is anything but undiscovered, though the crowd seemed more local than tourist. But while they serve on a large scale, the hospitality’s still there. I enthused to the hostess about how much I’d been looking forward to my meal, having suffered for so long in my catfishless galaxy far, far away. She adopted me, taking time to explain that their catfish is especially good because it’s grain fed and comes from a special source in Mississippi.

I sat down at a long table and chose the homelier, harder-to-eat on-the-bone catfish rather than fillets.

The hostess noticed this, and was pleased by my courage. To ensure that I experienced the full spectrum, she brought me a few pieces of fillet to sample. (Obviously, I was anonymous here, per my strict policy. These people are just real nice!)

The difference was significant. Only the fillets had that familiar snowy, slightly soapy catfish flavor. The on-the-bone catfish was like a different animal, with a stronger, fishier taste. I loved both.

It was here that I had my first glass of truly tooth-scrapingly-sweet sweet tea of the trip. I wish I could plot on a graph the switchbacks and flavor digressions this incredible, challenging fluid took me through in the course of a sip.

For dessert, I worked through this slice of crazy-rich buttermilk pie, whose appreciation was entirely hijacked by the animal brain, which is, alas, unable to analyze, much less type.

+ + +

I passed the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and couldn’t resist stopping in for some freeze-dried ice cream.

They had a whole wall of it!

I also ambled through the museum, which was pretty lame. A lot of the exhibits were mere recreations. Space suits used “during training,” etc. But buried in a sleepy corner, sans fanfare and completely ignored was … a moon rock. A rock from the moon … you know, the celestial object that inspired the sonata. That’s it, quietly resting in the blah case at the center of the photo below. The kids are ignoring it, just like all the museumgoers I saw (the papier-mâché space shuttle drew a lot more attention).


This says something about human beings, and about food.

+ + +

I’d reserved a room in Florence, Alabama. Why Florence, Alabama? Four reasons:

1. It’s right near the legendary Natchez Trace Parkway, which I want to take up to Nashville.

2. I needed to stop eating remarkably for a few days. Behind in my reporting, I had to squirrel away somewhere and get up-to-date without accumulating yet more finds I’d feel compelled to report on. And a quick Web search indicated that Florence might be a dismal chow desert. Perfect!

3. The Marriott resort in Florence sounded pretty luxe, and I found a $130/night room on the concierge level (worth at least $300–$400).

4. The Marriott’s pool has a really cool water slide.

The plan: work down by the pool, work in my sumptuous room, work in the elite concierge lounge, and eat in the bland hotel restaurant, getting lots done and not backing myself up further with any new finds. I would not leave the hotel until I had made a dent in my workload. I would, above all, avoid deliciousness like the plague.

I’d found nothing but sprawl on my way into town, which fueled my jovial confidence re: the utter lack of nearby chow. As I turned into the Marriott, my eyes were assualted with the almost inconceivably grotesque Grille 360, a high-up revolving restaurant perched on a base of hideous concrete. My God.

I spent more time on the water slide—and sipping bourbon in the concierge lounge—than I should have. But some work did get done, and at dinnertime I peered into the hotel restaurant (the regular one at ground level, not the revolving monstrosity), which seemed dark, overpriced, and empty. Expecting the worst, I stoically marched in, grabbed a menu, and went immediately into SOM (Survival Ordering Mode), rejecting dish after prissy, overblown dish while scanning for edibility. Finally I came upon shrimp and (cheese) grits. The chef, I speculated, was probably some local kid, and this, unlike, say, salade niçoise, was probably an item he could personally get behind. So I ordered it, along with a glass of Riesling.

It was one of the very best things I’ve had on this trip thus far. Perhaps the best. And the Riesling tasted like it was born to accompany shrimp and grits. I was having the Perfect Meal.

It’s like being caught in the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, only instead of being besieged by screaming teenagers, I’m plagued by throngs of sublime milkshakes and sprightly California rolls. Demoralized, I shlepped upstairs for my camera so that I could dutifully capture the moment. Look, below, at the angle of the fork, which eloquently expresses my dismay. That is by no means a perky fork angle. As feared, I spent the rest of the night writing this account rather than catching up.

Once again, as a food critic newly armed with digital camera, I shirk my obligation to describe flavor and simply ask you to stare at the photo until it’s spoken to you. And I ask my editors to provide an unprecedentedly large expanded view that will fill your browser window with the full brunt of this food’s unfortunate magnificence.

I do need to describe one aspect. Really fresh shrimp have a slightly grassy/floral, almost saffron aroma. So does really good pepper sauce when combined with a certain kind of cheese. This dish was redolent with saffron—though I’m quite certain none was added.

I’ll Have the Duck and Desperate Housewives

We haven’t yet reached the end of society as we know it—but you can see it from here! At least according to fellow Grinder James Norton, whose commentary in today’s Christian Science Monitor is a masterpiece of skirt-gathering.

Built around the truly horrifying piece of information that a large percentage of diners would “like to see table-top TVs installed at their favorite eating joint,” Norton’s article defends the idea that eating together is an age-old communal experience, one that might be threatened by having a TV blaring 12 inches away from your plate.

But he also sees other “in-your-face” signs of the Apocalypse:

Exhibit No. 1: Hardee’s 1,420-calorie Monster Thickburger. Exhibit No. 2: the new, horrifying line of appetizers at TGI Friday’s—a group of items that includes Fried Mac and Cheese, and the new Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido, which is essentially a molten, crustless pizza eaten with breadsticks. Exhibit No. 3: Coca-Cola Blak, the blasphemous coffee/cola combination that gives battery acid a run for its money in terms of flavor and subtlety.

If the Rapture comes, somebody grab my cherry pie, ‘kay?

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Tricks for Treats

Living in a Washington condo complex populated with “career-minded, child-free” types, Amy Monroe at metro blog DCist laments that after three years in the city,

this DCist has yet to drop a single Tootsie Pop into the plastic pumpkin of a 5-year-old pirate. So, this Halloween, we’re likely to be doing the same thing we do every Tuesday night—watching Gilmore Girls. But this Tuesday night, we’ll be watching it in front of a pile of undistributed mini-Twix.

Although Monroe never addresses the obvious question of why she continues to hit the candy aisle when supply so clearly outstrips demand, she does come up with a snappy morning-after way to unload those extra candy bars: Serve ‘em with liquor!

Butterfingers, it turns out, go quite swimmingly with a viscous Australian “sticky” like Chambers Rutherglen Muscat, which smells and tastes just like toffee. Got a fifty-buck bottle of Taylor Fladgate 20-year-old tawny port lying around? Unwrap the Snickers, since “tawnies have a silky, rich texture that stands up to the thick caramel/nougat/chocolate combo.”

On Chowhound, slightly more kid-friendly uses of leftover sweets ranged from “reuse them next year” and “save for gingerbread houses” to “make a candy train” and “break up a bar in your oatmeal.”

But if you didn’t get scared enough last night, try this recipe, billed as “a sneaky way to get the kids to eat some fruit.” Eeeeeek!