Sun-Kissed Reflection

I was thinking the other day. I was laying on the carpet in my slippers, warmed by a shard of sunlight angling through the window. I was listening to Bonnie Raitt's Give It Up on a little record player and I realized that nothing since the time in 1972 when those hippies got together to record that record really needed to happen... nothing since the advent of windows and sunshine and carpet and dust motes and record players and Bonnie Raitt's Give It Up needed to happen to make that moment happen quite that excellently. Except of course my birth. But do you know what I'm saying? That makes one of us... Sometimes it's all already there, the perfection is just around the corner and you can't see it till it hits you, you needn't even seek it. But the years keep ticking by and we have to keep ourselves busy. Let's hope that 2010 is one of balance between satisfaction and seeking newness.

Tis The Season


Case study in marketing here. Tis the season for advertisement. We're all subject to them, no matter how much we try to steer clear. Those of us who are business owners or marketing types think about them a whole lot more... we want to get our messages across but (at least speaking for myself) we don't want to be a bother. Entertaining while selling is a great means to that end. I came across this example last night.

This, I believe, is my favorite advertisement of all time. It 's Mark Twain's advertisement for his first public lecture, and it's obviously from the pen of the man himself. I love how it simultaneously honors the intelligence of the reader, reveals the humility of the writer, and describes the spirit and humor of the enterprise. The tasty bits are transcribed herewith for your convenience:

A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA! Is in town, but has not been engaged.

A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS! Will be on exhibition on the next block.

MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS! Were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.

A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION! May be expected; in fact, the public are priveleged to expect whatever they please.

May we all strive for such genius and humor in our lives!

Saying Grace For The Saving Grace Of An Austin Day

Autumn springtime, crisp dewy longshards of morning roselight garden strafe while cool moonface slides down the blue westdome. Arms goosefleshed bicycle ride into the purple-blinding sun, I say isn't it a great day to Green Pasture peacocks straying across Live Oak for breakfast peckings. Warm human interminglings trickle through the day, a sense that the loose-limbed life is ours. We have a secret betweenst us, we know the special handshake. Warmth colours the afternoon deep palette, spare no hue, after all that sere summer drab drubbed our eyes. Whistlesnapped niggun tune to welcome the down arc, then creekside dapple sunset numbmaking trickle, and who is Gus Fruh anyway? I sure do love his pool. A stranger wonders aloud isn't it amazing and I wonder what part she means.

The Calendar And The Roller Coaster

Soupies,

The pages flip by one by one. When we tell our children and grandchildren about the days of books and magazines, we'll describe to them how calendars were once made of paper, which cultures used for many centuries as a well-loved version 2.0 of papyrus. You would turn the pages and the turning would be a metaphor, a realization of the passing of time. Some calendars you'd flip every day, some just once a month. You would write little reminders of what you had to do each day with a pen or a pencil. Pencils had to be sharpened with a hand-cranked tool that was specially made for the purpose, or you could just use a knife to sharpen it, like people did with sticks to help make fires. When people felt like an appointment was approaching, they would consult their watches, which were small mechanical devices often strapped with a leather band and metal buckle to their wrists, then make their way to the appointment.

The pages do flip one by one. Seems like we slide down a fast slope to Christmas as soon as the Labor Day grill smoke clears the air. I've already been wished happy holidays (yes, those holidays) and been unable to purchase swim floats because Christmas displays had displaced them. The march of the calendar, which has always seemed inexorable, now seems a little faster. The slow ratcheting up the big hill of the roller coaster is over and now we hover, perched with expectancy of the weightless descent.

And then there is the Big calendar and the Big roller coaster, but I'll save ruminations of those for some other time.

Going Mobile Article from Edible Austin Fall 2009


EDIBLE ENDEAVORS

GOING MOBILE

By David Ansel
Illustration by Matt Lynaugh

The summer sun had not yet shone its first rays into the third-story windows along Congress Avenue, but Delphino Martinez had already worked up a sweat. As he struggled to pull his tamale cart onto the sidewalk, the hot water in the steamer sloshed back and forth. His six-year-old son, Matt, keeping him company, helped by fanning the brazier of coals. The year was 1923, and though the work was hard and the pay meager, the seed Delphino planted in the dusty ground of itinerant commerce eventually took hold, sent down roots and grew a strong tree. You can still see it on South Lamar: the restaurant his little boy started called Matt’s El Rancho.

Just next door, a woman who owned a failing gift shop spent her 1996 income-tax return on a taco trailer and equipped it with Tupperware and cheap plates from her house. She worked 16 hours a day to get the business off the ground. These days, you can see an oversized papier-mâché bust of her—arms outstretched—reigning over her own little taco kingdom. Her restaurant, perhaps the epicenter of the nascent global breakfast taco revolution, is Maria’s Taco X-Press.

If this established style of restaurant incubation is nothing new, why are food trailers popping up all over Austin like hackberries along a fence line? Let’s begin the answer with a popular riddle among restaurateurs: What’s the best way to make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.

It’s well known that the restaurant business is a risky one, but even more so among bankers who are, hopefully, polite enough not to laugh out loud in the presence of loan applicants. The infrastructure costs are staggering and generally require a gaggle of risk-seeking investors sewn together in a high-return partnership. Additionally, there are several forbidding operational line items in the restaurant business model: high rents, high maintenance and labor costs and a wildly variable cost of goods. Every restaurant needs to combat the gravity of these costs with the lift generated by a yield on square footage. When your square footage is taken up by people, the only workable strategy is to turn and burn—get those diners to chew and swallow faster because they're taking up valuable real estate.

So what’s an eager, doe-eyed foodie dreamer to do? Hit craigslist and plunk down a few grand for a kitchen trailer. All the cool kids are doing it.

Inspired by a crêpe trailer in Galway, Ireland, Andrea Day-Boykin and Nessa Higgins of Flip Happy Crepes knew that delicacies other than tacos and sno-cones could be successfully discharged from a trailer window. They thought it would be a smart way to move forward. “We bought the trailer for about three grand,” says Higgins, “then put eleven or twelve into the kitchen.”

As with any cultural shift, the idea had already been percolating in the minds of many. But there are only so many people willing to be the first to dive off the cliff and test for rocks—and the rocks are many and varied. Would Austin support such an endeavor? Would people be reluctant to take trailer food seriously? Would they be willing to share their dinner with the mosquitoes at picnic tables on a 100-degree evening?

Those murky depths have been plumbed, and the floodgates have opened, of course. It seems every foodie with a strong back and a smidgen of savings has made the now-much-smaller leap into mobile culinary entrepreneurship, and the game is on to see who will last and whether the public will support the movement.

Popularity aside, some issues remain, like the public perception of street food safety. “If you've got a conscientious operator who’s following all the rules and doing everything like they’re supposed to,” says Mark Parsons of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, “there’s absolutely no difference in food safety between a restaurant and a mobile vendor.” Arguably, due to their visibility, street food kitchens are under greater public scrutiny than the mysterious backroom workings and unwitnessed scalp rubbings of your favorite brick-and-mortar restaurant.

And there’s something different, amusing—even romantic about eating at a cart. Diners are participating in a public space—allowing people of all stripes to rub elbows and create a vibrant, diverse tapestry of culture. The late urbanist, writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, wrote that as “lowly, unpurposeful [sic] and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

This reporter recalls the coffee vendors of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Every morning they roamed the streets with pots of coffee on burning embers and trays full of porcelain cups and simple candies. When they stopped at a corner, an impromptu coffee shop convened, with several businessmen in conversation sipping their coffee through the sweets. Just as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone.

“Urban streets at their best are celebrations of public life in all its forms,” notes Austin City Council Member Chris Riley. “When there’s a constant ongoing explosion of human activity on the street, you always see people enjoying food.” But does that mean street food is the proverbial chicken or the egg? “I’m honestly not certain whether [street food is] a cause or a symptom of an active setting,” continues Riley. “If you go to Sixth Street on a weekend night, you’ll see all these vendors on the street because it’s such a busy place—there’s a natural client-base. I would love to see more active street experiences like that, but how you get there is a complicated thing. I'm not sure you could just take street vendors and put them on Burnet Road and expect to see it create that setting.”

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, acclaimed sociologist William H. Whyte writes, “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. Food attracts people, who attract more people. Vendors have a good nose for spaces that work. Very quickly, the space can become a great social interchange for pedestrians.”

Austin lies somewhere in the middle in terms of its welcome to street food operators. While there have been difficult chapters—like the so-called East Riverside Taco Wars in 2006 which pitted taco stands against the city’s Planning Department—city code has caught up, and Parsons notes that it’s actually easier to get a permit here than in many other cities. Austin has a much more liberal policy as far as where a vendor can set up, as well. When compared with Los Angeles’s Draconian regulation requiring mobile food vendors to relocate every hour, Austin’s rules seem quite laissez-faire. But when compared with the cart-culture Promised Land of Portland, Oregon, we’re wandering barefoot on the Sinai. Portland’s “food cart pods”—semi-permanent gatherings of three to twenty food trailers—are springing up throughout the area.

Lizzy Caston—the force behind the foodcartsportland.com blog—has cataloged and reviewed Portland’s burgeoning scene for years. “We have lots of creative types that live here and want to stay here. They say, ‘I’m tired of working for someone else, but I don’t have the capital to open a restaurant.’” And while the city is concerned with food safety, the food and zoning restrictions offer a little wiggle room. Many municipalities require vendors to visit their commissaries daily, and even GPS-tag their carts, but Caston notes that most of Portland’s carts never move—remaining in one place sometimes for years. The county health inspector and the city administrators have been very supportive of the carts as well.

Portland’s Bureau of Planning recently commissioned a study entitled Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places which reported that “food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life and advance public values, including community connectedness and distinctiveness, equity and access, and sustainability.” And with a lively cart culture in place, formerly weed-choked lots morph into destinations and owners of unimproved lands are able to collect at least nominal rents with nearly zero investment in improvements.

For a city in search of workforce development strategies, the food cart concept couldn’t come at a better time. As Austin’s community development corporations struggle to find ways to promote individual wealth creation without incurring the high risks associated with microlending, a vibrant food cart culture in Austin could provide an answer. As Taco X-Press’s Maria Corbalan notes, “you can spend a few thousand dollars and if it doesn’t work out, you can sell it. It’s the safest way into the food biz.”

In Austin, some are dubious about the viability of the cart model. “A food trailer is like my ex-girlfriend,” says Bob Gentry of Torchy’s Tacos. “It’s really high maintenance.” And while his South First Street trailer holds its own compared with his two traditional restaurants, Gentry says that as much as they love the trailer park concept, they feel pretty strongly that trailers are not the direction they want to go. Flip Happy Crepes, though, has matured to become a sustainable model for Higgins and Day-Boykin.

“We’re both moms, we haven't given up our lives—it’s worked out well,” says Higgins.

There’s been much ado about restaurants vs. carts in the media lately. Restaurateurs feel they’ve made great investments in infrastructure, and times are tough for many segments in the sector, forcing many to tighten their belts—the L.A. regulations were set in motion by restaurateurs, in fact. But, as with many things, it might be a little different here in Austin.

“I think the more the merrier,” says Corbalan. “I wish that everyone is successful, then the world will be a happier place.”

Undoubtedly, the world is a happier place when people are able to combine their passions and their vocation—the goodness ripples. Local filmmaker Nils Juul-Hansen says of El Primo taco trailer owner Humberto Reyes: “I was having a rough day. I was really questioning myself, my career. So I went to get a taco. The way he made the taco, every movement so precise, his concentration so exact, his aura so confident, so placid—it blew me away. I said, ‘Wow. If he can create an artist’s haven in ten square feet, I can do my work, too.’”

A Byte Of Austin

(from Edible Austin Summer 2009)

EDIBLE NETWORKS

A BYTE OF AUSTIN

By David Ansel

Photography by Jenna Noel and Logan Cooper

New technologies always change the game. One can almost imagine two medieval calligraphers drowning their sorrows in mead, lamenting the advent of the printing press. (“Now any old jester with a bucket of ink can stamp out a sonnet, Benvolio!”) This could well be the attitude of the traditional journalist currently under virtual assault by legions of bloggers. True, the blogosphere may have destroyed the last remaining entry barriers into journalism and blurred more than a few lines along the way, but it’s also ushered in new ways to unite causes and communities and democratized publishing for the masses.

Meet Addie Broyles, hip but down-to-earth, urban but with garden soil under her fingernails, around-the-town professional schmoozer but laid-back mom. Certainly not the first food blogger in Austin but universally accepted as the ringleader of the bloggers. Broyles is the food writer for the Austin American-Statesman and blogs at austin360.com. In today’s food world, much of the local beat is claimed by the Internet—bloggers and other review websites such as Yelp, Dishola and Chowhound have helped render Wednesday’s hard-copy food section less relevant. Yet competition isn’t the mindset that Broyles brings to the job.

“I like to think that we’re all doing this together,” she says.

Broyles has united Austin’s food-blogging community into a noshing, sipping, photo-snapping, keyboard-tapping, opining gaggle of gastronomic sophisticates. She began by hosting a series of “eat-ups” which has helped the disparate group coalesce into a community.

“Addie’s the reason it has become a community,” says eat-up member Jodi Bart of tastytouring.com. “She’s so open with these events, not proprietary at all.”

Food blogging isn’t new, of course—few topics escape the blog radar—but who are these local food bloggers? And what’s the motivation behind this genre of guerilla journalism? Logan Cooper of Austin’s bootsintheoven.com offers one pragmatic, purely selfish reason to blog.

“A lot of food businesses don’t make it,” says Cooper. “If you find someplace that is really special and amazing, but they don’t advertise and people don’t know about them, you get out there and try to angle people their way.”

One such push was recently directed toward far North Austin’s Chen’s Noodle House.

“They use a cleaver to cut these delicious noodles off of big blocks of homemade dough…whittle them right into bubbling Northern-style Chinese soups,” says Cooper. “The place only seats about 10 people and I’m terrified the guy won’t make it.”

Other local food bloggers are using the medium to grow their businesses and create opportunities. Food writer Beth Goulart uses her texaslocavore.com as a scratch pad for developing larger stories.

“I never would have thought I was entering a food mecca when I moved here,” she says. “I was astounded by all the great food, and I wanted an outlet. The most power we have is as consumers…I’m a writer and I can’t sell a story to a national magazine about every little thing I discover.”

Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh uses her blog to engage customers and entice them to enroll in her cooking classes, and also as a little Thai Cooking 311—some customers have made their way to Jam’s store following confusion in the kitchen.

“They say, ‘I found you on your blog.’” Jam says. “‘I was trying to cook this Thai food, but I have a question.’”

Christian Bowers of austinfoodjournal.com uses his to log culinary efforts at home, show off his food photography and inspire others. And Mando Rayo started blogging as a way to share details about a trip to South America with his friends back home. Currently he blogs at tacojournalism.com as one of the self-appointed taco czars who seek out and share with loyal readers the best tacos to be had in Austin.

“Everyone has such a different perspective on what they’re blogging about,” notes Broyles. “The voices are different, where they live in town is different…there are so many ways you can write about food.”

And for some, a blog might be the first step in a new direction. “Professionally I think it could lead to things because you’re out there and people can see another side of you,” says Bart. “I have my blog on my résumé.”

“I’m meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” adds Goulart. “The blog has given me a community of like-minded people.”

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Couldn’t the same be said for writing about food? Isn’t all of this blogging about personal minutiae simply self-aggrandizing foolishness? Perhaps, but according to the bloggers we spoke with, it’s more about a means to a human end; another way to reach out and form community. And with many national food bloggers being offered book deals, blogging appears to be seen as more than just ego-journaling.

The same holds true for our local food bloggers. While they’re out rubbing elbows at restaurants and taco trucks, and twittering meetings, culinary book clubs and potlucks, chefs and restaurant owners are beginning to see the group as a marketing force. Several local restaurants have recently invited Broyles and her blog-roll buddies to exclusive tasting events.

“Members of the media are treated like royalty when it comes to marketing, but they don’t do that for bloggers,” says Broyles, who feels blogging is a burgeoning legitimate tier of the media. “Some people think I’m shooting myself in the foot by giving everyone the same access that I have,” she says. “But I ask that bloggers be invited to things like preview media parties.”

Of course such perks have the potential to harm a blogger’s objectivity and compromise integrity—risks, according to Goulart, that are especially pronounced in a realm with little-to-zero editorial control and a similar paucity of journalistic training. “A blogger could cross the line if she just gushed about everything a restaurant or chef did because of one of these marketing events,” says Broyles. But risks be damned, Broyles supports the restaurant-blogger relationship, noting that attending bloggers aren’t obligated to write about the tasting events, though many do—both promoting the meals they loved and cautioning readers about poor experiences.

Tyson Cole, head chef at Uchi, recently hosted a blogger invitational and was mightily impressed with the return on investment.

“The labor’s not much, the food is not much, the results we got from it were incredible, almost instantaneous,” says Cole. “Within a week, my PR department had 12 articles online with photographs. It’s priceless.”

As with many chefs, Cole has concerns about the “untamable beast” aspect of blogging, and says that reading unfair or unfounded blogger opinions feels like having your hands tied. But he still thinks the restaurant-blogger relationship is of value.

“You know they’re going to be in your restaurant anyway,” Cole continues. “At least instead of staring over the fence worrying about the monster, you just go around and shake hands and say hello.”

As with any community, Austin’s food bloggers are a heterogeneous bunch not only in terms of style, but also professionalism. But the best of them aren’t your mama’s bloggers, yammering on about what they had for lunch or trying to score free appetizers—they’re a not particularly amateurish group of amateurs enhancing Austin’s status as a foodie city and raising the bar for paid journalists like Broyles as well as for chefs and restaurants around town.

Delicious New Menu!

Soupies,

Just a little reminder to please place your orders for next week. Thanks!

Leftovers Leftovers (Feeds 2-4)... $5
You know how hard it is to put those leftovers to good use at home... imagine the Herculean task of cleaning out the Soup Peddler's fridge each week? Instead of having to divert a river, we've come up with a great new menu item, a bit of a Dealer's Choice casserole featuring leftovers from the previous week. And in hard times such as these, it's a real value! Feed the whole family for less... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Creme de Poisson dOr Creme de Poisson d'Or (Feeds 2-4)... $8
Another of our culinary department's brilliant cost-cutting measures. We work with local pet stores to recycle their unwanted fish in order to save on protein, and of course we pass the savings along to you. This recipe derived from the classic French tradition of cream soups is sure to please but not break the bank in the process... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Inside Out Sandwiches Inside-Out Sandwiches (Feeds 2-4)... $11
They said it couldn't be done, but we have improved upon the age-old construction of the sandwich with just a little out-of-the-box thinking. The low-carb movement has driven us to these extremes of creativity, since the inside-out sandwich requires literally 50% less bread. There are drawbacks, true, but progress has its opportunity costs! Nothing forward-thinking ever happens easily... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Edith Pilaf Edith Pilaf (Feeds 2-4)... $11
Another in our series of musically-inspired dishes, who can forget such beloved dishes as Elton Jam, Aretha Frankfurters, Captain Beef Liver, and Jelly Rolls Morton. So crank up the old Victrola and pour yourself a tall glass of red wine to accompany this excellent dish... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Hot Dogs Hot Dogs (Feeds 2-4)... $11
A new take on the American classic, furrier, squirmier and crunchier than you remember but every bit as delicious. For all you locavores out there, you'll be pleased to know that this item is locally grown! Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Trout a la Kilgore Trout a la Kilgore (Feeds 2-4)... $11
Inspired by the inimitable fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, the semi-autobiographical character from Breakfast of Champions, served on a bed of braised harmoniums and slathered with a rich Tralfamadorian cream sauce... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Genuine Hickory Smoke Genuine Hickory Smoke (Feeds 2-4)... $11
No kitchen pantry is complete without the indispensible umami flavor of smoke... instead of using that mysterious tincture of liquid smoke, we recommend our hand-captured quart-sized bags of fresh South Austin hickory smoke... Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Faux Faux (Feeds 2-4)... $11
Our original vegetarian version of Pho, the national soup of Vietnam! We considered calling it Faux Pho but decided that reduction, not augmentation was in order, that indeed, to quote Mies van der Rohe, "less is more." Freezes well....
[ingredients]


Special Brownies Special Brownies (Feeds 2-4)... $111
Another in our series of homegrown favorites, the secret ingredient for our special brownies makes for a kinder, gentler dessert experience. Strangely addictive, the more you eat these, the better they taste and the greater your craving... Freezes well....
[ingredients]

Thank you, as always, for the opportunity to bring some specialness to your lives and allow us, the folks at The Soup Peddler, to be fulfilled by the task. If you love this business, please forward this message to a friend!

Yours,

David J. Ansel
Principal Soupmaker
The Soup Peddler, Inc.

SXSW Band Name Revue

I admit this is off-topic for a food blog, but the Soupies have come to depend on me each year to help them navigate the maze of SXSW band names. Previous band name winners I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, Crapulence, and Phil & The Osophers went on to greatness (I think) after being bestowed the honor of Soup Peddler's Best SXSW Band Name.

Although the paucity of "wolf"-based band names this year has been lamented by many in the blogosphere, I felt that there was still a strong showing, including Turbowolf, Pack Of Wolves, Wolves In The Throne Room, AIDS Wolf (can anyone explain?), and Yoni Wolf, which either sounds like a Jewish name or a predator of the the Sanskrit "divine passage".

Definitely a good showing for the animal kingdom this year, though, with a decent equine and feline concentrations: An Horse, Stereo Pony, and Toy Horses, with Legendary Tiger Man, The Republic Tigers, Miniature Tigers, and Lions In The Street. From there we have Deer Tick, Fight Like Apes, Grizzly Bear, Greyhounds, Street Dogs, Guinea Worms, Hello Seahorse, The Lemurs, Hot Panda, Crocodile, Midnight Peacocks, The Iguanas, Ocelot, Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man, Or The Whale, and Rabid Rabbits.

Our friend the Grim Reaper seems to be taking the year off, more or less. The death theme seems to be taking a breather while awaiting a new generation of morbid listeners. Disease and injury are still a hot topic, however, with Yellow Fever, Girl In A Coma, The Cute Lepers, Coma In Algiers, and the perennial favorite Cancer Bats (can anyone explain?).

I was pleased to see Attack! Attack!, Bam Bam, and Bang! Bang! all in the lineup this year and while we're appreciating emphatic names, I love the use of exactly four exclamation marks for Gravy Train!!!! No more, no less. Did anyone notice that both the Bar Kays and Bo Keys are playing this year?

But enough clowning around, let's get onto the list of candidates for best band name. Our, uh, eleven, no make that twelve runners-up this year are...

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
Dananananaykroyd
Natalie Portman's Shaved Head
DD/MM/YYYY
Deleted Waveform Gatherings
French Horn Rebellion
Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt
Good Times Crisis Band
The Phenomenal Handclap Band
Gringo Star
Scissors For Lefty, and
Underwater Tea Party

And our winner (I don't know exactly why but this is my list and I'm in charge here and it gave me the biggest smile) is...

We Were Promised Jetpacks

Huzzah!! To all of the likely woefully underfed members of We Were Promised Jetpacks, come on down to The Soup Peddler and we'll give you some free grub.

'Cause The Man Is Wise!

Sadly, neither my recent email warning nor the spate of press regarding the last soup-related cocaine bust at a DC area airport was enough to prevent Jorge Luis Posada Guevara from trying the same old trick. This time, the bust occurred at Dulles airport. Sixteen pounds of cocaine stuffed into dried soup packets. I'm just terribly disappointed in the lack of communication in this Salvadoran drug organization. Is it nobody's job to feed back this critical information to headquarters? At least a little "Hey, Frankie got busted at BWI, they're on to the whole dried soup packet trick so please use hot chocolate or something next time." I don't know if I'm alone here, but I've just come to expect more precision and discipline out of organized criminals.

The Reuben Project

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to have a Reuben sandwich, a decent respect to the proper creation thereof requires that one declare the unfeasibility of procurement of ingredients or finished product from a Central Texas purveyor of delicatessen.

One afternoon's perusal of the deep freeze, I noticed a deboned shoulder of Axis deer and pondered its use. I consulted a friend who had been trudging through the newish Ruhlman/Polcyn Charcuterie book. He scanned and emailed me the recipe for corned beef and my mind started wandering, shaping a culinary project around it. Eventually, I felt compelled to build a Reuben sandwich using as many local ingredients as possible that would rival the quality of a New York deli sandwich.
The Reuben takes fresh, chewy, hopefully seeded rye bread and lays it on a buttered grill, whereon Swiss cheese is melted and warmed corned beef or pastrami is layered over a slatering of Russian dressing and crisp sauerkraut. So we have Germans, Jews, Swiss, and Russians in close proximity, though I somehow doubt the Russkies are behind something made out of mayo and ketchup. It is easy to understand why the Reuben sandwich has achieved its ubiquity. Salty from the cured meat. Sweet from the dressing. Sour from the kraut. Maybe a little hot from the pastrami's pepper. While it requires quite some poetic license to call it a "symphony of flavor", it would not be a stretch to call it, say, a chamber concerto of flavor.

For those American Jews who want to claim this as a creation of their own people, it is roughly as likely as not--kosher or kosher-style meat sandwiches don't have any dairy elements, as the mixing is strictly verboten (Deut. 14:21). However, the blurring of this proscription has been underway for several thousand years and lore from my grandparents' delicatessen confirms this... my own Zadie was known for cutting meat and cheese in succession on the same slicer and his non-Jewish patrons, thinking that the term "kosher" meant higher quality, would often ask for "kosher ham" and the like.

This rambling background leaves us no closer to the truth. I found a 1976 Craig Claiborne article with details of the two most prominent creation myths for the sandwich, each equally plausible. The headline reads "Whence The Reuben? Omaha, It Seems." I mistakenly read it as "Obama, It Seems" and was momentarily confused. I will just share the article with you instead of paraphrasing it. Frankly I don't buy the latter explanation and I'm surprised that Claiborne gives it credence. There are fundamental, irreconcilible differences between Arnold Reuben's sandwich and the modern standard.

But back to my desire to create an excellent Reuben. I knew that the kraut would take the longest and that I should start there. I visited Boggy Creek Farm early on a Wednesday morning and was quickly surrounded by an impassioned though hush-toned kraut conversation among the farmer, Larry Butler, and chefs Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due and Eric Polzer of Wink. Butler narrowed his eyes to slits and held his finger to his thumb such that only the dermal ridges of his fingerprints touched to demonstrate the desired thickness of the shredded kraut. With my cabbage I went directly to Callahan's in Southeast Austin to purchase a crock. The difficulty I met finding a crock is a commentary on the withering of a foodway and our loss of contact with the rhythms of the growing seasons.

Once the kraut was two weeks underway and producing some curious molds, I moved onto curing a lovely venison shoulder for the pastrami. Pastrami is corned beef (brisket) that has been coated in a simple spice rub, primarily finely ground black pepper, then cold-smoked. The secret ingredient for making corned beef is sodium nitrate, which has many uses. You don't need much of it for the curing solution so you may feel free to use the remainder for solid rocket propellant or blasting powder. It also has the approximate half-life of basalt, so it will keep well in the pantry. I was surprised by the resulting flavor of the corned venison... it tasted exactly like corned beef, whereby I concluded that you could probably corn a cat and it would taste roughly the same.

The correct pickle to serve with a Reuben, according to Claiborne, is a half sour. It happens to be one of my favorite foods. This is the fresh-looking, crisp, salty, garlicky, dilly kind. A very simple recipe, a fairly quick process, an ever-so-slight fermentation. Unfortunately the recipe I found on the vast dumping ground of half-assed recipes otherwise known as the internet yielded an aggressively salty pickle. I felt my entire head and upper portion of my torso pucker at the first bite. I have adjusted the recipe for your use accordingly.

I wanted a chewy, heavily seeded rye for the sandwich. This does not exist in Austin. Even the bakeries in Fredericksburg don't fill this void. The recipe I found is quite excellent, and requires a three-day potato starter. It provided a nice, subtle sour note and although I couldn't find "white" rye flour locally (you'll notice the dark color of the bread in the photos), this was probably the most outstanding element of the sandwich.

I didn't make my own Swiss cheese. I'm sorry, okay? Had I really thought of it long enough ahead of time, I would have. I did make my own mayonnaise for the Russian dressing from neighborhood-grown eggs, but I didn't make my own ketchup. After all, that's silly. What person in his right mind would make his own ketchup.

After weeks of preparation, on the final day in a flurry of activity and torrent of salivary expectancy, I baked my bread, cooked and smoked my pastrami, harvested my kraut and pickles, and assembled my sandwich. We waited until the baby was asleep, then my wife and I sat down to eat.

Was it worth it? The three weeks of planning, curing, procuring, preserving, consulting, smoking, researching, simmering, discussing, whipping, proofing, baking. Conservatively, it was the best Reuben sandwich served within a several hundred, if not several thousand mile radius on that particular evening. But what if a sandwich, say, 87% as good could have been purchased and eaten within moments of the urge for, say, 23% of the price? This is the question, yes, this is the question. Where is the point of diminishing returns when it comes to cooking and food, ingredients and effort? Some might balk at the mere mention of an economic theory in conjunction with food, but I agree that it is no moot question. In the framework of the sandwich, the doubter is correct. The endeavor was not worth the xx% improvement upon another locally-prepared Reuben. However, in the framework of my life, the Reuben project was what slow food aspires to: an enriching experience which connected me with foodways and ancestors, deepened my knowledge of cooking, and satisfied my soul.

Sauerkraut:

3 pounds cabbage
2 tbsp pickling salt
more pickling salt
distilled water

Shred cabbage fine. Mix well with salt. Pack tightly into a crock using a potato masher. Cover with a plate and weights. Add brine (1 1/2 tbsp salt to 4 cups distilled water) to cover all objects in the crock. Cover crock with a plate or towel and place in a cool place for three weeks. Skim the surface regularly.

Pastrami: (from Charcuterie by Ruhlman/Polcyn)

5 pounds meat (beef brisket is preferred)
5 tsp sodium nitrate
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 tbsp pickling spice
4 qts water
ground black pepper
ground coriander

Simmer water to incorporate salt, sodium nitrate, sugar and to bloom half of the pickling spice. Cool. Cover meat with brine in a deep pot and weigh down meat with a plate. Refrigerate five days.

Remove meat from pickle and place in a covered pot in several inches water and remainder of pickling spice (or more). Braise in a 275 degree oven for three hours or until softened. Remove and let cool slightly. Pat dry and coat with a mix of the black pepper and coriander. Smoke at 90-100 degrees for two hours, using ice if necessary to keep the smoker temperature at a minimum. Remove and refrigerate. Keeps several weeks.

Half Sour Pickles

5-6 pickling cucumbers
3 tbsp pickling salt
4 cups distilled water
1 bunch fresh dill
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin

Prepare brine with salt and distilled water. Slice pickles in half longways and pack fairly tightly into a wide-mouthed jar. Stuff the dill and garlic down between cucumber wedges. Cover with brine to the very top of the jar and cover loosely. Place jar in a small pan or plate to catch any overspill, place this in the pantry for three or four days, until you see some fermentation but before you see significant color change in the cucumbers. Refrigerate.

Rye Bread

Sour Starter:
1 cup warm potato water (boil a few peeled potatoes and reserve the water)
1 cup light rye flour (works with whole wheat rye flour too)
1 tbsp dry active yeast

Mix above ingredients well, cover loosely and let sit three days in pantry.

Dough:
2 cups warm water (120 degrees)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp yeast
1 batch sour starter (above)
2 cups light rye flour
2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup caraway seeds
5 cups high-gluten flour

In mixer with dough hook, mix first three ingredients and let activate for ten minutes. On slow speed, add sour starter to mixing bowl then incorporate all the remaining ingredients for three minutes. Turn speed to medium and mix six minutes more.

Remove bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled. Punch down and turn out onto a floured counter. Cut into three portions, give each a light knead and shape into a hot-dog bun shape. Place well-spaced onto baking sheets sprinkled well with fine cornmeal and give each one three transverse slices a finger deep. Cover with damp cloths and let rise again until doubled.

Meanwhile heat oven to 450. Boil several cups water in a shallow pan. Place the pan in the bottom of the oven. Carefully remove the cloth from the bread and put the bread in the oven. Turn head down to 375. Start checking bread's interior temp at 15 minutes, remove it when it reaches 180 degrees. Cool on racks.

Glaze:
1 1/4 cup water
3 tbsp cornstarch

Mix cornstarch with 1/4 cup water. Boil remaining 1 cup water. Add slurry to boiling water, heat until well-thickened. Remove from heat.

Using a pastry brush, brush on a nice layer of glaze onto each loaf.

Russian Dressing:

2 egg yolks
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 cup salad oil
salt to taste
1 tbsp chives
1/2 cup ketchup

In a food processor, Whip egg yolks with vinegar. On high speed, very slowly dribble oil. Once well incorporated, you may add oil more speedily. Remove and salt to taste. Whisk in chives and ketchup.

Advice On Drug Smuggling

I know it goes without saying, but as your friendly neighborhood Soup Peddler, I feel compelled to share this advice. As many of you are aware, I take the responsibility of monitoring soup news from around the world upon myself, in order that you needn't bother yourself with it. When something comes across the ticker that I feel is important to you or your way of life, I share it. I am so moved today, because of the recent rash of soup news pertaining to drug smuggling...

For those of you who are considering drug smuggling as either a sideline to help make ends meet in these trying times, or perhaps as a new career path, I'm certain you'll be interested to know that YOU SHOULD NOT USE SOUP CANS OR PACKAGES TO CAMOUFLAGE YOUR DRUGS DURING TRANSPORT/SALE. It's an old trick and the authorities are onto it. In fact, it's such a pervasive practice that I'm often pulled over for flimsy traffic violations (misaligned headlights, etc.) because of my Soup Peddler bumper sticker. "What exactly are you peddling, friend? Soup, huh? Alright, please step out of the vehicle."

Don't believe me? Follow these links...

Largest drug bust in Cleveland history found with dry soup. Well, what do we have here?

From my hometown airport, BWI, we have a story about Smuggled cocaine hidden in dried soup packets. Clever!

But it's not all grim news... in a surprise happy ending, Ghanaian man arrested with cocaine in soup freed by court. Mr. Darkey's claim that he travelled to Ghana to "purchase vegetables" clearly threw the clearly anti-drug biased prosecution for a loop.

From Farm to Table

In the upcoming Spring edition of Edible Austin, a lovely quarterly that comes out every three months or ninety degree arc of the Earth's orbit, whichever comes first, there will be an article on a feller named John Lash, who started a fairly groundbreaking business (in our town, at least) as a wholesale purveyor of locally grown produce. You'll likely see some quotes from me in that article and from our chef Tommy Mendez. We've been using his service a fair amount lately, especially for greens, broccoli, and cauliflower. Though I'm not interested in necessarily touting which dish has which ingredient that comes from which farm outside of which two-bit Texas town, I did want you to know that thanks to John's business, we've been able to improve the freshness and localness of our food quite a bit. His is a hidden sort of food story, but important to the efforts of farmers and local food advocates nonetheless. When we were placing an order for spinach the other day, John happened to be standing next to the spinach farmer... he turned and said, "Can we get four cases for the Soup Peddler?" Tommy overheard the answer, "Yeah, we can get them out there to pick some more in the morning," and the deal was done. Needless to say, we're very heartened by this kind of service.

Blog Fodder for Foodies

If you're a foodie and you find you have a lot of free time whilst in front of a computer, you may already be a blog-hound... it's a burgeoning if hidden food scene in Austin. I (or more accurately, my fridge) was recently featured on Relish Austin, written by new Statesman food writer Addie Broyles. Along the left side of her blog is a list of other Austin food blogs (of varying degrees of webworthiness)... you'll have to assess them but there are some gems. My favorite bite-sized food blog is the video section of Mark Bittman's Bitten Blog. To me he's just a lot more likeable and humble than a lot of the figures in food today, and he has plenty of simple wisdom to help people develop a good food culture in their homes. His recent article on using your pantry and refrigerator space wisely is great. For an example of his approach to releasing yourself from reliance upon recipes, you might check his article on simple summer recipes, obviously not timely now but shows an approach to home cooking that's very valuable. He's kind of a cooking coach.

In conversations both personal and via email, I've been developing a sense that people are in need of cooking coaches, especially those that are time-pressed by the demands of raising young children and further pressed by a desire to eat well and feed their loved ones well. Add to that a feeling of inadequacy in the kitchen and a frustration that you were never taught a vital skill for a human being, and somehow watching Rachel Ray doesn't help restore that confidence. I'm in the curious position of being in charge of selling the labor and cost saving aspects of our food to folks but also wanting to share my love for the myriad rewards that cooking for oneself provides. I guess they're not mutually exclusive.

Getting to the point of enjoying instead of dreading these daily tasks is a long road in itself... I'm reminded of that by my current frustrations learning to play piano. My teacher, in efforts to demonstrate the cool things that can be done with each song, plays with such fluidity and joy that it ends up pissing me off. I wonder if that's what my friends feel when I try to cajole them into the fun of cooking, nay, cooking with a baby in the kitchen. I think that reading Bittman as I mentioned above is a great start... his "How to Cook Everything" books have great prefaces that give strategies for keeping the kitchen stocked well and so forth. I have my own ideas and I'm sure many of you do too. It has to do with how you use space, how you shop, what equipment you need (and don't need), how you organize your brain, how you store ingredients and leftovers, how you do dishes, etc., etc., etc. If you get it all working well, "scraping something together from the pantry" can become like our dinner last night... banana leaf wrapped packets of coconut rice, fish and caramelized bananas. It was indeed a perfect day for bananafish...

Food Evolution Conundrum

Recently, a Soupie-in-exile sent me a very interesting Christian Science Monitor article about new municipal regulations in Lucca, Tuscany which ban "foreign" foods from being sold there. It's an interesting new chapter in Italy's rather reactionary reaction to the dilution of its "brand"... while efforts had generally been focused towards protecting Italian food terms abroad, this is the first instance of protectionism inside. The question of orthodoxy in foodways is a curious one. Foodways are by definition ever-evolving stories, of course since the advent of "better living through science" the evolution is more of a devolution, thus the motive for protectionism. But once someone seeks to protect a foodway, it freezes it in time, basically ending the story. I ran into this conundrum when I recently visited the Terlingua international chili cookoff... the rules are so rigid that while it upholds important standards, it basically freezes chili in time and kills its possible evolution. I'm just sayin.

Happy New Year?

Quote of the week... (this is from The Week magazine) (paraphrase, so I don't have to dig through the recycling box): Christmas is when children get what they want and make adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults get what they want and make their children pay for it.

Definitely an interesting year for the Great Janitor to brush into the dustbin of history. Personally, New Years didn't mean quite so much to me... after the best year of your life, what can you rightfully ask of the new year? Don't change a thing, 2009! You're beautiful. Well of course these lines of demarcation of our lives, no matter how abstract they are (okay folks, every time we pass this point in our orbit around the sun, put on a funny hat and drink this effervescent grape tincture), have meaning and are our cue for both gratitude and petition. No matter the proportion between these two urges, each of us has at least a bit of each. We can be reminded that "at least you have your health" or "at least you don't have to worry about money" or failing that, "at least you're not a Lions fan." I can make fun of the Lions because I'm an Orioles fan and my spirit was broken by our special streak. Alas, any poor, ailing, Lions-fan Soupies, I'm sorry to pick on you, but I'm sure even you can find something to be grateful for, a condition that you'd like to hang onto for another year. Well, here's to a year full to bursting with meaningful stuff. Clink!